B13.11 Call of the Sleeper

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Basil looked warily at the goblet in front of him. It’s probably not a good idea to refuse his hospitality; if he wanted to hurt us, he wouldn’t need to play games like this, anyway, he thought to himself, and picked the goblet up with his right hand, keeping the left one free in case he needed to throw up a force-field quickly.

“Water,” he said to the goblet without hesitation, and it filled up instantly. A twitch of his eyes caused the lower half of his helmet to fold back onto his cheeks, freeing his mouth, and he took a sip.

Just water.

That broke the spell for the others, and everyone else picked their goblets up as well, some ordering instantly – various kinds of sodas for most of them, grape juice for Osore; and Tyche…

“Triple chocolate milkshake with ground almonds and cream.”

When the cream-and-almonds topped shake appeared in her goblet, a real smile appeared on her face for the first time since she’d run into this Immanuel.

A sigh drew his attention away from her. Emyr was looking… chargrined.

“You just ruined my joke,” he said, his voice flat, but a slight smile on his face. When everyone looked at him in confusion, he explained, “Usually when I do this, everyone just gets something boring and then I’ll ask for something like…” He looked pensively at his goblet and said, “Strawberry and cream shake with chocolate and caramel syrup,” causing said drink to appear in it, “And everyone would just stare like they’d seen the Devil.” He drank from his goblet.

Tyche had already finished hers while he’d been talking. “I know, right? You give people a cup that can give’em any drink and they pick soda, or water,” she said, glaring at Basil. He gave her as deadpan a look as he could in return, with most of his face covered up.

“Banana and cherry smoothy mix.” Her goblet filled up again.

Meanwhile, the freaking Godking of Mars was laughing quietly, like this was all just a friendly gathering. “Ah well, no matter.” He drank from his goblet. “Let’s focus on more important things.” He looked at Basil. “First of all, we ought to introduce ourselves properly.”

He put his right hand over his heard, tilting his head forward. “Emyr Blackhill, God-King of Mars and Once and Future King of Earth,” he introduced himself smoothly, without a hint of irony or boast. Then he looked at Tartsche to his right.

“T-tartsche,” the armor-clad youth replied, his voice betraying a great deal of nervousness. “Leader – though likely not too much longer, after this stunt – of the New Lennston United Heroes Junior Division.”

“Spellgun, member of the same,” his boyfriend continued as Emyr’s gaze passed onto him.

“B-Bakeneko. The same,” came a squeak from the next one in line. She seemed to literally wilt under his gaze, her power reacting to her mood.

“Osore.”

“Gloom Glimmer, also a member of the junior division,” Gloom Glimmer introduced herself, her voice clear as a bell and betraying no hint of being nervous or even slightly intimidated. Her eyes were nearly glowing underneath her hood, though blue rather than red now.

“Polymnia, also a junior hero,” the songstress continued, her electronic voice reflecting none of the nervousness that her face and body showed.

“Tyche! Hero and member of Team B- ouch” Tyche began, but was cut off when Hecate reached out to knock her over the back of the head with her staff, reaching behind Basil to do so.

“Brennus, of the same team,” he said curtly, seeing no point in trying to hold his name back.

“Hecate, also said team which most certainly does not use that atrocious acronym,” Hecate grumbled.

Emyr watched the whole exchange with open amusement. “A pleasure to meet you all, young heroes,” he said, raising his goblet in a casual gesture. “It’s always a joy to see young people willing to fight for a good cause.” He drank from his goblet, before he continued, “Now, on to the second point.” He looked straight at Basil. “You are wrong. I am Emyr Blackhill, not merely a fascimile.”

“You believe so? Even though you are incapable of leaving this… pocket reality?” He watched the long-haired man closely, feeling rather curious in spite of the seriousness of the situation, and the time pressure he himself was under. This was the man who’d once conquered the world, after all.

Instead of replying directly, Emyr turned to look at Legend, who was holding her head lowered in a demure posture that was very obviously not willingly chosen. “It’s pretty easy to determine with a single question. Sophia, can you summon anyone who’s not a metahuman?”

She replied instantly, without hesitation, yet without looking up, either. “No, I can not, your majesty. Only metahumans have sufficient impact upon the Historia to be summoned by my rituals.”

He turned around, smiling as he spread his arms in a ‘there-you-go’ gesture. “Can you tell why I claim to be the real one?” He looked around at everyone at the table, aiming the question at each and every one.

What does he mean? Basil asked himself. Why is he even trying to make an argument based on a Contriver’s delusions… of course, he may simply be delusional himself, believing that he truly is the true Emyr even though he is not.

Still, real or not, he was far more powerful than all of them put together, yet willing to talk instead of outright killing them, even after their attempt to do just the same to him. So best to play along for now.

“You’re implying that there’s something about metahumans in particular that would make them viable targets for resurrection, when baselines are not,” Spellgun spoke up, suddenly, leaning onto his elbows, which rested on the table, while Tartsche looked at him in alarm… though, they’d already clasped hands, putting him within the aegis of Tartsche’s power…

Emyr circumvented Tartsche’s power, Basil realised all of a sudden, his eyes snapping from Emyr to the two young lovers. Both Spellgun and Tyche were still underneath its protection when he stopped time, yet they were moved. He focused on Tartsche – his face was hidden by his knightly helmet, after all – and found himself thoroughly unsurprised to see that he was clenching Spellgun’s hand tightly, like a lifeline; the only sign, but a telling one, of just how freaked out he had to be right now.

Another thing to worry about, Basil thought, clenching his hands into fists. So much to worry about, so many things to keep in mind…

“Suffice it to say that, based upon my understanding of the nature of metahumanity, it is strong evidence towards the fact that I am the true Emyr Blackhill,” came the reply after Emyr drank from his, milkshake. “Once I am truly and completely revived, I am confident I shall remember all that happened during this little sojourn. Of course, I may just be delu-“

“Enough,” Basil cut him off with a sharp voice, in spite of his earlier decision to play along.

Everyone turned their heads to stare at him like he was a man possessed, but he ignored them to focus on Emyr.

“I do not have time for this,” he said, leaning towards their ‘host’ as he just barely kept his voice calm. “There are people out there who are dying, people whose one and only chance to survive rely on completing this mission and I need to get going because the clock. Is. Ticking. So tell us what you want and then let us go, or just let us go, but do not dither; I do not have the time to waste having a tea party here with you.”

Hecate made a strangled sound when he started speaking and was trying to wave him off, but he ignored her.

Mate, you just lipped off to the Godking of Mars, the Man in the Moon whispered inside his head. I ain’t sure whether to congratulate you on the density of your balls or hand you the Darwin aw-

Shut it.

Emyr put his goblet down, touching his fingers together in front of his face, his expression pensive. “It has been some time since anyone has dared speak to me like that,” he said, finally, while Basil shook with barely restrained rage. “Not counting the little princess across the table from myself,” he nodded to Gloom Glimmer, who stiffened up. “Yes, child, I know who your parents are. No, I didn’t use my power to find out – but you do look entirely too much like your mother and your power feels entirely too much like your father’s for you to be anyone else; I’d recognise either any time, for they are both people who I have studied extensively.”

“Whom, Sir,” Hecate cut in, almost in a squeal. “The term is ‘whom’, not ‘who’.”

He looked at her, smiling as she clapped her hands over her mouth in shock at herself, but just nodded. “You are right – I apologise for the mistake, it shall not happen a-“

There was a sharp sound of metal crumpling, screaming, make everyone look at Basil again.

He’d just crushed his goblet in one gloved fist, without even noticing it. “This is enough,” he stood up, nearly throwing the chair he’d been sitting on over. “I, we, do not have time for this, so get to the point,” he told him, once more, his teeth grinding together at the end.

Emyr still looked pensive, not offended, which really only made Basil even angrier. He clearly didn’t care about any of this!

“I really do need to take over the world again,” he replied with a soft voice, finally, loosely clasping his hands together. “Seems like things are even worse than the last time.”

How would you know, Sir?” Polymnia said, sounding perfectly calm and composed; “Your power ends at the door, doesn’t it?

Emyr shrugged. “This one,” he spoke calmly, gesturing towards the fuming Basil, “is quite sincere in what he says. Which means that there are people out there dying and the only chance they have to survive is… a group of children? Fighting people like Sophia, here, who’d not hesitate to slay you?” He made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “Any world in which children must go to war is a horrible one indeed.”

He looked around at each of them in turn, and they all looked away, unable to meet his gaze, save for Basil, who simply glared at him and Gloom Glimmer, who showed no reaction at all.

“I see none of you can dispute the state of the world,” he followed softly.

“Is that really the reason why you want to take over the world?” Gloom Glimmer spoke up, suddenly, her eyes barely visibly underneath her hood.

“Is it not enough?” he answered with a question.

“Not for you,” she shot back. “Not according to my power. Is it because it’d make for a great story? Is that it, does the author want to impose an epic tale on the real world?” she pressed the point, while also throwing a look at Basil.

Please, calm down – we’re not going to get away from him if we piss him off, she spoke into his mind, without missing a beat physically.

Basil clenched his fists so hard his gauntlets creaked and strained, but he sat down again. Not that he was going to just go along with this farce, but she was right, just complaining at Emyr was not going to achieve anything of use.

“That would be interesting, wouldn’t it?” Emyr asked right back again, looking as amused as before. “However, while I won’t deny the fact that I enjoy turning my quest into a story for the ages, even at the cost of efficiency in some aspects, it’s merely a… bonus. As for taking over the world, that is merely a means to an end; and I am not so delusional as to believe I could cure all the world’s ills and bring eternal peace and prosperity to humanity – if nothing else, humans will always find another reason to fight amongst themselves, no matter the circumstances.” He shrugged. “Though I do believe I could reduce the number of casualties on the way to my goal.”

“What is that goal?” Hecate threw in, the words bursting forth as if she couldn’t stand the tension anymore.

Even Tyche, currently drinking her sixth drink, seemed to be on the edge of her seat. The only one who seemed to be entirely unaffected by it all was, as usual, Osore.

“My true goal is…,” was all Emyr began to say, leaning slightly forward, his face grave and shadowed by his wild mass of hair. “Secret.”

“Oh come on!” Tyche complained loudly, nearly spilling her eighth drink.

“Hey, I kept it a secret for so long, why should I tell now?” He laughed, clearly amused by the annoyed expressions he could see, at least from those whose faces weren’t hidden by masks or cowls – though their body language certainly helped express their own opinion towards his attitude. “Really now, children, I may enjoy crossing off the classic tropes, but I’m not going to reveal my great master plan in a big villaneous monologue. I’m laidback, not stupid.” He picked up his goblet and drank again. “Now, as to what I want with you lot, specifically… to be honest, I simply want to amuse myself.” He looked straight at Basil again. “I know that may seem callous to you, especially now that you’ve told me something of what’s at stake – and you’re right. Which is why I’ll instead ask you what exactly you’re after, young Brennus. What is your quest?”

Basil frowned at the question. Much as he really didn’t want to antagonise him – he wasn’t an idiot, previous behaviour be damned – he also didn’t exactly cherish the idea of telling this story just to amuse a capricious wannabe-deity.

Still, it seemed like the fastest way to get out of this would be to play along… to a point.

“If I tell you, will you let us go?” he decided to ask.

“That very much depends on the story you tell me,” Emyr replied smoothly, as if he’d expected the question. “Tell your tale, and tell it true, and I shall choose the next scene to come.”

Basil’s hands clenched into fists again, at the arrogance, the-

His right hand clenched around something hard.

He looked down and saw his goblet, whole, in his hand. He looked up at Emyr again, who just smiled.

Neither word nor gesture, he thought. Is there no limit at all to his power? Can he bend reality by will alone? Did he create the goblet so it’d repair itself? Did he give himself an ability that allows him to fix it at will? Did he… He cut that train of thought off right there – there were too many possibilities, and he had no means by which to determine which one was the most likely. No, there is. There are. He’s said so himself, and it shows. He was killed, as well – that wouldn’t have worked out if he didn’t have limits that could be exploited.

You’re in no position to exploit anything, mate, the Man in the Moon whispered.

But I can gather information for when I – or another – will be.

Taking a deep breath, he said, “First, I have a question to ask, about our fight earlier.” He looked him straight in the eyes again, even though his mask prevented direct eye contact. It was still strange, looking into those pools of black. A sense of vertigo he’d never felt before. Like looking through two windows into the Abyss.

“More of a little spat, really,” Emyr qualified. “Ask, and ye shall be answered.” He made a permissive hand gesture to accompany the statement, without a hint of humor in any of it.

“You threw me off of you like I weighed nothing, and you were able to tear Gloom Glimmer’s gag off just as easily. Yet no command – or dictate, I suppose – could have allowed you to do that, so how did you do it?”

Emyr’s smile broadened. “Body language.” He winked at him, then broke out into laughter when he saw the shocked expressions on the exposed faces. “Ah, yes, people tend to react like that to finding out about that little aspect of my power. Anyway, I believe that answers your question – your turn, now.”

Basil took a deep breath. “It is a long story.”

“I love long stories.”

He rolled his eyes. “Alright. A member of the organisation she belongs to,” he gestured towards Legend, “unleashed a bio-weapon on Hawaii, years ago. It killed most of the victims and left the others crippled, dying slowly. Their time is running out, I discovered the location of this base but the authorities are still deliberating how to proceed – and whether to trust my information, so I decided to come after the woman responsible – Dusu – myself, because I need her to give me the cure for her poison. Legend here intercepted us as we were taking the train towards their base’s section in which we believe Dusu to be.”

“A lengthy tale indeed,” Emyr mused. “So every one of you came here to find this cure?” He turned his vertigo-inducing gaze at the others, up and down the table. They all nodded, some more self-assured than the others.

Seemingly pleased, he turned his eye upon Brennus again, stroking his chin with one of his spidery hands, contemplating… something. “Why do you need this cure, young Brennus?” he asked, finally.

