15.2 All Masks Fall

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“I’m not sure I’m happy with how that went,” Vasiliki spoke up as she came out from the room Basil had set aside for her and Dalia to change clothes in (even if Dalia would have preferred changing right in front of him… not that he was likely to notice).

Basil was already changed and at his work station, of course. It’d likely taken him less time to take off full-body armor and a skintight impact suit, and change into jeans and a button shirt, than it’d taken her just to get out of her costume; nevermind the time it took to take care of her hair and put fresh clothes on.

At least I got him to stop wearing sweatpants and random t-shirts, she thought with some satisfaction, as her eyes roamed his blade-thin body from behind, and then the side as he turned around halfway to look at her, his fingers still tapping ceaselessly across three keyboards, only one of which sported letters and symbols she could make sense of.

She was just looking to make sure he was sticking to the ‘no sweatpants’ rule she’d set, of course.

Oh, who are you kidding, Vas? You like how he looks. A lot.

Well, I’m kidding him. He’s the only person dense enough to buy that excuse unironically.

“What did you not like?” he asked, looking honestly curious, without missing a beat on his keyboards.

He’s not the prettiest boy I’ve ever seen, or even met, but there’s something about that face that- Her thoughts came to a crashing halt as her eyes roamed upwards over his face and above.

“Your hair,” she hissed, staring at the horror.

“You did not like my hair?” His curiosity turned to confusion.

“No, I mean, what’d you do with your hair? I showed you how to properly style it, didn’t I!?”

“I was in a hurry to implement some coding I came up with during the fight,” he replied, calmly. “So I just combed it back and…”

She hissed again, and walked over to where the lab chairs had all been pushed into one corner, ever since he decided it’d be more efficient to raise his workstations up and work on his feet.

Dragging a rolling desk chair over, she pointed at it with a finger, glaring at him. “Sit.”

“Vasiliki, I really ought to-“

“Sit.”

He sat.

“I do not have a comb here,” he said, petulantly, pulling his cellphone out of his pocket. A few twists unfolded it into an eldritch horror of a keyboard that he held like a game controller, immediately going back to typing, even as he looked up at her.

“I do,” she replied simply, stepping up in front of him, pulling the comb she carried around for her brothers from her purse, and got to work with it, and her bare fingers, fixing the mess he’d made.

Can build AIs, swords that can cut through steel and railguns small enough to hide in a backpack, but he can’t comb his hair right, she thought, more fondly than she’d admit.

If only he’d actually spare a look at her cleavage, especially in this position, but he only ever looked up at her face.

Stop it, Vas! He has a girlfriend. A girlfriend you like, even! One that’ll almost certainly join the team, too, once she figures out her power.

After a few moments of untangling the worst of the mess he’d made – she really needed to get him a proper haircut, to make this easier – she got back to her main point.

“I didn’t like how violent you and Dalia got, when we took out that panther hideout,” she explained. “I know they were doing really horrid things, but was it really necessary to break so many bones? I know Dalia’s kind of a blunt instrument, but you could certainly knock some normies out easily, without causing unnecessary harm.”

“The harm was not unnecessary though,” he replied, once she’d finished. “To be precise, the pain and discomfort it caused, and will cause, is not.”

She frowned, looking down from her work to lock eyes with him. “Explain, please.”

“New Lennston is in bad shape, after Hastur and the Spiteborn. The city is better at bouncing back from such events than most, but two S-Class events in short succession are still catastrophic. The only reason the police spared the resources to come out and take them in is that they were Black Panthers and those are currently at the top of everyone’s hit list. The authorities don’t have the resources to even apprehend all the criminals running around right now, much less prosecute and detain them. The panthers especially have been breaking their people out of jails and prisoner transports almost as soon as they are taken in… but they can not break them out of broken bones and torn tendons. As an added advantage, it might discourage at least some of them from returning to such practices.”

He looked down, away from her eyes, though not to look at what he was doing with his hands. “Until New Lennston has properly recovered, we only really have three options – take them in only for them to break out and go back to their prior behavior, brutalize them to keep them off the streets or outright execute them. Option three is unpalatable to us, and seeing how the prior behavior we found them engaged in was snatching orphaned children off the streets to sell into slavery, option one is even less palatable, at least to me.”

He fell quiet quiet, focusing on his work, while she finished fixing the mess on his head into a semblance of style, and thought about what he’d said.

She’d had trouble holding herself back from really hurting those slimebags, if she was honest with herself. They’d been snatchers, vermin of the lowest order, but… to deliberately cause crippling damage…

Heroes are meant to protect, not to hurt people… but then again, we often have to hurt people to protect others…

“I… will have to think more about that,” she said, finally, stepping back.

“Take as much time as you need,” he replied, getting up again to smoothly transition to working on his three keyboards again. “No one will hold it against you, if you decide you are not comfortable with this level of violence, least of all I.”

***

Hecate’s form turned into unnatural smoke, mid-leap, letting several bullets pass harmlessly through her.

The woman that was nude under her transparent armor stepped in the way of her smoke form, using a two-handed sword to slice through her, but to no avail.

She rushed against and around her, reforming behind her and amidst the group of devotees.

Solidifying, she whirled around and ran the sharpened bottom of her staff through the woman’s knee with such force, it nearly ripped her leg off entirely.

The woman screamed and Hecate turned to smoke again, as the other devotees opened fire again, shouting something she didn’t bother to listen to.

She didn’t want to hear what they had to say.

One of the men had aimed particularly badly, and the shotgun pellets meant for her, instead blew away the face of one of his friends.

Meanwhile, the nude woman fell on her good knee and on the ruin of the other one, where thigh and calf were attached, barely, by nothing but strips of skin, meat and blood vessels, the ligaments and bones gone. Landing on that mess only caused her to cry out, hoarsely, in mortal pain.

Hecate solidified again, in front of the semi-nude woman, putting her between herself and the other devotees.

With a scream, she swung her staff, unleashing its power – but her emotions were so frayed, she didn’t just use the power within it, she also, at the same time, fed more pneuma into it.

By all rights, she should have lost control over the effect, using her magic in such a haphazard way, the energies requiring time and finesse to control; but she was so angry, she didn’t care, and just pushed through, pumping her pneuma and that oily blackness in her heart into the staff and the effect it unleashed.

Liquid green fire with black flickers within poured forth from the jewel at the tip of her staff, lashing out in an arc; not like water tossed from a bucket, but not like flame from a flame thrower either, it was something between liquid and gaseous, something almost but not quite real.

The flames struck seven devotees at once, at chest height, across biceps or shoulders, depending on their individual height.

Oily, black-green not-quite fire flared up, melting, consuming flesh, rushing up but not down.

The men and women so struck screamed, briefly, before the flames consumed their lungs, throats, tongues. Flesh melted off, except melting implied that there was something liquid left – there wasn’t, what melted off was consumed to fuel the flames, as they licked up, consuming faces, eyes, hair… and the brains in their skulls.

The corpses collapsed, reduced to pure white bones marred only by an oily, black liquid that shimmered green, from where they’d been hit and up, but left seemingly untouched below that line.

Blood poured out of the wounds, spreading quickly.

Everyone froze, and stared, especially Hecate.

W-what…

Then the woman in front of her screamed in rage and fear, lifting her sword to strike at Hecate, and she reacted without thinking, swinging her still-burning staff like a mace, smashing the crystal into the side of her head.

The woman barely had time to gasp, before the flames ran from her right ear over the right half of her face, into her skull, and burned out her brain, and the other eye, leaving the entire right half of her face just a bleached, oil-covered skull, the left seemingly untouched but for the missing eye, and she too collapsed, while the flame shot down her throat, consuming flesh and cartiledge, until it reached and consumed her heart, as well, creating an open channel down her middle, straight to it, that showed nothing but bones.

The remaining three devotees looked down at the defiled corpses of their companions… and turned tail, each running in a different direction, away from her.

You do all this, and you think I’ll just let you get away? So you can turn around and hurt others again!?

She screamed again, like a banshee, hate overcoming what revulsion or horror she felt at just having ended eight lives in about as many seconds, and contributed to the death of another.

More black, oily pneuma, thick, pregnant with hate, poured forth from her, more than she should have had access to, as if her goddess was rewarding her for being consumed by it.

Spreading out like a wave, it rekindled the embers of flame left in the corpses of her victims.

Green-black flames burst to life in their chests, where their hearts should have been, and licked up into their heads, flowing up and out of their necks to create collars of flickering fire, and gather in their empty eye sockets, like lidless, burning eyes.

The corpses sprang into action, moving… beyond unnaturally. Arms and legs moved as if independent of one another, bending every which way but the right one as they simply rushed, running, crawling, dragging themselves after the fleeing devotees. Even the half-naked woman, flames dancing, contained within the transparent shell of her armor, came after them, fire pouring forth out of the hole where her knee should have been, calf and foot moving as if still connected, but backwards, as she crawled with her chest up towards the sky, like a twisted bug.

Still, as wretched as their movements were, they were effective, and they caught the three survivors before they could even get out of sight, bore them down and…

… finished them.

Hecate felt the blackness in her rise, surge, only growing stronger.

It’s too much, I… I can’t control this…

It wasn’t meant to work like this. She was supposed to build her spells in advance, carefully design them, work them into carefully curated items. Without a focus, there was no way she could control this.

More black pneuma was pouring forth from her, searching hosts… crawling towards the corpses of the innocents, which the devotees had slaughtered, even while the bodies she’d reanimated were dragging their slaughtered victims back towards her.

No! Not them!

They’d been innocent. They didn’t deserve this.

With an act of sheer will, she pulled the black pneuma back, forcing it to coalesce inside her, like filling her throat and stomach with thick, burning hot oil.

I have to… have to st-stabilize…

She arched her back, then bent forward, vomiting sheer blackness onto her staff.

Mentally, she was pulling on her pneuma, weaving it into strands that were then woven into the pre-existing patterns of her staff, like threading new thread through old holes and nooses.

It was too much, easily as much pneuma as she’d ever had, before, and the only item she had which could possibly contain that amount of power, without outright exploding, was her staff, and so she vomited and wove, wove and vomited, black liquid seeping into the wood, wrapping around the wood, threading through the wood, and then all up into the crystal at the top.

She lost track of time, her entire concentration consumed in directing the pneuma into the right shapes, so it’d settle into her staff, rather than explode outwards without control.

Until, suddenly, it all snapped into place. The last adjustment she’d made having, apparently, been the final one needed, as the black pneuma settled deeply throughout her staff, which was now visibly pulsing with black-green light, a flame of the same color burning within the crystal at the top.

Hecate let go of it, staggering back, only to fall onto her butt and stare up at what she’d created.

Before the staff could fall, a hand in a transparent glove reached out and caught it. The woman in the transparent armor, she was standing now, a corpse with a burning skull and a burning heart. She and the other seven, they stood upright now. Somehow, stabilizing the spell into her staff had also stabilized them.

What have I done?

She stared up at the monsters she’d created, as they stood there, staring at her with green lights shining forth from empty eye sockets, crowned and collared by flames of the same color.

And then it hit her.

She’d killed people.

Not monsters. Not Spiteborn, nor Hastur’s victims. Not the mindless drones that made up the Skulls collective.

Real people. Criminals, murderers, yes. Supporters of monsters.

But people.

And she still felt the same.

She didn’t feel any more wretched than before. The blackness in her heart had neither increased nor decreased.

Like it didn’t matter at all.

She was more horrified at creating these creatures, than at just having killed eleven people, and contributed to the death of another. Killings done in anger, when she was fully capable of taking them down non-lethaly. She could have snuck up on them, and used her Hypnoic Dust to put them all to sleep.

Sure it could be argued that these people had long since discarded the right to live, having willingly joined the Savage Six. Or that she couldn’t afford to babysit them, and when they woke up again they’d just rejoin the rest and  go back to murdering.

Basil’s words about the three options they’d had dealing with the panthers, in those bad weeks right after the Hastur Incident burned bright in her memory, now.

But they hadn’t, earlier. None of that had. It had not been calculus that saw these people dead.

She’d just wanted them dead, for her own sake. To get some relief.

And so they’d died.

She did not feel relief.

She did not feel horror.

She did not feel sadness.

She only felt the same blackness as before.

Slowly, moving no less wooden than her creations, she stood up, grabbing her old, new staff from the burning corpse’s hand.

It felt so much heavier now. So much more powerful.

It was no longer just a staff she could leave nameless.

Walking over to the corpse of the man who’d had his face shot off by one of his fellow devotees, she touched the glowing, fire-filled crystal to his chest, right above his heart.

Green-black fire flared, and burned a hole in his chest, consuming his heart. Replacing it with a nucleus of fire, far more dense and uniform than it had been before she stabilized the new spell.

The fire did not ride up to consume his head, though flickers of flame did appear in his ruined eye sockets, and a collar of green flames appeared around his neck, dancing atop his collarbone and shoulders, as he got up, looking at her with burning eyes.

So, Vas. You skipped straight past Necromancy and into Necrothurgy. So much for having standards – good thing Legend isn’t here to see, right?

She could’ve laughed, if there’d been any joy left in her heart.

There was, still, only blackness.

She walked from corpse to corpse, raising the three her… vrykolakai, that was an appropriate name for these creatures… the three brought down by her vrykolakai.

Then she stopped and looked at her staff.

So much power. I can feel it pulse inside, like a black heart pumping green oil.

Twelve vrykolakai created, and it still had capacity left to make more.

It needed a name, though.

The right one came to mind, easily.

“Necrodulon,” she whispered, softly, and the staff flared with power, accepting its name.

To think she’d thought of her staff as a lightbringer once, a torch to hold up, to protect the living.

Now it was a torch that enslaved the remnants of the dead…

A soft, keening sound drew her out of her ever blacker thoughts. A whimper, the sound of a child in pain.

The girl they were tormenting!

She whirled around, dark intimations pushed aside, and rushed towards the noise.

It came from the crater she’d noticed earlier. The one that looked like it’d been made by the same object that’d blown a hole through one of the buildings surrounding this area.

A metahuman? Did she get blown here, during the fighting? She could be hurt.

She reached the rim of the shallow crater, where the devotees had gathered earlier, her vrykolakai following right behind in lockstep.

Looking down at the woman lying there, she felt her heart skip a beat.

The crater was shallow enough it only took her two steps to reach the center, and stand above the mostly nude woman clad in tatters of a velvet-like, purple suit, every inch of her exposed skin covered in disfiguring, aged-looking scars, curled up into a fetal position as she whimpered and keened.

The vrykolakai around her shuddered, fires flaring up, as the blackness surged inside.

Hecate lowered her head, letting cape and cowl envelop her form, as she whispered, “Mindstar.”

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15.1 All Masks Fall

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You’re a complete fucking failure, Vasiliki.

Vasiliki groaned, leaning against a piece of rubble four or five times her size, bracing herself and pushing, shoulder to brick and mortar. Even for her enhanced strength, it should’ve been too heavy, but it was precariously balanced atop a mound of smaller fragments, and so began to shift almost immediately.

Even so, she had to push herself, the soles of her boots literally sticking to the ground, thanks to a gadget in them, one of the few things she wore that she hadn’t made by her own hands; as long as a current was running through them, they’d bond with whatever they were in contact with, the connection strong enough to easily hold her weight even when she hung off a ceiling, upside down, and from just one foot. The switch to turn it on and off was built into her gloves, left to left, right to right, so she could control them individually.

Thinking of the boots reminded her of who’d built them for her – though she’d worked the leather herself, and the inlays, and pretty much every part that wasn’t the gadget itself – and that made her feel like someone was shoving a glowing hot poker through her heart.

With tears in her eyes and searing holes in her heart, she pushed the shattered wall section off the mound of rubble, lifting up her cape to cover her face against the dust that was thrown up.

The noise was almost welcome, as deafening as it was, for breaking up the eerie quiet that had descended upon New Lennston’s corpse.

Once the dust had settled, she let her cape fall and bent over, picking up her staff.

Greenish witch-light ran through the carvings of the staff, spreading out from where she gripped it, down to the sharpened bottom, and up to the crystal the wood was holding up top, eliciting a brief flash.

It pulsed in her hand, though if anyone else touched it, they wouldn’t feel its beat.

She’d put the better part of her power into it, fifty-nine percent of the pneuma she had earned so far. It was very nearly alive by now, at least she thought so.

It had been his idea to measure out how much she put into each of her artifacts. To keep careful track of how much pneuma achieved what kind of effect, and the rate at which she gained more of it to apportion.

His idea, to work tracking spells into each item, even if it cost her some pneuma that could otherwise go into greater abilities, just in case.

You’re a fucking disgrace. Do you really think avoiding to think his name will make it hurt even a little bit less?

It wasn’t another’s voice she heard in her head, admonishing her, rubbing her many, many failures in her face. It was her own, wholly from within her, for her.

He is dead. Not just dead – gone. Because you couldn’t even hold on to his corpse.

She’d tried. Oh, she’d tried.

With nimble steps, balancing easily on the loose rubble, she hopped onto the top of the ruined building whose collapsed wall had buried her staff.

Up there, a cold, harsh wind was blowing, even though they were completely cut off from the world outside. Still, the air within this globule was… restless.

She could feel it in the air. Magic. A dark, twisted pneuma, which seemed to be everywhere now, settling on her home city’s corpse, rising up from the cracks, raining down from the darkness above…

Everywhere, cloying, cold and hot at the same time.

Heretic’s power. She could see it move in the air, move across the firmament above instead of stars, though she doubted normal people could see it.

She could see the perverse patterns it had been woven into, twisting reality into shapes it was not meant to take; the methodology was not so different from hers – hermeticism, if in a different style, as she was drawing on theurgic energies, and he… wasn’t.

If only you were worth a damn, you might actually be able to do something about that. Break those enchantments, cut the threads of power, release New Lennston back into the real world.

Looking up, she couldn’t see it. The enchantments were vast, and they clearly weren’t something recent – no, there were layers upon layers, visible even from down here, built up over decades. Refined, reinforced… even if she managed to gain access to them, she wasn’t sure she’d have the raw power to break them, much less deal with whatever safeguards had been set up.

Guess Heretic at least does solid work, even if he’s a complete scumbag. Unlike me.

Her staff pulsed, like a living heart was beating inside of it. There were lesser amounts of pneuma in her other items, in her Hypnoic Pouch, generating more dust for her to use as she used it up, into her Bag of Holding (she hadn’t been able to think of a proper Greek name for that, and besides, a Bag of Holding was kind of a classic), which was the closest to the enchantments that generated and maintained this space, if on a far, far, far lesser scale; into her fantasmaic belt, which allowed her to transform into a smoke-like wraith, into her cryptic hood, so it shadowed her face while still letting her see with full peripheral vision, into several lesser charms and tools she carried around in case she needed to work quickly; it was woven into the very fabric of her deftodermic suit, the layer between her skin and the scale armor he… Basil, had made for her… but they were all less than her staff, which didn’t even have a name, because it wasn’t meant to have one, it was to be an extension of herself, a focus for her powers.

Basil

She shuddered, tilting forward, almost but not quite falling; thinking his name had been a mistake.

Her heart ached, her eyes swam in tears that made her see double. It hurt worse than when she’d found Gloom Glimmer holding his corpse. The sharp, soul-crushing pain she’d felt then, it had broken something inside of her – but it hadn’t gone away with that, no, it had stuck around, stuck to her, seeping in through the cracks of her broken heart; she’d held onto his corpse and wailed, because he hadn’t just been a boy she’d crushed on, he’d been a friend, a brother in arms, someone who’d… someone she’d clicked with, even if they’d both been too messed up to realize it properly, and even when she’d realized the depths of her feelings for him, she had held them back until the worst possible time to express them, when they’d both had even greater pain layered atop them.

His lies, his deceptions, the heartbreak of knowing he was in love with another girl, they hadn’t mattered then; when she’d held his body, riddled with holes by an uncaring, unthinking monster, all she’d been able to think of were the good times. The time they’d spent just talking, hanging out when Tyche hadn’t been around, or sometimes even while she’d been there, talking tactics, strategy, powers, society, science, philosophy… she had truly meant it, at the park, when she’d said he was the smartest boy she’d ever known. She’d become so much better a hero, for his help, the ideas and perspectives he brought to it – nevermind that it was only thanks to his inexplicable skills as a surgeon (and a heavy helping of Tyche’s luck, she was sure) that she’d even survived her first foray into being a vigilante.

And she’d never been, and never would be, able to repay him. She couldn’t even drag his body to the Protege, to revive him. When that wraith had connected her to the clocktower titan, it hadn’t allowed her to move his body, and the impetus to flee had been too strong. She’d come back, later, rushing to his remains, only for the world to be swallowed up into darkness so complete, so empty and disorienting, it’d made her hurl. She’d crawled on all fours to his corpse, as the world fell apart around them, only for his body to slip through her fingers, into a crack in reality, swallowed up, chewed up, lost in the nothing between worlds.

She couldn’t even give him a proper burial. Any grave she visited to remember and mourn him would be empty.

Oh Basil…

She clenched her hand, hard, causing her staff to flare with power, the carved wood groaning under the stress.

Up above her, the emblems of the Savage Six and their targets circled.

Targeting heroes… and Mindstar. Amy.

She hated her so much. It was a black, oily kind of hatred, that was always in the background, had been, even before she’d gained her powers. After gaining them, it’d become the source of her darkest spells, the kinds she’d consciously steered away from, until she’d needed to harness death utself to overcome Legend.

Being the fifth of eight siblings, she’d often been overlooked. The older ones were more active, they got more money for things, because what they bought, especially in terms of clothing, could be passed down to the younger ones – except for her, of course, because she was the only girl of the lot. The younger ones had always demanded more attention from her parents, and her parents had been busy to begin with, jointly running a popular restaurant.

Mariette had always been the one to make time for her. Her awesome big cousin, the only person in her family who understood fashion, who understood girl things. Who she could talk to. Who didn’t laugh at her, when the business wasn’t doing so well and they didn’t have money for new clothes, so Vassiliki had been expected to wear handme-downs from her brothers, and she’d taken to teaching herself how to tailor them to actually fit her.

Her cousin had encouraged it, even joined in, helping her learn, practice and do, though she herself had been horrible at it, while Vassiliki herself had ended up discovering a surprising talent.

Before long, Vassiliki had been tailoring and mending everyone’s clothes, and even making some of her own from scratch. She’d dreamed of becoming a professional tailor and a fashion designer, and Marietta had taken it seriously, encouraging her and even spending some of her own money to get her raw materials, tools and patterns.

And the books. How much time had they spent cuddled up together, reading books and talking about them?

Then, suddenly, Marietta had gained powers. She’d never told her how, why, and she still wondered what kind of trauma must have struck her cousin, that she wouldn’t share it with her.

Still, at first, it had been awesome. Her awesome cousin had gotten the most awesome power, creating orbs of light that she could connect to form various constructs who’d obey her commands; like constellations come to life.

Wolves had been her favorites, and so she’d become Lupus Maior, running with a pack of star-wolves through forests and national parks, hunting poachers and fighting people and companies who’d pollute and exploit the environment.

Until she’d run up against Mindstar, Amy, and been killed, her body crushed and torn so badly, the question of an open casket funeral hadn’t even come up.

The cousin who’d taken her out to the woods, when she’d been heartbroken over being rejected by a boy, and given her a ride on a pony made of stars, crushed into unrecognizable pulp that’d required a DNA test to identify.

It’d been one of the biggest levers behind her origin. Oh, the event itself had been pretty innocent… smoking some weed in the same cabin the two of them had hung out in so often… but what’d driven her there hadn’t been. Losing the one family member she felt understood her, being the odd one out in her family… the only girl among eight siblings, the academic overachiever, the bookworm who didn’t ever get into sports… pretty much the only thing she and her brothers could use to relate to each other was their love for Polymnia’s music.

But that’s not all, isn’t it?

