B13.8 Call of the Sleeper

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Basil knew he wasn’t the most… sensible person out there. He often overlooked people’s feelings, not out of malice or a lack of care, he thought, but simply because they tended to seem so… unimportant, compared to everything else on his mind. The inventions, the science, the fight against evil, the fight for good… compared to all that, there was precious little time to worry about how others were feeling, oftentimes, and there’d been steadily less and less time, to boot.

Still, he would have needed to be blind, deaf and an imbecile not to notice that something was seriously wrong with his friend. Dalia looked like she’d been crying a lot, in a very short time. The little bit of mascara she tended to wear even underneath her mask, against his recommendation, had run down her cheeks in two quickly fading black streaks; her eyes were bloodshot and all of that was visible because she wasn’t wearing her mask.

Stepping forward, he put himself between her and the junior heroes, if only for appearances sake, reaching out to put his hand on her right shoulder, as Hecate was hanging onto her left one, her arms around Dalia’s torso.

He squeezed it, feeling her tremble, then calm a bit. “Welcome back,” he spoke as softly as he could, trying not to show the anger he was starting to feel.

Someone had hurt her badly. He could tell. He could see it in her eyes.

That someone was going to hurt a lot, if he could in any way arrange it.

First, though, he had to take care of her. Or at least help do it.

“Thanks, guys,” she said in a wavering voice as she reached out, grabbing him by the shoulder and pulling him in so she could hug him along with Hecate.

He barely managed to get his rifle out of the way before he was being crushed against her – she definitely wasn’t watching her strength, squeezing as hard as she could. Not that he, or Hecate, were going to complain.

After a good half-minute of that, he finally pulled back, though gently. They weren’t exactly in a situation where they could afford to spend too much time on this, as much as he felt it necessary.

“Tyche, what-” he began, trying to inquire as to what happened to her while they were separated, but she cut him off as she looked up from embracing Hecate, her eyes painful to look at, but determined.

“I know where she is,” she spoke, her voice firmer than before, as if the little group hug had actually helped her a bit. He certainly hoped it did. “I know where Dusu is, and what way to take to her. But we need to hurry.”

Basil was still trying to process that statement when Hecate spoke up. “It’s ‘which way’, not ‘what way’,” she corrected Dalia, her voice wavering, as if she was on the verge of tears herself.

“Drop dead, Grammazon,” Dalia replied with a smile. “Any-way, we should hurry before more of these losers show up, right?” She looked at everyone else.

“I have a few questions, actually,” Tartsche spoke, coming closer with the others. “But you’re right, we should get away from here. First, though, I must insist we check you.”

“Check me?” Dalia asked in confusion, though Basil immediately picked up on what Tartsche meant.

As reasonable as it was, he still felt like slapping him over the head for possibly putting her in more distress. “He means that he wants to make sure you are not under some form of mind control or other coercion, and that you are actually who you say you are,” he explained calmly. “Remember the infiltrator protocols I made you memorise?”

She nodded, as understanding dawned on her face.

“Wait, you guys have your own infiltrator protocols?” Spellgun asked, sounding surprised.

“Of course!” he and Hecate replied in tune.

The junior heroes, minus Gloom Glimmer and Osore, looked at them in surprise.

Tartsche was the first one to recover. “Well, anyway, we don’t actually need that right now, provided that Gloom Glimmer’s power is cooperating?” He looked at his teammate, who’d pulled her hood up to hide her face, again, her cape falling over her shoulders to hide most of her form, other than the toes of her feet, clad in the black cloth of her suit.

She nodded, stepping forward. “I have just the power for that,” she spoke, her voice a little more normal than usual, without the odd harmonics beneath it that tended to freak Hecate out so much. “Do you consent to me using an Esper power on you, Tyche?”

“I get a choice? ” Dalia asked, surprised. “I figured you’d insist on it anyway.”

Gloom Glimmer shook her head. “I’d rather do this with your permission. It’s rather invasive, after all, and you have no way to tell whether I’ll look at more than just whether or not you really are who you say you are and whether you’re under the influence of another power.”

The redhead surprised them all by chuckling, as if amusing. “Go ahead,” she said with a sad, brittle smile. “Can’t be worse than what’s already happened.”

Basil’s grip on his rifle tightened, hard.

Gloom Glimmer reached out with both hands, as Hecate stepped back, letting go of Dalia’s torso to hold her hand instead. She put her hands onto the redhead’s temples, gently, and lowered her head, standing there quietly for a few moments.

Then she stepped back, letting her arms fall down and disappear beneath her cloak. “She’s clean,” she announced, as her hands rose again, dropping two blue-and-white pills onto her palm, swallowing them quickly. “Can’t find any sign of mental tampering and she’s definitely whom she appears to be.”

Tartsche nodded, looking relieved. “Great. Sorry about that.” He gave Tyche an apologetic smile.

“Nah, don’t knock it,” she replied easily. “Only good sense. So, are we  gonna get going before these bozos wake up?” She nodded towards the downed villains.

“Yes, let us get moving,” Basil agreed. “You can tell us what you found out while we are on the move.”

He looked around at the others, to see if anyone disagreed. No one did, and so they left, running (in Gloom Glimmer’s case, floating) after Dalia as she ran down the hallway.

***

The group quickly passed by the entrapped, unconscious Chronicle and ran down the hallway that Basil, Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer had come from earlier.

“So, how do we get to Dusu, and how do you know where she is?” Basil asked Dalia, keeping pace with her with some effort – apart from Tartsche, he was the only one in the group who didn’t have an enhanced physique, and unlike him, Tartsche hadn’t just come out of heavy melee combat with a sword-wielding lunatic.

“We’ve got to get to the train station – they have trains running through this entire place!” Dalia replied, looking at him over her shoulder.

He was glad to see that, now that she had something to do, she looked better, if marginally so.

“We’ve got to take the D1-line West – I came with the East line – to the D-hub, then take the D-line North to the main hub. From there, we can take the A-Line to the A-hub, and the A3-line to the last stop. That’s where Dusu’s lab is ‘posed to be, according to the guy I got this from!”

“Who’s that?” Hecate asked, as she stuck close to her friend without any apparent strain.

I need some proper power armour again, Basil thought in annoyance, even as he listened closely. Lugging this much gear around is such a pain, no matter how much I reduce the weight.

“Some guy named Im-Immanuel,” she replied, tripping over the name. “A creepy German guy, not that that’s anything unusual.”

“Immanuel, huh?” Gloom Glimmer spoke up while flying closer, briefly touching Basil on the back.

He almost yelped when he lifted off, floating along with her, though he reigned it in – and his legs immediately made their gratitude known.

“Yeah, weird name, right? Do you know him?” Dalia asked, looking forward again.

Basil frowned. He’d have expected her to keep looking over her shoulder and rely on her power not to trip up or run into anything. It might have been nothing, just a whim, but it felt more significant, considering the state she was in.

“No, unless he’s the famous eighteenth-century philosopher,” Gloom Glimmer replied. “It’s not the most popular name ever, but it’s pretty common in the German states, as well as other parts of continental Europe, though usually in a different spel- ah, but this isn’t important at all.” She popped another one of her pills.

Basil took note of that, if only because he’d finished analysis of the one he’d filched a while ago, and knew just what they did. Or didn’t do. I wonder whether I should tell her… but then again, I doubt Lady Light of all people would be lying to her daughter out of malicious reasons.

“Well, he hinted that he was, at least, old enough to know Weisswald, even though he looked like an early twenties sex god,” Dalia said casually.

“Yeah, that makes him even more trustworthy than just the fact that he’s in this place,” Bakeneko threw in with a sneer.

“I know, I didn’t trust him, either, but…” She paused, apparently searching for the right way to phrase things. “Everything he told me has been true so far, and… he said he wants us to find Dusu.”

“Did he say why he’d want that? It sounds mightily suspicious,” Polymnia spoke as she jogged along.

Dalia nodded, without turning around. “Yeah, he said he thought she wasn’t really worth the effort to support anymore, and this is some kinda last test for her to prove she’s worth being around, otherwise she might as well get whatever she deserves.”

“Now that’s just gotta be bo-” Bakeneko began to say.

“That makes sense,” Gloom Glimmer interrupted her, speaking quietly. “The Gefährten have done this before, like that mess in Chicago a while ago. That was them putting the former Ascendant to the test.”

“Wait, the Ascendant is a member of these madmen!?” Tartsche and Spellgun asked in concert, sounding shocked. Everyone else was staring at Gloom Glimmer as well, at the same time.

“Yes, I… heard about it from Dad. The Ascendant is a legacy that’s belonged to the Gefährten since the beginning, really. But the former holder wasn’t living up to his duties – making more people have origins and manifest – so they gave him one last chance to prove he was worthy of the name. Now that he’s failed, there’s probably an all new Ascendant, somewhere around here,” she explained.

They took a right turn down another hallway, finally leaving the waxen section behind. Not that cold steel was any more comfortable or anything, just more… normal.

“So this is a reasonable course of action for these people?” Basil asked, wanting to make sure.

“As far as I know, yes,” Gloom Glimmer replied firmly. “I’m not an expert on them, obviously, but it fits.” She fell quiet for a moment. “Say, where’d you meet this guy? He must be pretty high up in the hierarchy here, to make a decision like that.”

Dalia gestured up towards the roof and ahead. “On the top of that huge-ass tower in the middle of this fucking place. Some kind of meditation chamber, it was.”

Basil, Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia traded glances; he could tell they realised what that meant.

“What did you just think?” Hecate asked, looking back at the three of them over her shoulder, running ahead with Dalia. “You three were trading very knowing looks there.”

“Gloom Glimmer used a danger sense earlier, when she found Polymnia and me,” Basil explained. “Among other things, it told her that there was a massive threat at the top of that tower, someone more dangerous than even the Dark.”

That caused a few moments of silence.

“Oh,” Dalia said, almost gasping. “Fits, I guess… he was really extraordinarily scary, as nice as he was…”

“What can you tell us about him?” Basil pressed the issue, as he reconsidered just how much he could afford to trust her right now – if this was someone more dangerous than the Dark, so likely more powerful than the Dark and someone who was also old enough to have known Weisswald, then it stood to reason that he might be powerful or skillful (or both) enough to evade detection by Gloom Glimmer, as powerful as she might be.

“He… he was really way, way pretty, like,” she began to reply, her speech a little stuttering. “Like, the prettiest guy I’ve ever seen, ever,” she continued, speeding up. “He didn’t use any obvious power or anything, not that I noticed.”

They reached a small train station that was, like most of the complex so far, completely abandoned, both train tracks empty.

Slowing down, then stopping near the edge, they gathered around Dalia, though they kept a little distance, so as not to crowd her; only Hecate remained right next to her, still holding onto her hand, squeezing it in support.

“He just… well, he just talked to me. But… he knew a lot. WAY too much,” she whispered, looking down at her feet. “He knew, he knew about my equipment… he knew how my power worked better than I do… he knew my name.” She shuddered, as several people around her gasped, and Hecate stepped even closer, letting go of Dalia’s hand to wrap her arm around her waist instead, pulling her into a hug.

“Oh Tyche, I… I’m so sorry,” she whispered, putting her other arm around her, as well.

Dalia turned fully towards her and embraced her in turn, hiding her face against the side of Hecate’s hood.

Basil was pretty sure she was crying.

He… he wasn’t sure how to describe how he felt. Wrath was too soft a word to describe it.

Worse yet…

If he could find out hers, does he know that of the others here? Or would he only find out if we came too close, if he found out via his power?

He looked around at the others, seeing various degrees of shock and outrage on their faces… and no small amount of fear.

Gloom Glimmer was hard to read, her face and body almost entirely hidden, but her mouth was set in a tight line. She had no reason to be worried herself – her identity was public anyway, and anyone who tried to go after her family rather than her deserved what they got, but she seemed angry nonetheless.

Polymnia, Tartsche, Spellgun and Bakeneko looked fearful. Each of them had a secret identity, and (likely) family to care about, even if Aimihime, at least, didn’t like her father all that much.

It was impossible to read Osore and Basil frankly didn’t know a thing about the boy other than that he was ethnically Japanese. He really should have asked Aimihime more about her boyfriend, what kind of friend failed to even think of that…

He couldn’t see Hecate’s face right then, but he knew her well enough to know that she must be terrified, seeing how tight she was with her (very expansive) family.

Basil himself… well, if there was a villain out there – mayhaps a really powerful telepath? – whom could find out secret identities easily, or whom had an organisation with the resources to do so, even for obscure, young heroes like Dalia, then that was a problem, but not so much for himself. His only family was Amy, and she certainly didn’t need any protection from enemies who’d be interested in someone of his level.

Still, I need to talk to Amy about this… assuming she doesn’t kill me after this stunt.

Just then, the train arrived. A quick look at the driver’s cabin as it passed showed that it was automated, and the doors opened smoothly.

They entered, together, Dalia disentangling herself from Hecate to do so.

Inside, the train car was… surprisingly normal. Simple, lightly padded seats with red cotton covers. Everyone sat down, with nothing better to do, except for Basil, who leaned against the window right next to the seat that Dalia and Hecate sat down on together, putting Dalia between himself and the Greek witch; Gloom Glimmer didn’t so much sit as move into a lotus position in mid-air, lowering herself until she was level with the seat that Polymnia sat on, since the latter’s armour took up a little too much space to make for comfortable sharing of the seat.

The others also paired up – Bakeneko and Osore, and Tartsche and Spellgun, the four of them facing him and his team, while Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia sat at a right angle to the rest, their seats facing the back of the train.

“Is that why you are not putting your mask on?” Basil asked in a soft voice, looking down at Dalia as he folded his arms in front of his chest.

“Oh, that?” She looked up with a surprised expression on her tired face, fresh tear tracks visible on her cheeks, through her mascara. “I completely forgot about this, sorry…” She pulled a tissue paper out of a pocket of her leather jacket, spitting on it a few times before she wiped the mascara off her face, then she pulled her mask back on. “I guess, yeah, I didn’t see the point, so I forgot about it,” she said, her voice now slightly muffled by the mask.

Basil relaxed, just a little bit – he hadn’t even noticed, but he was glad she had the added protection against strikes or shots to her head, even with the opening for her red hair in the back, he’d been more tense than he would otherwise have been while she’d been so exposed.

“What else can you tell us about this Immanuel? Did he give you any hints as to what his power is, or his true designs?” And how much did he really know about your power? Basil wasn’t sure he wanted to draw too much attention to that, not with the junior heroes around. Anything he said might move up the ladder, in time, and a probability manipulator would be a prime target for recruitment, maybe even more so than himself.

“As I said, he was… nice,” she spoke, her head lowered and her hand holding tightly onto Hecate’s. “Even while he… spoke about some… troubling things… private things.” She looked up at the junior heroes. “I’m sorry, you’re all great and all, but…”

Tartsche raised a hand, looking surprisingly calm in spite of the situation. “We understand. You don’t have to tell us about that. Just tell us any salient information you may have on him.”

“Um… there’s one thing that stuck out. He seemed to have some kind of… well, when I asked him where you guys all were, he immediately knew, and could point it out to me,” she replied quietly. “Like, knew it down to which level of the tower you were in, or that B-Six here and the Popprincess broke out with some anti-EMP stuff. But he said it was ‘a pain’ to keep track of you.” She looked at Gloom Glimmer.

They all looked at her, and Basil, at least, felt very curious about what that could mean.

“That could mean he’s a pretercognitive,” Gloom Glimmer explained calmly. “I know that some aspect of my power messes with them, though I don’t know what, exactly. I can’t do it deliberately, at least.”

“Preter-what?” Aimi and Dalia both asked at the same time, and with nearly the same voice.

“Pretercognitives are particular sub-category of Espers…” Basil began to answer…

“What did I tell you about Exposition, Brennus!?” Hecate snapped, pointing an accusatory finger at him.

Oh, come on… “Two sentences or less…” he grumbled, remembering one of her many, many lectures.

“And you remember the penalty for breaking that rule?” she pressed on.

No more free food at your family restaurants, he thought as he nodded. “Yeah.”

She nodded. “Good. Continue.”

He grumbled something under his breath about people who were ungrateful about getting detailed information and continued, trying to ignore the amused looks everyone else was giving him.

“Pretercognitives are a sub-category of Espers, specifically Post-, Peri- and Precognitives; that is to say, people who view, in some manner, the past, present or future. They are the rarest form of Espers and some of the most powerful and interesting powers out there, particularly the various forms of Precognition, belong to that class,” he said, stopping before he could actually recount the sum of his knowledge about the subject – and he’d researched it extensively, for various reasons.

Gloom Glimmer nodded. “Also, they’re known for having strange interactions and suffering interference from some kinds of powers, of which mine appears to be one. Sometimes, they work on me just fine and sometimes… not.”

“Alright, so we can reasonably assume that he has some form of Pretercognition, though he may also simply have been patched into their computer and surveillance systems – there ought to be more security around here than we have noticed so far,” Basil followed. “Anything else?” He asked, after the others nodded.

