14.a.2 Out of Time

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A slightly shorter time ago

The safe spaces between beams were shrinking. He’d just barely dodged the last wave… how long had it been?

It only took seconds between waves. Twenty, thirty of them? He wasn’t sure whether they were coming faster, or whether it was just his mind playing tricks on him.

He felt like he’d run for an eternity, but it couldn’t have been more than three, four minutes. Wasn’t it?

Kizzy felt as heavy as a stone statue, her arms were clamped around his throat so tightly, she’d be choking the life out of him if she wasn’t a light-weight, the lowest percentile for height and weight in her age group.

She was still trying to sing, but it was a stuttering, breathless singing, the words melding together, creating more of a prolonged wail than an actual song.

He kept running, his eyes wide open; he didn’t dare blink, didn’t dare lose sight of the beams for even a fraction of a second. His eyes burned so badly he could imagine them being on fire, but he forced himself to keep going.

He’d lost his glasses at some point, but he didn’t even remember when or how. Had Kizzy knocked them off by accident?

The edge of the Desolation was within sight. A shimmering, rainbow-hued distortion in the air, twitching back and forth upon the street as its mistress moved about, but she seemed to mostly remain in the same place, currently, keeping it stable.

He could see the beams terminate where they intersected the field. A promise of safety, once they got past it. A chance of survival, mitigated only by the fact that the fastest possible way to the edge was through a thicket of beams.

No time to waste.

Pulling on every single reserve he could muster, every drag of strength, he kicked off the ground, shooting forward.

Kizzy squeaked, clinging all the tighter.

Just five long steps away.

Every time one of his feet came down, it was like a jolt went up his numb, tired body.

Four steps.

There was an explosion, somewhere behind them. A mile away? Two?

Three steps.

Were the beams growing brighter?

Two steps.

A flash of non-light from behind, like light inverted into its opposite, yet it wasn’t darkness. He couldn’t make sense of it.

Just one more step.

The beams were growing brighter, starting to solidify just as he reached the threshold…

Plunging through the twisting colors of the Desolation Field’s boundary was one of the oddest sensations he’d ever felt, a sensation so alien he had no words for it, nothing he could compare it to, even remotely. A strange buzz, a sound that was felt and a feeling that was heard, yet nothing like either.

His feet hit the concrete again, his heart beating in his chest like a jackhammer, driven by elation and relief.

Finally, he dared look over his shoulder, past the dazed-looking Kizzy to the Desolation’s boundary, stopping in place to catch his breath.

The lights shimmered there, innocently, the beams of light within just barely visible in their current, faint state, terminating entirely at the boundary.

He released his breath, and only barely managed to not collapse on the spot. His every muscle was screaming at him, demanding that he give them a break. Cashing in the checks he owed them, as his Dad would say.

Dad. Mom. Are you… I hope you’re…

The Desolation Field shuddered, and moved as its mistress did. Straight towards the two of them, just as the beams within turned solid again, slicing through everything they moved through.

His heart very nearly lept out of his ribcage as he kicked into high gear, turning…

Too slow…

Kizzy’s grip on him tightened, crying out…

I’m too slow.

He raised a foot.

There’s not enough time!

He could feel the buzz as the Desolation approached, bringing death for him and his sister.

A star blossomed into existence, before him, like a geometric glow unfolding from a single point, from nothing to the size of his chest, a shape that seemed to move into and out of itself, like many cubes growing, shrinking, stretching in a weird pattern, visible not in and of themselves but in how the light broke and reflected around them. Where the rest of the world was still fuzzy, due to his lack of glasses or contacts, these strange shapes were sharper than reality ever got to be.

I need more time! he shouted, mentally, desperately trying to take another step, but he was frozen in place, as if the air itself had turned hard.

No. Not hard. Slow.

He couldn’t even feel his heart beat. Every twitch of his eyes took seemingly forever to happen.

The not-star moved closer, though its motion was less… that and more a growth and decay, unfolding towards him and folding, collapsing into itself in the back.

Please… give me… let me get away! Let me take her away!

The star grew into him, and the world around him lost focus even more than it already had, growing blurry, far worse than it was just from him missing his glasses.

Heat bloomed within him, running through his veins like liquid fire, fire that did not burn him; but as soon as it had permeated him completely, and he felt like he ought to be glowing, the liquid flames turned to ice, and that burned abominably.

Let me run away!

Jared tried to scream, but he couldn’t – even that was slowed, in this strange place in time.

The buzz was still behind him, making his hairs stand on edge, and though it, too, was slowed, it was still faster than he – he could feel it get closer with every heartbeat of his that passed.

With his next heartbeat, the cold turned to heat again. Then cold again, yet another heartbeat later.

Around him, the world became as sharp as it ever got for him, but only for a few feet out. Ten feet, maybe. Beyond that bubble of sharpness, the world was as blurry as it ever got for him.

The buzz came closer still.

He had to run. He had to be able to run! It was what he was best at!

Time had slowed to a crawl just as he’d raised his right leg, ready to bring the foot down on the concrete and start running.

At the very least, he wanted to complete that one step.

He focused on his right leg, letting the world around him shrink to just that one limb.

He willed it to move. To lower itself to the ground. To gain traction, so he could propel himself forward.

If he failed at everything else, he at least wanted to complete this one step.

Slowly, so very slowly, the buzz of certain death on his back, with Kizzy’s desperate grip like a noose around his neck, his foot moved… down… and down…

Jared flashed through soothing heat and burning cold more times than he was able to count, as focused as he was on bringing that damn foot down!!

After what felt like an eternity, the passage of time only really marked by the alternating sensations of pure heat and cold in his veins, his foot did come down  upon the concrete.

Nothing happened, other than that his body began, ever so slowly, too slowly, to lurch forward.

I took the fucking step! he shouted in the confines of his mind.

It didn’t help, really, other than to give him some momentary satisfaction. He was still all but frozen in place, his sister still unprotected upon his back, and certain Death just moments away from reaching them.

What’d coach always say? ‘A runner doesn’t care about the first step, or the last. Just about the next one’.

He would’ve smiled, if he wasn’t still in the process of screaming from earlier. That he’d think of that old coot now…

Nothing about it. Take the next step!

Slowly, so very slowly, he raised his foot, and brought it down again.

A second step.

In front of him, in the only direction he could really look, the world outside of his bubble seemed to go in and out of focus, and each time it did, it showed him something new, a different scene.

He saw himself mid-run, leaning forward, his form blurring with speed, wearing a silver-and-white outfit, something between a heroic spandex suit and a racing suit. He was running past panicked-looking civilians running from some kind of danger he was intent on running to.

He saw Kizzy in a living room, sitting on the floor in front of the television in pajamas, looking so lost and fearful he just wanted to reach out and hug her, while she watched a news broadcast showing images of heroes fighting some kind of monster, something huge, blue-grey skin shaped like a gigantic teardrop, with overly long, stubby-fingered arms and no face that he could see.

He saw himself sitting on a couch, together with other teens, all in various costumes, laughing together at something on a television which wasn’t in his field of view – all except for one, a drop-dead gorgeous girl with a strangely familiar face, sitting next to a teen girl with huge breasts, while staring straight ahead with a dark expression, her legs pulled up and hugged to her chest.

The visions continued, with every millimeter that he managed to make his leg move, another came and went.

Another showed him a pair of girls in paired costumes, wearing skin-tight, thin bodysuits, as well as capes and hoods – one in dark green, with a jewel-tipped wooden staff and various other knick-knacks carried on her, the other in bright red, with a more mundane-looking metallic staff, the telescoping kind.

Yet another vision, with those two girls, only they were joined by a guy in black armor, with a white robe and hood over it. The girls’ costumes were also different – the red-haired one wore only a skintight suit made of overlapping scales of some kind of weird material that didn’t look like either metal nor rubber; it was black, except for where it was transparent, showing off the body underneath while still providing protection. Her mask covered her head, except in the back, where a mass of bright red hair spilled out in lazy curls. She was holding a huge rifle now, rather than a staff. The girl in green had a similar outfit as the last time, only it was even more elaborate, and there were more knick-knacks about her person.

He mostly saw the same group of teens, sometimes all together, sometimes individually. There were pairs that showed up more often than not together. The blue-eyed, black-haired girl with the familiar face and a girl with long hair of shifting colors and those huge breasts. Two boys, one in a knightly costume with stylized rifles strapped to his back, the other an effeminate guy with an awesome steam-punk monstrosity of a rifle.

There were others, but most passed by so quickly he could not see them, or only barely so. A girl in crystal armor, standing alone. Sometimes standing with the team. Sometimes with another girl, one in golden armor.

His foot came down on the ground. Another step taken.

Now the next one.

The world beyond the little bubble around him kept flowing from one vision to the next, growing less straightforward and more and more weird.

He saw a city of crystal spires, like spun glass on the scale of skyscrapers, each spire a single, solid block of shaped glass.

An ocean of faces, billions upon billions of them, so many that their collective whispers caused titanic storms to ravage the few remaining landmasses.

A world without life, barren rock covered in strange machinery which threaded into and through the crust of the planet, down to the very core, serving no purpose but to perpetuate itself.

A world without death, being ravaged and choked by maddened life.

A world without time, an entire civilisation, not unlike their own, frozen in a single, never-ending moment.

His other foot hit the ground. Yet another step.

Something snapped. Like chains stretched to the breaking point, the links shattering under the stress, he felt something release its hold on him.

RUN

His feet hit the concrete, and he ran. He ran.

The world beyond the bubble of clarity around him flew by, showing only a blur – and that wasn’t just because of the general blurriness to everything outside this bubble of his.

He was running far faster than he ever had before.

Kizzy gasped in wonder, as he raced out of Miami, away, away from the Desolation, away from their home, away from their friends, away from their parents…

He ran until his legs gave out, and he collapsed.

***

Getting closer now

Rounds landed near the rim of the crater, his resplendant armor damaged and dirtied, shored up in places by the strange crystals created by Bismuth’s power. Her ghost-copy-thing was still with him, as were like, half a dozen copies of the princess (and what the hell was up with that? He’d always been told Rounds could only make a single copy off of any one person!) and a few others.

One of them had carried Amazon with it, and now deposited her on the cracked ground. Her armor was still up, making her look like some kind of magical greek knight.

Funny, because she was about as Greek as he was Japanese. He wondered how Hecate felt about that – he was certain that she was actually Greek.

The accent, olive skin and the occasional Greek cussing kind of gave it away.

“Her? Really? Her?”

Amazon’s voice cut through his idle musings. Her stunned gaze was focused on the grisly (yet quite satisfying) sight below.

She’s the one to finally put DiL down!?” their temporary leader all but shrieked.

“I suppose good things can come from the strangest of…” Rounds began to reply, only to drift off.

A kind of presence, an aura, settled over them, emanating from…

Jared yelped as he turned around, jumping back closer to the other two heroes.

The Dark stood there, just a few feet away, head lowered slightly, looking down at the carnage.

His form was… odd. Before, it had been wispy, smoke-like. Looking like a stiff breeze could just blow him away.

Now, even as Jared watched, it seemed to slowly become more… solid. The thin, upward-drifting mist slowly bled into a dark, similarly upward-drifting liquid, while the king of supervillains looked at the remains of the monster.

Jared heard someone gulp dryly, behind him, but he couldn’t be sure whether it’d been Rounds, Amazon or both.

There was a palpable sense of sheer threat emanating from the Dark.

“Six copies of Irene,” the supervillain spoke, without looking up. “I assume that each of her comes with a different set of powers?”

“Yes, that, that is correct,” Rounds replied, speaking carefully. “A very… interesting power interaction. Though one that has proven most fortituous.”

The shadowy figure nodded. “Your power treats her as a different person after each change of powers. Yes, fortituous indeed.” He seemed to consider something, tilting his head to the side, though still focused on the blood and his dazed minion below. “Gwen and I would appreciate it if you could make sure Irene was busy elsewhere,” he said, quietly, his voice almost a whisper – if it was an entire choir whispering slightly out of tune with each other. “Don’t let her see this.”

There was a startled silence for a moment, but then Rounds seemed to recover. Jared couldn’t tell, really, he had trouble averting his eyes from the Dark, but their leader cleared his throat and said, “Yes, of course.”

He went silent, likely contacting Dispatch via his helmet’s radio.

Jared was quite busy just trying not to soil himself. Incredibly, the Dark’s aura only grew more intense, even though the fight was over.

Is it over? Does he think that she’s coming back? No, wait… is he going to attack us? I guess the DiL Truce is well and truly over now. But would he? I mean, he has no reason t- oh crap, is this because I’ve been a jerk to the princess?

He was just about to kick into his power, use the little time he’d stocked up to put some distance between the two of them, when the Dark raised his head.

“Ah.” The sense of dread and danger cut out, so suddenly, Jared very nearly collapsed onto his knees for the sheer physical relief of it. “Apologies. I shouldn’t get lost in thought like that.” All six of those unnerving, glowing red eyes focused on Jared, which was, really, even worse than whatever the fuck he’d been doing earlier.

“I-It’s really… really alright. I guess, uh, this must be… uh…” Fuck, just shut the fuck up you idiot! Were you really gonna imply the fucking Dark‘s being emotional?

Fortunately, the guy who could probably kill him with just a thought just looked away again, his weird… dark liquid coating surging with motion, twisting about his form, like muscles trapped underneath the skin, trying to break free off of the skeleton, causing his form to flicker and twist unnaturally, even as he just stood there.

Jared was incredibly curious, but after taking a second look, he saw faces within the shadows, distorted, screaming soundlessly.

Nope. Nopenopenopenope! Noooooope!

He turned away and ran off – without his power, conserving it for now – away from the scary man and the remains of his… whatever the hell DiL had been to him.