She walked through the desolate ruins of her home town, alone. There was no one there, no one she could see, no one she could detect with her sense for the pneuma around her. A sense that’d only grown stronger, sharper, over the last two days, even as her other senses had dulled from the lack of sleep, from the exhaustion and grief. Now she could even sense the pneuma within people, if at a shorter range, which she hadn’t been able to do before.

There was no one there, no one in reach. No one to reach out to. She sought support and she found none.

Isolation.

It cast her thoughts back to another time she’d been isolated. When she’d reached out for support, for succor in her grief and her family had failed her. It’d come out that she’d been the only one in the family whom Marietta had confided in, which in itself would have been yet another thing to put her apart from her family, but it had only gotten worse.

Shards of glass and bits of concrete and gravel crunched underfoot; she was walking through parts of the area which’d once been the Brights, only it looked like someone had cut through it, dividing it at an angle, then fit part of the old docks in, a sharp line running down the street, visible by how the tarmac of the docks did not at all mesh with the newer, cleaner streets of the Brights.

There was nothing to do, and so she reminisced how her uncle and her aunt had taken the news that she’d known badly. In their grief, they’d blamed her, condemned that she hadn’t tried to stop Marietta, hold her back from her path.

No one had come to her defense.

Eventually, she hadn’t been able to take the condemnations, both explicit and subtle, the whispers, the looks anymore. She should have confronted them, she should have called her family out on its bullshit, on that count and so many others.

Instead she’d turned away from it all, sought reprieve. To rest and recuperate, she’d told herself, to find a moment of peace and gather her strength. She wasn’t sure she’d meant it, or whether it’d just been an excuse.

She’d bought a joint from a schoolmate of hers, whose eyes had nearly dropped out when Vasiliki had approached him. It’d taken her longer to convince him she was for real than to actually buy the stuff. She’d wanted the joint, because Marietta had smoked, sometimes, though never in her presence; she’d known that she’d done it with friends she’d had in costume, though she’d never met them, because of secret identity concerns.

So she’d gone to the cabin, to smoke and try to feel closer to her cousin again. Take a step away from her family. She’d… gone a little overboard in her preparations, setting the place up like she was going to perform surgery in it, or else a magic ritual. Had even stripped naked, and packed her clothes into a trash bag, so none of the smell would cling to them.

She’d lit her joint and tried to smoke it, but even having researched online how to properly smoke weed, she’d coughed and messed up the first few drafts – it’d been disgusting. But she’d stuck to it, with single-minded determination, until she’d felt the effects set in.

Her mind had taken a step back from the world, to relax, but it’d missed a step somewhere along the way, and tripped, falling…

She didn’t know whether she’d passed out and just imagined the rest, or whether she’d actually gotten up and walked out into the woods, stark naked, but she remembered walking through a forest that was much different from what the forests around New Lennston were like. All hills going up and down, big gnarled trees, colorful bushes, silver light falling through thick leaves… it wouldn’t have been out of place in a fairy tale at all.

Strangest thing of all had been, it’d been day when she’d gone to the cabin, noon, but it’d been deepest night in the forest, the stars burning bright above, far, far more visible than they should have been this close to a major city.

Her goddess had come to her, then, as she’d been standing in a clearing, staring up at the milky way. Three women, titanic in stature, their heads had been so high, she’d initially mistaken their eyes for more stars, their flowing hair for part of the milky way. They’d stood in a triangle around her, each so vast, she had to crane her neck back all the way to see their heads, and then she couldn’t see what was below.

Their dresses, in a style of Ancient Greece, had been identical, dark green and jet black, contrasting their milky, pale skin and almost platinum blonde hair; and in spite of their size, the goddess’ bodies had looked youthful, like women in that perfect age that most of them either dreamed to reach, or fought so hard to get back to, when youth and maturity was perfectly balanced.

And they’d talked to her, in choir-like fashion, in a language that wasn’t a language, words that held so much more meaning than a mere combination of phonemes could hope to convey.

They’d talked to her of the past, the present, and the future. Of stories that’d been and stories yet to come. They’d told her that she was going to have a hard road, if she was to accept their blessing, but that that road would be one that’d lead her to the reward she sought above all others.

They’d talked her of stars that would go to war against each other. Of five that would burn brighter than any other. Of a dead sun and a black one, of a blazing one. Of a sleeping snake and a slumbering storm that would become a star. Of friends, of love and heartbreak, of victory and loss, of all the lost ones, the brave ones and the bright ones.

Above all else though, they’d been there, for her, impossibly vast and eldritch, and yet closer to her heart than her own family had been, at that time. Giving her the succor she’d craved.

Accepting her blessing had hardly been a choice at that point.

And so here I am. She did warn me that I’d experience heartbreak and loss.

She’d lost Stephanie, somewhere along the way. Her childhood friend, BFF, almost sister. They’d grown apart in the few months of her career as a cape, a gulf forming between them, as much as they’d tried to stay connected. Now she spent most of her time with her other friends, or with her new boyfriend Tim, who’d experienced the same gulf forming between himself and his friends, Aimihime and Basil.

She’d grown more and more apart from her family. The sting of having had to bear her grief alone, it hadn’t allowed her to accept her uncle and aunt’s apologies, when they’d moved past her grief enough to realize how monstrously unfair they’d been to her.

Rejecting them had meant rejecting her parents and brothers, too.

Tyche, Dalia, was now pulling away, horrified by her own power; what had drawn them together, once, was now pushing them away.

Then Prisca had died, in spite of all the blood they’d shed, literally and metaphorically, to save her. Considering the devastation, there might not even have been a body to bury, anymore.

Now Basil, too. Gone beyond all hope.

And there was little Vasiliki, walking through the corpse of a dead city, serving as a graveyard to the people still within, all alone, with the black ichor of grief and hate in her heart and pulsing witch-power in her staff.

She-

People.

She felt it, at the very edge of her range. The pneuma of humans.

No time to grieve. If there’s survivors, they’ll need me.

She broke into a run, through the ruined streets, her heart pounding in her chest.

Only to skip a beat, when she heard a dull gunshot sound, and felt pneuma be released into the air.

Then, another.

And another.

Mentally, she reached for her belt – all it took was a thought, and she dissolved into black smoke with green lights flickering within, shooting down the street and towards the people.

She shot into a storefront that’d still retained its glassfront, shattering it, her smoke form flowing through and around shelves of groceries, past storage in the back, and out the backdoor into a kind of courtyard with a single access, to which several stores connected, for trucks to drive in with deliveries without disturbing the customers out on the street.

It was surrounded by the buildings of the block in a U-shape, with the opening of the U being the access way for trucks and the like, barely wide enough for a truck and a normal car to fit in side by side, if that much. One of the buildings around the area had collapsed as something had apparently shot through it and slamming into a parking space, creating a crater from which cracks spider-webbed out over the concrete.

There were people there, like she’d sensed, and corpses besides.

A dozen men and women, in clothing she recognized from documentaries and news reports, from images and videos uploaded to the internet. They wore normal clothes, mostly, except for two in bodysuits and one woman whom was nude but for her armor. They all had see-through armor panels strapped to their torsos, their shoulders and arms, forming skirts around their hips, and more such panels on their legs. The panels were shaped to evoke the shape of a nude woman, both on the men and women wearing it, and they also had helmets of similar make, with clear, transparent visors in the shape of a woman’s face, most turned up, not revealing their faces – the visors hid nothing – but freeing them, as a few of them smoked, and others drank or ate, stuff taken from an upturned delivery truck lying nearby, wares spilling out of its broken backside.

They were armed, too, with some with guns, some with swords, and some even with rifles.

Devotees. Fans of the Six who’d joined them to live in their demented horror show of a reality. The people Poth had described as ‘Mobs’. These ones seemed to belong to Pristine’s faction, going by the style of their outfits.

Someone was there, amidst their group on the ground, lying on the ground as their tormentors occasionally kicked them.

Several men lay or knelt in a row, blood and other fluids pooling around them. They’d been tied up, made to kneel and… her stomach turned, and flipped.

It looked like guns had been shoved into their mouths, and the triggers pulled, blowing holes in the backs of their heads and necks. They were all far beyond her ability to save them.

Her body reformed, standing atop an abandoned car with shattered windows, causing it to groan and squeak lightly as her weight suddenly settled atop it.

In the otherwise dead-quiet false night of this land, it was more than enough to be heard by everyone in this dead-end behind the facade of the Brights, and the Savage Six’ devotees turned to face her, all together, some raising their weapons.

The person they’d been tormenting – Vasiliki couldn’t see her, but she sounded like a woman, a girl perhaps – sobbed softly, behind them.

They stared at her, stunned, and perhaps, at least a little intimidated.

She, meanwhile, stared at the scene, and felt something inside of her snap, as black ichor bubbled up to fill her gorge, black, dark, toxic hate.

Marietta, dead.

Prisca, dead.

Basil, dead.

Dalia, marked for death and worse.

Her family, possibly dead.

So many people, dead dead dead.

But these people, this scum, was alive?

Hecate’s hand clenched around her staff so hard, the wood groaned, flaring up with excess energy, and she threw her arms back, screaming her hate and grief at them, before she threw herself into the fight.

Previous | Next

vote for brennus

14.a.3 Out of Time

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6 minutes ago

He ran over a cracked road and jumped over the rubble of a collapsed building, straight at a pair of figures he’d seen while running away from the Dark.

It didn’t surprise him much, that these two had survived, even though one of them was pathologically self-sacrificial and the other was insane.

”Yo, boss. Boss’s wife,” he greeted them as he came to a halt, arm up.

Tartsche raised an arm and high-fived him, though Spellgun didn’t follow up on it.

It was then that he noticed the blood.

“The fuck? Did you fall asleep on the job, boss?” Jared asked, before he could rein his own mouth in, squatting down next to them.

Spellgun’s – Thomas’s – left leg was a mess and the only reason he was upright at all was because he was leaning heavily on Harry’s shoulder, and also using that wicked rifle of his like a crutch.

It looked like something had taken a huge chunk out of him – nearly the entire upper half of the back of his calf, the meatiest part of the lower leg, was just plain gone. Torn away so thoroughly, bone showed, where it wasn’t just frayed flesh and fat.

Jared’s stomach threatened to empty itself as he looked at the damage, pulling his first-aid kit off the back of his belt.

Strangely enough, while it was bloody, there wasn’t much, if any, blood flow, even though they hadn’t tied the leg off.

“One of DiL’s beams,” Harry explained, as he gently lowered the wounded boy onto the ground, using one hand to hold his leg up so the wound didn’t touch the dirty rocks and concrete. “Got him before I managed to reach him and put my power up. He shot himself with some kind of experimental bullet he of course hadn’t gotten approved beforehand, to prevent himself from bleeding out.”

Jared looked at Thomas sweaty, pale face with an incredulous stare. “You shot yourself?”

“Medical… bullet,” Thomas explained, grinning through the pain, only to arch his back and bite down on a scream when Jared sprayed some disinfectant on the huge wound. “Didn’t… oh God that burns… didn’t work… quite one-hundred percent yet… but it stopped the blood flow… and ah think… ooooowwwww… it should disinfect the wound, too.”

Jared worked quickly, having gotten a lot of practice recently, packing as much sterile cotton pieces into the wound, followed by wrapping it up in this new kind of bandage they’d started using a while ago, that supposedly both disinfected and allowed for proper airflow and stuff. Or something, he’d been sleeping through the advertisement, but the higher-ups had clearly thought it worthwhile, because all the United Heroes’ issued kits now used them.

“Well, let’s not take any chances here. Dunno when we’ll be able to get you some healer to look at it,” Jared said.

“Think Ah can get Gloomy to fix it, even after how Ah p-pissed her oooaaaaaaah! Monkeyballs! Fuck!

He bucked, nearly kicking Jared as he affixed the bandage properly. The only reason he failed to was that his lower leg physically couldn’t kick him anymore. Major muscles and other bits were just gone.

“Maybe you could make yourself a peg leg that’s also a gun?” Jared asked, trying to inject some levity into things. “You know, as a holdout of sorts.”

“Maybe re-brand with a pirate theme in mind. I could be the honorable knight, and you the knavish pirate I’m trying to bring down and-or reform,” Harry suggested – and managed to keep a straight face.

Thomas batted his eyelashes at his boyfriend, sprinkling drops of sweat around. “You know, y’can bring me down any time you like, whether or not it’s, ah, thematic. Though I admit a little rolep-“

“Dudes! No homo, please!” Jared interrupted them. “If you gay it up any more, I will barf all over your wound!”

Thomas, sweaty, pale and barely conscious, winked at him with one hell of a shit-eating grin. Harry at least had the grace to blush.

“Also, ‘knavish’? Really? Did someone buy you a thesaurus? Who the hell uses ‘knavish’?” he asked his blushing boss.

Harry mumbled something unintelligible, rubbing the back of his head with the hand he wasn’t using to hold Thomas’ leg up.

Whatever he said sounded suspiciously like ‘calendar’, but Jared decided to take the high road and not press it.

“Alright, I think this’ll hold. Let’s get you to the princess, see whether she can fix you up for good, butt boy,” he said instead, once he was sure the bandage would hold.

“Much appreciated, beach boy,” Thomas replied, then groaned as they lifted him up again, one of them under each arm of his.

They got on their way, following the signal of the Princess’s tracker via Jared’s HUD.

“How’d you of all people piss her off so much?” Jared asked, recalling how she’d gone off on him, just recently, when they’d laughed about the idiot who’d died proposing to the freaking bitch.

The residual grin dropped off of Thomas’ face.

“Ah… yeeeeaaaahhh, that one’s not mah proudest achievement,” he spoke with a note of guilt in his voice. “We’d, ah, gotten to talk about… identity, and some other things. Not gonna betray the details. But she wanted mah opinion on some stuff, ’cause of… well, mah little manifestation-related hickup. The subject of her sis and stuff came up. Ah should’ve known what our behavior would mean to her, and ah messed it up.” He lowered his head, sighing.

Jared didn’t know how to respond to that, so he didn’t say anything. Neither did Harry, though he did put an arm around Thomas’ midsection, squeezing him in a one-armed hug, before transitioning to holding him up that way.

They walked in silence after that, navigating the rubble, cracked streets and occasional residual power effects – one in particular drew Jared’s attention, a spot where a store front and the sidewalk in front of it had crinkled out into razor-sharp petals.

Just like in Miami – I never knew she re-used powers.

He shook his head, unsure of what to feel at the sight, and the reminder. Thomas’ words were sitting heavily with him, too.

Hell, it’s not like there’s anything about today that hasn’t been a huge kick upside the head in one way or another, he thought, his exhausted mind wandering as they drudged on.

***

Not so long ago

“You’ll freaking pay for this, beach boy!”

“Dream on, butt boy!”

Jared and Thomas snarled at each other, their chosen combatants locked in deadly combat upon the screen in front of them.

They each had a flat box on their respective lap, with a control stick and six buttons arranged the same way as on an arcade machine, and were furiously working their sticks and pounding their buttons, while Ma’al Gahurak, Supreme War Champion of Mars fought in a deadly battle against the original Doc Feral, Gentleman Adventurer.

Not a fight that’d ever happened in real life, the Doc had been long dead by the time the Martians invaded, but it sure looked real on the screen.

“God damn it this fucking Martian is so broken!” Thomas complained, as he tried and failed to break through Ma’al’s defenses – a bevy of counter moves which, with the right timing, allowed Jared to reflect almost any attack in the game back at the attacker.

And timing was something he knew very well, even when he wasn’t using his power. Much.

“You just say that ’cause you suck!” he shot back with a grin.

“Oh, I do suck, but not at this!” came the response in a lewd tone, and it came at just the right moment to make Jared sputter as the mental image asserted itself.

Which of course meant that he flubbed the all too vital timing on his next full counter.

“Oh fuck no, you asshole!” he shouted, but it was too late.

Doc Feral’s attack connected, and Thomas was quick to exploit the increased stun damage Ma’al took when he flubbed a full counter.

The old-school hero struck a pose and downed a glowing red concoction – the Nature Red formula – which caused him to tear out of his clothes, turning into a giant, red-clawed, red-toothed lion-ape-human, and lay into the stunned Martian.

A ‘K.O.’ followed quickly, on the screen, colored green instead of the usual red.

“Oh, come on! One combo? One? Ma’al wasn’t such a glass cannon in real life!”

“Game balance, beach boy. It’s fine to have people who’re just plain better than others in real life, but you gotta balance them to have a healthy meta in these games,” Thomas pontificated with a smirk, while they went back to the character selection screen.

“Like I don’t fucking know,” Jared groused, looking over the character options. The new CvC 6 had a huge roster, seventy-nine characters if you included all the expansion packs (and they had them all, on account of it being a UH license and them getting free copies), but with a field that large, game balance was a big issue, and the game devs didn’t always nail it, especially when they overcompensated. Case in point, Lady Light had been so overpowered in the fifth game that they’d overcompensated in nerfing her for this one, putting her in the bottom tier of characters, so he skipped right over her and went for one of the top tier characters.

“You’re taking fuckin’ Weisswald now? C’mon dude, that’s just petty!” Thomas complained, while he made his own selection.

“Says the guy picking the Fungal Eve,” Jared shot back.

“What can I say, I’m a romantic – they just belong together,” Thomas replied with a smile, hugging himself and swaying left and right.

“Dude! That’s just, one hell of a sickening mental image!”

“Pipe it down you two, will ya? We’re trying to focus here!” Rosalie shouted in annoyance, turning away from the electronic whiteboard showing a map of New Lennston’s shopping district.

Scribbles, circles, crosses, lines and arrows showed how far she, Harry, Jessica and Rachel had already plotted out their latest shopping trip.

“You know, normal people just go shopping now and then, and all is fine! They don’t have to plot out a precise campaign for the sake of clothes shopping!” Jared shot back.

“Normal people are idiots! Now pipe it down or I’ll tell your sister you’ve been trying to keep us from taking her shopping!” Rosalie of course had to skip straight to the lethal weaponry.

The others offered no help either, showing just varying degrees of annoyance, amusement and contriteness.

Jared rolled his eyes. “Alright, alright. Freaking blackmailers…” He turned down the game’s volume, for good measure; best not to risk provoking Rosalie when she was in that kind of mood.

She’d probably visited her own little sister, earlier. That always left her in an… irritable mood, afterwards, which was why she was still being kept as a Junior when she had the age and the skill and power to advance into the big ranks already.

Not that Jared could ever blame her for that.

Not that he’d ever say so out loud.

Instead, he turned to Thomas, distracting himself by focusing on another matter.

“So how come you’re not over there, planning the thirty-fourth great New Lennston Shopping Trip?” he asked. He didn’t have to come up with the number – they’d written the title up over the map. “You’re girlier than most girls I know.”

Thomas shrugged. “Harry’s already planning for me, Ah’m sure. And I was never the kind of girl who was into going shopping a lot, it never really appealed to me.”

“Huh. Guess you’re not quite trying to fit into every gay stereoty- hey, what you mean with you were never the kind of girl?”

The young contriver looked at him in surprise. “What, you didn’t know? I thought everyone around here knew – Ah used to be a girl, before Ah manifested.”

Jared’s eyes nearly bugged out, getting so distracted from the game, he barely managed to pull up Weisswald’s White Fortress and block the Fungal Eve’s Mycoloid rush.

“You don’t have to stare so hard, beach boy,” Thomas complained, blushing a bit. “Surely you’ve heard about metahumans switchin’ sex when they get powers.”

“Well, duh. And that’s not… I mean, I guess it’s no weirder than turning into a pink furry or a living statue or something, but… just trying to wrap my head around you having been a girl once.” Jared replied with a bit of a blush.

There was another thing he wanted to ask, but that would jut have been bad form, even by his standards.

“You’re wonderin’ now how I manifested, eh?” Thomas pressed the point, grinning, though his eyes remained fixated on the game screen.

“Yeah. Wasn’t gonna ask, though.”

“Ah don’t mind. Even if you hadn’t told me yours before.”

“Only reason I’m so open about it is because everyone knows these days,” he replied, gnashing his teeth. “Fucking Miami Wire.” That stupid rag had fucking outed his identity, in the course of a ‘memorial edition’ about the Miami heroes whom died fighting the glowy bitch. Then someone had somehow gotten a copy of an UH internal report in which he’d described his Origin, and… national news.

“Still. Ah guess it’s only fair. Tit for tat, and all that.” He paused, for a moment, taking a deep breath. “So, yeah, Ah was born a girl. Real sweet Southern tomboy, if Ah may say so. Ah wasn’t a girly girl by any measure, but Ah didn’t mind being a girl and Ah never wanted to be a boy, Ah just wanted to be with boys.”

“Mhmm,” Jared temporized, trying to picture Thomas as a girl.

It wasn’t very hard to do, really.

“So, what happened? How’d you go from… uh, whatever your name was then-“

“Denise.”

“Denise. How’d you go from Denise to, well, Thomas?” Jared asked, his voice softer than it tended to be, even while they fought each other in-game at their best.

“Mmm. Gotta give you a bit of background to explain. You know about the Smith-Jackson Range?”

“Nope.”

“It’s a theory, or Ah guess a kind of rule, set by these two really famous metahuman researchers, Smith and Jackson. People usually manifest in between eight to thirty years of age. Like, ninety-nine percent of metahumans do. All the common rules and stuff we have, for how people manifest, how they get powers and stuff? They apply to that range.”

Jared frowned. “I can think of a few cases of people manifesting way younger than that.” One in particular, he thought, but didn’t say.

Thomas nodded. “There’s exceptions of course. And here’s the interesting thing: If you manifest earlier, your powers tend to come out… bigger. Broader. Less restrictions, but also more chances for things to go wrong. Mutations, physical and mental, weird powers, you name it. Also, the younger you are, the more likely it is for your power to have a Meta-aspect, even if it’s otherwise not a Meta-power, if it ain’t a pure Meta power to begin with.”

Huh. That… fits really well. Fuck, does that mean she’s not unique? There could be more like her?!

Scary thoughts.

Thomas went on, unperturbed, lost in telling his tale (if not lost enough to give Jared an edge in the game).

“Things are flipped if you manifest after you’re thirty. Not only is it spectacularly unlikely, but like, almost all the post-thirty origins we know of lead to really wimpy and strangely direct powers. Like a guy who fell off a cliff, and he gets the power to slow his own falls. Or a woman who ended up outside naked, after getting drunk, and just when she’s about to be discovered, she gets the power to camouflage herself, so long as she doesn’t move at all, even to breathe or look around. Though on the upside, it also seems that post-thirty manifestations are pretty much safe from getting any bad stuff along with their power, either. So Ah guess it kinda balances out. Theres exceptions, of course, but in general, that’s how it works.”

“That’s really interesting to know, but what’s that got to do with you? From what I got, you manifested just a few years ago.”

“Ah’m getting to that, beach boy. Patience. Ah know it’s hard for you. So, to get to the other part of my depressing little tale, what do you know about the Trans community and powers?”

“Uhhhh…”

“Yeah, well, thought so. To be brief, they loooooove powers. Getting superpowers is like, the Holy Grail every Transsexual person seeks. And the reason is simple – in like, nine out of ten cases of a Transsexual getting powers, they also get the Adonis trait, and they pretty much always switch to their preferred sex when they do. So, ever since the Trans community went public around the seventies, getting powers has been the thing for them.”

“Guess I can see why…” He was getting pretty damn curious about how all that related to him switching sex.

“Makes them really desperate, a lot. There’s tons of stories of Trans people giving all their money to con-men or shady ‘researchers’ promising powers, or going Origin-chasing and dying. Anyway, so, that’s the background you need, to get my story.”

“I dunno why I’d need it. From what you said, I got that you weren’t Trans, then or now. Though I’m no longer sure about the now.”

“Welll… Ah wasn’t… but my pops was.”