Dalia shook her head. “Not really. I mean, he might have been a telepath, to figure out so much about me, but… he also knew stuff I didn’t know about, so… I dunno.”

“Where all the things he knew that you didn’t know just about your power? Because if so, he might have some kind of power analysis ability,” Hecate proposed.

Her friend shook her head, though. “No, he knew more than that.”

They looked at each other, Basil, Hecate and Dalia, before falling quiet.

That’s it then. I don’t have the foggiest idea what kind of power he might have, beyond it being some form of Pretercognition, which might mean anything, Basil thought to himself.

“Uh, this is all fun and all,” Spellgun spoke up, making everyone look up at him. “But we’re kind of ignoring the fact that, whatever his power is, it probably doesn’t matter if Gloomy is right and he’s just going to let us take on Dusu. We should maybe focus on that, first, then worry about him.”

“What if he, however, objects to us leaving after we’ve performed this little ‘test’ for his subordinate?” Basil countered, perhaps a little more sharply than he needed to.

He really was, rather extraordinarily so, angry, even if he had so far managed to keep it simmering beneath the surface.

“Then we deal with that later,” Spellgun stood his ground, setting his jaw. “Let’s focus on our immediate problems, and worry about the rest if and when we get to it.” He looked around at everyone in turn, as if challenging them to disagree, but no one spoke up.

He does have a point, after all, Basil thought. “So be it then,” he agreed, finally. “Our next issue, then…”

“Excuse me,” Polymnia spoke up, raising a hand as if she was in school. “I do actually have something huge to talk about!”

They all looked at her, but she was looking just at Basil… or rather, at his left gauntlet.

Ah, right, I forgot that this would happen…

“Brennus, you have a force-field projector!” she spoke intently, her vocaliser sounding far too human. “That’s a huge thing! When did you come up with it, when did you find the time to build it? What else can it do, other than that shield? And do you think you can make more? And what is it with that thing attached to your thigh?” She finished by pointing at the ovoid that was magnetically attached to his thigh armour.

Everyone’s attention was on him, now, ranging from curiosity to concern to… well, he wasn’t sure what Hecate was thinking, exactly, but she seemed amused.

“My gauntlet’s a force-field projector, yes. I came up with it after we worked on the Arc Caster… well, it’d be more accurate to say that working on the Arc Caster allowed me to finally finish some fragmentary ideas I have had for a while now. I cannibalised some other projects of mine and assembled this prototype.” Polymnia looked like she wanted to say something, but he pressed on, turning to the other new invention he’d brought along. “As for th-“

He was interrupted, suddenly, when the lights went out, from one moment to the next, followed by red emergency lighting turning on.

Everyone who was seated jumped up, reading powers and weapons, but the train kept driving, though slowing down.

“What happened!?” Tartsche asked, his voice firm. “Gloom Glimmer, do you see anything?”

“No! I was looking out for anything dangerous or such, but I didn’t see anything coming!” Gloom Glimmer replied as she floated up by a few inches, her cape billowing open. Her hands were clenched into fists. “But we definitely just… enterd the territory of some kind of power. A dimensional shift? Yeah, I think that’s it – we’re in some kind of pocket dimension.”

The train slowed further, then stopped, and the doors opened.

Basil traded glances with Hecate, before he turned around to look at Gloom Glimmer. “Can you get us out of here? Straight out, with some kind of power?”

She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry… dimensional travel is a rare one, even for me,” she replied. “And this place… it is protected, somehow. People aren’t supposed to get out, even with that kind of power, I think.”

“So then… how can we get out?” Tartsche asked, holding an assault rifle in each hand. Basil was pretty sure they were loaded with lethal ammo, unlike the usual rubber bullets he fired back in New Lennston.

“I figure we have to find whoever made it and get them to let us out. I’m certain they’re in here with us, somehow,” she answered.

“No use in dallying then,” Basil said, loading a new shot into his rifle. “Let us go out and look for them.”

***

As soon as they stepped out of the train car onto a dark floor made of regular squares, Basil immediately noticed something new.

“I am glowing red,” he said flatly, looking down at his left hand, turning it so he could look from every direction. It – and the rest of his body – was surrounded by a halo of soft, almost imperceptible red light.

Looking around, he saw that all the others were surrounded by the exact same glow.

“Any idea what this means?” Spellgun asked, holding tightly onto his rifle.

“I… think it has something to do with… not being part of this reality?” Gloom Glimmer said. “Ugh… I think this is a contrivers work, it’s not usually this hard to figure a power out… but I think we should look out for anyone with a differently coloured glow about them.”

“I CAN’T ASK FOR A LINE MORE STRAIGHT THAN THAT!” a female voice boomed from all around them.

Basil raised his rifle, turning in a circle to survey their surroundings quickly.

They were in a huge, bare room, so large that the walls and ceiling couldn’t be seen – just a floor made of perfectly regular, glossy black squares, fitted so tightly they seemed almost like a solid piece, illuminated by a light that seemed to have no source, casting soft shadows on the ground.

The only break in the pattern were the train tracks and the car they had come in on, which seemed to come from and go to nowhere.

Then, in the distance with the train car in Basil’s back when he looked in that direction, a glow appeared, a glowing white point that extended into lines spreading over the sky.

“Uh, guys, I’m feeling some really, really, really powerful magic around here…” Hecate said in a hushed, almost awed voice.

“Oh shit,” came from several mouths all at once.

Basil stayed quiet, aiming in the direction of the light with his rifle, even as the lines formed mystical designs, pentacles, circles and other diagrams, several layers of them, interlocked and shifting.

Finally, a person appeared in the distance, walking closer.

He was tall, a man built like a bodybuilder’s ideal, muscular without being  ridiculous about it; he wore a silver bodysuit and a white cape, his curly blonde hair slicked back over his head, his face open, friendly and honest. The kind of face you could instantly trust in a crisis, who’d console even the most despondant, panicked innocent. His smile was all the same, only even more so.

He was surrounded by a soft blue glow.

Dalia was the first one to manage coherent words at the sight. “Guys… isn’t that… the Protector!?

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B13.7 Call of the Sleeper

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Their enemies burst into motion before their teammate even had time to slide down the wall. The man covered in dancing lightning threw his arms out, unleashing four solid blue-white spheres the size of footballs that rose up into the air above the burgeoning fight.

At the same time, the woman in the bird-mask reached out and grabbed her shattered sword, without even looking at it, and dissolved into a murder of shaggy, black crows.

Just then, Gloom Glimmer waved her hand at them in an imperious gesture, sending forth a ripple that travelled through the wax floor, as if it was liquid.

Their enemies saw it coming, of course, and reacted much faster this time; the man in blue and Skulls jumped over the ripple as it reached them, avoiding contact – only to stagger as they sank into the ground, up to their knees, the wax seeming to liquefy, then immediately solidify again, trapping them.

The woman with the book landed on her feet, staggering, as the ripple moved towards her, barely holding onto her shredded book. Basil could see her eyes widen as she saw it coming towards her, with no way to dodge.

“Boltstar!” she shouted, almost a squeal, sounding younger than he would have guessed – he mentally re-assigned her as a girl rather than a woman.

The man in blue twisted around at the hip, throwing out a hand towards her. A crackling, unstable sphere of white-blue energy shot out, hitting the ground just a few feet in front of the girl with the book, where the ripple was.

The very moment it touched the ground, the four spheres he’d thrown up into the air flared up, releasing bolts of painfully bright lightning, one each, striking that point.

The wax was vaporised, making the girl with the book cry out – but the explosion also disrupted whatever power Gloom Glimmer had sent out, protecting the girl with the book from its entrapping effects.

Boltstar twisted around once more, shooting another crackling sphere, this time towards Basil – no, towards Gloom Glimmer, who was floating just over his shoulder and behind.

It hit her in the chest, the spheres above immediately releasing their lightning once more, converging upon her sternum.

He didn’t have the time to check on the effect it had on her, as the crows converged as well, reforming into the purple-clad villainess, to his left and out of his rifle’s firing arc, swinging her broken sword down at his weapon, still enough blade left to possibly slice through the barrel, or at least seriously damage the weapon.

It didn’t work out, as he triggered the force-field on his left arm’s gauntlet, the circular shield springing into existence, flaring up with circuit-like patterns of light as it absorbed and spread out the force of her blow, deflecting the sword.

There was no time for a counter-attack, however, as she immediately dissolved into a multitude of birds once more, obscuring his vision as some of them charged his head, fluttering their wings right in front of his face and cawing up a storm.

No, not playing that game, he thought, triggering one of the defensive modifications he’d done to his armor with a twitch of his eyes. The crows screamed as they were charred to death by a powerful electrical current, at least those who had been in direct contact with any part of his equipment, from his rifle to his cloak, as he rolled to the side, bringing more of them into contact with the cloak and dodging any possible attack at the same time.

He couldn’t smell the charred flesh of the dead animals – he’d sealed his helmet, just in case one of their enemies used a gaseous attack – but he saw their burned corpses twitch on the ground before going still.

The remaining crows pulled together again, reforming into the woman; not a willful action, because she reformed right in front of him; her costume was charred, burned, whole sections of it missing to reveal pale skin underneath; the only thing that protected her modesty being the burns covering most of her torso as she staggered, nearly falling over.

Basil shot her in the knee, the power of his rifle dialed down to where it didn’t tear the limb off, merely shattering the bone and making the woman cry out as she fell.

“Chronicle!” she screamed in pain even as she fell – and then she flickered and leapt at him, whole and unharmed, her the pristine blade of her katana slicing through the barrel of his rifle like it was made of butter.

What?

He rolled back, still holding onto half of his rifle, and saw the man – Boltstar – standing atop the wax, as if he’d never sunk into it, releasing another four spheres to rise up in the air as Hecate and Spellgun, who seemed to have engaged him, stared in surprise.

Coming up into a crouching position, he realised that those two weren’t the only ones suddenly unharmed – Skulls was free as well, once more and so were all her drones. The entire two dozen downed Skulls that his friends had taken out earlier were standing, unharmed and fully armed, surrounding them all.

And then the real fight started.

***

What just happened? Irene thought, feeling panic rise inside as she dodged one of Boltstar’s spheres, not wanting to test her defenses against twice the power it’d had before. His first hit had burned a hole into her costume, though it’d only delivered a painful, but not serious impact to her chest underneath; but that had been before he’d doubled the number of turrets, as she thought of the spheres above.

She combined her dodge with a spin, letting her see the result of the sphere impacting the wall behind her, across the hall – eight lightning bolts hit in a massive explosion, making her feel quite glad she’d dodged – while she completed her pirouette, to face the core of her opponents – Skulls, Boltstar and Chronicle.

The crow-woman was busy fighting Ba- Brennus, now that she’d been rejuvenated, but he was as slippery as usual, dodging her strikes or deflecting them with his new force-shield – Seriously, he came up with a force-field? Dad is going to descend into paroxysms – while he actually pressed the attack, striking at her with the butt of his ruined rifle, swinging it like an improvised tonfa, having reversed his grip on it.

She didn’t have time to admire his tenacity, though, because the dozens of Skulls around them had drawn her team’s attention from Boltstar and there was nothing to stop him from lobbing more of those targeting shots of his, every one of them triggering the eight turrets above to devastating effect, forcing her to dance through the air, cloak flying wildly, even as taser shots from the Skulls were bouncing off her skin, tearing tiny chunks out of her costume.

It was quite clear that her current power loadout was not up to the task of fighting off this assault, but to risk letting go of them… what if she got something unsuited to the task? Just one hit from Boltstar’s turrets would most likely knock her out, forcing her into her safe mode and leaving her friends to fight alone.

I need some breathing room, she thought, only to realise that she did have the means to get it.

Flight, impenetrable skin and reinforced organs, enhanced reflexes and liquefying ripples. The solution was there.

After dodging another one of Boltstar’s spheres, she threw her arms open, causing ripples to spread out from the ground underneath her, carefully restraining them so they did not liquefy the ground enough to trap anyone – that would’ve hit her friends, as well; no, instead, she caused the wax to buck, the ripples enlarging into waves, liquefying just enough to hold onto the feet of everyone, causing them to be thrown about, yet not lose their footing, disrupting the fight for a few precious moments.

She used them to stop holding onto her current abilities. Her power, which had already been aching to change, immediately switched them out, the current set rapidly fading away to be replaced by new ones.

Taking on new abilities was always a strange, yet familiar experience to Irene. The old ones would… fade, as if sinking down into a deep ocean, only for new powers to rise up from the darkness, taking their place. The strange part being when they settled in and knowledge of them filled her mind, as if she’d always had them. Not always complete knowledge, but knowledge nonetheless, letting her put them to use straight away, even if she didn’t always immediately understand every aspect of them.

A new form of flight, tapping into gravity around her, rapidly flipping it to keep her in place, accompanied by a light sense of vertigo before her inner ear adapted; it would allow her to corner at extreme speeds by flipping and enhancing the effect of gravity on herself, with the side-effect of being able to turn herself into a powerful projectile if need be.

A defensive power, a kind of discorporation, that would have her body instantly turn into smoke upon being hit, avoiding damage of all kinds.

Finally, an offensive ability, unraveling her limbs into countless tendrils that could snap out and crush or slash targets with incredible strength.

Irene frowned. The abilities didn’t fit. The flight was too powerful, taking up too much of her potential in one power that was wasted in such tight confines. Her defense made both the offensive aspect of her flight, as well as her main attack power useless, as she’d discorporate upon impact, negating any damage she might cause.

Her body burst into smoke as countless taser shots penetrated it, causing no damage whatsoever. The same held true for Boltstar’s shot, which simply flew through her, rather than trigger a shot from the eight turrets above.

It was then that she discovered another problem with her current powerset – while her tendrils were numerous and fast enough to strike the taser bolts out of the air, but she couldn’t suppress the smoke-defense, as it was completely automatic.

No, I need something else!

She flew up, still in smoke form – at least it still let her flight work, though it was slower than she knew it could be – and reformed above the battle, just in time to hear a massive caterwauling sound.

Below her, Melody’s attack left the villains reeling, though it did nothing to her team – the junior heroes all had protective earbuds, courtesy of Melody herself, and Hecate either had her own defenses or something made by Brennus.

The villains were not so lucky – the only one who seemed to resist was the crow-woman, who burst into a murder of crows, much the same way Irene had burst into smoke to evade attacks.

Osore was the first one to capitalise on the distraction, as he unleashed his literally fearsome, black blasts, shooting two Skulls in rapid succession. His body was already bulging, at least twice as heavy as he had been at the outset, sucking up the fear around him. Having the Skulls rejuvenated might have given the enemy more firepower, but it also gave him more fear to feed on, even if their emotions were suppressed – his fear blasts took care of that.

Still, the fight was not going well. Hecate was on the defensive, having erected a bubble made of a green force field as half a dozen Skulls focused fire on her.

Boltstar, meanwhile, kept shooting at her, preventing her from pulling herself together and focusing; at least until something hit his knee hard enough to shatter it, making him fall down and scream in pain.

Brennus. Somehow, his rifle was still functional, even with half the barrel missing.

Irene immediately reformed her body and let go of her current powers, mentally pushing them away, reaching for something new, something useful.

She started to drop as her gravity power faded, only to catch herself as a duo of new powers set in. A powerful aerokinesis, starting around her, stirring up the air to hold her aloft, more floating than flying, growing stronger as it spread further around her; the other was stranger, a power she’d had before, though rarely. A kind of pericognition tied to her sight, letting her glean progressively more information on powers the longer she focused on a person within her line of sight.

Boltstar, came the information as she focused on the man who’d been focusing on her in turn, charges up over time to create up to four turret-spheres that he can release and recall at will; trigger-spheres release lightning bolts from turret-spheres. Charging up new spheres takes longer than existing spheres persist.

She frowned, even as she dodged another one of his trigger-spheres, simultaneously recognising another use of her aerokinesis – anything that entered its growing sphere of influence, she could feel through the way it disturbed the air, giving her an edge up on dodging attacks.

This, this is good, she thought. I love it when I get a good one like this. Still, how did he make eight turrets when his limit is supposed to be four?

His form flickered, again, and he was standing once more, unharmed like before – and repeated the exact same movement as last time, releasing another four spheres, which spread out towards the walls, for a total of twelve.

Not his power, she thought. Someone else’s.

She sent a blast of air at him, forcing the man to dive out of the way instead of sending another trigger-sphere at her, buying herself time to focus on the crow-woman.

Karasuha. Contriver, specialising on enchanting items with animal-spirit th-

No, not her, she thought. It wasn’t Skulls, either – she’d already figured his power out. Which left only the last one, Chronicle. But she was out of sight, outside the tower in the hallway.

Got to get a good look at her, Irene decided, and dove down, both dodging Boltstar’s next attack – which utterly destroyed an entire fourth of the fifth and sixth level of the prison tower, as no less than twelve turrets fired upon it.

Irene dropped down in free-fall, catching herself just five feet off the ground and generated a gust of wind powerful enough to bowl over the Skulls around her, buying everyone but Basil, Spellgun and Tartsche some breathing room.