***

Yet again, a look at the past

The hero who came to tell them that their parents and grandfather were dead wasn’t from Miami. As it turned out, DiL had appeared right inside the Miami UH headquarters, and pretty much wiped it all out. Including all of the staff.

Even their parents’ handler – they’d shared one, who’d also happened to be their best man, and a honorary uncle to Jared and Kizzy – had died.

So instead, they got a pretty lady in her early thirties, wearing a costume but no mask, her hair black, except for some red highlights, and very short. Her costume was basically a red bodysuit with some reflective patterns of a lighter red color worked in, looking kind of like veins or circuitry that emphasized her curves, and bands of reflective metal, like long, flat strips wrapped around her upper arms, forearms and calves, encircling her tiny waist like a metal corset, then extending off of those to trail after her, occasionally moving and snapping around, as if they had a will of their own.

Her eyes were red, just like her costume, as were her lips, her cape was Bandersnatch, and she’d been merciful enough not to make any jokes or tell him to call her by some stupid pet name.

She didn’t make the offer to Kizzy either, but that was probably because Kizzy barely talked at all anymore, and didn’t look like she was going to talk, either.

It’d only been a week since the attack, and he had hoped she’d recover, but…

He focused on what Bandersnatch was saying instead.

“… know we can’t ever make up for your loss, but we’re the UH and we take care of our own. We’ll get you placed with a good family, and you’ll have a contact inside our group, in case there’s problems in the future. And, I know this isn’t really a consolation, but we’ll continue to pay your parents’ salaries into trust funds for each of you, until you turn eighteen…”

His thoughts began to drift again, though he forced himself to focus, in spite of his usual inclination to get distracted; he had to be the man of the family now, with everyone else gone.

“And we’ll of course make sure you’ll be able to stay in Miami, so you can-“

“No,” he butted in, before he could even think about it. It only took him a moment to realize what his gut already had, though. “We don’t want to stay anywhere near here. There’s, there’s nothing here but painful memories now.”

He’d checked. He’d used the phone and the internet, as soon as he’d gotten access. He’d even used his power, loath as he was to spend too many of the precious few minutes he got each day to race around and check up on people.

After nearly a full week of that, he’d confirmed that pretty much everyone he’d ever known was dead or… worse. Not just his family, but friends and acquaintances, even the families of his friends.

Only one family was still alive, that he’d known from before, and they hadn’t been particularly close.

There was no one left, really. And he just knew that staying in Miami, even after the portions that’d been destroyed had been rebuilt, would only make it harder on Kizzy and him.

Bandersnatch looked surprised, though still in control, at his sudden proclamation, blinking her eyes two times before she replied.

“I understand, really; however, we’ll have to see what social services say to-“

He drew on his power. He’d gotten to know it quite well, over the last week – it wasn’t terribly complicated, unlike his parents’ powers, which had both had some pretty weird intricacies; the first and most obvious aspect was that, while manifesting had fixed his eyes so he no longer needed his glasses, activating his power made the world go out of focus beyond about twenty feet around him, as if he still needed to wear glasses, except for anything close enough.

Its main effect, though, was the way it messed with time. For every ten seconds he spent in real time, he saved up one second that he could then put inbetween other seconds, but only for himself and anyone he took along for the ride, essentially giving him more time to work with anyone else had. The only limit he’d found, other than the limited store of seconds he could save up, was that he couldn’t cram more than two additional seconds into any one, no matter how many he’d saved up.

Still, being able to move and think three times as fast as anyone else was nothing to sneeze at.

Tapping his power, he trippled his time, and zipped across the room, away from Bandersnatch, and then back, arms folded and looking up at her, sternly.

“I think the UH’ll want to pull some strings on our behalf.”

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14.6 Breaking Point

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Lady Light’s glowing form slammed into a growing stone-form that’d begun literally growing out of thin air around DiL, to the size of a five-story building in an instant, and disintegrated the whole thing in a blaze of light.

In the back of Basil’s calmed mind, he felt a short ache, as DiL changed her powers moments after assuming them, only to do so yet again when Lady Light disrupted her new abilities, before Basil could even see anything.

”Did you know your mother could do that?” he asked Gloom Glimmer, referring to that massive wave of light.

She took a step back from him, her cheeks red with tears and warmth, brushing her hair back behind her ears. “No. Yes. Kind of?” she temporized, seeming off-kilter. “In theory. I know she can, but I’ve never seen her do it, and it’s really risky to use it like thi-“ She realised she was babbling and clamped her mouth shut, her teeth making a sharp ‘click’.

Basil smiled at her, trying to be reassuring, even as his mind fired on all cylinders.

He really felt way too good. Prisca’s death, his failure, Amy, his memory… it was all still there, but for the first time he could remember, he felt like he could deal with all of that.

He also knew that this wasn’t how her aura was supposed to work. It bolstered those aligned with her, while weakening those which were opposed, but he’d never heard of it having this profound an effect on someone… another power interaction, perhaps?

Something to look into – if Lady Light, of all people, couldn’t help him solve his issues, then no one could. Especially if the theory he was building in regards to her power was correct.

Gloom Glimmer leaned in closer, looking concerned, as if trying to look deeper into him. Maybe she literally was, who knew? “Are you… are you still… you? You seem… different. From usual. And from… that time Osore hit you… too.”

”Mmmhm. Yeah. Your mother’s aura is having the oddest effect on me. Like the opposite of what your sister’s aura was doing to me, only even more so.” He chuckled in a way he’d never do, normally. Carefree. “I can not even remember the last time I felt so… light.”

He turned his head away, looking out over the rooftops. “Anyway, we should go to Hecate and Polymnia. Join up and figure out what to do.”

”Y-yeah.”

”Do I need to carry you?” he asked her, turning back to look at her again as she walked up to stand by his side.

She blushed again. “N-no. Thank you. I don’t have much power, right now, but I can still hop some roofs.” As if to underline that, she took off, running and leaping over the gap between their and the next house’s roof, moving as nimbly as any parkour runner.

He looked after her, blinking in surprise; then he shrugged and followed her.

***

They reached Polymnia and Hecate – both fortunately alive and well – within a minute.

Before anyone could say anything, Gloom Glimmer all but jumped at her friend, who equally rushed towards her, and they embraced each other so tightly, Polymnia actually lifted Gloom Glimmer off her feet (she was taller than her while in armor).

Basil joined Hecate while the two girl friends exchanged quick words, clearly intensely relieved that the other one was still alright.

”Hey,” Hecate greeted him again, giving him a brief hug. He wanted to hug her back, properly, but he was pretty sure she wouldn’t be quite comfortable with that right then, so he just gave her a one-armed squeeze. “How’s…” She trailed off, her eyes flicking from him to the other two girls.

”Much better,” he replied, releasing the breath he’d held. “Lady Light’s aura is lessening the effect, if not countering it outright.”

”Oh. That’s good,” she sighed, relieved. “So, no more nosebleeding?”

He tilted his head to the side. “I should have thought of checking that,” he said after a brief delay and took his mask off again.

“Let me,” Hecate interrupted him when he began to reach up, pulling a delicate green handkerchief from her bag. Spitting on it, she rubbed at his upper lip, nose and chin. “Just some dried blood,” she told him, while he held still, having experienced one of Vasiliki’s little ‘cleansings’ before, and learned that it was futile to resist. “Seems like the bleeding has stopped, yeah.” She smiled in relief, pulling her hand back and showing him the dark stains on it.

”Thank you. That is a relief,” he replied. DiL changed her powers again, halfway through the reply, and he sent another signal through the device the Dark gave him.

”You’re different,” she observed, her eyes hidden underneath the enchanted shadows of her hood. “Is everything… I mean, are you still… you?” She sounded afraid as she asked, though he couldn’t tell whether she was afraid he might be someone else, or that she might offend or anger him by asking, or both.

”I am pretty sure I am,” he tried to assuade her, smiling to take the tension out of it as much as he could. “It is not like I have recovered any memory that is missing, but… my head seems clearer.” He turned said head to look at the distant battle. Lights were flashing, and he was pretty sure that Lady Light was wielding a glowing sword the size of a schoolbus, using it to literally slice DiL’s current defense apart – some manner of fractals in the air, visible only by how they were distorting light around them, rather than due to reflecting it directly.

A dull ache announced another change in powers, and Lady Light reacted faster than Basil could press the button, letting that huge blade dissolve into light and reforming it into something too small to make out at this distance.

”Yeah, her aura is… I mean… wow. I didn’t know she could crank it up like this,” Hecate replied, whispering in awe. “She must be covering the entire area inside the Desolation Field.”

Another dull ache, a second after whatever Lady Light used now impacted some kind of distorted shadow inbetween her and DiL, dispersing it with a massive, yet silent shockwave.

“I don’t know how long she can keep it up, though,” Gloom Glimmer interjected, stepping closer to them, her right hand clasping Polymnia’s left, tightly. “She must be burning the candle on both ends to get this kind of output, and I… I don’t know why she’d be so reckless, this time.” She looked quite troubled.

“Maybe because you’re here,” Polymnia suggested, her voice soothing. “She launched that wave the moment you were in danger of actually being hurt, didn’t she?”

Gloom Glimmer’s shoulders slumped, along with her head.

Before anyone could follow up on that, they were interrupted by static crackle from Memento’s communication devices.

To all those who are still able to fight,the Dark’s multi-layered voice spoke to them, made even stranger than usual by coming from multiple speakers at once. We are preparing a significant attack on DiL. Lady Light is going to buy us the time we need to do so. Until you are given the signal to attack, conserve your strength, take care of each other and prepare yourselves.

“This is Rounds speaking,” the leader of the New Lennston United Heroes followed up, sounding winded, but still determined. “I concur with the Dark’s plan. Everyone, take care of yourselves and each other. Stand strong and don’t give up hope.”

“An attack…” Gloom Glimmer whispered, her gaze still focused downwards, mostly at her feet. “I’ve never heard him phrase any move against Bree like that,” she elaborated, when the others looked curiously at her, though she didn’t raise her head. “Could he actually have a plan to… get at her?”

Her voice was thick with a mess of emotions Basil couldn’t even begin to decipher. Though he was pretty certain guilt factored in.

He’d become all too familiar with guilt, lately.

”But, what could… how… she’s untouchable!” Hecate protested.

”Hanabi was able to affect her, during the Okinawa fight,” Basil interjected. “And no one has heard from him, since. It might be that he’s been preparing some kind of weapon, maybe even a Magnum Opus.”

”That sounds like something Dad would do,” Gloom Glimmer agreed. “Track him or her down and whisk them away to prepare for this.”

They all took a moment to digest that, the only motion between them being Basil’s fingers when he signaled another change of powers.

”Wow.” The simple whisper was all that Hecate seemed able to say, in response.

“That’s… really amazing, really… but what do we do?” Polymnia asked, her right hand’s fingers tapping out the words while her eyes were on Gloom Glimmer, her expression concerned. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but apart from Gloomy, we’ve all been pretty useless so far, and she’s out of power for now. Or nearly so.”

Hecate took a deep breath, holding her staff close to her chest with both hands, as her hood briefly twitched towards Basil, before focusing on the other girls instead. “I think… we should just, try to protect people. Get them out harm’s way, wherever we can. Search and rescue.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much what I was doing before. Rounds has all the juniors – except Gloomy – on Search and Rescue. Not that I wouldn’t do it anyway, I’m pretty good at it. Tracking people via sounds and all, I can do that, and I have the strength to carry them to safety,” Polymnia just kept speaking, until she suddenly stopped, blushing when she realised she’d started rambling.

Hecate nodded, straightening up a bit. “Alright, let’s-“

”Someone is coming,” Basil interjected, a mere moment before a blur rushed up onto the roof and crossed over to them so quickly none had a chance to react, before it slowed down and stopped.

”Yo, glad  to see you’re still alive!” Outstep greeted them, his grin visible as he wasn’t wearing his usual racer-inspired helmet, instead donning a red-tinted visor covering the upper half of his face. “I’m running high-speed evac to the medical station, who needs a trip?”

“We’re all fine, thank you,” Polymnia replied, looking him over. “Glad to see you’re still alive… I think.”

”Aw, come on now, Jugs,” he grinned, blurring over to her right side, one arm wrapped around her shoulders, “We both know you’d be inconsolable if I actually croaked off.”

She turned her head, looking at him with a saccharine smile. “Call me ‘Jugs’ again and I’ll liquefy your balls from the inside out,” she spoke in her usual, chipper tone of voice.

He stepped back from her, raising his arms as if in surrender. “Alright, alright.” He looked them all over again, still smirking. “So, anyone need some rapid transit, if not medical evac?”

They all shook their heads, even Gloom Glimmer.

”A-are you sure?” Hecate asked her. “Polymnia said you’re almost out of power…”

Outsteps gaze snapped over to his dark-haired teammate. “That true, princess?”

She gave him an annoyed look – a glare, almost – and Basil was actually surprised he didn’t physically feel the temperature drop between them.

”I’m fine,” she all but snarled. “Got two new powers already. I’m good to go.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” he replied, deadpan. “But seriously, if you need a timeout, tell me. You ain’t no use to anyone if you get yourself killed by your mass-murderin’ sissy. Nevermind what your dad will do to me if he thinks me the least bit responsible for it.”

Gloom Glimmer’s left eye twitched when he mentioned her sister, but she just turned away from him. “I’m staying, as are the others. So go help someone who actually needs your help, Outstep.”

He shrugged, looking them all over one more time. “Alright. God be with you, Gearhead, Witchgirl, Princess, Jugs.” He turned into a blur and rushed down from the rooftop, before anyone could react.

“He’s such an asshole,” Polymnia complained quietly.

”He kind of reminds me of some of my relatives,” Hecate whispered, lowering her head. “One of my uncles and his sons are pretty much all like that.” She sighed.

