B13.4 Call of the Sleeper

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Part of Basil’s inner self was admonishing him/itself for using an untested gadget in such a situation, nevermind bringing it along on such a sensitive mission in the first place.

Another, far larger part of him was jubilating at the fact that the force projector worked. It was just its most basic function that he’d used – in this case, using the stored energy in its batteries to generate kinetic force, which was then projected onto the door he’d pressed his palm to – but nevertheless, it had worked.

Had the situation not been so dire, he would likely have danced a short jig.

However, it was dire and so he focused on the room ahead of him instead. The door he’d launched into it had slammed into a group of armed, armoured men, knocking five of them over – painfully so, judging by the groans and broken limbs he could make out.

Which left seven more standing, raising their rifles to aim at him.

They were all clad in heavy, padded body armour, all black save for a crude skull apparently hand-painted onto each of their left breast’s, each sporting a belt with half a dozen grenades clipped to it as well as a combat knife and a baton in a holster, as well as wielding blocky rifles of a make he couldn’t identify, topped by scopes casting red dots, now rapidly centering on his body.

Alright, let’s hope the next one works, as well, he thought, his left arm rising up even before the trained soldiers could squeeze their triggers, presenting the broad side of his gauntlet to them.

They pulled their triggers just as he twisted his fingers in the correct activation sequence; their guns made surprisingly quiet pops, firing glowing blue projectiles at him; his gauntlet’s circuits filled with light, and a small disk, the size of a saucer, appeared above it. A thin circle appeared around it, wide enough that it shielded him from his head down to his thighs. Both looked like they made of crackling, unstable electricity, flickering like crazy.

Then the projectiles fired by the Skullmen impaced the seemingly empty space between the central disk and the outer circle, only for tiny bolts of electricity to arch between said centre and the circle, the force-field becoming visible as it absorbed the kinetic energy of the glowing darts fired at him, deflecting the projectiles themselves, bouncing them back and onto the ground.

He knelt down, slowly, gesturing for Polymnia to do the same, until his shield was covering him entirley, before one of their foes got the bright idea to aim for his or her legs.

Soon, the hail of glowy shots stopped, leaving the ground in an arc in front of him covered in rapidly darkening darts, as the Skullmen reloaded their rifles, without exchanging a single word.

“You can make force-fields now?” Polymnia asked from behind. “Why am I not surprised?”

“I got the idea after working on Sovereign’s equipment. It uses- actually, let us talk about this later, we need to take these people out,” he replied calmly, or as calmly as he could, feeling as exhilerated as he did right then and there.

“You’re right. So,” she spoke, as the soldiers finished reloading and aiming again, filling the air between them with glowing darts once more, causing lightning to dance through his shield as it continued blocking their attacks. “How should we do that? Can that gauntlet attack while it’s also projecting that shield? Because at this point, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it did.”

“No, it can not. Do you know what else it can not do?”

“No, but I assume it is important?”

“It is fully permeable to sound, and sound-based attacks,” he replied quietly enough that only she was likely to hear it.

“I could kiss you right now,” she said, instantly picking up on his meaning, as she reached with her arms over his shoulders, one on each side of his head, so as to remain behind the safety of his shield.

He saw the speakers built into her heavy gauntlets – if they were as heavy as they looked, then he doubted he’d have been able to use them without power armour, but her current set seemed to lack servo motors – start to vibrate. There were eight of them on each one, six arranged in two rows of three down the length of the forearm, while two more were facing forward, built into the part of the gauntlet that stuck out over her hands, at the wrists. The ones on the back began to oscillate, visibly, making a dull, thrumming sound for several seconds – but it was the ones aimed forward which actually performed the attack.

Concussive sound so powerful it visibly distorted the air shot out of the front speakers,  in two pairs of two, passing through his shield as if it wasn’t even there – which was just how he’d intended when he’d set the shield’s harmonics – and impacting the two rows of armed Skullmen.

As there were only seven of them, and they’d bunched up in a formation of one kneeling in front, with another standing behind, they were all hit by the blast, bowled over as it impacted the front row and burst.

It was a rather impressive display of raw force, Basil thought, watching their weapons be smashed to kindling, their bodies launched with such force they slammed into the walls around them – even the ones his attack had already taken down were moved, though not nearly as violently, sliding towards the sides of the room.

When it was over, there was no foe left standing – and judging by their lack of motion, few of them were even still conscious.

Still, it paid to be careful. “Can you determine whether they’re all unconscious?”

Polymnia left her arms as they were, aimed into the room beyond. After a few seconds, he saw her left hand’s fingers twitch. “Judging by their breathing and heartbeats, they are all unconscious.”

“Good enough for me,” he spoke, and rose up after she pulled her arms back. Deactivating his shield – it would not do to waste battery life – he walked into the room and did a quick triage of the Skullmen, both to make sure that none of them would die due to the wounds they’d received, and to get one of their communication devices.

Fortunately, he was successful on both accounts – they would all, likely, survive, and he got a boxy communicator off the belt of one of them that hadn’t been shattered by Polymnia’s attack.

“Brennus, take a look at this,” said heroine spoke up behind him. When he turned around, she held up one of the darts the Skullmen had fired at them. It was still glowing, slightly, though the light was growing steadily more dim.

“Looks like a knockout dart,” he observed, taking it from her hand to look closer. Running a simple spectrometric analysis revealed it to be filled by a commonly used sedative – one employed by most police forces, among others. That much made sense. What did not make sense was why they were built to glow (as were the rifles they’d been fired from), as it didn’t seem to serve any function he could make out. “Pretty common sedative, all things considered.”

“That’s kind of my point,” she spoke through her vocaliser. “These are the people who created those monsters, right?”

“As far as we know, yes, though I am reasonably certain of it,” he replied, wondering what she was getting at.

“And one of their members is Dusu, a woman who wiped out a large part of Hawaii’s population – almost a million people.”

“Yes, they are horrible people. What are you getting at?”

“Even though they are, at the very least, responsible for a number of casualties in the six-digits – likely even more – they… made an effort to create a teleport-interdiction system which split us up and deposited us – presumably – in separate rooms meant to disable and contain, instead of killing us. Their security forces even wield strictly non-lethal technology – those are flashbangs and other non-lethal grenades on them, no?”

He aimed his spectrometre at a grenade belt, analysing it. “Yes, they are…” he answered her, as he caught up to their thought process. “Which raises the question, what kind of group participates in wide-spread slaughter on a scale that’d make Weisswald proud…”

“… yet takes great pains to spare the lives of anyone who attempts to infiltrate their very stronghold – the place in which they ought to be at their most vicious when defending it!?”

He looked down at the knockout dart in his fingers, contemplating the question, but came up empty.

“It does not matter,” he answered, wrapping his fist around the dart and squeezing. When he opened it again, the crushed remains of the dart fell down on the ground. “We have to fight them either way – let us be on our way.”

***

Leaving the room proved to be no problem at all – the door behind the Skullmen had been open, leading out into a hallway with an octagonal cross-section, which however led straight to their first problem – hub where it crossed with three other similar hallways, giving them a total of seven options for where to proceed, but no indication as to which path they ought to take; there were no markings or signs whatsoever in this part of the structure and neither of them had any way to determine where to go; Basil had a compass built into his interface, but he had no idea where they were, within the structure they’d seen earlier on, and so could not say at all which direction was the wisest one to take.

In the end, they had to rely on Polymnia’s ability to pick up even the faintest sounds; though the only ones she could get, other than the heartbeats of the fallen foes behind them, were too faint to truly identify, she could determine which direction was the loudest. In this case, the hallway that intersected theirs at a right angle, specifically the right-hand part of it, was the loudest one by far.

Next, of course, they had to decide whether to move towards or away from it. On one hand, it was likely to be the least safe direction to go towards. On the other, it was also the one most likely to yield some information, which they were in desperate need of.

Which was why Basil had taken one of the unbroken communicators off the fallen soldiers (Polymnia had taken the sole other one that wasn’t ruined), and was now leaning against the wall, a cable running from a pouch on his belt to the communicator, plugging into a small port to give him direct access to it.

He could, of course, just turn it on and try to listen in on the enemy’s conversation, but he didn’t relish the idea of deliberately tipping his hand like that. While it was quite possible the enemy already knew he had a communicator on hand – though he’d so far failed to make out any cameras or other surveillance in the hallway, it paid to be paranoid, which was the reason why he was modifying the programming on this communicator. Fortunately, it wasn’t a gadget or – even more fortunately! – a contrivance, so he was able to make it no longer transmit its location, as he’d quickly determined it was designed to do. He also blocked it from being remotely turned on so as to listen in to what happened around it, then did the same for the one Polymnia had brought with her.

“How do we know they don’t have other means of listening in on us, though?” she asked once he was finished. “Microphones are much easier to hide than cameras – I ought to know – and they may well have people with powers that allow them to surveil us.”

“There is nothing at all we can do about power-based surveillance, as we are,” he replied, rolling his shoulders. “If Gloom Glimmer was here, then she could do something about it, but she is not – which, honestly, worries me more than anything else that has happened over the last month – what could possibly keep her occupied against her will?”

She screwed up her face, her shoulders rising into a slightly hunched posture. “Yeah… I can’t imagine why… she hasn’t come find me yet… I hope she’s alright.”

“I am reasonably certain that she is safe,” he replied calmly, as even he couldn’t overlook the fact that her eyes had grown quite wet in response to his concerns. “More safe than we are, certainly. Speaking of which, I am far more worried about the other members of our party – they are much less likely to have resisted whatever means our opponents deployed to subdue them than you or I, and certainly far less so than Gloom Glimmer.”

“You really think so?” she asked, her voice seeming completely calm, even if she looked more than a little choked up.

He nodded, reaching out awkwardly to pat her on the shoulder. “Think about it. They had some kind of contrivance that reacted to our attempt to teleport in, then divided us up based on our power sets and sent us into separate rooms, each likely meant to nullify our specific powersets in some fashion – almost certainly via contrivances of some sort, except for the EMP dishes in our cell, which I am certain were mundane technology or gadgets. Now, if they had a cell which can counter every possible power there is, then they would not have had any need to split us up – we would all just have been dumped into the same place. And since nothing short of that could contain Gloom Glimmer, she is likely already free and wrecking this place, or making her way to us – though she is probably refraining from simply teleporting here, so as to avoid a repeat performance of their teleport interdiction.”

She took a deep breath, calming herself. “That does make sense… however, I just had a thought. Maybe… they do have some manner of universal power nullification, and it’s just you and me who were separated from the others? After all, power nullification would be useless against you, and would only slightly impede me.”

He paused, surprised. “Oh… I had not thought of that.” He lowered his hand from her shoulder. “That is… certainly possible.”

Leaning against the wall again, he contemplated quietly, for a few moments. “Unlikely, but possible… however, you just helped me realise something.”

“What?”

“Assuming Gloom Glimmer’s analysis is correct, then you and me are currently on the Northern half of this city – they do seem to keep Contrivers and Gadgeteers apart; their system would have sent you and me North both for subduing us, and to put us right where people could analyse our equipment, once they pilfered it from us. Meanwhile, power nullification is not something we have ever seen gadgets do – that would be done by way of contrivances, unless they use a metahuman for that, which I doubt, considering their setup here…”

She picked up on his train of thought easily, getting a thoughtful look, wrapping one arm around her torso and putting her other hand under her chin in a classic ‘thinker’ pose. “Which would put them on the Southern half of this place, giving us an idea of which direction we ought to move towards!” Her lips had turned up into a smile towards the end, which he was quite happy to see.

Girls should be smiling, not looking depressed and on the verge of tears, as far as he was concerned.

“Conveniently enough, South lies in the opposite direction from where you are picking up the loudest sounds,” he added, pointing down the respective corridor which lined up exactly with the South his compass was displaying.

“Then let’s go kick some ass and find our fr- there’s something coming our way from the South!” Her exclamation turned into a shocked shout, her eyes widening as she picked up something Basil couldn’t begin to sense yet.

