B13.18 Call of the Sleeper

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He’d failed.

He’d failed, and it had all been pointless to begin with.

Basil staggered back, away from Dusu. Not hearing, or even really seeing how the others reacted. He just turned away, looking around the room without seeing anything.

There were voices, in the distance, but he paid them no mind, ignored the hand that reached for his arm, didn’t even register who it was.

She has no cure. She has no cure. I can’t come up with one, I’ve never been that good with actual biology. Maybe, if she had the actual formula… but she said she put it all online already, and I’ve read everything there is on the plague online. Prisca only has a few days left, at most.

Life support could only keep her going for so long, especially after the additional damage Hastur’s attack had caused. She certainly wouldn’t survive a flight to England. Even if Gloom Glimmer teleporter her along with all the life support… no, she’d never survive the journey to Ember himself. And even then…

They’d opened the Protectorate again, on a limited basis, after he’d revived that baby, but… it was a toss-up whether he’d actually react to anyone who managed to get close enough. More than once, one of the countless hopeful had weathered the pressure of his empathic assault, managed to get the remains of a loved one all the way to him… only to be promptly ignored until they passed out or went mad.

Basil didn’t know whether he could make it through that, not with the way his mind had gotten screwed up, but he would do it.

However, there was no way Prisca could survive it. If he took her in while she was still alive, in her current condition, it’d likely kill her, if it didn’t destroy her mind.

Ember could fix that, obviously. Assuming he got to him.

What if I put her into stasis? the thought came suddenly. Put her into a state where she’s not truly conscious. It would protect her from his aura…

Don’t be stupid. Just wait for her to d-d-die and take her corpse to him.

The whole point of this is to make sure she doesn’t die in the first place!

Then forget Ember and the Protectorate! You need to focus on working out a cure!

How!? If even Dusu couldn’t… she’s been working on this for half a decade! I have days, at most! Nevermind that I’m not a bio-gadgeteer to begin with and this is, is, it’d take ten bio-gadgeteers to work this out!

Then find a non-biological solution!

How!?! I’ve tried so much… I can’t just replace her infected body parts, because every part is infected in three different ways? Removing her brain to later implant it into a new body, even if I could perform surgery like that, would be meaningless because her brain is also infected!

That’s it. Her brain, that’s the solution!

Of course… I can’t physically remove her brain, but I could scan it, save a complete engram of her brainwaves… it would require more storage than even my computers have, but I’m certain I could convince Mrs Fion to buy any materials I might need…

I save the complete engram. That’ll buy me time, it’ll allow me to figure out how to create a new, healthy body for her, then copy it over… since it’ll be made while she’s still alive…

It can only be made while she’s still alive.

That way, she’ll never have to experience death… whether or not we can get her to Ember…

I can call this Plan A, and getting her to Ember would be Plan B.

There is another issue. Would she want that? To be copied over to a new body? Technically, she wouldn’t be the same Prisca as before. Her mother might not want that, either.

I’m not a philosopher nor a priest. Leave the existential debate to someone else.

But shouldn’t any proposed solution be considered in light of Prisca’s wishes? She is the one whose life is at stake. Copying her mind into a new body – and it’s far-fetched to believe I could do that – only to create a copy of her which does not consider herself to be the Prisca would only serve my own peace of mind.

Stasis.

Like on Tartarus Star. That might be a solution. I could perhaps work out a stasis chamber, or maybe trade Stasis himself for the designs or a complete chamber… or perhaps Mrs Fion could buy one off of him… we could keep Prisca alive indefinitely while I work on finding a cure.

Stasis is no hero though. He works for the government and he is committed full-time to maintaining Tartarus Star. His technology is considered a national secret; it is very unlikely that he’d be allowed to reveal his designs, nevermind actually buying a stasis chamber off of him – they’re supposed to be incredibly expensive, to boot.

Between Mrs Fion’s wealth and the technology I can of-

***

A hand closed around his biceps, tugging him around. He looked up at Amy, black eyes to purple ones.

Hey, baby bro, she whispered gently into his mind. You need to calm yourself down, before you give yourself a stroke.

He looked away, then looked up at her, feeling his expression harden. I can not afford to, right now. I need to find a solution! Could you scan her mind? Perhaps she’s keeping something secret?

Amy shook her head, causing him to feel even colder inside. Even more so when he realised she was trembling, sligthly. Just what had she seen?

She didn’t lie, nor did she ommit anything. She really has no clue how to fix it, Amy told him. And… there’s more. The blood she took, earlier. And what they’ve been doing here. Where these monsters came from. I saw it in her mind.

What’d you see? Basil asked numbly. He wasn’t sure there was much of anything he could get worked up over right now, as worn out as he felt.

Too much, she replied. But first… what about her? She nodded towards Dusu, who’d calmed down considerably, simply sitting cross-leged on the floor and chuckling occasionally, completely unperturbed by the looks of disgust and hatred the others were throwing her. Maybe you’ll feel better if you give her one of those concoctions you said you’d prepared just for her?

Basil looked over his shoulder at Dusu. Those were always meant to force her to give up the cure, in the end, he replied. No point to that, now. Besides, how could I possibly top that? He gestured towards the twisted, half-decayed woman.

Let’s just get this over with and go home.

***

Melody wouldn’t have thought she could hate a complete stranger as much as she hated Dusu right then. Just looking at the woman sitting there on the floor, looking so darn amused.

Amused that she’d destroyed so many lives.

Amused that she’d drawn them into such a dangerous, unnecessary battle.

Amused that she’d crushed their hopes, Brennus hopes in particular, and of all those innocents she’d poisoned, and all those whom cared about them.

She’d used to have trouble accepting Irene’s insistent statement that her father, while evil, was far better than most. Even after meating him in person, she hadn’t really changed her mind.

But now? Looking down at this, this coprophage, this… bitch, she saw true evil. Senseless evil, evil that didn’t have a purpose other than its own betterment.

At least the Dark clearly cared about his daughter. Melody wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that Dusu didn’t have anyone she cared about, that she would have sacrificed her own child if she’d had one, just to try and undo her own fuck-up – for herself.

It took a lot for her not to unleash one of her more cruel tunes on her, just to make her suffer a bit. A bit more, she amended the thought, watching how the woman laboured to draw breath, the way she repeatedly twitched as if in pain, in spite of her carefree attitude.

A little tune to make her bowels empty themselves as violently as physically possible, or cramp up painfully and remain so for a while. Another to throw her sense of balance completely off for hours. Or perhaps one she’d never yet used, because it’d seemed too cruel, a tune that’d give the victim a painful tinitus that’d last for days, if not longer.

So many options. So many incentives to explore them, one by one.

Fortunately for Dusu, Melody was distracted from the recreatively violent train of thought when Brennus came back towards them, shadowed closely by Mindstar.

And wasn’t that a shock? When Mindstar had first appeared, she’d been scared, then relieved – she did work for the Dark, so she wouldn’t turn on Irene and her friends, right? Then it’d seemed like she was going to attack anyway, and Tartsche had tried to reach Brennus to protect him from her (she still remembered the briefing when they’d been told that she might target him – Tartsche had clearly remembered it, as well), only for her to slap them all down with literally just a thought.