Basil put his hand on her shoulder, squeezing it gently. “Your family is way too stubborn to die,” he told her, softly.

She choked on a laugh, her shoulders shaking briefly. “Y-yeah. You’re right.” She took in a deep breath, squaring her shoulders. “Let’s get going.”

“Yes, let’s,” Gloom Glimmer agreed, as the air began to shimmer and distort around her, though curiously – at least, to Basil – her eyes remained blue on white.

He wished he could just sit down with her and talk about her power, try to determine the ins and outs of it. Maybe run some tests, put her under some of his scanners…

Not the time, not the time, he admonished himself. Not that it ever seems to be the time.

Instead of pursuing that line of thought, he checked his communicator, as did the others, to see where Memento thought they could do the most good, each of them requesting the system give them search and rescue tasks.

Unsurprisingly, there were loads of them.

“I suppose we ought to split up,” he commented, seeing the sheer volume of the requests for help.

“No,” Hecate countered. “At least, not entirely. We should go in pairs, I think, so we can support each other.”

“True en-” He was interrupted as the ground shook, causing them all to stumble before they caught their balance again. The buildings beneath and around them groaned, what window panes remained unbroken shattered, but the overall structures held. “Hrm, this is only going to get worse. Yes, I agree, we should go in pairs.”

“I think I should go with Hecate,” Polymnia spoke up, causing them all to look at her in surprise. She just shrugged at their questioning looks. “Don’t look at me like that. I think it makes sense to split so there’s only one gadgeteer to a pair, in case our tech does break down after all. That is still a threat, being within the Desolation Field. And I think I should be the one to go with Hecate, because I have more functioning tech left than Brennus, so I can support her better, while he will have Gloomy to cover him.”

Basil exchanged looks with the other two. “It does make sense,” he agreed with his fellow gadgeteer.

“I suppose we ought to get going, then,” Hecate said, looking at him one more time. “Good luck and… don’t die. Seriously.”

“I will not die. That is a promise,” he replied, calmly, as his eyes briefly found hers in the shadows of her hood.

Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia exchanged similar words, before they split up, the two girls running off and leaping onto the next rooftop.

”Let’s not dawdle,” Gloom Glimmer said softly, her eyes following her friend until she dropped down to the street.

”Aye.”

They left towards their own target.

***

“You didn’t have to do that,” Hecate whispered to Polymnia, once they hit the street and started running. Using the occasional smoke-leap, she was easily able to keep pace with the physically superior gadgeteer, even had the advantage now and then, when they had to cross particularly treachery spots, like collapsed buildings or car wrecks melted together into jagged spikes, and worse.

“Perhaps not, but I think it’s for the best,” Polymnia replied in a conversational tone, once again at odds with what she was actually doing, running and leaping in the direction the arrows on their armbads were showing them. “I know things are messed up between you two right now. Some distance might be good, so you can get some perspective. And so you won’t be getting too distracted while on mission.”

Hecate blushed, glad that the (slightly) younger girl couldn’t see it under her hood. I’m such a mess.

”Thank you,” was all she said in return, her voice thick with emotions she couldn’t really put to words, even if she’d tried.

Somehow, she was quite sure Polymnia got it, anyway, as she just smiled at her and said, “Don’t worry too much. I’m sure it will work out.”

They turned a corner, and immediately saw where they were meant to help – a five-storey building had collapsed inwards, rubble piling up into a mound the size of a two-storey building, but even without Polymnia’s hearing, Hecate could make out people screaming from within.

“We’ll have to dig them out carefully,” Hecate said to Polymnia, the two of them walking up to the rubble. “If we’re too careless, it might collapse entirely and crush the people within.”

“I can hear children in there,” Polymnia stated with a serious expression, stepping forth and climbing onto the rubble. “Let’s start from the top and work our way down.”

Hecate joined her, as they got to work as quickly as they could. “How does Gloom Glimmer do it?” she asked in a whisper which a normal person would likely not have understood, even if they’d been leaning in to listen.

“How does Gloom Glimmer do what?”

***

“How do you deal with your father being who he is?” Basil clarified as he and Gloom Glimmer jogged down the street, pushed onwards by her power, which was generating sonic waves that reflected off the buildings and street around and beneath them, coming back to push the air against the two of them from behind, buyoing them onwards and onwards.

Gloom Glimmer, whose long-legged strides would have been entirely silent even while running, with her feet being essentially clad in soft – if padded – almost velvet-like fabric rather than proper shoes, kept quiet for a few seconds, easily keeping pace with him, her billowing, heavy cape only magnifying the effect of the pressure from behind, even if it occasionally looked a little silly how it’d push at her and flutter around.

Just when he thought she might not have heard him over the melodic, drum-like waves of sound she generated, she opened her mouth again.

***

“She doesn’t, really,” Polymnia replied quietly, looking sad even as she continued to tear through the rubble, tossing chunks the size of her torso aside as if they weighed nothing. “He’s her daddy, but he’s the Dark. She loves him, but he’s a murderer and enabler of murderers, and all kinds of other criminals and crimes. She wants him to be proud of her, but she can’t feel that way about him. It’s a real mess.”

”I… I guess,” Hecate replied, surprised, in spite of having asked in the first place, that she got such a reply. Even so, her arms and hips kept working, lifting off broken pieces of concrete with rebars and wiring sticking out or attached to them, not as quickly or as easily as Polymnia, but faster than normal. “I didn’t actually think you’d…”

“She’d want me to tell you,” Polymnia assured her, softly. “Perhaps hoping that it’d help you work through what you found out about Brennus.”

Hecate choked, swallowing, her eyes stinging with tears – and it wasn’t the dust causing them. “I just… I don’t understand how… how he could keep it from me, for so long… and… even though I told him otherwise… even though I really, really get family, I… she’s so… how can he just… accept her, after all that she’s done?”

***

”I do not, really,” Basil echoed Gloom Glimmer’s own reply, while using the gauntlet on his left arm to smash through the shards still stuck to the frame of a broken window in the third storey of a small apartment building, his getting carried off by Gloom Glimmer’s power and over to where she was helping two older men carry their respective wives out of a shattered supermarket, leaving trails of bloody footprints behind them.

”You don’t mean that like I did,” Gloom Glimmer observed, somehow, even over the distance.

Basil climbed into the apartment. The window had been broken by the body of a cape, who’d been sent flying through it and landed on a couch opposite of the window with such force, the couch had shattered and he’d smashed into the wall.

Kneeling next to him, Basil quickly examined the young man – perhaps just a teen, though older than himself, he was wearing an outfit reminding him of a classic Wild West Gunslinger, with a zig-zagging, blood-red pattern worked into his black leather pants and matching vest and hat, as well as a red scarf wrapped around his lower face, to hide his identity. He was still holding onto a heavy, magnum-sized revolver in his right hand. Basil could see three blood-red bullets in the cylinder, as well as burned, cracked brown in the other three, likely already spent shots.

He might have been a cowl, considering the dark tones and harsh lines of his outfit, or perhaps one of the ‘edgy’ kind of capes that were all the rage in the USA these years.

Either way, the bleeding wound on the back of his head looked bad, and he was likely only alive because the couch had cushioned his impact.

Basil was quite sure he should have bled out by now, considering how much blood was on the wall behind him, on the floor around him and sticking to the back of his head, but he hadn’t. Perhaps some enhanced toughness or low-level regeneration.

It wasn’t doing him much good beyond barely keeping him alive, though, so he used his first aid supplies to wrap up his head, sheathed his revolver in its hip holster and then carefully lifted him up over his shoulder.

One wasn’t supposed to move injured people, especially not in such a fashion, but it was liable to be less dangerous to him than remaining there, unconscious and unable to get to safety if the destruction spread here.

“What I mean is that I have not been, nor am I dealing with it,” Basil continued the conversation, walking to the door with his unconscious cargo, straining a bit under the man’s weight. “I have been telling myself that she is my sister, that I love her and she me and that that should come first. Some half-formed but never pursued thoughts of redeeming her. Add a great deal of procrastination on the subject and spotty memories, and…”

He opened the door easily enough, from inside, stepping out into the stairwell and immediately making his way down.

”And that’s not all,” Gloom Glimmer’s voice reached him, so clear it was like she was sitting walking right next to him. “You mentioned issues with your memory. Malign ones, most likely. Do you think someone is actively manipulating you?”

She left it unsaid that his sister was the most obvious candidate for such manipulation, but he knew she thought of that possibility.

He would have liked to defend her, to say that Amy wouldn’t do such a thing, that she herself was being affected… except now, thinking – reasonably – clearly for the first time he could remember, he was honest enough to admit that…

”Yes, I think so. And yes, much as I hate to think so, Amy may well be responsible. I think she is also being manipulated, but it would hardly be a challenge for her to pretend that she is, on the off-chance that I might become suspicious,” he replied, and his heart broke a little to admit it out loud.

God, I wish Henry was here. He gets this stuff so much better than I ever could.

He stopped, just a step away from the front door of the building.

Where’d that thought come from? Who was Henry, and why…

No time. Focus on the here and now.

“I can feel… something, off,” Gloom Glimmer said, percussive air helping him move faster towards her and the four survivors she’d found. “I’m sorry, I might be able to do more, but I’m running on fumes here. But there’s definitely something or someone connected to your mind that’s not supposed to… but it’s so subtle, I would never have noticed it, if I didn’t know to look for it in the first place.”

He joined her and the other four, handing the wounded metahuman off to one of the two men, whose wife could walk on her own, and described to them how to get to the next teleportation node, based on the map that he’d seen when he’d used Memento’s network himself, while applying some first aid to them – the other man’s wife was worse off, with a cut on her thigh quite close to a major artery, and a bad hit to the head, but there was just no time for him and Gloom Glimmer to escort them, not when they could move on their own and there were so many other people to help.

”Focus,” he admonished her, gently, without accusation in his voice, watching the survivors leave. “There’s more important things to worry about, right now.” He looked at his armband, and saw that the arrow was pointing him down the road, opposite of where the survivors had gone.

She looked at him, her gaze so overflowing with sympathy and sadness it made him flinch – inwardly, at least. “There always are, aren’t there?” she asked, her voice barely a whisper.

“Hrm.”

***

After nearly five minutes of careful work – and some rather close calls, when the ongoing battle shook the ground and threatened to collapse the rubble – Hecate hit something weird.

The concrete shifted and revealed… nothing. And yet there was something there, something flat, hard and invisible, through which she could see some movement deeper within, obstructing her progress.

“Some kind of force field?”

Polymnia stopped and leaned over, taking a look. “Something’s been preventing me from mapping the insides of the rubble with sonar… perhaps that’s it?”

“Can somebody hear us!?” a voice shouted from within, a young woman’s, perhaps. “Please, you’ve got to move the rubble aside! I don’t think he can hold out much longer! Don’t worry about it collapsing!”

Hecate looked at Polymnia, who seemed as surprised as she herself felt.

“Might as well,” Polymnia stated, and they leapt off the rubble, starting to just tear it away by main force, throwing aside chunks from the base.

Within seconds, the rubble shifted and slid off… an invisible box, about the size of a minivan, outlined by dust.

Within were eight civilians – two women and six younger children, all of kindergarten age – sitting on the ground, and a man standing in the center, his legs spread apart, his arms reaching out, palms facing  away from him, as if pushing against something.

He was wearing black pants with suspenders and a horizontally striped white shirt with black stripes, as well as white and black make-up on his face and oily black hair now matted with blood.

“Le Pantomime!” Polymnia called out, rushing forward as the box disappeared, and the man fell forward.

She caught him as gently as she could, and Hecate stepped up as well, worried. She’d heard of the hero from France – he was quite famous, even across the pond.

To her horror, she saw a terrible wound on the left side of his head – she could actually see a bit of his brain!

“How… how is he still…” She gulped, staring at him.

“He saved us… caught the rubble when it collapsed, after a piece hit him on the head,” the woman who’d called out earlier explained. Hecate barely spared her a glance, since she didn’t seem to be hurt, but she was pretty sure they’d happened upon a daycare of some sort. She kind of looked like a daycare worker, to her, not that she’d ever been in an actual daycare.

“We’ll get him the help he needs,” Polymnia soothed them, calmly, her eyes on the teary-eyed children clinging to the two women. “And we’ll get you all to safety, I promise.”

Hecate nodded, kneeling down to take care of the children. That was something she had experience with, at least.

***

Basil leapt over a slagged car wreck, following the arrow on his armband, moving on his own for now – their armbands had sent him and Gloom Glimmer in opposite directions, and he could only hope that they’d be reunited after, but for now, he was on his own.

They’d been guided to four more crisis points, after he’d saved the gunslinger, and had managed to get no less than nine people to safety, capes, cowls and civilians both, though they’d come across several corpses as well.

Gloom Glimmer had taken those much harder than Basil had – he couldn’t rightly say that he was all that upset about seeing dead people, much as that unnerved him.

Reaching a street corner, the arrow rotated, guiding him towards a roundabout, when it suddenly disappeared.

The display said ‘Target Deceased – Await New Directions’.

Not again.

He started to move back, tapping his fingers as he felt DiL change powers yet again – the fifth time this minute – and started to move back towards where he’d split from Gloom Glimmer, just in case, when his armband beeped.

Looking down at it, he saw a new arrow pointing away from where he’d come.

Great. I really hope you know where you’re guiding me, Memento.

He ran through the shattered streets, his progress much slower than he would have liked – there were cracks and fissures all over, and parts had been flooded where pipes had burst open.

There were corpses everywhere. Floating in the water, slumped over broken cars, mailboxes, torn apart by huge claws or impaled on shards of glass or rebar, and worse besides. Men, women and children, dead by the dozens. Hundreds or thousands, probably, across the city.