Whirling around, he dropped to one knee, raising his gauntlet to project his shield, as Polymnia joined him behind it.

Soon, he saw black-and-white blur race down the hallway towards them, far faster than either of them could track it.

“Wait, is th-” he began to say, but then it was upon them – and it simply ran around him, faster than he could have turned with it or attack in some way.

He heard a gasp behind him, and then the groaning sound of heavy-duty armour being compressed hard.

Dropping into a roll, he came up facing towards Polymnia, switching his gauntlet from the shield to its attack mode…

But he needn’t have bothered, as all he saw was Polymnia being hugged by Gloom Glimmer, who was squeezing so hard her friend’s bulletproof armour seemed to be on the verge of cracking.

“I was so worried!” she sobbed, squeezing harder, making Polymnia groan, though she did so with a smile. “I came as fast as I could, but my power wouldn’t give me teleportation again!”

“It’s alright, Gloomy,” Polymnia said, her voice coming out calm. “But if you don’t relax a bit, I’m afraid my head is going to pop.”

“Oh! I’m so sorry!” The daughter of the world’s chief heroine and villain let go of her friend, shuffling back with an embarrassed look. “Are you, are you alright?” she asked, clenching her hands behind her back, as if afraid she’d just hug her friend again if she didn’t hold them there, looking down at her feet.

“Yes, I am,” Polymnia replied to her friend, reaching out and giving her a light, brief hug. “Me and Brennus kicked butt here.”

Gloom Glimmer turned her head, looking at Basil – who’d stood up again, now that it seemed like they were at least temporarily safe – as if she’d only now noticed he was there.

Before he knew it, she had her arms around him, and gave him a squeeze he felt even through his armour.

Ugh… definitely super-strength…

“Thank you so much!” she said, before stepping back to wipe a few unshed tears from her eyes. “I’m sorry things went so wrong… my power didn’t warn me about this trap at all.”

“Well, how many people have a teleport interdiction system?” Basil replied with a shrug, as he rubbed his sides. That had been a really tight hug. “No one blames you for not expecting such an arcane security system, even in a place such as this.”

“W-well, that shouldn’t be a problem anymore,” she mumbled, looking chargrined. “I’ve got a danger sense now, and I’ll hold onto it for as long as I can.”

“That’s very useful!” Polymnia exclaimed brightly, stepping up to stand next to her friend, taking her hand and squeezing it softly. “Don’t beat yourself up over getting surprised by this – we all were, and it’s not your job to be ready for everything.”

Gloom Glimmer sighed, relaxing visibly enough, as soon as their hands touched, for even Basil to pick up on it. “Well, it won’t happen again… I’ve had this power before, and it’s a strong one. Should let me steer us around any big threat. And I’m pretty sure I can track down our teammates, too.”

“Any insights so far?” Basil asked. “We need any information we can get.”

She nodded. “Yeah, uh… there are a lot of dangers around here. Especially in the centre of this installation. The top level of the centermost tower, in particular, it’s glowing brighter than anything else around here.”

Both gadgeteers tilted their heads to the side. “What does that mean, exactly?”

“Oh, right, um,” Gloom Glimmer scratched her cheek with her free hand. “This danger sense highlights threats. Colour and intensity of the glow tell me what kind of danger it is, and just how dangerous, irrespective of whether they’re actually an enemy.”

“Meaning?” Basil pushed for more details.

“Um… meaning that, whoever or whatever is at the top of this place… they glow white. Which means, the danger they represent covers every base, physical, mental, social, emotional. And… they glow brighter than my dad.”

She took a deep breath, and looked South, and up – presumably towards this bright glow. “Whoever that is… they’re more dangerous than the Dark.”

Basil looked in the same direction, feeling… oddly calm, all things considered. It wasn’t like he hadn’t expected things to get worse.

“Super.”

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B013.3 Call of the Sleeper

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Travelling with Irene was always an interesting experience to Melody, no matter how often they did it (and they did it quite a lot – Irene loved taking her all across the world at the drop of a hat); it always went a little differently. Even when they just teleported somewhere, the transition tended to happen in all kinds of ways; from the seamless ‘we’re-here-now-we’re-there’ that she’d employed to get them to Esperanza City, to that one time when they’d spent a few minutes walking across these strange, dark grey rock-paths floating in a vast sea of darkness, with stars all around – she still regretted that she hadn’t thought to bring a camera along to preserve that image.

Flying could also be pretty fun, if for no other reason that her power seemed to almost never use the same method twice; right now, for example, they weren’t so much being lifted as it was like space itself had wrapped around them, somehow, and was just… moving them along through the air. There was no pressure on them, no air in their faces; they simply moved.

Melody had quickly caught on to it and just relaxed, loosening her limbs to enjoy the ride, while Irene’s power held her pretty much in place. The others had followed suit soon, once they realised that they didn’t need to hold themselves up anymore. Apart from Tyche, that was, who’d taken to trying out different ‘flying poses’, sometimes asking Hecate whether one was cool or not.

For her part, Hecate seemed to be lost in thought, barely taking notice of her teammate, let alone the others that were travelling with them.

She closed her eyes and focused on her latest invention, a pair of earpieces that connected to her visor (pink, of course), which protected her ears from sudden spikes of noise (such as the one that’d taken her out for most of the fight against Crocell) while also improving her hearing by several levels.

Hecate’s heartbeat was a little uneven, faster than would signify calm. She was worried, and trying not to show it. Melody felt a pang of sympathy for the girl, she was clearly unhappy about this whole operation, even if she’d agreed to come along.

Tyche, on the other hand, was ecstatic. She didn’t even really need her gadget to tell, wouldn’t even have needed her already enhanced hearing – the girl was grinning like a madwoman, while she enjoyed the perks of this strange weightlessness. In other words, she was the same as every other time Melody had interacted with her. She was kind of envious of how that girl could seemingly enjoy any situation, no matter how horrible. And she still didn’t know what power she, because she sure as hell didn’t have just some minor physical enhancements!

Spellgun – Thomas – was quite scared, if in a different way than Hecate. He was more obvious about it, fiddling with his insane rifle or checking the bandoliers of ammunition strapped across his chest. He’d get more and more worked up, until Tartsche reached out to squeeze his hand, or his shoulder, or just pat his back, all but instantly calming down again, until he started to get anxious once more.

Tartsche’s heartbeat was the same as everything else about him, warm, steady, steadfast. She’d never known a person whose power fit them better, never known someone who was so at peace with himself. She’d never known Harry to lose his cool or lash out, or even appear to be nervous. Instead, he was spreading his calmness to his boyfriend, while also looking at the others to see if anyone else needed some encouragement.

One such person was Aimihime, Bakeneko, currently in her favourite form, that of a darkly furred catgirl (though thankfully with sane proportions, as opposed to what she used to look like in the past – not that Melody had any right to really complain about others sporting ridiculous bust sizes), trying to look calm while her eyes moved alternatively from Brennus to her boyfriend and back.

That brought a frown to Melody’s face, though she tried to hide it. Aimihime had been way too eager to come along and help them… she’d all but been lurking outside in the hallway, jumping at the chance to join Irene and her when they left, almost as if she’d known something was going to happen beforehand… but how would she?

It’s none of my business, Melody chided herself. She might just have felt stir-crazy, after having been unable to really contribute at all since the Hastur fight. If Melody hadn’t had the chance to help with the Arc Caster, she’d probably have felt quite badly about herself, too.

Underneath them, the scenery changed from land to ocean, as the day got brighter still.

Melody looked out over the wide, wide Pacific Ocean – surprisingly, she’d never actually seen it before, in spite of Irene’s frequent jaunts around the world. She took a few seconds to just look and pay the beauty of it its due.

Afterwards, she focused on Osore, curious about how the strange, quiet boy who’d joined them together with Aimi was feeling… only to barely hear a thing, his heartbeat being so calm she thought, for a moment, he might have fallen asleep; but no, he was quite awake, his dark eyes just barely visible through the eyeholes of his oni-style mask, calmly surveying the room.

She’d never known him to be anything but detached and calm. Or talk, really. She didn’t even remember his name from his introduction, it’d been so short and they literally had not exchanged a single word since. She wasn’t even really sure why he’d agreed to come along on this mission, other than perhaps for Aimi’s sake.

I’m just distracting myself, aren’t I? she thought quietly to herself, focusing her gaze forward, where Brennus was floating-standing next to Irene. Not that it’s surprising. This isn’t exactly the smartest thing I’ve ever done. Not even Top Ten.

That made her think again. Why was she going along with what was, essentially, a huge shot in the dark hoping to find something which could heal Dusu’s victims.

Or rather, one victim in particular, even if Melody was sure that Brennus was going to help each of Dusu’s victims equally, given the chance.

She focused her eyes (and ears) on Brennus, curious how he was dealing with the pressure…

Only to find him almost as calm as Osore. Cold. He wasn’t unnaturally calm – she could still make out his heartbeat as well as she’d expect, through his cloak and body armour – but he was definitely calmer than she would have thought, his heart beating steadily, quietly, his breathing as even as can be. There was something intense about him, his posture, his aura, as if his entire being was focused ahead at their mission.

Isn’t he nervous at all? If I’d been the one to organise an undertaking like this, I’d be a nervous wreck. How can he just ignore the pressure and remain so calm?

It wasn’t like this was new, either. When she thought about it, Brennus had always been way too calm during a crisis – when he wasn’t being maniacal, that is. She’d wondered, more than once, just what must have happened for him to turn out the way he did, thriving in situations in which she’d rather curl up and scream.

The fight against Crocell had been just another in a long list of occasions that had demonstrated to her that he was just on another level than her, no matter how much she tried to improve herself – while she’d been taken out in the first moments of the fight, he’d fought the entire time, pursuing and analysing the beast, until he actually came up with a way to defeat it – and then he’d led her and two other gadgeteers to implement it on the spot, even getting Sovereign (or rather, whomever or whatever controlled that Subjugator) to cooperate.

Melody was rather starting to feel inadequate, really, even though Hotrod had assured her that Brennus was very atypical for a young gadgeteer and that, compared to most, she was already plenty advanced.

It didn’t help that every time they’d run into each other, he’d sported a new or completely reworked gadget, like that gauntlet of his, which seemed to have replaced the sword he’d previously wielded, as well as the strange ovoid attached to it, both made out of metal rather than the strange ceramic which Brennus normally used for his inventions, their surfaces covered in circuit-like grooves and she really wanted to know what it did. However, with the way the mood was right now, she really didn’t want to speak up just to ask about what his newest gadget did.

She was quite certain it was going to make her feel envious and at least slightly inadequate, anyhow. Especially since most of the equipment she had on her was a downgrade, built from spare parts and some handouts from Hotrod (in exchange for her help with his own project) to be a more portable, if less powerful, version of her usual rig. Not that she’d had a choice, really, after the flood Crocell’s death had caused had ruined most of her equipment beyond repair.

Then she’d found out that the EMP countermeasures he’d gifted her as an afterthought, a little gesture of goodwill after taking some samples from her tech, way back during the fight against the Rabid Eight – God, it’s only been a few months! – without asking her, was being implemented all across the United Heroes’ infrastructure, nevermind their field equipment.

Even her own armour used it, all over, to protect against the dreaded bane of gadgeteers everywhere – a reliable EMP protection that was applicable to personal equipment was a rarity even among their kind, at least one that could easily and relatively cheaply be replicated.

She seriously doubted he’d gotten even a quarter as much out of sampling her tech as she had out of his handout, nevermind the boon it was likely turning out to b-

You’re obsessing again, Irene’s warm voice whispered into her thoughts.

Huh? Melody perked up, looking forward at her friend, who was looking at her over her shoulder with a gentle gaze, her hood thrown back to reveal her head. She blushed, thinking about how obvious it must have been for Irene to pick up on it in this situation. S-sorry. I didn’t mean to, it’s just…

I know, he can be pretty intimidating, Irene replied, turning forward again even while keeping their mental conversation up. He’s kind of like mom, you know? Seemingly effortlessly out doing everyone around him.

