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

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March 17th, 1923

Two months and sixteen days after Point Zero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Several people, in fact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because| dragons| are neat!”

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

“Hello| the Dark. How are you?”

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

* * *

Two days later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just take it.”

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

“Just take it.”

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

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

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

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

* * *

April 3rd, 1926

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

Not that Walker called himself Walker anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good luck.”

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

* * *

May 14th, 1928

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

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

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

Waiting.

And waiting.

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

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

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

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

“I can| translate.”

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

* * *

March 17th, 1929

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two men sighed, but offered no further distraction.

* * *

September 1st, 1931

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

The next day

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

December 24th, 1944

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

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

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

It collapsed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

February 3rd, 1960

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Eighteen hours later

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

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

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

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

* * *

July 9th, 1991

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

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

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

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

* * *

November 25th, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl blew her a raspberry.

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

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

“Irene, behave.”

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

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

“Yes daddy!”

“Ugh, you’re annoying!”

* * *

October 5th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

She shook her head in response.

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

She pointed at the camera pointing at Mindstar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

A week after the Hastur incident

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

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

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

Project S-Breaker completed.

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

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

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

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

But it could be translated.

Even though the first attempt ended up garbled and useless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did the dragon do?

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

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

And there was no end in sight.

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B007.9 Hastur, Shrouded in Dread

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“I still can’t believe you’re risking this!”

Jason was not happy as he watched the heroes (and assorted vigilantes and villains) prepare to deploy. Polymnia and Brennus were handing out visors for everyone to wear – much like Brennus’ own helmet, they would protect them from Hastur’s power.

Or so they believe. Brennus might just have been immune due to a quirk of his power.

He’d voiced that complaint, and many others, but Amazon had firmly insisted that there was no time left. And he could see that, but couldn’t they at least take a few more minutes to try and get backup?

Of course, the fact that Hastur’s creations were running rampant through the city, keeping villains, vigilantes, police and army on their toes did not help in that regard, at all.

He knew they needed to put her down. He knew these were the only people likely to be capable of doing it. Didn’t mean he had to like it.

“Amazon, could I talk something over with you quickly?” he asked.

The young woman – too young to be burdened with the responsibilities of field leader – walked over to him, holding her new visor in her hands.

They stepped away (Polymnia’s hearing was just too good sometimes, and he had no idea what Brennus’ team was capable of) and turned their backs to the others, so no one could read their lips.

“I know your complaints, Sir. They’re good, but we n-” she started saying, but stopped when he shook his head.

“That’s not it. I get it. Really. No, there’s something else. Rising Tide and Gilgul.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I can guess what you want to say about Rising Tide, but why Gilgul?”

He looked around to make sure there was none of those damn ravens around (even though they were inside the building) and said: “You know as well as I do that Rising Tide can’t be trusted. I’d suggest not taking him into the battle. As for Gilgul… something’s off there. She just shows up out of nowhere, is apparently powerful enough to go toe-to-toe with that fecal monstrosity, is best buds with the out-of-nowhere vigilante gadgeteer and gets a recommendation from Gloom Glimmer after a grand total of one battle! Don’t tell me you don’t think there’s something fishy there!”

“Calm down, Jason. I know all this, and I’ll certainly keep an eye on her and Rising Tide both, but we need every bit of fighting strength we can get, and we’re running out of time, so I’m just going to cut this short now. Wish us luck.”

He looked after her as she turned away to join the others again. “I always do…”

* * *

“You built your base underneath the Goldschmidt Memorial Park?” He almost, almost slapped his forehead. Which is not a smart thing to do when you’re wearing second-rate spare armour (he had been lacking the time and material to make it equal to the main armour).

“Yeah, what of it?”, asked Rising Tide as he adjusted the goggles he was now wearing. The others were, too. They weren’t pretty, but they should protect them by showing them everything indirectly – Hastur’s power should be nullified just as it had been when he had looked at her through his mask’s camera.

<You guys are called the Forresters and the first place you come up with for your secret base is underneath a park full of trees?> Polymnia asked as she finished the calibration of the S.M.O.G. <How about calling yourself the Dolphin Squad and having a base underneath an Aqua->

“Happened,” Brennus threw in.