The former because he was busy kicking Karasuha’s ass, beating the woman senseless with punches and kicks, the latter two because Tartsche had his power active over both himself and his boyfriend, keeping them absolutely safe.

Osore had swollen in size, his body deformed, a huge pot-belly forming as his skin started to turn into a purplish red colour, his mask beginning to fuse with his face; Bakeneko rode on his shoulders, shifted into a cape-like mass of furry tentacles that lashed out at the Skulls around him as he waded through the enemy’s lines, smashing left and right with his enlarged fists, while firing more fear blasts inbetween to spark more fear, and thus more growth.

Then, the Skulls flickered, all of them, and they were whole again, as Osore dropped in size by almost a foot, the effects of his power on them reversed along with the damage.

Irene averted her gaze, looking through the gate at Chronicle.

Can record people and objects by touch, reset them to the state they were in when recorded. Requires line of sight to trigger reset. Favourable interaction with powers of her teammates.

She could see it now. Resetting Boltstar to a charged state, so as to release more turrets. Resetting Skulls, which somehow also reset his entire collective, fixing them all at once. Resetting Karasuha… there had to be an interaction there, as well, with her contrivances. She wasn’t going to check – Contrivers tended to give her a headache at the best of times, she really couldn’t afford that now.

If I take Chronicle down, it won’t matter. She’s the key member of her group, she thought, twisting into a spiral to avoid another trigger-sphere and letting loose another gale-blow, this time aimed at the main Skull, knocking him/her into the wall just as he/she had been about to shoot Melody in the back.

She might have made that blow more brutal than it needed to be, but… fuck it, he deserved it.

Next, she shot forward, flying so low her breasts nearly dragged over it, her cape billowing in the gales she used to propell herself.

Shooting past Boltstar before he could take him, she blasted him out of sight from Chornicle, helped by the fact that the girl saw her coming and dove out of the way, away from the gate into the tower.

The others reacted instantly, all except Karasuha, who didn’t have the leisure to do anything but try to fend off Brennus. Boltstar threw a trigger-sphere at her with what seemed to be alarm on his face, for the first time in this battle; no less than half the Skulls, including the main host, opened fire in her direction.

Gale-like winds shot out from her, violently, blowing the taser-bolts away as she also moved herself forward and around the corner, just barely dodging the crackling trigger-sphere.

Buoyed onwards by the explosion behind her, she shot down the hallway towards the fleeing Chronicle, relinquishing her aerokinesis to her power’s urge to change – the hallways were too narrow to use it effectively. Unfortunately, her power-sight went with it, torn away along with the power over wind to make room for another.

A new power rose up as she fell towards the ground, a familiar, warm one. It was a power she often drew upon, ripples and waves in various forms, affecting both matter and energy; every time she used it, she felt safe, even when it had nothing to do with defense. It was a big power, always, no matter what form it took, explaining why she had lost the costly power-sight as well as the rather costly aerokinesis.

She hit the ground rolling, the way her mother had taught her to take a fall and, as she came up onto a crouching position, she slapped the ground in front of her with an open palm.

Ripples spread from the point of impact, through the floor, towards Chronicle, over the walls and even onto the ceiling.

She could feel them spread, rapidly, propagating through the wax and the other materials beneath it, overtaking Chronicle who was only moving with the speed of a normal, if fit girl.

As soon as they had spread far enough, she triggered the ability, the way her innate understanding guided her to do.

The ripples congregated into six different points, focusing, and then the wax shot out in six spikes towards Chronicle, spearing through the heavy robe she was wearing, though not hitting her body – pinning her in place, standing up, coming out from all around and ahead of her.

“Shit! Shit, fuck you, fuck you you bitch!” she shouted, struggling, trying to break out of the waxen spears holding her in place.

Irene charged at her, pushing the ripples away, new, simpler powers coming up; a burst of speed, enhanced strength, toughness and a sense for weakpoints and resistance.

Using the speed she flashed forward, until she was right behind the girl. Using her enhanced sense, she hit the back of her head with just the right amount of strength to knock her out, without causing lasting damage. She didn’t actually want to risk killing anyone.

The girl’s body grew slack, the strength going out of it.

“That’s what you get for being a potty-mouth,” she quipped, grinning, before she whirled around to flash towards the door.

Before she could even reach it, there was a massive, ear-bursting blast of sound, and Boltstar was slammed into the wall, through the gate; he hit it so hard he left behind a man-shaped impression after falling off, unconscious.

Irene took the corner and got ready to intervene, but there was no need – Karasuha was already down, and so Bas- Brennus had joined forces with Hecate and Melody, the two of them hiding behind his force-field, while systematically taking down the Skulls whom Osore – who was halfway towards looking completely like one of the mythological Oni his power had styled itself after – and Bakeneko were not already taking care of. Tartsche and Spellgun were supporting their efforts from another angle, and without Boltstar’s deafening, powerful blasts and, most importantly, Chronicle’s continuous resets, they were mopped up quickly.

The main Skull went down last, snarling as he/she tried to dodge a shot from Melody’s gauntlets, only to take a blast of smoking green fire into his face after it curved around Brennus’ force-field.

And just like that, it was over.

They looked at each other, as they surveyed their enemies. “Wow, that was…” Irene began.

“… intense,” Spellgun finished her sentence, stepping away from Tartsche, out of his protection.

Irene nodded, approaching Melody. Her friend looked like she had taken a few hits, chipping away at her armor, as well as some bigger hits.

“What happened?” she asked, worried, letting go of her powers.

“I got caught in one of turret-sphere-guy’s blasts. Only at the periphery of it, but it was enough to shake me up,” Melody replied, making a pained expression.

Irene felt her face screw up, briefly, trembling all over as she had to fight herself not to whirl around and cut loose with the fiery blast that had just come up, obliterating the unconscious Boltstar for his offense – but at the same time, she also got a kind of healing power, a slow, but versatile ability to fix matter.

Helping her friend was more important than punishing the guy who’d hurt her (not to mention more ethical), so she stepped forward, reaching out for Melody.

The musician reached out in turn and took her hand, clasping fingers; whether she knew Irene had a power that could heal her, or just wanted to show some affection, it was enough to use the ability.

Melody shuddered as the power spread through her body in ripples, starting from her hand where it touched Irene’s, repairing both the (fortunately superficial) damage to her body, and to her equipment, working from the inside out. A sigh escaped her lips as the pain disappeared.

Brennus walked up to them, followed by Hecate.

“Would you mind using that on my rifle?” he asked, holding out the two pieces of his weapon.

“Not at all,” she replied with a smile, taking them and holding them together as her power worked on the weapon. “Though, it doesn’t seem like this was enough to break it…”

Hecate snorted derisively. “If that idiot had known Brennus at all, she’d have known that he builds redundancies into his equipment.”

Brennus chuckled as Melody looked curiously at the weapon. “Yeah, I built it so it can work with up to seventy-five percent of the barrel gone, though the more it loses, the more both accuracy and range drop.”

“That’s a smart design philosophy,” Melody praised him.

“You probably won’t like this, but you really remind me of my dad sometimes,” Irene joked. “He’s always on me about having safeties, redundancies and generally being prepared for everything possible.”

He tilted his head, as if surprised. “Hm, is that just your father? What about your mother?” he asked with curiosity clear even through the distortion in his voice thanks to his helmet.

“She pretty much says the same, but she’s not as obsessive about it as dad,” she replied lightly.

The others joined their circle, Osore back down to his normal size, Bakeneko clinging to him, back in cat-girl form, her arms wrapped around his neck from behind. Tartsche and Spellgun were holding hands, as usual, but in such a way that both of them could still hold their rifles – Spellgun in his right, Tartsche in his left, as he didn’t have to worry about recoil.

“Not to break up the fun, but what are we going to do next?” Tartsche asked calmly. “This thing is already borderline-FUBAR – should we retreat, or do we press on?”

“My goal has not changed,” Brennus replied while inspecting his repaired rifle.

‘My’ goal, not ‘our’, Irene thought.

“I am going after Dusu and getting that cure. If anyone wants to retreat now, I will not hold it against you, nor will anyone else who is sane,” he said calmly.

Tartsche frowned, seeming almost insulted. “Like I’m going to abandon you in this place, alone? No, I’m in this to the end. I’d just rather advance with a plan – do we even know where to find Dusu? We already know that Gloom Glimmer can’t locate her.”

Irene sighed, still annoyed that her power was betraying her on that count – but at least it’d helped properly in fighting the enemy, so she’d cut it some slack on that front.

Still… She took out her bottle of pills, swallowing three of them. Better safe than sorry. I almost lost it a moment ago, after all.

As soon as she took them, the constant pressure that was her power – like water held back behind a valve, constantly trying to break through – eased, calming her.

“We will just have to interrogate one of our captives,” Brennus replied calmly. “At least one of them ought to know where she-“

“Tyche!” Hecate shouted, suddenly, bursting into smoke that rushed past Irene.

She whirled around, surprised, to see her reform at the gate, throwing her arms around a stunned-looking Tyche, bowling the girl over as she hugged the life out of her.

“You’re alright!” Hecate cried, sounding like she was sobbing.

“Ugh… breath… can’t… dying…” Tyche flailed her arms, though she didn’t actually seem to try and push her friend away.

“Oh, sorry!” Hecate shouted, leaping up onto her feet. Then she reached out, offering her friend a hand, and pulled her up onto her feet in turn – only to wrap her arms around her again, this time more gently. “I was so worried, though! What happened?”

Irene watched the reunion, a smile on her face. I wonder if she feels the way I felt when I found Melody? She could feel a power rise up, to find just that out, but she resisted it, pushing it back down again. That would have been a waste, surely.

Brennus joined them, putting a hand on Tyche’s shoulder where Hecate wasn’t draped over it.

“Welcome back,” he said, softly, the relief audible.

“Thanks, guys,” Tyche smiled a brittle smile, hugging both of her friends, one with each arm.

Irene frowned, studying her closer.

She looked… horrible. Her face looked like she’d been crying, her eyes were bloodshot and her mascara was running down her face.

Her face! Irene thought in shock. She’d taken off her mask, thrown it back like a hood, her face free for anyone to see. Why? What had happened to her.

“Tyche, what-” Brennus began, obviously noticing the same thing while pulling back from the hug.

“I know where she is,” Tyche cut him off, as she leaned into Hecate’s embrace. “I know where Dusu is, and what way to take to her. But we need to hurry.”

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B13.6 Call of the Sleeper

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“So, what are we gonna do about this super-powerful new enemy?” Polymnia asked, making her voice sound unconcerned, even though her face and posture screamed concern.

“Nothing at all,” Basil said simply, crossing his arms. “As long as he stays up there, he can be as powerful as the Godking, for all I care.”

Gloom Glimmer chuckled, but Polymnia didn’t seem amused. “This is serious, Brennus! We can’t just ignore such a powerful person!”

“We also can not do anything about it, unless you can figure out what kind of power he or she has?” He directed the second part at Gloom Glimmer.

She turned her head, looking at the direction of the tower. Then she shook her head. “I’m sorry, but no… there’s too much… power here. Especially beneath this place; it’s like trying to read the radiation a single rod of uranium gives off, while standing in the centre of Nagasaki. I can tell THAT he – or she, I guess – is powerful, but not what kind of power it is.”

“Below, huh?” Basil looked down thoughtfully.

“Do you have any idea what what may mean?” Polymnia asked thoughtfully, though it wasn’t clear whether she was addressing him, or Gloom Glimmer.

“Crocell was created below, before rising up. It is likely that whatever process generated it and its kin is still going on, perhaps producing more such monsters,” he replied, sounding calmer than he felt. “If there is such an amount of ‘power’, as Gloom Glimmer perceives it, gathered below, it may mean that there are multiple such monsters stored below, perhaps in an earlier stadium of their development… or, perhaps, she is sensing whoever or whatever created them in the first place.”

Polymnia had grown steadily more pale as he’d kept talking, finally averting her eyes, gulping nervously. “Great. This whole thing keeps getting better and better.”

Gloom Glimmer reached out, taking her friend’s hand and squeezing it. “Don’t worry, Me- Poly. I’m here, remember? I’ll keep us all safe,” she promised with a reassuring smile.

The young gadgeteer looked at her friend, then at Basil, then back at her friend again, her mouth forming a soft smile. She nodded.

“Alright,” Basil spoke up. “Neither of this really changes what we have to do – find our friends, find Dusu, retrieve the cure for her victims, get away all in one piece.”

The two girls nodded, looking seriously at him, as if awaiting orders.

He took a deep breath, thinking over their options. “Gloom Glimmer, can you carry the two of us and take us back to where you and the others were locked up?” This would all be so much easier if you had just gotten them out in the first place, before coming to find us. At least it’s good to know your priorities.

Gloom Glimmer thought it over, briefly, then nodded, bending her arm as if to show off her biceps. “I can do it!”

Suiting action to words, she picked Polymnia up, making the girl squeal in surprise as she was thrown over her friend’s shoulder. Then she looked at Basil, who nodded and stepped forward, allowing her to pick him up over her other shoulder, as ridiculous as that looked (with their equipment, both he and Polymnia were a good deal broader and heavier than Gloom Glimmer and, in his case, also taller).

“Here we go,” Gloom Glimmer said simply, and took off, the hallways turning into a flowing series of streaks as she began to run.

Unable to do much of anything in this situation, other than trust in Gloom Glimmer not to steer them wrong (or into a wall), Basil instead focused inwards, past the chaotic stream of observations and ideas that his power was feeding him.

How come I, of all people, always end up taking charge?, he couldn’t help but ask himself. It hadn’t escaped him that both Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer had heeded his suggestions, even waited for him to make them. Which wasn’t the first time it had happened. He’d slid into the position of being in charge during previous crises, Crocell only being the latest example.

Even with his team, he’d somehow effectively become the leader, which just boggled his mind. Thinking about himself and the other members, he’d have expected Hecate to lead – in spite of being a Contriver, she was the most focused one, the one who was most reliable. Most sensible.

Yet even she looked to him for leadership, which was profoundly uncomfortable to Basil.

He barely had a grip on his own life, if at all; how could people trust him to take care of theirs?

***

Gloom Glimmer ran for several minutes, even though she was moving at least as fast as Basil had ever seen Outstep move – the structure they were on was huge, even bigger than it had seemed to be when viewed from above. Hallways, vertical shafts, elevators and staircases turned it into a labyrinthine mess, the navigation of which wasn’t helped at all by the fact that there were no signs at all to be seen, anywhere. She’d only found them as quickly as she had – and even then, it’d taken her several minutes – because she’d manifested a power to track Polymnia with, one which was useless now that she’d already found her and had thus been discarded in favour of the danger sense she was using to steer around threats.

Which didn’t help speed up their journey at all, but Basil had insisted that they dodge as many people as possible. He didn’t doubt for a moment that the enemy knew they were free inside their big secret floating city, yet there hadn’t been an alarm, as far as he could tell, nor a lockdown of any kind.

We should have been swarmed by Stormtroopers by now, Basil thought, as he finished cracking that communicator he’d taken off of one of the Skullmen. He’d tried to contact Hecate and Tyche on the communicators he’d given them already, but had found them blocked; he was hoping that he’d be able to use the Skullman’s communicator to at least listen in on their lines, even if he couldn’t contact his friends.

“Why’d you make your force-field permeable to sound?” Polymnia suddenly asked, turning her head to look at him.

“It seemed much more likely to me that I’d be working with you, rather than against another sonic-based aggressor,” he replied simply, pulling a cable from his belt to attach to it. A twist of wires and he could patch straight into the communicator with his interface. “Sonic attacks are not so common that it’s not worth the risk to plan for you having to attack enemies through my shield. We’ve been fighting together quite often, after all,” he finished explaining himself. “Besides, if I did run into another sonic-based fighter, I would simply call on your superior expertise on the matter to help me deal with their power.”

To his surprise, she blushed a bit, averting her eyes.

What? What did I say?, he asked himself, confused. I was only practical. Why’d she blush?

Girls were getting more confusing by the day. Vasiliki had been blushing a lot, at random times, lately. And Prisca…

He flinched, feeling a stab of pain as he violated his resolution not to think of her until he had the cure in his hands. Do not go down that road, Basil. Focus on the task at hand.

Fortunately, he didn’t have any time to get mopey – having patched the communicator into his mask’s interface, he now had access to the enemy’s line of communication, and he wasted not time accessing it.

“-nd, this is Skulls. Team 3 was just downed at the Southern holding facility,” the gruff voice of a woman said. “I advise a facility-wide lockdown to contain the intruders.”

“Negative, Skulls,” a male replied in a much calmer tone of voice. “We have orders from above. Mobilise our-“

“Sir, someone is using a Skulls communicator to access this line other than Skulls,” a second woman, this one younger, threw in.

“The gadgeteers. One of them must have taken a communicator fr-“

Basil terminated the connection, before crushing the little box. “Damn it. They realised I was listening in.”

“Did you hear anything useful?” Polymnia asked.