“Oh…”

“Yeah, ‘oh’. So Daddy dearest, in spite of boning me mom and marrying her, felt like he should be the lady in the family. But no matter what he did or in what way he blew our money or how hard he beat me mom when she complained, he never got powers. And he continued not to get powers until he turned thirty-one. And that’s when shit got really bad. Cause you see, even when you do get superpowers at over thirty, Ah don’t think there’s a single case of someone manifesting at that age and getting the Adonis package to go along with it.”

Jared hit the pause button on the game, and half-turned on the couch, pulling one leg up on it to look straight at Thomas.

The young blonde had his head lowered, looking down at the arcade stick resting on his jeans-covered lap.

His eyes were a hundred miles away, even when Harry sat down next to him, his Samaritan-radar having pinged as soon as his boyfriend started feeling distressed.

Harry put an arm around his slender shoulders, and then Thomas continued to talk, more quietly. “So, my pops had a problem. He’d moved out of the Smith-Jackson Range. Surgery and hormones weren’t a solution, he was too proud to do that. It’s seen as an admission of defeat and surrender, in the Trans community. Plus, he wanted to be a woman for real, so he could have kids of his own and all. Kids who’d really be his, he said. The arsehole.”

“Worse than an arsehole,” Harry said, softly, and Jared couldn’t help but nod.

Every time he heard about someone else’s Origin, he couldn’t help but feel like he’d gotten off lightly somehow.

“So, what’s pops dearest do, the genius? He goes and joins Pinhead’s group.”

Jared’s eyes went wide. “Wait, Pinhead as in, the supervillain!? Guy’s a major menace!”

“Aye. He could transfer… attributes, between people, with those pins of his. Drain the strength from one, give it to another. Same for intelligence, or charisma, and other traits. Like… masculinity and femininity. Sex.”

“Oh no.”

***

Three minutes ago

“Oh no.”

Harry’s words drew him right back to reality, as they crossed over a portion of the street that’d bulged up without cracking, the concrete remaining solid in spite of the deformation.

Gloom Glimmer knelt on the ground, in front of a collapsed building’s front, where it looked like a balcony had come down. She was on her knees, her head lowered, face hidden by gossamer-fine, straight black hair.

Polymnia knelt by her right side, one hand on her friend and teammate’s shoulder. Her face was visible, and twisted up in grief, the expression made all the more pronounced by her color-shifting hair, which had come out of one of its pigtails, but not the other.

Her other hand rested on the back of the third girl present.

Hecate was on her knees, bent over to the point of being folded in half, her lowered head very close to her knees, as it seemed to actually touch the ground. Her cowl was pulled back, revealing well-cared for black hair with natural curls, her hands buried in it its thick mass as she wailed like a wounded animal, no poise, no control, emotions bared totally.

The reason for it all was readily apparent: lying on the ground, its head cradled on Gloom Glimmer’s lap, was Brennus’s corpse, three arm-thick holes going through his armored chest and another, finger-thick one through the left side of his forehead, the wounds neatly cauterized and quite obviously fatal.

There was blood on his lips, which Gloom Glimmer wiped off with a thumb as the three of them approached.

Jared looked closely at the strange boy they’d all wondered about, getting his first good look at his exposed face.

He wasn’t pretty, exactly, though he may have ended up on the attractive side of the spectrum, had he been allowed to live through his puberty; for now, he was merely… striking, in an oddly put together way. Even though he was clearly younger than Jared – fifteen, maybe sixteen, at most, there wasn’t an ounce of baby fat on him to soften his features. Cheekbones one could use to slice steel with and a sharp, slightly pronounced nose gave him something of a hawkish look that actually fit his chosen animal theme well, broken up only by surprisingly full lips. Though death had relaxed it, he looked like someone with a naturally serious, even severe expression. His hair was as black as Irene’s, though not as fine, nor as glossy. Naturally messy, it fell down to his shoulders, but there was no style to it, like he’d just let it grow long, then taken a knife or sheers to it to hack off the bits that fell into his face, once they got to be annoying.

Based on his limited interactions with the vigilante, Jared could totally see him do it exactly like that.

They reached the small group, moving towards Gloom Glimmer’s left side.

Hecate didn’t seem to notice their arrival, nor did the princess, but Polymnia raised her head, eyes widening in simultaneous relief at the sight of the three of them, and horror at the misshapen, bloody bandage around Thomas’s calf.

Before anyone could ask, Gloom Glimmer reached out with her left hand and touched Thomas’s knee. Red, blood-like liquid emerged from where her fingertips touched his bared skin, spreading onto and under his bandage.

Thomas made a guttural sound of discomfort and relief in one, while Jared and Harry watched, seeing the bandage fall apart as the glowing, bloody liquid filled out the space where his calf ought to be, only to recede back into Gloom Glimmer’s fingertips, leaving unblemished skin behind. A crippling-for-life injury, restored in seconds.

“I can only heal living organisms,” Gloom Glimmer said in the soft, broken voice of a lost little girl, pre-empting the question Jared was about to ask. “His body doesn’t register as alive anymore.”

Hecate’s wails intensified for a moment, before lessening in volume, if not in intensity.

Jared and Harry let go of Thomas, who tested his freshly restored leg, briefly, even as they lowered their heads.

There wasn’t really anything they could say. None of them had known Brennus, beyond a few brief interactions, and neither did they really know Hecate. Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer had connected far more closely with that group, the former due to being a gadgeteer, mostly, Jared suspected, the latter because…

He didn’t know why, really. Maybe she’d just gone along because Polymnia had liked Brennus. Maybe her power had told her something she hadn’t shared with the rest of them.

Harry moved over to kneel down between Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer, putting an arm around each of their shoulders. He didn’t say anything, he just knelt there, like that.

They seemed to take comfort from that, a little bit.

Jared looked down at the shaking, wailing Hecate, raising his hand, thinking about maybe giving her a hug, would that even be welcome or helpful, but…

Before he could choose to do it or not, Thomas knelt down next to her and hugged her.

Not that she seemed to notice.

Fuck, what am I supposed to do here?, he asked himself.

He was so fucking tired. Tired, and worn out. Hours and days, spent fighting Crocell, then DiL. Living hours in minutes. He was too worn out to even put the numbers together and figure out how much time he’d spent being awake and active, in the last two days.

Had it been just two days? He wasn’t even sure. He’d laid down to sleep after helping with the clean-up and evacuation in Esperanza, post-Crocell, only to be awoken by the sirens announcing his recurring nightmare come to life.

It was fine while he was moving, but whenever he stopped, whenever he didn’t have anything more to do, he felt it catch up to him, his senses starting to grow fuzzy around the edges, his mind starting to drift.

What the hell am I supposed to do? I feel so fucking useless…

***

Shortly after the Miami Attack

He felt so fucking useless, looking at his sister.

They’d been moved to New Lennston, after he’d revealed his power to Bandersnatch. A foster family had been found, to take care for them, and he was to be placed with the local junior team of the United Heroes. A dream come true, for many a teenager, to serve as a hero in New Lennston of all places.

If only it hadn’t been soured to begin with. His identity revealed before he could even get a secret identity, leaked papers revealing even the nature, if not the details, of his power, as he’d described it to Bandersnatch, as she’d put it into her report.

None of that helped with his biggest problem, though, in all fairness, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference even if none of that were an issue.

He was leaning on the side of the doorframe, looking into the living room of the Woads family, now technically also his family and his living room, though he was pretty sure that was never going to feel natural.

Kizzy sat on the floor in front of the television, knees drawn up against her chest, her arms around them, as still as a statue as her eyes seemed to look straight through the television in front of her, through the wall behind it and then even further.

He’d never really imagined what a thousand-yard stare would look like, but now he didn’t need to. He saw it every day in his sister’s eyes.

Worse than the gaze, though, was the silence and the stillness. She just… sat there. Never talked, never made a sound, at all, except when she woke up screaming in the night.

Post-traumatic stress, the therapist called it. They both had one, though not the same.

Jared spent most of his sessions talking about Kizzy.

There’d been a scary four days, early on where, she’d acted… normal. Too normal. Pretending none of it had happened. That mom and dad were just away because of the job, and they’d be back soon.

For three creepy, heart-rending days she’d smiled and laughed and been her usual bubbly self.

Then she’d collapsed, without warning or apparent cause.

It was afterwards that the screaming at night and the silence by day started.

Needless to say, she hadn’t sung a single line, ever since that day.

Why? Why the fuck did you have to go and fight? he thought angrily, once again. Couldn’t at least one of you have decided that we were more important than the fight? Just one of you.

He felt his hand clench into a tight fist, without his conscious direction. Clenching so hard, his entire arm trembled, and his nails, as short as they were, still dug painfully into the palm of his hand.

Closing his eyes, he sought to center himself by focusing inward, at his power.

He’d always read a lot about powers, and listened to his parents sharing their experiences, so he knew that, in many ways, he’d lucked out. He didn’t have any physical mutations, no derangements, no real issues with his power. There was even a matter of sheer convenience – others might have gotten an abstract feeling for the ‘gauge’ of their power, when it dealt with some kind of limited resource, or might have been among those unlucky enough to be blind or only get the most general feeling for it.

He could just focus and see a digital display in his field of view, red numbers on a black background, counting the seconds he’d saved up.

60:00

One hour. Sixty minutes. Three-thousand and six-hundred seconds.

That was his cap. Every second that he did not use his power was a second added to the pool, another second he could then squeeze into a normal second, to stretch it out. He could add up to four seconds to each one, so he lived five seconds when others only lived one.

Some mad science types had even done some tests and determined that his power shifted his body into a state of ‘quasi-reality’ so he didn’t age faster than a normal person, no matter how much he used his power. It also boosted his endurance, so he didn’t tire himself out nearly as quickly as he should have.

All in all, a pretty good power.

Tapping into his reserve, he slowed down time. One second beccame five, as he stepped forward into the living room; he’d be just a blur to anyone watching, too fast to even be heard unless he was spectacularly clumsy.

He strolled over to Kizzy, her blurry form growing sharp as his little bubble of sharpness came over her.

Irony of ironies, becoming an Adonis had fixed his eyesight, obviating the need for glasses or contact lenses – but as soon as his power kicked in, everything beyond his immediate surroundings came out of focus again.

At least the eggheads of the UH thought they could do something to help with that, with the right equipment.

Taking soft steps, he looked at his sister. There was no reason to do this while using his power, she’d have barely, if at all, reacted to his presence anyway, but…

Well, he liked using his power.

Kizzy just sat there, seemingly watching a bunch of cartoon space animals fight a planet-eating robot or something. There were a lot of primary colors on the screen.

Except she probably knew less about what was going on in that show than he did, and he knew next to nothing.

Time slowed down again, the world coming into focus.

He reached out to hug his sister, but hesitated. What good did it even do, to-

***

Two minutes ago

“-good it did.”

Jared blinked, refocusing on the present. The others seemed to have talked about something, but he’d completely missed out on it.

A brief look at his timer showed him that he’d missed forty-two seconds, as his thoughts drifted.

Fuck, I need to do something, or I’ll drift off entirely.

“I’m going,” he announced, interrupting whatever the ongoing discussion was, causing everyone but Hecate to look up at him in surprise.

Thomas had moved while he’d been distracted, sitting down between Harry and Polymnia, to give the latter a one-armed hug. He’d taken his brassy helmet with those freaky scopes and visors off, wearing only the simple domino mask he had underneath, his hair shiny and slick with sweat.

“There might still be people in need of help. Hell, there almost certainly are. And I still have a few minutes saved up, so I’m going to use them and see what I can do,” he explained, though his voice came out much weaker and scratchier than he would have liked.

“Y-yeah, you’re right,” the princess answered, her voice still having that lost hollowness to it that tugged on his supposedly non-existent heartstrings. “There’s people in need, and I can help. B-besides, I need… need to see wha-“

“No,” he cut her off, as soon as he realized what she was getting at, his voice much sharper than before. “No, you don’t need to. You shouldn’t.”

She glared at him, a hint of black veins creeping into her eyes from the corners, opening her mouth to respond. He didn’t let her.

“No. Irene, trust me,” he said, rocking her back. He’d never actually addressed her with her first name before. “You don’t want to see this.”

He could remember asking, all but begging Kizzy to keep her eyes closed. Later he’d found out that she hadn’t, and the things she’d seen… they’d nearly broken him. They’d certainly contributed to breaking her.

If there was one thing about the Dark he could get, it was why he didn’t want the princess to see that. He could completely, wholeheartedly, agree with it, even.

“Go to the field hospital, while you still have that healing power. You can do the most good there,” he continued, tiredly keeping up the eye contact.

It took a few moments for her to process his words and see the logic in them. A few moments before her eyes returned to normal, the black veins retreating back to where they’d come from.

Finally, she nodded, lowering her head as if in admission of defeat, though it may have just been to take one last look at Brennus, as she puts his head down on the ground, slipping her legs out from under him.

He thought he heard her mumble something, but the only word he caught was ‘monster’.

“He’s right. I’ll go to the field hospital. What about you all?” she asked, with a little more strength in her voice. “Need a lift somewhere?”

Though she was addressing everyone, she seemed to focus her gaze on Hecate in particular.

Maybe the grieving witch knew, somehow, because she was the first to respond, finally making a sound other than a wail.

“G-go. Go help. I’ll be fine,” she choked the words out in between more sobs. “I… I would like, some time… time alone, anyway. With him.” Her hands clenched into fists where they lay on Brennus’ chest, green-gloved fingertips sliding across dull black armor.

Jared didn’t know what to say, so he just nodded and turned around, kicking into his power.

4:23

He drew on his reserve, adding a single second to each real one. Twice the amount of time to move, when his power had developed enough that it could add up to nine seconds to each real one, these days.

This wasn’t about being faster, though, so much as it was for the sake of exploiting his weird, quasi-real state to stay awake and active. And so he jogged off, after saluting the others, intending to circle around the area where that monster had fallen and look for anyone still in need of rescue.

Two fucking S-Class events in the same week. God, I hope this will be it for a while now, he thought, as he jogged and occasionally leaped onto and over particularly nasty section of rubble and left-over power effects. God damn it, NL’s been hit by three in about as many months! What the hell, that’s insane even by local standards! Karma’s gotta be done by now…

***

He was busy pulling a bruised cowl out from under some rubble – not one he knew, she was definitely from out of town – when karma decided that New Lennston hadn’t yet, in fact, suffered enough.

Lightning flashed, almost immediately followed by a weirdly warbling sound of thunder, and the sensation of something being torn open washing over him.

Even though he was still holding the woman’s hand, and trying not to stare at her too much because her flowing robes were in tatters and, damn, she didn’t seem to be an Adonis – someone with a Physique power, as was now the nomenclature – but she sure was fit and he wasn’t picky about which beauty to appreciate, well, even in spite of that, he kicked in his power.

Nine seconds added to every one, the woman came to a near stand-still, and his grip on her hand slipped; the downside of his power, when it was up his effect on the real world (and the real world’s effect on him, in turn) was reduced by a factor equivalent to how much his own time was sped up. With him now living ten seconds for every one of the outside world, he only had one tenth of the effect on anyone not on the same time as he. He’d have to touch her and give her seconds from his store to bring her up to his speed, for them to fully interact, and his stores were low enough as they were, already.

He turned around, and saw that the bolt of lightning was still there, stationary, flickering without disappearing, like a lasting connection between the cloudless sky and the shattered ground. He could see it as clear as day, even before his helmet’s visor shifted polarity and the world beyond the bubble of his power became sharp and visible again, like he was seeing the light with something other than his eyes.

Just then, something more happened, and he wouldn’t have seen it if he wasn’t in his fastest mode – even at ten times the speed, he almost missed it as a crack ran up from the ground, where the first bolt had origininated and was still connected to, like reality itself cracking, from the ground up to the sky, only for lightning to then run down that same crack and connected heaven and earth in the same flickering, warbling, dancing manner.

The place those cracks are coming from, that’s…, he thought with a sensation of rising dread inside of him, even as he refused to finish the thought.

The cowl he’d just been helping forgotten, he ran straight towards the origin of the cracks, watching as yet another formed, this one going up only to arc back towards the ground making a bow of sorts that was then filled out with dancing lightning so bright and white it hurt to look at.

He knew that shade of painfully pure white all too well, and his stomach plunged down into his feet, making them feel leaden and clumsy.

Finally, after what felt like ten minutes to him, but was likely more akin to a little over half of one to the real world, he reached the crater.

Another crack had spread up into the sky, calling down stationary lightning.

He came to a halt, halfway around the crater from where the Dark still stood, his form mostly frozen place, save for some slow-motion oozing up, his eyes seemingly focused, still, on the purple eye laying amidst the gore.

Mindstar, his new personal hero (which he was never going to tell Amazon about), was also still down there, frozen mid-wobble, a force-field so dense it was visible to the naked eye as a purple-tinged half-ovoid behind her back, which was pointed towards the… the…

Jared’s eyes widened as he realised what he was looking at.

It looked like nothing so much as a twist in reality, a see-through snarl that twisted up the view of everything beyond it, kind of like jabbing a fork into your noodles and twisting them up, only without the fork and without the noodles. The cracks he’d seen, they’d spread from it, and even now he could see yet another crack form.

Sped up like he was, he could see that it didn’t actually shoot up from the snarl – no, the entire crack, snarl to heaven, simply faded in all at once, followed by something like semi-liquid lightning filling out the crack. It travelling down from above must have been a trick of the eye, something his brain had added in to make sense of it.

The lightning seemed to run through parts of the snarl, like an elaborate, twisty pipe-system, only to arc out again below, thousands and thousands of tiny, hair-thin arcs reaching out like fingers, touching seemingly every piece of flesh and bone, every drop of blood, every… everything.

Worse than all of that, though, was that he recognized the feeling that washed over him, a wave like a distortion of reality, rippling through everything it passed without seemingly causing any effect.

He felt the snarl even more vividly than he saw it.

Time.

Someone, or something, was twisting time. And judging by what those lightning arcs seemed to point at, Di-fucking-L was the focus of it.

His eyes flickered over to the Dark, panicked thoughts telling him that it would be preferably to see some obvious signs of power usage from him, some sign that he be the one responsible.

Because, for all that he’d mocked her for it, repeatedly, he really hoped the princess’ assurances that her ‘papa’ was a good person, deep down, were not just the naive delusions of a daddy’s girl.

Because then it might just be a case of him cleaning up, removing the traces. Getting rid of whatever may be left, rather than…

He didn’t even want to think the alternative.

Unfortunately, for all he could tell, the Dark seemed to just be staring at it, for all that it fucking said about the animated mass of living, soundlessly screaming shadows that was him.

Another ripple washed over reality, a distortion in time he wasn’t sure he’d be able to feel, if his power wasn’t what it was, yet another branch of frozen lightning joining the others.

That seemed to push things over a threshold, a tipping point, as the entire mess of lightning collapsed in on itself with such speed, it looked fast even from his point of view.
The arcs were sucked into the swirling distortion they had originated from, both the ones above and below, and everything they’d touched was… not drawn in, really.

It was odd to see, like seeing ghost images, overlapping everything, shifting; like someone was holding a prism in front of a flashlight, breaking the beam up into a kaleidoscope of colors, and then turned and twisted the prism in their fingers, shifting the patterns being projected, except instead of light, it was time and the effect only touched what had been connected to the distortion via lightning.

Jared’s brain tied itself up in knots and twists, trying to parse the non-motion he saw, ghostly images overlapping themselves, shifting through, through various states, the kaleidoscope being turned and twisted.

With each shift, a different configuration was seen, the individual plateaus coming and going so quickly, his power was the only reason he had a chance to see even glimpses of them.

DiL’s body, torn to pieces on the ground.

DiL’s body, in pieces, frozen mid-air on the way to where the pieces had ended up.

DiL’s body, lying on the ground, the face already bashed in by Mindstar’s fists, the eyes still glowing even as one of them hung out of its socket by nothing but the nerve and blood vessels.

DiL, whole, kind of. Floating in the air, hair and eyes and nails glowing, but dismembered, arms and legs and head not connecting to the trunk of the body, floating in different places, yet clearly aligned with each other, the stumps glowing bright.
DiL, but younger, a prepubescent girl rather than the young woman she usually appeared as.

DiL, prepubescent, torn to pieces that were spread around the floor.

And now he wasn’t sure whether it was just time that was being twisted here.

DiL, teenaged, but with chunks missing, as if someone had scooped out a part of her head, her chest, her buttocks, one thigh, that same unearthly glow that was her trademark blazing forth. Even mutilated and with half of her glowing, she looked disconcertingly like the princess. More like a twin than a normal sister.

DiL, prepubescent and teenaged at the same time, forms overlapping, unevenly, looking even more like a freak than usual.

DiL, but inverted, her eyes, hair and nails the only parts of her that weren’t made of blazing white light.

DiL, whole and healthy, but the pure white glow replaced for an even more sinister blackness, like some sort of anti-light.

DiL, whole and healthy, a woman in her early to mid-twenties with white-glowing hair, eyes and nails, looking no worse for wear for all that had happened today.

Just as Jared’s heart started to plunge down to join his stomach by his feet, the distortion disappeared with a snap, the frozen lightning and the distorted reality disappearing into a single point right in front of DiL’s chest with a sensation that felt like how a snap sounded.

And with the Snap came an explosion of distorted time and space, as if reality itself could no longer bear the abuse.

Jared had already turned around and was running, running away.

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14.6 Breaking Point

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Lady Light’s glowing form slammed into a growing stone-form that’d begun literally growing out of thin air around DiL, to the size of a five-story building in an instant, and disintegrated the whole thing in a blaze of light.

In the back of Basil’s calmed mind, he felt a short ache, as DiL changed her powers moments after assuming them, only to do so yet again when Lady Light disrupted her new abilities, before Basil could even see anything.

”Did you know your mother could do that?” he asked Gloom Glimmer, referring to that massive wave of light.

She took a step back from him, her cheeks red with tears and warmth, brushing her hair back behind her ears. “No. Yes. Kind of?” she temporized, seeming off-kilter. “In theory. I know she can, but I’ve never seen her do it, and it’s really risky to use it like thi-“ She realised she was babbling and clamped her mouth shut, her teeth making a sharp ‘click’.

Basil smiled at her, trying to be reassuring, even as his mind fired on all cylinders.

He really felt way too good. Prisca’s death, his failure, Amy, his memory… it was all still there, but for the first time he could remember, he felt like he could deal with all of that.

He also knew that this wasn’t how her aura was supposed to work. It bolstered those aligned with her, while weakening those which were opposed, but he’d never heard of it having this profound an effect on someone… another power interaction, perhaps?

Something to look into – if Lady Light, of all people, couldn’t help him solve his issues, then no one could. Especially if the theory he was building in regards to her power was correct.

Gloom Glimmer leaned in closer, looking concerned, as if trying to look deeper into him. Maybe she literally was, who knew? “Are you… are you still… you? You seem… different. From usual. And from… that time Osore hit you… too.”

”Mmmhm. Yeah. Your mother’s aura is having the oddest effect on me. Like the opposite of what your sister’s aura was doing to me, only even more so.” He chuckled in a way he’d never do, normally. Carefree. “I can not even remember the last time I felt so… light.”

He turned his head away, looking out over the rooftops. “Anyway, we should go to Hecate and Polymnia. Join up and figure out what to do.”

”Y-yeah.”

”Do I need to carry you?” he asked her, turning back to look at her again as she walked up to stand by his side.

She blushed again. “N-no. Thank you. I don’t have much power, right now, but I can still hop some roofs.” As if to underline that, she took off, running and leaping over the gap between their and the next house’s roof, moving as nimbly as any parkour runner.

He looked after her, blinking in surprise; then he shrugged and followed her.

***

They reached Polymnia and Hecate – both fortunately alive and well – within a minute.

Before anyone could say anything, Gloom Glimmer all but jumped at her friend, who equally rushed towards her, and they embraced each other so tightly, Polymnia actually lifted Gloom Glimmer off her feet (she was taller than her while in armor).

Basil joined Hecate while the two girl friends exchanged quick words, clearly intensely relieved that the other one was still alright.