Basil tilted his head, confused. “Why… I need it in order to cure her victims.”

“That is what you need it for, but why do you, Brennus, want it?” the Godking asked with a curious smile, resting his cheek on his left hand. “What drives you to attack the base of such a dangerous organisation, taking these brave friends of yours into such danger – and don’t deny that you did, I recognise a leader when I see one – and challenge even me?”

“I need to cure those who have been harmed by Dusu,” he replied simply, trying to find the sense in this line of questioning. “If you must know, one of them…” He looked at the junior heroes, briefly, then decided he’d trusted them this far anyway. “One of them’s my girlfriend. This is the only way I have left to save her, short of carrying her into the Protectorate – and even if I could, she’d never survive such a trip.”

He could feel the eyes of Tartsche, Spellgun and Polymnia on him, but ignored them as he focused on Emyr. “Is this enough already? Every second counts.”

Emyr tapped his chin with one of his long, thin fingers. “I suppose it is, and thank you for satisfying my curiosity.” He sat up straight. “I think I understand you a little better now. I am curious though, what would you do if I were to say I intend to keep you here for a longer time?”

Basil shrugged. “I would kill you or, failing that, disable you in some way and break out of this place,” he replied flatly. I don’t know how, yet, but I will figure it out.

Everyone at the table, as well as Legend, just stared at him. Then they looked at Emyr, who’d gone still, looking at him in surprise.

“That’s hardly very heroic of you,” he said.

“I am not much of a hero,” Basil spat him, annoyed. “Or that good a person. But I am enough of both that I am going to do the right thing to save these people, and if that means going through you, then so be it.”

“I’m giving you points for gumption, at least,” Emyr replied flatly, untouched by the venom in the boy’s voice. “Not for brains, though. You’re talking about killing a-“

“A god, I know,” he snarled. “Or at least, that is what you claim – but you, you are no god.”

Emyr tilted his head the other way, looking dumbfounded. “Have you seen Mars lately? I assure you, I am very much a god-“

“You really aren’t, Sir,” Hecate spoke up, her voice low, but firm, looking straight at Emyr’s eyes when he turned his gaze to her, shivering when she felt their effect upon herself. “You were killed. Everyone knows the story. The Seven Regicides took you down, and they were certainly no gods themselves.”

“Seven Regicides, huh?” Emyr smiled in amusement. “So that’s how the world remembers them, is that it? Do they tell their tale still?”

“They do,” Hecate answered him, clearly straining to keep up the eye contact. “Everyone knows their names. Jack Flag. Gungnir. The Prospector. Jekyll and Hyde. The Unseen.  Chatterbox. The Illionaut.There’s books, movies, comics… we don’t know how they did it, but we know they did.”

“There were eight, actually,” he remarked. “The count starts at Zero, not one. But that’s beside the point,” he continued, as if that was nothing, ignoring the gasps of everyone around the table.

Everyone save three. Gloom Glimmer remained still, and both Polymnia and Basil watched her, having noticed her flinch earlier.

What was that about?

On the other side of the table, Emyr continued to speak.

“I’ve got to say, though, it’s rather annoying how people keep misunderstanding my title,” he said, actually showing some annoyance for once. “I never claimed to be a god of humans. I created my children, the Martians – I reforged the world they live on. To them, I am, undoubtedly, and by any definition, God. I am also their absolute, unchallenged monarch – thus, King. Thereby, I am the God-King of Mars.” He huffed, brushing a few strands of hair out of his face. “It’s not a boast, it’s a simple fact.”

Basil sighed. “Are you deliberately wasting my time now?” he asked, growing weary even as his voice rose to near-screaming. “None of this, none of this, is necessary. I need to get going, I need to find Dusu, so get to the fucking point!

“Alright, alright,” Emyr made a calming gesture with both arms. “Calm yourself, young one. I do sympathise with your plight – if anything, I applaud it. A knight in shining,” he looked at Basil’s jet-black armour, “well, not-so-shining armour, out to cure countless innocents including his lady; I love that kind of story!” he finished with an excited smile.

Basil leaned forward in his chair, “This isn’t for your amusement!”

“It may not be meant to, but it amuses me anyway,” the Godking said softly. “And I say that without any derision. I am not making light of your quest, Brennus, I am merely trying to point out that, perhaps, you should sit down, relax, recover some of your strength and realise that I am your ally, here.”

That made Basil sit back and stare. “What?”, he said, only to realise that about half the other teens at the table had said the same, at the same time.

Emyr chuckled. “Please, children. I may have tried – and succeeded, let’s not forget that – to take over the world, but I’m no monster, and I’ve always considered myself to have certain standards. Even if this Dusu hadn’t apparently used a bio-weapon on civilians, I would still support you, if only because the idea of a tale like this appeals to me too much not to,” he explained, before drinking from his ice-cream-filled goblet. “Are you going to accept my help?” he asked, finally, looking straight at Basil once more.

“I… of course. If you want to help, I… could not say no; we need any help we can get,” he replied, feeling thoroughly unbalanced.

Then, a new hope bloomed inside of him. It was far-fetched, a mere chance, but… “Could you, just, wish them whole?” he asked, leaning forward, unable to keep his voice calm. “Can you do, something with your power, that’d just fix them?”

Emyr smiled sadly at him. “Ah, how I wish I could,” he said, crushing that particular hope. “Once upon a time, it would’ve been less than child’s play to me – but now, with my power limited to this little pocket? I’m afraid not – I could not even create a Panacea and let you take it along to use on them yourself.” He sighed. “I’m sorry, I truly am, but in this, I am less able than you are to make a difference.”

Then he smiled. “However, I can offer two other things. One, I can rejuvenate the lot of you – which, as you may have noticed, I already did before time continued,” he gestured at them, and Basil took a second look – he was right, all the damage to his armor and costume, as well as those the others had accumulated, was gone; and he felt as fresh as he would after a good, long night’s full of sleep (something which he’d missed these last few days). “And second, we can extract some information from Legend here – that alone should be worth the delay, right?” He gestured at the enslaved contriver. “Ask her whatever you wish to know and she will answer to the best of her knowledge, in all honesty and with no attempts at deception or manipulation.”

Legend shuddered under the weight of the dictate – and it was one, even though there was no real indicator as to which parts of his speech were backed by his power and which weren’t – but nodded obediently, without a moment’s hesitation.

Basil looked around the table at the others – everyone looked to be shocked, scared or hopeful, to varying degrees, sometimes all three at once.

This is too weird for words, the Man in the Moon spoke up. Then again, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, mate.

For once, I agree with you. He turned towards Emyr, again, to ask the first question that came to mind, but he was pre-empted by Polymnia using her vocoder.

“What kind of resistance are we likely to run into, from now on until finding Dusu?” she asked the woman in the maid outfit.

She flinched. “The team you’ve fought before is likely to have recovered by now and be setting up an ambush outside the portal to this realm. There’s also two more combat-able teams on the Installation. Furthermore, Dusu has her own security, and her lab is in the same complex as that of the new Ascendant – I have no idea whether the latter could have some nasty surprises in store for you, if you show at her doorstep.”

Gloom Glimmer leaned in, putting both arms onto the table. “Wait, the Ascendant? So they did name a new one – what’s this one’s deal?” she asked, her voice hard. “Is he going after children again!?”

Legend shook her head. “No. I’m not aware of their exact project – while she only slightly outranks me, I have little to do with the Gadgeteering complex – but I know that it’s seriously impressed the top executives and that they declared it Top Secret even for the division heads like myself. I am, however, aware that it does not, apparently, require the purchase of test subjects, as the previous Ascendant’s work did.”

Several of the heroes around the table, particularly the girls, looked rather green at the callous admission of slave-trading being done here, but Basil decided not to press that particular point here.

“So we can not know what to expect once we get past the team we already defeated before,” Basil concluded. “What can you tell us about Dusu’s own security?”

“Her laboratory is heavily fortified and hermetically sealed, due to containing so many bio-threats. Attacking her carelessly would be supremely dangerous. I am not aware of any specific security other than the guards who protect her complex as a whole.”

“Is there some shortcut that can take us straight to Dusu?” Tyche asked inbetween emptying her thirteenth goblet and refilling it. “Would be nice to skip straight past all the fightin’,” she concluded rather uncharacteristically.

“None that I’m aware of.”

Tyche sighed in disappointment.

“Where do these monsters come from that attacked Esperanza City, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Australia?” Tartsche asked, suddenly, his voice still trembling a little, though noticably more controlled than earlier – he’d even relaxed his grip on Spellgun’s hand a bit. “And why did you have them attack in the first place?”

Legend looked away, seemingly ashamed – but Basil couldn’t tell whether she was honestly ashamed for what had been done, was ashamed of something else related to it or was simply being forced to be so due to Emyr’s unkown edicts – and replied, “They attacked because we couldn’t control them after their creation, so the top executives decided to cut them lose and see whether they couldn’t cause some more origins,” she explained as if talking about the weather. “As for their nature, I am not entirely sure but I know they are connected to the Sleeper.”

“What is the Sleeper?” Tartsche immediately pressed on.

The sorcerous woman looked up at him, a strange, off-putting light in her eyes. “The Sleeper is the future, our key to expanding our power and bringing as many into the light as we can – a colossal being sleeping in the depths of the Mariana Trench which we believe to be connected directly to the source of metahuman powers, currently in some form of hibernation,” she explained with almost religious fervour. “The beasts that attacked those places were somehow induced to spawn from it, but I don’t exactly know how – I do know that Dusu was and is the head of that particular program, so you should ask her for anything more regarding the subject matter.”

Emyr watched the exchange, tapping his fingers together, his face gone completely serious. “What a disgusting collection of wretches,” he spoke softly, his voice shimmering with an anger that made everyone else within the pocket reality shudder and lean away from him. “What is this group called?” he asked his slave.

“We are sometimes called the Companions of the Future, but our original and preferred name is ‘die Gefährten’, which means…”

Emyr cut her off with a wave of his hand. “I am well aware of what it means. Well, now I know whom to purge once I take over again. Continue.”

Basil leaned forward, putting his goblet aside to clasp his hands in front of his face, his mask snapping shut once more.

***

They continued to extract as much information as they could from Legend. The woman was completely cooperative, though clearly not willingly so, repeatedly making faces and shuddering, yet unable to truly strain against the commands imposed upon her by Emyr.

Finally, after nearly ten minutes, Basil decided to end it. “I think that is enough,” he announced loudly, leaning back. “We should get going now.” He looked at Emyr, silently asking for permission – though it galled him a great deal having to defer to him so.

To his (mild by now) surprise and gratitude, Emyr nodded, making a sweeping gesture. “It is time, yes. Go, find the cure.” He smiled softly, a little sadly. “I do wish I could offer greater support, but I’m afraid all I have left is to give you all my blessing.”

The others looked at each other, then at him, but no one knew what to say to that, really.

“Thank you,” was all Tartsche could bring himself to say – he still appeared to be rather put off by having his power circumvented somehow, and he’d very tellingly not asked how Emyr had achieved said feat.

“You’re welcome. Now off, off with you all!” Emyr raised a hand and snapped his fingers, and the door behind him opened smoothly, without a sound, revealing the shimmering portal they’d seen earlier behind Legend’s force-field.

They all got up, rather quickly, and moved towards the door, but Tyche stopped briefly next to Emyr’s chair.

“Y’know, for a crazy evil overlord, you’re really ok,” she said, offering him her hand. “And thanks for the drinks. Wish I could keep the magic cup, really,” she continued with a grin.

Emyr smiled at her, only having to bend his neck slightly to look up at her face, even while sitting. “It was my pleasure, Tyche. My pleasure, and my horror – I’ve never seen a normal-sized girl drink twenty-two drinks in such a short time. And each one an original, at that.” He took her hand, shaking it. “I do hope we can meet again under more pleasant circumstances, young hero.”

She blushed a little at his smile, and nodded. “Sure. See ya, your royal godliness.”

They all passed by Legend, who remained quiet, her head lowered and her hands clasped together, but Hecate and Polymnia both stopped next to her.

They exchanged a look, the two of them, then turned around, with Hecate speaking up.

“What’s going to happen to Legend?” she asked worriedly.

Emyr leaned around on his throne-like chair, looking at her with an inscrutable, but gentle expression. “Worried for your enemy, are you? Well, you needn’t be – I don’t intend to kill her, merely teach her a lesson before I eject her unto the real world once more.”

They looked at each other, again, as the others pooled around the gate, waiting for the two girls to join them and exit this reality. While neither seemed to be too happy with his reply, they clearly decided – sensibly, in Basil’s opinion – that it was likely to be the best they’d get.

“Alright. One more thing, Sir,” Hecate pressed on. “May we, um, take those?” She gestured at the items on the table, the ones Legend had used to summon her shades. “They should be returned to their proper places.”

Emyr nodded and gestured at the items, then at Hecate. They all rose up and flew over to her, making her briefly squeal in surprise before she caught them all and, with a respectful bow to him, stuffed them carefully into her bag of holding.

“Is there anything else?” he asked kindly.

She shook her head. “No, that will be all. Thank you, Sir,” she bowed again, then turned to leave.

Basil watched all that, feeling oddly disconnected from it all, but didn’t comment.

It didn’t help that he still didn’t trust Emyr, and so he let the others exit this reality first, just in case.

He was just about to step out of it himself when Emyr spoke up again.

“Brennus,” he said and when Basil turned to look at him, he’d rotated his throne around to face him and the door. “One last thing before you leave.”

“What is it now?” Basil asked wearily.

“Remember these words,” Emyr said, before he cleared his throat and sat up more straight, then spoke in a much firmer, deeper voice than before: “To pursue what is necessary is the province of beasts – a true man must pursue naught but what he desires.'”

Basil tilted his head to the side. “I… do not understand.”

