14.a.5 Out of Time

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Now

Jared ran through slowed, sluggy time. Over rubble and around rubble, vaulting over people frozen in place, most still oblivious to what was coming.

Not that he himself really knew what was coming, other than that it was bad.

And so he ran, pushing as many seconds into his time as possible, and it still didn’t feel like it was enough – the calamity, whatever it was, was edging forward, spreading; it had already enveloped Mindstar and was reaching the edge of the crater, towards the Dark and the others whom had gathered there.

I could help them, came a treacherous little thought. Maybe, if I use up all my stored time, I could save one or two.

But doing so meant splitting his time. Taking just one other person along for the ride, it’d halve his remaining time. Two people, he’d be down to a third.

The city was too damaged, even if he found his bike, he could not possibly use it to speed things up. Even now, running away on his own, even with time slowed to such a degree that even the most precariously unstable rubble could not shift beneath his weight, or at least not in time to matter, even now it was wearisome and difficult, to run and climb over it all – and his power actually boosted his endurance a great deal!

No, he couldn’t help anyone, except maybe himself. Not even his team.

As if on cue, he caught sight of the boss and the buttboy, the former standing tall, stalwart as ever, a hand on his boyfriend’s shoulder as the latter knelt over another cape he didn’t recognize. One of the boss’s feet was touching said cape’s shoulder, spreading his power over them as well.

He could tell, because here, in this world, it actually had a visible effect, causing the three of them to look washed-out, colorless. He could no more affect them now than he could outside his power – he couldn’t even give them any of his time, to bring them up to his speed.

At least you two’ll be safe, he thought, with that usual stab of jealousy he got when he saw the two of them together. It was a small one, the kind he often felt when he saw people his age in a relationship, but it was there, nonetheless. Why can’t I have that? was what it said, each damn time.

At least the Kitty and Osore were so weird about their relationship, he didn’t feel jealous of them, too. Most of the time. Hell, he wouldn’t be surprised if Osore didn’t give a crap about her, and was just so apathetic he didn’t care when she hung off of him or kissed him.

Dude was scary.

And also likely to die, along with his girlfriend, if I don’t help.

He shook his head, and focused as he got to a particularly difficult section – a collapsed building that stood in the way of the straightest line away from the time-explosion, too broad to feasibly run around and be faster than try to scale it.

And scale it he did, leaping and crawling as necessary, using broken bits of concrete and cracked glass that should never have borne his weight as footholds without even shifting them, scaling a good twenty feet of rubble to reach the peak.

From there, he could finally see the area beyond the desolation. The suburbs to the South-West of New Lennston, to be precise. Where he’d taken Kizzy, to keep her out of the fight and as safe as can be.

There was no telling, though, how far this explosion was going to reach. The normal rules clearly didn’t apply here.

So, he was going to run there, grab Kizzy, and take her as far away as he could. Carry her, running, away from the devastation, like he had before, and like he was likely to again, in the future, as long as that monster persisted.

He looked over his shoulder, back the way he’d come. The slow-motion explosion had spread further, crawling forth. He couldn’t say what’d become of the Dark, he’d been on the other side of the explosion from where Jared had started running, but tendrils of it were already reaching for some of the people standing at or near the edge of the crater. They were too far away to tell whether any of them had even started to react to it. If they’d even get a chance at it.

Fuck, they’re all dead, aren’t they?

Not just his team, but everyone else within reach. Well, maybe not the princess. Certainly not the Dark. But the rest of his team, sans the boss and the buttboy. Jugs, Kitty, Osore. Bismuth was probably still somewhere in there. The adults. Hecate and Tyche, though he hadn’t seen Tyche earlier.

Now there was a girl he thought he could have a relationship with. Heroic, gorgeous, fun-loving, easygoing, just the right amount of crazy and flirty.

I hope your luck doesn’t run out here of all times, Red.

He looked down at his feet, feeling shame well up within him. He couldn’t possibly help. Even if he might have, at first, he’d run too far away by now, and every second he dithered up here was another second lost. All he could hope to achieve was to die together with his friends.

He had to think of Kizzy, first.

I’m sorry, everyone. I wish I was stronger.

With tears in his eyes, he turned away from the battlefield…

***

… and found himself staring at his clock, red digits floating before a pure white background, measuring the minute and a half of time he had left to spend.

What?

He blinked, and when his eyes opened again, the digits were no longer floating freely before the whiteness. Instead, he saw an incredibly long display, like what one would see on an old-fashioned digital clock, stretching to the left and right, circling around him as he turned his head – a perfect ring of a display, filled with bright red numbers separated by blinking colons.

And there weren’t just the seconds and minutes he was used to seeing whenever he closed his eyes. No, the digits continued to the right, and circled nearly entirely around the display, back to the minute digits at the front. He didn’t even know the words for the measurements, and he wasn’t sure there were any. Hundreds of thousands of digits, millions, time defined and measured out to an incredible, impractical degree, measured out far, far past the point of practicality for human action, thought, even conception.

Measured out to an inhuman degree.

Most of the numbers weren’t moving, but for the digits at the very end, that is to say, directly to the left of the minute digits. The smallest measure of time his power knew, ticking down at what felt like a snail’s pace, the display changing so slowly he could see the old digit fade out and the new one brighten up in slow motion.

… : 31

… : 30

He blinked again, and once more the sight was changed. Where before there had been but a white backdrop, there were now shapes, barely visible. Like looking at something move within a bank of mist, except one couldn’t see the thing itself, only the way it affected the mist.

Vast, vast shapes moved in jerky motions behind the display. Gears, spools, levers. Disconnected, seemingly, as if pieces between them were missing, or perhaps simply not visible yet.

As he watched, one of the largest gears shifted a little bit, a fraction of a turn; it set off a lever that seemed to need at least one more gear between them to be set off, snapping up to strike at and bounce off of… nothing?

… : 29

“What the hell is going on!? Hello!?!” he shouted, turning around in place, looking for a clue.

As he did, the scenery changed again, the giant gear shifting one more position ahead and causing the lever to bounce off of something, audibly this time, like a giant clockwork making all a single, vast motion; and by the time he was looking at the ‘front’ again, the gears and levers and other pieces had become visible, made of strange metals that didn’t look right to his eye, with fine strands of something spun between them, being threaded through the titanic clockwork.

Time. It’s threading time, he comprehended, without knowing why or how he did so.

… : 28

He himself stood atop another giant gear, made of some kind of brassy-golden material that was too rough to be metal and too smooth to be stone.

And then something else moved. Something vast, so vast he could barely comprehend its motion, and not just because it was effectively invisible, an outline in the mist, only this was an outline in the light; something that’d been draped around and over some of the gears, levers and the display itself, lazily, like some kind of gargantuan snake.

He thought he saw the outline of a hand, fingers, though he couldn’t make out how many fingers; but certainly more than five.

The… whatever it was, it almost seemed to reach for him, and he took an instinctive step back, raising his arms in defense – not that it would’ve done any good.

But it stopped short of reaching him, and instead, pointed down at the display directly in front of him (yet so far away he wasn’t sure he could ever reach it).

The numbers there, they flickered, as Jared lowered his arms and stared; shifting through numbers, letters, then disappearing, nearly all but a few to form a single message.

RUN UP THE CLOCK?

YES || >NO

The little triangle pointing at the ‘No’ disappeared, and appeared next to the ‘Yes’, then faded and appeared at the ‘No’ again, flickering back and forth between them.

His jaw worked, wordlessly, for a moment, as he processed it all, intuitions coming into his mind he’d never have thought of on his own. “I…”

“Beware,” a new voice spoke, from the left.

Jared jumped and squeaked in a way that his friends would certainly have had a laugh about, whirling about to look at the intruder in a place he’d never, ever have expected to see one.

The figure before him was… indistinct, though in a different way to the  thing on his clock. It was humanoid, certainly, human-like even, but it was hard to make out more; completely white from head to toe, it seemed to consist of dozens or more people, all overlapping each other, but no two of them quite the same in dimensions, blurring the outline of the gestalt into a flickering, shifting mess. There were no facial features he could make out, nor any other identifying features at all, really.

It turned its head away from the clock, and looked – he presumed – straight at him. “You should think again, whether you want to say yes,” it spoke, its voice an inummerable chorus. “This is not a choice you can walk back.”

“I, I think I know that,” he replied, looking away from it and up at the question on the clock’s display. “This, this is what they call a swan song, right?”

“It’s the option of one,” the figure clarified. “A choice, you have to make, here, beyond the reach of other people. To give your life, in a way, in exchange for power. A great deal of power, if for a limited… time.”

“Enough power to save everyone?” he asked, choked up.

The figure seemed to pause, for a moment. “No. Not everyone, not by yourself. This area’s always been fragile, ever since the Beginning; the incursion she’s set off will spread, unless counter-acted appropriately.”

“Spread, how far?” he asked, dazed. This was all, too damn much.

“Far enough you may not be able to get Keziah to safety, without this power,” the strange thing retorted.

It was like a drop of super-freeze dropped into a bucket of water, causing ice to spread all throughout Jared’s body, as he imagined those eldritch bolts and tendrils spreading far enough to reach his little sister and…

His imagination shut down at that point, mercifully.

“There’s no way to stop this?” he asked, hoarsely. There were tears in his eyes, that he wasn’t bothering to wipe away.

“None you could walk on your own, nor one I could tell you of.”

“Who… who are you?” he finally asked, turning his head to look at the stranger, his shoulders slumping. He felt so tired.

“Merely a friend,” it replied, simply and with finality.

The mechanism advanced one more step, and Jared found that the entirety of their surroundings were now taken up by titanic a titanic clockwork engine.

“I never would have thought a swan song would look like this,” he said, when it became obvious it wouldn’t further elaborate.

The stranger shrugged, and turned away to look up at the clock and the still-invisible giant sprawled all around and over it. “It is different for everyone whom this offer is extended to. Everyone’s world is quite different after all.” It looked around at their surroundings. “This clock of yours is quite interesting, really. So many details, hidden beneath the surface. Still, it is hardly the time for idle chatter.” It turned its head to look at him. “What is going to be your choice?”

Jared looked away again, up at the clock. If I’d been asked a few seconds earlier…

He would have said no. It was the only thing he could have said. No matter what else, Kizzy had to take precedence, and he had to be alive to take care of Kizzy.

But now… this stranger, this ‘friend’ had said that he might not be able to get her to safety on his own. Certainly not with his power as it was, and maybe even accepting a swan song wouldn’t be enough? But it would be more likely to be enough.

Then there was the question of whether this… person… was even trustworthy. There were two reasons, mainly why he accepted what he said, though – one, it just fit how shitty the world was too well, and two, if someone untrustworthy had access to him here, at what felt and seemed to be the very center of his power, well… then he was fucked, anyway.

So in the end, it all came down to the whether he was willing to sacrifice his life for Kizzy’s sake.

All I do, I do for you, Keziah.

He reached out with his hand, pointing at the ‘Yes’ option, and the triangle switched over.

The display flickered, as the words were replaced.

ALL THAT WE DO, WE DO FOR HER.

The invisible thing rose up – and then came down, smashing through the gears and springs and levers of power.

Again.

And again.

As if in a frenzy, it struck and lashed out, like a snake – or arm – possessed, smashing the machinery around them, the cacophony of destruction utterly defeaning, driving Jared to stagger back and nearly fall over.

Time that had before been threaded carefully through the system poured forth like liquid light, rushing towards him, as the display flickered, danced with disjointed lights, and then went black, all black, save for a single red symbol.

The light rushed forth and into Jared, faster and harder than he could react, into his mouth and down before he could even gasp for breath, let alone screaming, filling him to bursting and beyond.

***

He exploded into motion, leaping off the giant mound of rubble he’d been standing upon. Still in the air, he felt his vision change, sharpening; even with his helmet’s visor set to let him see beyond the boundaries of his power’s sphere, at the cost of being unable to see his immediate surroundings as anything but a blurry mess, the two halves of his vision focused, independently, until an equilibrium was reached, and he could see clearly, both near and far – further than ever before, all the way to the horizon.

Reaching up with one hand, he touched his helmet, to pull it off – but he could not move it, and when he touched it, he felt his hand, like he was touching his face; except he felt the helmet, through his hand.

Even as he touched it, it smoothed out, shifted. Merging with his face, he realized, as he felt the air rush past his body on the approach to the ground, as if naked.

My costume is becoming a part of me?

He’d heard the stories about Swan Songs, how weird things got. That people who underwent one, they changed before dying. It was a poorly understood thing, unsurprisingly. Swan Songs were rare to begin with, they could not be triggered deliberately (and who would want to, really?) and they rarely lasted for long, on top of only really happening during times of crisis.

His thoughts were disrupted as he landed on the broken ground, on all fours. The impact was barely a consideration, even lighter than it would usually be. Less than ten percent effect.

Time was pouring out of him, beyond any reason, extending his seconds beyond what he’d ever been capable of.

His body moved, lightly, as if he was weightless, leaping forth away from the suburbs. Arms and legs moved in strange synchronicity, bending oddly, the forelimbs lengthened to let him run on them properly.

He didn’t have much time, he knew that. And just grabbing Kizzy and running with her, he didn’t think that was going to be enough.

No, if he was doing this, he had to do it smart.

His power was such that, he was quite certain he could have grabbed Kizzy and run halfway across the continental United States, if he’d so wished. Or the other way, across the ocean.

And yet, the stranger had said that may only maybe save her.

Just how big an explosion is this going to be?

There was only one person he could think of, that might be able to tell him, who was also within reach.

And so he ran towards the ‘incursion’.

It looked different, now. Its rate of progress had slowed, almost to a stand-still, but where before it had looked like some kind of negative light, black cracks spreading like slow-motion lightning, it now looked alive to his eyes. Red, like molten rubies, and pulsing, ripples running up and down the stuff at such speeds, he could barely follow them even now, with time slowed to a near-stand-still.

It looks like blood, he realized. Pulsing like there’s a heart, somewhere in there, beating.

He ran towards the tendrils of bloody light, soon entering the area where the glow they gave off tinted everything a deep, shimmering red. Entering it was like suddenly plunging into water, as if the light it gave off had real mass, impeding his motions; but he pressed through regardless, forcing himself to keep going.

And the closer he got to it, the more he felt his body change. Saw his body change, as the arms that were reaching ahead of him, to grab onto the ground and propel him forward, elongated and smoothed out, what had once been his suit becoming his skin, his skin becoming like crystal; and the crystal cracked, cracks spreading through it, through which came forth a stark white glow that seemed unaffected by the red glow of the incursion, pushing it away, even, rather than mixing together.

That wasn’t even the weirdest part. As he passed other people, he found that they, too, looked changed. The metahumans, at least. From a distance, they just looked as he would have expected them to, merely washed out in red, but whenever he passed close enough to one or some for his bubble of light to cover them, if partially, the oddest sight took place. He saw things, beyond them, as if they were lenses that refocused his light, projecting strange visions beyond them.

There, a girl he’d seen on some show before, in a black bodysuit so tight it would have been utterly indecent, if not for the red, brown and orange leafs stuck to it in swirling patterns, some of them covering the most critical areas. As he passed her by, she became a lens that showed him a vast, autumn-colored forest, only it was a forest without a sky, without earth or animals or anything but the trees and their leafs, growing everywhere, above, below, to the sides.

He ran past her, and then past his two teammates and the cape they’d been helping, but yet again, they were dead to his power, washed out grey figures whether they were within or without his bubble.

Boss’s power is really fucking hardcore.

He ran in a loping kind of gait through this silent, red world, the light shining forth from him growing stronger, until it reached as far as his bubble usually did, casting his immediate surroundings in stark clarity, while everything beyond the bubble was frozen redness and shadows. As the red light was pushed away, it became easier for him to move; still underwater, perhaps, but now he was running inside an air bubble that moved with him.

Soon, his path took him around the red stuff, and there he saw what he’d been looking for – the frozen form of the Dark, a tall, jet-black mass of shadow, legless, as if fused to the ground, the tendrils of red stuff curving around him.

Jet black.

Even standing right in front of the glowing red stuff, its light did not seem to touch him at all – not only was the Dark himself as, dark, as usual, but there was an entire area around him, a bubble two times as big as the one around himself, that the red stuff could not penetrate – instead, it had wrapped halfway around it, enveloping the Dark like amber around an air pocket. Where Jared’s bubble was filled with incandecent light, however, the Dark’s was filled with something much bleaker, much harsher, casting everything within the bubble in stark relief.

He immediately found a new obstacle – the bubble was nearly solid, to him. His own bubble deformed around it, rather than overlap, and when he came up against it, it was very nearly solid, denser by far than the Incursion’s own… whatever it was. Aura. Presence.

A problem, whatever he chose to call it. Pressing against it was like trying to push spun glass into old, extra-thick honey – he felt like his spiffy new crystal arms were going to snap, any moment.

He looked at the ground to cover, before he could reach the Dark. His new arms were about ten feet long, and he could cover about as many feet with a single step. There were about sixty feet of harsh, bleak-lit space between him and the Dark.

Five steps and then reaching out. You can do it, Jared.

He leaned into the Dark’s bubble, shoulder first, to spare his fragile-feeling arms the pressure, slowly, laboriously, forcing his body into the oppressive light.

Strangely, it didn’t hurt, not quite. He wasn’t sure he could feel real pain anymore, with his body the way it was. But he felt the pressure, constricting him, pressing against his body from every which way, unevenly – far more heavily on the parts of him closer to the Dark than not. The increase in pressure was so rapid, so intense, he actually could feel the difference, inch by inch, compacting him, crushing, restraining, cracking the crystals of his body, so dense it seemed to actually dim the light shining from within, rather than have more of it spill forth from the fresh cracks.

He was less than a foot in yet!

Thank God I don’t need to breathe anymore, he thought, as he took his first, laborious step into this oppressive bubble. Cracks spread further over his red-and-white skin, shining with dim, almost condensed light.

It felt like he was dying. Even without the need to breathe – he hadn’t even realized he wasn’t breathing anymore, until he wasn’t able to and found he didn’t need to –  the pressure was too much. One step, but he’d ended up taking less than five feet with it, for he just couldn’t force it in that far. Three feet crossed, at best. He’d need nearly double the steps… more, if the pressure increased even further.

Nevertheless, he took the next step. He was dying anyway – what was there left to lose?

The only thing that could still scare him now was the thought of failing to save Kizzy, and that was certainly a reason to move forward, and not retreat.

Step by step, he wandered deeper into the oppressive bleakness, feeling his body break down, pieces of crystalline costume-flesh flaking off to reveal more of the glowing innards, and yet, he somehow kept finding the strength to move on, step by laborious step.

It took him ages – in a second – to finally reach the Dark’s towering, time-frozen form. By that point, his body had broken down nearly entirely, leaving him as a dim, solid silhouette of white light, framed by an irregular lattice of silvery crystal strands.

Even now, grown to more than twice his height, he was smaller than the Dark, stooped over as he was, pushed down by the oppressive weight.

As he approached him, strange strands became visible, tendrils of… something, that extended out from his form in every direction, frozen in place – they did not seem solid, but rather made of some kind of black mist, frozen mid-swirl in some places, solidified into strands in others, until they trailed off into nothingness…

He could not guess as to their meaning or purpose, but there had to be thousands of them, if not tens of thousands, though curiously, there were none in the direction he was approaching from.

Those barely visible faces were still all over the Dark’s form, as well, frozen in place, rather than constantly shifting, which made it easier to make them out.

He tried really hard not to make them out.

Instead, he reached out, laborious inch by inch, until he could put his hand onto the Dark’s left arm, at the elbow.

His form flickered, the light within pulsing, from his core to his arm, from his arm into the Dark. The entire form twitched, shuddering from head to… bottom, the faces animating only to disappear into the greater darkness, as the strands came alive, extending every which way, twisting, twitching, dissolving and reforming, still trailing off into nothing.

The tall, shadow-wreathed figure turned his head, looking down at him, while pulses of white light kept flowing into him, providing him with a share of Jared’s time.

Six glowing red eyes focused on him, as the pressure mercifully disappeared.

Jared shuddered, nearly losing his grip on the man, as his entire form unwound, no longer restricted – like a spring that’d been compressed, only to suddenly be released, he nearly doubled in size, all parts of him swelling as his inner light blazed forth.

He would have lost his grip on the Dark, by his own sudden growth, but his arm split, from the elbow up to between middle and ring finger, only for light to pour forth and form two whole forearms and hands, one still holding onto the Dark with unnaturally long fingers.

Crystal began to grow atop his glowing flesh, like ice forming on a surface when the temperature fell sharply, and soon he was – mostly – whole again, covered in crystal with pulsing vein-like cracks running through it.

“One would think I would get used to this, but even after nigh-on a century, I still can’t quite stomach a child dying in front of me,” the Dark spoke, pensively.

“It was either me, or everyone else. I think,” Jared replied.

The Dark seemed to hear it, though. “Ah. Did a Friend tell you that?”

Of course he knows…

He just nodded.

The Dark sighed, and looked over his shoulder. “An Incursion… of course,” he spoke, and even through the distorted chorus of his many voices, he sounded incredibly, unbelievably tired.

“What’s going to happen?” Jared asked, while he kept sharing his time with the Dark.

“The Incursion will reach out for every metahuman within a radius of… four and a half miles, just about,” the Dark said, hand raised to stroke his shadowy chin. “Each metahuman it connects to will then become an amplifier, extending the effect – exponentially so. Every other metahuman whom falls within the extended range will extend it in turn, and every baseline within that range will also become connected, though they won’t boost the effect further.”

“That… what… and then what?” That sounded horrific, considering how this thing already looked.

“Something worse than mere death, young man,” the Dark replied, simply. “Fortunately, thanks to the choice you made, we have a chance to avert the worst of it, by moving every metahuman here beyond its initial reach.”

Jared shuddered, his new form creaking with the motion, still growing, though not as explosively as before.

“What about, Mindstar?” he asked, looking towards where the woman still ought to be – if there was anything left of her.

The Dark looked in the same direction. “We cannot reach her, I’m afraid. Perhaps her shields will be enough to prevent a connection… she is clearly far more powerful than even I suspected, which is frankly rather disconcerting when- ah, no matter.”

He made a dismissive hand motion, as if he was tossing the thought aside.

“Let us focus. You could share your time with other people, in the past, to pull them into your pocketed timestream. Your capacity to do so ought to have increased considerably now.” It was a statement, not a question. “We need to extend your power to everyone else here, so they can move out of the Incursion’s range.”

“I’m not sure I have enough time left to do that,” Jared replied, looking down at the Dark – he’d grown a few feet, since they’d started talking. “This thing is spreading, even now, even though we’re progressing at one hundredth of a second!”

He looked at the tendrils of redness extending from the central mass that filled out the crater. They’d crept closer already.

“Even if I had time enough to spare, I don’t think I could get to everyone in time, I’d still need to run to everyone, pull them into my time, get them to safety, run back, over and over and the way you described it, if it connects to just one person…”

He trailed off, unable to put it into words.

“Fear not,” the Dark said, calmly, moving away from the Incursion, his bottom half sliding over the rubble without disturbing it. Jared followed, keeping his hand on the Dark’s shoulder, as those strange tendrils flowed out behind him, trailing his path. No matter which way the Dark turned or moved, it seemed like the tendrils always extended every which way around him, but towards Jared. “You were wise to come to me, first. Together, we can save everyone.”

There was not a doubt in his voice that Jared could detect, and he felt oddly reassured by it, which was just freaky because the Dark was being reassuring. His parents used to sing poems about how horrible a monster he was, to get him to behave, telling him that the Dark would come for him if he stole cookies from the cookie jar or didn’t pick up after himself.

“Cool. Great, I mean… yeah,” he stammered, unsure of what to say, while they put distance between themselves and the Incursion. “Speaking of saving everyone…”

The Dark looked over his shoulder at him, and there was something strangely sad about the expressionless shadow one could see, crushing Jared’s faintest hope before he could even speak.

“I’m sorry, but no, young man. Saving you, is beyond me at this point, beyond any means I am aware or even suspecting of,” he replied, his choir-like voice tender, like many greaving people layered on top of one another. “You have tipped over the edge… like an object which has crossed a singularity’s event horizon, there is now only one way to go for you, and that is not the way back.”

Jared lowered his head, briefly. It had been a faint hope, barely hope really, but still, it hurt to have it squashed.

“Focus, now. We have a great task to perform.” As he spoke, the Dark raised a long-fingered hand and put it onto Jared’s side – he had grown so tall, even the Dark could no longer reach any higher, as toll and long-armed as he may have been. “Do you have any last words you wish me to know or convey? Any last wishes?”

Jared looked at him, and if he’d still had eyes, they would have been staring. If he’d still had a mouth, it would have been slack-jawed. Entrust his last words to the Dark? Yet another thing he’d never ever have dreamed.

There were some things, though, that he would want to say, some things that… that mattered…

“Tell, the boss and… I mean, tell Tartsche and Spellgun… and the others, on my team, tell them goodbye. Tell them not to miss me too much, but not too little, either. Tell Polymnia I’m sorry I was such a jerk to her, and… tell the princess the same. I should’ve been nicer to her. And… that she’s not stupid, for the things she hopes for. Honestly, I think it’s rather awesome that she can hold on to that kind of hope.”

The words were spilling out of him, faster than he could think about them. “Tell Amazon she was a rockin’ boss, and tell Bismuth thank you, for everything she did for Kizzy. She’s awesome, and I’m sorry about what happened to her sister. And… tell Kizzy, that… that I’m sorry.”

He hesitated, because entrusting the Dark with words was one thing, but asking for something more… I hope to God you’re right about your dad, princess.

Jared raised his head – slightly, for he was too tall to see eye-to-eye with the Dark anymore, but enough to look him in the eyes. “And, my sister, Kizzy… she doesn’t really have anyone, won’t have anyone, once I’m gone…” A foster family is not the same as having a family. There won’t be anyone to watch out for her once she’s older. The UH will make sure she won’t lack money, but…

“I shall provide what protection and resources I can. You have my word,” the Dark spoke, and it was with the same casual conviction with which he’d said they could save everyone.

Something within Jared relaxed, like a knot, slightly unwound. He still wouldn’t be there for her himself, but at least, this way, he’d done all he could.

Almost done, all he could. He still had to stop this ‘Incursion’.

“How are we going to do this?” he asked, once he’d regained his composure.

“Behold.” The villain gestured dramatically with his free hand, and a shadowy form burst forth from the mass of shadows that ringed the pillar of his lower body.

A spindly, emaciated humanoid figure, made of an oily black substance, wreathed in shadows, burst forth – a Darkwraith, but a small one, it was basically just a torso, arms and an eyeless head, using its arms to drag itself forward at an impressive speed.

As it separated from the Dark, a strand of darkness remained, like the countless others that extended from his form, except this one seemed more – it was solid, rather occasionally dissolving into dust-like darkness before reforming, and it extended, at first, from where the Dark’s feet ought to be, to beneath the wraith’s form… to its stomach?

An umbilical cord? As if this couldn’t get any more disturbing.

Light pulsed down the cord, from the Dark to the wraith… from Jared to the Dark.

He’s sharing my time with the wraith. Holy-

The wraith rushed forth, trailing the umbilical, which moved up the Dark’s body as it extended, as if pulled out, until it connected to the pinky of his free left hand.

Jared could feel the drain of time, as he was now sharing it between three.

Four, as another wraith burst forth, fed pulses of time through its umbilical.

Six, as two more appeared.

Ten. Eighteen. More.

His growth accelerated, as he found his thoughts drifting into a strange state, the sensations his body was feeding back to him changing in ways he had no words to describe.

The Dark moved, pulling himself up to stand atop Jared’s left shoulder, right hand on his head, hundreds of cords extending from his left hand, like a puppeteer’s strings, with pulses of time-light trailing down their length.

Those cords… if each is a wraith…

Even with his thoughts becoming strangely dream-like, he could still draw the implication.

There were thousands of currently inert cords extending from the Dark’s form, and more joined them every passing moment as Jared grew in stature, and his awareness expanded in breadth and depth.

“Just how many wraiths do you have out there?” he asked, and his voice was huge, booming forth in strange ways, as if it produced its own echo; his body was as large now as Crocell had been at its biggest.

The more of my power I draw, the more I change, he realized. The less human I become.

“Never enough,” the Dark answered his question, even though Jared had already half-forgotten he’d asked it. He sounded resigned. “There’s never enough of me to go around. Never enough of anyone.”

Hundreds of wraiths were running to the people around the area, and merging with them.

The people came to life, as the wraiths became a part of them, connecting them to the Dark’s hand, fingertips to their navels.

