B13.e 17 Good People

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“I really don’t see how that’s your fault, Jess,” Jake spoke over the phone, his voice soothing her upheaved mind. “It’s not like they told you and you gave permission.”

”But I’m in charge of them, Jake. I’m supposed to notice this stuff and reign them in,” she countered, putting her head down onto her desk – well, it was Rounds’ desk, usually, but since she didn’t have an office of her own, she’d been using his – while still holding the phone to her ear. “I’ve been a pretty horrible leader, but this, this is beyond the pale. Rounds is going to put me on a spit and roast me over a fire. Slowly.”

”Now there’s an image I’d rather do without,” a mellow, smooth voice butted in.

Jessica, known to most as Amazon, fearless melee fighter of the New Lennston United Heroes, screamed like a little girl and nearly fell off the office chair she’d been sitting in.

”Jess? Jess, what’s going on?” Jake asked through the phone, though she was too focused on the new arrival to reply.

Percy Norton was an odd sight amongst superheroes. He was tall – that was quite common – with naturally messy dark blonde hair, muddy dark-blue eyes and a body that could best be described as scarecrow-ish: tall, thin, the limbs seemingly a little too long to really fit. Wearing thick winter jeans, boots and a red sweater, he looked like any guy you might see on the street, especially now, leaning against the frame of the door to his own office, his arms crossed, his mouth smiling.

”B-boss,” Jess stammered, shooting up onto her feet. “I, I didn’t know you were back already! Where are the others? Did you have a nice journey? Why didn’t you tell me you’d arrive sooner, I’d have welcomed you all back, and probably organised the ju-“

She stopped when he raised a hand, making her blush as she realised how she’d run her mouth.

”Jess, breathe,” he spoke calmly, walking closer to pick up the phone. “Hi! Jake, right?” There was a response which Jessica missed and Oh God my Boss is talking to my boyfriend.

”So, did Jess finally get the nerve up to asking you out?” Rounds asked, making Jess blush furiously.

”I’m still in the room, you know…” she mumbled, embarrassed.

”You were the one? Good for you, young man,” Percy continued as he walked around his desk, shooing her out of  his office chair and sitting down, sighing as he did so.

It really was an extraordinarily comfortable chair.

”Well, I wish you both the best of luck,” he kept on talking, leaning back on his chair, while Jessica moved around the desk, self-consciously fiddling with her sleeveless red bodysuit.

Then he suddenly turned serious, the cheer leaving his face. “But just to be clear – break her heart, and I’ll break you, got it?”

Jessica sputtered and threw herself across the desk to get the phone, but was stopped when he raised a leg and pushed against her shoulder, pushing her down onto the desk instead.

”I’m not a little girl!”  she complained, flailing weakly, the phone out of her reach.

Of course, Rounds ignored her as he listened to Jake’s response, breaking out into a smile again. “That’s the spirit! Anyway, I actually have some business to attend to with your beau, but we definitely need to meet soon. I’ll introduce you to the folks around here and we’ll tell you every embarrassing story relating to Jess that we know of.”

“Hey!” said woman protested in outrage, but was summarily ignored.

”Have a nice day, Jake,” her boss finished. “Yes, I’ll pass it on. Goodbye!” And he hung up, before he focused on her ag ain. “I’m to pass on his love and the promise that he’ll prepare your favourite dinner food tonight.”

The thought of Jake’s molten-cheese-and-jalapeno covered nachos made Jess’ mouth water and slightly eased her outrage and embarrassment. Slightly.

”That’s nice, but I’m not some little girl that needs to be protected!” she complained petulantly, only to receive a sharp sting to her butt, making her yelp and leap off the desk, her hands flying to her butt.

”I don’t know, you’re still pretty defenseless, as usual,” a sultry voice all but purred at her.

”Rachel,” Jess said, recognising her without even needing to turn around. Though she did that, to keep her butt out of the older woman’s line of fire. “You suck.”

Despite her words, she was honestly glad to see her again. Rachel was the true second-in-command of the team, Rounds’ right-hand woman and his most probable heir, once he moved up to take the Feral Family’s place as a Shining Guardian (that he would, none of his team members doubted). It was doubly impressive, because Venatrix had been a villain, once, until she ran into Rounds and he recruited her for their team, about two years before Jess herself joined.

Even though she’d changed sides, Venatrix – Rachel to her friends – had kept the basic  style of her old costume (as a reminder of how far she’d come, she said), wearing a one-piece sleeve- and legless bodysuit in black with blood-red accents, mostly arranged to emphasise the curves of her slender figure. Her arms were covered in black gloves reaching up to her biceps, leaving only a little skin exposed, and matching thigh-high spandex socks covered her legs. Her feet were bare, the socks only extending into stirrups for the feet, rather than cover them fully. She wasn’t wearing her equipment, other than her right gauntlet, a slim metallic one which glowed with an inner light, a glowing, crackling whip – like electricity – dangling from her hand.

Jess’ butt was intimately familiar with said whip, as were those of all the other team members – Rachel really enjoyed whipping them into shape, as she called it – save for Rounds himself.

Rachel’s ruby-red lips stretched into a grin, her mediterranean features currently free of her usual mask, her blonde hair tied back into a simple ponytail. “I’d make some lewd joke about just what I’m sucking or would like to suck, but honestly, I’m just glad to see you again, Applebutt,” she replied, letting her whip retract back into the glove as she spread her arms.

Jess rolled her eyes, but complied and walked over to hug her. “I’ve missed you, Gutterbrain,” she said, feeling misty-eyed.

Rachel chuckled and rubbed her back. “I’m back now. We all are,” she said softly, before pulling back a bit to kiss Jess on the cheek. “And what is this I hear about my third-favourite butt having found a boyfriend?”

Jess blushed again, looking aside. Oh God, I have to keep her away from Jake, no matter the cost!, she thought in quiet horror, while she replied out loud, “It’s not such a big deal. M-me and… Jake… got together.”

“Finally!” her mentor-slash-molester exclaimed, rolling her eyes while holding Jess at arms’ length. “I thought you two would never get to it.”

”I’ll say!” bombastic voice exclaimed, followed by steps that shook the floor.

Before she knew it, Rachel had let go of her and Jess was enveloped in a literal (and two-fold) bear hug, lifted clean off her feet by the huge figure currently busy squeezing the life out of her.

Ursa Gemini was a giant of a man in any sense of the word – his manifestation had caused him to grow to a good two and a half metre in height, his frame filled by enough dense muscle to make a whole Mister Universe pageant feel inferior and his body covered, mostly, in dense, yet not coarse fur, leaving only his hands (except for the backs) and his face uncovered. As well as his butt, as he liked to joke, but Jess tried not to think about that. He was followed everywhere he went by the other reason for his name, a silvery glowing after-image which was actually bear-shaped, usually mirroring his actions – currently adding onto the hug, partially phasing through him to hug her tightly.

”Marcus… air… breathe…” she gasped, even while trying to return the hug – though even on the best of days, her arms didn’t fit even halfway around his mighty torso.

“Sorry Jess,” he replied, though he neither sounded nor looked sorry as he put her down again.

She looked up at him with a grin and gave him a hug around his (slightly slimmer) waist. “Glad you’re back, fuzzball.”

”Glad to be back,” he replied, scratching the back of his head. “Wall duty is not the way I wanna spend my time. Nevermind that Faith and the kids are ready to put me in chains so I can’t go away again.”

”Have you seen them yet?” Jess asked, then looked at Rachel. “What about Tony?”

”Of course,” Rachel replied, snorting in mock indignation. “We arrived here in the morning, we just didn’t tell you so we could surprise you.”

”Well, Rachel was supposed to call you,” Marcus corrected her with a grin. “But I guess she was so busy sobbing over finally being with her master again she forgot.”

Said crybaby hissed at him and kicked his shin, to no effect – it’d take armor piercing rounds just to tickle the furry giant.

Jessica chuckled, and turned away from the two of them and their antics to look at Rounds, only to turn and come face-to-face with another member of her team.

”Eeeeek!” she cried out, as he’d moved up to stand right next to her, his face only inches away from her own when she turned. “Laurence! I’ve told you not to sneak up on me!”

The slender man with the blindfold sporting his eye emblem over his actual eyes – or rather, the lack thereof – stood there in casual jeans and a black sweater, having eschewed his usual costume much like Percy had (even Marcus was wearing his customary armoured silver-and-green briefs and boots), having of course managed to sneak in unnoticed, at least by her. He liked living up to his name, Eyespy, in more ways than just the one his power allowed him to.

”You told me so,” he agreed, nodding his head with a sly grin. “I never agreed to it, though.”

She tried to slap him over the back of the head, but he ducked under it with a cackle, easily dancing out of her reach.

Still, she was feeling way too happy to get too annoyed at him. Looking around at her friends, grinning, she noticed that one was still missing. “Where’s Bismuth?” she asked about their team’s heavyweight; using her cape out of habit, as she preferred it over her real name.

”She’s on her way,” Percy assured her. “She’s visiting her sister, first. Seems like there’s not much time left.”

That put a stop to the good mood in the room, as they exchanged looks.

”Have you heard about what happened last night, yet?” Jessica asked in a subdued voice.

Percy’s gaze turned stern. “I have, in general. But I’d like you to give us all the details.” He looked around the room. “Well, almost all of us. We can fill in Bismuth later.”

She nodded, feeling a weight return to her shoulders, and sat down on a chair in front of his desk. The others sat or leaned against the walls.

This wasn’t going to be easy.

***

The key slipped into the door’s lock, but she stopped there.

I shouldn’t have told Heck to leave, Dalia thought, though it was really too late to reprimand herself for refusing her friend’s offer to accompany her and help her explain everything.

Vasiliki had enough on her plate, already. Who would’ve thought Amy’s Mindstar? And B knew.

That was another thing on her mind. She’d been crushing on Amy – though she’d told no one – pretty heavily, ever since that night at the club (even if she’d been too drunk to remember most of it). Now she knew that that gorgeous, witty, sexy, nice older girl was a major supervillain. That put a damper on her fantasies. A bit.

Is my crush even real? Or did she make me feel that?

She wanted to believe that Basil’s sister wouldn’t have done that to one of his friends, that she wouldn’t have done that, period, but considering her reputation…

So much for supernatural luck, she thought, and that brought her back to her current problem.

She closed her eyes, lowering her head. Deep breaths. Opening them again, seeing her current getup – she’d switched her costume for some clothes she’d stashed at Vasiliki’s place (at B’s insistence) for emergencies, in her case skinny jeans that she’d thought were sexy when she bought them but right now just seemed ridiculous, especially since she couldn’t bend over in them without half her ass sticking out. Her top was similarly tight, showing more cleavage than she’d intended to show, when she’d bought it and she wasn’t sure she’d have been able to button up her jacket if she’d tried. The only sensible part of the outfit were the winter boots she was wearing, and that was because the shoes she’d stored there weren’t up to the weather at all, and so Vasiliki had lent her one of her many, many, many pairs of boots.

I’m just procrastinating, she thought at herself. C’mon Dalia… you weren’t nearly so skittish attacking a floating city full of mass-murdering supervillains…

B and Heck wouldn’t hesitate at all.

She took another breath and turned the key, unlocking the door, pushing it open with the same motion.

The apartment was a mess, as always. Maybe a little less so – at least the dirty underwear wasn’t present, currently.

”M-mom? I’m home,” Dalia said, her voice nearly breaking as she couldn’t immediately see her mother on her customary spot on the couch in front of the TV.

Was she alright? Had her power done something worse than usual to her? Surviving at the villain’s city, getting away safely… that must’ve taken huge amounts of luck.

Oh God… Her eyes filled with tears. I-is mom even, is she, did my power…

Her arms began to shake, tears running down her cheeks as she started to hyperventilate…

”Dalia?” a rough voice spoke, as the door to the bathroom opened, and her mother walked out, dressed in her night clothes and an alcohol-stained bathrobe. Her hair was a mess and her face blotchy and she was the most beautiful sight Dalia could ever remember seeing.

Her mother’s eyes widened when she saw the tears on her face. “What’s wrong, b-“

She was cut off when Dalia all but leapt across the entire room, throwing herself into her mother’s arms, nearly bowling her over.

”You’realrightyou’realrightI’msosorrysorrysorryI’msogladyou’realrightI’msorry…”

***

Percy was drumming his fingertips on his desk, his gaze never leaving Jessica’s face, his own utterly unreadable.

”Well… fuck,” Rachel said gravely.

”I’m not sure whether those kids deserve a pat on the back for their achievements, or a thorough spanking for their misdeeds,” Laurence spoke up next. “Either way, though, this is going to be Hell of a shitstorm.”

Jessica lowered her head, feeling wretched.

Percy stayed quiet for another minute, then…

”I am disappointed, Jessica,” he spoke gravely, using her full name as he rarely did. “You handled the crises that befell this city well enough, but I am disappointed in how you dealt with our juniors.”

Every word was like a slap in the face, and she felt tears threaten to leak out of her eyes. Stop it, stupid eyes! Don’t cry! You want them to stop treating you like the team kid!

”That they came up with this idea, that is on them,” he continued, leaning back on his chair, folding his fingers in front of his mouth. “That they went through with it, also on them. That you did not foster a relationship with them in such a way that they would at least have tried to gain your approval. That you didn’t impress unto them the discipline and forethought needed to see what a colossally stupid idea it was. Those, those are on you.”

”I… know,” she admitted. “I’m sorry. You trusted me to deal with these things… and I failed.”

”That, you did,” he agreed, his voice soft. “Learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen again next time.”

”N-next time?” She looked up, surprised, only to find him smiling sadly at her.

”Jess,” he began to reply, and she felt herself instantly relax again, as he went back to using the short form of her name, “I am well aware that I left you in a difficult position. And that many of the things that happened under your watch were beyond your control. Even if they’d been and you’d genuinely messed up this badly, I’d still refuse to condemn you for it.” He sighed, parting his hands to run them through his hair. “There will be consequences for this… Patrid will become utterly horrid, at the very least, and there’ll be consequences both for our juniors and for you, personally,” he continued, making her flinch again. “Child Protective Services, the DMA, our own Board of Directors, all those and more are going to raise a stink over it.”

She paled, especially at the mention of the DMA. They could very well have her locked up, if they determined that she’d been negligent in her duties to oversee the juniors to the point of criminality, or at least ruin any prospect she might have to advance her career as a hero anywhere in the United States…

”We’ll stand behind you, of course,” he pressed on, his eyes remaining focused upon her face. “We’ll do whatever we can to smooth the, ah, ‘shitstorm’, as Laurence would say, out.” He stopped taking a deep breath.

She looked up at him again, feeling just a little hopeful that this would be it, for now – she really needed to get to Jake and have him hug her a bit to feel better – but his gaze only became more stern.

”Now let’s get to these youths. Brennus, Hecate and Tyche,” he moved on to the other subject, and she felt her bowels clench up. “What were you thinking letting them run around freely?”

She clasped her hands tightly, lowering her head once more.

Then a pair of arms wrapped around her, from behind, as Rachel leaned over the back of said chair and gave her a hug.

Jessica had seen this one coming a long time ago, though, and she did have a response prepared.

“I did talk to them about joining up,” she replied calmly. “Only Hecate showed the faintest interest, but she claimed that she had personal reasons to refuse. Tyche showed no interest in joining any group which didn’t involve her friends and Brennus wasn’t interested at all. While I could’ve pushed to force them in, it’d likely just have driven them further towards the villain side and I didn’t want to risk that.”

Percy frowned. “I know it’s rather… customary to turn a blind eye towards vigilantes who toe the line, but I’ve always tried to impress upon you that just because something has become a habit, perhaps even a necessary one at times, it doesn’t mean that it’s right. Vigilantism is illegal and teenager vigilantism doubly so.” He took a deep breath, then let it out. “I’ve often butted heads with certain parts of our organisation which prefer to toe the government’s line and be lenient over this, and I stand by my point – children should not be on the frontlines. When I left you in charge in my stead, it was with the understanding that you’d do your level best to do with it as I would, which you haven’t.”

