B13.8 Call of the Sleeper

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Basil knew he wasn’t the most… sensible person out there. He often overlooked people’s feelings, not out of malice or a lack of care, he thought, but simply because they tended to seem so… unimportant, compared to everything else on his mind. The inventions, the science, the fight against evil, the fight for good… compared to all that, there was precious little time to worry about how others were feeling, oftentimes, and there’d been steadily less and less time, to boot.

Still, he would have needed to be blind, deaf and an imbecile not to notice that something was seriously wrong with his friend. Dalia looked like she’d been crying a lot, in a very short time. The little bit of mascara she tended to wear even underneath her mask, against his recommendation, had run down her cheeks in two quickly fading black streaks; her eyes were bloodshot and all of that was visible because she wasn’t wearing her mask.

Stepping forward, he put himself between her and the junior heroes, if only for appearances sake, reaching out to put his hand on her right shoulder, as Hecate was hanging onto her left one, her arms around Dalia’s torso.

He squeezed it, feeling her tremble, then calm a bit. “Welcome back,” he spoke as softly as he could, trying not to show the anger he was starting to feel.

Someone had hurt her badly. He could tell. He could see it in her eyes.

That someone was going to hurt a lot, if he could in any way arrange it.

First, though, he had to take care of her. Or at least help do it.

“Thanks, guys,” she said in a wavering voice as she reached out, grabbing him by the shoulder and pulling him in so she could hug him along with Hecate.

He barely managed to get his rifle out of the way before he was being crushed against her – she definitely wasn’t watching her strength, squeezing as hard as she could. Not that he, or Hecate, were going to complain.

After a good half-minute of that, he finally pulled back, though gently. They weren’t exactly in a situation where they could afford to spend too much time on this, as much as he felt it necessary.

“Tyche, what-” he began, trying to inquire as to what happened to her while they were separated, but she cut him off as she looked up from embracing Hecate, her eyes painful to look at, but determined.

“I know where she is,” she spoke, her voice firmer than before, as if the little group hug had actually helped her a bit. He certainly hoped it did. “I know where Dusu is, and what way to take to her. But we need to hurry.”

Basil was still trying to process that statement when Hecate spoke up. “It’s ‘which way’, not ‘what way’,” she corrected Dalia, her voice wavering, as if she was on the verge of tears herself.

“Drop dead, Grammazon,” Dalia replied with a smile. “Any-way, we should hurry before more of these losers show up, right?” She looked at everyone else.

“I have a few questions, actually,” Tartsche spoke, coming closer with the others. “But you’re right, we should get away from here. First, though, I must insist we check you.”

“Check me?” Dalia asked in confusion, though Basil immediately picked up on what Tartsche meant.

As reasonable as it was, he still felt like slapping him over the head for possibly putting her in more distress. “He means that he wants to make sure you are not under some form of mind control or other coercion, and that you are actually who you say you are,” he explained calmly. “Remember the infiltrator protocols I made you memorise?”

She nodded, as understanding dawned on her face.

“Wait, you guys have your own infiltrator protocols?” Spellgun asked, sounding surprised.

“Of course!” he and Hecate replied in tune.

The junior heroes, minus Gloom Glimmer and Osore, looked at them in surprise.

Tartsche was the first one to recover. “Well, anyway, we don’t actually need that right now, provided that Gloom Glimmer’s power is cooperating?” He looked at his teammate, who’d pulled her hood up to hide her face, again, her cape falling over her shoulders to hide most of her form, other than the toes of her feet, clad in the black cloth of her suit.

She nodded, stepping forward. “I have just the power for that,” she spoke, her voice a little more normal than usual, without the odd harmonics beneath it that tended to freak Hecate out so much. “Do you consent to me using an Esper power on you, Tyche?”

“I get a choice? ” Dalia asked, surprised. “I figured you’d insist on it anyway.”

Gloom Glimmer shook her head. “I’d rather do this with your permission. It’s rather invasive, after all, and you have no way to tell whether I’ll look at more than just whether or not you really are who you say you are and whether you’re under the influence of another power.”

The redhead surprised them all by chuckling, as if amusing. “Go ahead,” she said with a sad, brittle smile. “Can’t be worse than what’s already happened.”

Basil’s grip on his rifle tightened, hard.

Gloom Glimmer reached out with both hands, as Hecate stepped back, letting go of Dalia’s torso to hold her hand instead. She put her hands onto the redhead’s temples, gently, and lowered her head, standing there quietly for a few moments.

Then she stepped back, letting her arms fall down and disappear beneath her cloak. “She’s clean,” she announced, as her hands rose again, dropping two blue-and-white pills onto her palm, swallowing them quickly. “Can’t find any sign of mental tampering and she’s definitely whom she appears to be.”

Tartsche nodded, looking relieved. “Great. Sorry about that.” He gave Tyche an apologetic smile.

“Nah, don’t knock it,” she replied easily. “Only good sense. So, are we  gonna get going before these bozos wake up?” She nodded towards the downed villains.

“Yes, let us get moving,” Basil agreed. “You can tell us what you found out while we are on the move.”

He looked around at the others, to see if anyone disagreed. No one did, and so they left, running (in Gloom Glimmer’s case, floating) after Dalia as she ran down the hallway.

***

The group quickly passed by the entrapped, unconscious Chronicle and ran down the hallway that Basil, Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer had come from earlier.

“So, how do we get to Dusu, and how do you know where she is?” Basil asked Dalia, keeping pace with her with some effort – apart from Tartsche, he was the only one in the group who didn’t have an enhanced physique, and unlike him, Tartsche hadn’t just come out of heavy melee combat with a sword-wielding lunatic.

