B12.10 Born At Sleep

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I’m not dead.

Relief surged through Basil as he processed that thought.

Then he opened his eyes – and saw only darkness. Followed by a female groan to his left, and a cough to his right.

The buildings fell on top of us, he remembered. But they were still alive. He didn’t know how just yet, but first things first.

He tested his body, clenching and unclenching his hands, rolling his ankles. Everything seemed to be in working order. There were no new pains, leaving him only with the splitting headache curtesy of barely dodging Crocell’s blast.

With a flick of his fingers, he activated several lights all over his armor, illuminating his surroundings.

At first, he only saw dust. Lots and lots of dust, choking the air, which explained the coughs around himself.

Before he could do anything about it – not that he really had many options – the dust began to move, swirling and gathering into a single clump about the size of a football.

Without it to block sight, his lights could reveal the exact nature of his predicament.

He was in a small cavern created by the collapsing buildings smashing into each other and onto them. Somehow, through sheer happenstance, they had collapsed, broken and ground against each other in such an absurdly lucky sequence that it ended up forming a safe room around the three of them.

His armor wasn’t even nicked.

This can’t be just luck, he thought quietly, turning his head left and right. The woman in brown and Tyche were coughing and spitting out black globs of dust, but otherwise seemed as unharmed as he felt. Still, best to check.

“Are you two alright?” he asked as he got up. The cavern was just barely big enough for even him to stand, though his hood brushed against a desk that’d somehow gotten stuck in the new roof above.

The woman in brown spit out another glob of spit and dust, then coughed roughly, clearing her throat. “Quite alright… against all expectations.” Her voice stood in marked contrast to her understated costume, a pleasant contralto with a midwestern accent he couldn’t quite place.

“I feel amazing, actually,” Tyche replied with a chirpy voice, not bothering to sit up. “Apart from the whole buried alive and mouth full of dust thing, that is.” She turned her head to look at Basil. “What about you, B-Six?”

“Worst I have is a headache,” he said as he inspected the cavern more closely. “I can not see an easy way out, though…”

“There are five airways leading to the outside,” the woman in brown said. “But none of them is big enough to fit even a sparrow, much less a human or three.”

“How can you tell?” The prone girl asked.

“She wields some manner of aerokinesis,” Basil couldn’t help but interject. “Earlier wh-“

“No exposition!” Tyche cut him off. “She has aerokinesis. Don’t need a whole lecture.”

He grumbled under his breath, his back to her as he rapped his knuckles against a particularly sturdy-looking piece of concrete. “We’ll have a hard time getting out of here,” he said bluntly.

Just then, there was an earth-shaking impact, and a roar so loud, they heard it through the rubble.

Tyche cried something out, but it was lost in the scream and the deafening rumble of their little cavern shifting, collapsing, furniture and concrete coming undone to fall…

All around the three of them, without so much as a splinter touching them. When the cacophony and the dust subsided, they found themselves beneath the open sky, the fallen building having literally split open around them.

They didn’t have time to process the situation too well, though, because right after that, a huge, jet-black figure flew over them and slammed into the rubble just a few metre away.

It was Kraquok, in all his twisted, monstrous glory, having just smashed into the already broken rubble only to crush it further. He was bigger than the last time they’d seen him, having grown by at least half a metre in height, and several times that in length.

Before the many-armed monster could rise, Crocell leapt over them as well, landing on him with a deafening boom.

The two immediately began to wail on each other, one savagely, the other with an uncanny grace – for all his twisted form and size, Kraquok was a veteran fighter, and though Crocell was larger and stronger, not to mention standing atop him, he quickly reversed their positions, wrestling the beast into a submission hold, clinging to its back.

Basil didn’t have time to watch what came next, though, as a strong wind picked him and Tyche up, whirling them around the woman as she flew them away from the fight, causing him to lose line of sight for a few dizzying seconds. His ravenbots were still en route, and so could not help him right now.

When they were deposited, it was on the pavement two streets away, out of sight from the battle.

“We ought to be safe for at least a bit, here,” the woman said, bent over with her hands on her knees as she was trying to catch her breath. “My name is Nightingale, by the by. A pleasure to meet you, Brennus, Tyche.”

“You know our names?” Tyche asked in surprise, while Basil studied the woman more closely. Nightingale was not exactly a big name, but he’d read her name in a list of veteran villains – she’d been active for at least three decades by now.

The woman smiled at them, the skin aroudn her lips crinkling into laughter lines. “I’m something of a fan of bird-themed capes and cowls, and try to keep up with any new ones. Call it a hobby.” Suddenly, her smile turned into a frown, as she gave Basil a stern look. “I do hope those birds are actually robots and not some poor animals you’ve experimented on.”

“Is this really the t-” Tyche began, but Basil waved her off.

“They’re simple drones. I used Peregrine’s winged-flight design from Toybox and stuck it on an articulate Raven-shaped chassis, that’s all.”

She went back to smiling, clapping her hands together happily. “Oh, very good! That’s a weight off my chest.”

“Alright, enough with the geek-talk!” Tyche cut in. “What should we do next? Tall, powerful and ugly is still out there tearing up the town!”

“Right,” Basil admitted, focusing on the situation at hand again. Which immediately reminded him of something he should’ve done minutes ago, the moment he’d realised it. “Brennus to central,” he contacted them through the device he’d linked to his own com suite, “Crocell appears to be specifically going after my teammate Tyche.”

Father Manus’ cultured voice, practiced by years of preaching to his congregation, replied, though it sounded weaker than when he had spoken to the gathered capes and cowls before the fight. “Please elaborate, my son.”

“Crocell has repeatedly pursued my teammate, directing its attacks towards her and even ignoring immediate threats in favour of lashing out at her,” he explained.

“One moment,” the preacher replied.

Basil turned to Tyche. “Let’s hope they figure out how to use this.”

“Use… Oh, like, using me as a bait?” she asked, first stunned, then grinning.

He nodded, just as he was contacted again. This time, he made sure to patch Tyche into the connection.

“Brennus, we’ve confirmed your claim,” Father Manus said. “All our analysts agree that it’s accurate.”

“Well, duh, B6 wouldn’t lie about that!” Tyche cut in with a snort, before Basil could cut her off.

“Of course, please excuse the implication – I did not mean to insult anyone,” the holy man replied smoothly, never missing a beat. “It is good you are listening in – would you be willing to coordinate with us so as to maximise the distraction you appear to be to Crocell in our favour?”

Tyche crossed her arms and rolled her eyes, not that Manus could possibly see that. “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t. What’d you need me to do?”

“Splendid, my child!” he replied warmly, making her look… embarrassed? No, that wasn’t it, and Basil didn’t know how to parse the emotion that ran across her face and posture. “I shall send a flier to pick you up at your current location, along with an escort.”

“I can take her,” Nightingale spoke up, as if she’d been listening the whole time.

Aerokinesis… she probably can listen in on any conversation within her range, Basil noted, filing it away for future reference. Note to self, determine maximum and possible minimum range.

Father Manus must’ve heard her, too, because next, he spoke through the communicator on her belt, and told her where to take Tyche.

The redhead turned to Basil, meanwhile, and smiled. “Guess I’m going on a solo adventure, B6.” In spite of her bravado, she couldn’t quite surpress her nervousness.

“Do not hog all the loot,” he said, reaching out to put an armored hand on her shoulder, giving her as gentle a squeeze as he could through his own and her armor. “And stay safe.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m always safe, B6. You know that. You’re the one I’m worried about, so please don’t get yourself torn and broken – like last time.”

“I shall. Now go and do your job – I’ll do mine.” He let go of her just as Nightingale summoned a gust of wind that picked them both up.

Tyche saluted him casually before they flew out of sight beyond an office building.

Basil looked in that direction for a few moments, before he looked around. The street was now deserted, the fight having moved further on.

I wonder what I can do, he thought quietly as he triggered his grappling gear, catapulting himself up onto the tallest rooftop within reach. So far, nothing I have done has had any measurable effect on this fight whatsoever. Aside from keeping Tyche alive, but that was probably her power at work, not me.

He saw a dustcloud rise, several blocks away, and the unmistakable sound of the battle continuing, and immediately took a running start, leaping off the rooftop towards it.

His grappling system kicked in, swingning and throwing him towards it as he handled the controls. Even so, he’d grown used to the system by now, and could operate it casually enough to let him continue contemplating his role in this.

Without his ravens – there were only two left – he could no longer serve that well as overlook or Search and Rescue, at least not to a meaningful degree; while his medical training (of unknown origin) was easily up to performing heavy-duty surgery, that wasn’t really an option on a battlefield, nor necessary at the base camp, where actual healers and certified surgeons were available. Nor could he transport the injured, his grappling system put too high a stress on the bodies it moved, and wasn’t calibrated to transport a whole other person over a large distance, much less safely so.

His rifle, meanwhile, had proven completely ineffective by any standards. He might as well just have thrown stones at the thing, it was that much of a waste of effort.

Basil was still in thought when he swung upon a dust-covered four-storey office building with a tipped-over neon sign on top, and got a good look at the battle below.

Crocell was ringing with Kraquok, their huge bodies locked in a brutal struggle, as capes and cowls with ranged powers pelted the monster whenever they had free shot.

Then, Crocell managed to wind itself out of Kraquok’s grip, moving as if its bones had temporarily turned into water, and got a grip on one of his leftside arms, wringing the supervillain down to the ground.

As Basil watched, it stepped on his back and tore at his arm, ripping it free of its socket in a massive spray of blood.

Kraquok roared, but it wasn’t in pain – it was in triumph, as the stump almost immediately stopped bleeding and new flesh began to grow out of it.

While Crocell was throwing the giant arm it had ripped free away, a new one grew in its place, easily half again as long and thick as the one lost.

The twisted supervillain planted his new, oversized hand on the ground, as the growth began to spread from the stump like super-fast cancer; first the shoulder bulged, irregularly, then the other arms, the neck, the torso proper, and so on, his monstrous body growing to one-and-a-half times its previous size in irregular fashion, the process tumultous enough to make Crocell lose its footing and fall off of him.

Basil watched, fascinated, as the enlarged Kraquok rose to his full height, drawing himself up as his upper body twisted around to face his foe. Both of his faces were grinning in savage bloodlust as he opened his lower, crocodile-like mouth, drawing in air.

He knew what was coming – he’d heard a lot about it, even seen some spotty recordings online, but none of them had shown it in its entirety.

A dark red glow appeared in the back of Kraquok’s throat, and within his chest, pulsing with every heartbeat – in fact, judging by the location and shape of the glow in his chest, which could be seen even through his thick skin and armor-like scales, it was literally his heart that was glowing – as he seemed to take a deep breath, drawing himself further up onto his hind legs.

Then he bent forward, and his power exploded out of him in a wave of crimson, almost blood-like fire that washed over Crocell and everything around and further behind it, creating a cacophonous sound like water suffused with enough waste to make it thick, rushing over sharp stones, breaking. Wherever the crimson flames touched, things did not burn – instead, they withered, aged, rotted away, from the plants it touched to streetlights and even the concrete itself, quickly being reduced to dust.

Basil could not tell what, if any, effect the Mortal Coil, as it was often called, had on Crocell – but he sincerely doubted it was a pleasant one. There was a whole thread on Toybox populated by people trying to analyze the properties of Kraquok’s greatest offensive weapon; all anyone had been able to determine was that it actually aged whatever it touched, somehow accelerating the passage of time for any matter or energy it came into contact with. It decayed super-tough armor, force-fields, energy beams, defenses based on strange, sometimes even abstract mechanisms – in short, it could penetrate most any defensive measures available to most anyone; it’s only flaw being that he had to hit a certain minimal size before he could employ it in the first place.

Which he’d obviously just done, because he was pouring it out all over Crocell. It was a focused breath, too, with only minimal collateral damage.

The buildings around the two of them were already falling apart, aging decades, maybe centuries, wherever the slightest ember touched them, introducing numerous faults within their structures.

One of Basil’s ravens saw Hecate approach, as her shadow form landed just a few metre away, resolving into her costumed form. Basil was focused on the display of power in the distance (he was curious, but not stupid enough to try to get closer in order to get some better readings), but he lifted a hand to greet her, show that he had noticed her approach.

She came to a halt standing next to him and briefly touched his hand, trading a reassuring squeeze.

Her hands were drenched in blood up to the forearms. He did not inquire – if she wanted to share the story behind that, she would.

“Reminds me of my aging fire,” she spoke instead, her voice betraying weariness. “Though I don’t think I could ever make it that powerful.”

“It is certainly humbling,” he replied. “Neither your nor my defenses would be of any use against it and it would most likely burn away Gilgul’s time in an instant, unless her power somehow renders her immune to it.”

She nodded, as they watched Kraquok’s breath peter out. A few seconds later, they could see Crocell on the ground. Its skin was gone, exposing muscle and sinew – or at least, what appeared to be such, because it all seemed to be made of the same, uniform, pale white material as the rest of its body, from its bones to its softest organs. Pale, water-like fluid was flowing all out of it, pouring on the ground below.

And it was still moving, rising to its feet with no visible change to its speed or dexterity, even though at least forty percent of its legs and arms were gone. Its eye was gone, but that didn’t seem to impede it at all as it swung a bubbling, rapidly regenerating fist at Kraquok’s head, knocking the surprised villain over.

His heavy form toppled and crashed onto the street behind him, jaw broken for a few seconds before it fixed itself, growing slightly in size and said increase spreading throughout his entire form.

Crocell was absolutely dripping bubbles as its entire front regrew, stepping forward as it reached for the prone villain.

Then a mighty roar that reminded them both of nothing so much as a certain beloved movie trilogy filled the air as a massive figure leapt onto a rooftop adjacent to the street the fight was taking place on, and from there onto Crocell’s back.

“The hell is that!?” Hecate exclaimed in surprise, as giant claws dug into Crocell’s hide for purchase, while razor-sharp teeth bit into its neck.

“Oh my… that is the Ultrasaurus Megarex!” Basil exclaimed in glee. “I did not know Totemic had hunted it down!”

The huge beast was easily four and a half metre tall at the hips, and over twenty metre in length, which was further extended by the crown of jetblack, curved horns extending from its head, and the even longer, similarly coloured spikes on the tip of its tail. Its teeth and claws were similarly black and overly sharp, but the rest of its body betrayed its identity – instead of scales, it had messy, dark brown fur from the tip of its tail all the way to its snout and its front arms were grossy elongated and twisted, looking like gnarled wood.

“Ultrasaurus… Megarex… why do I even ask?” Vasiliki rested her face on her palm. “H-how…”

Basil shrugged as he watched Totemic savage the far larger Crocell with tooth, nail and stinger, drawing it away from the slowly rising Kraquok.

“There was this boy in Australia, a contriver who would clone dinosaurs and release them into the wild. Then he hit puberty and suddenly, ‘old’ dinosaurs were not cool enough anymore so he… innovated.”

“Oh, golly,” she replied with all the enthusiasm of a person lacking a Y-Chromosome. “So, anyway, what are we going to do? We’re still as superfluous as before, except for Tyche.”

“I intend to watch, study and figure out how to contribute,” he replied as he readied his grappling hooks. “As well as provide emergency support where necessary and possible.”

He leapt off the rooftop, as the fight moved further down the street, and onto a taller building a few houses down and across the street. Hecate landed next to him moments later.

“You’re not asking how I knew about Tyche,” she said.

