B13.13 Call of the Sleeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mine.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am quite fine, thank y-“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

“Oh my.”

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

“Someone just broke through our outer defenses and-“

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Suit yourself!” she shouted back, exasperated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m stronger than you are.”

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B13.12 Call of the Sleeper

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The transition from one reality to another was not as impressive as Basil would have expected – then again, neither had it been the first time. Still, it felt strange to know that he’d moved from a pocket reality to the real world the same way he’d step from one room to the next, simply walking through the door and being there.

He found himself on the empty tracks their train had been using, along with the others, who looked at him funny.

“What is it?” he asked them, looking around. Everyone was there, to his not inconsiderable relief, looking well, if shaken up.

“What held you up?” Tartsche asked. “You were right behind me, but then it took you longer to exit.

“So sound did not carry through the portal? That is interesting,” he said softly, looking over his shoulder only to find empty air. Emyr must have closed the door again. “Blackhill had something to say, not that it made any sense. Either way, we’ve already lost too much time – we should get going.” He looked back at the group again.

Before anyone could reply to that, Hecate stepped forth and took him by the hand, pulling him away from the rest of the group. “A moment, please,” she said in their direction as she took him a discrete distance away. Basil followed, feeling oddly disconnected from it all.

“Basil,” Hecate spoke softly, crossing her arms over her breasts, “Are you…” She shook her head. “No, of course you’re not alright, but… how are you holding up? You were… raw, in there.” She searched for his eyes, her green orbs finding his black ones even through the shadows of her own and his hood, even through his helmet.

He looked down, turning his hands up to look at them. “The girl I profess to love is dying, and I can not save her,” he replied, his voice quiet, even. Though his hands trembled slightly, none of it was noticable from just listening to him. “I can build force-field generators, work with the technology of the world’s greatest gadgeteer like it was a toy,” once he started speaking, he couldn’t hold it in, and it all came spilling out. “I somehow created an AI and I do not even remember doing it. I can build drones, power armour, hack secure systems without breaking a sweat, build a railgun that does not even need its rail to function properly. I can perform surgery with a skill most surgeons would envy, including on myself,” he pressed on, his hands trembling again. Hecate reached out and grabbed them, wrapping her hands around his. “But I can not come up with anything to save her,” he concluded, his voice quiet, monotonous, leaning closer to her. She leaned close in turn, restsing her forehead against his, their hoods joined together. “What kind of hero am I, that I can make all these things, but not the one that actually matters?”

“Oh Basil…” she whispered, her voice thick with emotion. She pulled his hands closer, pressing them against her sternum, close to her heart.

“Then I drag you all into this mess, trying to infiltrate the base of an organisation that seems to operate on a level at least on par with the Syndicate, if not beyond it,” he continued on, “Look at them. A mere watchdog of theirs summoned the fu-freaking Godking of Mars to fight us. And I am pretty sure they are not taking this seriously, otherwise this place would have been swarming with more guards.”

“You didn’t drag us anywhere, chazuli,” she replied in a calm, soothing tone of voice. “We’re the ones who insisted on coming along. And I don’t know about the others, but I assure you, Dalia and I would not have taken a ‘no’ for an answer. So snap out of it – you’re an amazing hero, everyone here knows it. Where you lead, I follow.”

Basil blinked, glad that his mask hid the tears. “I…” I’m Mindstar’s brother. I’ve been lying to you from the start. He couldn’t actually say it, much as he’d wanted to. “Thank you,” he said instead, his voice hoarse with guilt. “Sorry,” he added, feebly.

“You don’t need to be sorry, phile mou,” she replied with a wet chuckle, and he only felt more guilty for continuing to deceive her. “Just be you again and go kick some malakes around for Prisca.”

“You know I don’t speak Greek, right?”

He couldn’t see it, close as they were, but he knew she was smiling. “Nobody’s perfect. Now chin up.” She let go of his hands and tilted her head, briefly pressing her lips onto his mask, right over his mouth. “Let’s go be heroes.”

***

They got going after that, the others not commenting on their little aside, though Tyche poked Hecate with her elbow, for some reason – Basil missed what she said to her.

Mindful of Legend’s (unwilling) warning that the group they’d fought earlier would have recovered by now and likely be waiting in ambush, they moved carefully, with Gloom Glimmer taking point and Basil and Polymnia (after her the best sensors on the team) flanking her. The others followed after, spread out enough that they would hopefully not all be caught by a single attack, but also close enough to support each other – and most importantly, all within short range of Tartsche, to move under his protection as necessary.

Gloom Glimmer had briefed them all on their powers and what she’d been able to figure out about their interactions, and was also providing safe communication via telepathy – with the understanding that it might vanish at any time, particularly if battle was joined and her power decided to give her something else to fight with – which they’d used so far to formulate battle plans, planning how to respond to their enemies.

So far, most of their battle strategies boiled down to taking down the one they’d first dubbed Rewind, before Gloom Glimmer revealed her codename to be Chronicle, who was the lynchpin of the enemy’s strategy, then mop up the others one-by-one. The only one they weren’t sure they could deal with was Karasuha, whom Basil had fought before, and whose abilities were still in question – Gloom Glimmer came up dry and the last time they’d fought, Basil had defeated her before she could really show much other than her ability to burst into a cloud of ravens and an extending, unnaturally sharp katana. Nevermind that, as a contriver, she may well be able to change at least some of her abilities on the fly, depending on how her contriving actually worked.

‘Let’s please not forget the fact that we’re apparently being used as a way to dispose of an unwanted member of this group,’ Hecate complained. ‘I mean, doesn’t anyone find this whole situation to be completely insane?’

‘They’re supervillains, Heck,’ Tyche thought back at her, sounding much less flippant than she’d normally be while addressing her. ‘They do shit like this.’

‘No they don’t,’ Hecate countered. ‘Not villains with huge city-sized bases with their own transit system. You don’t keep an operation as big as this one running smoothly by letting people like us go around acting like this, no matter how much you might want to be rid of a member. Guys, back me up on this.’ She looked at the junior heroes.

‘I have to agree with Hecate,’ Tartsche said in his usual measured voice, even telepathically. ‘There’s got to be more to this than just getting rid of an unwanted employee.’ He looked at Tyche, who was staying quite close to him. ‘I know you think this Immanuel didn’t lie to you, bu-‘

‘That’s not what I said,’ she replied quietly, looking down at her feet. ‘I said that he seemed totally honest. I’m not so stupid to actually believe he was totally honest.’

‘Honestly, I’ve heard of weirder secret societies,’ Gloom Glimmer finally interceded. Everyone turned their heads to look at her, though all they could see was the back of her head and cape. ‘The Brotherhood of the Bell, The Double-Oh-Conspiracy, the Saurian League… these guys are pretty sane, compared to that.’

‘Wait, there was a secret society called the Saurian Le-‘ Tyche began to say, but was interrupted by Bakeneko.

‘I’ve never heard of any of those!’ she exclaimed in surprise.

Gloom Glimmer just shrugged. ‘Had you ever heard of the Gefährten before? Of course not. Thus, secret society. Besides, mom’s taken most of them down. They were much more commonplace in the sixties and seventies, and during the world war, but once it was over, she could devote the time to hunting them down. And you’ve heard of some of them, at least indirectly. The Saurian League was responsible for the Tsunamis that devastated the West-European coast in ’78, and the Brotherhood of the Bell was behind the assassination of Margaret Thatcher in ’84. The public was merely never made aware of them after mom took them apart.’

Everyone but Basil (who was barely listening to the others) and Polymnia (who’d heard it before) took a few moments to digest that.

‘Why did no one publicise stories like that?’ Hecate asked, putting words to what the others were thinking.

Gloom Glimmer shrugged once more without turning around. ‘Mom deferred to the governments on that, and they didn’t want to make it known just how easy it is for metahumans to form secret societies and pull off such gigantic terrorist attacks,’ she explained, her mental ‘voice’ slipping into the same tone she’d used, so long ago – only it wasn’t all that long ago – when she’d held that seminar at school. ‘Before Point Zero, there were a lot of limits on how far such groups could come, particularly if they wanted to cause large amounts of damage. They had to obtain members, information, materials… all that went out the window with the advent of metahumans. With the right powers, they can strike any time, anywhere, and it’s nearly impossible to see coming – note how all those I named got to actually pull something off before my mother managed to track them down. And there’s God-only-knows how many out there we still don’t know about.’

She turned around, continuing to float backwards as she spoke to them. ‘It’s really not as crazy as it seems to you, Hecate. To a normal organisation, allowing enemy agents to run roughshot around their base to take out one of their own may be a bad idea, but we have no idea what kind of powers are in play – for all we know, losing Dusu will actually make the Gefährten even stronger.’

