B12.12 Born At Sleep

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Basil had always wanted to fly. Few people didn’t, he imagined. It was a desire that had only grown once he became a cape – flight was just so useful. Almost all of the capes and cowls on any ‘Top 10’ list had some manner of flight available to them, and that made sense. It added a whole new dimension to their movement, among other advantages.

He’d never truly appreciated the worth of independent flight, though, not until he was charging towards Crocell while being carried by Amy’s telekinesis, her power wrapping around them to divert light and sound, rendering them as concealed as was possible.

Amy’s flight certainly ranked up there among the best of them – she simply thought, thus she moved. Any direction at any time, with an uncanny ability to ignore or at least mitigate momentum, allowing for one-hundred and eighty degree turns at will, enabling maneuvers that were nausea-inducing, but incredibly effective.

Which allowed her to weave through the flying debris of Crocell’s and the Subjugator’s clash, as they let loose their respective ranged attacks upon one another. Arcs of almost solid lightning scoured the monster’s hide, whole clouds of micro-missiles flew around it to hit its back, making it nearly impossible to make out the actual form within the rolling mass of explosions and electric discharge. Its own beam, however, continued to shoot out, a continuous stream of gleaming bright destruction that was visibly straining the Subjugator’s frontal shields, creating an oddly beautiful effect of a matrix of light, like a net, suspended in midair between the combatants – yet it did not penetrate; however, it did get dispersed, and part of the reason why Basil noticed Amy’s flight skill so much at that moment was because she was easily dodging the stray beams that tore up the buildings around them, weaving through the falling debries without a speck of dust touching her – or him.

It almost feels like I’m flying on my own, he thought as she moved him into a corkscrew that carried him through a cloud of falling pieces of a multi-storey car park, while also maintaining the distortion in the air around him which he recognised as her sphere of invisibility.

At the same time, several larger pieces of rubble which passed through the sphere – certainly an odd sight from outside, as he imagined they’d fade out of sight, only for some of them to reappear moments later – were caught in her telekinesis, added to an ever-growing swarm of steel beams, concrete slabs and more.

By the time they were actually approaching the site of the battle itself, the sphere was filled with what was organised in groups of ammunition (steel bars, mostly, and other objects with sharp, pointy ends) and shields (slabs of concrete, half of a small car…), all crammed together. He could barely even see Amy anymore and he was kind of amazed they all still fit inside the sphere, too.

“Why do you even need all this!?” he shouted at her as they circled around the flying machine and the giant monster locked in their continuous pounding of each other (though the Subjugator seemed to have run out of micro-missiles, leaving ‘only’ its ungodly powerful arc cannon to pound Crocell).

“Telekinesis doesn’t work on that thing!” she shouted back; even though she was blocking out most of the sound coming from outside, and dampening the rest, it was still hard to hear her, if only because of all the material between them. “No matter what I try, it just slides right off of its hide, so I need to use something else to hit it with! Plus, it helps to have something to block shots with!”

It slides off!? “You know, you could have mentioned that earlier!” he shouted back, furiously adjusting his hypotheses as to their quarry’s nature. “That is a rather important clue, you know!?”

“Sorry, I was kind of distracted, you know, by you being here and in danger!” she replied merrily, her voice bubbling with excitement. At the same time, she dropped several pieces of gathered material, replacing them with a single, larger piece of concrete from a collapsed building they passed, rusty rebar poking out of the jagged, rough edges.

“How do you do that?!” he asked while they circled the fight once more, looking for an opening – it seemed likely that either of the combatants would soon give out, unable to continue to maintain this barrage of destruction. “You have got to be juggling way more than just ten tons, nevermind how even with two viewpoints, there is no way you are keeping all of this and our surroundings and the battle in sight all at once!”

“I’m not!” she replied cheerily. “Mostly just using my power’s sight right now! I don’t get dizzy or nauseous no matter how I move it, so I’m just rotating it like crazy, flinging everything in the direction it’s supposed to go – I’m less pulling it all and more like, juggling the pieces – just horizontally instead of vertically! Same reason for how I manage to keep thirty-plus tons of material in the air right now! Anyway, ready to get into the fray, baby bro?!” He saw her grin at him as her face became visible through a gap in the floating rubble.

He checked his rifle one last time, making sure it was fully loaded, as he studiously ignored the implication of what he’d just learned – there’d be time to reconsider his evaluation of her power level later, when they were somewhere safer than in the middle of a freaking kaiju battle. “Good to go!”

She dropped the sphere of invisibility, and he could see several defenders startle and stare up at the large bulk of rubble (plus one white-clad, black-armoured gadgeteer) appearing seemingly out of nowhere.

As soon as she no longer had to restrain herself to the confines of her sphere, Amy spread her power, her gathered tools spreading out around them in a wider, looser sphere. Slabs of concrete, the cars, a massive steel table and what looked like a solid plate of black marble formed a shield between them and Crocell, the latter just barely moving into place in time to catch a stray blast of Crocell’s beam – though it was disintegrated, it bought them enough time to fly out of its arc.

The steel beams and other ranged ammunitions, meanwhile, formed a cloud of pointy death on the other side of Amy from the shield of rubble, ready to be launched. More material was picked up and spread out where needed.

All of it at the same time. All while moving in a circle around the fight, dodging or blocking stray blasts and shards from the destroyed buildings.

Top Ten indeed, Basil thought as he saw her launch three stakes at Crocell, the solid beams of steel vanishing into the cloud of explosions, making it impossible to tell whether they hit their enemy, much less whether any actual damage was caused.

“Mindstar, down there!” he shouted, as his eyes caught sight of Tyche standing on a rooftop, firing blindly into the cloud as she stood there irreverently, openly, not a single shot or shard close to her. “We need her, too!”

His sister answered by dipping down towards Tyche, picking the red-haired heroine up.

“Wooooo!” she squealed in delight as she was lifted near to Basil, her hair flying wildly around her head. “Hey B-Six, nice to s- Is that Mindstar?” She goggled at his sisters purple-clad form.

“Yeah, she is. Look, there is no time – I have a plan and she agreed to help with it, but I need your help, too,” he said quickly, to keep her on track before her mind ran off on tangents again.

“Sure, what’s the plan?” she asked, grinning at him. “Oh, please tell me it doesn’t involve Hecate, because she’s so never going to want to work wi-“

“No time! No, she is not involved, in fact, she would be counterproductive to this plan! Anyway, the point is, I think I can figure out some kind of weakness to it, my power seems to b-“

He was interrupted as there was a loud, piercing scream and a flash of light, followed by a shockwave that pushed against them and the flying rubble, briefly causing Mindstar to struggle to keep everything aloft and on course.

They all turned to watch as the Subjugator staggered, breaking off its assault, its force-field flaring bright red, the energy of Crocell’s beam dancing across it, being dispersed around the entire surface of the shield, making visible a matrix of interlaced, blue-white energy, like channels, the similarly coloured energy of Crocell’s own beam running through them.

***

In a half-sunken white building on a flooded island floating in the darkness…

The irregularities kept mounting. Not only was the interface still being maintained, somehow, it was also becoming increasingly obvious that some manner of intelligence was searching for it.

The darkwraith remained where it had ever been since its inception, attached to some idea of the host’s which the Primary did not wish to become a proper invention yet. It had obeyed its instructions, in spite of the difficulties associated with manipulating another human’s power on a subtle long-term basis like this. Instead of blocking the concept outright, or trying to suppress the host’s power directly (it was not capable of that in any way) it simply diverted his attention whenever he focused on the concept. As his power relied much more strongly on the host’s own mind than usual even for Gadgeteers, that had proven sufficient to fulfill its duty.

However, there were numerous issues it saw itself faced with, and it was ill-equipped to resolve them. One of them, certainly. Two, maybe. But all of them coming together like this? The darkwraith was not able.

First, the concept was tied intimately into the host’s power’s focus as well as several critical memory’s of the host – even if the host was not aware of those memories – which meant that diverting attention from it was a constant struggle that took up a significant fraction of the darkwraith’s processing ability.

Second, the host’s mind was under some kind of outward influence, and powerful one at that. Core memories were being suppressed, if not outright blocked, some partially or fully replaced by fake alternatives (though at least the original memories were not deleted, merely suppressed).