Having him compared to Lady Light of all people does not make me feel less inadequate, Melody grumped mentally. He’s my age, for crying out loud! He’s had his powers for less time than me. And yet both his technology and his skill in combat make me look like an amateur… I’ve had my powers for years!

Some people just get lucky, her friend tried to soothe her. Exhibit A, I myself. Exhibit B, my big sister. Exhibit C, Brennus.

Wait, which sister are you…

The one who’s not going around wiping out entire cities at a time.

Oh. Yeah, uh… sorry, but that doesn’t make me feel better, either.

You’re putting him on too high a pedestal, Irene continued calmly, while the day grew darker around them.

You’re the one who just compared him to Lady Light, yourself and Elysium in basically one breath!

I was merely illustrating that some people get luckier than others. And I bet he’s not as good as he appears to be. You of all people should know that – you see the end product, you don’t see all the hours he spent training, or working on an invention just to have it turn out to be a dud, the sleepless nights…

Alright alright! Melody had to restrain herself a lot not to throw her arms up – that would just have looked strange, considering the circumstances. I’ll stop feeling sorry for myself!

Irene looked over her shoulder again, briefly sticking out her tongue at her and winking, before she faced forward again.

Ohhhhh…

***

Almost an hour of relatively quiet travel later – a brief argument between Spellgun and Tyche regarding her opinion that he really should call himself Spellrifle, as he didn’t actually wield a gun, notwithstanding – there was finally a change in the scenery (Melody never would have thought the ocean would get so boring when you were just flying across it).

In the distance, there was, at first, a glint, followed by, as they approached, a a multitude of lights – they’d travelled far enough west quickly enough that it was still dark, even if sunrise wasn’t far away – in an irregular line, clustering around the middle and the edges, like a W.

“Is that it?” Aimi asked, her form shifting slowly, teeth and nails lengthening slightly as her whole appearance grew less cute and more feral. An unconscious effect, Melody knew.

“That’s where Brennus’ coordinates are leading,” Irene confirmed. “Wait, I think I can zoom in…”

The view in front of them distorted itself, then rapidly came closer much faster than they were actually moving across the water.

“Oh wow…” Melody couldn’t help but say, even if it felt kind of silly at times to type that kind of sentence fragment into her vocaliser.

“Yeah, ‘wow’ is a pretty good description,” Hecate whispered as they stared at the floating city.

An actual, floating city. At least, it was big enough to be a city, with skyscraper-sized towers in the centre and the edges. They were looking at it from above, at an angle, and so could see that it was a huge disk roughly divided into six projections out from a central cluster of towers, with more towers at the tips of the two biggest extensions, the ones pointing directly to the left and the right, from their perspective – the Northern and Southern ones, that is – the whole thing forming a pointed star-shape that was further divided into two, with the Southern part looking somehow… stranger than the Northern one.

Melody didn’t even know where to start describing it. The Northern part looked like it had jumped straight out of one of those Japanese Cyberpunk shows, all grey, black and silver, with glowing neon lights all over and more cables, wires and pipes than she could easily count, or even guess at the number of. Everything, every single building – if they really were buildings, and not just extentions of the structure underneath – was interconnected not just on by the platform they stood upon, but also by a multitude of pipes and free-hanging wires, some of them glowing in various neon colours, others coloured a dull, boring gray. The whole thing looked like a riot of colours alternating with dull steel, in winding, twisting shapes that made her brain twist itself in knots trying to follow, except for the circular tip of the North-Eastern extension, which instead looked like a bonsai tree four or five storeys high, surrounded by floating platforms holding even more bonsais, as well as other, more exotic plants, some of them in colours that no natural plant should have, as pretty as they looked.

It was nothing compared to the Southern half. Melody’s eyes watered just from looking at it.

It was… it was…

It was impossible to put into words, unless she took the time to write an entire book. There were… floating parts and crystal spheres… obelisks covered in glowing runes… patches of greenery and twisted trees with glowing leaves… and so much, much, much more, the most impressive bit being a huge sphere of what appeared to be liquid mercury floating above a circular pit at the Southern-most tip.

The only remotely normal part was in the centre, a cluster of skyscraper-sized towers that gleamed even in the darkness, serving no purpose she could easily guess at.

“Two halves, one for Contrivers, one for Gadgeteers,” Irene said calmly. “They’re keeping the two apart to avoid unfavourable interactions between their work, yet keeping them close enough that they can both study whatever it is they’re studying at the same time.”

“How do you know that?” Spellgun whispered, sounding awed.

Irene tapped her temple without averting her eyes from the… whatever it was, Melody couldn’t think of a good name for it. “I want to know it, and this time, my power is cooperating. I’m getting all kinds of data on this place, it… it’s amazing. It’s even bigger than it looks, below the surface. This is just the tip of the actual structure.”

“Alright… we’re all sufficiently intimidated, so how about we turn around and go home now?” Hecate asked in a nervous voice, her hands clutched tightly around her staff.

“May I remind you that I did not want any of you other than Gloom Glimmer to join me in this endeavour in the first place?” Brennus asked flatly. “If you want to go, please, go and be safe. It is bad enough that I have to drag her into this, nevermind all of you.”

“N-no,” Hecate stammered, sounding embarrassed. “I said I’d help, and I will. I just wish you would stop, but if you won’t, then I’ll back you up.”

Brennus turned around to look at her, for the first time during the flight.

Though Melody couldn’t see his face – obviously, with that featureless full-face mask – she could hear his heartbeat, and she could tell that it briefly sped up.

“Thank you kindly,” he said softly.

“Yeah, I think it’s a wee bit late to turn around now, unless we abort entirely,” Aimi added, with Tyche nodding her assent.

“I just hope you actually have a plan for this,” Spellgun mumbled, his eyes glued ot the huge construction before them. Tartsche reached out, putting a hand on his shoulder.

“Mmm,” Brennus turned to the front again, as everyone focused on him. “It’s relatively simple… though now that there’s so many of us, I’m not entirely sure it’s still the best way to go. I was planning to infiltrate this place quietly, under the guise of Gloom Glimmer’s powers, track down Dusu and her lab and either steal the cure for her plague, force her to give it up or kidnap her back to New Lennston to get it out of her there.”

“That still sounds good,” Tyche said, slamming her fist into her open palm. “Especially if we add beating this bitch up a bit,” she added with what Melody was sure was a savage grin beneath her mask.

Tartsche gave her an uncomfort glance. “Let’s focus on getting the cure. Vengeance is not our goal here, so let’s stay focused.”

Brennus and Irene both nodded to that, as did the rest, except for Tyche and Osore (who’d remained completely quiet so far).

The black-and-white-clad gadgeteer pivoted around, weightless, to look over them as he folded his hands behind his back, his intense gaze coming to a stop on the quiet boy from Japan. “What about you, Osore? Are you in on this? No one’s going to hold it against you if you decide to sit this out.”

Finally, the young hero showed a reaction, lifting his head to look straight at Brennus. “In all the way,” he said, his voice quiet, gentle even.

Brennus nodded, briefly looking down. “Alright. Let’s get to it then.” He turned around to look at the city, of sorts, that lay ahead of them. “There is no way this thing is staying hidden from satellites, ships and over flying planes without some serious security measures, nevermind what they probably have to detect intruders,” he explained, as the vision ahead of them moved back again, then came closer naturally, the actual distance between them decreased enough that it no longer required a zoom to see. “We will need to find a way to pass into their perimeter without setting off their alarms.”

“I can probably teleport us inside,” Irene supplied, drawing closer to the structure. “I can see some kind of… force-field, around it.” She waved a hand, and the air in front of them rippled, refocusing until it showed a kind of net spread in a dome over the entire structure, flickering with electricity. “I’m not sure what it does – it’s a Contrivance, those are always hard to figure out – but it shouldn’t be a problem if we just teleport past it… no wait, yes, that’ll work.” She clapped her hands, lightening up. “It’s both an early warning system and an interceptor – if anything without the proper authorisation tries to fly through it, the entire field will focus its power on that spot and fry the interloper – but it won’t affect teleportation.” Melody could hear Irene’s grin, with no need to actually see her face.

“Can’t you just port us straight to Dusu and out again?” Tyche asked.

Irene’s shoulders slumped a bit. “No, I wish I could, but I can’t home in on her. Dunno if that’s because they have something that hides her, or because I don’t know her well enough or…”

Or because you don’t want to get to her enough, Melody finished the sentence in her thoughts, feeling sorry for her friend. As powerful as she seemed to be, she doubted most people ever considered how frustrating it must be to have so much power and not be able to use it as well as you’d like to.

“She will most likely be in the Northern half of the structure,” Brennus pointed out, moving the conversation along. “If you can teleport us onto the Northern half of the central disc, there might be some map or some other way to determine Dusu’s location, or that of her laboratory… or someone we can simply extract the information from.”

Irene nodded. “Ok… ok, I can do this. Hmm…” She crossed her arms, concentrating. “Teleportation… yup… a stealth power… remote targeting… danger sense…” She took a deep breath, then let it out. “I love it when my power plays along. Everyone ready to go in?”

There was a chorus of agreements, some more firm than others, and Irene raised her arms as if about to conduct a ceremony.

“And here we g-“

Space began to warp around them, drawing together in a mind-twisting way – and the sphere to the South of the construction rippled all at once, tendrils of liquid mercury shooting out at incredibly speed, even as time seemed to slow around them.

Irene’s eyes flew wide – “Wha-“

***

Melody’s head hurt abominably, as she picked herself up off the floor she suddenly found herself on, her display flickering with some kind of interference.

What the hell…?

She could hear someone next to her… Brennus, she recognised him by the particular sound of his heart… and there were more people, just outside the room she was in, as she slowly pushed herself up, looking around in confusion.

They were in a bare room, the walls, ceiling and floor all made of steel, with three large radio dishes above them, all pointed to the central area of the room she and Brennus lay in.

Brennus picked himself up just moments after her, standing up and looking around. “My head is killing me…” he groaned, raising his right hand to touch his mask’s forehead. He twitched, his head dipping to the right. “Some kind of… teleport interdiction? Did they know we were coming, or was it an automatic response to someone trying to teleport into their territory?” He looked at her, but she knew no more than he did, and so just shrugged.

Then he looked around them, and up at the radio dishes. “Shit. Those are EMP dishes,” he said, causing her to suck in a startled breath. So that was why her interface was flickering – the EMP shielding still held, but it wasn’t perfect and they were being bombarded with electromagnetic waves at point-blank range.

Yet her armour was working, and guessing by his ability to instantly analyse what those dishes did, so did at least the sensors in Brennus’ suit. And if the most sensitive parts of it worked, then so would the rest.

Right then, she didn’t feel jealous of him anymore – she just wanted to kiss him.

“No reason to smile, I am afraid,” he spoke, looking at her, causing her to realise that she’d been doing just that. Then she blushed, of course, stupid cheeks. “Even if our equipment is safe… I assume yours is safe, at least…” She nodded. “We were still split up, apparently sent into a room meant to specifically lock Gadgeteers down.” He took a deep breath. “Which means our friends were likely also split up and teleported into similar rooms, tailored to their abilities.”

She took in a sharp breath, blanching. Irene was probably safe, almost definitely, having so many powers at her disposal, but the others

“We need to find them,” she spoke, the words coming out slightly distorted.

He nodded, and turned towards the only visible exit out of the room, a very solid-looking, circular door that was very, very tightly shut.

They walked out of the circle in the centre of the room, out of the dishes’ area of effect, and her interface stabilised again; though she had no doubt in her mind that, without Brennus’ EMP shielding, it’d all be destroyed entirely by now, its circuits fried beyond hope of repair, much less use.

“There’s… twelve people outside. Calm, confident heartbeats,” she said, causing him to turn his head to look at her in surprise. She smiled at him again, this time more confidently, tapping her ears. “New earpieces. Protect and enhance my hearing.”

