14.a.1 Out of Time

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Some time ago

The wall crinkled, like a sheet of paper being crushed into a ball in one’s hand, only here, the crinkling led to expansion, with flat petals of plaster, sharper than razors, jutting out in unpredictable patterns.

Jared dove at the last second, his arms around the warm body that’d been clinging to him since she’d appeared above the city, and barely avoided getting sliced into coasters.

Kizzy cried out, but it was weak, her voice hoarse from crying and screaming into his chest, and he didn’t have time to pay attention to it anyway.

The house was crinkling and distorting around them, rapidly turning from the safe haven they’d been holed up in into a death trap – seconds counted, and Jarod made them count.

The door out was nearest, but the door had already started to crinkle, so he went for the open window on the far side of the room instead, leaping onto the couch beneath it, and then through it – since it had been open, the crinkling glass and frame hadn’t blocked it off yet, though even so, he only managed to get out half a second before the window was blocked off by blades so thin they seemed two-dimensional.

His feet hit the soft ground of the empty flower beds outside – his mother had been heartbroken, when she’d lost her prized tulips to an untimely storm – and he ran, looking around wide-eyed.

All around him, buildings, lamp posts, cars, everything that was above ground, was crinkling out, turning into twisted works of modern “art”.

But not the ground itself, nor any of the trees he could see.

Kizzy whimpered, and he paused as he stood just underneath a big tree planted in front of the three story building that’d once been his home, taking his eyes off the distortions around them, off the bright lights above that shifted as she moved, and checked his little sister over, making sure she hadn’t been cut somewhere.

She was fine, the gold-and-white summer dress with Lady Light’s weird symbol on the front still completely pristine, her bare legs and feet unharmed, save for a few scabbed-over nicks and cuts she’d gotten from rough-housing with friends in the park.

”Jared, I-“ she began to say, starting to raise her head, but he put his hand on the back, and pulled her in close.

He didn’t want her to see the people who hadn’t gotten away from the distortions in time.

Even as he did that, he saw the elderly Mister Teeper and his wife, Madison, holding hands for a moment as they stared out over the street, their eyes empty – they’d been impaled by their own house, he horizontally through the gut, and vertically through the back of the head, she diagonally across the chest, between her breasts, and through the right thigh, severing her leg there entirely.

The petals were so sharp, though, they didn’t stay there, their own weight easily enough to cause them to slide and fall over. Mister Teeper feel to the side, she to the back, and they were reduced to the consistency of  minced meat, falling through thicket of crinkle-blades.

“Everything’s going to be alright, Kizzy,” he soothed her, holding on tight. He was never going to forget that sight, but he was going to do his best to avoid her seeing anything like that. “Just, keep your eyes closed, and I’ll get us out of here.”

“B-but what… what about mom and d-dad?” she pressed, her voice barely audible even to him. “They’re still at th-th-the office, downtown…”

Whatever confidence Jared might have had, it died, and its corpse dropped to the bottom of his stomach like a leaden weight.

Kizzy didn’t know, she was too young to be told yet, but their parents weren’t office workers – they were superheroes, the both of them. Jared had found out about it years ago, when he’d snuck down the stairs in the middle of the night, only to see his tired mother use her power to pick up the tv remote from the kitchen table… while lying on the couch, a room away.

They’d told him who they were in costume, then, and he’d been sworn to secrecy. Kizzy, meanwhile, was to be kept ignorant until she was at least fourteen years old, they’d said.

They’re not that strong. If they fight that monster, they’ll…

He shook his head. No, he couldn’t afford to go down that road. If he had no confidence they’d be alright, then he at least had to pretend that he did, for Kizzy’s sake.

“They’re going to be alright, you’ll see,” he said, though the words rang hollow to him. “We’ll just, uh, I mean, they’ll find us, you’ll see. Just need to, to keep moving…”

His sister whimpered again, clinging to him as hard as she could, which wasn’t that hard, considering she’d just recently turned ten.

Still, while she was a lightweight, in the lowest percentile of height and weight for her age, he wouldn’t be able to carry her like this…

“Kizzy, I’m going to put you down, and then you have to climb onto my back and hold on tight, ok? But, uh, don’t open your eyes, k?” he spoke to her, his own eyes wide open, watching the crinkle-petals shifting around in waves.

“Ok…” She did as she was told, climbing onto his back, nearly knocking her and his glasses off when she smashed her head into the side of his, once she was on his back. He didn’t comment on it, grabbing her legs and getting up.

They said on tv that she changes her powers, now and then. As soon as the crinkling stops, I’ll, I’ll start running. Running towards…

Looking up and around, he could see the light above shift, a light show unlike any he’d ever seen, as if the northern lights had decided to form a dome over the city. It was supposed to move around with her, but the riot of colors was so confusing to look at, he honestly couldn’t tell whether it was moving at all.

Still, there were explosions and other power effects, in the distance, that told him the fight was most likely taking place at or near the beach front.

So the best way to go would be straight away from that. Just run, run, and keep running, until he was out of her desolation field – how big was it, again, a mile? Two? Three at most, he was sure.

He could run two or three miles, he was sure, even with Kizzy’s weight on his back. All that running he did for the track team had to be useful for something, for once!

***

It took minutes, which felt like hours, before something changed. Time spent holding Kizzy, speaking to her, keeping her as calm as he could.

Then, the petals stopped shifting around – they’d been moving into and through each other, like bad graphics in a video game or something – and went still.

In the distance, light seemed to be drawn in towards a single point, the entire area starting to grow more and more dim, save for the coruscant lights above.

She’s changed her powers.

He took one last deep breath, half crouched, shifting his shoulders and hips a bit to make sure Kizzy was properly balanced on his back.

She whimpered, clinging tighter, so tightly she started to choke him. She wasn’t very strong, but he couldn’t run for long like this.

“Kizzy… ease up a little, please,” he begged her, only to have her break into tears again, sobbing into the nape of his neck.

“I-I… I’m sorry, I… I’m so, so scared! I’m a stupid scaredy-cat, I-” she began to ramble, but he shook his head, his heart twisting into itself at hearing the sheer horror in her voice.

He had to distract her, somehow.

“How about you sing something?” he asked, out of the blue. She loved singing, even took classes, and anything would be helpful right now.

“S-sing? What, could I sing?” she asked, easing up on her grip, if only to use one wrist to wipe her runny nose.

“How about… that song you were practicing with mom yesterday? You know, that really old song about a bottle and stuff.” He’d barely listened to them, having preferred to focus on his video games – he really wasn’t into that old kind of music, at all, particularly when it was in a language he didn’t care for, but this wasn’t about him.

“Ok…” she replied, sounding dubious about what sense it made right now. Yet, she cleared her throat, and began to sing – it never took much to get her to sing.

At the same time, he took off, barely restraining himself from going all-in all at once – instead, he remembered his track teacher’s words, to work up to his top speed when he needed to run for a while.

“Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium,” Kizzy began to sing, her voice far steadier than it had been since this nightmare had started, soft and sweet right beside his ear; she was almost whispering, a performance just for him to hear.

He ran straight onto the center of the street, where there were the fewest petals visible, and turned right, putting where he thought that monster was right behind him.

“Wir betreten feuertrunken, Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!” Her voice picked up, as she got into the song, seemingly forgetting the now.

She usually did that, once she started to sing.

His feet pounded the concrete, his eyes held wide open, looking out for the slightest hint of a petal in his way, even as his surroundings kept growing darker. With how sharp these things were, if he so much as brushed one, he was going to slice himself and Kizzy to pieces before he even noticed something was wrong.

“Deine Zauber binden wieder was die Mode streng geteilt; alle Menschen werden Brüder, wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.”

Mom, if we all make it out of this, I swear I’ll try to learn a little more about Germany, he thought, tears in his eyes, though those might have been due to him not daring to blink while running through this forest of razor-sharp death. I’ll even make an effort to talk to Gramps.

He’d never even been to Germany, but his mother had been born there, grown up until her father had packed up what little they owned and all but fled the German States, first to Britain, then across the pond. She’d always encouraged him and Kizzy to connect with that part of their heritage, but he hadn’t wanted anything to do with it since he’d been eight.

“Wem der große Wurf gelungen, eines Freundes Freund zu sein; wer ein holdes Weib errungen, mische seinen Jubel ein!”

His mother loved this song, even though it’d been Weisswald’s favourite, and his anthem besides. You couldn’t sing it, or even play the lyrics, anywhere in Europe, and not get lynched.

Whenever he’d brought that up, his mother would just say that Weisswald had liked to breathe, too, and no one was condemning that.

“Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele, sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund!”

The encroaching darkness suddenly shifted, spots of light appearing, radiating out from a single point far behind him, and slightly to the left. Like flashlight beams, only much more focused, creating spots of yellow-white light on the surroundings.

Some of the beams of light shone right through his and Kizzy’s bodies, as if they weren’t even there, illuminating the ground ahead of them as he ran.

The hell! This can’t be good!

He jumped to the side, into beam-free area, just as the beams suddenly became so bright they seemed solid, yet without blinding, as if the light had hardened rather than intensified.

Then they turned back to just light, and started to shift around, like the lights from a disco ball being turned.

Wherever the lights had hardened, they’d cut right through whatever had been in the way between them and the ground, though without damaging the ground itself.

Kizzy’s singing was briefly drowned out, as several buildings around them collapsed.

He ran faster. The drills they did at school every few months said that her attacks often came in waves, starting out… not weak, because there was nothing truly weak about her, but less powerful, and built up over time, becoming more powerful with each successive wave.

If the heroes and villains… no, right now, they were all heroes, if the heroes didn’t force her to change her powers, the next attack would cover even more ground, or penetrate deeper, or set fires in the aftermath, or be better in some other way he couldn’t even think of.

Keep running.

His feet hit the concrete, getting into a steady rhythm again. He wanted nothing more than to just go all out, to run as fast and as hard as he could, but he had no idea how long he’d have to run, so he had to pace himself.

“Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der stehle, weinend, sich aus diesem Bund!” Kizzy picked her song back up, though she was off-key, choking back tears.

“Keep your eyes closed!” he told her, hoping to God she hadn’t caught a glimpse of the carnage they were rushing past.

He was doing what he could not to notice it, either – the people who’d survived the petals, most of them had been cut down by the solid beams. There were bodies littering the street and the front yards.

His feet splashed as he passed a section of road positively flooded with blood flowing from a school bus that’d somehow escaped crinkling out into petals, but had not escaped being turned into swiss cheese by the solid beams.

Some of the bodies within were visible. Some hung out a window, or were pressed against the glass.

None of them was older than Kizzy.

Jared wanted to stop, he wanted, more than anything, to go in there, as much as he didn’t want to get close to that carnage, see if there were survivors, wounded or not… the thought of leaving a boy or girl of Kizzy’s age behind to die, it twisted him up inside like nothing else.

He’d want someone else to do so for Kizzy, too, if he wasn’t there.

But there was no time. If he stopped, if he went into as tight a confinement as that bus, there would be no dodging the next wave of solid light.

No time to dodge, no time to help.

How many big brothers had lost their little sisters, just in that bus?

His feet hit dry concrete again, leaving bloody footprints the shape of his sneaker’s soles behind.

He left the bus behind, and in that moment, Jared had never hated anything or anyone near as much as he now hated that monster.

***

Now

Jared stepped up to the rim of the crater, crunching gravel under his white boots. He was exhausted, in body and mind, so much so his legs were trembling to hold up his body, but he could not bring himself to care.

He had to see this.

Below, Mindstar was staggering around, arms and shoulders slack, her head lolling around as her eyes refused to focus on anything, shedding streams of tears to accompany her incessant babbling, completely oblivious to the blood she was stepping around in, the bits of flesh and other parts she occasionally stepped on, or the blood-soaked, golden hair that filled more of the crater than the blood and the flesh combined did.

His eyes moved past her, seeking for something of the monster to focus on. Her lower body was mostly intact, and nude as ever, but that was not what he wanted to look at.

Instead, he found an eye, with a bit of messy, torn nerve and blood vessels attached to the back, having fallen so that it seemed to stare almost directly at him.

With its powers gone, the iris was purple, the only similarity to the princess being how deep, almost gem-like, the color was. Like looking straight at a circular…

What was the word? Something fancy, with an A… Amethyst. That’s the word.

Looking straight at an amethyst, where the princess’ eyes were more akin to sapphires. Beautiful, objectively, he, his very core, it refused to ascribe anything of true beauty to this monster.

Not even now, not in death.

The princess is going to be heartbroken.

The thought came unbidden, unwanted. He shouldn’t care about that, and yet…

He had a sibling, too. Though comparing Kizzy to the monster was ridiculous, or his relationship to her to the princess’ and the monster’s, he couldn’t hate the princess for feeling that way, not really.

He did hate everyone else who’d tried to defend the monster. And there were many. Imbeciles and ingrates who said it was just a victim of its own powers. Innocent, for its ignorance. That they’d regret the necessity of its death, if it could not be saved.

Jared would have spat out on its remains, if his mouth wasn’t dry as sandpaper. He’d run out of water six hours ago, as he’d been running himself ragged getting others into safety. Spending nearly all of the time he’d accumulated, leaving him with only seconds, which were now recharging, second by second, like grains of sand trickling into an empty hour glass.

This is good. As good as I could have hoped for.

To Hell with the people feeling sympathetic for it.

He had held Kizzy as she’d fallen apart at the news that their parents hadn’t made it.

He had held her hand when they’d buried the empty caskets of their parents, and what little had been found of their cantankerous, snarky, cuddly old fool of a grandfather.

No family left. No friends. No home. The entire southern side of Miami was gone, the people who’d lived there almost all dead.

Only Jared, Kizzy, and the powers he’d manifested, gathering up seconds to spend. Powers that he’d leveraged into building a new life for the two of them, with the right kind of foster family, with money and prestige.

None of it was enough to fill the holes left in their hearts, but it was a start.

He stared at that eye, feeling the black, tar-like weight of his hatred in his chest, his stomach, his head, coursing through his veins.

Fuck it. Fuck you, DiL. May you fucking rot in Hell, you fucking monster. I hope this hurt even worse than it looked, and I hope someone made a recording of it, so I can watch it every night before bed.

Maybe if he did that, he’d finally be able to sleep without having nightmares of her.

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14.7 Breaking Point

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Pain filled every picometre of Basil’s world. White-hot, razor-sharp, with no source and no end, it would have knocked him out if the sheer intensity of it didn’t force him to stay conscious.

He couldn’t say how long it took, but after what felt like an eternity of nothing but agony, it the sensation abated – slightly – as a different sensation appeared, a single point of darkness within the blazing glare.

Focusing on it, he managed to slowly draw his focus away from the pain – and as soon as he did, it instead snapped back to his body, and to his senses.

Basil found himself on all fours, his forehead on the ground, a dull ache that could barely be considered pain in his forehead, far eclipsed by the roar of pain that seemed to set his every nerve af-

No. Don’t focus on that.

He forced himself to lean back, kneeling upright, but unable to stand up properly, as his vision cleared. Part of it was red, though, and he reached up to wipe at his left eye, his hand coming away with blood… blood that had run from his eye down, like tears. But also blood from his forehead.