“We’ve got to get to the train station – they have trains running through this entire place!” Dalia replied, looking at him over her shoulder.

He was glad to see that, now that she had something to do, she looked better, if marginally so.

“We’ve got to take the D1-line West – I came with the East line – to the D-hub, then take the D-line North to the main hub. From there, we can take the A-Line to the A-hub, and the A3-line to the last stop. That’s where Dusu’s lab is ‘posed to be, according to the guy I got this from!”

“Who’s that?” Hecate asked, as she stuck close to her friend without any apparent strain.

I need some proper power armour again, Basil thought in annoyance, even as he listened closely. Lugging this much gear around is such a pain, no matter how much I reduce the weight.

“Some guy named Im-Immanuel,” she replied, tripping over the name. “A creepy German guy, not that that’s anything unusual.”

“Immanuel, huh?” Gloom Glimmer spoke up while flying closer, briefly touching Basil on the back.

He almost yelped when he lifted off, floating along with her, though he reigned it in – and his legs immediately made their gratitude known.

“Yeah, weird name, right? Do you know him?” Dalia asked, looking forward again.

Basil frowned. He’d have expected her to keep looking over her shoulder and rely on her power not to trip up or run into anything. It might have been nothing, just a whim, but it felt more significant, considering the state she was in.

“No, unless he’s the famous eighteenth-century philosopher,” Gloom Glimmer replied. “It’s not the most popular name ever, but it’s pretty common in the German states, as well as other parts of continental Europe, though usually in a different spel- ah, but this isn’t important at all.” She popped another one of her pills.

Basil took note of that, if only because he’d finished analysis of the one he’d filched a while ago, and knew just what they did. Or didn’t do. I wonder whether I should tell her… but then again, I doubt Lady Light of all people would be lying to her daughter out of malicious reasons.

“Well, he hinted that he was, at least, old enough to know Weisswald, even though he looked like an early twenties sex god,” Dalia said casually.

“Yeah, that makes him even more trustworthy than just the fact that he’s in this place,” Bakeneko threw in with a sneer.

“I know, I didn’t trust him, either, but…” She paused, apparently searching for the right way to phrase things. “Everything he told me has been true so far, and… he said he wants us to find Dusu.”

“Did he say why he’d want that? It sounds mightily suspicious,” Polymnia spoke as she jogged along.

Dalia nodded, without turning around. “Yeah, he said he thought she wasn’t really worth the effort to support anymore, and this is some kinda last test for her to prove she’s worth being around, otherwise she might as well get whatever she deserves.”

“Now that’s just gotta be bo-” Bakeneko began to say.

“That makes sense,” Gloom Glimmer interrupted her, speaking quietly. “The Gefährten have done this before, like that mess in Chicago a while ago. That was them putting the former Ascendant to the test.”

“Wait, the Ascendant is a member of these madmen!?” Tartsche and Spellgun asked in concert, sounding shocked. Everyone else was staring at Gloom Glimmer as well, at the same time.

“Yes, I… heard about it from Dad. The Ascendant is a legacy that’s belonged to the Gefährten since the beginning, really. But the former holder wasn’t living up to his duties – making more people have origins and manifest – so they gave him one last chance to prove he was worthy of the name. Now that he’s failed, there’s probably an all new Ascendant, somewhere around here,” she explained.

They took a right turn down another hallway, finally leaving the waxen section behind. Not that cold steel was any more comfortable or anything, just more… normal.

“So this is a reasonable course of action for these people?” Basil asked, wanting to make sure.

“As far as I know, yes,” Gloom Glimmer replied firmly. “I’m not an expert on them, obviously, but it fits.” She fell quiet for a moment. “Say, where’d you meet this guy? He must be pretty high up in the hierarchy here, to make a decision like that.”

Dalia gestured up towards the roof and ahead. “On the top of that huge-ass tower in the middle of this fucking place. Some kind of meditation chamber, it was.”

Basil, Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia traded glances; he could tell they realised what that meant.

“What did you just think?” Hecate asked, looking back at the three of them over her shoulder, running ahead with Dalia. “You three were trading very knowing looks there.”

“Gloom Glimmer used a danger sense earlier, when she found Polymnia and me,” Basil explained. “Among other things, it told her that there was a massive threat at the top of that tower, someone more dangerous than even the Dark.”

That caused a few moments of silence.

“Oh,” Dalia said, almost gasping. “Fits, I guess… he was really extraordinarily scary, as nice as he was…”

“What can you tell us about him?” Basil pressed the issue, as he reconsidered just how much he could afford to trust her right now – if this was someone more dangerous than the Dark, so likely more powerful than the Dark and someone who was also old enough to have known Weisswald, then it stood to reason that he might be powerful or skillful (or both) enough to evade detection by Gloom Glimmer, as powerful as she might be.

“He… he was really way, way pretty, like,” she began to reply, her speech a little stuttering. “Like, the prettiest guy I’ve ever seen, ever,” she continued, speeding up. “He didn’t use any obvious power or anything, not that I noticed.”

They reached a small train station that was, like most of the complex so far, completely abandoned, both train tracks empty.

Slowing down, then stopping near the edge, they gathered around Dalia, though they kept a little distance, so as not to crowd her; only Hecate remained right next to her, still holding onto her hand, squeezing it in support.

“He just… well, he just talked to me. But… he knew a lot. WAY too much,” she whispered, looking down at her feet. “He knew, he knew about my equipment… he knew how my power worked better than I do… he knew my name.” She shuddered, as several people around her gasped, and Hecate stepped even closer, letting go of Dalia’s hand to wrap her arm around her waist instead, pulling her into a hug.