“They’re not going to lock down the facility, it seems,” he replied. “They’ve ordered someone named Skulls – apparently the leader of the armed troops we saw earlier – to mobilise something instead, but that’s all I heard.”

“Chin up, we’re almost there,” Gloom Glimmer interrupted as her run slowed, their surroundings turning from variously coloured blurs to what now looked like…

“Is that wax?” Polymnia sounded as surprised as he felt.

Basil, meanwhile, looked around as soon as Gloom Glimmer put him down, inspecting the hallway they were in.

It really was made of wax. The general shape was the same as the hallways they’d been in earlier, but it was all made of wax, and illuminated by (electric) lamps that were styled to look like candles sticking out of the walls.

Looking down, he saw that even the floor was made of wax.

The only other thing that stood out about the hallway was the huge, octagonal door in the middle of it. It was huge, flat and had the shape of a normal door engraved in it. There was no obvious means of opening it.

“I was locked up in the tower behind this door,” Gloom Glimmer explained. “I, uh… I didn’t really look for the others, I just…” She blushed, looking at Polymnia with an embarrassed expression on her face. “I kind of freaked out and…” She hung her head in shame.

Her friend, though, reached out and put an armored hand on her shoulder, squeezing it through the thick, white cloak and her black bodysuit. “Thank you,” she said with a smile. “That’s sweet of you – but you really ought to prioritise better, in the future. And you’ll have to apologise to them, alright?”

Gloom Glimmer hung her head, ashamed, nodding her assent.

“Do you know how to open this door?” Basil asked urgently. He didn’t want to waste time right now, not in this matter.

“Step aside,” she replied, taking a deep breath.

He did so, and she put the palm of her hand onto the door. An orange glow spread from her hand, slowly at first, then faster. At first, Basil thought she was heating the wax, but his sensors registered no increase in heat at all.

His musings about what she might be up to where answered quickly, as the glow spread all over the door – and then it all disappeared. Just winked out of existence, leaving the way open into…

A huge circular hall, the floor of which was covered in the broken bodies of two dozen Skullmen.

Osore stood amidst them, watching Bakeneko, Tartsche and Hecate applying first aid to a few of the men, while Spellgun stood behind the railing of a higher floor, holding his rifle ready.

Everyone stopped what they were doing, staring at the new arrivals.

“Brennus!” Hecate shouted with immense relief, as she burst into shadowy smoke, rushing over and reforming just a few feet ahead of him.

For a moment, he thought he was about to get a hug, but she stopped herself and simply put her left hand on his shoulder, still holding her staff with the other. Both were trembling.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“Quite so,” he answered, reaching out to squeeze her shoulder back, feeling her relax. “What happened here?”

They both turned around and looked at Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia reuniting with their teammates, or rather, with Tartsche, Spellgun (who leapt down from above, using a surprisingly quiet shot from his rifle to break his fall before he impacted the ground) and Bakeneko, while Osore stayed where he’d been, seemingly just looking down at his own feet, or perhaps the defeated guards.

“We were teleported into individual cells,” Hecate explained. “They put me and Spellgun into a pentacle that cut us off from the sources of our power – I have no idea how it could block us both, our spellwork is completely different! – and Tartsche into another, and Bakeneko and Osore into individual ones, too.” She stopped, taking a deep breath. “He broke out, though. Osore, I mean. He’s somehow… super-strong. Like, way stronger than I thought he was.”

They both looked at all the foes on the ground. “Osore took them all out himself?” Basil asked, impressed. Now that he was looking closer, he could see dozens, if not hundreds, of tranquiliser darts on the ground around Osore. He himself seemed completely unharmed, though his leather jacket and his skintight top were full of holes, pale skin peaking out.

“Yeah. Took them by surprise, I think. Then Tartsche somehow managed to break out, too, and he freed me and Spellgun, and… well, the rest went over quickly,” she explained. “Hey… do you have any idea where Tyche is? She’s not in any of these cells.”

He shook his head. “No. I thought she would be here with the rest of you. Polymnia and I were teleported to the Northern half, most certainly because we are Gadgeteers, but I see no reason why Tyche would go somewhere else, unless…”

“…her power interfered,” Hecate finished his sentence. “But… where would she be, then?”

“I do not know,” he sighed, shaking his head. “I have no idea how their teleport interdiction works, so I do not know how her power might have changed things.”

“Hey!” Bakeneko shouted, suddenly, making everyone turn around. She was kneeling next to one of the Skullmen – one whose legs were both broken, among other injuries – in her ‘normal’ catgirl form. “This guy needs some medical attention, stat.”

Basil hurried over immediately, kneeling down next to him.

“Don’t bother,” Gloom Glimmer interrupted him, stepping over from where she’d been talking to her other teammates. “They’re already dead, anyway,” she explained when they stared at her, her expression as serious as it ever got.

“What do you mean, dead? He still has a heart beat!” Bakeneko protested, but Gloom Glimmer just shook her head, as she drew her hood up to cover her head, plunging her face into shadows.

“That’s not what I mean,” she said softly. “I can feel it… they’re part of a hive mind. Someone burned out whoever these men and women used to be, and connected them to himself. They’re barely sentient, more like automatons. Empty vessels that follow commands and stand ready as spare bodies for their master, in case his current host dies.”

“Wow, and people say my power is scary,” a gruff, female voice said from the direction of the gate.

Basil flipped around, lifting his rifle as he went up on one knee, holding it two-handed. The others all reacted as well, though not as quickly as he had, save for Gloom Glimmer, who just turned her head to look in said direction.

A figure in body armor identical to the men and women on the ground leaned against the frame of the door, her arms crossed in front of her chest. The only difference between her and the others was the fact that she wasn’t wearing a helmet, revealing her hairless, pale face – a face that might have been lovely, once, but had become withered, wrinkled without actually looking old, the only part that looked alive being her cruel, hard eyes.

Three more people stood there, with her, just beyond the gate. A woman in a black-and-purple armored dress, with a bird-like helmet obscuring her head and a katana which was strapped to her hip. In front of her and slightly to the right, a tall man in a skintight, dark blue suit, across which danced two-dimensional lightning, his handsome face barely obscured by a blue domino mask, his brown hair cropped short. And finally, another woman, this one shorter than the others and younger, looking barely old enough to not be a girl anymore, wearing a mystic-seeming yellow robe with rich golden stitching and holding a thick, gold-bound book that was thicker than her arm to her chest, her young face looking at them with arrogance in her green eyes, peering at them through her dark blonde curls.

The Skull-Woman stepped forward, studying them. “You’ve been quite the embarrassment, you know?” she said, her shrivelled lips stretching over sharp white teeth.

“To your security,” Basil said flatly, tracking her movements with his rifle. Is she the core of the hive mind?

She nodded. “Yup.” She looked at Gloom Glimmer. “You girl… you’re freaky. Just figuring all that out about my power? No one’s seen through it like that before, not since I first met our fearless leader. My name’s Skulls, by the way.”

“I’m the queen of freaky,” Gloom Glimmer said coldly, her eyes beginning to glow within the shadows of her hood. She looked past Skulls at the others, then at her again. “This is all?” she said, her voice dismissive, even disappointing. Haughty.

Skulls let loose a bark of laughter. “Cocky! Taking after your fucking parents, huh?” she asked, her face turning into a hideous snarl all of a sudden.

She wasn’t even paying attention to Basil or the others, as they spread out around Gloom Glimmer and him – Hecate and Polymnia with him, the other junior heroes on Gloom Glimmer’s side.

“You got a problem with my parents?”

“Yeah. Your dad put a hit out on me,” the withered woman snarled. “Something about me being too much of a psychopath for him to tolerate. The hypocrite.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Gloom Glimmer drawled at her, remaining calm, which only seemed to infuriate the woman. “My papa is bad, but he at least has class. You…” She looked the woman up and down. “You try to hard.”

The woman in the bird-helmet spoke up, just as Skulls was about to say something, her face twisted in even more anger. She spoke in harsh Japanese – Basil only caught a few words, ‘orders’, ‘deal with’ and ‘control’ – and Skulls subsided, stepping back.

“I’ll teach you about class, you little bitch,” she snarled at Gloom Glimmer, still ignoring the others in the room. “And when I’m done, I’ll send your daddy a recording of it. Bet that’ll make him reconsid-“

Basil opened fire, shooting the Japanese woman’s katana off her hip, shattering the sword into two pieces.

Before anyone could react, another shot destroyed the book in the arrogant girl’s arms, hitting hard enough to throw her back to slam into the wall behind, causing her to cry out in pain.

And then all hell broke loose.

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B009.1 Family Matters

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The adhesive hooks attached to the two buildings left and right of the street, and with a gut-wrenching pull, the motors in the two reworked grappling hook units reeled them in, catapulting Basil forward and up.

“Woo!” he shouted as the hooks detached from the concrete walls just when they would have started to slow his movement instead of accelerating it, the machines on his hips reeling them in as he, for a few seconds, flew freely through the air. Of course, wearing power armor was not conducive to staying airborne and he quickly reached the apex of his jump – but he had already aimed for his next targets.

His hip-launchers had originally been quite large, basically a pair of long boxes filled with the thin wire he used for his grappling hooks. A serious flaw in the design, really. They were too big, the motors inside too strong, the wire more than just too long. He just had no use for that much of it, and running those motors at full capacity would only rip the system off his hips. So he had redesigned them into two disk-shaped, plate-sized systems. The motor for reeling in the wire was built into the center, while the launch system for the ‘hooks’ (both using van der Waals force to adhere to their targets, rather than actually working like real hooks) was at the exit points, one nozzle each which could move independently to better aim.

These two nozzles locked onto the targets he had specified – the corner of an office building at the next crossroad and the tip of a flagpole that extended from the adjacent wall behind the corner, just barely visible. He had aimed them through precise (and often repeated, in preperation for this occasion) finger movements, and now used his grappling hooks to swerve around the corner and out of Downtown – straight towards the harbor, accompanied by his ravens which scouted the way ahead for viable contact points, so he would not have to decide on the fly.

Also, they were looking out for his quarries, helping him evade them.

Just then, a warning came in as a golden shadow raced by a group of ravens to his left. He only had seconds before it would arrive.

I got to make them count, he thought and reeled the grappling hooks in, firing the right one off towards the corner that would take him left along the next intersection, twisting his body mid-air towards his attack – and he readied his redesigned humming sword at the same time.

The new sword was no longer flexible, able to wrap around his hip. It was a rigid, straight sword with one gleeming edge, and a rather bulky blunt side. Not to mention that it was a meter long, not counting the hilt. This new version consumed far less energy, thanks to the more efficient vibration generators built along its length.

He raised it just in time as the golden spear-blade struck him, taking it along the flat side of the blade, making use of another feature of this new version.

It was far better suited to parrying attacks it couldn’t just cut through. Especially since he had not actually powered it up. He took the strike on the flat side of the blade and fired the motors of his right hook, pulling himself towards the street corner and deflecting the strike away, letting Gilgul tumble into the opposite direction he was moving for a few moments, before she caught her flight and flipped around (conveniently ignoring all inertia).

Fortunately, he had already rounded the corner by that point and fired his hooks again, swinging straight over a lower building on the other side of the street. He hit the roof of the building beyond running (landing on the edge of the rooftop, so he wouldn’t simply break through) and leapt over the abandoned street beneath – two weeks after Hastur’s rampage, the city was still quite empty, especially on a Sunday like this.

As he fell down, he watched as Gilgul pursued him, cornering in impossible ways as she searched for him – and then locked onto him again, rocketing straight towards him.

Ah shoot.

He turned around in mid-air, firing the grappling hooks backwards to move further away from her as he put the sword into the sheath he had attached to his left forearm and drew his new rifle from the holster attached to his right forearm, taking aim and shooting.

This rifle was not a stun gun. It was rather a custom-made ballistic rifle with variable ammunition. His shots hit true, striking Gilgul’s chest plate and hip, bouncing off – but not without messing up her flight, making her tumble again and letting him put some more distance between them.

Almost there.

He swung in a right turn towards the harbor, using the movement to also face forward again, rifle still in hand.

Gilgul, of course, pursued him easily – even without her ability to ignore inertia (she had not told him about that before), she was simply too fast, not to mention not in need of assistance by grappling hooks and robotic ravens to pursue – and began to close the distance.

And then a human-sized cloud of green-black smoke burst out of an alley and flew across the street, bouncing up along the wall and leaping off of it in pursuit of the golden knight.

Basil fired off a few more shots to keep Gilgul’s attention on himself, which made her close the distance.

“Got you!” she shouted as she got within reach, ignoring his shots and stabbing forward… just when the cloud lept over her, pulling itself together into Hecate’s shape.

The witch girl aimed her staff at Gilgul and fired off a scarlet energy blast, sending her tumbling down to the empty street before bursting into smoke again, accelerating towards Basil in the same instant in order to reform and grab his leg as he swung further down the street.

She used him as a pivot and threw herself forward, dissolving again and adding more speed to her movement, briefly overtaking him in her smoke-form.

Gilgul caught herself and charged after them – straight towards him, to be precise, which meant there was no way of his shots really affecting her flight path.

Green and black smoke suddenly obscured his immediate vision as Hecate covered him, reforming between him and Gilgul.

“Boo!” she shouted, throwing a paper bomb into their opponents face, dissolving again before Gilgul’s spear reached her torso.

And then the grenade detonated into pure disorientation. The mental effect would have knocked him for a loop, making all his senses go haywire, if Hecate had not earlier given him a special charm that protected him from it and several other effects in her arsenal.

Which was very fortunate, because the weapon only made Gilgul flinch for a moment before she closed the distance.

“No getting away this t-” she began, but he did not let her finish. Instead, he grabbed her spear, disconnecting his hooks from their current targets as he did so, and swung himself around it, kicking her with both feet in the face.

She made no sound, too stunned to react as she spun away again, losing her grip on her spear. He threw it into a nearby alley, swinging away again. Hecate had already moved ahead, gaining some ground, and he was only a few blocks away from his goal…

His ravens saw Gilgul burst out of the alley and hurl her spear at him.

Fuck.

There was no way his armor could actually take a straight hit from that spear, and his armor was too bulky to properly twist out of the way.

On the other hand, he saw it coming a mile away, thanks to his ravens and he had practiced long enough with the kind of multiple viewpoints they gave him to know how to predict its flight path…

And strike it out of the air with his left arm as he whirled around, sending it straight down to the street before finishing his spin and shooting straight ahead again, overtaking Hecate, who was just turning into an alley to get out of sight.

I ought to ask her how she senses her surroundings in that form.

And then he had to focus on his own getaway again, because Gilgul was closing in, having retrieved her spear.

He was just a block away from his goal – that weird-ass warehouse he had accidentilly dropped into on his first night out. Hecate was out of sight, as he did not have enough ravens to keep an eye on her (his reserves were running rather low, lately). Smoke bombs and the like were useless.

All he needed was one more distraction, something to keep her off his hide. Fighting her directly was out of the question, so…

<Are you in position?> he asked Tyche over their communicator.

<Of course, B-Six! Me and this puppy are ready to mess up your gee eff’s day!> came the chipper reply.

<Please try not to hit me, or any innocent bystanders.>

<Aye, aye, mon capitan!>

He fired off his hooks at the apex of his swing, aiming for the last high-rise buildings in his path. He would have to swing clear over a small park between him and the warehouse and the street beyond that, to reach the warehouse, so he activated, at the apex of the new swing, his newest addition to his suit – a pair of thrusters built into the back of the suit, beneath the battery, aiming down and to the back.

Uff.

The thrusters kicked in hard, just when he had reached the edge of the park. Fortunately, his armor protected him from whiplash, but it did not protect him from feeling like his back was hit with a sledgehammer, blowing the air out of his lungs in the process. I should have thought of that, too.

But it did boost him far enough to clear the park – and evade a desperate strike by Gilgul, who had almost caught up with him.

“Oh, come on!” she shouted as she pursued – and then a massive boom rang through the air as she was knocked out of the air again, spinning away so violently she almost lost her grip on her spear… only for her to ignore inertia again and fly straight towards him so as to intercept him.

But Tyche had slowed her down just enough.

Basil fired off his hooks, grabbing onto the edge of the warehouse’s roof, and swung onto it.

“Clear!”

 

 

* * *

 

Breathing rather heavily, Basil sat down on the roof as he took off his helmet, setting it aside but taking care to keep his hood up. Then he took off the skintight mask he was wearing beneath, to get a fresh breath.

Gilgul landed next to him, sitting cross-legged in the air (her armor was quite nimble). “I really thought I had you when I threw the spear,” she grumbled.

“Maybe if… I had not had… my ravens,” he said. “God, I am thirsty.” He detached a water bottle from his left thigh and took a long draught from it.

“What did I do wrong?” she pressed further, her golden armor providing quite the glittering show as the light of the afternoon sun reflected off of it.

He did not need to think it over much. “You were too straightforwad. I could see your every move come from a mile away, even without my ravens,” he explained. “Hecate is here,” he added, seeing her smoke-form approach from the corner of his eyes.