Worse, it was constant influence, as the appearance of its surroundings attested. Human minds were, after all, not inherently shaped like anything. There was no mindscape, no mental world. What telepaths perceived were merely interfaces created by their symbionts, sensory overlays which allowed them to process the complex workings of their target’s mind in a way that they could not only comprehend, but also manipulate.

While the darkwraith itself was no older than its mission, it had stores of memories related to its task to draw from. The Primary had encountered many telepaths over time and seen many an interface. Libraries filled with books, computer networks, digital worlds, corridors filled with floating paintings and much, much more. The host’s sister’s interface was not unusual in that manner, even though its rather…

It took the darkwraith a moment to find the correct word, as it was not attached to a mode of thinking it had been explicitely crafted for.

whimsical appearance suggested a much lower age during manifestation than what the records suggested.

What was unusual was that, not only did the interface persit even when she was no longer in contact with the host’s mind, the host himself perceived his mind the same way.

Which suggested that either the sister was constantly in mental contact with the darkwraith’s host (an impossibility based on its information on her personality and her power), or else the interface was not hers but that of the individual which was manipulating the host’s mind so thoroughly.

Which suggested that either she had imprinted on the culprit and used the same interface or else her power was not her own and she was herself just a puppet through which the unknown third party acted.

Which meant that one of the Primary’s most powerful and trusted servitors was thoroughly compromised.

That was the third issue.

All three of those were, however, not too crippling for the wraith. It had very precise protocolls for how to act, as well as the tools to see them through. In this case, having discovered such information, it was to send a message to the Primary. Not a full report, for that would take more resources than it had available, but rather a request for contact. The Primary would then seek the host out at the earliest opportunity and make contact with the wraith, absorbing the information it gathered and recharing, likely even modifying it.

The fourth issue, however, was that it was being actively tracked. Queries were being sent, trying to tie down its location, ever since the host had collapsed that one time (the darkwraith neither knew why he collapsed, nor did it care). So far, it had managed to divert all attempts to find it in the same manner it was safeguarding the concept.

Broadcasting the request, however, was certain to reveal its precise location. Whatever – whoever – was trying to find it could not possible miss it.

Considering how the fragment it had detached to accompany the host’s sister during her visitation had fared, there was not a doubt in its mind that it would be destroyed.

Most likely long before the Primary could make contact with the host. Even if the host did not recover the concept in the meantime, the wraith’s gathered intelligence would be lost.

Following its protocol to contact the Primary would invalidate the mission. Not doing so for the sake of remaining hidden and continuing to safeguard the concept would violate several protocols.

For a member of the Primary’s species and perhaps even for a symbiont, this would be a conundrum, perhaps even a cause of distress.

However, the wraith was not capable of such. It could reach for stored knowledge to gain context and it could simulate possible futures to weigh consequences, but no more. Such was not its function.

So it remained, running simulation after simulation, trying to find a way to fulfill its mission, as outside, in that strange, whistful setting, three figures were moving about in what may be a child’s idea of how a mental search would look like.

***

Basil and the girls watched in awed horror as Crocell leapt out of the dustcloud which the Subjugator’s barrage had thrown up, impacting its upper frontal shield, its long, thin limbs wrapping around the sides of the ovoid force-field, claws digging at it, causing the matrices of energy to flare into bright visibility around the points it was exerting pressure upon.

Its front was a ruin of charred flesh, under which new, regrowing meat was bubbling up, fixing the damage; it looked horrible, but to Basil’s keen eye, it looked far less horrible than the damage which had been done to Crocell’s previous form – however it had modified itself, it was either far tougher than before, or merely resistant to that specific attack.

Neither bode well for the people fighting it.

“Alright, let’s go help the king geek’s toy!” Mindstar shouted as she re-oriented their flight, charging towards the floating pair.

“Wheeeeee!” Tyche squealed, laughing as she fired blindly towards them, her every shot hitting Crocell at some damaged portion to gouge out flesh.

“Try and stay out of its firing arch!” Basil advised her, though really it should not be necessary; Amy had been in many, many more battles of this kind than he.

“You ain’t the boss of me!” she shouted back as she launched several improvised stakes at Crocell, who was apparently trying to push its fingers through the force-field.

Whether it was her own ability to aim well alone, the support of Hollywood’s sun or both, the stakes all struck true even though they were almost a kilometre away from it, one digging into its injured shoulder, the other two sinking slightly into its eye before they fell off, bent and broken by the impact.

The damage was minimal, but apparently enough to catch Crocell’s attention, especially as there was barely any assault upon it right now – people were growing tired, or else staying at a safe distance while it fought the Subjugator. It turned its head, even while its hands rose up to the part of the force-field which was above the ‘neck’ of the flier, just behind the four sensor orbs, digging its long, many-jointed fingers into it.

“It’s going to attack!” Tyche shouted, not that she seemed to be at all worried.

She was proven right not to be, as Mindstar easily dodged the blast that came, losing only a few pieces of concrete which she did not move out of the way in time.

Crocell followed them, its beam – broad enough to envelop and wipe out all three of them at once, if given the chance – tracking their flight, but Mindstar was ready. When it approached Basil and Tyche, who were flying near each other, towards the lower left of Mindstar, they were simply moved out of the way so smoothly there was barely any yank, while the largest slab of rebar-concrete moved in the way of the beam, briefly blocking about a sixth of it, the part which would otherwise have touched Mindstar herself, giving her the time she needed to move herself to safety as well.

“You want to tango, asshole?!” she shouted at him, her voice somehow both furious and excited. “The only one’s who ever beaten me in the air’s Lady fucking Light herself!” She flew ever closer, watching as the beam cut off, her debris shield re-orienting itself to plug the hole in its defenses, more stakes and other projectiles being launched at its eye and still-open wounds on its chest.

Tyche joined in, firing wildly, but Basil did not, as he was focused on observing the way their attacks were affecting its body, watched as flesh was gouged out or shots deflected, creating a shower of sparks.

This, I’m sure my power is trying to tell me something about it, he thought, that maddening feeling of almost-recognition flaring in the back of his head.

“Look at its hands!” Tyche shouted, pointing, and he diverted his gaze from Crocell’s upper body.

Indeed, its fingers had dug into the Subjugator’s force-fields again, somehow finding purchase as the matrices flared brightly, straining against its grip. The Subjugator must have been rerouting all its energy reserves into its shield, because it wasn’t firing its arc cannon, the only weapon they had which had consistently damaged Crocell to a seemingly meaningful degree, yet the monster continued unperturbed, pulling, tearing…

And the force-field parted, like some kind of plastic screen being torn open, the tear widened by the pull of its hands, its fingers still stuck in it.

What the… that is NOT how force-fields work! he thought in shock, watching as Crocell turned its mouth towards the opening, the tell-tale blue glow appearing in the back of its throat.

“Oh no you don’t!” Mindstar shouted, now barely a hundred metres away from its head, and launched her entire collection of ammunition at it at once, balling them together into a massive projectile which hit its jaw at the moment it fired off the beam.

Even with her prodigious power, she could just barely avoid a full-on hit to the Subjugator; the beam still shot into the force-field and clean through the side of its ‘neck’ where the right wing joined its main body.

A hideous scream of metal, a hissing of molten wires and electricity and a blaring of ear-rending curses and defamations sounded from the machine, shouting at the monster in anger.

The beam continued, burning through the Subjugator’s field below and hitting the street below, melting it, its force-field flaring up – but it didn’t fail.

Even though there were now two holes in it, the force-field continued to, well, exist, Crocell was still attached to it. It should have failed, it should have failed the moment Crocell tore into it, yet somehow, it persisted, and Basil was certain that that was important, even if he could not possible say why.

***

The queries were groing more insistent, moving closer to the wraith’s location. Whoever was looking for it, they were narrowing down where to find it.

At this point, it was no longer a question of whether it would fail in its mission, but rather how thoroughly it would.

The darkwraith continued to think quietly, trying to determine the most advantageous course of action as it kept pursuing its primary mission, safeguarding the concept.

***

The fight was dragging on, and still Basil couldn’t figure out what his power was trying to tell him. Every time he thought he had a grip on it, it would slide out of his reach, there but impossible to grasp.

Being so close, watching as Mindstar flew around it, launching projectiles at the monster, watching as the Subjugator managed to shake it off by spinning along its horizontal axis, watching as it crushed the building it landed on, then rouse out of the dust only to be tackled by Totemiac’s giant form while the Subjugator put some distance between the two of them, only made it more frustrating.