There was nothing he could do for them, so he moved on, following the arrow, while regularly glancing at the flickering, often distorting feed from his ravenbot, flying far above, keeping an eye towards the battle, so he’d have at least a moments’ warning to dodge, if anything came his way.

At least Lady Light seems to have DiL well in hand for now, he thought, only to immediately chide himself for jinxing it.

As if to affirm it, he felt a sudden drop in air pressure, at the same time as he sensed DiL changing her powers again, followed by the building to his right all but disintegrating as a projectile shot through it faster than the sonic boom that followed it, blasting his ravenbot out of the air.

Basil managed to avoid instant death just barely, reversing his boots’ wall-walking function yet again – and even so, he would likely have been hit, at the very least losing his legs as he shot backwards, if he hadn’t been gripped by an additional force and pushed away faster.

Dust and debris filled his field of view, the street cracking – but they could not hide the white glow within, light blazing forth so powerfully it penetrated even the thickest dust cloud, turning billows of gray matter into something almost ethereal.

He landed on his feet, barely managing to catch himself, and staring at the center of the glowing dust cloud.

DiL’s presence was all but entirely gone from his mind, the pressure she created entirely blotted out by her aura, as she rose out of the dust, a humanoid figure shrouded in so many layers of nearly solid, sometimes liquid, light, it was impossible to make out any details, her side towards him as she flew up and towards DiL again, trailing ribbons of pure light behind her, less than a hundred meters between them…

Only to stop, and turn in mid-air, the motion nearly inhumanly graceful in spite of its abruptness, and his black eyes met a pair of bright, blue ones, even through the layers of light enfolding her and the distance between them.

He remembered the sensation of staring into Emyr’s eyes, back in that twisted world Legend had created – a thoroughly discombombulating experience, it had made him think of staring into an infinite expanse of darkness, losing perspective and with it, very nearly his balance. There had been an intensity to his gaze, as if he was somehow projecting his will through the mere act of crossing eyes, that had caused Basil to hesitate for a moment.

Gazing into Lady Light’s bright blue eyes (so reminiscent of Gloom Glimmer’s) was so much more disorienting than that, by several orders of magnitude. If Emyr’s eyes had been windows into a vast, dark depth of will, then these were… were…

He did not have the words to describe them, no simile that encompassed the sensation.

Without even noticing himself falling, he found himself sitting on his butt, briefly seeing double as he stared up at her in a daze.

Lady Light distant form twitched, the humanoid silhouette he could barely make out moving as the ribbons of light shifted with the barest hint of a delay, the gesture as graceful as it was unreadable, at this distance, and turned away, flying off towards DiL again, moving so quickly she left behind several after-images.

Basil looked down at his right wrist, where he felt something close around it. A band of… something, like nearly solid light, wrapped around his wrist there. It looked white, at first glance, but as he raised his hand, it shifted through all colours of the rainbow, each motion causing a change in its colouring and pattern.

It felt warm, solid and heavy.

Looking at it from various angles, he knew what it meant.

‘I will find you again.’

***

Memento’s armband had ended up leading him to a young woman in a flowing costume, layers of rainbow-coloured fabric forming a hooded robe with wide sleeves, soaked through with some kind of clear, viscuous fluid which also surrounded the site where she lay, having been blasted through a wall and into a backyard, just off the street. A loading dock, perhaps, for some smaller company – it was hard to tell, considering how damaged everything was.

A quick check showed that she was unconscious, and had a bleeding wound on her forehead, but was alive and not in immediate danger of dying after some basic first aid to stem the bleeding, so he picked her up in a fireman’s carry – not the best way to transport someone with a head wound, but he had to choose between being gentle and being fast and that wasn’t really a choice at all, not in this situation.

Getting to the nearest teleportation node was mercifully less eventful than his way to the woman, and he even had some attention to spare to reboot his ravenbot and have it fly back towards him; fortunately, it had only taken cosmetic damage from the sonic boom of the attack which had deposited Lady Light so close to him.

I wonder what she saw, he could not helpt but wonder. He felt it in his gut, she’d seen right through him there and whatever she’d seen or sensed had piqued her interest.

If Lady Light can’t help me…

He looked ahead, focusing on where he was going – the broken streets were very treacherous, with crevisses, holes leading into sewers and other traps for the unwary pedestrian – as he also considered his brief meeting – if one could call it that – with the lady and also ran several ideas through his mind, his power having apparently taken a lot of inspiration from hers, with ideas for manipulating matter and energy in weirder ways than he could ever recall doing…

Fuck, why does it have to work so well now? I wish I could be like this while in the lab and with a few weeks or months’ worth of time to just tinker around and experiment.

He didn’t even know whether his lab was still uncollapsed. The structure was reinforced, and on the outskirts of New Lennston, away from the center of the fighting, but still…

Due to the interference from the Desolation Field, he couldn’t even reach it to find out whether or not Eudocia was well. Her casing wasn’t that tough, and even light damage to her insides could cause the delicate energy fields within to collapse. Rebooting her from such a collapse, if he even managed to, would mean resetting her to her initial state, all her experiences and growth irretrievably lost.

Can’t think about that, not now. I need to focus. Put it off until I can find her and then we’ll see how things stand.

He ran even faster.

***

Through some stroke of luck, he reached the node at the same time as Gloom Glimmer did. She was generating sonic blasts which bounced off the street, gently juggling several people atop them and moving them towards the node.

The survivors – a family, mother and several children – were staring around with varying degrees of fear and wonder on their faces, as Irene dropped them next to the node and explained to them how to use it.

The mother held her youngest in one arm, and the other two held each other by the hand, while one held hers, as they touched the node together and disappeared.

“Brennus. I’m glad you’re… safe…” Gloom Glimmer began to greet him, until her eyes fell on the rainbow-hued armband, widening at the sight of it.

“A brief run-in,” he explained, as he walked onto the childrens’ playground that the floating tesseract had teleported to. “I did not even get close to her, but she must have sensed something, and she made this band.”

“Mmmhm,” she temporized, brushing a lock of fine black hair back behind her ear. “It’ll let her track you down, so long as you’re within her range.”

He nodded, his suspicion confirmed. “Looking forward to it. If anyone can help me…”

She nodded right back. “It’ll be mom.”

They used the node to teleport to the field hospital, appearing within a huge tent, filled with people – some in scrubs or less formal clothes, taking care of the majority of those present: the injured.

Dozens upon dozens of them, capes, cowls and civilians alike, arranged  in an odd spiral pattern around the nod, with a circular empty space around it, the rigidity of the pattern broken up at seemingly random intervals by intersecting pathways.

On second thought, there’s an odd rhyme to it, Basil thought, looking around, before his eyes fell on an obvious metahuman standing nearby, facing them with a clipboard held in their hands.

She was a woman or girl – probably a girl, based on what he could see of her face – wearing a skin-tight, black bodysuit, though skintight in a different way from what he usually saw – thicker, suggesting padding and even some manner of armoring. It wasn’t completely black, though – there were dark blue patterns on it, only visible when the light hit them at the right angle, tracing the contours of her body in a way  that emphasized her modest curves, without being the least bit obscene. The flat soles of her boots and the palms of her hands, as well as the undersides of her fingers were all blue, and there was an emblem on her chest, fitted so delicately to her body’s shape, her breasts didn’t distort it at all – a single circle, followed by four ovals around it, like ripples extending from it, only they weren’t centered around the circle; rather, the circle was near the bottom of the symbol, with the ovals’ long extending further above than beneath it.

Her face was hidden by a black mask which covered the top half, and reached up to the crown of her head, keeping her long, straight blonde hair out of her face, while leaving her lips – painted dark blue to match the color scheme – and jaw exposed.

“Calculass,” Gloom Glimmer greeted her with a smile, holding out her hand towards her.

The girl smiled back, if a little nervously. “Gloom Glimmer. I’ve heard a lot about you – wouldn’t have thought the opposite was true. It’s an honor.” She shook the offered hand.

“Dad taking on a new apprentice isn’t something to ignore – he’s never done it in my lifetime. So I made some inquiries,” Gloom Glimmer replied with a smirk. Then she pulled her hand back, smoothing her face out more seriously. “Where do we put this one? Wounded cape, head trauma and several broken bones.”

“Possibly internal bleeding, as well,” Basil added quietly, studying the girl more intently now. The Dark’s apprentice… that did not exactly bode well. Some kind of math-related power? An esper? The name’s pretty obviously pointing in that direction.

Calculass didn’t hesitate to reply, pointing to the beginning of the spiraling pathway. “Third branch, then left, right, left, cot twenty-nine,” she advised, far more confident and steady in her speech than just moments before.

“Thank you. I hope we’ll have some time to hang out in the future, under better circumstances,” Gloom Glimmer replied with a smile, walking past her. “Also, love the costume,” she added with a thumbs up.

“Thanks. I’m kind of shocked that costume design is one of the boss’s fields of expertise,” Calculass grinned at her, briefly.

“That ain’t even the weirdest hobby dad has, believe you me,” Gloom Glimmer called out, raising her voice as they moved further away, sticking close to Basil. “And you’ll get to know way more of them, you poor, unfortunate fool!”

Basil didn’t see whether Calculass reacted, before the sound of another incoming teleport took up her attention again – his own was on walking the right way to where to put down his charge, while his raven was looking around at the wounded all around.

There were so many of them. Calculass’s system – at least, he assumed she’d been the one to plan this layout – managed to cram an incredible amount of people into the tent, while still allowing for easy movement. People had been distributed based on the wounds they were suffering from, and whether or not they were metahuman. There were even allowances made for those whose powers made being treated, or just being near others, problematic.

It was kind of impressive, managing to impose order on such a chaotic situation.

Guess that’s to be expected of the Dark’s apprentice.

They reached the assigned cot, and Basil put the woman down on it, as gently as he could. Two nurses got to work before he’d even stepped back.

He turned towards his companion, to suggest moving out again, but stopped.

Gloom Glimmer’s expression was fragile in a way he could not recall seeing before, her eyes glued to a boy half her apparent age lying in the cot next to the woman, his eyes glassy, yet occasionally blinking as he stared up into nothing, a good fifth of his head simply gone, from just above his left ear over towards the center of his forehead. Wires and catheters were connecting to the exposed brain-matter, then to some kind of gadget which apparently kept him alive, somehow.

Occasionally, the device would spark, and the boy would twitch randomly before settling down again.

She didn’t seem able to look away.

Basil took her arm by the wrist, gently tugging on it, guiding her out of the tent and into the bright, distorted daylight outside. The field hospital had been set up at the outskirts of the city, where the surrounding woodland stabbed into the urban sprawl, and had been tamed into a park, which had in turn become a popular place for family picnics.

Now, it was overrun with emergency vehicles coming and going, dropping a share of the injured and otherwise needy here, before moving on to pick up more people, or deliver others to another field hospital (they were being spread out amongst multiple locations, if they couldn’t be moved out of the Desolation Field entirely, to reduce the chance of DiL wiping them all out with a single attack).

Gloom Glimmer looked around at the chaos, her expression downcast. “This…”

Whatever she was about to say was cut off when another, familiar voice interjected with a shout.

“Ba-Brennus!” called Amy, flying over from where she’d been helping to load people onto and off of several vehicles.

A not inconsiderable part of Basil relaxed a great deal upon seeing her safe and whole.

In fact, she looked utterly untouched.

Before he could get in a word of his own, she was upon him, pulling him into a nearly literally bone-crushing hug.

“Ugh. Spine. Still. Needed,” he gasped the words out, barely, though he couldn’t honestly say he disliked it.

He would’ve hugged her back, if he’d been able to move his arms to any meaningful degree, but since her grip on him wouldn’t allow him to, he merely patted her sides with his hands.

No one around seemed to have the time or inclination to pay attention to them or care about what was going on, and he was pretty sure that wasn’t due to Amy using her power. The situation was just that messed up.

“I should kill you, you damn idiot,” Amy croaked, squeezing even harder for a moment, before she mercifully let him have his lung function back.

“I was worried about you, too,” he replied with a groan, trying not to show just how much her hug had pained him. Damn these cracked ribs. “You don’t look like you’re hurt at all, though,” he replied, and he couldn’t help but sound a little bit accusatory.

She somehow managed to look both embarrassed and annoyed at the same time, rubbing the back of her head while shifting on those ridiculous stiletto heels of hers. “Boss’s orders. We’re to hold back until the big attack starts, make sure to conserve our powers and stamina.”

“What is his plan, anyway?” Basil asked, curiously, assuming that she, as one of his lieutenants, surely had to know.

“Dunno,” she replied.

Or maybe not.

“This whole thing is rushed like crazy. From what I get, he was hoping she’d take longer to reappear, or skip one battle and use his grand plan the next time, after more prepwork. But I guess New Lennston’s too important to not go all out in defending it,” Amy elaborated.

“He’s always loved this city, even when he hated it,” Gloom Glimmer agreed with a thoughtful nod, her left hand’s fingertips touching her chin. “Plus, losing New Lennston to DiL, after we lost Old Lennston to her… the hit to morale would be tremendous and it definitely is unacceptable.” Another thought seemed to come to her, and she looked up at Amy. “Where is Dad, anyway?”

“At the memorial plaza, preparing to set off the big pl-“, she started to reply, only to be interrupted by a deafening shriek.

The sound was akin to a woman’s wail, amplified a million times over, with odd, discordant harmonics mixed in to make it more cacophonous than Basil would have thought possible.

Its origin was emminently obvious – DiL herself was not visible, but the chaotic twist of space around her was, as her new power twisted realtiy in a way that gave Basil vertigo even by looking at it from halfway across the city.

From that central point, jagged lines of twisted space were reaching out, spreading across the sky and into the ground, before fading back again.

Whatever they touched was destroyed, matter twisted up in such a fashion as to reduce entire buildings to rubble, condensed into deformed masses a fraction of their original size.