What?

“S-sir, are you… alright?” a new voice spoke up, drawing his attention to his side.

A scruffy-looking man in an EMT uniform had knelt down next to Basil, without him even noticing it at first. He was looking at Basil, with both worry and.. fear, in his sight.

“I can not honestly say that I am,” Basil replied, only to find that just moving his jaw and tongue intensified the pain considerably.

It was getting bad enough that his eyes were losing focus, the world turning blurry again.

“Are you, um, going to repeatedly smash your head into the ground again? Is that… something to do with your power?”

“What? Why w- oh.” It clicked. Somehow, for some reason, he’d started banging his head against the floor, using the purely physical pain of the act to distract himself from the pain that DiL was causing to him again, now that Lady Light had…

He looked down at his wrist. The glittering band she’d created was still there – he hoped that was a sign that she was still alive.

The last thing the world needed right now was to lose Lady Light. Especially with another world war starting up.

Deal with the here and now first, mate

The EMT was still watching him, waiting for an answer.

“It would take too long to explain, Sir. Might I impose on you for some aid?” He gestured at his bleeding forehead.

“Ah, of course, let me take care of that,” the older man said, and opened a small kit he’d been carrying. “Least I can do to help defend this city, young man.”

Basil nodded, though he stayed quiet as the wound was disinfec-

Ow. Another power change.

It’s only gonna get worse, mate.

He pressed the signaling device’s button, doing his best to stay still until the wound was cleaned out and covered by a large, adhesive bandage.

“There you go,” the scruffy EMT said, standing back up. “What are you gonna do now?”

Basil stood up as well, rolling his shoulders and flexing his fingers.

Then he pointed straight towards the locus of the fight, where spears of what appeared to be red light were shooting up, like a flower in full bloom.

“Throw myself straight into that.”

The man looked at it, then at Basil, and for a moment, he was sure the older man was actually considering dragging him away from the fight. Not that he’d stand a chance to succeed.

In the end, though, he didn’t go through with that impulse.

“Yeah. Godspeed, son.”

Basil nodded, and ran off, going straight for the nearest teleportation node.

***

As soon as Basil closed in on the battle, he realised that it had fundamentally changed – and not just because his headache was getting exponentially worse the closer he came to DiL.

Where before the defenders of New Lennston had been focused entirely on countering DiL’s powers, while minimizing the risk to themselves and the damage to the city, all that had now been abandoned in the face of DiL’s new-found vulnerability.

There was no restraint now. Scores of metahumans, capes, cowls and civilian alike, were all but throwing themselves at her, unleashing a dizzying flurry of powers upon her, with but one goal – to penetrate her remaining defenses and end her.

The sheer killing intent radiating off all of these massed metahumans seemed to have an almost physical presence.

Anyone but DiL – and maybe a handful of other metahumans in history, her parents among them – would have been struck down in seconds.

Since this was DiL though, Basil emerged out of the teleportation node only to immediately lean backwards, almost bending double, as he just barely avoided having his head sliced off at the neck by a thread of bright blue light that’d reflected off of her current defensive power, and which did slice the computer store in half, in which he’d bought some parts to construct his ravenbot nest, so long ago.

That almost removed your head as something to worry about, mate.

He ignored the returned voice, straightening himself up to look at the fight, to look for any chance to contribute, to help.

DiL was still where she’d fallen when Hanabi’s fireworks first went up. He could barely see her, lying on her side, her modesty barely preserved by her glowing hair, which had spread out around her, slowly digging into the street by dissolving any material it came into contact with, and preventing any ground-bound fighters from closing in on her.

Oscillating dodeca fractals the size of dinner plates were flying all around her, dozens of them, interposing themselves between her and any attack that came in – and even when they only hit a part of an attack, they redirected the whole of it, often but not always multiplying it as well. Her defensive choice, it seemed.

Her only choice, apparently, as there were no other power effects originating from her noticeable in any fraction.

That had to mean something, even if the fractals alone were doing great work of messing up all efforts to actually get to her and finish the deal.

Even Basil felt thoroughly dizzy, watching the chaotic mess around her, yet he still did it, trying to see past the power effects and focus on the actual being behind it – though he did keep his senses sharp, ready to dodge any attack coming his way.

When a gap opened amidst the fireworks, he finally got a straight glimpse at DiL – and the expression he saw on her face gave him pause, preventing him from taking any action, if he could even have done anything.

Or rather, the fact that she had any expression at all.

DiL looked confused. It wasn’t an angry kind of confusion, or a sad one, or anything like that.

It was the expression of a child, a toddler, in a grown woman’s body, staring at the world around herself with complete and utter befuddlement.

Innocent, ignorant, of what was truly happening.

You can’t be serious, mate.

Basil staggered back, then dropped into a backwards roll, dodging two or three redirected attacks which chewed up the spot of the street he’d just been standing on, sliced the lamp post behind him in half and a painfully bright shower of rainbow-colored sparks.

She’s…

She’s a monster! You’ve seen what she’s done! You studied it, and now you’re seeing it live! Take those crappy rail-blades of yours and make with the stabby!

Basil shook his head, pulling back further. He needed… he needed to think. To work this out.

God, my head hurts so bad…

He closed his eyes as another bright flash of pain went through his head, DiL’s powers changing – but where before, the flash would have passed as they settled, it continued.

Waves of golden energy rippled out from DiL, travelling across the ground, in every direction, spikes of near-liquid matter shooting up at everyone they passed underneath.

At the same time, another offensive power, glass-like shards, like shattered force-fields, spraying up into the sky, only to suddenly change direction, becoming beyond-razor-sharp projectiles that rained down on everyone and everything within the Desolation Field’s range.

Two wheels of fire formed above DiL’s prone form, as big as trailer truck’s largest wheel, spinning rapidly in place, then starting to also spin in a lopsided circle above her, unleashing volley upon volley of fireballs that sucked the heat out of everything they touched, flash-freezing it instantly.

And another, a fourth power, a cord of green energy that flitted and whirled about, like a string of yarn being held in front of a ventilator – and wherever this one touched, flesh bloomed forth, twisted teratoma growing arms, legs, eyes, hair, entrails, a chaotic jumble of flesh, growing upon anything at all – from the unlucky humans to be touched, to the very concrete and metal lamp posts.

Basil could see it all being unleashed, in split seconds, and he knew there was no way for him to dodge it all – there was just too much, all at once, and that didn’t even account for the ongoing torrent of paralyzing pain.

He saw shards of razor-sharp force-fields come flying, at the same time as the green cord flicked his way – only for all of it to impact a concave force-field, invisible but for the purplish bursts of light that traced their way through it where the attacks impacted it.

Amy?

Looking up and right, he saw his sister, floating high above in the air, one arm outstretched, palm open and facing him, as her eyes burned with purple light, her jaw set in an expression of intense focus.

Her right arm was outstretched as well, gesturing as she manipulated dozens of force-fields, shooting about to block attacks, protecting others as well as herself, grabbing some to move them elsewhere – and then she did the same with Basil, a gesture of her left hand causing the force field that’d just saved his life to wrap around him and launch him into the distance, straight away from DiL’s location.

“No, Amy, I-” he tried to shout, but he didn’t have enough of a breath in him, and the only thing that came out was a groan.

Amy, let me help!

No, Basil. You stay safe, came the response, calm and clipped, if only because of how focused she was on the battle itself.

Before he could reply, the connection cut off, and the force field holding him winked out, leaving him to tumble through the air, above rows of buildings.

He tried to right himself, to see where he was going to land and what he could do to avoid splattering on the ground or a wall, when it became evidently clear that Amy hadn’t just been blindly tossing him about – a blue-tinged cloud formed in his flight path and caught him, turning a darker shade of blue as it seemed to literally drain the kinetic energy out of him.

It quickly flew down and deposited him on a broad balcony above the entrance to the Lennston Historic Museum.

Right next to Gloom Glimmer, who was leaning on the elaborately carved stone balustrade, trying to make it seem casual with her arms crossed on top to lean on, yet revealing a mountain of exhaustion, of many kinds, with literally everything from the set of her shoulders to the pained smile she gave him.

“We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” she quipped lightly, her shoulders sagging almost imperceptibly as the cloud she’d conjured dissipated. “People are going to start talking.”

Basil’s reply was another pained groan, as he almost fell over, just barely catching himself with one hand upon the balustrade, the other going to his head, holding it as if he could physically hold it together against the onslaught of pain.

In the distance, DiL kept spewing out more and more powers, dozens now, the oldest ones only slowly fading away – too slowly, causing the number of powers to keep going up.

And they were, seemingly, all offensive, and brutally so, yet far more crude than she tended to display, pounding her surroundings with neither rhyme nor reason – they did not appear to specifically target anyone or anything in particular.

“Brennus? Hey, Brennus, focus!”

Gloom Glimmer’s drew Basil’s focus back to himself, her warm hands – warm, even through the soft gloves of her full-body suit – touching his cheeks, turning his head away from the staggering display of powers.

“Look me in the eyes!” she commanded him, and his blood-shot eyes met pools of red on a black ground.

It was like stepping out of an over-heated building out into a cool autumn night, the blanket of darkness drawn over his mind soothing away the pain, shielding him from the glaring light of DiL’s power.

The sudden relief – though he could still feel some pain, it was barely a pinprick anymore – was so intense it almost caused him to collapse on the spot.

Ho-ly shit, mate, this girl’s a godsend.

She looked up at him – he was once more struck by how much shorter than him she was, when she wasn’t floating around – and her surprisingly red lips tilted into a gentle smile.

“Better now?”

He nodded, slightly, her hands still cupping his cheeks.

She used her thumbs to wipe tears he hadn’t even noticed he’d shed from his cheeks – at least they weren’t bloody, this time – and then let go, taking a step away.

He almost followed her, a part of him yearning for that gentle touch in the face of all the pain and heartwrench he’d gone through over the last twenty-four hours.

Almost.

“Y-yes, much better. Thank you,” he said, and found his voice to be surprisingly hoarse, as if he’d been screaming at the top of his lungs for a good long time.

Maybe he had.

“What… how are you doing this?” he asked, after a moment of thinking through a much clearer head.

She shrugged. “I theorized that your – and Polymnia’s – headaches within the Desolation Field are due to your high synchronization with your powers – too much data is bleeding over into your brains, more than they are equipped to deal with. I am… basically using a power that lets me take some of that load off. Like running several computers in parallel to deal with a greater data stream at once. You should probably notice that your gadget ideas aren’t coming as hard and fast as they usually do,” she explained, almost on a single breath.

Basil blinked, processing the amount of information she’d just dumped on him – and the implications it made.

He was pretty sure only a handful of people, at best, would’ve known to explain this to him.

A brief moment of introspection revealed that his power was working more slowly than usual, the ideas and observations it fed him even more fragmented than they already tended to be.

“Yes, it is. Not that I mind,” he replied, leaning heavily on the balustrade. “Thank you.”

Her smile briefly lost the sadness and worry it’d carried, and became a thing of beauty indeed. “You’re very welcome,” she said, softly. Then she giggled, drawing a curious look from him. “This power, I’ve used it a few times, to drain other peoples’… skills would be a wrong word. Their intellect, perhaps. This is the first time I’m using it to help someone.”

“I suppose even a power like that has more than one use,” he said, turning back towards the distant spectacle.

It wasn’t distant enough, really. DiL had already demonstrated that she could easily cover the entire area within her field with attacks, though she was currently not doing so, for whatever reason – though it was likely to be just chance, considering the chaotic expression of powers.

Some of them didn’t even seem to do anything, other than generate weird visual effects.

If he squinted, he could see a dot of purple light flying above the locus of it all, fighting tooth and nail against the onslaught.

“I wish I could help,” he said, feeling his heart wrench with worry and guilt. Worry, for the defenders as a whole, but for his sister in particular. Guilt, because it should be him protecting her, not the other way around.

It made little sense, her being the older and more powerful sibling, and yet it was a true thing, a conviction that he should be there, between her and any threat.

“So do I,” Gloom Glimmer agreed, leaning onto the balustrade again, watching the distant fight, her eyes, though inhuman in their coloring, expressing very human fear and sadness. “So do I.”

“Why?” he couldn’t keep himself from asking. “Why are you still here? With your power… why are you not helping, if you want to?”

He didn’t mean to make it sound accusatory, and he was quite certain he hadn’t, yet she still flinched, as if struck.

“I’m burning too quickly through my powers, against her,” she replied, her eyes still transfixed onto the distance. “Fewer powers, weaker ones, coming up slower… I’m afraid to go in there, fight, only to end up having to be saved again, distracting someone who might otherwise k… ki…”

She squeezed her eyes shut, unable to say the word.

“Who might… stop her,” she finished, finally settling on a less troublesome word.

“I understand.” That was basically what’d just happened to him, charging in mindlessly, only to have to be saved by his sister.

Boy, what a freaking pity party.

Shut. Up.

There was quiet, for a few moments.

Then Gloom Glimmer opened her eyes again, unshed tears adding a shine to her red-on-black orbs. “That’s not true,” she said, only to elaborate when he turned his head to look at her, confused. “I mean… it’s not the reason… it’s not the only reason why I’m, here. And not, there.” She gestured at the fighting.

A quick glance showed Basil that DiL had essentially become a wellspring of powers, spewing more effects out in chaotic waves than were arrayed against her.

He should’ve been terrified, or at least concerned, that she was exceeding her previously assumed limitations, but he truly did not have the energy left to do so.

Eh, so things are incomparably worse than anyone assumed them to be. What else is new around here?, the Man in the Moon commented, quite unhelpfully.

Basil did what he could to ignore him, and focus on Gloom Glimmer, his eyes looking at the side of her face.

She continued to speak, without being prompted: “I think, the biggest reason is, that I’m afraid. Not of, dying – though, I am. I am terrified of dying. But even more so, I… I can tell, my power is straining itself to keep up. I’ve pushed it harder, today, than I ever have before, throughout my entire life.” A gulp followed, then: “I’m afraid of pushing it further. Of pushing too hard, of dropping down into this… this vast well of darkness, from which my powers rise, and not coming out again. Or worse, coming out, but…” Her voice turned into a whisper, “Coming out like her. A monster.”

Tears started to run down her unmarred cheeks, as she watched people die in the distance.

Basil averted his eyes. “A well of darkness,” he said, trying to focus on something other than the emotions in her statement.

“Well is, the wrong word, perhaps. An ocean, really. A vast sea of pure blackness, from which powers rise up, like lights drifting towards the sky. It’s weird, I know, but that’s how my power appears to my mind’s eye,” she explained. “I’ve lived with it, for as long as I can recall, and I’ve always feared what might lie below it.”

Quiet fell between them again, with only the cacophony of battle to make it anything but flawlessly so.

Occasionally, Gloom Glimmer would reach out with one arm, gesturing at a distant figure about to be struck by an attack, moving them, teleporting them or otherwise shielding them from harm.

He couldn’t help but smile at the sight.

“What?” she asked, eyes filled with those same unshed tears.

“I do not think it could be such a bad thing,” he answered her, as their eyes met once more.