Jessica turned pale, averting her eyes from him. If he’d slapped her, it’d have stung less.

He wasn’t finished yet, either.

“This isn’t just your fault, Jessica and believe me when I say that I’ll make my opinion known to everyone else involved in this, particularly that stunt with the Rabid Eight.” His eyes grew even harder. “Though I would like to know why you let them talk you into allowing the juniors to confront a group of super-powered serial killers.”

“I…” she started to speak, but cut herself off. It felt so long ago, even though it had only been a scant few months. “We-“

“We decided that a show of force was necessary,” a new spoke up, startling everyone but Laurence.

Jessica turned around and looked at the newcomer. Patrick Patrid, in his customary white three-piece suit, of course.

What was not customary, though, was the heavy frown on his attractive face (she’d had a crush on him, when she’d first joined the team, until she’d realised just what an asshole he could be).

“A show of force… involving children,” Percy replied, locking eyes with the man.

“Brrr,” Rachel shuddered, still holding onto Jessica, and she felt she had to agree with the sentiment. When these two met, the room temperature always seemed to drop. They almost always clashed in terms of ideals and opinions as to matters at hand. They both wanted to do the right thing, but Percy cared about doing the right thing right, and Patrid wanted to do the right thing and have it look right. PR clashing with morals.

It didn’t help that Patrid was such a damn enigma. What the sense was behind a PR manager being one of the most powerful members of the US division – and by extention, the United Heroes as a whole – Jessica could not, for the life of her understand. Nor how such a sly man – watching him give interviews and manipulate everyone without anyone noticing was as creepy as it was impressive – apparently stood high in Lady Light’s trust.

“The children were all we had,” Patrid replied, unfazed by Percy’s glare as he stepped in, carrying a file folder under one arm. “I told you that going to the Wall was a mistake, did I not? But no, you said dodging the draft would’ve been wrong.” He threw the folder onto Percy’s table. “Here’s some uncomfortable truth, Rounds. New Lennston was on the verge of a gang war. If it wasn’t for the Hastur Incident wiping out the majority of the Black Panthers and the Morning’s Children, said war would have happened. While you all were off playing soldier. We had to make a show of force. Show people that even with the adults gone, the juniors could still hold the fort.”

He stopped, smirking as he adjusted his tie, before unbuttoning his jacket and sitting down on the sole remaining chair facing Percy’s desk, to Jessica’s right. “Besides, with Irene finally cleared for action, we just had to take advantage of the chance to give her one hell of a debut. That we managed to do the same for our pop princess was a bonus. And before you complain, Mrs Whitaker was there the whole time, merely invisible. None of those crazies would’ve come close to actually hurting any of the children.”

I don’t care if all the Shining Guardians were there as well!” Percy shouted, slamming a hand on the desk. “You put those children into battle against serial killers! Then you allowed them to assault an Acre with nothing but a bunch of other children as support! The Hastur incident was out of your control, perhaps, but don’t you think all that contributed to them thinking last night’s stunt was a good idea instead of a suicidal one?”

Patrid’s smile turned into a frown again, and he put his hands together in front of his face, almost as if to pray; one leg crossing over the other.

Even his shoes are white, Jessica noticed, having decided a long time ago that it was better to stay quiet whenever these two clashed.

There’s something you and me agree on, for once,” Patrid groused. “Last night was a disaster in too many ways to count. However, I still stand by my decision to advise the director towards the fight against the Rabid Eight; and the Acre had to go down before they managed to grow a Blossom – I would have loved to call in reinforcements, but there simply was no time, Rounds.”

“And is that why you didn’t call in adult professionals to deal with the Rabid Eight? To discourage the gangs? There’s roaming teams specifically for such situations! When I left New Lennston, I thought you’d call in one, maybe even two of them,” Percy replied, calming down as well.

“We – by which I mean, the Director, Jason and I – considered but dismissed the idea,” Patrid explained. “For a number of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that all our roaming teams are currently tied up, we chose not to dislodge a team from another crisis herd.” He tapped his fingers together, looking around at the others in the room. “You all know about Irene Whitaker by now?”

Percy, Rachel and Laurence all just nodded.

“That girly seems to be pretty amazin’,” Marcus hollered. “I thought people were dreamin’ it up at first.”

“It’s all true, the good and the bad,” Patrid said. “She’s incredibly powerful, even more versatile, occasionally unstable and very much dedicated to being a hero. Numerous parties within the UH expect her to become one of our top capes within a few years, so the director wanted to give her as impressive a debut as possible. After a long discussion on the subject, we decided that the Rabid Eight, while dangerous, where not a serious threat to her, nor to the other children while both she and her mother were present.”

He stopped, looking up at the ceiling. “To be fair, there’s barely anyone in the Northern Americas who’d be a threat with Mrs Whitaker around, but that’s beside the point.” He shifted a bit on his seat, turning slightly towards the others. “Anyway, we decided it was worth the minimal risk, for the sake of showing the gangs that we don’t even need outside support to overpower them. This whole discussion is quite thoroughly beside the point, however,” he pressed on, glaring at Percy. “It’s not their lawful, if risky, deeds that we should be focusing on, but the utter catastrophe of last night. Whether or not you agree with me on whether or not we should employ teenagers in combat against supervillains, we both agree that last night should not have happened and we must make sure it does not get repeated. Can we prioritise that, for now?”

Percy glared at Patrid, who only gave him a smirk in response, the air between them crackling with tension.

Jessica sat there quietly, all but holding her breath as she waited to see what’d happen next. Leaning against her back, Rachel was doing the same, and she was pretty sure the guys were no more relaxed.

Patrid’s and Percy’s arguments had a tendency to drag on for a while, and jump from subject to subject, over and over. The last time, they’d ended up shouting at each other for nearly four hours.

This time, however, it seemed like they’d be spared the experience, as Percy averted his eyes and sighed, leaning back on his chair again.

“Fine,” he replied. “This isn’t over, though.”

“It never is,” Patrid agreed, looking almost pleased.

***

At some point, her mother had pulled Dalia over to the couch and sat down, guiding the girl to lie down on the couch, her head on her mother’s lap as she sobbed bitterly.

Jana was looking down at her baby girl, her face showing both worry and affection, stroking her hair and humming some half-forgotten tune to her, trying to soothe her.

Strangely enough, she hadn’t felt this good in a long time. Not that she was feeling all that well, but compared to the alcohol-fueled, half-conscious nightmare that the last few months had been, being able to just be a mother to her child was like a balm upon her soul.

Even the pain that seeing her baby girl so broken up caused her was welcome, because it meant there was something she could do. It was a good pain, a pain that was not a punishment but a signal, that she had something important to do.

Taking care of her baby, as it were. Something she’d neglected for far too long, to the point where she’d nearly killed herself.

Her heart still clenched up at the memory, when she’d found her baby girl on the floor in her bedroom, an empty pill bottle beside her. Sleeping pills, which Jana had bought to help herself sleep between shifts at work. According to the doctors, her baby had survived by sheer, incredible, stupendous luck – that it was more than just luck was something she’d realised later, not that it had made her feel any better.

That her own life had fallen apart shortly thereafter, even as her baby girl was met by such a string of incredible luck, had felt… just. She’d deserved worse, for failing her so.

But the cuts, the bruises, the occasional broken bone, the lost tooth, the hangovers and the burns… none of it hurt as much as realising how badly she’d failed as a mother. None of it continued to hurt as much as seeing her baby pull away from her, just when she’d realised how much she’d neglected her, when she’d finally seen that she had to make amends and be a mother again.

She’d been happy for her, of course. To hear that she’d made friends, that she’d won entry into the most prestigious school of the entire state, and that her marks were up near the top of her class.

Even when she’d realised that her baby girl had become a hero – oh, she hadn’t told her, but neither had she been too careful about what she’d said and what she’d held back, and Jana had drawn the connection the first time she’d seen ‘Tyche’ on the television – she’d been relieved, not worried. Her baby had found something good to do, something to dedicate herself to.

She would never begrudge her that.

Now her baby had walked in, wearing clothes that were far too tight and revealing, both for the weather and for Jana’s heart, and looking like the world had ended.

But she was unharmed, and she was there, with her.

Jana gave her as much time as she needed, stroking her hair and humming the melody to a lullaby she’d used to sing her, back when she’d been little, before she’d screwed everything up. She didn’t even remember the text to it, or the title. Something about a bridge.

It took over half an hour for Dalia to calm down. Finally, she pulled back, kneeling on the couch as she rubbed her face with her hands. Jana only pulled her hand back slowly, letting her fingers run through her gorgeous red hair.

“S-sorry,” Dalia said, before hiccuping the way she usually did, after crying.

“You have nothing to apologise for, sweetie,” her mother said, standing up carefully – she didn’t want to ruin things now by stepping on a shard or something, she had to worry about Dalia, not be worried over by her – and leaning over to give her a kiss on the forehead, just as the younger redhead hiccuped again. “Let me get you a cup of water.”

She walked over to the kitchenette of the decadently large apartment that they shared – said kitchenette being a corner of the huge living room which was larger than the whole kitchen in their old place had been – to pour some water into a plastic cup – she’d locked all the glassware away a while ago, not that it’d helped much, as she’d just found other stuff to break and hurt herself on – and take it back to her hiccuping baby, picking up a towel along the way that she wetted in the sink.

Dalia was still kneeling on the couch, looking miserable as she leaned against the backrest, so Jana held the cup to her lips rather than hand it to her, and helped her drink. Once the cup was empty, she used the wet towel to clean Dalia’s face up with gentle touches, sitting down and turning so as to face her.

“There we go,” she spoke softly once that was done. “What’s wrong, sweetie?”

Dalia looked away from her. “You’re not even asking why I’m wearing this costume…”

Jana chuckled, brushing some strands of hair away from her face, pausing to look at them – she really needed to take better care of her hair, it was starting to look truly horrendous and she had neither Dalia’s youth nor her power to make up for the lack of care. But that was for another time.

“Dalia, I may not be the best mother out there, but if you think putting on a skintight outfit and a mask is enough for me not to recognise you, then you’re quite thoroughly wrong,” she replied, putting the towel and cup aside. “So, what’s got you so tied up in knots? You know you can tell me anything, right?” She reached out to touch Dalia’s cheek, but her baby flinched back. “Dalia?” she asked, worried.

Dalia started to take deep breaths, almost as if about to hyperventilate as she tried to look everywhere but at her.

Jana was about to try and calm her down, to prevent her from actually hyperventilating, when she something seemed to give in, and the words began to spill out.

She stared at her daughter as she shared everything that’d happened since she’d gone out to be a superhero the first time. Everything, even things she probably shouldn’t have told her, about her friends and other heroes, but she let her speak anyway, as it was clearly important to her to tell it all.

When she heard about the insane stunt they’d pulled last night, she almost shouted at her for being so reckless, but her outrage quickly got lost in the rest of her tale.

And then, the true reason she’d been so broken up.

Jana listened in quiet horror as Dalia explained to her how she now believed her power to truly work. What it’d done to the girls who’d tormented her. What it’d done to Jana, herself.

She felt a pain in her heart, hearing of what’d happened to those girls, though she couldn’t find it in herself to feel too bad, not after what they’d done to her own daughter. Though she did sympathise with their parents, even if they’d been responsible for raising those girls to be what they’d become.

But what it’d done to her, and why Tyche believed it had happened…

“No,” she said, simply, firmly, and pulled her startled baby into the tightest hug she could manage, crushing her against her chest. “You’re wrong, baby girl,” she spoke, sobbing, as a huge weight fell off her heart.

“W-what?” Dalia gasped, surprised by the sudden gesture and the words, wiggling to tilt her head up and look at her.

Jana looked down at her baby, and smiled. “I thought… what I was going through, that it was just punishment for having failed you… but instead, instead it something much, much more important.” She leaned down, kissing her baby on the forehead. “I’m not angry at you, Dalia. I’m glad. If me suffering like this is all it takes for you to be safe and happy… then I’ll take that bargain, and be grateful as well.”

***

It had taken nearly an hour before Percy had sent Jessica out of his office, to pick up the juniors.

Now she’d brought them back, all seven of them. From the stoic (as usual) Tartsche all the way to Gloom Glimmer, who was looking incredibly uncomfortable, fidgeting around and looking at everyone and everything but Patrid, as if afraid of what he’d say or do.

She wondered about that – Irene had never shown herself to be uncomfortable around or fearful of Patrid; then again, she’d never screwed up like this before.

They filed into the office, the space in front of the desk having been cleared of its usual seats – those stood by its sides, so the adults could face the juniors, and were currently taken by Rachel and Patrid – with seven simpler chairs standing there in two rows, upon which they sat down quickly, Harry sitting front and centre.

Jessica felt proud of him. Whatever anyone might say, Harry had been a great leader, after Bismuth had graduated from the juniors. He’d taken to it with the same calm determination that ran through every aspect of his life, from the way he made breakfast in the morning to how he’d wooed and won over Thomas.

She wasn’t so sure that’d help him now.

“Hello, kids,” Percy greeted them with a pained smile. “Especially you four,” he looked at Irene, Melody, Goudo and Aimihime, the four who’d joined after he’d left the city. “I don’t think we’ve met yet. I’m Percy Norton, also known as Rounds.”

They all replied with variations of ‘welcome back’ and ‘nice to meet you’, except for Irene who just nodded, fiddling with one corner of her heavy cape while chewing on her lower lip, and Goudo, who barely inclined his head, sitting on his chair with a rigidity that belonged on a statue, not a human.

She didn’t get that boy, at all.

Jessica walked around their group and joined Marcus and Laurence, leaning against the wall on the left side of the office, from Percy’s point of view.

“In case you don’t know yet, these are the other members of our team – that’s Rachel, also known as Venatrix, Marcus, wo’s clearly Ursa Gemini and Laurence our Eyespy. Some of you may remember Bismuth, though she’s not currently present – she’s visiting family,” he introduced them all, with each adult raising a hand or just plain smiling at the teens when their turn came up. “And you already know Jessica, Amazon, and Patrick, who’s our public relations manager.”

Percy didn’t leave time for any further pleasantries, though. “Now, while I’d love to take the time to talk to each of you and get to know you better… and I’d certainly like our first real gettogether to be under a better star… I must say, what I feel primarily right now is disappointment.” And with that, his mirth at seeing the teens faded into sadness and anger, making almost all of them cringe. “What in God’s name where you thinking!?”

The junior heroes exchanged looks, briefly, before Harry spoke up.

“We wanted to help, Sir,” he said, his voice betraying the nervousness his face so stoically hid. “We talked to each other and… we decided that it was worth the risk, since the director said that it would take time to verify the information and muster a proper strikeforce, but Dusu’s victims were, are, dying now.”

“So you set out to assault the fortress of a group of mass murderers capable of creating city-destroying monsters, without verifying the information, without adult supervision, relying on the words of a boy you barely know, whom as it turns out you didn’t know the first thing about, according to this report!” Percy stabbed said file on his desk with his finger, before flipping it open, leafing to a particular page. “Reacts with unstable berserk state to Osore’s power… possible split personality… supposedly Mindstar’s brother, if that’s even true as we don’t have the means to check whether they actually are related, or she just made him believe so. Did any of you have any inkling of any of this?” He looked at everyone in turn, getting headshakes one after the other, except for Osore – who’d obviously known of Brennus’ response to his power, to use it deliberately – and, perhaps not so surprisingly…

“I knew about that,” Irene admitted in a small voice. “Not the split personality thing, but him being Mindstar’s brother. It’s true. Daddy told me, shortly after I first met him.”