“Interesting. I could use something like that, if you do not mind a trade, later on,” he said, almost making her giggle at the thought that he wanted something she made.

“We’ll see. Let’s survive this, first,” she said instead, as she focused on the door, trying to figure out how to get through it… trying to ignore the gnawing, paralysing fear in her chest, trying to reach out and strangle her…

He nodded, turning towards the door. Then he reached for his new gauntlet and… pulled the ovoid off of it, as it detached at his touch, then touched its long side to the side of his thigh, attaching it there with a clicking sound.

“Step back, please,” he said, lifting his left arm, fingers spread, to aim his palm at the door. “I have not had the time to test this thoroughly.”

She breathed in, sharply, and stepped back, though watching eagerly to see his new invention at work.

His arm was pointed straight at the centre of the door, his right hand resting on his left forearm, steadying it. A light humming sound began to emit from the gauntlet, clear to her ears, likely barely audible to normal people’s, as light began to fill the circuit patterns on the metal, a blue-white light that moved from the back to the front, like water flowing through channels dug in the earth.

“Here goes nothing…” Brennus whispered, and then the gauntlet flared, momentarily.

There was a huge booming sound, a flash of light, the screeching, ear-rending sound of torn metal, followed by the screams of startled and injured people.

When Melody could see again, she saw a huge hole where the door had been, the edges torn and ragged, the door itself gone, shoved into the adjacent room by the force of the blast.

Brennus lowered his arm as the light faded from its grooves, as he looked at it, turning his hand up and down as if studying it in awe.

She certainly felt awed.

“Well, that went well,” he quipped, chuckling.

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B013.2 Call of the Sleeper

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“This is going to go wrong so much I can’t even put it into words,” Hecate complained, her mouth – the only part of her face, other than her chin, visible beneath her cowl – twisted into a frown as she leaned onto her staff, gripping it tightly with both hands. The green jewel at its top was stirring with greenish light and black smoke, as if responding to her nervousness… which it likely was.

“It can hardly come as a surprise to you,” he rebuffed her, himself standing at the centre of the rooftop, one hand clasping the other arm’s wrist behind his back. He didn’t look at her, just downwards, as if deep in thought, though really, his mind was too unquiet to be deep into anything in particular, right then. “They were hardly going to mount an immediate assault based purely on some information I got from strange visions.”

“When you put it like that, it only makes you look even kookier than usual,” Tyche commented.

“Thank you for that glowing recommendation,” he replied, deadpan.

“So, why insist on this meeting then?” Hecate pressed her point. “What’s the point?” Her voice rose slightly in frustration, yet Brennus kept his gaze downcast, fixed.

“I think it is obvious. I am going to go after her myself and recover the cure.”

The other two girls just stared at him, their jaws dropping.

Before the protests could begin, he looked up. “She is here… and she is not alone.”

The other two followed his gaze, to see several figures flying down towards the rooftop.

In the lead was Gloom Glimmer, her pure white cape billowing around her as she descended gracefully, toes pointed in perfect form. With her came Polymnia, in a vastly changed set of power armour, apparently carried by her friend’s power, stumbling gracelessly as they touched down, and Osore in his black bodysuit, leather jacket and Oni mask, as well as Spellgun and Tartsche.

They weren’t the only ones. A human-sized, black-furred bird with a cat’s head followed them, landing near the duo while shifting into a more humanoid cat-form.

Brennus spent a moment looking Polymnia up and down, taking in her new appearance. Spare armour, he realised. Less elaborate than her standard loadout. It must have taken too much damage during the fight in Esperanza for her to fix quickly. The new set of armour was still made out of that blue, transparent material that her other armour had consisted off – which Basil found quite offensive, transparent armour would be unable to protect against a lot of light-based effects – to reveal her pink shorts and top, but otherwise it looked entirely different to Basil’s eye. It lacked a lot of the former armour’s strength enhancements, he could tell with a glance, though there were still some parts he guessed were lesser servo motors, nor did it sport the prehensile limbs with her speakers and keyboard, which usually extended from her backpack; there was still a back module, though he couldn’t guess what it did, and her forearms were much more thickly armored, with numerous speakers built into the resulting gauntlets. Her hair was tied into a single, long, multi-coloured braid, shifting colours as sounds played over it, and she still wore the same visor as always. She smiled when she noticed him looking, her lips shifting colours just like her hair did.

“W-wha…” Vasiliki stammered at the sight of all of them gathered there.

Brennus didn’t give her a chance to continue, though, stepping forward towards Gloom Glimmer, who stood there with a serious expression on her face, her cloak wrapped tight around her form. He was about to start talking when a prompt from Eudocia flashed on his HUD. ‘Be polite.’ He stopped, briefly, blinking, then started again. “Gloom Glimmer, thank you for meeting me on such short notice,” he began, both annoyed and grateful that she’d pointed it out to me.

“I do owe you,” she said, a little levity entering her voice. “Besides, I can guess what you want to do, and it’s a worthy cause.”

“Well, if you can do that, you know him better than we do,” Hecate grumbled, stepping closer to flank him. “What about the rest?” she asked, then nearly squeaked when Polymnia waved at her with a smile.

“We’re here to help,” Polymnia explained, the fingers of her left hand wiggling the way Brennus’ usually did, when he used the air-keyboard function built into his gloves. Which explained how she intended to play her instruments without that giant keyboard she usually had.

Gloom Glimmer smiled. “I was going to come here, after you called, but Polymnia overheard my side of our conversation and got the rest out of me, insisting that she come along. Then Bakeneko noticed us preparing to leave and insisted that she come along. Osore heard that and chose to come along, and then I figured it wouldn’t be fair not to tell the others, too, which is how Tartsche and Spellgun joined the party.”

“Outstep’s still laid out recovering from the fight in Esperanza, otherwise he’d…” Tartsche explained, but Spellgun shoved his elbow into his byofriend’s side, making him flinch. “Ow! Well, ok, he likely wouldn’t have come help with this anyway.”

“Did he really get hurt that badly?” Tyche asked curiously, ignoring the second part.

“He didn’t really get hurt,” Polymnia replied, even while her eyes kept moving from Brennus’ new gauntlet to the black-and-silver oblong ovoid currently attached to it, seemingly sticking to the gauntlet’s engraved surface just by itself.

“Outstep did evac work during the battle,” Tartsche picked up, explaining. “Kept pulling the defenders out of the way of attacks, or collapsing buildings. Hundreds of saves, but he really over-taxed himself, and he’ll probably be laid out for at least a few more days.”

Brennus nodded absently, his eyes on Gloom Glimmer. “You know what I intend to do, and judging by what you said earlier, you are willing to help?”

She smiled at him, a sight that would likely be quite distracting for most boys and cocked her hip before replying, “Hey, you saved my girl, I’ll help save yours.”

Polymnia blushed, punching her friend’s shoulder. “Could you not phrase it that way? It’s not like the shippers aren’t really going crazy enough, without you adding more fuel.” Everyone on the roof other than Brennus and Polymnia chuckled at that.

The young musician huffed, looking resolutely at him, rather than the others. “Anyway, she’s not wrong. Aside from the fact that we owe you for all your help, this… these people are clearly evil. And Dusu is the only chance we have to heal… all those people. So, I want to help, too, even if the UH says to wait.”

“This is crazy!” Hecate burst out before anyone else could reply. “You’re talking about assaulting the base of some super-secret villain organisation that makes monsters which can level cities! We wouldn’t stand a chance!”

We are not going to assault them,” Brennus cut in. Everyone turned to look at him, as he focused on each in turn. “I never said I would be taking anyone along for this, other than Gloom Glimmer. The plan is to sneak inside and either steal the cure or else extract the information from Dusu – if necessary, we’ll apprehend her and bring her back for a more thorough interrogation, should Gloom Glimmer’s powers fail to extract such from her.” I’d rather  have Amy along for that, but there is no way whatsoever she’d allow this to happen.

Everyone but Gloom Glimmer was now staring him in disbelief.

“What?” he asked, feeling slightly defensive. “Did you really think I would advocate an outright assault on this kind of enemy? The only reason why I even insist on going along myself is, first of all, because it is my idea and I am not going to send someone else into danger without taking the same risks, and second, my expertise might be needed.”

“Can’t Gloom Glimmer just use a gadgeteer power of her own?” Hecate asked, sounding less annoyed and more serious now. “Speaking of which, can’t you just fix the bodies of Dusu’s victims? I’ve seen you manifest healing powers before,” she now addressed her directly.

The girl in question sighed, looking down. “No, to both. I’ve never been able to manifest gadgeteering powers, or Contriving, for that matter. Or any long-term powers, for that matter. As for healing, don’t you think I’ve tried to fix people like that?” she complained in a petulant voice. “I can’t control what powers I get, or when I get them. I only really get healing powers when people close to me get hurt, and even then, it doesn’t always work out well – during Crocell’s attack, Poly had to sit most of it out because I could only heal her ears, but not fix the migraine his scream gave her!” She stomped her foot on the roof, hard enough to make thin cracks spread out from her heel.

“I thought so,” Brennus commented. “Either way, we should not dally any more than absolutely necessary. I have the coordinates for the enemy’s base, and all my relevant equipment. We should l-“

“Oh hell no you don’t!” Hecate cried out, turning around to swat Brennus over the back of the head.

“Hey!” he shouted, more startled than he was hurt – he’d made sure to heavily armour his head, of course.

“Look, you’re an idiot, Brennus, and this whole plan of yours is idiotic, but I’ll be damned before I let you go there without as much backup as possible!” she shouted at him, very nearly at the top of her lungs. Certainly loud enough that anyone down at street level would hear her, if they weren’t empty at present (he had his last two ravens keeping a lookout). “Now, I want to save her, too, and since the UH want to play it safe, it seems, we gotta do something – but not like this, and certainly not on your own!” she finished by stabbing a finger into his chest. Not that he felt it, through his armour.

“What kind of infiltration are we going to pull off if all of us come along?” he asked in exasperation. “Nine people is way too many!”

“Ten, actually,” Eudocia whispered into his ear, but he ignored her.

“Actually, I think she’s got a point,” Tartsche spoke calmly, stepping forth so he stood next to Brennus and Hecate, between them. “If you and Gloom Glimmer went alone, and she’s taken out, then you’re pretty screwed. You shouldn’t put the responsibility all on her shoulders.”

Brennus crossed his arms. “I am not. That is why I am going along. I can take care of myself, I can back her up, and I know what to look for.”

Tartsche spread his arms, as if saying ‘that’s what I’m saying’ or something. “Look, no one denies that. But my point is, nine people is not that much and if something happens, we’ll be able to provide backup and support!” He took a deep breath. “Look, if it was up to me, we wouldn’t be doing this at all. This is way beyond reckless. But I also believe that we have to help Dusu’s victims, and time is running out on them. I’m sure Rounds would agree with me, which is why I’m here, and willing to help. But we’ve got to do it smart. Otherwise, we’ll all just die, or be captured, and we won’t help anyone!” Spellgun stepped up behind his boyfriend, nodding his assent.

“Look, B- Brennus,” Aimi, Bakeneko, spoke up. “You can trust us. We’ve been through a lot, and we’re not any amateurs anymore. You need every bit of help you can get.”

“Listen to the catgirl,” Tyche agreed.

“I still think nine are too many,” Brennus disagreed, though more calmly now. “Can Gloom Glimmer even transport and hide that many?” He looked at her.

She seemed to think it over, briefly, then she nodded. “I can do it. Not much more difficult than just two, really. Right now, I have a kind of, telekinetic plane power, and a stealth field and… some kind of enhanced perception, it’s kind of hard to put that one into words.”

Brennus looked around at everyone. He didn’t like it, one bit; he wasn’t an idiot, in the end. He knew this whole plan was extremely risky at best, suicidal at worst, but he’d decided that he couldn’t not try it. Dragging the others along, though… at least he could be all but certain that Gloom Glimmer could escape from any kind of situation, leaving him behind if need be.

He looked them all in the eyes, until he was looking at Osore, who’d just stood back, his arms down his sides, motionless.