He couldn’t see far enough to tell how it affected any metahuman it hit, but those whom flew high enough for him to see and got struck by one of those flowing arcs dropped and didn’t come up again.

Several tendrils lashed out towards Lady Light’s glowing form, causing Gloom Glimmer to gasp where she stood next to Basil, but they were deflected with a flash of light, and she pressed the attack, trying to force DiL to change away from such a lethal power.

Not that any of the powers she took were ever harmless.

“Fuck, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to do much at all, even if I was allowed to,” Amy shouted, and yet was barely heard nonetheless.

Gloom Glimmer raised her right arm to snap her fingers, and the cacophony died down, letting everyone relax and focus on their duties again.

Considering how dire the conditions of most of the people being treated were, that was vital.

“How long can you keep that up, princess?” Amy asked, rubbing underneath her ears with two fingers each, as if to rub the pain away.

Basil really missed his full helmet now – the hearing protection in his spare mask wasn’t nearly up to its level.

”This power’s pretty fresh,” Gloom Glimmer replied, without looking – she was wholly focused on the spectacle in the distance. “A few minutes, I’d guess. Up to twenty, if we’re lucky.”

”That will not do,” Basil stated simply. “She has to change her powers again, and quickly – if not for our sake, then for that of everyone else in this city, particularly the other medical camps.”

Gloom Glimmer frowned, clenching her left hand into a fist, tightly enough it started to tremble. “Yeah… and we can’t… shouldn’t… just rely on mom, so-“

A new, yet all too familiar voice cut her off, reverberating through the artificial quiet Gloom Glimmer’s power had generated.

“I hope you don’t mean to finish that sentence the way I think you do,” the Dark spoke, as calmly as was possible when your voice sounded like a ghostly chorus.

Gloom Glimmer’s face brightened up, as she all but flung herself at him, wrapping her arms around what may have been his waist – it was hard to tell, with how formless his current appearance was – and made a gleeful squeal.

“Don’t think you being cute is going to distract me from the issue, young lady,” he continued, even as he hugged her back tightly enough she almost seemed to disappear into the shadows, and mussed her hair with one hand.

“I’m not trying to distract you! Just glad you’re ok,” she replied, stepping back after one more tight squeeze, combing her hair back with her fingers.

You are glad that I am alright?” he asked, six glowing eyes growing incredulously wide as he bent over so much he nearly made a right angle, putting his face at the same height as hers. “You’re the one who’s been in danger, young lady!”

“That’s all part of wearing the cape!” she replied, looking up at him with a smile, looking positively re-energized. “Speaking of which, it seems like my powers are finally, properly, back.” She looked down herself, and Basil followed her gaze to see that she was levitating a step or so above the ground, in the center of a circle of swirling dust.

She raised her hand, and tiny motes of light in all colors of the rainbow began to dance between and around her fingers, seeming to somehow… suck in the light, the area immediately around their small group growing darker, even as the motes burned brighter.

“Irene, my sweet, don’t you dare go out there now!” the Dark stepped in, reaching for her hand with his own.

Gloom Glimmer pulled back, floating to put a few meters between them. “You know I can’t just stand by – I have to help mom. Wish me luck!” she replied, completely ignoring his protests, as she saluted Basil, and shot off towards the fight.

“No listen to m-  why do you just ignore your father!” he shouted in exasperation, his hands disappearing in the shadows of his head, as if he was reaching past the wraith to pull on his hair. “Why’d you have to take after me so much!”

Amy put her hand over her mouth, her shoulders shaking as she tried not to make a sound.

It didn’t help, as he whirled around and pointed a long, misty finger at her.

“You. After her. Keep her safe.”

He didn’t wait for a reply, or even an acknowledgement, and simply turned around and walked away, back to where Basil could see Rounds and several other of the higher-ranked capes and cowls congregate.

“Damn. Babysitting duty,” Amy groused, her arms and head dropping. “Noooooot looking forward to this!”

Basil took her hand into his, squeezing it tightly. “Just make sure you’re safe,” he said, his eyes returning to the distant battle, following the fast-flying form of Gloom Glimmer as she approached the blazing sun that was her mother.

“I should be the one saying that, considering your track record…” she continued to grumble, before floating up a bit to kiss him on the top of the head. “Be safe, little brother.”

He pulled his mask down, and kissed her on the cheek. “You too, sister.”

She nodded at him with a wry smile, then turned around and flew away – only to jerk to a stop, his hand having shot up to grab her by the wrist before he even consciously chose to.

“Basil?” she looked at him, her eyes widening when she saw the overwrought expression on his face.

“I…” he began, struggling himself to put what he was feeling into words.

Why do I feel like this is the last time we’ll talk to each other? he thought, miserably, unable to find the right thing to say, as he felt his face contract, nearly crumbling.

She floated closer, wrapping her arms around his head to pull it against her bosom, her feet a good deal above the ground.

Don’t be silly, she spoke into his mind. We’ll talk again so much, we’ll both grow sick of it and refuse to talk at all anymore.

He didn’t have it in him to laugh, or even chuckle. Instead, he looked up at her, his arms having found their way around her lower waist, hugging her tightly.

I love you, Amy, he said in his head, unable to get the words past the knot in his tongue.

She gave him a brilliant smile in return, looking down with the gentle expression he’d missed so long. I love you too, Basil.

Once more, she kissed him, this time on his forehead.

And then she flew off to fight an enemy he could do nothing against.

Looking after her, tears running down his cheeks as he put his mask back on to cover at least the lower part of his face, he couldn’t help but feel the same as before, like that had been a farewell.

Just like the last time he’d seen Prisca, held her, kissed her. Felt her disappear.

And yet again, there was nothing at all he could do.

***

Silver light flowed from Rounds’ palm, where it met Bismuth’s cheek, washing over her like a second skin, clinging tightly for a moment before the silvery Bismuth stepped aside, separating from the original.

At the same time, two new windows, paired together, appeared in his mind, one to the half of her power that he could use himself, and another to the silvery apparition, giving him an innate sense of her state and location.

Ten other pairs were already in his mind, filling it nearly to the brim, much like the ten – now eleven – apparitions filled the space around him.

Just one more, and he’d be at his limit.

The sheer power accumulated in him was already such that he felt it pull at his very sanity. Overwhelming, to have all these options at hand.

Lamarr’s spatial manipulation alone may have distracted him for hours, if he wasn’t currently limited to the area within the Desolation Field.

Bismuth stepped back, her head held low, mirrored by her apparition. Even if he couldn’t feel what his apparitions felt – and they usually mirrored their progenitor’s feelings – he’d have no trouble figuring out what was affecting her.

The many things that were wearing down on her.

So much to work out. So little time.

He turned his head away from her, not to dismiss her, but to focus on more urgent matters.

His eyes fell on the shadowy, almost wispy figure that was the Dark, standing at the edge of the terrace this camp had been set upon, looking out over the devastated city, and the battle raging on in the distance.

Watching for his daughter, Rounds thought. I suppose even he has a modicum of decency.

He hated it. Hated, that the children were fighting. That they were risking their lives. That they were being exposed to so many horrors.

That he hadn’t been there to shield them from it.

He would never agree with the wide-spread practice of putting children in costumes and throwing  them at the horrors of the world, telling them to be heroes, no matter what the statistics said.

But here, if anywhere, there was nothing he could do. Even if he could forbid it, most would fight anyway, to protect their home from her. And  there was no way he’d be able to divert the resources to restrain them, at such a time.

Shaking his head, he walked over to his enemy and stood by his side, followed by his silvery apparitions. Three of them – Wary Wu’s and two of Gloom Glimmer’s – were focusing on the fight, constantly feeding him new information, which his half of their powers picked up on and further processed, before throwing it back at them, in a constant back and forth.

Normally, copying esper powers like this was a great boon to him, but right now, with both DiL and Gloom Glimmer in the fight, they were all but useless.

At least he was pretty certain they’d warn him in time in case he had to block an incoming attack.

Pretty certain, but not completely so, which was why all the other apparitions where also focusing on the battle for him, ready to leap into action.

He himself, meanwhile, rolled his shoulders, the body armor he wore over his suit shifting, glittering with reflected light as the individual plates it consisted off changed their orientation slightly. He’d never liked how sparkly and ostentatious it all was – at times he felt like he was wearing jewelry, rather than armor – but that arse Patrid had beat the importance of proper public relations into his head a long, long time ago.

“I hope you didn’t come over here to ask me for a copy of my power, Rounds,” the Dark spoke without turning to look at him. Not that he wasn’t perfectly capable of looking straight at Rounds while seemingly facing the battle. And also focusing on that in equal measure.

With a chuckle, Rounds shook his head. “If it’s anything like Lady Light’s power, then I want no part in it.”

That caused him to turn his head and look down at him.

He’d never admit it out loud, especially in front of him, but even after all these years, getting the Dark’s full attention was a thoroughly discombobulating experience.

“She allowed you to make a copy of her?” he asked, intently, his voices not sharp, but definitely more forceful than during his almost casual remark before.

“She let me try,” Rounds replied, putting an emphasis on the ‘try’ part. “It didn’t go over well.”

The Dark chuckled, turning away again – and as soon as his immediate gaze left Rounds, he felt like a weight had dropped off his shoulders.

I wonder whether he uses a power to cause that, or whether it really is just his presence.

“I imagine it wouldn’t, no,” the wispy supervillain continued. “She must trust you a great deal, if she revealed herself to you so.”

“I suppose so,” Rounds said, his eyes back on the fight in the distance.

Lady Light and Gloom Glimmer seemed to be trading off now, moving back and forth, alternating in their efforts to curtail DiL’s destructive performance.

As much as he hated seeing her in such danger, he couldn’t help but admire how well Gloom Glimmer was managing to keep up with her mother.

Still, holding her off was not going to be enough – in fact, either DiL was slowly adapting to them, or sheer coincidence was causing her powers to last longer and longer, the seconds stretching on between each switch. Occasionally, Rounds could even make out individual powers without the use of his added abilities, before she was forced to change yet again.

Unsustainable.

He turned his head away, and looked at the other figure standing nearby.

Hanabi’s form was hidden behind his voluminous, old-fashioned purple, black and gold robes and the tall, black hat he wore, from which a curtain of white cloth fell, obscuring his face – in fact, his entire head.

He was kneeling in front of a circle of thin bamboo rods tipped by various, weirdly shaped fireworks in all colors of the rainbow, driven into the ground where he’d had Rounds crack the pavement for his preparations.

A rough map of the area within the Desolation Field had been carved into the earth, with more bamboo sticks driven into various points, holding up even more fireworks.

At the same time, a dozen heroes and villains were setting up full-sized fireworks all around the city, mirroring the markings on the map, he knew.

“Are you sure this is going to work?” he couldn’t help but ask, as nervously as he ever felt.

The whole thing had sounded way too good to be true, when it’d been explained to him.

“Nothing is certain,” the Dark replied calmly, staring out into the distance. “It should work, based on my understanding of the powers involved, and the principles behind them. But you know the difference between theory and practice.”

Rounds grunted in affirmation, not sure how to reply to that.

Well, there was one reply…

“I really, really hope this will work.”

“So do I,” was the answer, though he didn’t sound like he meant it.

Before he could dig into the meaning behind that, he felt an odd tremor, one which went through the ground and the air at the same time, rippling through his body in the oddest way, like he was being stretched and compacted at the same time, for less than a second.

Wha-

He turned to look at the battle, at the alarm his apparitions of Gloom Glimmer expressed through their link, only to see Lady Light’s blazing form dart towards her daughter, so fast he could barely follow in spite of his enhanced senses, touching and repelling her, launching her out of the way of an advancing ripple in the air-

And then Lady Light and five other fliers just disappeared, all at once, along with a diagonal cross-section of a nearby building.

The Dark took a step forward, in seeming shock, and Rounds was not far behind, when the aftermath hit them.

Air rushed in, towards where the attack had hit, filling in the vacuum created, violently stirring up dust, leaves and rubble before it died down again.

Did she just kill… no, don’t be stupid. She wouldn’t go down like this!

His apparitions stepped forth, focusing any applicable power they had, but the Dark was faster than they.

“Some manner of spatial manipulation… offensive teleportation? I can still feel Gwen, but she’s… far,” he said, more to himself than to Rounds, as if to reassure his own worries.

In the distance, Gloom Glimmer’s form flickered, violently, and a massive blast of blackish something lanced out, smashing into DiL, splashing over her form – and evidently penetrating her outer defenses sufficiently to force her to change her powers again, as the signal sent from the young vigilante whom could feel these changes told them.

Still, Rounds’ stomach dropped into his knees, and not just because the effect of Lady Light’s city-spanning aura was gone now.

They’d just lost their strongest, best fighter, and there was no way to tell how long it’d take her to return to the battle.

“Damn it, we have to mobilize our people again – I won’t have Gloom Glimmer try to hold her off on her own!” he shouted, raising his hand to his ear to transmit the order.

A soft, almost gentle voice interrupted him, speaking with a strong accent.

“It is nearly done, Lord Dark,” the kneeling form of Hanabi spoke, his voice barely rising above the sound of the blowing air, or the distant battle. “My greatest performance shall begin presently.”

The Dark relaxed, almost imperceptibly – if it wasn’t for all the esper powers at his disposal, Rounds would have missed it.

“Your timing is as impeccable as your artwork, my dear man,” he spoke, calmly, nodding his head towards the heavily enshrouded villain from Japan. “Begin as soon as you are able.”

Hanabi inclined his head, deeper than the Dark had, and took out a burning stick incense-covered wood, reaching for the many fuses of all the fireworks worked into the array in front of him, all tied together at various points in such a fashion that the flame would reach each firework at the same time.

Which would trigger all the fireworks spread out across the city, simultaneously.