”Hey,” Hecate greeted him again, giving him a brief hug. He wanted to hug her back, properly, but he was pretty sure she wouldn’t be quite comfortable with that right then, so he just gave her a one-armed squeeze. “How’s…” She trailed off, her eyes flicking from him to the other two girls.

”Much better,” he replied, releasing the breath he’d held. “Lady Light’s aura is lessening the effect, if not countering it outright.”

”Oh. That’s good,” she sighed, relieved. “So, no more nosebleeding?”

He tilted his head to the side. “I should have thought of checking that,” he said after a brief delay and took his mask off again.

“Let me,” Hecate interrupted him when he began to reach up, pulling a delicate green handkerchief from her bag. Spitting on it, she rubbed at his upper lip, nose and chin. “Just some dried blood,” she told him, while he held still, having experienced one of Vasiliki’s little ‘cleansings’ before, and learned that it was futile to resist. “Seems like the bleeding has stopped, yeah.” She smiled in relief, pulling her hand back and showing him the dark stains on it.

”Thank you. That is a relief,” he replied. DiL changed her powers again, halfway through the reply, and he sent another signal through the device the Dark gave him.

”You’re different,” she observed, her eyes hidden underneath the enchanted shadows of her hood. “Is everything… I mean, are you still… you?” She sounded afraid as she asked, though he couldn’t tell whether she was afraid he might be someone else, or that she might offend or anger him by asking, or both.

”I am pretty sure I am,” he tried to assuade her, smiling to take the tension out of it as much as he could. “It is not like I have recovered any memory that is missing, but… my head seems clearer.” He turned said head to look at the distant battle. Lights were flashing, and he was pretty sure that Lady Light was wielding a glowing sword the size of a schoolbus, using it to literally slice DiL’s current defense apart – some manner of fractals in the air, visible only by how they were distorting light around them, rather than due to reflecting it directly.

A dull ache announced another change in powers, and Lady Light reacted faster than Basil could press the button, letting that huge blade dissolve into light and reforming it into something too small to make out at this distance.

”Yeah, her aura is… I mean… wow. I didn’t know she could crank it up like this,” Hecate replied, whispering in awe. “She must be covering the entire area inside the Desolation Field.”

Another dull ache, a second after whatever Lady Light used now impacted some kind of distorted shadow inbetween her and DiL, dispersing it with a massive, yet silent shockwave.

“I don’t know how long she can keep it up, though,” Gloom Glimmer interjected, stepping closer to them, her right hand clasping Polymnia’s left, tightly. “She must be burning the candle on both ends to get this kind of output, and I… I don’t know why she’d be so reckless, this time.” She looked quite troubled.

“Maybe because you’re here,” Polymnia suggested, her voice soothing. “She launched that wave the moment you were in danger of actually being hurt, didn’t she?”

Gloom Glimmer’s shoulders slumped, along with her head.

Before anyone could follow up on that, they were interrupted by static crackle from Memento’s communication devices.

To all those who are still able to fight,the Dark’s multi-layered voice spoke to them, made even stranger than usual by coming from multiple speakers at once. We are preparing a significant attack on DiL. Lady Light is going to buy us the time we need to do so. Until you are given the signal to attack, conserve your strength, take care of each other and prepare yourselves.

“This is Rounds speaking,” the leader of the New Lennston United Heroes followed up, sounding winded, but still determined. “I concur with the Dark’s plan. Everyone, take care of yourselves and each other. Stand strong and don’t give up hope.”

“An attack…” Gloom Glimmer whispered, her gaze still focused downwards, mostly at her feet. “I’ve never heard him phrase any move against Bree like that,” she elaborated, when the others looked curiously at her, though she didn’t raise her head. “Could he actually have a plan to… get at her?”

Her voice was thick with a mess of emotions Basil couldn’t even begin to decipher. Though he was pretty certain guilt factored in.

He’d become all too familiar with guilt, lately.

”But, what could… how… she’s untouchable!” Hecate protested.

”Hanabi was able to affect her, during the Okinawa fight,” Basil interjected. “And no one has heard from him, since. It might be that he’s been preparing some kind of weapon, maybe even a Magnum Opus.”

”That sounds like something Dad would do,” Gloom Glimmer agreed. “Track him or her down and whisk them away to prepare for this.”

They all took a moment to digest that, the only motion between them being Basil’s fingers when he signaled another change of powers.

”Wow.” The simple whisper was all that Hecate seemed able to say, in response.

“That’s… really amazing, really… but what do we do?” Polymnia asked, her right hand’s fingers tapping out the words while her eyes were on Gloom Glimmer, her expression concerned. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but apart from Gloomy, we’ve all been pretty useless so far, and she’s out of power for now. Or nearly so.”

Hecate took a deep breath, holding her staff close to her chest with both hands, as her hood briefly twitched towards Basil, before focusing on the other girls instead. “I think… we should just, try to protect people. Get them out harm’s way, wherever we can. Search and rescue.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much what I was doing before. Rounds has all the juniors – except Gloomy – on Search and Rescue. Not that I wouldn’t do it anyway, I’m pretty good at it. Tracking people via sounds and all, I can do that, and I have the strength to carry them to safety,” Polymnia just kept speaking, until she suddenly stopped, blushing when she realised she’d started rambling.

Hecate nodded, straightening up a bit. “Alright, let’s-“

”Someone is coming,” Basil interjected, a mere moment before a blur rushed up onto the roof and crossed over to them so quickly none had a chance to react, before it slowed down and stopped.

”Yo, glad  to see you’re still alive!” Outstep greeted them, his grin visible as he wasn’t wearing his usual racer-inspired helmet, instead donning a red-tinted visor covering the upper half of his face. “I’m running high-speed evac to the medical station, who needs a trip?”

“We’re all fine, thank you,” Polymnia replied, looking him over. “Glad to see you’re still alive… I think.”

”Aw, come on now, Jugs,” he grinned, blurring over to her right side, one arm wrapped around her shoulders, “We both know you’d be inconsolable if I actually croaked off.”

She turned her head, looking at him with a saccharine smile. “Call me ‘Jugs’ again and I’ll liquefy your balls from the inside out,” she spoke in her usual, chipper tone of voice.

He stepped back from her, raising his arms as if in surrender. “Alright, alright.” He looked them all over again, still smirking. “So, anyone need some rapid transit, if not medical evac?”

They all shook their heads, even Gloom Glimmer.

”A-are you sure?” Hecate asked her. “Polymnia said you’re almost out of power…”

Outsteps gaze snapped over to his dark-haired teammate. “That true, princess?”

She gave him an annoyed look – a glare, almost – and Basil was actually surprised he didn’t physically feel the temperature drop between them.

”I’m fine,” she all but snarled. “Got two new powers already. I’m good to go.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” he replied, deadpan. “But seriously, if you need a timeout, tell me. You ain’t no use to anyone if you get yourself killed by your mass-murderin’ sissy. Nevermind what your dad will do to me if he thinks me the least bit responsible for it.”

Gloom Glimmer’s left eye twitched when he mentioned her sister, but she just turned away from him. “I’m staying, as are the others. So go help someone who actually needs your help, Outstep.”

He shrugged, looking them all over one more time. “Alright. God be with you, Gearhead, Witchgirl, Princess, Jugs.” He turned into a blur and rushed down from the rooftop, before anyone could react.

“He’s such an asshole,” Polymnia complained quietly.

”He kind of reminds me of some of my relatives,” Hecate whispered, lowering her head. “One of my uncles and his sons are pretty much all like that.” She sighed.

Basil put his hand on her shoulder, squeezing it gently. “Your family is way too stubborn to die,” he told her, softly.

She choked on a laugh, her shoulders shaking briefly. “Y-yeah. You’re right.” She took in a deep breath, squaring her shoulders. “Let’s get going.”

“Yes, let’s,” Gloom Glimmer agreed, as the air began to shimmer and distort around her, though curiously – at least, to Basil – her eyes remained blue on white.

He wished he could just sit down with her and talk about her power, try to determine the ins and outs of it. Maybe run some tests, put her under some of his scanners…

Not the time, not the time, he admonished himself. Not that it ever seems to be the time.

Instead of pursuing that line of thought, he checked his communicator, as did the others, to see where Memento thought they could do the most good, each of them requesting the system give them search and rescue tasks.

Unsurprisingly, there were loads of them.

“I suppose we ought to split up,” he commented, seeing the sheer volume of the requests for help.

“No,” Hecate countered. “At least, not entirely. We should go in pairs, I think, so we can support each other.”

“True en-” He was interrupted as the ground shook, causing them all to stumble before they caught their balance again. The buildings beneath and around them groaned, what window panes remained unbroken shattered, but the overall structures held. “Hrm, this is only going to get worse. Yes, I agree, we should go in pairs.”

“I think I should go with Hecate,” Polymnia spoke up, causing them all to look at her in surprise. She just shrugged at their questioning looks. “Don’t look at me like that. I think it makes sense to split so there’s only one gadgeteer to a pair, in case our tech does break down after all. That is still a threat, being within the Desolation Field. And I think I should be the one to go with Hecate, because I have more functioning tech left than Brennus, so I can support her better, while he will have Gloomy to cover him.”

Basil exchanged looks with the other two. “It does make sense,” he agreed with his fellow gadgeteer.

“I suppose we ought to get going, then,” Hecate said, looking at him one more time. “Good luck and… don’t die. Seriously.”

“I will not die. That is a promise,” he replied, calmly, as his eyes briefly found hers in the shadows of her hood.

Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia exchanged similar words, before they split up, the two girls running off and leaping onto the next rooftop.

”Let’s not dawdle,” Gloom Glimmer said softly, her eyes following her friend until she dropped down to the street.

”Aye.”

They left towards their own target.

***

“You didn’t have to do that,” Hecate whispered to Polymnia, once they hit the street and started running. Using the occasional smoke-leap, she was easily able to keep pace with the physically superior gadgeteer, even had the advantage now and then, when they had to cross particularly treachery spots, like collapsed buildings or car wrecks melted together into jagged spikes, and worse.

“Perhaps not, but I think it’s for the best,” Polymnia replied in a conversational tone, once again at odds with what she was actually doing, running and leaping in the direction the arrows on their armbads were showing them. “I know things are messed up between you two right now. Some distance might be good, so you can get some perspective. And so you won’t be getting too distracted while on mission.”

Hecate blushed, glad that the (slightly) younger girl couldn’t see it under her hood. I’m such a mess.

”Thank you,” was all she said in return, her voice thick with emotions she couldn’t really put to words, even if she’d tried.

Somehow, she was quite sure Polymnia got it, anyway, as she just smiled at her and said, “Don’t worry too much. I’m sure it will work out.”

They turned a corner, and immediately saw where they were meant to help – a five-storey building had collapsed inwards, rubble piling up into a mound the size of a two-storey building, but even without Polymnia’s hearing, Hecate could make out people screaming from within.

“We’ll have to dig them out carefully,” Hecate said to Polymnia, the two of them walking up to the rubble. “If we’re too careless, it might collapse entirely and crush the people within.”

“I can hear children in there,” Polymnia stated with a serious expression, stepping forth and climbing onto the rubble. “Let’s start from the top and work our way down.”

Hecate joined her, as they got to work as quickly as they could. “How does Gloom Glimmer do it?” she asked in a whisper which a normal person would likely not have understood, even if they’d been leaning in to listen.

“How does Gloom Glimmer do what?”

***

“How do you deal with your father being who he is?” Basil clarified as he and Gloom Glimmer jogged down the street, pushed onwards by her power, which was generating sonic waves that reflected off the buildings and street around and beneath them, coming back to push the air against the two of them from behind, buyoing them onwards and onwards.

Gloom Glimmer, whose long-legged strides would have been entirely silent even while running, with her feet being essentially clad in soft – if padded – almost velvet-like fabric rather than proper shoes, kept quiet for a few seconds, easily keeping pace with him, her billowing, heavy cape only magnifying the effect of the pressure from behind, even if it occasionally looked a little silly how it’d push at her and flutter around.

Just when he thought she might not have heard him over the melodic, drum-like waves of sound she generated, she opened her mouth again.

***

“She doesn’t, really,” Polymnia replied quietly, looking sad even as she continued to tear through the rubble, tossing chunks the size of her torso aside as if they weighed nothing. “He’s her daddy, but he’s the Dark. She loves him, but he’s a murderer and enabler of murderers, and all kinds of other criminals and crimes. She wants him to be proud of her, but she can’t feel that way about him. It’s a real mess.”

”I… I guess,” Hecate replied, surprised, in spite of having asked in the first place, that she got such a reply. Even so, her arms and hips kept working, lifting off broken pieces of concrete with rebars and wiring sticking out or attached to them, not as quickly or as easily as Polymnia, but faster than normal. “I didn’t actually think you’d…”

“She’d want me to tell you,” Polymnia assured her, softly. “Perhaps hoping that it’d help you work through what you found out about Brennus.”

Hecate choked, swallowing, her eyes stinging with tears – and it wasn’t the dust causing them. “I just… I don’t understand how… how he could keep it from me, for so long… and… even though I told him otherwise… even though I really, really get family, I… she’s so… how can he just… accept her, after all that she’s done?”

***

”I do not, really,” Basil echoed Gloom Glimmer’s own reply, while using the gauntlet on his left arm to smash through the shards still stuck to the frame of a broken window in the third storey of a small apartment building, his getting carried off by Gloom Glimmer’s power and over to where she was helping two older men carry their respective wives out of a shattered supermarket, leaving trails of bloody footprints behind them.

”You don’t mean that like I did,” Gloom Glimmer observed, somehow, even over the distance.

Basil climbed into the apartment. The window had been broken by the body of a cape, who’d been sent flying through it and landed on a couch opposite of the window with such force, the couch had shattered and he’d smashed into the wall.

Kneeling next to him, Basil quickly examined the young man – perhaps just a teen, though older than himself, he was wearing an outfit reminding him of a classic Wild West Gunslinger, with a zig-zagging, blood-red pattern worked into his black leather pants and matching vest and hat, as well as a red scarf wrapped around his lower face, to hide his identity. He was still holding onto a heavy, magnum-sized revolver in his right hand. Basil could see three blood-red bullets in the cylinder, as well as burned, cracked brown in the other three, likely already spent shots.

He might have been a cowl, considering the dark tones and harsh lines of his outfit, or perhaps one of the ‘edgy’ kind of capes that were all the rage in the USA these years.

Either way, the bleeding wound on the back of his head looked bad, and he was likely only alive because the couch had cushioned his impact.

Basil was quite sure he should have bled out by now, considering how much blood was on the wall behind him, on the floor around him and sticking to the back of his head, but he hadn’t. Perhaps some enhanced toughness or low-level regeneration.

It wasn’t doing him much good beyond barely keeping him alive, though, so he used his first aid supplies to wrap up his head, sheathed his revolver in its hip holster and then carefully lifted him up over his shoulder.

One wasn’t supposed to move injured people, especially not in such a fashion, but it was liable to be less dangerous to him than remaining there, unconscious and unable to get to safety if the destruction spread here.

“What I mean is that I have not been, nor am I dealing with it,” Basil continued the conversation, walking to the door with his unconscious cargo, straining a bit under the man’s weight. “I have been telling myself that she is my sister, that I love her and she me and that that should come first. Some half-formed but never pursued thoughts of redeeming her. Add a great deal of procrastination on the subject and spotty memories, and…”

He opened the door easily enough, from inside, stepping out into the stairwell and immediately making his way down.

”And that’s not all,” Gloom Glimmer’s voice reached him, so clear it was like she was sitting walking right next to him. “You mentioned issues with your memory. Malign ones, most likely. Do you think someone is actively manipulating you?”

She left it unsaid that his sister was the most obvious candidate for such manipulation, but he knew she thought of that possibility.

He would have liked to defend her, to say that Amy wouldn’t do such a thing, that she herself was being affected… except now, thinking – reasonably – clearly for the first time he could remember, he was honest enough to admit that…

”Yes, I think so. And yes, much as I hate to think so, Amy may well be responsible. I think she is also being manipulated, but it would hardly be a challenge for her to pretend that she is, on the off-chance that I might become suspicious,” he replied, and his heart broke a little to admit it out loud.

God, I wish Henry was here. He gets this stuff so much better than I ever could.

He stopped, just a step away from the front door of the building.

Where’d that thought come from? Who was Henry, and why…

No time. Focus on the here and now.

“I can feel… something, off,” Gloom Glimmer said, percussive air helping him move faster towards her and the four survivors she’d found. “I’m sorry, I might be able to do more, but I’m running on fumes here. But there’s definitely something or someone connected to your mind that’s not supposed to… but it’s so subtle, I would never have noticed it, if I didn’t know to look for it in the first place.”

He joined her and the other four, handing the wounded metahuman off to one of the two men, whose wife could walk on her own, and described to them how to get to the next teleportation node, based on the map that he’d seen when he’d used Memento’s network himself, while applying some first aid to them – the other man’s wife was worse off, with a cut on her thigh quite close to a major artery, and a bad hit to the head, but there was just no time for him and Gloom Glimmer to escort them, not when they could move on their own and there were so many other people to help.

”Focus,” he admonished her, gently, without accusation in his voice, watching the survivors leave. “There’s more important things to worry about, right now.” He looked at his armband, and saw that the arrow was pointing him down the road, opposite of where the survivors had gone.

She looked at him, her gaze so overflowing with sympathy and sadness it made him flinch – inwardly, at least. “There always are, aren’t there?” she asked, her voice barely a whisper.

“Hrm.”

***

After nearly five minutes of careful work – and some rather close calls, when the ongoing battle shook the ground and threatened to collapse the rubble – Hecate hit something weird.

The concrete shifted and revealed… nothing. And yet there was something there, something flat, hard and invisible, through which she could see some movement deeper within, obstructing her progress.

“Some kind of force field?”

Polymnia stopped and leaned over, taking a look. “Something’s been preventing me from mapping the insides of the rubble with sonar… perhaps that’s it?”

“Can somebody hear us!?” a voice shouted from within, a young woman’s, perhaps. “Please, you’ve got to move the rubble aside! I don’t think he can hold out much longer! Don’t worry about it collapsing!”

Hecate looked at Polymnia, who seemed as surprised as she herself felt.

“Might as well,” Polymnia stated, and they leapt off the rubble, starting to just tear it away by main force, throwing aside chunks from the base.

Within seconds, the rubble shifted and slid off… an invisible box, about the size of a minivan, outlined by dust.

Within were eight civilians – two women and six younger children, all of kindergarten age – sitting on the ground, and a man standing in the center, his legs spread apart, his arms reaching out, palms facing  away from him, as if pushing against something.

He was wearing black pants with suspenders and a horizontally striped white shirt with black stripes, as well as white and black make-up on his face and oily black hair now matted with blood.

“Le Pantomime!” Polymnia called out, rushing forward as the box disappeared, and the man fell forward.

She caught him as gently as she could, and Hecate stepped up as well, worried. She’d heard of the hero from France – he was quite famous, even across the pond.

To her horror, she saw a terrible wound on the left side of his head – she could actually see a bit of his brain!

“How… how is he still…” She gulped, staring at him.

“He saved us… caught the rubble when it collapsed, after a piece hit him on the head,” the woman who’d called out earlier explained. Hecate barely spared her a glance, since she didn’t seem to be hurt, but she was pretty sure they’d happened upon a daycare of some sort. She kind of looked like a daycare worker, to her, not that she’d ever been in an actual daycare.

“We’ll get him the help he needs,” Polymnia soothed them, calmly, her eyes on the teary-eyed children clinging to the two women. “And we’ll get you all to safety, I promise.”

Hecate nodded, kneeling down to take care of the children. That was something she had experience with, at least.

***

Basil leapt over a slagged car wreck, following the arrow on his armband, moving on his own for now – their armbands had sent him and Gloom Glimmer in opposite directions, and he could only hope that they’d be reunited after, but for now, he was on his own.

They’d been guided to four more crisis points, after he’d saved the gunslinger, and had managed to get no less than nine people to safety, capes, cowls and civilians both, though they’d come across several corpses as well.

Gloom Glimmer had taken those much harder than Basil had – he couldn’t rightly say that he was all that upset about seeing dead people, much as that unnerved him.

Reaching a street corner, the arrow rotated, guiding him towards a roundabout, when it suddenly disappeared.

The display said ‘Target Deceased – Await New Directions’.

Not again.

He started to move back, tapping his fingers as he felt DiL change powers yet again – the fifth time this minute – and started to move back towards where he’d split from Gloom Glimmer, just in case, when his armband beeped.

Looking down at it, he saw a new arrow pointing away from where he’d come.

Great. I really hope you know where you’re guiding me, Memento.

He ran through the shattered streets, his progress much slower than he would have liked – there were cracks and fissures all over, and parts had been flooded where pipes had burst open.

There were corpses everywhere. Floating in the water, slumped over broken cars, mailboxes, torn apart by huge claws or impaled on shards of glass or rebar, and worse besides. Men, women and children, dead by the dozens. Hundreds or thousands, probably, across the city.

There was nothing he could do for them, so he moved on, following the arrow, while regularly glancing at the flickering, often distorting feed from his ravenbot, flying far above, keeping an eye towards the battle, so he’d have at least a moments’ warning to dodge, if anything came his way.

At least Lady Light seems to have DiL well in hand for now, he thought, only to immediately chide himself for jinxing it.

As if to affirm it, he felt a sudden drop in air pressure, at the same time as he sensed DiL changing her powers again, followed by the building to his right all but disintegrating as a projectile shot through it faster than the sonic boom that followed it, blasting his ravenbot out of the air.

Basil managed to avoid instant death just barely, reversing his boots’ wall-walking function yet again – and even so, he would likely have been hit, at the very least losing his legs as he shot backwards, if he hadn’t been gripped by an additional force and pushed away faster.

Dust and debris filled his field of view, the street cracking – but they could not hide the white glow within, light blazing forth so powerfully it penetrated even the thickest dust cloud, turning billows of gray matter into something almost ethereal.

He landed on his feet, barely managing to catch himself, and staring at the center of the glowing dust cloud.

DiL’s presence was all but entirely gone from his mind, the pressure she created entirely blotted out by her aura, as she rose out of the dust, a humanoid figure shrouded in so many layers of nearly solid, sometimes liquid, light, it was impossible to make out any details, her side towards him as she flew up and towards DiL again, trailing ribbons of pure light behind her, less than a hundred meters between them…

Only to stop, and turn in mid-air, the motion nearly inhumanly graceful in spite of its abruptness, and his black eyes met a pair of bright, blue ones, even through the layers of light enfolding her and the distance between them.

He remembered the sensation of staring into Emyr’s eyes, back in that twisted world Legend had created – a thoroughly discombombulating experience, it had made him think of staring into an infinite expanse of darkness, losing perspective and with it, very nearly his balance. There had been an intensity to his gaze, as if he was somehow projecting his will through the mere act of crossing eyes, that had caused Basil to hesitate for a moment.

Gazing into Lady Light’s bright blue eyes (so reminiscent of Gloom Glimmer’s) was so much more disorienting than that, by several orders of magnitude. If Emyr’s eyes had been windows into a vast, dark depth of will, then these were… were…

He did not have the words to describe them, no simile that encompassed the sensation.

Without even noticing himself falling, he found himself sitting on his butt, briefly seeing double as he stared up at her in a daze.

Lady Light distant form twitched, the humanoid silhouette he could barely make out moving as the ribbons of light shifted with the barest hint of a delay, the gesture as graceful as it was unreadable, at this distance, and turned away, flying off towards DiL again, moving so quickly she left behind several after-images.

Basil looked down at his right wrist, where he felt something close around it. A band of… something, like nearly solid light, wrapped around his wrist there. It looked white, at first glance, but as he raised his hand, it shifted through all colours of the rainbow, each motion causing a change in its colouring and pattern.

It felt warm, solid and heavy.

Looking at it from various angles, he knew what it meant.

‘I will find you again.’