The first few looked confused at first, then horrified at what they saw, as they looked either at the cords of oily darkness connecting to them, or up at the titanic figure that was Jared, or at the Dark, whom stood upon his shoulder like some kind of twisted pet.

Then they moved, and the motion was strange, starting suddenly – after a moment’s confusion, Jared’s new senses allowed him to see what was happening, the Dark’s intent moving down the cords, along with the time they were meant to convey, pushing everyone to flee.

“What about them?” Jared asked, pointing with one of the dozen arms he now sported at the little group under the aegis of Tartsche’s power. No wraith had connected to either of them.

No, his name was… what was his name, I don’t…

“We cannot connect to them,” the Dark replied, calmly, his attention focused on managing his many, many wraiths. “Neither can the Incursion – they will be safe.”

Jared tilted his head, only he didn’t tilt it spatially, but in a different way, like tilting it in time, and he looked ahead.

The Dark was right. He couldn’t see any future in which they were harmed by these events.

Since when can I look into the future? he asked himself.

“Don’t focus too hard on that,” the Dark told him, firmly, his voice somehow able to penetrate the dream-like haze that the boy’s thoughts were descending into. “We are already using up your time too quickly – don’t waste it on looking ahead.”

Did I say that out loud?

“There is no longer a distinction between what you think and what you express. Be very careful,” the Dark explained, patiently, as heroes, villains and bystanders were moved out of reach of the Incursion.

The awareness of the thing that had once been a boy extended in twists and turns that would have made no sense to the human it once was; and it could perceive, though not see, everyone within a great distance. People were moving to safety. Some faster than others, but all were moving, either under their own power, or being helped by others whom could move quickly and carry loads.

It wanted to help, to reach out with its many arms and help those whom were wounded, those whom were weak or just naturally slow, to get them to safety, but it knew the truth of the Dark’s words – it was spending time in colossal amounts, and anything it did threatened to spend even more, to make it even less human; and deep down inside it knew, once the process was far enough along, it would slip away and be drawn in to… to whatever was to come.

“Focus on what matters,” the Dark commanded, his alien voice cutting through the daze and straight to the mind of the boy within the thing. “Cast out your anchors. As long as you have at least one, you can prolong your existence, and save so many more people.”

The thing did so, seeking the boy’s memory’s for what mattered.

What did matter…

All that we do, we do for her.

Yes… a promise made, at the start and at the end of it all. A promise the boy made to himself, for the sake of his sister.

His sister… Keziah. Kizzy.

Kizzy had once had a brother… had a brother… and that brother’s name had been…

Jared. My name is Jared. I am Kizzy’s big brother, the boy thought as he awakened from the daze of power.

His titanic form shuddered, and shrank down by nearly half – and instead, time slowed even more, as he squeezed nearly twenty more seconds into each real second.

The Incursion’s progress was slowed even further.

“Impressive. What a tragedy, that one with such fortitude of mind is to die.” The Dark actually sounded genuinely aggrieved by it.

“It’s alright,” Jared said, slowly, his voice rumbling along, echoing off of nothing… or at least, nothing in this reality, at least. “I’ll last long enough to finish this.”

“As you say, young hero,” he said, and then turned away again, focusing on his wraiths and the people they connected to.

Meanwhile, Jared held onto his memories, his self, for as long as he could… piece by piece, losing them, as they moved on ahead to await him on the other side.

Finally, the Dark managed to move the last person out of reach of the Incursion. By that time, Jared had long since forgotten speech entirely, and so the shadow man merely bowed, deeply, and shot away.

With there no longer being a need to conserve time, he couldn’t resist the temptation to spend what he had left to look ahead, to see what would become of Kizzy.

Pain and heartbreak, grief and sorrow, horror and despair. But also… pushing past that… he got a glimpse, of a girl, a young woman, in costume, standing tall among a line of heroes.

She was going to shine brighter than he ever could.

Jared closed eyes he no longer had. His final thoughts were of his parents and his sister.

And then he was no more.

Previous | Next

vote for brennus

14.a.4 Out of Time

Previous | Next

Not so long before the Crocell Fight

Jared stood in the elevator, holding Kizzy’s hand. He was wearing his costume, without the helmet and gloves, while she was wearing one of her favorite outfits, a red and white sweater dress with a built-in hood, white pantyhose and equally red-and-white sneakers that were so clean, they looked to be brand new. Her blonde hair was done up in a complex arrangement of loops and braids that their step mother had had way too much fun working on, framing her freshly scrubbed face, with just a little lip gloss to add an accent.

He’d just slicked his hair back with some gel, as he usually did. The style carefully chosen and maintained, but only requiring minuscule effort to do so, unlike Kizzy’s ever-changing, ever-evolving looks.

Her grip on his hand tightened as the elevator approached the Junior’s common level, though even if she’d put her all into it, she could never have achieved anything remotely sufficient to even discomfort him.

„Are you nervous?“ he asked, doing his best to sound casual, rather than concerned.

She looked up at him like he’d just grown a second head. „Of course I’m nervous, Jar Jar! How can you not be? We’re going to meet the princess of pop! THE Polymnia! The one who made ‚Armaterrium‘ and ‚Cascade of Moonglow‘ and, and, and are you laughing at me?“ She pouted, glaring upwards at him.

It was freaking adorable. Moreover, it was… it was heartwarming in a way he’d have trouble putting into words, if he’d even ever tried.

After a whole year of not talking, barely making a sound except to scream, she’d finally, finally started to recover. Now she mostly behaved like a normal girl again. More restrained and quiet than she’d used to be, but still, worlds ahead of where she’d been for the first year after their parents‘ death.

The team had helped, a great deal. Particularly Bismuth, who’d taken a particular interest in the situation and had made a point of building a relationship with her. She’d involved her in stuff Jared could not for the life of him figure out how to do right, like taking her on one of those overly elaborate and stupidly over-plotted shopping sprees she tended to organize once a month, and other stupidly girly stuff that Kizzy seemed to just adore.

Whatever makes her happy again. Even if it drives me insane.

The elevator stopped and let them out into the antechamber, of sorts, to the Junior’s lounge. Just a small, oval room leading to a sliding double door, for visitors to wait in case the Juniors had to put masks on (or do some last-minute cleanup, a task which usually fell on Jared, for obvious reasons, or lately also the Princess, for equally obvious ones).

Not that it was an issue here. Kizzy already knew nearly everyone on the team by name, excluding Kitty (whom rarely wore her own face anyway),  Osore (who didn’t care), the Princess (she didn’t have a secret identity anyway) and Jugs, whom had agreed to unmask to her.

“You ready, Kizzy?” he asked, barely able to keep acting cool now that they were so close to springing the surprise.

“Yesssss!” she replied, nodding her head like only younger kids could, like there was less bone and more rubber in their necks. “Best Birthday Present!” she added, looking up at him with shining eyes.

Agh, so adorable! he thought, but just grinned. “Well, let’s not keep her waiting, she is kind of a busy person.”

Which was an understatement. Sometimes he wondered whether that girl would get out of her lab at all, outside of going out in costume, if it wasn’t for the Princess or the Buttboy dragging her out for this or that.

And he’d thought a Contriver like the Buttboy was obsessive about his work…

“Yes, let’s!” She gave that boneless nod again, eyes fastened on the door.

Time to shine.

He kicked his power into effect, adding the whole nine seconds he’d trained his power up to be capable of onto each second that passed.

The world beyond his immediate surroundings blurred, as if his eyes were bad again, and he wasn’t wearing his helmet to have the visor counteract the effect, but it didn’t matter.

He’d made sure that Kizzy wasn’t gripping tightly onto his fingers, as otherwise, he’d have been stuck – each second he added cut down the effect he could have on the world outside his power, and the effect the world had on him. Add one second, cut it down to half. Two seconds, and it’s cut down to a third.

Nine seconds, and he only had one tenth of the effect he ought to have on the world – and was protected from nine tenths himself.

Sliding his hand out of Kizzy’s, he sauntered forward and touched the doors, pushing more seconds from his store into them, to bring them up to his time and be able to affect them normally.

He opened them, one after the other, immediately releasing them from his power, so as not to waste precious seconds on them. The room beyond was decorated all over with streamers, balloons and a huge banner saying ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY, KIZZY!’ in rainbow-colored, glitter-covered letters.

The others were all lined up, in costume but with their masks off (save for the princess, whom didn’t wear one anyway), already poised to cheer; Melody stood in the center, arms spread wide, an infectuous smile on her face, in just those skintight pink pieces she wore under her power armor, basically an athletic crop top and biker shorts, as well as a pair thigh-high pink socks and blue shoes.

Damn, she looks good.

He often wished his power would let him stop time for real, so he could just walk over and take a closer look, freely, but unfortunately, they’d still see him move as a blur, and…

Well, he had to stick to subtler ways of using his power to oogle the ladies, when he bothered to hide it behind his power at all.

Anyway, today’s not the day for that, dear hormones.

He sighed, jogging over to his team and taking up the empty spot to the left and slightly in front of the songstress, dropping down on one knee, gesturing at her with both hands in a theatric fashion, finally taking a deep breath before he allowed time to resume.

“HAPPY BIRTHDAY, KIZZY!” everyone shouted, except for Osore, whom just said it in his usual deadpan tone.

Still, it all but bowled Kizzy over.

***

Half an hour later, Jared was leaning against the wall, a chilled bottle of root beer in hand, watching and listening as Melody played a song she hadn’t yet released for the wide-eyed, slack-jawed Kizzy perched atop Bakeneko, whom looked like an over-sized, rainbow-furred unicorn-cat.

The song was pretty nice, even if he preferred music with lyrics and a beat.

He was so absorbed in watching and listening, he didn’t immediately notice it when the princess slid, literally slid over to lean against the wall next to him, nursing a glass of fizzy cherry juice.

Like always, he felt both excited and nervous at her proximity. On one hand, she really, truly, was the prettiest girl he’d ever seen, and that skintight bodysuit she always wore, though thicker than was usual, did little to hide and a lot to emphasize it. She’d told them about her power, how it worked, how it had aged her up and matured her, in body and mind, then frozen her for years, then given her another growth spurt, then kept her prepubescent for years again… and so on, point being that her power had literally reshaped and refined her appearance from day one.

Jared hadn’t said so out loud, but he quietly disagreed. He wasn’t anywhere near as smart as the princess, or jugs, or even buttboy and boss man (Jury was still out on Osore, but he was at least sure he was smarter than the kitty), but God damn it, he was a dedicated student of the female form, and he’d always paid particular attention to female Adonises (and wasn’t he glad that they now had a new term for that, calling females Adonises was weird), so he knew all the signs of an Adonis power’s effect. There were always tells, that let him pick out whom was beautiful due to their power and whom was merely naturally gorgeous with near-perfect accuracy – he’d even caught a supervillainess once, that way, when he’d realized the hottie whose butt and legs he’d been oogling also had a too-perfect face, and…

Well, it was mostly in the face. And he could tell, looking at the princess’ face, that she was most likely just plain that pretty. For one, she looked almost exactly like her mother, to the point where the two of them could probably pass for twins, with some hair dye, or at least as siblings rather than mother and daughter and oh god the images that conjoured in his head quick think of baseball, think of baseball.

He blinked, averting his eyes from her, almost missing the knowing smile on her lips.

Point being, there was precedent for beauty in her family (even if no one knew what the Dark looked like, there were pictures of his mother, and his sisters, and of Lady Light’s mother, and of course of Lady Light herself, so…

That was strike one against that theory.

Strike two was that her face was interesting. The faces of Adonises, particularly female ones, could get kind of… repetitive, even with racial differences in the mix. The same ideals were applied to them all. It wasn’t like they were always perfect, but… close enough.

The princess’s face was not quite so ideal. Her lower lip was a little too thick, her mouth just a touch too wide, her eyes just a hair too big, her cheeks not quite full enough. Tiny imperfections which actually made her look even better than most Adonises, because one’s eyes would get hung up on them, instead of just passing over her face. Drawing attention and interest.

Especially those lips. God damn do I wish I could kiss them…

He realized that his eyes had drifted over to her again, to her lips in particular. Which turned up at the corners in a smirk.

“Having naughty thoughts again, Beach Boy?” she asked with more amusement in her voice than on her face, which was blushing lightly.

“Can you blame me? I never said I had an issue with your appearance,” he replied, a little more caustically than he’d intended to in is effort to cover up his own embarrassment.

“Nah,” she said with a shrug, which of course drew his eyes downwards for a few precious moments. “I’m used to it. There’s like, four boys in our age range that I’ve met who’ve never oogled me, and two of them are gay.” She nodded towards said couple, whom were cuddled up on a couch and enjoying

Four?” His eyes felt like they were going to pop out of his skull. He looked her up and down, from head to toe, with as meaningful a look as he could muster. “And only two of them are gay? Who’re the other two, Eunuchs?”

She blushed, rather adorably he had to say, looking away. “B-brennus and Os- Goudo.”

His eyes snapped over to the tall Japanese boy – almost a guy, really, he was going to be eighteen soon – standing behind the festivities, watching without watching, completely expressionless while he wore a red, white and blue party hat not unlike Jared’s own (even the princess wore one, though he’d missed it at first as his eyes had been focused… lower) and just… stood there, with about as much motion about him as a stone statue, holding a tray with drinks and snacks up within easy reach of his girlfriend and Kizzy.

Jared could totally buy that he wouldn’t show any reaction to the princess, even if she were to walk around stark naked.

The princess… stark naked…

Naked…

A sharp snap of black-clad fingers in front of his eyes pulled him out of Heaven and back onto the cold, dreary Earth.

“Earth to Beach Boy! You’ve literally started to drool,” she admonished him, sounding half annoyed and half amused.

“Uh, uhm… sorry. Uh. You didn’t…” He looked at her, worriedly. They’d already established that she could simply follow along into his time dillation, so if she got pissed, there’d be nothing at all he could do to get away.

“No, I didn’t look. I don’t want to know, though I can imagine what kind of thought got you distracted,” she explained, while he wiped the drool off of his chin.

“W-well… anyway, uh… I guess I  can totally buy Goudo acting like that… but Brennus, too? Are the hotties he hangs out with enough for him, or what?”

She giggled, at that, hiding it behind taking a sip of cherry juice from her glass. “Actually, according to Tyche, he won’t even look at her, even when she’s trying to get his attention by prancing around their base in the nude. He just tells her to put some clothes on.”

The sight of the red juice on her lips, and then her tongue licking it off, distracted him thoroughly enough that it took a few seconds for those words to register to him.

“Wait, what!? Is he a robot, or what?” he asked, incredulous, as he imagined that red-headed hottie Tyche trying to get his attention by going around in the nude…

She wouldn’t really have to try.

“No, he’s flesh and blood,” she replied, flatly. “Maybe some guys can control themselves, eh, eh?” She poked his side with her elbow, playfully.

He could only snort in response. “Yeah, no. Maybe there’s one guy out there whom can do it, but two, and in the same city? There ain’t no odds steep enough to describe how unlikely that is.”

She leaned away from him again, raising her glass. “How do you explain that we have two of them around, then?”

“Osore’s clearly secretly a robot built by Brennus to infiltrate the UH,” he stated, just as she was taking a sip of juice.

Irene sputtered something between a laugh and a groan, as cherry-red juice shot out of her lips and nose, and onto her costume’s top.

“Oh God that hurrrrrrrtssss!” she complained, raising a hand to her nose, as the fizzy liquid dripped out of it.

Jared couldn’t hold it in, he started to laugh at the sight as she shook her head like a wet dog, silky black hair whipping this way and that.

Then her power kicked in, and an odd distortion started at her head and travelled downward, distorting any parts it travelled over slightly, as if one was looking at them as a magnifying glass went over, drawing the juice away from her lower face and out of her nose.

The effect travelled downwards, distorting and unraveling the part of her cloak that was clasped around her throat, pulling the juice right out, drop by drop, from among the threads, then it travelled downward (along with Jared’s eyes), unravelling the portion above her chest, giving him the briefest glimpse of her… assets… as well as something glimmering between.

Before the effect could travel further downward and reveal them in full, though, it finished its work and dissipated, taking the juice along to nowhere.

This time, the princess blushed properly, wrapping her arms around her ample charms.

“You know, you could at least pretend not to stare, sometimes,” she complained with the cutest pout and glower this side of Kizzy.

“Naaah,” he replied with his best shit-eating grin. He was going to enjoy this memory for a long time.

She grumbled in response, pulling out her small canister of pills, popping one of them, then a second one right after, and washing them down with a more careful sip of juice. “You have no shame at all, do you?”

“Oh, I have plenty of shame all around, just not when it comes to appreciating the fair sex,” was his answer to that question.

This time, she could only roll her eyes. She didn’t leave, though, and it wasn’t like she had to hang out around him, so he figured she either wanted something, or else he wasn’t being too much of a jerk.

“So, speaking of stuff I just saw…”

“If you make a crack about my breasts, I will turn you into a guinea pig, wrap you up and give you to your sister as her new pet,” she threatend him with a glare.

He raised his hands in a placating gesture. “Never. Your boobs are perfect, what is there to joke about?” That got him another blush.

“So are Melody’s, and you constantly tease her.

“She’s a fourteen-year-old with size G’s bordering on H, there is a LOT to make fun of,” he defended his humor. “You’re a B+ to C-, there’s really nothing to say there other than that they look just perfect.”

Her blush was getting positively fluorescent now. “How the fudge do you know our sizes? Have you been going through our underwear drawyers or what?!”

“You don’t have an underwear drawyer I could go through, on account of the fact that you don’t wear underwear, which, by the way, I completely approve of.” He gave her a double thumbs-up. “I wouldn’t need to anyway, though; I’m a devoted student of the female form and my uncle taught me long since how to tell any woman’s sizes at a glance.”

“Your uncle sounds like a perv.”

“That’s because he was a super-perv, by his own admission,” he shot back with a wistful smile.

She deflated again, probably putting together why he was speaking of him in the past tense.

So he pressed on in order to distract her, before things could get uncomfortable. “Aaaa-ny-way, what I meant to say is, I saw the one thing you do wear under that costume. Is that just for show, or are you actually a believer?” he asked her, in a much softer tone of voice.

“Oh. Um… yeah. I mean… it’s complicated, but… I do believe in something. Just not entirely sure what, exactly,” she explained. “Not sure how much I believe, either. But I like the teachings – care for others, don’t get hung up on the short term – and I like the music.”

“Can I see it?” he asked curiously.

She nodded, pulling on the collar of her costume to reach within. This time, he did avert his eyes, not that he could’ve seen much.

Taking the thin, golden chain off her neck, she held it out to him, and he picked up the small cross, looking at it on the palm of his hand.

It was only about as long as half his middle finger, and apparently wrought out of pure gold, three strands of the metal wound around each other in an elaborate pattern, tightly, forming the cross like a living tree that’d been shaped as it grew; it held a single jewel at its center, a tiny sapphire of the exact same shade as her eyes. The chain was much simpler in design, yet no less delicately worked.

“This is gorgeous,” he spoke, in awe at the artistry. “Where’d you get it?” He handed the precious jewelry back to her, and she put it on again.

“Dad made it for me,” she explained softly. “It’s a family tradition – every male Goldschmidt is supposed to know how to work gold, so when he was young, he spent a week learning it from his father and mastering it.”

“That’s… an interesting tradition. Though I guess it is in the name, and all,” he observed, quietly, as always feeling rather weird to talk about the freaking King of Supervillains like he was just another dad, or hearing her talk about him that way.

She nodded. “I’m not really a Goldschmidt, nor a boy, but I’ll learn it, too, once I can figure out how to practice it without my power just giving me the skill.”

“Cool,” he replied simply, handing it back to her.

“What about you?”

He drank from his cup, looking away to focus on the festivities. Kizzy was still listening to the music, looking just ecstatic.

“My parents used to send me to Sunday school every week, after making me sit through the service. I hated it. So many of my friends didn’t have religious families and got to hang out and play, and I had to study the bible and listen to that boring old priest talk about God and Jesus and stuff.”

The words summoned memories, of the room sunday school had taken place in, a room in the old community center that’d been built right next to the church. Red brick walls, red tile floor, wooden chairs with aged cushions that were sat through so thoroughly, they may as well have sat directly on the wood, and Father Maximillian, one of the most boring people he’d ever known, with those horrible horn-rimmed glasses, droning on and on about stuff.

“Then came… well, you know. Your sister,” he continued, trying not to be biting about it for once. She still flinched at the mention. “And I guess if I wanted to fulfill every stereotype, I could take that either as confirmation that God didn’t exist after all because why would he allow it, or it was God’s will, or… whatever… I still prayed, for Kizzy’s sake, even though I didn’t and don’t believe. She’s better now, though, so…”

He shook his head, interrupting his rambling. The princess’s eyes were focused quite intently on him, for a change, rather than the other way around, and he just knew she was taking it in in detail, rather than just acting like she was listening.

“Anyway… dunno,” he summed up his feelings on the matter. “How do you do it? Believe? Why do you think it makes sense?”

She shrugged, and then smiled at him, and it was the most beautiful smile he’d ever seen, short of Kizzy’s every one, of course.

“I don’t know. But if I ever do figure out God and Faith and all those things, I’ll be sure to tell you.”

He snorted. “Well, you’re way brainier than me – maybe you will figure it out.”

“That’s so nice of you to say.” She actually batted her eyelashes at him.

They fell quiet again, both of them focusing on and enjoying the performance.

Well, she might have been. Jared himself felt… contemplative. There was a question at the tip of his tongue, and he kind of didn’t want to ask it. Didn’t want to spoil the mood, because damn it, she could be such good company and this wasn’t supposed to be a heavy kind of day.

“Hey, Jared.”

He turned, a little surprised she’d actually use his name.

She smiled, wrily, at him. “I don’t need superpowers to tell you’re bothered by something, so out with it,” she told him.

Well… might as well…

“So,” he temporized, taking a deep breath. “You’re… kind of Christian. You believe in the lessons it teaches and all.” She nodded. “And you’re, quite obviously, a superhero,” he continued, turning his head away to seemingly watch the show, though he wasn’t really paying attention to it. She nodded again. “So, um… and I guess, feel free to tell me to fuck off, but… how does that work… with your Dad?” He looked at her out of the corner of his eyes.

“Ah…” Her shoulders slumped, her usually flawless posture gone. With her head lowered, her fine black hair hid her facial expression from him, like a black curtain, though he was pretty sure it wasn’t a happy one. “It’s… complicated. I mean… he’s still my dad, you know? I know he’s done horrible things… and he still does pretty bad things… though everyone always tells me he’s been much nicer and way less villainish since I was born… but I don’t want to use that as an excuse, like I’m being nice to him just to keep him on the straight and narrow-ish… but… you know…”

It was kind of cute how she flailed to find the right words, even if the subject matter was heavy.

“I think, what it comes down to, is two things. One is, and it’s not a good thing, but it’s a true thing, he’s never been evil to me or in front of me, not really. Not beyond being a really annoying jerk prone to pranks and poking people until they snap. Everyone always tells me what a horrible monster he’s been, and still can be, but it doesn’t feel real, you know? It doesn’t match my lived experience, and while he and mom are probably the only people whom can interact with me on a regular basis and still keep secrets from me, I’m not blind, and I’m not stupid, so… yeah. Doesn’t feel real.”

She stopped, after that torrent of words, her breathing a little sped up, while he digested her words.

“Also, um, as a side note, quite a few of the people who’ve warned me against him have done it right to his face – but if he really was so bad, would they actually dare? Even if he wouldn’t lash out at them while I was around, if he really was so petty and monstrous, wouldn’t he track them down after? It’s not like I’m, surveilling him all the time, or even some of the time, really. But they’re still around.”

“That… hm. Dunno. But I gotta say, it takes cojones of solid uranium or something, to say such things in front of the Dark,” he said with a slightly exaggerated shudder.

“He really isn’t so bad… when you get down to it, past all the masks and names and stuff, he’s just big, goofy nerd,” she replied, with an annoyed pout, arms crossed again.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure no one else’s lived experience matches yours, in regards to him, he thought, but didn’t say, and he kept it off his face as well as he could.

“What’s the second reason?” he asked, instead.

“Whether or not my presence in his life makes him a nicer person, the simple truth is that if I removed him from my life, opposed him, I’d relinquish any influence upon him I do or might yet have,” she said, in a much more collected manner, only to flounder again on the next part. “I don’t… I mean, it might be arrogant of me to say so, but… I’m kind of hoping… I wish… it could  be possible to…”

“Redeem him?” he finished the sentence for her, causing her to blush and nod. “Redeem the Dark?”

“It’s arrogant, I know, maybe even hubris… there’s no one he cares about, or for, nearly as much as mom, not even me, even if they both try to claim otherwise, and even she hasn’t been able to, but,” she gulped, swallowed, “maybe, if I add my own efforts to it… even if neither of them will tell me what drove him to be a villain in the first place… maybe it’ll finally be enough? Isn’t that… a good reason?” Her voice was barely a whisper by the final bit.

Fuck, she  sounds so young. Easy to forget she’s only Kizzy’s age, no matter the power shenanigans involved.

“Um, don’t take this the wrong way, but all things considered, I think your dad’s a pretty bad person, even if he’s a good dad to you,” he answered, after a minute of thinking it over. Also, fuck, this is ending up heavy anyway. “Even if he’s not the worst villain out there… I know there’s even worse… he’s still pretty bad. Anyone else who’d done half as much as he has, they’d be executed for it, anywhere on the planet… and man, I’d promised myself I wouldn’t be a jerk to you today,” he finished, as he saw her shrink into herself (figuratively, not literally… this time). “Sorry. Shutting up now.”

“If that is the right thing to do… then I can’t do it. Ever,” she said, softly, her eyes seemingly aimed at the others having fun together, though he was pretty sure she was gazing far further away.

“I, um, I never meant to say… no. No, you shouldn’t. Others sh- no, enough. I’m sorry I even brought it up,” he said, awkwardly. Mouth, insert foot here.

There was (relative) quiet for half a minute, or so, before she finally spoke again, with some mirth in her voice, even. “You know, I used to think you were just a jerk, at first. Now, I’m not sure whether you are, or whether you’re just horribly apt at repeatedly inserting your foot into your mouth.” Her eyes twinkled with amusement, looking at him.

He crossed his arms, acting offended. “I’ll have you know, I am perfectly capable of being both, at the same time even!”

She chuckled, fortunately, and he felt the tension ease. “You’re such a dork. And an ass.” Her fist lashed out, punching his shoulder.

It didn’t really hurt, and he more than deserved it.

“So, in the interest of you not being the only one that’s insensitive and asking stupid questions, may I ask you one?” she asked, raising her head up and looking at him out of the corner of her eye in a curiously bird-like motion.

He looked back, and shrugged. “It’s only fair, isn’t it?”

“One might say so. Still, feel free not to answer, if it cuts too close.”

Jared couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “C’mon, princess, out with it already. Can’t be as bad as half the stuff I’ve said just in this conversation.”

She seemed to think it over, and nodded.

“Why don’t you ever talk about your parents?” she finally voiced her question.

Alright, that actually is pretty uncomfortable.

Still, as much as it hurt to think about, and as much as he instinctively wanted to lash out over it, he owed it to her to give her a proper answer.

It would be no less than she had done, after all.

“Well… there’s a lot of reasons… it still hurts to think about them… I miss them… but, I think… the biggest reason is…” He took a deep breath, as he realized he’d never said it out loud before. Not even to his handler, nor to his psych guy. “Because I’m still so damn angry at them.”

“Angry that they died?” she asked, her voice so soft again, he barely heard it over the music.

“Yes. No.” He crossed his arms, looking up at the ceiling. “Actually, yes, but not mainly.” He held it in for a moment… then it all poured out of him in one big go. “I’m angry because they fucking knew their powers wouldn’t be able to help! They knew they’d be little better than cannon fodder!”

He puts his hands up on his head, all but pulling on his hair as his vision went blurry. “They had Kizzy! And me! They were supposed to be there for us, but instead they fought and died! When they could’ve run! When, when-“

Suddenly, he found himself enveloped in a tight hug, his face pressed against her chest, her arms holding him tightly, close to her heart. So close, he could hear, feel, her heartbeat.

His arms went around her midsection – she had to be floating to pull this off – and he clung tightly, grateful that no one had to see his tears, or hear his sobs.

An indeterminate amount of time passed, before he calmed down again, and they loosened their grip on each other.

She floated back a step, while he looked away, rubbing his face to get rid of the tears.

It seemed that no one else had noticed the whole scene, or else they were pretending marvelously not to have.

Neither Jugs, Kitty, nor the boss were that good at pretending.

He looked at the princess again, as she smiled at him in an almost motherly fashion.

“I won’t do that,” he said, still choked up. “I’ve got Kizzy to think about. When the time comes, I’ll fucking run.”