They looked at each other – again, without Basil – in worry. ‘How could… I don’t get it,’ Spellgun admitted. ‘How could that work?’

‘I think that’s the point,’ Polymnia (whose mental voice was even more melodic than the one created by her vocoder) replied. ‘We don’t know what’s at work here. We can’t know, without knowing all the elements in play, and even Gloomy hasn’t been able to divine them.’

‘So, what’s that mean now?’ Tyche spoke up. ‘We’re fucked if we do, we’re fucked if we don’t? Is the only winning move here not to play?’

‘No,’ Basil interceded, speaking for the first time since Hecate pulled him aside. He was walking ahead, his back to the others. ‘This changes nothing. Whether or not our actions benefit the Gefährten does not change the fact that we need Dusu to cure the victims of the Hawaii plague. Does the possibility that the Gefährten might profit from us achieving that, or from curing the victims, change the fact that curing them is good?’

‘No way!’ ‘Of course not!’ Fuck no, B6!’ ‘Naturally not.’

‘There you go. Now focus on your surroundings and get ready for a fight,’ Basil concluded. In the distance, they could see the light grow brighter as they approached another station.

‘Hey wondergirl, can’t you check ahead?’ Tyche turned her thoughts – it really was a rather strange experience, thinking at someone; if it wasn’t for everything else, Basil would have so many questions – towards Gloom Glimmer.

‘I don’t have that kind of power right now,’ she replied in a petulant voice. ‘All I know is that there’s enemies up ahead.’

Just as she said that, she suddenly fell out of the air, landing on her feet and stumbling forward.

Everyone immediately dropped into fighting positions, with Tyche and Spellgun stepping close to Tartsche to touch him, and Bakeneko jumping onto Osore’s back, but Gloom Glimmer waved them off.

“I-it’s alright,” she stammered, pulling her hood tight in embarrassment, speaking with her actual voice again. “Powers just, changed.” She rolled her shoulders, moving on. “Don’t worry, I’m used to it.” Ripples began to spread out from her feet, wherever she stepped onto the ground, continuing on for a few moments after she moved on, distortions that travelled across the floor and up the walls in circular waves; at the same time, a light haze appeared in the air ahead of them.

They relaxed again, moving on.

***

Melody walked up to her friend, putting a hand on her shoulder – and her wrist speaker next to her ear. <So, what’d you get this time?>

<Matter manipulation,> she said through their com-system (hopefully it hadn’t been hacked yet, but it was still safer than talking out loud). <I can control any matter that’s being touched by those ripples. Also, a spatial distortion that diverts attacks away from me and potentially back at the attacker. Oh, and a veil – I can hide us from sight, and even divert light-based attacks, at least from one direction.> She smiled slightly. <Been a while since I had such a powerful combination.>

Polymnia squeezed her friend’s shoulder, before taking a step and back, keeping her arm extended and sending ultra-sonic pulses out from one of the speakers, mapping the area ahead of them.

<There’s people in the station up ahead,> she spoke up once she’d properly interpreted the data she got. <Fifteen… eighteen… twenty-four, spread throughout the station.>

<Can you give us a visual map?> Tartsche asked, well-aware of the fact that she usually relied on her hearing alone to interpete the suit’s data.

<Um… I don’t have a light-projector that’d work for that… Brennus, do you have something to convert my data into a visual map?> She looked at the unnervingly quiet vigilante.

<I do,> he said evenly, reaching for his belt and pulling a plug-tipped extension cord from it, holding it out in her direction, stopping still.

Melody joined him, as the others spread out a bit, moving as quietly as they could, and she plugged it into a port on her suit’s forearm. A twitch of Brennus’ fingers gave her access to a projector, after which it only took a minute or so to adapt her own software and send the map out through it.

His left gauntlet – the one that’d projected force-fields earlier on – projected a two-dimensional map onto the floor, causing the others to cluster closer around them and take a look. Melody kept her left arm extended, continuing to map out the station in case their foes moved around.

The only one who didn’t look at the map was Brennus himself, who kept looking ahead even while pointing his gauntlet – though he could probably just call it up on his visor, if he didn’t have better technology anyway.

<Hm, they’re not exactly spread out, but neither are they bunched up… they definitely seem to be watching the way we’re coming, though,> Tartsche observed.

Melody knew what he meant. Their enemies, all twenty-four of them, were forming an uneven half-circle that opened towards the tunnel they were coming from, sixteen of them on the left side of the tracks, seven on the right and one standing in the centre.

<Twenty-one of them are Skulls,> Brennus stated simply. <The others are the ones we fought earlier, as well – Boltstar, Karasuha and Chronicle.>

<How can you tell – they’re around the bend, aren’t they?> Tartsche asked him, looking up from the map to look at the young gadgeteer.

<I sent my last raven ahead earlier,> he replied simply. <It is giving me a live feed.> A twitch of his fingers caused the projection to change, showing the train station from a high angle, the image upside down but sharp. Another twitch rotated it, showing them what was in the station.

Of course he’s got a better solution, Melody thought to herself, sighing softly. I really need to work out some drones for myself.

They looked through the raven’s eyes and saw the Skulls, mostly crouching behind several overturned benches, using them for cover as they aimed their rifles at the tunnel. Boltstar and Chroncile stood with the larger group, behind the Skulls, the latter crouching to give as small a target as possible, though Melody wondered why she was that close at all – probably a serious range limitation on her power. Even though she was wearing a heavy robe and a deep cowl, Melody could tell from her posture that she was quite nervous, a lot more so than the others.

The last one there was Karasuha, looking different from the last time they saw her. She was wearing a set of skintight, jet black platemail now, with a bird-shaped helmet and a purple skirt that split down the front. She even had a different, heavier-looking katana, which currently rested in its sheath, which she, in turn, was holding in her left hand, rather than strapped to her belt.

<Now that looks like someone upgraded in a real hurry,> Spellgun commented, and the others couldn’t help but agree.

<It doesn’t seem like they have any reinforcements,> Hecate added quietly. <I would have expected them to show up with reinforcements.>

<Who knows? Maybe they got someone hidden in there,> Tyche suggested as she charged her rifle. <Or maybe they’re ready to port someone in.>

<If they do, I’m pretty sure I can redirect them,> Gloom Glimmer replied. <Yeah, yeah I’m pretty sure I can.>

Tartsche gave her a nod. <Alright. Let’s work out how we’re going to do this…>

***

They moved down the rails under the cover of Gloom Glimmer’s veil and entered the train station, sticking closer together than before so they’d all fit in under her power’s aegis.

Basil kept his raven up above, hanging onto the ceiling with its feet like a bat, to observe what was going on – fortunately, the villains hadn’t noticed it.

Looking around with his own eyes, he didn’t feel too worried – only Karasuha was an unknown in this, except…

<That’s not Chronicle,> he told the others, drawing and aiming his rifle. <She’s too tall and too broad-shoul->

“Aw damn, they found out!” a female voice they hadn’t heard before rang out from seemingly nowhere.

The wall and tunnel behind the assembled villains flickered, then melted away into nothing, revealing another two metre to the station – and there stood Chronicle, next to a woman in a skintight black costume with a silver tabbard and a clenched black fist over her chest. The suit extended to cover her head entirely, making her look like a jet-black mannequin, the only distinguishing feature on her head being a silver circlet upon her brow. It did not even have noticable openings or lenses for her eyes.

As if that wasn’t enough, ‘Chronicle’s’ form flickered and melted away in the same way, revealing an even bigger, broadly-shouldered man in heavy grey, brick-patterned body armour.

“Well, the jig’s up,” Skulls said with her customary sneer. “Take th-“

Basil snapped off three shots from his railgun, one at the real Chronicle’s shoulder, one at the silver-and-black-garbed woman’s knee and another at Skulls’ head, before she could finish.

The upper half of Skulls’ head turned into red mist, as did the jaw and throat of the Skullman behind her, but the shots to the other two were unharmed, protected by an invisible force-field that only briefly shimmered as it absorbed the full impact of his shots.

“Screw you, you trigger-happy asshole!” Chronicle shouted at him as she gestured at the fallen Skulls, causing her and all of her Skullmen to flicker, restoring the damage he’d done. “You ain’t catching me by surprise again!” Her bubbly, high-pitched voice made her sound far too young for the group she was a part of – she couldn’t possibly be any older than Basil himself.

<Gloomy, make us some cover!> Tartsche shouted through the coms as he reached out and put his hands onto Spellgun’s and Tyche’s shoulders, covering them with his power. Hecate dissolved into smoke, Basil raised his force-shield, as did Polymnia with her sonic cage, Bakeneko – who’d already turned into that tentacle-cloak thing attached to Osore’s shoulders – wrapped herself around him, her tentacles growing stiff, hard armour…

<Gloomy?> Polymnia asked in worry, as Gloom Glimmer didn’t react at all, looking at her friend.