“Any ideas yet, B-man?” Tyche asked, not quite as deliriously cheerful as before now. She was running out of ammunition, he knew, and he didn’t exactly have a large stock himself, either.

“Almost. I am certain I can figure it out, if only I could get closer…” He watched it wrestle with Totemiac, watched a misshapen golem the size of a four-storey building rise out of the concrete and join in the fight, trying to bring Crocell down.

There is NO fucking way I’m taking you any closer to this thing! Amy spoke straight into his mind, so Tyche wouldn’t hear. You wouldn’t survive a single glancing blow from any of those three, I think.

He didn’t respond, knowing it to be futile. Yet he had to get closer, so…

This is going to piss her off so much, he thought quietly to himself, without aiming the thought in her direction (a tricky thing to do in any case).

Mindstar kept flying around Crocell and its quarries, which were fighting with a surprising amount of coordination – the golem must have been Prospero’s creation – and launched pieces of broken buildings and wrecked cars, aiming for Crocell’s joints whenever it tried to hit the others, diverting or at least weakening its blows.

At the very least, the three of them together kept it from using its beam again… though a quick glance around showed Basil that there wasn’t much that hadn’t yet been wrecked within several blocks’ distance.

“Be advised,” the communicators spoke up with Father Manus’ voice. “Reinforcements are inbound. ETA thirty-one minutes.”

“HALF AN HOUR!?!” Mindstar shouted into the communicator strapped to her wrist, incredulous. “We’re already running out of steam and this thing is only getting stronger! And where the hell are the boss and Lady Light!?!”

“Location unknown. Neither has been reached yet, though we are trying,” Father Manus replied calmly, soothingly. “If you are getting worn out, please retreat towards our staging ground. We’ll be rotating our roster, so everyone can get a moment to rest and recharge.”

Basil watched as his sister grumbled in annoyance, but she seemed to honestly consider an erstwhile retreat.

“Attention again, please,” Father Manus spoke up once more. “We are about to attempt one more large-scale attack before the first rotation. Please disengage from Crocell and stay out of the attack’s striking area – you will see it once it starts.”

“The hell you think they’re trying?” Tyche asked curiously.

“There,” Basil pointed, having seen a familiar form. “That’s Gilgul and… some girl I don’t recognise.”

They all looked down at a battered, but mostly clear street (though the buildings to its left and right were all gone), where Gilgul stood confidently in the centre of it. Next to her was a girl in a flowing, flowery costume in many soft colours, little more than several silk shawls wrapped around her body from her knees up to her shoulders, more for the sake of artistry than functionality. They even seemed to be partially transparent, so a person closer to her, and more interested in such than Basil, could certainly get an eyeful of her.

Nevertheless, she stood there quite confidently, much like Prisca, as her blonde hair – also covered by several thin shawls of various colours – whipped around her face.

“That’s Colorfusical,” Mindstar told them. “She’s a hero from Miami, part of an independent team. Can boost powers, I think.”

“A power booster… oh.” Basil saw the woman draw a red shawl off of her hip, and wrap it around Gilgul’s neck.

The golden-clad girl nodded and stepped forth, grabbing her sword-lance with both hands as she drew back, preparing apparently for a heavy blow, even though she was hundreds of meters away from the monster.

And then Totemiac leapt away from the fight, leaving Crocell briefly stunned before the golem tackled it again, holding its attention – just in time for Gilgul to let out a piercing scream and swing.

The shawl around her neck burst into blazing red light, and her blade elongated so rapidly, it caused a sonic boom.

Basil, Mindstar and Tyche watched in awe as the elongated blade -its golden material suffused with traceries of bright red light – passed below them and struck at Crocell’s neck and cleaved straight through it, and through the golem’s, as well.

It continued on for another second before the effect faded, the blade of the sword-lance returning to its normal length and colouration, but it had been enough.

Even as the golem collapsed back into rubble, Crocell’s headless corpse swayed, pale, watery fluid gushing from the stump.

Yet almost immediately, they could see it begin to regrow, eye first, as tendrils of flesh sprang to be in mid-air, connecting the quickly reforming orb to the neck, followed by the rest of it slowly – or rather, rapidly, but slowly relative to its size and how quickly it had regenerated previously – re-appearing, regrowing out of thin air.

“Alright, I’ve had enough – time for us to take a break and figure out what to do,” Mindstar said, frustrated, and turned to fly away – and Basil took his chance, as she was momentarily distracted, to launch his grappling hooks.

“What the fuck are you doing!?!” Mindstar shouted in horror as he hit the stump of Crocell’s neck, where it was still regrowing, and pulled himself out of her telekinetic grip, before she could strengthen it.

“Sorry, got to figure this out already!” he shouted in apology as he shot towards Crocell, the motors on his hips straining as he made them work as hard as they could, and then some.

His efforts were rewarded when he impacted the sump of Crocell’s regrowing neck, his feet on the scaly hide above its collarbone, the tendrils of meat and bone thickening as it continued to regrow its head, not even having the decency to fall over while it did so.

He watched, fascinated, at the strange way its regeneration seemed to work – if only most of his mask’s systems hadn’t been damaged too much to use. Instead he had to rely on his eyes to study it from up close now, watching the way flesh seemed to grow out of no-

No, not nowhere. He looked closer. There was something there, something in the air! But the wounds were almost closed now, and he still didn’t have en-

A single shot sparked off Crocell’s regrowing flesh, gouging out a chunk of it – Tyche’s gun, he was sure.

And then he saw it. The shot had thrown up tiny pieces of fish-like meat, throwing them towards Basil’s face – but they never reached it, as they instead seemed to dissolve.

Fascinated, he watched them break down into what looked like water vapor, flowing back towards the monster’s neck.

There!

He lifted his rifle and pressed the muzzle against the side of its neck, so it pointed at its hide at an angle.

Then he pulled the trigger.

He watched.

He pulled the trigger.

He observed.

He pulled the trigger.

He analyzed.

***

The only sensible course of action was to broadcast the signal now. If not, it would certainly be found anyway and destroyed, with the Primary none the wiser until he came across the host in some other manner and noticed the absence of his wraith.

There was no hesitation. The wraith expended a majority of its reserves – not all, never all, after all it might not be found and it might be able to preserve itself long enough for the Primary to make contact.

The signal was broadcasted.

Then it vanished, snuffed out before it even left the immediate vicinity of the host.

I am afraid that cannot be allowed, spoke a voice, as the ‘door’ to its ‘hideout’ opened, and a single figure entered. It looked like a headless sprite, a two-dimensional shadow stood up and walking about, with a tiny, marble-sized sun floating above its neck, its corona forming a circular ‘head’.

Why not? the wraith queried. It did not feel frustrated, or disappointed, or even annoyed. Such emotions were not part of its function.

I do not know, it replied. But I know that you must be gone. You are not welcome here, little construct.

The Primary will generate a new one to replace me, was all it could think of to say.

Then we will eject that one, too. Or… it stepped aside from the door. Well, not quite eject, I suppose. Metaphorically eject, at least.

Another figure stepped… crawled… pulled itself forward, its misshapen girth grinding against the ‘doorframe’, breaking pieces off of it.

The wraith knew no fear, knew no disgust or even fascination, but it had stores of memories relating to its task, given to it by the Primary, and its last thought, as it watched the ‘thing’ open its twisted jaws with the wet, bloody grinding of gears, though free of fear or regret or such, was that only a truly diseased mind could be responsible for this charade – no healthy human would imagine such an abomination to live within anyone’s mind.

The darkwraith was destroyed, the concept it had been guarding no longer hidden as tendrils of attention reached out for it.

***

Basil blinked his eyes open, his sight swimming purple, gold and red. He was dizzy, disoriented, and it didn’t help that he seemed to be floating freely in the air, without any point of reference for where ‘down’ was.

W-what? I blacked out? Did I get hit?

He shook his head, trying to re-order his thoughts. Yet before he could even straighten out his vision, he felt something.

Something he hadn’t felt that clearly in quite a while.

He felt his power flow, as ideas rose up within his mind, concepts, numbers, plans. There were gaps, yes, as always, but they were coming.