“I assume you were listening in on our talk with Father Manus, seeing how you are patched into my communication suite.”

“I was just checking.”

As they talked, a horizontal funnel appeared around the three combatants, drawing in dust, rubble and the mist that kept forming around Crocell’s general location. Turning their heads, they saw Charybdis stand about a hundred metre down the street from the two-on-one battle, her brother behind her ready to lift off as she kept her mouth open.

The suction increased with every second, and the two giant metahumans began pushing Crocell closer to her, throwing both their body weight against it even as the strange monster dug its heels in to withstand the simultaneous pull and push.

Even Basil and Hecate had to brace themselves against the powerful winds that Charybdis’ power was summoning, though fortunately, they were far enough away from her for that to not actually be much of a problem – her vortex was tearing the facades off the buildings on the street, and still building up more power.

Still, it did not seem to be enough – Crocell had simply dug itself deeply into street, braced against her vortex, while neither Kraquok, nor Totemic were large and powerful enough to dislodge it. Instead, it seemed to be trying to move them around, to put them between itself and Charybdis, slowly edging the smaller Totemic to its side.

Is it really that smart? Basil thought, surprised. It had not, so far, shown any real intelligence, but it was now clearly trying to maneuver its enemies and use their ally’s powers against them.

And honestly, it might have worked – it was clearly stronger than either Kraquok or Totemic, and it had the advantage of the suction making it easier to move them into its way – but just then, a flier came into sight.

It looked, at first, like an oblong, almost elliptical mass of smooth mercury, flying through the air with its broad side in front, but as it approached, its form rippled like water and receded, until it was merely a floating disk, with two people atop. One was a man a costume styled to evoke a Roswellian alien, only taller, with black lenses over its eyes. He stood atop the mercury-like disk, his arms crossed in a stern pose.

The other passenger was Tyche, standing in front of him with a cocky grin.

“Oh God, what’re they planning…” Hecate whispered.

Crocell immediately turned its head nearly one-hundred and eighty degrees to look straight at Tyche. Abandoning its attempts to reposition its closer foes, it opened its mouth wide and fired its destructive beam straight at Tyche, headless of the still-active vortex in its way.

Predictably, the beam wavered, then was diverted, pulling down into the vortex to be sucked into Charybdis’ mouth on a spiraling path.

Nevertheless, Crocell kept firing as it now actively walked towards her.

“A distraction,” Basil explained, though it shouldn’t be necessary. “Looks like it still prioritises going after Tyche whenever she’s near enough.”

“I’d really, really like to know why,” Hecate said, worry in her voice – until Tyche started dancing around on the platform and  goading the beast by slapping her own butt at it. “On second thought, I totally understand the desire to liberate the world of her presence.”

“Admit it – you would miss her, too,” he teased her.

Crocell seemed to finally realise, meanwhile, that his attack was bearing no fruit, and stopped firing his beam. Only by that point, Kraquok and Totemic had gotten a good hold of its arms and shoulders, keeping it facing Charybdis, who took the chance to close her mouth.

“There it comes,” Basil commented, not that Hecate didn’t already know perfectly well how Charybdis power worked.

The young woman leaned back, as if taking a deep breath, and then she threw her head forward, her mouth snapping open in a silent scream.

A focused blast of compressed energy and matter shot forward to impact Crocell – but it started moving as soon as she fired, twisting its shapeless body. Its arms and shoulders… simply became boneless, like sacks filled with fluid, allowing it to simply twist out of its foes’ grip and duck beneath the blast.

“Oh fuck!” Hecate shouted as it shot past them. “That’ll blow an entire block away!”

They watched the blast fly down the street with a loud, ear-rending whine; but before it could hit a building – or worse, a person, for there were several approaching heroes down that way – a shadow dropped from above and into its way.

It was promptly engulfed into a huge, though strangely shaped explosion, most of its destructive energy being directed upwards or forward at a high angle.

“Did you see that shadow?” Basil asked as he wrapped an arm around Hecate’s waist, steadying her against the shockwave that nearly bowled them over. He had to rely on his grappling hooks to stay upright, again.

“Yeah, what could it have been… oh my God,” she finished with a whisper, as the explosion faded.

The Subjugator hovered forward out of the cloud of smoke it had thrown up, shimmering, shifting force-fields in front of it, shaped in such a way as to divert the worst of the explosion harmlessly upwards. Lights were glowing all over its blocky, yet elegant form, as vents opened, unleashing a pale blue glow.

Its four ‘eyes’ were rotated to face forward and briefly flared up in, causing the force-fields in front to dissolve starting from the centre, as the huge barrel on top of it further extended, until it was twice as long as the actual aircraft itself.

“DEFENDERS OF THIS CITY!” blared a chorus of powerful voices further amplified by its speakers – and also patched through all of their communication devices.

It is even in our private channel… Basil thought with some trepidation. He hadn’t even noticed an attempt to hack it.

“YOU HAVE FAILED TO CURTAIL THIS BEAST WHICH SO RUDELY INTERRUPTED OUR GATHERING!” Light began to gather in the depths of its gun barrel, as if motes of blue light were being drawn in and gathered, while electricity arched within the barrel. “NOW WALLOW IN YOUR SHAME AS THIS SUBJUGATOR FULFILLS YOUR DUTY!”

The glow became brighter and more intense, until even Basil had to avert his eyes, in spite of his mask’s filters.

“BEHOLD THE AWESOME MIGHT OF OUR GLORIOUS SOVEREIGN!!!”

It fired straight at Crocell.

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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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B012.9 Born At Sleep

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Crocell’s eye swiveled around, passing over the approaching capes and cowl – to focus, apparently, on Tyche again.

“The fu-” she started to say before Basil tackled her out of the way of the beam of whatever-it-was that Crocell sent her way.

The two of them fell off the roof as half of it – the half Tyche had been on – was disintegrated. Hecate, having stood on the other side of Basil from Tyche, was safe, though she smoked away just to be safe.

Basil fired a hook, swinging away from the doomed building – but clearly, Crocell wasn’t done, as it turned its head to pursue them with its lethal beam. He saw it approach them and knew that there was no way he could evade it – but Tyche could, maybe, if she turned to smoke, so he threw her away from himself.

“What are y-” she began to shout, only to be interrupted again.

“Smoke away!” he shouted, and she did as the beam approached.

If I swing around the building, I might get away, he thought, only then it was rendered moot as Kraquok tackled Crocell, one arm punching it’s barely existent jaw to snap its mouth shut.

The multi-limbed cowl roared as he pushed against the even bigger monster, whose limbs were still stuck to the ground by the silvery field the girl from the Feral family – Mercury, if he remembered their roster correctly – and bent it over backwards.

Crocell tried to open its maw, perhaps to roar but more likely to blast Kraquok off of itself, but the veteran fighter was using two of its limbs to hold it closed, while bending the feral monstrosity backwards – if it’d had anything like a classic skeleton, it’d have a broken spine by now; Kraquok was very nearly straddling it at this point, Crocell’s head and back just a metre or two away from touching the ground and getting stuck to Mercury’s field.

“Come on…” he couldn’t help but whisper as he swung onto another building. It would’ve been smarter to get out of sight, to only watch through his ravens, but he really, really wanted to see the pro’s go to town in person.

Evidently, others felt the same way, as capes and cowls gathered around the park. Whether they were holding back out of morbid curiosity, or because they didn’t want to get in the way (and possibly get hit by Kraquok’s infamous breath weapon), hold back they did, as Tyche and Hecate joined Basil again. Gilgul was up above, closer to the battle, looking for a chance to strike.

“Hey B, thanks for saving my ass – again,” Tyche said lightly, though Basil could hear an undercurrent of actual gratitude hidden beneath her light-hearted demeanor.

“I wonder why it’s been targeting you,” Hecate said, seemingly more worried than Tyche herself. “You’re hardly the most dangerous person around, and yet it’s been going after you every time it hasn’t been distracted by others.”

The redhead girl shrugged, just as Kraquok finally succeeded in bending Crocell over to the point where its head and shoulders were now stuck, leaving the monster now bent backwards in a rather grotesque way, its limbs flailing around uselessly.

He immediately got out of the way, at the same time that Doc Feral made a simple hand motion, and the whole Feral family sprang into action.

Wunderkind downed a glowing potion. Several others either drank or injected or, in one case, inhaled various concoctions. Doc Feral herself stabbed an injector into her left forearm. Only Mercury (a name she couldn’t possibly have claimed had it not been in the Feral Family for decades) kept her current power, maintaining the hold on Crocell.

And then they ripped into the beast.

They acted in pairs, at least, if not in trios. Basil couldn’t even tell what the individual powers they’d picked were, as they never used them independently of each other; instead, they heterodyned with an ease that made his and Polymnia’s gadgeteering session seem anemic. Brilliant beams of spiraling energy, twisting, semi-solid masses of corrosive light, vicious exploding mist lashing out like a lovecraftian horror with countless tentacles and more assaulted their prone quarry. Some of them stuck together, some only combined for a single attack before they cycled through partners, powers or both.

The result was a glorious, perfectly coordinated storm of destruction that flayed the flesh off Crocell’s side and hips. Clear fluid shot out as if it was filled with high-pressure hoses, as masses of pearlescent, pale white flesh and what looked like cartilaginous bones (in a configuration which seemed to be meant for a fish rather than a humanoid) were exposed, and the assault didn’t stop there – they only dug deeper.

The cacophony of the Feral Family’s attack was bad enough, but Crocell trumped them all a moment later, screaming at such a high volume, Basil had to steady the girls again as they reeled from the attack. Hecate even dropped her staff in favour of holding her hands over her ears, while Tyche’s rifle only remained with her due to the strap she was carrying it by.

And the monster kept screaming, only rising in pitch. Glass shattered for several blocks around the park, as people collapsed with their ears bleeding. The Feral family was hit the hardest, as they were also closest. Even Kraquok reeled, stumbling in disorientation.

Basil’s ravens were being destroyed as well, and he’d actually made an effort to make them resistant to sonic attacks; since it clearly hadn’t been sufficient, he sent them away instead. Even so, he was down to just two ravens now, out of what had once been a whole unkindness.

He took a step back, holding onto the girls, as he furiously thought about some way to get them to safety – as well as himself, as he didn’t know how long his own protection would hold out against this level of noise.

All that was rendered moot, though, as all the sound suddenly vanished; they were all plunged into total silence, silence so complete, it made Basil’s ears ring.

He looked up to see Gloom Glimmer in the air above, cape billowing with the now soundless pressure of Crocell’s cry, her left arm extended, palm up, with a blueish sphere the size of a softball hovering above it.

She was looking furious, her eyes turned red and black again.

An impact shook the building Basil was standing on, drawing his attention away from her. In the seconds he’d been distracted, the Feral Family had managed to recover and gone back to their assault on the giant monster. Three of them – Basil didn’t recognise them, but they looked like father, mother and son in matching costumes – were standing together, holding hands in a triangle formation. They raised their intertwined hands in synchronous motion, then brought them down – and with them came a pillar of what appeared to be solid gold, slamming into Crocell’s midsection, where he’d been regenerating the damage done to him – it served to both slow down his visible regeneration and also kept him down, as Mercury had passed out from the sonic assault, freeing him from the silvery field she’d covered the ground beneath him with. The rest of the family was no slouch either – Doc Feral was leading a group of five, the others teaming up in pairs of two or three, renewing their assault on the beast.

Basil and the girls all watched in awe as they blasted the beast across the park, slowly but surely driving it down the main street to try and get it out of the city. It was, frankly, not something they’d expected from the Ferals.

The Shining Guardians were the favourite subject of more message boards, talk shows and video channels than one could count, and one of the favourite pastimes of them was to compare the members of the group, both past and present, and rank them – in these rankings, the Feral Family usually took last place.

Fleur was Lady Light’s former sidekick, the first she’d taken on since Elysium’s death; a hugely successful heroine whom many described as a good Weisswald, power-wise.

Quetzalcoatl was, frankly, a monster, a catastrophe made flesh which, in any sane world, would be hunted down by any means necessary. Since he lived in Brazil, though, he was a national hero.

Severance was the last truly original member, mysterious and shrewd enough to keep the nature of his power a secret over a seventy-year career.  He was als somehow managing to keep a lid on crime in New Johannesburg, which spoke volumes about his capabilities. The criminals of that city supposedly feared him more than Sovereign.

Huong Long was young, had a questionable history, big problems with the Japanese Sentai and the kind of power that had catapulted her to the world stage within a month and a half of manifesting.

Doc Feral, meanwhile, only ever showed up with her family – Basil wasn’t even sure whether there was any footage of her fighting on her own – and they usually stayed in the back of the big fights, overshadowed by the flashier. members of the Shining Guardians and even some other heroes.

Or, perhaps, they simply prefer a support role when there are others around to stand up front, Basil though. The way they work, they’re probably better-suited to it, anyway.

Clearly, though, they could bring the hurt when necessary. Crocell was being driven out of the city, screaming and trashing without a sound, as the gathered heroes and villains followed the stoically advancing Feral Family.

Gloom Glimmer floated down to move along Basil and the girls, along with Gilgul.

“I feel so darn useless,” Gilgul admitted, sounding both awed and annoyed. “What are we even here for? The Ferals seem like they can take him down on their own.”

“They can’t keep this up forever,” Gloom Glimmer explained, her voice reverberating oddly with itself. “Some of them can only make small amounts of formula a day, others can only take a limited amount of it per day without serious side effects and every one they lose reduces their overall power exponentially.”

“So they have a lot of power, but not a lot of staying power,” Hecate summarised. Gloom Glimmer nodded in affirmation.

“How is Polymnia?” Basil asked curiously. “Those screams can not have been good for her.”

The floating girl bit her lower lip, a look of frustration spreading over her face. “It knocked her out. I was able to fix her ears and wake her up, but… I couldn’t fix the pain it caused. She’s at the command post.”

“Your power is not cooperating?” He watched the Feral family change powers, creating no less than eleven different kinds of bindings, from purple chains to arms growing out of the ground, while Doc Feral, Wunderkind and one other member were charging up what looked like a small sun.

“I’m used to it,” she said, as they watched them blast the immobilized Crocell square in the chest, causing an explosion of steam which obscured all vision. “Though I really would’ve thought I’d want to ease her pain to get a power for that…”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Tyche told her as she patted the floating girl’s shoulder. “I got nothing like control over my power and if it’s taught me one thing it’s that you can’t take it personally. Powers are weird.”

Gloom Glimmer giggled, reluctantly, just as a strong, cool wind picked up.

Basil turned his head and saw the woman in the brown costume again, standing next to Prospero. She had her arms raised, waving them about as if conducting a play, as the wind blew the steam away.

Prospero, meanwhile, was holding his staff up over his head with both hands, holding it horizontally, as he seemed to… cuss at the sky?

One of Basil’s ravens was close and he sent it closer still, until its microphone (battered though it was) picked up a steady stream of insults, curses and general derogatory comments, which Prospero was shouting at the air at the top of his lungs, while a humanoid figure formed out of the wind that the woman in brown was moving.

It looked androgynous, sexless, with long, ethereal hair several times its height of about a metre and a half. Once it was fully formed – though still translucent – it flew out towards Crocell, while Prospero went to work cussing up another spir-

“Brennus, why are you giggling?” Hecate asked in a worried tone of voice.