Previous | Next

vote for brennus

14.a.3 Out of Time

Previous | Next

6 minutes ago

He ran over a cracked road and jumped over the rubble of a collapsed building, straight at a pair of figures he’d seen while running away from the Dark.

It didn’t surprise him much, that these two had survived, even though one of them was pathologically self-sacrificial and the other was insane.

”Yo, boss. Boss’s wife,” he greeted them as he came to a halt, arm up.

Tartsche raised an arm and high-fived him, though Spellgun didn’t follow up on it.

It was then that he noticed the blood.

“The fuck? Did you fall asleep on the job, boss?” Jared asked, before he could rein his own mouth in, squatting down next to them.

Spellgun’s – Thomas’s – left leg was a mess and the only reason he was upright at all was because he was leaning heavily on Harry’s shoulder, and also using that wicked rifle of his like a crutch.

It looked like something had taken a huge chunk out of him – nearly the entire upper half of the back of his calf, the meatiest part of the lower leg, was just plain gone. Torn away so thoroughly, bone showed, where it wasn’t just frayed flesh and fat.

Jared’s stomach threatened to empty itself as he looked at the damage, pulling his first-aid kit off the back of his belt.

Strangely enough, while it was bloody, there wasn’t much, if any, blood flow, even though they hadn’t tied the leg off.

“One of DiL’s beams,” Harry explained, as he gently lowered the wounded boy onto the ground, using one hand to hold his leg up so the wound didn’t touch the dirty rocks and concrete. “Got him before I managed to reach him and put my power up. He shot himself with some kind of experimental bullet he of course hadn’t gotten approved beforehand, to prevent himself from bleeding out.”

Jared looked at Thomas sweaty, pale face with an incredulous stare. “You shot yourself?”

“Medical… bullet,” Thomas explained, grinning through the pain, only to arch his back and bite down on a scream when Jared sprayed some disinfectant on the huge wound. “Didn’t… oh God that burns… didn’t work… quite one-hundred percent yet… but it stopped the blood flow… and ah think… ooooowwwww… it should disinfect the wound, too.”

Jared worked quickly, having gotten a lot of practice recently, packing as much sterile cotton pieces into the wound, followed by wrapping it up in this new kind of bandage they’d started using a while ago, that supposedly both disinfected and allowed for proper airflow and stuff. Or something, he’d been sleeping through the advertisement, but the higher-ups had clearly thought it worthwhile, because all the United Heroes’ issued kits now used them.

“Well, let’s not take any chances here. Dunno when we’ll be able to get you some healer to look at it,” Jared said.

“Think Ah can get Gloomy to fix it, even after how Ah p-pissed her oooaaaaaaah! Monkeyballs! Fuck!

He bucked, nearly kicking Jared as he affixed the bandage properly. The only reason he failed to was that his lower leg physically couldn’t kick him anymore. Major muscles and other bits were just gone.

“Maybe you could make yourself a peg leg that’s also a gun?” Jared asked, trying to inject some levity into things. “You know, as a holdout of sorts.”

“Maybe re-brand with a pirate theme in mind. I could be the honorable knight, and you the knavish pirate I’m trying to bring down and-or reform,” Harry suggested – and managed to keep a straight face.

Thomas batted his eyelashes at his boyfriend, sprinkling drops of sweat around. “You know, y’can bring me down any time you like, whether or not it’s, ah, thematic. Though I admit a little rolep-“

“Dudes! No homo, please!” Jared interrupted them. “If you gay it up any more, I will barf all over your wound!”

Thomas, sweaty, pale and barely conscious, winked at him with one hell of a shit-eating grin. Harry at least had the grace to blush.

“Also, ‘knavish’? Really? Did someone buy you a thesaurus? Who the hell uses ‘knavish’?” he asked his blushing boss.

Harry mumbled something unintelligible, rubbing the back of his head with the hand he wasn’t using to hold Thomas’ leg up.

Whatever he said sounded suspiciously like ‘calendar’, but Jared decided to take the high road and not press it.

“Alright, I think this’ll hold. Let’s get you to the princess, see whether she can fix you up for good, butt boy,” he said instead, once he was sure the bandage would hold.

“Much appreciated, beach boy,” Thomas replied, then groaned as they lifted him up again, one of them under each arm of his.

They got on their way, following the signal of the Princess’s tracker via Jared’s HUD.

“How’d you of all people piss her off so much?” Jared asked, recalling how she’d gone off on him, just recently, when they’d laughed about the idiot who’d died proposing to the freaking bitch.

The residual grin dropped off of Thomas’ face.

“Ah… yeeeeaaaahhh, that one’s not mah proudest achievement,” he spoke with a note of guilt in his voice. “We’d, ah, gotten to talk about… identity, and some other things. Not gonna betray the details. But she wanted mah opinion on some stuff, ’cause of… well, mah little manifestation-related hickup. The subject of her sis and stuff came up. Ah should’ve known what our behavior would mean to her, and ah messed it up.” He lowered his head, sighing.

Jared didn’t know how to respond to that, so he didn’t say anything. Neither did Harry, though he did put an arm around Thomas’ midsection, squeezing him in a one-armed hug, before transitioning to holding him up that way.

They walked in silence after that, navigating the rubble, cracked streets and occasional residual power effects – one in particular drew Jared’s attention, a spot where a store front and the sidewalk in front of it had crinkled out into razor-sharp petals.

Just like in Miami – I never knew she re-used powers.

He shook his head, unsure of what to feel at the sight, and the reminder. Thomas’ words were sitting heavily with him, too.

Hell, it’s not like there’s anything about today that hasn’t been a huge kick upside the head in one way or another, he thought, his exhausted mind wandering as they drudged on.

***

Not so long ago

“You’ll freaking pay for this, beach boy!”

“Dream on, butt boy!”

Jared and Thomas snarled at each other, their chosen combatants locked in deadly combat upon the screen in front of them.

They each had a flat box on their respective lap, with a control stick and six buttons arranged the same way as on an arcade machine, and were furiously working their sticks and pounding their buttons, while Ma’al Gahurak, Supreme War Champion of Mars fought in a deadly battle against the original Doc Feral, Gentleman Adventurer.

Not a fight that’d ever happened in real life, the Doc had been long dead by the time the Martians invaded, but it sure looked real on the screen.

“God damn it this fucking Martian is so broken!” Thomas complained, as he tried and failed to break through Ma’al’s defenses – a bevy of counter moves which, with the right timing, allowed Jared to reflect almost any attack in the game back at the attacker.

And timing was something he knew very well, even when he wasn’t using his power. Much.

“You just say that ’cause you suck!” he shot back with a grin.

“Oh, I do suck, but not at this!” came the response in a lewd tone, and it came at just the right moment to make Jared sputter as the mental image asserted itself.

Which of course meant that he flubbed the all too vital timing on his next full counter.

“Oh fuck no, you asshole!” he shouted, but it was too late.

Doc Feral’s attack connected, and Thomas was quick to exploit the increased stun damage Ma’al took when he flubbed a full counter.

The old-school hero struck a pose and downed a glowing red concoction – the Nature Red formula – which caused him to tear out of his clothes, turning into a giant, red-clawed, red-toothed lion-ape-human, and lay into the stunned Martian.

A ‘K.O.’ followed quickly, on the screen, colored green instead of the usual red.

“Oh, come on! One combo? One? Ma’al wasn’t such a glass cannon in real life!”

“Game balance, beach boy. It’s fine to have people who’re just plain better than others in real life, but you gotta balance them to have a healthy meta in these games,” Thomas pontificated with a smirk, while they went back to the character selection screen.

“Like I don’t fucking know,” Jared groused, looking over the character options. The new CvC 6 had a huge roster, seventy-nine characters if you included all the expansion packs (and they had them all, on account of it being a UH license and them getting free copies), but with a field that large, game balance was a big issue, and the game devs didn’t always nail it, especially when they overcompensated. Case in point, Lady Light had been so overpowered in the fifth game that they’d overcompensated in nerfing her for this one, putting her in the bottom tier of characters, so he skipped right over her and went for one of the top tier characters.

“You’re taking fuckin’ Weisswald now? C’mon dude, that’s just petty!” Thomas complained, while he made his own selection.

“Says the guy picking the Fungal Eve,” Jared shot back.

“What can I say, I’m a romantic – they just belong together,” Thomas replied with a smile, hugging himself and swaying left and right.

“Dude! That’s just, one hell of a sickening mental image!”

“Pipe it down you two, will ya? We’re trying to focus here!” Rosalie shouted in annoyance, turning away from the electronic whiteboard showing a map of New Lennston’s shopping district.

Scribbles, circles, crosses, lines and arrows showed how far she, Harry, Jessica and Rachel had already plotted out their latest shopping trip.

“You know, normal people just go shopping now and then, and all is fine! They don’t have to plot out a precise campaign for the sake of clothes shopping!” Jared shot back.

“Normal people are idiots! Now pipe it down or I’ll tell your sister you’ve been trying to keep us from taking her shopping!” Rosalie of course had to skip straight to the lethal weaponry.

The others offered no help either, showing just varying degrees of annoyance, amusement and contriteness.

Jared rolled his eyes. “Alright, alright. Freaking blackmailers…” He turned down the game’s volume, for good measure; best not to risk provoking Rosalie when she was in that kind of mood.

She’d probably visited her own little sister, earlier. That always left her in an… irritable mood, afterwards, which was why she was still being kept as a Junior when she had the age and the skill and power to advance into the big ranks already.

Not that Jared could ever blame her for that.

Not that he’d ever say so out loud.

Instead, he turned to Thomas, distracting himself by focusing on another matter.

“So how come you’re not over there, planning the thirty-fourth great New Lennston Shopping Trip?” he asked. He didn’t have to come up with the number – they’d written the title up over the map. “You’re girlier than most girls I know.”

Thomas shrugged. “Harry’s already planning for me, Ah’m sure. And I was never the kind of girl who was into going shopping a lot, it never really appealed to me.”

“Huh. Guess you’re not quite trying to fit into every gay stereoty- hey, what you mean with you were never the kind of girl?”

The young contriver looked at him in surprise. “What, you didn’t know? I thought everyone around here knew – Ah used to be a girl, before Ah manifested.”

Jared’s eyes nearly bugged out, getting so distracted from the game, he barely managed to pull up Weisswald’s White Fortress and block the Fungal Eve’s Mycoloid rush.

“You don’t have to stare so hard, beach boy,” Thomas complained, blushing a bit. “Surely you’ve heard about metahumans switchin’ sex when they get powers.”

“Well, duh. And that’s not… I mean, I guess it’s no weirder than turning into a pink furry or a living statue or something, but… just trying to wrap my head around you having been a girl once.” Jared replied with a bit of a blush.

There was another thing he wanted to ask, but that would jut have been bad form, even by his standards.

“You’re wonderin’ now how I manifested, eh?” Thomas pressed the point, grinning, though his eyes remained fixated on the game screen.

“Yeah. Wasn’t gonna ask, though.”

“Ah don’t mind. Even if you hadn’t told me yours before.”

“Only reason I’m so open about it is because everyone knows these days,” he replied, gnashing his teeth. “Fucking Miami Wire.” That stupid rag had fucking outed his identity, in the course of a ‘memorial edition’ about the Miami heroes whom died fighting the glowy bitch. Then someone had somehow gotten a copy of an UH internal report in which he’d described his Origin, and… national news.

“Still. Ah guess it’s only fair. Tit for tat, and all that.” He paused, for a moment, taking a deep breath. “So, yeah, Ah was born a girl. Real sweet Southern tomboy, if Ah may say so. Ah wasn’t a girly girl by any measure, but Ah didn’t mind being a girl and Ah never wanted to be a boy, Ah just wanted to be with boys.”

“Mhmm,” Jared temporized, trying to picture Thomas as a girl.

It wasn’t very hard to do, really.

“So, what happened? How’d you go from… uh, whatever your name was then-“

“Denise.”

“Denise. How’d you go from Denise to, well, Thomas?” Jared asked, his voice softer than it tended to be, even while they fought each other in-game at their best.

“Mmm. Gotta give you a bit of background to explain. You know about the Smith-Jackson Range?”

“Nope.”

“It’s a theory, or Ah guess a kind of rule, set by these two really famous metahuman researchers, Smith and Jackson. People usually manifest in between eight to thirty years of age. Like, ninety-nine percent of metahumans do. All the common rules and stuff we have, for how people manifest, how they get powers and stuff? They apply to that range.”

Jared frowned. “I can think of a few cases of people manifesting way younger than that.” One in particular, he thought, but didn’t say.

Thomas nodded. “There’s exceptions of course. And here’s the interesting thing: If you manifest earlier, your powers tend to come out… bigger. Broader. Less restrictions, but also more chances for things to go wrong. Mutations, physical and mental, weird powers, you name it. Also, the younger you are, the more likely it is for your power to have a Meta-aspect, even if it’s otherwise not a Meta-power, if it ain’t a pure Meta power to begin with.”

Huh. That… fits really well. Fuck, does that mean she’s not unique? There could be more like her?!

Scary thoughts.

Thomas went on, unperturbed, lost in telling his tale (if not lost enough to give Jared an edge in the game).

“Things are flipped if you manifest after you’re thirty. Not only is it spectacularly unlikely, but like, almost all the post-thirty origins we know of lead to really wimpy and strangely direct powers. Like a guy who fell off a cliff, and he gets the power to slow his own falls. Or a woman who ended up outside naked, after getting drunk, and just when she’s about to be discovered, she gets the power to camouflage herself, so long as she doesn’t move at all, even to breathe or look around. Though on the upside, it also seems that post-thirty manifestations are pretty much safe from getting any bad stuff along with their power, either. So Ah guess it kinda balances out. Theres exceptions, of course, but in general, that’s how it works.”

“That’s really interesting to know, but what’s that got to do with you? From what I got, you manifested just a few years ago.”

“Ah’m getting to that, beach boy. Patience. Ah know it’s hard for you. So, to get to the other part of my depressing little tale, what do you know about the Trans community and powers?”

“Uhhhh…”

“Yeah, well, thought so. To be brief, they loooooove powers. Getting superpowers is like, the Holy Grail every Transsexual person seeks. And the reason is simple – in like, nine out of ten cases of a Transsexual getting powers, they also get the Adonis trait, and they pretty much always switch to their preferred sex when they do. So, ever since the Trans community went public around the seventies, getting powers has been the thing for them.”

“Guess I can see why…” He was getting pretty damn curious about how all that related to him switching sex.

“Makes them really desperate, a lot. There’s tons of stories of Trans people giving all their money to con-men or shady ‘researchers’ promising powers, or going Origin-chasing and dying. Anyway, so, that’s the background you need, to get my story.”

“I dunno why I’d need it. From what you said, I got that you weren’t Trans, then or now. Though I’m no longer sure about the now.”

“Welll… Ah wasn’t… but my pops was.”

“Oh…”

“Yeah, ‘oh’. So Daddy dearest, in spite of boning me mom and marrying her, felt like he should be the lady in the family. But no matter what he did or in what way he blew our money or how hard he beat me mom when she complained, he never got powers. And he continued not to get powers until he turned thirty-one. And that’s when shit got really bad. Cause you see, even when you do get superpowers at over thirty, Ah don’t think there’s a single case of someone manifesting at that age and getting the Adonis package to go along with it.”

Jared hit the pause button on the game, and half-turned on the couch, pulling one leg up on it to look straight at Thomas.

The young blonde had his head lowered, looking down at the arcade stick resting on his jeans-covered lap.

His eyes were a hundred miles away, even when Harry sat down next to him, his Samaritan-radar having pinged as soon as his boyfriend started feeling distressed.

Harry put an arm around his slender shoulders, and then Thomas continued to talk, more quietly. “So, my pops had a problem. He’d moved out of the Smith-Jackson Range. Surgery and hormones weren’t a solution, he was too proud to do that. It’s seen as an admission of defeat and surrender, in the Trans community. Plus, he wanted to be a woman for real, so he could have kids of his own and all. Kids who’d really be his, he said. The arsehole.”

“Worse than an arsehole,” Harry said, softly, and Jared couldn’t help but nod.

Every time he heard about someone else’s Origin, he couldn’t help but feel like he’d gotten off lightly somehow.

“So, what’s pops dearest do, the genius? He goes and joins Pinhead’s group.”

Jared’s eyes went wide. “Wait, Pinhead as in, the supervillain!? Guy’s a major menace!”

“Aye. He could transfer… attributes, between people, with those pins of his. Drain the strength from one, give it to another. Same for intelligence, or charisma, and other traits. Like… masculinity and femininity. Sex.”

“Oh no.”

***

Three minutes ago

“Oh no.”

Harry’s words drew him right back to reality, as they crossed over a portion of the street that’d bulged up without cracking, the concrete remaining solid in spite of the deformation.

Gloom Glimmer knelt on the ground, in front of a collapsed building’s front, where it looked like a balcony had come down. She was on her knees, her head lowered, face hidden by gossamer-fine, straight black hair.

Polymnia knelt by her right side, one hand on her friend and teammate’s shoulder. Her face was visible, and twisted up in grief, the expression made all the more pronounced by her color-shifting hair, which had come out of one of its pigtails, but not the other.

Her other hand rested on the back of the third girl present.

Hecate was on her knees, bent over to the point of being folded in half, her lowered head very close to her knees, as it seemed to actually touch the ground. Her cowl was pulled back, revealing well-cared for black hair with natural curls, her hands buried in it its thick mass as she wailed like a wounded animal, no poise, no control, emotions bared totally.

The reason for it all was readily apparent: lying on the ground, its head cradled on Gloom Glimmer’s lap, was Brennus’s corpse, three arm-thick holes going through his armored chest and another, finger-thick one through the left side of his forehead, the wounds neatly cauterized and quite obviously fatal.

There was blood on his lips, which Gloom Glimmer wiped off with a thumb as the three of them approached.

Jared looked closely at the strange boy they’d all wondered about, getting his first good look at his exposed face.

He wasn’t pretty, exactly, though he may have ended up on the attractive side of the spectrum, had he been allowed to live through his puberty; for now, he was merely… striking, in an oddly put together way. Even though he was clearly younger than Jared – fifteen, maybe sixteen, at most, there wasn’t an ounce of baby fat on him to soften his features. Cheekbones one could use to slice steel with and a sharp, slightly pronounced nose gave him something of a hawkish look that actually fit his chosen animal theme well, broken up only by surprisingly full lips. Though death had relaxed it, he looked like someone with a naturally serious, even severe expression. His hair was as black as Irene’s, though not as fine, nor as glossy. Naturally messy, it fell down to his shoulders, but there was no style to it, like he’d just let it grow long, then taken a knife or sheers to it to hack off the bits that fell into his face, once they got to be annoying.

Based on his limited interactions with the vigilante, Jared could totally see him do it exactly like that.

They reached the small group, moving towards Gloom Glimmer’s left side.

Hecate didn’t seem to notice their arrival, nor did the princess, but Polymnia raised her head, eyes widening in simultaneous relief at the sight of the three of them, and horror at the misshapen, bloody bandage around Thomas’s calf.

Before anyone could ask, Gloom Glimmer reached out with her left hand and touched Thomas’s knee. Red, blood-like liquid emerged from where her fingertips touched his bared skin, spreading onto and under his bandage.

Thomas made a guttural sound of discomfort and relief in one, while Jared and Harry watched, seeing the bandage fall apart as the glowing, bloody liquid filled out the space where his calf ought to be, only to recede back into Gloom Glimmer’s fingertips, leaving unblemished skin behind. A crippling-for-life injury, restored in seconds.

“I can only heal living organisms,” Gloom Glimmer said in the soft, broken voice of a lost little girl, pre-empting the question Jared was about to ask. “His body doesn’t register as alive anymore.”

Hecate’s wails intensified for a moment, before lessening in volume, if not in intensity.

Jared and Harry let go of Thomas, who tested his freshly restored leg, briefly, even as they lowered their heads.

There wasn’t really anything they could say. None of them had known Brennus, beyond a few brief interactions, and neither did they really know Hecate. Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer had connected far more closely with that group, the former due to being a gadgeteer, mostly, Jared suspected, the latter because…

He didn’t know why, really. Maybe she’d just gone along because Polymnia had liked Brennus. Maybe her power had told her something she hadn’t shared with the rest of them.

Harry moved over to kneel down between Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer, putting an arm around each of their shoulders. He didn’t say anything, he just knelt there, like that.

They seemed to take comfort from that, a little bit.

Jared looked down at the shaking, wailing Hecate, raising his hand, thinking about maybe giving her a hug, would that even be welcome or helpful, but…

Before he could choose to do it or not, Thomas knelt down next to her and hugged her.

Not that she seemed to notice.

Fuck, what am I supposed to do here?, he asked himself.

He was so fucking tired. Tired, and worn out. Hours and days, spent fighting Crocell, then DiL. Living hours in minutes. He was too worn out to even put the numbers together and figure out how much time he’d spent being awake and active, in the last two days.

Had it been just two days? He wasn’t even sure. He’d laid down to sleep after helping with the clean-up and evacuation in Esperanza, post-Crocell, only to be awoken by the sirens announcing his recurring nightmare come to life.

It was fine while he was moving, but whenever he stopped, whenever he didn’t have anything more to do, he felt it catch up to him, his senses starting to grow fuzzy around the edges, his mind starting to drift.

What the hell am I supposed to do? I feel so fucking useless…

***

Shortly after the Miami Attack

He felt so fucking useless, looking at his sister.

They’d been moved to New Lennston, after he’d revealed his power to Bandersnatch. A foster family had been found, to take care for them, and he was to be placed with the local junior team of the United Heroes. A dream come true, for many a teenager, to serve as a hero in New Lennston of all places.

If only it hadn’t been soured to begin with. His identity revealed before he could even get a secret identity, leaked papers revealing even the nature, if not the details, of his power, as he’d described it to Bandersnatch, as she’d put it into her report.

None of that helped with his biggest problem, though, in all fairness, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference even if none of that were an issue.

He was leaning on the side of the doorframe, looking into the living room of the Woads family, now technically also his family and his living room, though he was pretty sure that was never going to feel natural.

Kizzy sat on the floor in front of the television, knees drawn up against her chest, her arms around them, as still as a statue as her eyes seemed to look straight through the television in front of her, through the wall behind it and then even further.

He’d never really imagined what a thousand-yard stare would look like, but now he didn’t need to. He saw it every day in his sister’s eyes.

Worse than the gaze, though, was the silence and the stillness. She just… sat there. Never talked, never made a sound, at all, except when she woke up screaming in the night.

Post-traumatic stress, the therapist called it. They both had one, though not the same.

Jared spent most of his sessions talking about Kizzy.

There’d been a scary four days, early on where, she’d acted… normal. Too normal. Pretending none of it had happened. That mom and dad were just away because of the job, and they’d be back soon.

For three creepy, heart-rending days she’d smiled and laughed and been her usual bubbly self.

Then she’d collapsed, without warning or apparent cause.

It was afterwards that the screaming at night and the silence by day started.

Needless to say, she hadn’t sung a single line, ever since that day.

Why? Why the fuck did you have to go and fight? he thought angrily, once again. Couldn’t at least one of you have decided that we were more important than the fight? Just one of you.

He felt his hand clench into a tight fist, without his conscious direction. Clenching so hard, his entire arm trembled, and his nails, as short as they were, still dug painfully into the palm of his hand.

Closing his eyes, he sought to center himself by focusing inward, at his power.

He’d always read a lot about powers, and listened to his parents sharing their experiences, so he knew that, in many ways, he’d lucked out. He didn’t have any physical mutations, no derangements, no real issues with his power. There was even a matter of sheer convenience – others might have gotten an abstract feeling for the ‘gauge’ of their power, when it dealt with some kind of limited resource, or might have been among those unlucky enough to be blind or only get the most general feeling for it.

He could just focus and see a digital display in his field of view, red numbers on a black background, counting the seconds he’d saved up.

60:00

One hour. Sixty minutes. Three-thousand and six-hundred seconds.

That was his cap. Every second that he did not use his power was a second added to the pool, another second he could then squeeze into a normal second, to stretch it out. He could add up to four seconds to each one, so he lived five seconds when others only lived one.

Some mad science types had even done some tests and determined that his power shifted his body into a state of ‘quasi-reality’ so he didn’t age faster than a normal person, no matter how much he used his power. It also boosted his endurance, so he didn’t tire himself out nearly as quickly as he should have.

All in all, a pretty good power.

Tapping into his reserve, he slowed down time. One second beccame five, as he stepped forward into the living room; he’d be just a blur to anyone watching, too fast to even be heard unless he was spectacularly clumsy.

He strolled over to Kizzy, her blurry form growing sharp as his little bubble of sharpness came over her.

Irony of ironies, becoming an Adonis had fixed his eyesight, obviating the need for glasses or contact lenses – but as soon as his power kicked in, everything beyond his immediate surroundings came out of focus again.

At least the eggheads of the UH thought they could do something to help with that, with the right equipment.

Taking soft steps, he looked at his sister. There was no reason to do this while using his power, she’d have barely, if at all, reacted to his presence anyway, but…

Well, he liked using his power.

Kizzy just sat there, seemingly watching a bunch of cartoon space animals fight a planet-eating robot or something. There were a lot of primary colors on the screen.

Except she probably knew less about what was going on in that show than he did, and he knew next to nothing.

Time slowed down again, the world coming into focus.

He reached out to hug his sister, but hesitated. What good did it even do, to-

***

Two minutes ago

“-good it did.”

Jared blinked, refocusing on the present. The others seemed to have talked about something, but he’d completely missed out on it.

A brief look at his timer showed him that he’d missed forty-two seconds, as his thoughts drifted.

Fuck, I need to do something, or I’ll drift off entirely.

“I’m going,” he announced, interrupting whatever the ongoing discussion was, causing everyone but Hecate to look up at him in surprise.

Thomas had moved while he’d been distracted, sitting down between Harry and Polymnia, to give the latter a one-armed hug. He’d taken his brassy helmet with those freaky scopes and visors off, wearing only the simple domino mask he had underneath, his hair shiny and slick with sweat.

“There might still be people in need of help. Hell, there almost certainly are. And I still have a few minutes saved up, so I’m going to use them and see what I can do,” he explained, though his voice came out much weaker and scratchier than he would have liked.

“Y-yeah, you’re right,” the princess answered, her voice still having that lost hollowness to it that tugged on his supposedly non-existent heartstrings. “There’s people in need, and I can help. B-besides, I need… need to see wha-“

“No,” he cut her off, as soon as he realized what she was getting at, his voice much sharper than before. “No, you don’t need to. You shouldn’t.”

She glared at him, a hint of black veins creeping into her eyes from the corners, opening her mouth to respond. He didn’t let her.

“No. Irene, trust me,” he said, rocking her back. He’d never actually addressed her with her first name before. “You don’t want to see this.”

He could remember asking, all but begging Kizzy to keep her eyes closed. Later he’d found out that she hadn’t, and the things she’d seen… they’d nearly broken him. They’d certainly contributed to breaking her.

If there was one thing about the Dark he could get, it was why he didn’t want the princess to see that. He could completely, wholeheartedly, agree with it, even.

“Go to the field hospital, while you still have that healing power. You can do the most good there,” he continued, tiredly keeping up the eye contact.

It took a few moments for her to process his words and see the logic in them. A few moments before her eyes returned to normal, the black veins retreating back to where they’d come from.

Finally, she nodded, lowering her head as if in admission of defeat, though it may have just been to take one last look at Brennus, as she puts his head down on the ground, slipping her legs out from under him.

He thought he heard her mumble something, but the only word he caught was ‘monster’.

“He’s right. I’ll go to the field hospital. What about you all?” she asked, with a little more strength in her voice. “Need a lift somewhere?”

Though she was addressing everyone, she seemed to focus her gaze on Hecate in particular.

Maybe the grieving witch knew, somehow, because she was the first to respond, finally making a sound other than a wail.

“G-go. Go help. I’ll be fine,” she choked the words out in between more sobs. “I… I would like, some time… time alone, anyway. With him.” Her hands clenched into fists where they lay on Brennus’ chest, green-gloved fingertips sliding across dull black armor.

Jared didn’t know what to say, so he just nodded and turned around, kicking into his power.

4:23

He drew on his reserve, adding a single second to each real one. Twice the amount of time to move, when his power had developed enough that it could add up to nine seconds to each real one, these days.

This wasn’t about being faster, though, so much as it was for the sake of exploiting his weird, quasi-real state to stay awake and active. And so he jogged off, after saluting the others, intending to circle around the area where that monster had fallen and look for anyone still in need of rescue.