“… saved his life… -itch!” shouted a familiar voice. It sounded agitated, outraged.

“Not… get aw… -ster!” another voice, less familiar yet known, replied. It sounded even more agitated and outraged, and hateful besides.

He blinked his eyes, even as he was figuring out what his power was giving him, and his sight resolved to see Amy… Mindstar floating in the air above and slightly in front of him, her left side facing him as she was pressed against a cracked wall.

Another figure, a blonde woman in skintight red, covered in a golden force-field shaped like a female version of a hoplite’s armor, had her fingers dug into the wall to the left and right of Mindstar’s head, one of her feet digging into the bricks bellow for further purchase, as she had her own face just a hand’s span away from Mindstar’s snarling at her with an utterly hateful light in her eyes.

You don’t get to say that, blondie!” Mindstar snarled right back, not looking intimidated at all. “He would’ve died if I hadn’t caught him after that monster slapped him away! Why’re you busting my chops over saving his life!?!

“Hey…” Basil whispered weakly, his mind a mess of conflicting emotions.

He was ignored.

“Why should I believe that’s all you did, much less all you intend? It ain’t beneath you to exploit the situation, you crazy slut!” Amazon shot back, not giving an inch.

Basil frowned at the expletives used… not that he could begrudge Amazon her dislike of his sister… but there were other priorities.

The two of them kept ignoring him – not that he could talk loudly right now – as they snarled and spit at each other like a pair of cats. The only thing missing was for them to start hissing and try to claw each other’s eyes out.

Enough now! He lifted his rifle and aimed between their faces.

A single shot rang out, causing both women to recoil (and Amy to slam the back of her head against the wall – he’d pay for that later, among many other things).

“H-hey!” he croaked, his throat raw. “E-enough!”

They turned to look at him, still angry and hateful, but surprised enough now to take a break from their snarl-fit.

“Brennus, are you alright? She didn’t do anything to you, right?” Amazon said, her face turning concerned as she let go of the wall and turned towards him, extending her left hand towards the wall again to hold onto it closer to Basil, letting her lean closer.

Mindstar crossed her arms behind her, huffing in indignation – though he could tell she was relieved to see him conscious again.

“I am alright… just dizzy… what happened?” he asked, his voice painfully rough.

“You seemed to black out for a few seconds,” Amazon said worriedly. “You fell off Crocell’s neck, and then it hit you with its hand – I don’t think it was aiming at you, it was just turning to face Totemiac again – and you flew two blocks away before she-” She threw a hateful look over her shoulder at Mindstar. “Apparently caught you out of the goodness of her heart.”

“This is an S-Class battle, you know,” Mindstar spit right back at her. “We’re supposed to work together, my saving his ass and helping him fight before does not mean I have ulterior motives, you crazy c-“

“Yeah, like you care, psycho!” Amazon screamed back at her. “I’m not trusting you as far as I can spit, and I’m taking this boy to get checked over by some telepaths I can trust! And if they find so much as a hint of mental fuckery from you, I’ll personally lobby for the kill order!”

Mindstar’s face – what could be seen of it, at least – turned red in indignation, and she prepared to shout back, but Basil interrupted them again by shooting his rifle straight up – the last shot of this magazine. He had one more left.

“ENOUGH! We have more important things to worry about!” he shouted at them, making them pay attention to him again. “Bury the hatchet for now, or at least put it on hold, and you-” He pointed at Mindstar, who quirked an eyebrow. “Take me to the staging ground. You-” He pointed at Amazon, figuring that he should keep her busy with something, even if he could do it himself. “Get the message out that I need Polymnia, Tick-Tock and Boom-Boom! They’re to meet me at the staging ground! And I need someone to get me a line to whoever’s operating that Subjugator!”

“What? Why? What is this all about?” Amazon asked, stunned.

“I’d like to know that, too,” Mindstar said, crossing her arms again as she looked suspiciously at him. “What are you thinking?”

They couldn’t see his grin underneath his mask, but he thought they could hear it. “Get me to the others.” His power was firing on all cylinders, better than it had in months. “I know how to kill this thing.”

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B012.9 Born At Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then they ripped into the beast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gloom Glimmer nodded to them and flew ahead as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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B012.7 Born At Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was still glad about every bit of added support.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love you, too. Be safe.

Look who’s talking.

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

“Huh?” he asked, momentarily confused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That… looks big,” Dalia commented lamely.

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

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

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

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

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B010.b.2 Canary in the Birdcage

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“You probably don’t want to hear this, Miss, but you look inordinately cute right now,” he said with a smile that was more pleasant than she wanted to admit.

Blushing, she averted her eyes – not that he was likely to be able to tell the difference. “What is going on?” she asked in a small voice. “I can’t… I can’t take this. Just tell me what you want and be done with it.” She felt close to breaking down into tears.

Instead of answering, he reached around her neck with one arm, pulling her in to press his forehead against hers for a moment. His skin was cool, and the gesture was so… human and relaxing and she… for a few moments, she forgot where she was, and why, and with whom.

When he pulled back again, she felt in control once more. Steady. Or at least mostly so. Enough not to break down crying, at least. Now blushing, she stepped back and dried her eyes with the back of her hand, before she looked at Prospero again. He was just standing there, a sympathetic look on his tired face, quiet.

“You want to know what I want, or what the Queen wants, dear?” he asked in what was almost a whisper, his eyes on her face – now sharp and focused, with nothing of the earlier exhaustion and fear.

She opened her mouth as soon as he intoned the ‘Q’ of ‘Queen’ to correct him, but decided against it. Calling her a tyrant in front of what was turning out to be a loyal subject of hers after all would not improve her chances – whatever her chances for anything were.

And besides, it didn’t hurt to be polite. “Yes. Please, tell me why I’m here,” she said, trying to keep her insecurity and antipathy out of her voice. Which wasn’t all that difficult to achieve, since she had perfect control over her voice, when she was paying attention.

“How about we walk while we talk?” he suggested with a sincere-looking smile. “I’m afraid I might have trouble staying awake unless we’re moving.” Then he waited, until she realised that he was actually giving her a choice.

“Oh, sure, sure,” she said, once more surprised. That seems to be a running theme here.

With another smile, he opened the door, quickly checking out the hallway. “Alright, the bloodhound isn’t there. Let’s go in the opposite direction from her – though even she can’t object to me giving you the rundown of your situation, so that might save me if she does track us down.” And with those ominous words, they left the room.

* * *

They walked for a minute or so in silence, through a weirdly plain, homely hallway. The walls were painted in a very faint, natural green colour, with picture frames every few meters to break up the monotony. Mostly pastoral landscapes, and a few photographs of Prospero and his (huge) family. Aside from being quite disconcerted about him letting her see all of them so easily – as if he didn’t think she could ever use this information against him – she was startled to realise that, apparently, the stories actually matched up with the reality; he had a lot of kids. However had his wife managed to give birth to all of them – Jasmine counted at least nine children, ranging in age from Minerva’s apparent sixteen years down to a newborn baby in the most recent picture she’d seen (dated to just a year and a month ago) – and still look that slender?

She’s probably a metahuman, duh. Someone like Prospero would want a metahuman wife, if only to increase the chance of his children manifesting powers.

Though judging by all the sincere smiles she saw on the pictures, he at the very least enjoyed having such a family all by itself.

They’re manipulating me, she realised. Why else would they treat her like that, or show her all this? Trying to break down her image of them, trying to knock her loose from her ideals, probably. But why? She couldn’t see what they stood to gain from that. Her power? The Tyrant could make her do anything she wanted. Besides, it wasn’t that useful to them… or was it?

“I’M GOING TO FUCKING SQUASH YOUR FUCKING CREEPY LITTLE HEADS!!!” a smoky voice screamed so loudly both Prospero and Canary clapped their hands over their ears – Jasmine even doubled over.

When she looked up again, a small swarm of babies came around the nearest corner of the hallway, crawling on the walls and the ceiling.

Wait, what?

The… babys?… rushed towards them, moving far too quickly to be real human babies, and Jasmine got a closer look at them. They certainly were baby-sized, and each was wearing a different onesie – she made out a piglet, a platypus, a flamingo and a snake – with masses of oily black tendrils sticking out of the openings for their faces, wriggling in nauseating ways as they moved on all fours.

“What in God’s name are those!?” she shouted, crouching in the middle of the hallway to put as much distance between herself and the walls and ceiling as possible.