“I, ah, I just… nothing,” he replied, once had himself back under control. Well, mostly. It was still too funny, even for him. He looked over at Prospero drawing more of his wind spirit out of the air, aided by the woman’s power, as he continued shouting at his own creations. Basil stifled another giggle. He’s cussing up a storm.

The steam was gone, by that point, and they could see the results of it all. Crocell was picking itself up off the ground, having been pushed very nearly to the city’s limits, most of its front flayed off to the muscle. Even now, it was regenerating, the attack apparently having had no greater effect, than previous efforts.

The Feral Family had retreated by about fifty metres, while several of the present heroes were forming up a line between them and the monster. Hollywood’s sphere of light was hovering up above the battle, providing its boons to all defenders of the city.

Weirdly enough, Basil couldn’t make out Kraquok anywhere, even though the monstrous villain had grown far too big to simply slip out of sight. A few others were missing, as well – Waverider and Father Manus. He could see Amy, hovering over a nearby rooftop, circled by several compressed spheres of metal – former cars she’d turned into impromptu projectiles. Lamarr was nowhere to be seen. Nor had Totemic or Sovereign’s Subjugator made an appearance yet.

Let’s hope they’re planning something big, Basil thought to himself, though he didn’t share his thoughts with the others.

“I’m going to join the heavy hitters,” Gilgul announced, looking at the girls, then at Basil, nodding quickly. “Stay safe, all of you.”

“Yes ma’am,” Basil replied, his mask hiding his smile as she flew away towards the line of frontline fighters.

Gloom Glimmer nodded to them and flew ahead as well.

“What do we do, B-Six?” Tyche asked him. “We’re kind of superfluous here.”

Hecate made a surprisingly refined snort. “I don’t think so. I’m going to get closer and angle for a shot. See you two later.” And she burst into smoke, flying away before either of them could say anything.

Basil took a look at Tyche. She was still unharmed. Barely a speck of dust on her; she’d even managed to keep ahold of her rifle, which he was quite glad about – it was nearly a match to his own, in sheer stopping power, though it lacked some of the more exotic (and delicate) additions his rail gun had, and it would have been hideously expensive to remake.

“We are going to run Search and Rescue, I guess,” he replied. “I only have two ravens left, but between them and your luck, we should be able to h-“

He saw it move through the one raven he’d sent up above, keeping a bird’s eye view of the battlefield, and reacted at the last moment, throwing himself at Tyche and knocking her out of the way at the last moment, just as Crocell shot another beam aimed straight at her. It missed them by barely an inch, very nearly blasting off Basil’s legs.

The sonic boom it caused hit them in spite of Gloom Glimmer’s power negating the actual sound of it, shaking Basil to the core and disorienting him greatly.

He very nearly threw up in his mask as his sight turned black for moments, and he lost all sense of direction while he and Tyche were thrown off the roof, approaching the ground in a graceless tumble.

Acting on reflex, he fired his grappling hooks left and right, hoping for some, any kind of purchase – but the blast had damaged the left one, causing it to get stuck, while the other one didn’t hit anything but air.

And then his and Tyche’s fall was suddenly arrested, as the air itself seemed to catch them, bringing them to a brain-shaking halt.

“Ugh…” Tyche made a sick sound, before she audibly threw up – fortunately, she didn’t throw up on him. That would’ve seriously crimped his white cape’s style.

Slowly, Basil’s vision returned as he and Tyche were deposited on the street, just in time to see the woman in brown float gracefully down to meet them. Unfortunately, as his vision sharpened, he saw that the impact had caused a lot of damage to his equipment – especially to his mask’s HUD and cameras, forcing him to trigger the failsafe and open up two slits for his eyes. Well, it’s this kind of situation I built them in for.

“Are you two alright?” the woman asked with a voice that didn’t match her boring, rather forgettable costume – it was strong, weathered, a practiced voice that could easily be heard across the roar of a storm – and which drew his attention away from inspecting the damage readouts he still had access to.

Tyche groaned, heaving, but Basil righted himself and nodded. “We are quite fine. Thank you for the save.”

She nodded. “Let’s get out of here before that thing-“

There was a roar, and then a groundshaking impact, and then the two buildings behind them – including the one Crocell had shorn the top off of – began to topple towards them.

Basil didn’t bother wasting breath to curse or anything – instead, he grabbed Tyche by her upper arm and charged forward, hooking his other arm into the woman’s own, and pulled them with him as he ran to the right, trying to get out of the collapsing buildings’ arc.

But it was too late and the two constructions, built to fit the modern customs and regulations (you really couldn’t afford having buildings be too easy to bring down, nowadays) crashed down atop them with a deafening noise.

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B012.8 Born At Sleep

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“Is that… what in God’s name is that supposed to be?” Prisca asked in a hushed voice as they stared at the thing facing the city.

It looked, at first, like a giant blueish-silvery sack, barely held in a roughly humanoid shape thirty to thirty-five meters tall – it was hard to tell, as it still stood partly in the water. There was no visible neck – its body simply ended in a conical top. No shoulders, either – its arms simply hung from its upper torso. There were no joints visible anywhere. Its body was pear-shaped, its legs extending from its bottom without any visible hips. It had a half-opened, rather tiny mouth on its head lacking actual lips and showing rows upon rows of irregular, conical teeth set in jet black gums. Above said mouth and slightly to the side, it sported a single, huge black eye with a red iris. The eye was so big, only half of it fit into the socket, with the rest poking out, like a chamaeleon’s eye, only bare. It was swiveling around chaotically, as if it didn’t know what to look at. It would’ve looked utterly ridiculous, if it wasn’t so big.

It’s skin, which had an almost metallic blue-silver colour, was unbroken, smoothly covering everything except for its mouth and its eye. As they watched, it took a single, lumbering step on to dry ground, and the moment its foot – more of a pseudopod – touched the concrete of the street running along the beach, its colouration changed, starting with the parts that had touched ground, a dusty grey colour crawling up its form and covering it from head to toe. At the same time, its whole body contracted, literally compressing itself as it shrank to half its former height, less than twenty meters. It was still pear-shaped, only its upper body was now noticably more human, with pronounced shoulders and thick arms ending in actual, if only three-fingered hands instead of five pseudopods sticking out of another, bigger one. Its legs were more detailed as well, bending with proper knees instead of merely being two straight pillars.

It opened its mouth wide and made a long, low rumbling sound, almost like a man gargling but turned up to eleven.

“Oh, jolly,” Basil said. “It’s not only a giant monster, now it’s a giant, camouflaged, mobile monster.”

“Isn’t this better, though?” Dalia asked. “Smaller now.”

“Harder to hit,” Vasiliki countered. “Better able to hide among buildings, on top of being able to visually camouflage itself. And unless it somehow reduced its overall mass, it ought to be denser now, as well. Several times tougher than before. Exponentially so, perhaps, though I am not an expert in such matters.”

“Assuming that proportions remain the same, mass octuplicates every time height doubles,” Basil supplied. “It just cut its size in half, so assuming its mass is proportional to its size and there are no weird things – well, no weirder things – going on here, that means its now eight times tougher than before.”

“Oh,” was Dalia’s only response.

“Maybe it’s not so bad,” Prisca said hopefully. “It hasn’t attacked anything yet, maybe it’s-“

Whatever she wanted to say was cut short when the giant roared so loudly it shattered the windows of every building from the beach front all the way to their building – and beyond. Vasiliki and Dalia cried out in pain, though Basil and Prisca were fortunately unaffected.

Basil reached out with both hands, grabbing onto Vasiliki and Dalia in order to steady them. “Prisca, overwatch,” he said calmly, trusting the com system he’d handed out to his team members to transmit his words even over the deafening cacophony the enemy had unleashed.

He saw the gilded girl take off, flying up and towards the monster so as to keep an eye on it – and to test its defenses; after all, Prisca was quite safe, no matter how it retaliated against Gilgul. If that thing could even bring up the firepower necessary to destroy her.

The communicators they’d gotten earlier spoke up moments after the sonic assault ended. Father Manus’ deep, calm voice said, <Attention, everyone, the enemy appears to be capable of-> but the rest of it was cut off by another scream which shook the buildings.

Damn it, Basil thought, as he held onto Dalia and Vasiliki. At the same time, he used eye movements to pick out the frequency of his communicator and link it to his helmet systems. Now I will be able to hear it properly.

He stayed where he was, for a long minute, as the girls held their hands over their ears, but though he’d included some protection in Dalia’s mask, it was not nearly enough to protect her from the cacophony.

Finally, the scream abated and the monster – he didn’t even know what to call it – looked around, turning its shapeless head to let its single eye survey its surroundings. It focused for a moment on the approaching Gilgul, as well as several other flying figures, before it focused on the rooftop Basil and the girls stood upon.

Wait, why is it focusing on us? Basil thought, moments before it went down on all fours and propelled itself towards them.

The girls were still stunned by the sonic assault as the ungainly mass of the enemy – Basil didn’t even know what to call it – approached, leaping over a distance of more than a kilometre, so he grabbed them both, wrapping an arm around their waists and leapt off the rooftop.

The enemy slammed onto the building with a massive crack, breaking through the rooftop and all the way down to the ground floor – dispelling any doubts as to what it’d done with its mass when it shrank.

Basil fired his hooks, using them to swing out of the way of the rubble the heavy impact threw around in every direction. One had attached to the edge of the opposing building’s rooftop, and he’d fired the other onto another building at a ninety-degree angle to the first one. Then he reeled in the second hook, swinging towards the far building, disconnected and fired again to hit the first building around the corner, swinging himself and the girls into cover.

Moments after he’d put the building between himself and the monster, it simply broke through it, smashing through the sturdy construction with a roar.

Why is it hunting us? he asked himself, though he didn’t even have the time to say it out loud. The beast was almost upon him, as was the rubble, when he heard a clarion-like scream, and Gilgul slammed down onto the back of the enemy’s head, spear-first, with a shout of “Keep your hands off them!” She hit it with enough force to create a shockwave, snapping its head down and causing its entire mass to flipp – its rear end rose as its head was pushed down, but its momentum persisted, carrying it feet-first over her and the others.

Not one to waste such a chance, Basil shot his hooks out and drew himself and the girls onto a nearby rooftop.

He kept his hold on them as they slowly recovered, Tyche first, then Hecate, while he looked at the damage caused by the monster having charged through one building, then flipped into another across the street.

The first one, utterly gutted, was still in the process of collapsing into a huge cloud of dust, the sound of it fortunately dampened by the protection Basil had built into his helmet. The second building, the one the beast had been inadvertently flipped into by Gilgul’s attack, had lost most of its facade as it slammed into it, and was now teetering on the edge of collapse as well.

Gilgul landed next to Basil, resting her weapon on her shoulder. “That thing is tough,” she spoke, her voice barely audible over the cacophony of the collapsing building. “I barely cut a foot into it, and even that took off a huge chunk of my time.”

“It is even thougher than its size and mass would suggest, then,” Basil concluded as the second building started collapsing atop their foe, as well. “Unless we find a weakpoint, you’ll probably be more useful conserving your charge for defence and interference.”

His girlfriend nodded, appearing stoic thanks to her all-covering armour, but he knew her well enough to know that she was upset – even though she’d just recenty gotten her powers, and she’d only been in two really serious fights since, she’d started to take a lot of pride in them, specifically in being the heavy hitter of New Lennston. This was the first enemy she’d run into who was capable of resisting her attack to a meaningful degree.

Hecate and Tyche had finally recovered, and were looking down at the devastation left behind by the brief exchange. The street below was choked with ash, what few cars were still visible now ruined by the debris and both buildings had come down entirely – fortunately, though, Esperanza’s practice of constructing every building to be tough enough to survive heavy earthquakes (and, maybe, even a future DiL attack) prevented the surrounding buildings from being torn down along with them, though they did take visible damage.

A new voice, that of a calm woman, spoke through their communicators – in Basil’s case, right into his ear. “Be advised, the enemy has moved to sector twenty-nine. Follow the dust cloud. It has also been officially designated as Crocell.”

“Crocell? That sounds familiar…” Basil commented as he looked to his right, where Hecate and Gilgul stood.

“No idea,” the gilded redhead replied.

“The forty-ninth spirit from the Ars Goetia,” Hecate supplied calmly, though one could still hear the pain in her tone. “Duke of Hell, associated with water… kind of on-the-nose, as handles go.”

“Air humidity just doubled,” Basil interrupted, the moment his sensors picked up on the new data. He activated his microphone, sending a message to the control room. “Control, my sensors register a sudden rise in air humidity. Are there any powers on our side responsible for that?”

<Negative,> came the reply after a few moments.

“Hm.” He looked down at the collapsed building Crocell had been buried underneath. “Stand ready,” he told the others, “We don’t know what this thing is really capable of.” A humming sound caused him to look up in time to see several capes and cowls arrive, standing atop a transluscent disk, which connected to the hand of a flying woman in white by a tether. More heroes (and villains) were arriving every second, until there were nearly sixty on the rooftops around and the air above them, all looking out for the enemy. Amy was approaching, as well, the other flying capes splitting up and giving her a wide berth, except for four cowls which fell into formation behind her. There was no sign of Lamarr, Kraquok or the Feral Family, though. Nor were the Subjugator or Totemic in sight. Prospero stood on a rooftop a little further back, alone save for an airy apparition, roughly humanoid in shape.

Just then, Crocell walked out of the dust cloud and the rubble, moving on all four limbs – nothing seemed to be broken or impaired.

However, its appearance was different. There were patches on its body which seemed to be made of steel now, rather than concrete, while others looked like glass…

Basil snapped off three shots, one to its eye, one to a concrete section and one to a patch of glass on its left elbow.

“The hell, Brennus!” Hecate cried out, startled.

“Dude, ice cold,” Tyche added in an impressed tone. “Totally ineffective, but those were some nice shots.”

He snapped off three more shots, aiming at different spots of the same areas. Crocell barely reacted, not even to the shot to its eye, even though Basil could see that it did cause damage, however

“They were very effective,” Basil replied in an annoyed tone. “I just didn’t intend for them to cause damage – just wanted to test…”

The fighters all around on the rooftops and in the air opened fire on Crocell. Beams, spheres of power and more flew at it before it could fully exit the rubble it had created.

It’s form was buried under the effects, over twenty different attacks at the same time. The cacophony of the impacts was nearly enough trigger his mask’s audio cut-offs.

Which was caused just by the primary impacts. What followed were the results of disparate powers connecting and interacting. Spheres of super-dense water were flash-heated by laser beams, exploding into steam. Greenish streaks of acid reacted with some kind of yellow bile-like substance to detonate into colourful (and devastating) explosions. Weird purple energy reacted with some kind of jet black smoke to flash-freeze everything the latter had been in contact with.

Someone wants this to end quickly,” Tyche commented dryly. A glance showed Basil that she looked only amused, not worried by the massive destruction they were faced with (the assault had filled most of the street below).

“Naturally,” Hecate replied in a curt fashion – one could hear her eyes rolling. “What were the shots for, Brennus?” she asked, turning her head to look at him.

“I wanted to see whether it not only mimicked the appearance of materials, but also their durability,” he explained. “If it did, then its glass-like parts would be exceedinly vulnerable; we could, perhaps, goad it into turning mostly into glass, then shatter it rather easily.”

“Didn’t look like it, though,” Hecate concluded.