She’d known that telepathy was Irene’s one true weakness, but she hadn’t expected it to be that effective.

And then it turned out that Brennus – no, Basil, that boy she’d sat next to in school a few times! – was her brother and he proceeded to beat her, one on one.

If it wasn’t for Irene confirming, while under the aegis of Tartsche’s power, that it was all genuine, she’d have thought the whole fight, no, their every interaction, had been staged.

Now, of course, she was instead faced with the fact that a boy she’d been thinking of as a friend, if a distant one, was the younger brother of a major supervillain…

Which, really, didn’t mean much to her, seeing how her best friend was the daughter of said supervillain’s boss. It would have been the height of hypocrisy for Melody to condemn Brennus for his relationship with his own sister, when she so readily accepted Irene’s relationship with her father.

The only thing she could, maybe, accuse him of was not being open about his relation to her, the way Irene was about her being the Dark’s daughter…

But then again, their situations were very different. Brennus, for one, didn’t have the aegis of Lady Light and the United Heroes to protect him.

I wonder whether she’s the reason he didn’t join us to begin with, she thought to herself as she watched them join the rest of the group.

All those thoughts and more continued on in her head, though they were quickly overshadowed by dismay at how utterly worn-out Brennus looked. In all the time she’d known him, she’d never known him to express a sense of defeat, a lack of purpose. Now though…

“Let us wrap this up,” he spoke in a listless tone. “We should get away from here.” He looked down at Dusu, his gaze briefly hardening – but then it softened into listlessness again. “What did she do with our blood?” he asked no one in particular, apparently.

It did seem directed at Mindstar, however, as she sighed and stepped forth, while Brennus’ helmet floated off the floor and into his hands. “I’ll show you,” she said, gesturing at the computer console.

Using her telekinesis, she logged into the system, making Dusu frown in annoyance. “Y’know, you don’t have to use telepathy… I’d just tell you, at this point.”

“Shut it,” several people said all at once.

“This is the place where they made those monsters that appeared yesterday,” Mindstar spoke seriously, with neither levity nor anger in her voice. “They’re all spawned from the same source…”

The screen switched to a three-dimensional model, showing the floating city they were on, before zooming out and moving down, showing an incredibly long tether that lead down into the depths – the same one they could see before them, dozens of cables thicker than grown men – and following it down…

And down…

And down…

Until it reached the bottom of the ocean, and the view moved, looking down from above, at an angle, at…

A gigantic something at the bottom of the ocean, connected to the station via the cables in front of them.

As the image focused on whatever was below, it was rendered in successively more detailed layers, with Mindstar talking over it, sharing what she saw within Dusu’s mind.

“They found something down there. Something huge. And I mean, really fucking humungous. It’s over a thousand miles in length, and over three in diametre,” the villainess explained as the bottom dropped out of Melody’s stomach, her eyes widening at the rapidly expanding sight of… that.

“What. The. Holy. Fuck,” Tyche succinctly summed up how they all felt.

“That’s what they used to make those monsters,” Mindstar spoke, her voice growing hushed. “They injected it with… human blood. It doesn’t always work out, not even one in ten times, but when it does…”

Brennus looked down at Dusu again. “So that is what you took our blood for,” he stated as he put his helmet on. “Mine and… whose else?”

Before Dusu could respond, Mindstar did so. “All of us. It wasn’t just the four you saw. They got samples from all of us…” She frowned, stroking her chin. “I mean, they came here and found them… put them here in other timelines… ah, fuck time travel! They got samples from each of us, except for the princess, using Elysium’s power.” She looked at the console. “And they injected it all into this thing. That’s what Dusu and that nobody over there were responsible for – figuring out a way to inject something through its armour, after the Gefährten realised that extracted samples bonded with human DNA.”

Melody’s fingers went to work, tapping the air to formulate a sentence. “And that’s how they made Crocell and the other three monsters?” she asked, keeping her vocoder’s voice much calmer than she actually felt.

“Yeah. Only successes they’ve had so far. They injected forty-three samples and only four of them spawned something,” the villainess replied in a cold voice, glaring at the unperturbed mad scientist on the floor. “Though they never injected so many at once, like she just did.”

“Hey, you can’t blame me for being in a bit of a hurry!” Dusu protested Mindstar’s accusatory tone. “Besides, aren’t you curious what might come out of it?”

“No!” shouted half a dozen people at once.

“Alright, so, may-be this is totally obvious and Ah’m just missing it,” Spellgun spoke up for the first time in a while, his accent even stronger than usual, “but what the fuck is that!?!” he gestured wildly towards the three-dimensional model on the screen.

“It’s God!” Syrinx shouted fervently, floating upside down where Mindstar was holding him in the air. “It’s a fragment of the divine tri-“

Hecate reached into a pouch on her belt and threw a handful of glittering green dust at his face, which flew farther and in a tighter stream than it ought to, and he went limp, falling asleep instantly.

“Oh, thank God,” Dusu rolled her eyes. “Guy’s a cutie, but h-“

Hecate whirled around so fast Melody actually jumped, and struck Dusu across the face with the butt end of her staff, knocking the woman over and causing her to cry out in pain.

“Don’t you dare address me in any way,” the slightly spooky superheroine snarled, her English distorted slightly by a faint accent Melody had never noticed before, her tone of voice so vicious it made nearly everyone take a step away from her, even Mindstar.

Not Brennus, nor Tyche, though.

Dusu rubbed her rapidly swelling jaw, having finally stopped grinning, or smiling or otherwise looking happy, as she glared up at Hecate – but she kept her mouth shut.

Mindstar actually looked impressed, giving Hecate odd looks, though the spooky heroine couldn’t see them.

“They’re not sure what it is,” Mindstar continued where she’d left off earlier. “Or at least, if the Gefährten know, they haven’t told Dusu. But she, and her co-workers have a few running theories – all unproven, admittedly. One is that it’s a metahuman whose manifestation just plainly went spectacularly wrong. Another is that it’s some kind of by-product of superpowers as a whole, maybe an animal that soaked up whatever energies power metahumans. And another is that it’s either the source of superpowers, or connected to it in some way.” She shrugged. “Honestly, they don’t even know how long it’s been down there. Seems like time goes wonky around it, so they can’t even analyse the age of the cracks in the rock around and beneath it that it’s caused, because they don’t age uniformly.”

No one spoke up for a minute as they digested that. Finally, Melody turned her head to look at Irene, who’d remained still so far, hovering an inch or so above the floor, her cape closed in front of her and her hood drawn deep, like a white shroud.

The hood twitched as Irene looked up, her face hidden in the shadows, mostly, save for her blue eyes. “I don’t know what it is. I have some suspicions, but… nothing I’m sure of enough to say,” she answered the unspoken question.

Melody felt both disappointment and relief, as part of her just plainly didn’t want to know what that thing really was – she was afraid that it was even worse than she could expect.

