14.6 Breaking Point

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Lady Light’s glowing form slammed into a growing stone-form that’d begun literally growing out of thin air around DiL, to the size of a five-story building in an instant, and disintegrated the whole thing in a blaze of light.

In the back of Basil’s calmed mind, he felt a short ache, as DiL changed her powers moments after assuming them, only to do so yet again when Lady Light disrupted her new abilities, before Basil could even see anything.

”Did you know your mother could do that?” he asked Gloom Glimmer, referring to that massive wave of light.

She took a step back from him, her cheeks red with tears and warmth, brushing her hair back behind her ears. “No. Yes. Kind of?” she temporized, seeming off-kilter. “In theory. I know she can, but I’ve never seen her do it, and it’s really risky to use it like thi-“ She realised she was babbling and clamped her mouth shut, her teeth making a sharp ‘click’.

Basil smiled at her, trying to be reassuring, even as his mind fired on all cylinders.

He really felt way too good. Prisca’s death, his failure, Amy, his memory… it was all still there, but for the first time he could remember, he felt like he could deal with all of that.

He also knew that this wasn’t how her aura was supposed to work. It bolstered those aligned with her, while weakening those which were opposed, but he’d never heard of it having this profound an effect on someone… another power interaction, perhaps?

Something to look into – if Lady Light, of all people, couldn’t help him solve his issues, then no one could. Especially if the theory he was building in regards to her power was correct.

Gloom Glimmer leaned in closer, looking concerned, as if trying to look deeper into him. Maybe she literally was, who knew? “Are you… are you still… you? You seem… different. From usual. And from… that time Osore hit you… too.”

”Mmmhm. Yeah. Your mother’s aura is having the oddest effect on me. Like the opposite of what your sister’s aura was doing to me, only even more so.” He chuckled in a way he’d never do, normally. Carefree. “I can not even remember the last time I felt so… light.”

He turned his head away, looking out over the rooftops. “Anyway, we should go to Hecate and Polymnia. Join up and figure out what to do.”

”Y-yeah.”

”Do I need to carry you?” he asked her, turning back to look at her again as she walked up to stand by his side.

She blushed again. “N-no. Thank you. I don’t have much power, right now, but I can still hop some roofs.” As if to underline that, she took off, running and leaping over the gap between their and the next house’s roof, moving as nimbly as any parkour runner.

He looked after her, blinking in surprise; then he shrugged and followed her.

***

They reached Polymnia and Hecate – both fortunately alive and well – within a minute.

Before anyone could say anything, Gloom Glimmer all but jumped at her friend, who equally rushed towards her, and they embraced each other so tightly, Polymnia actually lifted Gloom Glimmer off her feet (she was taller than her while in armor).

Basil joined Hecate while the two girl friends exchanged quick words, clearly intensely relieved that the other one was still alright.

”Hey,” Hecate greeted him again, giving him a brief hug. He wanted to hug her back, properly, but he was pretty sure she wouldn’t be quite comfortable with that right then, so he just gave her a one-armed squeeze. “How’s…” She trailed off, her eyes flicking from him to the other two girls.

”Much better,” he replied, releasing the breath he’d held. “Lady Light’s aura is lessening the effect, if not countering it outright.”

”Oh. That’s good,” she sighed, relieved. “So, no more nosebleeding?”

He tilted his head to the side. “I should have thought of checking that,” he said after a brief delay and took his mask off again.

“Let me,” Hecate interrupted him when he began to reach up, pulling a delicate green handkerchief from her bag. Spitting on it, she rubbed at his upper lip, nose and chin. “Just some dried blood,” she told him, while he held still, having experienced one of Vasiliki’s little ‘cleansings’ before, and learned that it was futile to resist. “Seems like the bleeding has stopped, yeah.” She smiled in relief, pulling her hand back and showing him the dark stains on it.

”Thank you. That is a relief,” he replied. DiL changed her powers again, halfway through the reply, and he sent another signal through the device the Dark gave him.

”You’re different,” she observed, her eyes hidden underneath the enchanted shadows of her hood. “Is everything… I mean, are you still… you?” She sounded afraid as she asked, though he couldn’t tell whether she was afraid he might be someone else, or that she might offend or anger him by asking, or both.

”I am pretty sure I am,” he tried to assuade her, smiling to take the tension out of it as much as he could. “It is not like I have recovered any memory that is missing, but… my head seems clearer.” He turned said head to look at the distant battle. Lights were flashing, and he was pretty sure that Lady Light was wielding a glowing sword the size of a schoolbus, using it to literally slice DiL’s current defense apart – some manner of fractals in the air, visible only by how they were distorting light around them, rather than due to reflecting it directly.

A dull ache announced another change in powers, and Lady Light reacted faster than Basil could press the button, letting that huge blade dissolve into light and reforming it into something too small to make out at this distance.

”Yeah, her aura is… I mean… wow. I didn’t know she could crank it up like this,” Hecate replied, whispering in awe. “She must be covering the entire area inside the Desolation Field.”

Another dull ache, a second after whatever Lady Light used now impacted some kind of distorted shadow inbetween her and DiL, dispersing it with a massive, yet silent shockwave.

“I don’t know how long she can keep it up, though,” Gloom Glimmer interjected, stepping closer to them, her right hand clasping Polymnia’s left, tightly. “She must be burning the candle on both ends to get this kind of output, and I… I don’t know why she’d be so reckless, this time.” She looked quite troubled.

“Maybe because you’re here,” Polymnia suggested, her voice soothing. “She launched that wave the moment you were in danger of actually being hurt, didn’t she?”

Gloom Glimmer’s shoulders slumped, along with her head.

Before anyone could follow up on that, they were interrupted by static crackle from Memento’s communication devices.

To all those who are still able to fight,the Dark’s multi-layered voice spoke to them, made even stranger than usual by coming from multiple speakers at once. We are preparing a significant attack on DiL. Lady Light is going to buy us the time we need to do so. Until you are given the signal to attack, conserve your strength, take care of each other and prepare yourselves.

“This is Rounds speaking,” the leader of the New Lennston United Heroes followed up, sounding winded, but still determined. “I concur with the Dark’s plan. Everyone, take care of yourselves and each other. Stand strong and don’t give up hope.”

“An attack…” Gloom Glimmer whispered, her gaze still focused downwards, mostly at her feet. “I’ve never heard him phrase any move against Bree like that,” she elaborated, when the others looked curiously at her, though she didn’t raise her head. “Could he actually have a plan to… get at her?”

Her voice was thick with a mess of emotions Basil couldn’t even begin to decipher. Though he was pretty certain guilt factored in.

He’d become all too familiar with guilt, lately.

”But, what could… how… she’s untouchable!” Hecate protested.

”Hanabi was able to affect her, during the Okinawa fight,” Basil interjected. “And no one has heard from him, since. It might be that he’s been preparing some kind of weapon, maybe even a Magnum Opus.”

”That sounds like something Dad would do,” Gloom Glimmer agreed. “Track him or her down and whisk them away to prepare for this.”

They all took a moment to digest that, the only motion between them being Basil’s fingers when he signaled another change of powers.

”Wow.” The simple whisper was all that Hecate seemed able to say, in response.

“That’s… really amazing, really… but what do we do?” Polymnia asked, her right hand’s fingers tapping out the words while her eyes were on Gloom Glimmer, her expression concerned. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but apart from Gloomy, we’ve all been pretty useless so far, and she’s out of power for now. Or nearly so.”

Hecate took a deep breath, holding her staff close to her chest with both hands, as her hood briefly twitched towards Basil, before focusing on the other girls instead. “I think… we should just, try to protect people. Get them out harm’s way, wherever we can. Search and rescue.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much what I was doing before. Rounds has all the juniors – except Gloomy – on Search and Rescue. Not that I wouldn’t do it anyway, I’m pretty good at it. Tracking people via sounds and all, I can do that, and I have the strength to carry them to safety,” Polymnia just kept speaking, until she suddenly stopped, blushing when she realised she’d started rambling.

Hecate nodded, straightening up a bit. “Alright, let’s-“

”Someone is coming,” Basil interjected, a mere moment before a blur rushed up onto the roof and crossed over to them so quickly none had a chance to react, before it slowed down and stopped.

”Yo, glad  to see you’re still alive!” Outstep greeted them, his grin visible as he wasn’t wearing his usual racer-inspired helmet, instead donning a red-tinted visor covering the upper half of his face. “I’m running high-speed evac to the medical station, who needs a trip?”

“We’re all fine, thank you,” Polymnia replied, looking him over. “Glad to see you’re still alive… I think.”

”Aw, come on now, Jugs,” he grinned, blurring over to her right side, one arm wrapped around her shoulders, “We both know you’d be inconsolable if I actually croaked off.”

She turned her head, looking at him with a saccharine smile. “Call me ‘Jugs’ again and I’ll liquefy your balls from the inside out,” she spoke in her usual, chipper tone of voice.

He stepped back from her, raising his arms as if in surrender. “Alright, alright.” He looked them all over again, still smirking. “So, anyone need some rapid transit, if not medical evac?”

They all shook their heads, even Gloom Glimmer.

”A-are you sure?” Hecate asked her. “Polymnia said you’re almost out of power…”

Outsteps gaze snapped over to his dark-haired teammate. “That true, princess?”

She gave him an annoyed look – a glare, almost – and Basil was actually surprised he didn’t physically feel the temperature drop between them.

”I’m fine,” she all but snarled. “Got two new powers already. I’m good to go.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” he replied, deadpan. “But seriously, if you need a timeout, tell me. You ain’t no use to anyone if you get yourself killed by your mass-murderin’ sissy. Nevermind what your dad will do to me if he thinks me the least bit responsible for it.”

Gloom Glimmer’s left eye twitched when he mentioned her sister, but she just turned away from him. “I’m staying, as are the others. So go help someone who actually needs your help, Outstep.”

He shrugged, looking them all over one more time. “Alright. God be with you, Gearhead, Witchgirl, Princess, Jugs.” He turned into a blur and rushed down from the rooftop, before anyone could react.

“He’s such an asshole,” Polymnia complained quietly.

”He kind of reminds me of some of my relatives,” Hecate whispered, lowering her head. “One of my uncles and his sons are pretty much all like that.” She sighed.

Basil put his hand on her shoulder, squeezing it gently. “Your family is way too stubborn to die,” he told her, softly.

She choked on a laugh, her shoulders shaking briefly. “Y-yeah. You’re right.” She took in a deep breath, squaring her shoulders. “Let’s get going.”

“Yes, let’s,” Gloom Glimmer agreed, as the air began to shimmer and distort around her, though curiously – at least, to Basil – her eyes remained blue on white.

He wished he could just sit down with her and talk about her power, try to determine the ins and outs of it. Maybe run some tests, put her under some of his scanners…

Not the time, not the time, he admonished himself. Not that it ever seems to be the time.

Instead of pursuing that line of thought, he checked his communicator, as did the others, to see where Memento thought they could do the most good, each of them requesting the system give them search and rescue tasks.

Unsurprisingly, there were loads of them.

“I suppose we ought to split up,” he commented, seeing the sheer volume of the requests for help.

“No,” Hecate countered. “At least, not entirely. We should go in pairs, I think, so we can support each other.”

“True en-” He was interrupted as the ground shook, causing them all to stumble before they caught their balance again. The buildings beneath and around them groaned, what window panes remained unbroken shattered, but the overall structures held. “Hrm, this is only going to get worse. Yes, I agree, we should go in pairs.”

“I think I should go with Hecate,” Polymnia spoke up, causing them all to look at her in surprise. She just shrugged at their questioning looks. “Don’t look at me like that. I think it makes sense to split so there’s only one gadgeteer to a pair, in case our tech does break down after all. That is still a threat, being within the Desolation Field. And I think I should be the one to go with Hecate, because I have more functioning tech left than Brennus, so I can support her better, while he will have Gloomy to cover him.”

Basil exchanged looks with the other two. “It does make sense,” he agreed with his fellow gadgeteer.

“I suppose we ought to get going, then,” Hecate said, looking at him one more time. “Good luck and… don’t die. Seriously.”

“I will not die. That is a promise,” he replied, calmly, as his eyes briefly found hers in the shadows of her hood.

Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia exchanged similar words, before they split up, the two girls running off and leaping onto the next rooftop.

”Let’s not dawdle,” Gloom Glimmer said softly, her eyes following her friend until she dropped down to the street.

”Aye.”

They left towards their own target.

***

“You didn’t have to do that,” Hecate whispered to Polymnia, once they hit the street and started running. Using the occasional smoke-leap, she was easily able to keep pace with the physically superior gadgeteer, even had the advantage now and then, when they had to cross particularly treachery spots, like collapsed buildings or car wrecks melted together into jagged spikes, and worse.

“Perhaps not, but I think it’s for the best,” Polymnia replied in a conversational tone, once again at odds with what she was actually doing, running and leaping in the direction the arrows on their armbads were showing them. “I know things are messed up between you two right now. Some distance might be good, so you can get some perspective. And so you won’t be getting too distracted while on mission.”

Hecate blushed, glad that the (slightly) younger girl couldn’t see it under her hood. I’m such a mess.

”Thank you,” was all she said in return, her voice thick with emotions she couldn’t really put to words, even if she’d tried.

Somehow, she was quite sure Polymnia got it, anyway, as she just smiled at her and said, “Don’t worry too much. I’m sure it will work out.”

They turned a corner, and immediately saw where they were meant to help – a five-storey building had collapsed inwards, rubble piling up into a mound the size of a two-storey building, but even without Polymnia’s hearing, Hecate could make out people screaming from within.

“We’ll have to dig them out carefully,” Hecate said to Polymnia, the two of them walking up to the rubble. “If we’re too careless, it might collapse entirely and crush the people within.”

“I can hear children in there,” Polymnia stated with a serious expression, stepping forth and climbing onto the rubble. “Let’s start from the top and work our way down.”

Hecate joined her, as they got to work as quickly as they could. “How does Gloom Glimmer do it?” she asked in a whisper which a normal person would likely not have understood, even if they’d been leaning in to listen.

“How does Gloom Glimmer do what?”

***

“How do you deal with your father being who he is?” Basil clarified as he and Gloom Glimmer jogged down the street, pushed onwards by her power, which was generating sonic waves that reflected off the buildings and street around and beneath them, coming back to push the air against the two of them from behind, buyoing them onwards and onwards.

Gloom Glimmer, whose long-legged strides would have been entirely silent even while running, with her feet being essentially clad in soft – if padded – almost velvet-like fabric rather than proper shoes, kept quiet for a few seconds, easily keeping pace with him, her billowing, heavy cape only magnifying the effect of the pressure from behind, even if it occasionally looked a little silly how it’d push at her and flutter around.

Just when he thought she might not have heard him over the melodic, drum-like waves of sound she generated, she opened her mouth again.

***

“She doesn’t, really,” Polymnia replied quietly, looking sad even as she continued to tear through the rubble, tossing chunks the size of her torso aside as if they weighed nothing. “He’s her daddy, but he’s the Dark. She loves him, but he’s a murderer and enabler of murderers, and all kinds of other criminals and crimes. She wants him to be proud of her, but she can’t feel that way about him. It’s a real mess.”

”I… I guess,” Hecate replied, surprised, in spite of having asked in the first place, that she got such a reply. Even so, her arms and hips kept working, lifting off broken pieces of concrete with rebars and wiring sticking out or attached to them, not as quickly or as easily as Polymnia, but faster than normal. “I didn’t actually think you’d…”

“She’d want me to tell you,” Polymnia assured her, softly. “Perhaps hoping that it’d help you work through what you found out about Brennus.”

Hecate choked, swallowing, her eyes stinging with tears – and it wasn’t the dust causing them. “I just… I don’t understand how… how he could keep it from me, for so long… and… even though I told him otherwise… even though I really, really get family, I… she’s so… how can he just… accept her, after all that she’s done?”

***

”I do not, really,” Basil echoed Gloom Glimmer’s own reply, while using the gauntlet on his left arm to smash through the shards still stuck to the frame of a broken window in the third storey of a small apartment building, his getting carried off by Gloom Glimmer’s power and over to where she was helping two older men carry their respective wives out of a shattered supermarket, leaving trails of bloody footprints behind them.

”You don’t mean that like I did,” Gloom Glimmer observed, somehow, even over the distance.

Basil climbed into the apartment. The window had been broken by the body of a cape, who’d been sent flying through it and landed on a couch opposite of the window with such force, the couch had shattered and he’d smashed into the wall.

Kneeling next to him, Basil quickly examined the young man – perhaps just a teen, though older than himself, he was wearing an outfit reminding him of a classic Wild West Gunslinger, with a zig-zagging, blood-red pattern worked into his black leather pants and matching vest and hat, as well as a red scarf wrapped around his lower face, to hide his identity. He was still holding onto a heavy, magnum-sized revolver in his right hand. Basil could see three blood-red bullets in the cylinder, as well as burned, cracked brown in the other three, likely already spent shots.

He might have been a cowl, considering the dark tones and harsh lines of his outfit, or perhaps one of the ‘edgy’ kind of capes that were all the rage in the USA these years.

Either way, the bleeding wound on the back of his head looked bad, and he was likely only alive because the couch had cushioned his impact.

Basil was quite sure he should have bled out by now, considering how much blood was on the wall behind him, on the floor around him and sticking to the back of his head, but he hadn’t. Perhaps some enhanced toughness or low-level regeneration.

It wasn’t doing him much good beyond barely keeping him alive, though, so he used his first aid supplies to wrap up his head, sheathed his revolver in its hip holster and then carefully lifted him up over his shoulder.

One wasn’t supposed to move injured people, especially not in such a fashion, but it was liable to be less dangerous to him than remaining there, unconscious and unable to get to safety if the destruction spread here.

“What I mean is that I have not been, nor am I dealing with it,” Basil continued the conversation, walking to the door with his unconscious cargo, straining a bit under the man’s weight. “I have been telling myself that she is my sister, that I love her and she me and that that should come first. Some half-formed but never pursued thoughts of redeeming her. Add a great deal of procrastination on the subject and spotty memories, and…”

He opened the door easily enough, from inside, stepping out into the stairwell and immediately making his way down.

”And that’s not all,” Gloom Glimmer’s voice reached him, so clear it was like she was sitting walking right next to him. “You mentioned issues with your memory. Malign ones, most likely. Do you think someone is actively manipulating you?”

She left it unsaid that his sister was the most obvious candidate for such manipulation, but he knew she thought of that possibility.

He would have liked to defend her, to say that Amy wouldn’t do such a thing, that she herself was being affected… except now, thinking – reasonably – clearly for the first time he could remember, he was honest enough to admit that…

”Yes, I think so. And yes, much as I hate to think so, Amy may well be responsible. I think she is also being manipulated, but it would hardly be a challenge for her to pretend that she is, on the off-chance that I might become suspicious,” he replied, and his heart broke a little to admit it out loud.

God, I wish Henry was here. He gets this stuff so much better than I ever could.

He stopped, just a step away from the front door of the building.

Where’d that thought come from? Who was Henry, and why…

No time. Focus on the here and now.

“I can feel… something, off,” Gloom Glimmer said, percussive air helping him move faster towards her and the four survivors she’d found. “I’m sorry, I might be able to do more, but I’m running on fumes here. But there’s definitely something or someone connected to your mind that’s not supposed to… but it’s so subtle, I would never have noticed it, if I didn’t know to look for it in the first place.”

He joined her and the other four, handing the wounded metahuman off to one of the two men, whose wife could walk on her own, and described to them how to get to the next teleportation node, based on the map that he’d seen when he’d used Memento’s network himself, while applying some first aid to them – the other man’s wife was worse off, with a cut on her thigh quite close to a major artery, and a bad hit to the head, but there was just no time for him and Gloom Glimmer to escort them, not when they could move on their own and there were so many other people to help.

”Focus,” he admonished her, gently, without accusation in his voice, watching the survivors leave. “There’s more important things to worry about, right now.” He looked at his armband, and saw that the arrow was pointing him down the road, opposite of where the survivors had gone.

She looked at him, her gaze so overflowing with sympathy and sadness it made him flinch – inwardly, at least. “There always are, aren’t there?” she asked, her voice barely a whisper.

“Hrm.”

***

After nearly five minutes of careful work – and some rather close calls, when the ongoing battle shook the ground and threatened to collapse the rubble – Hecate hit something weird.

The concrete shifted and revealed… nothing. And yet there was something there, something flat, hard and invisible, through which she could see some movement deeper within, obstructing her progress.

“Some kind of force field?”

Polymnia stopped and leaned over, taking a look. “Something’s been preventing me from mapping the insides of the rubble with sonar… perhaps that’s it?”

“Can somebody hear us!?” a voice shouted from within, a young woman’s, perhaps. “Please, you’ve got to move the rubble aside! I don’t think he can hold out much longer! Don’t worry about it collapsing!”

Hecate looked at Polymnia, who seemed as surprised as she herself felt.

“Might as well,” Polymnia stated, and they leapt off the rubble, starting to just tear it away by main force, throwing aside chunks from the base.

Within seconds, the rubble shifted and slid off… an invisible box, about the size of a minivan, outlined by dust.

Within were eight civilians – two women and six younger children, all of kindergarten age – sitting on the ground, and a man standing in the center, his legs spread apart, his arms reaching out, palms facing  away from him, as if pushing against something.

He was wearing black pants with suspenders and a horizontally striped white shirt with black stripes, as well as white and black make-up on his face and oily black hair now matted with blood.

“Le Pantomime!” Polymnia called out, rushing forward as the box disappeared, and the man fell forward.

She caught him as gently as she could, and Hecate stepped up as well, worried. She’d heard of the hero from France – he was quite famous, even across the pond.

To her horror, she saw a terrible wound on the left side of his head – she could actually see a bit of his brain!

“How… how is he still…” She gulped, staring at him.

“He saved us… caught the rubble when it collapsed, after a piece hit him on the head,” the woman who’d called out earlier explained. Hecate barely spared her a glance, since she didn’t seem to be hurt, but she was pretty sure they’d happened upon a daycare of some sort. She kind of looked like a daycare worker, to her, not that she’d ever been in an actual daycare.

“We’ll get him the help he needs,” Polymnia soothed them, calmly, her eyes on the teary-eyed children clinging to the two women. “And we’ll get you all to safety, I promise.”

Hecate nodded, kneeling down to take care of the children. That was something she had experience with, at least.

***

Basil leapt over a slagged car wreck, following the arrow on his armband, moving on his own for now – their armbands had sent him and Gloom Glimmer in opposite directions, and he could only hope that they’d be reunited after, but for now, he was on his own.

They’d been guided to four more crisis points, after he’d saved the gunslinger, and had managed to get no less than nine people to safety, capes, cowls and civilians both, though they’d come across several corpses as well.

Gloom Glimmer had taken those much harder than Basil had – he couldn’t rightly say that he was all that upset about seeing dead people, much as that unnerved him.

Reaching a street corner, the arrow rotated, guiding him towards a roundabout, when it suddenly disappeared.

The display said ‘Target Deceased – Await New Directions’.

Not again.

He started to move back, tapping his fingers as he felt DiL change powers yet again – the fifth time this minute – and started to move back towards where he’d split from Gloom Glimmer, just in case, when his armband beeped.

Looking down at it, he saw a new arrow pointing away from where he’d come.

Great. I really hope you know where you’re guiding me, Memento.

He ran through the shattered streets, his progress much slower than he would have liked – there were cracks and fissures all over, and parts had been flooded where pipes had burst open.

There were corpses everywhere. Floating in the water, slumped over broken cars, mailboxes, torn apart by huge claws or impaled on shards of glass or rebar, and worse besides. Men, women and children, dead by the dozens. Hundreds or thousands, probably, across the city.

There was nothing he could do for them, so he moved on, following the arrow, while regularly glancing at the flickering, often distorting feed from his ravenbot, flying far above, keeping an eye towards the battle, so he’d have at least a moments’ warning to dodge, if anything came his way.

At least Lady Light seems to have DiL well in hand for now, he thought, only to immediately chide himself for jinxing it.

As if to affirm it, he felt a sudden drop in air pressure, at the same time as he sensed DiL changing her powers again, followed by the building to his right all but disintegrating as a projectile shot through it faster than the sonic boom that followed it, blasting his ravenbot out of the air.