He shook his head. “This rifle can shoot a hole through seven centimeters of solid steel, but it only grazed it in all three areas – eye, concrete and glass. So the changes are either only cosmetic, or it has some other defence which makes up for it. Or perhaps it just takes a far bigger attack than mine.”

“I didn’t really cause any noticable damage, either,” Gilgul supplied. “I’m not entirely sure, but I think the cut I made had already regenerated by the time it stepped out of the rubble.”

“Great, it regenerates as well,” Hecate grumbled, just in time for the attacks to abate. Basil, meanwhile, had sent a text message through his communicator to the control centre, about their observations. “What’s next, a-“

A brilliant white-blue lance of light shot out of the cloud of chaotic effects that had covered Crocell. Six defenders in flight were vaporised in an instant, a seventh fell to the ground with the left half of her body just gone. It was not silent – the attack came with a massive concussive sound, a shockwave that dispersed the assault on it.

The beam continued as Crocell – covered in wounds that had cut deep enough to kill most living beings, it’s flesh rent from its shoulders, it’s back and its upper arms – swung its head around, energy pouring forth from is misshapen mouth, drawing the beam across the rooftops, forcing heroes and villains alike to scramble for safety.

It was moving towards the rooftop Basil and the others stood upon.

“Of course it has a beam attack!” Hecate shouted, exasperated, as she dissolved into green-black smoke, half flying and half leaping to the ground below.

“Sucks to be us!” Tyche supplied as she turned into red-black smoke in turn, leaping up instead, to get over the beam.

Basil didn’t comment, he only leapt off the rooftop, firing his hooks to swing around the next building – it’s rooftop already scoured away – and away from he girls.

Gilgul waited until she was sure they’d all gotten away, then shot up just moments before the beam would’ve hit her.

He watched through his ravens, placed around the scene, as Crocell adjusted its beam, swinging around again.

It was going after Tyche.

Its breath followed her, but she reacted the only reasonable way she could – putting another coin in the ‘is Dalia really a ditz or just pretending to’ jar – by turning solid again, dropping straight down and past the beam.

Again, Crocell followed and Basil was not at all sure that even her prodigious luck could save her from its continued attention.

It turned out, though, that that wasn’t necessary – or perhaps it was already at work – for Waverider was fast approaching Crocell from behind, riding a whale-sized mass of crackling, diffuse energy; he must’ve been charging his power since the beginning of the fight, to have this big a punch ready.

The wave slammed into the wounded Crocell – it had not recovered any of the damage it had sustained so far, unlike the small wounds Basil had inflicted with his rail gun. Waverider leaped off it with the fluid ease of a champion surfer and gymnast, flipping backwards as his attack slammed into Crocell’s unprotected back.

The explosion was so violent it shattered glass for several blocks around, where there was any left. The read outs on his mask told Basil that the two closest ravens had sustained damage as well, despite their sturdy design. Still functional, but damaged.

When the dust settled, Crocell was nowhere to be seen, only a messy crater covered in rubble.

A huge, porcelain-white hand appeared beneath Waverider, gently catching him. His father-in-law’s power.

<Attention: Crocell’s status is unconfirmed. All combatants with enhanced perception are asked to verify,> came the announcement from the communicator, patched directly into Basil’s helmet as he swung onto the rooftop.

Absentmindedly, he sent one of the already damaged ravens to the crater to investigate while he himself checked on the girls.

Hecate was with Tyche, helping her up where she’d landed on the street – she didn’t seem hurt, though, only stunned. Gilgul flew to Basil, drifting gracefully through the air.

“Is it over?” she asked warily as she rotated in the air without breaking her movement towards him, looking straight at the crater.

“I’m investigating,” he replied, focusing on his raven again, now that he knew they were alright.

It flew down into the crater – where it found a hole in the ground, barely visible due to the rubble concealing it, mist – not smoke, but actual mist – wallowing up out of it.

He immediately contacted mission control. “Crocell is hiding underground, generating mist!”

<Understood. Please b-> The reply was cut short when Crocell burst out of the ground beneath Waverider and the hand holding him up.

It leapt up, until its chest was at a height with them – all wounds gone from its body, which was now colored a bright white, not unlike Waverider’s attack had been – and its sole black-red eye could focuse on the defenceless man on the porcelain hand. With its arms lifted above its head, it roared and swung, bringing both fists down on him.

Again, Father Manus came to the rescue, though Basil could not tell where he himself was, dismissing the hand holding Waverider up and, simultaneously, manifesting another one next to him, slapping into him open-palmed to knock him out of the way of the lethal blow.

Crocell’s fists smashed the hand into porcelain shards which quickly faded out of existence, but it had succeeded in its task – Waverider tumbled to safety, until another hand appeared to catch him, quickly flying away to let him recuperate – he would be out of the fight for a bit, after an attack that big.

Basil snapped off two more shots, aiming for Crocell’s eye. Both hit home – it was a still a pretty big target – but it didn’t even react, in spite of the damage done to what ought to be a sensitive spot. The wounds vanished within moments, too superficial to even ooze any liquids.

Crocell landed heavily, next to the hole it had created, which was filled with thick mist.

More moisture began to condense around Croquell, shrouding it as Basil’s sensors detected an even greater rise in the surrounding air’s moisture. Whisps of mist were taking form all over the place, low to the ground yet but still growing.

The communicator spread the word as they picked up on it and Basil watched as the more experienced defenders took charge, ordering the others around, organising them.

More mist formed directly on Crocell’s body, pouring off of it in waves, almost entirely obscuring its form.

Basil didn’t take his eyes off of it, but he used his ravens to look around himself – the girls had all joined up with him again. “I assume the heroes are about to disperse its cover,” he told them. “Once they do, we ought to hit it with everything we have got. Gilgul, go in close, but do not let it hit you needlessly – your time is too precious to waste. Hecate, Tyche, unload on it from a distance. Stick close, so Tyche’s luck will protect you.”

His two original teammates nodded and leapt away, switching to their smoke forms. Gilgul, though, stopped to look at him. “What are you going to do?” she asked, her voice worried. “You’re the most vulnerable one here.”

He frowned beneath his mask, annoyed by how right she was. Gilgul was nearly untouchable on top of being a disposable projection. Tyche’s luck had not failed her yet. Hecate had, apparently, seriously worked on her defensive capabilities. They both had those smoke-dolls of hers, as well. Which did not work for Basil at all – he could not even turn one on, nevermind stay in smoke form. With his armour gutted as much as it was, he would not survive one hit from this thing.

I really, really need more funds. With real power armour, I could carry around a real railgun, not this tiny little thing and put out some serious damage.

Shaking his head, he focused on Gilgul again. Barely a second had passed. “I will keep an eye on it with my ravens and look for a weak spot. My rifle can not actually cause any meaningful damage, after all. I will also keep an eye out for anyone requiring first aid.”

She nodded and flew off, straight for the enemy just as a strong wind picked up.

A cowl – Basil recognised her from a documentary, though he could not recall her actual name – stood on a lower rooftop nearby, a woman in a brown bodysuit and birdlike mask, both looking feathery but strangely plain, unlike the usual costumes favoured by capes and cowls, and the air was gathering around her, then flowing in a steady stream towards Crocell, blowing the mist away.

For whatever reason, Crocell had remained in place, without even varying its position from when it had landed after  its failed attack on Waverider. Its eye swivelled around, looking at the brown bird woman.

Gilgul took her chance and slammed into its chest with a booming sound, blowing what mist remained around it away as the massive beast was thrown back, falling hard onto the mangled street.

We really need to get it out of the city, Basil thought. Catastrophy-proof or not, there was a limit to how tough one could make a whole city, and Esparanza City really should not be destroyed again.

He kept watch, distributing his ravens around the area to watch Crocell from multiple angles, keeping the damaged ones closest. Three ravens patrolled, instead, scanning for people in need of his medical expertise or a quick evac. It irked him that he was limited to being little more than a spectator, and it angered him that he got annoyed about that.

Below, Crocell was fighting Gilgul, who was doing a good job of keeping him pinned. The brown bird… Nightingale! Her cowl was Nightingale – she was dispersing the mist Crocell kept generating, to keep visibility up.

Meanwhile, everyone was unloading attacks on Crocell, aiming for its head and its lower body, so as not to hit Gilgul. He could see Hecate and Tyche add their own fire to the mix. Tyche’s gun was technically weaker than his, but her luck meant that she almost always hit her target’s weakpoints. As for Hecate… he wasn’t one of those people who looked down on contrivers for having their own weird explanations for how their creations behaved, and he’d actually listened when she explained that her staff was not actually shooting fire (which was why it didn’t produce heat, either). It was powered by the Torch and the Dead, two of her ‘aspects’ – the flame aged her targets, decaying them. Living organic matter was not affected, unless she wanted it to and no matter how tough a target was, it always did at least some damage. It also packed quite the punch, as well.

He couldn’t actually tell how effective their attacks were, as the deluge of powers kept Crocell quite out of sight – until a bright white cube rose up into the air above the fight.

Not a cube – a tesseract, he thought, recognising the power moments before the tesseract – about half the size of a grown adult – lit up, shining brighter than the sun.

The white light filled his entire vision, yet it did not blind him. Instead, everything stood out in stark detail, especially Crocell, whom he could now clearly make out beneath the attacks converging on it.

Hollywood’s power. Illuminates an area, distinguishes between friends and foes. Foes are blinded, while most powers which provide concealment are cancelled on them. They are also made plainly visible, easier to be hit by any friends, who also have an easier time navigating the area.

Her power was one of two reasons why her team, in spite of its rather modest size, had been able to police most of Esperanza City on its own for the last decade.

The  second reason was walking down the street from the opposite of Crocell, approaching the pinned beast. Charybdis, with her brother Silver Falcon right behind her and ready to take her to safety if necessary, moving like she was walking down the walkway at a fashion show, stopped twenty metres away from Crocell and visibly released her breath.

Basil twitched with his eyes, activating his microphone. “Gilgul, break contact now!”

She shot up, leaving Crocell behind, just as Charybdis opened her mouth wide.

Basil felt her power’s tug, despite the great distance, as she sucked the air and the mist in front of her in.

Everything in a cone in front of her began to drift towards her, slowly at first, but quickly speeding up – and not just the rubble, mist and air, nor the cars left by the roadside, no – everything. Basil watched as the powers raining onto Crocell began to bend, the assault being drawn in. Laser beams, fireballs, streams of ice, everything was sucked in as her power ramped up.

For a moment, Crocell seemed to be almost given a break as it began to rise up, free of the assault of attacks – but then the suction became strong enough to affect it, as well, and it began to slide towards Charybdis open mouth.

Basil fired his hooks onto the roof he was standing on, to steady himself and watched as everyone kept firing into the tornado of wind and power that was forming, contributing more attacks to be sucked in.

He didn’t know whether sucking Crocell in would kill it or not, considering its regenerative capabilities, but it certainly wouldn’t get through undamaged.

Yet Crocell seemed to not like that idea. It ducked low, digging its fingers into he concrete to hold on.

The defenders adapted, those whose projectiles caused a stronger kinetic impact repositioning themselves to fire into its back, at its hands, at the concrete it was holding onto, all in an attempt to dislodge it.

The attacks on the concrete in particular seemed quite promising and Crocell seemed to be at least intelligent enough to recognise that, because it turned its head by nearly one-hundred and eighty degrees, opening its maw as a blue-white light emerged from it, aimed at the metahumans trying to dislodge it.

No one made a move to evade, and for good reason – as the beam spilled forth, it was sucked in by Charybdis like it was water, drawn into her mouth.

Not so intelligent, perhaps, Basil thought, looking on as Crocell slowly turned its head towards Charybdis, breathing energy as if it was achieving something useful.

It kept going like that, for nearly half a minute, pouring more light out as it tried to kill her, to no effect, until the concrete it was holding onto was finally too damaged to hold it, and Crocell lost its hold.

Charybdis suction had increased so far, meanwhile, that it was no longer being slowly dragged across the street – instead, it was nearly lifted off its feet, sliding towards her.

The beam cut off; instead, it seemed as if it was making some kind of sound, but that, too, was lost.

This might be it, Basil thought hopefully. If she sucks Crocell in…

Crocell dropped to the ground, impacting it so heavily cracks spread like spider-web across the street and nearby buildings, standing rock-still even as the suction continued.

For a moment, most of the attacks being poured into the tornado or aimed at Crocell cut off, as everyone stared at the monster in shock, watching its wounds – oozing something almost like blood, though much thinner – bubble like they were boiling, only to reveal unharmed skin once the bubbles burst. It seemed to be no longer affected by Charybdis suction.

The attacks began anew, those which had paused, at least, now all aimed at its back as the heroes and villains repositioned themselves, trying to push it into Charybdis’ mouth.

Only to cut off when it began deliberately approaching her.

If it is confident enough to approach her, it may well be immune to being sucked into her mouth, was Basil’s fear at the moment. Charybdis had only the one power, and impressive though it was, it left her no more than a normal woman against threats which could circumvent it.

I wish I had been able to complete that disintegration ray, Basil thought bitterly. It had been an idea that had come to him several times, all the way to his first haphazard works at home (though he was starting to question whether he’d actually built that reactor and the computer in just two days – he couldn’t be sure about anything anymore) and several times again since, but it had always been just pieces, and pieces which did not fit with each other, either, so he hadn’t been able to improvise he final product from the separate bouts of inspiration which had petered out to nothing.

His hand tightened on the grip and barrel of his rifle, watching as Charybdis allowed Crocell to approach until she was nearly in its reach, steadily absorbing attacks which were now being once more poured into her, instead of aiming at Crocell.

Then she closed her mouth, cutting the suction off. Crocell stumbled for a moment, and it was all she needed – or Basil.

Stage one, complete. “Hecate, Tyche, get some cover! Stage two is going to pack a punch!”

Crocell righted itself and reached out with one arm for Charybdis.

But the heroine just stared it down, until she opened her mouth – and everything she’d sucked in, the rubble, the air, the fire, the lasers, the ice, Crocell’s beam and all the other powers, it all came out again compressed into a sphere the size of a minivan made out of… damn near everything, slamming into Crocell with a booming sound that shook even Basil.

Whatever it had done to protect itself from her suction, it clearly wasn’t sufficient for this. The blast took it in its belly and threw it back far enough to fly past the roof Basil stood upon.

Crocell flew out from between the buildings it had been in and landed heavily in one of Esperanza City’s open squares, decorated with fountains, small patches of flowers and greenery and lots of seating. Not that most of it looked any good, after the dust cloud Crocell threw up with its impact covered them in gray dust, or the cracks from the impact spread all over the place.

Hell, Basil felt its fall all the up to the roof he was on. He recalled his ravens and disconnected his hooks from the roof just as Gilgul landed next to him, moments before Hecate and Tyche landed, as well.

“That. Was. Awesome!” Tyche exulted with a wide grin plastered on her face, waving her rifle around in an utterly irresponsible manner (Basil activated its safety remotely, just in case).

“I… have to agree,” Hecate admitted, leaning a little on her staff. “I knew the basics about Charybdis’ power, but I’d never seen it in action before.

Before replying, Basil momentarily looked up as Hollywood’s tesseract flew over them to take up position above the square.

“She is their heavy hitter for a reason,” he supplied, taking a look at the once more visible monster.