“Oh Tyche, I… I’m so sorry,” she whispered, putting her other arm around her, as well.

Dalia turned fully towards her and embraced her in turn, hiding her face against the side of Hecate’s hood.

Basil was pretty sure she was crying.

He… he wasn’t sure how to describe how he felt. Wrath was too soft a word to describe it.

Worse yet…

If he could find out hers, does he know that of the others here? Or would he only find out if we came too close, if he found out via his power?

He looked around at the others, seeing various degrees of shock and outrage on their faces… and no small amount of fear.

Gloom Glimmer was hard to read, her face and body almost entirely hidden, but her mouth was set in a tight line. She had no reason to be worried herself – her identity was public anyway, and anyone who tried to go after her family rather than her deserved what they got, but she seemed angry nonetheless.

Polymnia, Tartsche, Spellgun and Bakeneko looked fearful. Each of them had a secret identity, and (likely) family to care about, even if Aimihime, at least, didn’t like her father all that much.

It was impossible to read Osore and Basil frankly didn’t know a thing about the boy other than that he was ethnically Japanese. He really should have asked Aimihime more about her boyfriend, what kind of friend failed to even think of that…

He couldn’t see Hecate’s face right then, but he knew her well enough to know that she must be terrified, seeing how tight she was with her (very expansive) family.

Basil himself… well, if there was a villain out there – mayhaps a really powerful telepath? – whom could find out secret identities easily, or whom had an organisation with the resources to do so, even for obscure, young heroes like Dalia, then that was a problem, but not so much for himself. His only family was Amy, and she certainly didn’t need any protection from enemies who’d be interested in someone of his level.

Still, I need to talk to Amy about this… assuming she doesn’t kill me after this stunt.

Just then, the train arrived. A quick look at the driver’s cabin as it passed showed that it was automated, and the doors opened smoothly.

They entered, together, Dalia disentangling herself from Hecate to do so.

Inside, the train car was… surprisingly normal. Simple, lightly padded seats with red cotton covers. Everyone sat down, with nothing better to do, except for Basil, who leaned against the window right next to the seat that Dalia and Hecate sat down on together, putting Dalia between himself and the Greek witch; Gloom Glimmer didn’t so much sit as move into a lotus position in mid-air, lowering herself until she was level with the seat that Polymnia sat on, since the latter’s armour took up a little too much space to make for comfortable sharing of the seat.

The others also paired up – Bakeneko and Osore, and Tartsche and Spellgun, the four of them facing him and his team, while Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia sat at a right angle to the rest, their seats facing the back of the train.

“Is that why you are not putting your mask on?” Basil asked in a soft voice, looking down at Dalia as he folded his arms in front of his chest.

“Oh, that?” She looked up with a surprised expression on her tired face, fresh tear tracks visible on her cheeks, through her mascara. “I completely forgot about this, sorry…” She pulled a tissue paper out of a pocket of her leather jacket, spitting on it a few times before she wiped the mascara off her face, then she pulled her mask back on. “I guess, yeah, I didn’t see the point, so I forgot about it,” she said, her voice now slightly muffled by the mask.

Basil relaxed, just a little bit – he hadn’t even noticed, but he was glad she had the added protection against strikes or shots to her head, even with the opening for her red hair in the back, he’d been more tense than he would otherwise have been while she’d been so exposed.

“What else can you tell us about this Immanuel? Did he give you any hints as to what his power is, or his true designs?” And how much did he really know about your power? Basil wasn’t sure he wanted to draw too much attention to that, not with the junior heroes around. Anything he said might move up the ladder, in time, and a probability manipulator would be a prime target for recruitment, maybe even more so than himself.

“As I said, he was… nice,” she spoke, her head lowered and her hand holding tightly onto Hecate’s. “Even while he… spoke about some… troubling things… private things.” She looked up at the junior heroes. “I’m sorry, you’re all great and all, but…”

Tartsche raised a hand, looking surprisingly calm in spite of the situation. “We understand. You don’t have to tell us about that. Just tell us any salient information you may have on him.”

“Um… there’s one thing that stuck out. He seemed to have some kind of… well, when I asked him where you guys all were, he immediately knew, and could point it out to me,” she replied quietly. “Like, knew it down to which level of the tower you were in, or that B-Six here and the Popprincess broke out with some anti-EMP stuff. But he said it was ‘a pain’ to keep track of you.” She looked at Gloom Glimmer.

They all looked at her, and Basil, at least, felt very curious about what that could mean.

“That could mean he’s a pretercognitive,” Gloom Glimmer explained calmly. “I know that some aspect of my power messes with them, though I don’t know what, exactly. I can’t do it deliberately, at least.”

“Preter-what?” Aimi and Dalia both asked at the same time, and with nearly the same voice.

“Pretercognitives are particular sub-category of Espers…” Basil began to answer…

“What did I tell you about Exposition, Brennus!?” Hecate snapped, pointing an accusatory finger at him.

Oh, come on… “Two sentences or less…” he grumbled, remembering one of her many, many lectures.

“And you remember the penalty for breaking that rule?” she pressed on.

No more free food at your family restaurants, he thought as he nodded. “Yeah.”

She nodded. “Good. Continue.”

He grumbled something under his breath about people who were ungrateful about getting detailed information and continued, trying to ignore the amused looks everyone else was giving him.

“Pretercognitives are a sub-category of Espers, specifically Post-, Peri- and Precognitives; that is to say, people who view, in some manner, the past, present or future. They are the rarest form of Espers and some of the most powerful and interesting powers out there, particularly the various forms of Precognition, belong to that class,” he said, stopping before he could actually recount the sum of his knowledge about the subject – and he’d researched it extensively, for various reasons.