***

Memento’s armband had ended up leading him to a young woman in a flowing costume, layers of rainbow-coloured fabric forming a hooded robe with wide sleeves, soaked through with some kind of clear, viscuous fluid which also surrounded the site where she lay, having been blasted through a wall and into a backyard, just off the street. A loading dock, perhaps, for some smaller company – it was hard to tell, considering how damaged everything was.

A quick check showed that she was unconscious, and had a bleeding wound on her forehead, but was alive and not in immediate danger of dying after some basic first aid to stem the bleeding, so he picked her up in a fireman’s carry – not the best way to transport someone with a head wound, but he had to choose between being gentle and being fast and that wasn’t really a choice at all, not in this situation.

Getting to the nearest teleportation node was mercifully less eventful than his way to the woman, and he even had some attention to spare to reboot his ravenbot and have it fly back towards him; fortunately, it had only taken cosmetic damage from the sonic boom of the attack which had deposited Lady Light so close to him.

I wonder what she saw, he could not helpt but wonder. He felt it in his gut, she’d seen right through him there and whatever she’d seen or sensed had piqued her interest.

If Lady Light can’t help me…

He looked ahead, focusing on where he was going – the broken streets were very treacherous, with crevisses, holes leading into sewers and other traps for the unwary pedestrian – as he also considered his brief meeting – if one could call it that – with the lady and also ran several ideas through his mind, his power having apparently taken a lot of inspiration from hers, with ideas for manipulating matter and energy in weirder ways than he could ever recall doing…

Fuck, why does it have to work so well now? I wish I could be like this while in the lab and with a few weeks or months’ worth of time to just tinker around and experiment.

He didn’t even know whether his lab was still uncollapsed. The structure was reinforced, and on the outskirts of New Lennston, away from the center of the fighting, but still…

Due to the interference from the Desolation Field, he couldn’t even reach it to find out whether or not Eudocia was well. Her casing wasn’t that tough, and even light damage to her insides could cause the delicate energy fields within to collapse. Rebooting her from such a collapse, if he even managed to, would mean resetting her to her initial state, all her experiences and growth irretrievably lost.

Can’t think about that, not now. I need to focus. Put it off until I can find her and then we’ll see how things stand.

He ran even faster.

***

Through some stroke of luck, he reached the node at the same time as Gloom Glimmer did. She was generating sonic blasts which bounced off the street, gently juggling several people atop them and moving them towards the node.

The survivors – a family, mother and several children – were staring around with varying degrees of fear and wonder on their faces, as Irene dropped them next to the node and explained to them how to use it.

The mother held her youngest in one arm, and the other two held each other by the hand, while one held hers, as they touched the node together and disappeared.

“Brennus. I’m glad you’re… safe…” Gloom Glimmer began to greet him, until her eyes fell on the rainbow-hued armband, widening at the sight of it.

“A brief run-in,” he explained, as he walked onto the childrens’ playground that the floating tesseract had teleported to. “I did not even get close to her, but she must have sensed something, and she made this band.”

“Mmmhm,” she temporized, brushing a lock of fine black hair back behind her ear. “It’ll let her track you down, so long as you’re within her range.”

He nodded, his suspicion confirmed. “Looking forward to it. If anyone can help me…”

She nodded right back. “It’ll be mom.”

They used the node to teleport to the field hospital, appearing within a huge tent, filled with people – some in scrubs or less formal clothes, taking care of the majority of those present: the injured.

Dozens upon dozens of them, capes, cowls and civilians alike, arranged  in an odd spiral pattern around the nod, with a circular empty space around it, the rigidity of the pattern broken up at seemingly random intervals by intersecting pathways.

On second thought, there’s an odd rhyme to it, Basil thought, looking around, before his eyes fell on an obvious metahuman standing nearby, facing them with a clipboard held in their hands.

She was a woman or girl – probably a girl, based on what he could see of her face – wearing a skin-tight, black bodysuit, though skintight in a different way from what he usually saw – thicker, suggesting padding and even some manner of armoring. It wasn’t completely black, though – there were dark blue patterns on it, only visible when the light hit them at the right angle, tracing the contours of her body in a way  that emphasized her modest curves, without being the least bit obscene. The flat soles of her boots and the palms of her hands, as well as the undersides of her fingers were all blue, and there was an emblem on her chest, fitted so delicately to her body’s shape, her breasts didn’t distort it at all – a single circle, followed by four ovals around it, like ripples extending from it, only they weren’t centered around the circle; rather, the circle was near the bottom of the symbol, with the ovals’ long extending further above than beneath it.

Her face was hidden by a black mask which covered the top half, and reached up to the crown of her head, keeping her long, straight blonde hair out of her face, while leaving her lips – painted dark blue to match the color scheme – and jaw exposed.

“Calculass,” Gloom Glimmer greeted her with a smile, holding out her hand towards her.

The girl smiled back, if a little nervously. “Gloom Glimmer. I’ve heard a lot about you – wouldn’t have thought the opposite was true. It’s an honor.” She shook the offered hand.

“Dad taking on a new apprentice isn’t something to ignore – he’s never done it in my lifetime. So I made some inquiries,” Gloom Glimmer replied with a smirk. Then she pulled her hand back, smoothing her face out more seriously. “Where do we put this one? Wounded cape, head trauma and several broken bones.”

“Possibly internal bleeding, as well,” Basil added quietly, studying the girl more intently now. The Dark’s apprentice… that did not exactly bode well. Some kind of math-related power? An esper? The name’s pretty obviously pointing in that direction.

Calculass didn’t hesitate to reply, pointing to the beginning of the spiraling pathway. “Third branch, then left, right, left, cot twenty-nine,” she advised, far more confident and steady in her speech than just moments before.

“Thank you. I hope we’ll have some time to hang out in the future, under better circumstances,” Gloom Glimmer replied with a smile, walking past her. “Also, love the costume,” she added with a thumbs up.

“Thanks. I’m kind of shocked that costume design is one of the boss’s fields of expertise,” Calculass grinned at her, briefly.

“That ain’t even the weirdest hobby dad has, believe you me,” Gloom Glimmer called out, raising her voice as they moved further away, sticking close to Basil. “And you’ll get to know way more of them, you poor, unfortunate fool!”

Basil didn’t see whether Calculass reacted, before the sound of another incoming teleport took up her attention again – his own was on walking the right way to where to put down his charge, while his raven was looking around at the wounded all around.

There were so many of them. Calculass’s system – at least, he assumed she’d been the one to plan this layout – managed to cram an incredible amount of people into the tent, while still allowing for easy movement. People had been distributed based on the wounds they were suffering from, and whether or not they were metahuman. There were even allowances made for those whose powers made being treated, or just being near others, problematic.

It was kind of impressive, managing to impose order on such a chaotic situation.

Guess that’s to be expected of the Dark’s apprentice.

They reached the assigned cot, and Basil put the woman down on it, as gently as he could. Two nurses got to work before he’d even stepped back.

He turned towards his companion, to suggest moving out again, but stopped.

Gloom Glimmer’s expression was fragile in a way he could not recall seeing before, her eyes glued to a boy half her apparent age lying in the cot next to the woman, his eyes glassy, yet occasionally blinking as he stared up into nothing, a good fifth of his head simply gone, from just above his left ear over towards the center of his forehead. Wires and catheters were connecting to the exposed brain-matter, then to some kind of gadget which apparently kept him alive, somehow.

Occasionally, the device would spark, and the boy would twitch randomly before settling down again.

She didn’t seem able to look away.

Basil took her arm by the wrist, gently tugging on it, guiding her out of the tent and into the bright, distorted daylight outside. The field hospital had been set up at the outskirts of the city, where the surrounding woodland stabbed into the urban sprawl, and had been tamed into a park, which had in turn become a popular place for family picnics.

Now, it was overrun with emergency vehicles coming and going, dropping a share of the injured and otherwise needy here, before moving on to pick up more people, or deliver others to another field hospital (they were being spread out amongst multiple locations, if they couldn’t be moved out of the Desolation Field entirely, to reduce the chance of DiL wiping them all out with a single attack).

Gloom Glimmer looked around at the chaos, her expression downcast. “This…”

Whatever she was about to say was cut off when another, familiar voice interjected with a shout.

“Ba-Brennus!” called Amy, flying over from where she’d been helping to load people onto and off of several vehicles.

A not inconsiderable part of Basil relaxed a great deal upon seeing her safe and whole.

In fact, she looked utterly untouched.

Before he could get in a word of his own, she was upon him, pulling him into a nearly literally bone-crushing hug.

“Ugh. Spine. Still. Needed,” he gasped the words out, barely, though he couldn’t honestly say he disliked it.

He would’ve hugged her back, if he’d been able to move his arms to any meaningful degree, but since her grip on him wouldn’t allow him to, he merely patted her sides with his hands.

No one around seemed to have the time or inclination to pay attention to them or care about what was going on, and he was pretty sure that wasn’t due to Amy using her power. The situation was just that messed up.

“I should kill you, you damn idiot,” Amy croaked, squeezing even harder for a moment, before she mercifully let him have his lung function back.

“I was worried about you, too,” he replied with a groan, trying not to show just how much her hug had pained him. Damn these cracked ribs. “You don’t look like you’re hurt at all, though,” he replied, and he couldn’t help but sound a little bit accusatory.

She somehow managed to look both embarrassed and annoyed at the same time, rubbing the back of her head while shifting on those ridiculous stiletto heels of hers. “Boss’s orders. We’re to hold back until the big attack starts, make sure to conserve our powers and stamina.”

“What is his plan, anyway?” Basil asked, curiously, assuming that she, as one of his lieutenants, surely had to know.

“Dunno,” she replied.

Or maybe not.

“This whole thing is rushed like crazy. From what I get, he was hoping she’d take longer to reappear, or skip one battle and use his grand plan the next time, after more prepwork. But I guess New Lennston’s too important to not go all out in defending it,” Amy elaborated.

“He’s always loved this city, even when he hated it,” Gloom Glimmer agreed with a thoughtful nod, her left hand’s fingertips touching her chin. “Plus, losing New Lennston to DiL, after we lost Old Lennston to her… the hit to morale would be tremendous and it definitely is unacceptable.” Another thought seemed to come to her, and she looked up at Amy. “Where is Dad, anyway?”

“At the memorial plaza, preparing to set off the big pl-“, she started to reply, only to be interrupted by a deafening shriek.

The sound was akin to a woman’s wail, amplified a million times over, with odd, discordant harmonics mixed in to make it more cacophonous than Basil would have thought possible.

Its origin was emminently obvious – DiL herself was not visible, but the chaotic twist of space around her was, as her new power twisted realtiy in a way that gave Basil vertigo even by looking at it from halfway across the city.

From that central point, jagged lines of twisted space were reaching out, spreading across the sky and into the ground, before fading back again.

Whatever they touched was destroyed, matter twisted up in such a fashion as to reduce entire buildings to rubble, condensed into deformed masses a fraction of their original size.

He couldn’t see far enough to tell how it affected any metahuman it hit, but those whom flew high enough for him to see and got struck by one of those flowing arcs dropped and didn’t come up again.

Several tendrils lashed out towards Lady Light’s glowing form, causing Gloom Glimmer to gasp where she stood next to Basil, but they were deflected with a flash of light, and she pressed the attack, trying to force DiL to change away from such a lethal power.

Not that any of the powers she took were ever harmless.

“Fuck, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to do much at all, even if I was allowed to,” Amy shouted, and yet was barely heard nonetheless.

Gloom Glimmer raised her right arm to snap her fingers, and the cacophony died down, letting everyone relax and focus on their duties again.

Considering how dire the conditions of most of the people being treated were, that was vital.

“How long can you keep that up, princess?” Amy asked, rubbing underneath her ears with two fingers each, as if to rub the pain away.

Basil really missed his full helmet now – the hearing protection in his spare mask wasn’t nearly up to its level.

”This power’s pretty fresh,” Gloom Glimmer replied, without looking – she was wholly focused on the spectacle in the distance. “A few minutes, I’d guess. Up to twenty, if we’re lucky.”

”That will not do,” Basil stated simply. “She has to change her powers again, and quickly – if not for our sake, then for that of everyone else in this city, particularly the other medical camps.”

Gloom Glimmer frowned, clenching her left hand into a fist, tightly enough it started to tremble. “Yeah… and we can’t… shouldn’t… just rely on mom, so-“

A new, yet all too familiar voice cut her off, reverberating through the artificial quiet Gloom Glimmer’s power had generated.

“I hope you don’t mean to finish that sentence the way I think you do,” the Dark spoke, as calmly as was possible when your voice sounded like a ghostly chorus.

Gloom Glimmer’s face brightened up, as she all but flung herself at him, wrapping her arms around what may have been his waist – it was hard to tell, with how formless his current appearance was – and made a gleeful squeal.

“Don’t think you being cute is going to distract me from the issue, young lady,” he continued, even as he hugged her back tightly enough she almost seemed to disappear into the shadows, and mussed her hair with one hand.

“I’m not trying to distract you! Just glad you’re ok,” she replied, stepping back after one more tight squeeze, combing her hair back with her fingers.

You are glad that I am alright?” he asked, six glowing eyes growing incredulously wide as he bent over so much he nearly made a right angle, putting his face at the same height as hers. “You’re the one who’s been in danger, young lady!”

“That’s all part of wearing the cape!” she replied, looking up at him with a smile, looking positively re-energized. “Speaking of which, it seems like my powers are finally, properly, back.” She looked down herself, and Basil followed her gaze to see that she was levitating a step or so above the ground, in the center of a circle of swirling dust.

She raised her hand, and tiny motes of light in all colors of the rainbow began to dance between and around her fingers, seeming to somehow… suck in the light, the area immediately around their small group growing darker, even as the motes burned brighter.

“Irene, my sweet, don’t you dare go out there now!” the Dark stepped in, reaching for her hand with his own.

Gloom Glimmer pulled back, floating to put a few meters between them. “You know I can’t just stand by – I have to help mom. Wish me luck!” she replied, completely ignoring his protests, as she saluted Basil, and shot off towards the fight.

“No listen to m-  why do you just ignore your father!” he shouted in exasperation, his hands disappearing in the shadows of his head, as if he was reaching past the wraith to pull on his hair. “Why’d you have to take after me so much!”

Amy put her hand over her mouth, her shoulders shaking as she tried not to make a sound.

It didn’t help, as he whirled around and pointed a long, misty finger at her.

“You. After her. Keep her safe.”

He didn’t wait for a reply, or even an acknowledgement, and simply turned around and walked away, back to where Basil could see Rounds and several other of the higher-ranked capes and cowls congregate.

“Damn. Babysitting duty,” Amy groused, her arms and head dropping. “Noooooot looking forward to this!”

Basil took her hand into his, squeezing it tightly. “Just make sure you’re safe,” he said, his eyes returning to the distant battle, following the fast-flying form of Gloom Glimmer as she approached the blazing sun that was her mother.

“I should be the one saying that, considering your track record…” she continued to grumble, before floating up a bit to kiss him on the top of the head. “Be safe, little brother.”

He pulled his mask down, and kissed her on the cheek. “You too, sister.”

She nodded at him with a wry smile, then turned around and flew away – only to jerk to a stop, his hand having shot up to grab her by the wrist before he even consciously chose to.

“Basil?” she looked at him, her eyes widening when she saw the overwrought expression on his face.

“I…” he began, struggling himself to put what he was feeling into words.

Why do I feel like this is the last time we’ll talk to each other? he thought, miserably, unable to find the right thing to say, as he felt his face contract, nearly crumbling.

She floated closer, wrapping her arms around his head to pull it against her bosom, her feet a good deal above the ground.

Don’t be silly, she spoke into his mind. We’ll talk again so much, we’ll both grow sick of it and refuse to talk at all anymore.

He didn’t have it in him to laugh, or even chuckle. Instead, he looked up at her, his arms having found their way around her lower waist, hugging her tightly.

I love you, Amy, he said in his head, unable to get the words past the knot in his tongue.

She gave him a brilliant smile in return, looking down with the gentle expression he’d missed so long. I love you too, Basil.

Once more, she kissed him, this time on his forehead.

And then she flew off to fight an enemy he could do nothing against.

Looking after her, tears running down his cheeks as he put his mask back on to cover at least the lower part of his face, he couldn’t help but feel the same as before, like that had been a farewell.

Just like the last time he’d seen Prisca, held her, kissed her. Felt her disappear.

And yet again, there was nothing at all he could do.

***

Silver light flowed from Rounds’ palm, where it met Bismuth’s cheek, washing over her like a second skin, clinging tightly for a moment before the silvery Bismuth stepped aside, separating from the original.

At the same time, two new windows, paired together, appeared in his mind, one to the half of her power that he could use himself, and another to the silvery apparition, giving him an innate sense of her state and location.

Ten other pairs were already in his mind, filling it nearly to the brim, much like the ten – now eleven – apparitions filled the space around him.

Just one more, and he’d be at his limit.

The sheer power accumulated in him was already such that he felt it pull at his very sanity. Overwhelming, to have all these options at hand.

Lamarr’s spatial manipulation alone may have distracted him for hours, if he wasn’t currently limited to the area within the Desolation Field.

Bismuth stepped back, her head held low, mirrored by her apparition. Even if he couldn’t feel what his apparitions felt – and they usually mirrored their progenitor’s feelings – he’d have no trouble figuring out what was affecting her.

The many things that were wearing down on her.

So much to work out. So little time.

He turned his head away from her, not to dismiss her, but to focus on more urgent matters.

His eyes fell on the shadowy, almost wispy figure that was the Dark, standing at the edge of the terrace this camp had been set upon, looking out over the devastated city, and the battle raging on in the distance.

Watching for his daughter, Rounds thought. I suppose even he has a modicum of decency.

He hated it. Hated, that the children were fighting. That they were risking their lives. That they were being exposed to so many horrors.

That he hadn’t been there to shield them from it.

He would never agree with the wide-spread practice of putting children in costumes and throwing  them at the horrors of the world, telling them to be heroes, no matter what the statistics said.

But here, if anywhere, there was nothing he could do. Even if he could forbid it, most would fight anyway, to protect their home from her. And  there was no way he’d be able to divert the resources to restrain them, at such a time.

Shaking his head, he walked over to his enemy and stood by his side, followed by his silvery apparitions. Three of them – Wary Wu’s and two of Gloom Glimmer’s – were focusing on the fight, constantly feeding him new information, which his half of their powers picked up on and further processed, before throwing it back at them, in a constant back and forth.

Normally, copying esper powers like this was a great boon to him, but right now, with both DiL and Gloom Glimmer in the fight, they were all but useless.

At least he was pretty certain they’d warn him in time in case he had to block an incoming attack.

Pretty certain, but not completely so, which was why all the other apparitions where also focusing on the battle for him, ready to leap into action.

He himself, meanwhile, rolled his shoulders, the body armor he wore over his suit shifting, glittering with reflected light as the individual plates it consisted off changed their orientation slightly. He’d never liked how sparkly and ostentatious it all was – at times he felt like he was wearing jewelry, rather than armor – but that arse Patrid had beat the importance of proper public relations into his head a long, long time ago.

“I hope you didn’t come over here to ask me for a copy of my power, Rounds,” the Dark spoke without turning to look at him. Not that he wasn’t perfectly capable of looking straight at Rounds while seemingly facing the battle. And also focusing on that in equal measure.

With a chuckle, Rounds shook his head. “If it’s anything like Lady Light’s power, then I want no part in it.”

That caused him to turn his head and look down at him.

He’d never admit it out loud, especially in front of him, but even after all these years, getting the Dark’s full attention was a thoroughly discombobulating experience.

“She allowed you to make a copy of her?” he asked, intently, his voices not sharp, but definitely more forceful than during his almost casual remark before.

“She let me try,” Rounds replied, putting an emphasis on the ‘try’ part. “It didn’t go over well.”

The Dark chuckled, turning away again – and as soon as his immediate gaze left Rounds, he felt like a weight had dropped off his shoulders.

I wonder whether he uses a power to cause that, or whether it really is just his presence.

“I imagine it wouldn’t, no,” the wispy supervillain continued. “She must trust you a great deal, if she revealed herself to you so.”

“I suppose so,” Rounds said, his eyes back on the fight in the distance.

Lady Light and Gloom Glimmer seemed to be trading off now, moving back and forth, alternating in their efforts to curtail DiL’s destructive performance.

As much as he hated seeing her in such danger, he couldn’t help but admire how well Gloom Glimmer was managing to keep up with her mother.

Still, holding her off was not going to be enough – in fact, either DiL was slowly adapting to them, or sheer coincidence was causing her powers to last longer and longer, the seconds stretching on between each switch. Occasionally, Rounds could even make out individual powers without the use of his added abilities, before she was forced to change yet again.

Unsustainable.

He turned his head away, and looked at the other figure standing nearby.

Hanabi’s form was hidden behind his voluminous, old-fashioned purple, black and gold robes and the tall, black hat he wore, from which a curtain of white cloth fell, obscuring his face – in fact, his entire head.

He was kneeling in front of a circle of thin bamboo rods tipped by various, weirdly shaped fireworks in all colors of the rainbow, driven into the ground where he’d had Rounds crack the pavement for his preparations.

A rough map of the area within the Desolation Field had been carved into the earth, with more bamboo sticks driven into various points, holding up even more fireworks.

At the same time, a dozen heroes and villains were setting up full-sized fireworks all around the city, mirroring the markings on the map, he knew.

“Are you sure this is going to work?” he couldn’t help but ask, as nervously as he ever felt.

The whole thing had sounded way too good to be true, when it’d been explained to him.

“Nothing is certain,” the Dark replied calmly, staring out into the distance. “It should work, based on my understanding of the powers involved, and the principles behind them. But you know the difference between theory and practice.”

Rounds grunted in affirmation, not sure how to reply to that.

Well, there was one reply…

“I really, really hope this will work.”

“So do I,” was the answer, though he didn’t sound like he meant it.

Before he could dig into the meaning behind that, he felt an odd tremor, one which went through the ground and the air at the same time, rippling through his body in the oddest way, like he was being stretched and compacted at the same time, for less than a second.

Wha-

He turned to look at the battle, at the alarm his apparitions of Gloom Glimmer expressed through their link, only to see Lady Light’s blazing form dart towards her daughter, so fast he could barely follow in spite of his enhanced senses, touching and repelling her, launching her out of the way of an advancing ripple in the air-

And then Lady Light and five other fliers just disappeared, all at once, along with a diagonal cross-section of a nearby building.

The Dark took a step forward, in seeming shock, and Rounds was not far behind, when the aftermath hit them.

Air rushed in, towards where the attack had hit, filling in the vacuum created, violently stirring up dust, leaves and rubble before it died down again.

Did she just kill… no, don’t be stupid. She wouldn’t go down like this!

His apparitions stepped forth, focusing any applicable power they had, but the Dark was faster than they.

“Some manner of spatial manipulation… offensive teleportation? I can still feel Gwen, but she’s… far,” he said, more to himself than to Rounds, as if to reassure his own worries.

In the distance, Gloom Glimmer’s form flickered, violently, and a massive blast of blackish something lanced out, smashing into DiL, splashing over her form – and evidently penetrating her outer defenses sufficiently to force her to change her powers again, as the signal sent from the young vigilante whom could feel these changes told them.

Still, Rounds’ stomach dropped into his knees, and not just because the effect of Lady Light’s city-spanning aura was gone now.

They’d just lost their strongest, best fighter, and there was no way to tell how long it’d take her to return to the battle.

“Damn it, we have to mobilize our people again – I won’t have Gloom Glimmer try to hold her off on her own!” he shouted, raising his hand to his ear to transmit the order.

A soft, almost gentle voice interrupted him, speaking with a strong accent.

“It is nearly done, Lord Dark,” the kneeling form of Hanabi spoke, his voice barely rising above the sound of the blowing air, or the distant battle. “My greatest performance shall begin presently.”

The Dark relaxed, almost imperceptibly – if it wasn’t for all the esper powers at his disposal, Rounds would have missed it.