Jessica gulped, crossing her arms as her hands clenched into tight fists, trembling as the mention of that bitch brought up memory upon memory…

Not now, Jess, she admonished herself, taking deep breaths to force that down. She could have a meltdown later, when she was with Jake again. Right now, she needed to focus.

Meanwhile, Irene shrank a bit into her chair under the looks she got from the others, including the juniors, except for Melody, who just reached out to take and squeeze her hand.

It’s not her fault, she’s just twelve, no matter what she looks like…

“And you didn’t think it was necessary to bring that up?” Percy asked in a soft voice. “Irene, please look at me,” he pressed on when she didn’t respond. When she did, he continued to talk softly. “According to this file, there used to be a standing order to consider Mindstar for a death warrant, if she was found to try and subvert the boy; which may appear harsh to some, certainly to me, but makes some modicum of sense, seeing how she is based in this city, he is unaffiliated and she’s subverted many people before. Don’t you think you should have told us, to prevent a tragedy?”

“W-we’re not supposed to… talk about secret identities,” she stammered, looking both guilty and… distracted? What did she have to be distracted about. “I would’ve told people, if it’d come to that, I swear.”

Percy pinched the bridge of his nose. “This is such a mess… and on top of the disaster this turned out to be…”

“Disaster?” Melody spoke up, her artificial voice sounding confused. “I know we failed to find a cure, but we have Dusu. She can be tried for her crimes now! And the Dark’s probably pulling the rest of those villains apart as we speak, if he hasn’t already. And we all got away safe and unharmed. This was far from a disaster, in my opinion.”

Percy focused on her, but she didn’t flinch back, looking at him with polite defiance on her face.

“That’s one way to look at it. May I tell you how I see things?” He waited for her to nod, then said, “You assaulted these monsters without a plan, got captured, broke out purely because they underestimated you, then you only survived because, let me enumerate – the gods-damned Godking of Mars happened to be in a generous mood; Brennus turned out to have a hidden, violent personality that could mop the floor with some mooks who were otherwise taking you apart; Mindstar flew in to protect her brother; a complete unknown showed up to fight off some manner of time-and-space-bending mad science creation-” For some reason, the teens all flinched or threw confused looks at each other, but Jessica didn’t have time to ask what was wrong, before Percy pressed on, “and then the Dark happened to save you because Irene’s power, against her will teleported her to him rather than face what appears to be a major combat esper. There was so much luck involved in you surviving this, if you hadn’t also found out that Tyche’s power is literally supernatural luck, I’d seriously recommend you each buy a hundred lottery tickets right now!” He leaned back, nearly throwing his own chair over as he tried to calm down. Then he looked at them again, still furious. “Nevermind that two of you violated your parole – you are aware that this may cause Goudo, at least, to be convicted of violation and be sent to juvenile prison, are you?” Most of them paled at that, looking at the Japanese teenager – who showed no reaction at all, looking calmly ahead. “As for capturing Dusu – Mister Patrid, don’t you want to take that one?”

Patrid nodded, as Jessica felt her stomach drop. It was not a good sign that the two of them were together on this. Poor kids

“So, you captured Dusu,” Patrid said in his usual calm, smooth tone of voice, looking no more agitated than ever, even slightly amused, as was his default expression. “Did any of you bother to consider what to do with her next?” He stroked his chin with one hand. “While she does have more warrants on her head than I can easily enumerate, the fact of the matter is that now, publically prosecuting her is going to be a clusterfuck,” he spat the curse like a grenade, making everyone but Percy and Goudo flinch. “You took her from Japanese territory, during an illegal, unsanctioned assault on a villain base. You are all underage and mostly untrained, two of you being on parole for being members of a criminal gang in one case, as well as that and a number of offenses in another case. When all that comes out, the press, the justice system, perhaps even the Japanese government are going to go on the warpath.” He ran his fingers through his hair, showing agitation for the first time. “Kids, we’re already on incredibly thin ice with the Japanese, for numerous reasons,” Laurence’ head snapped up, suddenly, turning towards the door of the office, but no one but Jessica seemed to notice. “They’ve only been waiting for an excuse to boot us out of Japan, and you may have just given them a perfectly legit one! We may well l-“

Running steps came closer to the office, and then Widard all but tumbled inside, stumbling as he nearly fell over. “Rounds!” he shouted, white-faced. “Bismuth! The police precinct! Dusu!” he gasped the words, bending forward to put his hands on his knees, as everyone stared at him in surprise.

Jessica felt her stomach drop down into her feet as she almost instantly made the mental leap to what was going on.

Percy didn’t seem to be far behind. “But… she’s visiting her sister…”

“She’s dead,” Irene whispered in a small voice. “She’s dead and Bismuth…”

Jason nodded, looking up at Percy. “She walked into the precinct’s metahuman containment cellblock and, and sealed the entrance up. There’ve been screams heard, from inside.”

Percy leapt up from his seat. “Everyone, costume! NOW!” And just like that, the adult heroes all rushed out of the room.

***

Widard finally caught his breath, standing up and looking out over the juniors, as Melody looked at her friend, squeezing Irene’s hand. She didn’t know why Irene was so torn up – or why she’d edited Diantha out of the report like that, it had to have been her – but she was clearly distraught.

“Kids…” Mister Widard said, looking at each of them in turn with great sadness in his eyes. “I’m… so glad you’re all alright. Please don’t do that again.”

Somehow, Melody felt worse about saddening him than she’d felt about being chewed out by… damn near everyone else, since coming back. Even Steph and the other handlers had been outraged.

He didn’t give them a chance to apologise, though. “I’ve got to go… help take care of this situation. You all… we’ll talk later. There’s going to be a big meeting, I’m sure.” And with that, he, too, left, leaving them alone with Patrid.

Whose mere presence was still making her skin crawl, especially now that he was just quietly sitting there, studying each of them in turn.

“You are dismissed,” he said, finally. “Go to your rooms, I’ll… also need to take care of this. Another nightmare…”

They all filed out as she shook his head, looking calm yet seeming quite tired, somehow.

“Patrick,” Irene said with a soft voice, not moving from her perch atop her chair, drawing his gaze to her, even as she let go of Melody.

I’m sorry, but please, I need to talk to him alone, she whispered into Melody’s mind.

Feeling even more worried, Melody nonetheless did so, getting up and leaving the room, listening to both Jared calling everyone else idiots for going along with the raid, and the two in the room, as they walked away…

“What is it, Irene?” Patrick asked, his voice far gentler than she’d ever heard it be.

She couldn’t see Irene, but she could just imagine her fidgeting on her seat, holding her cape in her hands like a security blanket, or a comfort one, avoiding his gaze.

“W-we need to talk,” she said, her voice trembling. “It’s…”

And then they were too far away to hear, and Jared too loud, especially since no one felt up to telling him to shut up… it wasn’t like he was wrong, really, either…

***

The entire UH New Lennston division, minus Bismuth, entered the building that served the central police precinct – a fortress-like building itself near the centre of New Lennston, with a wide, open area around it covered in cobblestones, rather than being squeezed in amongst other buildings – as a prison to hold super-powered criminals until they could be processed and sent to wherever they were to be held.

It was generally considered to be one of the most secure and heavily defended buildings in New Lennston, but it was mostly designed to keep criminals in and villains out – not to prevent the lawful heroes of the city from entering and talking to the villains, for whatever reasons they had.

Clearly, Bismuth had had no problem getting past the considerable outer defenses and into the building, which was currently swarming with police officers.

They approached the Chief of Police, an older, broadly built man with a broom moustache. He stood in front of one particular wing of the small, compact prison, whose entrance was blocked by thick, irregular crystals that seemed to have partially fused with the concrete around them – or rather, been grown out of it – shimmering in all colours of the rainbow as light reflected off of the grayish growths.

The whole place was almost eerily quiet and there were certainly none of the screams Jason had been talking about.

Jessica felt sick to her stomach, praying quietly to God that her friend and teammate was alright, that she hadn’t…

“Rounds, you know what’s going on?” Chief Mason asked, glaring at the arriving heroes like this was all their fault.

“I’m pretty sure I do, Sir,” Rounds replied, resplendent in his shining knightly outfit, silver and gold armour atop a royal blue bodysuit, a shield and lance-sword strapped to his back. “Please, we’ll explain everything presently, but we should get in there first and get Bismuth out before-“

“Less talking and more breaking through,” the Chief agreed, stepping aside. “Everyone, clear the area! Let the capes handle their own!”

The police officers grumbled, though some, at least, didn’t look too broken up about what was going on. Jessica didn’t have time to wonder about that, though.

Instead, they gathered in front of the crystals, and turned towards Eyespy.

The slender man frowned, crossing his arms. “Everyone in there is either dead or has their eyes closed,” he said. “Can’t see a thing.”

Rounds looked at the Chief. “Dusu was the only prisoner held in this wing?”

The Chief nodded.

Their leader looked at the team. “Amazon, Ursa, Venatrix, break through the crystal.”

They nodded in unison, stepping forth. Jessica reached for her power, pulling up her trusty translucent armour, feeling herself instantly relax and become calmer as it sprang up, protecting her from the rest of the world.

Rachel’s equipment – her boots, both of her gauntlets, her visored helmet, her chestplate and armoured skirt, it all flared and crackled with electricity, as she clenched her heavier left gauntlet into a fist, building up energy.

Ursa Gemini just flexed briefly before they began to pound the crystal, quickly joined by the two women.

It was no easy work – no one of them could have broken through Bismuth’s crystal on their own, not when she’d grown it apparently as thick as the entire doorway, and anchored so firmly in the surrounding concrete – even when they broke it, it just grew whole again, and again, and again.

But all together, they managed to make headway, slowly digging through, destroying it faster than it was regrowing…

Then it suddenly shattered, all at once, shards flying inwards as it all crumbled away, Jessica having to briefly fight to be stay on her feet. Ursa Gemini just stumbled into the floor outright.

They didn’t waste a second, all of them rushing in in coordinated fashion, Rounds ahead of the others. They could see Dusu’s cell, and the blood-red crystal’s growing out of it, wrapping around the doorway, the door that was supposed to seal it off so that not even air could escape lying in crystal-covered shards nearby…

Rounds and Ursa Gemini, who’d made up the vanguard, froze as they reached the cell, looking inside.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God,” Ursa Gemini gasped, staggering back and blocking Rachel from getting a look by accident.

Behind them, in the foreroom, Eyespy bent over and vomited.

Jessica didn’t want to see what was inside… but she had to, and so she did, stepping around Ursa Gemini to take a look.

She immediately regretted doing so.

Dusu wasn’t dead. But she certainly wished she was, that was for certain.

She was there, clothed in tatters of an orange prison suit, all but crucified upon a crystal growth. One that was as red as blood. Her blood.

A single clear, rainbow-hued crystal pierced her sternum, next to her heart. That was not what had killed her, though.

Her body had been… pulled apart, from the inside out. Crystals of various red hues had literally grown out of her, tearing, cutting, pulling… It was the most grisly sight Jessica had ever laid eyes upon, and that included everything Hastur had done to her victims.

The crystals had pulled the cadaverous woman apart and spread her out over the wall. The crystal she’d seemed to have been crucified on was actually numerous, branch-like growths come from her back, connecting her to the wall and lifting her up. Her limbs had been pulled apart, stretched, the nerves visible, fused to the crystals. Her muscles torn, her bones turned almost entirely into bloody white crystal branches within the mess of red branches. Her torso… was open, her heart still there. Still beating, somehow, even though crystals were growing out of it, leaking blood, connecting it to other crystals. Blood flowed through veins that had become like transparent, rigid tubes. Two jagged, long branches grew out of her eye sockets, branching out, like a stag’s horns sharpened into points. More crystals stabbed out of her gums, giving her a bloody grin.

Worst of all were her nerves, spread out throughout the entire construction, interwoven with the branches and her body… clearly still functional, as she twitched soundlessly, her lungs all but entirely gone, her brain sustained… barely… somehow…

No, not anymore. Her twitches grew faint as they watched; within seconds, just as Jessica was starting to take in the entire scene, she expired with a last shudder.

Almost as one, they all turned away from it, the others looking as numb as Jessica felt. Looking at the cell opposite of Dusu’s, whose door was unlocked, open, giving the one sitting inside free view into the cell to watch Dusu’s suffering.

The crystal Dusu had been crucified upon extended like red veins along the ground, leading into the cell, towards a pair of bare feet, attaching to them.

Moving up the bare shins and knees, they joined the thin sheet of crystal which was currently the only clothing Bismuth had, a kind of one-piece bodysuit that covered her torso entirely, almost like a second skin of symmetric crystals, looking like her namesake, covering her from neck to thigh and halfway down to her elbows.

Red hair hung over her face as their teammate looked up at them, her uncovered face blotchy with tears, eyes red and… empty.

Jessica’s heart went out to her, even as she felt disgusted and horrified at what her friend had just done to a defenseless prisoner.

“Bismuth… what have you done?” Rounds asked in a heartbroken whisper.

She looked at him with those painfully empty, despairing eyes. “I couldn’t… couldn’t stand it. The thought that, that she was alive… alive while my sister… while all the others, died… I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t. I’m not sorry. I can’t be. I had to kill her, else I would have killed myself, because I couldn’t… couldn’t stand to know, to even think, that she would live, while… while my… while Prisca is dead,” Rosalie Fion spoke in a soft, broken voice.

In the distance, and nearby as well, the emergency sirens went off. The special ones, made specifically to announce DiL’s appearance. Then another set, announcing that she was here.

Not one of them could bring themselves to react, as they stared at their teammate in horror and sadness.

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B012.2 Born At Sleep

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<We really shouldn’t be laughing about this!> Melody complained during torrents of giggling and laughter. <This is so awful! And we’re awful for laughing about it!>

“Th-then let’s be awful!” Jared squeezed out between bouts of laughter, wiping tears from his eyes; with his beach-blonde hair in disarray, he looked like every girl’s dream prince having a joke, and Melody would never admit it out loud, but if he wasn’t such a jerk, she’d probably take him up on a date. “C’mon, let’s put on the next one!”

Irene seemed to agree with him, or at least her incessant giggling on the floor in front of the couch caused her to spasm and show a thumbs-up by accident.

Harry and Thomas, who were sitting on the side of the couch opposite from Jared, just leaned back, an arm around each other’s shoulders, and enjoyed the show on the huge television in the Junior Heroes’ common living room.

Osore – actually Takahama Goudo – and Aimihime – Aimi for short – were also there, sitting in between Melody and the two boys.

Everyone but Aimi (who was currently curled up on Osore’s lap in the form of a huge red-brown cat) was in casual clothes, sweatpants and shirts, fresh out of the showers after training and a shared lunch. Even Irene had participated, not that working out did her any good. Melody was pretty sure she just did it for the team bonding experience.

Of course, as it turned out, watching these stupid videos was an even better bonding experience. Jared had suggested them, and Irene had agreed wholeheartedly. Aimi did, too, and Goudo usually just went along with things, anyway (Melody had never seen him so much as vary his facial expression and his voice was even less expressive; she never knew how he felt about anything). She and the other two had just gone along, as well.

She had to admit, awful as they were, these ‘Darwin Awards’ were really quite funny – in a morbid, dark humour kind of way. And she’d never even heard of them before! They’d just finished watching the runner-up for last year’s award, and were now getting to the actual winner – Jared had promised that it’d blow them away.

The drumroll started while Irene pulled herself back up onto the couch, face red, and pulled her knees up to hug them, giggling in anticipation.

With the end of the drumroll, the clip began. The video was shaky, amateurish, and there were odd distortions to it; it showed a heap of rubble, mostly concrete and rebar, which shook in irregular intervals, as the light played odd tricks with the image, creating random slowdowns and ghost images.

“Oh no,” Irene whispered, suddenly subdued.

The image moved a bit, slowly, as if the cameraman was slowed down for some reason. Or just afraid, judging by how much it was shaking. As it moved, it became clear that the cameraman was on the upper floor of a building, and at least half the room he’d been in had caved in from whatever had created the mound of rubble it was looking at. There was another impact and a muffled scream from behind the camera as the image shook again, but then it settled down.