Gloom Glimmer nodded. “Also, they’re known for having strange interactions and suffering interference from some kinds of powers, of which mine appears to be one. Sometimes, they work on me just fine and sometimes… not.”

“Alright, so we can reasonably assume that he has some form of Pretercognition, though he may also simply have been patched into their computer and surveillance systems – there ought to be more security around here than we have noticed so far,” Basil followed. “Anything else?” He asked, after the others nodded.

Dalia shook her head. “Not really. I mean, he might have been a telepath, to figure out so much about me, but… he also knew stuff I didn’t know about, so… I dunno.”

“Where all the things he knew that you didn’t know just about your power? Because if so, he might have some kind of power analysis ability,” Hecate proposed.

Her friend shook her head, though. “No, he knew more than that.”

They looked at each other, Basil, Hecate and Dalia, before falling quiet.

That’s it then. I don’t have the foggiest idea what kind of power he might have, beyond it being some form of Pretercognition, which might mean anything, Basil thought to himself.

“Uh, this is all fun and all,” Spellgun spoke up, making everyone look up at him. “But we’re kind of ignoring the fact that, whatever his power is, it probably doesn’t matter if Gloomy is right and he’s just going to let us take on Dusu. We should maybe focus on that, first, then worry about him.”

“What if he, however, objects to us leaving after we’ve performed this little ‘test’ for his subordinate?” Basil countered, perhaps a little more sharply than he needed to.

He really was, rather extraordinarily so, angry, even if he had so far managed to keep it simmering beneath the surface.

“Then we deal with that later,” Spellgun stood his ground, setting his jaw. “Let’s focus on our immediate problems, and worry about the rest if and when we get to it.” He looked around at everyone in turn, as if challenging them to disagree, but no one spoke up.

He does have a point, after all, Basil thought. “So be it then,” he agreed, finally. “Our next issue, then…”

“Excuse me,” Polymnia spoke up, raising a hand as if she was in school. “I do actually have something huge to talk about!”

They all looked at her, but she was looking just at Basil… or rather, at his left gauntlet.

Ah, right, I forgot that this would happen…

“Brennus, you have a force-field projector!” she spoke intently, her vocaliser sounding far too human. “That’s a huge thing! When did you come up with it, when did you find the time to build it? What else can it do, other than that shield? And do you think you can make more? And what is it with that thing attached to your thigh?” She finished by pointing at the ovoid that was magnetically attached to his thigh armour.

Everyone’s attention was on him, now, ranging from curiosity to concern to… well, he wasn’t sure what Hecate was thinking, exactly, but she seemed amused.

“My gauntlet’s a force-field projector, yes. I came up with it after we worked on the Arc Caster… well, it’d be more accurate to say that working on the Arc Caster allowed me to finally finish some fragmentary ideas I have had for a while now. I cannibalised some other projects of mine and assembled this prototype.” Polymnia looked like she wanted to say something, but he pressed on, turning to the other new invention he’d brought along. “As for th-“

He was interrupted, suddenly, when the lights went out, from one moment to the next, followed by red emergency lighting turning on.

Everyone who was seated jumped up, reading powers and weapons, but the train kept driving, though slowing down.

“What happened!?” Tartsche asked, his voice firm. “Gloom Glimmer, do you see anything?”

“No! I was looking out for anything dangerous or such, but I didn’t see anything coming!” Gloom Glimmer replied as she floated up by a few inches, her cape billowing open. Her hands were clenched into fists. “But we definitely just… enterd the territory of some kind of power. A dimensional shift? Yeah, I think that’s it – we’re in some kind of pocket dimension.”

The train slowed further, then stopped, and the doors opened.

Basil traded glances with Hecate, before he turned around to look at Gloom Glimmer. “Can you get us out of here? Straight out, with some kind of power?”

She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry… dimensional travel is a rare one, even for me,” she replied. “And this place… it is protected, somehow. People aren’t supposed to get out, even with that kind of power, I think.”

“So then… how can we get out?” Tartsche asked, holding an assault rifle in each hand. Basil was pretty sure they were loaded with lethal ammo, unlike the usual rubber bullets he fired back in New Lennston.

“I figure we have to find whoever made it and get them to let us out. I’m certain they’re in here with us, somehow,” she answered.

“No use in dallying then,” Basil said, loading a new shot into his rifle. “Let us go out and look for them.”

***

As soon as they stepped out of the train car onto a dark floor made of regular squares, Basil immediately noticed something new.

“I am glowing red,” he said flatly, looking down at his left hand, turning it so he could look from every direction. It – and the rest of his body – was surrounded by a halo of soft, almost imperceptible red light.

Looking around, he saw that all the others were surrounded by the exact same glow.

“Any idea what this means?” Spellgun asked, holding tightly onto his rifle.

“I… think it has something to do with… not being part of this reality?” Gloom Glimmer said. “Ugh… I think this is a contrivers work, it’s not usually this hard to figure a power out… but I think we should look out for anyone with a differently coloured glow about them.”

“I CAN’T ASK FOR A LINE MORE STRAIGHT THAN THAT!” a female voice boomed from all around them.

Basil raised his rifle, turning in a circle to survey their surroundings quickly.

They were in a huge, bare room, so large that the walls and ceiling couldn’t be seen – just a floor made of perfectly regular, glossy black squares, fitted so tightly they seemed almost like a solid piece, illuminated by a light that seemed to have no source, casting soft shadows on the ground.