“The blood is already injected?” Brennus interjected, directing the question at Mindstar, at his sister.

His helmet-mask always distorted his voice, but even so, Melody’s ears had no trouble picking up the fact that he still sounded… defeated, really. His voice was flat, lacking its usual intensity.

“Yeah, it is. Nothing we can do to stop it anymore,” Mindstar replied, her voice softening almost imperceptibly (to anyone but Melody) as she addressed her brother again. “All we can hope for is that none of it causes this… Sleeper to spawn another monster.”

“How long did it take before they knew whether an injection had been successful in the previous cases?” Brennus continued his line of inquiry in that same tone of voice, his head tilted forward as he looked at something he was holding in his left hand. Melody couldn’t see what it was, though it had to be palm-sized.

“Anywhere between five minutes and three hours,” the answer came almost as soon as he finished. “If it doesn’t work, it’ll eject the rejected blood in crystalline form – they have computers looking out for it.”

As if on cue, a new window opened, showing a black-and-white image of a bismuth-like crystal growing in fast motion, right out of one of its scales, before it detached and floated away.

“Aaaaaand that’s one,” Mindstar sighed in undisguised relief. “Eight more to go.”

“Is there anything we can do to abort the process?” Tartsche asked quietly, sounding as calm as ever as he held onto Spellgun’s hand. “Force it to purge them all or something like that? Some way to make sure no more monsters are generated?”

Both Mindstar and Dusu shook their heads, one seemingly impassive, one very clearly quite pleased with herself.

“And there’s nothing here about a cure?” Tartsche pressed on. “She doesn’t know anything, or have anything we can make use of?”

Mindstar shook her head, and Tyche and Hecate slumped a little, while Brennus showed no outward reaction, though Melody thought she might’ve heard something from within his helmet. She wasn’t sure though, as quiet as he was being.

“We should go, then,” Brennus concluded what was obviously Tartsche’s thought process, putting away whatever he’d been looking at. There was barely any inflection at all left in his voice. “Every second we remain here just increases the probability of another enemy showing up.”

“Now that’s as good a straight line as I could hope for!” a new voice spoke up.

Melody squeaked in shock as she turned, just in time to see Mindstar stagger forward, nearly falling, her hand going to her neck and pulling a tiny dart tipped by a needle out of it.

“Huh?” She stared at the dart, her eyes growing unfocused.

Brennus grabbed her, pulling her away and behind him, revealing the person who’d stuck her with the dart, who…

Oh God he’s so yummy, was the first thought that came to Melody’s mind as she saw the gorgeous, brown-haired young man in what appeared to be black-and-gold workout clothes, only of much higher quality than usual, and reinforced, fingerless gloves.

If she hadn’t met so many insanely pretty men since manifesting her powers, she’d probably have squeed and melted on the spot.

He stood there, looking as calm as if he was just taking a stroll, with an easy smile on those perfect lips.

“Immanuel!” shouted Tyche, taking a step away from him.

Wait, Immanuel? That guy? Melody blinked, remembering what Tyche had told them earlier. Fuck, we have to-

She raised her arms to fire at him, only to stop when Irene cried out.

“Wait, no, stop!” Irene shouted as she was enveloped in ribbons of twisted space… and then she disappeared.

Immanuel looked at the empty space where Irene had just floated, looking only mildly surprised. “Heh. Nice one,” he said, grinning.

***

Space unfurled around her and dropped Irene onto a grassy hill, which looked out over a tranquil beach and the ocean.

“No!” she shouted, desperate, reaching for the power which had brought her there. “No, no! Take me back! I’ve got to get back, Melody is still there! My friends are all still there! Take me back, please!”

She begged her own power, even as she felt the teleporting effect – one she hadn’t had before, to her recollection – sink beneath the darkness, tears beginning to run from her eyes.

She’d been so focused on that giant thing below, that, that thing that might have been, just possible, one of them, perhaps. A steward, in this world. Her parents were going to flip out.

Somehow, even though she’d had her danger sense up and running, that man, that… Immanuel, he’d managed to sneak up on them, and then her power had reacted to the suddenly present, overwhelming threat by taking her away from her friends.

“Please, please, just take me back!” she shouted, trying to reach for that power again, only to get… flight and the power to tell where magnetic north lay. “No, I need to be fa-“

“Irene? What are you doing here?” a tired voice asked.

She whirled around, staring at the figure behind her with bloodshot eyes.

***

“I think you’ve all had more than enough fun,” Immanuel spoke in a conversational tone, clasping his hands behind his back as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

Basil didn’t give him a chance to say more – torn between checking to make sure Amy was going to be alright and taking down the new threat, he chose to trust in her constitution and went on the offensive – and launched one of his grappling hooks at him, aiming straight for his belt buckle.

Immanuel simply stepped aside, dodging it by a hair’s breadth with such ease, it seemed rehearsed. “For those of you who don’t know yet, I’m Immanuel, and I’m in charge of this charming base,” he continued on, as if nothing had happened, even as he bent over forward, letting a blast of green fire fly over him and splash over Tartsche’s protective field, blinding Spellgun and causing him to miss his shot, which instead hit Osore in the forehead just as he was gathering up a fear blast in his right hand; his mask cracked, though not broken, he was thrown backwards as electricity raced through his body, stunning him and causing him to fall gracelessly and heavily onto the floor. “And while I greatly sympathise with your noble intentions, I’m afraid I’ll have to stop you right here,” he concluded, standing up straight again, smiling at everyone around.

How did he just do that? Basil thought furiously, stepping back to keep some distance between himself and the new enemy. That was way too smooth… he must be an Esper. Some major combat cognition. He stared at the empty spot where Irene had just been, then at Amy behind him, through the eyes of his bedraggled ravenbot. And we’ve already lost our two strongest combatants.

“What did you do to Gloom Glimmer!?!” Polymnia shouted at Immanuel, both of her clenched fists – and the speakers on the wrist modules above them – aimed straight at him.

“Don’t worry, I just gave her a bit of a scare,” Immanuel replied soothingly. “I suppose her power decided she was safer away from me than next to me.” He tilted his head to the side, both as a gesture and to dodge a shot from Tartsche’s rifle. “Can’t blame it, really. In fact, I’m quite grateful – makes my job easier.”

His expression turned thoughtful and he tapped his chin. “Hmm… just forty minutes before she comes back… with Lamarr. Maybe the Dowager, though I doubt it.” He blinked, as if another thought came to him. “Hm, no. She won’t come – just Lamarr and some of his people. Goldschmidt wouldn’t let her back here.” Without even looking, he bent forward and also lifted his left leg up, as if to kick out, though he merely tapped the charging form of Bakeneko – in the middle of transitioning from a bipedal to a quadrupedal form –  on the shin, lightly, causing her to trip and bowl into Polymnia, who just barely managed to brace herself and not get bowled over as well, though she still missed her shot, the twin beams of focused sound going wide and tearing up some computer equipment on the far wall of the room. “Nothing I can’t deal with.”

Basil barely paid attention to his words, instead opting to study his opponent more closely. The way he moved, the way every dodge of his led to them hitting each other in some way… it reminded him of the way it usually went when Tyche fought, except far more controlled.