Two fucking S-Class events in the same week. God, I hope this will be it for a while now, he thought, as he jogged and occasionally leaped onto and over particularly nasty section of rubble and left-over power effects. God damn it, NL’s been hit by three in about as many months! What the hell, that’s insane even by local standards! Karma’s gotta be done by now…

***

He was busy pulling a bruised cowl out from under some rubble – not one he knew, she was definitely from out of town – when karma decided that New Lennston hadn’t yet, in fact, suffered enough.

Lightning flashed, almost immediately followed by a weirdly warbling sound of thunder, and the sensation of something being torn open washing over him.

Even though he was still holding the woman’s hand, and trying not to stare at her too much because her flowing robes were in tatters and, damn, she didn’t seem to be an Adonis – someone with a Physique power, as was now the nomenclature – but she sure was fit and he wasn’t picky about which beauty to appreciate, well, even in spite of that, he kicked in his power.

Nine seconds added to every one, the woman came to a near stand-still, and his grip on her hand slipped; the downside of his power, when it was up his effect on the real world (and the real world’s effect on him, in turn) was reduced by a factor equivalent to how much his own time was sped up. With him now living ten seconds for every one of the outside world, he only had one tenth of the effect on anyone not on the same time as he. He’d have to touch her and give her seconds from his store to bring her up to his speed, for them to fully interact, and his stores were low enough as they were, already.

He turned around, and saw that the bolt of lightning was still there, stationary, flickering without disappearing, like a lasting connection between the cloudless sky and the shattered ground. He could see it as clear as day, even before his helmet’s visor shifted polarity and the world beyond the bubble of his power became sharp and visible again, like he was seeing the light with something other than his eyes.

Just then, something more happened, and he wouldn’t have seen it if he wasn’t in his fastest mode – even at ten times the speed, he almost missed it as a crack ran up from the ground, where the first bolt had origininated and was still connected to, like reality itself cracking, from the ground up to the sky, only for lightning to then run down that same crack and connected heaven and earth in the same flickering, warbling, dancing manner.

The place those cracks are coming from, that’s…, he thought with a sensation of rising dread inside of him, even as he refused to finish the thought.

The cowl he’d just been helping forgotten, he ran straight towards the origin of the cracks, watching as yet another formed, this one going up only to arc back towards the ground making a bow of sorts that was then filled out with dancing lightning so bright and white it hurt to look at.

He knew that shade of painfully pure white all too well, and his stomach plunged down into his feet, making them feel leaden and clumsy.

Finally, after what felt like ten minutes to him, but was likely more akin to a little over half of one to the real world, he reached the crater.

Another crack had spread up into the sky, calling down stationary lightning.

He came to a halt, halfway around the crater from where the Dark still stood, his form mostly frozen place, save for some slow-motion oozing up, his eyes seemingly focused, still, on the purple eye laying amidst the gore.

Mindstar, his new personal hero (which he was never going to tell Amazon about), was also still down there, frozen mid-wobble, a force-field so dense it was visible to the naked eye as a purple-tinged half-ovoid behind her back, which was pointed towards the… the…

Jared’s eyes widened as he realised what he was looking at.

It looked like nothing so much as a twist in reality, a see-through snarl that twisted up the view of everything beyond it, kind of like jabbing a fork into your noodles and twisting them up, only without the fork and without the noodles. The cracks he’d seen, they’d spread from it, and even now he could see yet another crack form.

Sped up like he was, he could see that it didn’t actually shoot up from the snarl – no, the entire crack, snarl to heaven, simply faded in all at once, followed by something like semi-liquid lightning filling out the crack. It travelling down from above must have been a trick of the eye, something his brain had added in to make sense of it.

The lightning seemed to run through parts of the snarl, like an elaborate, twisty pipe-system, only to arc out again below, thousands and thousands of tiny, hair-thin arcs reaching out like fingers, touching seemingly every piece of flesh and bone, every drop of blood, every… everything.

Worse than all of that, though, was that he recognized the feeling that washed over him, a wave like a distortion of reality, rippling through everything it passed without seemingly causing any effect.

He felt the snarl even more vividly than he saw it.

Time.

Someone, or something, was twisting time. And judging by what those lightning arcs seemed to point at, Di-fucking-L was the focus of it.

His eyes flickered over to the Dark, panicked thoughts telling him that it would be preferably to see some obvious signs of power usage from him, some sign that he be the one responsible.

Because, for all that he’d mocked her for it, repeatedly, he really hoped the princess’ assurances that her ‘papa’ was a good person, deep down, were not just the naive delusions of a daddy’s girl.

Because then it might just be a case of him cleaning up, removing the traces. Getting rid of whatever may be left, rather than…

He didn’t even want to think the alternative.

Unfortunately, for all he could tell, the Dark seemed to just be staring at it, for all that it fucking said about the animated mass of living, soundlessly screaming shadows that was him.

Another ripple washed over reality, a distortion in time he wasn’t sure he’d be able to feel, if his power wasn’t what it was, yet another branch of frozen lightning joining the others.

That seemed to push things over a threshold, a tipping point, as the entire mess of lightning collapsed in on itself with such speed, it looked fast even from his point of view.
The arcs were sucked into the swirling distortion they had originated from, both the ones above and below, and everything they’d touched was… not drawn in, really.

It was odd to see, like seeing ghost images, overlapping everything, shifting; like someone was holding a prism in front of a flashlight, breaking the beam up into a kaleidoscope of colors, and then turned and twisted the prism in their fingers, shifting the patterns being projected, except instead of light, it was time and the effect only touched what had been connected to the distortion via lightning.

Jared’s brain tied itself up in knots and twists, trying to parse the non-motion he saw, ghostly images overlapping themselves, shifting through, through various states, the kaleidoscope being turned and twisted.

With each shift, a different configuration was seen, the individual plateaus coming and going so quickly, his power was the only reason he had a chance to see even glimpses of them.

DiL’s body, torn to pieces on the ground.

DiL’s body, in pieces, frozen mid-air on the way to where the pieces had ended up.

DiL’s body, lying on the ground, the face already bashed in by Mindstar’s fists, the eyes still glowing even as one of them hung out of its socket by nothing but the nerve and blood vessels.

DiL, whole, kind of. Floating in the air, hair and eyes and nails glowing, but dismembered, arms and legs and head not connecting to the trunk of the body, floating in different places, yet clearly aligned with each other, the stumps glowing bright.
DiL, but younger, a prepubescent girl rather than the young woman she usually appeared as.

DiL, prepubescent, torn to pieces that were spread around the floor.

And now he wasn’t sure whether it was just time that was being twisted here.

DiL, teenaged, but with chunks missing, as if someone had scooped out a part of her head, her chest, her buttocks, one thigh, that same unearthly glow that was her trademark blazing forth. Even mutilated and with half of her glowing, she looked disconcertingly like the princess. More like a twin than a normal sister.

DiL, prepubescent and teenaged at the same time, forms overlapping, unevenly, looking even more like a freak than usual.

DiL, but inverted, her eyes, hair and nails the only parts of her that weren’t made of blazing white light.

DiL, whole and healthy, but the pure white glow replaced for an even more sinister blackness, like some sort of anti-light.

DiL, whole and healthy, a woman in her early to mid-twenties with white-glowing hair, eyes and nails, looking no worse for wear for all that had happened today.

Just as Jared’s heart started to plunge down to join his stomach by his feet, the distortion disappeared with a snap, the frozen lightning and the distorted reality disappearing into a single point right in front of DiL’s chest with a sensation that felt like how a snap sounded.

And with the Snap came an explosion of distorted time and space, as if reality itself could no longer bear the abuse.

Jared had already turned around and was running, running away.

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B13.e 17 Good People

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“I really don’t see how that’s your fault, Jess,” Jake spoke over the phone, his voice soothing her upheaved mind. “It’s not like they told you and you gave permission.”

”But I’m in charge of them, Jake. I’m supposed to notice this stuff and reign them in,” she countered, putting her head down onto her desk – well, it was Rounds’ desk, usually, but since she didn’t have an office of her own, she’d been using his – while still holding the phone to her ear. “I’ve been a pretty horrible leader, but this, this is beyond the pale. Rounds is going to put me on a spit and roast me over a fire. Slowly.”

”Now there’s an image I’d rather do without,” a mellow, smooth voice butted in.

Jessica, known to most as Amazon, fearless melee fighter of the New Lennston United Heroes, screamed like a little girl and nearly fell off the office chair she’d been sitting in.

”Jess? Jess, what’s going on?” Jake asked through the phone, though she was too focused on the new arrival to reply.

Percy Norton was an odd sight amongst superheroes. He was tall – that was quite common – with naturally messy dark blonde hair, muddy dark-blue eyes and a body that could best be described as scarecrow-ish: tall, thin, the limbs seemingly a little too long to really fit. Wearing thick winter jeans, boots and a red sweater, he looked like any guy you might see on the street, especially now, leaning against the frame of the door to his own office, his arms crossed, his mouth smiling.

”B-boss,” Jess stammered, shooting up onto her feet. “I, I didn’t know you were back already! Where are the others? Did you have a nice journey? Why didn’t you tell me you’d arrive sooner, I’d have welcomed you all back, and probably organised the ju-“

She stopped when he raised a hand, making her blush as she realised how she’d run her mouth.

”Jess, breathe,” he spoke calmly, walking closer to pick up the phone. “Hi! Jake, right?” There was a response which Jessica missed and Oh God my Boss is talking to my boyfriend.

”So, did Jess finally get the nerve up to asking you out?” Rounds asked, making Jess blush furiously.

”I’m still in the room, you know…” she mumbled, embarrassed.

”You were the one? Good for you, young man,” Percy continued as he walked around his desk, shooing her out of  his office chair and sitting down, sighing as he did so.

It really was an extraordinarily comfortable chair.

”Well, I wish you both the best of luck,” he kept on talking, leaning back on his chair, while Jessica moved around the desk, self-consciously fiddling with her sleeveless red bodysuit.

Then he suddenly turned serious, the cheer leaving his face. “But just to be clear – break her heart, and I’ll break you, got it?”

Jessica sputtered and threw herself across the desk to get the phone, but was stopped when he raised a leg and pushed against her shoulder, pushing her down onto the desk instead.

”I’m not a little girl!”  she complained, flailing weakly, the phone out of her reach.

Of course, Rounds ignored her as he listened to Jake’s response, breaking out into a smile again. “That’s the spirit! Anyway, I actually have some business to attend to with your beau, but we definitely need to meet soon. I’ll introduce you to the folks around here and we’ll tell you every embarrassing story relating to Jess that we know of.”

“Hey!” said woman protested in outrage, but was summarily ignored.

”Have a nice day, Jake,” her boss finished. “Yes, I’ll pass it on. Goodbye!” And he hung up, before he focused on her ag ain. “I’m to pass on his love and the promise that he’ll prepare your favourite dinner food tonight.”

The thought of Jake’s molten-cheese-and-jalapeno covered nachos made Jess’ mouth water and slightly eased her outrage and embarrassment. Slightly.

”That’s nice, but I’m not some little girl that needs to be protected!” she complained petulantly, only to receive a sharp sting to her butt, making her yelp and leap off the desk, her hands flying to her butt.

”I don’t know, you’re still pretty defenseless, as usual,” a sultry voice all but purred at her.

”Rachel,” Jess said, recognising her without even needing to turn around. Though she did that, to keep her butt out of the older woman’s line of fire. “You suck.”

Despite her words, she was honestly glad to see her again. Rachel was the true second-in-command of the team, Rounds’ right-hand woman and his most probable heir, once he moved up to take the Feral Family’s place as a Shining Guardian (that he would, none of his team members doubted). It was doubly impressive, because Venatrix had been a villain, once, until she ran into Rounds and he recruited her for their team, about two years before Jess herself joined.

Even though she’d changed sides, Venatrix – Rachel to her friends – had kept the basic  style of her old costume (as a reminder of how far she’d come, she said), wearing a one-piece sleeve- and legless bodysuit in black with blood-red accents, mostly arranged to emphasise the curves of her slender figure. Her arms were covered in black gloves reaching up to her biceps, leaving only a little skin exposed, and matching thigh-high spandex socks covered her legs. Her feet were bare, the socks only extending into stirrups for the feet, rather than cover them fully. She wasn’t wearing her equipment, other than her right gauntlet, a slim metallic one which glowed with an inner light, a glowing, crackling whip – like electricity – dangling from her hand.

Jess’ butt was intimately familiar with said whip, as were those of all the other team members – Rachel really enjoyed whipping them into shape, as she called it – save for Rounds himself.

Rachel’s ruby-red lips stretched into a grin, her mediterranean features currently free of her usual mask, her blonde hair tied back into a simple ponytail. “I’d make some lewd joke about just what I’m sucking or would like to suck, but honestly, I’m just glad to see you again, Applebutt,” she replied, letting her whip retract back into the glove as she spread her arms.

Jess rolled her eyes, but complied and walked over to hug her. “I’ve missed you, Gutterbrain,” she said, feeling misty-eyed.

Rachel chuckled and rubbed her back. “I’m back now. We all are,” she said softly, before pulling back a bit to kiss Jess on the cheek. “And what is this I hear about my third-favourite butt having found a boyfriend?”

Jess blushed again, looking aside. Oh God, I have to keep her away from Jake, no matter the cost!, she thought in quiet horror, while she replied out loud, “It’s not such a big deal. M-me and… Jake… got together.”

“Finally!” her mentor-slash-molester exclaimed, rolling her eyes while holding Jess at arms’ length. “I thought you two would never get to it.”

”I’ll say!” bombastic voice exclaimed, followed by steps that shook the floor.

Before she knew it, Rachel had let go of her and Jess was enveloped in a literal (and two-fold) bear hug, lifted clean off her feet by the huge figure currently busy squeezing the life out of her.

Ursa Gemini was a giant of a man in any sense of the word – his manifestation had caused him to grow to a good two and a half metre in height, his frame filled by enough dense muscle to make a whole Mister Universe pageant feel inferior and his body covered, mostly, in dense, yet not coarse fur, leaving only his hands (except for the backs) and his face uncovered. As well as his butt, as he liked to joke, but Jess tried not to think about that. He was followed everywhere he went by the other reason for his name, a silvery glowing after-image which was actually bear-shaped, usually mirroring his actions – currently adding onto the hug, partially phasing through him to hug her tightly.

”Marcus… air… breathe…” she gasped, even while trying to return the hug – though even on the best of days, her arms didn’t fit even halfway around his mighty torso.

“Sorry Jess,” he replied, though he neither sounded nor looked sorry as he put her down again.

She looked up at him with a grin and gave him a hug around his (slightly slimmer) waist. “Glad you’re back, fuzzball.”

”Glad to be back,” he replied, scratching the back of his head. “Wall duty is not the way I wanna spend my time. Nevermind that Faith and the kids are ready to put me in chains so I can’t go away again.”

”Have you seen them yet?” Jess asked, then looked at Rachel. “What about Tony?”

”Of course,” Rachel replied, snorting in mock indignation. “We arrived here in the morning, we just didn’t tell you so we could surprise you.”

”Well, Rachel was supposed to call you,” Marcus corrected her with a grin. “But I guess she was so busy sobbing over finally being with her master again she forgot.”

Said crybaby hissed at him and kicked his shin, to no effect – it’d take armor piercing rounds just to tickle the furry giant.

Jessica chuckled, and turned away from the two of them and their antics to look at Rounds, only to turn and come face-to-face with another member of her team.

”Eeeeek!” she cried out, as he’d moved up to stand right next to her, his face only inches away from her own when she turned. “Laurence! I’ve told you not to sneak up on me!”

The slender man with the blindfold sporting his eye emblem over his actual eyes – or rather, the lack thereof – stood there in casual jeans and a black sweater, having eschewed his usual costume much like Percy had (even Marcus was wearing his customary armoured silver-and-green briefs and boots), having of course managed to sneak in unnoticed, at least by her. He liked living up to his name, Eyespy, in more ways than just the one his power allowed him to.

”You told me so,” he agreed, nodding his head with a sly grin. “I never agreed to it, though.”

She tried to slap him over the back of the head, but he ducked under it with a cackle, easily dancing out of her reach.

Still, she was feeling way too happy to get too annoyed at him. Looking around at her friends, grinning, she noticed that one was still missing. “Where’s Bismuth?” she asked about their team’s heavyweight; using her cape out of habit, as she preferred it over her real name.

”She’s on her way,” Percy assured her. “She’s visiting her sister, first. Seems like there’s not much time left.”

That put a stop to the good mood in the room, as they exchanged looks.

”Have you heard about what happened last night, yet?” Jessica asked in a subdued voice.

Percy’s gaze turned stern. “I have, in general. But I’d like you to give us all the details.” He looked around the room. “Well, almost all of us. We can fill in Bismuth later.”

She nodded, feeling a weight return to her shoulders, and sat down on a chair in front of his desk. The others sat or leaned against the walls.

This wasn’t going to be easy.

***

The key slipped into the door’s lock, but she stopped there.

I shouldn’t have told Heck to leave, Dalia thought, though it was really too late to reprimand herself for refusing her friend’s offer to accompany her and help her explain everything.

Vasiliki had enough on her plate, already. Who would’ve thought Amy’s Mindstar? And B knew.

That was another thing on her mind. She’d been crushing on Amy – though she’d told no one – pretty heavily, ever since that night at the club (even if she’d been too drunk to remember most of it). Now she knew that that gorgeous, witty, sexy, nice older girl was a major supervillain. That put a damper on her fantasies. A bit.

Is my crush even real? Or did she make me feel that?

She wanted to believe that Basil’s sister wouldn’t have done that to one of his friends, that she wouldn’t have done that, period, but considering her reputation…

So much for supernatural luck, she thought, and that brought her back to her current problem.

She closed her eyes, lowering her head. Deep breaths. Opening them again, seeing her current getup – she’d switched her costume for some clothes she’d stashed at Vasiliki’s place (at B’s insistence) for emergencies, in her case skinny jeans that she’d thought were sexy when she bought them but right now just seemed ridiculous, especially since she couldn’t bend over in them without half her ass sticking out. Her top was similarly tight, showing more cleavage than she’d intended to show, when she’d bought it and she wasn’t sure she’d have been able to button up her jacket if she’d tried. The only sensible part of the outfit were the winter boots she was wearing, and that was because the shoes she’d stored there weren’t up to the weather at all, and so Vasiliki had lent her one of her many, many, many pairs of boots.

I’m just procrastinating, she thought at herself. C’mon Dalia… you weren’t nearly so skittish attacking a floating city full of mass-murdering supervillains…

B and Heck wouldn’t hesitate at all.

She took another breath and turned the key, unlocking the door, pushing it open with the same motion.

The apartment was a mess, as always. Maybe a little less so – at least the dirty underwear wasn’t present, currently.

”M-mom? I’m home,” Dalia said, her voice nearly breaking as she couldn’t immediately see her mother on her customary spot on the couch in front of the TV.

Was she alright? Had her power done something worse than usual to her? Surviving at the villain’s city, getting away safely… that must’ve taken huge amounts of luck.

Oh God… Her eyes filled with tears. I-is mom even, is she, did my power…

Her arms began to shake, tears running down her cheeks as she started to hyperventilate…

”Dalia?” a rough voice spoke, as the door to the bathroom opened, and her mother walked out, dressed in her night clothes and an alcohol-stained bathrobe. Her hair was a mess and her face blotchy and she was the most beautiful sight Dalia could ever remember seeing.

Her mother’s eyes widened when she saw the tears on her face. “What’s wrong, b-“

She was cut off when Dalia all but leapt across the entire room, throwing herself into her mother’s arms, nearly bowling her over.

”You’realrightyou’realrightI’msosorrysorrysorryI’msogladyou’realrightI’msorry…”

***

Percy was drumming his fingertips on his desk, his gaze never leaving Jessica’s face, his own utterly unreadable.

”Well… fuck,” Rachel said gravely.

”I’m not sure whether those kids deserve a pat on the back for their achievements, or a thorough spanking for their misdeeds,” Laurence spoke up next. “Either way, though, this is going to be Hell of a shitstorm.”

Jessica lowered her head, feeling wretched.

Percy stayed quiet for another minute, then…

”I am disappointed, Jessica,” he spoke gravely, using her full name as he rarely did. “You handled the crises that befell this city well enough, but I am disappointed in how you dealt with our juniors.”

Every word was like a slap in the face, and she felt tears threaten to leak out of her eyes. Stop it, stupid eyes! Don’t cry! You want them to stop treating you like the team kid!

”That they came up with this idea, that is on them,” he continued, leaning back on his chair, folding his fingers in front of his mouth. “That they went through with it, also on them. That you did not foster a relationship with them in such a way that they would at least have tried to gain your approval. That you didn’t impress unto them the discipline and forethought needed to see what a colossally stupid idea it was. Those, those are on you.”

”I… know,” she admitted. “I’m sorry. You trusted me to deal with these things… and I failed.”

”That, you did,” he agreed, his voice soft. “Learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen again next time.”

”N-next time?” She looked up, surprised, only to find him smiling sadly at her.

”Jess,” he began to reply, and she felt herself instantly relax again, as he went back to using the short form of her name, “I am well aware that I left you in a difficult position. And that many of the things that happened under your watch were beyond your control. Even if they’d been and you’d genuinely messed up this badly, I’d still refuse to condemn you for it.” He sighed, parting his hands to run them through his hair. “There will be consequences for this… Patrid will become utterly horrid, at the very least, and there’ll be consequences both for our juniors and for you, personally,” he continued, making her flinch again. “Child Protective Services, the DMA, our own Board of Directors, all those and more are going to raise a stink over it.”

She paled, especially at the mention of the DMA. They could very well have her locked up, if they determined that she’d been negligent in her duties to oversee the juniors to the point of criminality, or at least ruin any prospect she might have to advance her career as a hero anywhere in the United States…

”We’ll stand behind you, of course,” he pressed on, his eyes remaining focused upon her face. “We’ll do whatever we can to smooth the, ah, ‘shitstorm’, as Laurence would say, out.” He stopped taking a deep breath.

She looked up at him again, feeling just a little hopeful that this would be it, for now – she really needed to get to Jake and have him hug her a bit to feel better – but his gaze only became more stern.

”Now let’s get to these youths. Brennus, Hecate and Tyche,” he moved on to the other subject, and she felt her bowels clench up. “What were you thinking letting them run around freely?”

She clasped her hands tightly, lowering her head once more.

Then a pair of arms wrapped around her, from behind, as Rachel leaned over the back of said chair and gave her a hug.

Jessica had seen this one coming a long time ago, though, and she did have a response prepared.

“I did talk to them about joining up,” she replied calmly. “Only Hecate showed the faintest interest, but she claimed that she had personal reasons to refuse. Tyche showed no interest in joining any group which didn’t involve her friends and Brennus wasn’t interested at all. While I could’ve pushed to force them in, it’d likely just have driven them further towards the villain side and I didn’t want to risk that.”

Percy frowned. “I know it’s rather… customary to turn a blind eye towards vigilantes who toe the line, but I’ve always tried to impress upon you that just because something has become a habit, perhaps even a necessary one at times, it doesn’t mean that it’s right. Vigilantism is illegal and teenager vigilantism doubly so.” He took a deep breath, then let it out. “I’ve often butted heads with certain parts of our organisation which prefer to toe the government’s line and be lenient over this, and I stand by my point – children should not be on the frontlines. When I left you in charge in my stead, it was with the understanding that you’d do your level best to do with it as I would, which you haven’t.”

Jessica turned pale, averting her eyes from him. If he’d slapped her, it’d have stung less.

He wasn’t finished yet, either.

“This isn’t just your fault, Jessica and believe me when I say that I’ll make my opinion known to everyone else involved in this, particularly that stunt with the Rabid Eight.” His eyes grew even harder. “Though I would like to know why you let them talk you into allowing the juniors to confront a group of super-powered serial killers.”

“I…” she started to speak, but cut herself off. It felt so long ago, even though it had only been a scant few months. “We-“

“We decided that a show of force was necessary,” a new spoke up, startling everyone but Laurence.

Jessica turned around and looked at the newcomer. Patrick Patrid, in his customary white three-piece suit, of course.

What was not customary, though, was the heavy frown on his attractive face (she’d had a crush on him, when she’d first joined the team, until she’d realised just what an asshole he could be).

“A show of force… involving children,” Percy replied, locking eyes with the man.

“Brrr,” Rachel shuddered, still holding onto Jessica, and she felt she had to agree with the sentiment. When these two met, the room temperature always seemed to drop. They almost always clashed in terms of ideals and opinions as to matters at hand. They both wanted to do the right thing, but Percy cared about doing the right thing right, and Patrid wanted to do the right thing and have it look right. PR clashing with morals.

It didn’t help that Patrid was such a damn enigma. What the sense was behind a PR manager being one of the most powerful members of the US division – and by extention, the United Heroes as a whole – Jessica could not, for the life of her understand. Nor how such a sly man – watching him give interviews and manipulate everyone without anyone noticing was as creepy as it was impressive – apparently stood high in Lady Light’s trust.

“The children were all we had,” Patrid replied, unfazed by Percy’s glare as he stepped in, carrying a file folder under one arm. “I told you that going to the Wall was a mistake, did I not? But no, you said dodging the draft would’ve been wrong.” He threw the folder onto Percy’s table. “Here’s some uncomfortable truth, Rounds. New Lennston was on the verge of a gang war. If it wasn’t for the Hastur Incident wiping out the majority of the Black Panthers and the Morning’s Children, said war would have happened. While you all were off playing soldier. We had to make a show of force. Show people that even with the adults gone, the juniors could still hold the fort.”

He stopped, smirking as he adjusted his tie, before unbuttoning his jacket and sitting down on the sole remaining chair facing Percy’s desk, to Jessica’s right. “Besides, with Irene finally cleared for action, we just had to take advantage of the chance to give her one hell of a debut. That we managed to do the same for our pop princess was a bonus. And before you complain, Mrs Whitaker was there the whole time, merely invisible. None of those crazies would’ve come close to actually hurting any of the children.”

I don’t care if all the Shining Guardians were there as well!” Percy shouted, slamming a hand on the desk. “You put those children into battle against serial killers! Then you allowed them to assault an Acre with nothing but a bunch of other children as support! The Hastur incident was out of your control, perhaps, but don’t you think all that contributed to them thinking last night’s stunt was a good idea instead of a suicidal one?”

Patrid’s smile turned into a frown again, and he put his hands together in front of his face, almost as if to pray; one leg crossing over the other.

Even his shoes are white, Jessica noticed, having decided a long time ago that it was better to stay quiet whenever these two clashed.

There’s something you and me agree on, for once,” Patrid groused. “Last night was a disaster in too many ways to count. However, I still stand by my decision to advise the director towards the fight against the Rabid Eight; and the Acre had to go down before they managed to grow a Blossom – I would have loved to call in reinforcements, but there simply was no time, Rounds.”

“And is that why you didn’t call in adult professionals to deal with the Rabid Eight? To discourage the gangs? There’s roaming teams specifically for such situations! When I left New Lennston, I thought you’d call in one, maybe even two of them,” Percy replied, calming down as well.

“We – by which I mean, the Director, Jason and I – considered but dismissed the idea,” Patrid explained. “For a number of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that all our roaming teams are currently tied up, we chose not to dislodge a team from another crisis herd.” He tapped his fingers together, looking around at the others in the room. “You all know about Irene Whitaker by now?”

Percy, Rachel and Laurence all just nodded.

“That girly seems to be pretty amazin’,” Marcus hollered. “I thought people were dreamin’ it up at first.”

“It’s all true, the good and the bad,” Patrid said. “She’s incredibly powerful, even more versatile, occasionally unstable and very much dedicated to being a hero. Numerous parties within the UH expect her to become one of our top capes within a few years, so the director wanted to give her as impressive a debut as possible. After a long discussion on the subject, we decided that the Rabid Eight, while dangerous, where not a serious threat to her, nor to the other children while both she and her mother were present.”

He stopped, looking up at the ceiling. “To be fair, there’s barely anyone in the Northern Americas who’d be a threat with Mrs Whitaker around, but that’s beside the point.” He shifted a bit on his seat, turning slightly towards the others. “Anyway, we decided it was worth the minimal risk, for the sake of showing the gangs that we don’t even need outside support to overpower them. This whole discussion is quite thoroughly beside the point, however,” he pressed on, glaring at Percy. “It’s not their lawful, if risky, deeds that we should be focusing on, but the utter catastrophe of last night. Whether or not you agree with me on whether or not we should employ teenagers in combat against supervillains, we both agree that last night should not have happened and we must make sure it does not get repeated. Can we prioritise that, for now?”

Percy glared at Patrid, who only gave him a smirk in response, the air between them crackling with tension.