“Your timing is as impeccable as your artwork, my dear man,” he spoke, calmly, nodding his head towards the heavily enshrouded villain from Japan. “Begin as soon as you are able.”

Hanabi inclined his head, deeper than the Dark had, and took out a burning stick incense-covered wood, reaching for the many fuses of all the fireworks worked into the array in front of him, all tied together at various points in such a fashion that the flame would reach each firework at the same time.

Which would trigger all the fireworks spread out across the city, simultaneously.

Still…

“Impeccable timing? You are joking,” Rounds all but snarled, though he wasn’t really angry at the Dark – at least, not in this case. “If only we could have launched that a minute sooner, we’d still have-”

“No,” the Dark disagreed, his voice firm. “This is better. It will be harder for us, but better this than having Gwen participate.”

His voice turned soft, almost human, as they watched Hanabi light the fuses.

“No mother should have to watch her child die, much less participate in the killing.”

Rounds opened his mouth, not sure whether to disagree, agree, or laugh at the sheer, gutwrenching wrongness of it all, but he closed it again, not sure at all about it.

“Prepare yourselves,” the Dark spoke, and his voice was repeated across the entire city by every single one of Memento’s communicators. “Our grand gambit is almost at hand.”

The lit fuses disappeared into the fireworks, flashing with heat and light – but instead of launching the fireworks, they consumed them, burning them up in a single, bright flash.

All over the city, a hundred and eight matching fireworks shot up into the air, trailing paths of rainbow-colored sparks in ever-shifting, complex patterns that made one dizzy to merely look at them.

The glowing tips of these rising spears flew up as high as the Desolation Field allowed them to go, turning its bright, shifting colors into an even greater mess as they added their own, darker lights.

Then the lights spread, connecting to each other in a grand net of light, before each strand collapsed into total blackness, a dark, dark net spreading out over them – only to disappear.

And with its disappearance, DiL dropped out of the sky, crashing down onto the grand plaza of New Lennston.

With his enhanced eye sight, courtesy of the Falconer’s apparition, he could see her nude form, lying amidst the glowing mass of her ridiculously long hair, her face as expressionless as ever, yet conveying something almost akin to confusion, as she lay there, her arms and legs touching the ground as dust settled on her unblemished skin.

Then, the dust began to swirl around her, forming an expanding sphere, as everyone stared at the jaw-dropping sight.

“The gambit was successful! DiL’s absolute defense has been nullified – penetrate her lesser powers, and we can finally put her down!” the Dark shouted, spreading his message all over the defending forces. “Put an end to this wretched tale!”

He hadn’t even finished his announcement, when a great cry rose.

A hundred voices and more joined together in utter, unbridled awe, fury and sheer, unrestrained hope, screaming it to the sky, as everyone who was even remotely able to do so charged into the battle.

Even Bismuth joined her voice to the others, her passion reignited as she shot forward, launched by a pillar of crystal shooting up beneath her feet.

Rounds stepped forth to join them, only to stop at the edge of the terrace, looking back at the wispy, barely substantial form of the Dark.

The King of Supervillains stepped up next to him, standing at the very edge of it as well. “You should go,” he said. “I’m too weak to contribute right now, but I’ll do what I can to coordinate our assault.”

Rounds’ reached for his sword, drawing it out of its sheath, gripping it tightly. “What you said earlier… the same applies to you, doesn’t it?”

The Dark turned his head again, looking down at him. “What do you mean?”

Rounds looked up at those six unblinking red eyes, trying to ignore the sheer weight of their gaze. “No mother should see or help their child die – nor should any father.”

The shadowy figure looked at him, for a moment longer, before averting his face, focusing on the battle again.

When he replied, his voices were so soft they were almost human again.

“Monsters don’t count.”

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vote for brennus

B14.5 Breaking Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

What…

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

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

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

Ah crap.

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

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

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

Oh fuck.

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

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

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

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

He’d only get one shot at this.

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

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

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

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

Not the time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, come on!”

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

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

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

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

Don’t forget them ribs, mate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked at Hecate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mate, you guys are so freaking outclassed here…

***

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

And then there were the corpses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I… I guess…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seconds…

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

What’s wrong?

Take off your mask, mate.

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

They came away with blood, too.

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing had ever scared him as much as that realisation.

Is that why you’ve been off?

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

Killing me?

In a way.

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

Mine…

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

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

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

You mean we’ll… merge?

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

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

You are labouring under an erroneous presupposition.

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

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

The walls are breaking down. So are our…

Fetters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I already knew that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, the Rain.

Second, the Thunder.

Third, the Lightning.

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

Right now, he had to focus on the fight.

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

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

Lightning comes before the Thunder, mate.

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

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

His Origin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded, looking out into the distance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The list went on and on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are all girls so confusing?

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

I do not get it.

I know you don’t, mate.

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

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

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

We won’t survive another wave like this.

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

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

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

That energy density…

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

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

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

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

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

Wait a minute.

He blinked, focusing his tired eyes into the distance.

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

Before he could process that, the distant sun pulsed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey… mate… something’s… I… we…

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

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

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

Lady Light had arrived.

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vote for brennus

B14.4 Breaking Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you…”

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

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

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

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

Just to have her there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shut. Up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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vote for brennus

B14.1 Breaking Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As cruel a catch twenty-two as any-

White-hot pain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then another.

And another.

And more besides.

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

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

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

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B13.20 Call of the Sleeper

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Prisca was still alive.

Somehow, even though he’d deduced as much with great certainty, he hadn’t truly felt sure about it until he saw her. A weight dropped off his shoulders.

Not that seeing her was a pleasant experience. He wasn’t petty, wasn’t… concerned with her physical beauty the way he’d seen other boys be. Some part of him, a part he didn’t really understand, a part he’d started to associate with Macian, if only because he couldn’t figure out where he might have picked it up otherwise, balked at the mere thought of judging things by appearance. Of getting attached to the outside, be it good or bad.

It wasn’t a good thing, wasn’t a good part. He didn’t like such things because he didn’t, on a fundamental level, trust them. Them, or anyone, really. A small part of him that whispered, this could be fake, someone might be twisting things.

It was the same part that had advised him to keep so many secrets from his friends. To compartmentalise them, keep Tim and Aimi apart from Vasiliki and Dalia. To keep them all apart from Prisca, until he couldn’t justify it anymore. It was the part of his that had shouted betrayal when, in honest worry over his state, his friends had crossed the boundaries he’d set and gotten together to take care of him.

Even further, it had made him twitchy around Dalia and Vasiliki in a way he hadn’t understood for a long time. Their beauty had been a barrier between them, rather than something that drew him in, like it did damn near every other male they ran into.

It wasn’t something all-consuming. He could still appreciate beauty, once he could be sure it was honest. Whatever that meant. But upon first contact, it repulsed, made him stay at a distance.

With Prisca, it had, strangely, made things easier. When beauty was an initial barrier, meeting a girl who failed to live up to the common understanding of beauty so thoroughly had, actually, made things easier in the beginning. Let him reach out, connect, in a way he wouldn’t have been able to with any of the gorgeous girls in his life.

In a twisted way, Aimi was more attractive to him, at first glance, than someone like, say, Gloom Glimmer, even though the latter was literally supernaturally desirable, simply because Aimi was plain and plainness didn’t trigger that suspicious, dark part of his.

Finding out that she’d become a shapeshifter, it had shaken him on a level he hadn’t even recognised, back then. With the benefit of hindsight, he thought that that had been trhe true reason why he’d kept her at arm’s length, rather than tell her about his secret identity, like he’d done with Tim.

With all that, he’d been able to see past Prisca’s bodily and mental issues – and she had many of both, perhaps even more so than he did – to find and appreciate the person underneath. In time, he’d even come to appreciate the remnants of the beauty she should have had. The beauty Dusu had taken from her.

When the goblins kidnapped her and he’d been forced to operate on her to keep her alive, that same detachment had allowed him to stay calm and do what needed to be done, rather than balk at the thought of cutting open the girl he loved to attach machines to her failing heart.

When she’d mutilated herself to escape Hastur, when the stress and the strain of that wretched day had proven too much for her body and he, with Gloom Glimmer’s help, had worked on her again, it had helped keep him calm and focused.

It had not helped when she’d manifested her power. Her projection, gorgeous as it was, had made him twitchy again, though less so than others, as he’d already known her. But that part of his, it twitched and moaned, whispering suspicions about this new, false form.

But it wasn’t. Never was. It was hers, in a way that her actual body couldn’t be anymore. A form that came purely from within herself. Whereas her body had been twisted, broken, changed, by Dusu, making it not wholly hers any more. She’d been right about that. He’d seen that, come to appreciate what she herself called her true body, and gotten comfortable enough to, experiment. They hadn’t gone the whole way yet, what Dalia would call ‘home base’, but they’d run most of the other ones by now.

Thinking on it in retrospect, no one who knew her even a little had been even remotely surprised that she’d cut her own eyes out, rather than be twisted further by another monster.

None of that made it, however, easy or even remotely comfortable to see her now, as she lay on that bed that had become the sum and limit of her waking world. She was pale as a corpse and moved about as much as one, her lungs no longer functioning in any case – machines pumped the oxygen she needed to survive into her, instead.

Survive. Not live.

Her hair was gone, what few tufts she’d had left fallen off and cleaned up since the last time he saw her, a week or so ago (she hated it when he saw her like this, preferred it when he interacted solely with her projection, as much as possible), making her head seem inordinately large, especially in proportion to her emaciated, wasted-away body. Her ruined eyes, at least, were covered by bandages. Most of her body was covered by a blanket, save for her spindly thin arms with those long, tender, weak fingers, which lay atop the expensive silk sheets (her mother did everything to make her comfortable, no matter how small, even if it meant buying the hospital a whole set of silk sheets for the entire intensive long-term care ward), though the many tubes and wires that ran into her body were still outlined by them.

Not that he needed to see them with his eyes – he had them in his mind. He’d installed them, after all. A rushed job, at first, during her kidnapping. Then, later, he’d swung by the hospital, pretending it was merely his own perfectionism, a sense of professional pride, or at least generic heroic sensibility, which took him there, and had refined his work, making more permanent accommodations for her. Explaining to the doctors how to properly clean them, what the read-outs meant and how to do simple maintenance (but to call him if anything actually went wrong). Then, later, another rushed job after Hastur had visited her, followed by another round of refinement, all of it tapping a degree of medical knowledge and an understanding of surgery that’d humbled the professionals involved and whose origin he could not make out. He’d never studied medicine in any capacity beyond basic first aid, had never read the textbooks or anything like that. And it wasn’t like his gadgeteering, either, not really. The devices he’d made to keep her alive, including her current set, they were partially gadgets, yes. But his surgical skill, which had had the head surgeon of the hospital, one of the most decorated professionals of his craft, grumbling about how unfair powers were and how he wished he was so good, that was wholly his own, and yet he had no idea how or why.

Still, all that work… fixing her, putting her body back into (barely) working order, refining his work to make her more comfortable, more healthy, as much as that was possible… it had felt comfortable. Relaxing, familiar, like something he’d done so many times it had become routine.

It thoroughly creeped him out, as grateful as he may have been for the capability, because as far as he knew, the very first time he’d ever even performed first aid, much less surgery, had been after the fight against Snow Queen, when he’d saved Vasiliki’s life.

Still, of all the many things that haunted him about his condition – whatever it may actually be – that was one he could appreciate at least. It had helped him save her, in some small way.

Even now, looking at her, his eyes flickered left and right, reading the data on his devices’ readouts and the monitors of the equipment the hospital had provided (all of it cutting edge, courtesy of Mrs Fion again), and his heart sank. Massive organ failure. Slowly spreading brain damage, negligible now, but liable to mount and go out of control at any time, depending on how Dusu’s poison continued to work. The machines attached to her, his machines, were the only thing keeping her alive now, and even they would be insufficient soon enough.

”Basil…” Prisca whispered, barely audible with her lips barely moving.

He was by her bedside in an instant, not even noticing the distance he crossed as he pulled a chair closer and sat down as close to her as he could.

His hand reached for hers, the right one, on top of the blanket, after he took his gauntlet off. Her fingers were cold, and she didn’t have the strength to do more than lightly curl them, so he made up for it by gripping them as tightly as he dared.

”I am here,” he spoke, softly, his voice just slightly hoarse. Then he smiled, weakly, hoping she could somehow tell he did by the tone of his voice changing. “You knew I was coming.” His eyes flickered to the tablet he’d made for her, the one linked up to Eudocia, which Primrose now held in her expertly manicured hands, her long, red nails standing out starkly against the colourless metal. He looked back at Prisca.

“Of course… Eudocia told me… when you showed up… in front of the hospital,” she whispered, slightly turning her head towards him. “We were so very worried… when you left… Eudocia wouldn’t… tell me where you… went, but… she was worried, too.”

His eyes went up again, looking closer at Primrose. ‘We’, she says. But apart from Eudocia. So, her mother.

Primrose was always an interesting, painful sight to see, for him. So beautiful (twitch, twitch, balk), yet such a reminder of what Prisca might have been, should have been that it hurt to look at her. Classically gorgeous and just barely showing a little gray in her long red hair, he knew a lot of employees at the hospital always looked forward to her visits just to get a good look at her.

Now, though, she was clearly bereaved, her eyes showing a little red and her make-up barely hiding the palor of her skin. For her, for a woman as composed as Primrose Fion, this was the equivalent of another having shorn her hair short and scratched up her own face to show her grief.

And Prisca wasn’t even dead yet.

”I’ve known for a while, Basil,” she spoke softly, far more tenderly than she’d ever talked to him before (she hadn’t particularly liked him at first, though she’d never voiced her reasons or even actually put words to her antipathy to him, that he knew of. “Though I hadn’t told Prisca I’d figured it out until today.” She smirked, a little of her usual arrogance returning to her face. “I’m not stupid, you know? In fact, I am rather far on the right side of the bell curve, I dare say. My baby girl gets a boyfriend and then a hero who has no connection to this whatsoever happens to save her life not once, but twice? And keeps coming back to refine her life support? It wasn’t hard to connect the dots, especially after the second time.” Her smirk faded, and she lowered her eyes, looking at the tablet in her hands. “Now I know why you seemed to secretive and, at times, dishonest.”

Ah, that explains that, at least.

”For what it’s worth, I’m sorry I treated you so coldly,” she continued on, “and I’m grateful for all you’ve done for my baby.”

”Mo-om…” Prisca complained weakly.

Basil focused on her again.

“Basil… you did… something stupid, right?” she guessed, her voice grown hoarse, as if she was already straining it. “Eudocia… would not… have hidden it… from me… if it wasn’t… stupid.” She curled her fingers around his, again. “I’d… fall asleep… and smack you… for it, but… the docs’ say… I wouldn’t survive… falling asleep… again.”

He sighed, feeling the many weights on his shoulders. “I suppose it was. There is, no gentle way to say it. I found out where Dusu hides, so I gathered as many people as I could and went after her.”

All warmth fled the room, leaving only the sounds of the machines. Both the woman and the girl were listening, intently. Primrose was radiating a kind of hatred that made the Dark’s fury appear meager, her fingers curling so hard around the tablet’s edges, it groaned. Prisca… Prisca didn’t show any of the hate she usually did whenever Dusu came up, too weak to work herself up like that anymore.

”We got her,” he continued, just barely louder than a whisper. “She is with the United Heroes, now.”

Primrose drew in a sharp breath, a faint expression of hope on her face…

”You didn’t get a cure, though,” Prisca continued for him, her voice softer than a spring breeze. “Or at least it won’t be done in time. I can tell.”

He lowered his head, taking her hand with both of his and raising it to touch it to his forehead. “I am so sorry, Prisca. She never had a cure. Never could make one. The whole thing, it was her attempt at finding one. The poison, it was meant for her, to improve her body, to make her a pseudo-Adonis, but it failed and messed her up,” he spoke, the words tumbling out of him, unable to contain them any longer. “So she unleashed it on Hawaii hoping that someone else would find a cure that she could then co-opt for herself.” At some point along the speech, which felt like a confession to him, he started crying. He couldn’t bear to raise his eyes, to look at her mother’s face or, worse, at Prisca’s.

Her fingers curled around his as tightly as they could, weakly holding onto him as something escaped her throat.

It was a sound unlike any he could remember hearing, ever, and which he hoped he’d never, ever have to hear again. It was a sound of rage, of hatred; of grief and sadness. The sound of an old pain, never gone but scarred over, only to have it torn open again. The sound of a tearing heart, which reached out and into everyone who heard it, making their own hearts break out of sheer sympathy.

It was a sound Basil would remember for the rest of his life.

He held onto her hand as the sound continued, and was quickly joined by her mother who put the tablet onto the bed, near her legs, so she could take her daughter’s left hand into both of hers.

Basil didn’t know what to say, what to do. He had trouble carrying on normal conversations, often, nevermind this.

What could he say? There was no promise left to make that might ease her pain. No soothing words he could think of, no platitude to lessen the impact.

What could he do? He’d found Dusu, and it hadn’t helped. He’d done everything he could think of, short of trying to make a complete engram of her brainpatterns to later implant into a healthy body, but… even if that could solve this, there wasn’t the time to do it.

All he had left was to hope for a miracle, and even in an age of superpowers those were in extremely short supply at best.

”B-basil, I, I…” Prisca tried to speak, but had to break off, her voice too hoarse to continue. Her mother had to pick up a small cup with a straw, tilting it to let some water flow into Prisca’s mouth, before she could continue. “Basil, I, I love you,” she said, tears of salt and blood running down from the bandage around her eyes, and his heart broke a little more. “And, and, I don’t want you to b-blame your, yourself,” she continued. “Y-you did, you did all you, could. M-more than, than anyone could, ever expect of, of another, even, a boyfriend.” She turned her head towards him to smile weakly, her thin, pale lips – barely differentiated from the rest of her skin – stretching over her empty gums. “I l-l-love you and, and I hope, hope you’ll, you’ll find… the happiness, you deserve. D-don’t be, be too… sad, abo-“

He cut her off by pressing his lips to hers, softly, so very softly, his tears mixing with hers for a long, long moment.

”No,” he said softly. “I didn’t do more… than anyone could expect, because… I expected more of myself.”

She smiled again, while her mother just cried, lowering her head as she cradled her hand to her breast, her heart. “Silly… but that’s part of what… I love about you. One of the… many things.”

Basil had trouble seeing anything, had trouble breathing, but he forced the words out, anyway: “I love you, Prisca. I wish I could… put it into words, what you… mean to me, but words have never… been my strong suit. I love you, and I’m not going to give up for as long as I live. Not on you, not on anything.”

Her lips trembled and, for just a moment, her hand seemed to regain some strength, as she held onto his as tightly as possible, nearly cutting off the bloodflow to his digits.

The machines around them were starting to edge into red areas, warning signs starting up. Especially the brain monitor. It wasn’t going to be fast. It was going to be slow, and painful, and ugly, and they all knew it.

“P-please, g-g-go,” she croaked, voice thick with tears. “I, I, I don’t want you, to, to see-“

He didn’t want to. He didn’t want to leave. He didn’t want to watch, didn’t want to do nothing. Didn’t want to be there, didn’t want not to be there.

But he couldn’t choose, so he at least fulfilled her last wish.

He left.

***

He found himself back in his bedroom. Somehow, he’d managed to get from the hospital to his and Amy’s home while barely noticing it. Barely remembering to pull up his hood and hide his face.

Seeing how he’d been blind with tears the whole way, it was amazing he hadn’t run into anything or anyone, or been run over by something. Or maybe he had and he just didn’t remember.

He’d thrown his cloak onto his bed, and taken his lefthand gauntlet, the one with the variable force-field emitter off, holding it in his hands as he stared down at it. His ravenbot had flown off his shoulder and sat atop his computer screen, watching him with what might have been curiosity if it’d been an actual animal.

There was none of the numbness he’d hoped for. Even though people often talked about how they went numb when overwhelmed by tragedy, he felt none of that. There was no numbness, no deadening of his emotions, no relief.

He threw the gauntlet at the wall with all his strength, hard enough that it dug into it through the expensive wallpaper, becoming stuck.

What was even the point of that thing? What was the point of any of his inventions, his ideas, if none of them could even save the girl he loved?

He tore his armour off, bit by bit, even the boots, throwing them aside without a second thought. Tore off the top of his bodysuit, throwing it onto the bed to join his stupid, pretentious cloak.

Thought and memory my ass.

”I…” he began to talk to the empty room, but broke off. What could he even say? “I-“

There was a flash of red hair, a brief vision of a sweetly curved body in a private school uniform, and then her lips met his, her strong, soft arms wrapping around his neck.

He wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her close, pressing her body to his, feeling her softness and warmth as his other hand went to the back of her head, fingers intertwining with her hair, pulling her even closer, deepening the kiss.

When her lips parted and their tongues touched, all the worries and the sadness and the grief disappeared, leaving just her.

He clung to her like a drowning man, and she to him, mashing their lips together, their tongues dancing lovingly inside their mouths, from one to the other and back again, they-

She was gone, gone as fast as she’d appeared, and he was alone.

He staggered back a step, raising a hand up to touch his lips with two fingers.  Feeling the warmth. Still able to taste her.

Had she really been here? A last flash of her power, as she’d drifted off to her final sleep? A desperate hallucination of his? A random memory his broken mind had called up?

His computer’s screen lit up, pure white, showing only two words from Eudocia.

She’s gone.

His scream shook the house.

***

Somehow, at some point, he put on some clothes. A black shirt with some print on it, a gift from Dalia, black jeans and black socks. Dramatic, but somehow appropriate.

He’d thrown a jacket on over it and put on his shoes and just left. It was inadequate for the cold weather – it had started to snow, even – but he didn’t care. Somehow, he found his way to the park again, to the bench he’d talked with Magnus, what felt like a lifetime ago. The park was covered in snow, but was otherwise completely empty, save for himself and his raven.

He was still not numb. He wished he was, but he wasn’t.

He was hurt. Heartbroken. Grief-stricken. Pained. Tortured. Tormented. He could go on, think of more words. Everything, everything, except numb.

The only reason he hadn’t yet thrown up was because he hadn’t eaten a thing in over twenty-four hours.

And so he sat amidst the snow on the bench and watched the busy street in the distance, past the bare trunks and branches of the trees. Cars and pedestrians passing by, carelessly, carefree. Happily.

He saw children smile and point at Christmas ornaments in the store windows, or at toys they wanted (there was a toy shop right there in a straight line in front of him, on the other side of the street).

His raven’s programming had it fly over, landing on a branch near the street so it could watch over the people, looking for trouble.

Yet all he could think of was that Prisca wouldn’t get to enjoy a single Christmas with him. That she wouldn’t get to dress up in what she’d called a ‘slutty Santa dress’ and show off her perfect dream-body.

And one of the reasons why she wouldn’t was he. Because he hadn’t been good enough, in the end. He’d gone to bat, or at least he hoped he’d gone to bat, all out, and it had still not been enough.

God, I hope there really wasn’t anything more I could have done, a treacherous little voice spoke inside of him. If there was and I just didn’t do it…

He lowered his head, hot tears burning on his cold skin before they fell down to join the snow at his feet.

Time passed and Basil still did not feel numb.

Snow crunched underneath someone’s feet, and Basil turned his head, slowly, to the right. He saw their feet, first. Beautiful winter boots made of soft, brown leather, sporting hand-crafted stitching decorations and sensible, yet still distinctly noticable heels. Even if he hadn’t seen these boots before, he’d recognise the handiwork instantly.

Feeling his heart skip a beat, he slowly raised his head, up along the long legs in black stockings, the sensible, knee-length green skirt and the hand-made cream-coloured sweater under an expensive, thin winter jacket worn open. A pure red scarf (hand-made, of course) wrapped around her slender neck to protect it against the weather.