<What’s wrong?> Melody asked her, taking a quick look before turning back to the video. Irene was hugging her knees close to her chest and looked miserable all of a sudden.

“I know this one,” she replied, her eyes glued to the screen, even though she clearly didn’t want to see it.

The viewpoint shifted, moving up the heap of rubble it had been pointed at. Bodies came into sight, four men in five times as many pieces, their bodies cut apart cleanly and precisely, as if someone had used a line of silk to dismember them – and the silk had left behind a clingy, incandescent white on the wounds that was eating into their remains. Even in pieces, it was easy to make out that they’d been wearing costumes, and so had probably been heroes – or at least villains who died heroically.

It moved further up, and strands of pure white light came into sight, moving slightly like hair under water, dissolving whatever they came into contact with.

The image moved up, and up, and up, over almost twenty meters of glowing white hair, until it focused on a nude form whose modesty – what little there was – was only preserved by her own hair, which partially concealed her impossibly perfect shape. Her eyes were glowing the same colour as her hair, wide open and featureless, her jaw slack with more light spilling forth from in between her partially open lips. Her arms, tipped by long nails, which glowed the exact same colour as her hair, hung loosely down her side as she slowly, almost ponderously, lowered herself until she was floating barely half a foot over the top of the rubble, the remains of the heroes who’d fought her destroyed by her hair. The random distortions to the recording only became worse as it focused on her.

A caption appeared as the cameraman stopped moving.

Desolation-in-Light; Galveston, Texas, March 3rd, 2011

“Fuck me,” she heard Thomas whisper, his soft voice surprisingly sharp. “Don’t tell me these assholes are gonna show some poor sob that got ‘imself killed tryin’ to fight that thing!” Irene flinched, but didn’t comment.

Jared, however, did. “Don’t worry,” he said “This one deserves it. Wait and see.”

They watched as DiL’s body was briefly surrounded by a multi-coloured haze, before she was surrounded by an aura that glowed somehow warmer than her normal light, the colour more yellow than white. It focused into a lens about the size of her torso, extending a beam – not like an energy blast or anything like that, no, more like a spotlight – out in front of her and into the distance. Then the ‘spotlight’ began to move, even though DiL herself didn’t move an inch, rotating around her as if she was a lighthouse atop a mountain of rubble, angling up and down, always with her as the centre as it moved. Once, it passed over the rubble beneath, touching on parts of it not covered by her hair, and the concrete and metal and wood began to distort, forming bubbles as if the light was hot enough to boil it in moments, even though it didn’t seem to heat up at all – nothing caught fire, and the wood should have. The deadly spotlight passed on.

And then they saw someone enter into the periphery of the recorded image – and so did the cameraman, who focused the image on the new arrival.

It was a guy. Probably in his early twenties, he looked like what Melody imagined when she heard the term ‘doughy guy’. Not fat, or anything, but pale, really pale, with a wild shock of hair on his head and a weird thin beard and moustache. He was wearing an ill-fitting suit and tie, black and red respectively, with a white shirt, and he was running for all he was worth – towards DiL.

Melody looked at Irene again, who seemed even more miserable now – though Melody didn’t know if it was out of sympathy for the man who was clearly about to die, or because of Thomas’ phrasing. She reached out, gently squeezing her friend’s shoulder and Irene responded by tilting her head to rest her cheek on the back of her hand.

The video continued as the man ran around the boiled pieces of rubble – judging by his facial expression, it didn’t smell good, either – dodging strands of lethal hair in a way that was both surprisingly nimble and embarrassingly clumsy at the same time. One time, he actually rolled under the passing spotlight, barely evading having his face boiled off.

The cameraman seemed to have been as entranced by the guy’s actions as they all were, because he followed him on his way, the image mostly steady as the impacts which had shaken the earth had now stopped.

The doughy guy finally reached the top of the heap of rubble, standing on a spot that was untouched by DiL’s hair and the spotlight, and he…

Melody blinked, not sure if she believed what happened next. Fortunately, whoever had edited the video had found it hard to believe, as well, and so the video rewound and showed it again in a close up. She still had trouble believing it.

The doughy guy had dropped down on one knee, holding up a small black box he’d flipped open. A box with an engagement ring inside.

What?

Irene whimpered, and a quick look showed Melody that she’d finally averted her eyes, focusing instead on her own toes.

She herself, though, just had to see what came next, even if she felt sick to her stomach.

The glowing woman didn’t appear to notice the doughy guy just three or four feet from her, even when he started to talk.

He kept on talking until the spotlight moved towards him – he tried to dodge it, but accidentally stepped into some strands of her hair, losing his foot in the process. And then the spotlight passed over him.

With a scream, he tumbled back, his face literally melting off his skull, bubbles forming and bursting so violently they revealed bare bone beneath. His suit cracked, bubbled and fell apart, all at once, and the body beneath was no better off – turning red, then cracked, then bubbling, then bursting off his bones.

He screamed more and tumbled into her hair – and that was that. The video ended with a shot of the Darwin Awards’ logo (a yellow street-sign showing the march of progress, with the homo sapiens sapiens walking off a cliff) spinning.

Everyone save for Osore (who didn’t do laughing, it seemed), Melody and Irene was laughing – until the television blew out.

“Oi, what the fuck!?” Jared shouted.

Perhaps everyone had the same thought Melody did, because everyone turned to look at Irene, who was still curled up on the couch, her face hidden behind her knees and her hair.

<Irene?> she asked, worried, squeezing her friend’s shoulder again – then she flinched back when, for just a moment, a sensation of utter, complete horror gripped her heart – and not just her; she could hear everyone else gasp, their heartbeats quickening as it, too reached them. But then, it was gone as quickly as it had appeared.

Irene flickered and vanished from her seat, suddenly standing a few feet in front of the couch, with her back ramrod straight.

She flickered again, to the door out and back, as if she couldn’t decide whether to leave or not.

“The fuck’s wrong?” Jared asked. “Why’d you have to bust o-“

“I’ll fucking tell you what’s wrong!” Irene shouted, and the lights flickered as she whirled around, her long hair flying wildly – and just barely covering her left eye as she focused on Jared. Melody hoped only she’d seen that it had turned red-and-black, a sure sign that she was losing control again – and there was the almost imperceptible, even to her, sound of that weird song her power generated when it came to the forefront.

Irene didn’t seem to notice, or mind, because she thrust a finger at Jared, who flinched back from her. “This isn’t funny! Where do you get off laughing about what she does!?” She whirled around to look at Harry and Thomas, both of whom had gone pale. “And you!” she shouted, pointing at Thomas, who looked both confused and frightened. “She’s not a thing! You of all people should know better than to call her a thing!”

Her hand dropped, and she shivered for a moment, her other hand reaching across her torso to grip her forearm. Then she turned away and stomped towards the exit.

Melody was just about to hurry after her when she whirled about and looked at the lot of them, eyes wide – though fortunately back to their usual colour. “And fucking stop fucking calling her DiL! She’s got a name, so fucking use that!” she screamed at them before she simply flickered and reappeared in the same spot, only facing away from them – and she stomped towards the door.

She really ought to run after Irene, to catch up to her and console her – but all she could think of at that moment was She has a name? She’d never even considered that Desolation-in-Light, the White Calamity, would have anything like a normal name – yet that was what Irene meant, surely. I wonder what she’s called? And who gave her the name? Probably Miss Whitaker, right?

Irene almost reached the door when it opened, and three men stepped inside.

Melody blinked as she recognised Mister Widard, Mister Patrid and Director Ryan walking in side-by-side. All three were wearing suits, though their styles were quite telling of the differences between the three men commonly considered to be the leaders of New Lennston’s United Heroes Division, now that Rounds was stationed on the Iron Wall (Amazon was a great field leader, but as far as Melody could tell, she had little to nothing to do with the political side of business).

Patrid was, as always, immaculately dressed in pure white – white silk suit, white silk shirt, white silk tie, white leather shoes. The only thing that wasn’t white about him were his bright blue eyes, his healthy skin and his bright blonde, slicked-back hair and neatly trimmed goatee. His perfect white teeth showed thanks to a boyish grin he had as he walked into the room. He looked ready to go to a high-class party or dance, visit the White House for dinner or make a deal for one’s soul. Possibly all three at once. And he still had that ever-present aura that only Melody seemed to pick up on, that presence which made her uneasy, slightly nauseated. She couldn’t bring herself to like the man, even though he’d been nothing but courteous and even supportive so far – it was hard enough to even tolerate his presence.

Mister Widard was wearing a much cheaper grey suit with a simple white shirt and a striped blue tie. As always, he was slightly dishevelled, his black-brown hair a mess accentuated by his five-o’clock shadow, his eyes made huge by a really unflattering pair of glasses he was balancing on his nose, and he even now, he had a communicator in his left ear, with a directed microphone extended halfway to his mouth (one of Melody’s patents, actually). Much unlike Patrid, Jason was just plain endearing. He was like a chronically overworked but nice and warm favourite uncle. She felt awful about all the trouble he’d been in lately, since she’d helped capture his niece the teenage supervillain, and she wished she could just walk up to him and give him a hug; but she didn’t feel that she knew him well enough for that.

Director Ryan made a contrast to both of the other men. He was heavily built, both muscular and fat at the same time, his body at least three times as wide as Widard’s stick-thin physique; and he was short, too, not exceptionally so, but short enough to look like a dwarf next to Patrid, who was at least six foot ten, if not eleven. His hair was red, which made them a brunette-blonde-redhead trio, cropped short and his round face was as smooth as Melody’s own. His suit was brown and functional, not as immaculate as Patrid’s but far more well-kept than Widard’s. Melody used to respect him, but her opinion of the man had taken a nosedive since he’d tried to get her to stay away from Irene – even if she understood that he thought he was doing the right thing.

There was one thing that was out of place between the three men – Melody had never seen them share a mood. Usually, Patrid was chipper, in good spirits, with a wide grin plastered on his too-perfect face; Widard always looked slightly confused and slightly exhausted, not to mention wary; and Director Ryan tended to have a very stern, to-the-point mood and facial expression.

Not today. All three looked quite pleased with themselves – though only for a moment, once they saw Irene walk up and past them.

Widard and Ryan turned to look at her, and Melody lost sight of their facial expressions, but Patrid surprised her – he made a dance-like step, almost a pirouette, and put a hand on Irene’s shoulder – and she stopped and turned, looking at him.

The other two men continued on their way towards the junior heroes, while Patrid talked quietly to Irene.

Melody missed the first few words they spoke, before she focused her hearing on them.

“… can tell me if anything’s wrong,” Patrid said softly. “I’m here for you.”

“I know, and I’m grateful, but this…” Irene whispered back. “It’s nothing. Just… my own issues.”

“You’re a horrible liar, lil’ one,” he replied affectionately. “I promised your mom that I’d keep an eye out for you – so don’t shut me out.”

Miss Whitaker asked him to watch out for Irene? she thought, confused, while her teammates stood up and tried to look more prim and proper than they currently were to their bosses. I wonder how they know each other?

Irene sighed, but didn’t reply.

“Now, I need you to calm yourself down and join us,” he continued whispering while Director Ryan and Widard took up position in front of the big screen (the director looked none too pleased at it being broken), “there’s some important stuff to talk about.”

After a few moments, Irene nodded and pulled her pill bottle out, downing a small handful of pills. She relaxed almost immediately, and the nearly subsonic siren’s song vanished, too. Melody felt herself relax, glad that her friend wouldn’t have an episode that’d just scare the rest of the team away from her any more.

Within moments, Irene was sitting next to her again – closer now, close enough for Melody to put an arm around her shoulders and hug her – and even Aimi had shifted into a form more appropriate for conversation, though the lack of clothes to wear forced her to improvise. In this case, she had shifted into a humanoid cat – not a cat girl, no, she was quite clearly a cat – with the same colour and pattern to her fur as before, now sitting next to Osore, who’d been the only one not to react to the entire scene up until now.

Patrid joined the other two adults, and the director spoke up.

“Good afternoon, everyone,” he said, sounding almost as pleased as he looked. “I have good news!”

Hopefully good enough to make up for this scene, Melody thought glumly as she felt Irene press a little closer to her.

“In light of all the successes we’ve had lately,” the director continued, “Our very successful fight against the Rabid Eight and the Spiteborn, as well as the fight against Hastur and her monsters…”

Melody heard Aimi’s heart skip a beat at the mention of Hastur and the people she’d affected – she didn’t know the full story, but she’d found out that Aimi had apparently gone through her own little horror show during that dark episode of New Lennston’s history.

“Well, we have reason to celebrate, especially since the Black Panthers and the Morning’s Children both have been routed entirely, save for one or two stragglers,” Ryan continued, as Melody thought over the implications of that.

While organised crime was always a problem, and supervillains working for organised crime even more so, they tended to be more… subdued. More interested in heists and subtle actions; more than three fourth of all public cape-and-cowl battles took place between heroes and gang members, or between rival gangs; with two of the oldest and most powerful gangs gone, New Lennston was now at least safer than New York or Chicago, and worlds ahead of the West Coast Triad.

“And so, the mayor has decided to hold a celebration with you children as the guests of honour!” he finished.

For a moment, no one said anything; then, Goudo had to ruin it.

“Shouldn’t Brennus and his girls be the guests of honour?” he asked in that infuriatingly monotone voice of his. “They contributed more to all of that than anyone else here, not counting the Rabid Eight thing.”

Patrid covered his mouth with his hand, though everyone could tell he was laughing behind it; Widard seemed to miss the comment, as he was busy doing something on a tablet he’d pulled out of his jacket’s pocket; but the director’s face fell immediately.

“We’re not going to acknowledge teenage delinquents,” he said firmly, throwing Goudo a warning look – after all, the boy had been a delinquent himself (he’d never really done anything to qualify as a villain, really). “Even if their contributions were… impressive, they are criminals.”

The meaning was clear – the spotlight had to be on the legal heroes – though Melody really didn’t agree with that. They’d risked their lives as much as any of them had, and Brennus had been instrumental in taking down both the Spiteborn and Hastur; Hecate had been no slouch, either. The only one who hadn’t really done much was Tyche, whose role in that group she still couldn’t guess at.

Patrid stepped forward and pulled the conversation back on track. “Anyway, aside from such concerns, here’s the important parts: there’ll be a gala on Monday – I know, it’s rather short notice, but at least you’ll be excused from school for that day and the next! Everyone will have to get a dress or a suit if you don’t have one already, and you should all practice some dancing… speaking of which, who here has any experience dancing? Other than Irene, of course.”

Melody gave Irene a curious look – he’d asked about experience, not skill, which her power could readily supply. Irene had never told her about dancing before, though.

Irene smiled at her. My parents are rather old-school, she spoke into her mind. Of course I had to learn how to dance properly.

Melody giggled involuntarily, though no one seemed to notice as the team was rapidly split down the middle. Melody, Irene and (surprisingly) Aimi knew how to dance – though Melody felt that she was probably quite rusty by now, as she hadn’t practiced since she’d manifested. Harry, Thomas, Goudo and Jared all had little to no idea about dancing, though.

“Ah well,” Patrid said with his usual grin. “Looks like a little practice is in order, then! After all, it’d be horrible for our image if our juniors couldn’t even dance on the celebration of their own heroic deeds!” He clapped his hands. “In the interest of getting you ready, I guess I’ll have to train the lot of you personally, over the next few days. That includes you three, just in case,” he added with a wink at the three people who actually knew dancing.

Everyone but Irene and the other two adults groaned, but before anyone could say anything more, Widard suddenly looked up from his tablet.

“Someone turn on the television,” he said. “HeroView channel, quickly!”

Everyone looked confused for a moment, but the junior heroes were so used to following his commands that they moved nonetheless – Aimi was the first to get the remote and she pushed the on-button.