“What do you mean?”

“You, looking at what is beneath that ocean,” he clarified, smiling as reassuringly as he knew how to. “I do not think you could ever truly be a monster.”

Tears slipped out of her eyes, which were overflowing with pent-up emotions he couldn’t even begin to imagine.

“Take it from someone whose entire existence is defined by jaw-dropping Ignorance – to not know, even the most basic things about oneself, there is no greater fear. No more binding chains. I wish I could know. No matter what I found out, I want to know it. And so should you. Because, maybe knowing it, discovering it, will doom you. Or maybe it will set you free. But remaining ignorant means that the chains will be the only option.”

He shrugged, breaking eye contact as he turned away from her again. “In the end, Knowledge… is… Freedom.

“I… I don’t know… I mean, I…” She shook her head, putting both hands onto the balustrade, squeezing the cold rock so hard it cracked. “I’m so…”

Three twinkles of red light glimmered in the distance, approaching rapidly, and Basil’s body moved almost before he made the choice to, one hand going to the distracted Gloom Glimmer’s shoulder, shoving her out of the path of the first beam of almost solid red light, as thick as Basil’s thigh, which would have punched a hole from the crown of her head all the way through her body.

With that same shove, he also moved his chest out of the way of the second beam, even as it split into a dozen lesser beams, just barely dodging having his torso turned into swiss cheese.

“Darn, I got distracted, I-” She froze, staring at him, the black and red draining out of her eyes, soft, almost jewel-like blue returning.

Basil opened his mouth to tell her… something… but he couldn’t even make a sigh, feeling nothing but blood bubble out past his lips.

Looking down, he was confused to see three holes through his torso, each as thick around as his biceps. One through where he assumed his heart to be, one through the right lung, and another straight through the lower left side of his ribcage, having disintegrated his floating rib, and more.

Oh, bugger, he thought, as shadows encroached his vision, as they did his mind.

The world tilted, spinning, his body collapsing like a puppet which’d had its strings cut all at once.

The last thing he saw was Gloom Glimmer throwing up a force field to shield herself from another attack, even as she reached out for him with her other hand, her face twisted in shock – but unharmed.

At least I did not fail twice on the same day…

Then, the pain was gone for good, as was everything else.

***

In the middle of the desperate fight, suddenly, the entire battle was interrupted.

A scream tore its way out of Mindstar’s throat and mind alike, propagating outwards by means both natural and not.

It was a scream unlike anything anyone within its reach had ever heard, except perhaps the Dark himself. A primal thing, beyond thought or reason, beyond even such prosaic things as rage or grief.

The scream – though that was an inadequate word to describe it, for the actually, physically audible component was but the smallest fraction of the whole – distorted reality around her, blowing away everything – every single power’s effects, every speck of dust, every body close enough to be caught in its innermost wake, every thought and emotion; everything was blown away out of a rapidly expanding sphere of nothing but that colossal distortion.

Even DiL seemed to feel it, her whole body flinching, head turning to look straight up at Mindstar.

Basil’s sister continued to scream as she directed her burning purple gaze down upon her quarry, and shot towards her with such force she out-sped her own wake.

Powers emerged from DiL once more, a dazzling number, too many to count, but Mindstar created a pentagonal force field in front of her.

It shattered, as soon as it came into contact with the onslaught of powers, yet another was right behind it to absorb more of it.

And another.

And yet another.

Dozens, scores, hundreds, thousands of layers, generated at beyond the speed of thought, layered upon one another, blocked DiL’s aimless, omnidirectional assault, and Mindstar shot straight through it, impacting her foe.

Said impact was so forceful it blew the dust away once more, the pressure wave throwing several capes and cowls off their feet or sending the flying ones tumbling, those who’d somehow resisted the impact of her scream – resisted the continuing effect of it, as she didn’t stop screaming, be it in body or in mind, even now.

The ground cracked, and collapsed, buildings falling apart as the city immediately around where she’d hit sagged into the ground.

To those still able to see was revealed an utterly discordant sight – Mindstar was straddling DiL, screaming at the top of her lungs as her fists rained strike upon strike down on the prone maiden of terror.

With each strike came a burst of purple energy, as if she had her fists wrapped in her own force fields, enhancing their power.

Blow upon blow rained down upon DiL, pulverizing the confused girl’s face, splattering red and grey gore all over the ground around them, and upon the raging villainess’s costume and mask.

More blows came, until nothing was left of the head but liquid and some chips of white bone, but she was not done yet.

Fists opened into claws and ripped into the headless body, sinking into flesh like it was clay, tearing it apart.

One arm was broken and twisted off at the elbow, tossed aside carelessly, while the other was torn straight out of the socket with a sickeningly wet sound. Breasts and ribs went flying, pulped into unrecognizable masses by the sheer force of her hands clenching around them. Lungs, stomach and heart, torn and crushed. The spine, pounded into the ground until it was so much fine paste.

Only when everything above the waist had been returned to little more than a red cover upon the ground, the still-glowing mass of hair surrounding them and covering the purple girl’s fists up to the elbows, did her assault, her rage and her scream abate.

She stumbled up onto her feet, staggering, barely staying atop her delicate heels as she turned away, arms hanging down, shoulders slumped.

Above her, the Desolation Field dissipated, the day turning into night once more, and the light faded from DiL’s hair, leaving long, golden locks behind, with a single, purple eye lying amidst their coils.

Men and women, heroes and villains, they all stared down in sheer shock, as the purple girl staggered aimlessly around within the crater she’d made, mindlessly repeating the same whispered words, over and over.

“Basil… Basil… I’ve got to find… Basil… I can’t… can’t feel… Basil… Basil… Basil…”

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vote for brennus

B13.15 Call of the Sleeper

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The floor panel groaned briefly as it was crushed, crumpled up and cast aside by Amy’s power, revealing the power cables underneath.

Basil knelt down and got to work, ripping them out and jury rigging them to connect to his armour’s recharger, a device he’d specifically created to be able to recharge his batteries while in the field, by tapping into any available power grid – it was built into the bottom of his armour’s ‘backpack’ module.

Soon enough, the half-empty charge icon on his HUD began to blink and slowly fill up again.

He took the chance to run several system checks, making sure that everything – particularly his still-unnamed drone – was running smoothly, even after the heavy use the other one had made of them.

Fortunately, everything except for his utterly wrecked rifle was in working ord-

You are aware that you’re just avoiding the issue, right, mate? the Man in the Moon mocked him from the back of his head.

Basil couldn’t deny it, looking up. He’d squatted down to attach the cables, finding himself apart from the others.

Amy was hovering nearby – both literally and figuratively – with her arms crossed over her chest, looking both embarrassed and furious, but staying quiet even as she avoided looking at Basil.

The Junior Heroes stood as far away from Amy as they could while still being on the same platform, talking quietly amongst each other; Everyone but Gloom Glimmer looked thoroughly shaken and Spellgun, at least, was regularly glaring at both Amy and Basil. Gloom Glimmer herself had so far remained quiet, floating a few centimetre above the floor, her cloak hiding most of her body. He couldn’t tell where she was looking, but her hood’s opening at least wasn’t pointed his way.

Near the juniors, Tyche leaned against a pillar, her arms crossed and her bare face expressing both confusion and sadness as her eyes moved from one of her friends to another and back, over and over again.

Hecate stood as far away from Basil as she could, her back to him, her posture impossible to determine beneath her own cloak, facing the tunnel they’d come in through.

That hurt the most, by far.

You knew it was coming, the voice continued on. You knew ever since you found out about her cousin. Of course, you didn’t think it’d come to a head like this, but still…

Unless you have anything constructive to say, be quiet, Basil directed a particularly forceful thought at the Man in the Moon.

Have it your way.

The charging process finished and he disconnected the cables, standing up. Looking briefly at his sister, he turned towards Hecate…

I should give her a little more time.

He approached Tyche instead, stopping just a little over an arm’s reach away from her and reached up into his hood to unlock his helmet and take it off, so she could see his face.

“This is really, really fucked up, B6,” Tyche spoke softly.

“It is,” he agreed with her. “I am sorry to spring this on you like that. I…” He stopped, not sure how to continue that sentence.

“You would’ve preferred not to tell us at all,” she completed it, without any accusation in her tone.

He opened his mouth to deny it, but couldn’t, lowering his head instead.

“I’m not angry at you, B,” she continued reassuringly, making him look up at her in surprise. “Or angry with you. Or whatever.”

“You are not?” he stared at her, dumbfounded as he truly couldn’t find any anger in her eyes.

“You’re my friend, B,” she replied, looking down as he felt a knife being driven into his heart. “Friends forgive each other. Friends understand one another. And I understand why you kept it a secret. Can’t really say I wouldn’t have done the same.” She raised her head again, smiling wrily. “So I can’t really blame you for it, even if it hurts that you didn’t trust us with it.”

The knife twisted, slowly.

“I wanted to tell you, both, so many times,” he said, honestly, his voice thick. “But there always seemed to be a reason not to. Especially after…”

“After you found out about Heck’s hateboner for your sis?” She chuckled, the sound oddly muted compared to her usual expressions. “Yeah, that was quite the bomb even for me. Must’ve been even worse for you.”

He nodded mutely.

“Well…” she temporised, “I… honestly, I should probably be angrier at you, but… I kinda topped out on emotions for today. And… it’s not like… you know…” She looked down, suddenly looking ashamed, which only served to confuse Basil even further. “After this… I’m out, anyway.”

Basil looked at her, his blood gone cold. “You are leaving the team?” he asked, trying not to show how much the thought hurt him, even if he’d expected something like that.

She shook her head. “No. Not the team. Or, not just the team. After we go back home, I’m… leaving Tyche behind,” she explained in a quiet voice. “I’m putting the cape down, so to speak. Or hanging it up, I guess.”

Basil raised a hand, running his fingers through his hair, his hood falling back as he processed that. “Why? Is it because…”

“It’s got nothing to do with you,” she assured him, raising a hand to forestall his guess. “I was pretty much set on it even before we found out about that.” She took a deep breath, closing her eyes. “I was gonna tell you and Heck after this mission was over, but… I better tell each of you, separately.” She took another deep breath, her eyes flitting about, left and right, held low, before she finally looked up to meet his own gaze.

There were tears in her eyes.

“Remember when you used to tell me that probability manipulators like me, we build up bad luck for every bit of good luck we get?” she asked, her voice thick. Before he could even nod, she continued. “You didn’t want to believe that my power was free of that. You told me to be careful, not to rely too much on it. You refused to rely on it, wouldn’t have me like, flip coins or roll dice to figure stuff out and all.” The tears finally fell from her eyes, running down her cheeks. “You were right, B. You were so god damn right. I did create bad luck, every time I had good luck for myself. Only I’m way more selfish than the other guys with my power. I didn’t get bad luck myself, I put it… on others.”

Basil stared at her, not sure how to reply.

She pressed on. “And you know who? Not the villains, or anything. No. Civilians. Normal people. People, I, I didn’t like…” She sniffed, tears running down her cheeks. “I, I told you about those, those girls, who bullied me? Who I got these powers from?”

He nodded, mutely.

“Whom,” a soft, slightly hoarse voice spoke so quietly it was barely more than a whisper. “The right term is ‘whom’.”

Both of them turned to the side, and found themselves faced with Hecate, who’d walked up to them without a sound.

Her face was hidden in the shadows of her hood, but she was quite clearly looking only at Tyche, and decidedly not at Basil.

“Right, ‘whom’. Your favourite word,” Tyche giggled through her tears. “You heard everything I said?”

Hecate nodded.

The redhead sniffed, then pulled a tissue out of her leather jacket’s pocket to blow her nose. “W-well… it hit, hit them,” she admitted in a quiet, miserable voice. “The bad luck… it went to them. It… one of them’s dead. Hit by a bus. Another tried to kill herself after… after some horrible stuff happened to her. And the last one, she’s apparently become a supervillain, after Hastur’s monsters nearly k-killed her, too.”

Both Hecate and Basil could only stare at her in response to that. He wasn’t sure about Hecate, but Basil, at least, felt his jaw drop.

“Oh, Tyche,” he said, only to flinch as he realised that he’d spoken at the same time as Hecate, and said the same words, in the same tone of voice, as well. He briefly looked at her, but she kept ignoring him.

Their friend nodded, weak little sobs escaping her throat as she looked down at her feet.

“Tyche,” Basil spoke carefully. “How do you… how do you know that?”

“Th-that guy… Immanuel… he told me,” she explained, rubbing her eyes with the palms of her hands, trying to stem the flow of tears. “He knew, so much about me. Knew everything. More than I did.”

If I ever catch this, I’m going to turn his face onto his fucking back. “How do you know he is… that he is right? Even if he had the power to somehow know all that, how can you be sure he is being sincere, and not, well… lying through his teeth?” he prodded gently, not sure how far he could risk pushing her right now.

He felt horrible just for not stepping forward and embracing her, she looked so miserable; but he had to make sure she wasn’t just being manipulated by some jerk – of which there was an extreme abundance on this floating city.

Fortunately, Hecate took over that part, reaching out to pull Tyche into a tight embrace. The redheaded girl sobbed quietly, wrapping her arms around her friend and holding on tight.

Basil averted his eyes, feeling uncomfortable at the distance he felt towards them… just a few minutes ago, he’d have embraced them as well, or been drawn in by Hecate. Not now, obviously.

He didn’t press his point, waiting quietly for Tyche to regain her composure. He knew this was wasting time, again, but he couldn’t bring himself to care right then and there.

“He knew, knew everything else. Knew even…” She was interrupted by a sudden hiccup. “It’s not just them. Not just those girls. My mom… it’s been going after my mom…” She dissolved into incoherent sobbing again – if it wasn’t for Hecate holding onto her, she’d have collapsed right then and there.

“Brennus,” another voice spoke up from behind Basil, and he turned around. Tartsche looked at him, with the rest of his team arrayed behind him. “We need to talk. Right now.” He looked at the sobbing Tyche, looking uncomfortable, then focused on Basil again.

“Let’s step aside,” Basil said, not waiting for him to agree as he walked away from his friends. Hecate was whispering to Tyche, and he was pretty sure she’d ask all the important questions and do what she could to help her, even – or perhaps especially – without him.

He walked to where the junior heroes had been standing together earlier, feeling Amy’s attention on him – not her physical eyes, but her other sight, he was sure. Ignoring her, he turned around to face them.

All of them, save for Gloom Glimmer and Osore, were looking at him rather uncomfortably, studying his face. Polymnia looked rather shocked as she looked at him, but he didn’t care, and stayed quiet, waiting for Tartsche to say his piece.

Finally, the young leader of the group crossed his arms, his expression going from uncomfortable to determined. “Gloom Glimmer assures me it’s true, and it ain’t some kind of weird plot by Mindstar, and you’re not her mindslave or anything.”

Basil couldn’t help but smile slightly. “It’s true,” he replied, though he couldn’t keep himself from adding, “Of course, she might just be making me say so.”

Amy snorted loudly from where she was still floating in place. Everyone did their best to ignore her, except for Basil, who leaned to the side, so he could look at her past the heroes.