Still…

“Impeccable timing? You are joking,” Rounds all but snarled, though he wasn’t really angry at the Dark – at least, not in this case. “If only we could have launched that a minute sooner, we’d still have-”

“No,” the Dark disagreed, his voice firm. “This is better. It will be harder for us, but better this than having Gwen participate.”

His voice turned soft, almost human, as they watched Hanabi light the fuses.

“No mother should have to watch her child die, much less participate in the killing.”

Rounds opened his mouth, not sure whether to disagree, agree, or laugh at the sheer, gutwrenching wrongness of it all, but he closed it again, not sure at all about it.

“Prepare yourselves,” the Dark spoke, and his voice was repeated across the entire city by every single one of Memento’s communicators. “Our grand gambit is almost at hand.”

The lit fuses disappeared into the fireworks, flashing with heat and light – but instead of launching the fireworks, they consumed them, burning them up in a single, bright flash.

All over the city, a hundred and eight matching fireworks shot up into the air, trailing paths of rainbow-colored sparks in ever-shifting, complex patterns that made one dizzy to merely look at them.

The glowing tips of these rising spears flew up as high as the Desolation Field allowed them to go, turning its bright, shifting colors into an even greater mess as they added their own, darker lights.

Then the lights spread, connecting to each other in a grand net of light, before each strand collapsed into total blackness, a dark, dark net spreading out over them – only to disappear.

And with its disappearance, DiL dropped out of the sky, crashing down onto the grand plaza of New Lennston.

With his enhanced eye sight, courtesy of the Falconer’s apparition, he could see her nude form, lying amidst the glowing mass of her ridiculously long hair, her face as expressionless as ever, yet conveying something almost akin to confusion, as she lay there, her arms and legs touching the ground as dust settled on her unblemished skin.

Then, the dust began to swirl around her, forming an expanding sphere, as everyone stared at the jaw-dropping sight.

“The gambit was successful! DiL’s absolute defense has been nullified – penetrate her lesser powers, and we can finally put her down!” the Dark shouted, spreading his message all over the defending forces. “Put an end to this wretched tale!”

He hadn’t even finished his announcement, when a great cry rose.

A hundred voices and more joined together in utter, unbridled awe, fury and sheer, unrestrained hope, screaming it to the sky, as everyone who was even remotely able to do so charged into the battle.

Even Bismuth joined her voice to the others, her passion reignited as she shot forward, launched by a pillar of crystal shooting up beneath her feet.

Rounds stepped forth to join them, only to stop at the edge of the terrace, looking back at the wispy, barely substantial form of the Dark.

The King of Supervillains stepped up next to him, standing at the very edge of it as well. “You should go,” he said. “I’m too weak to contribute right now, but I’ll do what I can to coordinate our assault.”

Rounds’ reached for his sword, drawing it out of its sheath, gripping it tightly. “What you said earlier… the same applies to you, doesn’t it?”

The Dark turned his head again, looking down at him. “What do you mean?”

Rounds looked up at those six unblinking red eyes, trying to ignore the sheer weight of their gaze. “No mother should see or help their child die – nor should any father.”

The shadowy figure looked at him, for a moment longer, before averting his face, focusing on the battle again.

When he replied, his voices were so soft they were almost human again.

“Monsters don’t count.”

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B14.2 Breaking Point

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“Commencing fifty-ninth attempt at completing the prime directive,” the Memento in front of them said, its brassy, electronic voice carrying easily across the plaza. “Assuming command of local operations as per pre-existing protocols established with the relevant Metahuman Combat Organisations.”

Irene watched the machine – could it even really be said to be a machine? – reach out and touch the pillar of tesseracts. Golden light spread from the point of impact, circuit patterns spreading over and through the tesseracts as they folded into themselves and disappeared, until only one was left, floating at about chest height above the ground.

Her power twitched, a sensory ability falling into place which traced the spatial distortions, locating the tesseracts across the entire area covered by the Desolation Field. They’d been spread out, though not uniformly, clustering closer at key areas while neglecting ones at the fringes.

“These constructs serve as nodes for a teleportation network,” Memento explained calmly. “Touching one will project a map of the nodes’ locations and the area in general into your mind, allowing you to choose a node as the destination.”

He raised a hand, which split open and retracted the fingers, forming a cannon of sorts, as Irene felt the sensory ability recede in favour of a form of defense… desolidification of some kind, but she didn’t get a chance to figure it out before it was gone, her power realising that she didn’t need to defend herself against Memento.

A silvery beam was projected out of the arm cannon, like the wave patterns on liquid mercury you dropped something into, only it was just the waves without the mercury. Where the beam concentrated, a huge metal crate… faded into view, becoming fully solid within a few seconds.

Once the beam cut off, the crate folded open, revealing hundreds of small, about palm-sized objects, looking like watches without hands or bands.

“Every combatant is strongly advised to take one of these communicators and affix them to their body by touching the flat side to whichever spot upon them that they want it to adhere to,” he explained, as people began to appear out of the node, seemingly blinking into existence out of nowhere, up to four at a time each touching a different side of the tesseract.

Irene paid them no mind and stepped forward, feeling the cobblestone beneath her feet, thanks to the sock-like bottoms of her suit that she wore in lieu of actual shoes; a choice she’d made for a variety of reasons, from having no need to walk where it would be impractical footwear, to just wanting something cute and unusual…

And she was deflecting, letting her mind drift rather than deal with the here and now. She had to focus, to get herself ready to dive back into the fight; so she took one of the watches, turning it about in her hand as she walked away from the crate – it was more of a container really, when looked at from close range, it’d only seemed like a mere crate due to Memento’s present body being so huge – and came to a stop a little apart from anyone else.

She didn’t feel up to interacting, right then and there. The last few minutes still weighed heavily on her, as she touched the contrivance to her left collarbone, just below where the cape she’d inherited from her mother was connected to her bodysuit, and it stuck to it under its own power, booting up with a barely audible hum.

Mother’s cape, Irene thought morosely, remembering the occasion when her mother had given it to her – just minutes before she’d fought the Rabid Eight in that stupid stunt the director and Patrick had cooked up to show New Lennston that the UH still had teeth, even with nearly the entire adult membership being away for several months (it had worked, of course – barring the two bizarre S-Class events which followed upon one another, and the Red Goblins’ idiocy, the crime rate in New Lennston had risen only slightly, way below the projections made by Argus Panopticos), the moment when her mother had pulled the cape off her shoulders and put it around Irene’s, followed by a kiss to the forehead, standing out far more in her recollection than the entire battle which had followed, than the entire rest of the day, even though it’d been the day she’d first met Melody.

“You will surpass us, my love,” her mother said, her words as clear as if she was saying them right now. “You are the best of me, and the best of your father, and one day you will be more than we could ever be.”

And she’d said that with such conviction, like it was an absolute truth, and yet so calmly and casually, like it was self-evident.

Her father had been there also, as he was now, when her mother was not. Just like then, now, he moved closer, wrapping his arms around her from behind, lifting her off her feet to give her a light hug; though his wraith had been more solid then, his power more present, not expended as it was now.

“What are you thinking about, zeiskeit?” he asked now.

“What your mother is trying to say is that, one day, she and I will be but footnotes in history books, our only notable achievement being that we gave birth to and raised you,” he’d said then. “Now go and show the world a glimpse of that.”

“I’m thinking about Bree,” she said softly, feeling his body stiffen briefly, a flinch she could only notice because she was pressed so tightly against him, half engulfed in the wispy mist of his wraith. “I tried to… to reach her.” Her eyes watered, though she managed to blink the tears away, moments before her power offered and then withdrew a power that’d deaden her emotions. “She didn’t even notice me.”

She’d been so proud, back then. To finally be stepping up to the task. To finally have enough control over herself and her power that her parents trusted her to put on a costume and go out and do good.

To finally be able to start working on the one thing she knew would delight her parents more than anything, perhaps even more than answering that question – to recover their firstborn, so their family could finally be whole, without Bree’s spectre always looming over them.

To prove to the world that no one was beyond redemption.

To save her big sister.

And on a more selfish note, to prove that she herself didn’t have to follow down Bree’s path and even if she did, that she could still be saved even then.

She used to have nightmares about becoming like Bree, about killing those near and dear to herself – first her parents, then those like Gruncle Jake or Uncle Neil or Journeyman. Later, others had joined them in her nightmares, Thomas, Harry, Aimihime, even Goudo and Jared. Even Basil and his teammates, though she knew them so little. Prisca.

Melody.

“She is beyond saving, Irene,” he spoke softly, as he put her down and gently turned her around to face him, lowering himself down on one knee to look her in the eyes as he put a hand on each shoulder. “Please, please, if you must fight here – and believe me, if I thought I could enforce it right now, I wouldn’t let you take part in this – then you must not try to save her. You must not try to reach her. The only way you can go if you want to stay here is to see her as the enemy she is and work to mitigate the damage she does… and protect yourself.”

He pulled her into a hug again, the mist-like shadows wrapping around her, engulfing her face as she was pulled tightly against his hard chest, his arms warm and strong around her.

Even as she felt her body relax a bit, even as she focused on him to center her thoughts a bit, to keep them from continuing to fly apart, she couldn’t help but remember and consider…

You’re her father. Shouldn’t you, above all, believe that she can be saved? Do everything possible to save her? If not you, then who?

“How can I be more than both of you, if I can’t even do this?” she asked instead, her voice barely audible even to herself, catching hold of a different line of thought.

“Maybe one day you will be able to do what we couldn’t,” he replied, his voice soft in spite of the manifold distortions worked into it. “But that day is not now. Please, Irene, promise me. Promise me that you won’t try to save her, not today. Promise me that you’ll prioritise keeping yourself safe.” His grip on her tightened, as if he was trying to pull her deeper into his shadows, restrain her so she wouldn’t be able to join in the fight. “If not for your sake, then for mine. I could not bear to lose you.”

Unbidden, powers rose to prevent even that. High-speed teleportation, gaseous desolidification, a crude yet immensely powerful form of telekinesis…

No, she didn’t need those. She pushed the powers back, preventing them… herself… her steward… whomever from lashing out at her father or escaping his embrace.

Still, it served to illustrate his point well. Perhaps, if he hadn’t spent himself fighting Marchosias, then the Gefährten, he might have been able to restrain her, but the way he was now…

All he could do was plead with her and she would be lying if she denied that his heartfelt plea – for it truly was such, there was no doubt as to the sincerity of his emotions – didn’t make a part of her want to just curl up in his arms and leave, abandon the fight and just shut out the world for a while, regardless of the consequences…

But that part of her wasn’t the part that was in charge.

“I’ve got to fight, daddy,” she said softly, as she pushed her hands against his chest.

He resisted, briefly, but then he let her go, his six-eyed ‘face’ completely expressionless as he remained on one knee, briefly, before standing up again. He remained quiet.

Looking up at him, she felt her heart break a bit as she admitted to herself that he was right… to a point. “I… I promise you… I won’t try to save Bree, today,” she said, knowing that if she tried, she would fail and most likely die… “Today, I will fight to protect others from her, and I’ll do my best to keep myself safe as well, as far as that’s possible.”

And if Irene died, then who would save Bree? Who would save everyone else?

Who would answer the question she’d been born to answer?

He looked her in the eyes, six red ones to two blue ones, and nodded. “Thank you, zeiskeit.”

She nodded to him, lowering her eyes again. “What about mom?” she finally asked, after a few quiet seconds passed, while around them the capes and cowls were moving out. Most of the junior heroes had left her alone to talk to her father, but Melody was still there, waiting, watching her with those big, soulful eyes of hers.

Probably hearing everything they said, too, not that Irene minded that.

“I’ve sent a messenger to recall her as quickly as possible,” he replied calmly, back to a more business-like demeanor. “Unfortunately, she had to move beyond the reach of most forms of quick communication… it may take a while for the message to reach her, and even more to make her way here. For the time being, we will have to deal without her.”

She nodded. “What about you?”

He shook his head. “I spent too much. The way things stand, I can’t even provide communications with my wraiths,” he admitted, his anger over his own impotence evident even through the distortions of his darkwraith. “I’ll stay in the back, use Memento’s network to help coordinate and guide our forces.”

“Alright.” Deep breaths. “I’ll… be getting ready, then.” Her power was roiling, as active as she’d ever known it, like a pond or a small lake over-filled with fish fighting and striving to rise to the surface. She turned around to move away, but he took her by the shoulder.

“Irene, I am all but powerless right now,” he said, his voice soft. “But you know there’s a way for me to recharge rapidly.”

“A monstrous way,” she replied without turning around or even looking over her shoulder, her voice less than a whisper.

“Nonetheless, if I deem it necessary to protect you, I will walk that way, no matter the price to me… or others. Do you understand?” he countered, his voice as hard as it had been soft before.

A shiver ran down her spine as she contemplated what he was talking about… and the real meaning of his words.

To openly use, perhaps even publically reveal the true nature of his powers, kept secret for almost a century, just for the sake of protecting her.

You’re my daddy, after all, she thought, not without some wistfulness. I just wish you’d feel the same way about Bree.

Then again, perhaps you did try, and that failed, too.

She reached up with one hand and squeezed his hand where it lay on her shoulder. “I understand. I’ll make sure it won’t be necessary, I promise.” She squeezed his hand again, then she moved away, letting it slide off her shoulder as she walked over to Melody, quietly taking her friend’s hand.

Her father looked after her for a few more moments, then he turned away and moved over to Memento’s instance.

“I’m sorry,” Melody spoke softly, using her vocoder. Irene’s power wasn’t volunteering any telepathy right now… rather, it seemed to be building up to something big, by the feel of it.