<What, seriously? That actually happened!?>

Now everyone except for Amazon and Osore was looking at him.

“The group was called the Dolphin Dames. Five female eco-terrorists active in the early nineties. They had their base underneath the San Francisco State Aquarium, right beneath the Dolphin tank. Had it expanded so the dolphins could swim into and out of their base, cause their leader was quite in love with them,” he explained.

“So she was an animal rights nut who really liked looking at dolphins?” asked Tyche.

“No, they were animal rights nuts who, among other things, wanted animals to be legally recognized as citizens with all protections and rights that come with it, and she was in love with them as in…” He threw a glance at Gilgul, who was showing no reaction (not hard to do with a fullbody armour and helmet) that went unnoticed thanks to his own mask. “… she, ah, swam with them.” If his eyebrows were showing, he would have wiggled them.

That shut them up as several people tried to get rid of a slew of unpleasant mental images.

He put in the last calibration code, then aligned the S.M.O.G. with Polymnia’s and Osore’s help so it aimed right at the hidden entrance to the Forrester’s base – a concrete wall and doorway hidden behind thick foliage. Amazon, Hecate, Tyche, Bakeneko, Tartsche, Outstep, Phasma and Rising Tide were standing nearby, ready to storm the base that was probably filled with more of Hastur’s victims.

The plan called for a quick entrance, but this was the only entrance safe for an emergency exit that would take too long to traverse and without Gloom Glimmer, they lacked the firepower to simply blast through it… except, of course, for the S.M.O.G. Amazon had even allowed them to fire it untested, due to the urgency.

“Alright, calibration is done, all systems are running…”

<…energy transmission spotless and the crystal array has been aligned.>

He held out the trigger, which was connected to the rest of the machine via wire. “Want to do the honors?”

Polymnia took it with a grin, looking at the entrance. <Boom.> She pushed the button.

* * *

7.12 seconds later

<I didn’t expect the explosion to be quite that big.>

They stared at the gaping hole in the ten feet of rebar-reinforced concrete… and the hill it had been built into. In fact, there was precious little of said concrete and rebar left to look at.

But there was a lot of dust, which Brennus thought might be symbolic.

“What does S.M.O.G. stand for, anyway?” Bakeneko asked, her eyes (all seven and a half of them) glued to the scene.

Sonic Impulse Overkill Gun,” explained Brennus.

Suddenly, the silence around him turned hostile. He looked around at the others.

“What? It is a perfectly good name!” he tried to justify it. “Do you know how difficult it is to come up with proper Acronyms that are not already in use?” he added, weakly. “The alternative was S.M.U.T., so I think this is an acceptable name…”

The others shook their heads. Gilgul in particular seemed… disappointed.

Amazon snapped her fingers. “Enough distraction people. You know what to do – let’s get going!”

They stormed into the base, with Amazon, Gilgul and Rising Tide on point.

Brennus and Polymnia split the S.M.O.G. into four pieces, and they, Osore and Bakeneko took one each.

As they ran inside, Polymnia leaned closer to Brennus: <I told you we should have gone with Sonic Impulse Overkill Generator.>

“Generator somehow implies something bigger. Maybe something to take down a city block?”

She thought it over. <Not practical, but definitely do-able if we can make a bigger set of synch-crystals.>

“Let’s keep it in mind for the two-point-oh version.”

* * *

They entered the underground base of the Forresters (technically a part of the Undercity, according to Rising Tide), following a tunnel that descended into the earth. Amazon was leading, her golden hoplite-armour already up and covering her from head to toe.

Brennus heard a ping from the secure short-range communication channel (Rising Tide and Phasma had no access to it) and heard Outstep say, <What is it with supervillains and underground bases?>

Gilgul replied: <Tradition, I guess. The Dark used to hide in Old Lennston’s sewer system, back in the beginning. During most of the twenties, actually.>

Everyone but Amazon and Brennus who was in the channel looked at her.

<What? I read a lot. History books can be really interesting, especially since Point Zero.>

Amazon spoke up, <Team, please fo->

Then Succubus stepped around the next corner.