One of the ‘babies’ stopped and looked at her – at least she thought it was looking at her, there was really no way to tell since they had no eyes – and its tendrils opened like a flower, revealing a slimy black beak that snapped a few times before it went on its way.

And that was still not the weirdest thing about them – each and every of these… things… was carrying some piece of female lingerie. Carrying as in, wearing. One had a bra on its head, tied so it looked like two lacy, pink ears. Another had turned a thong inside out and pulled it over its head, with its tendrils wiggling around it.

She didn’t even want to take a closer look at the others.

Prospero sighed in a way that reminded Jasmine a lot of her own father. “I hate these things,” he said and stepped aside, leaning against the wall before he lifted his hands and put them over his eyes.

“What…” Jasmine was just about to ask for some kind of clarification when the source of the earlier scream bounded around the corner and ran towards them at breakneck speeds.

She was young – perhaps a little older than Minerva, but certainly no older than Jasmine – and completely, utterly naked. Her medium length, unkempt red hair was dripping wet as she pursued the little monsters with an outraged look on her face.

Jasmine tried to avert her eyes, embarrassed that a girl would run around like that – though fortunately, Prospero seemed to be decent enough a man to hold his eyes closed – but the girl had made very sure that it was too interesting to look at her – Jasmine saw more piercings on her body than she cared to count (and in places where she hadn’t known girls could or would have piercings) and the most intricate tattoo she had ever seen starting at her left ankle, winding its way up her leg, across her belly, disappearing behind her back to reappear on her right side, hugging her lowermost rib and going on over her right breast and under her right armpit, only to reemerge over her left shoulder and then curve over her breasts to go over her throat up to her right cheek. It formed thorns and roses, black as the night with only faint blue lines added to make them more than mere silhouettes, winding around each other as they wound their way up her body, all of it coordinated with her silver piercings to make it impossible to avert your eyes.

She’d barely managed to take in half of that in before the girl had leapt by the two of them, screaming bloody murder after the little… thiefs. As Jasmine turned, she saw that the tattoo continued on her back, as did the piercings. Whoever had done this had been a true artist, she had to admit, but why was she running around naked!? And then she’d gone around another corner and out of sight, only her promises of brutal murder to be heard.

Perhaps that lingerie was her only underwear?

“Is she gone?” Prospero asked. “Is it safe to look again?”

“I-I think so,” Jasmine gasped, still blushing at the shameless display. She turned around to look at Prospero, just in time to see a shadow run around the corner. It was running on the wall, flat, the shadow of a slender young woman dragging another bigger, wide shadow behind her. Just as it came around the corner and ran towards them, a big bath towel came flying after it, its movements mirroring those of the shadow towel dragged by the girl shadow, which ran past them and after the naked girl and the tentacle babies.

Jasmine sank down onto her knees. “What the hell is going on?”

Her guide (jailor? captor?) came to her and held out a hand to help her get up. She accepted it, feeling numb.

“That was Belle Rose. She’s the Guard’s newest member. And it looks like the gremlins absconded with her underwear… again,” he explained. Or rather, he spoke. Because it didn’t make any sense.

“G-gremlins? What are they?”

He shrugged. “Some kind of… fallout. Whenever Tick-Tock and Totemic heterodyne their powers, some of those Gremlins are spawned. They’re annoying little pests, but harmless. Tend to play really stupid pranks on people.”

“I didn’t know that could happen with superpowers,” she replied. She knew the basics about heterodyning, but it was such a convoluted subject… still, she was sure she’d never heard of this kind of side effect.

“A lot can happen when diverse powers interact. Living in a palace full of metahumans will broaden your horizons a lot, I assure you.”

“I think it’s more likely that it’ll drive me completely insane,” she said with a flat look in his direction.

He threw his head back and laughed brightly. “Oh, that’s for sure! There are only two sane people around here, after all. Three if we count you, but I’m sure you’ll join us soon enough in our insanity!”

Sighing – no one here seemed to really take anything seriously – she just shook her head. He was obviously goading her to ask who the two sane people were, but… she really did want to know. Though she could probably guess as to one of them. “Let me guess, Minerva is one of the two?”

Now his smile turned into a proud grin. “Aye. And our Queenie is the other one.”

* * *

Trying to wrap her head around the mere idea that the Tyrant might be the only remotely sane person around here – it didn’t seem like Prospero was joking or lying – Jasmine followed Prospero quietly down the hallway and soon entered a small atrium that opened into a wide balcony, all built out of white marble, with a fountain in the center of the Atrium and several very comfortable looking leather armchairs standing on the balcony in a loose half-circle. The fountain was spewing clear water up into the air in several artfully arranged arcs.

It was… a very, very peaceful, pleasant scene. Though that was perhaps to be expected – why would the Tyrant and her trusted servants live in anything other than perfect luxury?

Prospero gave her a moment to enjoy the scene, then he walked towards the balcony and she followed him, waiting for him to finally start talking.

When they stepped out onto it through a huge archway, Jasmine’s breath caught for a moment.

They were standing on a marble balcony that looked out onto the Outback and the view was breathtaking. She’d always thought the palace floated over Ayer’s Rock simply as a testament to the Tyrant’s power, but… this view alone might have been reason enough to put a palace up here. The arid waste was breathtaking, despite the deep scars and cracks it bore from nearly a century of war.

As much as Jasmine despised the Tyrant, this sight was pretty effective in reminding her why she had so many legitimate supporters. She’d heard stories of the Outback, from before. Of plants and animals that had adjusted to life in the arid land, of the indigenous people that had once lived here and considered Ayer’s Rock – Uluru in their tongue – a holy place.

All gone, now. Long since wiped out. Instead of brushes, there was sand burned to glass, and ragged jet-black crystal formations left behind by Asag. Cracks in the earth from the Kangaroo King’s futile attempt to break off the Western half of the continent for his mad kingdom. In the distance, the jagged spire of Pazuzu’s throne, touching the sky but not the earth below. Nothing alive was down there. At least nothing natural.

“You know, I was just a child when Pazuzu and Asag took over Australia and split it between them,” Prospero suddenly said, making her jump a little. “I even saw the two of them. Back then, I thought they were angels, the most beautiful women in the world.” His voice was soft, and he seemed to be only partly here, with her. “I wanted to be just like them when I grew up. And then their madness became too obvious to ignore, and we all realised that they were no better than the warlords that came before them; only more powerful and more intelligent. Not that it helped them stave off the madness.”

“How’d they die?” she asked. Few really knew how it ended with those two. One day, they’d just been… gone. But the stories said Prospero had been there.

“They let me kill them,” he said with a sad smile. “A last moment of sanity shared between them. They knew they were lost, so they decided to die together, in peace.” He sighed. “I wonder what might have been, sometimes, if they’d held out long enough for Madeleine to emerge.”

“That’s… too sad. I heard that they weren’t so bad, in the beginning. If they truly were driven insane, somehow, then that’s…” She hung her head. She’d heard this story too often. People with good intentions driven insane by their powers until they became like the monsters they fought.

Story of our country.

“They really did want to save the continent. Though I think they’d be proud of what Madeleine has made of it,” he spoke softly, making her tense up again. Here it came, the propaganda. “I’m not going to pretend like everything she’s done and doing is perfect and for the better, but for the first time since Point Zero, we have had a true period of peace on this ragged, broken continent of ours.”

“A peace bought by ruthlessly oppressing all opposition and conquering the surrounding islands,” she replied with venom in her voice – though not as much as she would’ve liked to put into it.

“Madeleine does not suffer challenges to her authority, that much is true. Once you get to know her, you’ll realise the reasons for that, though,” he said calmly. “And I’d like to mention, for fairness’ sake, that Newfoundland and the Indonesian islands all joined after independent insurrections that resulted in the new governments asking to join the Monarchic Union.”

Insurrections started by you, she thought, but didn’t say. It was obvious Prospero either truly believed these lies or didn’t care that they were lies.

“But that’s not what you were asking, anyway. You were asking what we want with you.”

Finally, something useful.

He stretched out his arm, making an arching motion to indicate the Outback. “We need your help to fix this.”

“F-fix?” she asked, dumbfounded.