A few moments later, it leaped onto the roof from the side and reformed into Hecate, who promptly bent over the edge again and threw up.

Basil looked at Gilgul and handed her the water bottle. She floated over to Hecate and held it out for her. “Th-thanks,” she said and drank greedily after washing her mouth out without actually putting it to the bottle (for which Basil was quite thankful). “This new charm is way useful, but my stomach just can’t take it,” she complained as she gave it back to him, sitting down along with Gilgul.

“Can’t you rew-” Gilgul began, but was interrupted when a red-and-black smoke-form sailed by over them and towards the adjacent building’s higher wall. It smashed into the wall, reforming into an upside down Tyche who had rammed it with her back, clutching a large rifle in her arms.

“This is fucking awesome!” she shouted as she slid down the wall, casually flipping over and landing on her feet. Her hair was a mess, her jacket looked wrinkled-up and the rifle in her arms did not look functional any more – in fact, the barrel was twisted.

“What did you do to my gun!” Basil shouted, hurrying over and all but ripping it out of her hands.

“Oy, don’t blame me!” the still smiling girl replied, casually slipping around him and swinging her hips to knock the water bottle off his thigh, letting it bounce off the floor and up into her hand as she walked towards the other girls and sat down with them. “What’s up, girlfriends?” She took a sip from the bottle.

“You’re not feeling bad?” Hecate asked, annoyed. “I threw up after using that charm.”

Tyche shrugged, pulling a black cloth-figure – a rather crude form made of a single length of black cloth, tied to look like a human – out of the inner pocket of her jacket. “Well, I thought it was awesome. Mind you, I still don’t know how to really steer it, but you can’t have everything, eh?”

Hecate muttered something under her breath, but said no more.

Basil joined them again, sitting down with them. “I did not expect the rifle to break so quickly,” he grumbled. “I am sorry that I blamed you, Tyche. The materials I worked with were simply not good enough.”

She waved a hand. “Don’t mention it. So, what’re you going to do to fix it? Thing packs a wallop!”

“Does it ever…” Gilgul muttered. “Felt like it blew my head clean off.” Tyche grinned at her.

“I don’t have the means to build a proper model,” Basil admitted. “My funds are running dry – I need to either get some new money from somewhere, or cut down on my active experimentation.” It was clear which option he personally favoured.

Gilgul shifted around uncomfortably, her face hidden behind her helmet but her discomfort still noticable. She had offered to give him money from her private funds – her family was filthy rich, and there were only her, her mother and her sister left to use that money. But he had refused on the grounds that it would be impossible to hide it from her mother. Moreover, he wanted to solve this problem himself.

“Can’t you use that trick you did at the beginning again?” Tyche asked. “You know, steal money from criminals with those programs of yours?”

“That’s my next step,” Basil replied. “Also, I think I will need the next week at least off. I still have not fully recovered from the strain of being healed, two weeks ago.” The other three shuddered involuntarily, especially Gilgul. None of them liked thinking back to that time.

“I told you you needed more time,” Gilgul whispered.

“I know. But I really wanted to try out my new grappling hook system, and you need more training. Speaking of which, how did you do those turns?”

“What turns?” Tyche asked, confused.

“A few times, she turned in ways that ignored the laws of inertia,” Hecate supplied, also looking at Gilgul.

The latter just shrugged. “Well, you know how I can enhance my abilities by burning off time I can spend in this form? Same thing for that, by burning off an extra minute or so, I can ignore inertia.”

Basil raised an eyebrow. “What else can you ignore that way? This might be one hell of an ability, perhaps more powerful than even your spear. Also, would it not be better to land, instead of floating? Preserve time?”

Gilgul touched down on the roof. “As far as I understand it, I can turn myself immune to anything I want, but it costs me time. A lot of time, depending on what it is.”

“You should look deeper into this,” Hecate supplied. “If you want, I can simulate a lot of effects in my lab,” she continued, referring to the room in Basil’s base that she had pretty much taken over. “We can try and find out how much time it takes you to resist lightning, or punches or gravity, or anything else I can create there.”

“I’d love to. How about we do that today, since Basil is going to take a break?”

“Sure, sure. I have the day off,” Hecate said. “And since school is still closed next week,” Two of Hastur’s minions had utterly demolished the Diantha High School, and reconstruction was still in progress, “We can spend as much time as you have on it!”

“What about me?” Tyche asked. The other two girls looked at her, obviously not knowing what to do with her.

“How about you try and find out if your power can interact with Gilgul’s?” Basil threw in. “Try and find out if your probability manipulation can affect her actions, and if Prisca can turn Gilgul immune to it?”

“How do we do that?” the three asked in chorus.

“You could try and find out if Gilgul can even hit her when Tyche does not want her to, or throw things at her. Get creative,” he said, rising. “Me, I need to get home, make dinner for Amy. Then I need to scrap this armor and design new equipment.”

“Wait, what?” all three replied in unison, again.

He shrugged in reply. “This armor has saved my life, but it is becoming a liability. It takes too much money to maintain, uses up too much energy and it is not nearly as effective as I thought it would be – I did not expect that we would run into quite so many high-level enemies who can mess it up. Since Gilgul is with us now, I can retreat from the frontlines and focus more on long-range combat, espionage and obfuscation,” he explained. “At the very least, I need to cut down on my resource consumption just for the armor, and develop better weaponry. Power armor is a good idea when you have resources like the Drakainas or Memento – and perhaps someone like Wyrm, provided she even bothers with combat – and a support staff for normal maintenance.”

“Polymnia doesn’t seem to have that problem,” Hecate said.

“Polymnia gets funding from the United Heroes, her armor is largely only modified by her after being built by others and she has the United Heroes staff to do maintenance for her, so she can focus on inventing new equipment,” Basil replied. “Frankly, if my power was not simply stronger than hers, she would have left me in the dust by now.” Not that I am entirely sure I did all of my work myself.

“Alright, so Bee Six will give himself a complete overhaul. Cool,” Tyche said. “How long you think it’s gonna take? And what do you plan to make, anyway?”

“As I said, long-range combat, espionage and obfuscation. It will probably take me at least a week to rig something up, a month until it is complete. But I will participate in patrols once I have the prototype ready and tested.”

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Hecate asked. “Already changing your entire approach…”

“I am a Gadgeteer,” he said with a note of pride in his voice. They could not see his face beneath the hood, but Gilgul at least was quite sure she saw a glimmer in his eyes. “Showing up with a new bag of tricks at every combat is a matter of professional pride for me.”

 

 

* * *

 

An hour and a half later, Basil had just finished dinner and put it on the table – just in time for Amy to come in wearing a… a pink cocktail dress, military boots and a clown mask pulled up to lie on top of her head?

She stumbled into the kitchen, giggling as her skin turned into a normal colour and her hair returned to its more natural shade.

He tilted his head to the side, looking at her. “What?”

Looking up, she giggled again. “Oh, sorry Basil. The job turned out to be a little… weird,” she said in between giggles. “Boss sent us out to do some espionage near Moscow, and Lamarr and I got caught up in some spy games.”

“And those involved wearing… that?” he asked.

“Don’t ask. You don’t want to know,” she said sitting down and kicking the boots off, as well as taking the mask off. “Anyway, you should watch the news today.”

“Why? What did you do?” he asked suspiciously. Despite his allegiance during the second world war, the Dark was not someone you could count on to fight on your side in a war. He certainly had fought on the opposite side during the Afghanistan conflict.

“Nothing newsworthy,” Amy replied, rubbing her feet. “But it turns out one of the Sovjet Union’s big ol’ secrets is gonna come out today. Chick named ‘The Devil’s Bride’.”

“Never heard of her,” he said. And he was quite sure of it.

“They’ve done their best to keep her a secret. And for good reason, bitch is nasty. But don’t let me spoil you, you’ll see it in the news. Now, food.”

He snorted, but let her eat in peace as he went over to the living room.

The war had begun… after a fashion. There had been a probing attack on the British mainland, a week ago, but nothing much had happened and people had just returned to being on the edge and waiting for the next shoe to drop.

Basil wondered what kind of person the Devil’s Bride had to be so newsworthy in the current climate.

Nothing good, I presume. Not with that name.

He turned on the television, switching through some shows before the news began. Then, just as Amy (in sweatpants and a shirt) joined him, the news started.

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B007.9 Hastur, Shrouded in Dread

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“I still can’t believe you’re risking this!”

Jason was not happy as he watched the heroes (and assorted vigilantes and villains) prepare to deploy. Polymnia and Brennus were handing out visors for everyone to wear – much like Brennus’ own helmet, they would protect them from Hastur’s power.

Or so they believe. Brennus might just have been immune due to a quirk of his power.

He’d voiced that complaint, and many others, but Amazon had firmly insisted that there was no time left. And he could see that, but couldn’t they at least take a few more minutes to try and get backup?

Of course, the fact that Hastur’s creations were running rampant through the city, keeping villains, vigilantes, police and army on their toes did not help in that regard, at all.

He knew they needed to put her down. He knew these were the only people likely to be capable of doing it. Didn’t mean he had to like it.

“Amazon, could I talk something over with you quickly?” he asked.

The young woman – too young to be burdened with the responsibilities of field leader – walked over to him, holding her new visor in her hands.

They stepped away (Polymnia’s hearing was just too good sometimes, and he had no idea what Brennus’ team was capable of) and turned their backs to the others, so no one could read their lips.

“I know your complaints, Sir. They’re good, but we n-” she started saying, but stopped when he shook his head.

“That’s not it. I get it. Really. No, there’s something else. Rising Tide and Gilgul.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I can guess what you want to say about Rising Tide, but why Gilgul?”

He looked around to make sure there was none of those damn ravens around (even though they were inside the building) and said: “You know as well as I do that Rising Tide can’t be trusted. I’d suggest not taking him into the battle. As for Gilgul… something’s off there. She just shows up out of nowhere, is apparently powerful enough to go toe-to-toe with that fecal monstrosity, is best buds with the out-of-nowhere vigilante gadgeteer and gets a recommendation from Gloom Glimmer after a grand total of one battle! Don’t tell me you don’t think there’s something fishy there!”

“Calm down, Jason. I know all this, and I’ll certainly keep an eye on her and Rising Tide both, but we need every bit of fighting strength we can get, and we’re running out of time, so I’m just going to cut this short now. Wish us luck.”

He looked after her as she turned away to join the others again. “I always do…”

* * *

“You built your base underneath the Goldschmidt Memorial Park?” He almost, almost slapped his forehead. Which is not a smart thing to do when you’re wearing second-rate spare armour (he had been lacking the time and material to make it equal to the main armour).

“Yeah, what of it?”, asked Rising Tide as he adjusted the goggles he was now wearing. The others were, too. They weren’t pretty, but they should protect them by showing them everything indirectly – Hastur’s power should be nullified just as it had been when he had looked at her through his mask’s camera.

<You guys are called the Forresters and the first place you come up with for your secret base is underneath a park full of trees?> Polymnia asked as she finished the calibration of the S.M.O.G. <How about calling yourself the Dolphin Squad and having a base underneath an Aqua->

“Happened,” Brennus threw in.

<What, seriously? That actually happened!?>

Now everyone except for Amazon and Osore was looking at him.

“The group was called the Dolphin Dames. Five female eco-terrorists active in the early nineties. They had their base underneath the San Francisco State Aquarium, right beneath the Dolphin tank. Had it expanded so the dolphins could swim into and out of their base, cause their leader was quite in love with them,” he explained.

“So she was an animal rights nut who really liked looking at dolphins?” asked Tyche.

“No, they were animal rights nuts who, among other things, wanted animals to be legally recognized as citizens with all protections and rights that come with it, and she was in love with them as in…” He threw a glance at Gilgul, who was showing no reaction (not hard to do with a fullbody armour and helmet) that went unnoticed thanks to his own mask. “… she, ah, swam with them.” If his eyebrows were showing, he would have wiggled them.

That shut them up as several people tried to get rid of a slew of unpleasant mental images.

He put in the last calibration code, then aligned the S.M.O.G. with Polymnia’s and Osore’s help so it aimed right at the hidden entrance to the Forrester’s base – a concrete wall and doorway hidden behind thick foliage. Amazon, Hecate, Tyche, Bakeneko, Tartsche, Outstep, Phasma and Rising Tide were standing nearby, ready to storm the base that was probably filled with more of Hastur’s victims.

The plan called for a quick entrance, but this was the only entrance safe for an emergency exit that would take too long to traverse and without Gloom Glimmer, they lacked the firepower to simply blast through it… except, of course, for the S.M.O.G. Amazon had even allowed them to fire it untested, due to the urgency.

“Alright, calibration is done, all systems are running…”

<…energy transmission spotless and the crystal array has been aligned.>

He held out the trigger, which was connected to the rest of the machine via wire. “Want to do the honors?”

Polymnia took it with a grin, looking at the entrance. <Boom.> She pushed the button.

* * *

7.12 seconds later

<I didn’t expect the explosion to be quite that big.>

They stared at the gaping hole in the ten feet of rebar-reinforced concrete… and the hill it had been built into. In fact, there was precious little of said concrete and rebar left to look at.

But there was a lot of dust, which Brennus thought might be symbolic.

“What does S.M.O.G. stand for, anyway?” Bakeneko asked, her eyes (all seven and a half of them) glued to the scene.

Sonic Impulse Overkill Gun,” explained Brennus.

Suddenly, the silence around him turned hostile. He looked around at the others.

“What? It is a perfectly good name!” he tried to justify it. “Do you know how difficult it is to come up with proper Acronyms that are not already in use?” he added, weakly. “The alternative was S.M.U.T., so I think this is an acceptable name…”

The others shook their heads. Gilgul in particular seemed… disappointed.

Amazon snapped her fingers. “Enough distraction people. You know what to do – let’s get going!”

They stormed into the base, with Amazon, Gilgul and Rising Tide on point.

Brennus and Polymnia split the S.M.O.G. into four pieces, and they, Osore and Bakeneko took one each.

As they ran inside, Polymnia leaned closer to Brennus: <I told you we should have gone with Sonic Impulse Overkill Generator.>

“Generator somehow implies something bigger. Maybe something to take down a city block?”

She thought it over. <Not practical, but definitely do-able if we can make a bigger set of synch-crystals.>

“Let’s keep it in mind for the two-point-oh version.”

* * *

They entered the underground base of the Forresters (technically a part of the Undercity, according to Rising Tide), following a tunnel that descended into the earth. Amazon was leading, her golden hoplite-armour already up and covering her from head to toe.

Brennus heard a ping from the secure short-range communication channel (Rising Tide and Phasma had no access to it) and heard Outstep say, <What is it with supervillains and underground bases?>

Gilgul replied: <Tradition, I guess. The Dark used to hide in Old Lennston’s sewer system, back in the beginning. During most of the twenties, actually.>

Everyone but Amazon and Brennus who was in the channel looked at her.

<What? I read a lot. History books can be really interesting, especially since Point Zero.>

Amazon spoke up, <Team, please fo->

Then Succubus stepped around the next corner.

* * *

Phasma made a small, incredibly hurt sound.

Hastur had gotten her hands on Succubus. Brennus had seen images of her succubus form before, and this form was much more monstrous. She had grown taller, almost two meters tall. Her legs had, from the knees and below, turned into cracked volcanic rock, with lava leaking from the cracks. Her wings were as before, only larger and she had grown a crown of black rocks made apparently of obsidian. Her nails were long enough to drag on the floor, and looked wickedly sharp. She was also naked, and her tattoo was gone even though it had been present for her transformed form before.

“Careful, do not let her touch y-“

Brennus was cut off when a wave of raw pleasure slammed into him – and the rest of the group.

His last thought before his mind went into overdrive was that, apparently, her power had been enhanced by the transformation.

He saw – barely – how Amazon and Gilgul charged forward, both unaffected by the aura. But Succubus had either been holding back a lot before or she had gotten a lot more upgrades than just to her appearance and power, because she engaged them in a fluid dance, despite her large wings, her claws flying around, blocking Amazon’s punches and Gilgul’s spearstrikes while scraping over their armours.

F-f-foc- He could not. His mind felt like it was filling up with a heavy, warm goo, shutting d-

<Neural disruption detected. Survival ability has been compromised.>

Eudocia’s electronic voice barely penetrated into his mind. Then, he felt a jab, and then a shock, but they were dim, muted.

<Unable to restore function through non-damaging electrocution. Initiating Override Protocol.>

A string of commands ran down his visor, blurred by his unfocused eyes into incomprehension. What do they mean? He could not remember.

<Armour Control Override complete. Assuming Direct Control..>

Suddenly, his armour started to move of its own, charging forward towards the fight ahead. She drew the humming sword and a stun baton and leapt onto the Succubus’ back, slashing horizontally with his sword to cut through her neck.

Succubus reacted faster than she had expected, though, and she whirled around and swiped her claws at his airborne form. She could not tell whether or not they could penetrate his armour, but she was not going to risk her father’s health here – she fired his hip-mounted grappling hooks while simultaneously calling in all the ravens he had kept just outside the tunnel.