Deliberate.

Speaking of Tyche, she was just standing there, her hands trembling as she tried to aim at Immanuel – but he didn’t seem worried at all, and she didn’t seem capable of actually pulling the trigger.

“I, I thought you said, you wanted us to, to succeed,” she stammered, taking a step back from him when he turned his head to focus on her.

He blocked Basil’s punch, which he loosened the moment his attention was on Tyche, with an absentminded swipe, “I did and I do,” then he deflected a knee-strike to the groin by raising his own knee and gently pushing it aside, “Though I never said I thought it was actually going to happen,” he turned into the follow-up elbow strike that Basil turned his over-extended strike into, “I did know that Dusu has never been able to figure out a cure for her own work,” his arm came up, applying minimal force to Basil’s elbow and causing him to strike the air above his head, unbalanced by the flawless counter, “Nor did I say I’d actually let you all leave after you reached Dusu,” he placed one hand onto Basil’s chest and the other one’s forearm against his waist, pushing with both and flipping him over until he hit the ground with his head, only his helmet saving him from being knocked out, though it still rang his bells quite well, “Sorry,” the angel-faced villain concluded, smiling apologetically at Tyche.

She gulped staring at him with wide eyes. He just smiled back, throwing Basil’s combat knife, which he’d filched from his belt when he’d flipped him, at Polymnia, without even looking at her.

The blade pierced the membrane of her right wrist’s speaker just as she loosened another attack, causing a feedback that overloaded it and made it blow up around her arm, throwing her aim with the other arm off so badly she shot Bakeneko instead just as she was about to get up again, making her cry out in pain and tumble away from the armoured songstress.

Polymnia herself cried out in pain, her arm covered in bruises and cuts from the explosion, though her innate toughness and the layer of ballistic weave she’d between her skin and the actual mechanical parts prevented heavier damage.

“Now, I’m not a complete jerk,” Immanuel followed up, stepping forward towards Tyche with his arms spread wide, following it up by an absent-minded kick to Dusu’s throat, causing her to choke up and bend over in pain, just as she’d been about to speak up. “I really don’t feel like listening to you, Heng,” he quipped, and continued to walk towards Tyche with a disarming smile.

Basil groaned, slowly getting back up on his feet – the strain of the last few days was really starting to catch up to him – as he blinked the stars out of his view. By the time he managed that, the only ones left standing were himself, Tyche, Tartsche and Spellgun.

Amy was on the ground, moaning softly with unfocused eyes. Bakeneko and Osore were both still conscious but stunned, lying on the ground. Polymnia was on her knees, holding her mangled right arm to her chest, sniffling as tears leaked from her eyes. Hecate was on the ground next to Immanuel, who was still holding one of her arms by the wrist. Basil hadn’t even noticed her go down.

Both Tartsche and Spellgun were aiming their guns at him, but since he stood between them and Tyche, they didn’t want to risk taking the shot.

Tyche was staring slack-jawed at him, her grip on her rifle quite loose.

Graymalkin had curled up on Amy’s breasts, using them as pillows as he yawned.

“So, now that all that unpleasantness is over,” Immanuel said with a small sigh, seemingly not even winded. “How about we have a nice talk, hm?” He looked around at the teens. “I have no interest in keeping the lot of you here, really. In fact, I’m perfectly willing to let you get back home.”

“What is the catch?” Basil asked suspiciously, not believing him for a moment, even though everything about him just plain screamed sincerity.

“Well, you do have quite a lot of damages to make up for,” Immanuel replied, turning his back to Tyche and letting go of Hecate’s arm, so he could face Basil. “So I think it’d only be fair if you and Melody over there were to work for us for, let’s say… a quarter of a year, each.” He clapped his hands together, smiling brightly. “You two promise me three months of servitude each – no wetwork, nothing illegal, even – and I’ll not only let your friends go right now, I’ll even pay you both quite handsomly. And you can get back to your own affairs. How’s that sound?”

“Never,” Polymnia replied, her voice coming out distorted. “Like we’d ever agree to work for someone like you!”

“Now, don’t be judgemental,” Immanuel wagged a finger at her. “You don’t really know me just yet.”

“We’ve… seen enough…” Hecate groaned as she got up on her feet, leaning heavily onto her staff. “You fucking people belong in a maximum security prison… or better yet, six foot under,” she snarled, her eyes flashing with raw hatred within the shadows of her hood.

Language, young lady,” he frowned at her, mockingly. “What would your grandmother say if she heard you talk like that?”

Hecate flinched, snarling audibly at him.

He knows too much, Basil thought, his brain racing wildly, trying to come up with an idea on how to take him on. If he’s some kind of combat precog, then the only way to beat him would be to trap him in a no-win situation.

Great idea, mate! Except for the little fact that he’s holding all the cards in his hands!

You’re not helping. Either come up with an idea or else shut up.

“Now, as I was saying – this doesn’t have to end in more tears,” Immanuel continued. “If you two accept my offer, I’ll even let you use all our resources to try and figure out a cure for Dusu’s plague.”

Basil clenched his fists, hard.

Immanuel smirked at him. “You know there’s no way you’ll be able to save her on your own. She wouldn’t survive a trip to the Protectorate, and it’s unlikely someone with your manifold issues would be able to reach him, anyway. And you don’t have the knowledge base nor the resources to work out a cure – but we might.” He put his hands together, palm-to-palm, as if praying – or begging. “Please, Basil. Think about it. You’ve always believed that the ends justify the means, no? I’m offering you near-endless resources, and the support of our best bio-gadgeteers – including Dusu.” He gestured at the unconscious woman. “Consider how much it would improve your chances if you had the actual source of the plague to work with, even if she doesn’t consciously know how it works or how to fix it! Accept my offer and not only will your friends be able to go back home safe and sound, but you’ll also be able to save Prisca.”

He bit his lip hard enough that it hurt, feeling angry with himself just for considering the offer. Yet he did, and Immanuel knew he was saying just the right things.

“Basil, you know the choice is barely one,” Immanuel pressed on. “Not for you. You know what needs to be done, and what needs to be done is a cure being found for Dusus many victims – are you really going to decline an offer to do what you know needs to be done?”

He lowered his raised fists, letting his arms hang loosely. Fuck. He was right, wasn’t he? Even disregarding the fact that there was no other option he could see to get his friends to safety – Immanuel seemed quite confident he’d be able to deal with Gloom Glimmer and any reinforcements she’d be able to drum up, even if those were members of the Dark Five – he was completely out of options as far as actually saving Prisca was concerned – the reason he’d organised this entire, ill-advised operation in the first place!

Even if he’s lying about letting me leave freely, afterwards, I’ll stand a better chance of getting out of this, nevermind of fixing Prisca, by playing along for now.

It needs to be done.

He sighed, releasing a breath he hadn’t even realised he’d been holding, as his shoulders slumped, opening his mouth to-

“To pursue what is necessary is the province of beasts – a true man must pursue naught but what he desires.”