Basil managed to avoid instant death just barely, reversing his boots’ wall-walking function yet again – and even so, he would likely have been hit, at the very least losing his legs as he shot backwards, if he hadn’t been gripped by an additional force and pushed away faster.

Dust and debris filled his field of view, the street cracking – but they could not hide the white glow within, light blazing forth so powerfully it penetrated even the thickest dust cloud, turning billows of gray matter into something almost ethereal.

He landed on his feet, barely managing to catch himself, and staring at the center of the glowing dust cloud.

DiL’s presence was all but entirely gone from his mind, the pressure she created entirely blotted out by her aura, as she rose out of the dust, a humanoid figure shrouded in so many layers of nearly solid, sometimes liquid, light, it was impossible to make out any details, her side towards him as she flew up and towards DiL again, trailing ribbons of pure light behind her, less than a hundred meters between them…

Only to stop, and turn in mid-air, the motion nearly inhumanly graceful in spite of its abruptness, and his black eyes met a pair of bright, blue ones, even through the layers of light enfolding her and the distance between them.

He remembered the sensation of staring into Emyr’s eyes, back in that twisted world Legend had created – a thoroughly discombombulating experience, it had made him think of staring into an infinite expanse of darkness, losing perspective and with it, very nearly his balance. There had been an intensity to his gaze, as if he was somehow projecting his will through the mere act of crossing eyes, that had caused Basil to hesitate for a moment.

Gazing into Lady Light’s bright blue eyes (so reminiscent of Gloom Glimmer’s) was so much more disorienting than that, by several orders of magnitude. If Emyr’s eyes had been windows into a vast, dark depth of will, then these were… were…

He did not have the words to describe them, no simile that encompassed the sensation.

Without even noticing himself falling, he found himself sitting on his butt, briefly seeing double as he stared up at her in a daze.

Lady Light distant form twitched, the humanoid silhouette he could barely make out moving as the ribbons of light shifted with the barest hint of a delay, the gesture as graceful as it was unreadable, at this distance, and turned away, flying off towards DiL again, moving so quickly she left behind several after-images.

Basil looked down at his right wrist, where he felt something close around it. A band of… something, like nearly solid light, wrapped around his wrist there. It looked white, at first glance, but as he raised his hand, it shifted through all colours of the rainbow, each motion causing a change in its colouring and pattern.

It felt warm, solid and heavy.

Looking at it from various angles, he knew what it meant.

‘I will find you again.’

***

Memento’s armband had ended up leading him to a young woman in a flowing costume, layers of rainbow-coloured fabric forming a hooded robe with wide sleeves, soaked through with some kind of clear, viscuous fluid which also surrounded the site where she lay, having been blasted through a wall and into a backyard, just off the street. A loading dock, perhaps, for some smaller company – it was hard to tell, considering how damaged everything was.

A quick check showed that she was unconscious, and had a bleeding wound on her forehead, but was alive and not in immediate danger of dying after some basic first aid to stem the bleeding, so he picked her up in a fireman’s carry – not the best way to transport someone with a head wound, but he had to choose between being gentle and being fast and that wasn’t really a choice at all, not in this situation.

Getting to the nearest teleportation node was mercifully less eventful than his way to the woman, and he even had some attention to spare to reboot his ravenbot and have it fly back towards him; fortunately, it had only taken cosmetic damage from the sonic boom of the attack which had deposited Lady Light so close to him.

I wonder what she saw, he could not helpt but wonder. He felt it in his gut, she’d seen right through him there and whatever she’d seen or sensed had piqued her interest.

If Lady Light can’t help me…

He looked ahead, focusing on where he was going – the broken streets were very treacherous, with crevisses, holes leading into sewers and other traps for the unwary pedestrian – as he also considered his brief meeting – if one could call it that – with the lady and also ran several ideas through his mind, his power having apparently taken a lot of inspiration from hers, with ideas for manipulating matter and energy in weirder ways than he could ever recall doing…

Fuck, why does it have to work so well now? I wish I could be like this while in the lab and with a few weeks or months’ worth of time to just tinker around and experiment.

He didn’t even know whether his lab was still uncollapsed. The structure was reinforced, and on the outskirts of New Lennston, away from the center of the fighting, but still…

Due to the interference from the Desolation Field, he couldn’t even reach it to find out whether or not Eudocia was well. Her casing wasn’t that tough, and even light damage to her insides could cause the delicate energy fields within to collapse. Rebooting her from such a collapse, if he even managed to, would mean resetting her to her initial state, all her experiences and growth irretrievably lost.

Can’t think about that, not now. I need to focus. Put it off until I can find her and then we’ll see how things stand.

He ran even faster.

***

Through some stroke of luck, he reached the node at the same time as Gloom Glimmer did. She was generating sonic blasts which bounced off the street, gently juggling several people atop them and moving them towards the node.

The survivors – a family, mother and several children – were staring around with varying degrees of fear and wonder on their faces, as Irene dropped them next to the node and explained to them how to use it.

The mother held her youngest in one arm, and the other two held each other by the hand, while one held hers, as they touched the node together and disappeared.

“Brennus. I’m glad you’re… safe…” Gloom Glimmer began to greet him, until her eyes fell on the rainbow-hued armband, widening at the sight of it.

“A brief run-in,” he explained, as he walked onto the childrens’ playground that the floating tesseract had teleported to. “I did not even get close to her, but she must have sensed something, and she made this band.”

“Mmmhm,” she temporized, brushing a lock of fine black hair back behind her ear. “It’ll let her track you down, so long as you’re within her range.”

He nodded, his suspicion confirmed. “Looking forward to it. If anyone can help me…”

She nodded right back. “It’ll be mom.”

They used the node to teleport to the field hospital, appearing within a huge tent, filled with people – some in scrubs or less formal clothes, taking care of the majority of those present: the injured.

Dozens upon dozens of them, capes, cowls and civilians alike, arranged  in an odd spiral pattern around the nod, with a circular empty space around it, the rigidity of the pattern broken up at seemingly random intervals by intersecting pathways.

On second thought, there’s an odd rhyme to it, Basil thought, looking around, before his eyes fell on an obvious metahuman standing nearby, facing them with a clipboard held in their hands.

She was a woman or girl – probably a girl, based on what he could see of her face – wearing a skin-tight, black bodysuit, though skintight in a different way from what he usually saw – thicker, suggesting padding and even some manner of armoring. It wasn’t completely black, though – there were dark blue patterns on it, only visible when the light hit them at the right angle, tracing the contours of her body in a way  that emphasized her modest curves, without being the least bit obscene. The flat soles of her boots and the palms of her hands, as well as the undersides of her fingers were all blue, and there was an emblem on her chest, fitted so delicately to her body’s shape, her breasts didn’t distort it at all – a single circle, followed by four ovals around it, like ripples extending from it, only they weren’t centered around the circle; rather, the circle was near the bottom of the symbol, with the ovals’ long extending further above than beneath it.

Her face was hidden by a black mask which covered the top half, and reached up to the crown of her head, keeping her long, straight blonde hair out of her face, while leaving her lips – painted dark blue to match the color scheme – and jaw exposed.

“Calculass,” Gloom Glimmer greeted her with a smile, holding out her hand towards her.

The girl smiled back, if a little nervously. “Gloom Glimmer. I’ve heard a lot about you – wouldn’t have thought the opposite was true. It’s an honor.” She shook the offered hand.

“Dad taking on a new apprentice isn’t something to ignore – he’s never done it in my lifetime. So I made some inquiries,” Gloom Glimmer replied with a smirk. Then she pulled her hand back, smoothing her face out more seriously. “Where do we put this one? Wounded cape, head trauma and several broken bones.”

“Possibly internal bleeding, as well,” Basil added quietly, studying the girl more intently now. The Dark’s apprentice… that did not exactly bode well. Some kind of math-related power? An esper? The name’s pretty obviously pointing in that direction.

Calculass didn’t hesitate to reply, pointing to the beginning of the spiraling pathway. “Third branch, then left, right, left, cot twenty-nine,” she advised, far more confident and steady in her speech than just moments before.

“Thank you. I hope we’ll have some time to hang out in the future, under better circumstances,” Gloom Glimmer replied with a smile, walking past her. “Also, love the costume,” she added with a thumbs up.

“Thanks. I’m kind of shocked that costume design is one of the boss’s fields of expertise,” Calculass grinned at her, briefly.

“That ain’t even the weirdest hobby dad has, believe you me,” Gloom Glimmer called out, raising her voice as they moved further away, sticking close to Basil. “And you’ll get to know way more of them, you poor, unfortunate fool!”

Basil didn’t see whether Calculass reacted, before the sound of another incoming teleport took up her attention again – his own was on walking the right way to where to put down his charge, while his raven was looking around at the wounded all around.

There were so many of them. Calculass’s system – at least, he assumed she’d been the one to plan this layout – managed to cram an incredible amount of people into the tent, while still allowing for easy movement. People had been distributed based on the wounds they were suffering from, and whether or not they were metahuman. There were even allowances made for those whose powers made being treated, or just being near others, problematic.

It was kind of impressive, managing to impose order on such a chaotic situation.

Guess that’s to be expected of the Dark’s apprentice.

They reached the assigned cot, and Basil put the woman down on it, as gently as he could. Two nurses got to work before he’d even stepped back.

He turned towards his companion, to suggest moving out again, but stopped.

Gloom Glimmer’s expression was fragile in a way he could not recall seeing before, her eyes glued to a boy half her apparent age lying in the cot next to the woman, his eyes glassy, yet occasionally blinking as he stared up into nothing, a good fifth of his head simply gone, from just above his left ear over towards the center of his forehead. Wires and catheters were connecting to the exposed brain-matter, then to some kind of gadget which apparently kept him alive, somehow.

Occasionally, the device would spark, and the boy would twitch randomly before settling down again.

She didn’t seem able to look away.

Basil took her arm by the wrist, gently tugging on it, guiding her out of the tent and into the bright, distorted daylight outside. The field hospital had been set up at the outskirts of the city, where the surrounding woodland stabbed into the urban sprawl, and had been tamed into a park, which had in turn become a popular place for family picnics.

Now, it was overrun with emergency vehicles coming and going, dropping a share of the injured and otherwise needy here, before moving on to pick up more people, or deliver others to another field hospital (they were being spread out amongst multiple locations, if they couldn’t be moved out of the Desolation Field entirely, to reduce the chance of DiL wiping them all out with a single attack).

Gloom Glimmer looked around at the chaos, her expression downcast. “This…”

Whatever she was about to say was cut off when another, familiar voice interjected with a shout.

“Ba-Brennus!” called Amy, flying over from where she’d been helping to load people onto and off of several vehicles.

A not inconsiderable part of Basil relaxed a great deal upon seeing her safe and whole.

In fact, she looked utterly untouched.

Before he could get in a word of his own, she was upon him, pulling him into a nearly literally bone-crushing hug.

“Ugh. Spine. Still. Needed,” he gasped the words out, barely, though he couldn’t honestly say he disliked it.

He would’ve hugged her back, if he’d been able to move his arms to any meaningful degree, but since her grip on him wouldn’t allow him to, he merely patted her sides with his hands.

No one around seemed to have the time or inclination to pay attention to them or care about what was going on, and he was pretty sure that wasn’t due to Amy using her power. The situation was just that messed up.

“I should kill you, you damn idiot,” Amy croaked, squeezing even harder for a moment, before she mercifully let him have his lung function back.

“I was worried about you, too,” he replied with a groan, trying not to show just how much her hug had pained him. Damn these cracked ribs. “You don’t look like you’re hurt at all, though,” he replied, and he couldn’t help but sound a little bit accusatory.

She somehow managed to look both embarrassed and annoyed at the same time, rubbing the back of her head while shifting on those ridiculous stiletto heels of hers. “Boss’s orders. We’re to hold back until the big attack starts, make sure to conserve our powers and stamina.”

“What is his plan, anyway?” Basil asked, curiously, assuming that she, as one of his lieutenants, surely had to know.

“Dunno,” she replied.

Or maybe not.

“This whole thing is rushed like crazy. From what I get, he was hoping she’d take longer to reappear, or skip one battle and use his grand plan the next time, after more prepwork. But I guess New Lennston’s too important to not go all out in defending it,” Amy elaborated.

“He’s always loved this city, even when he hated it,” Gloom Glimmer agreed with a thoughtful nod, her left hand’s fingertips touching her chin. “Plus, losing New Lennston to DiL, after we lost Old Lennston to her… the hit to morale would be tremendous and it definitely is unacceptable.” Another thought seemed to come to her, and she looked up at Amy. “Where is Dad, anyway?”

“At the memorial plaza, preparing to set off the big pl-“, she started to reply, only to be interrupted by a deafening shriek.

The sound was akin to a woman’s wail, amplified a million times over, with odd, discordant harmonics mixed in to make it more cacophonous than Basil would have thought possible.

Its origin was emminently obvious – DiL herself was not visible, but the chaotic twist of space around her was, as her new power twisted realtiy in a way that gave Basil vertigo even by looking at it from halfway across the city.

From that central point, jagged lines of twisted space were reaching out, spreading across the sky and into the ground, before fading back again.

Whatever they touched was destroyed, matter twisted up in such a fashion as to reduce entire buildings to rubble, condensed into deformed masses a fraction of their original size.

He couldn’t see far enough to tell how it affected any metahuman it hit, but those whom flew high enough for him to see and got struck by one of those flowing arcs dropped and didn’t come up again.

Several tendrils lashed out towards Lady Light’s glowing form, causing Gloom Glimmer to gasp where she stood next to Basil, but they were deflected with a flash of light, and she pressed the attack, trying to force DiL to change away from such a lethal power.

Not that any of the powers she took were ever harmless.

“Fuck, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to do much at all, even if I was allowed to,” Amy shouted, and yet was barely heard nonetheless.

Gloom Glimmer raised her right arm to snap her fingers, and the cacophony died down, letting everyone relax and focus on their duties again.

Considering how dire the conditions of most of the people being treated were, that was vital.

“How long can you keep that up, princess?” Amy asked, rubbing underneath her ears with two fingers each, as if to rub the pain away.

Basil really missed his full helmet now – the hearing protection in his spare mask wasn’t nearly up to its level.

”This power’s pretty fresh,” Gloom Glimmer replied, without looking – she was wholly focused on the spectacle in the distance. “A few minutes, I’d guess. Up to twenty, if we’re lucky.”

”That will not do,” Basil stated simply. “She has to change her powers again, and quickly – if not for our sake, then for that of everyone else in this city, particularly the other medical camps.”

Gloom Glimmer frowned, clenching her left hand into a fist, tightly enough it started to tremble. “Yeah… and we can’t… shouldn’t… just rely on mom, so-“

A new, yet all too familiar voice cut her off, reverberating through the artificial quiet Gloom Glimmer’s power had generated.

“I hope you don’t mean to finish that sentence the way I think you do,” the Dark spoke, as calmly as was possible when your voice sounded like a ghostly chorus.

Gloom Glimmer’s face brightened up, as she all but flung herself at him, wrapping her arms around what may have been his waist – it was hard to tell, with how formless his current appearance was – and made a gleeful squeal.

“Don’t think you being cute is going to distract me from the issue, young lady,” he continued, even as he hugged her back tightly enough she almost seemed to disappear into the shadows, and mussed her hair with one hand.

“I’m not trying to distract you! Just glad you’re ok,” she replied, stepping back after one more tight squeeze, combing her hair back with her fingers.

You are glad that I am alright?” he asked, six glowing eyes growing incredulously wide as he bent over so much he nearly made a right angle, putting his face at the same height as hers. “You’re the one who’s been in danger, young lady!”

“That’s all part of wearing the cape!” she replied, looking up at him with a smile, looking positively re-energized. “Speaking of which, it seems like my powers are finally, properly, back.” She looked down herself, and Basil followed her gaze to see that she was levitating a step or so above the ground, in the center of a circle of swirling dust.

She raised her hand, and tiny motes of light in all colors of the rainbow began to dance between and around her fingers, seeming to somehow… suck in the light, the area immediately around their small group growing darker, even as the motes burned brighter.

“Irene, my sweet, don’t you dare go out there now!” the Dark stepped in, reaching for her hand with his own.

Gloom Glimmer pulled back, floating to put a few meters between them. “You know I can’t just stand by – I have to help mom. Wish me luck!” she replied, completely ignoring his protests, as she saluted Basil, and shot off towards the fight.

“No listen to m-  why do you just ignore your father!” he shouted in exasperation, his hands disappearing in the shadows of his head, as if he was reaching past the wraith to pull on his hair. “Why’d you have to take after me so much!”

Amy put her hand over her mouth, her shoulders shaking as she tried not to make a sound.

It didn’t help, as he whirled around and pointed a long, misty finger at her.

“You. After her. Keep her safe.”

He didn’t wait for a reply, or even an acknowledgement, and simply turned around and walked away, back to where Basil could see Rounds and several other of the higher-ranked capes and cowls congregate.

“Damn. Babysitting duty,” Amy groused, her arms and head dropping. “Noooooot looking forward to this!”

Basil took her hand into his, squeezing it tightly. “Just make sure you’re safe,” he said, his eyes returning to the distant battle, following the fast-flying form of Gloom Glimmer as she approached the blazing sun that was her mother.

“I should be the one saying that, considering your track record…” she continued to grumble, before floating up a bit to kiss him on the top of the head. “Be safe, little brother.”

He pulled his mask down, and kissed her on the cheek. “You too, sister.”

She nodded at him with a wry smile, then turned around and flew away – only to jerk to a stop, his hand having shot up to grab her by the wrist before he even consciously chose to.

“Basil?” she looked at him, her eyes widening when she saw the overwrought expression on his face.

“I…” he began, struggling himself to put what he was feeling into words.

Why do I feel like this is the last time we’ll talk to each other? he thought, miserably, unable to find the right thing to say, as he felt his face contract, nearly crumbling.

She floated closer, wrapping her arms around his head to pull it against her bosom, her feet a good deal above the ground.

Don’t be silly, she spoke into his mind. We’ll talk again so much, we’ll both grow sick of it and refuse to talk at all anymore.

He didn’t have it in him to laugh, or even chuckle. Instead, he looked up at her, his arms having found their way around her lower waist, hugging her tightly.

I love you, Amy, he said in his head, unable to get the words past the knot in his tongue.

She gave him a brilliant smile in return, looking down with the gentle expression he’d missed so long. I love you too, Basil.

Once more, she kissed him, this time on his forehead.

And then she flew off to fight an enemy he could do nothing against.

Looking after her, tears running down his cheeks as he put his mask back on to cover at least the lower part of his face, he couldn’t help but feel the same as before, like that had been a farewell.

Just like the last time he’d seen Prisca, held her, kissed her. Felt her disappear.

And yet again, there was nothing at all he could do.

***

Silver light flowed from Rounds’ palm, where it met Bismuth’s cheek, washing over her like a second skin, clinging tightly for a moment before the silvery Bismuth stepped aside, separating from the original.

At the same time, two new windows, paired together, appeared in his mind, one to the half of her power that he could use himself, and another to the silvery apparition, giving him an innate sense of her state and location.

Ten other pairs were already in his mind, filling it nearly to the brim, much like the ten – now eleven – apparitions filled the space around him.

Just one more, and he’d be at his limit.

The sheer power accumulated in him was already such that he felt it pull at his very sanity. Overwhelming, to have all these options at hand.

Lamarr’s spatial manipulation alone may have distracted him for hours, if he wasn’t currently limited to the area within the Desolation Field.

Bismuth stepped back, her head held low, mirrored by her apparition. Even if he couldn’t feel what his apparitions felt – and they usually mirrored their progenitor’s feelings – he’d have no trouble figuring out what was affecting her.

The many things that were wearing down on her.

So much to work out. So little time.

He turned his head away from her, not to dismiss her, but to focus on more urgent matters.

His eyes fell on the shadowy, almost wispy figure that was the Dark, standing at the edge of the terrace this camp had been set upon, looking out over the devastated city, and the battle raging on in the distance.

Watching for his daughter, Rounds thought. I suppose even he has a modicum of decency.

He hated it. Hated, that the children were fighting. That they were risking their lives. That they were being exposed to so many horrors.

That he hadn’t been there to shield them from it.

He would never agree with the wide-spread practice of putting children in costumes and throwing  them at the horrors of the world, telling them to be heroes, no matter what the statistics said.

But here, if anywhere, there was nothing he could do. Even if he could forbid it, most would fight anyway, to protect their home from her. And  there was no way he’d be able to divert the resources to restrain them, at such a time.

Shaking his head, he walked over to his enemy and stood by his side, followed by his silvery apparitions. Three of them – Wary Wu’s and two of Gloom Glimmer’s – were focusing on the fight, constantly feeding him new information, which his half of their powers picked up on and further processed, before throwing it back at them, in a constant back and forth.

Normally, copying esper powers like this was a great boon to him, but right now, with both DiL and Gloom Glimmer in the fight, they were all but useless.

At least he was pretty certain they’d warn him in time in case he had to block an incoming attack.

Pretty certain, but not completely so, which was why all the other apparitions where also focusing on the battle for him, ready to leap into action.

He himself, meanwhile, rolled his shoulders, the body armor he wore over his suit shifting, glittering with reflected light as the individual plates it consisted off changed their orientation slightly. He’d never liked how sparkly and ostentatious it all was – at times he felt like he was wearing jewelry, rather than armor – but that arse Patrid had beat the importance of proper public relations into his head a long, long time ago.

“I hope you didn’t come over here to ask me for a copy of my power, Rounds,” the Dark spoke without turning to look at him. Not that he wasn’t perfectly capable of looking straight at Rounds while seemingly facing the battle. And also focusing on that in equal measure.

With a chuckle, Rounds shook his head. “If it’s anything like Lady Light’s power, then I want no part in it.”

That caused him to turn his head and look down at him.

He’d never admit it out loud, especially in front of him, but even after all these years, getting the Dark’s full attention was a thoroughly discombobulating experience.

“She allowed you to make a copy of her?” he asked, intently, his voices not sharp, but definitely more forceful than during his almost casual remark before.

“She let me try,” Rounds replied, putting an emphasis on the ‘try’ part. “It didn’t go over well.”

The Dark chuckled, turning away again – and as soon as his immediate gaze left Rounds, he felt like a weight had dropped off his shoulders.

I wonder whether he uses a power to cause that, or whether it really is just his presence.

“I imagine it wouldn’t, no,” the wispy supervillain continued. “She must trust you a great deal, if she revealed herself to you so.”

“I suppose so,” Rounds said, his eyes back on the fight in the distance.

Lady Light and Gloom Glimmer seemed to be trading off now, moving back and forth, alternating in their efforts to curtail DiL’s destructive performance.

As much as he hated seeing her in such danger, he couldn’t help but admire how well Gloom Glimmer was managing to keep up with her mother.

Still, holding her off was not going to be enough – in fact, either DiL was slowly adapting to them, or sheer coincidence was causing her powers to last longer and longer, the seconds stretching on between each switch. Occasionally, Rounds could even make out individual powers without the use of his added abilities, before she was forced to change yet again.

Unsustainable.

He turned his head away, and looked at the other figure standing nearby.

Hanabi’s form was hidden behind his voluminous, old-fashioned purple, black and gold robes and the tall, black hat he wore, from which a curtain of white cloth fell, obscuring his face – in fact, his entire head.

He was kneeling in front of a circle of thin bamboo rods tipped by various, weirdly shaped fireworks in all colors of the rainbow, driven into the ground where he’d had Rounds crack the pavement for his preparations.

A rough map of the area within the Desolation Field had been carved into the earth, with more bamboo sticks driven into various points, holding up even more fireworks.

At the same time, a dozen heroes and villains were setting up full-sized fireworks all around the city, mirroring the markings on the map, he knew.

“Are you sure this is going to work?” he couldn’t help but ask, as nervously as he ever felt.

The whole thing had sounded way too good to be true, when it’d been explained to him.

“Nothing is certain,” the Dark replied calmly, staring out into the distance. “It should work, based on my understanding of the powers involved, and the principles behind them. But you know the difference between theory and practice.”

Rounds grunted in affirmation, not sure how to reply to that.

Well, there was one reply…

“I really, really hope this will work.”

“So do I,” was the answer, though he didn’t sound like he meant it.

Before he could dig into the meaning behind that, he felt an odd tremor, one which went through the ground and the air at the same time, rippling through his body in the oddest way, like he was being stretched and compacted at the same time, for less than a second.