It looked to be more damaged  than from all the attacks it took before. It’s gut had been vaporized down to where its spine should be, though Basil saw no indications of any kind of bone structure or internal organs – just red ‘flesh’ bleeding that strangely thin red liquid, gone in a chunk from its groin up to its sternum (if those terms even applied to its physiology – Basil doubted it, honestly) and almost all the way through, nearly bisecting it.

It was still alive though, its eye moving around, unable to focus on anything – Hollywood’s power alone may not have been enough to block its sight, but the light combined with the dust seemed to do the trick.

The insides of the wound began to bubble even as the defenders of the city gathered on the buildings encircling the square, staying further apart in case it began spitting that lethal beam of its blindly. Though they’d already taken losses, Basil was pretty sure he was counting more people than had been there before – reinforcements, certainly.

Before anyone had decided what to do – simply attacking it didn’t seem to have much of an effect – its wound had closed and Crocell rose up over the dust cloud.

Again, a strong wind blew, but instead of dispersing the cloud, it gathered it up, creating a pillar of dust around Crocell to blind it.

“Get ready,” Basil told the girls. “I am pretty sure it is going to go on the offensive now, after having taken that kind of hit.”

The girls nodded, bracing themselves, with Gilgul taking a step forward to stand in front of Basil and the others.

Just in time for Crocell to burst out of the pillar of dust, going from standing completely still to an explosive charge in half a second, flat.

“Here it co-!” Basil’s sentence was interrupted when the ground beneath Crocell turned silvery-grey and it… stumbled and fell hard on its face.

“The hell was that?” Tyche asked with barely suppressed laughter.

Basil turned his head, following the sight of his ravens which had already made out the most probable source of the effect. The girls followed.

What caught their attention first, though, was Kraquok. He was already grown, almost as tall at the hip as Crocell’s shoulders, and he was walking on four limbs, his legs and his middle pair of arms, to be precise. His claws were longer still than they had been before, proportionally, while his human face just looked amused, his crocodile-like maw dripping saliva.

He was walking just behind a group of sixteen in a loose but clearly practiced formation. One of them, a girl barely older than Basil, had an arm extended, her hand turned a silver the exact same shade as the ground underneath Crocell, which was now holding it entirely immobile, unable to break contact with the silver. Another, a boy who looked like he was her younger brother, had his arm extended as well, his hand glowing golden, though Basil didn’t know what he was doing.

Everyone around on the rooftops took a deep breath, watching two titans of the metahumans world – one of the original cowls and the legacy of one of the original capes – marching onto the square, towards their quarry.

And then Basil and his friends just watched as they went on the offensive.

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B012.7 Born At Sleep

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“I don’t like this,” Amazon grumbled as everyone gathered on the rooftop of the UH’s headquarters.

As one of the three principal divisions of the organisation on the North American continent (the other two were based in San Diego and Toronto), it housed a great many parts of its bureaucracy, thus justifying the fact that the building it was housed in was one of the tallest ones in the city.

The fact that it made an impressive statement was a deliberate bonus. It was also a good place to look out over the city from.

It was a pain to get up on, at least for Basil, as there were no other buildings nearly as tall within a block of it. It would’ve taken a while for him to get up on top with his grappling hooks, so Prisca had picked him up and carried him to the top, trailed by the entirety of his unkindness of ravens (he’d originally deliberated whether to use ‘conspiracy’ or ‘unkindness’, then settled on the latter; merely calling them a ‘flock’ was just too boring).

They’d been greeted by Amazon, still the only adult superhero in town who wasn’t a street-level vigilante. With the cold war now growing rapidly hot, that was unlikely to change any time soon.

The entirety of the Juniors was present, save for Polymnia, as well, from Gloom Glimmer (whom Basil was quite glad to have on their side in any crisis) down to Spellgun and Osore, whom he wouldn’t have expected to join, based just on their powers – Spellgun had some nasty shots, but was otherwise just a normal human, lacking any versatility beyond what his rifle and ammunition provided, while Osore’s ability to make people afraid – devastating though it had been in its accidental use against Basil – didn’t seem that useful in the usual S-Class situation.

He was still glad about every bit of added support.

Amazon, though, didn’t seem too pleased with the situation. The first thing she’d done had been to protest taking teenagers into an unknown S-Class situation, new laws be damned. Even Gloom Glimmer was only supposed to provide transportation, not engage.

No one wanted to hear that and she was quickly convinced to let it go; now they were just waiting for Polymnia to get there – she’d been in the middle of some work and was just now stepping out of the elevator.

Basil took the chance to look her power armor over, feeling a pang of envy – of course she could still afford one, unlike him. It even looked like she’d improved it since the last time he’d seen it – the armor was noticeably more streamlined, more form-fitting, the transparent purplish-pink material (he still wasn’t sure what kind of alloy it was made of) more opaque than before, probably because it was also more dense – either that, or she’d sacrificed protection in exchange for making it more skin-tight, and he doubted she’d do that. Her robotic arms had been redesigned entirely and, unless she’d been hiding or developed a different specialisation, not by herself – they were less like a spider’s legs now and looked more like segmented metallic tentacles, with the segments painted with the same colour she used on her hair and lips. He’d done some research on that a while ago – the colour did not react to movement, per se, but rather to vibrations in the air – to sound. Which was why her hair always turned into a light show during her concerts, as Vasiliki had been all too happy to demonstrate by playing all of Polymnia’s concerts on the big screen and speaker system in his lair. Right now, the colours moved rather lazily across the metal and her hair. Since they all reacted to the same sounds – which, currently, came mostly from Amazon, Tartsche and Hecate arguing about who’d get to come along – the effect seemed to start at the four tentacles closest to the arguing trio and travel across them, over her hair (tied into a high pony tail today), her lips and onto the other four. As before, the top two tentacles held a selection of speakers, the two below were lacking in anything but the clawed tips all eight shared, meant for combat and movement, the next two held the two pieces of her keyboard-like control system and the last two were like the second set, currently on the ground to help balance the weight of the others.

Maybe she just took the servo-motors out of her armor, he thought as he appraised her work. She is strong enough to move her armor on her own and her tentacle-rig can carry and balance itself. Yeah, that made sense. It would make her armor more reliable, as well – less parts that could be damaged or fail.

The only part of her setup which seemed unchanged was her visor.

He noticed her eyes roaming over his load out, as well, as she appraised his new setup the same way he’d done with hers. Normally, he’d have approached her and started talking shop, but today… he just had too much on his mind.

So he just nodded to her and turned around, walking up to the trio.

Tartsche was just making a point about them needing every bit of firepower possible when dealing with an unknown S-Class – especially if the people in question had already proven to be reliable in no less than two such events – but Amazon didn’t seem convinced.

“Amazon,” Basil said as he stepped into the triangle they’d formed. She was, amazingly, taller than he was – no mean feat – so he had to look up at her, if only slightly. “I understand and appreciate your concern for our well-being,” She smiled, relaxing a bit, “but we are determined to participate in this. You can either take us with you and integrate us smoothly into whatever command structure will be in place there, or you can leave us behind – in which case we would arrive by alternate means.” She tensed up again as soon as he pronounced the ‘but’ and only got more agitated from there.

“Why’re you here, then?” she asked between clenched teeth.

“Because Gloom Glimmer is still our fastest, most reliable way to Esperanza and we’d also like to be, as I already explained, integrated into the local command structure, which should go much more smoothly if you take us along as reinforcements – S-Class protocols allow you to recruit any volunteer without an extended kill warrant on their head for such a situation.”

She growled at him under her breath, trying to transfix him with her gaze – but honestly, compared to Amy’s scowl, her’s was rather cute and pleasant.

He stood there, giving her fifteen seconds to process his words before he continued in a softer voice, “Look, we just want to help. We are heroes, and we live dangerously, anyway. So just let us do our job.”

“It’s not your job,” she said softly, deflating. “None of you have a duty to do this.” She turned to the junior heroes. “There is no shame in sitting this one out. You don’t owe it to anyone.”

“Oh, good, I’ll wish you all a nice d-” Outstep began, before Spellgun slapped him over the back of the head.

“We’re coming,” Tartsche said. “At the very least, we can help with the evacuation. Gloom Glimmer is probably our most powerful healer…”

“Not a reliable one, though,” Gloom Glimmer whispered, her face hidden in the shadows of her cowl. Polymnia put an arm around her shoulders, giving her a friendly (if stiff) squeeze.

“Brennus has excellent medical and field aid knowledge,” he continued unperturbed.

Not that I have any idea where I have it from, Basil thought in turn.

“Spellgun, Tyche,” he pointed at her sniper rifle, “Hecate and Polymnia can both support from long range,  I can tank any hit and no one’s better at high-speed evac than Outstep,” he concluded.

“Speaking of high speed,” Basil interjected before the speeches could continue, “We are wasting time.”

To his annoyance, it looked like she was going to further object, but she was interrupted by a cabin – an elevator – rising up from the ground next to the helipad, and a slovenly dressed, unshaven man rushed out.

Basil barely recognised Jason Widard – he’d never been one to pay too much attention to his appearance, even when he appeared on television, but he was looking positively run-down now!

“Why’re you still here!?” he asked, his face tight. “Our precogs just upgraded their threat assessment! From Green to Yellow!”

Amazon looked at him, briefly, then turned to the teens. “Alright. I’ll take you along – but you do as I say, when I say it, got it? I have more experience at this than all of you put together, and by God, you will obey me and the other veterans!”

“Yes ma’am!” they all replied at once, before they gathered around Gloom Glimmer.

***

Basil blinked, feeling more than a little confused. He’d expected some manner of effect, something to mark the transition, but… one moment, they’d been clustering around Gloom Glimmer (who’d stayed uncharacteristically quiet, judging by what he’d seen of her before), the next they stood on a large market square, with numerous other capes and cowls gathered near them. The transition had been instant.

First things first… He checked – Prisca was there. They’d been worried, briefly, about whether or not a teleportation ability would work on her, and whether she could sustain her projection at such distance.

She looked at him, nodding with a small. Everything appeared to be alright.

Whispers rose among the gathered metahumans – and there were really only metahumans around. Unless Esperanza had had a sudden surge in non-powered costumed figures.

“Stay where you are,” Amazon told them before she walked towards the stage.

Basil recognised a few of the people gathered. The United Heroes’ Esperanza Division stood on a portable stage, their Juniors stood in a small cluster off to one side.

Father Manus, their field (and spiritual) leader, in his priestly black robe with the stiff white collar, wearing no mask, his porcelain-like face sporting a serene yet determined expression. Basil didn’t know whether he was permanently transformed or whether he could change into a normal form.

Hollywood, his daughter, stood to his right in stark contrast, her risqué outfit looking like something halfway between a ball gown and a bikini, made from pure white silk that contrasted with her caramel-coloured skin and jet black hair. She eschewed a mask, much like her father, but wore professionally applied make up.

To Hollywood’s left stood her husband Waverider, looking quite boring next to his inhuman father-in-law and his glamorous wife in spite of his movie-star-slash-surfer-dude looks. He wore a practical set of body armor over thick pants, the only difference between it and standard special ops gear being the light blue wave patterns covering it. He had one arm wrapped around Hollywood’s waist, holding her close.

Next came Little Boy, a man who seemed to be morbidly obese, with no hair at all, wearing a thick long coat he barely seemed to fit into. Yet a second look revealed that he was growing, getting fatter and bigger in small increments as he kept building up his destructive power.

Finally, another pair stood to Father Manus’ left, a man and a woman holding hands.

The man, Silver Falcon, wore a skin-tight dark blue bodysuit with a wing-like, silver cape and beak-shaped mask. He looked more slender than muscular, but there was a kind of natural grace to his stance.

His sister Charybdis, the West Coast’s heavy hitter (even more so than Little Boy, really), was the shortest person on the stage, shorter than her own brother by more than a head at least, even though they were supposed to be twins. She wore a thick blue-black bodysuit with tight, molded armor reminiscent of blue-green scales on her chest, with matching greaves and bracers, as well as a similarly designed helmet which enclosed her head entirely, save for her mouth, showing off pale skin and even paler lips.

There were even more figures gathered, at least fifty capes and cowls, not counting their own group. Quite a few villains he recognised, as well…

Oh shit.

Amy was there. With Kraquok and Lamarr. They stood a good deal away from the heroes, with the local street villains clustering around them.

Kraquok looked the same as every time Basil had seen him on television or on the internet. Big, freaky beyond belief with his crocodile-like double-face and his weirdly patched-together physique, combining elements from human, saurian and weirder anatomy into a world-renowned nightmarish blend.

His teammate, Lamarr, looked positively average next to him in his three-piece magician’s suit with the purple velvet top hat and wide cape, holding a black-and-white wand in his gloved hands. Unlike the thirty or so villains around him, he looked utterly at ease, as if he was just out on a walk.

Amy… was staring daggers at Basil. She was, in fact, shaking with barely restrained anger, apparently barely held in check by Kraquok having placed a clawed hand on her shoulder (not that physically restraining her would mean anything).

Vasiliki growled next to him, her eyes fixated on Amy. Though he couldn’t determine her expression, it was no big deal to guess what she was thinking.

Amazon did not seem pleased to see Amy, either, and she was much more obvious about it than Vasiliki.

Fortunately, though, the two groups stood far enough apart from each other for it to not be obvious that Amy was looking at him specifically.

I am going to feed your spleen to you through your nose, Amy spoke straight into his head, her mental voice fairly bubbling over with rage.

Provided I still have one, and a nose, after this, he couldn’t restrain himself from thinking back at her, feeling a flash of irritation. She hardly had the right to criticise his choices, considering her own.

If you die here, I’m going to kill you, she replied calmly.

I love you, too. Be safe.

Look who’s talking.

“-ing at?” Vasiliki said, pulling his attention back to his immediate surroundings.

“Huh?” he asked, momentarily confused.

She was looking at the stage again, though throwing suspicious looks over her shoulder every now and then, glaring at Amy. “I’d like to know what the hell that bitch is looking at,” she replied angrily.

“Language!” Dalia reprimanded her with a grin. Vasiliki almost blew up at her, visibly, but the redhead just pressed on, “Look, I know what you got against her, but we need to keep our heads clear here. Put your issues with her off until after this.”

“You…” Vasiliki tensed, almost lifting her staff – but then she deflated, lowering her head. “… are right. Thanks.” She took a deep breath and pointedly turned away entirely from Amy.

And just in time, too, as two armored figures approached the group.

Ah, finally, good news! Basil thought as he and Polymnia stepped forward immediately to meet them.

The two figures looked as different as night and day, yet there was an odd sense of… similarity about them which went beyond their outward appearance. Both were wearing power armour, but that’s where the similarities ended.

The taller of the duo was clad from head to toe in blackened,  steel. His armour was blocky, so broad it looked almost like a cartoon, and it moved quite stiffly, with exceedingly heavy steps which threatened to crack the pavement. The only colour to it, aside from several heat vents at his sides, were the circular red lenses over his eyes. The armour’s left arm ended in a huge cannon instead of a hand, looking as blocky and ragged as the rest of his equipment (though Basil was guessing about the gender – there really was no way to tell how the person inside that armour looked).

His name was Boom-Boom, one of the few teenage gadgeteers currently active in the USA – and a supervillain, as well.