Emyr smiled at him like a kindly old grandfather might. “I know you don’t, just as I know that you will, some day. Be well, Sir Knight, and may you save those you wish to save.”

Clearly dismissed, Basil nodded at the strange man and turned around, leaving.

***

Legend watched quietly as Emyr leaned back in his seat while it rotated – with no visible or audible cause – back to face the table, the door closing behind him. She couldn’t do anything but be quiet and await new orders… and dread whatever ‘lesson’ he had planned for her.

“How likely do you think they are to succeed, Sophia?” he asked pensively.

She didn’t have to think about it to know the answer. “There’s no way this story is going to have a happy end,” she replied sadly – and she did feel sad. She wasn’t heartless, and she did feel sympathy for Dusu’s victims and those trying to save them; nevermind that she honestly wished that monstrous woman would get what she deserved (Sophia was a villain, and she was even willing to kill teenaged combatants, but… Dusu was just evil). “Whether or not they reach Dusu, she-“

She was interrupted, suddenly, when someone walked past her from behind, making her jump and squeal in surprise as she saw someone wearing a dark blue, hooded robe move down the table.

Where, where did he… no one but him and me should be here! she thought, staring in shock.

Emyr remained quiet, looking almost as surprised as she felt as he watched the stranger sit down at the opposite end of the table, where the unnerving girl with the changing power had been sitting just a minute earlier.

Sophia was immediately assaulted by an unnerving sense of vertigo as she looked at the stranger’s face underneath his hood – or rather, the lack of a face, as he was wearing a mostly flat, featureless mirror-helmet within which she could see the distorted reflections of both herself, Emyr and the table. Yet, even though she could not see the figure’s eyes, she still felt like she was seeing into Emyr’s own black orbs, seeing into the abyss beyond them.

The stranger sat down without a care in the world, putting his elbows on the table and clasping his hands underneath his chin, resting it atop his interlaced fingers.

“Well well,” Emyr said, tapping the armrest of his chair. “Who do we have here? I don’t believe we’ve met before. What is your name, stranger?”

“Some call me Journeyman,” the man spoke, making Sophia shudder at the sound of countless voices – most but not all male – speaking in unison. In spite of that, though, the man did not project any kind of hostility or threat.

“Mm, interesting choice of names,” the Godking of Mars replied. “I assume you know who I am, Aion?”

“Emyr Blackhill, the Godking of Mars,” Journeyman said. “I came here to kill this incarnation of yours.” Sophia choked on her own spit.

“Well, that is rather refreshingly forward,” Emyr chuckled with clear amusement in his voice. “While I’d be really curious to see how you’d achieve that, I’m afraid it’s quite superfluous – I am going to terminate myself soon, since I can’t break out of here in any case. You’re wasting your time and strength, if you can even do it against my will.”

“Not so,” Journeyman countered. “I know you too well – you’d find a way to break out of here, and I can’t have that.” He leaned a little more forward, as his mask stopped reflecting the scene in front of him and showed nothing but Emyr’s own face, reflecting back at him.

The Godking frowned at him, his mouth twisting. “You seem quite certain… precognition?”

“Of a sort,” Journeyman replied.

“It is not impossible that I could device a means by which to escape this confinement, that is true, though I haven’t as of now,” Emyr said pensively. “Yet that would be truly a major feat, even for one such as I. You still believe you could slay me, now?”

Please, oh please, say yes!, Sophia silently begged the stranger.

To her dismay, he shook his head, only for his words to then make her hopes flare again. “I don’t think. I know.” He lowered his hands onto the table, leaning onto his elbows. “In this place, at this time, I am more than you are.”

Emyr chuckled. “I’d like to put that to the test, if you don’t mind.”

Journeyman grabbed the table by the edge and threw it aside like it weighed nothing, causing it – and the bowl atop it, and the goblets – to shatter against the walls, as he strode forward towards the Godking on his throne, his long, powerful strides moving him faster than Sophia could run.

Emyr stood up, ponderously, and pulled back an arm, forming a fist.

Journeyman wound up for his own strike.

Sophia stared in horrified fascination, unable to do anything but observe.

Their fists met.

Their world broke.

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B13.2 Call of the Sleeper

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“This is going to go wrong so much I can’t even put it into words,” Hecate complained, her mouth – the only part of her face, other than her chin, visible beneath her cowl – twisted into a frown as she leaned onto her staff, gripping it tightly with both hands. The green jewel at its top was stirring with greenish light and black smoke, as if responding to her nervousness… which it likely was.

“It can hardly come as a surprise to you,” he rebuffed her, himself standing at the centre of the rooftop, one hand clasping the other arm’s wrist behind his back. He didn’t look at her, just downwards, as if deep in thought, though really, his mind was too unquiet to be deep into anything in particular, right then. “They were hardly going to mount an immediate assault based purely on some information I got from strange visions.”

“When you put it like that, it only makes you look even kookier than usual,” Tyche commented.

“Thank you for that glowing recommendation,” he replied, deadpan.

“So, why insist on this meeting then?” Hecate pressed her point. “What’s the point?” Her voice rose slightly in frustration, yet Brennus kept his gaze downcast, fixed.

“I think it is obvious. I am going to go after her myself and recover the cure.”

The other two girls just stared at him, their jaws dropping.

Before the protests could begin, he looked up. “She is here… and she is not alone.”

The other two followed his gaze, to see several figures flying down towards the rooftop.

In the lead was Gloom Glimmer, her pure white cape billowing around her as she descended gracefully, toes pointed in perfect form. With her came Polymnia, in a vastly changed set of power armour, apparently carried by her friend’s power, stumbling gracelessly as they touched down, and Osore in his black bodysuit, leather jacket and Oni mask, as well as Spellgun and Tartsche.

They weren’t the only ones. A human-sized, black-furred bird with a cat’s head followed them, landing near the duo while shifting into a more humanoid cat-form.

Brennus spent a moment looking Polymnia up and down, taking in her new appearance. Spare armour, he realised. Less elaborate than her standard loadout. It must have taken too much damage during the fight in Esperanza for her to fix quickly. The new set of armour was still made out of that blue, transparent material that her other previous one had consisted off – which Basil found quite offensive, transparent armour would be unable to protect against a lot of light-based effects – to reveal her pink shorts and top, but otherwise it looked entirely different to Basil’s eye. It lacked a lot of the former armour’s strength enhancements, he could tell with a glance, though there were still some parts he guessed were lesser servo motors, nor did it sport the prehensile limbs with her speakers and keyboard, which usually extended from her backpack; there was still a back module, though he couldn’t guess what it did, and her forearms were much more thickly armored, with numerous speakers built into the resulting gauntlets. Her hair was tied into a single, long, multi-coloured braid, shifting colours as sounds played over it, and she still wore the same visor as always. She smiled when she noticed him looking, her lips shifting colours just like her hair did.

“W-wha…” Vasiliki stammered at the sight of all of them gathered there.

Brennus didn’t give her a chance to continue, though, stepping forward towards Gloom Glimmer, who stood there with a serious expression on her face, her cloak wrapped tight around her form. He was about to start talking when a prompt from Eudocia flashed on his HUD.

‘Be polite.’

He stopped, briefly, blinking, then started again. “Gloom Glimmer, thank you for meeting me on such short notice,” he began, both annoyed and grateful that she’d pointed it out to me.

“I do owe you,” she said, a little levity entering her voice. “Besides, I can guess what you want to do, and it’s a worthy cause.”

“Well, if you can do that, you know him better than we do,” Hecate grumbled, stepping closer to flank him. “What about the rest?” she asked, then nearly squeaked when Polymnia waved at her with a smile.

“We’re here to help,” Polymnia explained, the fingers of her left hand wiggling the way Brennus’ usually did, when he used the air-keyboard function built into his gloves. Which explained how she intended to play her instruments without that giant keyboard she usually had.

Gloom Glimmer smiled. “I was going to come here, after you called, but Polymnia overheard my side of our conversation and got the rest out of me, insisting that she come along. Then Bakeneko noticed us preparing to leave and insisted that she come along. Osore heard that and chose to come along, and then I figured it wouldn’t be fair not to tell the others, too, which is how Tartsche and Spellgun joined the party.”

“Outstep’s still laid out recovering from the fight in Esperanza, otherwise he’d…” Tartsche explained, but Spellgun shoved his elbow into his boyfriend’s side, making him flinch. “Ow! Well, ok, he likely wouldn’t have come help with this anyway.”

“Did he really get hurt that badly?” Tyche asked curiously, ignoring the second part.

“He didn’t really get hurt,” Polymnia replied, even while her eyes kept moving from Brennus’ new gauntlet to the black-and-silver oblong ovoid currently attached to it, seemingly sticking to the gauntlet’s engraved surface just by itself.

“Outstep did evac work during the battle,” Tartsche picked up, explaining. “Kept pulling the defenders out of the way of attacks, or collapsing buildings. Hundreds of saves, but he really over-taxed himself, and he’ll probably be laid out for at least a few more days.”

Brennus nodded absently, his eyes on Gloom Glimmer. “You know what I intend to do, and judging by what you said earlier, you are willing to help?”

She smiled at him, a sight that would likely be quite distracting for most boys and cocked her hip before replying, “Hey, you saved my girl, I’ll help save yours.”

Polymnia blushed, punching her friend’s shoulder. “Could you not phrase it that way? It’s not like the shippers aren’t really going crazy enough, without you adding more fuel,” the young musician huffed, looking resolutely at him, rather than the others and ignoring the chuckling around her. “Anyway, she’s not wrong. Aside from the fact that we owe you for all your help, this… these people are clearly evil. And Dusu is the only chance we have to heal… all those people. So, I want to help, too, even if the UH says to wait.”

“This is crazy!” Hecate burst out before anyone else could reply. “You’re talking about assaulting the base of some super-secret villain organisation that makes monsters which can level cities! We wouldn’t stand a chance!”

“We are not going to assault them,” Brennus cut in. Everyone turned to look at him, as he focused on each in turn. “I never said I would be taking anyone along for this, other than Gloom Glimmer. The plan is to sneak inside and either steal the cure or else extract the information from Dusu – if necessary, we’ll apprehend her and bring her back for a more thorough interrogation, should Gloom Glimmer’s powers fail to extract such from her.”

I’d rather  have Amy along for that, but there is no way whatsoever she’d allow this to happen.

Everyone but Gloom Glimmer was now staring him in disbelief.

“What?” he asked, feeling slightly defensive. “Did you really think I would advocate an outright assault on this kind of enemy? The only reason why I even insist on going along myself is, first of all, because it is my idea and I am not going to send someone else into danger without taking the same risks, and second, my expertise might be needed.”

“Can’t Gloom Glimmer just use a gadgeteer power of her own?” Hecate asked, sounding less annoyed and more serious now. “Speaking of which, can’t you just fix the bodies of Dusu’s victims? I’ve seen you manifest healing powers before,” she now addressed her directly.

The girl in question sighed, looking down. “No, to both. I’ve never been able to manifest gadgeteering powers, or Contriving. Or any long-term powers, for that matter. As for healing, don’t you think I’ve tried to fix people like that?” she complained in a petulant voice. “I can’t control what powers I get, or when I get them. I only really get healing powers when people close to me get hurt, and even then, it doesn’t always work out well – during Crocell’s attack, Poly had to sit most of it out because I could only heal her ears, but not fix the migraine his scream gave her!” She stomped her foot on the roof, hard enough to make thin cracks spread out from her heel.

“I thought so,” Brennus commented. “Either way, we should not dally any more than absolutely necessary. I have the coordinates for the enemy’s base, and all my relevant equipment. We should l-“

“Oh hell no you don’t!” Hecate cried out, turning around to swat Brennus over the back of the head.

“Hey!” he shouted, more startled than he was hurt – he’d made sure to heavily armour his head, of course.

“Look, you’re an idiot, Brennus, and this whole plan of yours is idiotic, but I’ll be damned before I let you go there without as much backup as possible!” she shouted at him, very nearly at the top of her lungs. Certainly loud enough that anyone down at street level would hear her, if they weren’t empty at present (he had his last two ravens keeping a lookout). “Now, I want to save her, too, and since the UH want to play it safe, it seems, we gotta do something – but not like this, and certainly not on your own!” she finished by stabbing a finger into his chest. Not that he felt it, through his armour.

“What kind of infiltration are we going to pull off if all of us come along?” he asked in exasperation. “Nine people is way too many!”

“Ten, actually,” Eudocia whispered into his ear, but he ignored her.

“Actually, I think she’s got a point,” Tartsche spoke calmly, stepping forth so he stood next to Brennus and Hecate, between them. “If you and Gloom Glimmer went alone, and she’s taken out, then you’re pretty screwed. You shouldn’t put the responsibility all on her shoulders.”

Brennus crossed his arms. “I am not. That is why I am going along. I can take care of myself, I can back her up, and I know what to look for.”

Tartsche spread his arms, as if saying ‘that’s what I’m saying’ or something. “Look, no one denies that. But my point is, nine people is not that much and if something happens, we’ll be able to provide backup and support!” He took a deep breath. “Look, if it was up to me, we wouldn’t be doing this at all. This is way beyond reckless. But I also believe that we have to help Dusu’s victims, and time is running out on them. I’m sure Rounds would agree with me, which is why I’m here, and willing to help. But we’ve got to do it smart. Otherwise, we’ll all just die, or be captured, and we won’t help anyone!” Spellgun stepped up behind his boyfriend, nodding his assent.

“Look, B- Brennus,” Aimi, Bakeneko, spoke up. “You can trust us. We’ve been through a lot, and we’re not any amateurs anymore. You need every bit of help you can get.”

“Listen to the catgirl,” Tyche agreed.

“I still think nine are too many,” Brennus disagreed, though more calmly now. “Can Gloom Glimmer even transport and hide that many?” He looked at her.