Wha-

He turned to look at the battle, at the alarm his apparitions of Gloom Glimmer expressed through their link, only to see Lady Light’s blazing form dart towards her daughter, so fast he could barely follow in spite of his enhanced senses, touching and repelling her, launching her out of the way of an advancing ripple in the air-

And then Lady Light and five other fliers just disappeared, all at once, along with a diagonal cross-section of a nearby building.

The Dark took a step forward, in seeming shock, and Rounds was not far behind, when the aftermath hit them.

Air rushed in, towards where the attack had hit, filling in the vacuum created, violently stirring up dust, leaves and rubble before it died down again.

Did she just kill… no, don’t be stupid. She wouldn’t go down like this!

His apparitions stepped forth, focusing any applicable power they had, but the Dark was faster than they.

“Some manner of spatial manipulation… offensive teleportation? I can still feel Gwen, but she’s… far,” he said, more to himself than to Rounds, as if to reassure his own worries.

In the distance, Gloom Glimmer’s form flickered, violently, and a massive blast of blackish something lanced out, smashing into DiL, splashing over her form – and evidently penetrating her outer defenses sufficiently to force her to change her powers again, as the signal sent from the young vigilante whom could feel these changes told them.

Still, Rounds’ stomach dropped into his knees, and not just because the effect of Lady Light’s city-spanning aura was gone now.

They’d just lost their strongest, best fighter, and there was no way to tell how long it’d take her to return to the battle.

“Damn it, we have to mobilize our people again – I won’t have Gloom Glimmer try to hold her off on her own!” he shouted, raising his hand to his ear to transmit the order.

A soft, almost gentle voice interrupted him, speaking with a strong accent.

“It is nearly done, Lord Dark,” the kneeling form of Hanabi spoke, his voice barely rising above the sound of the blowing air, or the distant battle. “My greatest performance shall begin presently.”

The Dark relaxed, almost imperceptibly – if it wasn’t for all the esper powers at his disposal, Rounds would have missed it.

“Your timing is as impeccable as your artwork, my dear man,” he spoke, calmly, nodding his head towards the heavily enshrouded villain from Japan. “Begin as soon as you are able.”

Hanabi inclined his head, deeper than the Dark had, and took out a burning stick incense-covered wood, reaching for the many fuses of all the fireworks worked into the array in front of him, all tied together at various points in such a fashion that the flame would reach each firework at the same time.

Which would trigger all the fireworks spread out across the city, simultaneously.

Still…

“Impeccable timing? You are joking,” Rounds all but snarled, though he wasn’t really angry at the Dark – at least, not in this case. “If only we could have launched that a minute sooner, we’d still have-”

“No,” the Dark disagreed, his voice firm. “This is better. It will be harder for us, but better this than having Gwen participate.”

His voice turned soft, almost human, as they watched Hanabi light the fuses.

“No mother should have to watch her child die, much less participate in the killing.”

Rounds opened his mouth, not sure whether to disagree, agree, or laugh at the sheer, gutwrenching wrongness of it all, but he closed it again, not sure at all about it.

“Prepare yourselves,” the Dark spoke, and his voice was repeated across the entire city by every single one of Memento’s communicators. “Our grand gambit is almost at hand.”

The lit fuses disappeared into the fireworks, flashing with heat and light – but instead of launching the fireworks, they consumed them, burning them up in a single, bright flash.

All over the city, a hundred and eight matching fireworks shot up into the air, trailing paths of rainbow-colored sparks in ever-shifting, complex patterns that made one dizzy to merely look at them.

The glowing tips of these rising spears flew up as high as the Desolation Field allowed them to go, turning its bright, shifting colors into an even greater mess as they added their own, darker lights.

Then the lights spread, connecting to each other in a grand net of light, before each strand collapsed into total blackness, a dark, dark net spreading out over them – only to disappear.

And with its disappearance, DiL dropped out of the sky, crashing down onto the grand plaza of New Lennston.

With his enhanced eye sight, courtesy of the Falconer’s apparition, he could see her nude form, lying amidst the glowing mass of her ridiculously long hair, her face as expressionless as ever, yet conveying something almost akin to confusion, as she lay there, her arms and legs touching the ground as dust settled on her unblemished skin.

Then, the dust began to swirl around her, forming an expanding sphere, as everyone stared at the jaw-dropping sight.

“The gambit was successful! DiL’s absolute defense has been nullified – penetrate her lesser powers, and we can finally put her down!” the Dark shouted, spreading his message all over the defending forces. “Put an end to this wretched tale!”

He hadn’t even finished his announcement, when a great cry rose.

A hundred voices and more joined together in utter, unbridled awe, fury and sheer, unrestrained hope, screaming it to the sky, as everyone who was even remotely able to do so charged into the battle.

Even Bismuth joined her voice to the others, her passion reignited as she shot forward, launched by a pillar of crystal shooting up beneath her feet.

Rounds stepped forth to join them, only to stop at the edge of the terrace, looking back at the wispy, barely substantial form of the Dark.

The King of Supervillains stepped up next to him, standing at the very edge of it as well. “You should go,” he said. “I’m too weak to contribute right now, but I’ll do what I can to coordinate our assault.”

Rounds’ reached for his sword, drawing it out of its sheath, gripping it tightly. “What you said earlier… the same applies to you, doesn’t it?”

The Dark turned his head again, looking down at him. “What do you mean?”

Rounds looked up at those six unblinking red eyes, trying to ignore the sheer weight of their gaze. “No mother should see or help their child die – nor should any father.”

The shadowy figure looked at him, for a moment longer, before averting his face, focusing on the battle again.

When he replied, his voices were so soft they were almost human again.

“Monsters don’t count.”

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B14.5 Breaking Point

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DiL was being covered with attacks, unleashed from every direction around and above her, trying to punch through those ribbons of distortion that circled around her.

Basil saw fire, lava, lasers, distortions that suggested spatial or gravitic attacks and far more, almost half of them unleashed by the remaining mementos – he judged that about a third of them had been destroyed, at a glance, though this was probably only the first wave while the second one was being completed in his orbital base – but that none of them reached past her defensive ability.

The gaps between the ribbons were too small, and ever-shifting with their motions, and anything which even partially touched the one of the ribbons was reflected – no, redirected was a better term, as they didn’t simply travel back the way they came.

The explosions resulting from this would have been a beautiful sight in a different circumstance, as all these effects were thrown all about, some cancelling each other out, some combining, or distorting, or simply hitting the surroundings and, in a few unlucky cases, some of the defenders. Add to that the forest of crystals all around DiL’s position which were smashed and thrown up, and it resulted in a gigantic light-show, which filled up all of Basil’s field of view.

“What the hell are they doing!?” Polymnia shouted, staring at it. “Why didn’t they probe her defense fir-“

Suddenly, she cut off, as all of them shuddered from head to toe

What…

Polymnia, Hecate and Gloom Glimmer all unleashed their attacks towards DiL. Sonic blasts, eldritch green fire and spirals of a fluorescent orange liquid shot towards her, only to be deflected in random directions by her defenses.

The only reason Basil wasn’t joining in on it was because he didn’t have anything he could have fired at this range.

At the same time, they started to drop, Gloom Glimmer shooting forward and losing – or rather, releasing – her grip on them.

Ah crap.

Fortunately, they hadn’t been flying too high up, probably so Gloom Glimmer would have been able to easily dodge behind one of the buildings, in case of another volley of crystal tendrils. Still, a drop from five storeys up onto the street could not be fun for any of them – even Polymnia would likely get hurt, especially considering the sheer weight of her equipment, which eclipsed that of Basil’s own. Since she had a certain amount of super-strength herself, her armor had been built to be far heavier than the average model, in spite of its rather… revealing nature.

Of course, either of the girls should have been able to mitigate such a fall on their own – Hecate could simply turn into her smoke form and Polymnia almost certainly had something amongst her manifold pieces of equipment to help.

Unfortunately, both of them seemed more focused on providing DiL with more ammunition for her mirror ribbons, and Basil couldn’t blame them, if he’d had any real offensive option he’d be-

Oh fuck.

They were just starting to fall, and his friends still focused on blasting at DiL with single-minded determination, when his thoughts clicked together.

She’s messing with our minds. Must be her third power, right now. But I’m… resistant? No, I still feel it… but I have nothing to attack with, so I can still think clearly.

And the girls are gonna smash into the ground something fierce in a few seconds, mate, cause they sure as hell aren’t thinking clearly, which would just be a waste, don’t you think? Even if it’d neatly resolve your relationship issues. Oh, and Gloomy’s prolly gonna get herself killed if she throws all of that magnificent power of hers at her big sis without thinking. You know what this means, right?

Yeah, I do. He looked around, quickly, measuring the distance to the buildings to the left and right of the street. They were in one of New Lennston’s ‘retro’ areas, which had been styled to resemble the original Lennston’s appearance – in this case, painted brownstones with colourful roofs.

He’d only get one shot at this.

He launched his grappling hook from his hip, connecting it to one of the corners of the nearest brownstone, and reeled it in just enough to swing himself towards the girls.

First came Polymnia, and he extended his line enough that it hit her first, rather than him crashing into her – her armor was at least five centimeters thick and he knew it wasn’t light-weight material it was made up of, so he was going to avoid taking that kind of impact directly – and kept on swinging.

The line pulled against her waist, making her yelp as her fall straight down was redirected, and she rolled down the line, losing some of her momentum before she crashed into his arms.

Blimey, she’s heavy. Hey, what percentage of her weight do you think is in those huge tits of hers?

Not the time!

Basil groaned as he held onto her, which wasn’t made any easier by her flailing around trying to get a straight shot at DiL again, and shifted his grip, so he was holding her against his side with his left arm wrapped around her waist.

Just in time to slam into Hecate, after pivoting his body just enough to catch her with his right arm around her waist.

The blast of green fire she was just about to let loose fizzled and washed over them, a sensation like bugs crawling over Basil’s skin, though it was diffuse enough not to cause any actual damage before it dispersed.

Seeing the wall of the brownstone coming, and unable to adjust their arc, not with both of them wiggling and trying to break out of his grip, Basil held out his legs, bracing him self – and hit the second-storey wall hard enough the shock nearly made him lose his grip on the two girls in his arms.

You know, I bet there’s a lotta blokes who’d commit murder to get a chance to hold these two.

He didn’t even bother responding to that one. Instead, he abseiled down to the curb – only to immediately throw himself and the girls into the alley next to the building, as a red laser beam cut down the street and over the spot he’d just been, slicing diagonally across – and through – the entire brownstone as if it wasn’t even there.

“Oh, come on!”

He reversed his direction, his soles hitting the ground hard enough to throw up a few sparks as he all but threw the girls out of the alley, and followed after them, moments before the brownstone slid down and collapsed over the narrow gap, destroying the adjacent building as well.

The three of them found themselves lying on the ground, a dust-cloud briefly billowing over them.

“Gamoto!” Hecate cursed, coughing as some dust got into her mouth.

“Are you still affected?” Basil asked them as he stood up and rolled his shoulders – he thought he might have pulled something.

Don’t forget them ribs, mate.

Thank you for reminding me. I was in danger of forgetting the incessant pain I feel each second.

Wouldn’t be the biggest thing you’ve forgotten, now would it?

“I… I think not,” Hecate forced out the words, shuddering. “I think not.”

“Neither am I,” Polymnia agreed. “That was… a strange experience. Like… attacking her was the smartest thing to do… I didn’t even question it. But I was fully aware and thinking clearly, at the same time.” She shook her head, looking as shaken as Hecate sounded, when she looked straight at him through her tinted visor. “How come you weren’t affected, Brennus?”

“I was affected,” he replied calmly, while keeping an eye out in the direction DiL had to be in – currently out of sight from them, thanks to copious amounts of dust and smoke thrown up by the devastation she had wrought. “But I do not have anything to attack her with at this range, nor the means to close in on her so as to make contact with my repulsor. So I was able to focus on other things.” He turned his head, smirking under his mask, though it was a pained one: “Such as making sure we do not all fall to our death.” Then he got serious again. “I am not under its effect anymore, though, nor are you two.”

“It hit us the moment we got closer to her,” Hecate observed. “Maybe we… moved out of range again?”

“No, we are even closer than we were then,” Basil replied, looking for the flashes of light and the sound of explosions within the dust cloud. “If proximity was all it took, then we would already be-“

The dust was blown away in a single blow, shortly followed by a massive, bell-like sound so powerful it visibly distorted the air around DiL, and he laid eyes on DiL again.

He almost broke into a charge, taking a sudden step forward, before he realised that he didn’t actually have the means to attack her, even if he got close. But then, what could h-

Polymnia slugged him in the gut, making him double over and retch (not like he had anything to throw up), falling to his knees.

“Polymnia! What are you doing!?” Hecate cried out, kneeling down next to him, as he pressed his armored forehead to the concrete, leaning protectively over him.

“He got hit by her power, I think,” Polymnia replied. “Cut off mid-speech and started forward – and then I remembered, I stopped feeling the compulsion to attack the moment we hit that wall together. So I theorised, you know, that a hard enough hit would break the effect again.” She was blushing as she explained this, looking both embarrassed and a little guilty. “Though, uh. To be honest, I didn’t think much about it, I just reacted.”

Basil couldn’t see Hecate’s expression, not even her lower face, from his position, but he was pretty sure she was slack-jawed.

“It is… quite… alright,” he groaned, slowly getting up – faster, after a moment, when Hecate clued in and helped him up. “You were right… I saw DiL and got hit by her power, so I guess it is necessary to both be within a certain range of her and see her for it to affect you – and when you hit me, it ceased taking effect.”

His fingers twitched, calling up his armor’s interface on his heads-up display, showing him a scan of his brain’s neural activity over the last few seconds.

There. A shift, the moment he looked at DiL. Then, another shift, when Polymnia hit him. Rolling further back, he saw the same shift when he’d first laid eyes on her, and again the second shift when he impacted the wall.

The girls could obviously tell he was up to something and so didn’t interrupt as he finished adjusting and activating a few protocols he’d built in a while ago.

“I have set my armor to deliver an electric shock to myself, should I fall under her power’s effect again. Let us see whether it works. Polymnia, please stand ready to knock me down again if this fails.”

Before either of them could agree or protest, he raised his head and looked towards DiL.

Again, that sudden shift in priorities and just as quickly-

Ow. Bugger me, mate, ain’t the shite she’s doin’ to us already painful enough? Why you gotta add to that…

Basil ignored the voice in his head and looked at the girls again. “Success. Polymnia, can you…”

“I don’t have the means to detect when I’m under her influence and I’m kind of both impressed and a little scared that you apparently just happen to have something for that built into your suit,” she said, looking at him with a slightly envious expression on her face.

He looked at Hecate.

“You know I can’t adapt my enchantments so quickly,” she replied, crossing her arms while trying very hard to both look out for incoming attacks and avoid looking at DiL – not the easiest task, seeing how any attack likely to come at them would be one reflected by her ribbons, and thus coming straight from her position. “You don’t happen to h-“

He pulled a small metallic armband out of a pouch on his belt and snapped it around her wrist. “I have copied my settings onto it.” He pulled out another and offered it to Polymnia, who slipped briefly disconnected her gauntlet from the rest of her armor to snap it around her wrist, before sliding it in again.

Hecate looked down at it, her lips twisted into a strange smile. “Somehow, I’m not surprised at all that you thought of having something like this on you.”

“It is mostly meant to serve as a tracker, actually,” he replied. “I just included some added functionalities for special occasions such as these.”

Another beam sliced down the street, but on the curb opposite of theirs, melting down the pavement and causing the buildings to sag slightly as it compromised their foundations.

“Darn it, that was Gloomy’s beam. She’s spending her powers way too quickly – if we don’t stop her, she’ll end up powerless way too soon!” An Polymnia looked towards the battle, briefly flinching as her wristband was set off.

“Then let’s see what we can do to help her,” Hecate stated firmly.

Mate, you guys are so freaking outclassed here…

***

Just one block further in, the Chaos was total. Crystal tendrils criss-crossed the street, shimmering as they broke and reflected the light that touched them, casting rainbow hues all over the street, buildings and people. Several buildings had partially or totally collapsed, some shattering attached or other nearby crystals, spreading shards all over the ground.

And then there were the corpses.

The most obvious ones were a group of civilians – a family, parents and three children – who’d apparently huddled together, the parents trying to shield their kids with their bodies, only to be pierced by the crystals. One child had been impaled with its parents, only for the other two to be slain by the spears that’d spawned from the first set, turning them into a grotesque set piece.

They were not even the worst thing to be seen on the street. Several defenders had been slain by reflected powers, bits and pieces of two or three people littering just the area Basil and the girls were in.

Detonations were still shaking the ground, now and then – and they’d already shattered all glass within sight.

Polymnia stumbled off to one side to throw up, Hecate followed her, looking little better herself, while Basil looked closer at the crystal tendrils.

The Desolation Field was messing with his scanners, but he was able to compensate, at least to a point.

“There is some kind of energy contained within these crystals,” he observed, speaking loud enough for them to hear him as he stepped amidst the crystals. “The closer they are to a human, the more energy is in them. The statues have the largest energy density.” He compared readings from a single costumed man with the entire family that’d been fused together. “A single metahuman – or at least this one – has a bigger charge than this entire family combined.”

“Incoming!” Polymnia shouted, leaping in front of Basil and Hecate.

Basil whirled around, his force shield flaring to life over his left arm, raised to cover himself and Hecate.

It was Polymnia, however, that protected them all, raising her arms out in front of her, and pulling them apart as the speakers built into her heavy bracers and the back of her armor, on her shoulder blades and down along her spine, began to pulse.

In the moments before the four spears coming in their direction reached them, the soundwaves they emitted built to a harmonious melody, visibly distorting the air around them to form a dome that encircled their small group.

The spears impacted the distortion, sending out ripples which spread out over the entire dome, creating a criss-crossing wave-pattern – but the crystals were deflected, redirected towards their surroundings.

Wherever they hit, four new tendrils shot out, though they didn’t seem to aim at anything in particular – though nine of them still hit and were once again deflected by the sonic cage, only for each to sprout three more tendrils… each of which sprouted two more, and then just one more, before this wave had run its course.

There were so many crystal tendrils and haphazard growths from the impact sites around them, Basil couldn’t even make out where DiL – and with her, the locus of combat – had moved to.

”Is it over?” Hecate asked, a slight waver in her voice in spite of her best attempts to stay calm.

“I think so,” Polymnia replied, though she did keep the sonic cage up.

”For now, yes,” Basil replied, having the advantage of his raven flying above, looking down at the street. It was a mess of crystal growths, rubble from partially collapsed buildings and body parts, and the three of them were barely visible amidst it all.

“We should move onto the rooftops,” he added, almost absent-mindedly. When the girls stared at him like he’d been possessed, he gestured at the nearby crystallized family. “Look. Her spears went straight through the previous ones. We not only have far less room to dodge down here, we also have barely any cover – in fact, the ‘cover’ works in her favour, rather than ours. Better if we go up, where we can at least see attacks coming and have room to dodge.”

They looked at the grisly sight – and indeed, the new growths had simply gone through the existing statues, as if they weren’t there at all.

Without another word, they all made their way upwards again.

***

Seconds after they’d reached the nearest intact building’s rooftop, DiL unleashed another volley, the crystals launched in far faster and coming in far greater numbers than before.

No one had found a way to force her to change her powers, yet, and so they kept building up, and up…

But to what? They contain energy within, yet the crystals don’t do anything with it. There have been multiple waves, and yet the energy has remained unused.

Basil kept turning it over in his head, as he stepped aside, dodging one spear, then raised his force shield, bracing himself by locking his boots to the roof, deflecting one of the successive spears which would otherwise have impaled Hecate.

Ow. That freaking hurts, mate, the Man in the Moon complained when pain shot up his arm and straight into his damaged ribs.

Basil ignored them, as much as possible, pulling Hecate out of the way of another spear at the same time as she used her flames to blow yet another out of the air, preventing it from skewering them both.

They were getting both more numerous and faster over time. A good third of New Lennston had already been covered, partially merged to the crystals. And the more numerous they became, the more energy they stored, with a decidedly more-than-linear increase.

He’d already shared his observation with the other defenders, through Memento’s communication network – which, being contrived rather than real technology, was not affected by her Desolation Field – but no one was quite sure what to make of it; the most common theory was that they were meant to blow up at some point, which made forcing her to change her powers all the more urgent, considering how far the crystals had already spread and how much energy they already contained.

Unfortunately, those space-warping ribbons and the ‘attack me’ compulsion were making it nigh-impossible to strategize so far. If it wasn’t for Memento’s many selves and their immunity to Control effects, they would likely be completely unable to respond in any way, currently.

In the distance, Basil could see weird objects – floating orbs and tesseracts and pillars that were only partially composed of matter, and some even weirder ones, unloading barrages of effects – forming force-fields around defenders to protect from rebound attacks or crystal spears, warping space to redirect crystal spears back towards the already heavily crystallized areas, unleashing pin-point beams of plasma, pure light, directed matter and what Basil was pretty sure were gravitic shears.

It was the kind of display that implied its originator could conquer the whole world if they so wished – and frankly, Memento probably could have, but Doctor Despair’s masterpiece was wholly uninterested in anything but pursuing its prime directive.

Though it was a Contrivance rather than a Gadget, Basil couldn’t help but marvel at the Doctor’s masterpiece; there had been Contrivers before and after him who’d created a Magnum Opus, and there’d been many who’d unleashed a Swan Song, at the cost of their lives; but Doctor Despair, as far as he knew, was the only one who’d done both at the same time – his mummified corpse had been found by one of his rivals in his workshop, slumped over backwards over the chair he’d been sitting on, as before him his last, final, greatest creation booted up. A single machine, shaped rather like a salt dispenser as tall as a child, with a clear dome at the top and a mechanical face fashioned after Doctor Despair’s long-time nemesis, the fallen Protector, contained within.

Memento, the self-improving, contrived and contriving Seed-AI, the only of its kind and quite possibly the greatest display of Contriving ever, could have likely conquered the world, but it had been created for one purpose and one purpose only – to end Desolation-in-Light’s threat to the world, once and for all. In the decades since, it had continually expanded itself and refined its arsenal, and though it had yet to succeed, many believed it to be merely a matter of time.

Whether or not the end of DiL would lead to peace, or see it become an even greater threat, no one knew.

At least right now, it’s a godsend, Basil thought quietly, catching his breath as the wave of crystal spears and the following growth came to an end. This particular one had spread the crystal cover out over half of New Lennston. Their position was becoming untenable, the growths spread out over the rooftops, a twisted, glittering jungle. Deep within it, mostly at street level, where people had been crystallised, it was brighter still, glowing almost like a soft torch. Where metahumans had been caught, it was as bright as day.

“We’re not doing anything but surviving – barely,” Polymnia spoke, her serious, calm voice as usual in stark contrast to the way she was bent over and supporting herself on her knees, gasping for breath. “This – I’ve never felt so useless!”

”Welcome to a DiL fight,” Hecate spat, falling onto her butt, leaning back to support herself on her outstretched arms. “From what I read and hear, it’s usually like this. You run, you dodge, you survive, all the while looking for some way you can contribute; hoping that, if she does choose a set which requires your specific powers or skills to counter, you’ll be able to do so.”

“I… I guess…”

”We’ve just, got to keep each other safe. Keep as many others safe as we can, for as long as we can,” Hecate continued, trying to reassure her idol. “L-let’s just focus on that… or else I don’t think… I’ll be able to hold it together.”

Basil turned his head away just as she turned hers to look at him, focusing on the battle in the distance, occasionally twitching as his armor shocked him back to his senses, whenever DiL’s power affected him. He was tapping the communication channels, though he had to rely on the mundane ones, with all the disturbance that they came along with, while within this blasted field – it was half a miracle that his equipment had lasted as long as it had, he was not going to take a further risk by directly interfacing with the contrived technology Memento handed out.

Still, the channel the Dark was using to get his signal whenever he felt DiL change her powers was connected to a greater network – likely Wyrms. Though it could not reach beyond the Desolation Field, there was still some data going around within it.

No Lady Light, no Quetzalcoatl. No Severance. No Kong Long. Only Fleur and the Feral Family are here.

Meaning exactly the two members of that group who were of the least use against DiL.

To his relief, he heard Amy be mentioned, so she had to still be alive. Kraquok and Lamarr were also there, as was Daijisi, but no Dowager and the Dark was standing back, likely still weakened from the fight at the Installation, not too long ago.