“It’s alright,” Irene replied, squeezing her friend’s fingers tightly enough to be felt through her thick, rigid gloves. “Everything will be well, you’ll see.” She tried to give Melody a reassuring smile, but it clearly didn’t work well, judging by her expression.

Melody didn’t press the point, however, and Irene averted her eyes, looking out over the plaza again just in time to see Basil… calling him ‘Brennus’ just felt wrong to her, somehow, like it was missing something… approach the node, looking over his shoulders at the two of them – they were the last ones of his fellow teenagers still on the plaza, everyone else having moved on.

Another lost one, she thought, feeling a wave of sympathy wash over her. She knew about Prisca’s death, of course. She had cried when she heard, and she would likely cry more and grieve properly, once she had the time, but right now, others needed her more.

Others, like Basil. Something about him… he’d always felt different to her. Not in any way related to powers, but in a far more primal way.

It was like she’d thought moments ago.

He’s lost, like I am, she thought quietly, watching him touch the node and disappear, then she looked up and into the distance, seeing lights flash and dustclouds rise in the distance where the fight was even now going on.

We all are, really. Capes and cowls, the lot of us. Basil and Prisca, Vasiliki and Amanda, Dalia and Bree, all the others and foolish little Irene, all of us, here in the city where it all began, all the lost ones.

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B14.1 Breaking Point

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Pain lanced through Basil’s head, again, only to remain there, like a nail that had gotten stuck in his brain, a steady throbbing sensation, making him feel like his head was about to burst, or perhaps collapse, or perhaps simply burn to ash.

Pain was an old friend, one he didn’t really remember, yet familiar none the less. It had made it easy to ignore the many wounds he’d suffered throughout his short career as a hero so far, helped him compartmentalise the experiences, focus on taking the necessary steps to survive, rather than be preoccupied with the pain.

It helped here, again, even though this was a purer pain than ever he’d known before, a pain that was not in his body, but his mind, yet without any emotion to cause it. Still, he looked away from it, focused on what lay beyond his inner thoughts.

Frankly, focusing on the pain seemed like a more pleasant option. Desolation-in-Light still floated above the street, seemingly blind and deaf to the world around her, not that there was much to hear as everyone near her was deathly silent save for the occasional sobs.

He’d heard rumors, read stories of eye witnesses, many put off as mere attentionseekers, liars or crazies, of DiL appearing in places, isolated ones usually, only to do nothing at all but stay a while, floating in the air, and leave again, causing harm to none. Usually it was only witnessed by one or two people, in those stories, but they remained remarkably consistent and most of the reports had had the ring of truth about them.

A small part of him, a very small one, dared hope that she would disappear here, too, leave them be – leave it at a mere scare, rather than the sheer namesake desolation that was sure to follow if she struck now.

The pain in his head redoubled as a shower of light, like liquid, glimmered around her, starting above her head from a single point, spreading into a glowing halo, before it ran down, tracing a sphere around her as it expanded until the halfway point, then collapsed again, until it gathered into a single spot beneath her feet again and disappeared, as the pain in Basil’s head returned to its earlier, more managable throbb.

Tiny spots appeared all around her, as if stuck to the surface of the invisible sphere the light had just traced, the spots growing as they spun in place, tiny rocks that grew, starting to make grinding sounds as they cracked into many smaller pieces that ground against each other even as they continued to grow and spin and dance about her.

Basil was still unbalanced by the sudden surge of pain, but Vasiliki, fortunately, was not and she didn’t wait to see what this power, or whichever others she had picked, could do. Rather, she threw something at the ground in front of them, and a cloud of greenish smoke rose up and encircled them, forming a slightly glowing dome around the bench they’d sat on.

Rising up, she reached into her purse and withdrew an elongated package wrapped in white fabric several times the size of the tiny purse, throwing it at him.

He caught it, more out of instinct than conscious thought, recognising the emergency package he’d entrusted to her a while ago, for occasions such as these.

Unwrapping it, the white fabric was revealed to be a replica of his cloak with the corvid uroboros upon the back, having been wrapped around a pair of boots and gloves, as well as a sleek, yet boxy rifle made of silver and black metal, as long as one of his legs from toe to hip and, finally, a slender mask.

Vasiliki, meanwhile, had stripped out of her clothes right next to him, revealing that she’d worn her bodysuit underneath her clothes, just with the sleeves rolled up – what he’d thought to be stockings had been her costume’s pants. She finished tugging it into place, putting her clothes into the purse before pulling the outside cover off said purse, revealing it to be her bag of holding.

They dressed up, both of them, with Basil’s shoes and jacket disappearing into her bag as well, while she pulled out her belt, her cloak, her staff, boots, gloves and various other odds and ends she’d crafted over the months, lesser contrivances compared to the power she’d concentrated into her staff, belt and bag, but formidable nonetheless. She didn’t wear a mask, rather, her hood was enchanted to always stay on and shroud her face in shadows, only showing her jaw and lips, and only if she wanted it to at that.

Basil was done before she was, finally just holding the mask in his hands, looking down at it. It was a simple thing, not a helmet but a mask, yet without straps. Rather, its insides showed a lot of moving parts, as it was designed to shift and clip onto his face, molding itself to its contours, hiding it from his hairline down to his chin. Designed to look smooth, almost glassy on the outside, its lines barely implying the shape of a face, it was of the same jet-black ceramic as his armour was, except he had left that back home.

He held it to his face and felt it shift, attaching itself to it so finely he barely felt its weight once it was done and his interface booted up, the mask becoming seemingly transparent to his eyes as the all but invisible channels worked into its surface captured light (as well as other things), serving essentially as a big camera that covered the entire front of his mask. Two small extensions had folded out the sides and covered his ears, though they quickly picked up the sounds around him and channeled them through, allowing him to hear as clearly as if there were no obstructions at all. The mask did not nearly have his full suite of sensors and communication technologies, even he could only fit so much into such a small space, but it had enough to give him half a dozen vision modes and an uplink to his own personal network, the one he shared with Eudocia, his sole remaining raven and the equipment back at his base.

The gloves and boots were simple things, too. Both were meant to let him stick to objects by manipulating the forces that allowed molecules to stick together, creating temporary bonds between their surfaces and whatever he was touching. Both could also serve as contact-tasers.

Picking up his rifle – a small railgun which could also fire a grappling hook – he looked at Hecate.

”Sound test,” he said, a flick of his eyes making it so he could only be heard through their communications network.

“Hearing you loud and clear,” Hecate responded. “Oneiros’ Shroud will be down in sixteen seconds. What should we do?”

They, of course, hadn’t just thrown up a smokescreen while within such close range to DiL, blinding themselves to any attack that may come. The spell which Hecate had named Oneiros’ Shroud was an expensive one – it had taken her nearly a whole week to prepare this one, and they’d determined to only use it in an emergency. According to her, the smoke it generated transposed whatever it enshrouded into the world of dreams… well, he definitely needed to brush up his knowledge of Greek mythology, some day.

Either way, they ought to be safe until it went down. The fact that they hadn’t horribly died yet spoke to that fact.

Still, they’d need to act, and they’d need to act in concert in order to survive and save as many people as they could.

Feeling bone-wearingly tired, Basil took a deep breath and focused on his friend. “We make a move for the civilians. Try to get as many of them as far away from DiL as possible. Try to get in contact with other capes and cowls, coordinate as much as possible.”

No point in making too elaborate a plan when there was no way to tell how the situation was going to be. For all of her appearances, DiL rarely created the same kind of chaos twice and was all but impossible to plan ahead for.

Hecate looked at him, her face unreadable beneath her hood’s shadow. “Alright. Don’t die, Basil.” She reached out and took his free hand, squeezing it tightly. “There’s still… a lot we need to talk about,” she finished, her voice thick with emotion.

He looked down at their joined hands, nodding, though he didn’t get a chance to reply properly as the shroud dissolved around them and they found themselves amidst a wasteland of jagged rocks and shattered trees.

Looking about, letting go of each other’s hand, they saw huge growths of jagged grey and black rocks which seemingly sprouted from the ground all around, utterly savaging the park and the street DiL had appeared above, as well as the buildings there. The rocks had smashed trees and cars and buildings and impaled no small number of people, and crushed others.

DiL was not in sight, but where she had been was in evidence as the rocks all seemed to have spawned from around her, and lead back and up to it, twisted rock formations forming almost hand-like shapes as they reached up into the air, wrapping around what was now just empty air.

The area that Oneiros’ Shroud had protected was unblemished, untouched by rock, the outgrowths forming a perfect circle around them, sheered off where they had reached into the mist.

“I did not know it could do that,” Basil whispered.

”Neither did I…” Hecate replied. “I guess… we got switched back… and the rocks jutting into the shroud were pulled along as it returned to its rightful place.”

Basil nodded, and looked out over the devastation, switching through various modes of vision. “Over there. Survivors!”

He took off, running towards a particularly dense concentration of body-shaped… mostly body-shaped… heat signatures, behind a wall of jagged rocks, but without his grappling hooks, Hecate easily overtook him, shooting past him as a mass of green-black smoke, surging across the wrecked park, the broken street and into the ruins of what used to be a toy shop.

By the time he got there, she was already triaging the survivors, applying her healing salve to only the most immediately dangerous wounds – she didn’t have much of it and it was by far one of her most expensive contrivances in terms of materials required to make it.

Basil joined in as she pulled a first aid kit out of her bag, throwing it at him. He caught it and went to work.

There were eight survivors in the toy shop, half of them children and more corpses than he cared to count.

Of the eight, two were in critical condition – one six-year-old boy had had one of his legs shorn off by a razor-sharp blade of stone and had nearly bled out before Hecate had gotten to him, and a woman had been impaled through the abdomen by a thin spear of the same material.

The children weren’t even crying yet, still not having processed what was going on it seemed.

Basil tied off the boy’s leg stump after Hecate applied her salve to it, and tightened the kn-

He gasped, bending over, as the pain spiked again, his vision briefly going white as his whole world was nothing but agony for a moment.

“Brennus, what’s wrong?” Hecate asked in worry as she reached over and finished tying the knot.

“I do not… some kind of headache… since she appeared… momentary spikes of white-hot pain,” he gasped, the agony dying back down to the steady throb of background pain he could actually deal with.

She spat some kind of curse in Greek and slid over on her knees, finishing his work on the boy’s stump. “Can you help her?” she asked with a nod towards the woman who’d been impaled.

Getting up and walking over, he took a closer look, as the woman looked up at him with eyes that were nearly delirious with pain, as she held onto the hand of a toddler in a stroller, the little girl staring at her mother in confusion – unable to understand what was wrong, but still grasping that something was off, he guessed.

He couldn’t help with that, but he could help the woman, and told her so, his voice calmer than he felt as he knelt down next to her.

She was young, just a little older than Amy if he had to guess and had the kind of thinness he usually associated with out-of-practice athletes – she no longer worked out to maintain the muscle tone, but hadn’t really put on much weight either. She was healthy though, clearly, and that might make all the difference.

A sharp spear – more of a rough blade, really – had thrust up out of the ground, impaling her through her green pullover. She was half bent over, on her knees and trembling from head to toe; fortunately, the blade had pierced her at an angle and had missed her spine, at the very least. It was, however, in position to have pierced through her intestines, her stomach and perhaps even a kidney.

”I can not remove the spike in these conditions,” he told her calmly. “I will cut it off beneath you, so we can move you someplace you can get the surgery needed.” Right then, the spike was likely the only thing keeping her from bleeding out, and he didn’t have the equipment on hand to operate.

She looked at him, blood running from her mouth over her lips and down her chin, nodding when she couldn’t find the strength to speak.

Basil switched places with Hecate again, telling her what needed to be done. He checked over her work on the boy – he’d passed out – and then went on to apply first aid where needed, while Hecate used one of her charms to simply disintegrate the spike beneath the woman as a store clerk helped hold her steady, then lowered her gently to the ground.

It was good, but it wasn’t enough. The woman, the boy, at least three more, they weren’t going to make it unless they got them somewhere sa-

He flinched, briefly stunned by another spike of white-hot pain, before it receeded again.

They had to get them somewhere for proper treatment, else they’d die. But they were in no state to be transported and survive it.

As cruel a catch twenty-two as any-

White-hot pain.

He shook his head, trying to centre himself again. A shorter interval, this time. Is it just going to get more frequent, until there’s nothing but the pain?

He’d counted the seconds between episodes, in the back of his mind, and he could not yet see any regularity to them. No pattern.

Not that he had the time to really analyse what was going on…

He looked up, moments before the air before the shattered storefront window twisted, condensing into a whirl of shadows, then snapped apart again, a familiar figure appearing out of it and landing nimbly on her bodysuit-covered feet.

The people in the shop, especially the children, looked at her in awe, some cheering weakly as Gloom Glimmer smiled at them, trying to look reassuringly friendly, even as Basil could see a pain that put his headache to shame behind those brilliant blue eyes.

She looked at him and Hecate. “We’re gathering up at the Memorial Plaza. Make your way there while I take these people to the medical camp.”

Basil and Hecate exchanged looks, then nodded to Gloom Glimmer, briefly telling her the most crucial details on the people there before they made their way out of the former toy shop, not even taking the time to look back as they heard the twisting snap of Gloom Glimmer’s teleportation.

***

The Memorial Plaza stood where the centre of Old Lennston had once been, making up one of the three central points of New Lennston, the others being the Town Hall and the United Heroes’ headquarters, the three of whom were connected via a ring road encircling a big, circular park with several small lakes and ponds within.

While the plaza had originally been designed for the sake of remembering Old Lennston, it had evolved past that singular purpose – there was now also a memorial to Lennston’s fallen superheroes, as well as those of its scions which had gone off to war and never returned alive. There was also one for the casualties of the police force… the place had in general become a place for remembering all that had been lost to Lennston, both Old and New.