“Damn,” the silver-and-black garbed woman said. “That was easier than I expected.”

“Thoughtseize, report properly!” Skulls snarled, making the woman shrug, while her Skullmen spread out further, aiming at the heroes below on the tracks, and Karasuha put her right hand onto the grip of her sword, sliding into a ready stance.

“Target’s locked down, boss,” she told him with no small amount of satisfaction. “Looks like the higher-ups were right – telepathy’s really her Achilles’ Heel.” She tilted her head to the side. “Don’t think I can make her fight for us, though. Her brain’s strange.”

“I don’t care as long as you keep the little bitch out of the fight. Focus on her,” she ordered. “As for you annoying little shitstains,” she continued, looking down at them again. “Put down your weapons, now! In the case of you three,” she pointed at Basil, Polymnia and Hecate, “Strip everything off. No more tricks now. Do as I say and we’ll let you live.”

Fuck, Basil thought as he, Hecate and Polymnia moved to stand back-to-back. We were counting on Gloom Glimmer to carry this.

<What do we do now?> Polymnia asked through their comms. <We’ve got to help Gloomy!>

<We need to take this Thoughtsize down,> Tartsche replied, his voice as calm as ever.

“It’s Thoughtseize, you know?” the villain’s voice appeared in their minds. “Seize, not size. Oh, and I can listen in on you easy – did you really think you ever stood a chance?”

“Hey boss, they’re not gonna give up!” she told Skulls at the same time as she distracted them with that message sent straight into their brains.

“Open fire!” Skulls shouted.

Basil dove forward towards Karasuha, glowing bullets pinging off his shield as he aimed his rifle at her, hoping that whoever was protecting the others – probably the one in the brick-patterned body armour – wasn’t extending or couldn’t extend his power to her.

He pulled the trigger, sending an electromagnetically accelerated projectile straight at her mid-section with the assumption that her armour would reduce it to a non-lethal hit.

Karasuha moved with blurring speed, dogging the attack as she flashed forward, drawing her sword in a single, lightning-fast motion – too fast even for Basil to react in time, allowing her sword to cleave through his railgun; except this time, it cut through it from front to back, rather than simply slicing off the barrel.

Behind Basil, the others were being pelted with glowing bullets. Polymnia was stuck keeping up her sonic cage, which seemed sufficient to protect her and the unresponsive Gloom Glimmer from the Skullmen’s assault, but the upkeep of which didn’t allow her to do anything else. Tartsche and the two under his protection were, of course, not even inconvenienced, but whenever Spellgun or Tyche shot back at the Skullmen, Chronicle simply rewound them, which also meant they never had to reload, allowing them to keep on firing an endless stream of bullets.

Bakeneko was doing her best to protect Osore as his form began to bulge and grow, but him powering up also made him an easier target, as she could only stretch herself so far and still remain tough enough to resist the tranquilising bullets. More and more of them were penetrating her and Osore’s skin, causing their movements to grow more and more sluggish.

He fared no better, barely managing to roll under a follow-up kick from the similarly-themed villainess. Coming up behind her, he whirled around, shield-first, to strike her, but she’d already turned around and ducked, kicking his legs out from underneath him.

He snarled, throwing his useless weapon at her, but she simply blurred again, moving far more nimbly than her platemail should allow her to, and grabbed him by the ankle.

She swung him around with inhuman strength, once, twice, thrice, and throw him with such force at Osore and Bakeneko, they were thrown back all three of them to slam into the immovable trio with a sickening crunching sound.

Basil groaned in pain, his back feeling numb, though it didn’t precisely feel broken (it certainly didn’t feel as bad as during his little ordeal at Hastur’s hands), and looked up just in time to see Boltstar unleash a rain of energy bolts from over a dozen of his spheres, raining them down onto Polymnia, straight through her sonic cage.

The young girl cried out in pain as the barrage slammed her into the ground, tearing her armour apart.

Somewhere out of sight, Hecate screamed, once, then was cut off.

And then it all stopped, both the bolts from above and the glowing shots from the Skullmen.

Polymnia was on the ground, bleeding and groaning in pain. Osore was barely standing, and Bakeneko, who was riddled in glowing darts, had gone limp, her armoured tentacles dangling off Osore’s back. Only the immovable trio still stood, watching in horror.

Two Skullmen walked up to the edge of the platform, dragging a groaning Hecate with them by the elbows, several glowing darts sticking out from her chest.

“That enough for you idiots?” Skulls snarled as she stood up from behind her cover and walked up, followed by the brick-patterned villain, who was looking down at them with his arms crossed, looming behind his comparatively shorter leader. “Are you finally going to surrender before I lose my patience and decide to maim you, or do you have any more tricks left?”

Basil looked over his shoulder at the others, his left hand flinching briefly, tempted to reach for the ovoid gadget on his hip. I could use that, but there’s no telling whether it’ll be enough…

Tartsche looked back at him, his eyes wide with fear, yet determined. “Fuck,” he said. “Alright,” he finally said, looking up at Skulls. “Promise that you won’t harm us any more and we’ll surre-“

“There is no surrender,” Osore suddenly said, his voice an octave deeper than normal. “Only the next stratagem.”

And as everyone turned to look at the two-metre tall Japanese boy, he gathered darkness around his right hand and threw it straight into Basil’s chest.

“Twinkle twinkle, little star, how I wonder what…

you…

are…”

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B13.7 Call of the Sleeper

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Their enemies burst into motion before their teammate even had time to slide down the wall. The man covered in dancing lightning threw his arms out, unleashing four solid blue-white spheres the size of footballs that rose up into the air above the burgeoning fight.

At the same time, the woman in the bird-mask reached out and grabbed her shattered sword, without even looking at it, and dissolved into a murder of shaggy, black crows.

Just then, Gloom Glimmer waved her hand at them in an imperious gesture, sending forth a ripple that travelled through the wax floor, as if it was liquid.

Their enemies saw it coming, of course, and reacted much faster this time; the man in blue and Skulls jumped over the ripple as it reached them, avoiding contact – only to stagger as they sank into the ground, up to their knees, the wax seeming to liquefy, then immediately solidify again, trapping them.

The woman with the book landed on her feet, staggering, as the ripple moved towards her, barely holding onto her shredded book. Basil could see her eyes widen as she saw it coming towards her, with no way to dodge.

“Boltstar!” she shouted, almost a squeal, sounding younger than he would have guessed – he mentally re-assigned her as a girl rather than a woman.

The man in blue twisted around at the hip, throwing out a hand towards her. A crackling, unstable sphere of white-blue energy shot out, hitting the ground just a few feet in front of the girl with the book, where the ripple was.

The very moment it touched the ground, the four spheres he’d thrown up into the air flared up, releasing bolts of painfully bright lightning, one each, striking that point.

The wax was vaporised, making the girl with the book cry out – but the explosion also disrupted whatever power Gloom Glimmer had sent out, protecting the girl with the book from its entrapping effects.

Boltstar twisted around once more, shooting another crackling sphere, this time towards Basil – no, towards Gloom Glimmer, who was floating just over his shoulder and behind.

It hit her in the chest, the spheres above immediately releasing their lightning once more, converging upon her sternum.

He didn’t have the time to check on the effect it had on her, as the crows converged as well, reforming into the purple-clad villainess, to his left and out of his rifle’s firing arc, swinging her broken sword down at his weapon, still enough blade left to possibly slice through the barrel, or at least seriously damage the weapon.

It didn’t work out, as he triggered the force-field on his left arm’s gauntlet, the circular shield springing into existence, flaring up with circuit-like patterns of light as it absorbed and spread out the force of her blow, deflecting the sword.

There was no time for a counter-attack, however, as she immediately dissolved into a multitude of birds once more, obscuring his vision as some of them charged his head, fluttering their wings right in front of his face and cawing up a storm.

No, not playing that game, he thought, triggering one of the defensive modifications he’d done to his armor with a twitch of his eyes. The crows screamed as they were charred to death by a powerful electrical current, at least those who had been in direct contact with any part of his equipment, from his rifle to his cloak, as he rolled to the side, bringing more of them into contact with the cloak and dodging any possible attack at the same time.

He couldn’t smell the charred flesh of the dead animals – he’d sealed his helmet, just in case one of their enemies used a gaseous attack – but he saw their burned corpses twitch on the ground before going still.

The remaining crows pulled together again, reforming into the woman; not a willful action, because she reformed right in front of him; her costume was charred, burned, whole sections of it missing to reveal pale skin underneath; the only thing that protected her modesty being the burns covering most of her torso as she staggered, nearly falling over.