In stark contrast to his appearance, the girl next to him looked like she’d come out of a science-fiction comic book. Her armour was sleek and – Basil had never thought he’d use the word in relation to power armour, except in jest, but it just fit – quite sexy. It was so thin and tight, it looked more like simple body armour, yet he knew that it was definitely powered. Her armour was made of some manner of silverly-golden metal, covering her from head to toe. It was segmented and sported an old-fashioned clock face with three brassy hands indicating the time in Roman numerals. The armor was so form-fitting, there was no doubt that there was a slender girl underneath – it was even molded to fit her breasts like a second skin, a feature not even Polymnia’s body-accentuating armour sported. Furthermore, each step of hers was accentuated with the sound of a ticking clock. A mass of long black hair tied into a ponytail poked out of the back of her armor, and a red-golden visor made up the upper half of her helmet’s faceplate. Two sleek guns rested in holsters on her hips, and a long, sleek rifle was strapped to her back. Each piece of her equipment ticked, much like her armour did, and they were all in perfect tune.

Her name was Tick-Tock. Second-youngest – though senior – member of the local Juniors, an up-and-coming Gadgeteer much like Basil and Polymnia.

The four of them came to a halt just a few feet from each other, looking at their respective equipment. Polymnia’s tentacles even folded back so as not to obstruct their sight.

Finally, after a few moments of quiet analysis, Boom-Boom spoke up, holding out his hand towards Basil.

“Cowl’s Boom-Boom,” he introduced himself, his voice modulated by a voice-changer and further distorted by his thick helmet, as they shook hands (his massive right gauntlet made his entire hand disappear). “Everything I make explodes.”

“Brennus,” Basil replied in kind, “Speciality still up in the air, though I currently trend towards some manner of Electromagnetic theory as part of it.”

“Ah, you’re still trying to figure it out,” Tick-Tock replied as she and Polymnia shook hands. “I remember that time.” She focused on Polymnia again, “Tick-Tock’s my cape, and everything I make involves a timer of some kind.”

<Polymnia,> the pop princess replied. <I specialise in acoustic effects. As well as music.>

Boom-Boom shook hands with her as well, while Basil exchanged greetings with Tick-Tock. “Nice to have some more techies on the team,” the blocky supervillain said. “Maybe we’ll even get a chance to work together on something. Here’s to us making a bigass electro-acoustic time bomb!”

Tick-Tock slapped the back of his helmet, making a bell-like ringing sound. “All you ever think of is stuff blowing up,” she complained. “Please don’t use this situation as an excuse to blow even more things up than you already have.”

He just shrugged, a truly impressive motion given his frame, despite the limited movement he could actually put into it.

<If we’re really lucky,> Polymnia interjected with a wistful smile, <We won’t have to fight at all, this’ll all blow over and we can all work on something fun.>

“Explosions are fun. They’re all the fun!” Boom-Boom countered with unsettling intensity. Tick-Tock slapped him over the head again, causing him to continue in a more normal voice: “Besides, we’re unlikely to work together outside of an S-Class party like this, seeing how I’m a supervillain and all.”

“Well, I am a vigilante, so technically that is not an issue for m- is that what I think it is?” Basil looked up at a nearby building – a bank, though he didn’t bother to check which one – along with everyone else as a penetrating hum filled the air, and a gleaming silver shape rose up over the roof, smoothly gliding through the air and over the market square.

It looked, at first glance, like a particularly blocky jet fighter, except it was the size of two school busses standing next to each other, with a squared snout sporting four black spheres, one on each side, which moved around like a chamaeleon’s eyes. Its wings were similarly squared, thicker than any jet’s wings were ever going to be; clearly, streamlining the craft had not been a priority. A huge cannon’s barrel – some manner of railgun, Basil guessed – extended almost from the very hind of the craft over the tip, facing forward. It had no other visible armaments. There were several depressions worked smoothly into the metal, almost like channels, which covered most of its surface, from the tip all the way to the back end, emitting a pale silver light. It moved with no visible means of propulsion, producing only that pervasive, pulsing humming sound. The air around it seemed to almost cling to its shape, causing slight distortions in the light that passed through, blurring the edges of the craft.

“That… that is…” Boom-Boom stammered. If he wasn’t covered in more than a ton of steel, he’d probably be trembling.

No matter, the other three were trembling more than enough to make up for him.

“That is a Mark VII Subjugator,” Basil whispered in awe as their companions from New Lennston joind up with the small group of Gadgeteers. “It is the third-latest model of Subjugators, and the latest mass produced one. Why is it here?”

“It’s not public knowledge yet,” Gloom Glimmer replied to his question, her silken voice barely audible over the pulsing sound of the Subjugator touching down on top of the city hall, projecting a shimmering force-field in lieu of other landing gear, “There’s a major conference planned on the subject of nature protection and endangered species in particular. They expected delegates from all over the world, including GAIN and the AMU. In fact, unless I’m mistaken, there should be-“

She stopped speaking as the hum cut off and people started whispering among each other – but not about the Subjugator, no. Instead, their attention was drawn to the stage, where two new arrivals had joined the local heroes.

One was a very tall, almost freakishly thin man with a long, care-lined face, wearing a dark blue robe and wizard’s hat, while holding a long wooden staff in one hand.

The other looked, at first, like an elongated fur ball standing on four wooden sticks. A second glance, though, revealed that the sticks were actually its brown, gnarled arms, ending in over-sized, clawed hands; the fur ball was its body, wrapped in dirty brown fur which moved almost as if a breeze was running through it, despite the stillness of the air. Zooming in, Basil could see hints of shapes moving within the fur, like small ghosts.

“There they are,” Gloom Glimmer concluded. “Prospero and Totemic.”

“That’s one hell of a hippie conference,” Dalia said half in jest. “I wouldn’t have expected those people to be so environmentally minded.”

Gloom Glimmer shrugged casually. “It’s not something which comes up often in the media, but Sovereign is actually very environmentally sensitive. He’s backing most charities that share his passion for protecting nature – he just doesn’t care about humans the same way. As for Madd- I mean, Queen Madeleine, she’s not exactly an avid believer herself, but Totemic is a very active defender of endangered species. He owns the world’s largest zoo, as well. I suspect Prospero is here to serve as a translator and to keep an eye on him. The Queensguard never operates solo by principle.”

“Wow, I suddenly feel like we’re not even needed here,” Vasiliki breathed. “What’s next, are the Shining G-“

There was a loud sound, like a huge cord being strung tight, a booming explosion in the air, and a whirling golden portal opened on the stage, a tall, muscular woman in her mid-thirties stepping out of it; She wore leather pants, a white shirt and a leather jacket stepping out, sporting two bandoliers which held numerous vials and leather pouches, her dark brown hair cut into a practical bob cut. She was followed by fifteen others, all in similar garb – dressed like adventurers from Pulp novels – who took position in a line at the back of the stage, as she joined Prospero and Father Manus at the front.

<That,> Timothy spoke up through their comlink, his voice hushed, <Is Doc Feral. This is rapidly turning into one hell of a crisis crossover roster. “What’s next, are Lady Light and the Dark gonna show up and join in on the fun?>

Everyone around – including a few of the gathered heroes and villains who stood further away – turned to look at Gloom Glimmer.

The girl seemed to briefly shrink into her cape, as if startled by the sudden rush of attention. Then she replied, “I really don’t think so… I tried to reach them, but Mom and Dad are both… off. I don’t know where to or why, I don’t even know if they’re together, I just know that neither of them is reachable right now, even for me.”

“Unless we are about to fight DiL,” Outstep spoke up in an amused tone, “I don’t really think they’re going to be necessary for this one.”

As he spoke, Basil saw Gloom Glimmer twitch, briefly, her eyes flashing red for a moment before she got herself under control again.

What is that about? he asked himself, though he only said, “Way to tempt fate, mate.”

Outstep laughed out loud, though despite his bravado, he looked pretty nervous.

Before anyone could further comment on the issue, Father Manus stepped away from the other two capes and looked at the gathered heroes, clearly preparing to speak to them all.

***

“My dear brothers and sisters in arms,” the porcelain man spoke in a deep, sonorous voice, spreading his arms wide to include everyone on the square. “Welcome and thank you for appearing in such numbers to help protect our home from whatever calamity is fast approaching. We – by which I mean the local division of the United Heroes, as well as Doc Feral of the Shining Guardians – are well aware that many of you are volunteers from remote locations, and we deeply appreciate your willingness to help us in our hour of need.” He briefly bowed towards the people on the square, before he turned around to do the same towards the AMU delegates and the Subjugator up above.

Afterwards, he turned around again to adress the people on the square again. “Unfortunately, we’re still unclear as to the exact nature of the prophecised threat – we only know that it is a considerable one, tentatively classified as a Code Yellow S-Class event.”

“That’s just two steps below DiL,” Vasiliki whispered as she and Dalia moved a little closer to each other for comfort. Basil himself was already holding hands with Prisca, and most others had paired up. Boom-Boom and Tick-Tock were holding hands, as well.

“Since we don’t know when exactly it is going to make itself manifest, nor where exactly, we must move quickly into position!” Father Manus continued speaking while Waverider created a crackling blue-white disc of energy, on which Little Boy loaded a stack of small black boxes. The disc moved around the people on the stage – except for the heroes, who already had boxes such as those attached to their belts or chests. Everyone it passed by took one of those boxes. It came down and moved through the crowd as well.

“Waverider is distributing communicators,” the porcelain man explained. “They attach to your costume or body through a vacuum. Please speak your cape or cowl into them, confirm by pressing the blue button and keep them on your person at all times – they will allow us to contact you, coordinate your movements and…”

He went on explaining how the communicators worked, while Basil took one and attached it to his belt, next to his knife sheath (well, one of them) after entering and confirming his name.

“As we don’t have sufficient information to create an elaborate battle plan, I’ll ask you all to remain in your teams with the people you have already worked with. If you don’t have a team, please find at least two other people to team up with for the duration of this event,” the priestly superhero went on. “Each group will be given a location to get to and await further developments.”

The gathered capes and cowls listened quietly, with not even any whispers to break the quiet in between his sentences.

“There is not much time, but let me say this – thank you for being here. Be safe. Stay together. Take care of each other. And God be with you.”

***

After briefly exchanging well wishes, Basil and his team had been directed to a high-rise apartment building near the waterfront, where they’d landed on the rooftop to take up positions. Someone had turned the roof into a garden with benches and tables, and they spread out, taking seats to try and calm down a bit before the storm.

“If I’d known it would take this long, I’d have waited before coming here,” Prisca said after five minutes of nothing happening, as she sat on a sun chair, in full armour. “I’m wasting time. Literally.”

“You could not have flown here that quickly,” Basil replied. He was the only one not sitting, having instead taken up position at the West edge of the roof, staring towards the bright blue ocean. “Not without burning more time than you would gain from waiting. And teleporting here would require Gloom Glimmer’s cooperation, which would require explaining your power to her.”

She made a grumpy sound, but didn’t press the issue.

“Hey, B-Six,” Dalia spoke up from where she was lounging on a swinging bench. “What’d you mean when you said we had other means of getting here?” she asked curiously, one leg dangling from the bench, using her toe to cause it to swing back and forth. “I didn’t know we could do something like that.”

“I’d like to know about what you meant, as well,” Vasiliki added, turning to look at him – she’d been sitting at a table, sketching something on a pad she’d pulled out of her bag of holding. “You pressured Amazon a lot there.”

“I was bluffing,” Basil admitted without turning to look at them – he was too busy distributing his ravens across Esperanza.He felt their stares on his neck.

<Duuuuuuude,> Timothy breathed. <That’s… I didn’t know you could bluff like that.>

<Yeah, I figured you were one of those ‘always speak the truth’ types,> Stephi commented.

Basil barely held himself back from laughing out loud. Well, they do not know me very well after all, do they?

“It was just a simple bluff, nothing worth mentioning, really,” he said. “Though I do feel bad about being so pushy. But then again, her concern really was misplaced.” Honestly, compared to what we have already been through, how bad could this be?

As if trying to reprimand him for even thinking that, there was a loud beep from their communicators at just that moment.

<Unknown object coming from the West,> spoke a calm woman’s voice. <Something massive is approaching the city from beneath the water. All teams, be ready to deploy.>

The girls leapt up and joined Basil in watching the ocean, forming a single line. Prisca stood to his left, and her hand found his, gently squeezing it. He squeezed back, as they saw a large shadow approach the beach littered with sunshades and various booths – fortunately, the civilians had already retreated into the numerous shelters built all around the huge metropolis.

“That… looks big,” Dalia commented lamely.

The approaching shadow looked like it was the size of a football field.

As it came closer, the water rose, bulging as the colossal shape rose up, simultaneously moving forwad and somehow shrinking back, as if the act of rising up forced it to redistribute its mass, changing its shape.The water rose higher, until a pillar of water forty meters tall stood just in front of the beach, with a darker, slightly shorter shape standing within.

The creature – whatever it was – appeared to be humanoid in shape, though very roughly so, its torso nearly pear-shaped with no visible neck between its conical head and its barely distinguishable shoulders – if it even had shoudlers – visible in this state. It was barely possible to distinguish two thick, round arms which reached down to the knees of its disproportionally short legs.It seemed to just stand there, for a few moments, the water around it never falling off until it suddenly leaned forward, taking a slow, lumbering step onto the sandy ground in front of it.And with that, its water shroud fell off, revealing…

“Oh, come on!” Basil shouted. “First a giant pile of shit, and now… now this!?”

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B008.b Old Coils, Strong Coils

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March 17th, 1923

Two months and sixteen days after Point Zero

Lennston looked peaceful under three and a half feet of snow. It wasn’t, of course. Just yesterday, there had been another riot, and the military quarantine around the city was still in full effect.

Another child had… changed, become something inhuman, something unnatural, and only the intervention of Gwen Whitaker – who some had started to call ‘Lady Light’ – had prevented any deaths beyond the boy’s family. Not that anyone thanked her for that – in fact, the riot had broken out when civilians and the military both had assaulted her after the fight. She’d only barely managed to flee.

But today, the city rested. It was no peaceful rest, but it was rest nonetheless.

It was early noon, and yet the snowstorm that had covered the city in a deceptive shroud of white turned the day into night.

One part of the city was even quieter than the rest – specifically, it was the part of the city known as Damnation Alley. Despite its name, it consisted not just of an alley, but also of the four blocks of cheap old buildings around it, most having originally been built to house various workshops, but now stood deserted, a dark, rundown blemish nearly right in the center of Lennston.

Before Pillar of Light appeared, the Damnation Alley had been a home for smugglers, drug dealers, mobsters and other criminals, as well as a sizable part of the city’s homeless population.

Then, the monster had taken up residence in Damnation Alley, hiding in its shadows. That strange beast that had slain the Goldschmidt heir and rampaged through the city until Whitaker drove it away and it fled into the sewers.

Now, months later, it had made Damnation Alley its own, and the police didn’t dare enter the place. The mob had retreated, too, unwilling to risk its people to the violent moods of the dark beast. The only ones left were the truly desperate. Homeless people, criminals fleeing from the mob or the police, people turned into monsters by whatever had been brought about the world – and the city in particular – by the pillar of light.

In one of the side-alleys, a whole group of homeless people were huddling together against the cold in a circle around a barrel they’d gotten a fire going in.

It was one of the men of that group who first noticed the little girl walking through the snow.

She could be no more than eight, maybe nine or ten at most, her skin pale and pink and without any blemishes that could be seen from the front. It was pretty easy to tell, because she was completely naked save for a strange helmet that closed tightly around her head, with only a fringe of almost-white blonde hair peaking out from the back. The helmet, made of what looked like several silvery strips of metal and the insides of several radios extended into two antennae angled back, their base over her ears, and there was a visor built in made of a yellow-brown glass.