Nothing happened.

“Ah, bugger,” Jared said, looking sullenly at Irene. “Our big girl here blew out the tellie throwing a hissy fit.”

I will slap you once the adults are out of the way, Melody thought resolutely, though fortunately, Irene didn’t lash out at him, nor did she seem to react to his jab at all.

Widard sighed and took the remote from Aimi. Pressing a few buttons, the wall-mounted screen flipped over, revealing a second screen behind it.

“We have a replacement television?” Harry asked in surprise, the first time he’d talked today, as far as Melody remembered – he’d been mostly content to let Thomas speak.

“Of course,” Widard said. “With all the powers that tend to gather in here, it’s not too rare that something breaks; so we have replacements for most major pieces of equipment. That’s not an excuse for you to go around breaking them, though!” he quickly added.

They all nodded, while he turned on the television and switched onto HeroView, the major channel on metahuman matters in the Western Hemisphere.

It was showing an abandoned apartment building in a rather dirty neighbourhood – the captions identified it as Paris, France, and it appeared to be live, too.

“What’s going on, Jason?” Patrid asked as he sauntered over to sit on the couch next to Irene, who shifted around to put her legs across his thighs, leaning even more fully into Melody at the same time.

“The Blackguard has been tracked down, it seems,” Jason said as he and Ryan joined the others on the couch. “Looks like there’s a whole bunch of aspiring new Chevaliers getting ready to wrest the cross and fleur-de-lys from him.”

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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 Hastur, Shrouded in Dread (Part 1)

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This is murder for my heart.

“He. Hehe. It’s just fun for everyone, Jay-jay,” the girl they called Hastur whispered, giggling.

“Wrraurk?” asked Nathaniel. He shook his head, still not quite able to talk again after seeing her face.

Love at first sight can do that to you.

“Nothin’ nothin’, Nathaniel. Now, since you’re all ready,” Her new friends had all gotten themselves ready. Only five of them had survived falling in love with her, but that was to be expected. They’d been bad men and women, anyway.

“And stupid. You were all stupid, too. What in Dio’s name possessed you to let me loose?” She looked around at the five of them, but only got moans and gurgling as a response. They were all still speechless.

Love at first sight can do that to you.

She looked down at herself, dressed only in some old rags left from the clothing she’d had on when she’d manifested (not much) and the shroud she’d been given (she’d pulled the hood down). “I need new clothes.” She sniffed under her armpit. “A shower, first. And a shave.”

A few blissful minutes later, she was clean again for the first time since they’d caught her. She threw her rags and her shroud away, stretching her body a little to limber up while Francine brought her a clean bed sheet she could use as a cowl until she found something better.

“Clothes, now.”

Focusing her awareness on New Lennston – she’d always wanted to visit this city, and now she’d finally get to do it – she looked for a place with nice clothes, and found a nice boutique.

Nathaniel teleported all five of them into it. He normally needed line of sight for his power, but she had line of sight to anywhere, and Francine could tap into other people’s senses and share them with others.

They popped into the middle of the small boutique – there were only three customers and two salesgirls inside. And they all started screaming in horror when they saw her new friends around her.

Before they could run or call someone, she pulled her cowl down, while Nathaniel jumped around the room, bringing them all into a line in front of her.

They looked at her face and their screaming changed. Now they screamed out of love, as it overwhelmed them.

Love at first sight can do that to you.

She threw the sheet away and went into the underwear section while the five women screamed their love into the world. Fortunately, the street outside was rather empty right now, and the window’s full of merchandise, so they were hidden.

“Those are cute,” she whispered with a giggle to the sound of one of the women – Marge – breaking her own neck. Shame, she always hated losing them. She pulled the pink panties with the dancing unicorns on. “No need for a bra, and ain’t that depressing? Getting powers is supposed to give you like, a D-cup at least. But noooo, I’ve still got apples instead of melons.”

She found a cute pair of socks that matched her panties just perfectly. The tight blue jeans she put on afterwards were nothing special, but they showed off her hips well. And she’d always liked the curve of her hips.

“A shirt now, don’t you think, Nathaniel?” He was her favourite, so far. Such a useful power, and he was the best-looking of the bunch.

“Srrrrrurrrhh,” he replied, slowly getting more control over his speech.

“Or maybe just a hoodie? Don’t want just everyone seeing my face all the time, that makes things… interesting, but not very practical, sometimes.” She nodded to herself and looked through the racks while two more of the women – the two salesgirls – fought each other in a brief struggle, until Mary dug out Jenny’s heart with her bare hands and ate it.

“Don’t you dare get blood over the stuff I might want to look through!” she told her and the other two who were still screaming.

Just then, someone kicked in the doors, and she heard two voices yell “Freeze!”.

Nathaniel and Greg took them down before they could do any more.

She stepped around the clothing rag she’d been standing behind, still topless, to see two police officers on the ground, held down by Greg’s power. They looked at her face and starting screaming, too, while they fought to break free of Greg’s power, useless though that was. Her new friends were rarely smart at the beginning.

Love at first sight can do that to you.

“Hey, Nathaniel,” she spoke up after a minute – Mary and Jenny had just killed their two remaining customers and were eating the tasty bits – while she just couldn’t decide which hoodie to choose. “What’s Hastur mean, anyway?” Maybe it would help knowing that.

“Hhhhhasssssturrrrr… loooooovecraffffft st’ries… King… in… Y-y-yellowwwwww,” he said.

“Bravo, Nathaniel!” she shouted, clapping her hands, then she gave him a kiss on his cheek. “You’re getting better!”

Then she turned back to the clothing selection. “King in Yellow, huh? Well, Queen in Yellow, now. So, a yellow hoodie, then…”

And she found one, it was a little thin, but it had a cute little heart for a zipper, so she put it on and zipped it closed. Then she clapped her hands again. “Shoes! I need shoes, too!”

Eight minutes (and one dead policeman later – poor stupid thing, he’d ripped out his own intestines only to eat them, but the others had gotten hungry too when they saw that), she’d found the cutest little black-and-pink sneakers.

Looking at herself in front of the mirror, she pulled the hood up and deep down over her face, so not even her chin could be seen.

“I look cute, don’t you all think so, too?” she asked her new friends. They’d all finished screaming and were quite fine now.

Love at first sight can do that to you.

There were various gurgles and moans of affirmation, as well as a “Of cccccourrrrrsssse.” from Nathaniel.

Great! Now, to see what the Juniors and Basil and friends are doing…

She looked into the headquarters of the heroes, but recoiled from the minds of Basil and Melody.

“Ouch. Damn, what is that?” She looked into the other’s heads, and learned all the wonders of heterodyning while Thomas explained it. “Ohhh, I wonder if I can do that, too, with someone. Something to keep in mind.”

Nathaniel teleported them all away, leaving only the bits and pieces of the poor things who hadn’t made it behind. They reappeared in the middle of a mob meeting, with her in the center of the round table they were sitting at. She pulled her hood down. “They’ll probably find out I’m free, soon. Let’s see who I’ll take now, and who I’ll play with until later.”

She let her awareness roam a little around the city – she didn’t want to reveal too much about her capabilities yet.

After a few minutes, she looked back into the workshop.

… but who’ll be the hunter and who the game?

“Oh, Irene, you don’t get it,” she giggled to the sound of her new friends professing their love in screams. “It’s a game of tag. We can alternate roles. Though, of course, if I win, the consequences will be… fun.”

She looked up to see herself in a large mirror on the wall, squatting on her heels in the middle of the room, in her new hoodie and those cutest of all shoes.

“Who ever said the end of the world can’t look cute, huh?”

* * *

…attach the power coupling here, then check for any hiccups along the power lines to ensure flawless transmission…

At the other end of the S.M.O.G., Polymnia connected it to the building’s power grid. Small, black pictogram manikin were pointing and miming what they had to do, moving to the rythm of a song he could not distinguish from the technology they were working on – like a dance.

I wonder how she normally works, he thought while following the instructions the little manakin, and the arrows and circles and crosses and numbers gave him. He felt like something had opened up – the ideas, the blazing light that guided him, it was all flowing, focused and steady, unlike anything he had ever felt before. If this is the usual result of heterodyning with another Gadgeteer, then I should see about recruiting Polymnia for my team. For the time being, though, he’d focus on the S.M.O.G. It had not nearly enough firepower yet to live up to its name.

* * *

Suddenly, the song that had kept them going cut off, and his power stuttered for a moment.

“What’s going on, mate!?” he asked in an angry tone, looking around the workshop. They’d just gotten started on the critical overload mechanism.

Gloom Glimmer was standing next to Polymnia, her hand on the girl’s shoulder. Apparently, Polymnia was just as angry as he was. “Enough fun and games, kids. The game is afoot, and we need to get ready for a fight. A big one, it seems.”

Brennus bit down a harsh reply – he was slowly, emphasis on slowly, coming down from… from whatever he was feeling. He felt like his brain was raw and open. “L-let’s go then.” He put the tools he’d been working with (she had actually come up with a Sonic Screwdriver, though unfortunately, it could only drive screws… yet. He would offer to help upgrade it) aside and went to slip back into his suit. The process wasn’t exactly fast, but it at least took less than a minute. If barely.

With a last, longing look at the S.M.O.G. – fifteen meters and forty-six centimeters of gorgeous, straightforward destruction (no fancy tricks there, just firepower. Lots and lots and lots of firepower) – he fell into step next to Polymnia (she took a few seconds longer to tear her eyes off their creation), following Gloom Glimmer out of the workshop.

“Where are we going?”

“War Room. Hastur somehow got out, and she’s started killing people, so we have to do something,” she replied, sounding quite wound up.

<Irene, what’s wrong? You don’t seem well… and besides, why are we supposed to do something about this? I thought we weren’t allowed to deploy against an S-Class!>

She remained silent for a few seconds as they made their way to the elevator. Brennus had all but given up on getting an answer.

Then, Polymnia put a hand onto her shoulder, gently squeezing it. For just a moment, he thought he saw Gloom Glimmer’s expression of calm crumble, before she caught herself.

“Desolation-in-Light appeared over Kansas. They’re fighting her right now. Only Amazon is left – even Patrid went to help.”

<Wait, Patrid? What can that creep do, apart from try and talk her to death?> asked Polymnia in sheer surprise.

“He has three doctorates, one of them in medicine, and he’s a crackerjack EMT on top of that. That can be worth more than any power, and that doesn’t even account for him having a God Tier Physique,” she replied, her voice barely above a whisper. “Not that it’s going to help anyone going up directly against her.”

Polymnia pulled her into a hug from behind, while Brennus just… stood there.

Am I supposed to hug her, too? Would that be too intimate?

If you ain’t sure how to to act, mate, go with the option that involves DOING SOMETHING.

He carefully put his arms around the two girls, hugging them as tightly as he dared with his armor on.

* * *

They’d sat down at the circular table again. Everyone left – the Junior Heroes, Amazon, Widard, Hecate, Tyche and himself.

Once more, the mood around the table was… bad. Guess you should not expect anything else from a War Room.

He almost slapped his head. His thoughts were frayed. Probably a side effect of the Heterodyning. Not a good time to be below one-hundred percent.

“The situation is getting worse by the minute, everyone,” began Amazon.

Not very smart, eh? To start off on a note like that, you’d think she was a beginner at this.

It is suboptimal.

She is only interim leader, because everyone else is at the Wall right now.

Still, it’s a bummer way to start.

“Define ‘worse’ in relation to an unknown S-Class getting loose in the USA’s third-most populous city at the same time at which most of our ability to respond is tied up due to the world’s only S+ deciding to pay Kansas a visit,” he asked.

Amazon and Widard exchanged looks.

“They may as well know, before we get to the situation at hand,” the older man said to his nominal leader.

“Know what?” asked Gloom Glimmer. “What could possibly make things wo- Did something happen to-“

Amazon raised a hand. “No, nothing like that. But… the Protectorate was attacked, and despite Lady Light’s intervention, one of them managed to break through the defenses and into the Protege’s range.”

Ember! Not Prote-bla, Ember!

Dude, whatever your problem, calm down. You are kind of screaming inside my head.

“How the fuck did they get past Lady Light?” asked Outstep, taking his eyes off Tyche’s rack for the first time since Brennus had entered the room (not that she didn’t enjoy the attention). “And anyway, so what? Whoever got through is probably bonkers now, but Lady Light was there to put’em down, right?”

“The how is not an issue now. The problem is that the woman who got through was a particularly powerful supervillainess. She brought a dead baby into the Protectorate, and somehow, don’t ask me how, managed to get within five feet of the Protege.”

EMBER!!! His fucking name is EMBER, you twat!

Keep it down! Is the Man in the Moon not supposed to be just an observer? Where exactly does commentator fit into that?

Bugger off, mate. I can’t stand this Prote-bleh business. He got a name, one he chose for himself!

I can not bugger off because you are in. My. Head. Shut up.

Gloom Glimmer was throwing him strange looks, which he absolutely did not like right now.

<Did Ember… did he?>

Good Girl. I’d like her for a mate.

She is female. A mate is usually a male sa-

Bugger off.

Amazon nodded, which immediately charged the mood in the room even worse.

“Sean O’Sheannan has become the newest member of the Returners – and while the Protege seems to have returned to dormancy, well…”

“No one is going to accept that. If he could wake up once, he can wake up again. If he’s even been asleep in the first place,” commented Brennus. He certainly did not seem asleep when he talked to us.

Well mate, Henry was always a little strange, but he’s definitely not the kind to just sit around and do nothing.

Wait, ‘Henry’? You know him personally?

Focus, mate. Focus.

“It’s not important,” Tartsche said. “We have far more immediate problems to deal with. One of them being this Hastur. What do we know?”

Everyone focused back on Amazon, then on Widard when she turned to look at him.

“Hastur… well, look at this.”

He called up a video file that the table projected into the air above it in six screens arrayed in a circle to let everyone see it.

They all watched the recording, apparently taken by a security camera within a clothes store. Two salesgirls, three customers. Then, suddenly, a figure cloaked in a… bed sheet… stood in the center of the room, flanked by… five blots of blackness, as if the camera had refused to record them.

The civilians screamed and tried to flee, but one of the blots vanished and reappeared all around the place, until it had collected them and lined them up in front of the shrouded figure.

She reached up with thin, slender hands and pulled the sheet down. Her position only showed silky, freshly washed dark brown hair that fell to her shoulders.

But whatever the five civilians saw, they started screaming in raw, unhinged horror. Hastur – she had to be – walked among the clothing racks, apparently looking for clothes, while her victims screamed and clawed at their eyes – one of the customers broke her own neck… and then, one of the salesgirls turned into another blot on the camera, fell over her colleague and, after a brief struggle, ripped her heart out.

The other girl convulsed, then almost fell before turning into another blot, along with one of the customers, just when two policemen stormed the shop. They were quickly subdued and exposed to Hastur’s face – it looked like her power worked through her face, or maybe just eye contact – just as the blots that were the salesgirls descended on the two remaining customers, one of whom had turned into another blot.

They kept watching, until Hastur, dressed now like a normal teenager, stepped over to the eight remaining blobs of blackness, and they all vanished.

Spellgun summed up what Brennus was thinking: “Well, shit.”

* * *

After twenty minutes, they had reached a few conclusions.

One, they had identified two of the blobs Hastur had entered the shop with. The teleporting blob had to be Panthera Avis, the new leader of the Black Panthers’ West Coast Division. Or rather, he used to be that. Now he was Hastur’s flying monkey, it seemed. The other one was most probably CrushUp, gravity manipulator and notorious terrorist.

Two, they had decided that Hastur had to have some manner of Control power, triggered by seeing either her face or making eye contact (which was mostly the same, all things considered), and some manner of power boosting, because Avis should not have been able to teleport them beyond his line of sight.

Three, they needed to find them. Fast. And take Hastur into custody or six feet under – most probably the latter.