“It is not polite to eavesdrop!” he called out.

“Like I care!” she called back, before she very pointedly rotated in place to give him the cold shoulder.

He stood up straight again and looked at Tartsche with a tired smile. “Continue.”

Tartsche took a deep breath. “I can’t even begin to describe how fucked up I think this all is. And honestly, in any other situation, I’d take my team and bail, right now,” he stated, his voice hard.

Basil titled his head to the side, confused. “But you will not?” He was expecting him to, at least.

The young hero shook his head. “You being her brother and her being here doesn’t change the fact that there’s people who’re going to die horribly if we don’t find a cure, and whatever the UH or the government or whoever else has planned just plain won’t come in time. So I, at least, am sticking with this. And I’ve talked with the others, and they all agreed to do the same. But after this… you know we can’t keep this a secret, right?” he concluded, giving him an uncomfortable, even apologetic look.

Basil kept smiling. “I would not expect you to keep it secret,” he replied calmly. “Nor am I going to hold it against you when you reveal it to the UH.” He sighed, rolling his shoulders to loosen up a bit. “I knew what I was getting myslef into, when I revealed our relation, earlier. But it was either that, lying to you all, or having her edit your recollection. The latter was unacceptable and the second I have been doing too much of for too long, so…”

“You decided to put it out in the open,” Tartsche concluded, nodding. “I can respect that. Even if the timing’s horrible.”

“Well, I did not exactly plan for her to show up here,” Basil defended himself and shrugged. Then he looked over the assembled heroes. “You are all staying? In spite of this?”

They all exchanged looks, then focused on him again and nodded.

“I can’t speak for the others,” Gloom Glimmer said mirthfully, “but I’m hardly one to cast stones over someone having a supervillain as a family member they don’t disavow.”

“It’s not like you chose who your sister was going to be, or that she become a supervillain,” Polymnia assured him in a soft voice.

“That doesn’t mean this won’t have consequences for how we interact, after our current mission is over,” Tartsche took over again. “The UH has been extending a lot of trust and good will in how it treated you and your team, in part because of how depleted our numbers are. But there’s no way that’ll continue once it comes out that you’re Mindstar’s brother – nevermind the fact that you’ve been keeping it a secret, regardless of her being family.”

Basil just nodded. “I know. And speaking of which…” He looked sideways at Hecate and Tyche. The latter was standing on her own again, though keeping her head lowered as her friend held onto her shoulders with both hands, speaking quietly – too quietly to hear. “We really should get going. Finish this, before they muster another line of defense.”

***

“Well, that didn’t go as expected, did it?” Heaven’s Dancer mocked, trying to mask her concern – not that she could, not from Immanuel – as she in a demure position on the edge of the platform he’d been meditating upon, her hands folded primly on her lap, her knees together.

Immanuel was in the process of tying his bootlaces, having changed into a more formal outfit taken from a box that’d slid out of the same platform. He was now wearing a pair of loose, smooth golden pants and a sleeveless black shirt made of a shimmering material as tight as a second skin, exposing his arms, which were in turn partially covered by black fingerless gloves that reached up to his biceps, with some gold embroidery on the back of his hands and around his wrists. His boots were black, as well, with golden laces. Other than that, he made no concession to the usual costuming craze – even this much had mostly been forced on him by his over-eager staffers deciding to ‘spruce up’ his usual outfit. Children these days…

“I admit, things are going horribly wrong faster than I expected,” he spoke with neither rancor nor chargrin in his voice or expression. “Mind you, I never would have expected Brennus to be able to locate this base based on a momentary glimpse of the nightsky given to him by Crocell’s dying throes,” he admitted. “In fact, I’d really like to know how that managed to evade my sight. There’s something fishy going on with that boy, and I’m not talking about his messed-up memories.”

“Something even more fishy than that? Oh, joy of joys,” she couldn’t help but reply in her most deadpan voice. “You really should’ve taken them down as soon as they appeared, not dilly-dallied this long, you know? He won’t like that.”

He waved her concern off. “The base was lost the moment young Brennus discovered its location – he was smart enough to share it with every authority he could reach as soon as he knew, and even with the Syndicate, via his sister,” he justified his decision to take a more relaxed stance on the issue. “Nothing we do here is going to prevent its loss – it’s not like we can move the Sleeper somewhere else. All we can do is prevent a total loss – thus why I began a silent evacuation as soon as I realised what was coming – and gather as much data on how we got compromised to begin with, and on what’s clearly several major talents, some of whom we didn’t even know about.”

“You always know how to make it sound like you know what you’re doing, don’t you?” she asked in annoyance, not that she could actually refute any of his points. “But even so, we ought to take some precautions, make sure they don’t actually mess up anything too valuable before they get away… mind you, is letting them get away even that wise? We ought to keep at least some of them, like this Brennus.”

“Perhaps,” he temporised. “But keeping Brennus would require that we capture or kill Mindstar. He’s also close to Gloom Glimmer, whom we’d also have to take care of, and I really don’t want to explain again why killing or capturing that one would be a stupid, stupid idea.” He stopped in the middle of tying the last knot. “Also, there’s Tyche, of course. Her power, combined with Gloom Glimmer’s, means we really don’t have any truly safe way to deal with them, other than to let them reach Dusu, then leave on their own. At least not until Konrad arrives.”

“You called Konrad!?” Heaven’s Dancer paled. “Immanuel, dropping him into this situation…”

“Konrad is one of only two people – the other being me – whom we know can take that group down without killing anyone,” he assuaged her worries. “I can most likely do it by myself, but just in case I fail, I want him on his way here.” He finished tying his laces and leap onto his feet in a nimble move, segueing straight into some stretches to limber up. “Enough talk. I have my boots on – time to start kicking ass!”

***

“You know, you don’t have to make us feel that amateurish,” Spellgun complained as they all looked around at the unconscious and, in some cases, heavily wounded bodies strewn about the room.

They’d run – at Basil’s and Tartsche’s insistence – deeper into the installation, following the directions Immanuel had given Tyche on the assumption that it was better than running blindly – nevermind that, according to Gloom Glimmer, they were moving closer to Dusu.

Unfortunately, even running while bolstered by Gloom Glimmer, who was preventing them from growing tired, they hadn’t been able to move fast enough to get to their goal before the next line of defense was set up – if it hadn’t been already set up before they even fought the late Skulls’ group earlier.

Ten metahumans in combat gear had been waiting in ambush, literally melting out of the walls and floor around them as they ran down another featureless white hallway.

Before even one of them could bring their powers to bear, Amy had torn into them with a savage cry, swiping them all up with her telekinesis and smashing them all over the place, into walls, the ceiling, the floor, hurting them before she simply turned them all off with her telepathy.

At least, Basil hoped it was her telepathy, and that she hadn’t just killed them all. A quick check with his enhanced vision modes showed that, yes, they were all still alive, if definitely out of any fight for a while now.

Amy, meanwhile, ignored Spellgun’s comment. “Keep moving,” she snarled instead as she flew onwards, the only one not on her feet, now that Gloom Glimmer was running with them. “I’m in their heads – Dusu’s lab is nearby. She’s got a whole building basically to herself; only one else there is the new Ascendant.”

They turned a corner, moving down another featureless hallway, passing by several heavy steel doors.

“Ok, so, what can we expect?” Tartsche asked, directing the question towards Basil.

“We’re going up against two gadgeteers in their own labs,” Basil replied. “Assuming both are there, they’ll be both at an advantage and at a disadvantage – an advantage because they’ll have all their creations there, at hand, plus their likely heavily fortified labs – I know I built a lot of traps and defense systems into mine – and at a disadvantage, since they’ll likely want to prevent us from smashing all their hard work into pieces.”

“Not that we should,” Polymnia added. “Dusu is a plague-gadgeteer. We do not want to unleash anything she’s got stored in there.”

“No going in with a hammer then,” Hecate concurred. “Seeing how we want her alive and able to talk, and she’s not supposed to have any other powers, we shouldn’t go in smashi-”

She was cut off at the sound of a crash from further up ahead the hallway, behind a heavy steel door. Screams soon followed.

“The hell is that!?” Bakeneko asked, staring at the heavy door.

“Just cleaning up some trash,” Amy replied calmly, while Gloom Glimmer stepped forth and put a hand to the door, causing it to simply melt away into the floor.

Beyond it, another group of cowls – each in their own costume, save for a pair of twins in matching viking outfits – was busy fighting each other, completely ignoring their group as they ran past.

“What’d you do to them? Ma’am,” Tartsche asked Amy, appending a honorific at the end, apparently on reflex.

“Call me ‘ma’am’ again and I’ll feed you your boyfriend’s gun,” she replied, flying ahead of the group. “And I just adjusted some details in their perception. They were already primed for a fight, so it wasn’t hard to set them off.”

“You’re one scary bitch,” Spellgun grumbled under his breath, barely audible; yet Amy heard him and looked over her shoulder at him, giving him a grin that made him shudder.

“Careful, gunbunny,” she told him. “You might make a girl feel bashful and undeserving of such praise, make her try to earn it.”

Hecate snarled audibly as Spellgun waved his free hand in a negating gesture, assuring Amy that he hadn’t really meant it and all.

Basil ignored the byplay, mostly, and kept running. He already knew what Amy was capable of – she’d never hesitated to share – and was glad that at least he hadn’t destroyed his team, his friendship with Hecate and his rapport with the UH for less than a massive boost to their efficiency.

After five more minutes of running – they’d decided not to use any more trains – he started to grow seriously suspicious of how quiet the whole place was.

“How come we are not running into more people?” he asked aloud. “This place is larger than the average American town – there should be far more people around.”

“They’ve been evacuating it,” Amy replied. “Saw it in one of their minds. They’ve guessed that we’ve shared the location of the place with the kind of people they can’t fight off, so they’re packing up what they can to get away.”

“What?!” Basil shouted, nearly tripping over his own feet. “Why did you not say so sooner!? We need to hurry up, or she will get away, if she has not already!”

“Relaaaax,” she replied and though he couldn’t see it, he knew she was rolling her eyes. “Dusu’s still there. That’s why there’s so many guards left along the way to her; she and the Ascendant are working on high-priority projects, and they’re taking some time to get out – we should get there before Dusu has left. The Ascendant’s projects are apparently slow to move, too, so she’ll likely also be there.”

“Alright, let’s haul it then!” Tartsche exlaimed and picked up speed, bolstered by Gloom Glimmer’s power.

They ran through two more doors – and past another security team that went down quickly between Amy and Gloom Glimmer tearing through them – before Basil noticed that the hallways were growing wider, and the doors on the sides more sparse.

Finally, they tore through one more door and found themselves in a long hallway with glass walls and a glass ceiling, leading straight towards a larger, cubic building that stood apart from the rest of the nearby structures.

“Dusu’s in there,” Gloom Glimmer announced. “I can feel it.”

“Yeah, that’s what the memories I saw said, as well,” Amy confirmed her statement, flying ahead of the group down the hallway. “She should be somewhere in the eastern half of the building, that’s where her and Syrinx’ – some lesser gadgeteer who works as her assistant – labs are. The western half belongs to the As-” She stopped talking, suddenly, raising her head before continuing on. “There’s something in there… a bubble of space in the western half that I can’t look into. Every other part of the building is empty, I think… save for some…”

“Some what?” Tartsche asked when she wouldn’t continue.

“Test subjects,” she spoke with a note of disgust in her voice. “The lower levels of the building are filled with people they’ve been experimenting on.”

“But where is Dusu?” Basil pressed the important point – as much as it sickened him, whether or not they had a chance to help those poor souls, they had to capture their tormentors first. “In that bubble you can not look into? Gloom Glimmer, can you see into it?” He looked at the black-haired heroine.

She shook her head, hair flying left and right. “No. That power… I’ve felt something like it before. One of Dad’s subordinates, he could kind of… push powers away around himself. Completely messed up more delicate stuff, like remote senses, and weakened cruder powers, too. This should be similar.”

“I remember that guy,” Amy replied to her. “Fuzz, was his name? Didn’t he die in a crash during a car chase or something?”

“Yup, that’s him,” Gloom Glimmer affirmed. “Anyway, I don’t think I can pierce the effect – but I know Dusu is close, and that’s the only place I can’t look into, nor can Mindstar, so…”

“To the Ascendant’s lab we go,” Basil concluded, and they continued their charge down the glass hallway.

***

“I must avow that we need to rethink the whole ‘put an army of mad scientists into an enclosed location and give them near-unlimited resources’ concept,” Immanuel admitted to Heaven’s Dancer as they were using a train to move towards Dusu’s lab. He’d overridden its normal programming, of course, so it wouldn’t stop at any station along the way.

“Why do you say that, now?” Heaven’s Dancer asked him rather warily.

“Because what Dusu, the Ascendant and Syrinx are planning right now is either going to be incredibly awesome or an utter catastrophy for us all…”

***

Basil put his force gauntlet to the final door and with a simple eye twitch, activated the blaster, blowing the heavy steel door open in a massive cacophony of tormented steel, followed by him, Gloom Glimmer and Amy charging in ahead of the others into a huge room full of metal coffins standing upright on circular podests, lit by fluorescent lighting from above.

Coming to a halt, he looked around for his target, his heart pumping, ready to leap at Dusu and beat the cure out of her…

And there she was, looking just like in the one photograph he’d been able to find of her, taken many years ago shortly before the Hawaii incident, before she became an internationally wanted bio-terrorist, having aged not a day since.

An utterly unassuming looking woman of Chinese descent, attractive but not so much that she’d stand out in a crowd with a heart-shaped face and long, straight hair held back by a white hairband, wearing a white labcoat over scrubs, a mockery of a medical professional.

There was a man with her in a matching outfit, tall, well-built but otherwise unremarkable save for his wild blonde hair, and a taller woman with features matching images he’d seen of South American indigenous people, also in scrubs and a labcoat.

The man – probably Syrinx – looked at them in shock, the Ascendant was busy operating the control panel of one of the upright coffins and Dusu looked straight at them, her gaze dismissive, a smirk on her lips…

Basil saw red, and gestured towards her to launch his drone straight at the bitch…

But Gloom Glimmer intercepted his movement, catching his hand. “No. Remember, we need her whole,” she whispered, apparently having seen it coming.

“Well, look what we have the-” Dusu began to say, but was cut off when she, Syrinx and the Ascendant were suddenly dragged away from the coffin-like tank they’d been working on. Crying out in surprise and shock, they leaned away from the pull, even as Amy visibly focused on moving them, reaching through whatever power was protecting them now that she could see them with her own eyes.

“There we go…” Amy said. “They’re planning something… but I can’t read their minds… yet,” she explained as she grinned, savagely. “Don’t worry, dear idiot brother – you’ll have your cure, soon enough.” She advanced on them, along with the rest of the group.

A hand sign from Tartsche made them fan out, watching as the three villains were being dragged inexorably towards them, straining against the effect to no avail.

“Oh, come on…” Syrinx groaned. “I thought two-oh-one’s power would protect us!”

“It’s not perfect,” the Ascendant replied calmly, looking rather unperturbed by the whole situation. “But it should buy us enough time.”

