B13.7 Call of the Sleeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What?

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

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

And then the real fight started.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, I need something else!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And just like that, it was over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brennus walked up to them, followed by Hecate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘My’ goal, not ‘our’, Irene thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irene frowned, studying her closer.

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

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

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

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

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B13.6 Call of the Sleeper

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

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

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

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

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

“Below, huh?” Basil looked down thoughtfully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you hear anything useful?” Polymnia asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you alright?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basil hurried over immediately, kneeling down next to him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You got a problem with my parents?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then all hell broke loose.

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