* * *

Phasma made a small, incredibly hurt sound.

Hastur had gotten her hands on Succubus. Brennus had seen images of her succubus form before, and this form was much more monstrous. She had grown taller, almost two meters tall. Her legs had, from the knees and below, turned into cracked volcanic rock, with lava leaking from the cracks. Her wings were as before, only larger and she had grown a crown of black rocks made apparently of obsidian. Her nails were long enough to drag on the floor, and looked wickedly sharp. She was also naked, and her tattoo was gone even though it had been present for her transformed form before.

“Careful, do not let her touch y-“

Brennus was cut off when a wave of raw pleasure slammed into him – and the rest of the group.

His last thought before his mind went into overdrive was that, apparently, her power had been enhanced by the transformation.

He saw – barely – how Amazon and Gilgul charged forward, both unaffected by the aura. But Succubus had either been holding back a lot before or she had gotten a lot more upgrades than just to her appearance and power, because she engaged them in a fluid dance, despite her large wings, her claws flying around, blocking Amazon’s punches and Gilgul’s spearstrikes while scraping over their armours.

F-f-foc- He could not. His mind felt like it was filling up with a heavy, warm goo, shutting d-

<Neural disruption detected. Survival ability has been compromised.>

Eudocia’s electronic voice barely penetrated into his mind. Then, he felt a jab, and then a shock, but they were dim, muted.

<Unable to restore function through non-damaging electrocution. Initiating Override Protocol.>

A string of commands ran down his visor, blurred by his unfocused eyes into incomprehension. What do they mean? He could not remember.

<Armour Control Override complete. Assuming Direct Control..>

Suddenly, his armour started to move of its own, charging forward towards the fight ahead. She drew the humming sword and a stun baton and leapt onto the Succubus’ back, slashing horizontally with his sword to cut through her neck.

Succubus reacted faster than she had expected, though, and she whirled around and swiped her claws at his airborne form. She could not tell whether or not they could penetrate his armour, but she was not going to risk her father’s health here – she fired his hip-mounted grappling hooks while simultaneously calling in all the ravens he had kept just outside the tunnel.

Twisting about in the air as the hooks attached themselves to the ceiling further down the tunnel and reeled in, she flew over and past her quarry, but missed her chance at striking her.

However, she did distract her just long enough for Amazon to hit her knees with a swiping kick from behind, shattering them audibly.

As Succubus screamed out loud, Gilgul stepped up and plunged her spear into her chest, right through her heart. Once more, it cut into its target as if it was butter. As Succubus fell to her shattered knees, her own weight split her throat and head on the unnaturally sharp blade, killing her.

And just like that, her psychic attack vanished.

Brennus shook his head as Eudocia returned control of his armour to him.

Phasma screamed and ran over to the dead villain, kneeling down and craddling the two halves of her head in her lap, holding them together… a futile attempt, as she was already beginning to decay, her body slowly breaking down.

“Nononononononononono…” she whispered, as if it could stop it, trying to hold her together.

“We… ugh… we need to go. Quickly,” said Rising Tide as he recovered from the assault. “No time.”

Brennus nodded as his ravens caught up to them and flew past, deeper into the tunnel – only for the front mass to be obliterated just as they saw a trio of monsters approach, one in a deranged set of glowing power armour.

“Enemies ahead! Three of Hastur’s victims!” he said.

The others got ready for battle, but Amazon cut in, “No! We need to push through, get to the throne!”

They all looked at each other, then Rising Tide spoke up. “Alright, we split. Some attack the three ahead of us and create an opening for the rest to break through. I’ll stay, fight. My power needs time to build up, I’m better off fighting those here so I’ll be stronger later. Remember the floor plans I gave you, and you’ll have no trouble finding the throne.”

“Bakeneko, Tyche, Outstep – you support him!” ordered Amazon. “The rest, follow me!”

And with that, she took off, not giving anyone a chance to dispute her orders.

<Bakeneko, please hand your piece of the S.M.O.G. to Gilgul,> said Brennus as he took off after Amazon.