The only break in the pattern were the train tracks and the car they had come in on, which seemed to come from and go to nowhere.

Then, in the distance with the train car in Basil’s back when he looked in that direction, a glow appeared, a glowing white point that extended into lines spreading over the sky.

“Uh, guys, I’m feeling some really, really, really powerful magic around here…” Hecate said in a hushed, almost awed voice.

“Oh shit,” came from several mouths all at once.

Basil stayed quiet, aiming in the direction of the light with his rifle, even as the lines formed mystical designs, pentacles, circles and other diagrams, several layers of them, interlocked and shifting.

Finally, a person appeared in the distance, walking closer.

He was tall, a man built like a bodybuilder’s ideal, muscular without being  ridiculous about it; he wore a silver bodysuit and a white cape, his curly blonde hair slicked back over his head, his face open, friendly and honest. The kind of face you could instantly trust in a crisis, who’d console even the most despondant, panicked innocent. His smile was all the same, only even more so.

He was surrounded by a soft blue glow.

Dalia was the first one to manage coherent words at the sight. “Guys… isn’t that… the Protector!?

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B13.7 Call of the Sleeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What?

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

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

And then the real fight started.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, I need something else!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And just like that, it was over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brennus walked up to them, followed by Hecate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘My’ goal, not ‘our’, Irene thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irene frowned, studying her closer.

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

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

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

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

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B13.6 Call of the Sleeper

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

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

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

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

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

“Below, huh?” Basil looked down thoughtfully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you hear anything useful?” Polymnia asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you alright?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basil hurried over immediately, kneeling down next to him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You got a problem with my parents?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then all hell broke loose.

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B013.3 Call of the Sleeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, which sister are you…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ohhhhh…

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was… it was…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you kindly,” he said softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And here we g-“

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

Irene’s eyes flew wide – “Wha-“

***

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

What the hell…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She certainly felt awed.

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

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B013.2 Call of the Sleeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone but Gloom Glimmer was now staring him in disbelief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Listen to the catgirl,” Tyche agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And just like that, he disappeared from sight.

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B012.7 Born At Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was still glad about every bit of added support.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love you, too. Be safe.

Look who’s talking.

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

“Huh?” he asked, momentarily confused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That… looks big,” Dalia commented lamely.

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

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

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

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

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B012.2 Born At Sleep

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<We really shouldn’t be laughing about this!> Melody complained during torrents of giggling and laughter. <This is so awful! And we’re awful for laughing about it!>

“Th-then let’s be awful!” Jared squeezed out between bouts of laughter, wiping tears from his eyes; with his beach-blonde hair in disarray, he looked like every girl’s dream prince having a joke, and Melody would never admit it out loud, but if he wasn’t such a jerk, she’d probably take him up on a date. “C’mon, let’s put on the next one!”

Irene seemed to agree with him, or at least her incessant giggling on the floor in front of the couch caused her to spasm and show a thumbs-up by accident.

Harry and Thomas, who were sitting on the side of the couch opposite from Jared, just leaned back, an arm around each other’s shoulders, and enjoyed the show on the huge television in the Junior Heroes’ common living room.

Osore – actually Takahama Goudo – and Aimihime – Aimi for short – were also there, sitting in between Melody and the two boys.

Everyone but Aimi (who was currently curled up on Osore’s lap in the form of a huge red-brown cat) was in casual clothes, sweatpants and shirts, fresh out of the showers after training and a shared lunch. Even Irene had participated, not that working out did her any good. Melody was pretty sure she just did it for the team bonding experience.

Of course, as it turned out, watching these stupid videos was an even better bonding experience. Jared had suggested them, and Irene had agreed wholeheartedly. Aimi did, too, and Goudo usually just went along with things, anyway (Melody had never seen him so much as vary his facial expression and his voice was even less expressive; she never knew how he felt about anything). She and the other two had just gone along, as well.

She had to admit, awful as they were, these ‘Darwin Awards’ were really quite funny – in a morbid, dark humour kind of way. And she’d never even heard of them before! They’d just finished watching the runner-up for last year’s award, and were now getting to the actual winner – Jared had promised that it’d blow them away.

The drumroll started while Irene pulled herself back up onto the couch, face red, and pulled her knees up to hug them, giggling in anticipation.

With the end of the drumroll, the clip began. The video was shaky, amateurish, and there were odd distortions to it; it showed a heap of rubble, mostly concrete and rebar, which shook in irregular intervals, as the light played odd tricks with the image, creating random slowdowns and ghost images.

“Oh no,” Irene whispered, suddenly subdued.

The image moved a bit, slowly, as if the cameraman was slowed down for some reason. Or just afraid, judging by how much it was shaking. As it moved, it became clear that the cameraman was on the upper floor of a building, and at least half the room he’d been in had caved in from whatever had created the mound of rubble it was looking at. There was another impact and a muffled scream from behind the camera as the image shook again, but then it settled down.

<What’s wrong?> Melody asked her, taking a quick look before turning back to the video. Irene was hugging her knees close to her chest and looked miserable all of a sudden.

“I know this one,” she replied, her eyes glued to the screen, even though she clearly didn’t want to see it.

The viewpoint shifted, moving up the heap of rubble it had been pointed at. Bodies came into sight, four men in five times as many pieces, their bodies cut apart cleanly and precisely, as if someone had used a line of silk to dismember them – and the silk had left behind a clingy, incandescent white on the wounds that was eating into their remains. Even in pieces, it was easy to make out that they’d been wearing costumes, and so had probably been heroes – or at least villains who died heroically.

It moved further up, and strands of pure white light came into sight, moving slightly like hair under water, dissolving whatever they came into contact with.