One after the other, the men turned to look at the strange sight as they got a better look – her small feet and her hands were already slightly blue, but she didn’t seem to mind, stoically walking forward, her head held low as she dragged a small bag along with her.

When she got closer, they could faintly hear the sound of some kind of radio speaker, the words impossible to understand through the helmet.

One of them rose out of the circle, approaching the girl.

“Hey, lil’ one,” the short, grey-bearded man said as he shrugged out of his outmost coat. He had long hair and an even longer beard, both grey, and his skin was rough and tanned, his eyes a dark grey. Taking off the second one too, he offered her his third (and warmed up) coat, shivering against the cold. “You’ll catch yer death if you go around like that. An’ it’s indecent, too.”

The girl stopped, looking up at him with an unnervingly still posture. Tilting her head to the side, she took the coat, letting go of the bag before she put it on – it reached down below her feet, dragging on the ground.

The man sighed, smiling a little. “Wait. I got some socks for you, too.” Searching around in his pockets, he gave her two pairs of surprisingly clean socks, and she put them on quickly, without any response. They were obviously far too big for her feet, but served their purpose.

When she was done, she nodded, once, grabbed her bag again and simply walked forward as the kindly man put his coats back on. “Lil’ one, this place ain’t safe,” he said, turning around to watch her. “You want me to take you home? Please?”

She looked at him, then turned away and just walked forward.

One of the other men spoke up, “Might be she got no home no more, Walker. Come an’ sit down, you’ll freeze, too.”

He shook his head, going after the girl. “Nah, I’ll keep an eye on the little one. Might be I’ll see you guys later.”

They shook their heads, closing the gap he’d left to better warm each other.

Walker followed the girl as she stumbled into an alley that crossed this one, into the darkness and away from the light.

* * *

The girl stopped a few feet down the alley and lifted her hands up to a set of dials on either side of the helmet. Walker watched her as she fiddled around with the dials, and the sounds coming from the helmet changed, varying. There didn’t seem to be any words, but Walker could hear an almost melodic pattern of sound repeating itself.

After a minute or so of quietly working on it, she continued down the alley and turned right down another one, ignoring any attempt of Walker to get a word out of her.

She found a manhole cover, putting the bag aside and squatting down to grab the handle with her delicate fingers and try to lift it, even though there was obviously no way she’d manage it herself.

“Well, no use trying to stop ya…” Walker whispered and squatted down on the other side, putting his back to work (his back protested) and lifting the cover up.

Without even acknowledging his help, she began climbing down the rusty ladder with one hand, using the other to hold the bag over her shoulder, and he soon followed, pulling the cover closed over them if only prevent snow from falling down on his head.

To his surprise, there was barely any stink coming up from beneath, just the wet, moldy smell of old wet stone. When they reached the bottom, they found only darkness. Walker could see nothing, and only heard water flow in the distance.

“Well, hope you know yer way ’round this place, sweetie, because I certainly d-” He stopped talking when he heard a click, and suddenly light flooded the place coming from a rod she was holding in her hand which held a trio of light bulbs on one end. He could tell she’d taken it out of the bag, which was open right now, several other pieces of equipment in sight (he recognized none of them). “You brought a bag full of tricks with you, but forgot yer clothes? You’re a strange one, sweetie,” he commented with a chuckle.

The girl continued to ignore him and looked around the place. They stood in an old tunnel, with muddy (but not foul-smelling) water running through the middle. The walls were covered in old muck and mold, and even with the bright torch the girl was holding up, they could barely see more than thirty feet in either direction.

Turning in a circle, the girl fiddled with the controls of her helmet, then went down one way. Walker followed, not knowing where else to go or how to talk to her.

After three minutes, he started to hear a strange sound, like blowing air whispering. Two minutes later, he realized that there really were people whispering further down the tunnel.

Several people, in fact.

“Are you looking for some friends, lil’ one? But what kind of friends of yours would be down here…” He shivered, hoping they wouldn’t run into that dark thing everyone was talking about.

The girl kept ignoring him and walked towards the whispers, which kept getting louder, though they remained incomprehensible. A dark, oppressive mood was filling the air, and somehow Walker felt as if breathing got more and more difficult to do the further they went down the sewer tunnel.

Then, suddenly, the tunnel opened up into a large room, so large they couldn’t see the walls or the ceiling any more.

In front of them, a metal walkway became visible… and beyond it, a glimmer in the dark, the air feeling so heavy it was almost unbreathable.

A trio of red eyes, arranged irregularly, opened up, looking at them.

Walker froze, his heart beating so fast he thought it might blow up. The dark beast.

The eyes moved, rising higher as they seemed to flow, getting smaller and vanishing as new ones emerged and grew.

The old man looked around frantically and saw a rusty pipe sticking out of the wall where it opened up from the tunnel to the larger room. Grabbing it, he ripped it off and jumped in front of the girl, brandishing the pipe like a sword. “Run, lil’ one! I’ll hold it off!”

The whispers grew louder and more discordant as the eyes approached, no longer vanishing into the dark as they focused on him.

He swallowed dryly, listening for the footsteps of the girl… but there were none. Slowly, he glanced over his shoulder to check on her – and that’s when the beast moved.

The eyes surged forward and a shadowy crooked limb struck him across the belly, throwing him over the railing of the walkway and into the moldy wall, the old man sliding down the wall to land on a ledge and fall unconscious.

Turning to the little girl, the beast moved closer, remaining just barely at the edge of the light.

“Go away!” “Go away!” “Go away!” “Go away!” “Go away!”, shouted five distorted voices.

Not even flinching, the girl reached into her bag with her free hand and threw a tin can at the eyes.

Another limb, crooked and twisted, struck the can – and it exploded into a bright flash of light, briefly illuminating the large, cavern-like room.

Several tunnels opened into the large room, metal walkways connecting them to a central pillar on which there stood a collection of machines cobbled together out of various pieces of other technology, with thick wires running up into the darkness that still covered the ceiling, and thick cables falling down the pillar and vanishing into the dark.

And on the walkway in front of the girl, there… stood… a glob of darkness, partially standing on several crooked limbs, partially lying on the walkway, with five glowing red eyes slamming shut as it reared back from the bright light, raising one of its limbs to try and protect them.

Then the can fell apart and the only lights left were the rod in the girl’s hand and the reopening red eyes.

“Not bad.” The eyes faded away until only one was left, and the shadows seemed to somehow… compress themselves.

Then it moved forward, entering the circle of light, its body still formless, but more compressed, smaller. Where it had earlier been five times the size of a bear, now it was barely twice the size.

Moving closer, the eye extended on a neck made of boiling darkness, moving closer still to the girl. “Who are you? Where did you get that helmet, and those toys?” it asked, it’s speech distorted, sounding like a chorus of people half-whispering and combining into a single larger voice.

The girl let go of the bag and put the rod down so it stood on the walkway, then reached up to the dials of her helmet.

“Made| them| myself,” she said, speaking in fragments taken from two different radio announcers.

The dark beast stopped in its movements, and the oppressive sensation in the air vanished. “You made those things? Interesting,” it said. Then it shook its ‘head’, turning away.

There was a click, and then several lights went on, bringing a weak, gloomy light to the room.

Turning her light rod off and stowing it in her bag, the girl stepped onto the walkway and walked towards the machines in the center as the dark beast crawled over to Walker and picked him up like a doll, depositing him on a mass of blankets and pillows.

“A brave man. Stupid, but brave,” the beast whispered as eyes opened on its back, looking at the girl as she looked at the machines.

It moved towards her, not turning around but rather its back simply extending forward, becoming a new ‘front’. “How did you find me, little one?”

She turned to it and raised her hands to the dials again. Instead of speech, though, a melodic sound pattern rang forth from the speakers she’d built into her helmet.

The beast stopped moving again. “Oh. Impressive, you picked the signal up,” it commented. “Say, you didn’t happen to open a door made of light recently, did you?”

She shook her head. “I saw| stars in the sky| In the basement,” she said.

“I see, I see. So you’re another one of us.” It moved closer again, lowering its ‘head’ – really more just the tip of a long, sinuous tentacle dotted with countless red eyes. It was constantly shifting its form, limbs and eyes and other things emerging from the darkness that made up its ‘body’, its gait irregular and clumsy as its limbs tended to vanish again before it had even finished a single step. “I didn’t expect any to be able to build such technology, though. It doesn’t seem to… fit.” Stopping, it raised a limb to its ‘face’, as if to scratch its chin. “Then again, perhaps… but that is not important right now.”

It moved past the girl to the machine and pulled some switches. Even though it had made neither light nor sound, the machine turning off could be felt. As if there’d been a charge in the air, and now it was gone.

“What’s your name, little one?” the beast asked.

“I have| no name| that I want to use,” she replied.

“Neither do I. But we need to know how to call each other, if you are to stay here,” it said, not bothering to ask if she wanted to stay.

She seemed to think it over, then she raised her hands to the dials again: “Call me| W|y|r|m,” she told him.

“Wyrm? Why Wyrm? It seems an odd choice,” it asked, its eyes vanishing in favour of glowing red lines all over its body.

“Because| dragons| are neat!”

It shrugged. “As good a reason as any. As for me, call me… well, I’m stuck here, in the dark, for the time being… so call me the Dark. That should serve until I think of something else, or reclaim my old name.”

“Hello| the Dark. How are you?”

A cold, echoing chuckle rang through the room. “Better now, Wyrm,” he said. “Better now.”

* * *

Two days later

“No! No no no, NO!” His shouts rang through the large cavern as he surged back from the machine he’d been working on with Wyrm, his form exploding into countless limbs and… other… things. “It should have been enough! How come we don’t have enough of the wire!?”

“Tran|sister,” she replied, barely reacting to his outburst. She was no longer wearing the old coat Walker had given her, but rather a blue-and-red dress that the Dark had made for her out of pieces of cloth he’d had lying around. “Antenna.”

Snarling, he punched the railing so hard it bent all the way down to the walkway, just as Walker trotted over to them from the small makeshift kitchen the Dark had set up, carrying a tray with three bowls of bean soup he’d heated up out of two cans.

“Look, boss, no use getting worked up,” he said, having realized by the second day that his new boss was not entirely in control of his own mind, and had to be prevented from going too deeply into one of his usual bad moods, lest he lose control and go on another rampage. “Here, why don’t ye both take a break and eat some bean soup?”

Wyrm dropped her tools and came over, while the Dark hesitated for a moment before doing the same, his form compressed to the size of a large bear or a small car. Each of them took a bowl off the wooden tray. The little girl pushed her helmet up just enough to reveal her rosy lips and began to sip the soup out of the bowl (she’d refused to show them her face), while the Dark pulled the bowl into the mass of darkness that, as Walker had learned to his surprise, was not his body, but merely surrounded it.

He’d been even more surprised to find out that the Dark was not a monster spawned from the pillar of light, and the murderer of the Goldschmidt heir, but instead he was Franz-Peter Goldschmidt himself!

Drinking from his own bowl, Walker watched his new companions. They’d already fallen into a kind of rythm. The Dark, for all his monstrous appearance, sudden mood shifts and natural disdain for those who were less intelligent than him, was a rather pleasant fellow to live with, all things considered. At least he didn’t try to hog your place at the fire, or steal your food or your coat. And the little girl was just… quiet. Eerie, really, in how she refused to take off her helmet or talk in her own voice (she claimed she wasn’t mute) and how she utterly focused on working with all these fancy machines.

Little eight year old girls shouldn’t be able to focus like that, he thought.

“We need more copper wire. This was the last I’d found on the scrapyard, and I doubt I’ll find new one within the quarantine zone,” the Dark said calmly. Walker had noticed that his appearance became more erratic and monstrous the more agitated he was. Right now, it almost looked like a hunchbacked human. Almost.

Walker thought it over. He really wanted to help them, but he had no idea of how to work with machines the way they did. He hadn’t even really understood what they were trying to build, their explanation of their goal going right over his head. But he knew his way around the city, and… “There ought to be plenty of copper wire over at the Sullivan factory. I remember seeing stacks of copper wire, all rolled up, back when I got a small job there for a few weeks.”

“I have no money to buy it from them, nor are they likely to want to deal with me in the first place,” the Dark said.

“Well, I could go and talk to them… maybe we can sell some of the stuff you got lying around here, or-“

“Just take it.”

They both turned to look at Wyrm, who’d finished her soup and had pulled her helmet down. She was looking up at them, somehow seeming… annoyed.

“Just take it.”

“What do you mean? You say I should steal it?” He seemed… offended at the notion.

“Why not? We need| it more than| they| do,” she replied, fingers on the dials. “Just take it.”

“Gotta agree with the squirt, boss,” Walker threw in, drawing an annoyed glance (or at least it felt kinda like he got one) from Wyrm. “Never saw the point in not taking what you need. Not like anyone’s gonna give it to ya for free.”

“Hrm… I suppose… you’re right. Let’s plan a heist, then…”

* * *

April 3rd, 1926

Wyrm was sitting in a high chair, her bare feet dangling from it as she worked away on a large switchboard, countless wires running to and from her helmet, connecting her to a whole set of computers. She was only dressed in an old nightgown that the Dark had brought her as a gift for her first name day and which she’d grown out of over a year ago now, but it wasn’t like anyone but the Dark and Walker ever saw her, anyway.

Not that Walker called himself Walker anymore.

While she was working, working her way through every radio channel she could receive and also working on her schematics for a new, improved receiver, she didn’t notice the large, black-skinned form that approached her from behind, and she flinched when it tapped her shoulder with a long, scarlet nail.

Turning her head to look at the four-armed, four-eyed and two-faced man holding a bowl of soup in one of his hands, she gave him a silent look.

“It’s lunchtime, lil’ one,” Walker said, his voice still familiar to her despite the radical changes it had gone through. He held out the bowl and she took it after turning off the constant stream of information.

A simple flick of a button made the lower part of the helmet open up, allowing her to eat the soup with the spoon he also handed her.

Warm chicken soup. Just the right thing to warm her.

He waited silently while she ate, knowing that conversation wouldn’t work as long as she’d have to talk with her own mouth. Three years, and she still hadn’t shown him her face or let him hear her own voice. Not even the Dark, who’d become a kind of (irritable, sarcastic, misanthropic) surrogate father to her didn’t know either.

She finished, handing the bowl back and closing the helmet up. “Is there| anything else?”

He chuckled at her blunt speech. “Yes, the boss wants you to tap into military channels and find out where the lady is off to – he thinks they asked her to do some job for them.”

Nodding, she turned back to her switchboard and began to work, while he put the bowl and spoon away before returning to stand behind her.

After only ten minutes, she turned her headphones off again. “Mexican border dispute.”

“Alright, I’ll tell the boss. And then it’s off to tousle with Pointshot and that little brat again.”

“Good luck.”

His (two sets of) shoulders shook in a chuckle. “Won’t need it, lil’ one. The boss thinks he’s figured out how Severance’ power works.”

* * *

May 14th, 1928

Their new base was built beneath an active factory, giving them ample cover for Wyrm’s machines, and the energy they needed to work. She now had her own room, which was about as big as a full house, crammed full with machines she’d built to tap into every information source she could get her hands on.