She seemed to think it over, briefly, then she nodded. “I can do it. Not much more difficult than just two, really. Right now, I have a kind of, telekinetic plane power, and a stealth field and… some kind of enhanced perception, it’s kind of hard to put that one into words.”

Brennus looked around at everyone. He didn’t like it, one bit; he wasn’t an idiot, in the end. He knew this whole plan was extremely risky at best, suicidal at worst, but he’d decided that he couldn’t not try it. Dragging the others along, though… at least he could be all but certain that Gloom Glimmer could escape from any kind of situation, leaving him behind if need be.

He looked them all in the eyes, until he was looking at Osore, who’d just stood back, his arms down his sides, motionless.

“What do you think? You’re the only one who hasn’t said anything yet,” he asked the quiet boy.

“Any action is better than no action,” Osore spoke quietly, his voice barely more than a whisper. “Let’s roll the dice, and see where they fall.”

Brennus looked down at his feet, then up at Gloom Glimmer again.

She shrugged. “Hey, don’t look at me. If I am crazy enough to go along with this, what right do I have to dissuade anyone else from the same course of action?”

He sighed, before he snapped his fingers, causing his two ravens to fly up and land on his shoulders, one on each side. “Alright. Let’s go.”

***

Unseen and unfelt by anyone, a figure in a dark blue robe sat on the edge of the roof, watching the teens gather up, stroking a black cat’s long, soft fur as the feline lay curled up in the grip of his left arm.

He watched quietly as Gloom Glimmer’s power rose up around them, a transparent, but not invisible energy wrapping around the group, forming something like a upward-pointing cone, before another power wrapped around them like a shroud, causing them to fade from sight.

A trivial alteration of his position allowed him to penetrate that ability, as well, so he could watch them fly East.

He stayed quiet, his thoughts unreadable, until just moments later, a black-and-purple blur came down from the sky, smashing so hard onto the rooftop, the concrete cracked, nearly caving in.

Mindstar rose from a crouch, her lower face twisted into a snarl of rage and concern, looking around wildly.

“Where is he!?” she shouted at no one in particular, looking around wildly, her eyes wide and livid. Then she seemed to zero in on something, looking in the direction they had flown off towards and, with another snarl, she shot away after them, cracking the roof further.

The man called Journeyman watched as she disappeared in the sky, standing up and stepping forward just as the rooftop began to crumble in on itself. As the concrete broke away beneath him, he just kept walking on the same level, as if the air could carry him just as well as concrete.

The cat purred in his arms, his fingers going from its back to the back of its ears, scratching them skillfully.

“The plot thickens, my friend,” he spoke calmly to the cat. “And I’ve got to say…” he gave off a strange chuckle, sounding elated “… most of this, I did not see coming.” Though his face was hidden by mirrors and strange visions, one could somehow still see his grin. “Didn’t see it coming at all. Oh, joyous day.”

He looked down at the cat, who looked back up at him with lazy eyes, then yawned, showing off its teeth.

“Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on them,” he continued, petting it underneath its chin. “Might even lend a hand and help them, if they surprise me enough. Wouldn’t that be swell, eh, pal?”

The cat yawned once more, then subsided in his arms, purring calmly.

He tilted his head, looking down at for a little more, before he looked up and after the others. “You know, if I could just remember where I’ve seen you before, I could finally find out your name.”

Beneath him, the house alarm went off, finally, as the roof collapsed fully into the floor below.

“Oh well, I need to get going anyway.”

And just like that, he disappeared from sight.

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B12.14 Born At Sleep

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According to Basil’s theory, Crocell’s outward appearance was merely cosmetic – merely a drawn-together matter compressed and shaped into an apparently living form. It’s actual appearance was random, or perhaps influenced by whatever impressions it got from its surroundings – that would explain why it had, at first, imitated whatever material it had come into contact with. Perhaps now it was simply drawing on the appearance of the humans around it.

Perhaps it wasn’t even really antagonistic towards them, but had merely reacted to the antagonism of the metahumans who’d opposed it.

Basil really, really hoped that his theory was accurate, because otherwise, the implications were more than a little disconcerting.

Crocell’s form had become even more humanoid; now coloured a dark purple, which darkened to jet black towards the tips of its limbs, it stood about twenty-five metres in height. Its legs and arms were fully formed, ending in human fingers and toes, even including toe-nails, though all of the same, uniform colour. Its body had become more angular, with sharp edges around the waist, ribs and shoulders, covered in odd, almost circuit-like patterns from top to bottom. The head was properly shaped now, though smooth, without openings for the nose, mouth, or eyes, though it was shaped so as to hint at them. It lacked ears entirely, however. From its left shoulder extended a scarf-like length of skin which was draped around its neck, once, then rose nearly to its chin before winding around its head one more time, weightlessly hovering in the air, coming down from the upper right of its face towards where its right eye should be, as if held up by an invisible force.

Its… or perhaps his, now that his appearance was more defined?… eye had moved from its spot on the head. Instead, there was now a large hole in Crocell’s chest, circular, twice as wide as the eye was – and the eye floated in its centre, without any visible support, moving around to look out the front and back of the gap.

He stood straight now, rising up from the dust his landing had thrown up, his eye searching around briefly – before it focused on the Subjugator.

“Uh, I don’t meant to alarm you people, but I, for one, can not do the gadgeteering thing while being pounded into paste,” Boom-Boom asked nervously.

“Then get to work now and finish before he pounds you into paste!” Tick-Tock shouted. “Let’s see what we can do!” She turned to the Subjugator. “Where’s your power reserve?”

“This masterpiece is powered by a compact cold fusion generator located… here,” it spoke, as a red light started to flicker about two thirds down its hull. “Though it is currently running purely on reserve power, as the reactor has been damaged too far to continue operating.”

Tick-Tock and Boom-Boom leaped to it. “We’ll get this thing powered up again! You two work on the rest!”

<What about him!?> Polymnia asked, as Crocell advanced towards them with an unnaturally light-footed step, barely stirring the dust where his foot came down, even though the ground ought to be shaking.

“Leave that to her,” Basil told her, pointing towards the left and up as he walked up to the base of the ‘Zeus Caster’ (he preferred Arc Cannon himself. Way less pretentious), squatting down on an up-jutting piece of the shattered wing, ignoring the repair drones that were crawling around trying to get the Subjugator functional again.

The others all looked up in the direction he’d pointed.

A tiny figure, wreathed in white was approaching from the air, levitating more than she was flying, as dozens upon dozens of spheres in all colours of the rainbow were pouring forth from beneath her cloak, each about the size of a big marble when they first appeared, growing to the size of a medicine ball by the time they reached the ground, bouncing lightly and rolling around in the rubble. Her white hood was drawn deeply over her face, hiding all but her lips and chin from sight.

Even at this distance, it was easy to tell that she was frowning.

<Gloomy!> Polymnia shouted with a smile, recognizing her friend.

That’s their girl?” Boom-Boom asked. “Well, let’s hope she takes after her ‘rents, we could use some muscle here,” he continued as he turned back to his work, ripping a warped hatch off with the sound of screaming metal, then using the superior strength of his suit to pull the damaged reactor up out of its container. Tick-Tock nodded in agreement.

Polymnia cheered, though it didn’t keep her from doing her own work, her fingers flying over the keyboard she used to manipulate her technology, every microphone and speaker she had aimed at Crocell, projecting soundwaves with the latter whose reflections were then picked up by the former for analysis.

Basil just quietly reached for a metal plate about the size of his forearm, ripping it off to reveal circuitry and wiring underneath. He’d have to work fast, much faster than he liked to work on something as complex as this, but what had to be, had to be.

Crocell seemed to be the only one who didn’t notice Gloom Glimmer approaching, instead continuing on his way towards the downed machine. One of his hands rose, palm up, his fingers wriggling like he was just now trying them out for the first time. Water vapour condensed above his palm, gathering into a tiny sphere of water that was rapidly growing in size.

Before anyone could react to that, Gloom Glimmer raised her own hand in a motion mirroring his, palm up, and a single, jet-black marble-sized sphere appeared above it, while the stream of multi-coloured spheres continued to pour forth from the folds of her cape. The sphere grew to the size of a football, roughly, as she pulled her arm back, winding up for a throw, her body twisting side-ways at the waist. The sphere was thrown with perfect form, flying towards the unaware Crocell, slamming into the right side of his waist to no particular effect.

The very instant it made contact with his body, every single coloured sphere which Gloom Glimmer had spread over the ground shot towards it faster than the eye could follow, without a single sound, thousands of them all at once.

The cacophony should have been deafening, yet there was nothing, only a great mass of vapour and dust thrown up, the force of the massed impacts sending out a shockwave which caused a dust cloud to wash over everything in the rubble-strewn plaza.

When Crocell became visible again, a good chunk of his right side was gone from just below the shoulder all the way to his upper thigh, the flesh torn away leaving jagged edges behind, bleeding sea water as coils of muscles and other, stranger organs became visible within.

Crocell stumbled, nearly toppling over as he finally seemed to acknowledge his foe, turning his torso and thus his eye towards her, his posture betraying no emotion whatsoever, while his wound began to regenerate immediately.

Damn that was a nice hit,” Boom-Boom commented from where he and his sister were  working on the reactor. “Do it again, scary girl!”

<No, she’s going to change powers,> Polymnia disagreed.

***

Water vapour began to condense around Crocell, drawn into numerous ribbons winding around his body.

Gloom Glimmer raised her arm, palm turned flat towards the sky. A tiny dot of light appeared above it, expanding into a glowing ring of pure light, which remained afloat above her head like a halo, even when she lowered her arm again, bringing her hands together as if in prayer.

Crocell’s head tilted to the side, as if confused, water gathering about him.

The halo flared up, a single beam of impossible brightness lancing forth, as thick as a pencil, perhaps. It blasted through the ribbons of vapour, burning through Crocell’s left hip, the hole it burned far bigger than the circumference of the beam.

He shook his head left and right, as if screaming in pain, though obviously, no sound came out. He tried to get away from the beam, but it simply followed him, shearing through his body at an upward angle, as if to split him from waist to shoulder, lancing clean through to melt whatever was unlucky enough to be in its path – until it moved up towards Crocell’s spine, and suddenly, it no longer penetrated him. Vapour rose explosively from the wound as the beam continued on its path, blowing through his body again once it had moved past the body’s core, leaving a burned scar behind, like a channel dug across his body, finally blowing through his shoulder and away from his body.

Gloom Glimmer, meanwhile, had been charging up another power between her hands, which she’d moved apart by a few centimetres, a tiny mass of black matter spinning slowly between them, like a cube that had burst by more material growing from within, covered in sharp edges.

The beam winked out, though the halo remained, as the tiny mass flew out towards the nearly-bisected Crocell, flying into the gaping wound between its spine and waist, where the flesh was just starting to reconnect.

Accompanied by the booming sound of explosively expanding matter, the tiny speck became a block of obsidian-like matter the size of a house.

Already unsteady, an arm dangling off just a strip of meat attached to a ruined shoulder, Crocell’s upper body leaned further to the side, as the gash was widened. His spine resisted, too dense to be torn in half just like it had been too dense to be melted through by the beam, but it bent, making him look almost ridiculous.

Almost, because he retaliated immediately, throwing his unharmed arm out towards her. The water he’d been gathering instantly condensed into a double-helix, tightly wrapped into spear form, as thick as a human arm, as long as Crocell was tall, and flew out towards Gloom Glimmer with such speed, it broke the sound barrier as soon as it began to move, spearing through her chest before anyone could react.

The young heroine looked down at her chest, her lips parting in a stunned expression, as the spear turned to simple water once more, falling away to leave a gaping hole behind.

Then she flung out her hands at Crocell, three more of the tiny, irregular seeds flying out into his wounds, as they were still closing; one into its shoulder, where it was trying to reconnect its arm, one into the gash it had just previously widened, and another into the continuation of that wound on the other side from its spine.

All three seeds grew explosively, tearing flesh and bone, though only the one in his shoulder managed to actually sever a part of its body, separating the arm from the rest of the body.

The limb fell off, beginning to melt before it even touched the ground, bursting into copious amounts of a thick slurry which quickly broke down into simple sea water.

Crocell looked up at his foe, whose wound had already disappeared, leaving only the hole in her costume, looking down at him. His body was warped obscenely by the huge chunks of matter stuck in his wounds, twisting his spine, making him look even more misshapen than he already did.

***

“Wooo-hoo, why the hell didn’t she start doing this earlier?”, Boom-Boom asked as he stepped up to Melody.

She looked at him while she kept taking readings off of Crocell, trying to narrow down the frequency of his force field. And there truly was a force field there, now that she knew to look for it, it was impossible to overlook it. Whether it was truly as crucial to his existence as Brennus theorized was another matter, of course, but it was there.

<She’s got her limits,> she replied curtly, not liking the tone in his voice, distorted as it was. As if he was accusing Irene of holding back deliberately. <Shouldn’t you be helping to rig up the Subjugator?>

He shrugged, which just looked weird on that blocky, crude armor. How had he managed to make armor articulate enough to allow for shrugging, yet still looking so crude and, and cobbled together?

“I’ve done my part,” he replied to her question. “Reactor’s rigged up to produce one last, big shot, then tear itself apart. I’m not one for the delicate stuff those two are doing now.”

Melody looked over her shoulder, briefly, to see Brennus and Tick-Tock bent over the core of the Zeus Caster. They had pulled bits and pieces out, still connected to the machine through wires, and were working with the fanatical focus most gadgeteers – Melody herself – could pour into their work when going to the bat.

She was kind of jealous she wasn’t a part of that. Collaborating with Brennus had given her the idea for one of her best inventions yet (though she hadn’t managed to complete it in time for this battle).

Then she turned to observe the fight again, feeling oddly both fearful for her friend up there and at the same time, not so. Irene should be totally safe, even if she was pushed too far, her power would just put her into that safe mode of hers again; but on the other hand, Crocell was an atypical foe if there ever was one, and there was no telling whether he had some way of circumventing her defenses.