“What do you think? You’re the only one who hasn’t said anything, yet,” he asked the quiet boy.

“Any action is better than no action,” Osore spoke quietly, his voice barely more than a whisper. “Let’s roll the dice, and see where they fall.”

Brennus looked down at his feet, then up at Gloom Glimmer again.

She shrugged. “Hey, don’t look at me. If I am crazy enough to go along with this, what right do I have to dissuade anyone else from the same course of action?”

He sighed, before he snapped his fingers, causing his two ravens to fly up and land on his shoulders, one on each side. “Alright. Let’s go.”

***

Unseen and unfelt by anyone, a figure in a dark blue robe sat on the edge of the roof, watching the teens gather up, stroking a black cat’s long, soft fur as the feline lay curled up in the grip of his left arm.

He watched quietly as Gloom Glimmer’s power rose up around them, a transparent, but not invisible energy wrapping around the group, forming something like a upward-pointing cone, before another power wrapped around them like a shroud, causing them to fade from sight.

A trivial alteration of his position allowed him to penetrate that ability, as well, so he could watch them fly East.

He stayed quiet, his thoughts unreadable, until just moments later, a black-and-purple blur came down from the sky, smashing so hard onto the rooftop, the concrete cracked, nearly caving in.

Mindstar rose from a crouch, her lower face twisted into a snarl of rage and concern, looking around wildly.

“Where is he!?” she shouted at no one in particular, looking around wildly, her eyes wide and livid. Then she seemed to zero in on something, looking in the direction they had flown off towards and, with another snarl, she shot away after them, cracking the roof further.

Journeyman watched as she disappeared in the sky, standing up and stepping forward just as the rooftop began to crumble in on itself. As the concrete broke away beneath him, he just kept walking on the same level, as if the air could carry him just as well as concrete.

The cat purred in his arms, his fingers going from its back to the back of its ears, scratching them skillfully.

“The plot thickens, my friend,” he spoke calmly to the cat. “And I’ve got to say…” he gave off a strange chuckle, sounding elated “… most of this, I did not see coming.” Though his face was hidden by mirrors and strange visions, one could somehow still see his grin. “Didn’t see it coming at all. Oh, joyous day.”

He looked down at the cat, who looked back up at him with lazy eyes, then yawned, showing off its teeth.

“Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on them,” he continued, petting it underneath its chin. “Might even lend a hand and help them, if they surprise me enough. Wouldn’t that be swell, eh, pal?”

The cat yawned once more, then subsided in his arms, purring calmly.

He tilted his head, looking down at for a little more, before he looked up and after the others. “You know, if I could just remember where I’ve seen you before, I could finally find out your name.”

Beneath him, the house alarm went off, finally, as the roof collapsed fully into the floor below.

“Oh well, I need to get going anyway.”

And just like that, he disappeared from sight.

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B12.14 Born At Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

The huge cat purred happily.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a little more time.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

His entire body turned black all over.

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

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

***

An hour later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<What about civilian casualties?>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It showed an aerial image of the city of Tokyo.

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

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

Melody just stared at her friend in horror.

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

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

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B12.13 Born At Sleep

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Flying to the temporary base of the alliance proved to be slightly more problematic than Basil thought was appropriate, mostly because Amazon just plainly refused to leave him alone anywhere near Mindstar.

Not unreasonable, truly, as she lacked some rather critical information, such as the fact that they were siblings.

It was still annoying. And time-consuming. Especially since she also (not unreasonably) refused to drop her armor around her archenemy, which made it impossible for Mindstar to pick her up directly and fly them both. In the end, she just levitated a slab of concrete on which Amazon stood, and flew them back.

Basil expected that he’d have to explain himself to whoever was currently in charge of the efforts (Father Manus? The local UH director? Doc Feral?) before they’d call in three of their people, but to his surprise, he could see them gathered on the platform on which Father Manus and his people had stood earlier. More problematic was the fact that Hecate was there, as well, her arms crossed in front of her chest, clearly staring at Mindstar with murder in her eyes. He had to hope that she’d be sensible enough not to do anything stupid right now.

The priest himself stood there, as well, looking as serene as ever – even though a good quarter of his head, as well as most of his left side were missing.

Basil stared at the broken china doll of a man as they touched down, and the man looked back at him, his good eye – the left one had a crack running through it from above, where a large part of the crown had been broken or blasted off – calm and serene. Even though his body was so broken it should’ve collapsed under the strain of its own weight, he did not seem inconvenienced at all, simply standing there unheeding of the fact that people could look into his hollow form. The insides of his ‘skin’ were formed to resemble the organs that should have been beneath them – Basil could actually see a cracked spine going down his back, like the world’s most delicate artwork on a china vase. It was crafted in such a way that he couldn’t even tell whether it was two-dimensional, or actually shaped out of the material of his body.

Stop staring, Amy told him reprovingly. You’ve got a job to do. She still sounded bitter.

He blinked, then briefly shook his head before he stepped forward. “Sir, thank you for calling them in,” he said to the priest.

Said priest inclined his head, smiling softly. “Words of your exploits have reached us here, young man. And I haven’t survived as long as I have by underestimating what gadgeteers are capable of when working together.” He tilted his head to the side, his voice taking a politely curious tone. “You say you know how you can kill him? How? And how did you find out?”

Tick-Tock (who still looked immaculate), Boom-Boom (whose armor had taken some heavy damage and was covered in scorch marks) and Polymnia (she looked a little pale, and there was dried blood on her ears) stepped forward in curiosity.

Hecate just snorted. “Great, give him a prompt for exposition…” she mumbled so quietly, probably no one but Polymnia and Basil understood.

Amy snorted behind him, biting down on a laugh.

Basil felt a little heat in his cheeks – of indignation, not embarrassment – but he decided to take the high road and ignore the comment.

“I have been watching the fight against it the whole time and taking readings of attack’s effects on it,” he began. “I noticed a few oddities in the way various kinds of attacks affected it, as well as to the way it recovers damage. It… helped me come up with an invention. From there, I deduced its nature, tested it and came to the conclusion that…”

***

Just five minutes later, Father Manus had agreed to his plan and had left in order to talk to mission control to try to procure the most crucial tool for Basil’s plan.

Mindstar and Amazon had left to join the  battle and buy them time. Hecate stuck around, standing a little off to the side and glaring in the direction Mindstar had flown. The other gadgeteers had gathered around Basil and were discussing his theory.

“I’m still not sure,” Tick-Tock said in a wary voice. “You’re making a pretty big claim there, and it’s mostly based on an invention you came up with while fighting a monster – what if your power just came up with something completely unrelated?” Her tone was polite, not accusing, but Basil thought he saw tension in the way she held herself; her power armor being nearly skin-tight meant that it didn’t conceal her body language nearly as well as his own or Boom-Boom’s did.

The other two watched Basil for his response, though Polymnia didn’t seem to actually doubt him.

He could just shrug. “It is how my power usually operates. It takes what I study and gives me bits and pieces to connect and work into something useful. I have never known it to come up with something completely unrelated to what inspired it.”

That sounds mighty strange,” Boom-Boom threw in. “My power tends to come in bursts, and when it comes up with something, it always puts out something complete. Puts me in the zone, you know?” He shrugged those huge, blocky shoulders.

<If you think that’s strange, then you ain’t seen nothin’ yet,> Polymnia vocalised through her suit’s speakers, while smiling softly at Basil. <Besides, how we do it is not as important as what we do, especially right now.>

“Yeah, listen to her, powder-head,” Tick-Tock snarled at her brother, slapping the back of his head with a loud clang. “You might actually learn something.”

“Stick it up your ass and twirl!” he snarled back, trying to punch her shoulder, but she danced out of his reach, giving him a smug look that could be seen even through her helmet.

Basil stepped closer to Polymnia while the siblings squabbled. “How are you doing?” he asked, concerned. “Crocell’s screams can not have been good for you,” he continued, guessing as to the most probable reason for her bleeding ears.

She gave him a chagrined smile in response. <Yeah, that first one knocked me out right away. Gloom Glimmer freaked out and teleported->

A huge explosion, which shook the ground they stood on, cut her off, and everyone turned to look in the direction of the battle, where a ring of greenish energy could be seen spreading and fading.

<That’s her, I think. She went to join the frontlines,> Polymnia explained. <Anyway, she teleported me here and healed my ears – though for some reason, her power didn’t let her take away the freaking headache.> She rubbed her temples.

“That is strangely fickle of it,” he replied in sympathy, having quite the experience with splitting headaches, even as he noted that oddity down. He’d have to add it to Gloom Glimmer’s file later on.

Just then, a new figure approached them, another girl looking to be about their age. She was tell, clearly well-trained and wearing a relatively simple costume – a skin-tight blue bodysuit with a yellow half-cloak and a yellow question mark on her sternum, as well as yellow boots and gloves. Adding to that was a blue mask that covered the upper half of her head in the front, her black hair spilling out the back, her mouth and jaw showing dark skin and sharp features.

She approached them, looking slightly apprehensive, like she was nervous to be around them, at least until Tick-Tock stepped up to her and took her hand.

“Vra, what are you doing here? I thought you’re in the think tank?” she greeted the young heroine. Basil had never heard of her before, she had to be a very recent addition, and not one that had drawn a lot of attention from the media or the online message boards.

She looked at him, though, rather than her friend, as she replied, “Father Manus sent me to tell you that your plan isn’t going to work out – the Subjugator just got taken down and we can’t get a line to its operator anyway.” Her voice, though clear and even a little deep for a girl, was hushed and uncertain. She was meeting his gaze, at least, though just about so.

Basil turned away, clutching his hands behind his back. “That is unfortunate,” he said quietly, stewing over it. “We need the Subjugator to pull this off. There is no way we could build the device from scratch in any reasonable time frame.” He looked at the girl, Vra, again. “Do you know how badly damaged it is?”

She blinked, then closed her eyes briefly. He was about to ask her again when she opened them, just seconds later. “There is no detailed damage report, but from eye-witness accounts it appears to have lost a wing and its lower hind jets, along with damage to its main body,” she replied in a much more self-assured manner, either having expected the question or else looked it up without any communication device.

Must be her power, he thought. “Then it might still be of use,” he concluded and turned to the others. “I am going to go and assess its state with my own eyes. Are you with me?”

The siblings and Polymnia looked at each other, then at him, nodding.

“Taking a look can’t hurt. At the very least, seeing Sovereign’s own tech will be reward enough.”

“Eh, why not?”

Basil looked at Hecate. She sighed, finally looking at him. “I’m coming along. You’ll need someone with some common sense around.”

“Much appreciated.”

***

It didn’t take long for them to make their way to the crash site. Basil may have lost one of his grappling hook systems, but the other one was still functional and he just had to be adjust his rhythm a bit.

Tick-Tock followed by way of an odd flying device she’d literally folded out of her armor’s backpack, resembling a surfboard. It created bursts of blue-ish energy at precise intervals, propelling her forward and up, after which she’d glide downwards slower than she should have, as if surfing over waves.

Polymnia was using her mechanical limbs to leap from building to building, or crawl up and down the facades of buildings – she was definitely the slowest of them, but none of the group had the means to carry her, except perhaps Boom-Boom, but no one sane wanted to travel too close to or with Boom-Boom.

Hecate was flying along in her smoke-shadow form, higher than the others.

Boom-Boom… Basil still had trouble believing it, but Boom-Boom was literally blowing himself up. As in, literally using explosions to launch himself into the air, making giant leaps, only to use more explosions to launch himself into the air again.

Some part of Basil was just loving the thought of explosion-based movement, but most of him was just shocked to realise that most of the damage he could see on Boom-Boom’s armour was almost definitely self-inflicted.

For crying out loud, he was even using explosions to cushion his fall.

Nevertheless, they all arrived at the crash site in good time.

The Subjugator had not gone down easily at all – the entire area around it, for at least a block and a half, was in utter ruins, blasted to pieces and then scorched by massive energy discharges for good measure. There was not a single piece of construction still standing there.