He clenched his fists again, feeling an angry heat rise up from his gut. A snarl escaped his mouth, making Immanuel frown, looking honestly serious for the first time yet.

“Fuck. You,” he snarled at the villain.

Immanuel tilted his head, looking actually surprised for once. “Hm. I suppose that’s a no, then.” He put his hands on his waist, huffing. “The day’s full of surprises.” He looked over at Polymnia, who was still on her knees and craddling her bleeding arm.

Even though she was crying heavily, she glared back at him with defiance in her eyes.

“That’s a no then, as well,” he concluded with a sigh, lowering his head and shaking it. “What a waste.” He looked around at them all, watching as they all slowly got back up on their feet, at least those who weren’t still standing. Even Amy was getting up, on wobbly feet, barely able to balance on her stiletto heels, but determined to try, clearly.

Everyone looked scared, worn out and just plainly tired, but Basil could tell that they all intended to keep fighting.

He raised his fists again, clenching them, facing the brown-haired villain.

Even now, Immanuel looked, at worst, like he was annoyed, not worried.

“Well, let’s do… this…” Immanuel began to speak in a chipper tone of voice, but trailed off, frowning as he looked around the huge hall.

The lights flickered, once. Twice. Three times.

When they came back on for the fourth time, a huge, vaguely humanoid shadow stood between Immanuel and Polymnia, to Basil’s right, his back to the Esper who’d just kicked them all around so easily, looking down at the crying Polymnia.

“Me- Polymnia!” cried a familiar voice, and an equally familiar, white-cloaked figure stepped forth from next to the huge shadow, rushing over to her friend and throwing her arms around the kneeling girl, hugging her tight as light spread from every point of contact between them, gathering around Polymnia’s wounds and starting to mend them.

“So, this is it, huh?” the Dark said, curiosity in his distorted, choral voice, looking around lazily. “Now where’s that giant…”

He suddenly cut himself off as he turned around and looked down at Immanuel, who’d moved back by several metre, almost running into Tyche – as if he’d been trying to sneak away quickly. In his current form, the Dark was more than two heads taller than him, and Immanuel was by no means a short man.

The two supervillains stared at each other, one’s expression hidden utterly beneath the darkness of his power, yet radiating a sense of utter, disbelieving shock, while the other’s expression was calm, friendly, even amicable, yet he radiated nervousness.

“You,” the Dark breathed, sounding stunned. Off-balance. His voice barely more than a whisper. “You’re alive.”

“Long time no see, Goldschmidt,” Immanuel spoke carefully, putting his hands in his pants’ pockets. “Surprise, I guess.”

Whatever Basil had been expecting to happen next – whatever anyone had expected, from Tyche to Gloom Glimmer, all of whom were staring at the scene with bated breath – none of them, he was sure, expected what came next.

The Dark sobbed, staggering forward by a step, reaching out with a hand towards Immanuel, hesitating, as if afraid that he’d disappear if he made too sudden a move.

“Oh, oh… thank God… thank God…” he sobbed, his voice soft, the tears actually audible, though invisible. “I was so afraid… so, so afraid… that you were gone…”

The shadows he was wrapped in began to boil, spreading out slowly around him, like tar slowly creeping over the floor.

“That you had died…”

The shadows rolled off of him, writhing, expending, contracting, increasing.

“That I would never get my chance…”

He took another step closer, his voice breaking, another sob escaping him, like the sound a wounded animal would make when it finally found balm for its pain.

Gloom Glimmer flew towards Tartsche and Spellgun, pulling Polymnia along behind her with one hand, as more, ghostly hands reached out for all the others.

“To kill you myself…”

Basil found himself being pulled towards Gloom Glimmer, along with all the others, as she shot straight up, throwing a solid black sphere that blew through the ceiling, paving the way.

“To finally, finally… hurt you!”

Beneath them, as they rapidly flew above the floating city, the Darkness exploded, a tide of boiling shadows wallowing across the floating city like a tidal wave.

And above all, there was a scream, a cry of such utter, unadultered, unrestrained hatred, it chilled the blood in their veins.

Over fifty figures who’d been floating, flying and standing around the building Dusu’s lab was in charged forward to join their master in battle.

And then the Dark went to War.

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B13.16 Call of the Sleeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

There was only one possible conclusion.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What?

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

No!

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

It was a very familiar cat.

“Graymalkin?” Basil whispered, stunned.

What the hell was his cat doing here?

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

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

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B13.5 Call of the Sleeper

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A few minutes earlier

“Well, that didn’t go as expected at all,” Dalia mumbled, as she looked out upon this freaky floating city, half admiring and half scoffing at all the weirdness on the half of it that, according to the freaky girl, was made for and by the Super-Crazies. “I’m not surprised.” Somehow, something had gone wrong when freaky girl had tried to teleport them in, and she’d somehow managed to end up alone atop this huge, weird tower – the one at the centre of it, which they hadn’t been able to tell the purpose of, earlier. To her surprise, while the tip – a wide disc, bigger than her old house had been – was transparent from the inside, even though it had looked opaque from the outside. Even the floor was transparent, where she stood, letting her see pretty much everything around and beneath the tower.

“Why is that?” a smooth, melodious voice asked from behind her.

Dalia yelped, whirling around and drawing the collapsible staff Basil had built for her from her belt, extending it as she faced…

The fucking prettiest guy she’d ever seen, ever.

He sat on on a raised, flat platform in the centre of the circular room, which was made of a gleaming white material, like the stuff space ships were made of in one of those dorky sci-fi shows Tim liked to watch with Steph. It was the only part that wasn’t transparent, it and the floor immediately around it. The platform itself was flat and looked hard, with no cushions at all, yet he sat there, his legs folded in… what was the word… lotus position!… and his arms resting comfortably on them, forearms on knees.

None of it all was even remotely as interesting as looking at him. He was slender, looking like he could not possible be older than twenty-five, if that. His skin had the light tan of someone who spent time in the sun, but not excessively so, and was all smooth.

All smooth. He was wearing nothing but a pair of simple, dark blue drawstring pants, putting his smooth, hairless chest on display; not wiry, but not muscular either, at least not as much as she was used to from other metas – and she did not believe for one second that this guy wasn’t a meta, not here, in this place, and not someone who looked prettier than herself. His face was youthful, soft, with full lips and friendly, grey eyes that were so warm and cozy, just looking at them made her want to hug him and take him home. His hair was brown, smooth and just long enough that, combed back as he wore it, it reached his throat, almost but not quite touching his shoulders.

Holy shit he’s yummy, she couldn’t help but think, even as she reminded herself that this was a really bad place where really bad people worked at, no matter how yummy they were. And those eyes… They were almost hypnotic, so deep and inviting…

She shook her head, then focused again on him with a glare. “Who are you?” she asked, though it didn’t come out the way she’d wanted it to – her voice cracked midway through the sentence, and it wasn’t just because of how pretty this guy looked – she wasn’t an idiot, anyone who hung around this place, alone at that, and without any obvious weapons or job to do was either a major power or else someone’s boytoy – and she doubted a boytoy would get the tallest tower’s top to himself, or sit on a hard surface without any comfort around him.