Was it really just half a day ago? It feels so long ago…

He staggered, his legs buckling before he managed to regain his balance.

”Ba- Brennus?” Hecate spoke up, worried. Barely five seconds had passed since she’d said her part.

Seconds…

“Brennus?” Polymnia looked at him in worry, standing up, reaching out with one arm.

What’s wrong?

Take off your mask, mate.

He did so, and it came away with blood on it. Numbly, he raised his left hand to his face, touching index and middle finger to his upper lip.

They came away with blood, too.

”Brennus!” Hecate jumped up, catching him as he nearly fell over. She held his weight easily.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, though he wasn’t sure whom he was asking.

You’re dying, mate, the Man in the Moon’s voice somehow managed to sound both concerned and mocking at the same time. I’ve been taking the lion’s share of the pain so far, but just because you don’t feel it doesn’t mean it ain’t doing damage.

Somehow, hearing those words, processing them, Basil didn’t feel scared or angered or saddened. No, even though he felt, he knew they were true, he just felt…

At home. More than just his own voice said those words in his head.

Nothing had ever scared him as much as that realisation.

Is that why you’ve been off?

Sorry, mate. But you gotta get out of here. Whatever this field is doing, however it’s interacting with you, with us, it’s breaking down the walls.

Killing me?

In a way.

It would be more accurate to claim that it is killing the you as you understand yourself, the Blazing Sun spoke up for the first time in a while.

Mine…

If you stay here any longer, you won’t be you anymore.

He managed to stand again, righting himself as he used his free arm’s sleeve to wipe off the blood. “I, I’ll be alright,” he told the girls, using that same sleeve to clean the inside of his mask.

It came away scarlet all over, but he could put the mask on again, once more covering his face from the bridge of his nose down.

You mean we’ll… merge?

If you wanna be saturday morning cartoon about it, yeah.

Is that necessarily a bad thing? It’s pretty clear that I’m far from complete – perhaps merging back together will…

You are labouring under an erroneous presupposition.

What candle-head means to say is that you got it all back-ass-wards, mate.

I’ve never known you lot to be so chatty.

The walls are breaking down. So are our…

Fetters.

We can slip the leash a bit, because we are breaking down, piece by piece, too.

Then tell me already! Basil growled, taking a step away from the girls, his arm slipping out of Hecate’s grip. Enough with the cryptic hints! Just tell me everything!

We’re saying as much as we can. You gotta understand, it’s not you that’s incomplete.

A massive tremor shook the ground, throwing all three of them over as the buildings around and beneath them shook, most of them only held up by the crystals that’d fused to their structures and were now supporting them.

Basil shook his head, trying to focus through the pain throbbing in his head – not a change of power, just… more of the same, the pain that’d been in the background slowly bleeding into the forefront.

It doesn’t matter, he thought to himself, as he looked up, his eyes widening as he saw a slim figure flying through the air, white cape billowing as she tumbled away from where the impact had originated.

Living at the mercy of forces and people whom I cannot even name.

He couldn’t say where he dredged up the strength, the focus, to force himself onto all fours, to reverse the electrostatic clamps in his boots’ soles to instead repel him from the roof with such force, he left a spreading spiderweb of cracks behind.

I already knew that.

He flew up, his path determined more by instinct than any kind of rational thought, putting him right in Gloom Glimmer’s way.

She smashed into his chest, his arms wrapping around her more due to the force of the impact than any function of his muscles.

More pain still pulsed from his damaged ribs, up into his brain – but there was already so much there, it was just a drop in the ocean.

Living in a body that’s not entirely my own, with a mind that’s been twisted by factors beyond my control. Never knowing whether this moment will be my last, or not.

He reached behind himself with his left arm, aiming the repulsor. A twitch of his muscles, a tightening of his fist, unleashed a blast.

Shock travelled up his arm, nearly dislodging it out of the shoulder socket. Adding yet more inconsequential pain.

Isn’t that how Prisca’s life was, for all those years? All those years, until the bitter end.

Their flight so arrested, the two of them slowed and dropped, as he shifted his grip on her surprisingly light body, holding her sideways in his arms.

I can remember holding Prisca’s avatar like this, carrying her over the threshold of my bedroom. A stupid, silly little play-act.

But it’d made her happy to pretend, even if it’d ended up being another broken promise.

They hit the roof of a building – fortunately, a flat one, meant to be accessible to people – their combined weight coming down on his legs, bones and muscles and tendons groaning as he skidded across the rooftop, not daring to activate the clamps for fear that he’d simply cause himself to fall over backwards, hit his head and likely snap his ankles as well.

If I die, I die. But I’ll spend what time I have fighting, fighting until I can’t continue on anymore.

Why do you fight, mate? Why, why, why? Why be a hero, why be good why be Brennus why be?

He couldn’t tell. Couldn’t remember, not really. But every time he’d considered that question, what path to go down, what to fight for, what to be, he’d always remembered just three things.

First, the Rain.

Second, the Thunder.

Third, the Lightning.

And every time he did, he’d felt it in his guts, what he had to do.

Right now, he had to focus on the fight.

His heels hit the upraised rim of the roof and he barely managed to steady himself, leaning forward slightly to avoid tipping over the edge, absorbing the last of their shared momentum, slightly bending his knees to better distribute the force, rather than take it all with his joints.

For the Rain, and the Thunder, and the Lightning that comes after.

Lightning comes before the Thunder, mate.

No. The Thunder comes first. Then, the Lightning.

Where did those words come from, he wondered? A memory without any content, words without reference, emotions without source.

His Origin?

”Basil?” a soft voice drew his attention at the person he held in his arms.

Gloom Glimmer’s face was drawn, pale. It wasn’t the palor of someone who’d physically exhausted themselves, but rather, it reminded him of Prisca of all people. Someone who’d spent too much, no, been forced to spend too much, and been left with too little to continue.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, tears sliding out of her eyes, down her bloodless cheeks, and she didn’t sound like the self-assured, even cocky young heroine he’d first gotten to know. She sounded like the little girl underneath it all. “I’m sorry… I tried, but… I can’t… I can’t do anything… I wish…”

”I know.” At his arm, both communicators frizzed, trying to catch his attention as Memento warned everyone of the next coming volley, and the Dark tried to find out whether his daughter was alright.

His eyes moved from her face to her hands, where they were clenched together loosely above her breast.

A gray haze was spreading, from her fingertips down, only to flicker, the effect breaking apart.

“Isn’t it stupid?” she asked, choked. “I spent it. My immortality, my invincibility. That safe mode? I used it to try and protect others. But it wasn’t enough. They’re dead anyway, and I’m without my get-out-of-jail-free card now.” She choked, sobbing.

He nodded, looking out into the distance.

Past Polymnia and Hecate, who were just now turning away from him and Gloom Glimmer, several rooftops away, a veritable cloud of crystal spears was approaching, raining down in such numbers they blotted out the glow of the Desolation Field, and what sunlight still came through.

“You’ve got, got to run,” Gloom Glimmer begged him, wiggling, trying to get away from his grip. “I’m not sure… I can’t find anything to protect you with.”

“And who will protect you?” he asked, as he turned away from the incoming crystal death, letting go of her legs, letting her put her feet on the roof.

Huh. She’s shorter than me. I never noticed. Usually, she’s floating around.

“What are you-” she began to speak, only to blush when he put his right arm around her waist, pulling her close to himself. “B-“

He raised his left arm, putting the hand behind his head as if to scratch it, aiming the projector’s flat side that way. His raven dove down and landed on his right shoulder.

A force-field sprung up around them, an oval which wrapped around them, strongest at his back where the projector was, weakest, but still present, in front of them. It was really only meant to protect himself, but with Gloom Glimmer pressed as closely against him as possible, even if it had to be even more uncomfortable for her than for him – he wore stiff, cold armor, she wore a soft, almost velvet-like bodysuit, thicker and more modest than was common, but not particularly more protective either.

Still, this was better than getting skewered by spears and turned into crystal.

Spears rained down on them, smashing into the force-field at Basil’s back, and the rooftop all around them. Several glanced off the rounded shape of his force-field, hitting the roof as well.

From each site of impact, eight new spears shot forth, flying at them from every direction, some flying through each other as if they were insubstantial, trailing tendrils of crystal behind them.

His force-field was beset by impacts from every direction, warning sounds playing, as he looked down at his right forearm, wrapped around Gloom Glimmer, where a monitor showed him the danger – the force-field wasn’t designed to defend against prolonged, multi-directional assaults. It was rapidly approaching the point where the gadget may well short out on him, at which point they’d both die.

“It will not hold,” Basil whispered calmly, as the third wave started, seven spears from each impact site where the spears had come into contact with matter to convert. “The shield isn’t designed for this kind of attack.”

Gloom Glimmer shifted, wrapping her arms around his neck – but it wasn’t a show of or plea for comfort. Instead, she looked up at him with tear-stained cheeks and red eyes upon black sclerae. “I still have some power left.”

She reached for his gauntlet, pressing all ten fingers against it. He couldn’t turn his head to look, but his ravenbot could, and he saw what it saw on his other arm’s display, as her fingertips sunk into the metal, veins of red light spreading from those points throughout the gauntlet.

Immediately, the warning signs were replaced with error messages, as his systems detected a surge of energy from an unknown source, bolstering the field, while at the same time, pressure was taken off the circuits.

The field around them took on a reddish tint, particularly wherever it was struck by the fourth wave, which failed to penetrate no matter the direction they came from, as slowly, the two of them were encased in a cocoon crystal tendrils, no one of them thicker than two fingers, yet so numerous they were likely to encase them completely by the time the ninth and final wave was done.

She smiled at him, wetly, and he couldn’t help but smile back, even though she likely couldn’t see it, except perhaps in the way his eyes moved. “We have got to sit down and try to figure out your power, some day,” he said, before his common sense could edit the words.

She didn’t seem insulted or put off by the remark though – rather, she giggled at him. “You can join the club. No one’s figured it out yet, not even Mom and Dad.”

“Seems like a rather illustrious membership. I doubt I would fit in,” he replied, trying to take his mind of…

Actually, he had a lot of things to try and take it off of. The worry for his friends and sister, for the other defenders and the common people trapped here, the incessant pain in his head, even more pain in his chest, the questions surrounding his memory, the threat of whatever the Desolation Field was doing to his mind and the voices within, the fact that there were other voices in his head, Prisca’s fate, his many, many failures, the…

The list went on and on.

She knocked her forehead against his armored nose, gently, as a soft glow appeared where their bodies were touching, most noticeably around her… chest… squished against his armor. Soft, warm golden light that seemed to flow from within her and into his body, as he literally felt his ribs mend, all the bruises going away along with the pain in his joints and the sore muscles.

“You’d fit right in. I mean, sometimes, I can’t decide whether you remind me more of my mom or my dad, but I’d bet my plushie collection that you’d get along well to great with both of them.”

“Hopefully more with your mother than your father,” he replied.

She raised an eyebrow at him, taking on a deadpan expression. “What is that supposed to mean?”

He tilted his head to the side, slightly, confused. “Well, she is a hero, he is a villain. No offense.”

Gloom Glimmer relaxed again. “Oh. Right. Yeah, that makes sense.” She blushed, averting her eyes.

Are all girls so confusing?

Seriously, you don’t get what she thought? the most irreverent of his inner voices asked, with laughter in his otherwise pain-filled voice. She probably hears comments like that a lot, and not meant in the way you did.

I do not get it.

I know you don’t, mate.

Before he could ask what was going on, though, reality reasserted itself, as the final wave of crystal spears were deflected off his shield.

Gloom Glimmer pulled her fingers out of the gauntlet, slumping against him as her strength left her, and the gadget finally broke down, pushed beyond its limits. Sparks flew and some smoke came out, and the readout on his other arm just confirmed that it’d need at least some basic maintenance, if not a full rebuild, to be usable again.

But it had done what it was meant for, and then some. They were safe, for now, though surrounded by crystals.

We won’t survive another wave like this.

“We won’t survive another wave like this,” Gloom Glimmer echoed his thoughts. “We need to find Polymnia and Hecate, and get far away from h-“

“Hush,” Basil interrupted her, looking at his sensors’ readouts on his gauntlet.

Not that he’d needed to, because light was beginning to spread through the crystals covering a vast portion of the city – some tendrils had flown out so far they even extended beyond the Desolation Field. As it grew in intensity, so did the readings he got in.

That energy density…

Gloom Glimmer laughed, a weak, small sound, as she slumped against him, hugging him earnestly now. “It’s going to explode,” she said, as she cried softly. “Fuck. Fuck you, Bree. You just have to prove me wrong at every turn, don’t you?”

Basil didn’t know what to say. He could only watch as the crystals swelled, nearly liquefying in places as they grew brighter, and brighter, cutting off any avenue of escape they might have had; not that they could have gotten away quickly enough to escape an explosion of such magnitude – extrapolating from how much energy was contained within the local cluster of crystals, the whole mass of them, spread out throughout New Lennston, had to be enough to hit with the force of at least a dozen kilotons; likely more, since metahumans seemed to provide far more energy when crystallised, and there weren’t any such victims nearby for him to get a reading off of.

He sent his raven up, up and away towards the East. It was unlikely to survive, but if he was to die here, he at least wanted that bit to get away.

He’d written up some routines to go off in any of his ravens that happened to survive him, just in case. To contact the United Heroes, lead them to his lab, if it was still left after this, give them copies of his notes and files… a meaningless gesture, perhaps, but one he’d been intent on making.

The crystals swelled, as Basil stood there, holding the crying Gloom Glimmer, watching his raven fly towards the rising sun that shined through the Desolation Field…

Wait a minute.

He blinked, focusing his tired eyes into the distance.

The sun isn’t supposed to rise in the afternoon. Nor is it supposed to be white.

Before he could process that, the distant sun pulsed.

A massive, massive wave of light, like a pure white tsunami, blazed through the Desolation field, and drowned out the world as it flowed over New Lennston.

Light so bright it should have blinded, yet it did not; a pure white blaze which reflected off of everything, turning the whole world a pure white, yet without hurting his eyes.

It reflected off of everything. The rooftops. Gloom Glimmer’s hair. His raven, in the distance. Capes and cowls he could see on other rooftops, trying to get away from the incoming explosion. Telephone masts and other things.

Everything turned pure, solid white, the glow so powerful it erased their outlines, made it all solid.

All, except for DiL’s crystals. They seemed to absorb the light, fully, casting them in utter black, so dark it smoothed out their shapes, made them seem two-dimensional. Like the shadows of branches, drawn with ink upon white paper.

The wave of light moved on, there and gone again, moving on over the rest of New Lennston.

Wherever it touched, the crystals were rendered inert, their built-up energy simply… stilled.

They crumbled away into nothingness, not even dust left behind.

Gloom Glimmer raised her head, looking over her shoulder without a sound.

The second sun approached and passed through the Desolation Field and as it did, her aura blazed forth, like the sun’s own warmth, turned up to a level Basil had never even heard of, reaching at least as far into the area as Basil stood, and lightly further.

Wherever it touched the defenders, Basil saw shoulders straighten, people standing taller, more energized.

When it reached him and Gloom Glimmer, he felt her straighten up, making a soft, tender sound, a note of glee not unlike that of a small child being lifted up and enveloped by loving arms.

Basil felt it seep through him, taking away the weariness and smoothing out the pain in the back of his head. Even when DiL changed her powers, finally, what he felt was not a spike of white-hot pain, but merely a dull ache.

Hey… mate… something’s… I… we…

The voices in his head, the presences, grew weaker, as he felt something change. As if a weight had been taken off his shoulders, one he’d carried for as long as he could remember, and thus had never noticed, thinking it to be natural, normal.

For the first time he could recall, his thoughts felt light.

The second sun advanced, flying past his raven faster than its sensors could track her, straight towards the locus of battle, as the re-energized defenders rallied, calls coming through the communication lines, voices rising up around him as well, cheering, at the sudden turn of the battle.

Lady Light had arrived.

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B13.b Chickenleg(s)

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Radost Extreme Security Prison, somewhere along the Arctic Border of Siberia
A few months ago

Radost prison was widely considered to be the least joyful place on Earth, even more so than the infamous Nporpecc towns that had dotted the Siberian districts for over almost two decades. Abuse, mutilation and brutal deaths had merely been a near-certainty in those, not an absolute one, like in Radost.

Radost was, after all, not merely a prison, even if that was in its name. Yes, it was primarily one, and one meant for the worst of the worst. It was where the Red Council sent those captured metahumans whom they were unable to break and indoctrinate into their purpose, yet were too valuable (or too difficult) to simply execute.

That alone, however, was not the only reason it was so reviled a place, nor why it was more heavily defended than the seat of the American President himself. An entire army battalion was stationed here on permanent duty, at triple rationing both for the soldiers themselves and their families back home, to keep the men happy in spite of the horrible weather, the depressing, often horrifying duty and the constant danger of both prisoners breaking out and people from the outside trying to break in. The ground level of the prison was fully equipped to serve as a major military base.

The battalion was one of the best-equipped in all of the Sovjet Union, including the newest advances in military technology – even some precious gadgets, up to and including a half-strength company using power armour – and an entire company of metahumans. Rather than the proper command structure, there was an actual general in charge of the base, aided by two members of the Politbüro, allowing him to call in reinforcements as needed, without having need to explain himself before the fact, up to and including airstrikes and even, in the most extreme situations, a tactical nuclear strike.

There were, in fact, three nuclear warheads stored on site, spread throughout the underground complex beneath the military base, to act as a fail-safe in case of the outer defenses being defeated, or an irrecoverable uprising of the captives.

Radost had not always been so heavily defended; much of its security, including the option of said nuclear strike, had been added in during the late nineties, after a certain metahuman came to national attention. In fact, much of the paranoia surrounding the prison there was one particular person that they had feared would eventually try to break in, considering the bounty waiting inside.

Another reason was that it was also one of the biggest sites for human experimentation in the world, the men and women working in its laboratories having been charged by the Red Council to unravel the mysteries of metahumanity, so that it may be fully twisted to the council’s purpose. Though a truly daunting task, it was well-aided by their blanket permission to experiment upon the captives of Radost at will.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these scientists were mostly in favour of triggering the fail-safe in case their victims ever broke out.

Even less surprising was the fact that General Vlasiy Lagounov, who’d been in charge of this god-forsaken place for the last five years, did not relish being the first of its wardens to fail so thoroughly that it would become necessary to do so. Putting aside the fact that it’d almost certainly ruin his career, which he’d planned out many years ago and which involved working his way up the command chain of the military until he could land a cushy job in the Ministry of Protection, he was also spectacularly unlikely to survive it, seeing how he was just a normal human – no nepravil’nyy narod was allowed to hold the rank of even the lowest of commissioned officers, much less a full general – so he’d always planned to defeat any assault upon Radost, in case it ever happened (it never had, before), by way of overwhelming force, superior tactics and the plain fact that no one who could bring as many metahumans to bear in a battle as he did could penetrate so deeply into SU space without causing all their espers to go crazy and see it coming a week away at the least.

Of course, there was the matter of said one threat that had originally caused the security arrangements to become so insanely enhanced…

“Ba-ba, babababaaa-ba, ba-ba-baba,” a sweet voice sang, barely audible through the heavily re-inforced tungsten doors.

That she was audible at all was already a reason to panic, and Vlasiy had to use all of his self-control not to start shaking all over, as he ordered his remaining men to draw up a defensive line.

Half an hour, he thought bitterly, disbelieving, as he watched his remaining men – three of the folk, thirty-three proper warriors and two of the researchers – draw up a line, taking cover behind hastily errected walls, formed out of the very tungsten that the entirety of the room was made of via one of the metahuman asset’s power.

They’d been forced to retreat into the deepest, darkest portion of Radost, which was named, appropriately enough, Koschei’s Chest. The entire section, an underground building as large as the Kreml, was made out of a single, solid piece of tungsten, shaped via powers, to hold Radost’s most dangerous prisoners. It hung, suspended by magnetic engines, in the centre of a vast underground cavern, the walls of the cave dotted with countless weapons that faced inwards, as well as one of the fail-safe’s nukes, dedicated solely to the task of, not destroying the chest, but collapsing the cavern on top of it, in the hopes of burying those held within. Currently, only two of the eight available cells were occupied, one holding an American prisoner of war, and the other…

Vlasiy shuddered, preferring not to think about the other one. He hoped that the rebels would at least show enough sense to not set that one free.

Just being there, in the hub room that lead to all of the cells, made him shudder, even though he tried his very best not to look towards the solid wall of heavy metal beyond which he was sealed away (there were no doors into the cells of the chest, one needed to have access to the right kind of superpowers to access them, if they could even disable all the defenses installed to prevent just that).

“Baaaaa-ba, baba-baa, ba, ba, baba, baaaaaa-ba…”

The singing – if it could be called that – became louder, coming closer, making the men shudder and raise their weapons – all of them, enhanced, weapons built by one of the three assets still with him, rifles with special ammunition, each shot capable of punching through a tank’s armor and out the other side, front to back. Weapons that, even with their near-limitless resources, they could only have a score of at hand at any time, due to the effort that their creator had to invest in maintaining them and producing the proper ammunition. The ones who didn’t have such weapons had lesser gadgets to use.

Fat load of good it did us so far, Vlasiy thought as he stood in the third row of tungsten cover, behind two rows of soldiers and assets, holding his own gun – made by one of the assets, as well, to his distaste – in one tightly clenched hand, while the other held a cylindrical object, a detonator to set off the fail-safe, which he’d already armed, as per regulation, when the attack on the base above had begun – though he kept its cap on for now, not that that would slow him down much, it could be flipped open with a twitch of his thumb to reach the button underneath. He was gripping it so tight his knuckles had turned white.

As there was nothing more he could do, for now, but wait and see what she would do next, he looked at his assets, feeling ill at ease – the rebellion was led by more of the wrong folk and only one of the three had been properly conditioned, the others being ostensibly loyal enough to the Union to be stationed even here.

The one who’d built his gun was a woman, a slight one, one of the Joyous Folk. Thin, with pale skin that rarely saw the sun and short, stringy blonde hair. She stood there in a simple smock that reached down to her shins, her feet bare underneath, stained with grease and who knew what else, as were her bare hands up to her elbows. Her only other item of clothing was a metallic collar around her thin neck. She held her head lowered, her brown eyes focused on a spot somewhere on the ground. Number two-four-four-nine, she’d broken under the strain of the conditioning and needed commands even for such basic actions as swallowing the food she’d just chewed, showing only the barest amount of initiative where the use of her power was concerned, building ever new weapons that were either used in Radost or shipped out to be used in other places. Of the three Folk, she was the only one he didn’t worry about. A single command of his was all it would take to make her choke herself to unconsciousness (he’d had her do it before, both to test her conditioning and to amuse himself), or pick up a gun and shoot herself in the head.

The other two were more problematic, being still in command of their own will, an absurdity, if a necessary one, as broken dolls made for horrible soldiers. Sergeant Petrov, a tall, broad-shouldered man with blonde hair and muddy blue eyes, wearing a proper uniform with a black armband bearing the crest of the wrong folk who served in the military, a simple red circle with a black hammer and sickle in it. He was the one who’d reshaped the walls and floor into cover, as well as reinforced the door keeping (hopefully) their adversary out by merging it and the wall and floor into one solid piece. Unfortunately, his power only had a rather short range and so he couldn’t act outside of this room any more than anyone else in here could.

Vlasiy always felt a measure of regret when thinking about Petrov (which wasn’t even the man’s real name), as the man would have made an amazing soldier, had he only not become one of the folk. Upstanding, steadfast, loyal, efficient. He didn’t just look like the model soldier, he acted it. Still, he was folk and so Vlasiy did not trust him, as regretful as he felt about it.

The other, Sergeant Utkin, was a study in contrasts with Petrov; short, hairy, slender, he barely filled out his uniform. His face had heavy jowls, a hooked nose and thin lips and his personality was as unpleasant to deal with as he was unpleasant to look at. But he was powerful, having the ability to repel any other folk’s power, potentially even reversing it back upon themselves. Such an ability should have made him a prime candidate for the Foremen, but he’d been deemed too unsightly and too unreliable in combat, being often too slow and too cowardly to serve well. Thus his posting in Radost, where all of the inmates had powers of their own, and where he could serve well. Frankly, he disgusted Vlasiy more than almost any other folk he’d ever met, but he couldn’t deny the man’s usefulness, especially now, in the wake of the enemy approaching.