“Enough time for what?” Basil asked, letting his drone float off his thigh, drifting into an orbit above his head.

Then the coffin they’d worked on hissed, and unlocked, the part facing them opening upwards to expel a large amount of vapour.

At the same time, the Ascendant reached into her pocket and pulled out a remote, pressing a button before anyone could stop her – and all three of them were pulled forward, towards Amy, her grip suddenly several orders of magnitude stronger.

“She turned off the anti-power field!” Gloom Glimmer exclaimed, raising her hands towards the villains, causing glowing chains to appear and wrap around them, restraining them.

“Too late,” the Ascendant smirked, her smoky voice dripping with smugness. “I just needed to make sure two-oh-one wouldn’t interfere with four-four-four.”

Amy’s eyes widened as she read their minds, and she raised her hands, gesturing at the coffin as a single figure – a woman drenched in a sticky fluid, wearing nothing but a bathsuit-shaped grey material that covered her torso and crotch, leaving her long, slender legs and arms free, revealing smooth, healthy skin and long gold-blonde hair, currently darkened due to being completely drenched.

The telekinetic blast caught the woman in the head before she could raise it from the crouching position she’d been caught in, smashing her body into a bloody pulp and destroying the container she’d been in.

The woman rose from her crouching position, whole again and dry, her long hair now much more voluminous, her suit, while still nearly obscenely tight and little besides her torso, was also dry again.

“Who the fuck is that?” Bakeneko asked aloud as they saw the woman’s – a girl, really, only a few years older than them and about Amy’s age – lovely, heart-shaped face.

None of the others (except perhaps Osore, who remained quiet about it in any case) had any trouble recognising her – they passed her statue pretty much every day, whenever they entered or left their school, just for starters.

Bright, sapphire-like eyes opened, looking at them without feeling or recognition, empty of any warmth or even the most basic of emotions, her movements oddly graceful in spite of her loose, hunched-over posture, her arms dangling limply.

“Subject four-four-four!” the Ascendant shouted in a loud, clear voice. Basil whirled to the right, sending his drone out to smash into her mouth and shut her up rather roughly, but he was too late – the drone smashed into the empty floor, bouncing off. The villains stood behind the blonde beauty, unharmed and standing, free of Gloom Glimmer’s bindings, which dissolved as they hit the floor where their prisoners had just lain.

Not that Gloom Glimmer seemed to care, as she took a wavering step forward, staring at the young woman in shock.

“Diantha?” she asked in a small voice. “Sis?”

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B13.13 Call of the Sleeper

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Vasiliki cried out when she saw her friend be struck in the back, but the poison from tranquiliser darts that had pierced her sternum and her left breast, though not yet sufficient to knock her enhanced physique out, left her too weak to even struggle against her captors, forcing her to just watch.

Fortunately, the villains didn’t open fire, too dumbfounded by the unexpected attack to react – as were her teammates, who stared at Osore in shock.

“The fu-” Chronicle began to say, but stopped when she saw Brennus shudder.

Vasiliki watched as her friend stumbled forward, then back, swaying on his feet. His hands reached up into his hood and he bent over, groaning.

Is he going to go berserk again? she asked herself, reminded of that occasion when Osore had tagged him by accident while fighting the Spiteborn. Did Osore intend for that to happen? It seemed to be the only explanation for his behaviour, unless he’d suddenly decided to turn traitor, or been dominated by Thoughtseize… but what he’d said didn’t fit.

Her useless musings were cut off when Brennus groaned, and pulled on his helmet, taking it off and casting it aside. He staggered forward, bent over, his face hidden by his hood and his hands, before he stood up and bent back, as if to look upwards. His hood slid off his head, revealing his messy black hair, but his face remained hidden by his gloved hands. Another groan escaped his mouth, and his whole body shook, a shudder that went from head to toe.

“What’s wrong with him?” Skulls asked, sounding annoyed. “Ah, nevermind. Thanks for taking your fucking helmet off, idiot.” One of the Skullmen raised his rifle and fired a dart at Basil from above.

He raised his shield in a lightning-quick movement, deflecting the shot without even looking at it.

“Ahhh…” He lowered his arm again. “Can’t a bloke even get a moment to get his bearings?” he asked, speaking with a completely different accent than usual – something British, Hecate thought, but she wasn’t sure.

Her friend looked around, keeping his hand on his face in lieu of a mask, looking through the gaps between his fingers to scan his surroundings, his dark eyes passing over the barely conscious Polymnia on the ground, along the line of their enemies, then over Hecate-

Their eyes met, for just a moment, and Hecate’s breath caught. They were still his eyes, but it wasn’t Basil behind them. They were cold, yet hot, inhumanly intense; just the brief glance gave her a disorienting sense of vertigo.

His eyes moved on, and she breathed again. His eyes… they were like Emyr’s…

“What a bleedin’ mess this is,” he complained, sounding annoyed as he completed his view around the train station. His eyes settled on Skulls, and the woman stumbled back, nearly dropping her weapon. Clearly, Hecate wasn’t the only one his gaze affected so. “Guess I’ll kill’ya first, slattern.”

Skulls looked aside at her teammates. “What the fuck does slat-“

“Boss, look out!” Boltstar cried out, firing one of his spheres, but he was too late.

The stranger behind Basil’s eyes fired both of his grappling ‘hooks’, one of them attaching to the collar of Skulls’ body armour, the other to the edge of the train platform just in front of her, and reeled them both in, launching himself out of the way of the spheres and its follow-up energy bolts, while pulling Skulls off her feet.

The vile woman cried out, but couldn’t react in time as the stranger struck at her with his right elbow, pulling her into the strike in such a savage move, he shattered her forehead and broke her neck in a single strike.

Disconnecting his hooks from her and the platform, he kicked himself off the edge of the platform, somersaulting over a flying stab from Karasuha, who’d launched herself like a missile at him.

Shooting his hooks at the platform again, one past each side of the still moving Karasuha, he pulled himself towards her, slamming with both feet into her heavily armoured back, followed by slamming her into the metallic platform with such force, the metal screamed and deformed.

The villainess did not even have the breath to scream or groan, nor did he give her a chance to catch it, reaching down to snap her neck with both hands.

The woman’s legs kicked out once, then another time as he leapt off her body, evading another sphere fired by Boltstar. Rolling over Skulls’ corpse and past the brick-patterned villain, he picked up Karasuha’s katana and Skulls’ combat knife, throwing the former at Boltstar.

The well-muscled, heroic-looking man gurgled wetly as the katana pierced his throat, sliding in until its crossguard stopped it.

The stranger came up onto his feet, flipping the pilfered knife over to his right hand, slashing at Chronicle’s throat – though it was blocked by the same force-field that’d protected her earlier.

It didn’t seem to deter him, though – rather, he kept moving as if he’d seen it coming, whirling around as Chronicle and Thoughtseize both staggered back in shock, and threw the knife into the back of the brick-patterned villain’s head, killing him instantly.

Mere moments had passed since he’d said he’d kill Skulls.

The force-field protecting Thoughtseize and Chronicle shimmered and collapsed the moment the brick-patterned villain died, and the stranger turned towards them – but he was forced to leap backwards towards the rails as the Skullmen opened fire at him.

“Chronicle, now!” Thoughtseize shouted, making the younger woman squeak, her left hand clenching her over-sized book tightly to her chest, her right one gesturing towards her fallen comrades in a sweeping gesture.

Skulls, his/her Skullmen, Boltstar, Karasuha and the brick-patterned villain flickered and were whole again, though still on the ground and, in the case of the two females, with their weapons returned to their sheaths. Behind her, Vasiliki heard the four Skullmen she’d taken down before being taken down herself get up again.

They began to stand up, and Boltstar even released another set of turrets without hesitating, but to Vasiliki’s amazement, the stranger didn’t lose a step.

Ignoring the hail of tranquiliser darts coming at him as the Skullmen adjusted their aim, he fired his hooks again and launched himself at Karasuha, activating his force-shield on his left gauntlet to deflect the shots from those few Skullmen who managed to adjust their aim in time.

Karasuha rolled out of the way to avoid being smashed into the ground again, but she rolled to the left and that cost her her life once more – the stranger landed on his feet and slammed the edge of his shield down at her neck, severing her head from her torso.

“Bulwark, fucking catch him already!” Boltstar shouted, having risen onto his knees, and fired one of his crackling spheres at the stranger, only for him to bend out of its way, dodging the attack entirely.

With the same motion, he pulled Karasuha’s katana out of its sheath and jumped towards Boltstar, just as a force-field shimmered into existence around where he’d just stood, swinging the blade to cut deep into the man’s throat, nearly deep enough to sever his head entirely.

“Shoot him!” Skulls shouted in a rage. “Ignore friendly fire and just shoot! Chronicle, bring them back, now!”

The stranger dove forward and into the mass of Skullmen on that side of the train tracks and, for a moment, Vasiliki could see his face.

He was grinning as he cut into the Skullmen with the katana, the blade, though no longer empowered by Karasuha, still cut through them; his attacks always aiming at throats, eyeholes, armpits and other weak points of their armour.

She watched in awe and horror as whoever had control over her friend’s body massacred his opposition. There was no grace to his movements, none of the fluidity she associated with trained martial artists – and she had some of those in her family, including a kendo-nut; the way he fought was nothing like that. It was fast, raw, savage. No formal technique, only brutal efficiency, his every strike claiming one of the Skullmen’s lives, if one could even consider them alive.

Then Chronicle used her power again and the katana disappeared from his hands, all his victims restored to life, but it didn’t seem to deter him.

“You’re wasting your time, little boy!” Skulls snarled at him, trying to paint him in her rifle’s sights, but he kept darting around in between the Skullmen, striking at their knees, elbows and necks, crippling or killing them. “Bulwark, get behind your own fucking shield!”

The huge villain complied, taking a few running steps towards the field that was protecting Thoughtseize and Chronicle, stepping through a briefly manifesting gap.

The stranger pressed the attack, only he stopped going after the Skullmen and made for Boltstar, who was just about to get up again.

Karasuha burst into a cloud of crows, swarming out all around the stranger in an attempt to disorient him, though he only seemed to be slightly inconvenienced by it as he kept up his charge, only diverting it when Boltstar threw a sphere behind himself, at the metallic floor.

Almost thirty crackling energy bolts hit the spot the sphere had impacted, creating a burst of light and force that threw both Boltstar and the stranger away – in opposite directions – and blew Karasuha’s crows apart from each other.

The stranger rolled with the blast, using the momentum to behead three Skullmen with a single slash of his shield’s edge; the way that coming into contact with matter caused circuit-shaped lines of light to bloom in the air for a few seconds would have been beautiful to Vasiliki’s eye, were it not for the blood it drew from his enemies, even if they were little more than moving corpses.

The fact that they were restored seconds after being cut down did not make it any prettier to watch.

Karasuha reformed and joined the dance, while Boltstar unleashed even more turrets. A full thirty-two of them hovered in the air above by now, unleashing enough destructive energy to melt the platform wherever they hit it, creating patches of near-liquid, red-hot metal that both the stranger and the villains had to avoid stepping on.

“That all you wankers have got!?” And yet, the stranger still grinned, as if he was having the time of his life, those mad, blazing eyes seeming to tremble in their sockets, making him look even more unhinged than before. “Come on, you could at least try to give me a challenge!” He slashed another Skullman’s head off, using the same motion to deflect multiple shots from the Skullmen across the tracks that’d have hit his face or neck, rather than his body armour, “What’d you do if I stopped holding back?”

“Big words,” Skulls said with a grin. “Let’s see you prove them! Everyone, move fourteen!”

With that, Bulwark reached out with his right hand and jabbed it skywards, almost as if making an uppercut, and another mostly invisible force-field emerged from the ground below, just behind the stranger as he was dodging backwards to avoid another targeting sphere from Boltstar.

He hit it with his back, grunting, and the sphere hit the ground in front of him, causing another explosion that further smashed him into the force-field.

Oh no, Basil! Vasiliki cried out mentally, too dizzy to form words, still held up by two Skullmen. She stared as the smoke cleared, revealing the stranger in Basil’s body staggering forward, dazed.

“Gotta admire the classi-” he began to say, but was cut off when another flat force-field appeared beside him, this time cutting him off from Boltstar and Skulls, while giving the Skullmen on both sides of the track a free line of fire to him.

They opened fire in synchronised precision, concentrating almost a score of glowing blue streams of darts at him.

Yet again, he moved almost too fast to be seen, raising the shield on his left gauntlet and bracing himself against the assault, a sudden, sharp, loud clang! coming from his feet where he locked his boots into place, using the same technology that allowed him to stick to walls to become far less movable and weather the assault.

Only for Karasuha to reform herself behind him, already bringing her sword down to stab him through the back from above.

He turned his torso, a cruel grin utterly out of place on his familiar face, still keeping his shield in the way of the Skullmen’s assault, and raised his arm, the fingers of his hand spread open, palm pointing at the incoming tip of the blade, as if it could stop it.

At the same time, the ovoid attached to his thigh came loose, the circuit-like groves on its surface lighting up with brilliant light as it shot up to interpose itself between his palm and the blade.

Vasiliki’s eyes widened as another force-field came into existence between the suddenly brightly glowing ovoid and the blade, blocking Karasuha’s strike.

The new field was different from Bulwark’s nigh-invisible one, and also different from the rounded, shield-like one from Basil’s gauntlet, though it was clearly produced by similar technology (the same circuit-patterns that covered the outside of the gauntlet also covered the entire surface of the elongated ovoid… thing, and they lit up in the same fashion, only far brighter). It seemed unstable, flickering, its edges never quite stable, crackling with surplus energy that was discharged in the form of tiny arcs of lightning that danced across the field and up along the blade of Karasuha’s sword.

That did not seem to impede its function at all, however, and it neatly deflected the strike, causing her blade to bounce off and her to fall to the ground, rolling backwards through the dissipating force-field of her compatriot – but the stranger didn’t give her a chance to escape him, as he clenched his hand into a fist, causing the force-field to condense into a smaller, far denser and more stable disc shape at the tip of the ovoid, then flicked his wrist at her and extended his index and middle finger to point at her.

The ovoid – a drone – shot forward with a high, unnerving whine, flying through the gap in the force-field before it could close and slammed the disc-shaped force-field into her head hard enough to break her neck once more.

Another twist of his hand made it continue its flight across the tracks, extending its force-field into a man-sized dome-shape over its tip, charging through the mass of Skullmen.

Bowling them over, it flew towards Vasiliki and blew the two that had been holding her away, breaking several of their bones along the way, judging by the sickening sounds they made.

He continued to direct it, turning his torso towards his left side and steering it across the tracks and into the group of Skullmen still left standing, who were continuing to fire at him, heedless of the danger. They, too, where knocked around easily enough, scattering them and ending the assault upon him.

“Ahhh…” he relaxed, shutting his shield off and loosening his stance, lowering his head. The drone flew to him, circling him a foot or two above his head. “Well, that was bracing.” He raised his head, looking at Karasuha, who was getting up after being reset once more. His own breath had grown a little laboured, though not nearly as much as Vasiliki would have expected. “Though you really need to work on your surprises, luv. Ain’t really anything that surprising about bein’ jumped from behind.”