He chuckled softly, slightly tilting his head to the side as he studied her, radiating nothing but friendly curiosity, an invitation to relax with him and maybe see if he was that hairless below the w-

Focus, Dalia! Down, girl!

 “Relax, Tyche,” he spoke again, his voice even more beautiful than his appearance and god damn was it hard to remind herself not to drool. He even had just the slightest accent – German, maybe? Something European, at least. Only made it sound exotic and even better. “I mean you no harm. There is really no need for you to draw any of your weapons.”

She did relax, in spite of her best efforts not to – he sounded completely sincere, her usually so reliable bullshit detector having gone completely silent. “Yeah well, I don’t react well to suddenly being teleported into a weird room with a weird guy, all alon- hey, how do you know my name?” Had he picked it out of her head? Was he a telepath? Shit, what if he picked all the secret stuff she knew by now out f her h-

“I do watch the news,” he interrupted her train of thought, “You and your team have been making quite the name of yourselves lately.”

She let out a breath she hadn’t even noticed she’d been holding, the sudden relief palpable enough to make her knees briefly weak. “Oh, uh… that’s, yeah, that makes sense,” she stammered. It wasn’t proof that he wasn’t a mind-fucker, but at least it was a sensible explanation and why would he need to lie about it if he was? Still, it’d pay to be careful, especially since… “How do you know I have more weapons than this?” She held her staff, her only visible weapon, up.

“You’re on a team with a very prolific gadgeteer,” he replied smoothly, raising a hand and ticking off a finger. “Your power becomes exponentially more useful the more options you have to act.” Another finger, ticked off. “Your jacket is unevenly heavy, most likely because you haven’t distributed your equipment properly.” A third finger joined the others.

He knows? How could he possibly know of my power!? “How… how do you know?”

Again that head-tilt, to the other side now. His smile was incredibly calming, but not enough to overcome just how scared she felt. Far more so than she was used to, than she had been even when fighting Crocell.

“I didn’t get to where I am today by collecting bottle caps, Tyche,” he said with a gleaming, boyish grin. “Don’t worry – I’ll say it again, I mean you no harm.” He took a deep breath, then released it, sitting up straighter – he’d been leaning a little towards her before, as they’d talked.

She stayed quiet, after that, mulling the whole thing over. “If you don’t mean me harm, then what do you want… whoever you are?” she spoke, glaring at him, as much as she was able. God-damn yumminess.

He actually seemed taken back by that, before he ducked his head in embarrassment. “Oh, um, sorry, sorry! I don’t usually get unexpected visitors here; I guess my manners have atrophied more than I thought they would,” he said, giving her a heartmelting, boyish smile of apology.

He was making it very, very hard for her not to giggle like a schoolgirl. “Y-you are forgiven – if you tell me your name!” she replied with a tremor in her treacherous voice.

“Immanuel,” came his reply, as he rubbed the back of his head with one hand. “I’m afraid I don’t really do capes and cowls, so my real name will have to suffice. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Tyche.”

“L-likewise,” she replied on instinct, not sure at all how to react to having him share his real name – or at least what he claimed to be his real name, she wasn’t quite foolish enough to take him on his word. Speaking of… “Well, this was fun and all, but I really gotta go.” I’ve gotta find the others – they’re probably in huge trouble.

“Go where?” he asked, sounding amused as he leaned his cheek on his left hand.

“To my friends, of course!” she answered him hotly. “Where else?”

“Of course, but do you even know where your friends are?”

“Well…” She lowered her staff, stunned. “Um… that kind of… slipped my mind. I don’t suppose you’d mind telling me, would you?” she continued, though it was mostly to buy her time to think. With my power, I could probably find at least Gloom Glimmer or Basil – freaky girl has the power to find the others, and Basil is the sort to always know what to do next…

“Hmm,” he tapped his chin, before sitting up straight and turning to the right, lifting a hand to point at a particularly weird tower on the Southern half of the city. It looked like nothing so much as a huge candle, with a flame at the top, made out of wax twisted into spirals. “They’re all there, on levels three, five, eight and fifteen,” he explained. “All in individual cells. Except for Polymnia and Brennus, they were teleported to another facility.” He turned to the North, pointing at a squat, circular building, like a huge coin, but completely smooth and featureless. “Both of them were sent into a capture room for Gadgeteers, but they broke out… ah, anti-EMP technology? Impressive.”

He frowned, scratching his chin. “No, wait. Gloom Glimmer broke out… where… ah, she’ll be with Polymnia and Brennus, soon. I think. That girl’s a pain to keep track of.” He shrugged, then smiled at her again. “You can just take the elevator down to level zero, then take the B-line North to station fifteen. From there, just follow the left-hand path and you’ll find the three of them. Or take the D-line South, then take the D1-line East and get off at station twenty-eight, and you’ll be at the Candlekeep, if you want to try and break your friends out of there on your own.”

She stared at him, uncaring that her mouth was hanging open. “Wu-what?”

He just kept smiling, which did not help her regain her wits, and remained quiet, waiting.

“Why… why would you tell me that?” she asked, feeling off-kilter again.

“Just trying to be nice,” he said off-handedly. “I have no particular reason to oppose you and your friends.”

“We’re attacking your big evil secret badguy base!” she shouted, gesturing wildly with both arms at him – she barely managed not to whack herself on the head with her staff. “We’re after one of your evil mad scientists!”

“Evil mad scientists? Isn’t that kind of redundant?” Again, that smile.

“I’m friends with two good mad scientists! Even if one of them thinks she’s Harry Potter with boobs!”

He nodded gravely, as if conceding the point. “Point taken.”

“Anyway, why are you helping? If you even are helping and not just bullshitting me!?” she shouted at him, trying to get things on track again.

He just shrugged. “As I said, I have no particular reason to oppose you children. You may not see it now, but we’re ultimately all on the same side in this.”

“Yeah, uh, bullshit. You guys are like, super evil. I mean, making giant monsters to attack all over the world was bad enough – if kinda awesome – but Hawaii? Seriously?” she countered, aghast. “You guys are, like, Weisswald levels of Evil with a capital E!”

That finally got a reaction out of him, as he winced, closing his eyes. “Ow. We’re not that bad, seriously.” He shook himself. “Adolf might have started out well, but he went way over the line.”

Dalia was just about to rebuke him, hard, about the ‘started out well’ part, but then her brain caught up with the implications of the way he’d phrased his reply (you couldn’t hang out with Miss Fuzzypants for any length of time and not start paying attention to the wording of things), and she took a step away from him, feeling suddenly way less cheeky. “Y-you’re saying… you knew him? You’re talking like you actually met the guy.” Which would make this guy way older than he looked, which meant danger.

“Long story,” he waved it off. “Don’t concern yourself with that – you have more important things to focus on, don’t you?”