His eyes moved on, over the rows of proper soldiers he had with him. They were good men, well-trained men, loyal men, loyal to him, to the army, to the Council.

“Baaaaaaaaa-ba, ba-ba, ba, ba… ba-ba, yaaaaaaa…”

There was almost no way it would be enough, not facing one of the worst internal enemies the Sovjet Union had ever had to deal with.

But he’d be damned if he was going to be the first warden of Radost to fail.

“General,” Petrov spoke up calmly, suddenly, turning to face Vlasiy. “With all due respect, perhaps we should entertain the-“

“Babababababa-baba yaaaaaaaa-gaaaaa!”

Vlasiy barely had time to cry out as something shot through the solid former door, ignoring the reinforced material and the further protections installed in order to discourage just that.

He saw something akin to a ghost, a vaguely humanoid outline, transparent, silvery-grey, rush forward, trailed by a stream of after-images, moving faster than he could even hope to raise his gun, running straight through the hailstorm of bullets, lasers and plasma that his men unleashed, through their cover, through his men.

Everyone it, she, passed through collapsed with a scream, only to scream more as they hit the ground. What Vlasiy could see of their bare skin was horribly disfigured by a network of grotesque swelling, an effect he recognised instantly – it was one of her known powers, taken from the Wraith of Screams, one of the cursed children of Orenburg, causing the nerves of any it passed through to grow massively, making the slightest stimulus a source of incredible pain.

The wraith finished its charge through the ranks of his men, coming to a halt inbetween him and his subordinate folk, growing more and more solid as its after-images caught up with it, until she stood there, looking at him with a demented grin.

She’s wearing clothes, was the first thought that came to mind. For twenty years now she’d been out there and never not once had she put on any clothes before, to his knowledge. He knew a lot of soldiers kept images of her, hidden, against orders, because of her beauty and how uncaring she’d been about being seen like that, and even Vlasiy had to admit, it wasn’t unwarranted, as distasteful as it was.

The young woman looking at him could have been at home in a propaganda video of the Ministry of Education, advertising the wonderful life and opportunities that awaited young men if they joined the army, or the agricultural corps, save for the fact that she had eyes as red as bloody rubies and the rest of her body was a purer shade of white than fresh snow, though even her Albinoism didn’t detract from her almost adorable facial features.

Her hair had been cut, compared to the images he knew from her file, though it was still tied in a braid, now reaching to her knees rather than being several times the length of her body. Her torso was covered, barely, by a slashed black t-shirt sporting the logo of some American music band, the straps and sides of her red bra showing through, stark against her skin. It stopped a few centimetre above her belly button, only to be followed, further below, by a multitude of skirts layered atop one another, all of varying lengths, with the shortest ones – starting at the length of a miniskirt – furthest outside and a long, ankle-length skirt as the base; most of the skirts were slashed similarly to her shirt, while others were basically just a miltitude of ribbons attached to a waistband. Her feet were still as bare as ever, though he thought he saw something metallic flash on her left ankle, before his eyes snapped up again, along with his pistol.

He knew it was most likely pointless, but he still pulled the trigger, firing a sphere of super-heated plasma straight through her head.

Her form shifted into a multitude of after-images, each leaning a different way, making her body as insubstantial as air, the shot passing through harmlessly. Behind her, a pillar of tungsten rose up, catching the blast before it could kill Two-four-four-nine.

She reformed, and opened her mouth. “If you mess with Baba Yaga, you’ve got to be gaaaaa-ga!”

Three more voices joined in on her that chant, causing him, and his men, to look at the sealed door as they actually managed to be heard over the screaming of his afflicted men; though considering how they’d been heard all throughout the entirety of Radost since the very start of the attack, that wasn’t surprising at all.

The whole door had melted away, gone without a trace, opening up the way to the metal walkway that lead to Koschei’s Chest.

Three young women, identical to the one standing next to him, stood at the entrance. The middle and left one were holding hands, while the right one had her wrists touching, fingers splayed forward and moving like a spider’s legs, apparently being the one coordinating a curtain of plate-sized octagonal force-fields that flew around in front of them, deflecting any shot his men sent their way. Perhaps due to a quirk of the power, or perhaps out of sheer arrogance, she actually went around blocking every single shot individually, rather than just create a single, solid curtain around them.

The middle woman – was she the real one? Or a decoy? Was there even a real one? – wagged a finger at him, grinning like a loon.

More men fell down screaming as the wraith passed through them, even as others went still, some passing out, some flat-out dying as either their brains, their hearts, or both, gave out due to the massive shock of such intense sensations.

“Utkin, what the hell are you doing!?” Viasiy shouted, turning around to look at the one asset he still had to throw against her – only to find him on the ground, unconscious and bleeding of a head wound. The ceiling above had extended into a dull spike, blood dripping from its rounded tip. “W-what the hell are you doing, Sergeant Petrov? Traitor!” he shouted at Petrov, who stood next to the their fallen trump card, one hand holding onto Two-four-four-nine’s hand, almost protectively.

What?

“I’m sorry, General,” the man spoke with a firm, calm voice. “But I’m hereby tending my resignation.” And he ripped his armband and hat off. “As is my comrade here.” He nodded towards Two-four-four-nine and used two fingers of the same hand that was holding onto his armband and hat to grab a hold of her collar, using his power to tear it off without harming her.

Vlasiy opened his mouth, red-faced, to shout the empty woman’s termination code, but Petrov was faster, flinging his left hand out at him, sending the armband, the hat and the collar flying.

The three objects melted as they flew, into a single, grey-black mass, and slapped onto his lower face, spreading out, wrapping around his head, thoroughly gagging his mouth and nearly doing the same to his nose.

He tried to raise his gun, to at least shoot and kill one of them, but only felt something close around it, locking it in place. Looking down, he saw a stalagmite of tungsten reach up, wrapping around his hand and gun. If he pulled the trigger, it’d just destroy his hand.

No, no, fuck no, not to a traitor! he thought furiously, hatred evident in his eyes as he glared at the Devil’s Bride and at the two traitors, using his thumb to flip the fail-safe’s switch open – but he never got to bring his thumb down on it, as another stalagmite rose up and encased it, securing the transmitter.

“Imbecile,” Petrov snarled. “I had several minutes’ worth of time to let my power seep into the entire room. And my name is not Petrov, that’s a slavename.”

The threat so neutralised, he turned aside to address his former adversary, only to give a start as he realised that the Devil’s Bride was standing right in front of him now, on her tip-toes, looking curiously at his face.

The tall folk gulped, taking a step back. “Ah… apologies,” he said, his eyes tracing the rest of the room. All of the soldiers were on the ground, either dead or passed out, except for those who’d been caught in their own deflected shots – those were definitely dead. “I would, ah, I mean, we,” he looked at the dead-eyed woman whose hand he still held. “We would like to, to join the revolutionary army, ma’am.”

“Not ma’am,” the Devil’s Bride said, tilting her head to the side as she made an annoyed clucking sound. Her voice had a very odd accent, musical, but definitely not Russian. Unlike any those in the room had ever heard before. “Baba Yaga. Name is, Baba Yaga.”

The man paled a bit more, sweat appearing on his brow, but he seemed to compose himself. “As you wish, B-baba Yaga.”

Her annoyed pout turned into a stark, white-toothed grin, her pale pink lips stretching wider than one would have expected, and she reached up, making the folk flinch back – but all she did was pat him on the head.

“You is good boy,” she spoke. “Baba Yaga like good boys. Tell name to Baba Yaga!”

Is she a simpleton?, Vlasiy thought, stunned. Was that it? Had the boogeywoman of the Sovjet Union been a mere simpleton the whole time?

“Pytor, ma- I mean, Baba Yaga. My name is Pytor,” the man replied.

“Good. People need name,” Baba Yaga said in a sing-song, putting emphasis on the word again. “What hers?” She pointed at Two-four-four-nine.

Pytor’s face changed to one of deep sadness. “I don’t know, m- Baba Yaga. They took her name, along with everything else. All she has is a number. Two-four-four-nine.” He spoke the numbers as if they were the worst of blasphemies, his face twisting in disgust.

Baba Yaga’s grin disappeared. “Is no good,” she said. “Is, no good. People need name.”

Suddenly, her form seemed to shudder, as if a pair of after-images were trying to lean out of her, briefly. Then they stepped out of her entirely, solidifying into two perfect copies of herself, both of them facing the way out. One jumped into the arms of the other, and they disappeared in a streak of neon light, racing towards the elevator shaft.

Baba Yaga leaned back on her heels, her toes rising off the cold metal ground, clasping her hands behind the small of her back as she looked alternatively at him and at the dead-eyed woman.

“You two, together?” she asked, grinning like a nosy teenage girl.

It was clear that Pytor had not expected that question, which likely explained his hesitation before he replied, “No, we’re not. I just, someone’s got to take care of her.”

The albino woman grinned, swaying back and forth on her heels, as if she had not a single care in the world. It was intensily unsettling.

Before Pytor could speak up again to ask what was going to happen, the streak of neon-lights returned, depositing both copies of the Baba Yaga, as well as a man in a heavy brown-red overcoat, a mining hat and with a multitude of shovels, picks and other earthworking equipment strapped ot his various belts and buckles, his broad, scarred, rather unattractive face looking a little green.

“Brother Kopatel!” Pytor exclaimed, recognising him easily from innumerable propaganda posters and news spots, as Baba Yaga reabsorbed all of her copies, leaving only the (ostensible) original, who immediately cuddled up to Kopatel, wrapping her arms around his left elbow to hug it tight to her chest as she looked up at him with an adoring expression.

Both Vlasiy and Pytor stared, unable to parse the sight as the man ignored having the most powerful woman in the entire Union hanging off his arm, focusing instead on the former sergeant in front of himself.

“You must be Pytor, correct?” the revolution’s unlikely-looking leader asked as the nausea faded from his broad face. “Baba Yaga tells me you want to join us, and  that you’re honest about it.”

Pytor blinked, briefly surprised, before he all but visibly berated himself for it. Of course there’d be something to tell whether he was telling the truth or not among the multitude of powers she’d gathered by that point.

Vlasiy, meanwhile, was quietly despairing, knowing that his fate was now completely in the hands of his enemies including, if he was truly cursed, those very prisoners he’d helped keep imprisoned so as to be experimented upon. Tears leaked from his eyes, even as he couldn’t help but notice how unlikely these two men made the situation seem – Pytor, the tall, broad-shouldered, blonde-haired and blue-eyed statue of a man, cowering, deferring to the short, stocky and at best plain if not ugly Kopatel. It would have been hilarious were it not something he’d have to witness like this.

“That, is correct, Br- Sir,” Pytor replied. “Me and, well, actually, I’m not at all sure what she wants, but, I’m sure she wouldn’t want to stay with the Union, if she was still able to choose.” He looked at the dead-eyed young woman.

***

Kopatel’s eyes softened as he looked at the broken young woman – a girl, really, young enough she could have been his daughter, perhaps even granddaughter. If she was a day over twenty, he’d be very surprised.

As usual when he met one of the so-called Joyous Folk – something which was happening more and more, now that he was actively fighting the Red Council – he felt both a crushing shame and a near mind-rending rage.

Shame, because he had, however unwittingly, been complicit in doing this to people. Rage against the men and women who’d abuse other humans so, who’d used the ideals that’d driven him and Ludmilla to perform such monstrous actions.

“Do you remember your name, young one?” he asked the girl, his rough voice as soft as he could make it, stepping closer.

It was a stupid question, a foolish one. Their name was one of the first things the Ministry of Harmony took from its victims, followed by their dignity, their memories, their will and, finally, their very mind. But maybe, somehow, he’d get lucky and this one would remember something. It had happened before, some folk were able to recover from anything the ministry could do to them, if slowly, incompletely. Usually this was dealt with regular re-conditioning, or outright execution, if they were judged not worth the trouble, but gadgeteers were always worth the trouble, in his experience.

The girl shook her head, never raising her gaze for even a moment, and his heart broke a little more.

She looks so worn out, he thought, as he reached up with a calloused hand, taking off the glove he wore on it to gently brush a few strands of thin, barely cared-for hair behind her ear. There were dark bags under her eyes, her cheeks were nearly corpse-like in paleness and her lips barely rated that description, having the same colour as the skin aroudn them. She hasn’t been treated kindly, even for one of the ‘Joyous Folk’.

“I try to take care of her, when I can,” Pytor said, looking away in shame. “But there’s only so much I’ve been able to do. If she’s not in her workshop, she’s usually…” He screwed his eyes shut. “Well, there’s… there’s not many women around this place, and it’s not like she could say no, even if she wanted to…”

“I understand,” Kopatel said, throwing a murderous glare at the entrapped general, who stared back in fear. “I’m glad at least one person was looking out for her.” He took a deep breath to calm himself, when he felt a tug on his arm.

He looked down at Milena who, for once, looked completely serious. “Give name,” she spoke softly, her accent so familiar by now it didn’t even strike him as odd anymore. “Give her name. Teacher and Baba Yaga can help, but she needs name.”

Kopatel noticed Pytor’s head turning, focusing on Baba Yaga when she spoke of helping her, looking as shocked as Kopatel would have, back when he first got to know the scary, strange young woman that currently clung to his arm, but he’d long since figured out that ‘the Devil’s Bride’ was far more complex a person than her reputation made her out to be.

“Perhaps it should be Pytor who gives her a name, he’s the one who’s been taking care of her so far, after all,” he replied gently.

“No. You give. You gave Baba Yaga, two of them! Give her, too! Give name!” she said, insistently, squeezing his arm much harder than her frame would suggest she could do. Not that that meant anything anymore, these days. “Teacher can teach and heal, Baba Yaga can protect, but you give name.” She looked at him, her red eyes reflecting the light in odd ways, almost like a cat’s. It was a hypnotic look, completely apart from her powers, even when she wasn’t so intent on something.

Of course, by this point, he had plenty of experience resisting her wiles and managing her moods. “Alright, I’ll name her,” he gave in, not that he really had any problem with it. Looking at Pytor, he got a nod, and so turned to the broken girl.

He looked her up and down, noting the stains of grease and other fluids on her arms, some on her bare feet – he frowned at that, that was just petty cruelty, not to give her shoes in a place like this – and in her hair, on her smock.

She kind of reminds me of Ludmilla, he thought, remembering the way his big sister used to look after a day of working on their father’s car, or the tractor. She’d always been handy with mechanical things – if he’d known then what he knew now, he’d have expected her to become a gadgeteer, not get the powers that’d made her the Sovjet Union’s beloved Red Star. Better that she didn’t, he thought, realising that she’d probably have been taken to the Ministry of Harmony, if she’d had such a power.

Like this one was, he continued to think, feeling the weight of it all on his shoulders, as so often lately. But at least I can still save you, little one. Or try to, at least, but Svetlana can probably help, and Milena will certainly try… though honestly, she might just as well make things worse… no, it can’t really get worse, can it? Another sigh. So much to consider, and he really had so much else to do besides, but he couldn’t just ignore this.

At least he knew what name to give to her. “I need some water,” he said, turning his head aside, only to see a sphere of water floating there, wobbling softly. Of course, she already has some, he thought as he scooped up a handful of water – it felt more like jelly, staying in his palm rather than flowing out – and stepped forward, his arm sliding out of Milena’s embrace.

“Ludmilla,” he said, just saying the name causing a pang in his heart – but he was used to that, anyway – and tilted his hand over her head, letting the water run over her hair and face, loosing its jelly-like consistency as it left his hand. “Your name shall be Ludmilla, from now on, until you find the one you had before, if you can, or choose another.” Finally, he dipped his fingers in the sphere of water, which had turned into scented oil, and drew a simple cross on her forehead with it, using his thumb. Far from sufficient, but he found that religion could be quite soothing, and the rites existed for good reasons, after all.

Briefly, the newly christened Ludmilla’s eyes flickered upwards, before she looked down at the ground again, showing no other reaction at all.

Still, it was some reaction. Kopatel smiled, nodding at Pytor. “We’ll take good care of her. We have some people, who do nothing but try to help those who fell victim to the Ministry of Harmony,” he told the taller man.

“Will I be able to visit?” Pytor asked, almost shyly. “I’ve, uh, grown rather fond of her, and I would like to make sure she’s, she’s doing well,” he tried to explain.

“Of course you will,” Kopatel said, almost feeling himself grin. “I’m sure it’ll help her, to have someone familiar, too.”

Then he sighed, and turned serious again. There were still so many things to take care of. “Baba Yaga,” he spoke. “Please take Ludmilla to Svetlana, explain the situation to her.”

Milena grinned, her teeth shiny, and gave him a playful salute, before she created two duplicates again – likely with the same two powers she’d used to bring him here. He winced, slightly, as they picked her up, one under each shoulder, and disappeared in a streak of neon light.

The original Milena of course remained there, and wrapped herself around his arm again, purring happily like the cat he sometimes thought she might have been before her awakening.

He turned to Pytor again. “Alright. Let’s get to business,” he began, wishing for a moment that Milena wasn’t clinging to him like that – he couldn’t clasp his hands behind his back like this, or cross them, and so that left his right arm with nothing to do, really. “This is the man formerly in charge of Radost?” He nodded towards the trapped general.

Pytor stepped up to stand next to him – making sure that Kopatel was inbetween him and Milena, he noticed – and looked at the trapped man with distaste. “Vlasiy Lagunov, yes. He’s been in charge for a few years now. Dunno how he got promoted – he’s not smart enough to be put on a front, but loyal enough to be trusted with this place,” he explained, making Vlasiy glare at him in anger.

“Sounds familiar,” Kopatel sighed. “The Ministry of Protection cares more for loyalty than actual skill, as usual.”

“Make things easier… for us, right?” Milena asked with a smile, looking up at him.

He looked back, smiling at her and giving her a pat on the head, causing her to beam like a little girl who’d just been given a new doll.

It was sad, and scary, how needy for affection she was… nevermind that she’d latched onto him for it.

Think about that later, old man, he thought to himself, focusing on the outraged-looking general again. “Is there any particular reason why he’s gagged and restrained like that?”

Pytor shrugged. “He has a gun in his right hand, and the detonator for the fail-safe in the other, so I restrained him from using them. And I gagged him so he wouldn’t be able to speak… Ludmilla’s kill phrase,” he explained coldly, never averting his glare from the general.

“Hm. No need to worry about the fail-safe, we disabled that before the attack even began,” Kopatel explained, savouring the shocked expression on the general’s face as he did so. “Ludmilla is out of his reach, now, and Baba Yaga could do over a hundred horrible things to him before he’d ever manage to pull the trigger, so he’s going to behave, right?” He added his glare to Pytor’s own.

The general began to sweat and went pale, his gaze flickering over to the albino girl on Kopatel’s arm, before he nodded frantically.

Pytor twitched his hand and his restraints literally melted away, merging with the floor below them, as the general fell on his ass.

“W-what are you, you going to, to do with me?” he asked, his voice trembling, looking up at the three folk in fear. Particularly at Milena, at that.

“I’m not going to feed you to Baba Yaga, if that’s what you fear,” Kopatel said with no sympathy or mercy. “She doesn’t eat people anymore.”

“Much. Baba Yaga doesn’t eat them much anymore,” she corrected him, wagging a slender finger at his face. “Baba Yaga still needs a little bit to get their powers… but this one doesn’t have powers, anyway, so Baba Yaga wouldn’t eat him anyways.” Before the general could relax, she turned to look at him, smiling a beatific smile. “Besides, Baba Yaga can do way worse than just eat someone.” The man went even more pale, and Kopatel was pretty sure he was just seconds away from wetting himself.

“That won’t be necessary, I think,” he told her, and the general. “I’m sure he’ll be cooperative, so we can just put him into prison – a real prison, not a torture house like this.”

Milena shrugged. “Ok. Now Baba Yaga wants to know!” she pointed at a nearby door. “Who there? He’s strong, strong power!”

It didn’t escape his notice that both the general and Pytor went a little pale when she pointed at said door, which told him all he needed to know. There was a reason this place was called Koschei’s Chest, after all.

“Koschei’s in there, isn’t he?” he asked, a sinking  feeling in his gut. Of course they didn’t kill him. Just said they did. Of bloody course.

Pytor nodded. “Yes, he is. The original inmate,” he spoke with a hushed voice. “The Endbringer himself.” He shuddered. “They tried to kill him, but never figured out how, so they put him in there.”

“Never did?” Kopatel looked at him, surprised. “Did anyone try nullifying his power, perhaps?”

“We’re not idiots,” Vlasiy threw in, suddenly, finding his voice again and even managing some indignation. “We have four joyous folk with power nullification in there, nearly half of all in the Union, hooked up to life support, using their power on him twenty-four-seven, but…” He fell silent again, losing his nerve as Milena focused on him.

Kopatel looked at Pytor to continue the general’s sentence, and he wasn’t disappointed.

“They can’t turn it off,” he explained, looking at the door. “Power nullification, it prevents him from using his power, but it can’t turn it off it seems. He might be powerless to harm anyone, or break out, but he’s as immortal as ever.” He frowned, looking disgusted and regretful at once. “I wish we could, we could get them out of there, they… they deserve better than spending their lifes in there watching over a monster, but if Koschei were to break out…”

Kopatel shook his head. “I know how you feel, Pytor, I feel the same way. But we really can’t risk him breaking out. That door will have to remain sealed, I’m afraid, and we’ll keep maintaining Koschei’s Chest, for this.”

Both the general, Pytor and even Kopatel himself relaxed a bit, after that declaration. He’d seen the carnage, after all, back then when Koschei had rampaged through the Union. Over three million people dead, most in horrible, painful ways, in less than a month. And it had only taken him so long to do because he’d lingered, played with his victims and the towns – later cities – he took, rather than immediately move on to the next one.

Since the Tyrant had died, until the Blazing Calamity appeared, no one had even gotten close to rival Koschei’s murderous reign of terror. It was a miracle really, that the Union had managed to keep his existence a secret from the world at large, or at least, a secret from the population at large. The Ministry of Discourse was efficient, if nothing else.

“Problem is easy!” Milena spoke up, interrupting his morbid thoughts. “Baba Yaga take his power, then kill him e-“

“NO!!!” all three men shouted in horror at the mere thought, making her give a shocked start.

Kopatel took a deep breath. Damn it, I can’t afford to lash out like that around her, he thought, pinching the bridge of his nose. Then he looked her again, noting how she was looking at him almost in fear.

“I’m sorry, but no,” he said, speaking gently as he reached out with his free hand to cup her cheek. “We absolutely can’t risk him breaking out, under any circumstances – or worse, if you ate even a piece of him, he might be able to hurt you, maybe even kill you. I won’t allow that.” There was also the unspoken truth that, as much as he’d found himself caring for her, he didn’t trust her yet to have such a vast power – and he may never do. Koschei’s power should never have existed to begin with.

She relaxed, smiling up at him, making him almost feel guilty for distrusting her so. “If you say so, Baba Yaga doesn’t mind.” She hugged his arm again, clinging tightly, rubbing her cheek against his shoulder.

He sighed, disaster averted, and turned towards Pytor again. “Who else is locked up in here?” he asked.

“Just one more,” Pytor said, pointing towards the door opposite of Koschei’s. “An American, that they caught back during the Afghanistan War. They tried to re-educate him, but it failed, and he kept breaking out again and again, killing the folk and army troops they sent after him, so they finally just gave up and locked him in there, since they still wanted to study him.”

“He  strong,” Milena supplied. “Strong power, very strong. Not as strong as Baba Yaga or Koschei, but strong. Stronger than both of you, and him,” she pointed at the unconscious folk lying tied up nearby, “all together.”

“I see. Sounds like it’s past time to release him,” Kopatel spoke firmly, even though he knew it might not be the smartest thing to do – if the man was even still sane, he may still lash out against them, once freed, and though he didn’t doubt that Milena would be able to defeat him, but she might not be able to protect them all. And even so, it’d be a rotten thing to release the man, only to have to kill him. “Baba Yaga, please stand ready to subdue do him – non-lethally  if need be.”

She nodded as she waved a hand, causing the solid piece of tungten that was the door to melt down into the ground, revealing… darkness beyond, as the stark white fluorescent lighting didn’t reach far into the room beyond, illuminating only a small half-circle at the front.