Jessica sat there quietly, all but holding her breath as she waited to see what’d happen next. Leaning against her back, Rachel was doing the same, and she was pretty sure the guys were no more relaxed.

Patrid’s and Percy’s arguments had a tendency to drag on for a while, and jump from subject to subject, over and over. The last time, they’d ended up shouting at each other for nearly four hours.

This time, however, it seemed like they’d be spared the experience, as Percy averted his eyes and sighed, leaning back on his chair again.

“Fine,” he replied. “This isn’t over, though.”

“It never is,” Patrid agreed, looking almost pleased.

***

At some point, her mother had pulled Dalia over to the couch and sat down, guiding the girl to lie down on the couch, her head on her mother’s lap as she sobbed bitterly.

Jana was looking down at her baby girl, her face showing both worry and affection, stroking her hair and humming some half-forgotten tune to her, trying to soothe her.

Strangely enough, she hadn’t felt this good in a long time. Not that she was feeling all that well, but compared to the alcohol-fueled, half-conscious nightmare that the last few months had been, being able to just be a mother to her child was like a balm upon her soul.

Even the pain that seeing her baby girl so broken up caused her was welcome, because it meant there was something she could do. It was a good pain, a pain that was not a punishment but a signal, that she had something important to do.

Taking care of her baby, as it were. Something she’d neglected for far too long, to the point where she’d nearly killed herself.

Her heart still clenched up at the memory, when she’d found her baby girl on the floor in her bedroom, an empty pill bottle beside her. Sleeping pills, which Jana had bought to help herself sleep between shifts at work. According to the doctors, her baby had survived by sheer, incredible, stupendous luck – that it was more than just luck was something she’d realised later, not that it had made her feel any better.

That her own life had fallen apart shortly thereafter, even as her baby girl was met by such a string of incredible luck, had felt… just. She’d deserved worse, for failing her so.

But the cuts, the bruises, the occasional broken bone, the lost tooth, the hangovers and the burns… none of it hurt as much as realising how badly she’d failed as a mother. None of it continued to hurt as much as seeing her baby pull away from her, just when she’d realised how much she’d neglected her, when she’d finally seen that she had to make amends and be a mother again.

She’d been happy for her, of course. To hear that she’d made friends, that she’d won entry into the most prestigious school of the entire state, and that her marks were up near the top of her class.

Even when she’d realised that her baby girl had become a hero – oh, she hadn’t told her, but neither had she been too careful about what she’d said and what she’d held back, and Jana had drawn the connection the first time she’d seen ‘Tyche’ on the television – she’d been relieved, not worried. Her baby had found something good to do, something to dedicate herself to.

She would never begrudge her that.

Now her baby had walked in, wearing clothes that were far too tight and revealing, both for the weather and for Jana’s heart, and looking like the world had ended.

But she was unharmed, and she was there, with her.

Jana gave her as much time as she needed, stroking her hair and humming the melody to a lullaby she’d used to sing her, back when she’d been little, before she’d screwed everything up. She didn’t even remember the text to it, or the title. Something about a bridge.

It took over half an hour for Dalia to calm down. Finally, she pulled back, kneeling on the couch as she rubbed her face with her hands. Jana only pulled her hand back slowly, letting her fingers run through her gorgeous red hair.

“S-sorry,” Dalia said, before hiccuping the way she usually did, after crying.

“You have nothing to apologise for, sweetie,” her mother said, standing up carefully – she didn’t want to ruin things now by stepping on a shard or something, she had to worry about Dalia, not be worried over by her – and leaning over to give her a kiss on the forehead, just as the younger redhead hiccuped again. “Let me get you a cup of water.”

She walked over to the kitchenette of the decadently large apartment that they shared – said kitchenette being a corner of the huge living room which was larger than the whole kitchen in their old place had been – to pour some water into a plastic cup – she’d locked all the glassware away a while ago, not that it’d helped much, as she’d just found other stuff to break and hurt herself on – and take it back to her hiccuping baby, picking up a towel along the way that she wetted in the sink.

Dalia was still kneeling on the couch, looking miserable as she leaned against the backrest, so Jana held the cup to her lips rather than hand it to her, and helped her drink. Once the cup was empty, she used the wet towel to clean Dalia’s face up with gentle touches, sitting down and turning so as to face her.

“There we go,” she spoke softly once that was done. “What’s wrong, sweetie?”

Dalia looked away from her. “You’re not even asking why I’m wearing this costume…”

Jana chuckled, brushing some strands of hair away from her face, pausing to look at them – she really needed to take better care of her hair, it was starting to look truly horrendous and she had neither Dalia’s youth nor her power to make up for the lack of care. But that was for another time.

“Dalia, I may not be the best mother out there, but if you think putting on a skintight outfit and a mask is enough for me not to recognise you, then you’re quite thoroughly wrong,” she replied, putting the towel and cup aside. “So, what’s got you so tied up in knots? You know you can tell me anything, right?” She reached out to touch Dalia’s cheek, but her baby flinched back. “Dalia?” she asked, worried.

Dalia started to take deep breaths, almost as if about to hyperventilate as she tried to look everywhere but at her.

Jana was about to try and calm her down, to prevent her from actually hyperventilating, when she something seemed to give in, and the words began to spill out.

She stared at her daughter as she shared everything that’d happened since she’d gone out to be a superhero the first time. Everything, even things she probably shouldn’t have told her, about her friends and other heroes, but she let her speak anyway, as it was clearly important to her to tell it all.

When she heard about the insane stunt they’d pulled last night, she almost shouted at her for being so reckless, but her outrage quickly got lost in the rest of her tale.

And then, the true reason she’d been so broken up.

Jana listened in quiet horror as Dalia explained to her how she now believed her power to truly work. What it’d done to the girls who’d tormented her. What it’d done to Jana, herself.

She felt a pain in her heart, hearing of what’d happened to those girls, though she couldn’t find it in herself to feel too bad, not after what they’d done to her own daughter. Though she did sympathise with their parents, even if they’d been responsible for raising those girls to be what they’d become.

But what it’d done to her, and why Tyche believed it had happened…

“No,” she said, simply, firmly, and pulled her startled baby into the tightest hug she could manage, crushing her against her chest. “You’re wrong, baby girl,” she spoke, sobbing, as a huge weight fell off her heart.

“W-what?” Dalia gasped, surprised by the sudden gesture and the words, wiggling to tilt her head up and look at her.

Jana looked down at her baby, and smiled. “I thought… what I was going through, that it was just punishment for having failed you… but instead, instead it something much, much more important.” She leaned down, kissing her baby on the forehead. “I’m not angry at you, Dalia. I’m glad. If me suffering like this is all it takes for you to be safe and happy… then I’ll take that bargain, and be grateful as well.”

***

It had taken nearly an hour before Percy had sent Jessica out of his office, to pick up the juniors.

Now she’d brought them back, all seven of them. From the stoic (as usual) Tartsche all the way to Gloom Glimmer, who was looking incredibly uncomfortable, fidgeting around and looking at everyone and everything but Patrid, as if afraid of what he’d say or do.

She wondered about that – Irene had never shown herself to be uncomfortable around or fearful of Patrid; then again, she’d never screwed up like this before.

They filed into the office, the space in front of the desk having been cleared of its usual seats – those stood by its sides, so the adults could face the juniors, and were currently taken by Rachel and Patrid – with seven simpler chairs standing there in two rows, upon which they sat down quickly, Harry sitting front and centre.

Jessica felt proud of him. Whatever anyone might say, Harry had been a great leader, after Bismuth had graduated from the juniors. He’d taken to it with the same calm determination that ran through every aspect of his life, from the way he made breakfast in the morning to how he’d wooed and won over Thomas.

She wasn’t so sure that’d help him now.

“Hello, kids,” Percy greeted them with a pained smile. “Especially you four,” he looked at Irene, Melody, Goudo and Aimihime, the four who’d joined after he’d left the city. “I don’t think we’ve met yet. I’m Percy Norton, also known as Rounds.”

They all replied with variations of ‘welcome back’ and ‘nice to meet you’, except for Irene who just nodded, fiddling with one corner of her heavy cape while chewing on her lower lip, and Goudo, who barely inclined his head, sitting on his chair with a rigidity that belonged on a statue, not a human.

She didn’t get that boy, at all.

Jessica walked around their group and joined Marcus and Laurence, leaning against the wall on the left side of the office, from Percy’s point of view.

“In case you don’t know yet, these are the other members of our team – that’s Rachel, also known as Venatrix, Marcus, wo’s clearly Ursa Gemini and Laurence our Eyespy. Some of you may remember Bismuth, though she’s not currently present – she’s visiting family,” he introduced them all, with each adult raising a hand or just plain smiling at the teens when their turn came up. “And you already know Jessica, Amazon, and Patrick, who’s our public relations manager.”

Percy didn’t leave time for any further pleasantries, though. “Now, while I’d love to take the time to talk to each of you and get to know you better… and I’d certainly like our first real gettogether to be under a better star… I must say, what I feel primarily right now is disappointment.” And with that, his mirth at seeing the teens faded into sadness and anger, making almost all of them cringe. “What in God’s name where you thinking!?”

The junior heroes exchanged looks, briefly, before Harry spoke up.

“We wanted to help, Sir,” he said, his voice betraying the nervousness his face so stoically hid. “We talked to each other and… we decided that it was worth the risk, since the director said that it would take time to verify the information and muster a proper strikeforce, but Dusu’s victims were, are, dying now.”

“So you set out to assault the fortress of a group of mass murderers capable of creating city-destroying monsters, without verifying the information, without adult supervision, relying on the words of a boy you barely know, whom as it turns out you didn’t know the first thing about, according to this report!” Percy stabbed said file on his desk with his finger, before flipping it open, leafing to a particular page. “Reacts with unstable berserk state to Osore’s power… possible split personality… supposedly Mindstar’s brother, if that’s even true as we don’t have the means to check whether they actually are related, or she just made him believe so. Did any of you have any inkling of any of this?” He looked at everyone in turn, getting headshakes one after the other, except for Osore – who’d obviously known of Brennus’ response to his power, to use it deliberately – and, perhaps not so surprisingly…

“I knew about that,” Irene admitted in a small voice. “Not the split personality thing, but him being Mindstar’s brother. It’s true. Daddy told me, shortly after I first met him.”

Jessica gulped, crossing her arms as her hands clenched into tight fists, trembling as the mention of that bitch brought up memory upon memory…

Not now, Jess, she admonished herself, taking deep breaths to force that down. She could have a meltdown later, when she was with Jake again. Right now, she needed to focus.

Meanwhile, Irene shrank a bit into her chair under the looks she got from the others, including the juniors, except for Melody, who just reached out to take and squeeze her hand.

It’s not her fault, she’s just twelve, no matter what she looks like…

“And you didn’t think it was necessary to bring that up?” Percy asked in a soft voice. “Irene, please look at me,” he pressed on when she didn’t respond. When she did, he continued to talk softly. “According to this file, there used to be a standing order to consider Mindstar for a death warrant, if she was found to try and subvert the boy; which may appear harsh to some, certainly to me, but makes some modicum of sense, seeing how she is based in this city, he is unaffiliated and she’s subverted many people before. Don’t you think you should have told us, to prevent a tragedy?”

“W-we’re not supposed to… talk about secret identities,” she stammered, looking both guilty and… distracted? What did she have to be distracted about. “I would’ve told people, if it’d come to that, I swear.”

Percy pinched the bridge of his nose. “This is such a mess… and on top of the disaster this turned out to be…”

“Disaster?” Melody spoke up, her artificial voice sounding confused. “I know we failed to find a cure, but we have Dusu. She can be tried for her crimes now! And the Dark’s probably pulling the rest of those villains apart as we speak, if he hasn’t already. And we all got away safe and unharmed. This was far from a disaster, in my opinion.”

Percy focused on her, but she didn’t flinch back, looking at him with polite defiance on her face.

“That’s one way to look at it. May I tell you how I see things?” He waited for her to nod, then said, “You assaulted these monsters without a plan, got captured, broke out purely because they underestimated you, then you only survived because, let me enumerate – the gods-damned Godking of Mars happened to be in a generous mood; Brennus turned out to have a hidden, violent personality that could mop the floor with some mooks who were otherwise taking you apart; Mindstar flew in to protect her brother; a complete unknown showed up to fight off some manner of time-and-space-bending mad science creation-” For some reason, the teens all flinched or threw confused looks at each other, but Jessica didn’t have time to ask what was wrong, before Percy pressed on, “and then the Dark happened to save you because Irene’s power, against her will teleported her to him rather than face what appears to be a major combat esper. There was so much luck involved in you surviving this, if you hadn’t also found out that Tyche’s power is literally supernatural luck, I’d seriously recommend you each buy a hundred lottery tickets right now!” He leaned back, nearly throwing his own chair over as he tried to calm down. Then he looked at them again, still furious. “Nevermind that two of you violated your parole – you are aware that this may cause Goudo, at least, to be convicted of violation and be sent to juvenile prison, are you?” Most of them paled at that, looking at the Japanese teenager – who showed no reaction at all, looking calmly ahead. “As for capturing Dusu – Mister Patrid, don’t you want to take that one?”

Patrid nodded, as Jessica felt her stomach drop. It was not a good sign that the two of them were together on this. Poor kids

“So, you captured Dusu,” Patrid said in his usual calm, smooth tone of voice, looking no more agitated than ever, even slightly amused, as was his default expression. “Did any of you bother to consider what to do with her next?” He stroked his chin with one hand. “While she does have more warrants on her head than I can easily enumerate, the fact of the matter is that now, publically prosecuting her is going to be a clusterfuck,” he spat the curse like a grenade, making everyone but Percy and Goudo flinch. “You took her from Japanese territory, during an illegal, unsanctioned assault on a villain base. You are all underage and mostly untrained, two of you being on parole for being members of a criminal gang in one case, as well as that and a number of offenses in another case. When all that comes out, the press, the justice system, perhaps even the Japanese government are going to go on the warpath.” He ran his fingers through his hair, showing agitation for the first time. “Kids, we’re already on incredibly thin ice with the Japanese, for numerous reasons,” Laurence’ head snapped up, suddenly, turning towards the door of the office, but no one but Jessica seemed to notice. “They’ve only been waiting for an excuse to boot us out of Japan, and you may have just given them a perfectly legit one! We may well l-“

Running steps came closer to the office, and then Widard all but tumbled inside, stumbling as he nearly fell over. “Rounds!” he shouted, white-faced. “Bismuth! The police precinct! Dusu!” he gasped the words, bending forward to put his hands on his knees, as everyone stared at him in surprise.

Jessica felt her stomach drop down into her feet as she almost instantly made the mental leap to what was going on.

Percy didn’t seem to be far behind. “But… she’s visiting her sister…”

“She’s dead,” Irene whispered in a small voice. “She’s dead and Bismuth…”

Jason nodded, looking up at Percy. “She walked into the precinct’s metahuman containment cellblock and, and sealed the entrance up. There’ve been screams heard, from inside.”

Percy leapt up from his seat. “Everyone, costume! NOW!” And just like that, the adult heroes all rushed out of the room.

***

Widard finally caught his breath, standing up and looking out over the juniors, as Melody looked at her friend, squeezing Irene’s hand. She didn’t know why Irene was so torn up – or why she’d edited Diantha out of the report like that, it had to have been her – but she was clearly distraught.

“Kids…” Mister Widard said, looking at each of them in turn with great sadness in his eyes. “I’m… so glad you’re all alright. Please don’t do that again.”

Somehow, Melody felt worse about saddening him than she’d felt about being chewed out by… damn near everyone else, since coming back. Even Steph and the other handlers had been outraged.

He didn’t give them a chance to apologise, though. “I’ve got to go… help take care of this situation. You all… we’ll talk later. There’s going to be a big meeting, I’m sure.” And with that, he, too, left, leaving them alone with Patrid.

Whose mere presence was still making her skin crawl, especially now that he was just quietly sitting there, studying each of them in turn.

“You are dismissed,” he said, finally. “Go to your rooms, I’ll… also need to take care of this. Another nightmare…”

They all filed out as she shook his head, looking calm yet seeming quite tired, somehow.

“Patrick,” Irene said with a soft voice, not moving from her perch atop her chair, drawing his gaze to her, even as she let go of Melody.

I’m sorry, but please, I need to talk to him alone, she whispered into Melody’s mind.

Feeling even more worried, Melody nonetheless did so, getting up and leaving the room, listening to both Jared calling everyone else idiots for going along with the raid, and the two in the room, as they walked away…

“What is it, Irene?” Patrick asked, his voice far gentler than she’d ever heard it be.

She couldn’t see Irene, but she could just imagine her fidgeting on her seat, holding her cape in her hands like a security blanket, or a comfort one, avoiding his gaze.

“W-we need to talk,” she said, her voice trembling. “It’s…”

And then they were too far away to hear, and Jared too loud, especially since no one felt up to telling him to shut up… it wasn’t like he was wrong, really, either…

***

The entire UH New Lennston division, minus Bismuth, entered the building that served the central police precinct – a fortress-like building itself near the centre of New Lennston, with a wide, open area around it covered in cobblestones, rather than being squeezed in amongst other buildings – as a prison to hold super-powered criminals until they could be processed and sent to wherever they were to be held.

It was generally considered to be one of the most secure and heavily defended buildings in New Lennston, but it was mostly designed to keep criminals in and villains out – not to prevent the lawful heroes of the city from entering and talking to the villains, for whatever reasons they had.

Clearly, Bismuth had had no problem getting past the considerable outer defenses and into the building, which was currently swarming with police officers.

They approached the Chief of Police, an older, broadly built man with a broom moustache. He stood in front of one particular wing of the small, compact prison, whose entrance was blocked by thick, irregular crystals that seemed to have partially fused with the concrete around them – or rather, been grown out of it – shimmering in all colours of the rainbow as light reflected off of the grayish growths.

The whole place was almost eerily quiet and there were certainly none of the screams Jason had been talking about.

Jessica felt sick to her stomach, praying quietly to God that her friend and teammate was alright, that she hadn’t…

“Rounds, you know what’s going on?” Chief Mason asked, glaring at the arriving heroes like this was all their fault.

“I’m pretty sure I do, Sir,” Rounds replied, resplendent in his shining knightly outfit, silver and gold armour atop a royal blue bodysuit, a shield and lance-sword strapped to his back. “Please, we’ll explain everything presently, but we should get in there first and get Bismuth out before-“

“Less talking and more breaking through,” the Chief agreed, stepping aside. “Everyone, clear the area! Let the capes handle their own!”

The police officers grumbled, though some, at least, didn’t look too broken up about what was going on. Jessica didn’t have time to wonder about that, though.

Instead, they gathered in front of the crystals, and turned towards Eyespy.

The slender man frowned, crossing his arms. “Everyone in there is either dead or has their eyes closed,” he said. “Can’t see a thing.”

Rounds looked at the Chief. “Dusu was the only prisoner held in this wing?”

The Chief nodded.

Their leader looked at the team. “Amazon, Ursa, Venatrix, break through the crystal.”

They nodded in unison, stepping forth. Jessica reached for her power, pulling up her trusty translucent armour, feeling herself instantly relax and become calmer as it sprang up, protecting her from the rest of the world.

Rachel’s equipment – her boots, both of her gauntlets, her visored helmet, her chestplate and armoured skirt, it all flared and crackled with electricity, as she clenched her heavier left gauntlet into a fist, building up energy.

Ursa Gemini just flexed briefly before they began to pound the crystal, quickly joined by the two women.

It was no easy work – no one of them could have broken through Bismuth’s crystal on their own, not when she’d grown it apparently as thick as the entire doorway, and anchored so firmly in the surrounding concrete – even when they broke it, it just grew whole again, and again, and again.

But all together, they managed to make headway, slowly digging through, destroying it faster than it was regrowing…

Then it suddenly shattered, all at once, shards flying inwards as it all crumbled away, Jessica having to briefly fight to be stay on her feet. Ursa Gemini just stumbled into the floor outright.

They didn’t waste a second, all of them rushing in in coordinated fashion, Rounds ahead of the others. They could see Dusu’s cell, and the blood-red crystal’s growing out of it, wrapping around the doorway, the door that was supposed to seal it off so that not even air could escape lying in crystal-covered shards nearby…

Rounds and Ursa Gemini, who’d made up the vanguard, froze as they reached the cell, looking inside.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God,” Ursa Gemini gasped, staggering back and blocking Rachel from getting a look by accident.

Behind them, in the foreroom, Eyespy bent over and vomited.

Jessica didn’t want to see what was inside… but she had to, and so she did, stepping around Ursa Gemini to take a look.

She immediately regretted doing so.

Dusu wasn’t dead. But she certainly wished she was, that was for certain.

She was there, clothed in tatters of an orange prison suit, all but crucified upon a crystal growth. One that was as red as blood. Her blood.

A single clear, rainbow-hued crystal pierced her sternum, next to her heart. That was not what had killed her, though.

Her body had been… pulled apart, from the inside out. Crystals of various red hues had literally grown out of her, tearing, cutting, pulling… It was the most grisly sight Jessica had ever laid eyes upon, and that included everything Hastur had done to her victims.

The crystals had pulled the cadaverous woman apart and spread her out over the wall. The crystal she’d seemed to have been crucified on was actually numerous, branch-like growths come from her back, connecting her to the wall and lifting her up. Her limbs had been pulled apart, stretched, the nerves visible, fused to the crystals. Her muscles torn, her bones turned almost entirely into bloody white crystal branches within the mess of red branches. Her torso… was open, her heart still there. Still beating, somehow, even though crystals were growing out of it, leaking blood, connecting it to other crystals. Blood flowed through veins that had become like transparent, rigid tubes. Two jagged, long branches grew out of her eye sockets, branching out, like a stag’s horns sharpened into points. More crystals stabbed out of her gums, giving her a bloody grin.

Worst of all were her nerves, spread out throughout the entire construction, interwoven with the branches and her body… clearly still functional, as she twitched soundlessly, her lungs all but entirely gone, her brain sustained… barely… somehow…

No, not anymore. Her twitches grew faint as they watched; within seconds, just as Jessica was starting to take in the entire scene, she expired with a last shudder.

Almost as one, they all turned away from it, the others looking as numb as Jessica felt. Looking at the cell opposite of Dusu’s, whose door was unlocked, open, giving the one sitting inside free view into the cell to watch Dusu’s suffering.

The crystal Dusu had been crucified upon extended like red veins along the ground, leading into the cell, towards a pair of bare feet, attaching to them.

Moving up the bare shins and knees, they joined the thin sheet of crystal which was currently the only clothing Bismuth had, a kind of one-piece bodysuit that covered her torso entirely, almost like a second skin of symmetric crystals, looking like her namesake, covering her from neck to thigh and halfway down to her elbows.

Red hair hung over her face as their teammate looked up at them, her uncovered face blotchy with tears, eyes red and… empty.

Jessica’s heart went out to her, even as she felt disgusted and horrified at what her friend had just done to a defenseless prisoner.

“Bismuth… what have you done?” Rounds asked in a heartbroken whisper.

She looked at him with those painfully empty, despairing eyes. “I couldn’t… couldn’t stand it. The thought that, that she was alive… alive while my sister… while all the others, died… I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t. I’m not sorry. I can’t be. I had to kill her, else I would have killed myself, because I couldn’t… couldn’t stand to know, to even think, that she would live, while… while my… while Prisca is dead,” Rosalie Fion spoke in a soft, broken voice.

In the distance, and nearby as well, the emergency sirens went off. The special ones, made specifically to announce DiL’s appearance. Then another set, announcing that she was here.

Not one of them could bring themselves to react, as they stared at their teammate in horror and sadness.

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B13.18 Call of the Sleeper

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He’d failed.

He’d failed, and it had all been pointless to begin with.

Basil staggered back, away from Dusu. Not hearing, or even really seeing how the others reacted. He just turned away, looking around the room without seeing anything.

There were voices, in the distance, but he paid them no mind, ignored the hand that reached for his arm, didn’t even register who it was.

She has no cure. She has no cure. I can’t come up with one, I’ve never been that good with actual biology. Maybe, if she had the actual formula… but she said she put it all online already, and I’ve read everything there is on the plague online. Prisca only has a few days left, at most.

Life support could only keep her going for so long, especially after the additional damage Hastur’s attack had caused. She certainly wouldn’t survive a flight to England. Even if Gloom Glimmer teleporter her along with all the life support… no, she’d never survive the journey to Ember himself. And even then…

They’d opened the Protectorate again, on a limited basis, after he’d revived that baby, but… it was a toss-up whether he’d actually react to anyone who managed to get close enough. More than once, one of the countless hopeful had weathered the pressure of his empathic assault, managed to get the remains of a loved one all the way to him… only to be promptly ignored until they passed out or went mad.

Basil didn’t know whether he could make it through that, not with the way his mind had gotten screwed up, but he would do it.

However, there was no way Prisca could survive it. If he took her in while she was still alive, in her current condition, it’d likely kill her, if it didn’t destroy her mind.

Ember could fix that, obviously. Assuming he got to him.

What if I put her into stasis? the thought came suddenly. Put her into a state where she’s not truly conscious. It would protect her from his aura…

Don’t be stupid. Just wait for her to d-d-die and take her corpse to him.

The whole point of this is to make sure she doesn’t die in the first place!

Then forget Ember and the Protectorate! You need to focus on working out a cure!

How!? If even Dusu couldn’t… she’s been working on this for half a decade! I have days, at most! Nevermind that I’m not a bio-gadgeteer to begin with and this is, is, it’d take ten bio-gadgeteers to work this out!

Then find a non-biological solution!

How!?! I’ve tried so much… I can’t just replace her infected body parts, because every part is infected in three different ways? Removing her brain to later implant it into a new body, even if I could perform surgery like that, would be meaningless because her brain is also infected!

That’s it. Her brain, that’s the solution!

Of course… I can’t physically remove her brain, but I could scan it, save a complete engram of her brainwaves… it would require more storage than even my computers have, but I’m certain I could convince Mrs Fion to buy any materials I might need…

I save the complete engram. That’ll buy me time, it’ll allow me to figure out how to create a new, healthy body for her, then copy it over… since it’ll be made while she’s still alive…

It can only be made while she’s still alive.

That way, she’ll never have to experience death… whether or not we can get her to Ember…

I can call this Plan A, and getting her to Ember would be Plan B.

There is another issue. Would she want that? To be copied over to a new body? Technically, she wouldn’t be the same Prisca as before. Her mother might not want that, either.

I’m not a philosopher nor a priest. Leave the existential debate to someone else.

But shouldn’t any proposed solution be considered in light of Prisca’s wishes? She is the one whose life is at stake. Copying her mind into a new body – and it’s far-fetched to believe I could do that – only to create a copy of her which does not consider herself to be the Prisca would only serve my own peace of mind.

Stasis.

Like on Tartarus Star. That might be a solution. I could perhaps work out a stasis chamber, or maybe trade Stasis himself for the designs or a complete chamber… or perhaps Mrs Fion could buy one off of him… we could keep Prisca alive indefinitely while I work on finding a cure.

Stasis is no hero though. He works for the government and he is committed full-time to maintaining Tartarus Star. His technology is considered a national secret; it is very unlikely that he’d be allowed to reveal his designs, nevermind actually buying a stasis chamber off of him – they’re supposed to be incredibly expensive, to boot.

Between Mrs Fion’s wealth and the technology I can of-

***

A hand closed around his biceps, tugging him around. He looked up at Amy, black eyes to purple ones.

Hey, baby bro, she whispered gently into his mind. You need to calm yourself down, before you give yourself a stroke.

He looked away, then looked up at her, feeling his expression harden. I can not afford to, right now. I need to find a solution! Could you scan her mind? Perhaps she’s keeping something secret?

Amy shook her head, causing him to feel even colder inside. Even more so when he realised she was trembling, sligthly. Just what had she seen?

She didn’t lie, nor did she ommit anything. She really has no clue how to fix it, Amy told him. And… there’s more. The blood she took, earlier. And what they’ve been doing here. Where these monsters came from. I saw it in her mind.

What’d you see? Basil asked numbly. He wasn’t sure there was much of anything he could get worked up over right now, as worn out as he felt.

Too much, she replied. But first… what about her? She nodded towards Dusu, who’d calmed down considerably, simply sitting cross-leged on the floor and chuckling occasionally, completely unperturbed by the looks of disgust and hatred the others were throwing her. Maybe you’ll feel better if you give her one of those concoctions you said you’d prepared just for her?

Basil looked over his shoulder at Dusu. Those were always meant to force her to give up the cure, in the end, he replied. No point to that, now. Besides, how could I possibly top that? He gestured towards the twisted, half-decayed woman.

Let’s just get this over with and go home.