Basil shot her in the knee, the power of his rifle dialed down to where it didn’t tear the limb off, merely shattering the bone and making the woman cry out as she fell.

“Chronicle!” she screamed in pain even as she fell – and then she flickered and leapt at him, whole and unharmed, her the pristine blade of her katana slicing through the barrel of his rifle like it was made of butter.

What?

He rolled back, still holding onto half of his rifle, and saw the man – Boltstar – standing atop the wax, as if he’d never sunk into it, releasing another four spheres to rise up in the air as Hecate and Spellgun, who seemed to have engaged him, stared in surprise.

Coming up into a crouching position, he realised that those two weren’t the only ones suddenly unharmed – Skulls was free as well, once more and so were all her drones. The entire two dozen downed Skulls that his friends had taken out earlier were standing, unharmed and fully armed, surrounding them all.

And then the real fight started.

***

What just happened? Irene thought, feeling panic rise inside as she dodged one of Boltstar’s spheres, not wanting to test her defenses against twice the power it’d had before. His first hit had burned a hole into her costume, though it’d only delivered a painful, but not serious impact to her chest underneath; but that had been before he’d doubled the number of turrets, as she thought of the spheres above.

She combined her dodge with a spin, letting her see the result of the sphere impacting the wall behind her, across the hall – eight lightning bolts hit in a massive explosion, making her feel quite glad she’d dodged – while she completed her pirouette, to face the core of her opponents – Skulls, Boltstar and Chronicle.

The crow-woman was busy fighting Ba- Brennus, now that she’d been rejuvenated, but he was as slippery as usual, dodging her strikes or deflecting them with his new force-shield – Seriously, he came up with a force-field? Dad is going to descend into paroxysms – while he actually pressed the attack, striking at her with the butt of his ruined rifle, swinging it like an improvised tonfa, having reversed his grip on it.

She didn’t have time to admire his tenacity, though, because the dozens of Skulls around them had drawn her team’s attention from Boltstar and there was nothing to stop him from lobbing more of those targeting shots of his, every one of them triggering the eight turrets above to devastating effect, forcing her to dance through the air, cloak flying wildly, even as taser shots from the Skulls were bouncing off her skin, tearing tiny chunks out of her costume.

It was quite clear that her current power loadout was not up to the task of fighting off this assault, but to risk letting go of them… what if she got something unsuited to the task? Just one hit from Boltstar’s turrets would most likely knock her out, forcing her into her safe mode and leaving her friends to fight alone.

I need some breathing room, she thought, only to realise that she did have the means to get it.

Flight, impenetrable skin and reinforced organs, enhanced reflexes and liquefying ripples. The solution was there.

After dodging another one of Boltstar’s spheres, she threw her arms open, causing ripples to spread out from the ground underneath her, carefully restraining them so they did not liquefy the ground enough to trap anyone – that would’ve hit her friends, as well; no, instead, she caused the wax to buck, the ripples enlarging into waves, liquefying just enough to hold onto the feet of everyone, causing them to be thrown about, yet not lose their footing, disrupting the fight for a few precious moments.

She used them to stop holding onto her current abilities. Her power, which had already been aching to change, immediately switched them out, the current set rapidly fading away to be replaced by new ones.

Taking on new abilities was always a strange, yet familiar experience to Irene. The old ones would… fade, as if sinking down into a deep ocean, only for new powers to rise up from the darkness, taking their place. The strange part being when they settled in and knowledge of them filled her mind, as if she’d always had them. Not always complete knowledge, but knowledge nonetheless, letting her put them to use straight away, even if she didn’t always immediately understand every aspect of them.

A new form of flight, tapping into gravity around her, rapidly flipping it to keep her in place, accompanied by a light sense of vertigo before her inner ear adapted; it would allow her to corner at extreme speeds by flipping and enhancing the effect of gravity on herself, with the side-effect of being able to turn herself into a powerful projectile if need be.

A defensive power, a kind of discorporation, that would have her body instantly turn into smoke upon being hit, avoiding damage of all kinds.

Finally, an offensive ability, unraveling her limbs into countless tendrils that could snap out and crush or slash targets with incredible strength.

Irene frowned. The abilities didn’t fit. The flight was too powerful, taking up too much of her potential in one power that was wasted in such tight confines. Her defense made both the offensive aspect of her flight, as well as her main attack power useless, as she’d discorporate upon impact, negating any damage she might cause.

Her body burst into smoke as countless taser shots penetrated it, causing no damage whatsoever. The same held true for Boltstar’s shot, which simply flew through her, rather than trigger a shot from the eight turrets above.

It was then that she discovered another problem with her current powerset – while her tendrils were numerous and fast enough to strike the taser bolts out of the air, but she couldn’t suppress the smoke-defense, as it was completely automatic.

No, I need something else!

She flew up, still in smoke form – at least it still let her flight work, though it was slower than she knew it could be – and reformed above the battle, just in time to hear a massive caterwauling sound.

Below her, Melody’s attack left the villains reeling, though it did nothing to her team – the junior heroes all had protective earbuds, courtesy of Melody herself, and Hecate either had her own defenses or something made by Brennus.

The villains were not so lucky – the only one who seemed to resist was the crow-woman, who burst into a murder of crows, much the same way Irene had burst into smoke to evade attacks.

Osore was the first one to capitalise on the distraction, as he unleashed his literally fearsome, black blasts, shooting two Skulls in rapid succession. His body was already bulging, at least twice as heavy as he had been at the outset, sucking up the fear around him. Having the Skulls rejuvenated might have given the enemy more firepower, but it also gave him more fear to feed on, even if their emotions were suppressed – his fear blasts took care of that.

Still, the fight was not going well. Hecate was on the defensive, having erected a bubble made of a green force field as half a dozen Skulls focused fire on her.

Boltstar, meanwhile, kept shooting at her, preventing her from pulling herself together and focusing; at least until something hit his knee hard enough to shatter it, making him fall down and scream in pain.

Brennus. Somehow, his rifle was still functional, even with half the barrel missing.

Irene immediately reformed her body and let go of her current powers, mentally pushing them away, reaching for something new, something useful.

She started to drop as her gravity power faded, only to catch herself as a duo of new powers set in. A powerful aerokinesis, starting around her, stirring up the air to hold her aloft, more floating than flying, growing stronger as it spread further around her; the other was stranger, a power she’d had before, though rarely. A kind of pericognition tied to her sight, letting her glean progressively more information on powers the longer she focused on a person within her line of sight.

Boltstar, came the information as she focused on the man who’d been focusing on her in turn, charges up over time to create up to four turret-spheres that he can release and recall at will; trigger-spheres release lightning bolts from turret-spheres. Charging up new spheres takes longer than existing spheres persist.

She frowned, even as she dodged another one of his trigger-spheres, simultaneously recognising another use of her aerokinesis – anything that entered its growing sphere of influence, she could feel through the way it disturbed the air, giving her an edge up on dodging attacks.

This, this is good, she thought. I love it when I get a good one like this. Still, how did he make eight turrets when his limit is supposed to be four?

His form flickered, again, and he was standing once more, unharmed like before – and repeated the exact same movement as last time, releasing another four spheres, which spread out towards the walls, for a total of twelve.

Not his power, she thought. Someone else’s.

She sent a blast of air at him, forcing the man to dive out of the way instead of sending another trigger-sphere at her, buying herself time to focus on the crow-woman.

Karasuha. Contriver, specialising on enchanting items with animal-spirit th-

No, not her, she thought. It wasn’t Skulls, either – she’d already figured his power out. Which left only the last one, Chronicle. But she was out of sight, outside the tower in the hallway.

Got to get a good look at her, Irene decided, and dove down, both dodging Boltstar’s next attack – which utterly destroyed an entire fourth of the fifth and sixth level of the prison tower, as no less than twelve turrets fired upon it.

Irene dropped down in free-fall, catching herself just five feet off the ground and generated a gust of wind powerful enough to bowl over the Skulls around her, buying everyone but Basil, Spellgun and Tartsche some breathing room.

The former because he was busy kicking Karasuha’s ass, beating the woman senseless with punches and kicks, the latter two because Tartsche had his power active over both himself and his boyfriend, keeping them absolutely safe.

Osore had swollen in size, his body deformed, a huge pot-belly forming as his skin started to turn into a purplish red colour, his mask beginning to fuse with his face; Bakeneko rode on his shoulders, shifted into a cape-like mass of furry tentacles that lashed out at the Skulls around him as he waded through the enemy’s lines, smashing left and right with his enlarged fists, while firing more fear blasts inbetween to spark more fear, and thus more growth.