In the centre of the devastation lay the remains of the Subjugator. Much as Vra had said, its left wing was gone, ripped off it seemed. Several of its jets at the back were missing, as well, as well as a big chunk of its head, along with the lower and left ‘eye’. It was also covered in lesser damage, from front to back, mostly it seemed caused by Crocell’s claws. Wires and other parts were spilling out of its greater wounds like a mockery of guts.

To Basil’s great relief, the arc cannon itself seemed to be largely undamaged.

Even though it had taken such horrible damage, the Subjugator was clearly still active. Its uppermost eye had swiveled around and was looking straight at the group standing a good fifty metres away from it. Several small slots were opening and closing along its body, as tiny, spider-like drones – none bigger than Basil’s clenched fist, most even smaller – were spilling out and crawling all over its chassis.

“Oh my God, is that thing actually repairing itself?” Tick-Tock breathed, sounding both shocked and elated.

“Indeed,” was all Basil could say as he marvelled at the huge gadget. “No wonder he rules half a continent.” And with that, Basil walked closer towards the fallen machine.

The big, spherical eye with the glowing red lens tilted down, following him as he approached.

“WHO DARES APPROACH OUR GREAT SOVEREIGN’S WORK SO BRAZENLY!?!” it shouted in its customary chorus.

Damn, I was hoping the speakers would have gotten damaged, at least, Basil thought, as he came to a stop no ten metre away from it.

“I am Brennus,” he introduced himself, standing straight. “I am here because I have figured out how to slay our common foe – but I require your assistance to do so, for I lack the materials and technology to do so on my own, here.”

The Subjugator watched him, for a few moments, while its drones kept doing repairs – though it was unlikely they’d be able to replace its missing wing or propulsion system.

“Explain yourself,” it spoke in a far calmer voice, its eye focused upon Basil.

Basil could hear the others behind him exhale in relief. None of them had been sure that the Subjugator would not respond violently to being approached – Sovereign was rather infamous for how jealously he guarded his creations.

“To be succinct, I have gathered every gadgeteer participating in this battle because I believe that, with some modifications, your arc cannon could actually slay Crocell in one shot,” Basil explained.

Behind him, just out of his hearing, Hecate leaned over to Polymnia. “Wow, he actually can do short.” Polymnia bit down on a giggle.

“Arc cannon? You are referring to the Zeus Caster,” the Subjugator replied. “Your proposal is intriguing, though more information is required before you may be allowed to muddle our glorious Sovereign’s work with your lesser skills.”

Wow, that is not insulting at all, Basil thought. “Alright, my observations and tests have led me to the conclusion that Crocell’s bodily form is being maintained by some kind of extremely powerful, multi-faceted force-field,” he explained. “That is the reason why certain attacks cause disproportionally more damage to it than others, such as your Zeus Caster, while others, such as Mindstar’s telekinesis, are completely ineffectual; furthermore, the force-field does not simply protect its body – if one observes its wounds, one can see that they do not regenerate normally – instead of the flesh growing back from the inside out, it simply grows seemingly out of thin air in the entire area between the undamaged flesh and the outer edge of its force-field. Its body, if it even is really its body, and not just some kind of decoy, is just a huge amount of seawater – I tested it earlier, while I was in contact with it, the clear liquid it ‘bleeds’ is simply more seawater – that is being compressed into a bodily shape by its force-field, with more material being more densily packed towards the centre, which is why we have had an easier time damaging its surface, while its inner parts are more hardy – they are, quite literally, made of more and thus denser material.”

He paused to take a breath, and give it some time to process the information (he wasn’t even sure whether there was a pilot inside, a remote pilot somewhere else, or whether it actually had an AI of its own, really).

“That is an interesting theory, which appears to be corroborated by this masterwork’s own observations. So you propose to modify the Zeus Caster so as to cancel out the specific wavelength of the beast’s force-field and thus slay it instantly?” it replied smoothly.

Basil blinked. That was, actually, precisely what he had planned. “Yes, well, that is the idea.”

“How will you determine the specific wavelength which must be cancelled?” the Subjugator asked.

Basil looked over his shoulder, and Polymnia stepped forth, the machine’s eye turning to focus on her. <My equipment records and analyses audio-wavelengths. I can adapt it to read his,> she replied.

“This unit’s power source has been damaged. It will most likely be unable to power the Zeus Caster to a sufficient degree.”

Tick-Tock and Boom-Boom looked at each other, the eye turning to watch them, then the former spoke. “That won’t be an issue. Boom-Boom can overclock what’s left. It’ll break down afterwards, certainly, but it will be enough to power the weapon.” She tilted her head, tapping her jaw with a finger. “Furthermore, there will be very precise timing required, as well as synchronizing the various pieces of equipment, which both fall under my speciality.”

The eye turned back to Basil. “And I presume you are then the one to do the actual adjustments and calculations for the Zeus Caster itself?”

He nodded, his mouth dry.

The Subjugator fell quiet, looking at each of them in turn again.

“That is acceptable. You may do as needed, so long as you take nothing away nor make any records of this unit’s own parts.”

Basil let out a breath of relief. He’d been dreading the possibility that it might refuse to co-operate, but apparently, whatever intelligence stood behind this machine was sensible enough to work with them.

“Thank you. I promise we will not betray your trust,” he said.

“Enough words. Get to work. Today shall be one of the grandest days of your life, for no other reason than that you are allowed to gaze upon our glorious Sovereign’s masterwork! Nothing shall stop us from claiming victory!”

As if in answer to that, there was a huge crash, nearly throwing them all off their feet.

Crocell rose out of the dust at the edge of the shattered block, its form changed once more.

And then it charged towards the group of gadgeteers, and one contriver.

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B007.8 Hastur, Shrouded in Dread

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“Can I have your autograph?”

Polymnia dropped her tools, looking up with a startled expression. Hecate was standing next to her workstation, holding out… the last album she published before deciding to focus on being a superhero.

<Where did that come from?>, she asked.

Hecate shrugged, as if it was nothing special. “Uhh, lots of stuff fits into my pouch. Kind of a… a bag of holding, you know?” She seemed embarassed about the name.

At least she knows her nomenclature. And I guess there’s no harm in signing it. She took the album case and signed it with her cape name. <What brought this about?> she asked as she handed it back. <Not quite the time…>

If she could have seen Hecate’s face, she was sure it would be red. Her heartbeat certainly sped up quite a bit.

“Uh, I’ve been hoping for a chance to ask you all day… but, you know, it’s kind of… impolite. But I guess we both might die shortly, so when was I gonna ask if not now?” she explained as she put the album back into her pouch.

<Don’t be so pessimistic. Your teammate came up with a good plan, and we’re as prepared as w->

“Yeah, sure, Brennus has a good plan. Excuse me if I don’t trust completely in that,” Hecate replied with some venom in her voice.

<What do you mean?> Polymnia asked her. She sounded… conflicted. Angry.

Hecate looked away, her hood turning to the side. “I… don’t get me wrong, Brennus is a great teammate and friend, but… he’s not the most stable or reliable type. I’m just… I’d trust him with my life in battle, but in planning? When he often forgets what day it is because he’s working on his tech, or he forgets… maybe I should stop here,” she rambled with some worry in her voice. Then she suddenly turned fully towards Polymnia, her posture more… wary. “This stays between us, right?”

She nodded with a serious expression. <Of course. Can I ask you something?>

“Sure.”

<Why are you doing this?>

“Doing what?”

<Being a cape. A vigilante. Why did you put on that costume? Why did you decide not to join up with the United Junior Heroes? I don’t believe it just ‘happened’, you know?>

Hecate looked away. “I… I was out on my first night. I’d… I knew about the Snow Queen doing business at the harbor that night and I thought I’d… God above, this sounds so stupid now… I thought I’d take her down, stop her trade, you know?”

Polymnia looked away, readjusting her goggles as she remembered the Snow Queen’s performance in the acre <Definitely not your smartest idea.>

The other girl hunched up her shoulders, turning away. “It wasn’t. So anyway, I found the warehouse – and for the love of me, I can still not believe that she was doing business in an abandoned warehouse – I snuck in and attacked, got my ass kicked around. Brennus had been following a lead there, too. He jumped in, saved my ass, we fought her, got kicked around – then Tyche, who’d just been taking a walk, randomly choosing her direction – barged in and helped us and we managed to win… barely. I got hurt pretty bad, Brennus took me to his hideout to fix me up and we kinda… got talking. Hooked up. In the cape-team way, not the other one.”

<Well, that was quite the series of strange events – though you kind of ignored my real question… why?>

Hugging herself, Hecate fell quiet. Polymnia almost thought that she’d pushed too hard, but then…

“I have… someone close to me used to be a hero. I think I felt like I’d be closer to that person if I did the same,” she whispered. “That’s all I’m going to say about that. Can I ask you a question?”

Polymnia stopped for a moment, digesting the new information. <I can’t promise that I’ll answer it to your satisfaction.>

“Um, it’s nothing bad, I just wanted to know… is Gloom Glimmer always like this?”

Huh? She leaned her head to the side, looking up at her. <What do you mean?>

Hecate made a starting motion, as if surprised. “Well, like that. You know. Off. Creepy. Scary. I had goosebumps the whole time I was around her.”

<What in God’s name are you talking about? Irene can be a little weird, but->

A little? Polymnia, she’s fu- I mean, darn creepy! Her father didn’t scare me half as bad as she does! Everyone else on your team gets the creeps from her, too!”

She opened her mouth to rebuke her, then remembered that she couldn’t produce a sound that way, which halted her long enough to think it over. Outstep was always really tense around Gloom Glimmer, and so were the others. Bakeneko had stopped even talking around her lately – only Osore acted indifferent around her, and he was a special case, anyway.

<What do you mean, exactly? I never noticed her to be that scary>, she said through her vocalizer. At least not while in company, she thought silently, thinking of that afternoon in her room.

“Her voice, her walk, the way she stands, everything!” said Hecate, now exasperated. This was clearly not what she’d expected. “She doesn’t move right, she doesn’t even stand around right – it’s all off! The way she looks at people, the way she talks, her very voice.”

<Now wait a minute, I got quite the ear for sounds and her voice sounds utterly divine to me,> she said. <Can’t say a thing about the rest, really. Ever since my manifestation, I haven’t been any good at body language and stuff. But I’m really good with voices.>

Hecate calmed down, pulling her cloak around herself again. “I don’t know about that. All I know is that she doesn’t seem real, like she’s taking part in a dance but is always a step off. And there’s always this… this air of barely restrained power around her. Like she could blow up at any time.”

You have no idea.

This wasn’t good. She’d never noticed any of this, except when Irene had been out of control. She’d just thought Outstep was being a dick and Bakeneko was a scaredy-cat anyway. <There’s no need to be afraid. She’s really nice, really. Best friend I’ve ever had.>

“Really? What do your other friends say about her?”

<Correct that. Only friend I have right now. None of my friends from before my manifestation want anything to do with me anymore. But even taking my pre-manifestation friends into account, Irene’s been a true friend,> she explained.

“I don’t know if I could be so open. Brennus sometimes acts really strange, but Gloom Glimmer seems to be more like… dunno, something that learned to act human, but never got it quite right.”

<Uhh… That sounds really creepy,> she replied, shuddering as she remembered Irene’s breakdown.

“It is. And damn, now I feel like a bitch for bringing it up,” whispered Hecate.

Polymnia shook her head. <No, I’m glad you told me. Maybe I can help her smooth things out.>

“You’re way nicer than me,” said Hecate with a slightly forced giggle.

* * *

“You look like a mummy,” Harry said with a chuckle as he sat down next to his boyfriend’s bed.

Thomas tried to slap him, but he was quite firmly affixed to the bed by way of the rig his left leg was hanging in. “Shut up, it’s just ma fuckin’ leg,” he replied.

“That’s what you get for trying to go into close combat with a geokinetic monster,” Tartsche admonished him. “I hear the only reason you don’t actually look like a mummy is ’cause Tyche accidentily knocked you into a blast shadow?”