She also wore a handmade red wool bonnet with floppy ear covers from which two long tassels extended, and held Graymalkin in her arms, the heavy cat happily snuggling against her chest as she seemed completely unbothered by his prodigious weight.

Her eyes were red, as if from crying, making their green colour stand out even more.

”Vasiliki,” he said, his voice thick. It didn’t surprise him that she’d found him. They’d taken steps, long ago, to make sure each of them would be able to find the others, if need be. For him, it was done with his ravens, with transponders sewn into select articles of clothing. For Tyche, it was just following her gut, which usually worked out. Or so they’d thought. For Hecate, it was via samples of their blood, a little from each of them, contained and preserved within a jewel for each.

He expected her to glare at him, or accuse him or just shout at him, but instead she just took a step closer and looked at the bench.

Scooting over, he watched her sit down, her knees touching and tilted to the side. Graymalkin stretched after she put him down on her lap and got up, patting over onto Basil’s lap where he walked in a circle, then rubbed his face against Basil’s hand, once, before he curled up and went to sleep.

Basil looked down at his cat, petting him behind the ears, before he looked up at Vasiliki again.

Once more, he had no idea what to say.

Her eyes searched his face, for something. He couldn’t tell whether she found what she looked for.

”I’m so sorry, Basil,” she said, her voice thick. “Eudocia, she told me what happened. I came as soon as I could.”

He looked away, unable to meet that soulful gaze of hers. “It is over,” he said, lamely. He couldn’t say that it was alright, or anything like that. He didn’t want to.

”I wish we could’ve… that maybe,” she choked on the words, and he could hear renewed tears in her voice. “I tried to come up with some kind of healing spell, but nothing worked. Maybe, if w-“

”I thought you would be angry at me,” he cut her off, unable to bear listening to her say exactly what he himself was thinking. “I would have expected you to scream at me, not…”

”Angry at you,” she said in a neutral tone. “Of course I’m angry at you, you blockhead,” she continued, her voice both softer and harder at the same time. “More than you know.”

He kept his eyes averted. “I am sorry,” he said, feeling his stomach turn over and over. “I am sorry, but I could not betray her. Even if she may deserve it, I could not have turned against her, not even when I learned that she had killed your-“

”Is that really what you think I’m angry about?” she asked in a disbelieving, pained voice. “Do you really know me so little?” There was honest, true pain in her voice, like he’d just struck her.

He was so surprised he turned his head and looked at her, at the tears running down her cheeks and the wet eyes with the red veins running through them. Opening his mouth, he didn’t know what to say but tried…

“Did you really think I’d be angry at you for standing by your family?” she pressed on, not giving him the chance to say anything. “That I, of all people, would resent you for choosing your blood over the law?” Her hands clenched on her lap, digging into the soft, warm fabric of her skirt. “I really thought you knew me better, Basil.”

It was like a stab right into his heart, as the pieces fell into place, slowly but surely. Renewing his tears along the way.

”I’m angry because you didn’t tell me,” she snarled the words. “We’re… we’re teammates, we’re friends, we’re… We haven’t known each other for very long, I know that, just a few months, and yet it feels like I’ve known you for so long, and I thought you felt the same way.”

“I do,” he croaked, now unable to avert his eyes from hers.

”Somehow, in those few months, you’ve become… my best friend,” she said, softly. “More so than Dalia. Even more so than Stephie, and I’ve known her since I was five.” Her frame shook with a sob, as she briefly averted her eyes to take out a delicate handkerchief and wiped her eyes with it, before blowing her nose. Not that it helped much, as the tears were immediately replaced. “You’re my friend, you’re my brother, you’re m-“ She cut herself off, briefly, then started again. “I care for you,” she continued, though she seemed to have meant to say something else, at first. “And I trusted you. And I thought that you trusted me.”

”I should have,” he admitted, feeling another weight settle on his shoulders.

”But you didn’t,” she pressed on, rightfully accusing him. “You didn’t trust me. You didn’t trust me that I’d not do something stupid if you told me, or that I’d leave, or that I’d turn against you. You didn’t trust me and you left me to interact with my soi’s murderer! I laughed with her, I hugged her, I treated her to food in my family’s restaurant!” She all but screamed at him, her every word cutting into his heart like a red-hot knife. “That may seem silly to some, but it matters to me.”

She finally turned away, wiping tears away with her bare hand. “But you know what hurts the most? It’s realising that you never trusted me to begin with. And that, that’s what breaks my heart, above all and I’m sorry, I’m sorry, sorry, I shouldn’t be putting this on you now, not when you just lost Prisca,” she bent over, burying her face in her hands. “You’ve gone through so much, and you’re a good person, a good hero, but I just can’t, can’t get over the fact that the boy I fell in love with lied to me the whole time we were together!”

He hadn’t thought he could possibly feel any worse anymore, but he’d been wrong. He hadn’t even thought of it like that. That he’d been betraying her trust – and she had told him everything about herself, had never held anything back whenever it had come up, and he’d…

Then her last sentence reached his brain and everything crashed.

Graymalkin opened his eyes and looked up at him, and somehow he seemed to understand something of what was going on, as he looked just infinitely annoyed at him.

”L-love?” he stammered, looking at her with wide eyes.

She looked right back, face flushed bright red. “I know this is absolutely not the time, but… really? You never noticed at all?” she asked, sounding simultaneously amused and heartbroken. “Why am I not surprised?”

He cast his mind back, through his memories, looking for any signs of it, any hints, anything…

”I never noticed… anything…” he admitted.

”Basil, I’d say something like ‘what does a girl have to do, rip off her clothes and dance naked in front of you?’ except I did that and you still didn’t get it.”

He thought back to that particular occasion.

”But… that was for an experiment… and you need to be naked to perform some of your rituals…”

“Basileus Bartholomew Balthasar Brant-Blake,” she spoke his full name with perfect pronounciation and in the most dry voice he’d ever heard as she rolled her eyes, “When a girl, any girl, willingly strips naked in front of you and dances, no matter the reason she admits to, and it’s not a life-threatening situation, then you can safely assume that she’s trying to express some interest in you!” By the end of it, her face was glowing brighter than the Dark’s eyes.

Basil leaned back on the bench, his mouth opening and closing wordlessly, as he looked down at Graymalkin to avoid looking at her.

”Oh,” was all he managed to say.

”Yeah, ‘oh’,” Vasiliki replied, leaning back as well and putting her hands down to her left and right, the fingers of one hand briefly brushing over his fingers. “Basil, you’re the smartest person I’ve ever met and I love you, but sometimes, you’re a fucking idiot.”

”…”

He stared down at his cat, feeling like said fucking idiot.

I’ve really fucked it up completely, haven’t I? he couldn’t help but think. I lost Prisca. I failed to save her, even after trying for so long, going so far. And I broke my best friend’s heart all along the way, as well.

”I’m such an idiot,” he said, letting the tears run.

She only gave an unrefined grunt in response.

They sat there like that, being snowed upon and ignoring the cold, their hands nearly touching on the bench, but not quite, as she stared off into the distance and he looked down at his cat, rubbing his ears and making him pur.

Suddenly, the quiet contemplation was interrupted by a sudden spike of pain in his head, making his hand shoot up from Graymalkin’s head to his own, as he barely bit down on a scream.

”Basil? Basil, what’s wrong?” Vasiliki asked, frantically. “Did something happen?” She looked around, frantically, as if expecting to find a threat.

Then she fell quiet, and Basil realised that the street beyond the park had gone entirely quiet.

Graymalkin on his lap had turned his head towards said street, looking at something there with feline disapproval.

He followed his cat’s gaze, slowly, until he saw the street, where everyone had stopped moving.

Cars stood in the middle of the street, some with their engines still running, as their drivers either leaned out of their windows or stood next to them, looking up in blank horror.

On the sidewalk, people had stopped doing what they’d been doing and stared up with matching expressions. A mother knelt in the snow, hugging her child and sobbing bitterly, as the little boy stared up without comprehension. Two girls around Basil’s and Vasiliki’s age were hugging each other, tears running down their cheeks as they, too looked up.

Everywhere he looked, the same scene repeated itself, over and over, until he saw it.

A strand of light, glowing softly, so white it made the fresh snow look dirty, its tip two meters or so above the ground.

Vasiliki’s hand found his, her fingers intertwining themselves with his and squeezing them, seeking comfort.

He followed the strand of light up, and up and up, as more strands joined it, becoming a single, impossibly long mass of glowing white hair, leading up to a pair of delicate feet with nails which glowed in the exact same colour. The feet led up to long, lovely, flawless legs, bare, that joined into a gentle V-shape at the top. Above that, a flat stomach and a pair of large, but not disproportionate breasts, leading to a swan-like, flawless neck. At her sides, long, delicate arms with fingers that looked like they’d been crafted to play the piano, long, delicate and smooth, tipped with glowing nails a few centimetre longer than usual.

Atop it all, a face so impossibly, unnaturally beautiful, it could have made artists cry for being unable to ever truly do it justice, were it not marred by an utter lack of expression, her lips slightly parted open, her eyes blazing white, uncaringly, seeming to look at no one and nothing at all. Even her eyebrows were sculpted to perfection, and glowed as if they were made of light.

Snowflakes fell around and onto her, but none of them reached her skin, nor were they melted by any body heat; rather, they slid down her form, stirred by the cold wind to dance around her as they fell, creating a gorgeous dress, as ephemeral as a dream and just as beautiful.

The pain in Basil’s head intensified as above, light spread across the sky, slowly branching down towards the ground in the distance, the branches broadening to fill out and cover the heavens entirely.

Bree Whitaker’s, Desolation-in-Light’s, blazing eyes swept over Basil and Vasiliki and he knew for a fact that they saw neither of them.

Basil squeezed Vasiliki’s hand back.

Finally, he felt numb.

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B13.19 Call of the Sleeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most everyone looked away from the gruesome sight.

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

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

Gloom Glimmer thought it over, then nodded.

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

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

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

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

Spellgun shot her in the face, knocking her out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She turned away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the hell could piss the Dark off that much?

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

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

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

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

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

They moved on again.

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

She probably can.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pointless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sighed. “I have no freaking idea whatsoever,” he replied. “It has only ever happened when Osore used his power on me. Not even when I was in a life-threatening situation, like when Hastur had me in her clutches. I do not remember at all what happened during either episode, though I at least have a recording of this last one,” he explained, reaching up to stroke the head of his sole remaining ravenbot.

”No idea at all?” Tartsche asked.

Basil frowned. “Well… there is one… but is less of an answer and more of… another question. A whole host of questions, in fact,” he amended his earlier statement. “I may be connected to someone named Macian, somehow. At least, I found a journal written by him, amongst my things and I sometimes have memories of being another person, someone who’s also a gadgeteer.” Plus at least two distinct personalities in my head, other than my own.

“This is unbelievably fucked up,” Tartsche replied after a minute or so of just staring at him.

For just a moment, Basil felt a manic grin spread on his face as he looked up at the armoured boy. “Try living with it.”

Tartsche shuddered. “No thank you,” he said, finally. “Well, this was… not at all informative.” He looked around at the others, before focusing on Basil once more. “I’m sorry, but considering the situation, and what we know about your sister – if she even is your sister – and… everything… I can’t possibly justify not raising every alarm I can as soon as we’re back.” He groaned, reaching up to pinch his nose, only to remember he was still wearing his helmet. “Hell, I should probably take you into protective custody – or something – straight away, but I have the feeling that wouldn’t work out too well, considering what you did to the Skulls’ group.” He gave a side-long glance to Gloom Glimmer and Bakeneko. “Nevermind that I can’t be entirely sure whether all my teammates will support me on such a course of action.”

Both girls blushed and averted their eyes.

Basil raised a finger. “I know it is not exactly the smartest thing to do, but let me remind you that I have only ever been able to perform on that level after being affected by Osore’s power, so unless he shoots me again, you will not have to worry about that,” he corrected him.

Hecate palmed her own forehead.

With a chuckle, Tartsche responded, “Yeah, I’m not that slow. Still…” he put his hands on his hips, tapping his foot… which didn’t actually generate any sound, since there wasn’t actually any floor to tap it on. “Are you going to come in willingly? I know it’s an extremely shitty situation and all, but it’d help a lot, and ease a lot of worries, if you just came in and explained yourself.” He sighed, lowering his head. “The United Heroes are good people. And Amazon’s real fond of you. I’m sure we can work this all out.”

He looked up at the slightly older hero, then down again. Then at Hecate and Tyche, before he looked at his raven again. “I… do not regret what I have done today,” he said first. “Not the attempt to get into the base, not revealing myself or the risks I took. I only regret that it was not enough, and wish I could have done more, gone further…” He stopped, looking down again. “I will not run from it. But I will go and give Prisca the news myself, before anything else.” He looked up at Tartsche, locking eyes with him even through their masks. “You can make your report, meanwhile. Bakeneko knows where I live, and where my lab is,” he turned to look at his shapeshifting friend, “and she has my permission to share. You’ll find me… afterwards.”

”Alright,” Tartsche replied, turning his head away. “I believe you. And… I’m sorry.” There was a world of emotion behind those last two words.

“Thank you, Tartsche,” Basil replied, and took his helmet off, looking up at him with a tired expression on his face. “You went… above and beyond what anyone could expect of you, for the sake of strangers, and I thank you for that, from the bottom of my heart. You and all the others.” He looked around at the other teens, some of whom, at least, met his eyes.

Tartsche took a step away, then stopped. “You’re wrong, you know?” he spoke softly, making Basil focus on him again. “I expected more of myself.”

With that, he sat down next to his boyfriend again and fell quiet.

***

The rest of the journey passed in silence and they arrived in New Lennston, where Gloom Glimmer first dropped Basil, at his request, off in front of the hospital, before moving on to take care of the rest.

He didn’t know what Hecate or Tyche were going to do, but he had to prioritise somehow, and neither of them was dying right then.

Standing in front of the hospital, having appeared basically out of nowhere, he drew a great many surprised looks, in large part because he hadn’t bothered to put on his helmet, his drawn-up hood the only protection for his identity. Not that he really cared at this point.

He ignored the stares and walked into the hospital, ignoring the two armed security guards at the front entrance and simply breezing past the reception – he more than knew his way by now.

Walking through the hallways, ignoring every attempt to stop him or talk to him, he wondered whether he should’ve gone through with the idea of dragging Dusu in here and presenting her to Prisca and her family, but he’d dismissed it, and not just because he doubted that Tartsche would allow it – he didn’t want something like Dusu to spoil Prisca and her family’s final days together.

If she even had days left.

Oh God, I hope she isn’t already dead…

He could call Eudocia, ask. He hadn’t even thought to contact her.

Too late now. I’ll know soon enough.

He took the stairs up, eschewing the elevators – if he had to stand still for however many seconds it took them to go up, he’d explode.

Taking the stairs three steps at a time, he quickly reached the fourth floor and entered the intensive long-term care wing.

There, in front of Prisca’s room, sat several people on some chairs, while being watched over by multiple professional bodyguards in expensive suits – suits which, to Basil’s eye, showed modifications for combat and hiding weaponry.

As soon as he entered, the men whirled around at a sign from the one who’d been facing the door, drawing their weapons on him.

He ignored them and just moved on.

Beyond the bodyguards, a startled young woman rose up, and his heart both clenched and relaxed at the same time, though he showed none of it on his face.

Rosalie Fion took heavily after her mother, just as Prisca should have, and basically looked a lot like Gilgul, though older, being in her early twenties, and a little more lithe and a little less… top-heavy. She was wearing a simple, dark red dress that reached her knees, black stockings underneath and her rich red hair loose. She only wore a little make-up on her finely featured face and was currently busy staring at him, her mouth open.

That she was there, it meant that Prisca was still alive. She would have been inside the room if she was dying, and she would be mourning if she was dead. But that she was here also meant that there wasn’t much time left.

”B-basil? You… you’re…” She stammered, staring at him with wide green eyes the exact same shade as Prisca’s had once been.

He nodded to her as the guards stepped between him and the door (and Rosalie), though they seemed less openly combative now, as he seemed to be known.

Still, they were in his way, so he glared at them, briefly.

The first two men nearly fell over as they staggered aside, while the three behind took a startled step back, and he used the distraction to breeze past them, briefly nodding to Rosalie – and getting a nod in return – as he walked up to the door and, without bothering to knock, opened it and stepped through.

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B13.18 Call of the Sleeper

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He’d failed.

He’d failed, and it had all been pointless to begin with.

Basil staggered back, away from Dusu. Not hearing, or even really seeing how the others reacted. He just turned away, looking around the room without seeing anything.

There were voices, in the distance, but he paid them no mind, ignored the hand that reached for his arm, didn’t even register who it was.

She has no cure. She has no cure. I can’t come up with one, I’ve never been that good with actual biology. Maybe, if she had the actual formula… but she said she put it all online already, and I’ve read everything there is on the plague online. Prisca only has a few days left, at most.

Life support could only keep her going for so long, especially after the additional damage Hastur’s attack had caused. She certainly wouldn’t survive a flight to England. Even if Gloom Glimmer teleporter her along with all the life support… no, she’d never survive the journey to Ember himself. And even then…

They’d opened the Protectorate again, on a limited basis, after he’d revived that baby, but… it was a toss-up whether he’d actually react to anyone who managed to get close enough. More than once, one of the countless hopeful had weathered the pressure of his empathic assault, managed to get the remains of a loved one all the way to him… only to be promptly ignored until they passed out or went mad.

Basil didn’t know whether he could make it through that, not with the way his mind had gotten screwed up, but he would do it.

However, there was no way Prisca could survive it. If he took her in while she was still alive, in her current condition, it’d likely kill her, if it didn’t destroy her mind.

Ember could fix that, obviously. Assuming he got to him.

What if I put her into stasis? the thought came suddenly. Put her into a state where she’s not truly conscious. It would protect her from his aura…

Don’t be stupid. Just wait for her to d-d-die and take her corpse to him.

The whole point of this is to make sure she doesn’t die in the first place!

Then forget Ember and the Protectorate! You need to focus on working out a cure!

How!? If even Dusu couldn’t… she’s been working on this for half a decade! I have days, at most! Nevermind that I’m not a bio-gadgeteer to begin with and this is, is, it’d take ten bio-gadgeteers to work this out!

Then find a non-biological solution!

How!?! I’ve tried so much… I can’t just replace her infected body parts, because every part is infected in three different ways? Removing her brain to later implant it into a new body, even if I could perform surgery like that, would be meaningless because her brain is also infected!

That’s it. Her brain, that’s the solution!

Of course… I can’t physically remove her brain, but I could scan it, save a complete engram of her brainwaves… it would require more storage than even my computers have, but I’m certain I could convince Mrs Fion to buy any materials I might need…

I save the complete engram. That’ll buy me time, it’ll allow me to figure out how to create a new, healthy body for her, then copy it over… since it’ll be made while she’s still alive…

It can only be made while she’s still alive.

That way, she’ll never have to experience death… whether or not we can get her to Ember…

I can call this Plan A, and getting her to Ember would be Plan B.

There is another issue. Would she want that? To be copied over to a new body? Technically, she wouldn’t be the same Prisca as before. Her mother might not want that, either.

I’m not a philosopher nor a priest. Leave the existential debate to someone else.

But shouldn’t any proposed solution be considered in light of Prisca’s wishes? She is the one whose life is at stake. Copying her mind into a new body – and it’s far-fetched to believe I could do that – only to create a copy of her which does not consider herself to be the Prisca would only serve my own peace of mind.

Stasis.

Like on Tartarus Star. That might be a solution. I could perhaps work out a stasis chamber, or maybe trade Stasis himself for the designs or a complete chamber… or perhaps Mrs Fion could buy one off of him… we could keep Prisca alive indefinitely while I work on finding a cure.

Stasis is no hero though. He works for the government and he is committed full-time to maintaining Tartarus Star. His technology is considered a national secret; it is very unlikely that he’d be allowed to reveal his designs, nevermind actually buying a stasis chamber off of him – they’re supposed to be incredibly expensive, to boot.

Between Mrs Fion’s wealth and the technology I can of-

***

A hand closed around his biceps, tugging him around. He looked up at Amy, black eyes to purple ones.

Hey, baby bro, she whispered gently into his mind. You need to calm yourself down, before you give yourself a stroke.

He looked away, then looked up at her, feeling his expression harden. I can not afford to, right now. I need to find a solution! Could you scan her mind? Perhaps she’s keeping something secret?

Amy shook her head, causing him to feel even colder inside. Even more so when he realised she was trembling, sligthly. Just what had she seen?

She didn’t lie, nor did she ommit anything. She really has no clue how to fix it, Amy told him. And… there’s more. The blood she took, earlier. And what they’ve been doing here. Where these monsters came from. I saw it in her mind.

What’d you see? Basil asked numbly. He wasn’t sure there was much of anything he could get worked up over right now, as worn out as he felt.

Too much, she replied. But first… what about her? She nodded towards Dusu, who’d calmed down considerably, simply sitting cross-leged on the floor and chuckling occasionally, completely unperturbed by the looks of disgust and hatred the others were throwing her. Maybe you’ll feel better if you give her one of those concoctions you said you’d prepared just for her?

Basil looked over his shoulder at Dusu. Those were always meant to force her to give up the cure, in the end, he replied. No point to that, now. Besides, how could I possibly top that? He gestured towards the twisted, half-decayed woman.

Let’s just get this over with and go home.

***

Melody wouldn’t have thought she could hate a complete stranger as much as she hated Dusu right then. Just looking at the woman sitting there on the floor, looking so darn amused.

Amused that she’d destroyed so many lives.

Amused that she’d drawn them into such a dangerous, unnecessary battle.

Amused that she’d crushed their hopes, Brennus hopes in particular, and of all those innocents she’d poisoned, and all those whom cared about them.

She’d used to have trouble accepting Irene’s insistent statement that her father, while evil, was far better than most. Even after meating him in person, she hadn’t really changed her mind.

But now? Looking down at this, this coprophage, this… bitch, she saw true evil. Senseless evil, evil that didn’t have a purpose other than its own betterment.

At least the Dark clearly cared about his daughter. Melody wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that Dusu didn’t have anyone she cared about, that she would have sacrificed her own child if she’d had one, just to try and undo her own fuck-up – for herself.

It took a lot for her not to unleash one of her more cruel tunes on her, just to make her suffer a bit. A bit more, she amended the thought, watching how the woman laboured to draw breath, the way she repeatedly twitched as if in pain, in spite of her carefree attitude.

A little tune to make her bowels empty themselves as violently as physically possible, or cramp up painfully and remain so for a while. Another to throw her sense of balance completely off for hours. Or perhaps one she’d never yet used, because it’d seemed too cruel, a tune that’d give the victim a painful tinitus that’d last for days, if not longer.

So many options. So many incentives to explore them, one by one.

Fortunately for Dusu, Melody was distracted from the recreatively violent train of thought when Brennus came back towards them, shadowed closely by Mindstar.

And wasn’t that a shock? When Mindstar had first appeared, she’d been scared, then relieved – she did work for the Dark, so she wouldn’t turn on Irene and her friends, right? Then it’d seemed like she was going to attack anyway, and Tartsche had tried to reach Brennus to protect him from her (she still remembered the briefing when they’d been told that she might target him – Tartsche had clearly remembered it, as well), only for her to slap them all down with literally just a thought.

She’d known that telepathy was Irene’s one true weakness, but she hadn’t expected it to be that effective.

And then it turned out that Brennus – no, Basil, that boy she’d sat next to in school a few times! – was her brother and he proceeded to beat her, one on one.

If it wasn’t for Irene confirming, while under the aegis of Tartsche’s power, that it was all genuine, she’d have thought the whole fight, no, their every interaction, had been staged.

Now, of course, she was instead faced with the fact that a boy she’d been thinking of as a friend, if a distant one, was the younger brother of a major supervillain…

Which, really, didn’t mean much to her, seeing how her best friend was the daughter of said supervillain’s boss. It would have been the height of hypocrisy for Melody to condemn Brennus for his relationship with his own sister, when she so readily accepted Irene’s relationship with her father.