Then, the Skulls flickered, all of them, and they were whole again, as Osore dropped in size by almost a foot, the effects of his power on them reversed along with the damage.

Irene averted her gaze, looking through the gate at Chronicle.

Can record people and objects by touch, reset them to the state they were in when recorded. Requires line of sight to trigger reset. Favourable interaction with powers of her teammates.

She could see it now. Resetting Boltstar to a charged state, so as to release more turrets. Resetting Skulls, which somehow also reset his entire collective, fixing them all at once. Resetting Karasuha… there had to be an interaction there, as well, with her contrivances. She wasn’t going to check – Contrivers tended to give her a headache at the best of times, she really couldn’t afford that now.

If I take Chronicle down, it won’t matter. She’s the key member of her group, she thought, twisting into a spiral to avoid another trigger-sphere and letting loose another gale-blow, this time aimed at the main Skull, knocking him/her into the wall just as he/she had been about to shoot Melody in the back.

She might have made that blow more brutal than it needed to be, but… fuck it, he deserved it.

Next, she shot forward, flying so low her breasts nearly dragged over it, her cape billowing in the gales she used to propell herself.

Shooting past Boltstar before he could take him, she blasted him out of sight from Chornicle, helped by the fact that the girl saw her coming and dove out of the way, away from the gate into the tower.

The others reacted instantly, all except Karasuha, who didn’t have the leisure to do anything but try to fend off Brennus. Boltstar threw a trigger-sphere at her with what seemed to be alarm on his face, for the first time in this battle; no less than half the Skulls, including the main host, opened fire in her direction.

Gale-like winds shot out from her, violently, blowing the taser-bolts away as she also moved herself forward and around the corner, just barely dodging the crackling trigger-sphere.

Buoyed onwards by the explosion behind her, she shot down the hallway towards the fleeing Chronicle, relinquishing her aerokinesis to her power’s urge to change – the hallways were too narrow to use it effectively. Unfortunately, her power-sight went with it, torn away along with the power over wind to make room for another.

A new power rose up as she fell towards the ground, a familiar, warm one. It was a power she often drew upon, ripples and waves in various forms, affecting both matter and energy; every time she used it, she felt safe, even when it had nothing to do with defense. It was a big power, always, no matter what form it took, explaining why she had lost the costly power-sight as well as the rather costly aerokinesis.

She hit the ground rolling, the way her mother had taught her to take a fall and, as she came up onto a crouching position, she slapped the ground in front of her with an open palm.

Ripples spread from the point of impact, through the floor, towards Chronicle, over the walls and even onto the ceiling.

She could feel them spread, rapidly, propagating through the wax and the other materials beneath it, overtaking Chronicle who was only moving with the speed of a normal, if fit girl.

As soon as they had spread far enough, she triggered the ability, the way her innate understanding guided her to do.

The ripples congregated into six different points, focusing, and then the wax shot out in six spikes towards Chronicle, spearing through the heavy robe she was wearing, though not hitting her body – pinning her in place, standing up, coming out from all around and ahead of her.

“Shit! Shit, fuck you, fuck you you bitch!” she shouted, struggling, trying to break out of the waxen spears holding her in place.

Irene charged at her, pushing the ripples away, new, simpler powers coming up; a burst of speed, enhanced strength, toughness and a sense for weakpoints and resistance.

Using the speed she flashed forward, until she was right behind the girl. Using her enhanced sense, she hit the back of her head with just the right amount of strength to knock her out, without causing lasting damage. She didn’t actually want to risk killing anyone.

The girl’s body grew slack, the strength going out of it.

“That’s what you get for being a potty-mouth,” she quipped, grinning, before she whirled around to flash towards the door.

Before she could even reach it, there was a massive, ear-bursting blast of sound, and Boltstar was slammed into the wall, through the gate; he hit it so hard he left behind a man-shaped impression after falling off, unconscious.

Irene took the corner and got ready to intervene, but there was no need – Karasuha was already down, and so Bas- Brennus had joined forces with Hecate and Melody, the two of them hiding behind his force-field, while systematically taking down the Skulls whom Osore – who was halfway towards looking completely like one of the mythological Oni his power had styled itself after – and Bakeneko were not already taking care of. Tartsche and Spellgun were supporting their efforts from another angle, and without Boltstar’s deafening, powerful blasts and, most importantly, Chronicle’s continuous resets, they were mopped up quickly.

The main Skull went down last, snarling as he/she tried to dodge a shot from Melody’s gauntlets, only to take a blast of smoking green fire into his face after it curved around Brennus’ force-field.

And just like that, it was over.

They looked at each other, as they surveyed their enemies. “Wow, that was…” Irene began.

“… intense,” Spellgun finished her sentence, stepping away from Tartsche, out of his protection.

Irene nodded, approaching Melody. Her friend looked like she had taken a few hits, chipping away at her armor, as well as some bigger hits.

“What happened?” she asked, worried, letting go of her powers.

“I got caught in one of turret-sphere-guy’s blasts. Only at the periphery of it, but it was enough to shake me up,” Melody replied, making a pained expression.

Irene felt her face screw up, briefly, trembling all over as she had to fight herself not to whirl around and cut loose with the fiery blast that had just come up, obliterating the unconscious Boltstar for his offense – but at the same time, she also got a kind of healing power, a slow, but versatile ability to fix matter.

Helping her friend was more important than punishing the guy who’d hurt her (not to mention more ethical), so she stepped forward, reaching out for Melody.

The musician reached out in turn and took her hand, clasping fingers; whether she knew Irene had a power that could heal her, or just wanted to show some affection, it was enough to use the ability.

Melody shuddered as the power spread through her body in ripples, starting from her hand where it touched Irene’s, repairing both the (fortunately superficial) damage to her body, and to her equipment, working from the inside out. A sigh escaped her lips as the pain disappeared.

Brennus walked up to them, followed by Hecate.

“Would you mind using that on my rifle?” he asked, holding out the two pieces of his weapon.

“Not at all,” she replied with a smile, taking them and holding them together as her power worked on the weapon. “Though, it doesn’t seem like this was enough to break it…”

Hecate snorted derisively. “If that idiot had known Brennus at all, she’d have known that he builds redundancies into his equipment.”

Brennus chuckled as Melody looked curiously at the weapon. “Yeah, I built it so it can work with up to seventy-five percent of the barrel gone, though the more it loses, the more both accuracy and range drop.”

“That’s a smart design philosophy,” Melody praised him.

“You probably won’t like this, but you really remind me of my dad sometimes,” Irene joked. “He’s always on me about having safeties, redundancies and generally being prepared for everything possible.”

He tilted his head, as if surprised. “Hm, is that just your father? What about your mother?” he asked with curiosity clear even through the distortion in his voice thanks to his helmet.

“She pretty much says the same, but she’s not as obsessive about it as dad,” she replied lightly.

The others joined their circle, Osore back down to his normal size, Bakeneko clinging to him, back in cat-girl form, her arms wrapped around his neck from behind. Tartsche and Spellgun were holding hands, as usual, but in such a way that both of them could still hold their rifles – Spellgun in his right, Tartsche in his left, as he didn’t have to worry about recoil.

“Not to break up the fun, but what are we going to do next?” Tartsche asked calmly. “This thing is already borderline-FUBAR – should we retreat, or do we press on?”

“My goal has not changed,” Brennus replied while inspecting his repaired rifle.

‘My’ goal, not ‘our’, Irene thought.

“I am going after Dusu and getting that cure. If anyone wants to retreat now, I will not hold it against you, nor will anyone else who is sane,” he said calmly.

Tartsche frowned, seeming almost insulted. “Like I’m going to abandon you in this place, alone? No, I’m in this to the end. I’d just rather advance with a plan – do we even know where to find Dusu? We already know that Gloom Glimmer can’t locate her.”

Irene sighed, still annoyed that her power was betraying her on that count – but at least it’d helped properly in fighting the enemy, so she’d cut it some slack on that front.

Still… She took out her bottle of pills, swallowing three of them. Better safe than sorry. I almost lost it a moment ago, after all.

As soon as she took them, the constant pressure that was her power – like water held back behind a valve, constantly trying to break through – eased, calming her.

“We will just have to interrogate one of our captives,” Brennus replied calmly. “At least one of them ought to know where she-“

“Tyche!” Hecate shouted, suddenly, bursting into smoke that rushed past Irene.

She whirled around, surprised, to see her reform at the gate, throwing her arms around a stunned-looking Tyche, bowling the girl over as she hugged the life out of her.

“You’re alright!” Hecate cried, sounding like she was sobbing.

“Ugh… breath… can’t… dying…” Tyche flailed her arms, though she didn’t actually seem to try and push her friend away.