Besides, she just plain didn’t like seeing her friend get hurt, and the sight of that spear sticking out of her chest had nearly made her hurl.

She kept collecting and correlating data as she watched Irene lift her arms, creating a jet-black sphere above them which rapidly grew to the size of a building.

***

Another impact shook the city, the battle continuing in the distance. This one was particularly violent, causing several already unstable buildings to finally crumble.

In an alley near a now-abandoned parking house structure, it disturbed a long-haired, darkly furred cat, which had somehow managed to sleep through the fight so far, causing the large tomcat to leap off the trashcan he’d been curled up atop…

Only to be caught out of the air by two strong, yet gentle arms.

He tried to fight the grip, briefly, clawing at the thick, tough material covering them, but subsided quickly as his captor’s smell reached him. It wasn’t a smell he’d known before, yet it was somehow… nostalgic.

***

“There you go,” spoke the man known as Journeyman, looking down at the black-furred cat, its rather considerable weight settling easily into his arms. “You know, I get the oddest feeling that I know you from somewhere…”

Another shock shook the ground, making the buildings around him groan. The robed man turned his head towards the battle, even though there was no line of sight between him and them. Not that that was any hindrance to him.

He sighed, tickling the cat behind his ears. He couldn’t intervene in this battle, not directly, so he’d limited himself to reducing casualties in more subtle ways, roaming the streets to help with evacuation efforts and treat any wounded people he came across.

The ground shook once more, the buildings to his left and right beginning a slow, almost ponderous collapse.

He looked down at the purring tomcat, untroubled by the slabs of concrete that fell towards and yet never came close to touching him.

“I’m going to have a lot of work to do, soon enough. You mind helping me out, big guy?”

The huge cat purred happily.

***

The battle continued mercilessly, and at first, Crocell was very clearly on the backfoot. Gloom Glimmer’s black sphere had pounded him with blasts of concentrated gravity, twice over. Though it had dislodged two of the seeds in his body, leaving only the one trapped just above his hip, it had also destroyed the growth that was supposed to become his new arm, and cracked his skull.

However, as the fight continued, it became clear that while the daughter of the world’s most powerful hero and villain was in a league of her own in power and versatility, she was quickly running out of steam, while Crocell just kept getting back up, trading blows with her – sometimes literally, sometimes at range, with his vapour constructs.

Gloom Glimmer’s shoulders were slumped, her breathing quick and shallow, as she dodged another one of those double-helix spears. She had never expected to be able to kill this thing, not since she’d seen it fight off both Kraquok, Charybdis and the Ferals – though she had tried to manifest a force-field nullifying power, after she’d heard of Brennus’ theory (she had, but it hadn’t worked on the damn thing!), but at least she was managing to keep its attention, buying her friends and the other two gadgeteers time to get that damn megalomaniac’s weapon working again (Irene had never met Sovereign before, but she knew enough to never want to make the experience; even her dad thought he was bonkers).

Finally, reinforcements were coming in, heroes and villains who had newly arrived for the battle, and a few who had recovered enough to dive back in. The Ferals were among them, though reduced in number to nearly a fourth of what they’d started at; she could see Lamarr and Mindstar, flying close together (the former standing on his own cape like it was a flying carpet), and the hulking forms of Totemiac and Kraquok approaching from further behind, though the latter had unfortunately lost a good chunk of his size, and was now only slightly larger than the Australian shapeshifter.

I wish Maddie was here, she thought as she dove down below a swiping, black-skinned arm, flying around the back of Crocell to blast him with a beam of concentrated gravity (not as powerful as her earlier gravity bomb, but way less prone to collateral damage, too), I wish Mom and Dad were here, too. I wonder what’s got them so distracted that they didn’t rush here.

She’d have to ask them what happened later, after this fight. At the very least, it’d be good to be able to tell Melody.

A precognitive danger sense kicked in, making her body move automatically to dodge another of those freaking painful double-helix spears – they did something to the fluids in her body, when they hit, it had fucking hurt – briefly locking eyes with the girl in question, who had now connected her equipment to the downed Subjugator, while Brennus’ fingers were dancing in the air, undoubtedly using the keyboard function in his bracers to do something way too complicated for her (or anyone sane) to understand.

Just a little more time.

Kraquok and Totemiac joined the fray, taking some of Crocell’s attention away from her, though the beast didn’t seem bothered or intimidated at all by the increasing pressure brought to bear against it.

Perhaps it wasn’t able to feel that kind of emotion, or any emotion at all.

Perhaps it had reason to believe it could beat them all.

Considering how it had decimated their forces already, and shrugged off their strongest fighter’s attacks, it may even be justified in thinking so.

***

Crocell pulled his arm back, hand clenched into a fist, ignoring the minivan-sized spheres of sizzling green acid which the Feral family was lobbing at it, causing a steady amount of damage all over the afflicted areas.

His motion was ponderous, as if he was performing this particular movement for the first time like this, and was paying extra attention to how it felt, and how it worked.

Of course, that meant that his intention was telegraphed to a ridiculous degree, and one of his two viable targets in front of him, Totemiac, quickly leapt out of reach, while Kraquok advanced forward, intent on taking the blow so as to spark new growth.

Perhaps Crocell had simply intended what he did next, or perhaps he truly was learning as the battle came along, because that didn’t work out at all. Instead, he punched – downwards. His fist hit the ground with unnatural strength, cracking it below him and Kraquok.

The ground caved in, as Crocell himself stepped backwards. Kraquok tried to do the same, but his enemy showed another new move, coating the crumbling blocks of concrete in water, making them slippery enough for the pseudo-reptilian villain to lose his footing and fall partly down into the Undercity below, along with the rubble.

Dust rose, briefly, but less than it should. When a gust of wind dispersed that, the gathered capes and cowls saw the unperturbed Crocell standing at the edge of the sinkhole he’d created, while the broken concrete and earth had trapped Kraquok himself, only part of his back and his head sticking out of what now appeared to be a grimy mud, the material having suddenly become super-satured with water.

Everyone stared at the elaborate trap that Kraquok had been caught in, then at their foe, who stood there, straight, his posture almost relaxed… almost human, his head tilted to the side as if studying his work closely, his chest-eye roaming the sight.

Then he turned towards the others, as the seed above his hip was finally dislodged, falling down with a huge thud, flesh regrowing rapidly until he was back to top condition. He walked towards them, light-footed step after step.

A car came sailing towards him, bouncing off his head. He turned his eye to look, saw the approaching Mindstar and Lamarr, and turned towards them.

Then they vanished from his sight, causing him to stop, hesitate – and be wide open when Totemiac leaped onto his back, the comparatively small pseudo-dinosaur digging his claws and teeth into Crocell’s necks, causing him to bend over backwards, his eye rotating to look out the back at his foe.

Totemiac was bleeding out of countless wounds, one of his arms missing outright, but he was not to be dissuaded, clinging onto the monster, even when Crocell simply reversed his arms’ joints and started punching him, left and right, each blow cracking bones – until one arm was suddenly arrested in his motion, nigh-invisibly threads stretching from it towards the trapped Kraquok, pulling on his back as the heroine known as Weaver added more of the same to Crocell’s other arm.

The beast would not be deterred though, for he simple began to walk backwards, pulling on them as strongly as he could. Kraquok shuddered, straining against the muddy concerete and rebar holding him in place, as the strands were stretched to their limit.

Ignoring the continued assault by his foes, Crocell took another step away from Kraquok, making the villain groan as he was partly lifted out of the mud-trap, even as the fewer strands attached to his left arm snapped, nearly making him fall over as his left side suddenly shot forward, whereas his right one was still trapped.

And then a bright red glow appeared, bathing the battlefield, and Crocell in particular, in its light.

He turned his torso, slightly, looking at the source of it – the Subjugator he had downed earlier, its huge gun was now glowing inside, glowing bright red as matching red arcs of lightning danced along its long barrel. Three figures in power armor – Boom-Boom, Tick-Tock and Polymnia – were holding the barrel up, aiming it at him, while Brennus stood  on the side of its base, attached by one of his grappling hooks so he wouldn’t fall off, his hands dancing furiously as if he was playing some kind of piece on a piano, his arms limp down his sides as he stared at his foe.

Perhaps something in Crocell recognized a new threat. Or perhaps he remembered that, until fighting with Gloom Glimmer, nothing had caused nearly as much damage to him as that weapon. Either way, he reacted, and strongly at that, leaning towards it, straining against the webs holding his arm.

A line appeared across the lower part of its head, as if someone was drawing a cartoonish mouth – only for his skin to split along the line, from back to front, a maw filled with countless shark-like teeth becoming visible behind the torn skin. Blueish-white light appeared in the depths of its gullet as it charged up an attack of its own.

***

Basil finished the last calculations, inwardly praying to all the gods and stars that Polymnia’s readings had been accurate, that his calculations were accurate, that his theory was not a heaping pile of dung, as he saw Crocell wind up to what was undoubtedly a killing blow for him and the three other teens with him.

Here goes nothing, he tought as he raised his right arm and snapped his fingers towards their foe, triggering the first and only shot of their collaborative effort – the Arc Caster.

***

A blazing red beam shot forth from the long gun barrel, flying across the air even as behind it, the reactor in the Subjugator tore itself apart, melting at the same time it was partly imploding, disabling the wrecked machine for good.

It hit Crocell in the chest, right on top of his floating eye – only instead of reaching the eye, it splashed against an invisible barrier which had not impeded any other attacks before.

It arched, gathering, spreading all over Crocell’s form, tiny bolts of red lightning reaching out from the main beam to dance all over his body, to no apparent effect.

There was a cry, a scream, only it wasn’t a scream – it was not someting heard with the ears. Instead, it was a scream that resounded within the heads of every metahuman within a good twenty miles, making them cry out in pain, each and every one of them.

Then the glow in Crocell’s throat disappeared, and he stopped moving.

His entire body turned black all over.

Then he began to swell, rapidly, his flesh distorting obscenely into a giant, irregular, growing blob of black… something, growing into obscene heights, forty, fifty, seventy, a hundred, two hundred metres into the air, a tower of bulbous, swollen flesh-water-stuff looming over the city.

And then it all burst into a titanic mass of sea water, slamming down on the battlefield like a mini-tsunami, rushing through the streets and alleys, both above and below into the Undercity, washing everything that wasn’t nailed down away.

***

An hour later

Irene stepped into the infirmary, walking past everyone else right to the bed Melody was on, her best friend sitting there propped up against several pillows, working away on her armor’s detached keyboard even though she was in a hospital gown, only her visor and coloured hair protecting her identity right now.

She still looked up and smiled at Irene, as she came to a halt next to the bed, a part of her unwinding from the worry she’d felt for the teenage songstress, even though she herself had been the one to pull her out of the deluge-like mess which Crocell’s death had caused. Irene knew she hadn’t really been hurt, other than swallowing too much salt water, but she’d still been worried after dropping her off at the infirmary, going out to help with clean-up and recovery (save for one brief detour).

Melody reached out with both arms, and Irene leaned in, the two hugging each other. “How’re you doing, Mels?” Irene asked as she felt her power settle around them, a privacy screen of sorts, blurring both sight and hearing.

<I’m quite alright, really, just have a really sore throat,> she replied, typing on the keyboard to speak. <The irony of which is not lost to me.>

“Funny, yeah. Hah. I was really worried there for a moment, you know?” Irene complained as she sat on a stool next to the bed.

<Worrywart,> her friend accused her, sticking her tongue out at Irene, who stuck her own out in kind. Then Melody grew serious. <So, how are things out there?>

Irene took a deep breath. “Better and worse than expected. Crocell’s death flooded most of Esperanza City, but this place was built to withstand an attack by my sister – the water is already draining, only the salt deposits are going to remain soon. But there was horrible structural damage all over; it will take months to repair it all.”

<What about civilian casualties?>

“Surprisingly light. Someone – it’s not official, but it was Journeyman – was going around the city helping with the evacuation, getting people away from hot zones before they even became hot zones. And besides, Esperanza has the world’s best evacuation and S-Class protocols.”

Melody nodded, visibly relieved. <How’re the others doing?> she asked, clearly referring to Brennus, Boom-Boom and Tick-Tock.

“The locals are safe, and helping with clean-up,” Irene replied. “Brennus… he got out of the water on his own, but… I don’t know, I think that thing Crocell did, that scream, it hit him harder than you, me or anyone else I know.”

Melody shuddered, remembering the head-splitting pain and the torrent of twisted, alien images and impressions that washed over them in Crocell’s final moments. She’d nearly drowned because she’d been too stunned by them to do anything, would have drowned if not for Irene pulling her out of the water.

<Is he alright?> she asked, injecting a note of worry into her synthetic voice.

“He demanded I take him to his lab, ASAP, so I did,” Irene replied, as if it was no big deal that he’d let her see his lab (oh, how Melody wished she could take a look at it!), or that she somehow had known how to get there. “Last time I saw him, he was diving into some kind of invention of his, babbling something about an engram or such. But I had to help in Esperanza, so I teleported back and I’ve been helping them until I was told to stand down and take a break.”

Melody took a deep breath, wondering just what Brennus had seen to react like that. Then she remembered another thing that had been bothering her. <Um, Irene… don’t take this the wrong way, but do you know where your parents were the whole time? We could really have used their help here.>

Irene looked away, looking uncomfortable. “Well… there’s a good reason they weren’t here… you see… Crocell wasn’t… wasn’t the only monster to appear today.”

Melody stared dumbly at her. <What?> she asked flatly.

“Yeah. Mom was in Hong Kong, fighting one off pretty much on her own. Dad had to help in Tokyo, along with Huong Long. And Queen Madeleine had to move in herself to fight one that came ashore in the north of Australia.”