Twisting about in the air as the hooks attached themselves to the ceiling further down the tunnel and reeled in, she flew over and past her quarry, but missed her chance at striking her.

However, she did distract her just long enough for Amazon to hit her knees with a swiping kick from behind, shattering them audibly.

As Succubus screamed out loud, Gilgul stepped up and plunged her spear into her chest, right through her heart. Once more, it cut into its target as if it was butter. As Succubus fell to her shattered knees, her own weight split her throat and head on the unnaturally sharp blade, killing her.

And just like that, her psychic attack vanished.

Brennus shook his head as Eudocia returned control of his armour to him.

Phasma screamed and ran over to the dead villain, kneeling down and craddling the two halves of her head in her lap, holding them together… a futile attempt, as she was already beginning to decay, her body slowly breaking down.

“Nononononononononono…” she whispered, as if it could stop it, trying to hold her together.

“We… ugh… we need to go. Quickly,” said Rising Tide as he recovered from the assault. “No time.”

Brennus nodded as his ravens caught up to them and flew past, deeper into the tunnel – only for the front mass to be obliterated just as they saw a trio of monsters approach, one in a deranged set of glowing power armour.

“Enemies ahead! Three of Hastur’s victims!” he said.

The others got ready for battle, but Amazon cut in, “No! We need to push through, get to the throne!”

They all looked at each other, then Rising Tide spoke up. “Alright, we split. Some attack the three ahead of us and create an opening for the rest to break through. I’ll stay, fight. My power needs time to build up, I’m better off fighting those here so I’ll be stronger later. Remember the floor plans I gave you, and you’ll have no trouble finding the throne.”

“Bakeneko, Tyche, Outstep – you support him!” ordered Amazon. “The rest, follow me!”

And with that, she took off, not giving anyone a chance to dispute her orders.

<Bakeneko, please hand your piece of the S.M.O.G. to Gilgul,> said Brennus as he took off after Amazon.

* * *

They ran down the tunnel towards the trio of monsters. Just when they came into sight – a man made of rough stone, a crab-like woman in contrived armour and a thing like a Chinese dragon crossed with a frog and a few thousand worms – Rising Tide, Tyche and Bakeneko surged forward, the latter morphing into a matching dragon-shape for the other monster and slamming into it.

Outstep surged forward too, attaching explosives to the backs of the enemies, knocking them into their quarries before they could react.

The rest took the opening and simply jumped through and raced down the tunnel, leaving the fight behind.

Brennus decided to take the chance to ask Prisca something he should have asked way earlier (but had been distracted from). <Gilgul, I have switched us into a private channel,> he said.

<Roger, Brennus. I hope you didn’t get hurt earlier?> she asked in return.

<No, I am fine.>

<How did you do that, anyway? Resisting her attack like that…>

<That was me!> Eudocia chimed in. <We have protocols for that. I can override his armour if he’s been disabled.>

<Cool. Always prepare.>

<Yes. Speaking of which… ‘Assuming Direct Control’? Really?>

<What? I always wanted to say that. It’s not like you don’t make quotes like that too, father.>

<Stop calling me ‘father’.>

<Yes father.>

Prisca barely restrained her giggle.

He sighed and focused on his inquiry again as they reached a locked door.

“I’ll take ca-” he began to say, but Gilgul plunged her spear’s blade into the steel door and cut a hole into it, kicking it into the next room.

“Done.”

<I was going to do that…>

<Hush now.>

They went into the room beyond – the ‘reception area’, really more of a hub from which several hallways led to the other parts of the base.

They were awaited by four more monsters.

Brennus did not waste time looking at them and instead sent his ravens in – all the ones he had left, save for two he kept on his shoulders, a swarm of forty – to distract them.

Luckily, Amazon already had a plan: “Brennus, Gilgul and Tartsche, go on and try to distract Hastur and her people. The rest of us will take care of these!”

“Yes madam!” replied the three of them.

“Polymnia, take the S.M.O.G., just in case!” said Brennus as he threw his piece of the gun to her, followed by Gilgul doing the same. They ran past the four monsters as the others descended upon them.

Following the floorplans he had uploaded into his HUD, Brennus pointed out the right corridor to take and the ran into it.

<Gilgul, quick question. I should have asked earlier, but have you noticed any limit to your form? A range, a time limit…> he finally asked as they heard the sounds of battle behind them.

<Uh, it’s kind of strange. I have this… this kind of charge. Anything I do burns through it, a little. Moving, just a little bit. Flying, more. Striking, depends on how sharp my weapon needs to be. So if I tried to cut something too tough, I’d probably burn through the entire charge, maybe.>

<Interesting. How much do you have left?>

She sounded a little worried. <Not much. Cutting through BigShit and Succubus took quite a bit out of me. And I think I didn’t manage to manifest fully charged, for some reason. Nor do I know if I can simply respawn once I run out, or if I have to recharge first.>

He nodded absentmindedly. <You seem to already know a lot about it.> They rounded another corner.

<It’s… it’s like I always knew. Or perhaps like an instinct. I just know this.>

Behind them, he could see the fight heat up as more and more of his ravens were taken out trying to attack or at least distract the enemies. One of them was manipulating gravity strong enough to smack Amazon around.

<We will have to look deeper into this once we have some free time.>

They reached the door to the storage room and Gilgul stepped forward, cutting into it.

<Oh, I have a very different idea as to how to spend our free time…>

* * *

Beyond, a large room full of crates and various memorabilia opened up. It was as large as any gym hall, with crates stacked neatly to the left all along the long wall, and several display cases along the right long wall… with one of them smashed open to reveal a massive, ornate (too ornate) throne with what looked like a mutant satellite dish on the top.

Hastur was sitting on the Super-Tele Throne, wearing a skintight black suit that was connecting her to the throne by way of various wires. Her face was uncovered, free for all to see.

And her power did not work, as Brennus had already switched to the delayed vision mode. Gilgul and Tartsche seemed unaffected, too and the latter heftd his friend’s spellgun.

All he saw now was a cute, but not exceptional girl with mediterranean features, olive skin and messy dark brown hair that really needed a good cut.

“Step off the fancy chair, Miss!” he shouted.

As if that is going to convince her.

The insane teenager turned her head towards them: “Good God, you guys never give up, don’t ya? Why won’t you just look at me!?”

Her companions – one of them was Panthera Avis, the other two looked respectively like a half-machine half-zombie and a snarling gerbil – turned towards them, interposing themselves between the throne and them.

“I don’t know how you got past my friends out there, but I kept the best for last! Nathaniel, Jerry, Lara, kill them already! Especially Brennus, I want him dead! Frederic, keep working on the throne!”

Of the three monsters, Avis and the gerbil charged forward, while the cyborg zombie turned back towards the throne which, as they could now see, was connected to several exposed powerlines in the wall by a series of thick cables.

She called out to three, but only two are attacking. Means there is another one nearby.

Apparently, Gilgul and Tartsche both figured that out, too. The latter whirled around on the spot as a centipede-like monster burst ouf of the ground behind them, charging… straight into Tartsche’s line of fire.

The spellgun fired thrice, twice into the gullet of the monster and once in between its human eyes, causing ice to violently expand from the point of impact.

Thrashing violently, it fell to the ground, its charge interrupted, as it almost burst from the two iceblocks that formed halfway down its long form – it looked like a centipede with a woman’s legs instead of the usual insectoid legs.

But Brennus had little time to take in its appearance as Panthera Avis blinked into position right in front of him, before he could even draw his sword or his baton.

Ah cr-

He was smacked right in the chest before he could even finish that thought and thrown back into the hallway behind him – but not before his ravens could take off of his shoulders and start pecking at his numerous eyes.

Brennus rolled with the punch, taking the edge off of it and landing on his feet, even as he noticed, to his delight, that the dodge protocolls were working – his ravenbots were evading Panthera Avis’ clumsy strikes and slowly blinding him.

Tartsche was standing tall, unconcerned about the charging gerbil-like beast as he aimed his long, ornate rifle at it, calmly taking aim and pulling the trigger only once before the monster reached him.

The contrived rifle – somday, Brennus was going to ask Spellgun how it supposedly worked, even if the answer might give him a headache – did not even flinch backwards, as its wielder was about as movable as a mountain range, but it spewed a massive gout of fire, and then a tiny glowing projectile shot into the gerbil-thing’s gut, piercing the dirty, coarse fur.

The gerbil-monster screamed aloud as it flew backwards, but its screams were cut short when the bullet exploded in its gut, almost severing it in half.

And just like that, Brennus could no longer focus on that as he had to deal with his own quarry, who had just destroyed one of the three ravens and was just refocusing his remaining eyes on him.

I know what is coming next.

He pulled his stun batons in a reversed grip and stabbed backwards the very moment Avis vanished from sight.

The tips stabbed into hard, unyielding flesh and discharged their entire reserve of electricity into his body, causing a multitude of screams from his many mouths.

He saw Prisca be attacked by a centipede-like woman with scythe-like elongated arms, who was rising out of the floor as if it was water, and retreating into it to evade strikes. Even though Gilgul’s blade cut into the concrete easily, her quarry moved fast enough to capitalise on the loss of line of sight to evade and strike out with her own blades, though she could no more penetrate Gilgul’s armour than the golden knight could hit her.

Steering his ravens to dive in on Panthera Avis, he spoke into his com-system, <Gilgul, I am going to distract your enemy. Take out Hastur’s throne, fast.>

<Roger roger.>

He swung around on the spot, kicking Avis in the gut just below where his torso split open to reveal all the twisted faces, throwing him back. As he swung back in response, he used the motion to throw a grenade at the centipede-woman.

<Grenade>

Gilgul reacted, flying straight up just in time for the grenade to detonate. It was a flashbang and a strong one, enough to knock out anyone without some serious protection – which the woman obviously lacked, as she reeled from the detonation.

Tartsche, of course, was utterly safe, Gilgul’s protection also held up and Brennus would never be throwing a grenade that could so easily harm him.

The gerbil-thing, already blown halfway to pieces, reeled from the explosion, as did Avis behind him.

“Nononono, you gotta stop them stop them stop them!” screamed Hastur on her throne, her power letting her recover instantly from the attack.

It was of little use as Gilgul flew straight at her, aiming her lance at the sitting girl, ignoring the contriver working on the throne.

“Hey, bitch!” she screamed. “Here comes some payback!”

Ignoring the attacks of the contriver-zombie, who was pelting her with what seemed to be shotgun-blasts, she plunged her lance into Hastur’s chest – and the throne behind her.

“Nononononononono!” screamed the insane teenager before Gilgul tore the lance upward, cutting cleanly through Hastur and the throne, spliting them both in half.

“And here’s some seconds for you!” She brought the lance down at an angle, splitting the already regenerated Hastur from her left shoulder to her right hip, further demolishing the throne.

“Noooooooooooooo!” Hastur jumped off the throne as it began to glow, spitting streams of sparks as the catastrophic damage caused a meltdown.

Before anyone could do much, the throne detonated in a scarlet fireball that threw everyone but Tartsche away.

The contriver-zombie, Hastur, Gilgul, the centipede-woman and the Gerbil monster were engulfed in the conflagration, while Brennus smacked into Avis’ body and the latter smacked into the wall outside the door with a sickening crunch. His ravens were wiped out.

<Prisca!>

The light vanished, revealing an unharmed Tartsche – and an unharmed Gilgul, too, floating above the crater where the throne had stood.

“I’m fine!” she shouted. “My communicator is gone, th- dodge!” She suddenly threw her lance at him, and Brennus just barely rolled to the side – evading Avis’ two-handed strike.

The lance impaled him easily, the crossguard beneath the blade catching and throwing him back to the wall, transfixing him.

Brennus saw Hastur, already recovered, run deeper into the trophy hall.

“Tartsche, with me!” he shouted and ran.

“Comin’ coming!” the other boy said and broke off his stance, running after Brennus as he darted past him, chasing Hastur.

Then, Gilgul screamed, “Tartsche, drop!

Brennus turned his head and just barely saw Avis, bleeding heavily, appear behind Tartsche and punch the boy in the back, throwing him across the room.

Shit.

Avis’ did not have time to follow up, though, as Gilgul cut him from his left shoulder down to his left hip. Not that it was enough to kill him, but it certainly got his attention.

I can not kill Hastur by myself, without Tartsche’s help. But he could restrain her long enough for Tartsche to catch up to him. His power might allow them to put her down.

He gave chase, and followed Hastur into another hallway, being far faster than her even without his armour.

With it, he caught up to her in seconds and tackled her down.

“Ow! Meanie!” she gasped as he turned her around, kneeling atop her.

“It is over, Hastur,” he told her calmly.

“Not unless you find a way to kill me, sugar. ‘Cause I’m not gonna stop, ever,” she said with something like pride in her voice.

“Why not?”

“Because I want everyone to see me. See my face and love me. Just like the others…”

He looked down at her, unsure how to feel. She looked… ecstatic. Not concerned in the least.

“What is your name, if I may ask? Your real name, I mean.”

She looked stunned for a moment. “Ciara… but why do you want to know?” she asked.

“Because I think the name Hastur is stupid. Besides, you already know my real name, so it is only fair. May I ask you a few questions?”

“Uhh… sure…” she said, seemingly unable to deal with simple politeness.

“What was your trigger? The reason why you manifested?” he asked.

“Why do you want to know?”

“Curiosity. I would like to know what made you into what you are.”

Her face suddenly turned serious, even wistful. “There once was a girl in a little village by a mountain,” she began. “That girl had a friend. They were bestest buds since childhood. More like sisters, closer even.” She stopped, blinking.

He waited until she continued.

“They grew up together, went to school together. Then, her friend found this boy. And what a boy he was, such a catch. He was smart, and witty, and nice and pretty and athletic and even rich, not that she cared. And he was in love with her as much as she was in love with him. And the girl was happy for her friend and supported them. Covered for them, telling their parents they were with her when they were out together, stuff like that. She didn’t mind, after all, they were both her friends.” She took a deep breath. “But as time passed, that stupid girl got a little jealous. She’d had boyfriends of her own, but no one half as close as her friend and the boy were. Worse yet, none of them looked at her the way the boy looked at her friend. Now, you need to know that her friend and the boy weren’t always peachy with each other. They fought, they screamed, sometimes they even broke up. Never for long, but they did… and one day, the stupid little girl thought she’d try and tell him how she felt… how she felt about him. She went to the boy a few days after he’d broken up with her friend again and told him how she felt…” She stopped.

“And?” he asked, suspecting several scenarios.

“He was really nice to her,” she said, taking a sobbing breath. “Told her that he liked her a lot, but not that way. That they could be friends, but no more. He still wanted to get back together with her friend, after all, and take it further even.” She sniffed.

He had not expected that particular development.

“But then… even though he was so nice, he still wouldn’t look at her… look at her the way he looked at her friend. All she wanted… all I wanted was for someone, anyone to look at me the way he looked at herrrrrrrrr.” She began to sob, what little composure she had had gone in an instant. Then she started to… giggle. “Now that’s over. Everyone will look at me the way he looked at her… everyone…”

“How did he look at her?” he asked.

That stunned her. “What?”

“It is a simple question. How did he look at her? Can you describe it?”

“Well, he… he looked at her face and he… uhh…” Her eyes widened in horror. “I… I don’t remember…” she whispered as her eyes overflowed with tears. “I don’t remember… I don’t remember the way he looked at her. Why can’t I remember!?” She screamed the last part, throwing herself around trying to get away… before she collapsed, the strength leaving her. “I can’t remember how he looked at her… I killed them all, and I can’t remember…”

“Ciara.”

She looked up at him.

“What happened afterwards? After you used your power on the village people?”

“I… they came. The companions. They locked me up. Killed all my friends. Sent me here, so I’d be set free in New Lennston.”

“The Companions of the Future? Why? What did they want?”

“A diversion. Just like the attack on the protectorate. I heard them talk about that a few times, when they weren’t somehow shielding themselves from my power. They also had other things planned, but I couldn’t find out. They know how to proof places from me.”

Holy shit, what kind of conspiracy is this? “Do you know what they wanted to distract people from?”

She shook her head. “I only know that potentially causing a world war is a bonus. They are looking to do something… they want to wake something they call ‘the Sleeper’. It’s kind of a slogan of theirs – ‘The Sleeper must wake’.”

“That sounds… painfully generic. Do you have any idea what this sleeper is?”

“No… but I can look, if you want. Not like I have anything else to do.”

“Please do.”

She nodded and closed her eyes. “Hmm, alright, looking, looking… there, there’s a place! In the pacific, a big floating city. The Sleeper is below… I can almost see it… deep, deep… oh, that’s it!” She suddenly smiled wide. Almost grinned. Her eyes flew open. “I can see it! It’s beautiful, so beautiful, I can see it all o-” Her breath caught as her eyes widened.

“What? Ciara, what’s happening?” he asked, worried. What the hell was going on there?