“Oh, sorry!” Hecate shouted, leaping up onto her feet. Then she reached out, offering her friend a hand, and pulled her up onto her feet in turn – only to wrap her arms around her again, this time more gently. “I was so worried, though! What happened?”

Irene watched the reunion, a smile on her face. I wonder if she feels the way I felt when I found Melody? She could feel a power rise up, to find just that out, but she resisted it, pushing it back down again. That would have been a waste, surely.

Brennus joined them, putting a hand on Tyche’s shoulder where Hecate wasn’t draped over it.

“Welcome back,” he said, softly, the relief audible.

“Thanks, guys,” Tyche smiled a brittle smile, hugging both of her friends, one with each arm.

Irene frowned, studying her closer.

She looked… horrible. Her face looked like she’d been crying, her eyes were bloodshot and her mascara was running down her face.

Her face! Irene thought in shock. She’d taken off her mask, thrown it back like a hood, her face free for anyone to see. Why? What had happened to her.

“Tyche, what-” Brennus began, obviously noticing the same thing while pulling back from the hug.

“I know where she is,” Tyche cut him off, as she leaned into Hecate’s embrace. “I know where Dusu is, and what way to take to her. But we need to hurry.”

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B13.6 Call of the Sleeper

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“So, what are we gonna do about this super-powerful new enemy?” Polymnia asked, making her voice sound unconcerned, even though her face and posture screamed concern.

“Nothing at all,” Basil said simply, crossing his arms. “As long as he stays up there, he can be as powerful as the Godking, for all I care.”

Gloom Glimmer chuckled, but Polymnia didn’t seem amused. “This is serious, Brennus! We can’t just ignore such a powerful person!”

“We also can not do anything about it, unless you can figure out what kind of power he or she has?” He directed the second part at Gloom Glimmer.

She turned her head, looking at the direction of the tower. Then she shook her head. “I’m sorry, but no… there’s too much… power here. Especially beneath this place; it’s like trying to read the radiation a single rod of uranium gives off, while standing in the centre of Nagasaki. I can tell THAT he – or she, I guess – is powerful, but not what kind of power it is.”

“Below, huh?” Basil looked down thoughtfully.

“Do you have any idea what what may mean?” Polymnia asked thoughtfully, though it wasn’t clear whether she was addressing him, or Gloom Glimmer.

“Crocell was created below, before rising up. It is likely that whatever process generated it and its kin is still going on, perhaps producing more such monsters,” he replied, sounding calmer than he felt. “If there is such an amount of ‘power’, as Gloom Glimmer perceives it, gathered below, it may mean that there are multiple such monsters stored below, perhaps in an earlier stage of their development… or, perhaps, she is sensing whoever or whatever created them in the first place.”

Polymnia had grown steadily more pale as he’d kept talking, finally averting her eyes, gulping nervously. “Great. This whole thing keeps getting better and better.”

Gloom Glimmer reached out, taking her friend’s hand and squeezing it. “Don’t worry, Me- Poly. I’m here, remember? I’ll keep us all safe,” she promised with a reassuring smile.

The young gadgeteer looked at her friend, then at Basil, then back at her friend again, her mouth forming a soft smile. She nodded.

“Alright,” Basil spoke up. “Neither of this really changes what we have to do – find our friends, find Dusu, retrieve the cure for her victims, get away all in one piece.”

The two girls nodded, looking seriously at him, as if awaiting orders.

He took a deep breath, thinking over their options. “Gloom Glimmer, can you carry the two of us and take us back to where you and the others were locked up?” This would all be so much easier if you had just gotten them out in the first place, before coming to find us. At least it’s good to know your priorities.

Gloom Glimmer thought it over, briefly, then nodded, bending her arm as if to show off her biceps. “I can do it!”

Suiting action to words, she picked Polymnia up, making the girl squeal in surprise as she was thrown over her friend’s shoulder. Then she looked at Basil, who nodded and stepped forward, allowing her to pick him up over her other shoulder, as ridiculous as that looked (with their equipment, both he and Polymnia were a good deal broader and heavier than Gloom Glimmer and, in his case, also taller).

“Here we go,” Gloom Glimmer said simply, and took off, the hallways turning into a flowing series of streaks as she began to run.

Unable to do much of anything in this situation, other than trust in Gloom Glimmer not to steer them wrong (or into a wall), Basil instead focused inwards, past the chaotic stream of observations and ideas that his power was feeding him.

How come I, of all people, always end up taking charge?, he couldn’t help but ask himself. It hadn’t escaped him that both Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer had heeded his suggestions, even waited for him to make them. Which wasn’t the first time it had happened. He’d slid into the position of being in charge during previous crises, Crocell only being the latest example.

Even with his team, he’d somehow effectively become the leader, which just boggled his mind. Thinking about himself and the other members, he’d have expected Hecate to lead – in spite of being a Contriver, she was the most focused one, the one who was most reliable. Most sensible.

Yet even she looked to him for leadership, which was profoundly uncomfortable to Basil.

He barely had a grip on his own life, if at all; how could people trust him to take care of theirs?

***

Gloom Glimmer ran for several minutes, even though she was moving at least as fast as Basil had ever seen Outstep move – the structure they were on was huge, even bigger than it had seemed to be when viewed from above. Hallways, vertical shafts, elevators and staircases turned it into a labyrinthine mess, the navigation of which wasn’t helped at all by the fact that there were no signs at all to be seen, anywhere. She’d only found them as quickly as she had – and even then, it’d taken her several minutes – because she’d manifested a power to track Polymnia with, one which was useless now that she’d already found her and had thus been discarded in favour of the danger sense she was using to steer around threats.

Which didn’t help speed up their journey at all, but Basil had insisted that they dodge as many people as possible. He didn’t doubt for a moment that the enemy knew they were free inside their big secret floating city, yet there hadn’t been an alarm, as far as he could tell, nor a lockdown of any kind.

We should have been swarmed by Stormtroopers by now, Basil thought, as he finished cracking that communicator he’d taken off of one of the Skullmen. He’d tried to contact Hecate and Tyche on the communicators he’d given them already, but had found them blocked; he was hoping that he’d be able to use the Skullman’s communicator to at least listen in on their lines, even if he couldn’t contact his friends.

“Why’d you make your force-field permeable to sound?” Polymnia suddenly asked, turning her head to look at him.

“It seemed much more likely to me that I’d be working with you, rather than against another sonic-based aggressor,” he replied simply, pulling a cable from his belt to attach to it. A twist of wires and he could patch straight into the communicator with his interface. “Sonic attacks are not so common that it’s not worth the risk to plan for you having to attack enemies through my shield. We’ve been fighting together quite often, after all,” he finished explaining himself. “Besides, if I did run into another sonic-based fighter, I would simply call on your superior expertise on the matter to help me deal with their power.”

To his surprise, she blushed a bit, averting her eyes.

What? What did I say?, he asked himself, confused. I was only practical. Why’d she blush?

Girls were getting more confusing by the day. Vasiliki had been blushing a lot, at random times, lately. And Prisca…

He flinched, feeling a stab of pain as he violated his resolution not to think of her until he had the cure in his hands. Do not go down that road, Basil. Focus on the task at hand.

Fortunately, he didn’t have any time to get mopey – having patched the communicator into his mask’s interface, he now had access to the enemy’s line of communication, and he wasted not time accessing it.

“-nd, this is Skulls. Team 3 was just downed at the Southern holding facility,” the gruff voice of a woman said. “I advise a facility-wide lockdown to contain the intruders.”

“Negative, Skulls,” a male replied in a much calmer tone of voice. “We have orders from above. Mobilise our-“

“Sir, someone is using a Skulls communicator to access this line other than Skulls,” a second woman, this one younger, threw in.

“The gadgeteers. One of them must have taken a communicator fr-“

Basil terminated the connection, before crushing the little box. “Damn it. They realised I was listening in.”

“Did you hear anything useful?” Polymnia asked.

“They’re not going to lock down the facility, it seems,” he replied. “They’ve ordered someone named Skulls – apparently the leader of the armed troops we saw earlier – to mobilise something instead, but that’s all I heard.”

“Chin up, we’re almost there,” Gloom Glimmer interrupted as her run slowed, their surroundings turning from variously coloured blurs to what now looked like…

“Is that wax?” Polymnia sounded as surprised as he felt.

Basil, meanwhile, looked around as soon as Gloom Glimmer put him down, inspecting the hallway they were in.

It really was made of wax. The general shape was the same as the hallways they’d been in earlier, but it was all made of wax, and illuminated by (electric) lamps that were styled to look like candles sticking out of the walls.

Looking down, he saw that even the floor was made of wax.