Melody shook her head. <My God, that’s just… but they were all defeated, right?>

Irene looked uncomfortable. “Mom killed the one in Hong Kong, after it devastated a good fourth of the city. Maddie killed the one in Australia before it could reach any settlement and do any serious damage. But Tokyo…”

She sighed, gesturing towards the air at the end of Melody’s bed. A rectangle of light appeared, quickly turning into an image straight out of a television – a news channel, in fact.

It showed an aerial image of the city of Tokyo.

Its streets were bathed in blood, corpses strewn all about.

“Tokyo is dead. More than fifty percent of the population died.”

Melody just stared at her friend in horror.

“And worse… the thing that did it escaped. It’s still out there, and even Dad hasn’t been able to track it.”

She dismissed the image with a flick of her wrist. “This was just a prelude to what’s to come.”

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B011.1 Monkey Family

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Three hours, two bottles of scotch, a bottle of bourbon and a bottle of that yellow French stuff whose name I always forgot later, I actually felt better about myself, and my life as of late. Not good, but better.

Also, some of Journeyman’s stories were just hilarious. And some just depressing, but in a good way. Distracting. But we were rapidly approaching the point where I might actually get drunk, and though I didn’t doubt that Journeyman could subdue me if I lost control, it would still be rude to go to that point.

Even if drowning my sorrows really sounded pretty attractive, after the day I’d had.

“You’re doing it again, Kevin,” Journeyman chorused. I looked up at him. “You’re doing the introspective self-pity routine. Don’t, it doesn’t suit you.”

I sighed, putting my glass aside (it was empty, anyway). “Yeah, I think I should go to sleep. Maybe some Z’s will help me work this out.”

“You do that. But put up an alarm for two forty,” he said as he cleaned the glasses and put them away upside down. “A kill team will attack you around three o’clock. It should give you enough time to wake up properly.”

Ah, one of his… prophecies. There were a lot of precogs out there, but what was creepy about Journeyman’s predictions was that, as far as I knew, he was always right. “Would I have died if you hadn’t told me?” I asked wryly. That was another thing about his prophecies. They rarely changed anything in a big way.

He chuckled, which was just weird with his many voices (though I’d noticed long ago that there seemed to be less and less voices the more relaxed he got – it was probably a deliberate effect). “No no, not at all. But you would have gotten hurt, a bit, and wrecked the house. This way, you should be able to control the situation. Just leave the house before two fifty-five, and they should attack you outside.”

“Good. Thanks,” I replied, relaxing a bit. I rather liked this place. “Actually, I’m reminded of a question I had. When I got off the plane, I saw a shadow watching me, during the ceremony.”

“Yes?”

I tapped my fingers on the counter, drumming a little rhythm. “Was that Elouise? I suspected my father’s work, but it isn’t exactly his style, unless he changed even more than you told me.”

“Wait, let me take a look,” he replied, leaning back against the shelf behind him, lowering his head. After a moment, he looked up again. “Yeah, it was Elouise. I’m not sure your father even knows you’re back. He takes his promises rather seriously. Though he’ll probably find out soon enough, either way. You’ve caused quite a stir around this place.”

I nodded, relaxing a bit. “And the house? If he kept his promise, it wouldn’t have been him who kept it,” I continued.

He shook his head. “No. The Matriarch, I suspect. If only to get in your good graces, when you returned. Anyway, I should get going. Try and catch some sleep, before the action starts,” he continued.

“Wait,” I said, perking up. I’d just remembered something. “There was one thing I wanted to ask. Something weird happened to me on the way here.”

He leaned closer. “Oh? Do tell.” The shifting images on his mask – which, I was sure, were as deliberate as his voice – seemed to focus, without actually becoming distinct enough to make sense.

“I was driving when, out of nowhere, I was in this… fairy tale forest. Rolling hills, huge trees, vibrant colours, the whole spiel. And when I got out of it, I’d pretty much arrived in Chicago, after just a few hours, total, of driving.”

I think that actually rattled him – I say this because his mirror-mask went blank. Utterly blank, not even reflecting me. There was no other sign of surprise, yet it was the strongest reaction I’d ever seen him have to anything.

“I see… that is rather weird,” he spoke slowly, with less than ten voices – making whatever his actually voice was almost recognisable. Almost. “It ought not to be appearing yet… I wonder why it’s reaching that far…” His voices vanished into an incomprehensible, rapid whisper for a few moments.

I just sat there, watching his still-blank mask as he seemed lost in thought… or perhaps some kind of discussion. To be honest, I was just confused by the whole deal.

Without any other cue, the visions on his mask reappeared, and I was pretty sure he was focusing on me again. “This is a rather worrisome development… for me, Kevin. It ought not to concern you,” he said with his usual chorus of voices. There was something oddly… intense about him. Way more intense than I’d ever seen him. A lot of firsts today.

I shivered at the foreboding nature of the comment. “Are you sure? I’m not easily scared, but you’re creeping me out right now.”

He tilted his head as he leaned back, crossing his arms across his chest. “I’m serious. It’s neither threat nor concern to you, I promise. At least not in any important timeframe. You should worry about your own problems right now – if this becomes a concern for you, I will tell you. Alright?”

When I nodded, he gave me a small nod – and then he was simply gone. No fancy effects, no strange sensation or anything. One moment he was there, the next he wasn’t. I didn’t even have to blink.

“Sure is nice, being able to disappear like that,” I thought before I got up, putting my concerns regarding the strange forest out of my mind. I really wanted to look around the place, after all these years, but there was a kill team on its way… though Journeyman had, as always, only given me the minimal possible amount of information… I didn’t even know who sent them or why… well, either way, I should sleep for as long as I could, so I went up to my bedroom, without even bothering to turn on the lights. I simply took off my shoes, jacket and tie, and dropped onto my bed (it felt just like how I remembered it) and was asleep seconds after I set the alarm.

* * *

The alarm worked flawlessly, just like I remembered it – and just like way back then, I had to use truly saintly amounts of discipline so as not to crush it.

Buddha-like self-discipline won out over primal rage, and I shuffled out of my bed. I didn’t have much time, so I stumbled into the bathroom – going by memory, so as not to turn on any lights and betray myself to the assassins – and washed my face with cold water. I still had some time after that, so I brushed my teeth – stupid as it was, I had missed being able to regularly brush my teeth – and went to check on my wardrobe. My bedroom had no windows, so I turned on the light.

It took me a few moments to blink the tears out of my eyes (due to the light, of course. Not because I was seeing my bedroom for the first time in almost two decades), and then I went to the old hardwood wardrobe and opened it.

Someone – I had a pretty good idea who – had set me up, clothing-wise. And very recently, too, I was sure.

Could Elouise have done all this between seeing me at the ceremony and me coming here? Most definitely, if she has even a fraction of the Matriarch’s resources. I picked out a pair of jeans, some fresh underwear and a black shirt with a white peace sign on it, putting them on. Then I took my socks off, and threw them into the laundry basket with the rest, before I made my way down to the first floor, and out the door.

Then I simply took a stroll down the street, with ten minutes until the projected attack left – I didn’t want to fight here, so close to my home. Too much of a chance of collateral damage, never mind the attention it would draw to me. If these killers were even remotely competent, they’d jump on the chance to attack me during an evening stroll in some remote location, so I gave them just that, making my way towards the old mills near the lake – they were pretty close to my place, at least by my standards (I didn’t get tired easily, and even my normal walk was pretty fast) and I’d bet my house that they were still abandoned and rundown. Tearing what was left of the old steel mills down had been talked about for a long time, but even back then, they didn’t get anything done – I doubted they had, in the intervening time.

The city was as quiet during the night as I remembered it – meaning, anything but. Though Merlin Street was as quiet as ever, by itself, the surrounding city really left no illusions as to this being a metropolis. Cars, horns, more electronic sounds than I remembered, people shouting in the distance… Strange smells that reached even this far, across several streets. Smells that made you question their origins, imagining some pretty awful things. A strong wind that seemed to always blow from the front, pushing you back, or directly from behind, pushing you ahead.

Then, as I left Merlin Street, other people. A few doxies who gave me appraising looks, but whom I honestly ignored – I’d never had to resort to paying for a woman’s attention, not with my looks (and, I had to admit, the skills my father had instilled in me). I just focused on the feeling of pavement beneath my feet, and on spotting my shadows (another skill dad had had me practice relentlessly).

It didn’t take long for me to spot my pursuers. I counted no less than four, and there were probably more that stayed back, following their scouts. Professionals, definitely, but not good enough to hide from me. Though they probably wouldn’t expect me to have black ops training. Few people did, and even fewer metahumans.

Nothing I can’t deal with, I thought as I kept on strolling towards the mills. If they were powerful enough to simply overpower me, they’d have already attacked and then fled before the heroes could interfere. If they’re instead following me, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike, then because they feel the need to do so.

Which meant I would have a major advantage, since I knew they were coming and could control the battlefield. Also, the fact that Journeyman had been sure that I’d beat them with just minor injuries even if they surprised me in my sleep spoke volumes all on its own.

Just a few minutes later, I’d reached the mills. The whole area hadn’t changed much since I’d last come here – ruined factory buildings, even more overgrown and broken now. Scars from super-powered battles littered the entire field, testaments to its popularity for grudge matches apart from immediate interference by the authorities.

Arid earth, sparse, coarse grass and dry twigs cracked underneath the soles of my feet as I made my feet towards the waterfront. A cool wind blew from the direction of the lake, making my hair whip around my face (I really ought to get it cut). The attack should come any time now, and I prepared myself, sharpening my senses.

* * *

They did not disappoint. I barely had time to react before the ground beneath me shook, two broad, shovel-like hands in thick brown gloves emerging to grab me by the ankles.

At the same time, five figures appeared seemingly out of nowhere, all around me. Three in a half-circle in front of me, two more behind that I could only hear. The three I could see were male and wore a skintight black suit that covered them from head to toe, revealing rather impressively muscled bodies, with equally black vests and belts containing God-knows-what additional equipment, and wearing pure white Skull masks with high-tech goggles built in that glowed a menacing red.

Gee, original much?

Despite their rather boring attire (they looked to me like cheap knock-offs of the Corpse Corps), I could tell that these people were trained. And trained well. Something about their stance just screamed ‘experienced killers’.

Which, of course, meant that they weren’t the best. The most deadly people I knew did not radiate such an aura of menace. They didn’t need to.

“Good evening, strangers,” I greeted them casually, smiling at the man at the center of their formation. “Why didn’t you show yourselves earlier? I wouldn’t have minded chatting on the way here, before we fight.”

He tilted his head as I saw the other two tense up. “You knew we were coming?” he asked, his voice made unrecognisable by way of mechanical distortion, reducing it to a monotone.

“I had your team made moments after I stepped out of my house. And I’d known you were coming since the early evening,” I spoke, turning my head left and right to take a look at the other two out of the corner of my eyes – a man and a woman, in the same outfits as the others, though the woman also held a huge rifle of futuristic design in her hands in a way that suggested that she was either very strong or the weapon far lighter than it looked. Their earthworker was still holding onto my ankles. “So, what’s the reason behind this? It’s rather rude to interrupt a guy’s sleep.”

Their leader shrugged. “We’re here to kill you. Nothing personal, just business,” he spoke, his voice even, his stance (apparently) unconcerned.

I sighed, lowering my head for a moment as I took my hands out of my pockets. Then I thought this all over. These people… were not my daughter, nor anyone I cared about, really. And it wasn’t a public fight, either.

No reason to hold back. And besides, the world got a little brighter every time mercenaries like these died, so…

I should let the monkey blow off some steam anyway, I thought as I felt the beast within stir in excitement.

My knockles popped as I stretched my fingers, then curled them up before looking down at the two hands holding onto my ankles.

“You know, my feet are perfectly comfortable in this weather. No need to warm them.”

Then I let the monkey out. Just a little bit.

* * *

Several hours earlier

Nine people were sitting at a round table in a well-lit room, Camille one of them. She was not happy about that. There was one person missing – the most important one, as far as she was concerned.

But Hennessy had been too weak to join them, her mother insisting (rightly) that she stay in bed to rest, surrounded by positive emotions (meaning, her half-sister was spending the night cuddling up to her). The fact that Camille herself had insisted that Henny take a break didn’t make her any more happy to be here without her. Her left hand was hanging limply down the side of her seat, randomly clenching and relaxing as it longed for Henny’s hand to hold.

I should just track the bastard down and kill him, she thought for the millionth time. It was a pointless thought, she knew she wouldn’t do it – she’d never killed, nor did she intend to. Nevermind the fact that she’d probably lose – anyone who could handle Henny on a rage the way he had was way out of her league.

It didn’t make the thought any less tempting.

And so Camille missed Vek’s speech, lost in thoughts of how to get some payback against Henny’s so-called ‘father’. More like sperm donor.

She rose out of her homicidal thoughts when someone shouted her name.

Camille!” Vek’s bleating voice might be an easy target for ridicule, but it was very good at catching your attention. Camille snapped to attention, looking straight at her leader. “Pay attention. The higher ups sent me the dossier on Aap Oordra. I’d like to brief you on him, seeing how we’re likely to have to deal with him in the future.”

Now she really had Camille’s full attention. “What’d we know about that fucker?”

“Language, please,” Director Queensfield said in her throaty voice. The stocky woman in the severe power suit always reminded her of her mother, especially when she reprimanded her. “Miss Petson, please proceed,” she added with a nod towards Vek.

The goat woman nodded and tapped a key that was being projected on the flat table in front of her. A high-quality shot of Aap Oordra’s face appeared on the table, leaving only a thin ring of blackness around it. His face was neutral on it, his hair combed back, his beard neatly trimmed. He looked… gaunt. His eyes were haunted and ringed in black… and yet, Camille couldn’t deny that he looked damn attractive, even like that.

Well, not like someone related to Henny could look bad, she told herself.