Milena’s grip on his arm tightened, hard. “Baba Yaga will get him out!” she half shouted, charging into the cell, startling him and the other two men.

Kopatel gulped – he couldn’t see what she had, but if it freaked her out, it had to be horrible – and followed her, with Pytor hot on his heels.

Light filled the cell, as they entered it, from a miniature sun that Milena created, floating up above.

He stopped, gasping at the sight of how they’d restrained the American folk.

He was lying on his back, arms and legs spread wide, wearing only a ragged, torn pair of jeans. Beyond that, Kopatel couldn’t see much of him, because of all the stakes.

Huge stakes, each as thick as Milena’s forearm, a dozen of them, stabbing through his joints, his limbs, his chest and his stomach, transfixing him to the ground. Each extending up to the ceiling, fusing into it, and fused to the floor below him, the whole thing a part of the very cell. The stakes that ran through his limbs further split into forks just above where they pierced his flesh, so he wouldn’t be able to slide upwards and putting further weight onto him.

And yet, he was still alive, his power evident in its use, forming shadow patches of fur that covered him in places, mostly concentrated around the wounds the stakes had caused. For a moment, Kopatel thought that the man’s head was also covered by his power, until he realised that he had wildly grown hair and a matching full beard, both even darker than the fur his power created.

Milena stood in front of the grisly scene, looking down at her feet… where, Kopatel could see, there was a drain to which several groves led, draining the blood that kept flowing freely out of the man’s emaciated body.

He joined her, putting a hand on her shoulder, though he wasn’t sure whether it was for her sake, or his – he hadn’t ever seen someone be imprisoned like this.

“Why?” he asked, no one in particular.

“He broke out of almost a hundred different holding facilities,” Pytor replied, his voice hushed. “Kept breaking out other prisoners, too. This is the only way anyone could find to lock him up with, that didn’t require dedicated power nullifiers – and those are all in the other cell, keeping Koschei.”

Before Kopatel could reply, there was a strange, rough sound, making them all give a start. Looking around, he saw no source, until it sounded again – coming from the prisoner himself.

“Wa… ter…” he spoke, his voice rough and weak, speaking Russian without any accent Kopatel could make out.

He didn’t hesitate, circling the man and kneeling down next to his head, pulling his own water flask from his belt to gently, carefully, drip some of its contents into his mouth.

The man drank it up, slowly, with surprising restraint. “Thank… you,” he said, his voice stronger now. “Mind… helping me… out? Haven’t… had a chance… to stretch my legs… in years.” He grinned, dark purple eyes twinkling with humour.

Kopatel didn’t know how to respond to that, and instead focused on just one detail. “Years?”

“He’s been like this for four years now,” Pytor spoke, his own voice awed – and more than a little ashamed. “No one wanted to risk him breaking out, so they just… kept him here. Didn’t even try to study him, even though that was the whole reason he was locked up in here.”

“We have to get him out,” Kopatel said. “Now.” He glared at the general, making the man shrink back, even though it wasn’t even really his fault.

Pytor nodded. “We’ll need to support the ceiling somehow – it’s basically one thick slab, disconnected from the rest of the cell. If we break the stakes, it’ll drop down, impale him again or crush him. And us, with him.”

“That no problem,” Milena spoke coldly, as she spread her arms wide. Shafts of light, looking a lot like the force-fields she’d used to defend against assaults earlier, appeared out of nowhere, forming pillars that lead from floor to ceiling, humming with power.

Nodding to her, Kopatel stood up and drew his heaviest shovel, a rough, practical one, that could be a lethal weapon even without his power’s help. Pytor stepped closer as well, raising both hands, ready for chopping motions.

“You can’t do this!” Vlasiy threw in, his voice high-pitched. “He’s American, he’ll try to kill us as soon as he’s free to move!”

No one paid him any attention as Kopatel and Pytor went to work, chopping through the stakes that held the man transfixed to the ground. At first, there was a groaning sound from above, as the ceiling shifted slightly, but Milena’s force-field pillars proved capable of holding it up, and so they soon cut through the last stake.

With a pained groan, the prisoner shifted on the ground, relaxing almost imperceptibly, as the stakes began to slide out of his body, slowly, his power trying to eject them. Kopatel lent a hand, as did Pytor, pulling them out – which wouldn’t be a smart thing to do, normally, but the man was clearly hardier than any normal person, than most folk, even, and would likely not die to this, after all this time.

Once the last stake had been removed, the man gave a sigh, closing his eyes in relief. “Ahhhhh…” His wounds were healing, visibly, his power gathering around them more intensily now.

“Come, friend,” Kopatel said, grabbing one of the man’s arms and pulling it over his shoulder. “Let’s get you out of this hell-hole and up under the sky.”

“Sky,” the man whispered, groaning in pain but not putting up any resistance as Kopatel hauled him onto his feet. He was lighter than Milena. “Sky sounds good.” He leaned against Kopatel, his bushy hair scratching his cheek, but he didn’t mind, as he helped him walk out of his cell, both of them utterly ignoring the general.

Milena joined them, giving the prisoner odd looks, though she stayed quiet. Pytor followed behind, as more of Kopatel’s compatriots came in, men and women in military uniforms, most of them unpowered, but led by two winter soldiers.

He briefly gave them orders to sort out the corpses for burial, and take the captured folk up for questioning. He also told them to lock the general up, who didn’t put up any resistance – just watching with wide, unbelieving eyes, like he still couldn’t quite grasp what had happened.

You’ll get what’s coming to you, just like everyone else, Kopatel thought quietly, taking the elevator up this time – Milena was always eager to ferry him around at the speed of sound, but it didn’t do his stomach any good, nor did the prisoner seem to be in any state to take that kind of stress.

Their small group moved through Radost, ever upwards, and then through the military base above. Men and women, both folk and not, saluted them, but gave a wide berth, though whether that was out of respect for him, as their leader, or fear of Milena, he didn’t know – and frankly, he didn’t want to know the answer. Neither was something he’d be all too happy about.

The base itself was in rather bad shape – he and his troops had fought here, not Milena, who’d directly invaded Radost itself to prevent the use of the fail-safe, and that any harm be done to the prisoners.

It did not escape anyone’s notice that the Baba Yaga had had an easier time taking down Radost’s greater defenses than the entire rest of their force had had taking down just the military base – and even there, she’d helped indirectly, as most of the enemy folk had been in Radost itself, standing guard, rather than up above.

Kopatel put that thought aside as they reached the main exit of the base. Outside, the sun shone, a rare day without snow or clouds above even so far up North. There were others, prisoners, test subjects, who’d gathered there, looking up at the sun for the first time in years, in many cases. Men, women, old and young, even, to his disgust, some children, who were looking up at the sky as if seeing it for the first time.

He really, really, really hoped it wasn’t the first time, that they hadn’t been kept in there for so long as to not remember the sky, or worse, been born in that hellhole, but he knew those hopes to be in vain.

Still, he felt at least a little pride as he saw his people taking care of the prisoners, giving them clothes, food and comfort. The Frozen Family was ahead of everyone else there, in spite of their monstrous appearances, they were the most gentle, dedicated to helping the victims of the Union recover, especially the children. Even Matryoshka, whom had been called one of Russia’s worst serial killers, was there, handing food out to the children of Radost, along with blankets, being perfectly gentle. The fact that the clones she was using had been made out of a local soldier, well, Kopatel couldn’t even feel disgust over her power right now, not in this situation.

“Still as pretty… as ever,” the prisoner he’d been helping up whispered, drawing Kopatel’s attention back to him. He was looking up at the sky, his purple eyes brighter now, standing out starkly against his dark hair and beard, and the pale skin visible. Then he said something in English, too quickly for Kopatel to understand it.

“What’s your name, my friend?” he asked, feeling quite curious about this strange, hardy man, a man who still seemed sane after such monstrous treatment – nevermind his achievements.

The man opened his mouth to respond, then closed it again, briefly averting his eyes. Kopatel started to worry that he might have been deprived of his name, in spite of his other resistance, but then he looked at him again.

“Kevin. Kevin Paterson,” he said, his voice low, but perfectly understandable.

“I’m Kopatel, in case you didn’t know,” he replied with a smile. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you home soon.”

The man chuckled dryly. “Home, yeah,” he said, turning his head away and looking into the distance. “Don’t have much of one… but I’d still like to go back to it.”

***

Soon enough, Radost had been emptied of both its staff and its victims – save for Koschei, of course – though people would remain, trying to sort out everything that had gone on, as well as to pack up the corpses. Not of the soldiers and scientists – those who’d been killed, rather than be taken prisoner – as those would simply be burned, but of those victims who’d already died, or else taken their own life as soon as they had the chance, rather than risk being captured again.

That last one, that haunted Kopatel more than almost anything else he’d seen there, apart from the children – at least Milena had harvested their powers from their corpses with minimal damage, was still harvesting, in fact, so they’d be able to help bring down those who consigned them to this fate.

Kevin had left, together with most of the others, and the surviving staff of the base and Radost was gone, as well. Kopatel stood at the entrance to what had once been the mess hall, in which they’d laid out the corpses of all the fallen folk, watching with heavy eyes as Milena went from corpse to corpse, taking their powers for herself while their bodies were still fresh enough for that to happen.

Pytor had joined him, at some point, along with several other members of his Novaya Armiya – Matryoshka from the Frozen Family, a woman whose body seemed to be made of ribbons of black and white, wrapped rightly around the body of an enemy, even now feeding on him; Sergeant Sergei of the Winter Soldiers in their troops’ customary outfit, a heavy white suit, so thick one couldn’t even tell she was a woman, her every feature hidden entirely (even now, she eyed Milena with both fear and annoyance, her whole group unable to completely bury their enmity for the young woman who’d defied them for so long) and Padeniye of the Overlords, a tall, slender man with bright pink hair, wearing a heavy winter jacket and tinted goggles, as well as broad, ever-present grin.

Together they watched as Milena went from body to body, using a thick syringe to draw blood, before wrapping her lips around it every time to drink. Every time she did so, she froze for a few moments, her eyes rolling up, eyelids fluttering as if in pleasure – though, she’d explained to Svetlana, and Svetlana to him, that pleasure was not what she felt at all – rather, every time she took in a new power, she briefly had to integrate it, which caused her all but lose all awareness of her surroundings as her brain locked up, then basically restarted, almost like a computer.

“I thought she had to eat folk to get their powers,” Pytor whispered, as if afraid of drawing her attention.

“We thought so, too,” Kopatel replied, not bothering to whisper. It wasn’t like Milena didn’t have over a dozen powers that enhanced her senses in some way, anyway. “Until it turned out that she only needs sufficient genetic material for her power to home in on the target. About a quarter of a litre of blood is sufficient for that, and the process isn’t even lethal, though, far from pleasant for the folk she uses it on.”

“I, I see,” Pytor spoke, looking pensively at Milena’s progress. “And she can take them from corpses, too. I never knew that.”

“They have to be relatively fresh, but yes, she can.” It’s monstrous, in some ways, but at least it means when we lose our people, their powers aren’t lost to the cause, he couldn’t help but think. The question of whether to allow Milena to take powers from fallen compatriots had kept him up for several nights, but in the end, there hadn’t really been a choice – the Union still had a vast advantage in terms of sheer numbers of powers, they needed every edge they could get, and all distrust towards Milena to the contrary, she’d more than kept her word of cooperation so far.

“Did she ever actually eat people?” Pytor asked, suddenly, drawing him back from his contemplation. “All the atrocities she is said to have committed, did they really happen? Or was that all just propaganda?”

Kopatel shook his head, looking uncomfortable. “I’m afraid it wasn’t, she really did use to eat people, and all the other things, she did most of those, as well,” he explained. “She didn’t know not to,” he felt the need to defend her, drawing a confused look from Pytor, while the others in their group stayed quiet, already aware of the story. “It turns out that, whatever happened during her awakening, it wiped out her mind. All her memories, her skills, gone – a newborn, really, in the body of a woman, with the power of a goddess. She just, she had nothing, but the instinct to gather powers, and so attacked any folk she found, mindlessly, for years. The fact that she kept being attacked by the Union’s troops…” Sergei flinched, growling quietly, “It only made things worse, as she responded in the same way. Wasn’t until she ate a power that allowed her to absorb skills from people, that she started to think again and… well, then she joined us and now she’s our big trump card.”

“Yeah, we’d have been toast if it wasn’t for our adorable little monster,” Padeniye spoke up, his voice mocking, yet oddly affectionate. “Turns out the Union even had plans in case the entire council was wiped out. If we hadn’t had Baba Yaga here, they’d have crushed us soon after we revealed ourselves.”

Kopatel nodded, not bothering to reprimand the villain for referring to her as a monster – in his case, it was a term of endearment, rather than an insult, and he was, in many ways, the one member of their group’s inner circle who was the most friendly with Milena, other than perhaps Matryoshka.

Pytor kept watching Milena, meanwhile, rubbing his chin in a contemplative manner. “You named her, right?” he asked. “I was wondering why she doesn’t go by Devil’s Bride anymore, but then again, I suppose she might never have known about that name in the first place?”

“Yeah, I figured, Baba Yaga was appropriate, considering how powerful she is,” he replied with a slight smile. “I also gave her a proper name – Milena – but she prefers to go by Baba Yaga.”

“She’s… not at all like what I expected,” Pytor admitted after a few moments.

Kopatel couldn’t help but snort. “You haven’t seen nothing yet.”

***

Saratov, a few hours before the Crocell Incident

Kopatel entered what had once been the Great Father Stalin Technical University of Saratov, now the unofficial headquarters of the Novaya Armiya, followed closely by Milena. The entrance hall, once a grand monument to Stalin, had largely been stripped bare, both to get rid of all the propaganda materials and for raw materials. People were hustling and bustling about, largely ignoring him and his companion, even when she sped up, rushing past him towards the stairs leading up, her bare feet slapping the cold, hard stone floor – getting her to wear anything at all had been one hell of a herculean task, as Svetlana would call it, but even her beloved teacher couldn’t get her to put on any shoes.

At least she wears underwear now, Kopatel thought, shuddering at the memory of the nude girl. There was no way he’d ever be comfortable remembering the state she’d been in when she’d first joined his cause, feral, barely human in many ways. She’d latched onto him, like a starving person latched onto someone with food, only what she’d wanted had been something much more simple, and so much rarer – affection. Understanding. Someone who’d treat her like a human being, even if she hadn’t know what that meant back then.

He followed her up the stairs, though at a more sedate pace, looking left and right. The University’s primary use was for taking care of former prisoners and victims of the Union’s love for ‘re-education’, especially those poor people who’d been turned into ‘Joyous Folk’.

Here, in this place, they did something which Kopatel could be unambigiously proud of, even if it was met with a lot of derision among his less scrupulous allies, who  thought it was foolish to divert so many resources to rehabilitating these people, rather than waiting until after the war was won – and it was a war that they were waging, even if, at first, they’d thought it would be over quickly – or worse yet, use them against the Union.

Fortunately, he hadn’t been alone in crushing any ideas about actually using the Joyous Folk’s brainwashing to their advantage, to make them fight for the revolution – the few people who’d advocated it had either quickly changed their opinion or else been demoted heavily, if not expelled outright.

Now, he walked these hallways, looking into rooms where people of all ages were being treated, with kindness and patience. The program they used to de-program them had been invented by Svetlana – another of many things they owed her a great deal for – and seemed to be working, even if it necessitated that she spend most of her time here, to adjust it to the individual needs of every new arrival, meaning she couldn’t travel with him to help take care of Milena.

Still, it was more than worth it, if only to see such sights as Ludmilla, sitting at a table and quietly tinkering with what would likely be a gun at some point, a soft smile on her lips, while Pytor leaned against the wall and watched her with unconcealed affection in his eyes. She was far from being whole, would likely never recover the person she’d been before… but thanks to their efforts, thanks to Svetlana’s brilliance and Pytor’s love and, in no small part, his own efforts, she’d at least be able to find some happiness.

Another reason why they had to win, no matter the cost, so as to safeguard these people. A thought that wasn’t just his own, as it had driven Pytor into near fanatical dedication to the cause, causing him to rise in the ranks until he was now, effectively, Kopatel’s right-hand man.

How fast everything moves, Kopatel thought, moving on to catch up to Milena, who was entering the door at the very end of the hallway. Sometimes, I feel like I should be too old to keep up.

“Teacher!” he heard Milena’s shout from inside, followed by a grunt and a laugh. When he entered, he saw Milena hanging onto the woman who’d been working inside, apparently doing some paperwork.

In many ways, recruiting Svetlana Mikhailov – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that she’d recruited herself for their cause – had saved the revolution. The slender, attractive woman in her late thirties, with the long brown hair in a severe knot and the slim glasses on her small nose was a genius, plain and simple. She was the one who’d helped Milena make the step from a feral almost-monster to the bright, if still volatile, young woman she was now. She’d devised the means by which they helped victims of the Union’s many re-education methods to break free and recover from their brainwashing, and she’d also been responsible for actually forcing him and the other members of the inner circle to actually sit down and write out a charter for their group. Such a simple idea, and yet they’d never even considered how much it’d help to have a clear idea of what they actually intended to do, and how to do it, it’d helped keep the group together even after the Union turned out to not be nearly as broken as they’d thought it was.

Being a folk herself, if not a particularly powerful one – her power merely allowed her to harden her own body, becoming nearly invulnerable, without the super-strength that often came along with such powers – she’d had no problem working with all of them on various tasks, though she focused primarily on keeping the revolution sane and civilised.

Her biggest project, though, beyond all of that, beyond even her work rehabilitating the Joyous Folk, was Milena. She’d taken the child-like woman under her wing, teaching her everything from proper speech (still a work in progress) to not horribly murdering anyone who annoyed her even slightly (also a work in progress).

Milena had taken to her almost as much as she had to Kopatel himself, making Svetlana one of maybe three people in the world who could manage her at all.

There’d been some voices of concern, at letting a woman who’d come out of nowhere have so much influence over their most powerful asset, but they’d been dissuaded both by the fact that they needed someone who could handle Milena, even an unknown like Svetlana, and the woman’s own skill at persuasion.

“Good afternoon, Pavel,” she greeted him with a smile, even as she affectionately rubbed Milena’s head. “I trust that your mission was successful?”

“Very much so, Svetlana,” he replied in the familiar term, at her request. “We’ve secured Volgograd, thanks to, in large part, the efforts of your student.” He nodded towards Milena, who was literally hanging off of Svetlana’s arms, held up only by their mutual grip on each other.

“Which student? I have many of them?” she asked mischievously.

“Your favourite!” Milena exclaimed, grinning.

“And who’d that be?” Svetlana pressed on, looking down at the girl with a soft smile.

“Baba Yaga! Baba Yaga!” Milena continued, pouting up at her now.

Svetlana responded by letting go of her, dropping her on the ground. “Are you now? If so, then surely you can tell me all what the binomial theorem is about, right?”

“Bah, numbers! Baba Yaga doesn’t like numbers!” the albino girl replied, looking up indignantly from her position on her knees, in front of the older woman (though they weren’t that far apart in terms of age, if one only went by biological age). “Doesn’t need them! Baba Yaga has powers for that, anyway!”

Svetlana’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Am I to understand, then, that you haven’t rehearsed your formulas?”

Milena blushed, looking away as she mumbled a confirmation.

Her teacher sighed, throwing him an annoyed look that made him cringe – technically, he’d kind of promised to make sure Milena would do her homework, while they were busy, but it’d had fallen by the wayside in all the fighting that went on. She didn’t comment further on that, though, instead walking to one of the heavily ladden bookshelves that filled her office and pulled one particular book out, laying it down onto a circular table near her desk.

“Sit,” she ordered Milena in a firm voice, pointing at a chair in front of the book.

Milena puffed her cheeks up in indignation, but obeyed, getting up and sitting down on the chair, the silver chain she’d wrapped around her left ankle – a present from Kopatel – flashing in the light, while a collection of small bells she’d attached to it – each taken from a different shop, and one even looted from an enemy’s corpse – jingled softly.

“Now read that and memorise all the formulas,” Svetlana told the girl, giving her a pen and some graph paper. “Write them down here.”

“No! Baba Yaga doesn’t need them!” the girl replied, glaring at her teacher, her red eyes flashing with anger.

Svetlana didn’t even flinch, looking back calmly, her expression hewn out of ice. “Yes, you do. And yes, you will.”

Milena kept glaring.

“Study. Now.”

The student went to work, grumbling under her breath.

How in God’s name does she keep doing that? Kopatel asked himself. He’d suspected some form of mind control, at first, but even if that kind of power would work on Milena – it didn’t, she had too many powers to counter it with – no one had detected anything like that, not even the Winter Soldier’s power analysts. I wish I could be half as commanding. It’d certainly help leading this madhouse.

“Well, Pavel, how are you doing?” she asked him, smiling again as she stepped away from the quietly working Milena, her long brown skirt swaying with every step. “You look a little tired and… hungry.” Her eyes narrowed, instantly making him feel like he was in trouble with his mother. “When’s the last time you ate?”

He gulped. How did she manage to make him feel like a schoolboy, every damn time? “Uh, I had a, I mean, yesterday…” He didn’t even try to lie, it never worked.

“I thought so. Sit down then, I’ll get you some food,” she stated simply, walking towards the door.

“That’s really not necessary, I’m used to going without food for a while,” he raised his arms, trying to get out of it. “Besides, I still need to talk to the Overlords and organise the garrison we’ll install in Volgograd, and-“

She pointed at a chair at the table that Milena was working at. “Sit.”

He sat.

She left, then soon came back with a plate full of steaming hot potatoes, a little meat and way too many vegetables, putting it down in front of him along with some cutlery.

“Eat.”

He ate.

“You really have to take better care of yourself, Pavel,” she lectured him as she watched over his meal, and Milena’s lesson, waging a slender finger at him. “You’re too important to risk your health, for any reason, especially one as silly as this, understood?”

He just nodded, quietly, so she wouldn’t also lecture him about talking with his mouth full. That had been too embarrassing the last time it happened, he’d rather not repeat that. Ever.

Milena snorted in amusement.

***

Someone shook Kopatel awake, roughly.

Blinking, he sat up, reaching for the one-handed shovel he kept on his nightstand, but stopped when he recognised Pytor.

“Wake up, Kopatel!” the man urged him. “We need your help.”

“Wh-what’s going on?” he asked, both worried and annoyed. He’d just laid down to rest, after Svetlana had forced him to eat a proper meal. Just a nap, and – he looked at his clock – it had only gone on for a few hours, anyway.

“One of the girls we brought back from Volgograd, she’s freaking out in a bad way,” Pytor replied, referring to the group of girls they’d liberated from the harem of Volgograd’s mayor – a disgusting man, who’d abused his power to take in any girl that caught his fancy, among many other horrible things – and brought here to give them some psychological treatment. “I was hoping you might be able to talk her down, she’s upsetting the others, as well, badly.”

He got up, quickly, looking around for his clothes – he was down to his underwear at the moment. Finding them discarded on the ground, he began to dress in his full uniform – it was important to keep up the image, he couldn’t just show up in mundane clothes. “What about Svetlana? She’s way better at this than me.”

“She left,” Pytor replied. “Got a phone call and said she had something private to take care of.”

Kopatel grunted as he pulled on his heavy boots. That was another thing about Svetlana, something even he couldn’t ignore lightly. She’d often disappear, sometimes after getting a mysterious phone call, sometimes out of nowhere, and come back whenever, never telling anyone where she’d gone or what she’d done – and sometimes, she’d go missing for days, even a week, one time. It didn’t help make the more distrustful parts of the Novaya Armiya like her any more, though he was willing to overlook it, seeing how much she’d helped them and continued to.

“I’ll see what I can do. Where’s Milena?” He put on his jacket, and started strapping on all his various earthworking tools, through which he usually channelled his power.

“The last time I saw her, she was at the playground building a sand castle,” Pytor told him calmly. “I don’t know whether she’s still there.”

“Alright, let’s go see what can be done about this.”

They left the bedroom, Pytor first, guiding him down several flights of stairs until they got to the ground level. Kopatel could hear the commotion already, hysterical screams, sobs and hushed whispering.

A small mob of people, both patients and therapists, as well as some guards, had gathered around the entrance to the former mess hall. Kopatel ignored them, forcing his way through.