The only other thing that stood out about the hallway was the huge, octagonal door in the middle of it. It was huge, flat and had the shape of a normal door engraved in it. There was no obvious means of opening it.

“I was locked up in the tower behind this door,” Gloom Glimmer explained. “I, uh… I didn’t really look for the others, I just…” She blushed, looking at Polymnia with an embarrassed expression on her face. “I kind of freaked out and…” She hung her head in shame.

Her friend, though, reached out and put an armored hand on her shoulder, squeezing it through the thick, white cloak and her black bodysuit. “Thank you,” she said with a smile. “That’s sweet of you – but you really ought to prioritise better, in the future. And you’ll have to apologise to them, alright?”

Gloom Glimmer hung her head, ashamed, nodding her assent.

“Do you know how to open this door?” Basil asked urgently. He didn’t want to waste time right now, not in this matter.

“Step aside,” she replied, taking a deep breath.

He did so, and she put the palm of her hand onto the door. An orange glow spread from her hand, slowly at first, then faster. At first, Basil thought she was heating the wax, but his sensors registered no increase in heat at all.

His musings about what she might be up to where answered quickly, as the glow spread all over the door – and then it all disappeared. Just winked out of existence, leaving the way open into…

A huge circular hall, the floor of which was covered in the broken bodies of two dozen Skullmen.

Osore stood amidst them, watching Bakeneko, Tartsche and Hecate applying first aid to a few of the men, while Spellgun stood behind the railing of a higher floor, holding his rifle ready.

Everyone stopped what they were doing, staring at the new arrivals.

“Brennus!” Hecate shouted with immense relief, as she burst into shadowy smoke, rushing over and reforming just a few feet ahead of him.

For a moment, he thought he was about to get a hug, but she stopped herself and simply put her left hand on his shoulder, still holding her staff with the other. Both were trembling.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“Quite so,” he answered, reaching out to squeeze her shoulder back, feeling her relax. “What happened here?”

They both turned around and looked at Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia reuniting with their teammates, or rather, with Tartsche, Spellgun (who leapt down from above, using a surprisingly quiet shot from his rifle to break his fall before he impacted the ground) and Bakeneko, while Osore stayed where he’d been, seemingly just looking down at his own feet, or perhaps the defeated guards.

“We were teleported into individual cells,” Hecate explained. “They put me and Spellgun into a pentacle that cut us off from the sources of our power – I have no idea how it could block us both, our spellwork is completely different! – and Tartsche into another, and Bakeneko and Osore into individual ones, too.” She stopped, taking a deep breath. “He broke out, though. Osore, I mean. He’s somehow… super-strong. Like, way stronger than I thought he was.”

They both looked at all the foes on the ground. “Osore took them all out himself?” Basil asked, impressed. Now that he was looking closer, he could see dozens, if not hundreds, of tranquiliser darts on the ground around Osore. He himself seemed completely unharmed, though his leather jacket and his skintight top were full of holes, pale skin peaking out.

“Yeah. Took them by surprise, I think. Then Tartsche somehow managed to break out, too, and he freed me and Spellgun, and… well, the rest went over quickly,” she explained. “Hey… do you have any idea where Tyche is? She’s not in any of these cells.”

He shook his head. “No. I thought she would be here with the rest of you. Polymnia and I were teleported to the Northern half, most certainly because we are Gadgeteers, but I see no reason why Tyche would go somewhere else, unless…”

“…her power interfered,” Hecate finished his sentence. “But… where would she be, then?”

“I do not know,” he sighed, shaking his head. “I have no idea how their teleport interdiction works, so I do not know how her power might have changed things.”

“Hey!” Bakeneko shouted, suddenly, making everyone turn around. She was kneeling next to one of the Skullmen – one whose legs were both broken, among other injuries – in her ‘normal’ catgirl form. “This guy needs some medical attention, stat.”

Basil hurried over immediately, kneeling down next to him.

“Don’t bother,” Gloom Glimmer interrupted him, stepping over from where she’d been talking to her other teammates. “They’re already dead, anyway,” she explained when they stared at her, her expression as serious as it ever got.

“What do you mean, dead? He still has a heart beat!” Bakeneko protested, but Gloom Glimmer just shook her head, as she drew her hood up to cover her head, plunging her face into shadows.

“That’s not what I mean,” she said softly. “I can feel it… they’re part of a hive mind. Someone burned out whoever these men and women used to be, and connected them to himself. They’re barely sentient, more like automatons. Empty vessels that follow commands and stand ready as spare bodies for their master, in case his current host dies.”

“Wow, and people say my power is scary,” a gruff, female voice said from the direction of the gate.

Basil flipped around, lifting his rifle as he went up on one knee, holding it two-handed. The others all reacted as well, though not as quickly as he had, save for Gloom Glimmer, who just turned her head to look in said direction.

A figure in body armor identical to the men and women on the ground leaned against the frame of the door, her arms crossed in front of her chest. The only difference between her and the others was the fact that she wasn’t wearing a helmet, revealing her hairless, pale face – a face that might have been lovely, once, but had become withered, wrinkled without actually looking old, the only part that looked alive being her cruel, hard eyes.

Three more people stood there, with her, just beyond the gate. A woman in a black-and-purple armored dress, with a bird-like helmet obscuring her head and a katana which was strapped to her hip. In front of her and slightly to the right, a tall man in a skintight, dark blue suit, across which danced two-dimensional lightning, his handsome face barely obscured by a blue domino mask, his brown hair cropped short. And finally, another woman, this one shorter than the others and younger, looking barely old enough to not be a girl anymore, wearing a mystic-seeming yellow robe with rich golden stitching and holding a thick, gold-bound book that was thicker than her arm to her chest, her young face looking at them with arrogance in her green eyes, peering at them through her dark blonde curls.

The Skull-Woman stepped forward, studying them. “You’ve been quite the embarrassment, you know?” she said, her shrivelled lips stretching over sharp white teeth.

“To your security,” Basil said flatly, tracking her movements with his rifle. Is she the core of the hive mind?

She nodded. “Yup.” She looked at Gloom Glimmer. “You girl… you’re freaky. Just figuring all that out about my power? No one’s seen through it like that before, not since I first met our fearless leader. My name’s Skulls, by the way.”

“I’m the queen of freaky,” Gloom Glimmer said coldly, her eyes beginning to glow within the shadows of her hood. She looked past Skulls at the others, then at her again. “This is all?” she said, her voice dismissive, even disappointing. Haughty.

Skulls let loose a bark of laughter. “Cocky! Taking after your fucking parents, huh?” she asked, her face turning into a hideous snarl all of a sudden.

She wasn’t even paying attention to Basil or the others, as they spread out around Gloom Glimmer and him – Hecate and Polymnia with him, the other junior heroes on Gloom Glimmer’s side.

“You got a problem with my parents?”

“Yeah. Your dad put a hit out on me,” the withered woman snarled. “Something about me being too much of a psychopath for him to tolerate. The hypocrite.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Gloom Glimmer drawled at her, remaining calm, which only seemed to infuriate the woman. “My papa is bad, but he at least has class. You…” She looked the woman up and down. “You try to hard.”

The woman in the bird-helmet spoke up, just as Skulls was about to say something, her face twisted in even more anger. She spoke in harsh Japanese – Basil only caught a few words, ‘orders’, ‘deal with’ and ‘control’ – and Skulls subsided, stepping back.

“I’ll teach you about class, you little bitch,” she snarled at Gloom Glimmer, still ignoring the others in the room. “And when I’m done, I’ll send your daddy a recording of it. Bet that’ll make him reconsid-“

Basil opened fire, shooting the Japanese woman’s katana off her hip, shattering the sword into two pieces.

Before anyone could react, another shot destroyed the book in the arrogant girl’s arms, hitting hard enough to throw her back to slam into the wall behind, causing her to cry out in pain.

And then all hell broke loose.

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Interlude 6 – The Sleeper Must Not Wake! (Anniversary)

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September 3rd, 2012

The man named Roy Smith climbed off the old, beat-up boat that had taken him all the way from Japan to the Installation. He was more than glad to get off the old rust-bucket he’d been forced to pay for, since that bitch had stolen most of his funds.

But now, at last, he had arrived. He ran his fingers through his blonde hair as he stepped onto the pier. A group of heavily armed guards in full-body armour walked past him. They’d dispose of the crew of the ship, scavenge it for anything useful and then dispose of all the traces.

On the pier, two women and a man stood. The man and one of the women wore white lab coats, while the second woman was dressed in the same armour as the guards, only without the helmet.

She was tall, fit, and just generally so beautiful that he immediately pegged her as an Adonis-type. The effect was lessened a bit by her completely shaven head and the frown on her face.