***

Melody wouldn’t have thought she could hate a complete stranger as much as she hated Dusu right then. Just looking at the woman sitting there on the floor, looking so darn amused.

Amused that she’d destroyed so many lives.

Amused that she’d drawn them into such a dangerous, unnecessary battle.

Amused that she’d crushed their hopes, Brennus hopes in particular, and of all those innocents she’d poisoned, and all those whom cared about them.

She’d used to have trouble accepting Irene’s insistent statement that her father, while evil, was far better than most. Even after meating him in person, she hadn’t really changed her mind.

But now? Looking down at this, this coprophage, this… bitch, she saw true evil. Senseless evil, evil that didn’t have a purpose other than its own betterment.

At least the Dark clearly cared about his daughter. Melody wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that Dusu didn’t have anyone she cared about, that she would have sacrificed her own child if she’d had one, just to try and undo her own fuck-up – for herself.

It took a lot for her not to unleash one of her more cruel tunes on her, just to make her suffer a bit. A bit more, she amended the thought, watching how the woman laboured to draw breath, the way she repeatedly twitched as if in pain, in spite of her carefree attitude.

A little tune to make her bowels empty themselves as violently as physically possible, or cramp up painfully and remain so for a while. Another to throw her sense of balance completely off for hours. Or perhaps one she’d never yet used, because it’d seemed too cruel, a tune that’d give the victim a painful tinitus that’d last for days, if not longer.

So many options. So many incentives to explore them, one by one.

Fortunately for Dusu, Melody was distracted from the recreatively violent train of thought when Brennus came back towards them, shadowed closely by Mindstar.

And wasn’t that a shock? When Mindstar had first appeared, she’d been scared, then relieved – she did work for the Dark, so she wouldn’t turn on Irene and her friends, right? Then it’d seemed like she was going to attack anyway, and Tartsche had tried to reach Brennus to protect him from her (she still remembered the briefing when they’d been told that she might target him – Tartsche had clearly remembered it, as well), only for her to slap them all down with literally just a thought.

She’d known that telepathy was Irene’s one true weakness, but she hadn’t expected it to be that effective.

And then it turned out that Brennus – no, Basil, that boy she’d sat next to in school a few times! – was her brother and he proceeded to beat her, one on one.

If it wasn’t for Irene confirming, while under the aegis of Tartsche’s power, that it was all genuine, she’d have thought the whole fight, no, their every interaction, had been staged.

Now, of course, she was instead faced with the fact that a boy she’d been thinking of as a friend, if a distant one, was the younger brother of a major supervillain…

Which, really, didn’t mean much to her, seeing how her best friend was the daughter of said supervillain’s boss. It would have been the height of hypocrisy for Melody to condemn Brennus for his relationship with his own sister, when she so readily accepted Irene’s relationship with her father.

The only thing she could, maybe, accuse him of was not being open about his relation to her, the way Irene was about her being the Dark’s daughter…

But then again, their situations were very different. Brennus, for one, didn’t have the aegis of Lady Light and the United Heroes to protect him.

I wonder whether she’s the reason he didn’t join us to begin with, she thought to herself as she watched them join the rest of the group.

All those thoughts and more continued on in her head, though they were quickly overshadowed by dismay at how utterly worn-out Brennus looked. In all the time she’d known him, she’d never known him to express a sense of defeat, a lack of purpose. Now though…

“Let us wrap this up,” he spoke in a listless tone. “We should get away from here.” He looked down at Dusu, his gaze briefly hardening – but then it softened into listlessness again. “What did she do with our blood?” he asked no one in particular, apparently.

It did seem directed at Mindstar, however, as she sighed and stepped forth, while Brennus’ helmet floated off the floor and into his hands. “I’ll show you,” she said, gesturing at the computer console.

Using her telekinesis, she logged into the system, making Dusu frown in annoyance. “Y’know, you don’t have to use telepathy… I’d just tell you, at this point.”

“Shut it,” several people said all at once.

“This is the place where they made those monsters that appeared yesterday,” Mindstar spoke seriously, with neither levity nor anger in her voice. “They’re all spawned from the same source…”

The screen switched to a three-dimensional model, showing the floating city they were on, before zooming out and moving down, showing an incredibly long tether that lead down into the depths – the same one they could see before them, dozens of cables thicker than grown men – and following it down…

And down…

And down…

Until it reached the bottom of the ocean, and the view moved, looking down from above, at an angle, at…

A gigantic something at the bottom of the ocean, connected to the station via the cables in front of them.

As the image focused on whatever was below, it was rendered in successively more detailed layers, with Mindstar talking over it, sharing what she saw within Dusu’s mind.

“They found something down there. Something huge. And I mean, really fucking humungous. It’s over a thousand miles in length, and over three in diametre,” the villainess explained as the bottom dropped out of Melody’s stomach, her eyes widening at the rapidly expanding sight of… that.

“What. The. Holy. Fuck,” Tyche succinctly summed up how they all felt.

“That’s what they used to make those monsters,” Mindstar spoke, her voice growing hushed. “They injected it with… human blood. It doesn’t always work out, not even one in ten times, but when it does…”

Brennus looked down at Dusu again. “So that is what you took our blood for,” he stated as he put his helmet on. “Mine and… whose else?”

Before Dusu could respond, Mindstar did so. “All of us. It wasn’t just the four you saw. They got samples from all of us…” She frowned, stroking her chin. “I mean, they came here and found them… put them here in other timelines… ah, fuck time travel! They got samples from each of us, except for the princess, using Elysium’s power.” She looked at the console. “And they injected it all into this thing. That’s what Dusu and that nobody over there were responsible for – figuring out a way to inject something through its armour, after the Gefährten realised that extracted samples bonded with human DNA.”

Melody’s fingers went to work, tapping the air to formulate a sentence. “And that’s how they made Crocell and the other three monsters?” she asked, keeping her vocoder’s voice much calmer than she actually felt.

“Yeah. Only successes they’ve had so far. They injected forty-three samples and only four of them spawned something,” the villainess replied in a cold voice, glaring at the unperturbed mad scientist on the floor. “Though they never injected so many at once, like she just did.”

“Hey, you can’t blame me for being in a bit of a hurry!” Dusu protested Mindstar’s accusatory tone. “Besides, aren’t you curious what might come out of it?”

“No!” shouted half a dozen people at once.

“Alright, so, may-be this is totally obvious and Ah’m just missing it,” Spellgun spoke up for the first time in a while, his accent even stronger than usual, “but what the fuck is that!?!” he gestured wildly towards the three-dimensional model on the screen.

“It’s God!” Syrinx shouted fervently, floating upside down where Mindstar was holding him in the air. “It’s a fragment of the divine tri-“

Hecate reached into a pouch on her belt and threw a handful of glittering green dust at his face, which flew farther and in a tighter stream than it ought to, and he went limp, falling asleep instantly.

“Oh, thank God,” Dusu rolled her eyes. “Guy’s a cutie, but h-“

Hecate whirled around so fast Melody actually jumped, and struck Dusu across the face with the butt end of her staff, knocking the woman over and causing her to cry out in pain.

“Don’t you dare address me in any way,” the slightly spooky superheroine snarled, her English distorted slightly by a faint accent Melody had never noticed before, her tone of voice so vicious it made nearly everyone take a step away from her, even Mindstar.

Not Brennus, nor Tyche, though.

Dusu rubbed her rapidly swelling jaw, having finally stopped grinning, or smiling or otherwise looking happy, as she glared up at Hecate – but she kept her mouth shut.

Mindstar actually looked impressed, giving Hecate odd looks, though the spooky heroine couldn’t see them.

“They’re not sure what it is,” Mindstar continued where she’d left off earlier. “Or at least, if the Gefährten know, they haven’t told Dusu. But she, and her co-workers have a few running theories – all unproven, admittedly. One is that it’s a metahuman whose manifestation just plainly went spectacularly wrong. Another is that it’s some kind of by-product of superpowers as a whole, maybe an animal that soaked up whatever energies power metahumans. And another is that it’s either the source of superpowers, or connected to it in some way.” She shrugged. “Honestly, they don’t even know how long it’s been down there. Seems like time goes wonky around it, so they can’t even analyse the age of the cracks in the rock around and beneath it that it’s caused, because they don’t age uniformly.”

No one spoke up for a minute as they digested that. Finally, Melody turned her head to look at Irene, who’d remained still so far, hovering an inch or so above the floor, her cape closed in front of her and her hood drawn deep, like a white shroud.

The hood twitched as Irene looked up, her face hidden in the shadows, mostly, save for her blue eyes. “I don’t know what it is. I have some suspicions, but… nothing I’m sure of enough to say,” she answered the unspoken question.

Melody felt both disappointment and relief, as part of her just plainly didn’t want to know what that thing really was – she was afraid that it was even worse than she could expect.

“The blood is already injected?” Brennus interjected, directing the question at Mindstar, at his sister.

His helmet-mask always distorted his voice, but even so, Melody’s ears had no trouble picking up the fact that he still sounded… defeated, really. His voice was flat, lacking its usual intensity.

“Yeah, it is. Nothing we can do to stop it anymore,” Mindstar replied, her voice softening almost imperceptibly (to anyone but Melody) as she addressed her brother again. “All we can hope for is that none of it causes this… Sleeper to spawn another monster.”

“How long did it take before they knew whether an injection had been successful in the previous cases?” Brennus continued his line of inquiry in that same tone of voice, his head tilted forward as he looked at something he was holding in his left hand. Melody couldn’t see what it was, though it had to be palm-sized.

“Anywhere between five minutes and three hours,” the answer came almost as soon as he finished. “If it doesn’t work, it’ll eject the rejected blood in crystalline form – they have computers looking out for it.”

As if on cue, a new window opened, showing a black-and-white image of a bismuth-like crystal growing in fast motion, right out of one of its scales, before it detached and floated away.

“Aaaaaand that’s one,” Mindstar sighed in undisguised relief. “Eight more to go.”

“Is there anything we can do to abort the process?” Tartsche asked quietly, sounding as calm as ever as he held onto Spellgun’s hand. “Force it to purge them all or something like that? Some way to make sure no more monsters are generated?”

Both Mindstar and Dusu shook their heads, one seemingly impassive, one very clearly quite pleased with herself.

“And there’s nothing here about a cure?” Tartsche pressed on. “She doesn’t know anything, or have anything we can make use of?”

Mindstar shook her head, and Tyche and Hecate slumped a little, while Brennus showed no outward reaction, though Melody thought she might’ve heard something from within his helmet. She wasn’t sure though, as quiet as he was being.

“We should go, then,” Brennus concluded what was obviously Tartsche’s thought process, putting away whatever he’d been looking at. There was barely any inflection at all left in his voice. “Every second we remain here just increases the probability of another enemy showing up.”

“Now that’s as good a straight line as I could hope for!” a new voice spoke up.

Melody squeaked in shock as she turned, just in time to see Mindstar stagger forward, nearly falling, her hand going to her neck and pulling a tiny dart tipped by a needle out of it.

“Huh?” She stared at the dart, her eyes growing unfocused.

Brennus grabbed her, pulling her away and behind him, revealing the person who’d stuck her with the dart, who…

Oh God he’s so yummy, was the first thought that came to Melody’s mind as she saw the gorgeous, brown-haired young man in what appeared to be black-and-gold workout clothes, only of much higher quality than usual, and reinforced, fingerless gloves.

If she hadn’t met so many insanely pretty men since manifesting her powers, she’d probably have squeed and melted on the spot.

He stood there, looking as calm as if he was just taking a stroll, with an easy smile on those perfect lips.

“Immanuel!” shouted Tyche, taking a step away from him.

Wait, Immanuel? That guy? Melody blinked, remembering what Tyche had told them earlier. Fuck, we have to-

She raised her arms to fire at him, only to stop when Irene cried out.

“Wait, no, stop!” Irene shouted as she was enveloped in ribbons of twisted space… and then she disappeared.

Immanuel looked at the empty space where Irene had just floated, looking only mildly surprised. “Heh. Nice one,” he said, grinning.

***

Space unfurled around her and dropped Irene onto a grassy hill, which looked out over a tranquil beach and the ocean.

“No!” she shouted, desperate, reaching for the power which had brought her there. “No, no! Take me back! I’ve got to get back, Melody is still there! My friends are all still there! Take me back, please!”

She begged her own power, even as she felt the teleporting effect – one she hadn’t had before, to her recollection – sink beneath the darkness, tears beginning to run from her eyes.

She’d been so focused on that giant thing below, that, that thing that might have been, just possible, one of them, perhaps. A steward, in this world. Her parents were going to flip out.

Somehow, even though she’d had her danger sense up and running, that man, that… Immanuel, he’d managed to sneak up on them, and then her power had reacted to the suddenly present, overwhelming threat by taking her away from her friends.

“Please, please, just take me back!” she shouted, trying to reach for that power again, only to get… flight and the power to tell where magnetic north lay. “No, I need to be fa-“

“Irene? What are you doing here?” a tired voice asked.

She whirled around, staring at the figure behind her with bloodshot eyes.

***

“I think you’ve all had more than enough fun,” Immanuel spoke in a conversational tone, clasping his hands behind his back as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

Basil didn’t give him a chance to say more – torn between checking to make sure Amy was going to be alright and taking down the new threat, he chose to trust in her constitution and went on the offensive – and launched one of his grappling hooks at him, aiming straight for his belt buckle.

Immanuel simply stepped aside, dodging it by a hair’s breadth with such ease, it seemed rehearsed. “For those of you who don’t know yet, I’m Immanuel, and I’m in charge of this charming base,” he continued on, as if nothing had happened, even as he bent over forward, letting a blast of green fire fly over him and splash over Tartsche’s protective field, blinding Spellgun and causing him to miss his shot, which instead hit Osore in the forehead just as he was gathering up a fear blast in his right hand; his mask cracked, though not broken, he was thrown backwards as electricity raced through his body, stunning him and causing him to fall gracelessly and heavily onto the floor. “And while I greatly sympathise with your noble intentions, I’m afraid I’ll have to stop you right here,” he concluded, standing up straight again, smiling at everyone around.

How did he just do that? Basil thought furiously, stepping back to keep some distance between himself and the new enemy. That was way too smooth… he must be an Esper. Some major combat cognition. He stared at the empty spot where Irene had just been, then at Amy behind him, through the eyes of his bedraggled ravenbot. And we’ve already lost our two strongest combatants.

“What did you do to Gloom Glimmer!?!” Polymnia shouted at Immanuel, both of her clenched fists – and the speakers on the wrist modules above them – aimed straight at him.

“Don’t worry, I just gave her a bit of a scare,” Immanuel replied soothingly. “I suppose her power decided she was safer away from me than next to me.” He tilted his head to the side, both as a gesture and to dodge a shot from Tartsche’s rifle. “Can’t blame it, really. In fact, I’m quite grateful – makes my job easier.”

His expression turned thoughtful and he tapped his chin. “Hmm… just forty minutes before she comes back… with Lamarr. Maybe the Dowager, though I doubt it.” He blinked, as if another thought came to him. “Hm, no. She won’t come – just Lamarr and some of his people. Goldschmidt wouldn’t let her back here.” Without even looking, he bent forward and also lifted his left leg up, as if to kick out, though he merely tapped the charging form of Bakeneko – in the middle of transitioning from a bipedal to a quadrupedal form –  on the shin, lightly, causing her to trip and bowl into Polymnia, who just barely managed to brace herself and not get bowled over as well, though she still missed her shot, the twin beams of focused sound going wide and tearing up some computer equipment on the far wall of the room. “Nothing I can’t deal with.”

Basil barely paid attention to his words, instead opting to study his opponent more closely. The way he moved, the way every dodge of his led to them hitting each other in some way… it reminded him of the way it usually went when Tyche fought, except far more controlled.

Deliberate.

Speaking of Tyche, she was just standing there, her hands trembling as she tried to aim at Immanuel – but he didn’t seem worried at all, and she didn’t seem capable of actually pulling the trigger.

“I, I thought you said, you wanted us to, to succeed,” she stammered, taking a step back from him when he turned his head to focus on her.

He blocked Basil’s punch, which he loosened the moment his attention was on Tyche, with an absentminded swipe, “I did and I do,” then he deflected a knee-strike to the groin by raising his own knee and gently pushing it aside, “Though I never said I thought it was actually going to happen,” he turned into the follow-up elbow strike that Basil turned his over-extended strike into, “I did know that Dusu has never been able to figure out a cure for her own work,” his arm came up, applying minimal force to Basil’s elbow and causing him to strike the air above his head, unbalanced by the flawless counter, “Nor did I say I’d actually let you all leave after you reached Dusu,” he placed one hand onto Basil’s chest and the other one’s forearm against his waist, pushing with both and flipping him over until he hit the ground with his head, only his helmet saving him from being knocked out, though it still rang his bells quite well, “Sorry,” the angel-faced villain concluded, smiling apologetically at Tyche.

She gulped staring at him with wide eyes. He just smiled back, throwing Basil’s combat knife, which he’d filched from his belt when he’d flipped him, at Polymnia, without even looking at her.

The blade pierced the membrane of her right wrist’s speaker just as she loosened another attack, causing a feedback that overloaded it and made it blow up around her arm, throwing her aim with the other arm off so badly she shot Bakeneko instead just as she was about to get up again, making her cry out in pain and tumble away from the armoured songstress.

Polymnia herself cried out in pain, her arm covered in bruises and cuts from the explosion, though her innate toughness and the layer of ballistic weave she’d between her skin and the actual mechanical parts prevented heavier damage.

“Now, I’m not a complete jerk,” Immanuel followed up, stepping forward towards Tyche with his arms spread wide, following it up by an absent-minded kick to Dusu’s throat, causing her to choke up and bend over in pain, just as she’d been about to speak up. “I really don’t feel like listening to you, Heng,” he quipped, and continued to walk towards Tyche with a disarming smile.

Basil groaned, slowly getting back up on his feet – the strain of the last few days was really starting to catch up to him – as he blinked the stars out of his view. By the time he managed that, the only ones left standing were himself, Tyche, Tartsche and Spellgun.

Amy was on the ground, moaning softly with unfocused eyes. Bakeneko and Osore were both still conscious but stunned, lying on the ground. Polymnia was on her knees, holding her mangled right arm to her chest, sniffling as tears leaked from her eyes. Hecate was on the ground next to Immanuel, who was still holding one of her arms by the wrist. Basil hadn’t even noticed her go down.

Both Tartsche and Spellgun were aiming their guns at him, but since he stood between them and Tyche, they didn’t want to risk taking the shot.

Tyche was staring slack-jawed at him, her grip on her rifle quite loose.

Graymalkin had curled up on Amy’s breasts, using them as pillows as he yawned.

“So, now that all that unpleasantness is over,” Immanuel said with a small sigh, seemingly not even winded. “How about we have a nice talk, hm?” He looked around at the teens. “I have no interest in keeping the lot of you here, really. In fact, I’m perfectly willing to let you get back home.”

“What is the catch?” Basil asked suspiciously, not believing him for a moment, even though everything about him just plain screamed sincerity.

“Well, you do have quite a lot of damages to make up for,” Immanuel replied, turning his back to Tyche and letting go of Hecate’s arm, so he could face Basil. “So I think it’d only be fair if you and Melody over there were to work for us for, let’s say… a quarter of a year, each.” He clapped his hands together, smiling brightly. “You two promise me three months of servitude each – no wetwork, nothing illegal, even – and I’ll not only let your friends go right now, I’ll even pay you both quite handsomly. And you can get back to your own affairs. How’s that sound?”

“Never,” Polymnia replied, her voice coming out distorted. “Like we’d ever agree to work for someone like you!”

“Now, don’t be judgemental,” Immanuel wagged a finger at her. “You don’t really know me just yet.”

“We’ve… seen enough…” Hecate groaned as she got up on her feet, leaning heavily onto her staff. “You fucking people belong in a maximum security prison… or better yet, six foot under,” she snarled, her eyes flashing with raw hatred within the shadows of her hood.

Language, young lady,” he frowned at her, mockingly. “What would your grandmother say if she heard you talk like that?”

Hecate flinched, snarling audibly at him.

He knows too much, Basil thought, his brain racing wildly, trying to come up with an idea on how to take him on. If he’s some kind of combat precog, then the only way to beat him would be to trap him in a no-win situation.

Great idea, mate! Except for the little fact that he’s holding all the cards in his hands!

You’re not helping. Either come up with an idea or else shut up.

“Now, as I was saying – this doesn’t have to end in more tears,” Immanuel continued. “If you two accept my offer, I’ll even let you use all our resources to try and figure out a cure for Dusu’s plague.”

Basil clenched his fists, hard.

Immanuel smirked at him. “You know there’s no way you’ll be able to save her on your own. She wouldn’t survive a trip to the Protectorate, and it’s unlikely someone with your manifold issues would be able to reach him, anyway. And you don’t have the knowledge base nor the resources to work out a cure – but we might.” He put his hands together, palm-to-palm, as if praying – or begging. “Please, Basil. Think about it. You’ve always believed that the ends justify the means, no? I’m offering you near-endless resources, and the support of our best bio-gadgeteers – including Dusu.” He gestured at the unconscious woman. “Consider how much it would improve your chances if you had the actual source of the plague to work with, even if she doesn’t consciously know how it works or how to fix it! Accept my offer and not only will your friends be able to go back home safe and sound, but you’ll also be able to save Prisca.”

He bit his lip hard enough that it hurt, feeling angry with himself just for considering the offer. Yet he did, and Immanuel knew he was saying just the right things.

“Basil, you know the choice is barely one,” Immanuel pressed on. “Not for you. You know what needs to be done, and what needs to be done is a cure being found for Dusus many victims – are you really going to decline an offer to do what you know needs to be done?”

He lowered his raised fists, letting his arms hang loosely. Fuck. He was right, wasn’t he? Even disregarding the fact that there was no other option he could see to get his friends to safety – Immanuel seemed quite confident he’d be able to deal with Gloom Glimmer and any reinforcements she’d be able to drum up, even if those were members of the Dark Five – he was completely out of options as far as actually saving Prisca was concerned – the reason he’d organised this entire, ill-advised operation in the first place!

Even if he’s lying about letting me leave freely, afterwards, I’ll stand a better chance of getting out of this, nevermind of fixing Prisca, by playing along for now.

It needs to be done.

He sighed, releasing a breath he hadn’t even realised he’d been holding, as his shoulders slumped, opening his mouth to-

“To pursue what is necessary is the province of beasts – a true man must pursue naught but what he desires.”

He clenched his fists again, feeling an angry heat rise up from his gut. A snarl escaped his mouth, making Immanuel frown, looking honestly serious for the first time yet.

“Fuck. You,” he snarled at the villain.

Immanuel tilted his head, looking actually surprised for once. “Hm. I suppose that’s a no, then.” He put his hands on his waist, huffing. “The day’s full of surprises.” He looked over at Polymnia, who was still on her knees and craddling her bleeding arm.

Even though she was crying heavily, she glared back at him with defiance in her eyes.

“That’s a no then, as well,” he concluded with a sigh, lowering his head and shaking it. “What a waste.” He looked around at them all, watching as they all slowly got back up on their feet, at least those who weren’t still standing. Even Amy was getting up, on wobbly feet, barely able to balance on her stiletto heels, but determined to try, clearly.

Everyone looked scared, worn out and just plainly tired, but Basil could tell that they all intended to keep fighting.

He raised his fists again, clenching them, facing the brown-haired villain.

Even now, Immanuel looked, at worst, like he was annoyed, not worried.

“Well, let’s do… this…” Immanuel began to speak in a chipper tone of voice, but trailed off, frowning as he looked around the huge hall.

The lights flickered, once. Twice. Three times.

When they came back on for the fourth time, a huge, vaguely humanoid shadow stood between Immanuel and Polymnia, to Basil’s right, his back to the Esper who’d just kicked them all around so easily, looking down at the crying Polymnia.

“Me- Polymnia!” cried a familiar voice, and an equally familiar, white-cloaked figure stepped forth from next to the huge shadow, rushing over to her friend and throwing her arms around the kneeling girl, hugging her tight as light spread from every point of contact between them, gathering around Polymnia’s wounds and starting to mend them.

“So, this is it, huh?” the Dark said, curiosity in his distorted, choral voice, looking around lazily. “Now where’s that giant…”

He suddenly cut himself off as he turned around and looked down at Immanuel, who’d moved back by several metre, almost running into Tyche – as if he’d been trying to sneak away quickly. In his current form, the Dark was more than two heads taller than him, and Immanuel was by no means a short man.

The two supervillains stared at each other, one’s expression hidden utterly beneath the darkness of his power, yet radiating a sense of utter, disbelieving shock, while the other’s expression was calm, friendly, even amicable, yet he radiated nervousness.

“You,” the Dark breathed, sounding stunned. Off-balance. His voice barely more than a whisper. “You’re alive.”

“Long time no see, Goldschmidt,” Immanuel spoke carefully, putting his hands in his pants’ pockets. “Surprise, I guess.”

Whatever Basil had been expecting to happen next – whatever anyone had expected, from Tyche to Gloom Glimmer, all of whom were staring at the scene with bated breath – none of them, he was sure, expected what came next.

The Dark sobbed, staggering forward by a step, reaching out with a hand towards Immanuel, hesitating, as if afraid that he’d disappear if he made too sudden a move.

“Oh, oh… thank God… thank God…” he sobbed, his voice soft, the tears actually audible, though invisible. “I was so afraid… so, so afraid… that you were gone…”

The shadows he was wrapped in began to boil, spreading out slowly around him, like tar slowly creeping over the floor.

“That you had died…”

The shadows rolled off of him, writhing, expending, contracting, increasing.

“That I would never get my chance…”

He took another step closer, his voice breaking, another sob escaping him, like the sound a wounded animal would make when it finally found balm for its pain.

Gloom Glimmer flew towards Tartsche and Spellgun, pulling Polymnia along behind her with one hand, as more, ghostly hands reached out for all the others.

“To kill you myself…”

Basil found himself being pulled towards Gloom Glimmer, along with all the others, as she shot straight up, throwing a solid black sphere that blew through the ceiling, paving the way.

“To finally, finally… hurt you!”

Beneath them, as they rapidly flew above the floating city, the Darkness exploded, a tide of boiling shadows wallowing across the floating city like a tidal wave.

And above all, there was a scream, a cry of such utter, unadultered, unrestrained hatred, it chilled the blood in their veins.

Over fifty figures who’d been floating, flying and standing around the building Dusu’s lab was in charged forward to join their master in battle.

And then the Dark went to War.

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B13.17 Call of the Sleeper

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Wh- what… what’s going on? Amy’s thoughts intruded into their minds once more, sounding weaker, more quiet than before, while her body stirred, groaning in pain. I feel like I got punched by God. After he took steroids for like, four thousand years.

Basil didn’t know how to reply, too focused on the standoff in front of him and so stayed quiet. The others didn’t seem to be in any better shape, staring at the new arrival.

Who the fuck is that? Amy asked in a groggy voice.

I have no idea, but he just saved Heck’s life, so I like him, Tyche replied, sounding greatly relieved.

That’s – ow – Journeyman! Polymnia told them excitedly, in between taking shots in the back. Gloomy – ow – told me – ow – about him!

Amy looked at her, and reached out with her right arm, causing the next shot to rebound off a force-field appearing above Polymnia’s back. And the next. And the next.

Thanks! Polymnia said earnestly, moaning in relief.

Thank me by telling us who this guy is supposed to be. Can he actually save our posteriors from that bitch? Amy shot back sharply.

I really dunno. Gloomy’s said he’s like, crazy-powerful, and a friend of her parents. Well, mostly of her mom. Anyway, I don’t actually know what his power really is, other than that he can ‘go anywhere’ and that no one’s ever actually put the hurt on him, Polymnia elaborated at the speed of thought, sharing it all before either the Ascendant, Elysium or ‘Journeyman’ acted at all.

“Who are you?” the Ascendant hissed at the stranger, clearly put off by his sudden appearance and ability to so casually block Elysium’s attack.

“I am a special news bulletin that interrupts your favourite show,” he replied.

“Huh?” said at least half a dozen people.

He sighed. “No one appreciates the classics anymore.” With a light tap of his foot, he caused Elysium to stumble back a step. Putting his foot down next to Hecate’s shoulder, he lightly tapped her with his heel, causing her to slide away until she reached Tyche and Spellgun. “Now, what do I do with you?” he directed his question at the empty-eyed blonde.

That question seemed to shake the Ascendant out of her state of surprised shock. Clenching her fists, she barked a new order: “Four-four-four, designate the person in front of you as Priority Target Lambda. Eliminate him!”