So now, Brennus was sitting in the war room, coordinating his ravenbots while they searched the city. The others were preparing for battle. Amazon and Widard were informing the supervillains of the city and the police, respectively; both Spellgun and Hecate wanted to work on their respective equipment, Polymnia had to finish her newest armor, Tartsche was making sure his boyfriend did not forget what he was supposed to get ready for, Bakeneko and Osore were in the Juniors’ common room talking, Tyche and Outstep were stroking each other’s ego by way of making small talk and Gloom Glimmer was nowhere to be found.

Brennus knew all that because he had not been able to resist accessing the surveillance system of the place. It was not like his ravenbots needed much in the way of coordination, not with their programming and Eudocia keeping an eye on them.

“You like keeping tabs on people, too?” asked a silken smooth voice from behind him.

He turned around and looked at Gloom Glimmer standing right behind him.

“Call it paranoia,” he replied without any embarrassment. “You do, too?”

She shrugged. “Indirectly. My power takes paranoia to an artform, I guess.”

She is awfully open about her power around me, do you not think so?

No response. Strange.

“It is not paranoia if they really are out to get you.”

She actually giggled at that, even though he did not think it was all that funny.

“Papa always says that.”

“Well, I guess you would have to be paranoid to survive that long in this business… Is Mrs Whitaker like that, too?”

She shook her head. “No, not really. She is very… aware of her surroundings, but she’s far more relaxed about it than Papa or me. Or you, it seems.”

He shrugged. “Well, it might come in handy now – my ravenbots are spread all over the city, and I have ordered them to patrol. Coupled with the city’s surveillance system and the police cars and helicopters on patrol, we should find Hastur the moment she goes outside or near a window. Speaking of which, why are you not out there searching? With a power like yours, this should be rather trivial. Not that I do not enjoy talking to you.”

She blushed. What the hell? I was just being polite.

“My power is too unreliable. I might need to be here for defense, if she attacks us here – we don’t know to which extent Panthera Avis’ teleportation has been boosted – and I don’t want to leave it up to chance. Not even with Tyche’s power on our side.”

She knows? How? “You know? How?”

“I’m very good at figuring out people’s powers. Seems to be something that comes easy to my own power. Don’t worry, I’ll keep quiet about it, unless it becomes important.”

He nodded, then suddenly called up one of the video feeds from one of his ravens. “What is that?

A blob of darkness had appeared in the Jaunt Memorial Park. It was at least twenty meters tall.

“My gut is telling me it’s nothing good,” Gloom Glimmer remarked.

Previous | Next

B007 Big Game Hunt (Part 8)

With a final clicking sound, Brennus opened his armour up into standby-mode – open along the back, but not fully disconnected into the individual pieces. That way, he could get out with a step backwards, and just as easily step back in. The downside was that this armour was not quite as durable as the original version.

Finally, he put his cloak back on over his black bodysuit – it was a bit oversized, as he had tailored it for his armoured form – and stretched his neck to get a few kinks out.

Power armour was not really all that comfortable, no matter what you did to make it so.

With a flick of his fingers, he activated the secondary voice distortion device he had built into his face mask, then he turned around to face the girls.

Polymnia was not even looking at him, her eyes glued to his discarded armour, leaning to the side to look around him.

Gloom Glimmer had taken her cloak off and thrown it over a chair, and she was definitely paying attention to him… very closely.

“Stop that, please,” he said while adjusting his coat.

“Stop what?”

“You are analyzing me. Considering what I know about your power, that means you are most probably using some manner of clairvoyance or telepathy. Maybe both,” he replied, carefully picking his words. “Please stop it. I came here to help in good faith, not to have my secrets laid bare.”

She flinched and pulled a small canister out of… somewhere, swallowing four pills she took out of it.

Where does she put that?

“Sorry. Force of habit,” she almost-whispered, apparently ashamed.

“Do not mention it. Now, Pol-“

“What I am not sorry about is pointing out that you’re supposed to drop all of your equipment. But I count a computer, a hard drive, four knives and twelve explosive charges on your body.”

“Uh… this is awkward,” he grumbled, scratching the back of his head. “But I would kind of need to strip naked to get rid of all of those. Besides, I doubt I could harm you even if I had all of my equipment. And you are more than capable of protecting Polymnia, even if I blow myself up. Which I do not want to do. Ever. At all. Under any circumstances.”

She sighed, swallowing three more pills. “Alright. Keep the rest. But I won’t be responsible for what Tartsche does to you if he finds out. He takes stuff like this very seriously.” She took another pill.

She has got to have more canisters, if she goes through them this quickly.

“Thank you. Now, Po- Where?”

She had vanished from his sight while he had been focused on Gloom Glimmer. Turning around, he found her inspecting his armour, having bent over to examine it.

<So you have redundant controls for fingers, toes and your mouth? Talk about prepared,> she commented, the fingers of one hand flying over a small vocoder that produced a surprisingly human voice, as opposed to the usual monotone.

“Never know when I might be mostly paralyzed, or restrained in some other way, and thus unable to control the suit and its systems normally. I also use voice commands as another redundancy,” he replied while walking around the workshop.

He stopped in front of a larger table covered in what looked like gutted speakers and robotic limbs.

“You have… been trying to upgrade your limb system? With what goal in mind?”

She turned away from his armour and pretty much skipped over to stand next to him. <I thought about making the armour more mobile, since no matter how much I reinforce it, there’s no way I’ll be able to take more than a few hits from the kind of villain I’ll be running into, so I’m better off evading,> she explained in what would have been a single breath for someone talking with their own mouth.

Ohh, how I can relate to that problem. “That vocalizer of yours sounds great – it even gets the contractions right and all the inflections – I can barely tell it apart from a real voice.”

She smiled and pulled a second vocalizer out of a drawer, handing the small device to him. It was barely as big as a tablet, and had more keys than any piano he had seen.

He turned it over and opened the casing, his power immediately pointing out the screws he needed to remove (there were more than enough tools lying around). Once he got a look at the insides, his power immediately went from its normal low-level activity to near-full idea-making.

<This is the most recent version of my second invention. Both my sonic cage and sonic blast technology is derived from the work I put into the wave modulation of this little baby. I wanted to make sure that I could still sound mostly like a normal human, and now it’s become the basis for most of my work. The other was my first own violin, I’m sure I have an upgraded version lying around somewhere>

“Sonics, wave modulation, harmonics… Ah, I see. You are using the principles of heterodyning to… can I see your sonic cage projector?” He put the vocalizer down.

She nodded and walked over to another workstation where said gadget – by far her largest work, and the main reason why she needed those extra limbs (apart from the keyboards).

While she explained it to Brennus, he looked into the gutted system – she had been trying to upgrade this one, as well – to work it out. He could not study her blueprints, and her verbal explanations where very basic, incomplete, as she could not put her symphonies into words, but put her words and what he saw together, and…

“Do you think we can apply this concept to light waves?” he asked suddenly.

<Probably. Light and sound are rather similar, in many ways. I think. My power is telling me so, at least. What did you have in mind?>

“High-powered lasers.”

This time, she made that strange squeeing sound he had heard from Hecate a while ago.

* * *

Fifteen minutes later…

Irene leaned back against the wall while watching the other two teenagers going at it.

She’d spent quite a lot of time looking in on other people – in fact, she was still doing it now and then – during precarious situations. In other words, she was used to being a voyeur. There was really no shame left in it for her.

Yet she felt inexplicably dirty watching those two go at it. They were geeking out like two kids who’d, for the first time, found a playmate in their chosen hobby.

It was cute, it was dirty (for her, because her power was giving her ideas, and it was as usual very single-minded), it was frightening what they were discussing…

She needed some soda. And popcorn. Lots of popcorn.

* * *

At the same time…

“Should I feel concerned that Gloom Glimmer just got herself a bucket of popcorn almost as tall as she is?” asked Tyche, who was splayed over a couch in what was the Junior Heroes’ common room. And a way nicer one than ours. They even got a pool table.

“I am… growing concerned,” Tartsche admitted. He was the only one in the room who was still tense after the last fifteen minutes. “She was supposed to stand watch all the time. How come no one in this group listens to my orders?”

“Maybe because everyone knows you’re way too nice to actually, you know, punish insubordination?” Spellgun replied with a grin as he leaned against his boyfriend.

Who just groaned.

“Relax, Gloom Glimmer’s back inside, and Brennus wouldn’t hurt Polymnia anyway… if he knows what’s good for him,” Hecate whispered, glaring jealously in the direction of the workshop.

“And if he tried, our lil’ two-point-oh would squash him like a bug,” came a comment from Outstep, who’d sidled up to Tyche on the couch and was assuming a pointedly relaxed position on it. Not that he had much success in disguising the fact that he was checking out her body, which would have been barely covered by the armour even if it wasn’t mostly transparent (and she hadn’t taken her leather jacket off). Brennus had really done an outstanding job of making it skintight despite the scales.

“Two-point-oh?” the readhead asked with a very satisfied smile at finally having someone actually look. She was tired of having to hide at school and only have Brennus around when she could show off. That boy had a lot of appreciation for forms, but only in technical terms.

“You know, she’s… the white-haired freak’s sister, and they got basically the same power, so…” Outstep explained slowly, hoping that she wasn’t overly sensitive to this stuff.

“Oh. Oh.” She giggled into her hand, trying to stiffle it.

The others simultaneously slapped their foreheads.

Oh ye Gods and little fishes, don’t let her join us. I can’t take two of the sort, was the only thing Tartsche could think.

* * *

Forty-five minutes later still…

Reassign patrol routes, recall any adult heroes we can spare on the Iron Wall, somehow convince those three to join us… the list keeps going, and that doesn’t even include all the administration issues that I still haven’t been able to work through.

Jason walked through the hallways of the headquarters, flanked by no less than five secretaries – actually just one woman who could split into seven clones of herself – who were working through data on their pads with him. He always liked to walk around while doing his work, it helped him stay fit and avoid back problems.

And I should look in on the kids… who knows what they’re up to this time. It wouldn’t be the first time that a junior team acted against orders to help with an S-Class situation… or any situation that was way out of their league. And he was quite sick of losing his kids to that kind of stupidity.

He entered the juniors’ common room, and found them immersed in a discussion they cut off the moment they heard the door slide open.

Jason looked around the room with a raised eyebrow. Tartsche and Spellgun were sitting next to each other, as usual. The witch-girl, Hecate, was sitting at the very edge of the same couch, as far away from anyone else as she could without being obvious about it, though she appeared to have been taking part in the discussion. Bakeneko had sat down in a much too provocative form, probably trying to measure up to the two vigilante girls, but no one was paying the shy girl much attention it seemed. Osore had fallen asleep on a stool. That boy can sleep anywhere.

Outstep and the redhead, Tyche, were sitting way too close to each other for his sensibilities, especially considering how Outstep was pretty much openly undressing her with his eyes – and she didn’t seem to mind.

Ye Gods and little fishes, not this again, he thought.

As for Brennus, Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer…

“Where. Are. The. Others?!” he asked while running his fingers through his hair. He could already see the catastrophe looming.

Tartsche jumped up, which all but threw a yelping Spellgun off the couch. “Here! I mean, in the building! They’re still here, Sir, don’t worry!” He was making placating gestures, and it was actually working.

Tartsche has never lied before, he wouldn’t, not to cover them breaking the rules. He repeated that sentence a few hundred times in her head, until he was calm again.

I need to stop getting excited so easily. Not good for the heart.

“Alright. Alright. Where are they and what are they doing?”

The children relaxed, and Hecate spoke up, despite sounding a bit intimidated. “Uh, they’re in Polymnia’s workshop, Sir. Brennus wanted to work a bit wit-” She stopped when she saw the vein start pulsing on his forehead, right over the left eye.

This is murder for my heart.

* * *

Four almost-strokes later…

“Tartsche, you put two teenage Gadgeeters, one of whom is yet unrated into one workshop!? Are you out of your mind!?

Tartsche was looking ashamed, even though his helmet was covering his entire face. The others were following a few steps back as Jason ran towards the workshop.

“Sir, calm down, Gloom Glimmer is there to stand watch, so she should be safe!” Spellgun threw in while easily keeping up with the steps of the only two people in the group without physical enhancements.

It’s not them I’m afraid of, it’s US I’m scared FOR because they might actually HETERODYNE THEIR POWERS!” he shouted over his shoulder.

“Heterodyning? What’s that!?” asked Bakeneko, probably speaking up for the first time today.

Spellgun explained to her as they approached the entrance to the workshop. “It’s the process of aligning two or more powers of a similar type to enhance them beyond their normal bounds,” he explained. “Like when two laser-projectors line their powers up to produce a laser far more powerful than their individual lasers combined.”

And Gadgeteers are NATURALS at doing that among each other, EVEN ACROSS TIERS!” shouted Jason. He reached the door. “Teenage gadgeteers are even worse and the last time we let two of them work together unsupervised no, Gloom Glimmer doesn’t count, you need someone trained for that – they almost blew up the entire city block!”

He opened the door and they all stormed in.

* * *

Irene’s power had provided her with short-term precognition, so she’d be able to react in time if (or maybe, when) something blew up, so she saw the others coming before they even reached the door, much less opened it.

Popping five pills to fight the precognition down so she’d be able to focus on the present, she took another handful of popcorn out of the almost empty bucket and gulped them down. Next time, more butter.

This was way better than TV. She’d always thought the whole ‘staring at stuff open-mouthed’ thing was just hogwash, but they all looked like that now. And it was hilarious.

Jason was the first to regain his composure and speak: “Gloom Glimmer, what in God’s name are they doing?”

She almost broke out into giggles, but stiffled it quickly. “They started talking about harmonics and wavelength modulation, then about lasers, and then thought about working on some improvements on her spider-limbs,” she began explaining.

And how did they end up building a giant gun?!” Hecate almost screamed.

Irene giggled again. “They got carried away when they came up with a ‘sonic detonator’.”

No one spoke as they watched the two gadgeteers – one of whom was giggling the whole time, and the other one looked like she would be giggling if she still could – climb all over a twenty-foot long gun as thick as either of their bodies.

“I’m getting a bad feeling from this,” whispered Outstep.

* * *

Five minutes later

“Why do I feel like I’m watching techno-geek-porn?” asked Outstep, which immediately set Irene off again.

She had to fight to get the giggles to vanish.

When she got herself back under control, everyone else had taken a few steps back from her, save for Jason.

Did I do something freaky again? she asked herself, but shook her head when her power tried to give her postcognition. Six pills took care of that. Not now, I need to keep up the precognition.

Brennus and Polymnia had not reacted at all to their audience, and the gun they were working on now looked like a cross between a spear and a gun-barrel, without a trigger and twenty-five feet long.

I wish I could concentrate on something for that long.

They kept watching in silence, until her power reacted and then the door slid open.

Jason turned around to the new arrival – and froze, even as the others all retreated from the door.

“Hello father,” she said, a bit restrained, as she turned to look at him. He was in his usual tall form, his six eyes glowing in the darkness of his wraith’s ‘flesh’.

Their argument still rang loudly in her ears.

“Greetings, everyone. I have bad news,” he said, rather matter-of-factly despite his claims.

Everyone tensed up and even Brennus and Polymnia stopped their work for a moment.

“What is it?” Jason asked, having regained his bearing.

Desolation-in-Light was just sighted over Kansas City. We will deploy within minutes,” he explained.

She didn’t need telepathy or anything to feel everyone’s bottom drop off their stomachs.

Not now, oh stars above no.

“Sir, what will happen with Hastur?” asked Jason. “The situation is far from resolved!”

“Hastur will have to wait. Amazon will participate in the defence of Kansas City – we cannot afford the risk of Desolation-in-Light somehow compromising our country’s breadbasket. You are all to stand by and wait for us to resolve that situation before tackling the Hastur issue. That, by the way, is an order from Amazon,” he continued, looking directly at the teenagers in the room, one after the other, making them cower before him (except for Irene, who was his daughter after all, and the two Gadgeteers who were still riding the high of their powers’ going into overdrive).