* * *

They ran down the tunnel towards the trio of monsters. Just when they came into sight – a man made of rough stone, a crab-like woman in contrived armour and a thing like a Chinese dragon crossed with a frog and a few thousand worms – Rising Tide, Tyche and Bakeneko surged forward, the latter morphing into a matching dragon-shape for the other monster and slamming into it.

Outstep surged forward too, attaching explosives to the backs of the enemies, knocking them into their quarries before they could react.

The rest took the opening and simply jumped through and raced down the tunnel, leaving the fight behind.

Brennus decided to take the chance to ask Prisca something he should have asked way earlier (but had been distracted from). <Gilgul, I have switched us into a private channel,> he said.

<Roger, Brennus. I hope you didn’t get hurt earlier?> she asked in return.

<No, I am fine.>

<How did you do that, anyway? Resisting her attack like that…>

<That was me!> Eudocia chimed in. <We have protocols for that. I can override his armour if he’s been disabled.>

<Cool. Always prepare.>

<Yes. Speaking of which… ‘Assuming Direct Control’? Really?>

<What? I always wanted to say that. It’s not like you don’t make quotes like that too, father.>

<Stop calling me ‘father’.>

<Yes father.>

Prisca barely restrained her giggle.

He sighed and focused on his inquiry again as they reached a locked door.

“I’ll take ca-” he began to say, but Gilgul plunged her spear’s blade into the steel door and cut a hole into it, kicking it into the next room.

“Done.”

<I was going to do that…>

<Hush now.>

They went into the room beyond – the ‘reception area’, really more of a hub from which several hallways led to the other parts of the base.

They were awaited by four more monsters.

Brennus did not waste time looking at them and instead sent his ravens in – all the ones he had left, save for two he kept on his shoulders, a swarm of forty – to distract them.

Luckily, Amazon already had a plan: “Brennus, Gilgul and Tartsche, go on and try to distract Hastur and her people. The rest of us will take care of these!”

“Yes madam!” replied the three of them.

“Polymnia, take the S.M.O.G., just in case!” said Brennus as he threw his piece of the gun to her, followed by Gilgul doing the same. They ran past the four monsters as the others descended upon them.

Following the floorplans he had uploaded into his HUD, Brennus pointed out the right corridor to take and the ran into it.

<Gilgul, quick question. I should have asked earlier, but have you noticed any limit to your form? A range, a time limit…> he finally asked as they heard the sounds of battle behind them.

<Uh, it’s kind of strange. I have this… this kind of charge. Anything I do burns through it, a little. Moving, just a little bit. Flying, more. Striking, depends on how sharp my weapon needs to be. So if I tried to cut something too tough, I’d probably burn through the entire charge, maybe.>

<Interesting. How much do you have left?>

She sounded a little worried. <Not much. Cutting through BigShit and Succubus took quite a bit out of me. And I think I didn’t manage to manifest fully charged, for some reason. Nor do I know if I can simply respawn once I run out, or if I have to recharge first.>

He nodded absentmindedly. <You seem to already know a lot about it.> They rounded another corner.

<It’s… it’s like I always knew. Or perhaps like an instinct. I just know this.>

Behind them, he could see the fight heat up as more and more of his ravens were taken out trying to attack or at least distract the enemies. One of them was manipulating gravity strong enough to smack Amazon around.

<We will have to look deeper into this once we have some free time.>

They reached the door to the storage room and Gilgul stepped forward, cutting into it.

<Oh, I have a very different idea as to how to spend our free time…>

* * *

Beyond, a large room full of crates and various memorabilia opened up. It was as large as any gym hall, with crates stacked neatly to the left all along the long wall, and several display cases along the right long wall… with one of them smashed open to reveal a massive, ornate (too ornate) throne with what looked like a mutant satellite dish on the top.

Hastur was sitting on the Super-Tele Throne, wearing a skintight black suit that was connecting her to the throne by way of various wires. Her face was uncovered, free for all to see.

And her power did not work, as Brennus had already switched to the delayed vision mode. Gilgul and Tartsche seemed unaffected, too and the latter heftd his friend’s spellgun.