The image moved up, and up, and up, over almost twenty meters of glowing white hair, until it focused on a nude form whose modesty – what little there was – was only preserved by her own hair, which partially concealed her impossibly perfect shape. Her eyes were glowing the same colour as her hair, wide open and featureless, her jaw slack with more light spilling forth from in between her partially open lips. Her arms, tipped by long nails, which glowed the exact same colour as her hair, hung loosely down her side as she slowly, almost ponderously, lowered herself until she was floating barely half a foot over the top of the rubble, the remains of the heroes who’d fought her destroyed by her hair. The random distortions to the recording only became worse as it focused on her.

A caption appeared as the cameraman stopped moving.

Desolation-in-Light; Galveston, Texas, March 3rd, 2011

“Fuck me,” she heard Thomas whisper, his soft voice surprisingly sharp. “Don’t tell me these assholes are gonna show some poor sob that got ‘imself killed tryin’ to fight that thing!” Irene flinched, but didn’t comment.

Jared, however, did. “Don’t worry,” he said “This one deserves it. Wait and see.”

They watched as DiL’s body was briefly surrounded by a multi-coloured haze, before she was surrounded by an aura that glowed somehow warmer than her normal light, the colour more yellow than white. It focused into a lens about the size of her torso, extending a beam – not like an energy blast or anything like that, no, more like a spotlight – out in front of her and into the distance. Then the ‘spotlight’ began to move, even though DiL herself didn’t move an inch, rotating around her as if she was a lighthouse atop a mountain of rubble, angling up and down, always with her as the centre as it moved. Once, it passed over the rubble beneath, touching on parts of it not covered by her hair, and the concrete and metal and wood began to distort, forming bubbles as if the light was hot enough to boil it in moments, even though it didn’t seem to heat up at all – nothing caught fire, and the wood should have. The deadly spotlight passed on.

And then they saw someone enter into the periphery of the recorded image – and so did the cameraman, who focused the image on the new arrival.

It was a guy. Probably in his early twenties, he looked like what Melody imagined when she heard the term ‘doughy guy’. Not fat, or anything, but pale, really pale, with a wild shock of hair on his head and a weird thin beard and moustache. He was wearing an ill-fitting suit and tie, black and red respectively, with a white shirt, and he was running for all he was worth – towards DiL.

Melody looked at Irene again, who seemed even more miserable now – though Melody didn’t know if it was out of sympathy for the man who was clearly about to die, or because of Thomas’ phrasing. She reached out, gently squeezing her friend’s shoulder and Irene responded by tilting her head to rest her cheek on the back of her hand.

The video continued as the man ran around the boiled pieces of rubble – judging by his facial expression, it didn’t smell good, either – dodging strands of lethal hair in a way that was both surprisingly nimble and embarrassingly clumsy at the same time. One time, he actually rolled under the passing spotlight, barely evading having his face boiled off.

The cameraman seemed to have been as entranced by the guy’s actions as they all were, because he followed him on his way, the image mostly steady as the impacts which had shaken the earth had now stopped.

The doughy guy finally reached the top of the heap of rubble, standing on a spot that was untouched by DiL’s hair and the spotlight, and he…

Melody blinked, not sure if she believed what happened next. Fortunately, whoever had edited the video had found it hard to believe, as well, and so the video rewound and showed it again in a close up. She still had trouble believing it.

The doughy guy had dropped down on one knee, holding up a small black box he’d flipped open. A box with an engagement ring inside.

What?

Irene whimpered, and a quick look showed Melody that she’d finally averted her eyes, focusing instead on her own toes.

She herself, though, just had to see what came next, even if she felt sick to her stomach.

The glowing woman didn’t appear to notice the doughy guy just three or four feet from her, even when he started to talk.

He kept on talking until the spotlight moved towards him – he tried to dodge it, but accidentally stepped into some strands of her hair, losing his foot in the process. And then the spotlight passed over him.

With a scream, he tumbled back, his face literally melting off his skull, bubbles forming and bursting so violently they revealed bare bone beneath. His suit cracked, bubbled and fell apart, all at once, and the body beneath was no better off – turning red, then cracked, then bubbling, then bursting off his bones.

He screamed more and tumbled into her hair – and that was that. The video ended with a shot of the Darwin Awards’ logo (a yellow street-sign showing the march of progress, with the homo sapiens sapiens walking off a cliff) spinning.

Everyone save for Osore (who didn’t do laughing, it seemed), Melody and Irene was laughing – until the television blew out.

“Oi, what the fuck!?” Jared shouted.

Perhaps everyone had the same thought Melody did, because everyone turned to look at Irene, who was still curled up on the couch, her face hidden behind her knees and her hair.

<Irene?> she asked, worried, squeezing her friend’s shoulder again – then she flinched back when, for just a moment, a sensation of utter, complete horror gripped her heart – and not just her; she could hear everyone else gasp, their heartbeats quickening as it, too reached them. But then, it was gone as quickly as it had appeared.

Irene flickered and vanished from her seat, suddenly standing a few feet in front of the couch, with her back ramrod straight.

She flickered again, to the door out and back, as if she couldn’t decide whether to leave or not.

“The fuck’s wrong?” Jared asked. “Why’d you have to bust o-“

“I’ll fucking tell you what’s wrong!” Irene shouted, and the lights flickered as she whirled around, her long hair flying wildly – and just barely covering her left eye as she focused on Jared. Melody hoped only she’d seen that it had turned red-and-black, a sure sign that she was losing control again – and there was the almost imperceptible, even to her, sound of that weird song her power generated when it came to the forefront.