Elysium twitched, briefly, as Journeyman seemed to be content to simply watch with an air of polite curiosity about him; then she performed a high kick, seemingly at his head and he, predictably, did nothing to defend himself.

Basil recognised the move as soon as it began, and wanted to cry out a warning, but it was too late – the loop snapped shut, trapping Journeyman in the same motion of stroking Graymalkin’s ears. Trapping his freaking cat along with him.

The Ascendant breathed a relieved sigh, taking a step back as she relaxed. “Pfff. Not a problem after all. Just a delay.”

Journeyman flickered, reversing to his previous motion. Then there was another flicker, and then – a shift. His form twitched, as it was reversed, a second Journeyman overlapping the other, like an after-image only this one moved at the same time in a different way, not the same way at a later time, moving briefly as if it was straining against something.

The effect around him broke, popping like a soap bubble.

“A time loop? Really?” he asked, incredulous. “Maybe I do need to be a little more public, so people stop trying the same, tired old tricks against me,” he complained to the cat on his arm. “What do you think, pal?”

The cat looked up at him with a bored expression and opened its mouth in a huge yawn.

Elysium kicked him, her foot preceded by a slight distortion in the air, only to hit his left biceps to absolutely no effect – she didn’t even budge him, much less cut him apart.

“You’re absolutely right,” he said to Graymalkin. “Totally not worth the trouble. Anyway, best to focus on the situation at hand.” He looked up, at the same time as he turned aside. The one looking up crossed eyes with Elysium, stepping forward and making her take a step back as she tried to process what was happening, while the other one, still holding Graymalkin, walked over to Basil. “Go join your friends,” he told him, tapping him with a foot.

Basil found himself sliding over to where Hecate, Tyche and Spellgun – all three of them still quite thoroughly hurt, but not in any immediate danger.

At the same time, the other Journeyman and Elysium moved.

He struck at her from the right with his hand open, the fingers curled, which she blocked by raising her left arm, followed by a kick from the opposite side, aiming for his side. Journeyman used his left arm, pushing his elbow under her leg, then pushing up, deflecting her kick in a motion that would have unbalanced a lesser fighter.

Either due to her power, or else simply due to sheer skill – the original Elysium had been a master martial artist – the young woman managed to not only avoid that, but use it to her advantage, flipping backwards in a smooth motion that brought her heel up to strike at his chin; yet Journeyman was already moving to dodge it, leaning back just enough to make it miss him by a hair’s breadth.

Elysium landed on her back, and flipped back up onto her feet, just in time to see Journeyman’s fist fly at her chest and reacted by crossing her arms, blocking the blow – but it was still powerful enough to launch her backwards, a grunt escaping her lips as the air was forced out of her lungs.

Journeyman stepped forth to press the attack while she rolled back onto her feet, but was intercepted by a glowing twin spiral of green fire, emerging from thin air between him and Elysium.

The attack splashed uselessly against his chest, where before it had very nearly broken Amy’s defenses entirely, failing to so much as make him flinch, much less slow him down at all.

“Pilfering’s always a pain in the behind,” the Journeyman holding Graymalkin said as he appeared next to Basil, grabbing him by the elbow to help him stand. He didn’t seem bothered by his weight at all.

The ground underneath the other Journeyman’s feet turned soft and malleable, causing him to sink in down to his knees, then hardened again.

“How’d she do that?” Tyche asked, her voice strained, before she started coughing hard.

“Pilfering rejected timelines,” Journeyman explained as they watched his other self get hammered aside by the very same telekinetic blast Amy had used earlier, only magnified many times, hitting him so hard he actually broke out of the floor and tumbled for several metre. “She can rewind time up to the point she started using her power, over and over. That’s why she knew all your moves in advance – she’d played the same fight out dozens of times, before she moved on to the final iteration. I assume she only looped Gloomy during the final one, as well – allowing her to perform a multitude of various attacks that she can now access, repeating them as necessary,”

As if to illustrate his point, several hundred softball-sized spheres, in all colours of the rainbow, appeared out of nowhere, filling up the twisted, shifting tower’s floor all around, followed by a black sphere that shot at the prone Journeyman, impacting him with the force of a cannonball – except that was nothing compared to what followed, as every single of the rainbow-coloured spheres suddenly moved, impacting him with such tremendous force, the shockwave bowled Basil over again, pushing him and the other heroes away by several metre.

The Journeyman hit by the attack disappeared in a cloud of dust, while the one who’d just stood by Basil remained still, unperturbed by what may have been his other self’s demise – the shockwave barely stirred his robe, at that.

“I wasn’t there myself,” he continued on in a conversational tone of voice as he turned around and casually walked towards Basil again. “But I guess that’s how she fought Bree. She kept pilfering attacks from everyone even tangentially involved in the defense of Old Lennston, including, I assume, Bree’s own attacks.” He reached down with his free hand, helping Basil up once more. “She couldn’t affect her directly, see, but she could replay the powers she was using.”

Elysium took a step back, away from the dust cloud, half-turning to look at the heroes, who were quite bunched up by now.

And then a grey-blue streak shot out of the cover of dust, resolving into the shape of Journeyman as he came to a halt behind her, arm raised.

His blow smashed her into the ground, face-first, and splattered blood, brain-matter and bits of bone all the way over to Basil’s feet.

Her remains flickered and she whirled around in a graceful pirouette which ended with her foot buried Journeyman’s stomach, another hammer-blow as before – to no effect.

Unharmed by both the earlier assault with the rainbow spheres and the powerful kick, Journeyman reached for her face with his left hand, his hand nearly closing over it, but she blinked away, reappearing a few steps away from him, while another burst of telekinetic force went off where she’d just stood, magnified many times over its original strength.

While the same attack had previously blown him away, and was still powerful enough to shatter the ground for almost ten metre around him, it had absolutely no effect whatsoever on Journeyman himself, other than making his robe flutter about.

He took a step towards her, crossing far more space than he ought to, and backhanded her head, decapitating her.

Her headless body fell over, blood spurting out of her neck.

She flickered, whole again, and lifted her feet even as she fell, putting them to his chest and kicking off to put some distance between them, sliding across the ground…

His foot came down on her head, crushing it to a pulp. Basil didn’t even see him move.

Elysium’s headless corpse flickered and disappeared, before she reappared near the Ascendant, looking both unharmed and unperturbed – not that Basil thought she really could feel worried, as she was now.

“Here, hold this will you?” Journeyman spoke to him, holding out Graymalkin, who was looking at him with bored eyes.

“Oh, certainly,” he replied and took his cat. “Long time no see, Graymalkin,” he greeted his cat, who responded by purring softly and deigning to pat his chest with one of his furry paws in a show of affection.

“Graymalkin? You know him?” Journeyman asked, surprised, as he looked closer at Basil and the cat, the images on his mask shifting to show… Basil, and Graymalkin, back in his home. “Talk about coincidence. Or perhaps it’s fate?” Journeyman sounded amused. “I found him in Esperanza City, during the Crocell attack,” he answered Basil’s question before he could even ask him. “Well, we can talk more about that later, I’ve g-“

Everything distorted, briefly, a strange sensation, like vertigo but not quite the same, coming over Basil as black spots appeared in his vision.

Then it was gone.

Polymnia growned and threw up, nearby, and Basil very nearly followed suit – only the fact that he hadn’t eaten in a while saved him from that fate. The others looked nauseous but not nearly as bad as he felt, when he looked around at them.

“Ah-ah-ah!” the other Journeyman admonished Elysium, wagging a finger at her. “I can’t keep you from rewinding yourself, but there’ll be no general rewind while I’m around, young lady!”

“What the fuck are you?” the Ascendant whispered, staring at him in fear as she hid behind her creation.

“I already told you,” he replied off-handedly. “I am the fingernail that scrapes the blackboard of your soul.”

The candles kept turning around them for a few heartbeats.

“That’s not an answer!” she shouted in outrage. “And it’s a different one from the one you gave before!”

He lowered his head, making a truly long-suffering sigh. “No appreciation for real art, at all,” he complained to no one in particular, both of his selfs speaking in synch with each other. The one who’d been holding Graymalkin walked up to the fighting one and simply stepped into him, fusing into one.

“Well, this was fun and all, but it’s time to put an end to this,” he said to Elysium. “I don’t know whether you’re the real Elysium or just a doll with her powers, but either way, I’d rather not allow the Gefährten to have access to powers like yours.” He cracked his knuckles, before he took a step forward with his left foot, entering a loose fighting stance.

“Four-four-four, go all out and kill him!” the Ascendant shouted at her slave, hurrying to step back and give her some space.

Elysium spread her arms wide, beginning a new dance, moving her shoulders and hips in hypnotic motions, causing dozens, then scores of distortions, none larger than a medicine ball, to appear in the air around her.

Each of them unleashed a different attack, from explosions to beams to streams of liquid, but they didn’t fire at Journeyman. Instead, all the attacks – even the explosions, which ranged from Amy’s force explosion to sudden, explosive growths of pink crystals – were twisted and gathered into a single spot in front of her, condensed into a jet-black sphere the size of a peach.

Journeyman tilted his head to the side, as if confused, before the sphere burst, unleashing a torrent of scores of interwoven effects, a beam broader than Basil was tall.

A beam that was flying towards Journeyman, and the heroes that stood a good deal behind him, yet still within easy reach of the massive attack.

***

“Now!” Immanuel shouted and leapt into the distorted space that made up the ‘walls’ of this tower, leaving Heaven’s Dancer – who, even in an expendable body, was not going to leap into that unless absolutely necessary – behind outside of it.

He closed his eyes as he traversed the space, knowing that it’d just give him an even greater sense of vertigo than he was already experiencing as his simple leap – barely enough to clear two metre of distance – moved him through the entire structure, taking advantage of the distortions like one would of river currents, depositing him just a metre or so behind the Ascendant, just as Elysium’s distortions appeared in the air, obscuring him from everyone’s sight.

Immanuel didn’t know how the stranger was going to react to the attack that was coming, if he even could, but he had a hunch that he could counter it. In fact, he hoped that he did, otherwise they’d lose everyone but Gloom Glimmer to this, and wouldn’t that be a waste?

He reached the Ascendant, grabbing her by the elbow, and kept running, pulling the startled woman along as he reached for the doll, his hand coming down on her shoulder.

***

Journeyman countered the massive blast in the most simple manner Basil could have imagined there, other than just standing still and taking it.

He punched it.

Except, ‘punched’ didn’t really cover it. Not by several orders of magnitude. He moved no faster than a normal person, struck with no more weight to his punch than one would expect of a man of his size, timing it so the beam and his fist met each other at the apex of his strike.

The blow caused such a massive shockwave it shattered the ground around him, spiderwebs of cracks spreading all the way to the twisted walls and up. The shockwave utterly blew Elysium’s interwoven super-beam apart, revealing – nothing behind it.

Elysium and the Ascendant were gone.

The shockwave moved on and utterly destroyed the far ‘wall’ of the structure, causing an ear-splitting cacophony as blew a building-sized hole through several dozen layers of materials.

Sunlight flooded the spatially twisted structure, moments before a lesser shockwave hit Basil and the other heroes; though not so strong it’d blow him over easily, he still had to brace himself against it, turning his shoulder into it so as to shield Graymalkin.

When the squalls died down and he looked up, he briefly felt a sense of vertigo again, if for a different reason than before.

Whether it was an effect of Journeyman’s strike, or due to Elysium fleeing, the tower she’d built had… flowed back, for lack of a better term.

Since the tower had been made of multiple parts of the structure layered together and condensed, this meant that the damage he’d done to seemingly just one wall was now spread out all throughout the Northern half of the structure – perhaps the Southern half, as well, but Basil couldn’t tell from where he stood.

He and the others were staring out through a colossal hole, as the entire Southern side of the lab complex was gone, along with part of its roof. A trail of utter destruction snaked its way through the visible buildings and connecting walkways, all the way to the central tower, which had been nearly split in half, a huge, irregular crack running from its base up to its tip.

“What,” Spellgun and Tyche said in unison. The others didn’t even say that much.

Graymalkin yawned and slapped Basil’s chest with his tail, so he used his free hand to scratch him behind the ears, making him purr happily.

Journeyman looked at what he’d wrought for a few moments – or perhaps he was just looking at where his foes had just stood – then he turned away and walked to the bubble of looped time containing Gloom Glimmer.

“Soft hearts,” he grumbled, barely audible over the distance. “Must run in the family.”

“Can you help her?” a desperate-sounding Polymnia asked him, stumbling closer, her wrecked power armour screeching its protests against the motion. She hadn’t even bothered to wipe her mouth clean, and there were some remnants of her rainbow yawn on her collar and chestpiece, as well, at stark odds to her cheerily multi-coloured, colour-shifting hair.

“Oh, sure, sure,” he mollified her. “I’m something of an expert when it comes to weird temporal effects.” With no further ado, he reached into the bubble of looped time and grabbed Gloom Glimmer by the collar, simply pulling her out and causing the bubble to pop, disappearing.

Gloom Glimmer flailed around in confusion, until he lifted her up by her collar, holding her like a naughty puppy so her head was on a height with his, facing his mirrored mask.

“J-journeyman!” she squealed in surprise. “What, how, who… Diantha! Diantha was here! Where is she!?” She looked around wildly, then suddenly went limp. “Oh. She got away.”

“Worry about yourself for once, will you?” he told her, sounding fondly annoyed. “If you’d been paying attention, then you could’ve at least dodged that attack.”

“Journeyman, that was Diantha!” she whimpered, her hands clenching into fists. “Mom still… we have to catch up to her! Take her to mom! Please, you’ve got to help me!” she begged, sounding far younger than usual as she looked at him with big, shiny, wet eyes, her lips trembling.

“Spare me the puppy dog eyes,” he replied, though he did rather pointedly look away before dropping her. “You’re not going after anyone right now, other than whom you came here for.”

Gloom Glimmer looked up at him, looking shocked and betrayed, but didn’t get a chance to voice either before Polymnia fell to her knees behind her and wrapped her arms around her friend’s arms and chest, pulling her tight against her hard armour.

“You frwskung idior, you scaeed the carp out of me!” she wailed, her control over her vocoder slipping, distoring her voice.

“Mel- Poly, what, what happened!?” Gloom Glimmer cried out softly, clearly able to sense the damage her friend had suffered in some way.

“After she looped you,” Basil explained, having approached with Graymalkin in his arm. “Elysium kicked our collective posteriors.”

The others approached right after him, including an incredibly ashamed looking Bakeneko, who’d shrunk down to two thirds her usual height, with lusterless fur, hugging herself with her shoulders hunched. Osore stood next to her, the shirt he customarily wore underneath his jacket – his only real costume was his Oni-styled mask, even now – stained with blood and sporting a big hole, though he seemed to have recovered entirely from the gut shot he’d taken earlier.

“Oh God, let me-” Gloom Glimmer rose up, her hands glowing, and touched Polymnia and Osore first, the glow spreading from where she touched and over their forms, visibly repairing any damage to their bodies and their equipment, then did the same for everyone else.

Basil felt her power course through his body, fixing the bruises he’d accumulated over the last two hours, as well as the damage to his knee and his armour there. Even his fatigue disappeared – or at least, the physical part of it.

Soon enough, Gloom Glimmer had fixed them all; while they were all still quite tired, they weren’t hurt anymore. She even fixed Polymnia’s ruined equipment.

“Hey, what about that badass drone of yours?” Tyche asked Basil, when it didn’t look like he was going to let her put it back together.

“The pieces were in the path of Journeyman’s and Elysium’s attacks,” Basil replied regretfully. “I doubt there is enough left to fill a thimble.”

”Sorry about that,” Journeyman apologised. “I didn’t even think about retrieving it first.”

Basil waved it off. “Hardly a reason to apologise. You saved us. Losing just a drone to Elysium is an amazingly lenient outcome, all things considered.”

Tyche gave him a sympathetic look, and Polymnia even more so, though he honestly didn’t feel all that bothered by it… compared to everything else that had already happened and was still going to happen, losing a drone, no matter how sophisticated, was nothing at all.

“You should go after Dusu,” Journeyman told them, interrupting Basil’s increasingly morose train of thought by pointing towards the door they’d originally come in through. It was a mangled, broken mess now, revealing another heavy blast door on the opposite side of the hallway. “She’s in there, along with Syrinx.”

”And our blood,” Basil added, drawing startled looks from half the occupants of the room. “They drew some of my blood, earlier. And they had three other syringes, all filled with blood, when they left.”

“That can’t possibly be good,” Spellgun muttered, before he spoke up louder. “Dusu’s a bio-gadgeteer. There’s no telling what she could do with blood from us… especially since they seem to like cloning, or whatever these things are supposed to do.” He gestured at the numerous sarcophagus-like tanks strewn about the laboratory. Most of them had been destroyed by Journeyman’s attack, but there were still some left s tanding. Not to mention several bodies (or body parts) strewn about.

“Hrm, right, those,” Journeyman grumbled, raising a hand. He snapped his fingers, and all the remaining tanks in the room instantly heated up red-hot, melting into slag. The bodies that’d been strewn about by the earlier devastation were also incinerated, reduced to ashes.

Basil and the others stared at the casual display, feeling the heat wash over them. Graymalkin mewled in Basil’s arms, the only one present to enjoy the extra warmth.

”Uh, yeah, I think with you along, this won’t be a problem anymore, Mister Journeyman, Sir,” Tyche said in a small, respectful voice.

He shook his head in response. “I won’t be coming with you, I’m afraid,” he replied, sounding guilty. “I’m afraid my assistance ends here. I’m sorry.”

Both Tartsche, Hecate and Tyche opened their mouths to respond to that, but Gloom Glimmer spoke up first.

”It’s about that backlash you sometimes talk about, right?” she asked in a small voice. “You overused your power, or something.”

He looked down at her – even floating five centimetre off the ground, she was easily a head shorter than he was, and he stood firmly on the ground, with flat boots and a relaxed posture. His mask was a riot of reflections, moving too fast to be made out in any detail, until they settled on a simple, shifting pattern of glowing white circles moving across the mirror, reflecting only what he saw in front of himself.

”Kind of,” he replied, his voice just a little sad. “Suffice it to say, as much as I’d like to help you all more, I can’t do so, right now.” He sighed, sounding incredibly frustrated. “Power like mine comes with its caveats.”

“But… Diantha…” Gloom Glimmer whispered, her hands clenching around her cape, drawing it closer around her body.

“Can you sense her, Irene?” he inquired softly. When she shook her head, he continued, “Neither can I, right now. I’m not all-powerful, and neither are you. We could try, you and I – but it’d mean allowing Dusu to get away, all for the chance that we might locate that clone, or whatever it may be,” he explained calmly.

Though he was being nothing but gentle, she still shrank with every word, hunching her shoulders and looking so miserable, Polymnia stepped up and wrapped her arms around her, drawing her in tight.

“Even if we found her, it’s unlikely we could easily subdue her,” he pressed on in that same, gentle, even tone of voice. “You’re nowhere near the point where you could face someone as powerful as your sister and I… am limited in other ways.” He shook his head. “No, you must finish what you began. Dusu is near. Go.” He gestured towards the door.

“Come,” Polymnia spoke to her friend, turning her away from Journeyman.

The others looked at the two girls, then at the tall, strange man who’d just saved them. He was just standing there, his hands clasped behind his back, facing in their direction, though with his mask, it was impossible to tell whether he was actually looking at them.

Amy stepped forward, making all the junior heroes tense up as she walked to stand in front of Journeyman, her hands on her hips. Even in those ridiculous heels, she was still shorter than he was – and she wasn’t a short woman even without them.

“Thank you, for the save,” she said, sounding oddly subdued.

”You’re quite welcome, Amy,” he replied softly, making her flinch. “Yes, I know you. No, you don’t know me. No, telepathy doesn’t really work on me at all.”

She blushed, even as she took half a step back. “Who are you? How come I’ve never heard of someone like… like…” She gestured at the devastation he’d caused to the floating city.

He shrugged. “I guess I’m just shy,” he quipped casually.

“Yeah, right,” she snorted softly. “Well, either way, I owe you big time. So if there’s anything I can do for you, just say the word,” she finished with a smile.

Is she… flirting with him? Basil shuddered at the thought, even as he noted Hecate’s hand clenching tightly on her staff, staring at the two of them; her jaw, the only visible part of her face, was set into a tight frown.

“There is, indeed, something you can do for me,” Journeyman replied, leaning in closer.

“Oh yeah? Say the word, big guy,” she grinned, looking curious.

”You could…” he began, almost whispering as he leaned even closer, until his face was next to her ear. “Stop being a villain.”

Hecate sputtered when she heard that, nearly dropping her staff.

Her grin faded, replaced first by confusion, then annoyance, as she stepped back.

”I can’t do that,” she hissed at him, looking like he’d insulted her. “Don’t make impossible requests.”

”Impossible?” He seemed quite amused. “All I’m asking is that you be yourself.”

”I am myself!” She turned around, stalking away from him. “Weirdo.”

Journeyman remained in the same position, as if she still stood where she had. “No, you’re not,” he spoke quietly, barely audible. Yet it still made her stop. “You’re many things, Amanda, but you’re not yourself.”

He shrugged and turned around, while Amy just stared at him, slackjawed.

”It doesn’t matter,” he concluded, making a dismissive gesture. “All masks fall, eventually.”

He stepped over to Basil and reached for Graymalkin, scratching the huge cat behind the ears. “Goodbye, big guy. It was a pleasure travelling with you.” He raised his head, looking at Basil, who was quite certain that this strange man could see right through his mask. “Go. Bring an end to this.”

Basil nodded, numbly, finding himself rather unable to say anything meaningful. So instead, he turned around and walked towards the door, overtaking Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer.

Amy scrambled to catch up to him, before she remembered that she could fly and lifted off the ground, and the others finally turned away from Journeyman, to follow along, all save for Hecate.

”Yes, dear?” he asked her in a friendly tone of voice, speaking with only a handful of them at once now.

She took a short breath, and bowed deeply. “Thank you, Sir.”

“It was my pleasure,” he replied with a magnanimous nod.

The others who hadn’t yet scrambled to thank him, as well, following her example, save for Basil, who found himself in a strangely pensive mood, and Polymnia, who was focused on Gloom Glimmer.

While he waited on them to finish, Basil recalled his last raven, which had been drawn into the shifting space of Elysium’s tower, and had only now found its way back to him. With its fake feathers ruffled and quite a lot of scratches all over, it looked kind of… outraged, as it landed on his shoulder, as if even the tiny machine was getting fed up with things.

Graymalkin looked up at it, sniffing the air with a hungry look in his eyes, but was apparently able to tell it wasn’t edible – he sneezed, looking even more annoyed than usual as he dismissed the mechanical bird and looked away again.

Finally, they gathered together again (though Amy kept a certain distance from Basil, throwing rather fearful looks at the cat in his arms) and made their way towards Dusu’s lab, leaving the strange, powerful, irreverent man with the mirrored mask behind amongst the wreckage of the lab.

“Hey kids!” he shouted, suddenly, making them stop. “Remember – the only thing you need to blame yourself for are your own choices!”

The gathered heroes and villain turned around to look at him, confused more than anything, but he was gone, leaving no trace behind.

***

The final door between them and their target did not hold for more than a second or two, after Gloom Glimmer, Mindstar and Hecate all blasted it, utterly shredding it apart.

Beyond it, a huge lab was revealed that looked like a cross between a chem lab, an animal testing lab (though the appliances they could see were disturbingly fitted for humans, not smaller animals) and a cyberpunk enthusiast’s wet dream.

The latter was due to the huge structure dominating the laboratoy: Hanging above a wide hole in the ground that seemed to lead all the way down to the seawater, it looked like a gigantic mass of tree-trunk-sized metal cables, several spheres made of some kind of see-through material that didn’t seem to be glass, filled with various liquids and one with some kind of gas, and a multitude of other mechanical parts that were nigh-impossible to identify, even for Basil. From that, dozens of thick cables – really more like flexible pillars – wrapped in a black, fabric-like material reached down into the hole in the ground, disappearing into the water below.

At a console in front of the hole stood their target and her colleague, Syrinx, working on several dials and a keyboard. The syringes they’d stored the blood in had been inserted into fitting slots on the console and, just as they entered, a light next to them turned green and they were emptied of their contents.

Whatever it was meant to do, Basil decided not to give them time to complete it. Before he got to act, though, Mindstar and Gloom Glimmer did.

A single gesture of Amy’s pulled them both away from the console and lifted them into the air, followed by Gloom Glimmer gesturing with both hands, causing numerous gadgets to simply fly off their bodies, shooting out of their sleeves and pockets.

Syringes, wrist launchers, throwing darts and more were gathered together in the air before a spherical force-field snapped shut around them, followed by it heating up red-hot, destroying everything contained within.

Hecate raised her staff, aiming at the console, but Basil reached out with his right arm, pushing it down. “No. We might need it for the cure. Besides, there is no way to tell what might happen if you just blow it up.”

She growled, jerking her staff away from him, but subsided.

Well, here we are, baby bro, Amy spoke into his mind as he turned to look at Dusu and Syrinx, who were looking at them with varying degrees of surprise and shock.

“How are you here!?” Syrinx asked, staring at them like they’d come out of a nightmare. “You should be-“

“Shut him up, please,” Basil said softly, and someone – either Amy or Gloom Glimmer – complied, causing his jaw to snap shut. Putting Graymalkin down, he advanced towards the two villaneous gadgeteers.

He came to a halt, just a few steps away from them, looking up at the immobilised and declawed Dusu, who looked down at him with a mixture of contempt and curiosity. What the others behind him were doing, he couldn’t tell.

“Please put her down,” he said, and Amy did so, lowering Dusu onto the floor in front of him. Basil reached up and threw his hood back, before he unlocked his helmet and took it off.

Lowering his arms, the helmet dangling off the fingers of his right hand, he dropped it, causing it to hit the floor with a loud clang.

Looking down, he beheld the woman he’d wanted to hurt for so, so long.

She was… average. A short Chinese woman with small, almond-shaped brown eyes, a perky nose and thin lips. The only thing that even remotely stood out about her was her long, silky black hair, formerly in a tight bun but now loose, as Gloom Glimmer had removed the chopsticks she’d used to keep it in shape.

Something’s wrong, the thought came up through the simmering rage rising up from where he’d kept it down for so long. Something about the way she looked, it was… off. In a way he couldn’t quite put into words.

However, there were other things he had to take care of.

“Dusu,” he said her name, his voice as calm as he could keep it, his black eyes boring into her brown ones. “I’ve been looking for you for a long, long time.”

“Aw shucks, you’re waaaaaaay too young for my tastes, sweetie,” she replied in unaccented English, speaking it the way someone who’d learned it as a second or third language would, as she grinned up at him, seemingly unperturbed by the situation. “Still, I’m flattered.”

The sound of heels on the floor alerted Basil to the fact that Amy had walked up to stand just behind his left side. “Want me to just get the info out of her?”

Tearing her mind apart would be a good start, Basil thought to himself.

But it’d be too quick, now wouldn’t it? the Man in the Moon countered.

“Not yet,” Basil replied to Amy, still focused entirely on Dusu. “Maybe she’s going to be reasonable. Then we get what we want and we take her back home, to stand trial.”

“I don’t really relish the idea of a trial,” Dusu interjected, as she shifted her position to sit more comfortably. “But I’d rather have that than getting mindfucked, thank you very much.”

The others moved up, taking position around Basil in a rough half-circle, all looking down at Dusu with varying degrees of contempt. Syrinx was ignored entirely, spinning slowly in the air, still gagged by having his jaw held shut.

“Why’s this bitch so calm?” Tyche asked, her voice almost a snarl. “She ought to be shitting herself right about now.”

“I feel fear,” Osore noted, breaking his silence for the first time in quite a while. “Not much, but there’s some.”

“You may have noticed that this place is crawling with terrifyingly powerful people,” Dusu quipped light-heartedly. “You guys are really rather adorable in comparison. Though I would like to know how you managed to beat the Ascendant’s doll back.”

Gloom Glimmer flinched, black veins creeping over her sclera, but Basil, who saw it through the eyes of his raven, raised a hand, cutting her off.

“We are not here for that,” he told Dusu. “You have something we need.”

“Ohhh?” she focused on him again, her cold, uncaring eyes studying his face. “What is it, sweetheart? What can I do for you? It’s not like I have much of a choice, huh?” she asked with a smirk.

It took all of Basil’s considerable restraint not to strike her across the face, just to wipe that smirk off.

Instead, he clenched his fists, his arms trembling due to the tension. “No, you do not,” he spoke quietly. “I am here because of the Hawaii plague. I want you to give me the antidote, or cure, or whatever y-“

He didn’t manage to finish his sentence. As soon as he mentioned Hawaii, her eyes widened – and then she started to laugh.