All he saw now was a cute, but not exceptional girl with mediterranean features, olive skin and messy dark brown hair that really needed a good cut.

“Step off the fancy chair, Miss!” he shouted.

As if that is going to convince her.

The insane teenager turned her head towards them: “Good God, you guys never give up, don’t ya? Why won’t you just look at me!?”

Her companions – one of them was Panthera Avis, the other two looked respectively like a half-machine half-zombie and a snarling gerbil – turned towards them, interposing themselves between the throne and them.

“I don’t know how you got past my friends out there, but I kept the best for last! Nathaniel, Jerry, Lara, kill them already! Especially Brennus, I want him dead! Frederic, keep working on the throne!”

Of the three monsters, Avis and the gerbil charged forward, while the cyborg zombie turned back towards the throne which, as they could now see, was connected to several exposed powerlines in the wall by a series of thick cables.

She called out to three, but only two are attacking. Means there is another one nearby.

Apparently, Gilgul and Tartsche both figured that out, too. The latter whirled around on the spot as a centipede-like monster burst ouf of the ground behind them, charging… straight into Tartsche’s line of fire.

The spellgun fired thrice, twice into the gullet of the monster and once in between its human eyes, causing ice to violently expand from the point of impact.

Thrashing violently, it fell to the ground, its charge interrupted, as it almost burst from the two iceblocks that formed halfway down its long form – it looked like a centipede with a woman’s legs instead of the usual insectoid legs.

But Brennus had little time to take in its appearance as Panthera Avis blinked into position right in front of him, before he could even draw his sword or his baton.

Ah cr-

He was smacked right in the chest before he could even finish that thought and thrown back into the hallway behind him – but not before his ravens could take off of his shoulders and start pecking at his numerous eyes.

Brennus rolled with the punch, taking the edge off of it and landing on his feet, even as he noticed, to his delight, that the dodge protocolls were working – his ravenbots were evading Panthera Avis’ clumsy strikes and slowly blinding him.

Tartsche was standing tall, unconcerned about the charging gerbil-like beast as he aimed his long, ornate rifle at it, calmly taking aim and pulling the trigger only once before the monster reached him.

The contrived rifle – somday, Brennus was going to ask Spellgun how it supposedly worked, even if the answer might give him a headache – did not even flinch backwards, as its wielder was about as movable as a mountain range, but it spewed a massive gout of fire, and then a tiny glowing projectile shot into the gerbil-thing’s gut, piercing the dirty, coarse fur.

The gerbil-monster screamed aloud as it flew backwards, but its screams were cut short when the bullet exploded in its gut, almost severing it in half.

And just like that, Brennus could no longer focus on that as he had to deal with his own quarry, who had just destroyed one of the three ravens and was just refocusing his remaining eyes on him.

I know what is coming next.

He pulled his stun batons in a reversed grip and stabbed backwards the very moment Avis vanished from sight.

The tips stabbed into hard, unyielding flesh and discharged their entire reserve of electricity into his body, causing a multitude of screams from his many mouths.

He saw Prisca be attacked by a centipede-like woman with scythe-like elongated arms, who was rising out of the floor as if it was water, and retreating into it to evade strikes. Even though Gilgul’s blade cut into the concrete easily, her quarry moved fast enough to capitalise on the loss of line of sight to evade and strike out with her own blades, though she could no more penetrate Gilgul’s armour than the golden knight could hit her.

Steering his ravens to dive in on Panthera Avis, he spoke into his com-system, <Gilgul, I am going to distract your enemy. Take out Hastur’s throne, fast.>

<Roger roger.>

He swung around on the spot, kicking Avis in the gut just below where his torso split open to reveal all the twisted faces, throwing him back. As he swung back in response, he used the motion to throw a grenade at the centipede-woman.

<Grenade>

Gilgul reacted, flying straight up just in time for the grenade to detonate. It was a flashbang and a strong one, enough to knock out anyone without some serious protection – which the woman obviously lacked, as she reeled from the detonation.

Tartsche, of course, was utterly safe, Gilgul’s protection also held up and Brennus would never be throwing a grenade that could so easily harm him.