“Hrmph,” grumped the feminine-looking boy on the hospital bed. “Ah’ll admit it, ah got lucky. Anyway, what about Hastur? What’re we gonna do?”

Harry shook his head. “Sorry, can’t tell’ya. Turns out she has some kinda super-clairvoyance, so it’s not safe to talk. But I’ll be off soon.”

A worried look crossed Thomas’ face, but he suppressed it quickly. “Alright,” he said. He wasn’t going to ask him to back down, and Harry loved him for it.

He might have done it, if he asked.

“Take this,” the wounded boy said holding out his eponymous spellgun and a bandoleer full of various shots. “Ah can’t help y’all myself, cuz Gloom Glimmer didn’t get to fix me, but ma gun might be of some use.”

Harry took it with a grateful nod. He knew how much Thomas hated handing out his equipment, even to him.

“I’ll bring it back whole, love. Soon,” he promised.

Rolling his eyes, Thomas admonished him: “You make sure you come back whole. Now gimme a kiss and then off with you!”

Harry obliged.

* * *

Sprawling on the long couch of the United Junior Heroes’ common room, Tyche thought that they desperately needed some of B6’s upgrade magic on their entertainment equipment.

For one, their television required a remote control. If she wanted to watch something, she’d need to stand up and get it from the table, instead of just saying which channel she wanted to watch.

“Can you give me the remote?” she asked Outstep, who was making sandwiches for the two of them. He’d turned surprisingly helpful once she’d started flirting with him. A shame it doesn’t work on B6, she thought. I wonder why. Plus, she felt bad for his girlfriend. The poor girl would probably have to knock him out and tie him to the bed to get anything fun done. Though that sounded fun in and of itself.

“It’s less than two meters away from you,” Bakeneko replied from down the couch, where she’d curled up as some kind of cat… thing.

“Well, that’s too far! I’m used to voice commands – and automatic preferences, and stuff!” she whined. “I mean, how come B has better equipment than you? You’re all supposed to have super-funds, plus you got your own gadget-geek and a mad scientist!” she continued, poking at him with a grin.

Outstep said: “Calm down, I’m on my way.” He came over to the couch with a plate of sandwiches he’d just made, and he did give her the remote.

Good boy.

“Polymnia doesn’t care much about voice control, if you know what I mean? Plus, she never hangs out, anyway. Always in her workshop,” he defended their equipment before taking a bite out of his sandwich. She took one for herself, and Bakeneko stretched out an arm (over three meters) and took two for herself.

“Makes sense. Maybe all g-geeks are like that? B doesn’t really hang, either, unless we force him,” she replied before taking a bite. “Mmh!” This was really good! Turkey, ham, mayonnaise, rye. Another point for the boy. “Then again, he does make me all those wonderful toys…”

“Like your wig? That was just… overkill,” Bakeneko said in between bites.

She ran her fingers through the blonde hair sticking out from the back of her mask. “I thought it was funny. Besides, he insisted that I wear a wig, instead of letting my real hair hang out. Since the fight down in the acre.”

“Yeah, but… boobytrapping a wig? With springloaded, barbedstingers? Loaded with electric charges? That’s just… dunno…” The shapeshifter seemed way too weirded out by it for someone who currently looked like a cat-lizard.

“Oh, come on, that thing’s reaction was awesome. Thought it had me by the hair, then the locks came off and.. zap.” She slapped her thigh with her free hand to emphasize the point.

“Still…”

“Eh, I’ve seen stranger stuff,” Outstep threw in. “Like Vulcan the third’s underwear.”

Underwear?!” they both asked in unison.

He nodded sagely. “Aye. I remember, when she was our leader – I’d just joined the Juniors – we decided to play a prank on her. She had the hots for… well, for someone and we were gonna dump all her underwear into his underwear drawer. Turns out, a Contriver who specializes in Traps can boobytrap everything. As in, every single piece of underwear, even her lingerie went apeshit on us.” He stopped to take a bite, letting them stew while he chewed and swallowed. “Three of us spent a week in the infirmary afterwards, and Spellgun still has a few scars.”

“Cool,” they both replied. “Can we get some stuff from her?”

He shook his head. “Nah. She died a year ago when DiL attacked the Grand Canyon. She was on vacation there,” he explained. “Didn’t even get to do anything, I hear, just got squashed during the first attack.”

They all fell silent after that.

“Who do you think’s gonna die next?” asked Bakeneko. “I mean, we’ve been real lucky so far, since S-Class events are expected to cause at least twenty-five percent causalties among the defenders.”

Outstep shrugged. “No use thinking about that. Might be none of us – there’s plenty of villains in the city fightin’ her, too. And even if not – you gotta learn to live with this kinda crap, if you wanna be a hero. Or any kind of cape, really. People die. Deal with it.”

They fell silent again, eating while they waited to go out into the fight.

* * *

“The cameras are off?” Prisca asked, tapping one foot impatiently on the floor of the hallway they were in. The ‘metal’ of her boots made a bright, bell-like sound.

“Sure. Their security still sucks,” Basil replied as he created a loop and put Eudocia to warn them in case anyone came their way. “There, camera’s are looped, and we got early warn-“

If there was one thing she really didn’t care about right now, it was the state of security around here.

So she cut him off by pushing him against the wall, her helmet fading away as she ripped off his spare helmet. He had barely enough time to unlock it and prevent any damage, and then it was off.

“Prisca, ca-“

She pressed her lips to his, finally shutting him up. And then she didn’t care about anything else for a while.

Nor did he.

When they parted again, an eternity later, she felt herself… flushed. Breathing hard. She’d never felt this good. Like her whole body was burning from the inside out, from her shivering head to her curling toes.

“Uhh…” Basil was making strange sounds.

“What? Didn’t you like it?” A sliver of… anger, or fear, entered her voice. She didn’t know why.

He raised his hands, waving them. “No no no, I liked it a lot! Just… wow. Kinda… more intense than I thought it’d be.” She was pretty sure he was blushing underneath his cowl.

“Well, duh!” Of course it was better than before! She wasn’t stuck in that half-dead piece of shit that was her body anymore! “Can’t wait for us to have some real private time.” She winked at him, which made him dry-swallow.

Being hot was fun.

“I… uh… can’t wait…” he replied, apparently losing more and more of his usually extensive vocabulary.

So much fun.

She leaned closer, until their lips were almost touching. He was down to indistinct syllables now, and his eyes looked unfocused.

“Maybe you could tell me how much you can’t wa-“

A ringing tone went off in his spare armor, like a cellphone ringing. He raised his hand to his earbud, his eyes focusing again.

Dammit!

“Oh, uh, Eudocia says the others are ready, so…”

I’m gonna have words with her.

She sighed, rematerializing her helmet. “Let’s go.”

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B007.7 Hastur, Shrouded in Dread

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The dragonette stopped the recording after they’d watched it twice. It was quite… illuminating, really. And they finally had a clue as to how to take Hastur down, which was a plus…

But right now, he was more concerned with the dog-sized dragonette in front of him. He stared down at the gorgeous drone. It stared back up at him. Its creator had gone through the trouble of adding filigree ornamentations to its shell – the dull, dark silver had been engraved in artistic swirls and other such patterns, all perfectly balanced against each other and whichever part of its body they were worked onto.

The girls started to discuss their next step, while he just sank down to squat on his heels. He was too tired, too worn out to help much, anyway. Besides, dragon robot. Either was reason enough for him to pay attention and now he had both in front of him.

Gloom Glimmer turned to look at the other two girls, still weary from the exertion of the last hours. “So, now we know how to stop her. Whether or not we can use it is another matter entirely,” she said.

“I’m still not quite sure what we saw, to be honest,” Prisca replied. “As far as I get it, she can only be hurt by her victims?” She shuddered as she remembered the recording of the grissly attack on the shelter. “Unless you use mind control on one of them, I don’t see how it’s going to help us.”

Brennus drew out a stack of pictograph cards and started flashing them in front of the dragonette. It chirped in response, adjusting the responses to the cards he flashed. Could it be an Artificial General Intelligence like Eudocia? Or an Artificial Specialized Intelligence?

“Not quite. I’ll explain it later on, but we need to meet the group again,” Gloom Glimmer replied. “We don’t stand a chance as we are – I’m almost out of juice, Brennus could be knocked out by a stiff wind and you… no offense, but you are completely new, even if you held yourself wonderfully against BigShit.”

His power surged up, the light blazing brighter than usual, as it began to analyze the responses of the dragonette, trying to analyze it through them. He soon went to flashing three or four cards at a time in patterns based on astrophysical calculations, then went over to quantum theory…

Prisca shrugged, her face hidden behind her helmet. “No offense taken. Honestly, without Phasma here, I’d probably have gotten crushed like a bug sooner or later.”

He shelved those tests – it at least wasn’t as intelligent as Eudocia, even if it was an AGI. Or perhaps it was smart enough to recognize what he was doing? He started testing its behaviour with simple prompts and questions, speaking quietly.

The young villain just shrugged herself, but said nothing. She’d been quite silent the whole while, and Brennus was getting the impression that she wasn’t overly concerned about what was happening… though that might just have been due to her power making her pretty much immune to most anything that might harm her.

“Let’s cut the chatter and go – I think I still have enough juice to locate the others,” Gloom Glimmer continued. She’d drawn her hood up, hiding her face from view and drawn her white cloak around herself, looking more like a ghost than Phasma did right now. “Wait for it… yes, I’ve got Tartsche and Tyche… and Outstep. Polymnia is… nearby, with Hecate… Amazon is tied down at the Diantha High, Bakeneko and Osore are with her… oh, the Feral Family has deployed, they’re coming here.” She mumbled a few incoherent words, then continued: “That’s all I can get right now. Too weak to try and locate Hastur, if I even could – meta’s of her level tend to mess up perception powers around themselves.”

Some of this stuff was interesting… he was largely convinced he was facing an ASI instead of an AGI, and it seemed to have quite a few quirks… but they, as far as he could tell, hadn’t been programmed in deliberately, but had “grown” organically as the ASI expanded. Maybe if he called in Eudocia and linked them up somehow… but he would need to somehow shield Eudocia from being corrupted, and the threat of having her be revealed to the Dark or other interested part-

“BRENNUS!”

“Huh?” He looked up. All three girls were looking at him – funnily enough, since all of them had their faces hidden, they did little to convey emotion. Whoever had called out to him had sounded annoyed, though. “What is it?”

Gloom Glimmer sighed a long-suffering sigh. “Oh, Stars above, he’s almost as bad as Polymnia,” she groaned.

Prisca stepped forward and simply grabbed him by the back of his cloak, pulling him up to his feet. “We’re going to fly to meet up with the others. Gloom Glimmer already sent a message ahead. I’ll carry you.”

“Okay. And why does that require interrupting my work here?”

She just threw him over her shoulder and lifted off, grabbing Phasma’s discarded robe as the girl dematerialized. The dragonett followed after them with a low chirping sound to accompany its flight.

* * *

They flew towards the headquarters of the United Heroes, and Brennus was once more struck by the unfairness of being unable to fly himself. Even if being carried by Prisca gave him the most interesting… ideas. And not technical ones, for once…

He shook his head and focused again on the dragonette, which was following after them. Ma-

But again, his thought process was interrupted by less interesting stuff. Namely, their landing on top of the large building that housed the headquarters of the local heroes. Tartsche, Hecate, Tyche, Polymnia, Outstep, Bakeneko, Osore, Amazon, Succubus and Rising Tide already awaited them, the latter looking rather… ruffed up. His formerly immaculate white suit was quite torn and ragged now.

Prisca put him down as they landed and held out the robe for Phasma, which filled out as her ghost-body flew in and rematerialized into its normal (hidden) physical form.

Amazon cut right to the chase: “Gloom Glimmer says you found someth-“

“Stop. No talking,” said Brennus. He looked at Tartsche. “How far can you spread your power?”

The other boy answered calmly, without a break: “Anyone and anything I directly touch. Why?”