Wyrm sat on a comfortable chair, typing away at a keyboard. She’d dispensed with wearing clothes more than a year ago, and both the Dark and Kraquok had given up trying to get her to dress after less than a month. She’d argued that no one but them ever saw her, anyway, and their new headquarters were dry and warm enough for it to not be a threat to her health. Not to mention that it was, by her calculations, healthier to be naked than not.

As she worked away, her computer tapping into phone lines to record the communication of countless people of interest, a tall, quadrupedal shadow approached her from behind, waiting patiently for her to notice it.

Waiting.

And waiting.

After ten minutes, it reached out with a long, shadowy (but no longer crooked) limb and poked her shoulder, making her jump on her seat. She turned her head, looking wordlessly at him.

“I just got a package,” he said, holding up a stack of printed pages. “My contact finally managed to steal some of Drakaina’s designs.”

She swerved her chair around on the spot – her helmet was no longer directly connected to her computer, not since she’d gotten her hands on a colour monitor – and all but ripped the paper from his hand.

“Don’t get your hopes up – they’re useless. I can read them no more than I can read your designs,” he admonished her.

“I can| translate.”

“Well, that would be a useful skill to have.”

* * *

March 17th, 1929

“Happy name day, Wyrm!” Kraquok and Killer High chorused, distracting her from her work.

Annoyed, but knowing that they wouldn’t leave her in peace, she swerved around on her stool (still unwilling to dress, to Killer High’s delight) and stared blankly at them, her face hidden by her newest helmet – this one silvery, and worked to suggest a dragon’s head.

Killer High – a young man only a year older than she was – was dressed in a skintight black costume with a white skull painted on his face, distorting it with a wide, white-toothed grin. His blood-red eyes – they were literally red all over, with no iris or pupils – looked her up and down, showing his usual incomprehensible interest in her body. He was holding a box wrapped in colourful paper out.

Kraquok was standing next to him, missing his left two arms just above the elbows (another fight with Severance), the flesh pulsing as they slowly regenerated, fighting off the effect of Severance’ power, which prevented healing under normal circumstances. “Take it, little one,” he said.

She took the box, carefully unwrapping it. Within, she found… a silken black nightgown. She tilted her head, looking at the two – they were both aware of how she thought about clothes.

“Look, no one enjoys you being naked all the time more than I do,” Killer High explained, picking up on her mild (annoyed) confusion. He was speaking the truth, as the cameras and microphones she’d spread around the base told her. “But it ain’t decent. You ought’a wear something, and this is pretty much the most comfortable piece a clothing we could find.”

She put the lid on the box again and set it aside, turning around to continue her work.

The two men sighed, but offered no further distraction.

* * *

September 1st, 1931

“And you’re sure you don’t wanna come along, Wyrm?” Killer High asked. He was gearing up, while Kraquok and the other three members of the Dark Five, as well as the Dark, were getting ready for combat against the Shining Guardians – the purpose being to distract them, and Lady Light, while Killer High assassinated the American president and several other key members of the government.

“She’s not a frontline fighter, Hurton,” the Dark told him, sparing her the need to answer his question herself. “However, she’ll be in constant radio communication with each of us – you all have one of her newest communicators – and she’ll help you get through White House security safely.”

He shrugged. “Still think she should finally try out that piece of armor she’s made. Sparring with us will only take her so far, she needs some real combat experience!”

She watched as the Dark knocked him over the head with an arm he extended out of the shadowy mass that concealed his body – lately, he’d been able to consistently keep it focused in a humanoid form, with only six eyes in his face. “She’s far more valuable to us in a support role. Now stop whining and focus.”

Wyrm focused on her work again, pulling up the schematics of the White House, and making sure her connection to Killer High’s collar camera was stable. She’d record everything.

* * *

The next day

“It’s not your fault, Wyrm,” the Dark whispered, putting his long, black hand onto her bare shoulder. “You couldn’t have known that Pointshot is the President’s son. None of us saw that coming.”

Wyrm worked away at her console, showing no outward attention to his speech. She was reviewing the brutal battle that had broken out in the White House, ending with Killer High’s death when Pointshot impaled him with a cue through one ear and out the other. She’d triggered the self-destruction of her communicator and camera at that point, so it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands. They’d done their job and recorded everything.

The Dark sighed, squeezing her shoulder. “If you need to talk – or just some company – you know where to find me.” He left the room.

After a few more minutes, she paused her work and took off her helmet. Blond-white hair spilled out, and she took the time to run her fingers through it before she turned around and pulled that box onto her lap. She’d never bothered to throw it away.

When the Dark came back an hour later with a request, he found her wearing the black nightgown.

* * *

December 24th, 1944

“You sure you can finally do it, boss?” Kraquok asked as he lounged on a reinforced couch Wyrm had set up for him in her room. It had become the unofficial meeting place for him, her and the boss – the original members of the group, and apparently the only ones there to stay.

“I have to. I don’t think I can take much more of this twenty-four-seven,” the Dark said as he stood in the center of the room (right where he’d taught her how to dance). “And besides, I’m supposed to be one of the best at this. And Gwen has already got it down.”

He shivered, his tall, pulsing black form flaring up. Wyrm and Kraquok watched both, and for once she was just as anxious as Kraquok, as the Dark’s shadowy form shivered, pulsed, and…

It collapsed.

He fell to his knees, stark naked and pale as a corpse, taking deep, heavy breaths. He looked no older than the image she’d seen of him just before Point Zero. No aging, just like Lady Light.

“I did it,” he whispered, his voice so completely unlike what she’d imagined. A kind of raspy tenor, quite pleasant to listen to. “I did it!” he shouted, throwing his arms up, then he flinched when the light of the lamps hit his eyes directly. “Ow.”

Kraquok was by his side in a second, putting a blanket around him. “You did it, boss. You can finally be… normal again. Every now and then.”

“Or at least pretend to,” Franz-Peter replied with a chuckle. Then he turned to look at her. “What do you think, Wyrm?”

She tilted her head to the side, then reached up with her hands.

The helmet clicked, opening. The two mens’ eyes (all six of them) widened as she pulled the helmet off, spilling her long hair. Then she opened her mouth to speak.

* * *

February 3rd, 1960

Wyrm sat in front of her monitor wall, observing the tides of battle and feeding a steady stream of (anonymous) information to the PATO forces, providing intelligence on enemy troop movements, equipment and other useful facts wherever she could. Her ability to do so was quite hampered by Weisswald having preferred using superpowers for communication wherever possible, instead of standard technology.

Still, she felt some measure of… pride, in being possibly one of the most vital supporters of the fight against Weisswald, even though there were only six people in the whole world who knew about her. Everyone out there went crazy over the Protector, Amaterasu, about Lady Light and the Dark and all the other combat monsters.

Yet her calculations proved that she had been the deciding factor in more than forty-five large-scale engagements between the fronts, not to mention the deaths of the four Meisters, Weisswald’s elite. She’d tracked down their headquarters and found out when they’d be there and when they’d be the most vulnerable. And it had been her counter-intelligence that had prevented Weisswald from coming to their help in time.

Now she watched as Kraquok led a strike team against a supply depot in Westphalia…

And suddenly, she lost contact to three of her surveillance drones near the coast of Mecklenburg. Tapping into a few others that were nearby, she saw bursts of light in the sky fighting explosive growths of white trees.

Moving closer, she just barely saw Lady Light blast Weisswald at point blank range, and then rows of drones could only watch her literally pummel the man across Germany and all the way to Berlin, burning a molten scar that ran from the coast through Mecklenburg, Brandenburg and finally into Berlin itself.

She had no drones in Berlin, and even if she did, they most likely wouldn’t be able to observe the battle without being obliterated themselves.

Instead of futile attempts to observe, she instead tried to find out what had set off Lady Light like that, digging through her records and all messages flying across Europe…

* * *

Eighteen hours later

Weisswald finally died after nearly eighteen hours of combat, leaving Berlin in ruins.

Wyrm’s own inquiries had yielded an explanation for Lady Light’s sudden, reckless attack – Brightchild, her (by now adult) sidekick and almost-daughter had been killed in combat, slain during a covert mission into Mecklenburg at the hands of Weisswald. When she found out about it, Lady Light – who had been in Manchester at the time, preparing another offensive – she’d apparently snapped and gone on a rampage that ended with Weisswald’s death in Berlin.

Her surveillance and spy drones had only managed to record fragments of the battle, but Wyrm still analyzed and filed them away for future reference. She’d have to ask the Dark if he’d known Lady Light was this powerful… and how she’d known of Brightchild’s death in the first place.

Wyrm certainly hadn’t found out about it until way after the fact.

* * *

July 9th, 1991

The room shook again as another explosion rocked the city. Wyrm’s drones had proven ineffective, being completely ignored by her almost-sister. They’d been casually destroyed, not even targeted themselves but simply caught up in attacks upon other targets.

Now Desolation-in-Light was using a telekinetic power that pounded the very earth, rocking Lennston’s foundations. And since their enemy had somehow managed to disrupt the powers that kept their base outside the normal dimension, it was being assaulted along with the rest of the city.

“Wyrm, retreat to our third fallback point,” the Dark said, one of his wraiths rising out of the shadow under her chair and clambering up. It was a small thing, basically only a torso with six eyes and four tendrils in place of arms and legs. “Lennston is lost. Make sure to take any level 4 and higher equipment with you.”

She nodded, initiating the self-destruction of the base before gathering everything they couldn’t afford to lose.

* * *

November 25th, 2004

“Wyrm, could I have your attention for a minute?”

She cut the primary data feeds into her helmet display and turned her chair around, with only secondary feeds appearing on the periphery of her vision.

The Dark was standing in front of her, tall and controlled. His right arm was angled in front of his chest, and a raven-haired preteen girl in a pink skirt and blue shirt sitting on it, kicking bare feet with painted nails.

Tilting her head, she looked the girl up and down. She looked a little… off. Wyrm had been practicing analyzing people – baselines and metahumans – for more than seventy-five years now, and yet she couldn’t quite tell what was wrong with the girl. She looked like a black-haired copy of who Wyrm was sure was her mother, but… there was something decidedly off.

The girl, in turn, seemed to respond in kind, her brilliant blue eyes narrowing to slits as she looked the woman with the draconic helmet and black nightgown up and down.

“She creeps me out, daddy,” the girl said once she was done.

He only chuckled in response. “And what is your verdict, Wyrm?”

“She creeps me out, daddy,” she replied.

The girl blew her a raspberry.

“Well, I’ll expect you two to get along nonetheless. Or at least be polite to each other.”

Wyrm nodded, while her new ‘sister’ just snorted, looking a lot more like her father than her mother as she did so.

“Irene, behave.”

“Yes daddy!” she said with a bright smile, her entire mood shifting in a heartbeat to that of a cute little girl.

He looked back at Wyrm. “Please keep an eye out for her. I’m afraid she’ll be causing me and her mother quite the headache in the future.”

“Yes daddy!”

“Ugh, you’re annoying!”

* * *

October 5th, 2011

“And here’s the part of our organization I’m sure you haven’t heard about before,” the Dark said as he guided their newest recruit into the room.

Wyrm didn’t turn around and only used a camera to watch them come in. She knew all about Mindstar, of course. Her familial background, the untimely death of her parents, her younger (probably slightly autistic) brother, her resume as a supervillain, her powerset, her likes and dislikes… she’d profiled her, after all, before the offer for her to join was ever even considered.

“Whoa, my little bro would love this place. He adores fiddling around with electronics,” the tall, indecently dressed young woman said.

“I can imagine. Wyrm has built up quite the collection of equipment.” He didn’t even spare a glance at her too-tight suit. “If you need to do research, or hack into a place, just ask her. She can get into pretty much any place, given enough time and motivation.”

“I see. Oi, can you hear us?” Mindstar asked.

She shook her head in response.

“Oh, ha-ha,” the newbie replied with a roll of her eyes. “How about looking at people?”

She pointed at the camera pointing at Mindstar.

The young woman frowned, concentrating – and she recoiled, taking a step back. “What the fuck!?”

The Dark laughed out loud, making Mindstar stagger back from him, too. “Ahhh, you tried to get into her head? Bad idea – her speciality is Communication technologies – and the blocking thereof. She once managed to work out a system for protecting her brain from most telepathic attacks.”

“I’ve never heard of Gadgeteers doing that!”

“You’ll find that Wyrm is not like your average Gadgeteer, at all. Anyway, you’ve been introduced to her, now let’s go and meet the rest of the gang…”

He lead her out of the room, closing the door.

Wyrm changed data feeds and arranged for several bugs to be installed in her brother’s room. If he was so interested in technology, and the brother of a metahuman, he just might manifest as a Gadgeteer himself…

* * *

A week after the Hastur incident

Wyrm was not at her workstation. That wasn’t because she wasn’t working – she always had routines going on, automated processes gathering and organizing information from all over the world, keeping an eye on things…

But ever since she’d had a near-miss with a heart attack from simply sitting around too much without any exercise (back in 1977), she’d made sure to include three hours of physical workout into her daily schedule. Half an hour before breakfast, two hours before lunch and another half hour before dinner.

She’d just started her breakfast workout when a message appeared on her helmet monitor (she didn’t take it off for her training, or for anything, really).

Project S-Breaker completed.

She almost fell off her treadmill. When she’d caught herself again, she ran back to her seat and sat down, calling the project up.

There it was. After eighteen years of unsuccessful attempts, she’d finally managed to steal Sovereign’s secure files. And he apparently hadn’t found out yet. Hopefully, he never would until it was too late.

Smiling beneath her helmet, she fed the data into her translation program. Nine years ago, she’d managed to get one of Sovereign’s schematics for his Subjugator’s joints. It had taken her most of a year to decipher his winding, cancerous diagrams and schematics, but she had deciphered them – just like she always did, eventually.

Now she let the translator do its work, translating his entire library of inventions into her own, more familiar script. Hers resembled more the look of very finely branching circuitry bords, the lines crips and precise. The opposite of Sovereign’s, really. His was more organic.

But it could be translated.

Even though the first attempt ended up garbled and useless.

So she spent the next three hours translating one of his files by hand. It turned out to be a plasma cannon. She then compared the work she’d done on the one she’d done on the joint-schematics. Based on that, she refined the algorithm and let the program try and translate again, slowing it down enough for her to follow and correct it along the way.

Twenty-one hours later (including two breaks for healthy workout and three regular meals), she’d finally done it.

Now, she called up her own schematics, and began redesigning her personal power armor first.

Sovereign’s joints. His plasma canon. Power Machine’s synthetic muscles. Brennus’ ceramic armor. Tinman’s armor frame, Tingirl’s weight distributors (a shame she’d died so early, before she could even claim the name of Tinwoman – but her murder certainly had motivated her father to push his power armor development to the limit in his quest for vengeance), Mechano’s jetpack array…

And, after several other pieces of technology she’d copied from other Gadgeteers, she now added Sovereign’s force-field technology and portable reactor.

Now, if only she had Macian’s kinetic repulsors and Su Lin’s teleportation system…

Because this was her true strength. A strength that tied into her name, even though she hadn’t thought about it (hadn’t even known about it) back when she chose the name.

What did the dragon do?

It lay hidden beneath the earth, resting, waiting. And yet it grew, even there. A dragon, a wyrm only grew bigger and stronger with age, its coils extending to surround the very planet.

Her coils were old, her coils were big, her coils were strong.

And there was no end in sight.

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