“This is what we know of Aap Oordra’s history after he left the USA – he joined the army to fight in the Afghanistan War, but was pronounced missing in action after the Great Clusterfuck – a three-way battle between the forces of the PATO, the SU and the newly-formed Caliphate, interrupted partway through by an attack from Desolation-in-Light. What we know after that is rather more… sketchy. It seems that he was taken by the Sovjet forces after the battle and put in one of their re-education camps in Siberia.”

Camille bit her lip. He’d been a prisoner all this time? That… that was actually a damn good excuse for not being, well, there. No, don’t think like that! Asshole left to join the army, he shouldn’t have done that in the first place!

“What we know since is rather sketchy, and relies on second-hand reports and some files we could get out of the Sovjet Superhuman Committee. He apparently broke out within five days of being incarcerated – just an hour or two after recovering fully from the wounds he sustained during the fight – but was recaptured three days later, before managing to leave the SU territory. Re-education proved unsuccessful, the files noting that he seemed to have gotten extensive anti-brainwashing training, to the point where they suspected a background in metahuman black ops – though his young age at the time makes that highly unlikely. Over the last seventeen years, he broke out of twenty-seven different re-education and containment facilities, and is credited with enabling the escape of more than three-hundred war prisoners, as well as more than six hundred Sovjet citizens who had been kept in these facilities, as well as the killings of no less than three whole teams of the Sovjet’s metahuman capture forces – as well as participating in the subduing of an S-Class threat that ravaged the Mongolian lands. He was recaptured, one way or another, each time, but they paid for it dearly. And this is just the information that our office of intelligence considers reliable. “

The room was filled with stunned silence. That wasn’t the background of a downbeat ex-thrill-villain who’d left his family behind to chase some war glory. Even Camille had to admit that that was freaking badass.

“Aap Oordra – or Kevin Paterson, though we have no way to make sure that that is actually his real name, as he doesn’t seem to have a past before he showed up here in Chicago at the age of sixteen – was liberated by members of the Sovjet rebellion just a short time ago. They found him in the Sovjet’s supermax prison, Koschei’s Chest. He was being held in their maximum security wing, their equivalent of our Tartarus Star Super-Max Section.”

The Junior Heroes around the table visibly shivered at the mention of the name. Koschei’s Chest was not known for its humane treatment of its inmates.

“In keeping with the Ondero Act, he has been pardoned of all his crimes – which is kind of superfluous, as the statute of limitations has expired on most of them, as well as given a veteran’s pension and several cash boni for everything he went through – as well as several medals for his recorded achievements.”

Camille frowned, but didn’t comment. She didn’t like hearing that ass described like a badass war hero.

“More important for us, though, is his relationship to Chayot – you all know of it by now – and his, ah, performance during the Great Clusterfuck,” Vek continued, and changed the image on the table.

Now it showed… a young and very hot guy with wild black hair, tan skin and bright eyes, the air throwing his hair around as he laughed wildly.

It took Camille a moment to connect him to Aap. His features matched, but… he seemed far, far younger, not just physically.

“A quick primer on his powerset and past – Aap Oordra used to be a rather popular thrill-villain and prankster in the nineties, terrorising Chicago’s metahuman community and several political, financial and criminal power figures. No deaths, no serious bodily harm, but a lot of collateral damage, mainly due to the nature of his powerset. He is, to this day, one of only ten recorded true speedsters.”

“True… speedster?” Camille asked, not familiar with the term. She knew several speedsters, but she’d never heard about some kind of true speedsters, whatever that meant.

The senior members of the UH seemed to recognise the term, though, their eyes widening.

“Most speedsters accelerate by somehow cheating physics – they twist time, or partially move into another dimension, or transfer the strain that speeding puts on their body and their environment to some other body or dimension. Usually, this goes hand in hand with a reduction in their ability to affect their surroundings, which limits their combat utility.” She stopped the exposition, taking a deep breath.

The director leaned forward, picking up where Vek had left off. “A true speedster, conversely, is someone who actually speeds up to superhuman speeds, retaining and even increasing their ability to affect the world around them. They combine the strength, toughness, sensory speed, processing speed and coordination necessary to actually move at superhuman speeds – in some cases even supersonic speeds – and not cripple or kill themselves.”

Oh shit, I can guess where this is going.

Vek continued, “Aap Oordra is number five on a list of ten known true speedsters above Paragon tier – he usually limits himself to short bursts of speed, but he has been clocked it at Mach one speeds when given enough space to run in a straight line – and his peak may be even higher. His strength and toughness can match those speeds, and though he doesn’t seem to have perfect control over it – he can’t ignore inertia, for one – he is still considered an A-Class combatant all on his own.”

“No wonder he managed to handle Chayot mostly on his own,” Slough said. He was sitting next to Camille, in a rather normal-looking form (the only thing strange about it were the pink tentacles that replaced his hair). “So, what do we do about him? And what’s so special about his role in that big battle?”

Vek looked intently around the room. “What is special is that he took three direct hits from DiL, and only went down after the third one – and then recovered from the damage he took in less than a week. That speaks of a level of toughness and recovery that is, frankly, up there with Quetzalcoatl and Kraquok.”

I think going after him to kick his ass is now officially out of the question.

“People, this is important,” the Director stated calmly. “Whatever or whoever Aap Oordra may be – wherever he came from, whatever his intentions for going to war were – we know that he is comparable to any single member of the Shining Guardians or the Dark Five. We know that, even when he was a rather irresponsible youth, he still did hold himself back enough to keep his true potential hidden and prevented any truly serious damage. And we know that he cares a great deal for one of our team members and has expressed interest in becoming a part of her life – which may mean that he might be interested in joining the United Heroes. I do not have to tell you how desperately we need people with this level of power and skill.”

Oh, you wouldn’t dare suggest that we…

“So I want everyone here – everyone,” she emphasised with a look at Camille, “To put aside personal grievances and play nice around him. I will not demand nor expect Chayot to welcome him back with open arms, or even pretend to like him any more than she does – but I do expect everyone else here to foster positive interactions with him. He is, as of now, the most powerful metahuman in the State of Illinois – and I’d rather have him on our side than on the opposing one. Clear?”

“Clear!” came a chorused answer from around the table. Even Camille took part, despite her misgivings.

Well, I guess I can try… a bit…

* * *

I washed the blood off my hands in the dark waters of the lake. There was quite a lot of it, even though I had, in the end, refrained from killing anyone. I was still not sure why – I’d never felt bad about killing people like these, not in the least. But something had held me back.

Perhaps I’m just sick of all the killing, after all this time.

The fight hadn’t lasted very long, but it sure had helped me, nonetheless. They’d been tougher than I’d expected, though not by much. I hadn’t gotten hurt at all, in the end.

“I’m very proud of you,” Journeyman’s voice spoke up from my left.

I very pointedly did not flinch, but rather finished cleaning my hands and arms, then turned to look at him while I sat on my haunches. “How so?” I asked him. He was standing with his feet in the water, his robe moving back and forth with each wave, his hand clasped behind his back. He was looking out onto the lake.

“You didn’t kill any of them – unlike in the original future,” he remarked. “That’s good. You shouldn’t kill any more than absolutely necessary.”

I gave him a long look, thinking things over. “You warned me about them… just to save their lives? Not mine, since you said that I wouldn’t have died anyway.”

He shrugged. “That, too. Mainly, though, I did it to prevent you from killing them. A fine distinction, I admit, but an important one,” he answered, pre-empting my follow-up question with that last sentence.

After a few minutes of just staring at him, with only the remote sounds of the city, the sounds of the lake and the moans of the broken bodies behind us around, I nodded and whispered, “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome, my friend,” he spoke in what passed as a cheery voice for him. “Now, I really need to go – altering these events to such an extent will cause one hell of a backlash, and I’d rather not be anywhere near anything alive when it hits me, so I just wanted to give you one last, very important piece of advice – because I won’t be able to help you for quite a while, I’m afraid.”

“Shoot,” I said. He’d mentioned that before, quite a lot of times. Some kind of backlash for altering the events he saw in his visions. The big reason why he wasn’t just fixing the world, as he phrased it.

“You should talk to your father,” he said.

“No,” I shot back as firmly as I could. “No. Not happening.” I sighed. “He… doesn’t deserve it. I’m not giving him that satisfaction.”

Again, he shrugged. “It’s not about what he deserves. It’s about what you deserve. You’re hurting yourself as much, if not more, than him by keeping him away like this.”

I rose up so fast I almost jumped into the air, turning to him. Old, ugly, hot feelings reared their head in the pit of my stomach as I almost lashed out with the monkey. “NO! Not happening! You have no idea what he did to me! To my mother! How he betrayed us, how he fucked everything up, for no reason other than his fucking pride!” I shouted at him, my voice booming across the lake. At that moment, I was quite tempted to attack him, even though I didn’t stand the ghost of a chance.

He finally turned to look at me, somehow conveying… sadness, even though his posture didn’t change, and he had no expression to read. “I’m sure Hennessy says similar things about you.”

The bottom dropped out of my stomach, the tension and anger and hurt draining out of me, leaving behind… cold emptiness.

He bowed his head, slightly, and then simply vanished, leaving me behind on dark shores. Alone.

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B008.5.2 Vra: Acceptance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shouldn’t have told them.

But I had.

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

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

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

Mom sobbed harder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have superpowers? Like the glowy boy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

* * *

 

A minus 2 hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dad loved the community here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Terry…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

* * *

 

A minus 1 hour and 30 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You sure?” asked a chorus of voices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded.

Oh God, please… please…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t hesitate. I grabbed his hand.

 

 

* * *

 

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

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

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

Linda had died here.

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

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

“Watch.”

The door burst open and…

And Linda ran in.

My heart stopped.

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

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

“Hush. Just watch.”

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

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

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

Wait a minute, an assault rifle?

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

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

The Hellhound came closer, approaching her.

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

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

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

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

He turned around and left the factory.

Leaving Linda on the floor. Alive.

What the fuck?

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

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

And everything froze.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

* * *

 

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

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

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

“Why are we here?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

Dancer? A codename?

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

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

What, what, WHAT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not from me,” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

* * *

 

A minus 1 hour

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

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

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

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

Some of them were very scary.

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

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

Then he was gone.

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

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

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

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

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

I need to fight that.

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

I don’t stand a chance by myself.

I needed training. I needed allies.

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

But I needed to put a stop to it. So…

What are my options?

The United Heroes. The Hellhound. The Dark Five.

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

It was time to move forward.

Acceptance

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Interlude 7 – Monkey Business (Part 4)

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I stood there, my… daughter hugging me hard enough to crack a tree (she was strong) and I was just slackjawed.

My life has officially passed from straaaaaange to… I don’t even know to what.

Still, despite the… sensation of mentally running into a wall, over and over, this girl here was my daughter, I was sure of it. That the monkey did not urge me with dark suggestions was proof enough, as were her eyes. And she had obviously been looking forward to this reunion for quite some time. No reason to make her feel unwanted.

So I put my arms around her, slowly. She only hugged me harder in response.

“I’ve dreamed of this day, you know?” she whispered.

“I see.” What was I supposed to say? I’d already been completely out of my depth with Hennessy. The situation may have been different now (I wasn’t getting smacked around, for one – though that could still happen) but… I had nothing. I had no idea what to say or do.

Less than four hours ago, I’d been out to find my ex-girlfriend, maybe hoping to get a second chance with her… now I had two teenage, almost grown-up daughters, one a severely damaged superheroine, the other an active supervillain with a lot of clout and they were supposedly archenemies.

Fun times. Stars above…

I pushed her back a bit so I could look down (even with her substantial heels, she was still way shorter than me) at her face.

She was biting her lower lip, looking insecure.

God, she looked like a child, all of a sudden.

“Don’t take this the wrong way – I know you’re my daughter – but how? I know I used protection the one time I slept with your mother.” Please don’t take this as a rejection.

She bit her lip harder, for a moment, looking away as if ashamed.

I saw her shadow – it looked like it had been circling us – rise from the ground, filling out into a three-dimensional, solid black copy of her. A perfect reflection, but there was no distinction between her clothes and her body, and her face, though perfectly detailed, was empty, emotionless, her eyes as dark as the rest of her.

Something about that shadow just creeped me out.

“Um,” the Matriarch – I so needed to know her name, no way I was calling my own daughter ‘Matriarch’ all the time – tried to speak up, commanding my attention again. “We shouldn’t… shouldn’t discuss this here. Come, let’s go somewhere more private, alright?”

Taking a step back, her hands grabbed my own and tugged, gently. Still insecure.

I nodded and followed her, nodding towards Cartastrophy, who managed to look depressed despite his costume. I gave him a look, and he nodded slightly. He knew not to talk about Chayot. That was not for him to share. I wasn’t even sure if I had the right to share it.

Followed by her now very physical shadow, my daughter pulled me past her divan and through a barely visible door in the wall behind it, then through the hallway beyond the door.

The room at the end of the hallway was far less… ostentatious than the hall. It was circular, with a large circular table, big enough for a group to have dinner together, small enough to still feel private and homely.

It was pretty much the only piece of furniture left in the room from the time I’d last been here. There were new, more modern cupboards along the walls, a large flat screen television and a lot of other stuff. Last time I’d been free and in America, we’d just gotten the first three dimensional screens for home use (they’d sucked). I idly wondered if the technology had taken off or just faded away again.

My attention was pulled back to more immediate, more important matters when my daughter turned around and hugged me again. Hard.

Is this normal? Or is there a special reason for why she seems so… desperate?

I hugged her back, still not sure how to react. Waiting for her to let go once she felt ready.

After a while, she relaxed and stepped back. “Thank you,” she said with a soft voice.

Now I was really confused. “What for?”

That got a weak giggle out of her. “You didn’t push me away. I mean, I’m just a stranger to you, and I just told you I’m your daughter – no proof, nothing – and you still let me hug you. That was nice.”

Well, I had the advantage of the monkey at least considering her a non-target, so I knew there was something special about her.