Inside, people had mostly formed a large half-circle around a young woman who was crouched with her back to the wall, holding a large kitchen knife as she looked around, staring at everyone with wild, blood-shot eyes. She was a pretty thing, and young, barely an adult, with curly blonde hair and a heart-shaped face that was twisted by fear and despair. She was holding another girl, younger by at least half a decade, but with similar enough features that they had to be sisters, or otherwise very closely related, with one arm around her neck, holding the knife to her throat with the other. The younger girl was just crying, and not struggling at all as she stared down at the large knife.

Several other women and girls, near her age and of similar beauty, were huddled up nearby, some hugging each other, some standing apart, screaming, sobbing or just softly crying.

“Back! Back, please!” the young woman with the knife shouted, swinging it left and right, as if trying to point it at everyone at once. “Y-y-you mustn’t stop me!” she begged them, her voice high and shrill.

“What’s going on here?” Kopatel asked one of the soldiers who stood closest to the woman.

The young man looked at him, looking upset. “I, I don’t know, Sir. She just, she started freaking out, threatening to kill her own sister! I have, I have no idea what’s going on!”

Kopatel nodded, patting the man on the shoulder. “Alright, I’ll take over from here,” he said, moving past the young soldier and into the half-circle.

“Stay back!” the woman screamed at him, tightening her grip on her sister. “Don’t come closer!”

“Shsh,” he hushed her, raising his hands as he stopped approaching. “I’m not going to do anything to you, I promise,” he spoke in as soothing a voice as he could. “My name is Kopatel. What’s yours, young lady?”

She stared back at him, her lip quivering. “M-motya. My name is Motya,” she said. “Y-you’re not, not going to stop me, either. No one is. I have to do this!” she cried, pushing the knife closer to her sister’s throat, making the younger girl flinch in fear.

“Why do you have to kill her?” he asked, softly, slowly sitting down to seem less threatening, though he also palmed a tiny shovel, really just the blade of one, ready to use his power at the earliest opportunity.

“B-because it’s the only way to save her! I’ve got to, it’s the only way to make sure he won’t take her again!” she shouted, sobbing.

“You mean, the man who took you two? And them?” He nodded towards the sobbing young women – all of them near Motya’s age, though none nearly as young as her little sister.

She nodded, shuddering. “He’s still alive. He escaped your people, and he’ll come for us. I can’t, can’t let him get her again, I have to, to protect her!”

His eyes moved from her to the younger girl, growing heavy with sadness and no small amount of anger. She was a gorgeous girl, even prettier than her older sister, and there was a fiery look in her green eyes, in spite of her fearful expression.

“We’ll keep you safe,” he said, not sure what else to do. This wasn’t something he was really any good at. “I promise, we’ll keep you all safe, so you don’t, you absolutely don’t need to do this, do you understand me?”

She shook her head, gasping for air. “I, I have to make sure! I can’t protect her any other way, I have to, I have to do it!”

“Why not?” a new voice asked, from just behind Kopatel, nearly making him jump up in surprise. “Why not protect, with other way?”

The source of the voice moved up next to Kopatel – Milena, on all fours, her long braid dragging over the ground as she looked at the sisters, wearing one of her favourite outfits – her customary collection of slashed skirts and a belly-free shirt, this one white with three back circles evoking the outline of a mouse’s cartoonish head on her chest.

“I, I can’t!” the young woman wailed. “He’s so strong… and they have so many of the folk… I’m powerless, I was powerless before and he’ll just, just take us all again! But not her! Even if I have to kill her myself!”

Kopatel frowned, not sure how to respond to that – though he probably didn’t need to. Milena had more than enough powers that’d allow her to disarm the woman, without risking any harm to either of the poor women. Provided she actually wanted to save the younger girl, that is.

“Then you must be stronger,” Milena said simply, without any hint of gentleness in her voice, crawling forward. “Be stronger and protect, like Baba Yaga.”

“I’m not, nothing like you,” the woman replied, her eyes transfixed by Milena’s gaze. “I’m weak, I’m not even folk, certainly not, not as strong as, as you.” Her grip on the knife tightened, holding it so hard her knuckles turned white.

“Not as strong as Baba Yaga,” Milena said, stopping to pick up a chipped mug from the floor, shaking it out without averting her eyes from Motya’s own. “Don’t need to be as strong as Baba Yaga, only need to be strong, and protect!” She moved closer by a few steps, holding the mug in one hand.

“H-how?” Motya asked, trembling from head to toe, her eyes filled with fear as the infamous folk moved closer to her.

“Baba Yaga will make you strong,” she replied, putting the mug down between them.

Then she used the nails of her left hand to slive her right forearm open, making several people cry out and Kopatel jump to his feet, as her blood spurted into the mug for a moment, before the wound closed, drawing in the blood around it, but leaving what she’d put into the mug – aimed expertly, not a drop wasted.

Everyone stared in confusion as she gestured towards the side, without looking, and a bottle of water flew over into her waiting hand, with which she filled the mug, mixing it into her own blood.

The resulting fluid was glowing ever so softly, in the same colour as her eyes.

She pushed the mug, causing it to slide over to Motya, until it stopped right by her side, within easy reach.

“Drink,” Milena commanded the older-looking woman. “Do as Baba Yaga tells you to. Drink.”

The knife fell from Motya’s trembling hand, clattering onto her sister’s lap, as her hand went for the mug, as if against her will, picking up the mug.

“Motya, don’t!” her sister shouted, even as she scrambled away from her, but it was too late – she lifted the mug to her lips and drank the watered-down, glowing blood, with eveyone in the hall staring, fascinated by the whole scene.

She put it all down in one go and, as the last drop slid past her lips, her hand went slack, letting go of the mug to have it tumble down onto the hard-wood floor, shattering completely – but no one heard it, as Motya bent over screaming, screaming so loudly it actually hurt Kopatel’s ears, making him take a step back.

Milena remained in place, unperturbed as she watched the girl bend over so far her forehead pressed onto the wooden floor, hugging her own stomach as she screamed in pain.

Kopatel thought he saw her shudder, then, just a bit – though he could only see her from behind, so he wasn’t quite sure; shudder much like how she did when she took a new power, as if in pleasure.

Motya screamed again, and then her clothes  turned green, and solid, and then erupted into jagged growths of crystal, spearing outward in every direction, into the ground, the ceiling, through the wall behind her, towards the rapidly retreating crowd, towards her own sister, thrusting at Milena as well, though they were repelled by an invisible force-field around her.

Kopatel thrust his shovel into the ground, channeling his power into it through it, and raised a half-circular wall between her and himself, and the crowd, and her sister, encircling her and Milena.

It almost wasn’t enough, as shards of green crystal punched through the rock, concrete and earth he’d drawn up from below, but fortunately, they didn’t extend much further than a metre or so past his wall, failing to cause harm to anyone.

That, that’s Vismut’s power! he thought, shocked, remembering the powerful former Foreman, a comrade of his when he’d still fought for the Union, but had died… died to Milena, when she’d still been the Devil’s Bride…

When the crystals failed to continue to grow, he lowered the wall again, to see what was going on. It crumbled apart, as the sound of breaking crystals filled the otherwise completely silent mess hall, the jagged growths of crystal falling apart into thousands of tiny shards, leaving behind the utterly destroyed wall and floor around Motya, stripped bare of the material she’d inadvertantly converted into those crystals.

The young woman was on all fours, staring down at her hands, naked as the day she was born, while Milena was facing her, in a similar position, on all fours atop the only patch of ground within the circle which hadn’t been transmuted into crystal.

She grinned as she watched Motya raise her hands from the ground, leaving behind crystalline handprints. More crystals were growing out of the earth, where her legs were touching it, slowly spreading over her body. Her face was stunned, utterly stunned.

“Now you strong,” the Baba Yaga said with no small amount of smugness. “Now you protect properly, like Baba Yaga said.”

She looked over her shoulder at Kopatel, grinning proudly at him.

All he felt was a cold chill run down his spine, a single thought dominating his thoughts.

By God, how many wars am I going to have to fight, to keep her safe from the world?

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B010.a The Other Side of the Coin

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A little later, Irene sat alone on the couch, dozing as her body digested the pancakes. It was not something she was used to, but she’d been trying to teach her power to let her, well, eat. Take nourishment from the food, instead of having it provided by her power. Her parents theorised that that ought to make it easier for her to control it, by relying less on it (though she drew the line at actually having to go to the bathroom. That was just gross, no way was she going through it).

She’d even tried to actually sleep for any meaningful amount of time, but it seemed that was something she’d have to work on for a while longer – it just wasn’t possible for her to sleep for more than an hour a week (and even that was a major improvement over her complete lack of sleep until last year). And if you took into account that it had taken her until her ninth year to be able to walk. And she wasn’t even going to think about how difficult it was to talk to people with words instead of telepathy (Melody thought it was a nifty feature of her power, but it was actually just her relaxing her control, returning to what she was used to).

Her eyelids began to droop, just a bit. That was a strange sensation, but not an unpleasant one. She’d just recently discovered it – before, going to sleep had just been like flipping a switch. But this… this was quite… pleasant…

When her eyes fell closed, the first thing she saw was Melody, the way she’d looked at her at the ice cream parlor just before they’d realised her power was messing with them; and Irene still felt wretched about it, but now it made sense, if she was truly in love with her then maybe-

What is love

Oh baby, don’t hurt me

Don’t hurt-

The sound of her cellphone woke her up again and her hand moved to pick it up – but it was only a text message. Mel- Oh!

LadyMom1900: Why am I concerned?

“What does she mean this time?” Irene asked no one in particular. She’d never gotten used to her mother’s eerie ability to just know when something – anything – was off. Even if it was just a finely honed intuition.

Gloomy2000: I don’t know?

The reply came near instantly.

LadyMom1900: Your father gave you advice again, didn’t he? What was it this time? Please tell me it wasn’t relationship advice.

Gloomy2000: How do you even know that!?

LadyMom1900: Mommy-Radar. Now, tell me what he said.

Irene’s thumbs paused over the screen as she actually stopped to process that line. It had to be a joke, but…

Gloomy2000: Do you actually have a superpower just for keeping tabs on me, or was that just a joke and you just had a bad gut feeling?

LadyMom1900: Yes 😉

Oh God, she’d discovered smileys. The world was doomed. I shouldn’t have set her up with this account.

Gloomy2000: That is not an answer.

LadyMom1900: Oh, but it is 😀 Just not a satisfying one 😛

The couch beneath Irene burst into flames. “Goddammit!” she shouted, floating off as it turned to ice.

It took three pills and half a minute of concentration to fix it again, and relax before she finally wrote an answer (fortunately, her mother didn’t press the issue – she probably knew she’d get her answers anyway).

Gloomy2000: I was talking to him about Melody, and how I feel around her, and he said that I’m probably in love with her.

LadyMom1900: What a *~#&!$§ blockhead!

Irene actually rocked back from the phone. Wow. She’s actually swearing.

LadyMom1900: Wait, is this doo-dad actually censoring my writing? What is even the purpose of censoring it, everyone with half a brain cell knows what it says anyway!

Gloomy2000: Moral guardians.

LadyMom1900: @$$h0l3$. There, like that could stop me. But let’s get back on topic. Baby, whatever you do, do not listen to your father when it comes to relationships, humor or interior decoration.

She didn’t really know how to respond to that.

Gloomy2000: It feels right, though.

The reply actually took a while, this time.

LadyMom1900: Baby, you really should have brought this up on Sunday, because this ought to have been said in person, not by mail. But I guess better this way than not at all (leaving you with just your Dad’s view on things). You are twelve years old, and Melody is the first person around your age who’s spent any significant amount of time with you, or paid you real attention. You trust her, she trusts you and you both enjoy spending time together and seeing the other one happy. That is love, but it’s not the

LadyMom1900: same as being in love. I’ve explained the Four Loves to you before, and I’d put my money on Philia for this one, not Eros. At most, you may have a crush on her, which is, again, different from actually being in love. And that is just fine. It doesn’t have to be true love, and you don’t need to look for more than Philia from this – just knowing that you’ve found your first real friend, after all the troubles you’ve had on your way, makes me want to sing and dance. Your father, unfortunately, has

LadyMom1900: always been prone to thinking in extremes; do remind me to tell you about the Bloody Teddy Incident in our eleventh year – and I’m afraid that his wishes for you colour his perceptions too strongly for him to offer reliable advice when it comes to such matters. In conclusion, I ask you to take a step back and really analyse this. I know that’s a counter-intuitive approach at your age and in your situation, but ‘following your heart’ without using your brain only works out well in cheap novels (

LadyMom1900: or by pure chance). I’m sure if you look closer at your interactions with and feelings for Melody, you’ll realise that it is not a romantic relationship you want or need. And don’t forget what I told you about having a boy- or girlfriend before you’re a teenager!

Now her vision got a little blurry. It always made so much sense when her mom explained things.

LadyMom1900: What ridiculousness is this?! We can shoot people to Mars on rockets and get online near-anywhere on the world, but we can’t have messages longer than five hundred letters? How come no one’s fixed that by now!?

Chuckling wetly, Irene wrote a reply.

Gloomy2000: That’s because you’re using your cellphone’s text messaging function. Use the chat program with the blue icon for longer messages.

LadyMom1900: (^_^)7

Shaking her head, Irene went back to writing a reply to… well, the important part.

Gloomy2000: I’m not sure if I can do what you ask of me. I just don’t know how to deal with all these sensations!

LadyMom1900: Welcome to puberty, baby. Nothing’s ever going to be quite as horrible as the years to come, I promise you.

Gloomy2000: Gee, that makes me feel much better. Also, I’ll be a teenager in less than two months, anyway!

LadyMom1900: And you’ll wait, at least, until the very last second before you even think about a relationship like that, or I’ll ask Uncle Jake to start telling you all his knock-knock jokes >:-(

That was actually a horrifying threat, if one knew the quality of Jake’s jokes.

Gloomy2000: (0_0)

LadyMom1900: There, now that we’ve got that out of the way – is there anything else you need? A hug? A kiss? I can be home in less than fifteen minutes, if you need me.

Gloomy2000: No no, I know you have to work, and I’m honestly much better now. Besides, I need some time to think it all over by myself. What are you up to, anyway?

LadyMom1900: There was a dam breach in South China, but I’ve mostly fixed that. I’m just going to hunt down a local supervillain, then I’ll fly to Australia and try to get Maddie to lay off the Protectorate for now; maybe even convince her to help stabilise the situation in Russia.

Gloomy2000: Cool! Be safe, and greet Maddie from me – tell her I miss her!

LadyMom1900: Roger! You be safe, too, and don’t let anything get you down, baby. Enjoy your week off, and don’t let your father keep you from inviting Mellybean over! Hugs and kisses! ❤

She shut her phone off and put it aside, lying back on the couch. Despite it all, she could feel a smile on her lips. That came at just the right time.

Wiggling around on the couch, she got herself more comfortable without the use of her power, before she had to giggle again. Mellybean. Where did that nickname come from? I wonder what Melody will think of it.

Perhaps she should take her mother’s advice and not listen to her father too much; surely it couldn’t hurt checking up on Melody for just a moment…

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Interlude 9 – Worlds Adrift

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The Protectorate, Great Britain, 2012

“Brought you breakfast!” Pete shouted as he walked into the room, making her jump in her seat.

“Jesus, Pete, can’t you knock?” Mandy shouted, already feeling frustrated. He never learned. Ever since Desmond had been sent away – inevitable, really, but still a shame – Pete had suddenly decided to woo her. And while she wasn’t generally against having a good man wooing her, Pete… did not understand how to properly treat a lady.

“Aw, come on sweetheart, don’t be mad! Here, I brought you your favourite breakfast.” With a wide, boyish grin (he sure didn’t look like his twenty-four years) he put a tray of food onto an empty part of the console in front of her. It was loaded with turkish sausage, pan-fried to spicy red perfection, warm garlic bread and a hearty mixed salad.

Pete was a firm believer in the theory that the way to any heart was through the stomach (not a bad idea) so he’d quickly found out what she liked to eat (a little creepy, since he hadn’t asked her, but sniffed around) and now regularly brought her her meals, especially when she was pulling a night and early-morning shift (very handy, but also really annoying).

Unfortunately, her traitor of a stomach decided just then to make hungry noises (she hadn’t eaten for more than twelve hours, apart from a few donuts), which only made him grin even wider (why didn’t his head just fall off backwards?) and made her blush and turn to the food, swiping her strawberry blond hair out of the way.

No reason to let it go to waste.

“Thanks. But you really should knock next time,” she said in between two mouthfuls. Dammit, she wasn’t even angry or frustrated anymore.

His feeding-her-until-she-falls-in-love-with-him gambit seemed to be playing out well, and there was nothing she could do about it.

“Anything happen?” he asked her after a while of her quietly eating.

“Believe me, everyone here would know if something happened. I’d be pounding the big red button.”

He chuckled, which again made him seem younger than he was. “I guess so. Man, doesn’t it freak you out sitting here all the time, watching… him?”

They both looked at the monitor wall, and she knew what he meant. Ever since what had happened to Desmond, the board of directors had gotten really nervous and redoubled safety measures. No one knew how the Protege had reached him to cause such a reaction. Then again, compared to his other powers, it was really quite trivial.

But just the fact that he had acted… everyone was freaking out. If he woke up, truly woke up in a way they couldn’t keep secret, it might spark world war three. It was the last thing they needed.

“I guess… it’s not him who’s freaking me out, but everyone else. How they’ll react. We almost had a world war before he shut himself off, and now…”

“Situation’s just amazingly strained right now, I know. So let’s just hope n-“

A high, whining sound slammed into them, knocking them off-kilter.

“Wha-?” Mandy almost fell off her chair. Her head was ringing, her vision blurred. She pushed the button by sheer reflex, and then she did fall off her chair.

By the time she came back to her senses, Pete had done so, too, and was helping her up.

They looked at the monitors, expecting… something. But Ember was sitting where he always did, apparently unaffected by whatever had knocked them out.

Then again, he could probably walk on the sun without even getting a sunburn.

Still unable to hear anything, Mandy pushed a few buttons and switched half the screens to look at the defensive lines of the Protectorate – and her blood ran cold.

The Protectorate was under attack.

A group of metahumans, all capable of flight had smashed into the South-Eastern section of the perimeter… the second wall, to be precise. The first one was untouched, and they were already pushing through towards the third one.

The group was pretty much split in the middle. Half of them wore nondescript skintight black suits with heavy, featureless helmets, decked out in various equipment, from large guns to a full suit of power armor in one case – three of them women, one male and the other seemed to be androgynous – and the other half were dressed in various costumes. Of those, four were women, two were men and one looked like a green dragon.

Pete and Mandy watched in horror as these two groups demonstrated an insane amount of teamwork and perfect synchronisation, punching through the second defensive line.

Mandy immediately noticed that one of them – one of the women in costume – was not participating in the fighting. Instead, her arms were wrapped around something packed in thick red cloth, and she was flying in the middle of her group, staying safe, and teleporting around in blinking flashes, evading any attacks.

“The Fay,” whispered Pete. Or maybe he was screaming, and she just couldn’t hear him well.

She blanched, recognizing the costumed part of the group. They were a part of Britain’s biggest crime syndicate. And the woman with the bundle… Boudicca, a relative newbie with quite the reputation.

As to the other group, she couldn’t say. They had no distinguishing marks whatsoever.

But they were all striking at the worst possible time – Lady Light and most of their top-level metahumans were away to Kansas, responding to an appearance by Desolation-in-Light, and they’d also had several technical problems lately, with half their blimps out of commission and parts of the wall – especially the South-Eastern section – being seriously defunct.

Did they know when to strike, or is this just a coincidence?

The invaders pushed to the third wall, where they met the hardest resistance. One of the women in black stretched her arms out to the sides, and a wavering, flickering sphere of distorted air and light formed in front of her.

With another flash of disorienting noise and worse, it exploded, knocking most of the defenders (as well as Mandy and Pete) for a loop.

By the time they’d come to their senses again, the enemies had nearly broken through the third wall and its defenders.

“Oh God, oh God, they’re going to get through!” shouted Mandy, even though she couldn’t even hear herself.

A flicker of light appeared over the battlefield, stretching to form a rectangular doorway. A tall figure clad in light stepped out.

Lady Light smashed into the group of invaders like the fist of God, taking down two of the Fay members in one hit. Her hard light armament formed into a glowing set of winged armor, a spear twice as long as she was tall and a winged crossbow, and she tore into the invaders, even as her aura reinforced the defenders, calling them to arms once more and with thrice their former fierceness.

She was met with coordinated counter moves, the remaining invaders focusing more on her than on the others. The woman with the wide-range perception attack initiated her power again, but Lady Light broke through their defensive lines and kicked her so hard it drove her into the ground, fifty meters below. Then she turned to Boudicca, striking at the woman-

Who teleported out of range at the very last moment, trying to get past her and into the Protectorate proper.

Lady Light reforged her spear into a whip, drawing her closer, the whip apparently blocking her teleportation.

Boudicca was fighting desperately to break free, and despite being supposedly a Paragon Tier all the way through, she was obviously straining Lady Light – though the other villains were doing their best to help, too.

The four remaining metahumans in black teamed up and attacked Lady Light, while the other members of the Fay spread out to fight back the other defenders.

Mandy watched in awe as Lady Light fought all four enemies – going by the powers they displayed, each of them had to be Apex Tier at least, and she was pretty sure the androgynous character was a God Tier blaster, every one of his blue energy beams tore huge chunks out of the walls and the ground, the light lingering to eat through the material, whenever Lady Light didn’t redirect his blasts upwards – and took down two more in about thirty seconds, not even needing to reforge her armament. The androgynous blaster was the first to go down, taking so many hits in so little time he was apparently unconscious before he was halfway down towards the ground. And all the time, Lady Light kept holding on to Boudicca, preventing her from teleporting into the range of the Protege.

“Down there!” Pete shouted. He was pointing at one of the monitors.

Mandy looked to see how the woman Lady Light had earlier stomped into the earth raise her arms, weakly, and set off another of her disorienting blasts. This time, it was far weaker and didn’t reach the two of them, but the defenders reeled and many were promptly smacked down by the invaders. With her senses at her command, Mandy could see that both her teammates and Lady Light had remained unaffected, the latter shooting a bolt of pure light into the prone woman, knocking her out for good.

And then Boudicca managed to tear off the whip and teleport past the defenders, into the Protectorate.

“He’ll tear that madwoman’s mind to shreds!” shouted Pete, but evidently, Boudicca didn’t care. She charged into his range without hesitation.

* * *

Lady Light flared up, her armament reforging itself into a sword, a pair of blade-like wings and three spheres that rotated her body. She turned towards the remaining invaders – only two of the black-clothed strangers and one of the Fay, not counting Boudicca, were still active – but they all ceased fighting and turned to watch Boudicca. Lady Light, too, turned to watch, the woman now beyond safe reach even for her.

The woman, incredibly, was flying towards Ember, teleporting ahead every few seconds to speed up. Cameras from the other side of the Protectorate were picking up images of her face, showing it being drenched in tears, the eyes reddened, with four thin, fading scars on her left cheek, as if someone had raked their nails over her face.

Her flight wavered as she reached the halfway mark, her teleportation ceasing, as she seemed to almost curl up around the bundle in her arms.

Mandy could only watch in horror as the villain fell down, her flight turning into a dive towards the ground.

She slowed herself down, barely, rolling to absorb the impact, taking more care to keep the bundle than herself unharmed.

There were still nearly two kilometers between herself and Ember, and it appears she now had to get there on foot.

She ran.

“Holy mother of God, how the fuck is she doing that?!” Pete exclaimed, his eyes wide in disbelief as she just forced her way onwards, staggering every now and then.

Over the field and through a small wood she ran, jumping over a small pond and then over the wall of the old town’s cemetery. She broke the wrought iron gate on the other side with a kick, then staggered, fell to her knees and threw up.

“Oh please, let her stay down, please,” whispered Mandy, and Pete fell right in.

Boudicca complied, collapsing to the side, curling up around the bundle.

They both sighed in relief.

“Oh God, I almost thought she’d get through to him,” Mandy half-whispered.

“Me too. Man, what a madwoman. To even get that far… I wonder what’s in that bundle? A teleportation device, maybe? To steal him?” said Pete.

Mandy shook her head. Despite it all… she had the dreadful feeling that she knew what was in that bundle, and why Boudicca was so… determined.

And just then, the fallen villainess moved, slowly pushing herself up onto weak legs.