“You got a screw loose in your head, kid,” Skulls replied, though she was looking far more wary than before. “You’re starting to grow tired, I can tell, and there’s no way your toys’ batteries are gonna hold out for much longer, while we are all ship-shape again!”

“Not all,” he countered simply and pointed at Chronicle.

Both Vasiliki, the stunned heroes on the tracks below and the villains looked at the youngest villain present.

Chronicle had bent over, her right hand supporting against her own knee, the left one barely able to hold onto the heavy book. Her breath was laboured, and there was sweat dripping down from within her hood and down onto the metallic floor.

“Every power has its limits,” the stranger said, his accent making Vasiliki shiver every time he spoke – hearing something as familiar as Basil’s voice speak in such a strange way was intensily unsettling. “It takes a bite out of her every time she resets one of you, so I was testin’ some theories. Looks like resetting you,” he pointed at Skulls, “resets all your puppets along, but takes no more out of her than resetting one person. So I killed those two over and over,” he gestured at Karasuha and Boltstar, “to wear her out some. I’m guessin’ she ain’t got more than five or six resets in her, at this point.” He stood up straight again. “Now, I was going to see how long she could hold out, whether she’d use it until she passed out… but frankly, this is growing kinda stale, don’t you all think?” He rolled his shoulders, like a man loosening up before a workout. “Time to finish this.”

Everyone tensed up again, the Skullmen’s fingers curling around the triggers of their weapons, but the stranger was once more faster, using his grappling hooks to launch himself out of the line of fire, swinging over the tracks and around the force-field between him and Karasuha and Skulls, his ovoid drone following after him.

Using his shield to behead two of the Skullmen across the tracks as he swung by them, drawing one hook in, he continued to swing and fired that hook off again to attach to a pillar further down the platform, while signing with his right hand.

The ovoid created its force-field again, condensing it into a flat circle of about five feet in diametre, only it was now projected along its long side, not over the tip.

Another handsign caused it to fly out, using the sharp edge to cut through the Skullmen.

He finished his swing, he landed on the platform near Boltstar and Karasuha, the latter of whom drew her sword and advanced on him, her posture radiating anger and frustration; Boltstar, meanwhile, retreated to, apparently, get behind the force-field Bulwark was using to cut himself, Chronicle and Thoughtseize off from the fight.

The stranger ducked underneath Karasuha’s strike, using Basil’s shield to slice upwards and sever her arms at the elbows, making her cry out in pain. Another slice took her head off, and he kept going past her collapsing body, striking at Boltstar. Though he failed to take off his head, he did cut his throat open, blood gushing out of it as the square-jawed villain collapsed, his hands reaching for the razor-sharp cut.

He advanced further onto the force-field, calling the drone over with a flick of his wrist.

The ovoid expanded its force-field into a far wider plane, pressing it flat against the shimmering force-field which only now became visible again.

Energy was discharged between them, both fields flickering, vibrating as they affected each other – and then a hole appeared in Bulwark’s field, large enough for a grown man to pass through, the drone hovering at its centre.

“Peek-a-boo!” the stranger mocked the three villains behind it as he stepped through. “Now let’s see if you can reset yourself, shall we?” he asked with a merry voice, the hole in the force-field sealing shut behind him, leaving him – and his drone – on the same side as the three villains who’d been keeping their distance.

“Oh, screw this!” Thoughtseize snarled and turned towards him, their eyes meeting even through her closed mask…

***

Wanda found herself in a still place, standing on water beneath a starry sky, though it was too bright to be night.

She looked around in confusion – this place was wrong. It didn’t look anything like how peoples’ minds had seemed to her every other time she’d used her power to enter them.

I am inside his mind, she confirmed for herself, going by the non-visual input she was getting. She could look around and still understand this place, even though it looked nothing like the usual, but it just felt so strange.

Beneath her feet, the water was filled with writhing, inky blackness, a representation of the Oni-boy’s power’s grip on his mind – a paralysing grip, and she had no idea how his mind was still functioning in spite of it.

Still, she could work with this. Figure out which parts of him were still functional and shut them down, as was her speciality. She didn’t have much time, though – she couldn’t risk the Whitaker girl waking up – so she wasn’t going to be as gentle as she usually was. It might even leave some damage behind, but… well, he was clearly willing to kill, so no skin off her teeth.

She gathered her will, her power, focusing it, and…

“Mine,” a sharp, guttural, discordant voice said from behind her, and she whirled about to face…

What.

She stared at the newcomer, thinking to herself that whatever mind had thought this up had to be way more fucked up than any member of the Gefährten she’d met so far – and some of her brothers and sisters were really messed up – an abomination of steel and flesh.

The creature was big in a way that was hard to put into words, a huge mass of skinless flesh, elongated into the shape of a worm, or perhaps a snake, shapeless beyond that, uneven with odd bumps and hollows along its length, its front half raised above the water, while the rest lay atop it.

There were no readily discernible limbs, but instead masses of machinery fused into the flesh. Gears turned upon bones, winding up tendons which put pistons into motion. Pistons bit into muscle and flesh, causing pus and blood to ooze out, generating pain signals that made other muscles seize up and set chains of gears in motion, which in turn moved rubber bands attached to bones connected to more gears, connected to more tendons, to pisonts, to muscles, a hideous, ineffectual, macabre network of flesh and machine that made the mass lurch and move forward, closer to Wanda.

Dozens of bright, circular lamps studded the ‘front’ of the creature, shining brightly like wide, unblinking eyes, briefly distracting her from its actual eyes, eleven huge, tumurous-looking, purple-orange orbs that were unevenly distributed, looking around at everything and nothing, rarely focusing on Wanda herself.

“Mine,” the voice spoke again, coming from the creature, as Wanda stared at it in frozen horror. “Mine.”

It lurched and slid forward, closer to her, its upright part unfolding as pistons and gears went to work, tearing its own flesh apart down the middle, spreading it open like a huge, gaping… mouth… with jagged, shattered gears, shafts and pistons covering it all over like uneven teeth in multiple rows, reaching out, oozing huge amounts of blood and worse onto the water, which did not sink into it but rather spread out across it.

Wanda finally unfroze and lashed out at the beast with a spike of psychic energy – but the attack simply shattered against the beast, whatever defenses it might have dispersing it harmlessly.

Then it was too late, and the beast’s mouth-wound closed around her mental form, its jagged, metal and bone teeth biting into her, tearing at her mind, consuming it in pieces.

Wanda screamed, and screamed and tried to free herself, but it was futile, her mind was being torn, her memories ground away, her skills, her knowledge her p-

“Mine.”

***

As soon as she finished speaking, Thoughtseize shuddered, going slack before she collapsed, sliding down onto her knees.

The stranger looked curiously at her, but seemed to dismiss it, as he turned to Chronicle and Bulwark.

A flick of his wrist, and his drone charged the huge, brick-patterned villain, blowing him away from Chronicle in one savage move.

The girl squeaked, stumbling backwards trying to put some distance between herself and the suddenly somber-faced gadgeteer.

“Relax,” he said, his voice calm, but still strange, uncanny due to the strong accent. He moved forward, too fast for her to react, and stepped behind her, wrapping an arm around her neck, squeezing just as she expelled her breath in surprise.

He held her as she struggled, while Skulls pounded against Bulwark’s field in a rage, screaming for her underling to let it fall, but he was too slow to do so, distracted by the relentless drone flying around him, flying in again and again to strike at his head and limbs whenever he tried to focus on taking one of his fields down.

Before he could clear the path for the other villains, Chronicle slumped in the stranger’s arms, passing out from exhaustion and lack of oxygen.

“There we go, luv,” he said as he let go, letting her collapse onto the ground. “No more time shenanigans.” He looked up just as Bulwark’s field collapsed, the villain passed out from repeated blows to the head by the ovoid drone.

Skulls, her Skullmen, Boltstar and Karasuha were still standing and looking fresh; though all of them looked shaken, all of them turned towards the stranger, their various weapons (or, in Boltstar’s case, fist) aimed at him.

“Last chance to surrender,” he said with an easy, boyish grin. “I hope you gents are smarter than you look and take it. Ya ain’t gettin’ any more extra lives now.”

“We’re far from done, idiot!” Skulls snarled at him, her weapon’s muzzle aimed at his head. “Let’s see you dodge this now!”

“Nah,” he waved it off – and simply sat down, crossing his ankles and putting his hands onto his knees, his drone flying over to attach itself to his thigh again. “I ain’t gonna fight you anymore, you fucking moron.” He looked up at them with a grin. “She is.” He pointed at something behind them.

Vasiliki followed his finger from where she was lying on the ground, and smiled weakly. Ah, finally.

The villains, realising that something was behind them, turned around… to face a spitting-mad, red-and-black eyed Gloom Glimmer, moments before she cried out in rage and flew straight at them.

***

It didn’t take long after that to put the villains down. Without Thoughtseize to handle Gloom Glimmer, and Chronicle to keep them in top condition and boost their powers, they didn’t stand much of a chance and the heroine knocked them out in short order.

Afterwards, she’d flown down to take care of Polymnia, while Tyche, Tartsche and Spellgun had come up onto the platform to check up on Hecate.

At the same time, Basil was sitting at the edge of the platform, looking out over the train tracks as he sat cross-legged, trying to piece together what’d happened.

He remembered Osore shooting him in the back, and then… a lullaby? Yes, a lullaby, and a well-known one at that, sung by a strangely familiar – yet not soothing at all – woman’s voice. And then… nothing.

Judging by the looks the others were throwing him, he’d gone berserk again, probably even worse than during the fight against the Spiteborn – or perhaps not so, but this time, his enemies had not been mindless tree monsters, but flesh-and-blood humans.

He didn’t know how to feel about that. He was confused, he was hurt, angry, scared. Mostly confused, though, if only because there was just too much to feel right then.

Beneath him, Osore simply stood where he had before, while Bakeneko had returned to her usual catgirl form, standing a few metre away with her back to him, her arms crossed, her posture radiating outrage and fear. She clearly didn’t agree with her boyfriend’s “stratagem”.

Basil wasn’t exactly happy about it, but he couldn’t argue with its effectiveness.

“B?” he heard Tyche speak from behind him, and turned to look over his shoulder, even though he was wearing his helmet again – not that he hadn’t, apparently, shown his face to everyone present anyway – and could’ve seen them through his ravenbot’s cameras, to look at his two teammates, the redhead holding the brunette up with one of her arms slung over her shoulder, and an arm around her friend’s waist. “How’re you doing?” she asked in a subdued voice.

Instead of answering immediately, he looked them up and down. Tyche looked unharmed, if shaken, but Hecate was a mess. What he could see of her face was pale and she looked weak, which was underlined by the fact that she needed help just to stand. There was a trio of holes in her costume’s chest, two over her left breast and one over her sternum, where the darts had pierced it. She was still wounded, bleeding lightly – Gloom Glimmer was still busy fixing Polymnia up, who’d gotten hurt quite badly – but she wasn’t crying about it or anything.

“I should ask you the same thing,” he replied softly. “But to answer your question, I am…” He sighed, looking down at his lap. “I can not honestly say I am alright, unless you are referring purely to my physical state, but I am not hurt in any way.”

Tyche lowered Hecate down, helping her sit down next to Basil on his right side, before the redhead sat down on his other side.

Hecate groaned slightly, her right hand reaching up to the holes in her suit, gingerly rubbing around them, while she reached for his hand with her left, squeezing it gently.

“That was a real dick move,” she said, slightly shocking her friends when she used such a rude word. “Osore owes you a big apology.”

Tyche chuckled and took his other hand, her own trembling slightly. “It did look kind of awesome, though,” she qualified. “Scary, but awesome.” She gave him a sidelong look. “You’re full of surprises, B-6.”

He squeezed both their hands back, smiling underneath his mask, though he still held his head lowered. “Would be nice if they were not also surprising to me.” He sighed, slumping a bit. “This is really not the time, nor the place, for this kind of surprise.”

“It’s never the time or the place for this stuff,” Hecate insisted. “And I really hope there won’t be any more surprises today. But I get the feeling this won’t be the last one today.” She leaned against his side, resting her head on his shoulder. After a moment, Tyche followed suit on the other side. Another moment later, Basil rested his head against Hecate’s.

They didn’t say it, but he heard it nonetheless. We’re still with you.

He sighed, relaxing, letting his sore muscles recover from the strain of the stunts he’d pulled during the two minutes he’d been out of it. Fortunately, his ravenbot had recorded it all, and he’d already reviewed the fight.

Who- or whatever had been in control of him during those two minutes had been vastly more skilled, more experienced, more dangerous than he could be on his best day. Watching the recording, it’d been glaringly obvious to Basil that he’d been toying with the villains, holding back a lot. He had only used the most basic functions of his gauntlet and his drone – save for the nullifier – and he had not moved as fast as Basil thought he could move, if he went all out.

And yet, it hadn’t been a contest at all.

A Man in the Moon. A Blazing Sun. A Raging Heart. And who- or whatever was in the driver’s seat just then, he thought as he and his friends recovered some of their strength, sharing warmth. Are you actually going to explain to me what just happened?

Oh, how I wish I could, the Man in the Moon replied. But you know how it goes…

He sighed in annoyance, but decided not to press the point. It never helped.

After another minute or so, Gloom Glimmer floated over to them, her toes just a centimetre above the floor. “Do you want me to fix you up, Hecate?” she asked in a subdued voice.

Lots of that going around, Basil thought to himself as he raised his head, allowing Hecate to do the same – Tyche remained as she was, on the verge of dozing off.

“That’d be lovely, yes,” Hecate said, yawning softly with her hand raised to cover her mouth as she did so.

Gloom Glimmer reached down and put her hand onto Hecate’s shoulder, squeezing it softly. The wounded witch shuddered as her wounds closed near-instantly, followed by her costume fixing itself and even the blood vanishing.

“There you go,” the floating girl said, letting go of Hecate’s shoulder. “Good as new. What about you?” she asked, looking at Basil.

“I am quite fine, thank y-“

“You should check him out,” Hecate cut him off while throwing him a stern look. “You took a big blow at one point. There might be damage, even if you’re not aware of it.”

He looked back at her and nodded. “You are probably right,” he acquiesced, then looked up at Gloom Glimmer. “I would appreciate your help.”

Gloom Glimmer smiled and touched him as well. “Hmm. Some nasty bruising on your back, but nothing serious,” she diagnosed him, before he felt her power run up and down his back in a goosebump-inducing way – but it did make the slight tightness he’d been feeling disappear. “There you go, everything’s ship-shape now.” She squeezed his shoulder. “You know, I know a bit about… losing control, and having others be… in control. So if you want to talk, I’m here for you.”

Basil lowered his head. “Thank you,” he whispered, responding twice at once.

They all fell silent as Gloom Glimmer stood up straight, and was joined by the other heroes, save for Osore. Everyone looked alright, outwardly, but they were giving Basil some wary looks, while also throwing more… antagonistic ones towards the unconscious villains strewn about the train station.

“So, uh,” Spellgun spoke up, sounding rather troubled. “That happened. Um, care to explain?”