Irene didn’t seem to notice, or mind, because she thrust a finger at Jared, who flinched back from her. “This isn’t funny! Where do you get off laughing about what she does!?” She whirled around to look at Harry and Thomas, both of whom had gone pale. “And you!” she shouted, pointing at Thomas, who looked both confused and frightened. “She’s not a thing! You of all people should know better than to call her a thing!”

Her hand dropped, and she shivered for a moment, her other hand reaching across her torso to grip her forearm. Then she turned away and stomped towards the exit.

Melody was just about to hurry after her when she whirled about and looked at the lot of them, eyes wide – though fortunately back to their usual colour. “And fucking stop fucking calling her DiL! She’s got a name, so fucking use that!” she screamed at them before she simply flickered and reappeared in the same spot, only facing away from them – and she stomped towards the door.

She really ought to run after Irene, to catch up to her and console her – but all she could think of at that moment was She has a name? She’d never even considered that Desolation-in-Light, the White Calamity, would have anything like a normal name – yet that was what Irene meant, surely. I wonder what she’s called? And who gave her the name? Probably Miss Whitaker, right?

Irene almost reached the door when it opened, and three men stepped inside.

Melody blinked as she recognised Mister Widard, Mister Patrid and Director Ryan walking in side-by-side. All three were wearing suits, though their styles were quite telling of the differences between the three men commonly considered to be the leaders of New Lennston’s United Heroes Division, now that Rounds was stationed on the Iron Wall (Amazon was a great field leader, but as far as Melody could tell, she had little to nothing to do with the political side of business).

Patrid was, as always, immaculately dressed in pure white – white silk suit, white silk shirt, white silk tie, white leather shoes. The only thing that wasn’t white about him were his bright blue eyes, his healthy skin and his bright blonde, slicked-back hair and neatly trimmed goatee. His perfect white teeth showed thanks to a boyish grin he had as he walked into the room. He looked ready to go to a high-class party or dance, visit the White House for dinner or make a deal for one’s soul. Possibly all three at once. And he still had that ever-present aura that only Melody seemed to pick up on, that presence which made her uneasy, slightly nauseated. She couldn’t bring herself to like the man, even though he’d been nothing but courteous and even supportive so far – it was hard enough to even tolerate his presence.

Mister Widard was wearing a much cheaper grey suit with a simple white shirt and a striped blue tie. As always, he was slightly dishevelled, his black-brown hair a mess accentuated by his five-o’clock shadow, his eyes made huge by a really unflattering pair of glasses he was balancing on his nose, and he even now, he had a communicator in his left ear, with a directed microphone extended halfway to his mouth (one of Melody’s patents, actually). Much unlike Patrid, Jason was just plain endearing. He was like a chronically overworked but nice and warm favourite uncle. She felt awful about all the trouble he’d been in lately, since she’d helped capture his niece the teenage supervillain, and she wished she could just walk up to him and give him a hug; but she didn’t feel that she knew him well enough for that.

Director Ryan made a contrast to both of the other men. He was heavily built, both muscular and fat at the same time, his body at least three times as wide as Widard’s stick-thin physique; and he was short, too, not exceptionally so, but short enough to look like a dwarf next to Patrid, who was at least six foot ten, if not eleven. His hair was red, which made them a brunette-blonde-redhead trio, cropped short and his round face was as smooth as Melody’s own. His suit was brown and functional, not as immaculate as Patrid’s but far more well-kept than Widard’s. Melody used to respect him, but her opinion of the man had taken a nosedive since he’d tried to get her to stay away from Irene – even if she understood that he thought he was doing the right thing.

There was one thing that was out of place between the three men – Melody had never seen them share a mood. Usually, Patrid was chipper, in good spirits, with a wide grin plastered on his too-perfect face; Widard always looked slightly confused and slightly exhausted, not to mention wary; and Director Ryan tended to have a very stern, to-the-point mood and facial expression.

Not today. All three looked quite pleased with themselves – though only for a moment, once they saw Irene walk up and past them.

Widard and Ryan turned to look at her, and Melody lost sight of their facial expressions, but Patrid surprised her – he made a dance-like step, almost a pirouette, and put a hand on Irene’s shoulder – and she stopped and turned, looking at him.

The other two men continued on their way towards the junior heroes, while Patrid talked quietly to Irene.

Melody missed the first few words they spoke, before she focused her hearing on them.

“… can tell me if anything’s wrong,” Patrid said softly. “I’m here for you.”

“I know, and I’m grateful, but this…” Irene whispered back. “It’s nothing. Just… my own issues.”

“You’re a horrible liar, lil’ one,” he replied affectionately. “I promised your mom that I’d keep an eye out for you – so don’t shut me out.”

Miss Whitaker asked him to watch out for Irene? she thought, confused, while her teammates stood up and tried to look more prim and proper than they currently were to their bosses. I wonder how they know each other?

Irene sighed, but didn’t reply.

“Now, I need you to calm yourself down and join us,” he continued whispering while Director Ryan and Widard took up position in front of the big screen (the director looked none too pleased at it being broken), “there’s some important stuff to talk about.”

After a few moments, Irene nodded and pulled her pill bottle out, downing a small handful of pills. She relaxed almost immediately, and the nearly subsonic siren’s song vanished, too. Melody felt herself relax, glad that her friend wouldn’t have an episode that’d just scare the rest of the team away from her any more.

Within moments, Irene was sitting next to her again – closer now, close enough for Melody to put an arm around her shoulders and hug her – and even Aimi had shifted into a form more appropriate for conversation, though the lack of clothes to wear forced her to improvise. In this case, she had shifted into a humanoid cat – not a cat girl, no, she was quite clearly a cat – with the same colour and pattern to her fur as before, now sitting next to Osore, who’d been the only one not to react to the entire scene up until now.