“Oh, heavens no,” they both said.

She took a step forward… and then another. And another. Step by step, she staggered forward, crying, wailing, her whole body shaking hard enough to almost throw her to the ground again, never to rise again.

Boudicca did not fall.

Step by step, slower and slower, she approached the center of the small town, approached him.

And then she stepped around a corner, and within sight of him.

They both held their breaths, expecting some kind of… reaction. She was the first to ever get this close.

The Protege did not move, nor react to her in any other way.

Her face mad with grief, shame and… another emotion, one Mandy had trouble placing, Boudicca took another step.

It took her almost ten minutes to reach the Protege.

She knelt down in front of him, raising her arms, holding out the red bundle. With one hand, she quickly opened it, then went back to holding it up with both hands, presenting it to him, her head lowered, her body shaking with sobs – but her arms were steady.

Mandy gasped when she saw the content of the bundle. She’d half expected it, but to see it.

A boy lay there, a baby, small and wrinkled… and dead. His skin was pale, his face relaxed as if asleep, his too-thin limbs unmoving.

The Protege did not react.

Boudicca did not move, but her lips started to move. Long-range microphones picked up her whispered words.

“Please… please… please… please…”

After nearly ten minutes – ten minutes of dread for Mandy and Pete, ten minutes in which she imagined the world to hold her breath, the begging ceased, as Boudicca’s strength waned.

Her arms began to tremble, losing strength. Mandy could not even imagine the mental anguish she had to be going through, this close to the Protege himself.

And then the cloaked boy moved.

They all gasped as he raised his head, looking at the corpse, at the woman.

They begged him to go back to stillness, or for this to be a dream, a feverdream even…

He raised a hand. He plunged it into the baby’s small chest.

The screens flickered.

When the image came back, he pulled his hand out of the baby – and it started to scream, wailing, living.

Mandy fell to her knees.

* * *

Afterwards, as Boudicca dissolved into delirious sobs, clinging to her reborn child, the Protege reached out and touched her shoulder.

He shoved her, gently, and she vanished in a flash, her teleportation enhanced far beyond its usual limit, taking her all the way out of his range.

Lady Light picked her up and flew her into the main administrative facility of the Protectorate. The five black-garbed metahumans had vanished without a trace during a split-second, as a black claw seemed to appear behind each of them, grabbing them and pulling them away to vanish.

The remaining four members of the Fay were detained along with Boudicca, though in separate rooms. None of them put up any resistance whatsoever.

Mandy left the surveillance room to Pete, who was all too willing to fill in for her (he was useful, and maybe just nice enough to give him a real chance) and staggered over to the general briefing room.

There, she learned the other pieces of the story.

Boudicca, real name Iris O’Sheannan, aged twenty-two, had lost her unborn son just yesterday, when a rival villain had attacked her at home, wounding the pregnant supervillain and causing a miscarriage. Her son, Sean O’Sheannan, had been just a month away from being born.

At midnight, while her teammates had been trying to calm her down, promising her horrible, horrible vengeance, she had been contacted by someone who claimed to be a part of the ‘Companions of the Future’. He’d offered her their top operatives for an attempt at breaking into the Protectorate and bringing her son to the Protege. At no cost. She had been too desperate to ask for reasons.

She’d agreed, and her teammates had immediately pitched in.

As it turned out – Lady Light got them to talk – Boudicca had always had a particular power she’d kept secret, an extremely focused precognitive power. It was useless for mid-battle use, nor could she get warnings from sudden attacks and such (which explained why her enemy had been able to catch her at home, despite her teleportation), but provided she had about five minutes and a clear picture of what she wanted…

Her power allowed her to make the perfect plan for any caper. It was predicated on her own knowledge – the more she already knew about the situation, the better the plan – but it certainly explained her meteoric rise in the underworld.

One of the Companions of the Future, a metahuman who had not participated in the attack itself, was a power booster, capable of giving massive split-second boosts to powers.

Combining those two… they’d hit at just the right time, at just the right point, working perfectly, combining their powers and skills in just the right ways…

They’d even planned for Lady Light and the Dark showing up and trying to fight them off, though they admitted that, seeing how Lady Light alone had torn through them so easily, and how, in the end, it had been Boudicca’s raw will that supercharged her powers and allowed her to break through the whip which let them succeed, their plan had been less than sufficient. Had the Dark not stayed behind to help against Desolation-in-Light, then they would have been stopped.

No use thinking about could-have-beens now.

Boudicca had been put into an empty room, watched over by Lady Light and several cameras. The woman was delirious with joy, crying and giggling as she nursed her son for the first time. Even if she got through this with her sanity intact, Mandy doubted that she’d be convicted for anything – the courts would demand access to the surveillance footage, and rightly so, and she couldn’t imagine anyone condemning her for wanting her son back, especially seeing how… how overjoyed she was.

But that was not the worst part.

The attack had gone public. Someone had hacked into the Protectorate’s supposedly secure computer network and pulled all the footage of the fight, and then of what happened within. It had been streamed live on the internet, and was now already the most-watched video clip of the last three years.

They all knew what that meant.

Five years ago, the existence of a metahuman capable of healing any ailment, reversing age and even death itself had nearly led to another world war. Religions all over the world had proclaimed him the Messiah of their faith, or the devil incarnate, or Buddha reborn. Some had called for his death, no matter the cost. Some had demanded the privilege of throwing themselves at his feet. And so many had desired the prize he offered – for many the greatest prize of all – immortality.

Only his self-imposed exile had prevented the war from breaking out, the unlikeliness of him ever acting again.

Now it had been proven that the Protege was still active, if restrained.

The Califate had begun moving moments after he had revived the boy. Religions all over the world were once more in uproar, the True Believers were beyond ecstatic, the Returners were eager to welcome their newest member and his mother into their ranks (and also ecstatic about their ‘beloved’ awakening from his slumber) and the Sovjet Union…

The Reds were thought to have nearly three-hundred thousand metahumans among their ranks, with more than three fourth of them being trained for combat. For war. Roughly two-hundred and twenty-five thousand metahumans, raised from birth to be fanatically loyal to the Red Council…

The Red Council, which had been wiped out by Desolation-in-Light just months ago, leaving the Union in upheaval…

All these metahumans, already unstable by their very nature, further destabilized by the loss of the focal point of their worldview…

Now they saw a chance to return to the world order they knew. A chance to bring back their masters.

A chance that came attached with a time limit.

And the Pacific-Atlantic Treaty Organization would never allow them to even attempt to revive the Red Council, not without a fight.

The Sovjet Union declared war against the PATO nations just three hours after Sean’s rebirth.

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B005.5 They Called Us Mad!

December 31st, 1899

St. Mary’s Mercy Hospital was always rather empty around Christmas and New Year’s Eve, even in a city the size of Lennston. In fact, they had grown so used to not having much to do during that time that they were just giving most of their staff off for the holidays, retaining only a skeleton crew.

Another reason for this was that the hospital had fallen on some pretty hard times, with funding being cut and people in general preferring private practices, mostly due to various superstitions about the inefficiency of hospitals and the impersonal treatment. The fact that the local medical university was top-notch and produced an abundance of private doctors who were all too willing to make house-calls at any time didn’t help.

What this meant was that, twenty-one minutes before New Year’s Eve, during one of the worst snowstorms in recent memory, when most of the world was celebrating the beginning of the new century, there were only one doctor and two nurses in the emergency unit. The doctor, a portly man in his early fifties named Quentin Tressman, was there because he had a wife and three children to support, as well as a mistress and an illegitimate child, and the hospital paid a little extra for the holiday time. The older nurse, Anna Smithens, a matronly woman, didn’t have any family left, nor any real friends she cared enough about to spend the holidays with, so she opted for the holiday shift – it was highly unlikely she’d have to do much, anyway. The younger one, Estephania McSmithee (Steph to her few friends) – the similarity of their names had been noted and abused for cheap jokes since the first time they had met – was just twenty-one and also had no family save for a father she didn’t want to ever see again. She’d also decided to try and befriend Anna, wanting to alleviate the older woman’s loneliness.

So they sat behind the counter at the entry to the empty hospital – there were, literally, no other people there except for Jake the Janitor, a reed-thin old man in a janitor’s suit who’d joined them for a New Year’s drink.

And then someone barged into the room. Several someones. The four hospital workers jumped off their seats, except for Jake, who always said that getting too excited had never helped anyone, and so he finished his drink before turning to look.

Two men had barged in, different as night and day, each carrying a woman in their arms.

The first man in was the kind of person they often got here, if they got any patients at all – a working class man, probably from the settlements immediately around the hospital. Early thirties, short, heavy-set, not really attractive nor ugly, close-cropped brown hair and a dirty blue overall. Steph recognized him as Michael Whitaker, the mechanic who always fixed up her shoddy car for half the price anyone else set. In his arms, he carried a rather young woman, no more than nineteen, with dirty blonde hair and a figure that needed a few extra pounds, dressed in an old creme-colored nightgown. His wife Diana, Steph knew.

The second man, only Jake recognized (he was old, and he got around a lot), though all of them could see that he was not part of their usual clientele. Abraham Franz-Frederick Goldschmidt was, without much doubt, the patriarch of the oldest and richest family of Lennston, a city with a lot of old rich families. He was dressed in a formerly immaculate three-piece suit that was worth more than all four of them made in a year, probably. Tall, slender and hook-nosed, with naturally tan skin and neatly parted black hair, he looked the very opposite of Michael. His wife Jennifer, too, could not have been more different from the young Diana – she was very nearly the same age, maybe one or two years older, but where Diana was bright and sunny, she was dark and sultry, dressed in an expensive evening dress that had seen better days.

Both women were heavily pregnant, their faces strained and red, making the reason for the panicked expressions of their husbands very clear.

The next few minutes were a haze of hasty explanations and hurried movements. The husbands were panicked, afraid for their wives and unborn children, as both of them were racked with pain (also, over the last few months, there had been a disproportionate amount of deaths during childbirth). Since the Goldschmidt’s house doctor hadn’t shown up – probably got stuck somewhere in the snowstorm – and the Whitakers didn’t have the money to pay a private doctor, they’d both come here in a hurry. Unfortunately, they’d gotten very worked up, which didn’t help the mental state of their wives, who were barely coherent at this point. Doctor Tressman had never before assisted during childbirth and had to act purely out of theoretical knowledge, and he was already imagining the kind of lawsuits a man like Goldschmidt could bring down on him. Anna was just concerned for the young mothers, remembering the three children of her own she’d all lost to complications during childbirth. Steph was just afraid she might not be able to help them. Only Jake remained calm, mostly because he knew he couldn’t do much anyway, other than offer words of encouragement. And he never got excited, anyway.

For convenience’s sake, they put both women into the same room and began their work, while Jake sat with the husbands, trying to calm them.

* * *

January 1st, 1900

On the very eve of the new century, two healthy young children were born.

A boy, already dark and with a decidedly sultry look on his hook-nosed face that spoke of future troubles with self-restraint. He had his mother’s amber-coloured eyes, and his father’s thin lips and too-big nose, that made him look like the baby-hawk to his father’s papa-hawk. And he was even as agitated as his father, crying and screaming for all his little lungs were worth.

And a girl, bright and curly-haired, with her father’s bright blue eyes and her mother’s blonde hair. What struck the onlookers the most wasn’t however her cute looks, but rather the fact that she wasn’t crying – she just quietly let Nurse Smithens wash her and give her to her mother for nursing.

Their parents named them Ismael Franz-Peter Goldschmidt and Gwen Diana Whitaker, respectively.

Then, however, it turned out that there was only one crib around to put the children in, and since the mothers needed to rest and the fathers were not trusted by the women present to keep their cool and let the children rest, they were put into the same crib while Jake ran off to procure a second crib (he always knew where to find anything).

When he returned, however, it was unanimously decided that separating the two had to count as a capital offense. Quiet little Gwen had almost immediately calmed down the little Ismael, and the two of them ended up holding hands and fall asleep.

Jake predicted that the two of them would become inseparable as they grew up, and everyone agreed with him, swept up in the emotions of the occasion.

* * *

Sometimes, great people witness little events. And sometimes, little people witness great events. Most of the time, you can’t really tell which one is big and which one is small, but they all have their own stories, even if they’re absorbed into a larger narrative.

Quentin Tressman went on working at the St. Mary’s Mercy Hospital, as it was granted a second spring by Abraham Goldschmidt, who donated a very generous sum to the hospital his first son had been born in (and in which all of his later children would be born in). The doctor finally came clean with his wife about his mistress and the daughter he’d had with her. After a few years that nearly ended with a divorce – which, at the time, would have been beyond scandalous, and likely have ended his career – she forgave him and even raised the girl as her own after her mother passed away in an accident. Quentin himself, while never becoming a star doctor or anything, became a local fixture, a reliable, dedicated man of medicine. More than three hundred people came to his funeral when he died peacefully at the age of seventy-nine.

Estephania McSmithee succeeded in her goal of befriending the older Anna Smithens, and even found herself a loving husband. Even though they never quite made enough money to live without worry, they held on to their little slice of happiness, and she gave birth to two children. Anna Smithens spent a lot of time with her younger co-worker, and when she died in nineteen-o-nine, she named Estephania as her only heir. To Steph’s and her husband’s surprise, Anna turned out to be the last scion of one of Lennston’s oldest and richest families, and they never had to worry about money again. Instead, the Widard family became another one of Lennston’s fixtures.

As for Jake the Janitor, after working in the hospital for five more years, he retired from it, but ended up hired by Goldschmidt to work as a gardener at his mansion, after the previous one passed away. He later went on to… well, that is a story for another day.

* * *

True to Jake’s prophecy, the two children became inseparable. Their parents, especially their fathers, became fast friends, despite the disparity between their social and economical status. In fact, Goldschmidt and Whitaker became a well-known duo around the city’s pubs, as they drank and performed – they were both passionate hobby-musicians – their way through the city, if they didn’t just brag about their children.

The two mothers didn’t become quite as close, though they often met for tea or coffee, mostly while their children played with each other. Though they did make a point of attending each other’s birthday celebrations, as well as those of their children.

Gwen and Ismael – or Petey, as only she was allowed to call him – grew up together, spending more time together than apart. At first, it was simply because of their shared birth and their parents’ sentiment. But soon, as it became clear that something was off about them – they learned to speak their first words months before they learned to walk, and little Gwen even learned how to recognize a few simple written words before her second birthday, closesly followed by Ismael – they found themselves unable to really appreciate other children their age as friends, and thus grew closer still.

Their families watched in awe as the two seemed to grow smarter every day, learning to talk and write at an almost adult level by the age of four. They seemed to soak up knowledge the way other children soaked up attention, and Michael often joked that he would have gone bankrupt if he’d had to pay his daughter’s teachers (and books) all by himself.

Unfortunately for everyone, the two seemed determined to use their intelligence to cause their families and teachers as much of a headache as possible, frequently breaking out of their rooms to meet up even when their parents wanted to keep them at their respective homes, or to go exploring, which often ended in total chaos.

And that was before they started spending their free time playing heroes.

* * *

December 11th, 1913

I was cursing and cussing as I left the auditorium with Gwen right behind me. “This is just pathetic!”

“Petey, please, calm down,” she said, her voice almost a whisper, as it usually was. Not that I ever had trouble understanding her. Unfortunately, it didn’t help.

“But they’re just… we’re right, and they know it! They just don’t want to admit that two children are smarter than all of them put together and cubed!” I threw my arms up in exasparation, almost throwing the folder I’d been carrying . In fact, I felt like punching something. A lot. Preferably something with headshots glued on of all those stuffy, idiotic, self-centered, moronic…

Gwen hugged me from behind, immediately dissolving the anger. She’d always been able to calm me down, no matter what mood I was in. My parents said she’d done that the very first time we’d been together in our crib.

“They’ll come around,” she whispered. “You just need to keep on going, and they won’t have a choice other than to accept our work, ne?”

“And in the meantime, people die! Adults and children! Just because no one wants to admit that two children came up with it before anyone else did!”

“Shshsh.” She rested her forehead against my shoulder. Damn, I hated when she did this. And loved it, too. Mind Control. Definitely mind control. She’s been conditioning me since birth.

“I feel like eating. A lot. Are you in the mood for Greek food?” Food always helped stave off indignation at human idiocy.

“Always. You know I love it, ne?”

I threw the damn folder into a trashcan. Just a stupid little fungus. So many lives it could save…

* * *

Petey and Gwen had always been brave, even reckless in their little adventures, to the point where their parents fully expected themselves to die of heart attacks before their children grew up.

At first, it started with them going into the forest to explore it, hunting and catching animals to study them, even some dangerous ones. Or getting them used to the two of them over days and weeks, so they could observe them during their natural day-to-day business.

Things got more extreme from then on, with them even breaking into buildings like the library or the university for various reasons.

At age seven, they ran into a burning building together, saving two little toddlers from a fiery death. They were grounded for four weeks (not that that stopped them from doing whatever they wanted) and got a medal each, as well as a pair of firemen helmets they’d wear from then on whenever they went on an adventure together.

Over the next year, they found five lost children, uncovered a drug dealer ring, caught a serial murderer and wrote a collection of poems that became quite popular all across America.

They never slowed down, only increasing their newsworthy actions year after year, until, to their parents collective relief, they decided to focus on scientific research instead of playing detective or firefighter (not that they stopped doing that, they just didn’t seek it out anymore).

Unfortunately, they weren’t quite taken seriously, at least in the beginning. This caused a lot of damage, in hindsight, even if they managed to work through their colleagues’ prejudices by the time they turned fifteen.

In 1915, when World War I had just entered into its most gruesome phase, Ismael entered the army, lying about his age (he was very tall for his age and had a very adult face, anyway), and shipped off to the front. As did a young, very effeminate looking boy named Oliver Polliver, aged 18 (though he looked like he was fourteen at best, he had all the documentation required).

The two of them racked up two medals of honour each, as well as at least three of each military honor the Allied forces had to offer – until 1917, a year before the end of the war, when Oliver was wounded during battle and revealed to be a young girl. The two of them were sent back to America immediately.

While they could neither be convicted (they were both still minors) nor be denied their military honors, and most of the public admired them for their deeds, many also did not take kindly to their actions, especially Gwen’s participation in the war as a combatant. No small number of ‘concerned citizens’ demanded that they be put into mental institutions, and most of Lennston’s upper crust demanded that Ismael be kept apart from the ‘bad influence’ that was Gwen Whitaker (in truth, they hoped to free him up for one of their daughters instead of the daughter of a mechanic he was so very obviously in love with).

To avoid further scandal (and keep their children safe), their families made them promise to return to their research and focus on it in full.

In hindsight, it might have been better to send them off to the war again…

* * *

17:13 – December 31st, 1922

This is going to be the best birthday, ever. And nothing would spoil that, I told myself.

I was standing in my room in front of the mirror, a small box in my hand that felt like it was made of lead. I felt like hiding it away.

So stupid. I know she’s going to say yes. So why am I getting to nervous?

I opened the box, looking at my mother’s engagement ring. She’d given it to me two years ago, just a month before she passed away. It was made of pure gold, fashioned like roses that wound around each other into the form of a ring, with a ruby, an emerald and a sapphire held in between the winding stems.

It was really, really easy to imagine it on Gwen’s ring finger. I had toyed with the thought of taking it to the best goldsmith I knew – that being me – to make it smaller, so it would fit her thin fingers. Two reasons I had left it as it was. One, It would have felt wrong to change it away from the form it had when father had proposed to mother and two, it might encourage her to eat more and finally put on some of the weight she needed.

Gwen had always been too thin for my taste. I mean, my taste pretty much was Gwen, but I’d have preferred her to have a healthier weight.

“Come on, Ismael. You fought your way across half of Europe with her. You’ve literally spent your whole life with her. Why is it so hard to ask her this one stupid question!?

She lived in my house – she only had a room at her parent’s place for form’s sake, really. Neither of us had ever had any doubt about where we wanted to take our relationship. Really, it was only a formality. We’d done everything a married couple did, and more, I just haven’t asked her yet, damn it!

It was ridiculous that we were almost twenty-three and I still hadn’t asked for her hand in marriage. One of the many aunts I didn’t care about had warned me against it, since our children wouldn’t be Jewish then, but who cares?

You’re wasting time. Intentionally. Go and ask her, you idiot!

* * *

17:19 – December 31st, 1922

She said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes!

* * *

18:20 – December 31st, 1922

We’d shared some pretty intense, long kisses before, but never one that went on for an entire hour without any interruption.

Damn that fucking pet of hers for breaking that vase. I’d strangle it if she didn’t love it so much.

But now it was – she said yes, she said yes! – time to finally get on with the machine. Finish it. The plan was to finally prove our theory on New Year’s Eve, the moment of our birth.

Twenty-two years. Twenty-two years times two, but really one. And now, today, we would finally do what we were always meant to do. We will change this world together forever. And no one will ever laugh at us again.

We’d constructed the machine underneath my family’s mansion. My mansion. Ever since father’s death a year ago – he hadn’t taken mother’s death well, not even with Uncle Michael’s help – I’d been the owner. Most of the staff was gone, since Gwen and I lived mostly by ourselves and didn’t socialize much. Too many stigmata on us, especially her. And I refused to accept guests who looked down on her. Only her, and me, and Jake ‘I’m still the Janitor’, the crazy old man who had been there at our birth and would probably be there when we died of old age, as well. He pretty much took care of the entire mansion and the surrounding lands himself, only hiring outside help every now and then for the stuff he simply couldn’t do himself anymore.

Anyway, as much as my parents’ deaths had hit me – without Gwen, I probably would have gone insane and done something stupid like try and bring them back to life – it had provided us with a remote, secure and discreet research facility. Gwen wasn’t worried about spies and thieves, but I still couldn’t forgive that asshole who fished my folder out of the trashcan and sold my invention for his own, all those years ago.

I’m petty like that.

Now I was connecting the final high power cables to the core of the machine, the human-sized doorway without a door.

Another invention that could already have changed the world, I thought as I checked the batteries over. We’d charged them using Tesla’s bladeless turbines. The entire mansion was completely independent from the outside, electrically. We had a big waterfall right underneath the cliff it stood upon. The turbine was only now getting the attention it deserved, even though Tesla had invented it an entire decade ago, and our batteries were still not being accepted. Not due to any problems with the technology. But because we had invented them. And I was too proud to pass them to someone else to publish the technology, damn me.

All will change after tonight. No one would just ignore us anymore. No more demeaning articles about Gwen in the newspaper, trying to smudge her achievements.

* * *

23:57 – December 31st, 1922

“Everything’s ready,” I said to Gwen. Not that it was necessary.

“Yes. Finally…” She wasn’t looking at the machine, but at the ring I’d given her. Good God, even in a simple labcoat, she made me crazy just by looking at her.

“Gwen?”

“Yes, Petey?”

“The machine?”

She blushed, moving her hand behind her back. “Yes, of course, it’s all ready. I checked everything, three times.”

I nodded.

“It’s time.” Finally.

“It’s time, ne?” she agreed. “But Jake’s refused to leave the mansion. What if-“

“Nothing will go wrong. Even if I‘d made a mistake, your calculations are always flawless. And even if there was a chance, we have no right to deny him his place here. No one has shown us more support than he has.”

She nodded, her bright blond hair briefly obscuring her face from me. When she looked up again, she was smiling, her eyes bright with that spark that always made my knees weak.

“Let’s do it. Let’s open the door.”

I pulled the first two levers and the machine began to wind up. “Let’s open it. Together.”

I took her hand and put it on the third and final lever, putting my own over it.

“Gwen?”

She looked at me, her face just inches from mine. “Yes, Petey?”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

We pulled the lever down. And we opened the door to our dreams.

* * *

00:00 – January 1st, 1923; “Point Zero”

As pure white light flooded the room, we both broke out in laughter. It was beautiful.

And they called us mad! Those fools!

B002 Rising Stars (Part 3)

“That. Was. Awesome!”, shouted Dalia as the cameras cut away from the scene of the hotel and back to the studio. Her excitement turned to irritation as the screen switched off. “Hey!”, she shouted at Basil.

“Calm down. They are not going to tell anything I can not tell you. So why listen to a talk show”, he replied with some contempt in his voice – aimed at the show, not Dalia.

“What do you have against talk shows?!”, Dalia asked in a befuddled tone of voice. He just looked at her like she was asking a stupid question and turned towards his computer terminal. Continue reading