The others stayed quiet, but couldn’t hide their curiosity.

“I wish I could,” Basil replied, his voice straining with frustration. “But I honestly have no idea what is going on.”

He saw them all look at Gloom Glimmer through his ravenbot, but couldn’t bring himself to feel hurt over being distrusted.

Gloom Glimmer nodded to them. “He’s telling the truth. He has no idea… and frankly, neither do I.” She looked up and towards the way out of the station. “We… really should get going, though. We don’t have time to waste.”

“She is right,” Basil agreed, gently nudging Tyche awake (she’d started drooling onto his shoulder) and standing up. “We still have a long way to go, and it is unlikely that this will be the last or worst opposition we are going to face.”

He walked a few steps down the platform, and knelt down, reaching down to Osore, who looked back up at him. After barely a moment, he reached up and they grabbed each other’s forearms, allowing Basil to pull him up onto the platform, before he turned to the others.

“Unless there is anything else to say, we really should get going,” he concluded, looking around at everyone.

Hecate and Tyche got up, and everyone on the platform exchanged looks with each other. Though Tartsche and Spellgun – and to a lesser degree, Polymnia – looked far from comfortable, they didn’t speak up and nodded.

“Yeah, it may be weird,” Tartsche finally said, his voice as calm as ever, though his tight grip on his boyfriend’s hand betrayed how nervous he felt, “but we’re not gonna bail out now. Let’s go finish this. We can talk about it afterwards.”

There were various exclamations of assent, before he focused on Basil again. “But I will have an explanation, Brennus. You owe us that, at least,” he continued.

Basil looked down, briefly, clasping his hands behind his back. “You are right, and you will have it – I will tell you what little I know, after this is done.”

“Oh, ain’t that just peachy?” a rough female voice spoke up from behind the group of young heroes. “Are you all gonna hug each other next?”

They turned around, save for Basil and Osore who were already facing the right way, and looked at the source of the voice – Skulls.

The bald, corpse-like woman was pushing herself up, leaning heavily against the pillar adjacent to herself. She was quite horribly beaten up, as Gloom Glimmer had only held back just enough to spare the villains’ lives, and whatever her power did to her body didn’t help her look any more healthy – she was almost zombie-like in appearance, pale and rotten, yet still quite alive.

She grinned a rictus-like smile, looking them over. “Did you really think I’d go down… this easily? I survived the Dark, did you think his bargain-basement spawn would be enough to finish me? Or a crazy schizo-headed gadgeteer?”

“You don’t look like you’re up for much more,” Gloom Glimmer replied coldly. “And you didn’t get away from my dad, he just didn’t pay you much attention.”

“Oh, I’m gonna enjoy teaching you a lesson, you little bitch,” Skulls snarled. “I still have plenty of bodies to spare. Sooner or later, I’ll we-“

***

“Oh my.”

“What is it this time?” Heaven’s Dancer asked with a long-suffering sigh, looking at Immanuel.

“Someone just broke through our outer defenses and-“

They both flinched as a massive impact rocked one of the buildings far below them – specifically, the one containing the central train station of the Northern complex.

“My, this is going to be fun,” Immanuel said with a smile, leaning closer.

***

A black-and-purple blur crashed through the ceiling and slammed straight into Skulls from above and behind, smashing the barely alive-looking woman into the ground with an ear-rending scream of metal.

Skulls gasped, though not in pain, just surprise, looking over her shoulder at her attacker.

The furious woman in the black-and-purple, skintight costume reached for Skulls’ head with both hands, grabbing it, and leaned in.

And then she screamed, both with her mouth and with her mind, and Skulls arched her back in agony, screaming in tune.

Every single Skullman in the train station who was still alive, every one of them screamed in unison, arching their backs, trashing around.

The scream extended far beyond Skulls’ multi-faceted mind, reverberating in the minds of the teenage heroes, making them flinch and stagger back away from the two of them.

It kept building up over and over and over again, a scream made of nothing but rage, of the desire to hurt, impossibly powerful in its purity.

A scant few seconds later, Skulls and her Skullmen went slack, and the scream cut off.

The young heroes watched in varying mixtures of awe and horror as the tall, flawlessly curved woman rose up over the now empty body of the villain, floating up off the ground, her long, luscious black hair floating behind her, her eyes glowing with power, making her equally purple lips stand out even more against her chalk-white skin, as she clenched her gloved hands into tight fists.

You,” Mindstar snarled, her eyes fixated upon Basil, her gaze intense enough to make him gulp. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

“Mindstar!” Hecate snarled right back, leaping forward as she called her staff into her hand. At the same time, Tartsche leaped for Basil, pulling on Spellgun’s hand as he went, and Gloom Glimmer hastily threw her hands up to-

His sister didn’t even spare them a worded command – she simply unleashed her power, slamming into their minds, and everyone still left standing in the station collapsed, save for herself and Basil.

He looked around, shuddering in spite of himself at the display of raw power. He’d never seen her go quite this far before.

She took a step forward as she landed on the ground again, her arms trembling from how tightly she clenched her fists.

“Basileus Bartholomew Balthasar Brant-Blake,” she snarled into his mind, her mental voice sounding discordant, barely human – yet still recognisably her voice, at least to him. “You are coming home with me right now!”

He didn’t know where it came from, didn’t really realise what was happening until it happened, but something inside of him just snapped.

“Let them go,” he replied out loud, his voice quiet, controlled.

“What did you say to me?” his sister asked in a low voice, taking another step closer, her heels making sharp sounds on the floor.

“I said let. Them. Go“, he shot back, taking a step towards her in turn. “Get the hell out of my friends’ brains, right now!” As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t help but raise his voice, even to her.

Her mouth twisted into an even more feral snarl, though she did halt her advance. “Little brother, you better w-“

“I said, let them GO!” he roared in a voice that seemed two sizes too big for his lean frame, making her rear back. “Right the fuck now! I won’t fucking say a word other than to repeat this, until you let them go!

“Suit yourself!” she shouted back, exasperated.

The other teenagers all woke up, as suddenly as they’d collapsed, jerking awake and jumping up onto their feet, some faster than others.

Hecate immediately went on the offensive again, but Mindstar just flicked a finger at her, smashing her into a nearby pillar – not hard enough to harm her, but enough so to hurt.

“Don’t even think about it,” she hissed at the teenagers, and Hecate in particular. “I’m not in the mood for games, and none of you, nor all of you stand the slightest chance of even challenging me, as I just demonstrated. Not even you, Princess,” she concluded with an annoyed look at Gloom Glimmer.

Basil walked over to Hecate, kneeling down to check up on her. To his immense relief, she seemed fine, if stunned, yet it only slightly diminished the rage that was squeezing his heart right then and there.

“Hurt my friends again,” he said in a low voice while helping the stunned witch stand, “and I’m going to forget myself.”

“Are you threatening me?” Amy asked in stunned outrage. “Me? Do you have any idea what kind of trouble you’re in?”

“More than you know,” he replied, letting go of Hecate and turning to face his sister once more, seemingly calm.

The others were looking from him, to her, to him, and back at her in confusion, except for Gloom Glimmer, who just looked resigned, but Basil ignored them as well as he could as he reached up and took his helmet off. Since his hood was down, that revealed his face once more, not that it mattered anymore.

“I don’t have the time for this,” he continued calmly. “Dusu is not far from here and I’m running against the clock, so either join me and help, or get out of my way.”

That made everyone’s jaw drop, particularly Amy’s, who stared at him, aghast.

“You want me to help you?” she shrieked, shaking her fists at him. “Are you fucking crazy? I’m here to drag you the fuck back to New fucking Lennston! You have no business here!”

“The fuck is going on?” Tyche asked, confused, looking around at the others. “Uh, Heck?” She looked at her friend, worried.

Basil looked over his shoulder, briefly, to see Hecate staring at him and Amy, her jaw slack, her hands clenched into trembling fists much like Amy’s own. She was completely quiet, save for the groaning of the staff she held in one of said fists.

No wonder… she’s finally facing her cousin’s murderer, and unable to do anything, he thought sadly, wishing he knew a solution to that particular conundrum. Especially now.

He didn’t realise that he completely misunderstood the cause of her current state of shock.

Turning his head again to look at Amy, he held his helmet under his left arm, and took another step forward.

“I am not crazy. I do have business here. And you are not going to take me anywhere but to my destination, if at all,” he spoke calmly. “Please, I could really use your help… but I will do it on my own, if I have to.”

Amy let her arms drop, staring at him, seemingly calming down. “Do you have any idea what you’re asking? What you’re risking? You have no idea what these people are capable of!”

“I see all that they are capable of every time I visit her,” he replied calmly, sadly. “I know exactly what I am risking, and it is nothing I do not want to risk for this.”

“You’re a child! You shouldn’t have to risk anything!” she shouted at him, shaking in barely restrained anger. “You’re going way too far for this, and for what? A freaking highschool romance? Why is she worth all this?”

“It is not just about her!” he snapped at her. “It is not about any one person! I am doing this because it is what needs to be done, it is what I would want someone to do for us if I, or you, were in that position!” He waved his free hand at her. “I am doing this because it is the right thing to do!”

“You’re going too far!” she shrieked back, her meager self-control crumbling, her eyes beginning to glow again, turning a brighter and brighter shade of purple, surrounded by glowing white. “And I’m going to stop you before you go so far you can’t go ba-“

“I’m not going too far!” he screamed, throwing his arms open, one hand holding onto the helmet. “There’s no going back! There’s no slowing down, no going anywhere but forward! I’m all in, sister!

He ignored the shocked gasps around and behind him – and didn’t notice that one particular gasp he should have expected didn’t sound – as he took another step closer to his sister.

“This is how it is going to be, Amy!” he continued to shout, his voice trembling with the strain of it. “Go with me, or get out of my way!”

Amy stared at him, looking more shocked than anyone else. As they watched, her skin took on a more normal, pinkish colour, and her posture changed slightly, the lines of her jaw and cheeks softening as well. Then she pulled her mask back, letting it fall back down her neck and hang there, her face looking both distraught and outraged at the same time, her features mostly Amy’s, with a little of Mindstar’s sharpness in them.

“No, Basil,” she replied, her calm voice simmering with rage. “I won’t let you. You’re coming back home with me, and that’s final.” She locked eyes with him, hers still purple, but softer, bigger than usual while she was Mindstar, shaped like Amy’s.

Basil sighed, looking down at his feet, then took his helmet in both hands, flipping it so he could look a the mostly blank faceplate.

Well, it’s not like I didn’t know it’d someday come to this, he thought regretfully.

“No, Amy,” he said softly, looking up to lock eyes again. “I am not coming with you… not without a fight.” She blanched, looking even more shocked than before, but he pressed on, as much as it tore at his heart to do so. “I am going to offer you a deal – just one. Fight me, here and now. If you win, we call this all off, and I will go home with you, willingly. But if I win, you will have to help me get the cure from Dusu, and bring it to those who need it.”

“Have you lost it?” she asked bluntly. “You can’t hope to-“

He looked at her again, his gaze firm, harder than steel. “It is a one-time offer, Amy. Accept it, or get the fuck out of my way.”

She looked right back into his eyes, never wavering one bit. They locked eyes like that for almost a minute, before she broke it, and snorted. “If that’s what you want, I accept. Beat me, and I’ll do as you wish.”

He nodded, feeling cold on the inside. “So be it.”

Amy looked him up and down, then smiled sadly. “I don’t know why you’re insisting on this, Basil. You can’t hope to stand a chance against me.”

With a sigh, he put his helmet off, then he took of his cloak and let it fall to the ground, while his friends – if they still wanted to be his friends at this point – moved away, giving the two of them a wide berth. None of them found it in themselves to protest this, if they even could – he wasn’t sure how much control Amy had, even now.

“No, Amy,” he spoke quietly, but firmly, blocking everything else out. “I’ve surpassed you.”

“I’m stronger than you are.”

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B12.14 Born At Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

The huge cat purred happily.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a little more time.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

His entire body turned black all over.

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

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

***

An hour later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<What about civilian casualties?>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It showed an aerial image of the city of Tokyo.

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

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

Melody just stared at her friend in horror.

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

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

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B009.1 Family Matters

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The adhesive hooks attached to the two buildings left and right of the street, and with a gut-wrenching pull, the motors in the two reworked grappling hook units reeled them in, catapulting Basil forward and up.

“Woo!” he shouted as the hooks detached from the concrete walls just when they would have started to slow his movement instead of accelerating it, the machines on his hips reeling them in as he, for a few seconds, flew freely through the air. Of course, wearing power armor was not conducive to staying airborne and he quickly reached the apex of his jump – but he had already aimed for his next targets.

His hip-launchers had originally been quite large, basically a pair of long boxes filled with the thin wire he used for his grappling hooks. A serious flaw in the design, really. They were too big, the motors inside too strong, the wire more than just too long. He just had no use for that much of it, and running those motors at full capacity would only rip the system off his hips. So he had redesigned them into two disk-shaped, plate-sized systems. The motor for reeling in the wire was built into the center, while the launch system for the ‘hooks’ (both using van der Waals force to adhere to their targets, rather than actually working like real hooks) was at the exit points, one nozzle each which could move independently to better aim.

These two nozzles locked onto the targets he had specified – the corner of an office building at the next crossroad and the tip of a flagpole that extended from the adjacent wall behind the corner, just barely visible. He had aimed them through precise (and often repeated, in preperation for this occasion) finger movements, and now used his grappling hooks to swerve around the corner and out of Downtown – straight towards the harbor, accompanied by his ravens which scouted the way ahead for viable contact points, so he would not have to decide on the fly.

Also, they were looking out for his quarries, helping him evade them.

Just then, a warning came in as a golden shadow raced by a group of ravens to his left. He only had seconds before it would arrive.

I got to make them count, he thought and reeled the grappling hooks in, firing the right one off towards the corner that would take him left along the next intersection, twisting his body mid-air towards his attack – and he readied his redesigned humming sword at the same time.

The new sword was no longer flexible, able to wrap around his hip. It was a rigid, straight sword with one gleeming edge, and a rather bulky blunt side. Not to mention that it was a meter long, not counting the hilt. This new version consumed far less energy, thanks to the more efficient vibration generators built along its length.

He raised it just in time as the golden spear-blade struck him, taking it along the flat side of the blade, making use of another feature of this new version.

It was far better suited to parrying attacks it couldn’t just cut through. Especially since he had not actually powered it up. He took the strike on the flat side of the blade and fired the motors of his right hook, pulling himself towards the street corner and deflecting the strike away, letting Gilgul tumble into the opposite direction he was moving for a few moments, before she caught her flight and flipped around (conveniently ignoring all inertia).

Fortunately, he had already rounded the corner by that point and fired his hooks again, swinging straight over a lower building on the other side of the street. He hit the roof of the building beyond running (landing on the edge of the rooftop, so he wouldn’t simply break through) and leapt over the abandoned street beneath – two weeks after Hastur’s rampage, the city was still quite empty, especially on a Sunday like this.

As he fell down, he watched as Gilgul pursued him, cornering in impossible ways as she searched for him – and then locked onto him again, rocketing straight towards him.