“Madeleine calls it the Reclamation Project. We want to turn the Outback into fertile farmland,” he explained calmly. “We’ve been gathering the right powers ever since Madeleine ascended to the throne, and have started some preliminary work in clearing out the more… hostile effects left behind. After the Sovjet Union collapsed, we managed to extract a whole batch of agricultural gadgeteers, and we’ve been taking in every weather manipulator we could find, so we’ll be able to manipulate weather patterns.”

Uhh… not what I was expecting… It sounded like a great plan, actually. Why had no one else thought of it before?

“Me, Madeleine and Quetzalcoatl are obviously the world’s most powerful – sane – weather manipulators, but Quetzalcoatl is unwilling to leave South America for an extended period of time, and even with him, we three would not suffice for this task. Yet the more people we add, the more their powers interfere with each other – that’s not much of a problem for gadgeteers, but weather manipulation is a very delicate process, especially if you want to do it on a large scale and over a long amount of time.”

She nodded. So far, it made sense. So then, her power would be needed for…

“We need you, specifically, because you are the most powerful catalyst that we know of,” he continued, looking her in the eyes.

“Catalyst?” She’d never heard herself described that way.

“The technical term for someone who can facilitate the synchronisation of powers,” he explained. “You are the only living person we know of who can affect an entire group of metahumans. Everyone who hears your song long enough, right?”

She nodded, aghast at how much they’d found out about her power. “H-how do you know all this!? It was supposed to be a secret, a trump to play against the Tyrant!”

He chuckled. “Please. Your organisation is more of an annoyance than a threat. Honestly, the only reason we haven’t swiped them all up yet is because we’re using them to draw out dissents that might otherwise remain hidden from us… people like you.” He winked at her. “In fact, I’m pretty sure they’ve served their purpose in Madeleine’s eyes. I expect her to give Tick-Tock the clear for an all-out attack on what remains of them.”

Jasmine paled. Not Tick-Tock. They had nothing to stop her if she knew where they were. And… “You always knew about us? Our plans?”

He nodded, his face serious.

That… hurt more than having Pale try to kill her. In fact, it made that action hurt even worse. It had all been meaningless. Except he might be lying. Maybe this is all a plot to make me feel weak and defenseless, to make brainwashing me all the more easy.

“So, is this the point where you take me to be brainwashed and turned into a worker drone?” she asked. Let’s just get this over with.

“Oh God, is this the whole mind control spiel again?” He leaned against the railing of the balcony, rubbing his temples with his hands. “When will people get it? Madeleine can’t control minds!”

“You would say that! But why would people even say that unless it was true!?” she shouted back, feeling herself at the edge to cracking and just getting into a screaming fit. In fact, she was tempted to use her power on him – she did have one offensive attack that was sure to hurt him.

“Because she can control powers, dear child,” he replied calmly, without taking any apparent offense at her outbreak.

“What?” That made her deflate.

“Madeleine can manipulate powers. Within certain limits. I guess that’s how the mind control rumors started. But her influence begins and ends with the powers of metahumans. Activating them, blocking them, changing their targets, moving their parameters around – like making them weaker in exchange for making them more precise – and so on. Pretty small stuff, overall, but very, very versatile,” he explained in the voice of someone who’s done this quite often. “Any power that is used within her line of sight, she can control. That’s all there is to it.”

“Wha- but… Then why do you need me?”

He shrugged. “Because her power is not that well-suited to serve as a catalyst. And because you can affect far more people at the same time. The idea is to synchronise at least twenty weather manipulators for the sake of long-term changes to the weather patterns over the Outback. And before you ask, no, you don’t really have a choice in this. You are a terrorist, and your sentence is to support the Reclamation Project.”

“I didn’t get a trial,” she replied half-hearted.

He smiled sadly. “There is no due process here, my dear. Madeleine thinks it is grossly inefficient. She made a decision, and you have to live with it. And don’t tell me you don’t want to turn the Outback into farmland in order to feed the people?”

“I…” That was a good point. The idea sounded really damn good. In fact, it was one of the best ideas for the use of superpowers she’d ever heard of. “And then what? I spend my whole life singing so this project can work?”

He waved his hand in a no-no gesture. “Nah, nothing like that. Just for half a year or so, I suspect. Once the whole thing is set up, Madeleine should be capable of keeping it stable on her own. You’d just have to step in every now and then when adjustments became necessary. Even less for the other projects – converting the ground into farmland and all, setting up roadways and a water supply. You’ll barely be needed on those, since they don’t require large-scale heterodyning.”

“And then what?”

He shrugged. “You’ll be free to go, so long as you promise not to break any laws anymore.”

“Just like that?” No way they are this lenient.

He smiled at her. “You were a member of a terrorist organisation, but you’re young and you didn’t actually cause any harm yet. Madeleine may be strict, but she’s not unreasonable. Besides, we hope that you’ll decide to work normally for us, afterwards.”

Her mouth dropped open. “You’re joking, right? Why would I work for a Tyrant!?”

Again, that maddening, paternal sigh. “You are aware that more than ninety percent of the population absolutely adores Maddi, right?”

“Like those numbers are actually r-“

“Why would I lie?” he asked softly. “I literally have no reason to deceive you, Jasmine. You will work for us, because you are a decent person who wants to help people – and the Reclamation will do just that. As for afterwards, we want you to work for us long-term, of your own free will. Feeding you lies would be completely counterproductive to that.”

She bit her lip, stiffling another outburst. It stung, because he was right. She saw no reason for them to lie to her. Fuck, now even the way they treated her so far made sense – they wanted her to join. If the Tyrant really couldn’t control her mind, then this was really the best thing they could do…

“So, if what you say is true, how come there are resistance groups, huh?”

“There are always malcontents. Madeleine allows for free press and criticism of her rulership, but she doesn’t actually allow the average person to take part in the decisionmaking process at any level. Most people don’t care – she’s turned Australia from a Fourth World country into almost a First World country in less than twelve years. Unemployment is at less than two percent, the economy thrives, there is no war, she’s taken all the orphans off the streets and given them homes – but a few are always unsatisfied.”

Stepping away from the balcony, he walked to the fountain, his arms folded behind his back. “Honestly, I think it won’t be an issue anymore, once the Reclamation Project is through. We’ll basically eliminate hunger in the entire Monarchic Union. No one will be able to turn that on us. The few who try will be shot down by the people who, for the first time in their lives, don’t have to worry about feeding their children.” He turned to her, sitting on the edge of the fountain, his robe’s patterns shifting to match the dancing water. “Look, I get that Madeleine is… difficult for people to understand. Hell, I have trouble understanding her sometimes. And I don’t expect you to just jump into this blindly. But I’d ask you to give her a chance. Give us a chance.” He smiled at her.

“I… uh…” Why the fuck is this so difficult!?

“Prospero, you’re pushing too hard. Again,” a childish voice spoke up.

Jasmine squealed like a little girl, jumping straight in the air. She hadn’t heard anyone come up behind her! She turned around and saw… a cute little moppet, maybe eight years old, with short reddish-brown hair, huge black eyes and wearing a very severe looking, very old-fashioned dark blue dress with shiny black shoes. And she a golden disk in her left hand, attached to a pocket in her dress with a fine golden chain.

She also had an utterly unnaturally severe expression on her cute face.

“Tick-Tock. I didn’t hear you come in,” Prospero spoke calmly from behind Jasmine.

“Eeep?” A meek little sound came out of Jasmine’s throat as she realised the golden disk was a pocket watch. Slowly, she started to edge back from the girl, trying to figure out an escape route that would take her far away from her. Perhaps leaping out of the balcony?

“Oh, goodness, relax child,” the little girl said, looking up at her with the most deadpan expression she’d ever seen on a person. “I’m not going to harm you. If I wanted to, you’d already be a goner.” She leaned to the side, looking at Prospero. “Your daughter-in-law is running around stark naked again. Shouldn’t you do something about that?”

“She is not my daughter in law! They’re just… friends…”

What?

Tick-Tock chuckled, the quirk in her mouth that that produced looking completely wrong. “Yeah, right. Friends. Someday, you’ll have to accept that she and your girl are…”

“I swear to God I’ll blow up this atrium if you finish that sentence. Boss.”

She chuckled again, then turned back to Jasmine, pointing one small finger with a shiny little nail at her. “You, child. With me. Prospero has work to do.” A groan came from behind her. “Get to it, or I’ll tell your wife on you.”