“Understood, Sir,” replied Tartsche in a subdued voice.

The supervillain nodded, then stepped closer to Irene and enveloped them in a dome of darkness.

She slid up to him and hugged him, her body slipping easily past his darkwraith to hug the man underneath.

“Are you sure I shouldn’t come along? With my power, I-“

“We’ve had this talk before, baby girl. The risks are too great. All of them.”

She nodded. She didn’t like it, but she knew that she wouldn’t win this argument. Her mother would be backing him up, for one.

“You be safe, you hear me? And make sure mama’s safe, too,” she whispered.

“Of course, baby girl. You know us, we’re invincible.”

“Pride goes before the fall, papa,” she half-sobbed. She hated it that people were so… fragile. Even her parents. Especially her parents.

“I have yet to see that proverb be proven. Arrogance goes before the fall, my dear, not pride. There is a difference. Ask Brennus about it, I suspect the boy knows,” he replied and squeezed her, hard.

She squeezed right back, and then she let go, watching him sink into his own shadow, leaving her standing in a rapidly dissolving dome of darkness.

Drying her tears, she stepped out of it, dispersing it. The others were staring, except for Brennus and Polymnia, who were back at work.

I’ve got a bad feeling about this. The timing is just too bad.

Minutes later, Jason got a call. He listened, his face turning white.

She didn’t listen to him when he explained to the others. Her precognition had already told her the moment the cellphone rang.

Hastur has been set loose. And the hunt begins… but who’ll be the hunter and who the game?

B006 Big Game Hunt (Part 7)

Brennus sat down at the circular war table, flanked by Hecate and Tyche. Somehow, without ever talking about it, they had elected him to be the leader, or at least the face of the group to the outside. Or maybe he had just fallen into the mold by necessity. Hecate was too pedantic, too slow to react in favour of thinking everything through twice and thrice over, while Tyche was just… Tyche.

Opposite of him sat Rising Tide, in between the delegations from the Triads and the mob. The Dark sat in between them, opposite of the heroes and completely alone.

Brennus was quite sure he did that intentionally, setting himself apart. A show of strength, of security even alone among so many metahumans. He had no illusions about what would happen if a fight broke out, even if everyone else present would team up against him.

Gloom Glimmer was the only one who could hope to match him, and she was the one most likely to side with him.

I need to study this guy. He is just sitting there, not even remotely the focus of the meeting, and he still gets all the attention. There is something to learn there.

Once everyone was seated, Amazon looked around. She threw Rising Tide a suspicious glance – the Foresters were never reliable when dealing with S-Class threats – he was not particularly bothered by. The Dark got some spillover from what she probably felt for Mindstar – he had recruited Amazon’s tormentor in response to said torments – and Brennus actually got half a smile.

For some reason, that bothered him. Not some reason, really. He was profiting from that recruitment, and his sister’s crimes, even if he was trying to put some distance between her and his cape.

Also, he’d got her real identity and what might be her greatest weakness out of it. And she probably did not realize that.

“Thank you all for coming here,” she began. “I’ve called this council into session due to-“

She was interrupted by a call. With a hastily murmured excuse, she took it, then said: “It appears that another party is going to join us, surprisingly enough.” There was a hint of distaste in her voice.

Within seconds, it became clear why as the doors to the elevator opened and six persons entered, all dressed in rather diverse clothing with a few commonalities – they all (except for one) wore black leather longcoats, they all had their chests bared underneath – even the women – and they all had a leering demon’s face tattooed over their hearts.

At least the women had their coats arranged so they just barely preserved their modesty. At least one of them had to be using double-sided tape or something, he was sure, because there was no way the coat stayed in place like that despite the excessive movement of certain parts of her anatomy.

One of the women, sporting fire-red long locks of hair and a pair of ram-like horns sprouting out of her head, sat at the table while the other five – three men and two women – took up position behind her in a row.

The other five were all superhumanly beautiful, and showing it off, especially the men. The only one who was dressed with any amount of decency was a girl who could not be legal yet, judging by her height and what little could be seen of her slender frame, her face half-hidden underneath a dirty, ragged red cowl. The rest of her body was hidden by robes of the same colour, only even dirtier.

Tyche leaned over to Brennus. <Who’re those?> she asked over their subvocal coms.

<Morning’s Children. Satanists who believe our powers come from hell and are meant as a prelude to the arrival of the Devil here on Earth. Their leader – the guy whose face they all have on their chests – paints himself as the Devil’s Herald. They’re villains, though they mostly just stay within their territory and celebrate orgy after orgy. Big on the drug trade, but otherwise tame. The girl with the red right hand is new, the others are paragon or exemplar tier metahumans. The woman with the horns is the current Succubus, a legacy villain. Can induce lust and influence anyone she’s had intimate contact with. Can morph into a more demonic form, too, for enhanced strength, toughness and flight. Don’t know the girl in the robe and cowl, though.>

While he had been explaining this, the new arrivals had settled down – Succubus was sitting between Elrik France and the Dark – and Amazon had greeted them.

“As I was saying, I called this council into session because of-“

“A little boy’s supposed information on a S-Class no one heard about before,” France cut in with distaste in his rich, slightly accented voice. He cut an impressive figure, despite his mundane clothing. He had no Physique power, but was powerfully built and very tall.

“Brennus provided some valid ev-” began Amazon, but she was cut off by the DDT men, who spoke in perfect synchronization.

“We are inclined to agree with Mister France – we came here simply due to the severity of the claim made, but we are disinclined to believe him simply because he has a few e-mails he may as well have faked.”

This looks suspiciously like they only came here to cause a stink, he thought.

“Brennus has yet to give us reason to doubt him. Considering the severity of his claims, I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. We should proceed under the assumption that his information is valid until dis-“

“He has not given us any reason to doubt him because he is a complete greenhorn with little to no experience,” France continued.

“We are inclined to agree. Do you have any concrete proof regarding this supposed S-Class threat?” the DDT delegates chorused.

“We ran it by our precogs, and came up with a sixty-five percent chance of it being valid,” Amazon replied.

The DDT snorted (which sounded quite strange in a chorus) and France looked like he was going to say something more, but instead Rising Tide opened his mouth.

“A sixty-five perchent chance ot his information being valid is not quite enough for us to act on, considering the general unre-” Succubus spoke up in a rich, sultry voice.

Gloom Glimmer, who had been quietly sitting on her chair right next to Amazon – the most powerful person in the room, and the one most likely to get the Dark to cooperate – cut her off.

“I double-checked the numbers and came up with a positive result by myself. Considering the devastation any S-Class metahuman can cause, that’s more than enough reason for a serious meeting and decisive action,” she explained.

Succubus opened her mouth to retort, as did France and Rising Tide, but the Dark shifted on his seat, raising one hand to rest his chin on it.

Everyone went quiet and looked at him.

“I am ‘inclined’ to agree with both Amazon and my daughter”, he said in his usual inhuman voice, putting gentle emphasis on the word ‘daughter’. “Since I was notified in advance through an independent channel, I did what I could to verify the information – and my inquiries support young Brennus’ claim.”

The present villains all calmed down, after a fashion. Better to say, they did not dare contradict him.

I really need to get some lessons from that guy. Ah well, you can not have everything.

“Are you willing to share what information you found?” Amazon asked.

He looked directly at her, his glowing eyes somehow conveying amusement. “Would I be here if I were not?”

She just looked him straight in the eyes, showing no sign of intimidation.

<That woman’s got balls of steel,> Tyche said.

<Agreed. Not the wording, but the sentiment,> Hecate agreed.

<Ditto.>

“Somehow, I still don’t know how, the Black Panthers managed to scrounge up two hundred and ninety-five million dollars and bought a verified S-Class metahuman from a South European slaver who somehow managed to restrain her and transport her across the Atlantic. Before he did so, however, she wiped out an entire Italian village within minutes. No survivors.”

He paused to let that sink in.

“She is supposed to be used as a deterrent against the other groups in the city, and they apparently believe her power – whatever it might be – to be capable of intimidating even the United Heroes… and even me.”

“How the fuck do you restrain an S-Class threat like that?” Outstep asked, only to get shushed by Tartsche.

“Not all S-Class threats are moving engines of physical destruction,” Brennus said. He was so tired of having to stay silent. “I have been thinking about this for a while, and it actually tells us something about her – if she can be restrained in a manner safe enough to transport her across half the world, then it means that her power probably is not physical, or perhaps requires some manner of fuel to work.”

“Agreed. Her power may be limited to affecting people within a certain range, or requires organic fuel, or… actually, it doesn’t tell us all that much, seeing how… interesting powers can get. However, the codename they gave her does tell us something. She is called ‘Hastur’.”

“Hastur? That name means nothing to us,” chorused the DDT.

“Hastur, also known as the King in Yellow, though sometimes the latter is merely an avatar of the former. Either a Great Old One or an Outer God, or the Avatar of an Outer God. Part of the collection of works known as the Cthulhu Mythos,” Brennus threw in.

The Dark nodded, seeming somehow pleased, while Gloom Glimmer just groaned.

“What are you talking about, boy?” asked France.

“A classic work of horror literature. Most of it is not important right now, but the overall themes revolve around insanity and apathy in the face of the utter insignificance of humanity. Hastur in particular is attributed with three specific abilities – it can create a yellow sign that drives people looking upon it insane, it drives people who look directly beneath its cowl insane and it has written, or somehow generated a play in written form that does the same to anyone who reads it,” Brennus continued.

The robed girl leaned forward to whisper something into Succubus’ ear, and then the older villainess said: “He, or it, is also connected to Decadence, it seems.”

“Finally, people who appreciate the classics!” the Dark exclaimed. He threw a glance at Gloom Glimmer. “You should take a leaf out of their books, dear.”

She just ignored him and instead looked at Amazon. “I believe it is safe to assume that she has some manner of mind control or involuntary transformation of others. Or both.”

Before Amazon could say anything, however, Rising Tide said: “I believe this meeting has gone off track. If the poor girl’s restrained in a way that would allow transatlantic travel, then we should concern ourselves more with the Black Panthers, since they presumably have the key.”

Sensible advice from the wannabe-genocidal treehugger. The world gets weirder every day, was all Brennus could think in response.

“Agreed.”

The others all nodded.

“So, what do we do? Introducing an S-Class into the city with the express purpose of using her as a weapon for what sounds like a takeover of the local underworld breaks the rules, I think,” Succubus commented, shifting around on her seat. She seemed… uncomfortable, for some reason.

“I agree. This goes above and beyond anything any of us can tolerate. The risk of her breaking loose and repeating whatever she did in that village is too great,” Widard said, speaking for the first time in this meeting. “We need to track this Hastur down and take her into protective custody. She may be but a victim of her power, and-“

“You want to restrain her, turn her into one of your safe little drones,” Rising Tide said. “We should see about setting that girl free in a safe environment, teach her to control her powers and let her-“

“We all know your party line, Rising Tide. And we are not interested. It would be preferably to lock her away, or neutralize her in a more permanent-“

Brennus slammed his open hand onto the table, restraining himself just enough not to damage it. “Could we please focus on the matter at hand, that being the fact that the Black Panthers appear to be completely out of control? Even discounting the recent loss of their local leader – which only makes the situation worse – they have apparently been working on this for a long time, somehow conjured up a ridiculous amount of money and bought what is more like a bomb than a subordinate, as I doubt they will be able to restrain her once she is let loose. They have never been the most restrained villain group, but this is just completely out of character for the organization as a whole!”

The others all looked at him with surprise, except for Gloom Glimmer (who just looked amused), the robed girl (whose face and body were concealed) and the Dark (who had no body language or facial expression to begin with).

“Could we please focus on dealing with them?” he continued.

“He’s right. We need to organize a fast and decisive response, track down their current leadership, take them into custody and secure Hastur,” Widard agreed. “Are all agreed?”

Everyone but Rising Tide nodded, and the others all looked at him.

“I agree that the Black Panthers have gone too far, and that they need to be put down. But I disagree on what you probably mean with ‘securing’ her. But we will cooperate.”

Only to stab us in the back and get your hands on her. But they needed the manpower the Foresters could provide.

“We will deploy everyone we have,” Patrid chimed in, leaning forward from his relaxed position to rest his elbows on the table and staple his fingers in front of his face.

<That guy so gives me the supervillain-creeps,> Tyche commented.

Gloom Glimmer raised a hand and pointed at the Dark. “Don’t say it,” she told him.

He looked at her, then at Amazon. “Deploying these children in an unforeseen emergency like the Spiteborn attack is one thing. Deploying them into a war against an established villain group, especially with the threat of an unkown S-Class threat, is unacceptable.” He was almost growling at the end, and almost everyone edged away from him.

Only Amazon, Gloom Glimmer and Brennus remained calm, and the former both stared the villain down.

“We do not respond well to threats. Either way, we were not going to deploy the Junior Heroes. Nor are we going to allow you to deploy,” replied Amazon, looking at Brennus and his friends.

“What the fuck?” shouted Tyche, rising from her seat. Tartsche reacted the same way (though without swearing), and started protesting.

“This is non-negotiable. The children stay-“

You don’t get a say in this, Sir! May I remind you that you’re a villain and that, even if you had a say in this, you have employed teenagers before, which calls your motives into question!?” Tartsche all but shouted at him.

“Young man, I admire your conviction, but I would advise you to guard y-“

A flash of light, followed by a pulsing airwave shook the room. Gloom Glimmer had slammed her hands both onto the table, her eyes aglow. “You don’t get to threaten my teammates!” she shouted at her father.

He did not shout back. Instead, his body – well, his darkwraith – erupted in an expanding cloud of darkness that reached over the table and enveloped him and his daughter.

“What the fuck!? He’s attacking his own daughter?”, Tyche shouted as she, along with most everyone, fled from the darkness.

“Calm down,” Brennus replied, who had remained seated (when you wear full power armour with a limited power source, you do not move unless necessary). “I would say he wants a private eye-to-eye chat.”

The darkness vanished after about a minute. The Dark was still in his seat, and Gloom Glimmer was sitting to his right, now noticably subdued (if still looking like she wanted to rip a few heads off).

And the robed girl was still standing unmoved, apparently unconcerned.

Amazon is not the only girl with balls around here, it seems. That, or she is simply powerful enough to feel secure.

Brennus honestly did not know which possibility was scarier.

“I apologize for the disturbance,” the Dark said to everyone.

Amazon looked at him suspiciously, then at Gloom Glimmer, who nodded at her.

“We were not going to deploy the Juniors, nor allow for Brennus, Hecate and Tyche to participate in the action,” she said.

Figures, Brennus thought. He did not say anything, as Hecate and Tyche both voiced their protests.

He waited for a few moments until everyone had calmed down, then he said: “I agree.”

Everyone – even the Dark – looked at him with surprise. He looked at his teammates, then at the others as a whole. “We are not ready for this. The three of us would have died fighting Panthera Rex, were it not for the intervention of an unknown third party. I will agree to stay out of this, and my teammates will, as well.”

<Brennus, what are you saying?> asked Hecate over the comms.

He ignored the question and looked at Amazon.

“I would agree that we remain here, in the headquarters, along with the junior heroes, for the duration of the crisis,” he continued.

“That is very reasonable of you,” the Dark said with a hint of admiration.

“I agree to your terms,” Amazon said.

“Then, may I suggest that we and the juniors be allowed to leave?” he continued. “There is no point to us taking part in this meeting. I have already provided all the information I have.”

Amazon nodded, then looked at the Morning’s Children. “That girl.” She looked at the robed girl. “She is clearly a minor. I demand that-“

Succubus cut her off. “Phasma does not concern you. Her power makes her all but untouchable, and she is completely immune to all mental powers while using it. We will not agree to any restraints on her deployment.”