“It can see me! It’s asleep but it can s-“

Without warning, without a sign, without her even changing her expression, there was a crack in the air, as her whole body suddenly froze solid, ice-spikes erupting from her clothing and skin, her eyes cracking audibly.

Brennus was thrown off of her as he felt the cold through his suit, down to his bones.

He picked himself up from the ground and looked at her – her body was in the exact same position it had been before, only frozen, iced over, the ice covered in slush which was already running off, turning into cold water.

What the fuck?

* * *

“And she just said that it saw her and then she… died? Nothing else?” Widard asked, bewildered.

“Yes. I just showed you my recording, did I not?” replied Brennus, as the rest of both his and the junior hero team looked on. Gilgul was missing though, as her charge had run out (though she had only told him that. The others thought she had just left after the fight). The Dark was there, too – the fight at Kansas City was over, and apparently Memento, having reappeared after his absence during the Osaka fight, had managed to disrupt Desolation-in-Light’s powers often enough to make her lose interest, or whatever it was that made her go away.

Brennus elaborated, “Going through the recordings, I think that her body temperature was remotely lowered to extreme enough depths to flash-freeze her, which caused an implosion as the air around her condensed into liquid, drawing in the surrounding air to fill the gap, followed by an explosion of air as the liquified air mostly turned back into gas by absorbing the surrounding heat. Also, it damn near froze off several pieces of me.”

The others looked quite worried now. That kind of power, apparently used from around the world, was major bad news.

He, however, looked at the Dark. “Sir, do you have any idea what this Sleeper is, or what the Companions want with it?”

The Dark, having stood at the windows with his back to the rest of them, turned to look at them. “I know very well what it is, indeed.” He raised a hand, as if to scratch his chin, not that that could be seen underneath the shadows that wrapped around him.

“What? What is it?” asked an impatient Amazon.

“None of your business and way out of your league. Best you all forget you ever heard this,” he replied simply, not the least bit intimidated by her attitude.

“By God, if you’re going to screw us over here, I-” she began, but he cut her off with only a look.

I so need to take some lessons from this guy.

“Watch your language, young lady. I’ve been playing this game since long before your father was even born. And besides, if you can ask Gwen, too. She knows as much about it as I do… though her answer will be the same as mine, I assure you.”

He turned to look at the juniors and Brennus’ team. “To you, my dear children, let me say this: I am very impressed by your performance. I compliment you all, and hope to see more of you in the future.” He nodded his head, if barely, towards them. “But now I must leave you, and take care of business.”

And with that, he sank into his own shadow, vanishing.

They were left staring at where he had stood, more scared than flattered.

“Why do I think this ain’t good for us?” asked Tyche, who had her left arm in a sling.

“Because we apparently just got the attention of the King of Supervillains,” replied Hecate, who was wrapped in an emergency blanket to cover up her costume, which had been torn to the point of indecency, apparently. Again.

<And I thought my day started weird.>

Everyone else replied, “Amen.”

* * *

Basil walked up to his house, feeling quite tired. They had discussed the whole operation, along with some unsettling news about Desolation-in-Light’s attack on Kansas City. But now he was just tired and wanted to see Amy again – she had survived Kansas, as Amazon had grudgingly pointed out.

Can not blame her for hoping Amy would come to harm.

Aye, it’s her own fault, mate.

He mulled that over as he reached the door – and then his phone rang in the melody he had set for e-mails.

Taking a quick look, he found a single sentence in the mail:

I’ll be watching you.

Followed by the image of a dragon biting its own tail, circling a W.

He put the phone away again. Well, that is not foreboding at all.

But he would worry about that later. Now, he opened the door, stepping in.

Just as he closed it and took a breath to call Amy, he was suddenly caught by an invisible force, throwing him up.

He smacked into the ceiling, face down, arms and legs sprawled.

Amy stepped out of the kitchen into the hallway, hair wet and dressed in a bathrobe. And looking pissed.

“We need to have a talk, little brother.”

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B007.8 Hastur, Shrouded in Dread

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“Can I have your autograph?”

Polymnia dropped her tools, looking up with a startled expression. Hecate was standing next to her workstation, holding out… the last album she published before deciding to focus on being a superhero.

<Where did that come from?>, she asked.

Hecate shrugged, as if it was nothing special. “Uhh, lots of stuff fits into my pouch. Kind of a… a bag of holding, you know?” She seemed embarassed about the name.

At least she knows her nomenclature. And I guess there’s no harm in signing it. She took the album case and signed it with her cape name. <What brought this about?> she asked as she handed it back. <Not quite the time…>

If she could have seen Hecate’s face, she was sure it would be red. Her heartbeat certainly sped up quite a bit.

“Uh, I’ve been hoping for a chance to ask you all day… but, you know, it’s kind of… impolite. But I guess we both might die shortly, so when was I gonna ask if not now?” she explained as she put the album back into her pouch.

<Don’t be so pessimistic. Your teammate came up with a good plan, and we’re as prepared as w->

“Yeah, sure, Brennus has a good plan. Excuse me if I don’t trust completely in that,” Hecate replied with some venom in her voice.

<What do you mean?> Polymnia asked her. She sounded… conflicted. Angry.

Hecate looked away, her hood turning to the side. “I… don’t get me wrong, Brennus is a great teammate and friend, but… he’s not the most stable or reliable type. I’m just… I’d trust him with my life in battle, but in planning? When he often forgets what day it is because he’s working on his tech, or he forgets… maybe I should stop here,” she rambled with some worry in her voice. Then she suddenly turned fully towards Polymnia, her posture more… wary. “This stays between us, right?”

She nodded with a serious expression. <Of course. Can I ask you something?>

“Sure.”

<Why are you doing this?>

“Doing what?”

<Being a cape. A vigilante. Why did you put on that costume? Why did you decide not to join up with the United Junior Heroes? I don’t believe it just ‘happened’, you know?>

Hecate looked away. “I… I was out on my first night. I’d… I knew about the Snow Queen doing business at the harbor that night and I thought I’d… God above, this sounds so stupid now… I thought I’d take her down, stop her trade, you know?”

Polymnia looked away, readjusting her goggles as she remembered the Snow Queen’s performance in the acre <Definitely not your smartest idea.>

The other girl hunched up her shoulders, turning away. “It wasn’t. So anyway, I found the warehouse – and for the love of me, I can still not believe that she was doing business in an abandoned warehouse – I snuck in and attacked, got my ass kicked around. Brennus had been following a lead there, too. He jumped in, saved my ass, we fought her, got kicked around – then Tyche, who’d just been taking a walk, randomly choosing her direction – barged in and helped us and we managed to win… barely. I got hurt pretty bad, Brennus took me to his hideout to fix me up and we kinda… got talking. Hooked up. In the cape-team way, not the other one.”

<Well, that was quite the series of strange events – though you kind of ignored my real question… why?>

Hugging herself, Hecate fell quiet. Polymnia almost thought that she’d pushed too hard, but then…

“I have… someone close to me used to be a hero. I think I felt like I’d be closer to that person if I did the same,” she whispered. “That’s all I’m going to say about that. Can I ask you a question?”

Polymnia stopped for a moment, digesting the new information. <I can’t promise that I’ll answer it to your satisfaction.>

“Um, it’s nothing bad, I just wanted to know… is Gloom Glimmer always like this?”

Huh? She leaned her head to the side, looking up at her. <What do you mean?>

Hecate made a starting motion, as if surprised. “Well, like that. You know. Off. Creepy. Scary. I had goosebumps the whole time I was around her.”

<What in God’s name are you talking about? Irene can be a little weird, but->

A little? Polymnia, she’s fu- I mean, darn creepy! Her father didn’t scare me half as bad as she does! Everyone else on your team gets the creeps from her, too!”

She opened her mouth to rebuke her, then remembered that she couldn’t produce a sound that way, which halted her long enough to think it over. Outstep was always really tense around Gloom Glimmer, and so were the others. Bakeneko had stopped even talking around her lately – only Osore acted indifferent around her, and he was a special case, anyway.

<What do you mean, exactly? I never noticed her to be that scary>, she said through her vocalizer. At least not while in company, she thought silently, thinking of that afternoon in her room.

“Her voice, her walk, the way she stands, everything!” said Hecate, now exasperated. This was clearly not what she’d expected. “She doesn’t move right, she doesn’t even stand around right – it’s all off! The way she looks at people, the way she talks, her very voice.”

<Now wait a minute, I got quite the ear for sounds and her voice sounds utterly divine to me,> she said. <Can’t say a thing about the rest, really. Ever since my manifestation, I haven’t been any good at body language and stuff. But I’m really good with voices.>

Hecate calmed down, pulling her cloak around herself again. “I don’t know about that. All I know is that she doesn’t seem real, like she’s taking part in a dance but is always a step off. And there’s always this… this air of barely restrained power around her. Like she could blow up at any time.”

You have no idea.

This wasn’t good. She’d never noticed any of this, except when Irene had been out of control. She’d just thought Outstep was being a dick and Bakeneko was a scaredy-cat anyway. <There’s no need to be afraid. She’s really nice, really. Best friend I’ve ever had.>

“Really? What do your other friends say about her?”

<Correct that. Only friend I have right now. None of my friends from before my manifestation want anything to do with me anymore. But even taking my pre-manifestation friends into account, Irene’s been a true friend,> she explained.

“I don’t know if I could be so open. Brennus sometimes acts really strange, but Gloom Glimmer seems to be more like… dunno, something that learned to act human, but never got it quite right.”

<Uhh… That sounds really creepy,> she replied, shuddering as she remembered Irene’s breakdown.

“It is. And damn, now I feel like a bitch for bringing it up,” whispered Hecate.

Polymnia shook her head. <No, I’m glad you told me. Maybe I can help her smooth things out.>

“You’re way nicer than me,” said Hecate with a slightly forced giggle.

* * *

“You look like a mummy,” Harry said with a chuckle as he sat down next to his boyfriend’s bed.

Thomas tried to slap him, but he was quite firmly affixed to the bed by way of the rig his left leg was hanging in. “Shut up, it’s just ma fuckin’ leg,” he replied.

“That’s what you get for trying to go into close combat with a geokinetic monster,” Tartsche admonished him. “I hear the only reason you don’t actually look like a mummy is ’cause Tyche accidentily knocked you into a blast shadow?”

“Hrmph,” grumped the feminine-looking boy on the hospital bed. “Ah’ll admit it, ah got lucky. Anyway, what about Hastur? What’re we gonna do?”

Harry shook his head. “Sorry, can’t tell’ya. Turns out she has some kinda super-clairvoyance, so it’s not safe to talk. But I’ll be off soon.”

A worried look crossed Thomas’ face, but he suppressed it quickly. “Alright,” he said. He wasn’t going to ask him to back down, and Harry loved him for it.

He might have done it, if he asked.

“Take this,” the wounded boy said holding out his eponymous spellgun and a bandoleer full of various shots. “Ah can’t help y’all myself, cuz Gloom Glimmer didn’t get to fix me, but ma gun might be of some use.”

Harry took it with a grateful nod. He knew how much Thomas hated handing out his equipment, even to him.

“I’ll bring it back whole, love. Soon,” he promised.

Rolling his eyes, Thomas admonished him: “You make sure you come back whole. Now gimme a kiss and then off with you!”

Harry obliged.

* * *

Sprawling on the long couch of the United Junior Heroes’ common room, Tyche thought that they desperately needed some of B6’s upgrade magic on their entertainment equipment.

For one, their television required a remote control. If she wanted to watch something, she’d need to stand up and get it from the table, instead of just saying which channel she wanted to watch.

“Can you give me the remote?” she asked Outstep, who was making sandwiches for the two of them. He’d turned surprisingly helpful once she’d started flirting with him. A shame it doesn’t work on B6, she thought. I wonder why. Plus, she felt bad for his girlfriend. The poor girl would probably have to knock him out and tie him to the bed to get anything fun done. Though that sounded fun in and of itself.

“It’s less than two meters away from you,” Bakeneko replied from down the couch, where she’d curled up as some kind of cat… thing.

“Well, that’s too far! I’m used to voice commands – and automatic preferences, and stuff!” she whined. “I mean, how come B has better equipment than you? You’re all supposed to have super-funds, plus you got your own gadget-geek and a mad scientist!” she continued, poking at him with a grin.

Outstep said: “Calm down, I’m on my way.” He came over to the couch with a plate of sandwiches he’d just made, and he did give her the remote.

Good boy.

“Polymnia doesn’t care much about voice control, if you know what I mean? Plus, she never hangs out, anyway. Always in her workshop,” he defended their equipment before taking a bite out of his sandwich. She took one for herself, and Bakeneko stretched out an arm (over three meters) and took two for herself.

“Makes sense. Maybe all g-geeks are like that? B doesn’t really hang, either, unless we force him,” she replied before taking a bite. “Mmh!” This was really good! Turkey, ham, mayonnaise, rye. Another point for the boy. “Then again, he does make me all those wonderful toys…”

“Like your wig? That was just… overkill,” Bakeneko said in between bites.

She ran her fingers through the blonde hair sticking out from the back of her mask. “I thought it was funny. Besides, he insisted that I wear a wig, instead of letting my real hair hang out. Since the fight down in the acre.”

“Yeah, but… boobytrapping a wig? With springloaded, barbedstingers? Loaded with electric charges? That’s just… dunno…” The shapeshifter seemed way too weirded out by it for someone who currently looked like a cat-lizard.

“Oh, come on, that thing’s reaction was awesome. Thought it had me by the hair, then the locks came off and.. zap.” She slapped her thigh with her free hand to emphasize the point.

“Still…”

“Eh, I’ve seen stranger stuff,” Outstep threw in. “Like Vulcan the third’s underwear.”

Underwear?!” they both asked in unison.

He nodded sagely. “Aye. I remember, when she was our leader – I’d just joined the Juniors – we decided to play a prank on her. She had the hots for… well, for someone and we were gonna dump all her underwear into his underwear drawer. Turns out, a Contriver who specializes in Traps can boobytrap everything. As in, every single piece of underwear, even her lingerie went apeshit on us.” He stopped to take a bite, letting them stew while he chewed and swallowed. “Three of us spent a week in the infirmary afterwards, and Spellgun still has a few scars.”

“Cool,” they both replied. “Can we get some stuff from her?”

He shook his head. “Nah. She died a year ago when DiL attacked the Grand Canyon. She was on vacation there,” he explained. “Didn’t even get to do anything, I hear, just got squashed during the first attack.”

They all fell silent after that.

“Who do you think’s gonna die next?” asked Bakeneko. “I mean, we’ve been real lucky so far, since S-Class events are expected to cause at least twenty-five percent causalties among the defenders.”

Outstep shrugged. “No use thinking about that. Might be none of us – there’s plenty of villains in the city fightin’ her, too. And even if not – you gotta learn to live with this kinda crap, if you wanna be a hero. Or any kind of cape, really. People die. Deal with it.”

They fell silent again, eating while they waited to go out into the fight.

* * *

“The cameras are off?” Prisca asked, tapping one foot impatiently on the floor of the hallway they were in. The ‘metal’ of her boots made a bright, bell-like sound.

“Sure. Their security still sucks,” Basil replied as he created a loop and put Eudocia to warn them in case anyone came their way. “There, camera’s are looped, and we got early warn-“

If there was one thing she really didn’t care about right now, it was the state of security around here.

So she cut him off by pushing him against the wall, her helmet fading away as she ripped off his spare helmet. He had barely enough time to unlock it and prevent any damage, and then it was off.

“Prisca, ca-“

She pressed her lips to his, finally shutting him up. And then she didn’t care about anything else for a while.

Nor did he.

When they parted again, an eternity later, she felt herself… flushed. Breathing hard. She’d never felt this good. Like her whole body was burning from the inside out, from her shivering head to her curling toes.

“Uhh…” Basil was making strange sounds.

“What? Didn’t you like it?” A sliver of… anger, or fear, entered her voice. She didn’t know why.

He raised his hands, waving them. “No no no, I liked it a lot! Just… wow. Kinda… more intense than I thought it’d be.” She was pretty sure he was blushing underneath his cowl.

“Well, duh!” Of course it was better than before! She wasn’t stuck in that half-dead piece of shit that was her body anymore! “Can’t wait for us to have some real private time.” She winked at him, which made him dry-swallow.

Being hot was fun.

“I… uh… can’t wait…” he replied, apparently losing more and more of his usually extensive vocabulary.

So much fun.

She leaned closer, until their lips were almost touching. He was down to indistinct syllables now, and his eyes looked unfocused.

“Maybe you could tell me how much you can’t wa-“

A ringing tone went off in his spare armor, like a cellphone ringing. He raised his hand to his earbud, his eyes focusing again.

Dammit!

“Oh, uh, Eudocia says the others are ready, so…”

I’m gonna have words with her.

She sighed, rematerializing her helmet. “Let’s go.”