The only thing she could, maybe, accuse him of was not being open about his relation to her, the way Irene was about her being the Dark’s daughter…

But then again, their situations were very different. Brennus, for one, didn’t have the aegis of Lady Light and the United Heroes to protect him.

I wonder whether she’s the reason he didn’t join us to begin with, she thought to herself as she watched them join the rest of the group.

All those thoughts and more continued on in her head, though they were quickly overshadowed by dismay at how utterly worn-out Brennus looked. In all the time she’d known him, she’d never known him to express a sense of defeat, a lack of purpose. Now though…

“Let us wrap this up,” he spoke in a listless tone. “We should get away from here.” He looked down at Dusu, his gaze briefly hardening – but then it softened into listlessness again. “What did she do with our blood?” he asked no one in particular, apparently.

It did seem directed at Mindstar, however, as she sighed and stepped forth, while Brennus’ helmet floated off the floor and into his hands. “I’ll show you,” she said, gesturing at the computer console.

Using her telekinesis, she logged into the system, making Dusu frown in annoyance. “Y’know, you don’t have to use telepathy… I’d just tell you, at this point.”

“Shut it,” several people said all at once.

“This is the place where they made those monsters that appeared yesterday,” Mindstar spoke seriously, with neither levity nor anger in her voice. “They’re all spawned from the same source…”

The screen switched to a three-dimensional model, showing the floating city they were on, before zooming out and moving down, showing an incredibly long tether that lead down into the depths – the same one they could see before them, dozens of cables thicker than grown men – and following it down…

And down…

And down…

Until it reached the bottom of the ocean, and the view moved, looking down from above, at an angle, at…

A gigantic something at the bottom of the ocean, connected to the station via the cables in front of them.

As the image focused on whatever was below, it was rendered in successively more detailed layers, with Mindstar talking over it, sharing what she saw within Dusu’s mind.

“They found something down there. Something huge. And I mean, really fucking humungous. It’s over a thousand miles in length, and over three in diametre,” the villainess explained as the bottom dropped out of Melody’s stomach, her eyes widening at the rapidly expanding sight of… that.

“What. The. Holy. Fuck,” Tyche succinctly summed up how they all felt.

“That’s what they used to make those monsters,” Mindstar spoke, her voice growing hushed. “They injected it with… human blood. It doesn’t always work out, not even one in ten times, but when it does…”

Brennus looked down at Dusu again. “So that is what you took our blood for,” he stated as he put his helmet on. “Mine and… whose else?”

Before Dusu could respond, Mindstar did so. “All of us. It wasn’t just the four you saw. They got samples from all of us…” She frowned, stroking her chin. “I mean, they came here and found them… put them here in other timelines… ah, fuck time travel! They got samples from each of us, except for the princess, using Elysium’s power.” She looked at the console. “And they injected it all into this thing. That’s what Dusu and that nobody over there were responsible for – figuring out a way to inject something through its armour, after the Gefährten realised that extracted samples bonded with human DNA.”

Melody’s fingers went to work, tapping the air to formulate a sentence. “And that’s how they made Crocell and the other three monsters?” she asked, keeping her vocoder’s voice much calmer than she actually felt.

“Yeah. Only successes they’ve had so far. They injected forty-three samples and only four of them spawned something,” the villainess replied in a cold voice, glaring at the unperturbed mad scientist on the floor. “Though they never injected so many at once, like she just did.”

“Hey, you can’t blame me for being in a bit of a hurry!” Dusu protested Mindstar’s accusatory tone. “Besides, aren’t you curious what might come out of it?”

“No!” shouted half a dozen people at once.

“Alright, so, may-be this is totally obvious and Ah’m just missing it,” Spellgun spoke up for the first time in a while, his accent even stronger than usual, “but what the fuck is that!?!” he gestured wildly towards the three-dimensional model on the screen.

“It’s God!” Syrinx shouted fervently, floating upside down where Mindstar was holding him in the air. “It’s a fragment of the divine tri-“

Hecate reached into a pouch on her belt and threw a handful of glittering green dust at his face, which flew farther and in a tighter stream than it ought to, and he went limp, falling asleep instantly.

“Oh, thank God,” Dusu rolled her eyes. “Guy’s a cutie, but h-“

Hecate whirled around so fast Melody actually jumped, and struck Dusu across the face with the butt end of her staff, knocking the woman over and causing her to cry out in pain.

“Don’t you dare address me in any way,” the slightly spooky superheroine snarled, her English distorted slightly by a faint accent Melody had never noticed before, her tone of voice so vicious it made nearly everyone take a step away from her, even Mindstar.

Not Brennus, nor Tyche, though.

Dusu rubbed her rapidly swelling jaw, having finally stopped grinning, or smiling or otherwise looking happy, as she glared up at Hecate – but she kept her mouth shut.

Mindstar actually looked impressed, giving Hecate odd looks, though the spooky heroine couldn’t see them.

“They’re not sure what it is,” Mindstar continued where she’d left off earlier. “Or at least, if the Gefährten know, they haven’t told Dusu. But she, and her co-workers have a few running theories – all unproven, admittedly. One is that it’s a metahuman whose manifestation just plainly went spectacularly wrong. Another is that it’s some kind of by-product of superpowers as a whole, maybe an animal that soaked up whatever energies power metahumans. And another is that it’s either the source of superpowers, or connected to it in some way.” She shrugged. “Honestly, they don’t even know how long it’s been down there. Seems like time goes wonky around it, so they can’t even analyse the age of the cracks in the rock around and beneath it that it’s caused, because they don’t age uniformly.”

No one spoke up for a minute as they digested that. Finally, Melody turned her head to look at Irene, who’d remained still so far, hovering an inch or so above the floor, her cape closed in front of her and her hood drawn deep, like a white shroud.

The hood twitched as Irene looked up, her face hidden in the shadows, mostly, save for her blue eyes. “I don’t know what it is. I have some suspicions, but… nothing I’m sure of enough to say,” she answered the unspoken question.

Melody felt both disappointment and relief, as part of her just plainly didn’t want to know what that thing really was – she was afraid that it was even worse than she could expect.

“The blood is already injected?” Brennus interjected, directing the question at Mindstar, at his sister.

His helmet-mask always distorted his voice, but even so, Melody’s ears had no trouble picking up the fact that he still sounded… defeated, really. His voice was flat, lacking its usual intensity.

“Yeah, it is. Nothing we can do to stop it anymore,” Mindstar replied, her voice softening almost imperceptibly (to anyone but Melody) as she addressed her brother again. “All we can hope for is that none of it causes this… Sleeper to spawn another monster.”

“How long did it take before they knew whether an injection had been successful in the previous cases?” Brennus continued his line of inquiry in that same tone of voice, his head tilted forward as he looked at something he was holding in his left hand. Melody couldn’t see what it was, though it had to be palm-sized.

“Anywhere between five minutes and three hours,” the answer came almost as soon as he finished. “If it doesn’t work, it’ll eject the rejected blood in crystalline form – they have computers looking out for it.”

As if on cue, a new window opened, showing a black-and-white image of a bismuth-like crystal growing in fast motion, right out of one of its scales, before it detached and floated away.

“Aaaaaand that’s one,” Mindstar sighed in undisguised relief. “Eight more to go.”

“Is there anything we can do to abort the process?” Tartsche asked quietly, sounding as calm as ever as he held onto Spellgun’s hand. “Force it to purge them all or something like that? Some way to make sure no more monsters are generated?”

Both Mindstar and Dusu shook their heads, one seemingly impassive, one very clearly quite pleased with herself.

“And there’s nothing here about a cure?” Tartsche pressed on. “She doesn’t know anything, or have anything we can make use of?”

Mindstar shook her head, and Tyche and Hecate slumped a little, while Brennus showed no outward reaction, though Melody thought she might’ve heard something from within his helmet. She wasn’t sure though, as quiet as he was being.

“We should go, then,” Brennus concluded what was obviously Tartsche’s thought process, putting away whatever he’d been looking at. There was barely any inflection at all left in his voice. “Every second we remain here just increases the probability of another enemy showing up.”

“Now that’s as good a straight line as I could hope for!” a new voice spoke up.

Melody squeaked in shock as she turned, just in time to see Mindstar stagger forward, nearly falling, her hand going to her neck and pulling a tiny dart tipped by a needle out of it.

“Huh?” She stared at the dart, her eyes growing unfocused.

Brennus grabbed her, pulling her away and behind him, revealing the person who’d stuck her with the dart, who…

Oh God he’s so yummy, was the first thought that came to Melody’s mind as she saw the gorgeous, brown-haired young man in what appeared to be black-and-gold workout clothes, only of much higher quality than usual, and reinforced, fingerless gloves.

If she hadn’t met so many insanely pretty men since manifesting her powers, she’d probably have squeed and melted on the spot.

He stood there, looking as calm as if he was just taking a stroll, with an easy smile on those perfect lips.

“Immanuel!” shouted Tyche, taking a step away from him.

Wait, Immanuel? That guy? Melody blinked, remembering what Tyche had told them earlier. Fuck, we have to-

She raised her arms to fire at him, only to stop when Irene cried out.

“Wait, no, stop!” Irene shouted as she was enveloped in ribbons of twisted space… and then she disappeared.

Immanuel looked at the empty space where Irene had just floated, looking only mildly surprised. “Heh. Nice one,” he said, grinning.

***

Space unfurled around her and dropped Irene onto a grassy hill, which looked out over a tranquil beach and the ocean.

“No!” she shouted, desperate, reaching for the power which had brought her there. “No, no! Take me back! I’ve got to get back, Melody is still there! My friends are all still there! Take me back, please!”

She begged her own power, even as she felt the teleporting effect – one she hadn’t had before, to her recollection – sink beneath the darkness, tears beginning to run from her eyes.

She’d been so focused on that giant thing below, that, that thing that might have been, just possible, one of them, perhaps. A steward, in this world. Her parents were going to flip out.

Somehow, even though she’d had her danger sense up and running, that man, that… Immanuel, he’d managed to sneak up on them, and then her power had reacted to the suddenly present, overwhelming threat by taking her away from her friends.

“Please, please, just take me back!” she shouted, trying to reach for that power again, only to get… flight and the power to tell where magnetic north lay. “No, I need to be fa-“

“Irene? What are you doing here?” a tired voice asked.

She whirled around, staring at the figure behind her with bloodshot eyes.

***

“I think you’ve all had more than enough fun,” Immanuel spoke in a conversational tone, clasping his hands behind his back as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

Basil didn’t give him a chance to say more – torn between checking to make sure Amy was going to be alright and taking down the new threat, he chose to trust in her constitution and went on the offensive – and launched one of his grappling hooks at him, aiming straight for his belt buckle.

Immanuel simply stepped aside, dodging it by a hair’s breadth with such ease, it seemed rehearsed. “For those of you who don’t know yet, I’m Immanuel, and I’m in charge of this charming base,” he continued on, as if nothing had happened, even as he bent over forward, letting a blast of green fire fly over him and splash over Tartsche’s protective field, blinding Spellgun and causing him to miss his shot, which instead hit Osore in the forehead just as he was gathering up a fear blast in his right hand; his mask cracked, though not broken, he was thrown backwards as electricity raced through his body, stunning him and causing him to fall gracelessly and heavily onto the floor. “And while I greatly sympathise with your noble intentions, I’m afraid I’ll have to stop you right here,” he concluded, standing up straight again, smiling at everyone around.

How did he just do that? Basil thought furiously, stepping back to keep some distance between himself and the new enemy. That was way too smooth… he must be an Esper. Some major combat cognition. He stared at the empty spot where Irene had just been, then at Amy behind him, through the eyes of his bedraggled ravenbot. And we’ve already lost our two strongest combatants.

“What did you do to Gloom Glimmer!?!” Polymnia shouted at Immanuel, both of her clenched fists – and the speakers on the wrist modules above them – aimed straight at him.

“Don’t worry, I just gave her a bit of a scare,” Immanuel replied soothingly. “I suppose her power decided she was safer away from me than next to me.” He tilted his head to the side, both as a gesture and to dodge a shot from Tartsche’s rifle. “Can’t blame it, really. In fact, I’m quite grateful – makes my job easier.”

His expression turned thoughtful and he tapped his chin. “Hmm… just forty minutes before she comes back… with Lamarr. Maybe the Dowager, though I doubt it.” He blinked, as if another thought came to him. “Hm, no. She won’t come – just Lamarr and some of his people. Goldschmidt wouldn’t let her back here.” Without even looking, he bent forward and also lifted his left leg up, as if to kick out, though he merely tapped the charging form of Bakeneko – in the middle of transitioning from a bipedal to a quadrupedal form –  on the shin, lightly, causing her to trip and bowl into Polymnia, who just barely managed to brace herself and not get bowled over as well, though she still missed her shot, the twin beams of focused sound going wide and tearing up some computer equipment on the far wall of the room. “Nothing I can’t deal with.”

Basil barely paid attention to his words, instead opting to study his opponent more closely. The way he moved, the way every dodge of his led to them hitting each other in some way… it reminded him of the way it usually went when Tyche fought, except far more controlled.

Deliberate.

Speaking of Tyche, she was just standing there, her hands trembling as she tried to aim at Immanuel – but he didn’t seem worried at all, and she didn’t seem capable of actually pulling the trigger.

“I, I thought you said, you wanted us to, to succeed,” she stammered, taking a step back from him when he turned his head to focus on her.

He blocked Basil’s punch, which he loosened the moment his attention was on Tyche, with an absentminded swipe, “I did and I do,” then he deflected a knee-strike to the groin by raising his own knee and gently pushing it aside, “Though I never said I thought it was actually going to happen,” he turned into the follow-up elbow strike that Basil turned his over-extended strike into, “I did know that Dusu has never been able to figure out a cure for her own work,” his arm came up, applying minimal force to Basil’s elbow and causing him to strike the air above his head, unbalanced by the flawless counter, “Nor did I say I’d actually let you all leave after you reached Dusu,” he placed one hand onto Basil’s chest and the other one’s forearm against his waist, pushing with both and flipping him over until he hit the ground with his head, only his helmet saving him from being knocked out, though it still rang his bells quite well, “Sorry,” the angel-faced villain concluded, smiling apologetically at Tyche.

She gulped staring at him with wide eyes. He just smiled back, throwing Basil’s combat knife, which he’d filched from his belt when he’d flipped him, at Polymnia, without even looking at her.

The blade pierced the membrane of her right wrist’s speaker just as she loosened another attack, causing a feedback that overloaded it and made it blow up around her arm, throwing her aim with the other arm off so badly she shot Bakeneko instead just as she was about to get up again, making her cry out in pain and tumble away from the armoured songstress.

Polymnia herself cried out in pain, her arm covered in bruises and cuts from the explosion, though her innate toughness and the layer of ballistic weave she’d between her skin and the actual mechanical parts prevented heavier damage.

“Now, I’m not a complete jerk,” Immanuel followed up, stepping forward towards Tyche with his arms spread wide, following it up by an absent-minded kick to Dusu’s throat, causing her to choke up and bend over in pain, just as she’d been about to speak up. “I really don’t feel like listening to you, Heng,” he quipped, and continued to walk towards Tyche with a disarming smile.

Basil groaned, slowly getting back up on his feet – the strain of the last few days was really starting to catch up to him – as he blinked the stars out of his view. By the time he managed that, the only ones left standing were himself, Tyche, Tartsche and Spellgun.

Amy was on the ground, moaning softly with unfocused eyes. Bakeneko and Osore were both still conscious but stunned, lying on the ground. Polymnia was on her knees, holding her mangled right arm to her chest, sniffling as tears leaked from her eyes. Hecate was on the ground next to Immanuel, who was still holding one of her arms by the wrist. Basil hadn’t even noticed her go down.

Both Tartsche and Spellgun were aiming their guns at him, but since he stood between them and Tyche, they didn’t want to risk taking the shot.

Tyche was staring slack-jawed at him, her grip on her rifle quite loose.

Graymalkin had curled up on Amy’s breasts, using them as pillows as he yawned.

“So, now that all that unpleasantness is over,” Immanuel said with a small sigh, seemingly not even winded. “How about we have a nice talk, hm?” He looked around at the teens. “I have no interest in keeping the lot of you here, really. In fact, I’m perfectly willing to let you get back home.”

“What is the catch?” Basil asked suspiciously, not believing him for a moment, even though everything about him just plain screamed sincerity.

“Well, you do have quite a lot of damages to make up for,” Immanuel replied, turning his back to Tyche and letting go of Hecate’s arm, so he could face Basil. “So I think it’d only be fair if you and Melody over there were to work for us for, let’s say… a quarter of a year, each.” He clapped his hands together, smiling brightly. “You two promise me three months of servitude each – no wetwork, nothing illegal, even – and I’ll not only let your friends go right now, I’ll even pay you both quite handsomly. And you can get back to your own affairs. How’s that sound?”

“Never,” Polymnia replied, her voice coming out distorted. “Like we’d ever agree to work for someone like you!”

“Now, don’t be judgemental,” Immanuel wagged a finger at her. “You don’t really know me just yet.”

“We’ve… seen enough…” Hecate groaned as she got up on her feet, leaning heavily onto her staff. “You fucking people belong in a maximum security prison… or better yet, six foot under,” she snarled, her eyes flashing with raw hatred within the shadows of her hood.

Language, young lady,” he frowned at her, mockingly. “What would your grandmother say if she heard you talk like that?”

Hecate flinched, snarling audibly at him.

He knows too much, Basil thought, his brain racing wildly, trying to come up with an idea on how to take him on. If he’s some kind of combat precog, then the only way to beat him would be to trap him in a no-win situation.

Great idea, mate! Except for the little fact that he’s holding all the cards in his hands!

You’re not helping. Either come up with an idea or else shut up.

“Now, as I was saying – this doesn’t have to end in more tears,” Immanuel continued. “If you two accept my offer, I’ll even let you use all our resources to try and figure out a cure for Dusu’s plague.”

Basil clenched his fists, hard.

Immanuel smirked at him. “You know there’s no way you’ll be able to save her on your own. She wouldn’t survive a trip to the Protectorate, and it’s unlikely someone with your manifold issues would be able to reach him, anyway. And you don’t have the knowledge base nor the resources to work out a cure – but we might.” He put his hands together, palm-to-palm, as if praying – or begging. “Please, Basil. Think about it. You’ve always believed that the ends justify the means, no? I’m offering you near-endless resources, and the support of our best bio-gadgeteers – including Dusu.” He gestured at the unconscious woman. “Consider how much it would improve your chances if you had the actual source of the plague to work with, even if she doesn’t consciously know how it works or how to fix it! Accept my offer and not only will your friends be able to go back home safe and sound, but you’ll also be able to save Prisca.”

He bit his lip hard enough that it hurt, feeling angry with himself just for considering the offer. Yet he did, and Immanuel knew he was saying just the right things.

“Basil, you know the choice is barely one,” Immanuel pressed on. “Not for you. You know what needs to be done, and what needs to be done is a cure being found for Dusus many victims – are you really going to decline an offer to do what you know needs to be done?”

He lowered his raised fists, letting his arms hang loosely. Fuck. He was right, wasn’t he? Even disregarding the fact that there was no other option he could see to get his friends to safety – Immanuel seemed quite confident he’d be able to deal with Gloom Glimmer and any reinforcements she’d be able to drum up, even if those were members of the Dark Five – he was completely out of options as far as actually saving Prisca was concerned – the reason he’d organised this entire, ill-advised operation in the first place!

Even if he’s lying about letting me leave freely, afterwards, I’ll stand a better chance of getting out of this, nevermind of fixing Prisca, by playing along for now.

It needs to be done.

He sighed, releasing a breath he hadn’t even realised he’d been holding, as his shoulders slumped, opening his mouth to-

“To pursue what is necessary is the province of beasts – a true man must pursue naught but what he desires.”

He clenched his fists again, feeling an angry heat rise up from his gut. A snarl escaped his mouth, making Immanuel frown, looking honestly serious for the first time yet.

“Fuck. You,” he snarled at the villain.

Immanuel tilted his head, looking actually surprised for once. “Hm. I suppose that’s a no, then.” He put his hands on his waist, huffing. “The day’s full of surprises.” He looked over at Polymnia, who was still on her knees and craddling her bleeding arm.

Even though she was crying heavily, she glared back at him with defiance in her eyes.

“That’s a no then, as well,” he concluded with a sigh, lowering his head and shaking it. “What a waste.” He looked around at them all, watching as they all slowly got back up on their feet, at least those who weren’t still standing. Even Amy was getting up, on wobbly feet, barely able to balance on her stiletto heels, but determined to try, clearly.

Everyone looked scared, worn out and just plainly tired, but Basil could tell that they all intended to keep fighting.

He raised his fists again, clenching them, facing the brown-haired villain.

Even now, Immanuel looked, at worst, like he was annoyed, not worried.

“Well, let’s do… this…” Immanuel began to speak in a chipper tone of voice, but trailed off, frowning as he looked around the huge hall.

The lights flickered, once. Twice. Three times.

When they came back on for the fourth time, a huge, vaguely humanoid shadow stood between Immanuel and Polymnia, to Basil’s right, his back to the Esper who’d just kicked them all around so easily, looking down at the crying Polymnia.

“Me- Polymnia!” cried a familiar voice, and an equally familiar, white-cloaked figure stepped forth from next to the huge shadow, rushing over to her friend and throwing her arms around the kneeling girl, hugging her tight as light spread from every point of contact between them, gathering around Polymnia’s wounds and starting to mend them.

“So, this is it, huh?” the Dark said, curiosity in his distorted, choral voice, looking around lazily. “Now where’s that giant…”

He suddenly cut himself off as he turned around and looked down at Immanuel, who’d moved back by several metre, almost running into Tyche – as if he’d been trying to sneak away quickly. In his current form, the Dark was more than two heads taller than him, and Immanuel was by no means a short man.

The two supervillains stared at each other, one’s expression hidden utterly beneath the darkness of his power, yet radiating a sense of utter, disbelieving shock, while the other’s expression was calm, friendly, even amicable, yet he radiated nervousness.

“You,” the Dark breathed, sounding stunned. Off-balance. His voice barely more than a whisper. “You’re alive.”

“Long time no see, Goldschmidt,” Immanuel spoke carefully, putting his hands in his pants’ pockets. “Surprise, I guess.”

Whatever Basil had been expecting to happen next – whatever anyone had expected, from Tyche to Gloom Glimmer, all of whom were staring at the scene with bated breath – none of them, he was sure, expected what came next.

The Dark sobbed, staggering forward by a step, reaching out with a hand towards Immanuel, hesitating, as if afraid that he’d disappear if he made too sudden a move.

“Oh, oh… thank God… thank God…” he sobbed, his voice soft, the tears actually audible, though invisible. “I was so afraid… so, so afraid… that you were gone…”

The shadows he was wrapped in began to boil, spreading out slowly around him, like tar slowly creeping over the floor.

“That you had died…”

The shadows rolled off of him, writhing, expending, contracting, increasing.

“That I would never get my chance…”

He took another step closer, his voice breaking, another sob escaping him, like the sound a wounded animal would make when it finally found balm for its pain.

Gloom Glimmer flew towards Tartsche and Spellgun, pulling Polymnia along behind her with one hand, as more, ghostly hands reached out for all the others.

“To kill you myself…”

Basil found himself being pulled towards Gloom Glimmer, along with all the others, as she shot straight up, throwing a solid black sphere that blew through the ceiling, paving the way.

“To finally, finally… hurt you!”

Beneath them, as they rapidly flew above the floating city, the Darkness exploded, a tide of boiling shadows wallowing across the floating city like a tidal wave.

And above all, there was a scream, a cry of such utter, unadultered, unrestrained hatred, it chilled the blood in their veins.

Over fifty figures who’d been floating, flying and standing around the building Dusu’s lab was in charged forward to join their master in battle.

And then the Dark went to War.

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