What? He stared at her, surprised, as she laughed and laughed, loud and shrill as she shook back and forth, wrapping her arms around her stomach.

“That’s… what you… came for?!” she gasped in between bouts of laughter. “You attacked this place… risked your lifes… wrecked our operations… a decade of research… all for that!?” she doubled over with laughter, her head nearly hitting the floor.

“What the fuck is wrong with this putana?” Hecate breathed, looking like she was afraid to catch something from the woman on the ground.

“I don’t know, but I’m going to find out,” Amy said resolutely, leaning in as she focused her power on her…

Only to recoil, staggering back. “What the fuck!?” she shouted, staring at the madly laughing woman with wide, shocked eyes. “How dare you… you… how could you? What kind of monster would do that!?” she screamed at her, lunging at the laughing woman with a snarl on her face.

Everyone stared in shock, completely taken by surprise by the sudden, violent reaction, and Basil barely managed to step in between them, blocking Amy’s lunge. “Amy, wait!”

He caught her in his arms, and would have gotten thrown aside or bowled over, had he not locked himself to the floor with his boots.

She struggled briefly against him, snarling. “Let me at her! That bitch, she’s… she has to die!”

“Amy, what is going on? What did you see?” he asked her, confused and more than a little worried. She’d never lost it like that before – she was very nearly frothing at the mouth.

The others stepped back from her, clearly intimidated – the only one who appeared to be unaffected was Dusu herself, who was still laughing like a loon.

“Heh. Heh heh hehahaha!” she shook all over, tears in her eyes. “I’ll show you! Look, look, I’ll show you what’s so fucking funny!” she half screamed, half gasped the words, having trouble speaking past the torrents of demented laughter.

Basil let go of Amy, who stepped back again, staring at Dusu with outraged eyes, and looked down at her.

The demented woman reached to the collar of the turtleneck sweater she was wearing underneath her labcoat, and grabbed an intricate, silvery charm hanging off a chain around her slender neck.

A single tuck broke the thin chain, tearing the charm off.

Her form distorted slightly, the wrongness he’d noticed earlier becoming more profound as he realised that he’d, however unknowingly, picked up on the fact that her appearance wasn’t real.

Beneath the disappearing distortion, a horrific sight became visible, making everyone, except for Basil, step back in horror and disgust. Even Syrinx, seeing it from a distance, gasped, sounding like he was about to throw up.

On the ground before them sat a woman who was barely more than a corpse. Lush black hair had turned pure white, mostly fallen out, leaving her haggard, flesh-less head – just skin drawn taut over bones – looking oversized, like a misshapen egg, the skin pale, greyish and thin as rice paper. Her eyes looked bigger here, due to the eyelids having become so thin and shrivelled, the eyeballs seemed to bulge out of her skull, their brown colour threaded through with grey, the sclera showing pink veins.

But that wasn’t nearly all. Her nose was gone, leaving a gaping wound in the centre of her face through which she drew air with a wheezing, sharp sound. Her lips had shrivelled and thinned, lacking any colour to distinguish them from the rest of her skin, revealing entirely toothless gums as she shook, laughed and gasped. Her cheeks had rips and holes in them, as if partially rotten, stretching obscenely as her jaw moved, distorting her laughter further into an inhuman, wheezing sound.

Her hands were similarly shrivelled, with chipped nails where they weren’t outright missing, the knuckles and wrists swollen as if infected by something. Her veins stood out starkly on her papery, greyish skin, where it was visible.

The rest of her body, though hidden by her coat, sweater and pants, was visibly emaciated, her clothes, formerly fitting tightly to her slender frame, now hanging off her bony shoulders, her pants legs so loose it seemed like she only had sticks within them.

Basil stared down at her in horror, recognising the symptoms. She looks just like… like… like Prisca…

“W-why?” he breathed the question, his voice nearly breaking as he felt his stomach turn cold.

“It wasn’t, wasn’t a plague!” she hollered, tears running from her bulging eyes as she looked up at him, the expression on her face, distorted as it was, dripping with sadistic glee. “I was… I wanted to be an Adonis! So jealous, of all these pretty boys and girls prancing around looking like they’d jumped out of a wet dream!”

She fell back, barely catching herself on her arms and leaning her negligible weight onto her hands, as if she was just relaxing among friends.

“So, you see, I got stupid. Too eager!” she continued, appearing to enjoy herself greatly. “I figured, well, I can do poisons real well – what if I do one that’s meant to make the victim better, rather than worse? I mean, that’s what medicine is, in the end, right? Just a poison turned on its head!” She tilted her head to the side, calming herself a bit. “Got in a real goooooood craze. Three days of work, non-stop. Didn’t eat, didn’t drink, didn’t sleep, hell, I didn’t even shit the whole time.” She made a coy smile, though it only made her look even more disturbing. “Didn’t turn out so well. I was so fucking off the rocker when I came out of the craze, I really, really wanted to be strong and beautiful and all so much… I just injected myself with it. Didn’t test it on anyone.”

She shrugged. “You can see the results. I’ve been trying to find a way to fix myself, but… no luck, so far.” She sighed, shaking her head as if disappointed at how the world was treating her.

“Hawaii,” Basil cut in, his voice barely a whisper. “Why Hawaii?” Why’d you destroy Prisca’s life?

“Well, I couldn’t find a cure myself!” she proclaimed, waving an arm in an exasperated gesture. “So I figured, hey girl, why not outsource that?” She grinned, an unmistakable note of pride on her distorted face. “All these rich vacationers, all in one place. I figured, even if the heroes didn’t come up with a cure out of the good of their hearts, all those richies would pay enough to get someone to fix them. And then I could swoop in and get myself fixed, too!”

The bottom dropped out of Basil’s stomach, his blood running cold as he followed the evidence to its inevitable conclusion.

“Of course, I hadn’t quite thought it through,” she admitted, pouting – not that she had much of a pout, with her lips as withered as they were. “I blame it on all the painkillers I was on at the time. But, you see, I’d custom-made the stuff to affect me. To work with my genome, not that of other people. So… it was rather more lethal than I had expected it to be.” She shuddered. “You won’t believe how worried I got, before the first news of survivors came through! Y’see, I’d only made one batch of the stuff, and I spent it all on that bomb, so if no one’d survived Hawaii, I’d have been royally screwed!”

She sighed, again. “Of course, my luck remained as rotten as ever. No one found a cure. No one. Been waiting for years. I even released what little I’ve been able to reconstruct about the serum on the internet, using pseudonyms and all.”

He’d found some of those. Downloaded the information, hoping it might help him, wondering who had managed to figure even that much out, as little information as it was.

“Well, that didn’t pan out. Turns out I’m way too awesome. Not even the Gefährten, with all their mojo, have been able to fix me,” she complained, sounding like a little child, averting her eyes. “Body’s gonna last a few more years, tops. Only chance I’ve got left is getting to that retard in Britain, only even if I could get close enough, I doubt that faggot would be willing to heal me, you know?”

She looked up again, grinning at Basil. “So, you wanna know what’s so funny? This is! If you want to find a cure for my serum… sweetie, you can have everything I got! You can use my lab! Hell, I’ll fucking assist you myself! If you succeed, I’ll fucking blow you!” She leered at him, waving one of her arms at the equipment all around her. “Use the computer! I got all my files on it there! Use my equipment, if you can! By all means, find a cure for all those poor, poor victims!” She started to laugh again, her torso shaking, head dipping up and down with each gasp. “You never had to attack this place! You never had to fight! You could’ve just called me up, sweetie, and I would’ve sent a fucking plane!”

Basil staggered back, his vision tilting oddly. His whole body was cold, barely felt at this point, even something as simple as stepping back becoming an unstable, uncoordinated stumble.

The scarecrow on the floor kept laughing, shaking all over. “So, can you do it, sweetheart? Can you… do… what all the others… have failed to? You can’t… can you?” She looked up at him, her eyes wide, nearly glowing with the insanity now unconcealed behind them. “I looked you… up… when you built… that equipment… for the little… Fion bitch… you’re no bio-gadgeteer… you only do mechanical stuff.”

She lowered her head, shaking with barely restrained laughter. “Well, too bad!” She suddenly looked up at him again, eyes as wide as they could go. “Because the only way you’re getting a cure is if you come up with it yourself! I sure as hell have no idea how to do it, I tell you!”

And she threw her head back, laughing, mocking, as Basil’s world spun around him.

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B13.16 Call of the Sleeper

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They really like bringing back the dead, don’t they? the Man in the Moon asked in a mocking tone, though it was clear he was feeling just as freaked out as Basil did. What’s next, is fucking Weisswald himself gonna walk out of one of those tanks?

Don’t jinx it, Basil thought furiously as he felt the world slow down around himself – his every heartbeat seemingly as loud as a canon shot. How the fuck are we supposed to get out of this?

The worst part was, for all he knew, they’d already lost – there was no way to tell for him, or anyone except maybe Gloom Glimmer, whether Elysium’s power was already in effect, until she wanted them to.

He’d studied her, of course. Nearly everyone who went to Diantha High did, usually without even meaning to – Lady Light had turned the school into a shrine for her fallen daughter. So he knew all of her achievements and he’d, in the course of studying high-end powers – particularly ones like Ember’s, which seemed to control a certain ‘territory’ – looked up every scrap of information he could find on her power.

The only fight she ever came close to losing was the one that killed her, he thought, observing their foes… foe, really. The gadgeteers behind her didn’t even matter. And none of us is as powerful as DiL, not even Gloom Glimmer.

Fuck DiL! Amy snarled into his mind. If that’s really the Elysium, then she’s also the one who stomped the fucking Dark into the ground!

Get out of my head! Hecate shouted, mentally, making Basil realise that Amy must’ve linked them all up together, especially once similar exclamations came from everyone but Gloom Glimmer, Tartsche, Tyche and Spellgun.

Shut it! Amy shouted right back, louder than everyone else combined, to the point where Basil physically flinched in response. We don’t have time for this! We need to work together or else we’re done for!

No one, not even Hecate, had a rebuttal for that.

“Diantha, can you hear me!?” an anguished voice pulled Basil’s attention back to what was right in front of him – Gloom Glimmer had taken another step closer towards her unresponsive half-sister. “Is that really you? Please, say something!”

Behind the… clone? Zombie? Was it a cyborg of some sort?… behind the maybe-Elysium, the woman they only knew as the Ascendant leaned back against the open tank’s side, crossing her arms as she watched the scene with obvious glee and pride in her eyes.

“Four-four-four, designate the last speaker as Priority Target Alpha,” she spoke in level tones. “Designate the others from left to right as Priority Targets Beta through Kappa. Disable and capture Alpha as priority task. Disable Beta through Kappa.”

The empy-eyed beauty raised her head, her eyes moving over the gathered heroes – and one villain – without showing any emotions. Then she took a step forward.

Gloom Glimmer matched her, stepping closer. “Diantha! Diantha, you don’t have to listen to her!” she begged the older girl. “You don’t know me, but I’m your sister! Come with me, I’ll take you to mom – she’ll be so happy to see you!”

“Gloomy, stay away from her!” Polymnia shouted as she raised her arms, unleashing twin blasts of focused sound straight at Elysium.

The famous dancer reacted with an elegent step to the side, twisting her body in a single, fluid motion. The barely-visible blasts curved around her, drawn into the motion, and flew straight back at Polymnia, who just barely managed to counter them with another pair of matching blasts, creating a brief, shrill scream that staggered those not under the protection of Tartsche’s power – that being, Tartsche himself, as well as Tyche and Spellgun.

Elysium kept moving, her bare feet making barely any sound on the cold metal floor as she closed the distance to her little sister, the graceful motions of her legs in stark contrast to her limp arms as he turned and made a high kick towards the stunned girl.

Though she was clearly struggling to think straight, Gloom Glimmer reacted immediately, but not to defend herself but rather, reaching out towards her sister.

Elysium didn’t hit her, though – instead, her kick flew above the younger heroine’s head and continued on in a downward arc; her torso nearly horizontal, she turned on her one leg, to continue the kick all the way down to the ground, as a distorting haze enclosed Gloom Glimmer mid-reach.

As her foot touched the ground again, the trap snapped shout, a hazy bubble around Gloom Glimmer entrapping her in the middle of reaching out with her right hand, her mouth open to call out something.

Then the image flickered and she was back to the beginning of the motion, reaching out, her mouth opening to call out… reaching out, her mouth opening to call out… reaching out, her mouth opening to call out…

The loop continued for all to see, a sphere of looped time around their friend and her half-sister standing in front of it, looking at it with an empty-eyed gaze.

Polymnia cried a wordless scream of rage, unleashing a steady, ululating sound towards Elysium, but it never reached her. She took a single step towards it, placing the toes of her foot a measured distance forward, like a ballerina and the distortion in the air that was Polymnia’s attack split in two around her.

Moving forward, twirling on her toes, the attacks crossed through each other without any effect, then curved back towards Polymnia, forcing her to counter them again.

Is she holding back? Amy asked into their mental link, as Basil detached his drone from his leg, causing it to project a stream of octagonal force-fields from one end, riding them the way Sovereign’s Subjugator had. She’s only reacting.

If we are lucky, whatever process they used to bring her back has left her without her previous experience and skill, or any memories at that, Basil replied. Hecate, I am going to attack from the left. Try flanking her. As pissed as Hecate must be at this point, he was quite certain she’d be able to look past it in such a situation.

She didn’t reply, but she did switch into her smoke-form, moving into flanking position in the same instant that he leapt forward.

At the same time, Amy shot up before gesturing with her right hand at Elysium, unleashing an unseen blast of raw force which didn’t travel like a projectile, but appeared right on top of the dancing woman – only to vanish without a trace. Furthermore, a twin spiral of green fire, so bright it hurt to look at, appeared behind her out of nowhere, slamming into Amy’s back and making her cry out at the unexpected attack – though her shields held true, the attack nearly overloaded them with its force and he could see that her back had gotten burned when she turned around to look for the source of the attack – but there was none.

Dumbfounded, yet not hesitating, Basil used the distraction – Elysium was on one knee, currently rising up again into what was perhaps going to be another pirouette – to launch his drone at her back, hoping that her power would fail to protect her against an attack she didn’t see coming; or perhaps it might create an opening, at least, for Hecate or one of the others to hit her. She was just human, after all, once one got past her power, as had been discovered painfully during the fight against DiL, all those years ago.

The drone shot forward, projecting an oscillating, arrow-head-like force-field so dense it was completely opaque over its tip. Hecate cried a single phrase – he missed the words, but they were clearly Greek – and unleashed a twin spiral of green fire so bright, even Basil had trouble looking straight at it. An attack he instantly recognised.

It was completely useless, of course. Diantha rose, then bent over, the leg she wasn’t standing on kicking out towards the drone, toes pointed. Where they came close, the force-field, then the drone, simply parted in half; for just a moment, he thought his force-field would hold, but it was a vain hope – it parted like water before the prophet, and the drone itself offered no more resistance as the space between its molecules was expanded, causing it be cut in half with such a perfect, straight edge, it was almost beautiful, revealing its glowing innards before the pieces tumbled to the ground and went dark. An attack that knew no defense, other than a spatial effect of equal or greater power.

Reaching forward, her body still horizontal, she caught Hecate’s attack in both hands, then kicked off the ground, rotating in the air and causing it to disappear in between her hands.

Something hit Basil’s right knee from the side, very nearly shattering the armor and causing a sharp pain to shoot up his leg, before he lost all sensation but that of cold. Looking down, stunned, he saw his right leg largely encased in ice, and bending the wrong way at that.

He looked at Spellgun, who was staring at him in shock and confusion, holding his rifle up – he hadn’t even fired yet.

There was a scream, causing him to look up only to see Hecate be blown away by Amy’s earlier attack, the massive blast blowing her aside and causing one of the jewels sewn onto her chest to flash in a bright, red light, then shatter as it overloaded her defenses, conveying enough force through them to both hurt her and send her hurling across the room, slamming into a wall.

A flicker, and she was lying where she’d started, crumbled into a heap.

Fuck, it wasn’t that strong! Amy shouted in confusion, before she startled, finding herself right in front of the twirling blonde.

Before she could react, Elysium jumped from one foot onto the other and brought her knee up, connecting with Amy’s stomach; the blow was so powerful it created a sonic boom, causing Amy to spit blood as she was launched away, slamming through half a dozen steel tanks, crushing them and their contents, before she impacted the wall, leaving a sizable impression on it, then fell to the ground, unconscious.

“Amy!” Basil shouted, trying to take a step towards her – but all he achieved was that he fell over, his half-frozen, likely broken leg giving out under him as soon as he put any weight onto it.

Elysium continued the motion with which she’d kicked Amy, and the tanks returned to their previous state, while Amy appeared in front of them, still unconscious.

Basil fired his grappling hooks towards Amy’s body, intending to draw himself towards her, but they barely crossed a metre – seemingly – before they fell to the ground; somehow, they’d spooled out entirely to their very limit, leaving two heaps of super-strong black cable on the ground.

The whole room began to shift, as if drawn into a whirlpool with Elysium at its centre, space bending in a disorienting, vertigo-inducing fashion, slowly forming a huge spiral, the centre of which began to lower itself deeper – or perhasp the edge rose up, it was hard to tell through the vertigo-inducing distortions all around.

He saw Bakeneko try to escape, in a quadrupedal form, running for the edge of the effect towards the door, but whatever Elysium was doing to the space, it made it look like she was running in place, unable to move a single step closer to the exit no matter how much effort she put into it, trapped in what could only be described as a sinkwell of space, unable to go anywhere no matter how she moved.

Osore was on the ground, groaning in pain, several limbs broken and numerous gashes and holes across his body, which were mending slowly – When did he go down? – and Tyche and Spellgun were staring helplessly at their surroundings, while Tartsche was glaring towards the villains on the far side of the room, standing in a pocket of undistorted space.

Basil watched helplessly as Elysium kept dancing, her movements not nearly as joyous and graceful as he’d seen in recordings of her many performances, yet still beyond the ken of even professional dancers; she was dancing in a circle, leaping from foot to foot, never touching the ground with both at once, sometimes dipping down while standing on her toes to draw a wide circle around herself.

All around, the room continued to twist, folding up even as the ceiling itself folded apart, opening up to show not the sky but rather, a continuation of the room itself, rows upon rows of steel tanks studding what were now the walls, leading up into infinity; each row of tanks rotating in a different direction, alternating left and right as the space continued to twist and expand.

Beyond that, he could see more of the structures around the building they were in, being drawn into the whole, folded up and into it; buildings he’d seen from the air earlier, now joining the rotation of the tanks, fitting into the gaps between them even though they should have been several times their size; the prison his friends had been sent to, the giant candle, appeared floating on thin air, compressed to the size of a man-sized candle, floating a few metre above the ground he stood on; then it tipped to the side, yet left another of itself in its place. And another, and another, starting to spin like a clockhand, only each motion left another candle behind, even when it passed over the previous ones, continuing to make more and more of itself, the ones behind seeming to extend into an endless space beyond.

Then, they multiplied, all around the circumference of the room, a dozen endlessly spinning, duplicating candles illuminating the room as even more of the city-sized structure was being drawn in, as did parts of the ocean around them, flowing into the gaps.

***

“Himmel herrgott nochmal!” Immanuel shouted as the floor dropped away underneath him, drawn into the ever-rising spire of twisted space just ahead of them. He just barely managed to grab onto Heaven’s Dancer’s arm, drawing her onto a ‘flow’ of space that was more stable, standing atop what was once a train station bench that had been elongated to a ridiculous length. “What is that woman thinking, allowing her to use her power without any restrictions?”

Heaven’s Dancer looked around at their base, even as it was being drawn in – the effect had not yet spread beyond the immediate area around Dusu’s and the Ascendant’s personal lab complex, but it was going to reach the centre at some time, and then the Contriver section… that could end up truly catastrophic.

There was only one possible conclusion.

“You were right,” she told Immanuel, who looked at her in surprise. “We really need to rethink the idea of putting this many mad scientists into one place…”

He smiled wrily, then turned towards their destination and kept moving, always stepping onto safe footholds, navigating the ribbons of twisted space in ways she couldn’t hope to achieve.

Heaven’s Dancer followed, trying not to think about just how she was going to explain this to the others…

“Dem Mädchen gehört der Arsch versohlt,” Immanuel muttered under his breath, putting a voice to her thoughts.

***

Elysium jumped into a backflip, curling up in mid-air to avoid a shot by Tyche and instead of flying on to hit the three gadgeteers standing behind her, it impacted Polymnia’s knee from behind, making her cry out and flip over, landing heavily on the floor; her sonic attack, just begun, went wide, never coming even close to Elysium even without a further use of her power.

The mighty dancer landing on one foot and rose onto her toes, the other leg angled to have her foot rest against the other leg’s knee, only to move immediately into a spin, making a roundhouse kick into thin air.

Tartsche grunted as he was hit in the solar plexus, thrown back and away from Spellgun and Tyche, landing heavily on his back a few metre behind them.

Those still conscious stared in shock at how she’d seemingly ignored his defense entirely, but she gave them no time to react, much less adjust, raising the foot she’d been balancing off from the floor moments before the one she’d kicked with touched it, spinning into wide scything kick towards Tyche and Spellgun, launching them backwards for a metre or two before they suddenly curved downwards at a perfect ninety-degree angle, slamming into the ground hard enough that Basil thought he heard bones snap.

What can I do? he asked himself, desperately. There was nothing he could think of, nothing he had left. His railgun was long wrecked, and now he’d lost his drone, as well. His gauntlet and knife could likely kill her, if he managed to land a clean hit – but the chance of him achieving that was near null and even if he did, with his right leg nigh useless and space and time arrayed against him, unless he killed her in a single blow, she could simply rewind time and try again.

I wonder how often we beat or almost beat her already, and she just rewound and tried again? he couldn’t help but wonder. There was a good reason why she’d never lost a fight until she’d come up against her half-sister. More than one, really, but this one alone would likely have been sufficient all in itself.

It ain’t like you to pity yourself, mate, the Man in the Moon commented unhelpfully. Maybe you sh- ow!

A sharp sting distracted Basil from his thoughts, right in his left arm pit, where he lacked armour other than the ballistic weave of his impact suit.

Having essentially risen onto all fours from where he’d fallen, he looked down at it, and saw… a syringe the size of a small bottle, its needle buried in his flesh, the back attached to a rope leading to…

Syrinx, standing just a few metre away, grinning smugly.

Yet he also stood with the others in the unaffected pocket of space beyond Elysium.

“What the…?” Basil asked, though he didn’t waste time waiting for an answer; rather, he flung his knife at the villain, piercing his right shoulder…

He was gone, as was the syringe, though he was still stung and bleeding lightly. His knife clattered to the ground, with no blood or other sign of having hit on it.

The Syrinx standing with the others looked down and found the syringe there, in his right hand, half-filled with Basil’s blood. He held another in his left hand, and Dusu was holding two as well, one in each hand.

What?

He was starting to have trouble concentrating; his leg hurt abominably, his armpit now joined the fun along with his left shoulder, nevermind the vertigo induced by the spatial distortions all around him.

His friends were down, though only Amy was knocked out, and Gloom Glimmer stuck in a loop, endlessly repeating the same motion over and over again.

Hecate was trying to stand up, pushing against the floor, but her motions were weak, though he could hear her determined, angry growling beneath her hood. Polymnia was likewise rising, if slowly, her suit damaged far more than Tyche’s one shot should have been able to do… only then Basil saw that same shot hit her again, knocking her over once more. And again, coming from above, smashing her into the ground. The same attack, repeating itself whenever she tried to get up, slowly chipping away at her armour and keeping her trapped.

It’s a miracle we’re even still alive…

***

“Why are they even still alive?” Dusu asked in a bored voice, as she played with the syringes full of blood in her hands. “She could’ve killed at least some of them already…”

“I only ordered her to disable them,” the Ascendant replied, sounding pensive. “Also, I suspect there’s more of the real Elysium in her than I’d like – and she never killed. With her power, she never needed to.”

“Well, wouldn’t it be more fun to have her kill one or two of them?” Dusu suggested absent-mindedly. “Make it clear this is your Elysium, and yours kills. Own her.”

The striking woman of Aztek descent stroked her chin, narrowing her eyes. “Well, why not? We only need Gloom Glimmer and the Gadgeteers alive, the others are quite inconsequential.”

“Aren’t we supposed to strive to create more metahumans, rather than kill ones who’re no threat to us anymore?” Syrinx – Roy – asked them, feeling rather contrite about the idea of killing several of God’s chosen ones.

“Eh, we’ll eventually make way more than we could hope to kill,” Dusu waved it off. “Anyway, we should get these samples into my lab, I have a marvelous plan for them…”

“Do that. I’ll take care of these… not Mindstar, though,” the Ascendant noted. “Way too valuable, both for her powers and the information she could give us on the Syndicate.” She looked at her precious little doll, her magnum opus. “Four-four-four, create a passage for Priority Subjects Beta and Gamma to the adjacent lab, then execute target Eta,” she commanded in a calm voice.”

***

Oh, fuck no! Basil thought furiously as he heard the Ascendant’s command, forcing himself to rise onto his good leg, putting as little weight as he could on the bad one. You’re not taking her!

Elysium obeyed her command without hesitation, and both Dusu and Syrinx disappeared, presumably to their portion of the structure.

A little jump and turn, and Hecate lay on the ground before her, on all fours, looking up with an expression filled with fear and anger. “You…” she groaned, looking at the Ascendant with hate-filled eyes. “Vevilyierosilyisse ena miasmiko katharma!” she screamed at her.

Basil reversed the wall-sticking effect on his left boot, launching himself at Elysium from behind and to the side, pulling his left arm back, the gauntlet charging.

Basil swayed on his feet as he saw Hecate, having just cursed the Ascendant, get smashed into the ground again, hit in the back by some kind of massive impact strong enough to shatter another of her protective gems.

Her cry of pain made him see red, raising his gauntlet – his gauntlet was ruined, a perfectly smooth cut running from the tip to the elbow, the intricate, yet sturdy circuitry inside ruined.

No!

He stumbled forward, falling over again, unable to do anything other than watch as Elysium raised her right foot, aiming at Hecate’s head.

“Let this be a lesson to you brats,” the Ascendant spoke, her accented voice as condescending as can be. “Don’t mess with the pros,” she taunted them, looking around at the young heroes all around the room, beaten down yet still conscious, unable to do anything but watch.

“Heck!” Tyche cried out as the foot came down on their friend’s head, to cut or crush.

To no effect, as another foot, this one in a smooth black boot appeared above Hecate’s head, catching Elysium’s stomp on the dorsom of the foot. Instead of crushing or simply parting the boot and flesh beneath, it was stopped cold.

***

“Wer zum Teufel!?!” Immanuel cried out, coming to a dead stop in the middle of running through a pulsating, twisting corridor of pipes.

Heaven’s Dancer stopped, stumbling briefly before she turned around to look at him, shocked to see him… shocked. “What is it? Immanuel, what’s going on?”

“Someone… someone’s there with them,” Immanuel hissed, his eyes staring into the distance. “Someone… or something. I’ve never seen him before. I can’t see him, not really.”

Her current body’s blood ran cold as she parsed that information, though she refused to freak out. Instead, she asked, as calmly as she could, “What do we do now, then?”

He hissed again, his hands clenching into fists. “We wait. If he doesn’t leave on his own, we wait until Konrad arrives. I’m not going in blind.”

***

Everyone but the trapped Gloom Glimmer and the unconscious Amy stared at the new arrival, a tall man – was it a man? It was hard to tell – in a dark blue robe with wide sleeves and a deep hood, parted down the front to show a jet-black, skintight bodysuit. He was even taller than Basil by almost a full head, almost as tall as the Godking had been, and slenderly built underneath his wide robe. His suit extended into a pair of smooth boots and gloves, covering every inch of his body, and he balanced on one foot easily, while using the other to protect Hecate from a grisly, swift death.

His face was not visible underneath his hood – rather, he seemed to wear a mirrored mask or helmet, which was currently split into octagonal pieces, like a single huge compound eye, reflecting the face of everyone in the room. His stance was calm, relaxed.

He was holding a huge cat with long, dark fur in his left arm, stroking it behind the ears with his right hand.

It was a very familiar cat.

“Graymalkin?” Basil whispered, stunned.

What the hell was his cat doing here?

The stranger tilted his head to the side, the images on his mask shifting as if they were fixed in place, and he was now reflecting a different part, showing their faces from different angles. He looked at the Ascendant, then at Elysium, looking her up and down.

“Oh man,” he spoke in a weird, soft voice – like several voices layered on top of another, yet not so much they’d be like a full chorus. “You idiots really, really, really want to piss off the big gal, don’t you?”

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