R-right… play nice with the possible pal of Weiss-fucking-wald. “Um, yeah, right, uh…” Think, Dalia, think – what should I do next? What would Basil do? “Since you’re being so helpful and we’re all being secretly on the same side and all that, I’m sure you won’t mind telling me where I can find that crazy-ass bitch Dusu?” She didn’t actually expect him to rat out one of his own people, but then again, it couldn’t hurt to try… she hoped.

Again, he surprised her by pointing at a place on the North side of the floating city. It was on the North-Eastern projection, unlike the building that he’d claimed Basil and Rainbow Brite were in, which stood on the central part. “Take the A-Line until the hub station, then take the A3-Line until the very last stop, and you’ll be in Dusu’s laboratory. It takes up that whole structure.” He gestured to his right, and a circle formed on the white floor, rising up smoothly to reveal a simple, pure-white elevator cabin. “Just take the elevator down to level zero and go from there.”

“Alright, I give up,” she sighed, letting her arms fall down her sides. “Why are you doing all this? Why help us, why betray one of your own? If this ain’t all just your way of messing with my head, or setting me up to run into a fucking trap?”

Immanuel smiled that heart-melting smile again, making her knees tremble. “Because I feel like helping you out. Also, because Dusu has frankly turned out to be a monumental disappointment and she’s really not worth the effort, time or resources it takes to keep her work going. If she fails to even deal with a group of – please excuse the language, I don’t mean to be insulting – of amateurs, then she’ll frankly be getting what’s coming to her.”

“Ok, that second part, I get. That’s suitably villaneous and all,” she commented, feeling herself actually relax – evil insane power politics of evil, that she could get behind! Having the evil bad guy be nice and helpful, that just freaked her the fuck out!

He shrugged in response, staying quiet as he lowered his arm again and sat up straight.

“Well… ok, uh…” How am I supposed to talk to him? He’s a villain! He’s clearly insane! Yet he’s so nice! And helpful! And oh my GOD he’s so yummy at that! She shook her head, banishing those thoughts. “I’ll… I’ll be off then.” Well, he’s been quite nice and helpful after all… “And… thank you, I guess,” she said, as she began to walk towards the elevator he’d summoned, hoping it wouldn’t drop her into a shark-tank full of laser-eyed cyber-sharks.

“You’re welcome, Dalia,” he replied with a warm, bright smile.

“Yeah, you too, Im- What!?!” She leapt backwards from him, drawing her staff again and moving straight into a defensive position again. “How the hell do you know my name!?” she screeched at him.

He looked a little hurt at her response, sighing in disappointment. “I really thought we were past the whole ‘threatening with violence’ bit. Please, relax, Dalia. As I said before, I mean you no harm.”

“Are you fucking kidding me, Immanuel!?” she shouted again. “You know my power, you know my real name and I’m supposed to relax?! Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t beat you unconscious and drag you along to the others?”

He shook his head, looking at her in disappointment. “Dalia, please, don’t be crass. I have done nothing but be helpful and polite, haven’t I? There’s no need to have this devolve into meaningless violence.” He sounded like her fucking middle school teacher, lecturing her for coming into class with juice in her hair, like she’d done it deliberately to insult him and…

He’s messing with my head! she admonished herself. Fuck, this whole time he’s been fucking with my fucking head! I just know it!

“How is defending my secret identity meaningless, huh?” she shot back, as she couldn’t really think of anything else to do other than attack, and somehow she didn’t think that was the smartest thing to do, right now. What’s his power? God damn it, what could be his power? Is he a telepath? But he wouldn’t need to mess with me like this, if he was, wouldn’t he?

“It would be meaningless as you would invariably fail,” he replied calmly, in as friendly a manner as he’d been speaking the whole time she’d known him. “There is no way that fighting me is going to lead to a better result, for you, than being civil and talking to me, I assure you.”

“You’ve been helpful and all, but I really don’t see how you could be more helpful than you’re a freaking danger because you somehow figured out my name!?”

“Dalia, please, calm yourself. It’s not healthy to get so worked up…”

How am I supposed to calm down when you keep using my fucking name!?” she screeched again, her face flushing red.

“Alright, I’ll call you Tyche then. Does that help?” he asked with that infuriating, boyish ‘don’t-be-mad-at-me-I’m-too-cute-and-yummy’ smile of his!

“F-fuck… you… you’re unbelievable! How am I supposed to react to all of this?” She slammed her staff on the ground, pointing an accusatory finger at him as she screamed, “What do you even want!?!”

“I want to help you, of course.”

How?”

He rolled his shoulders, never breaking eye contact with her. “I’m going to help you understand your power.”

“What is there to understand? I have super-luck,” she snarled back at him, starting to feel angry again. Where did he get off, acting like he knew what her powers like, when even Basil and Miss Fuzzypants hadn’t figured it out? “I get lucky and my enemies get unlucky. So you better not mess with me!” She pointed her staff at him, wishing again that her mask didn’t cover her face entirely, so he’d be able to see her sneer at him. Stupid Basil insisting on full coverage…

“Oh, that much is obvious,” he said with a wave of his hand. “What’s important is whom it considers your enemy.” He smiled sadly at her. “Heard of Tanya, recently?”

She flinched, involuntarily, hunching her shoulders. “W-what about her? She… she got run over by a bus, wasn’t she? Stupid bitch didn’t look left or right.” She felt no satisfaction knowing that, no or when she’d learned of it. Yes, they’d made her life a living hell, but she’d never have wanted even one of them to die… not for real.

“That she did. Distracted at a crucial moment and then… dead.” He tilted his head, again, as if trying to look at her from a different perspective. “How’s Mandy doing?”

“Why do you bring them up? I hate them! I don’t want to think about them!” Wasn’t it enough that they’d driven her to nearly kill herself? Wasn’t it enough that they’d ruined years of her life? Why was he bringing them up?

“It’s important, Tyche. Please, how is Mandy doing?”

She frowned, not that he could see that, averting her eyes. “She’s… she tried to kill herself, I think. I heard something like that, from some old schoolmates.” She’d barely paid attention, really. It was… uncomfortable. She’d nearly killed herself, though her powers had come in just in time to save her.

“Yes, she did. What’s interesting is why,” he continued, his face turning from a smile to a sad expression. “She was in a club, you see? Someone slipped something into her drink, and then… well, I’d rather not say it aloud. But she thought she had no way of dealing with the memory other than killing herself.” He took a deep breath, then released it. “Fortunately, she failed, but the attempt has left… lasting damage. And her parents put her into an asylum, to be treated, rather than bother taking care of her themselves.”

Fuck… that’s… She shook her head. No one deserved that, not even one of those three. “I don’t know why, why’re you bringing this up? They got nothing to do with me! Not anymore!”

“What about Natalia?” he pushed on, asking after the last one of the bitch-trio.

“What about her? I haven’t heard of her in ages!” And good riddance…

“She was in the shelter underneath the mall, when Hastur appeared there,” he said calmly. “Strange coincidence, that she picked that one, of all. Natalia didn’t see her face… but she was caught by the monsters that resulted. Brutalised, to the point of manifesting.”