Patrid joined the other two adults, and the director spoke up.

“Good afternoon, everyone,” he said, sounding almost as pleased as he looked. “I have good news!”

Hopefully good enough to make up for this scene, Melody thought glumly as she felt Irene press a little closer to her.

“In light of all the successes we’ve had lately,” the director continued, “Our very successful fight against the Rabid Eight and the Spiteborn, as well as the fight against Hastur and her monsters…”

Melody heard Aimi’s heart skip a beat at the mention of Hastur and the people she’d affected – she didn’t know the full story, but she’d found out that Aimi had apparently gone through her own little horror show during that dark episode of New Lennston’s history.

“Well, we have reason to celebrate, especially since the Black Panthers and the Morning’s Children both have been routed entirely, save for one or two stragglers,” Ryan continued, as Melody thought over the implications of that.

While organised crime was always a problem, and supervillains working for organised crime even more so, they tended to be more… subdued. More interested in heists and subtle actions; more than three fourth of all public cape-and-cowl battles took place between heroes and gang members, or between rival gangs; with two of the oldest and most powerful gangs gone, New Lennston was now at least safer than New York or Chicago, and worlds ahead of the West Coast Triad.

“And so, the mayor has decided to hold a celebration with you children as the guests of honour!” he finished.

For a moment, no one said anything; then, Goudo had to ruin it.

“Shouldn’t Brennus and his girls be the guests of honour?” he asked in that infuriatingly monotone voice of his. “They contributed more to all of that than anyone else here, not counting the Rabid Eight thing.”

Patrid covered his mouth with his hand, though everyone could tell he was laughing behind it; Widard seemed to miss the comment, as he was busy doing something on a tablet he’d pulled out of his jacket’s pocket; but the director’s face fell immediately.

“We’re not going to acknowledge teenage delinquents,” he said firmly, throwing Goudo a warning look – after all, the boy had been a delinquent himself (he’d never really done anything to qualify as a villain, really). “Even if their contributions were… impressive, they are criminals.”

The meaning was clear – the spotlight had to be on the legal heroes – though Melody really didn’t agree with that. They’d risked their lives as much as any of them had, and Brennus had been instrumental in taking down both the Spiteborn and Hastur; Hecate had been no slouch, either. The only one who hadn’t really done much was Tyche, whose role in that group she still couldn’t guess at.

Patrid stepped forward and pulled the conversation back on track. “Anyway, aside from such concerns, here’s the important parts: there’ll be a gala on Monday – I know, it’s rather short notice, but at least you’ll be excused from school for that day and the next! Everyone will have to get a dress or a suit if you don’t have one already, and you should all practice some dancing… speaking of which, who here has any experience dancing? Other than Irene, of course.”

Melody gave Irene a curious look – he’d asked about experience, not skill, which her power could readily supply. Irene had never told her about dancing before, though.

Irene smiled at her. My parents are rather old-school, she spoke into her mind. Of course I had to learn how to dance properly.

Melody giggled involuntarily, though no one seemed to notice as the team was rapidly split down the middle. Melody, Irene and (surprisingly) Aimi knew how to dance – though Melody felt that she was probably quite rusty by now, as she hadn’t practiced since she’d manifested. Harry, Thomas, Goudo and Jared all had little to no idea about dancing, though.

“Ah well,” Patrid said with his usual grin. “Looks like a little practice is in order, then! After all, it’d be horrible for our image if our juniors couldn’t even dance on the celebration of their own heroic deeds!” He clapped his hands. “In the interest of getting you ready, I guess I’ll have to train the lot of you personally, over the next few days. That includes you three, just in case,” he added with a wink at the three people who actually knew dancing.

Everyone but Irene and the other two adults groaned, but before anyone could say anything more, Widard suddenly looked up from his tablet.

“Someone turn on the television,” he said. “HeroView channel, quickly!”

Everyone looked confused for a moment, but the junior heroes were so used to following his commands that they moved nonetheless – Aimi was the first to get the remote and she pushed the on-button.

Nothing happened.

“Ah, bugger,” Jared said, looking sullenly at Irene. “Our big girl here blew out the tellie throwing a hissy fit.”

I will slap you once the adults are out of the way, Melody thought resolutely, though fortunately, Irene didn’t lash out at him, nor did she seem to react to his jab at all.

Widard sighed and took the remote from Aimi. Pressing a few buttons, the wall-mounted screen flipped over, revealing a second screen behind it.

“We have a replacement television?” Harry asked in surprise, the first time he’d talked today, as far as Melody remembered – he’d been mostly content to let Thomas speak.

“Of course,” Widard said. “With all the powers that tend to gather in here, it’s not too rare that something breaks; so we have replacements for most major pieces of equipment. That’s not an excuse for you to go around breaking them, though!” he quickly added.

They all nodded, while he turned on the television and switched onto HeroView, the major channel on metahuman matters in the Western Hemisphere.

It was showing an abandoned apartment building in a rather dirty neighbourhood – the captions identified it as Paris, France, and it appeared to be live, too.

“What’s going on, Jason?” Patrid asked as he sauntered over to sit on the couch next to Irene, who shifted around to put her legs across his thighs, leaning even more fully into Melody at the same time.

“The Blackguard has been tracked down, it seems,” Jason said as he and Ryan joined the others on the couch. “Looks like there’s a whole bunch of aspiring new Chevaliers getting ready to wrest the cross and fleur-de-lys from him.”

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