The man in the lab coat looked like he belonged into a comic book, playing the mad scientist – he was reedy, had bad hair, bad teeth and oversized, tricked-out goggles over his eyes.

But Roy only really cared for the other woman, the one in the lab coat. She was the reason he had got this far, the reason why he would be able to support their most noble cause.

She was a short Chinese woman, maybe a breath taller than five feet, with straight black hair she’d tied up into a very tight knot fixed with two lacquered chopsticks, a very austere but pretty face and dark brown eyes.

“A good day to you, Mister Smith,” she said with what might have been a smile, offering him a gloved hand.

He took it, shaking it delicately. He didn’t want to risk setting her off – her temper was legendary.

“It is an honour to meet you, Miss Dusu,” he replied with an honest smile.

* * *

“May I introduce our chief of security?” Dusu said, turning to the shaven woman in battle gear. “This is the thirteenth Skulls, our organization’s most highly decorated officer.”

Roy nodded, offering the woman his hand, but she did not take it. “You got the rule book?” she asked with a voice that stood in stark contrast to her cruel, disapproving expression – deep and rich with dulcet tones.

He nodded as he pulled his hand back. Damn, I feel like I should freeze on the spot.

“Then you know the rules. Break them, and I will kill you.” With those words, she turned around and left the pier with quick, long strides.

Man, that’s a fine piece of ass. Though I guess my chances to tap it are in the negative range.

Then again, he might very well be the only other Adonis on the Installation.

Suddenly, the man in the lab coat grabbed his hand from the side of his body and shook it with a wide smile. “Welcome to the Installation, Mister Smith! Don’t mind Skulls, she’s always like this. And don’t be discouraged, even I got to tap that primo ass,” he welcomed him, speaking within a single breath in a high, nasal voice. He had really bad breath.

Roy was unsure how to react for a moment, but Dusu cleared her throat, which made both of them pay attention. “Mister Smith, this is the seventh Geek. He is in charge of the contriving half of the Installation, while I lead the gadgeteering half. Please follow me.”

She walked down the pier, her steps so silent he barely heard her move.

* * *

“The Installation is the second-largest manmade island in the world, and the largest floating island – the whole structure is exactly two hundred and four square kilometers in size, divided into two equal halves with a central section that serves as the command center and the living quarters for all of us, though we researchers get the better rooms in the upper levels, as opposed to the guards and support staff,” Dusu explained with a proud voice as she lead him deeper into the artificial island.

Roy was immediately smitten – his power’s focus was on biochemistry, but he could still very much appreciate the craftsmanship that had gone into the clean, futuristic complex.

“How many people are on the Installation?” he asked, trusting to his enhanced sense of balance to not trip while look pretty much everywhere other than towards the way he was going.

“Five hundred and seventeen, both researchers, guards and support staff. And one thousand six hundred fifty-eight test subjects,” she replied immediately.

“One thousand four hundred and one test subjects. We lost two hundred and fifty seven during the last round of yesterday’s tests on my side,” Geek threw in.

Dusu gave him an annoyed glance. “You burn through test subjects too quickly. We’ll need to purchase a new batch by the middle of the month if it goes on like this.”

Geek raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I’ll strive to improve efficiency. Promise.”

“See that you do,” she replied, then turned back to Roy. “The organization usually provides us with more than enough test subjects, mostly from the South Asian or South African war zones. But we still need to be careful no one locates us – our protection is not perfect – so we can’t afford to waste them.”

He nodded absentmindedly. “And I will be working with you, Ma’am?”

“Yes. Your specialisation should prove compatible with my own. Unfortunately, my last assistant proved to be literally too dumb to live,” she replied, frustration seeping into her voice at the end.

“What happened, if I may ask?” What I mean is, did you kill her, and what are my chances for dying that way?

Geek giggled, his goggles shaking wildly. “Stupid little girl, she got a bit too careless working with one of the samples, and-“

“You have samples?!” he all but screamed, stopping in his tracks. “I didn’t know it was possible to extract samples!”

“Oh, it wasn’t for quite a while. But Dusu here figured it out just a year after she joined us, and we’ve been extracting them ever since. Lost nearly half our staff in the beginning, before we figured out how to properly secure them, not to mention all the test subjects we wasted,” explained Geek.

Dusu snorted in a decidedly unladylike manner. “And the little idiot went and still screwed it up.”

Geek giggled again. “At least we got a fine new test subject out of it. And she screams in the prettiest way, I gotta show you sometime, Roy-boy,” he said between giggles.

Roy shuddered a little at the utter callousness in his voice, but caught himself before anyone could notice. Don’t want them to think I’m soft.

“I’ll strive not to disappoint, Ma’am.”

“Do so. I would hate to hand over another assistant for testing. Or disposal,” she said. Then she continued, shaking her head: “And I had such high hopes for the last one.”

“I shall do my best, Ma’am.”

Geek just giggled again.

* * *

They’d parted from Geek a few minutes ago, and Dusu had taken him right through the gadgeteering complex. After a few minutes of walking and taking elevators downwards – the biggest part of the Installation was actually beneath the water – they arrived in her lab.

“This is awesome, Ma’am,” he sighed as he saw all the cutting edge equipment, including…

“Is that one of Sovereign’s Cloning Chambers!?”

“Aye, it cost me quite a mint but I was able to purchase it,” she answered, now far more relaxed than before.

He almost popped the cork right then and there, and wouldn’t that have been embarassing?

“But let’s get to the important part – our work,” she said and walked towards a large circular table that doubled as a screen.

Touching a few buttons on the screen, it lit up and showed… it.

“Oh God, I’ve never seen such a clear picture of it,” he sighed, putting his hands on the edge of the table and leaning in as far as he dared.

She nodded. “We’ve got cameras and access pipes that allows us to get within centimeters of it. We need them, really, to extract samples, hopefully to find a way to wake it,” she explained.

“I… let me take a look? For a few minutes? Please?” he asked, enraptured by the sight.

“Of course. Five minutes, no more, though. We do have a schedule,” she replied, then fell silent.

* * *

The cameras reached all the way down to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, and the soft, almost gentle glow given off by the Sleeper’s body provided enough light to see it in all its beauty.

After a few moments of enraptured non-action, he tapped a few icons that had appeared on the screen, calling up some data on what he saw.

There were, of course, the coils of its beautiful serpentine body, one thousand and thirty-one miles long, roughly three-point-one miles in diameter on average. It wasn’t covered in scales like a snake, but instead had a thick, smooth white skin that looked more like that of a jellyfish. The computer informed him that the current theory was that this was merely its coloration during its hibernating state, and that it would change upon awakening, as any samples extracted also changed their colours in unpredictable patterns.

What was probably the back of its body was covered in crystalline growths that were currently semi-opaque and colourless.

Roughly at the center of the mass of flesh was a particularly thick, tall pile of coils, and atop it rested its magnificent head – it was made of the same crystal as the growths on its back, and he could make out an indistinct humanoid shape where its tongue would be, as well as four pairs of eyes, each the size of a large building, and a single eye thrice that size, situated vertically on the center of its draconic, smooth head.

There were no limbs to be seen, unless its tongue had any.

The Sleeper’s body was still, unmoving, hibernating.

It was everything he could have hoped for and more.

* * *

“It… it’s so beautiful!” he whispered in adoration.

“It is. She is.”

He looked up at her. “She?”

“Quite so. At least, the humanoid tongue in its mouth appears to be female,” she explained.

He gulped, looking back at the monitors.

“And we shall wake her,” he said, then he looked at her. “Why do you want to wake her? If it is not too much to ask, Ma’am.”

She fell silent and turned around, making him afraid he’d overstepped his boundaries. But then she spoke: “You know what I do. What I did. All those projects, all the sacrifices… and nothing came of it. The world is still wretched, still choked by all those disgusting monkeys. I decided that, no matter how hard I worked, I’d never be able to push mankind to enter the true age of metahumanity.”

Turning around, she gave him a feverish look. “We need a gamechanger. Something, someone to wipe the slate clean of all the trash. We need her to push us to the next level.”

He nodded with every word, watching her as she calmed herself down. She’d looked beautiful herself when she spoke of her visions.

“And you? I didn’t inquire about your motivation before, though I know you’re a member of the True Believers,” she continued, back to her usual calm self.

He shrugged. “It’s nothing special, Ma’am. I believe it is Ember’s fate to usher in a new age. And I believe that, if the Sleeper were awoken, she, Desolation-in-Light and Ember shall become a new Trinity that will lead us to… well, to the same goal you dream of – the True Age of Metahumanity!”

She grinned again, stunning him with the unrestrained brilliance of the expression, and gave him an ID card. “Good. Very good. Welcome to the Installation, Roy Smith. And welcome, to the Companions of the Future!”

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