“To be honest, I just know that there is some connection between us. Can you answer my question now?”

Suddenly, she was all nervous again and walked over to the table, sitting down on a chair her shadow pulled out for her.

I sat down on the opposite side of the table, trying to look more confident than I was (no idea if it worked).

“You… remember that night? With my mother?” she asked, avoiding my gaze.

“Yes… she’d hired me for a caper – needed some muscle in case the heroes showed up, which they did – and after we got away… barely, and all the others got caught… we kind of… ended up back here. We were both euphoric, half-dead from the beating we’d both taken and really… in the mood,” I said, quite uncomfortable with discussing this with my daughter. “We both celebrated a little… right here… with some drinks and then…”

I looked over to the door opposite the one we entered. “Yeah, we went in there. But… I know I used protection, I remember making sure of it.”

She looked down, fidgeting on her seat. Opening her mouth, she almost started to speak, then went quiet again – and then her shadow poked her shoulder… and everything poured out of her.

“It was a setup,” she began. “All of it, the job, you two being the only ones to get away, the drinks, everything. She even… well she sabotaged the… the protection.”

Oh ewww…

“She even made sure it all happened while she was… ovulating. And she took some kind of contriver stuff to make herself extra… extra fertile,” she finished, looking ashamed.

Double eww.

“Why?” Did she know about…

Her shadow put a hand onto her shoulder, making her look at it. I heard something, a whisper I couldn’t understand.

The girl looked back at me. “She… she never did tell me. All I ever heard was that blood was thicker than water, which is just amazingly unhelpful.” She rolled her eyes, or at least I thought she did.

She knew, dammit. No oth-

My eyes fell on her shadow. Standing behind her, its shoulders were shaking… it was laughing, silently and, somehow, smugly.

It knows, I’m sure of it.

I looked back at the girl. She was still avoiding eye contact, but I could also tell, from her face and her eyes, that she was annoyed at the lack of an answer she got from her mother.

Throwing the shadow a suspicious glare – it had stopped moving and was just… well, I was pretty sure it was looking at me, but it was hard to tell… anyway, I was pretty sure that it knew, but she didn’t.

And it knew that I knew that it knew. Because it put a finger to its lips, as if to hush me.

The bottom fell off my stomach, and I felt my heart – and other assorted organs – drop down into my shoes.

She was in the same boat as Hennessy, if in a different way. Her power had a mind of its own, and it could keep secrets from her.

And now I knew, beyond any doubt, that she was my daughter. Even without the eyes, and her mother’s manipulative nature (she’d been famous for it, even without factoring in her power), which when coupled with her legendary lust for power certainly made such a plot probable, I’d always known that having children might be a bad idea. One of the few advises my father gave me, which I actually was thankful for (most of them were just… creepy to give to your child) was that I should be extremely careful about having children… that I should be absolutely sure that I wanted a child, and that I should make sure to be present for it… because they were likely to have issues with their powers.

Though, as usual, he hadn’t explained why any of my children would have issues with their powers. He was an asshole about that.

And now both my daughters… I remembered the figure I’d seen inside Hennessy’s head (or wherever the hell we’d been), and that thing had certainly been alive, though it had not been as overtly distinct from her as this girl’s shadow was.

“… papa?”

“Huh?” I looked up. She was staring at me, worried.

I noticed that I’d been brooding. “Sorry, I spaced out, didn’t I?”

“Uhh, yeah, you could call it that…” she replied, sounding shaken.

Strange.

“I know this is a lot to drop onto your lap all at once, and I know you don’t owe me anything, but…” She stopped, staring to the side. Her shadow whispered something, again, but she waved it off.

I waited for her to continue, folding my hands in front of my face and looking at her over them. I wasn’t the most… savvy person, especially regarding the feelings of others, but I could tell that she was, for some reason, close to a breakdown.

And I had no idea how to deal with it.

Wrapping her arms around herself, she gave me a longing look. “I… If you want, we could… I mean, you probably want to reestablish yourself here, and if you want, you can work with me… or I can work for you, I mean, you’re way more experienced… and it would be really useful for both of us, if…”

Her shadow put a hand to its forehead, shaking its head while she continued babbling.

I just rose from my seat and walked around the table. She only sped up, trying to throw more good arguments at me for why I should join her, or she join me, or… well, she certainly was no smarter than I was, it seemed.

Stopping next to her, I grabbed her by her shoulders and pulled her up into a hug, lifting her off her chair and off the ground, her feet dangling in the air as I buried my face in her rich hair.

“What’s your name?”

She choked, then answered: “Elouise. Elouise Luviere.”

“I’m Kevin Paterson. Call me Kevin, or papa if you insist.” I hugged her close, but not hard enough to risk hurting her.

“Are you… do you mean it? I mean, you never wanted me, and my organization isn’t that great an-“

“Oh, shut up.” I hugged her harder. “I don’t give two shits about any organization or power or money or political advantage. Don’t need any of that, as far as I’m concerned, anyway.” I tried to put as much… how to even call it… you know, that fuzzy tone fathers can put into their voice when they want to reassure their children? I hadn’t exactly gotten much of that, in my time (though I’ll admit that my father tried to be like that), so I didn’t exactly know how to call it. But I tried a fatherly voice, going by what I’d heard from others over the years. “I don’t know you… but I’d like to change that. Try to be a family.”

And I wish I could have just said that to Hennessy. Why didn’t I get my act together back there?

She shuddered, then hugged me back. I thought I heard her crying, but I don’t think she’d have appreciated me commenting on it.

I held her. Don’t ask me how I felt for the year or so we spent like that, because I honestly can’t tell you. It was intense, but that’s all I can put into words.

* * *

After some time – don’t ask me how long – I felt her grip relax. Slowly, more reluctant than I’d thought I’d be, I let go, lowering her onto the floor.

She took a step back, turning in the same motion, right into the handkerchief her shadow was holding, and which it used to clean up her face before I could see it.

I resisted the urge to spout some pun and just waited for her to feel up to talking again.

Maybe I’ll be up to it by the time she is.

Once her shadow was done, she turned around. Her eyes were a little red, and her nose too, but otherwise she looked fine.

“Thank you,” she said, again.

I smirked. Then I reached out with both hands for her mask. She tensed up for a moment, but didn’t resist when I pulled it off.

Underneath she was… surprisingly cute. I mean, she was as beautiful as her mother had ever been, even more so. But where her mother had been gaunt and sharp-featured, she was just… soft. She looked younger than her eighteen-odd years, and I realized that her mask was designed specifically to make her look older. Pair that with her dress and she could pull off twenty-one years, I guess.

“Elouise… do you have a nickname you prefer?” I asked while putting the mask aside on the table.

“Uhh, Lise is fine, I guess,” she said. “Never had a real nickname, to be honest.”

“Really? With a name like Elouise, I’d have thought your friends-“

She laughed out loud – but it wasn’t a happy laugh.

“Friends? You really didn’t know my mother,” she said. “I had peers, rivals, sure. People I could measure myself against. But friends? They would have been a weakness. So she made damn sure I never made any.”

And I thought my dad’s an asshole…

“No friends at all? Even after… when did she die, anyway? How?”

Her face fell, again.

“Oh, uh… did you hear about the whole incident with the Ascendant, five years ago?”

I had to restrain myself not to show the sudden surge of rage I felt at being reminded of him. Her shadow seemed to notice, taking a step closer to her. Ready to protect her.

At least it keeps her safe, huh?

Somehow, that movement calmed me down. Reminded me that I needed to be on my best behaviour.

“I’ve heard of it. What exactly happened to her? She was not a frontline fighter, so…”

She looked away, again. “The boy… they call him Jabberwocky… he had some kind of danger sense and tracking, or maybe a strange kind of precognition. Could tell where the biggest threat to himself was, went right after it. So, the first thing he did was attack the base where the hero and villain superminds were. The precogs, the super-strategists, the data-analysts. It faked out the fighters, faked out even the superminds, came up in the middle of them… and started killing. They didn’t stand a chance. Mom was there because of… well, she had a slew of perception powers, as you probably know. Some low-level precognition, some enhanced awareness, empathy, and so on. A little bit of most. But… Jabberwocky could somehow resist perception powers, if he was close enough to their users, and he took almost all of them down.”

She said all this in a strangely calm voice. I couldn’t tell how she felt about it.

So I decided to just ask.

“How do you feel about that?”

Her mouth clenched up, as did her fists, and it took her a while to respond.

“I hated her, you know? I mean, I loved her, still do, but I also hated her. Still do. I’m just…”

Again, her shadow reached out, pulling her around to face it. It spoke in that incomprehensible whisper again, and she relaxed.

Turning around again, she faced me as her shadow put its arms over her shoulders, letting them dangle limply as it put its head next to hers.

“Sorry, I’m a little… emotional today,” she said.

God, she takes way too much after me. “I can tell.” I took her hand and sat down, pulling her down onto my lap. Thankfully, her shadow melted away, sinking back into the floor.

Maybe it doesn’t see me as a threat anymore?

“Look, Lise, there is a lot I want to talk to you about, but I think we both need some time to really let this sink in, alright?” I certainly do. “Also, I did come here for some business that is quite… pressing. Sorry for bringing it up.”

She shook her head, snuggling against my chest. Damn, she was young, younger than I’d been at her age. “It’s alright. I guess reestablishing yourself after eighteen years – by the way, you really need to tell me what you’ve been doing – is quite a chore.”

She thinks I want to be a supervillain again. I didn’t think that I wanted that. To be honest, my plans consisted of three points. Find the Ascendant. Kill him slowly and painfully. Take care of your daughters, moron!

Three simple points, no overarching plot or anything. Not that I’d ever been prone to those.

“Look, I heard the Ascendant is back in town. I need to find him. Preferably before he pulls any large or small operation.” I managed to restrain the hatred in my voice, and I prayed to God her shadow wouldn’t pick up on it and tell her. It seemed to be… sensitive.

“What for? Do you want an in with him? You’d have all the heroes around after you, if you did. Especially that bitch Chayot and her pals.”

Now I felt like slapping her for using that kind of word in regards to her sister. But she didn’t know. And I wasn’t comfortable with complicating things even more right now.

“Let’s just say there is some old, unfinished business between us. And it’s really urgent. If there is any way for you to get me an in? Just an audience?” Her organization may be diminished, but she is the heir of one of the old guard.

She nodded, never parting from my embrace. “I’ll see what I can do.” Her shadow slithered out of the room. “But it’ll probably take a while.”

“Sure thing, sweetie.”

She giggled and snuggled closer.

This is actually nice. And the monkey hadn’t even tried pissing me off for a while.

* * *

After a while, Elouise had to take care of some business. She put on her mask, aging by at least three years with it, kissed me on the cheek (I kissed her on both, and on the top of her head, which for some reason made her giggle) and went off to work, inviting me to make myself at home.

I told her I wanted to visit my old house and gave her my address and my phone number, both of which she took gleefully in exchange for her own (she lived at the casino, but she had a private cellphone number).

Then, me and Cartastrophy left, taking his car back home.

“Damn, now I’ll lose the other poster, too,” he grumbled.

Thinking about it, I actually said: “Dude, she gave you that one herself. It’s alright, keep it.”

He shook his head. “No way pal. You know why I like those posters. No way I’ll have my friend’s daughter on one of those posters.”

I grunted in affirmation.

We reached the block next to the one I lived at, and I got out of the car to walk the rest of the way.

Merlin Street hadn’t changed at all in the last eighteen years. The houses still looked like they came out of a cheap horror novel, all faux-victorian stonework and stuff. Really gloomy, but with way too much colour in the flowerbeds and on the roofs to feel depressing.

My house was unchanged, too. Someone (probably Dad) had been taking care of it.

I stepped into the old, almost fortress-like building, and was immediately assaulted by the smell of old books, musty wood and carpet.

And there was someone there. The monkey wasn’t smelling anyone, but I could hear someone riffling through my bar. The bottles were clinking against each other.

Without hesitation, I stormed into the living room, half-ready to manifest my monkey hand-

A man stood behind the bar, clad in a dark blue robe with a hood and wide sleeves. As I entered, he turned around, unconcerned, with two glasses and a bottle of seventy-year-old scotch in hand.

“Want a drink?” the most powerful man in the world asked in a thousand and no voices. I could barely see his mirror-like, featureless facemask. It was more of a helmet, really, but almost skintight and shaped so at least a nose and some basic facial lines were suggested by the mirror.

Not that anyone ever paid attention to the mirror itself, because the images it showed usually commanded all of your attention.

Though, seeing how they never made any fucking sense, I’d just gotten used to not paying them attention.

“Hello Journeyman. What have you been up to?” I sat down on a stool in front of the bar counter.

He filled the two glasses, then held out one for me. I took it, we knocked glasses and drank. His glass moved through his mask like it wasn’t even there.

Ah, life gets immediately better once you drink a scotch that’s twice as old as you are.

“Journeying around the world, of course. And then some,” he answered in his freakass voices, his mask showing… images of countless people. Some of them looked like heroes, or villains, or people out of a fantasy novel.

“Anything in particular?”

“Spaceworms,” he said. “Godlike spaceworms, and dancing. But in the end it came down to a little girl with serious control issues.”

“You still don’t make any sense.”

He chuckled, which was really creepy, because it was like a whole opera house was chuckling all at once.

“I pride myself on that. I hear you’ve had some… interesting experiences?”

I took another swig. “Did you know about my daughters?” No use trying to keep a secret from this guy.

He shook his head, his mask flashing through images of Hennessy and Elouise, from childhood to now. Some of them scared me, a lot.

“Had I known, I would have brought you back here immediately. Alas, even my knowledge is limited.”

I snorted and took another drink (Journeyman always knew when to fill up and when to stop).

“I need a break. Got any funny stories to tell?”

“Well, there’s this one about magical lost romans who fight naked elves on giant sloths.”

“Sounds like my kind of story. Shoot.”

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