“Everyone, touch Tartsche then. No talking until we’re all under the aegis of his power,” he continued and suited actions to words, reaching out to grab Tartsche’s forearm.

The others, rather befuddled, followed suit and touched the stalwart teenager.

And then the world went calm. There was no easy way to describe it, Brennus found, but to say that he knew the world couldn’t touch him anymore. It felt oddly… familiar.

Been there, done that, mate. Got the t-shirt.

Someday, you will have to explain all that.

Eh, not today, though.

What kind of accent are you talking in, anyway? You sound British most of the time, kind of Cockney, but that was definitely Canadian just now.

Imma nasty bugger of all kinds.

Now you are just making fun of me.

Geez, whatever gave you that idea?

He shook his head, focusing back on the others. It didn’t seem like they noticed him spacing out a little.

Amazon was quite focused on the dragonette, anyway, which was perched on Gloom Glimmer’s back right now, its head hanging over her shoulder. “What is that?”

Gloom Glimmer, still hiding beneath her cowl and cloak, spoke up, her voice quite a bit… duller than usual. “Her name’s Silver. She’s Wyrm’s spy drone,” she explained.

“Who is this Wyrm?” asked the Forester, his voice having somehow dropped a few octaves since the last time they spoke.

The shrouded girl gave a sensation of… apprehension off, but answered: “She works for my father and apparently decided to intervene directly here. She might have given us the key to defeating Hastur.”

“And what might that key be? And why did you,” Amazon looked at Brennus, “Insist that we all huddle up like this?”

“Is everyone here aware of the observations I made during my stay with Hastur?” he asked.

“You mean her mind reading and regeneration?” asked Tyche.

“Not mind reading, at least not true mind reading, but a more… specialized form. Anyway, she seems capable of dropping in on communication between people.”

“And however did you come to that conclusion?” asked Succubus with a drawl. For some reason, Prisca turned her head to look at her and he got the feeling she was glaring.

“Not important right now. Anyway, I have a theory that Tartsche is using a variant of the same ability which protects Desolation-in-Light, a-“

“Wait, what?” Tyche shouted in surprise, closely echoed by Outstep.

Brennus grunted, annoyed at the interruption. “Focus, people. We can discuss power theory later on.”

Oh, the irony me matey.

Shut. Up.

“Anyway, as I was saying, Desolation-in-Light is immune to all perception-powers – even indirect ones fail around her – so it is possible, if not even likely, that Hastur will be unable to eavesdrop on us if we’re under the protection of his power. Now, to get to the matter at hand – Silver, would you please replay the video you showed us before?”

Silver gave a chirping sound and aimed its – her? – head towards the floor in front of the group, projecting the video.

They saw the security camera feed from the Menstall shelter – over a hundred people were gathered together.

A flickering, then three shadows appeared in one corner of the place, in plain sight of everyone, along with Hastur – who proceeded to pull down her hood without much further ado. The recording only showed a flickering shadow where her face should be, just like with her victims – and immediately the shelter turned into a madhouse.

One of the refugees, a young woman huddled together with her family, burst into fire, growing into a flaming bird even as her body began to twist and break – and she threw a fireball towards the assembled group, much to Hastur’s apparent surprise. The young girl threw her arms up to shield her face, but not fast enough – only the intervention of one of the shadows shoving her aside saved her from having her whole body incinerated. Instead, the side of her leg was burned, as was one of the shadows standing behind her.

Hastur screamed and fell to the floor, clutching her burned leg and rolling over, as the phoenix threw another fireball – and hit her straight in the back, incinerating her whole body, reducing her to ashes. Then she screamed again (the Phoenix) as she bent over… backwards, audibly breaking her back as a new, white feline head burst out of her belly and her left leg exploded only to reform into the head of a black turtle. Then, the same flickering discordance covered her in the recording.

Before their eyes, the ashes that were left of Hastur reformed into the same girl… including her burned leg.

“What. The. Fuck,” said Tyche.

“Agreed. This is most… unusual,” said Rising Tide, his voice now an octave or so higher.

<I’ve never heard of regeneration that worked like that,> Polymnia threw in, her face twisted in horror as she mostly looked at what could be seen of the victims of the attack.

“Wait for the next part,” said Brennus. “Silver, please proceed.”

The dragonette did so, showing the video from a hospital surveillance camera. It showed a hallway, and soon enough, Hastur limped through the window, now in a different pair of pants. The time stamp showed this scene to take place about an hour after her attack on the Menstall shelter.

“Soooo… she can’t regenerate from some stuff? Where’s the logic?”, Hecate asked.

Gloom Glimmer swayed a little and said: “The next part is also important. Silver, please show the final video.”

It was a traffic camera recording of the Chinese cape’s rampage through New Lennston’s entertainment district (also known as The Brights). While Huang Long herself was hidden beneath the shroud of flickering distortion, they saw Hastur show up with some of her attending victims and cross a nearby street – only for Huang Long to lash out and throw another fireball at her, incinerating her once more. Hastur recovered – though she retained her limp and her pants were still burned, not yet replaced – and cursed towards her victim, then vanished along with her group in a flicker.

Silver cut off the video feed.

“Gilgul here,” Brennus said, nodding towards Prisca, “Thought that Hastur might be vulnerable against her own victim’s attacks.” Prisca, Phasma and Gloom Glimmer all turned to look at him, surprised that he had even noticed that. He would have smirked at them if they could have seen it. “Them is not so. I theorize, instead, that she is vulnerable to those whom her power is affecting at the time… or, in other words, the only way to harm her is to look at her face while you do it.”

That made everyone hold their breath and think.

Polymnia was the first to say something: <So we just use a time-delayed camera or thermal vision or something and we can take her down?>

Hecate shook her head. “No. Brennus was doing that when she kidnapped him, and he couldn’t hurt her, right?”

He nodded. Obviously, Hecate must have read all his reports. “Quite so. I think one must expose themselves to her power in order to be able to hurt her. In that moment of her power affecting one directly, her defensive power probably does not recognize one as a threat. Allowing permanent harm to be done to her.”

Rising Tide tapped his chin, scowling. “I notice everyone is thinking towards the end goal of killing her – we should instead detain her, after all, her power is rather harmless when she’s locked away and-“

“No,” said Amazon. “Even if there wasn’t the issue of you Foresters potentially getting your hands on an S-Class threat, it wouldn’t work.”

“How do you know that?”, the Forester sneered.

Amazon sneered right back – and she had one hell of a sneer. “We know that because one of the Black Panthers survived and turned himself over to us. According to his information, they had Hastur in their custody for two weeks, but he observed the others growing more and more obsessed with her – upon closer inspection by our specialists, we found traces of subtle mental manipulation in his mind. It is very likely that Hastur subconsciously manipulates people to become obsessed with her, which would eventually lead to her escape.”

Rising Tide started to say something, but Gloom Glimmer cut him off: “Shut. Up.” She turned to Succubus, who had just opened her mouth. “You. Too.” Brennus was sure he saw something red flicker in the darkness of her hood for a moment. “Amazon, is there anything else we should know? Any information you got out of him?”

“Yes. Apparently, the person who set up the deal that got them Hastur was a Quinzen Walmers – a local ‘contract negotiator’… and their sponsor was a group calling themselves ‘the Companions of the Future’. They’re the ones who provided the funds necessary to buy a metahuman like Hastur.”

“Have you tried to detain Walmers already?” Brennus asked.

She nodded, but did not look pleased. “Yes, but he’s cut and run – there’s no sign of him.”

“We shouldn’t worry about him, anyway,” said Prisca. “We need to track down Hastur, and find a way to off her without having to sacrifice so-“

“And who in darnation are you, anyway!?” Outstep spoke up for the first time. He was looking rather ragged, himself, and quite tired.

“Her name is Gilgul. Newly manifested, high apex to god tier flying brick with a few twists,” Gloom Glimmer summed up. “Now quiet – she’s already proven herself by taking down BigShit along with Phasma here.”

That shut him up.

Brennus threw him a glare he could not see, then turned to the group as a whole: “I have a few ideas on how to take her down, but we need to find her. I don’t believe that she is just wildly teleporting around causing chaos – she is more likely to have a plan, even if it is a half-cooked one.” Especially if she has found an intelligent planer, or worse yet, a superbrain-type.

“I can find her,” Gloom Glimmer threw in. “It will disable me for a while – I’m already quite drained,” Her voice sounded almost normal now – though Brennus could only tell that it was usually strange by the lack of her usual inhuman harmonics – and she was slumping, which just did not fit her, at all. “But I should be able to locate her, maybe even get a glimpse of her goals.”

“Do that, then. We’ll take everything from there,” ordered Amazon.

Gloom Glimmer nodded and broke contact with Tartsche, stepping away and taking a deep breath as Silver jumped off her back, gliding a short distance away to land and watch her.

* * *

Gloom Glimmer took a deep breath, concentrated – once more, Brennus was sure he saw red flicker underneath her hood – and then collapsed onto her knees. “Ugh.”

Polymnia immediately went to her side, helping her back up and taking her back into the group huddle, holding her hand to Tartsche’s outstretched hand to spread his power over them. <What did you see?>

The weakened girl shook her head, then whispered: “She’s… she’s got a plan… She wants to use TeleCat’s instant broadcasting contrivances to broadcast her face.”

“Ah crap,” whispered Brennus.

“TeleCat? Who the hell is that? And what’s with that name?” asked Bakeneko. Brennus had almost forgotten she was there, even though she had a particularly provocative form right now… not that he would notice it next to Prisca’s new curv- Focus, damn it!

“A supervillain from the late eighties, he tried to take over the world by way of television. Built contrivances that transmitted images and sound across the planet with no lag at all, wanted to hypnotize the whole world,” explained Brennus. He had studied up on all tech-based heroes and villains he could find – or at least the most famous ones – and even contrivers. “But it makes no sense – TeleCat is locked up in the Tartarus Star; as powerful as she is, there is no way she is breaking him out of there to build her another contrivance. And all his old ones were destroyed.”

Rising Tide fiddled with the neck of his suit, apparently uncomfortable.

Gloom Glimmer looked at Rising Tide. “She’s going for your base under the Brights,” she said. “You have TeleCat’s Super Tele-Throne in storage – and since he’s still alive, it would still work.” She paused, taking a weak breath. “She sits on that thing and she’ll be able to throw her face on every active screen that is linked to the internet in the entire Northern Hemisphere at the same time, with no lag. It might suffice to let her power propagate through it – instant apocalypse.”

Brennus sighed. “Ah crap to the highest power.”

And then something strange happened. Gloom Glimmer just… slumped in Polymnia’s arms, the colour washing out of her, until… until she looked like someone had taken a scissor and cut a Gloom Glimmer-like shape into reality.

“What happened to Miss Perfect?” asked Bakeneko, only to earn a slap over the head by Amazon.

Polymnia answered the question everyone had: <It’s a kind of defense mechanism. If she’s knocked out or otherwise unable to defend herself anymore, her power uses its last reserves to kind of put her into a pocket dimension to protect her until she recovers. Right now, she’s just as untouchable as Desolation-in-Light. But she’s completely out of this world, save for this tether.> She nodded towards the featureless, three-dimensional void in her arms.

“Well, at least she’ll be safe,” sneered Rising Tide with a mocking tone.

Amazon threw Rising Tide a poisonous look, but did not rebuke him. “So, what do we do?” she asked into the round. Apparently, she was just as stunned as the others were. This was… quite a bit over their usual weight class.

Prisca turned to her: “How long until the Feral Family arrives?”

“How do y- nevermind, they’ll need at least another forty-five minutes.”

“Too long,” said Brennus. “But I have a different plan.” He looked all his erstwhile comrades over. “I will need all of your cooperation for it, just to make sure. And it will be really dangerous.”

“Not as dangerous as the end of the world,” said Prisca in support, gently bumping his shoulder with her fist.

He nodded, then turned to Polymnia: <Charge the S.M.O.G. up. We will need it for this.>

<Yes!>

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