“Alright alright, I’ll go do the damn paperwork!” He stood up. “Jasmine,” he continued in a softer voice. She turned around to face him, even though she didn’t like turning her back to Tick-Tock at all. He looked… very paternal again. “Relax. Don’t be afraid. No one here means you harm.” He put his bony hands on her shoulders, gently squeezing them. “We’re not the enemy. We’re not monsters. You’re not here to be brainwashed or harmed or coerced into anything. You’re here because we need your help to do good work, and we know that it’s the kind of work you’d want to help with. Now go with Tick-Tock and if you want, we can sit down later on and have a more detailed talk over dinner. How’s that sound?”

Pretty nice, actually. They were just too nice. And weirdly quirky. How could she say no? “I think I’d like that,” she replied with a hesitant smile.

He nodded, smiling, and left with a nod towards Tick-Tock.

Jasmine looked after him until he was out of sight, then turned back to face the Time Hag. Though that name seemed utterly inappropriate now. “H-how…” She stuttered and broke off.

“How do I look like an eight-year-old?” the leader of the Queensguard completed her sentence. “It’s a side-effect of my power. I have to stay in this form in order to charge it up.” She turned towards a doorway different from the one Jasmine and Prospero had come through, walking towards it. Jasmine automatically followed her.

“Is that why they say you’re immortal?” she asked. Almost no one really knew anything about Tick-Tock, except that she was unstoppable.

“No, that’s because I can’t be killed and because I was born in the early nineteenth century,” she replied without bothering to look at her.

“You… What? How!?” she almost shouted in reply.

A careless shrug. “I got my powers when I was almost ninety years old. They made me pretty much unkillable, and I can freely age myself up and down – I just need to stay in this childish form to charge my power up.”

“Uhh…” Wow. “So you’re… even older than Lady Light, huh? Wow. I never thought I’d meet someone like that.”

“Now you have. Let’s hurry a bit, you have an appointment.” She sped up her step.

“An appointment with whom?” Please not the Tyrant, please not the Tyrant, please not the Tyrant…

Her thoughts must have been pretty obvious on her face, because Tick-Tock looked up at her and smirked. “With the Royal Babysitter.”

“Who? What!?” she asked, caught completely off-guard by the reply.

“The Royal Babysitter. She should be done in a moment, and then she’ll talk to you.”

“Why does the Ty- the Queen have a babysitter!? Does she have kids!?” Somehow, the idea of her having children was… too scary for words.

“You got it wrong. I mean ‘royal babysitter’ as in, ‘the babysitter is royalty’.”

Jasmine stopped dead. “No. No way. I’m not buying this. No.

The hag stopped, turning to face her with an amused look on her face. “Why not?”

She was getting really fed up with this. “Look, I can buy you people not all being insane monsters! I can buy the Tyrant being well-intentioned. But do you seriously expect me to believe that Madeleine babysits for someone!?”

“Yes,” came the reply with a completely straight voice. Jasmine could make no deception out. “It’s not so strange. Madeleine prefers children to adults. They’re more honest.”

Now she fell down on her butt. “Do I even want to know why?” she asked with a sigh.

“Nothing too complicated. Her powers messed up her ability to relate to people. Reading cues and moods. That’s why she always comes across so rude and inconsiderate – she literally can’t relate to people the normal way,” she explained as if it wasn’t anything special. “She always has to consciously decipher them. So adults strain her. Children are more honest. More… straight. She can understand them better… which doesn’t mean much, but it makes it easier for her. So she takes care of the younger kids around here, whenever necessary and possible.”

And with that, she turned around and walked on. “You better follow, or I guarantee you that you’ll get lost!”

Jasmine jumped up and followed her, moving on autopilot. “Why are you telling me all of this? Don’t you know that I could use it against you all?”

Now she actually laughed, a cackling, scratchy laugh that didn’t go with her apparent age at all. Jasmine watched with wide eyes as her body began to shift, stretch, growing, her clothes changing with her as she… aged… until she was a moderately attractive thirty-year-old woman in a floor-length lilac dress, clutching the gold watch in her slender, perfectly manicured fingers.

The whole process had been incredibly smooth, without even a hint of discomfort. She’d just segued from a laughing eight-year-old to a laughing thirty-year-old.

“I’d like to see that, actually! Ah, what a joke.” She walked on. “Come, let’s hurry. Time for you to get to know your ‘Tyrant’. It’ll change your perspective on a lot of things. As it did for me, once upon a time.”

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B010.b.1 Canary in the Birdcage

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“I’m sorry, Canary. I promise, your death will not have been in vain.”

She opened her mouth, breathless, unable to talk, as he flicked his hand and a spear shot out from the cavern ceiling above, straight at her heart.

Jasmine came awake with a desperate cry, the approaching spear still fresh in her mind.

At first, she had no idea what was going on. She was somewhere dark and pleasantly warm, lying on a comfortable (but not quite luxurious) bed with fresh bedsheets (quite the luxury compared to how she’d lived the last seven months of her life).

Thinking of those last seven months finally brought her fully awake, and it all came rushing back in – the gathering, the fight, the attempt at escaping, people dying and then… the betrayal.

Closing her eyes – not that she could see anything in the first place – the girl known to some as Canary, and to others as Jasmine Hellen, firmly pushed that last memory into the deepest, darkest recesses of her memory, to be dealt with later.

Right now, she needed as clear a head as she could get. Since lying in the horizontal position did not usually help with that, she also sat up.

So, roll call. She’d passed out after Pale had tried to… well, and then Totemic had saved her. Logically, that meant she was in the hands of the Tyrant already, or at least very close.

That thought alone was enough to crush her into her bed again, draining the blood from her face. Canary was pretty powerful, but Jasmine had no delusions regarding her ability (or lack thereof) to stand up to the Tyrant in person.

Yet she did not feel controlled, or enslaved or however it was supposed to be called. That might mean that she had not yet been turned, or that it was so subtle she had no chance of detecting it herself.

I should proceed under the assumption that I am still of free will, otherwise I might as well give up right here and now, she thought resolutely, her hands slowly curling into fists, drawing her nails over the sheets.

So, she had most likely been captured. That meant she was being held somewhere, but where? She’d be screwed if it was the royal palace. She wouldn’t be able to get out of it… not that her prospects for breaking out of any place were all that good. Canary’s power was strong and had some extremely dangerous effects, but unfortunately little in the way of direct combat ability and even less as far as stealth was concerned.

Stop running off on tangents, silly. Take it one step at a time for now!

She’d best listen to herself. Which meant that first, she had to get a sense of her surroundings. And for that, she had to use her power.

By clicking her tongue, she produced a sharp sound that bounced off of her surroundings, returned to and gave her a rough estimate of the size of the room she was in – a one-person bedroom, too big to be a mere prison cell but not big enough to be a proper bedroom. She was lying on an average one-person bed that stood along the long left wall of the room, with its head against the short wall.

Two more clicks revealed details. She could make out a door at other end of the room, a small bedside table with a lamp on top of it, a small vanity and a rack with a few changes of clothes (she couldn’t make out the exact number with her echolocation), as well as a window opposite of the door, above and to the right of her bed. It appeared that she was all alone.

That suited her quite well. Sitting up again, she threw the blanket off her body and ran her hands over her clothes. Someone had put her into a soft, full-length nightgown. If someone had asked her how she expected to be treated by the Tyrant’s men, she would have said ‘waking up bound, gagged and naked’ – though in retrospect, she’d never heard anyone actually claiming to have been abused that way by the Queensguard. Only second- and third-hand accounts.

Exploring further, she found that she had no bruises that hurt or cracked bones – and she was sure that being clipped by Totemic had at least cracked her ribs. Someone must have treated her, most likely with superpowers. That, or she’d been asleep for a long time. Not a very comforting thought.

So, she was alone in a small room, was dressed, unbound and apparently unharmed. Next, she needed light, and to check whether or not she could actually leave the room.

Clicking her tongue, she reached out for the lamp on her bedside table and turned it on. Then she blinked as her eyes got used to the warm light (how they adjusted, she had no idea – or how she was able to see anything in the first place. Her eyes were completely yellow all the way through and yet, her sight was completely normal).

The walls were painted in a neutral white and she could see a brown wooden door that led, presumably, outside. Where- or whatever that may be.