Previous | Next

B007.7 Hastur, Shrouded in Dread

Previous | Next

The dragonette stopped the recording after they’d watched it twice. It was quite… illuminating, really. And they finally had a clue as to how to take Hastur down, which was a plus…

But right now, he was more concerned with the dog-sized dragonette in front of him. He stared down at the gorgeous drone. It stared back up at him. Its creator had gone through the trouble of adding filigree ornamentations to its shell – the dull, dark silver had been engraved in artistic swirls and other such patterns, all perfectly balanced against each other and whichever part of its body they were worked onto.

The girls started to discuss their next step, while he just sank down to squat on his heels. He was too tired, too worn out to help much, anyway. Besides, dragon robot. Either was reason enough for him to pay attention and now he had both in front of him.

Gloom Glimmer turned to look at the other two girls, still weary from the exertion of the last hours. “So, now we know how to stop her. Whether or not we can use it is another matter entirely,” she said.

“I’m still not quite sure what we saw, to be honest,” Prisca replied. “As far as I get it, she can only be hurt by her victims?” She shuddered as she remembered the recording of the grissly attack on the shelter. “Unless you use mind control on one of them, I don’t see how it’s going to help us.”

Brennus drew out a stack of pictograph cards and started flashing them in front of the dragonette. It chirped in response, adjusting the responses to the cards he flashed. Could it be an Artificial General Intelligence like Eudocia? Or an Artificial Specialized Intelligence?

“Not quite. I’ll explain it later on, but we need to meet the group again,” Gloom Glimmer replied. “We don’t stand a chance as we are – I’m almost out of juice, Brennus could be knocked out by a stiff wind and you… no offense, but you are completely new, even if you held yourself wonderfully against BigShit.”

His power surged up, the light blazing brighter than usual, as it began to analyze the responses of the dragonette, trying to analyze it through them. He soon went to flashing three or four cards at a time in patterns based on astrophysical calculations, then went over to quantum theory…

Prisca shrugged, her face hidden behind her helmet. “No offense taken. Honestly, without Phasma here, I’d probably have gotten crushed like a bug sooner or later.”

He shelved those tests – it at least wasn’t as intelligent as Eudocia, even if it was an AGI. Or perhaps it was smart enough to recognize what he was doing? He started testing its behaviour with simple prompts and questions, speaking quietly.

The young villain just shrugged herself, but said nothing. She’d been quite silent the whole while, and Brennus was getting the impression that she wasn’t overly concerned about what was happening… though that might just have been due to her power making her pretty much immune to most anything that might harm her.

“Let’s cut the chatter and go – I think I still have enough juice to locate the others,” Gloom Glimmer continued. She’d drawn her hood up, hiding her face from view and drawn her white cloak around herself, looking more like a ghost than Phasma did right now. “Wait for it… yes, I’ve got Tartsche and Tyche… and Outstep. Polymnia is… nearby, with Hecate… Amazon is tied down at the Diantha High, Bakeneko and Osore are with her… oh, the Feral Family has deployed, they’re coming here.” She mumbled a few incoherent words, then continued: “That’s all I can get right now. Too weak to try and locate Hastur, if I even could – meta’s of her level tend to mess up perception powers around themselves.”

Some of this stuff was interesting… he was largely convinced he was facing an ASI instead of an AGI, and it seemed to have quite a few quirks… but they, as far as he could tell, hadn’t been programmed in deliberately, but had “grown” organically as the ASI expanded. Maybe if he called in Eudocia and linked them up somehow… but he would need to somehow shield Eudocia from being corrupted, and the threat of having her be revealed to the Dark or other interested part-

“BRENNUS!”

“Huh?” He looked up. All three girls were looking at him – funnily enough, since all of them had their faces hidden, they did little to convey emotion. Whoever had called out to him had sounded annoyed, though. “What is it?”

Gloom Glimmer sighed a long-suffering sigh. “Oh, Stars above, he’s almost as bad as Polymnia,” she groaned.

Prisca stepped forward and simply grabbed him by the back of his cloak, pulling him up to his feet. “We’re going to fly to meet up with the others. Gloom Glimmer already sent a message ahead. I’ll carry you.”

“Okay. And why does that require interrupting my work here?”

She just threw him over her shoulder and lifted off, grabbing Phasma’s discarded robe as the girl dematerialized. The dragonett followed after them with a low chirping sound to accompany its flight.

* * *

They flew towards the headquarters of the United Heroes, and Brennus was once more struck by the unfairness of being unable to fly himself. Even if being carried by Prisca gave him the most interesting… ideas. And not technical ones, for once…

He shook his head and focused again on the dragonette, which was following after them. Ma-

But again, his thought process was interrupted by less interesting stuff. Namely, their landing on top of the large building that housed the headquarters of the local heroes. Tartsche, Hecate, Tyche, Polymnia, Outstep, Bakeneko, Osore, Amazon, Succubus and Rising Tide already awaited them, the latter looking rather… ruffed up. His formerly immaculate white suit was quite torn and ragged now.

Prisca put him down as they landed and held out the robe for Phasma, which filled out as her ghost-body flew in and rematerialized into its normal (hidden) physical form.

Amazon cut right to the chase: “Gloom Glimmer says you found someth-“

“Stop. No talking,” said Brennus. He looked at Tartsche. “How far can you spread your power?”

The other boy answered calmly, without a break: “Anyone and anything I directly touch. Why?”

“Everyone, touch Tartsche then. No talking until we’re all under the aegis of his power,” he continued and suited actions to words, reaching out to grab Tartsche’s forearm.

The others, rather befuddled, followed suit and touched the stalwart teenager.

And then the world went calm. There was no easy way to describe it, Brennus found, but to say that he knew the world couldn’t touch him anymore. It felt oddly… familiar.

Been there, done that, mate. Got the t-shirt.

Someday, you will have to explain all that.

Eh, not today, though.

What kind of accent are you talking in, anyway? You sound British most of the time, kind of Cockney, but that was definitely Canadian just now.

Imma nasty bugger of all kinds.

Now you are just making fun of me.

Geez, whatever gave you that idea?

He shook his head, focusing back on the others. It didn’t seem like they noticed him spacing out a little.

Amazon was quite focused on the dragonette, anyway, which was perched on Gloom Glimmer’s back right now, its head hanging over her shoulder. “What is that?”

Gloom Glimmer, still hiding beneath her cowl and cloak, spoke up, her voice quite a bit… duller than usual. “Her name’s Silver. She’s Wyrm’s spy drone,” she explained.

“Who is this Wyrm?” asked the Forester, his voice having somehow dropped a few octaves since the last time they spoke.

The shrouded girl gave a sensation of… apprehension off, but answered: “She works for my father and apparently decided to intervene directly here. She might have given us the key to defeating Hastur.”

“And what might that key be? And why did you,” Amazon looked at Brennus, “Insist that we all huddle up like this?”

“Is everyone here aware of the observations I made during my stay with Hastur?” he asked.

“You mean her mind reading and regeneration?” asked Tyche.

“Not mind reading, at least not true mind reading, but a more… specialized form. Anyway, she seems capable of dropping in on communication between people.”

“And however did you come to that conclusion?” asked Succubus with a drawl. For some reason, Prisca turned her head to look at her and he got the feeling she was glaring.

“Not important right now. Anyway, I have a theory that Tartsche is using a variant of the same ability which protects Desolation-in-Light, a-“

“Wait, what?” Tyche shouted in surprise, closely echoed by Outstep.

Brennus grunted, annoyed at the interruption. “Focus, people. We can discuss power theory later on.”

Oh, the irony me matey.

Shut. Up.

“Anyway, as I was saying, Desolation-in-Light is immune to all perception-powers – even indirect ones fail around her – so it is possible, if not even likely, that Hastur will be unable to eavesdrop on us if we’re under the protection of his power. Now, to get to the matter at hand – Silver, would you please replay the video you showed us before?”

Silver gave a chirping sound and aimed its – her? – head towards the floor in front of the group, projecting the video.

They saw the security camera feed from the Menstall shelter – over a hundred people were gathered together.

A flickering, then three shadows appeared in one corner of the place, in plain sight of everyone, along with Hastur – who proceeded to pull down her hood without much further ado. The recording only showed a flickering shadow where her face should be, just like with her victims – and immediately the shelter turned into a madhouse.

One of the refugees, a young woman huddled together with her family, burst into fire, growing into a flaming bird even as her body began to twist and break – and she threw a fireball towards the assembled group, much to Hastur’s apparent surprise. The young girl threw her arms up to shield her face, but not fast enough – only the intervention of one of the shadows shoving her aside saved her from having her whole body incinerated. Instead, the side of her leg was burned, as was one of the shadows standing behind her.

Hastur screamed and fell to the floor, clutching her burned leg and rolling over, as the phoenix threw another fireball – and hit her straight in the back, incinerating her whole body, reducing her to ashes. Then she screamed again (the Phoenix) as she bent over… backwards, audibly breaking her back as a new, white feline head burst out of her belly and her left leg exploded only to reform into the head of a black turtle. Then, the same flickering discordance covered her in the recording.

Before their eyes, the ashes that were left of Hastur reformed into the same girl… including her burned leg.

“What. The. Fuck,” said Tyche.

“Agreed. This is most… unusual,” said Rising Tide, his voice now an octave or so higher.

<I’ve never heard of regeneration that worked like that,> Polymnia threw in, her face twisted in horror as she mostly looked at what could be seen of the victims of the attack.

“Wait for the next part,” said Brennus. “Silver, please proceed.”

The dragonette did so, showing the video from a hospital surveillance camera. It showed a hallway, and soon enough, Hastur limped through the window, now in a different pair of pants. The time stamp showed this scene to take place about an hour after her attack on the Menstall shelter.

“Soooo… she can’t regenerate from some stuff? Where’s the logic?”, Hecate asked.

Gloom Glimmer swayed a little and said: “The next part is also important. Silver, please show the final video.”

It was a traffic camera recording of the Chinese cape’s rampage through New Lennston’s entertainment district (also known as The Brights). While Huang Long herself was hidden beneath the shroud of flickering distortion, they saw Hastur show up with some of her attending victims and cross a nearby street – only for Huang Long to lash out and throw another fireball at her, incinerating her once more. Hastur recovered – though she retained her limp and her pants were still burned, not yet replaced – and cursed towards her victim, then vanished along with her group in a flicker.

Silver cut off the video feed.

“Gilgul here,” Brennus said, nodding towards Prisca, “Thought that Hastur might be vulnerable against her own victim’s attacks.” Prisca, Phasma and Gloom Glimmer all turned to look at him, surprised that he had even noticed that. He would have smirked at them if they could have seen it. “Them is not so. I theorize, instead, that she is vulnerable to those whom her power is affecting at the time… or, in other words, the only way to harm her is to look at her face while you do it.”

That made everyone hold their breath and think.

Polymnia was the first to say something: <So we just use a time-delayed camera or thermal vision or something and we can take her down?>

Hecate shook her head. “No. Brennus was doing that when she kidnapped him, and he couldn’t hurt her, right?”

He nodded. Obviously, Hecate must have read all his reports. “Quite so. I think one must expose themselves to her power in order to be able to hurt her. In that moment of her power affecting one directly, her defensive power probably does not recognize one as a threat. Allowing permanent harm to be done to her.”

Rising Tide tapped his chin, scowling. “I notice everyone is thinking towards the end goal of killing her – we should instead detain her, after all, her power is rather harmless when she’s locked away and-“

“No,” said Amazon. “Even if there wasn’t the issue of you Foresters potentially getting your hands on an S-Class threat, it wouldn’t work.”

“How do you know that?”, the Forester sneered.

Amazon sneered right back – and she had one hell of a sneer. “We know that because one of the Black Panthers survived and turned himself over to us. According to his information, they had Hastur in their custody for two weeks, but he observed the others growing more and more obsessed with her – upon closer inspection by our specialists, we found traces of subtle mental manipulation in his mind. It is very likely that Hastur subconsciously manipulates people to become obsessed with her, which would eventually lead to her escape.”

Rising Tide started to say something, but Gloom Glimmer cut him off: “Shut. Up.” She turned to Succubus, who had just opened her mouth. “You. Too.” Brennus was sure he saw something red flicker in the darkness of her hood for a moment. “Amazon, is there anything else we should know? Any information you got out of him?”

“Yes. Apparently, the person who set up the deal that got them Hastur was a Quinzen Walmers – a local ‘contract negotiator’… and their sponsor was a group calling themselves ‘the Companions of the Future’. They’re the ones who provided the funds necessary to buy a metahuman like Hastur.”

“Have you tried to detain Walmers already?” Brennus asked.

She nodded, but did not look pleased. “Yes, but he’s cut and run – there’s no sign of him.”

“We shouldn’t worry about him, anyway,” said Prisca. “We need to track down Hastur, and find a way to off her without having to sacrifice so-“

“And who in darnation are you, anyway!?” Outstep spoke up for the first time. He was looking rather ragged, himself, and quite tired.

“Her name is Gilgul. Newly manifested, high apex to god tier flying brick with a few twists,” Gloom Glimmer summed up. “Now quiet – she’s already proven herself by taking down BigShit along with Phasma here.”

That shut him up.

Brennus threw him a glare he could not see, then turned to the group as a whole: “I have a few ideas on how to take her down, but we need to find her. I don’t believe that she is just wildly teleporting around causing chaos – she is more likely to have a plan, even if it is a half-cooked one.” Especially if she has found an intelligent planer, or worse yet, a superbrain-type.

“I can find her,” Gloom Glimmer threw in. “It will disable me for a while – I’m already quite drained,” Her voice sounded almost normal now – though Brennus could only tell that it was usually strange by the lack of her usual inhuman harmonics – and she was slumping, which just did not fit her, at all. “But I should be able to locate her, maybe even get a glimpse of her goals.”

“Do that, then. We’ll take everything from there,” ordered Amazon.

Gloom Glimmer nodded and broke contact with Tartsche, stepping away and taking a deep breath as Silver jumped off her back, gliding a short distance away to land and watch her.

* * *

Gloom Glimmer took a deep breath, concentrated – once more, Brennus was sure he saw red flicker underneath her hood – and then collapsed onto her knees. “Ugh.”

Polymnia immediately went to her side, helping her back up and taking her back into the group huddle, holding her hand to Tartsche’s outstretched hand to spread his power over them. <What did you see?>

The weakened girl shook her head, then whispered: “She’s… she’s got a plan… She wants to use TeleCat’s instant broadcasting contrivances to broadcast her face.”

“Ah crap,” whispered Brennus.

“TeleCat? Who the hell is that? And what’s with that name?” asked Bakeneko. Brennus had almost forgotten she was there, even though she had a particularly provocative form right now… not that he would notice it next to Prisca’s new curv- Focus, damn it!

“A supervillain from the late eighties, he tried to take over the world by way of television. Built contrivances that transmitted images and sound across the planet with no lag at all, wanted to hypnotize the whole world,” explained Brennus. He had studied up on all tech-based heroes and villains he could find – or at least the most famous ones – and even contrivers. “But it makes no sense – TeleCat is locked up in the Tartarus Star; as powerful as she is, there is no way she is breaking him out of there to build her another contrivance. And all his old ones were destroyed.”

Rising Tide fiddled with the neck of his suit, apparently uncomfortable.

Gloom Glimmer looked at Rising Tide. “She’s going for your base under the Brights,” she said. “You have TeleCat’s Super Tele-Throne in storage – and since he’s still alive, it would still work.” She paused, taking a weak breath. “She sits on that thing and she’ll be able to throw her face on every active screen that is linked to the internet in the entire Northern Hemisphere at the same time, with no lag. It might suffice to let her power propagate through it – instant apocalypse.”

Brennus sighed. “Ah crap to the highest power.”

And then something strange happened. Gloom Glimmer just… slumped in Polymnia’s arms, the colour washing out of her, until… until she looked like someone had taken a scissor and cut a Gloom Glimmer-like shape into reality.

“What happened to Miss Perfect?” asked Bakeneko, only to earn a slap over the head by Amazon.

Polymnia answered the question everyone had: <It’s a kind of defense mechanism. If she’s knocked out or otherwise unable to defend herself anymore, her power uses its last reserves to kind of put her into a pocket dimension to protect her until she recovers. Right now, she’s just as untouchable as Desolation-in-Light. But she’s completely out of this world, save for this tether.> She nodded towards the featureless, three-dimensional void in her arms.

“Well, at least she’ll be safe,” sneered Rising Tide with a mocking tone.

Amazon threw Rising Tide a poisonous look, but did not rebuke him. “So, what do we do?” she asked into the round. Apparently, she was just as stunned as the others were. This was… quite a bit over their usual weight class.

Prisca turned to her: “How long until the Feral Family arrives?”

“How do y- nevermind, they’ll need at least another forty-five minutes.”

“Too long,” said Brennus. “But I have a different plan.” He looked all his erstwhile comrades over. “I will need all of your cooperation for it, just to make sure. And it will be really dangerous.”

“Not as dangerous as the end of the world,” said Prisca in support, gently bumping his shoulder with her fist.

He nodded, then turned to Polymnia: <Charge the S.M.O.G. up. We will need it for this.>

<Yes!>

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