“Wait, that bitch’s got powers now? Just great!” She turned away from him, crossing her arms, trying to stave off the shivers she was feeling creeping up on her. Why was he telling her this? Why was this important? “What’s she… what’s she doin’?”

“She’s put on a cowl,” he replied. “Her experience in that shelter was just the last in a long line of humiliations and abuses, since you last met her. Now she’s sharing her pain with the world.”

“How… how do you know that? Are you just making all of this up!?”

“Sometimes I wish I did, but no. It is the truth,” he continued to speak soothingly, calmly. “What is important is why it happened.” Suddenly, his voice became… not hard, but firm. “Dalia, look at me.”

She turned around. She didn’t want to, but she did, when she heard that commanding tone. “You said you wouldn’t use my n-” Her protest cut off when his eyes met hers, two grey mirrors that captured hers, somehow finding them even though her mask hid them entirely.

“They suffered because of you, Dalia,” he said, and it was like a hammer striking her mind. “You knew this – Basil told you. Probability manipulators build up bad luck, and dump it somewhere – usually on themselves. But not you. You channeled it unto others instead.”

“N-no…” she whimpered, as the pieces began to fall into place. “I… I wouldn’t…” How didn’t I, she thought, but stuttered. It’s so obvious, now, but…

“Yes, you did,” he said, and yet there was no accusation in his voice. No reprimand. Only sympathy. “Your power guided them into misery, every time you defied fate.”

No… Her hands began to tremble.

“You won the lottery, becoming richer than you ever thought you’d be, free of the shackles of poverty,” he began, speaking as softly and as implacably as death itself. “And they lost their friends, abandoned to become pariahs as you had once been.”

It can’t be!

“You met Basil and Vasiliki, ‘by accident’, guiding the formation of your group, to be blessed with real friends. And Mandy was drugged and raped.”

Her staff fell to the ground.

“You survived the battle against Hastur’s monster, but Natalia was brutalised by them instead, until she snapped and became a monster of her own.”

Her knees hit the ground.

“Buildings collapsed atop you, and yet everything fell in such a way as to leave you spotless, not a hair harmed on your head. At the same time, a bus hit Tanya when she was distracted at the wrong moment.”

“Nooooo…” She… she hadn’t. She couldn’t. That couldn’t be true.

I can’t breathe.

“And those were just the high points,” he continued, mercilessly, his warm, silvery eyes captivating her. Not letting her blink, even, though tears made her vision blurry. “You don’t even know of all the small, petty miseries it inflicted. The small cuts, the twisted ankles, the embarrassing secrets that came out, the chance humiliations in public. Remember when you heard that someone pulled Natalia’s pants down in public, and she wasn’t wearing underwear at the time? Oh, how you laughed…” He sighed, still without averting his gaze.

She ripped her mask off her face, choking, trying to breathe.

But it wouldn’t come.

No, no, I’m… I’m a hero! I don’t…

“I’m a hero…” she protested weakly, trying to… to defend herself? What was she even saying?

It made so much sense. How had she not seen this before?

“You are,” he affirmed with a soft, soft smile. “But that doesn’t absolve you of the consequences of your actions. For every good deed you’ve done, your power has brought an equal amount of misery to the world. To those who hurt you. Whom you hated.”

“Whom you resented.”

“Wh-who… who else?” she asked, trembling. Her arms wrapped around her stomach, she felt nauseous and she couldn’t breathe.

“To a lesser degree than those three, your teachers. Your old classmates. Your guidance counselor, your principal. All the people whom you blamed for the torment you experienced, all those who failed to protect you when they should have, they each suffered to the degree to which you blamed them for it.”

“Nonono… I’m a hero! I’m… I help people! I never… I never wanted this!” she cried breathlessly, her voice cracking several times, as she tried to fight it.

Tried to deny it.

Tried not to follow it to its logical conclusion.

“And most of all, the one who let you down the most,” he continued, without mercy, without accusation, his voice so good, so soft, so… cruel. “The one who should have been protecting you, above all others, and failed. She suffered most of all, and suffers still.”

“Don’t… please, please… don’t…”

Finally, finally, he averted his eyes, those cold, beautiful mirrors releasing her eyes, letting the tears spill forth.

“You ruined your mother’s life, above all,” he confirmed all her fears. “Every broken bone from tripping over her own feet, every cut in her skin from glass that broke in her own hands, her descent into alcoholism to try and deal with the constant pains and humiliations… because you resented her, blamed her, hated her.”

“Noooooooooooooo!” she screamed at the top of her lungs, bending over, her forehead pressed to the ground. “No, no no no, I didn’t, I wouldn’t, I love her! She’s my mom! She’s my mom, my mom, I wouldn’t hurt my m-m-om…”

And yet, she couldn’t deny it, not anymore. Not when it was in her face like this. All this time, she’d… skipped over it. She’d seen her mother suffer, seen her break down, piece by piece, step by step, and she… she hadn’t connected the dots… How could she have been so stupid!?

“Of course you love her,” he spoke. “Of course you do. But love does not preclude hate. It does not preclude resentment. When you were broken, when you were being beaten on… your mother failed you. Never deliberately, but she was so busy, all the time, wasn’t she? Working two jobs to pay the bills, to put you through a semi-decent schools… didn’t even have time to feed you, didn’t she? You had to cook for yourself, more often than not. So many nights spent alone in front of the television, asking yourself whether life was even worth it. No friends, no father, a mother that was barely there, bullies who drove you to attempt suicide.” He sighed, as if he himself couldn’t believe it. As if it hurt him even a fraction as much as his words were tearing her up inside. “You know it’s true. I haven’t spoken a single lie to you.”

She cried, bitterly. Sobbing, tears and snot running over the cold, transparent floor. Her shoulders shook, even though she was hugging herself to calm her body. She could only press her face harder against the floor, trying to steady herself, to find… something… to hold on to…

Suddenly, his voice spoke from right above her.

“It’s not your fault, Dalia,” Immanuel said, his voice overflowing with care. She looked up, seeing his bare feet, then his pants, then up past his body to his caring face. He knelt down, reaching out with one hand to cup her cheek.

His hand was warm against her skin. Warm and steady, when she was neither.

“You felt resentment for those who hurt you, for those who let you down – that is only natural, that was and is your right. But your power took that and turned it into fate,” he said, gently stroking her cheekbone with his thumb.

“What… what do I do… I don’t… I don’t want to hurt them… didn’t…” Her voice broke again.

He sushed her, as he pulled her in with both arms, wrapping them around her, holding her to his breast. So warm…

“Of course you don’t,” he spoke, his voice thick with feeling. “I truly am sorry for your anguish,” he caressed her back with his hand, as the other one held her tight, not caring about the snot and the tears that touched his bare skin. “But you needed to know. There is not a problem in the world which can be solved if you don’t know.”

She whimpered, limp in his embrace, without even the strength to push him away… or accept it.

He just held her. “Now you know. And I know, and I’m here, with you.” He held her tighter.

“We’ll find a way to fix it, I promise. You, me, Basil, Vasiliki and the others, all together,” he whispered into her ear, his voice full of conviction.

“Dafür sind Gefährten da.”

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