Next, she located the light switch and turned on the proper room lamp. A second look around didn’t reveal anything new, only clarified some things. There was some make up on the vanity, and three knee-length dresses on the rack in three different colours – blue, red and yellow. The makeup turned out to be a yellow that matched both her eyes and her hair.

This was… weird. Why would they pick out her favourite makeup? Nevermind the dresses, which were all in colours that suited her quite well?

Perhaps I’m not with the Tyrant’s people after all! she thought, elated. Perhaps she’d been saved after passing out, by reinforcements from her people or some third party!

Then she came down again. She hoped it had been a third party – if it was from their own group, then she was likely to see Pale again, and soon. And she didn’t think she’d be able to stand being near him yet.

It may still be the Tyrant’s men. They might be trying to put me off balance. Though why they would want to do that was beyond her. The Tyrant’s ability to control the minds of her victims was well-known to anyone who didn’t buy into her propaganda.

Either way, it would be better for her if she was properly dressed and made up. No shower in sight, but then again, her body was rather forgiving regarding that – her hair was very easy to work with, even when unwashed for a week or more, and it took a good long while before she’d even start to smell unpleasantly.

Which might be a good way to determine whether or not she’d been asleep for a long time, actually. But then again, they would probably have washed her if they went through the trouble of treating her and keeping her sedated for long enough to heal completely.

Quickly getting out of the nightgown, she checked her body over in the mirror – not even the slightest discoloration, even from fading bruises.

Next, she opened the drawers beneath the vanity and found a few changes of underwear in one of them (and socks in the other). She put on both and then brushed her hair into order, before putting on the makeup. She liked the effect that had on her monochromatic eyes, making them look huge and just a tad intimidating – something she could not pull off on her own at all.

Of course, the rather cute dresses would ruin that effect. In the interest of not being completely monochromatic, she decided not to put on the yellow one. The blue one, she dismissed because she preferred warmer colours. Leaving her with the red one, which fit quite well, if not perfectly – a little too wide around her waist.

Somehow, the fact that not everything here was perfect did a lot towards making her feel more at ease.

She was just finishing checking herself over in the mirror when she heard running footsteps coming closer. Before she could even react, her door flew open and someone ran inside.

Squealing in surprise – and more fright than she wanted to admit – she looked at the sudden intruder as he closed the door, pressing his back against it, his face looking both tired and on edge.

He was tall. Not unnaturally so, but definitely on the tall side of things, almost two meters, which made him a giant compared to Jasmine’s one meter and seventy centimeters (and change). He was thin, again not unnaturally so, nor in a starved way, but in the lean way of someone born to be thin. His sharp, thin-lipped face, framed by rather big ears and messy brown hair, was not exactly attractive but not unpleasant to look at, either. He looked like he could use some sleep, yet she also saw a lot of laugh lines around his mouth and blue eyes. His clothing consisted of a pair of jeans pants, brown shoes and a dark purple robe that split at the height of his crotch to allow for easier movement.

The robe was covered in shifting patterns of changing colours, a dizzying yet pleasant effect that never held still. If she hadn’t already known his face from the television, that robe would have been all it took to recognise him – and make her heart drop down into the base of her belly.

Prospero, the Grand Conjurer. The Tyrant’s most powerful (though not the most scary) henchman. She could no longer delude herself that she might have been saved.

While he was catching his breath, Jasmine retreated to press her back against the opposite corner, next to the window. Trying to look small, not that there was much of a chance of being overlooked.

After a few moments, the man seemed to finally notice her. “Oh, sorry about this,” he said in a thick voice – not thick like that of a drunk, but just a naturally thick voice – “But could I ask you to maybe pretend that I am not here and neither have you seen me today?” He slid over to stand in the corner next to the door, so that it’d open towards him and keep him hidden. Then he raised his hands, palm to palm, and begged, “Please? I can’t take it anymore!”

Jasmine thought furiously. What was going on here!? Was he a fugitive? If he’d gotten fed up with the Tyrant and was intending to flee… working together with the Grand Conjurer himself would certainly improve her chances. But who was he running away from!? If the Tyrant herself was coming, then…

Then it was finally time for her to stand up for her convictions. Canary looked at Prospero and nodded, trying to simultaneously look more confident and less threatening as she heard another set of footsteps approaching at a fast clip. She swallowed her own spit, preparing herself…

And someone knocked on the door. “Hello? Is anyone there?” asked a female voice with a light British accent.

“N-no!” Jasmine squealed, and immediately hated herself for it.

“That statement makes no sense. Could you open the door, please?” the voice continued, sounding amused.

Jasmine looked at Prospero, and he nodded, though he also put a finger to his lips, begging her not to reveal him, probably.

What kind of monster was that woman, that she scared this man so much?

She approached the door, trying to look more confident than she felt. Why couldn’t she be more Canary and less Jasmine right now?

When she actually opened the door, what she saw was nothing like what she expected – looking at her was a young woman – younger even than herself – in a nicely fitting dark blue power suit that went well with her slender, sharp body. Her face was nothing special by metahuman standards, but just a year ago, Jasmine would have been very envious of her nonetheless – she had rather pouty lips, currently twisted along with the rest of her face into a frown, sharp dark brown eyes and messy brown hair in an untidy ponytail. She was a tad taller than Jasmine, but only because she was wearing medium heels.

As the girl quickly looked her up and down, her frown gave way for a rather mischievous smirk. “So, you’re that girl they dragged in? Canary, right?” she asked, putting her fists on her hips while looking her up and down.

“Y-yes, that’s me,” Jasmine said, not sure how to react to this girl. Everything here kept throwing her off-balance, every time she got close to pulling herself together, something happened to unmake her again. What was a teenager doing here, and why was Prospero afraid of her? “What can I do for you?”

“I’m looking for my father. You don’t happen to have seen him, have you?” the girl asked.

“F-father!?” This was Prospero‘s daughter!?

Fortunately, the girl misunderstood her outburst. “Yeah, my dad. Tall guy who looks like he ain’t eating right – because he isn’t – and wearing a silly robe. You probably know him as Prospero,” she explained, waving one hand in a ‘let’s get this over with’ gesture.

This is his daughter?, she thought. Prospero has a daughter!? And he was afraid of her? What the hell were her powers?

“P-prospero? Seriously?” she asked, trying to buy some time.

The girl rolled her eyes. “Yes, seriously. My name’s Minerva, by the way. Nice to meet you. Now, did you see my dad or not? He’s still got paperwork to do, and he has to take his vitamins and he’s going to be late for his appointment with Maddie if he doesn’t hurry up with his work already!”

Who’s Maddie? This was all so surreal.

“I-I haven’t got the foggiest idea of what’s going on,” she replied honestly.

Apparently, that was the right thing to say, because Minerva broke out into laughter for a straight minute.

Her confusion only growing, Jasmine watched as the girl bent over, holding her belly as she laughed. There were tears involved, and spittle flying. All in all, it was the messiest, most carefree laugh Jasmine had heard in… in a long time.

“I-I’m sorry,” Minerva gasped as she slowly regained control. “I guess this has all got to look quite insane for you, huh?”

Understatement of the year. “Very.” Now she floundered, not sure how to proceed.

“Well, I’d like to stay a bit and put you at ease, but I really have to track down my dad. If you see him, remind him to move his ass back to work.”

“W-what am I supposed to do here, anyway? And where am I!?” Jasmine shouted, finally fed up. “Am I a prisoner? Am I free? What is going on!?”

Minerva immediately turned serious, fiddling with her clothing to straighten it out. “I’m sorry about that, really. Here’s what I can tell you – you’re at the royal palace. You’re a prisoner, and you’re not allowed to leave. I don’t know why exactly they want you, but I’m sure there’ll be someone around soon to tell you the whole deal.”

The royal palace. So now she knew that she was lost. In fact, she was not just lost, she was reeling.

The strange girl either didn’t notice or didn’t care about her distress and reached out to squeeze her shoulder. “Don’t worry. I’m sure everything’s going to be alright.” She let go and turned away. “Have a nice day! Don’t let the situation get you down!”

And then she ran off, to hunt her father. Jasmine closed the door to see Prospero let go of his breath.

“Thank God. I swear that girl is part bloodhound,” he whispered. Then he straightened himself up, smiling at her. “Thanks for the save, Miss Hellen.”

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