The gerbil-thing, already blown halfway to pieces, reeled from the explosion, as did Avis behind him.

“Nononono, you gotta stop them stop them stop them!” screamed Hastur on her throne, her power letting her recover instantly from the attack.

It was of little use as Gilgul flew straight at her, aiming her lance at the sitting girl, ignoring the contriver working on the throne.

“Hey, bitch!” she screamed. “Here comes some payback!”

Ignoring the attacks of the contriver-zombie, who was pelting her with what seemed to be shotgun-blasts, she plunged her lance into Hastur’s chest – and the throne behind her.

“Nononononononono!” screamed the insane teenager before Gilgul tore the lance upward, cutting cleanly through Hastur and the throne, spliting them both in half.

“And here’s some seconds for you!” She brought the lance down at an angle, splitting the already regenerated Hastur from her left shoulder to her right hip, further demolishing the throne.

“Noooooooooooooo!” Hastur jumped off the throne as it began to glow, spitting streams of sparks as the catastrophic damage caused a meltdown.

Before anyone could do much, the throne detonated in a scarlet fireball that threw everyone but Tartsche away.

The contriver-zombie, Hastur, Gilgul, the centipede-woman and the Gerbil monster were engulfed in the conflagration, while Brennus smacked into Avis’ body and the latter smacked into the wall outside the door with a sickening crunch. His ravens were wiped out.

<Prisca!>

The light vanished, revealing an unharmed Tartsche – and an unharmed Gilgul, too, floating above the crater where the throne had stood.

“I’m fine!” she shouted. “My communicator is gone, th- dodge!” She suddenly threw her lance at him, and Brennus just barely rolled to the side – evading Avis’ two-handed strike.

The lance impaled him easily, the crossguard beneath the blade catching and throwing him back to the wall, transfixing him.

Brennus saw Hastur, already recovered, run deeper into the trophy hall.

“Tartsche, with me!” he shouted and ran.

“Comin’ coming!” the other boy said and broke off his stance, running after Brennus as he darted past him, chasing Hastur.

Then, Gilgul screamed, “Tartsche, drop!

Brennus turned his head and just barely saw Avis, bleeding heavily, appear behind Tartsche and punch the boy in the back, throwing him across the room.

Shit.

Avis’ did not have time to follow up, though, as Gilgul cut him from his left shoulder down to his left hip. Not that it was enough to kill him, but it certainly got his attention.

I can not kill Hastur by myself, without Tartsche’s help. But he could restrain her long enough for Tartsche to catch up to him. His power might allow them to put her down.

He gave chase, and followed Hastur into another hallway, being far faster than her even without his armour.

With it, he caught up to her in seconds and tackled her down.

“Ow! Meanie!” she gasped as he turned her around, kneeling atop her.

“It is over, Hastur,” he told her calmly.

“Not unless you find a way to kill me, sugar. ‘Cause I’m not gonna stop, ever,” she said with something like pride in her voice.

“Why not?”

“Because I want everyone to see me. See my face and love me. Just like the others…”

He looked down at her, unsure how to feel. She looked… ecstatic. Not concerned in the least.

“What is your name, if I may ask? Your real name, I mean.”

She looked stunned for a moment. “Ciara… but why do you want to know?” she asked.

“Because I think the name Hastur is stupid. Besides, you already know my real name, so it is only fair. May I ask you a few questions?”

“Uhh… sure…” she said, seemingly unable to deal with simple politeness.

“What was your trigger? The reason why you manifested?” he asked.

“Why do you want to know?”

“Curiosity. I would like to know what made you into what you are.”

Her face suddenly turned serious, even wistful. “There once was a girl in a little village by a mountain,” she began. “That girl had a friend. They were bestest buds since childhood. More like sisters, closer even.” She stopped, blinking.

He waited until she continued.