Ah shoot.

He turned around in mid-air, firing the grappling hooks backwards to move further away from her as he put the sword into the sheath he had attached to his left forearm and drew his new rifle from the holster attached to his right forearm, taking aim and shooting.

This rifle was not a stun gun. It was rather a custom-made ballistic rifle with variable ammunition. His shots hit true, striking Gilgul’s chest plate and hip, bouncing off – but not without messing up her flight, making her tumble again and letting him put some more distance between them.

Almost there.

He swung in a right turn towards the harbor, using the movement to also face forward again, rifle still in hand.

Gilgul, of course, pursued him easily – even without her ability to ignore inertia (she had not told him about that before), she was simply too fast, not to mention not in need of assistance by grappling hooks and robotic ravens to pursue – and began to close the distance.

And then a human-sized cloud of green-black smoke burst out of an alley and flew across the street, bouncing up along the wall and leaping off of it in pursuit of the golden knight.

Basil fired off a few more shots to keep Gilgul’s attention on himself, which made her close the distance.

“Got you!” she shouted as she got within reach, ignoring his shots and stabbing forward… just when the cloud lept over her, pulling itself together into Hecate’s shape.

The witch girl aimed her staff at Gilgul and fired off a scarlet energy blast, sending her tumbling down to the empty street before bursting into smoke again, accelerating towards Basil in the same instant in order to reform and grab his leg as he swung further down the street.

She used him as a pivot and threw herself forward, dissolving again and adding more speed to her movement, briefly overtaking him in her smoke-form.

Gilgul caught herself and charged after them – straight towards him, to be precise, which meant there was no way of his shots really affecting her flight path.

Green and black smoke suddenly obscured his immediate vision as Hecate covered him, reforming between him and Gilgul.

“Boo!” she shouted, throwing a paper bomb into their opponents face, dissolving again before Gilgul’s spear reached her torso.

And then the grenade detonated into pure disorientation. The mental effect would have knocked him for a loop, making all his senses go haywire, if Hecate had not earlier given him a special charm that protected him from it and several other effects in her arsenal.

Which was very fortunate, because the weapon only made Gilgul flinch for a moment before she closed the distance.

“No getting away this t-” she began, but he did not let her finish. Instead, he grabbed her spear, disconnecting his hooks from their current targets as he did so, and swung himself around it, kicking her with both feet in the face.

She made no sound, too stunned to react as she spun away again, losing her grip on her spear. He threw it into a nearby alley, swinging away again. Hecate had already moved ahead, gaining some ground, and he was only a few blocks away from his goal…

His ravens saw Gilgul burst out of the alley and hurl her spear at him.

Fuck.

There was no way his armor could actually take a straight hit from that spear, and his armor was too bulky to properly twist out of the way.

On the other hand, he saw it coming a mile away, thanks to his ravens and he had practiced long enough with the kind of multiple viewpoints they gave him to know how to predict its flight path…

And strike it out of the air with his left arm as he whirled around, sending it straight down to the street before finishing his spin and shooting straight ahead again, overtaking Hecate, who was just turning into an alley to get out of sight.

I ought to ask her how she senses her surroundings in that form.

And then he had to focus on his own getaway again, because Gilgul was closing in, having retrieved her spear.

He was just a block away from his goal – that weird-ass warehouse he had accidentilly dropped into on his first night out. Hecate was out of sight, as he did not have enough ravens to keep an eye on her (his reserves were running rather low, lately). Smoke bombs and the like were useless.

All he needed was one more distraction, something to keep her off his hide. Fighting her directly was out of the question, so…

<Are you in position?> he asked Tyche over their communicator.

<Of course, B-Six! Me and this puppy are ready to mess up your gee eff’s day!> came the chipper reply.

<Please try not to hit me, or any innocent bystanders.>

<Aye, aye, mon capitan!>

He fired off his hooks at the apex of his swing, aiming for the last high-rise buildings in his path. He would have to swing clear over a small park between him and the warehouse and the street beyond that, to reach the warehouse, so he activated, at the apex of the new swing, his newest addition to his suit – a pair of thrusters built into the back of the suit, beneath the battery, aiming down and to the back.

Uff.

The thrusters kicked in hard, just when he had reached the edge of the park. Fortunately, his armor protected him from whiplash, but it did not protect him from feeling like his back was hit with a sledgehammer, blowing the air out of his lungs in the process. I should have thought of that, too.

But it did boost him far enough to clear the park – and evade a desperate strike by Gilgul, who had almost caught up with him.

“Oh, come on!” she shouted as she pursued – and then a massive boom rang through the air as she was knocked out of the air again, spinning away so violently she almost lost her grip on her spear… only for her to ignore inertia again and fly straight towards him so as to intercept him.

But Tyche had slowed her down just enough.

Basil fired off his hooks, grabbing onto the edge of the warehouse’s roof, and swung onto it.

“Clear!”

 

 

* * *

 

Breathing rather heavily, Basil sat down on the roof as he took off his helmet, setting it aside but taking care to keep his hood up. Then he took off the skintight mask he was wearing beneath, to get a fresh breath.

Gilgul landed next to him, sitting cross-legged in the air (her armor was quite nimble). “I really thought I had you when I threw the spear,” she grumbled.

“Maybe if… I had not had… my ravens,” he said. “God, I am thirsty.” He detached a water bottle from his left thigh and took a long draught from it.

“What did I do wrong?” she pressed further, her golden armor providing quite the glittering show as the light of the afternoon sun reflected off of it.

He did not need to think it over much. “You were too straightforwad. I could see your every move come from a mile away, even without my ravens,” he explained. “Hecate is here,” he added, seeing her smoke-form approach from the corner of his eyes.

A few moments later, it leaped onto the roof from the side and reformed into Hecate, who promptly bent over the edge again and threw up.

Basil looked at Gilgul and handed her the water bottle. She floated over to Hecate and held it out for her. “Th-thanks,” she said and drank greedily after washing her mouth out without actually putting it to the bottle (for which Basil was quite thankful). “This new charm is way useful, but my stomach just can’t take it,” she complained as she gave it back to him, sitting down along with Gilgul.

“Can’t you rew-” Gilgul began, but was interrupted when a red-and-black smoke-form sailed by over them and towards the adjacent building’s higher wall. It smashed into the wall, reforming into an upside down Tyche who had rammed it with her back, clutching a large rifle in her arms.

“This is fucking awesome!” she shouted as she slid down the wall, casually flipping over and landing on her feet. Her hair was a mess, her jacket looked wrinkled-up and the rifle in her arms did not look functional any more – in fact, the barrel was twisted.

“What did you do to my gun!” Basil shouted, hurrying over and all but ripping it out of her hands.

“Oy, don’t blame me!” the still smiling girl replied, casually slipping around him and swinging her hips to knock the water bottle off his thigh, letting it bounce off the floor and up into her hand as she walked towards the other girls and sat down with them. “What’s up, girlfriends?” She took a sip from the bottle.

“You’re not feeling bad?” Hecate asked, annoyed. “I threw up after using that charm.”

Tyche shrugged, pulling a black cloth-figure – a rather crude form made of a single length of black cloth, tied to look like a human – out of the inner pocket of her jacket. “Well, I thought it was awesome. Mind you, I still don’t know how to really steer it, but you can’t have everything, eh?”

Hecate muttered something under her breath, but said no more.

Basil joined them again, sitting down with them. “I did not expect the rifle to break so quickly,” he grumbled. “I am sorry that I blamed you, Tyche. The materials I worked with were simply not good enough.”

She waved a hand. “Don’t mention it. So, what’re you going to do to fix it? Thing packs a wallop!”

“Does it ever…” Gilgul muttered. “Felt like it blew my head clean off.” Tyche grinned at her.

“I don’t have the means to build a proper model,” Basil admitted. “My funds are running dry – I need to either get some new money from somewhere, or cut down on my active experimentation.” It was clear which option he personally favoured.

Gilgul shifted around uncomfortably, her face hidden behind her helmet but her discomfort still noticable. She had offered to give him money from her private funds – her family was filthy rich, and there were only her, her mother and her sister left to use that money. But he had refused on the grounds that it would be impossible to hide it from her mother. Moreover, he wanted to solve this problem himself.

“Can’t you use that trick you did at the beginning again?” Tyche asked. “You know, steal money from criminals with those programs of yours?”

“That’s my next step,” Basil replied. “Also, I think I will need the next week at least off. I still have not fully recovered from the strain of being healed, two weeks ago.” The other three shuddered involuntarily, especially Gilgul. None of them liked thinking back to that time.

“I told you you needed more time,” Gilgul whispered.

“I know. But I really wanted to try out my new grappling hook system, and you need more training. Speaking of which, how did you do those turns?”

“What turns?” Tyche asked, confused.

“A few times, she turned in ways that ignored the laws of inertia,” Hecate supplied, also looking at Gilgul.

The latter just shrugged. “Well, you know how I can enhance my abilities by burning off time I can spend in this form? Same thing for that, by burning off an extra minute or so, I can ignore inertia.”

Basil raised an eyebrow. “What else can you ignore that way? This might be one hell of an ability, perhaps more powerful than even your spear. Also, would it not be better to land, instead of floating? Preserve time?”

Gilgul touched down on the roof. “As far as I understand it, I can turn myself immune to anything I want, but it costs me time. A lot of time, depending on what it is.”

“You should look deeper into this,” Hecate supplied. “If you want, I can simulate a lot of effects in my lab,” she continued, referring to the room in Basil’s base that she had pretty much taken over. “We can try and find out how much time it takes you to resist lightning, or punches or gravity, or anything else I can create there.”

“I’d love to. How about we do that today, since Basil is going to take a break?”

“Sure, sure. I have the day off,” Hecate said. “And since school is still closed next week,” Two of Hastur’s minions had utterly demolished the Diantha High School, and reconstruction was still in progress, “We can spend as much time as you have on it!”

“What about me?” Tyche asked. The other two girls looked at her, obviously not knowing what to do with her.

“How about you try and find out if your power can interact with Gilgul’s?” Basil threw in. “Try and find out if your probability manipulation can affect her actions, and if Prisca can turn Gilgul immune to it?”

“How do we do that?” the three asked in chorus.

“You could try and find out if Gilgul can even hit her when Tyche does not want her to, or throw things at her. Get creative,” he said, rising. “Me, I need to get home, make dinner for Amy. Then I need to scrap this armor and design new equipment.”

“Wait, what?” all three replied in unison, again.

He shrugged in reply. “This armor has saved my life, but it is becoming a liability. It takes too much money to maintain, uses up too much energy and it is not nearly as effective as I thought it would be – I did not expect that we would run into quite so many high-level enemies who can mess it up. Since Gilgul is with us now, I can retreat from the frontlines and focus more on long-range combat, espionage and obfuscation,” he explained. “At the very least, I need to cut down on my resource consumption just for the armor, and develop better weaponry. Power armor is a good idea when you have resources like the Drakainas or Memento – and perhaps someone like Wyrm, provided she even bothers with combat – and a support staff for normal maintenance.”

“Polymnia doesn’t seem to have that problem,” Hecate said.

“Polymnia gets funding from the United Heroes, her armor is largely only modified by her after being built by others and she has the United Heroes staff to do maintenance for her, so she can focus on inventing new equipment,” Basil replied. “Frankly, if my power was not simply stronger than hers, she would have left me in the dust by now.” Not that I am entirely sure I did all of my work myself.

“Alright, so Bee Six will give himself a complete overhaul. Cool,” Tyche said. “How long you think it’s gonna take? And what do you plan to make, anyway?”

“As I said, long-range combat, espionage and obfuscation. It will probably take me at least a week to rig something up, a month until it is complete. But I will participate in patrols once I have the prototype ready and tested.”

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Hecate asked. “Already changing your entire approach…”

“I am a Gadgeteer,” he said with a note of pride in his voice. They could not see his face beneath the hood, but Gilgul at least was quite sure she saw a glimmer in his eyes. “Showing up with a new bag of tricks at every combat is a matter of professional pride for me.”

 

 

* * *

 

An hour and a half later, Basil had just finished dinner and put it on the table – just in time for Amy to come in wearing a… a pink cocktail dress, military boots and a clown mask pulled up to lie on top of her head?

She stumbled into the kitchen, giggling as her skin turned into a normal colour and her hair returned to its more natural shade.

He tilted his head to the side, looking at her. “What?”

Looking up, she giggled again. “Oh, sorry Basil. The job turned out to be a little… weird,” she said in between giggles. “Boss sent us out to do some espionage near Moscow, and Lamarr and I got caught up in some spy games.”

“And those involved wearing… that?” he asked.

“Don’t ask. You don’t want to know,” she said sitting down and kicking the boots off, as well as taking the mask off. “Anyway, you should watch the news today.”

“Why? What did you do?” he asked suspiciously. Despite his allegiance during the second world war, the Dark was not someone you could count on to fight on your side in a war. He certainly had fought on the opposite side during the Afghanistan conflict.

“Nothing newsworthy,” Amy replied, rubbing her feet. “But it turns out one of the Sovjet Union’s big ol’ secrets is gonna come out today. Chick named ‘The Devil’s Bride’.”

“Never heard of her,” he said. And he was quite sure of it.

“They’ve done their best to keep her a secret. And for good reason, bitch is nasty. But don’t let me spoil you, you’ll see it in the news. Now, food.”

He snorted, but let her eat in peace as he went over to the living room.

The war had begun… after a fashion. There had been a probing attack on the British mainland, a week ago, but nothing much had happened and people had just returned to being on the edge and waiting for the next shoe to drop.

Basil wondered what kind of person the Devil’s Bride had to be so newsworthy in the current climate.

Nothing good, I presume. Not with that name.

He turned on the television, switching through some shows before the news began. Then, just as Amy (in sweatpants and a shirt) joined him, the news started.

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B008.b Old Coils, Strong Coils

Previous | Next

March 17th, 1923

Two months and sixteen days after Point Zero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Several people, in fact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because| dragons| are neat!”

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

“Hello| the Dark. How are you?”

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

* * *

Two days later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just take it.”

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

“Just take it.”

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

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

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

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

* * *

April 3rd, 1926

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

Not that Walker called himself Walker anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good luck.”

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

* * *

May 14th, 1928

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

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

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

Waiting.

And waiting.

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

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

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

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

“I can| translate.”

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

* * *

March 17th, 1929

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two men sighed, but offered no further distraction.

* * *

September 1st, 1931

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

The next day

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

December 24th, 1944

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

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

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

It collapsed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

February 3rd, 1960

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Eighteen hours later

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

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

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

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

* * *

July 9th, 1991

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

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

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

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

* * *

November 25th, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl blew her a raspberry.

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

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

“Irene, behave.”

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

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

“Yes daddy!”

“Ugh, you’re annoying!”

* * *

October 5th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

She shook her head in response.

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

She pointed at the camera pointing at Mindstar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

A week after the Hastur incident

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

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

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

Project S-Breaker completed.

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

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

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

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

But it could be translated.

Even though the first attempt ended up garbled and useless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did the dragon do?

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

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

And there was no end in sight.

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