They stared at each other, while Brennus rose from his seat. “Hecate, Tyche.” They fell in step behind him as he walked towards the junior heroes. Gloom Glimmer rose from her seat and followed them, too.

The entire group left the war room.

* * *

They walked down a pristine hallway.

<What’s with the new cloak?> Polymnia had fallen in step next to him, clad in an unflattering overall covered in hooks. She was looking at his new white cloak and cowl.

“Black-on-black does not work on everyone. I thought the contrast would look good.”

<And that symbol on your back?>

He turned to look at her while he walked. “The ravens? Do you like them? Flash of inspiration of mine, and I liked it so much I thought I’d make it my emblem.”

“Is that an… uroboros? Made of ravens?” asked Spellgun with a curious tone.

“H and M, the divine ravens of memory and thought that perched upon Odin’s shoulder and provided him with advice,” Gloom Glimmer chimed in, sounding quite sullen.

“Correct,” Brennus replied. “Now, on to other topics. Since I believe that this situation will go down the slammer, so to speak, I would appreciate a chance to coordinate our groups.”

“You planned this,” Gloom Glimmer said.

They all stopped walking and looked at her.

“You knew they were not going to allow you to take part in the battle and you came here anyway – for what?” she continued.

“Coordination. Preparation. I have a very bad feeling about this situation,” Brennus replied calmly. “And I would also very much like to compare notes with another Gadgeteer – this was the easiest way of facilitating that without outright joining the group,” he continued while looking at Polymnia.

<Sweet.>

He looked at Tartsche. “You are the leader of this team. Do you agree?”

The older boy just stared at him.

Tyche snorted. “So you just wanted to geek out with her. You could have said something.”

“There are other concerns. We do need to prepare,” he insisted.

“True. But, I insist on one thing,” Tartsche said.

“What would that be?”

“Gloom Glimmer will stand guard, and you will take off your power armor. I’m sorry, but I don’t trust you enough to leave you with her, in her laboratory, while fully armed and unsupervised.”

Brennus nodded. “I take no offense, and I agree to your conditions. Though I, of course, will keep my mask on.”

Tartsche nodded, and Polymnia just clapped her hands together in glee.

Things are going to get interesting, he thought. And maybe I’ll even find out why you insisted on this.

All will be made clear in time, replied the man in the moon.

* * *

…in time, mate, replied the man in the moon.

She flinched, then drew her legs up underneath the shroud that was covering her body. With a painful act of will, she gathered her senses, pulling them back from the outside so she could focus on her immediate surroundings again.

The container was dark, but that did not concern her. She could see in the darkness, without trouble.

Crawling on all fours, she bit into her fingertip, then put it to one of the few free spaces left, drawing a pair of ravens, biting each other’s tail.

The picture did look good, just as the boy in the armor had said. Only his version was black on white, not blood on rust.

She sat back down and let her senses spread, splitting in two, looking into this ‘war room’, observing the meeting, while also following the younger heroes and vigilantes. It was difficult, her senses were so big now, so all-encompassing, and she had to fight to focus them on one or two places in one time, in one possibility.

But she had to watch, to listen.

Maybe these people would be the ones to set her free?

B006 Big Game Hunt (Part 6)

He left the bedroom (after checking that he was still clothed – Amy liked her pranks way too much) and all but burst into the control room, ready to ream Amy a new one…

Only to find her and his friends sitting in a loose circle, talking amicably. And fully clothed.

Amy looked up and winked at him with a split-second wicked grin – she probably knew what he was thinking – and then her face turned to worry. “Should you be up already?”

The others turned around and looked at him with varying degrees of worry on their faces, and Prisca greeted him happily, though with concern in her voice.

Eudocia said they were being influenced… but there’s no way she could affect Prisca from all the way over here, so it couldn’t have been anything too bad or obvious without cutting her connection.

“I’m fine, really. Had the weirdest dream, though… can we talk? Privately, I mean?”

She nodded and stood up. “We’ll continue later on,” she said to the others, then followed him down to his workshop.

* * *

He shut the door behind them, then made sure to lock the workshop down – he didn’t want anyone to listen in, not even Eudocia.

Amy had walked over to near the center of the room, where his current project lay, and was now looking at the parts.

“They thought you were building a new suit… but this looks more like an android,” she said after a few seconds.

He stood behind her, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “I figured it might help to have another body in the field, especially one that is expendable. But it’s not really workable, at least not yet.”

She looked around, noticing the irritation in his voice. “That… that’s the reason you were pushing yourself like this, isn’t it? You couldn’t get it to work, and you couldn’t accept that,” she said with a mixture of exasperation and mirth in her voice.

He blushed a bit, but frowned back at her. “No. Yes. Not really. I’ve been pushing myself for days. The loss, and the wall I hit working on this only made it worse,” he explained reluctantly. Looking back at it, he really should have paced himself, but… “Nice one… changing the subject by talking about my work. What were you doing up there!?

She shrugged. “What I do whenever I can. Helping you,” she explained, as if it was all just obvious.

“What. Did. You. Do to them?”

Raising her hands in a placating gesture, she replied: “Calm down, baby brother. Nothing bad, I swear. I was just… helping them focus, and think over what happened. Especially the girls. They need to improve, you need to improve, or you’ll die or worse. If it weren’t for those lovely twins, you’d be dead or slaves!”

A deep breath, then two. Not… not good. But not nearly as bad as I feared. “You didn’t do anything else?”

Her whole stance changed into a more serious one, straighter. “Nothing, baby bro. I wouldn’t mess with your friends, I promise! Though Dalia is awfully cute…”

He snorted and walked past her to look at the beginnings of what was supposed to be a combat android. I’ll have to deconstruct it. Use the parts for something that actually works. And still, he was sure he could make it work, if only he had the time.

“… and either way, Prisca is all the way over in the hospital, and I’d need to fly over fast enough to delete her short-term memory before it became a long-term memory…”

He gave her a deadpan look. “You’ve really thought a lot about messing with my friends’ heads, haven’t you?” She just gave him an unconvincing innocent smile and he turned away to look at his work again.

“Basil?” She wrapped her arms around him, resting her chin on his shoulder. “Why did you push yourself so hard? Honestly, now.”

“It’s always there. Always blazing,” he whispered. Suddenly, he didn’t sound half as self-confident as before.

“What is?”

“My power. It’s like there’s a lamp, a sun right behind my eyes, shining out of them with a blazing light. I can’t shut it off. I can’t even ignore it.” He shivered.

“Oh Basil, why didn’t you tell me?” she asked with a pained voice – she could feel his distress.

“What for? It’s my power, there’s nothing you can do about it,” he replied. “It’s… it’s…” just like in Macian’s memories. He couldn’t stop, either “it’s just a part of me, I guess. I’m sure I can learn to deal with it.”

“I could have helped. I can help you. Help you keep tabs on it, help you sleep when your power won’t let you,” she replied, sounding slightly irritated… and really, really worried.

“That… might help. Maybe you could look into my head, try to talk with that damn sprite?” he asked, hopeful. Maybe, if he could somehow force the ‘Blazing Sun’ to talk things through…

She nodded, her chin rubbing against his shoulder. “We could… organize a session. Take some time off, both of us. Sit down, and I’ll get into your head. Look for a solution. We should have thought of this sooner.”

“Yes. We do that. But first, I need to finish up here. There’s another reason why I got so out of control after the battle.”

“What is it?”

“I’ll tell you along with the others. Let’s go back up. And no using your power on them anymore, alright?”

“All right… for now, baby brother. I won’t stand for them dragging you down through incompetence or stupidity,” she replied.

He knew he was not going to get her to agree to more.

* * *

They returned to the main control room, where the others were in the process of discussing something, but stopped once they came back up.

The girls, as well as Tim, all turned to look at them, but no one really said anything. Tim looked as calm as ever, Vasiliki looked thoughtful, Dalia was… blushing?

He walked until he stood next to them, then said: “First, I’m sorry about earlier. You wanted to help me, and I just went mental on you guys.” He gave a slight bow.

“Nonono, you were right, really,” replied Vasiliki. “I mean, you didn’t have to be a jerk about it, but we did survive solely due to blind luck – if the twins hadn’t shown up, we’d have been screwed.” She stopped, thinking it over, then looked at Dalia. “Which kind of makes your power real creepy – just how far does it reach?”

“Uh, I, well, no idea,” stammered Dalia, tearing her eyes off Amy.

What the hell did you do to Dalia? he asked angrily in his head. He knew Amy would pick it up.

Nothing, really. Want me to take a look and see what’s going on?

No! Stay out of her head! All of their heads!

Jeez, you don’t need to flip out like that! I’ll be nice, scout’s promise!

Didn’t you almost blow up the local scouts’ headquarters last month?

Never said I was one of the good scouts.

The whole exchange took less than a second (speed of thought was handy that way), so Basil could respond without a noticeable pause: “Still, I shouldn’t have gone on like that. But I’m afraid we have bigger problems than me being unable to handle defeat.”

“And what would those be?” asked Tim.

He sat down at the console, turning the chair around to look at all of them. “I broke the code on the Black Panther’s files. Remember, from the video, how he threatened to sell us into slavery?”

They all nodded, and he heard Amy chuckle inside his head.

What would you have done, had he tried to sell me to you?

You mean before or after I made him eat his own genitals?

Ah. Nevermind.

“Well, they bought someone. A girl. A metahuman.”

“What?!” shouted an outraged Vasiliki. “That’s disgusting!” Dalia nodded in agreement.

Prisca continued: “And why is it always girls, anyway?”

“Well, nearly seventy percent of all metahumans are women. Theories abound, but the most commonly cited one is that the still present discrimination against women leads to…”

Prisca cut into his starting rant: “What he’s trying to say is that the Man is putting us sisters down, so we get powers more often.”

“Finally, someone who talks English!” shouted Dalia in relief. Basil just grumbled something unintelligible.

Fortunately, Amy moved them back on track. “So, about this girl? What’s so special about her?”

“Well… according to the messages I intercepted, she’s estimated to be a new S-Class threat… and they think they can use her to wipe out their competition, as well as threaten the UH into staying away from the fighting.”

You could have heard a pin drop in the silence that followed.

“Uhh, how is that our problem?” Prisca asked with a desperate note in her weak voice. When everyone turned to look at the camera, she continued: “I mean, apart from the fact that you guys almost died – or got sold into slavery – just yesterday, an S-Class threat is way, way out of your league. This is Cabal business!”

“The Shining Guardians are quite preoccupied right now. The local heroes won’t call them in unless they have definite proof of the threat,” replied Amy.

“True. But either way, we need to warn the United Heroes. At the very least, we could use their help in tracking down the girl and getting her into protective custody. They can secure her, we can’t,” continued Basil.

They nodded. “So, we contact the heroes. How, do we just call their hotline?” asked Dalia.

“I got all their phone numbers. Best to call Amazon, instead of going around her, I think,” explained Basil. “After all, she’s the leader now.”

“And she’s got experience. Few metahumans in her class have taken part in as many S-Class events as she has. She won’t dismiss you out of hand, if only because she knows how bad things can get with S-Class metahumans,” Amy added.

I guess you’re sure?

Of course. And shut it, I could have known this simply through research. Her resume is available to the public.

“Then do it, Basil!” Vasiliki said, all but shouting.

He nodded and turned around to the console.

* * *

First, calibrate the microphone, so it will only catch what I say. Then, initiate the voice changer. Now, set up anti-tracing measures – all of them.

Basil worked through his mental checklist, to make absolutely sure they could neither be overheard from his side, nor he himself traced back by them.

It took him almost three minutes before he felt completely safe to initiate the call to her UH phone. And he put on a pair of headphones, too. If only because it annoyed Amy.

Amazon picked up on the third ring.

<Who is this?> she asked with sleep in her voice.

She just woke up – it’s nearly afternoon!

“This is Brennus. Good… afternoon, Amazon,” he replied.

<How did you get this number!?> Now she was awake.

“Not important right now. I have bad news. The really bad kind.”

Someone spoke on the other side. A man… and he recognized the voice, even if he couldn’t understand what was said. Amazon shushed him with a few affectionate words.

Way to go, Jake.

<Alright. Tell me everything.> He thought he heard her stand up.

“Me and my team got into an altercation with the Black Panthers last night. During it, Panthera Rex attacked us, but was killed when an unknown third party intervened.”

<Did you identify the third party? Do you have proof of their involvement – proof that it wasn’t you?> She remained calm.

“I have a video recording of the battle. If you want, I can send it to you.”

<Please do. Dammit, this is gonna be chaos pure.>

“Panthera Rex’s death is not the bad news. Or rather, it’s just one thing that makes it worse.”

<Oh, what could that be now? If you tell me there’s some S-Class involved somewhere there, I’ll call bogus on you. It’s already bad enough as it is.>

“You might want to take that statement back.”

<No. No way.>

“Yes. I was able to hack into their computers and access their communication records. They purchased a newly manifested, female S-Class metahuman from a metahuman trafficker. They were hoping to use her as a deterrent against the competition and the local heroes. But, according to some other mail, Panthera Rex was pretty much the last individual holding the more extreme members back from using her offensively.”

<And he’s dead now.>

“Quite so.”

<>

“How do you wish to proceed? I think I speak for my entire team-” He looked at Tyche and Hecate, mouthing his question – they both nodded. “- when I say that we’re willing to fully cooperate with you, provided our identities remain secret.”

<Shit, shit, shit, shit. And I can’t call in the Shining Guardians without definite proof. Send me the video and e-mails.>

He did so. It took her a few minutes to read through everything and speed through the video.

<Alright. I’ll con- Wait a minute, I’m getting another call. Hold the line.>

“Yes ma’am.”

He turned around, pulling the headphones off. “She’s getting another call, but it seems she’s taking this very seriously.”

Dalia grinned and said: “I knew she looked smart.” Vasiliki and Timothy nodded.

Prisca spoke up again. “Are you going to fight… that girl?” She sounded terrified.

“Not if we can help it. Our goal should be to save her. And take down the assholes who buy others to use as weapons.”

They all nodded at that (except Amy, who just looked thoughtful), and Prisca sighed audibly.

Then Amazon came back on the line and this time he put her on the speaker. <We just got a threat from the newly minted leader of the local Black Panthers, Panthera Avis. He wants the murderers of his former boss delivered to him alive or dead, otherwise he’ll unleash an S-Class threat on the city.>

“Even if I were willing to barter their lives away, I wouldn’t know how to contact or where to find those two to begin with,” he replied with a tone that allowed for no discussion.

Amazon seemed offended. <The United Heroes do not negotiate with terrorists, nor do they sacrifice anyone at the demand of a madman. We need a war council, and we need it now. Are you in?>

“Where and when?”

<Our headquarters. Guaranteed privacy and right to leave at any time. An hour from now.>

“We’ll be there.”

* * *

They arrived at the United Heroes’ headquarters fifteen minutes early. And they weren’t the only ones.

A man who identified himself as Jason Widard, Chief Mission Control, led them up to a war room.

There was a trio of chinese men, all in red robes, with heads shaved save for a single long braid each. Representatives of the local Dancing Dragon Triad, probably, though Brennus did not know them. He did take pictures of their faces, for later research.

Also present was a dark-skinned man in a three-piece suit. Elrik France, a known mob associate.

And finally, to his surprise, a brown-haired man in a white suit, with a blue shirt, white tie and silvery greaves and bracers engraved with flowers and trees. Rising Tide, the leader of the Foresters – a group dedicated to Weisswald’s ideals.

Amazon, Jason Widard, Mr Patrid, Gloom Glimmer (sitting side-by-side with Polymnia, whom Hecate greeted with an ecstatic wave) and the other junior heroes made up the United Heroes contingent.

Opposite of them sat the Dark, alone. He looked at Brennus, Hecate and Tyche and gave them a brief nod of acknowledgement.

Ah crap. This is getting out of hand.