“They grew up together, went to school together. Then, her friend found this boy. And what a boy he was, such a catch. He was smart, and witty, and nice and pretty and athletic and even rich, not that she cared. And he was in love with her as much as she was in love with him. And the girl was happy for her friend and supported them. Covered for them, telling their parents they were with her when they were out together, stuff like that. She didn’t mind, after all, they were both her friends.” She took a deep breath. “But as time passed, that stupid girl got a little jealous. She’d had boyfriends of her own, but no one half as close as her friend and the boy were. Worse yet, none of them looked at her the way the boy looked at her friend. Now, you need to know that her friend and the boy weren’t always peachy with each other. They fought, they screamed, sometimes they even broke up. Never for long, but they did… and one day, the stupid little girl thought she’d try and tell him how she felt… how she felt about him. She went to the boy a few days after he’d broken up with her friend again and told him how she felt…” She stopped.

“And?” he asked, suspecting several scenarios.

“He was really nice to her,” she said, taking a sobbing breath. “Told her that he liked her a lot, but not that way. That they could be friends, but no more. He still wanted to get back together with her friend, after all, and take it further even.” She sniffed.

He had not expected that particular development.

“But then… even though he was so nice, he still wouldn’t look at her… look at her the way he looked at her friend. All she wanted… all I wanted was for someone, anyone to look at me the way he looked at herrrrrrrrr.” She began to sob, what little composure she had had gone in an instant. Then she started to… giggle. “Now that’s over. Everyone will look at me the way he looked at her… everyone…”

“How did he look at her?” he asked.

That stunned her. “What?”

“It is a simple question. How did he look at her? Can you describe it?”

“Well, he… he looked at her face and he… uhh…” Her eyes widened in horror. “I… I don’t remember…” she whispered as her eyes overflowed with tears. “I don’t remember… I don’t remember the way he looked at her. Why can’t I remember!?” She screamed the last part, throwing herself around trying to get away… before she collapsed, the strength leaving her. “I can’t remember how he looked at her… I killed them all, and I can’t remember…”

“Ciara.”

She looked up at him.

“What happened afterwards? After you used your power on the village people?”

“I… they came. The companions. They locked me up. Killed all my friends. Sent me here, so I’d be set free in New Lennston.”

“The Companions of the Future? Why? What did they want?”

“A diversion. Just like the attack on the protectorate. I heard them talk about that a few times, when they weren’t somehow shielding themselves from my power. They also had other things planned, but I couldn’t find out. They know how to proof places from me.”

Holy shit, what kind of conspiracy is this? “Do you know what they wanted to distract people from?”

She shook her head. “I only know that potentially causing a world war is a bonus. They are looking to do something… they want to wake something they call ‘the Sleeper’. It’s kind of a slogan of theirs – ‘The Sleeper must wake’.”

“That sounds… painfully generic. Do you have any idea what this sleeper is?”

“No… but I can look, if you want. Not like I have anything else to do.”

“Please do.”

She nodded and closed her eyes. “Hmm, alright, looking, looking… there, there’s a place! In the pacific, a big floating city. The Sleeper is below… I can almost see it… deep, deep… oh, that’s it!” She suddenly smiled wide. Almost grinned. Her eyes flew open. “I can see it! It’s beautiful, so beautiful, I can see it all o-” Her breath caught as her eyes widened.

“What? Ciara, what’s happening?” he asked, worried. What the hell was going on there?

“It can see me! It’s asleep but it can s-“

Without warning, without a sign, without her even changing her expression, there was a crack in the air, as her whole body suddenly froze solid, ice-spikes erupting from her clothing and skin, her eyes cracking audibly.

Brennus was thrown off of her as he felt the cold through his suit, down to his bones.

He picked himself up from the ground and looked at her – her body was in the exact same position it had been before, only frozen, iced over, the ice covered in slush which was already running off, turning into cold water.

What the fuck?

* * *

“And she just said that it saw her and then she… died? Nothing else?” Widard asked, bewildered.

“Yes. I just showed you my recording, did I not?” replied Brennus, as the rest of both his and the junior hero team looked on. Gilgul was missing though, as her charge had run out (though she had only told him that. The others thought she had just left after the fight). The Dark was there, too – the fight at Kansas City was over, and apparently Memento, having reappeared after his absence during the Osaka fight, had managed to disrupt Desolation-in-Light’s powers often enough to make her lose interest, or whatever it was that made her go away.

Brennus elaborated, “Going through the recordings, I think that her body temperature was remotely lowered to extreme enough depths to flash-freeze her, which caused an implosion as the air around her condensed into liquid, drawing in the surrounding air to fill the gap, followed by an explosion of air as the liquified air mostly turned back into gas by absorbing the surrounding heat. Also, it damn near froze off several pieces of me.”

The others looked quite worried now. That kind of power, apparently used from around the world, was major bad news.

He, however, looked at the Dark. “Sir, do you have any idea what this Sleeper is, or what the Companions want with it?”

The Dark, having stood at the windows with his back to the rest of them, turned to look at them. “I know very well what it is, indeed.” He raised a hand, as if to scratch his chin, not that that could be seen underneath the shadows that wrapped around him.

“What? What is it?” asked an impatient Amazon.

“None of your business and way out of your league. Best you all forget you ever heard this,” he replied simply, not the least bit intimidated by her attitude.

“By God, if you’re going to screw us over here, I-” she began, but he cut her off with only a look.

I so need to take some lessons from this guy.

“Watch your language, young lady. I’ve been playing this game since long before your father was even born. And besides, if you can ask Gwen, too. She knows as much about it as I do… though her answer will be the same as mine, I assure you.”

He turned to look at the juniors and Brennus’ team. “To you, my dear children, let me say this: I am very impressed by your performance. I compliment you all, and hope to see more of you in the future.” He nodded his head, if barely, towards them. “But now I must leave you, and take care of business.”

And with that, he sank into his own shadow, vanishing.

They were left staring at where he had stood, more scared than flattered.

“Why do I think this ain’t good for us?” asked Tyche, who had her left arm in a sling.

“Because we apparently just got the attention of the King of Supervillains,” replied Hecate, who was wrapped in an emergency blanket to cover up her costume, which had been torn to the point of indecency, apparently. Again.

<And I thought my day started weird.>

Everyone else replied, “Amen.”

* * *

Basil walked up to his house, feeling quite tired. They had discussed the whole operation, along with some unsettling news about Desolation-in-Light’s attack on Kansas City. But now he was just tired and wanted to see Amy again – she had survived Kansas, as Amazon had grudgingly pointed out.

Can not blame her for hoping Amy would come to harm.

Aye, it’s her own fault, mate.

He mulled that over as he reached the door – and then his phone rang in the melody he had set for e-mails.

Taking a quick look, he found a single sentence in the mail:

I’ll be watching you.

Followed by the image of a dragon biting its own tail, circling a W.

He put the phone away again. Well, that is not foreboding at all.

But he would worry about that later. Now, he opened the door, stepping in.

Just as he closed it and took a breath to call Amy, he was suddenly caught by an invisible force, throwing him up.

He smacked into the ceiling, face down, arms and legs sprawled.

Amy stepped out of the kitchen into the hallway, hair wet and dressed in a bathrobe. And looking pissed.

“We need to have a talk, little brother.”

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B004 Introduction to Metahuman Studies (Part 5)

The young man looked utterly unremarkable – he was the kind of person Basil would never have noticed walking down the street (then again, Basil was not the most observant of people). Neither tall nor short, average weight but soft, untrained. Short, brown hair, muddy brown eyes and a too large nose for his otherwise thin face. His clothing was equally unremarkable, a pair of blue jeans, a black t-shirt and blue loafers. Basil pegged him as a mid-twenty, at most.

And he was standing at the edge of the building, alternating between staring off towards the setting sun and down at the street.

As Basil watched, he took a deep breath and raised one foot to step off the roof.

“Stop please!” Basil shouted while simultaneously activating the speaker function of the raven.

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B003 Forbidden Garden (Part 3)

Earlier, the same day

“Melody. Wake up…”

She didn’t want to. It felt so comfortable, lying in her bed, wrapped up in her blankets.

“Come on… we have to get ready…”

Please, I don’t want to perform today. Just let me sleep another day or so.

“No, silly, this is about the debriefing. It’s due in half an hour.”

She turned around, pulling the covers up over her head.

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