Nineteen capes and cowls stood in front of the obelisk which made up its centrer, at the steps of which stood the unmistakable figure of the Dark, who was addressing the others.

Basil and Hecate landed near the group, just in time for another surge of pain to nearly knock him off his feet.

If this goes on I may well grow used to it…

The Dark looked at them, his expression as unreadable in its absence as ever – but his form was unlike anything they’d ever seen before – rather than the thick, almost liquid darkness of his customary wraith, his form now was smoky, billowing around his form; just as hidden as before, but somehow less… substantial, both in appearance and presence.

Exhaustion? From the fight against the Gefährten?, Basil asked himself, and immediately felt guilty – they needed the Dark in this, he was one of the most effective and efficient counters for DiL, and if it was his utterly failed excursion which drained him just in time for his deranged daughter’s attack…

Hecate punched his shoulder, staggering him out of his contemplation.

When he looked at her, he couldn’t see her face but he could tell she was glaring at him. “You can’t go around blaming yourself for everything. We each made our own choices,” she said firmly.

Basil looked away from her and down, taking a moment to absorb her words. Then he nodded, quietly, which seemed to please her as she grunted in a rather unladylike fashion and turned away to focus on the other gathered capes and cowls.

He only looked around briefly, but he didn’t see Amy… he hoped she was alright. He hoped she’d gotten out of that hellscape. He hoped she hadn’t gotten hurt.

How did I not worry about her? he asked himself as he followed Hecate quietly, staying behind her as they joined the Junior Heroes. All this time, I was just thinking about myself, while she was out there fighting, risking her life because I dragged her into that madness. I…

There was a hard impact on the ground nearby, causing Hecate and the Juniors to stagger, while Basil just adjusted his stance slightly, turning towards the source – only to get a face-full of Amy’s spandex-clad breasts as she drew him into an almost literally bone-crushing hug.

I heard. I’m sorry, she whispered softly into his head, even as she squeezed the life out of him. Deliberately, surely – she was still angry with him.

Basil raised his arms, giving her a light hug back – he really didn’t care whether more people found out about their relationship now; anyone who mattered already knew or would know regardless.

He saw Amazon glare daggers at the two of them through his raven, but most people were focused on the Dark.

Another spike of pain caused him to flinch, his legs buckling briefly at the sudden interruption to the soothing embrace.

”Brennus! What’s wrong?” Amy asked worriedly, looking at him with wide eyes as he let go of her and staggered back. Our connection was interrupted for a moment!

”Pain… ever since she showed up, there’s been this constant pain in my head,” he replied, holding his head with one hand. “And sometimes there’s a spike of even worse pain, but I don’t know why.”

”When did you first feel the increased pain?” the Dark interjected suddenly, having moved closer. At the same time, Rounds and the other adult heroes – save for Bismuth, who stood apart from the rest for some reason – came closer as well, their leader looking worried and more than a little suspicious.

Basil looked up at him, too numbed by… by everything, to really feel anything at his presence. Cycling through his raven’s memory, he found the moment. “When she first assumed a power-set,” he replied, his mind already leaping apart to a possible explanation…

The Dark nodded, as if a thought was confirmed. “You’re reacting to her power changes,” he replied with the tone of absolute certainty. “It might be useful to know if we lose sight of her to be able to tell whether and how often she changes powers.” He reached into the shadows enveloping his body, causing strands of jet-black mist to drift off, then held his hand out. “Wear or connect to this communicator.”

Basil reached out and took the flat, disc-like gadget – he wasn’t sure whether it was actually made by a gadgeteer, but it looked so compact and well-crafted, he strongly suspected that it had been – and turned it over. The palm-sized disk was smooth and silver on one side, but had several exposed circuits on the other.

Touching the circuit-covered side to his mask’s forehead, he found that it activated and synchronised with his mask’s systems easily – too easily. Wyrm’s, I suppose, he thought to himself as he pulled the disc away and attached it to his belt, where it stuck by itself.

”You’re now connected to our local network. Send a single ping whenever you sense a power change and we’ll route it through to everyone with a communicator,” the Dark instructed him.

Before Basil could reply in any fashion, even to agree, the wispy figure turned away and walked up the steps towards the monument, turning around to talk to the gathered capes.

“If I may have your attention, please,” he spoke, his voice deep and powerful enough it easily covered the plaza without any obvious amplification. Once everyone had turned to look at him, he went on. “We don’t have much time, so I’ll be brief. Most of you have never fought a battle like this before. You all think you know what to expect, from television, reports, books and whatever else told you about these fights. Most of them don’t know much. Here’s the facts as we know them: DiL is utterly invulnerable to damn near any effect ever used against her. Her personal, permanent defense makes it impossible to affect her with anything, including moving her in any way she does not wish to be moved. Sensory and mental attacks are just as useless as spatial and temporal ones. Her hair, teeth, finger- and toe-nails glow with a bright white light which acts as disintegrating contact poison that can eat through most defenses and constitutes a certain death unless you sever the affected portion of your body. She can fly and she has no known top speed – it ranges from walking speed to what is effectively short-range teleportation, especially since her invulnerability means that anything in her path will be obliterated rather than stop or even slow her. She does not rely on mundane senses whatsoever and appears completely unresponsive to such stimuli. It is theorized that she senses powers in some fashion, though she has demonstrated the ability to perceive baseline humans in the past, as well. However her sense or senses may work, they appear to pierce any kind of shroud. She is an impenetrable blindspot to Espers of all kinds, particularly Pretercognitives. Do not rely on danger senses or their like.”

“Your goal must not be to attack her but to interfere with and, if possible, counter whichever other abilities she assumes,” he clarified, looking around at the gathered capes and cowls. “She always assumes three distinct powers which can broadly be classified as offensive, defensive and utilitarian, respectively. Her powers start out world-class and grow from there. Whenever at least one of her abilities is interfered with to any meaningful degree, she changes her entire loadout and the new abilities she assumes start out at base level again. Why she acts in this fashion, we don’t know. If she’s allowed to build up for too long, the consequences tend to look like Mexico, Old Lennston, Portland or Okinawa. Do not let her build up.”

He stopped, giving them a moment to digest that. “Furthermore, the Desolation Field. Normally it extends to a radius of roughly two miles around her person. This time, she appears to have simply extended it over the whole of New Lennston and left it stationary, though fortunately she has not ‘hardened’ it as she did during her last appearance. The field blocks any kind of signal from crossing its boundary. This includes powers – Espers can’t perceive into or out of the field, even precognition is blocked. Power effects can travel across, but powers can’t reach through it – so if your power lets you, say, create a fireball you lob somewhere, it will travel across, but you won’t be able to, say, target someone for teleportation across the boundary, or affect them with any kind of mental power. Any such power will work properly within the field itself. Also, though it’s likely not useful to know, but maybe it’ll spark an idea somewhere, no one has ever manifested while within range of her Desolation field. People have manifested during her attacks, but only while outside the range of her sphere of influence, never while within it. Heterodyning also appears to be impossible while within range of her desolation field.” He paused again, looking out over the gathered crowd, as if searching for something, his gaze briefly stopping on his daughter as she stood together with most of the other teens – Outstep was missing – before moving on.

Basil looked around, once it seemed that the Dark was taking a break, and what he saw was a mixture of determination, resignation and sheer hopelessness spread liberally and to varying degrees over any face and body he could see. They all knew that this was a fight which could at best end in a phyrric victory which could only delay the destruction, not eliminate its source.

He would likely have felt some such emotions himself, but he was still blissfully numb.

“In spite of all this, our situation is not hopeless,” the Dark drew everyone’s attention back to himself. “Our biggest advantage is that DiL is not intelligent. She has no sense for tactics, forethought or subterfuge. Any such instances perceived in the past were ultimately just coincidences, never to be repeated – and they are incredibly rare to begin with. Furthermore, we-“

There was a shout, followed by another, as people pointed upwards at the sky, interrupting the Dark.

Basil looked up just in time to see a huge figure drop through the Desolation field, its descent slowed by blue-hot jets of flame shooting out of its feet.

And then another.

And another.

And more besides.

Dozens of hulking, glimmering figures dropped out of the sky, some of them accompanied by strange objects and weaponry – the closest one, which dropped down and lended with a pavement-cracking thud a dozen metre away from the gathered capes and cowls was reaching out, its hand laying flat on the side of a pillar as thick as two people and twice as tall as a schoolbus was long, made apparently from hundreds of chest-sized, silver-and-gold tesseracts shifting and moving into and through each other in a dizzying display of reality-defying engineering.

The figure next to it was no less impressive, though more familiar. A hulking humanoid made of steel, brass and gold, crafted as much for aesthetic appeal as raw functionality, was twice as tall as the Dark himself, easily four times as wide if not more and moved with mechanical perfection as it looked around them, its head encased in a dome of what read as see-through diamond to Basil’s sensors, holding a human-sized mechanical head within, its inner workings exposed, showing wires, chips and lots of clock-work-like bits which moved to give it the illusion of facial expressions, a pair of glowing red lenses making up its ‘eyes’. It looked out over the gathered capes and cowls, its expression neutral, as dozens more of its kind landed all across the city, each accompanied by a different device, some of them immediately joining in the battle against DiL in the distance.

“Huh,” the Dark looked at him in what appeared to be surprise, while a ripple of pure relief went through the other gathered metahumans. “Good to see you’re not sitting this one out again, Memento.”

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B13.d 8 Bad People

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You’re going to die.

Sam half lay and half sat on the floor, curled up and whimpering, as the others gathered around Immanuel and the glowing sarcophagus-tank near him.

“Well, this went wrong,” the gorgeous young man – whom she’d only ever met once before, when he’d welcomed her to the Installation – said with a calm smile on his face, showing absolutely no discomfort at the stump of his left arm being poked at by the Tapirapé woman in the white labcoat kneeling next to him. “So, what’s the diagnosis, Fräulein Doktor?”

He’s going to die.

The middle-aged woman rolled her eyes and pulled the two needles she’d been poking around inside his biceps with out. “The diagnosis, Herr Schwachkopf, is that you pissed off the wrong centenarian demigod and you’re lucky it only cost you your arm,” the Ascendant told him in a biting tone. “But if you’re asking whether I can make you a replacement, the answer is probably. Whatever he did, thanks to Master Konrad’s swift intervention, it’s been neutralised.”

She’s going to die.

Sammy whimpered, looking down at the stump of her own left arm, where it ended just below where her wrist had once been, now neatly cut off and then bandaged by Tsukiko. Same as her left leg, just below the knee.

If it wasn’t for Konrad, she’d have lost more than that…

***

The tide of darkness was steadily advancing, grinding down their people. Chronicle was doing her best to stem it from where she stood next to Immanuel, along with Prism and Judicator, resetting the few she’d been able to record beforehand every time they took too much damage or died.

It wasn’t enough, not by a long shot. The shadow demons kept coming, over and over, and it wasn’t just their sheer mass that was slowly killing people, like they’d killed Brad, torn him limb from limb just out of her sight, so she’d been unable to reset him before he’d been dead for too long.

There was a mind behind them, one single mind. A malevolent intellect that wanted them all dead, dead and gone and she could see its hatred, his hatred, in every motion of his demons. Coordinating them, the small ones and the big, unique ones, the ones with powers of their own.

Fifty-eight people on their side, fifty-eight metahumans, and they were being beaten by a single enemy they hadn’t even been able to scratch yet.

Chronicle saw Karasuha reform out of her bird form, dropping down onto the Dark, only to be quickly dispatched like a fly to be swatted down, and reached out with her power, focusing on her love’s recording…

***

“Sammy,” Tsukiko spoke softly, kneeling down next to her in a graceful motion, having stripped off her armour and robe, wearing only the black bodysuit underneath and her boots. “Here, drink this,” she continued in that beautiful Japanese accent of hers, holding a flat bowl to Sam’s lips. “It will ease the pain.”

Look at her pretty face. It’s going to rot, after she dies.

Sam whimpered, drinking the slightly glowing, purple brew. It tasted… warm, and kind of earthy, and the pain in her arm and leg instantly eased.

You’re still going to die.

Tsukiko smiled, leaning in to kiss her on the forehead. “There, much better now, right?” she asked, looking down at her with warm, loving eyes.

Sam looked back with wet, tired eyes in turn. She didn’t trust her voice, so she just nodded, and got a hug in return.

You’ll both die, and never be together again.

Looking over her wife’s shoulder (her ring had been on her left hand… gone now…) she looked at the glowing sarcophagus. It was one of those used to store the Ascendant’s creations, repurposed to help its occupant recover from his wounds.

Within lay a nude man. He was tall and young, in his mid-to-late twenties, though she suspected he was much older.

Konrad, Immanuel’s partner and opposite, the right hand of their leader, where Immanuel was the left one. The sword, where Immanuel was the pen.

He was Immanuel’s opposite in appearance, as far as that was possible while still being from Germany. Tall and broad-shouldered, heavily muscled to the point where his abs had more abs, though his build was still slimmer than that of many a strongman, more like a ballet dancer who’d gone overboard with his workout. His face was merely attractive, instead of drop-dead gorgeous, with a slightly crooked, yet noble nose, visible beard-stubble and long, shaggy blonde hair. If Sam had been into men at all, she’d probably have already been crushing on him already, even before seeing his power.

He’s going to die.

His right arm had partially dissolved, scars of molten flesh winding up from his fingers all the way to his shoulder, but they were healing, even though he’d been touched more directly than either her or Immanuel, even though he’d struck the monstrosity…

***

A huge impact shook the Installation, causing Chronicle to stumble. She would’ve fallen, if Immanuel hadn’t reached out and gently pushed on her shoulder, allowing her to regain her balance. He hadn’t even been inconvenienced.

“Something’s coming up,” he said, stepping backwards, the group around him automatically falling into line. Sablo, the ribbon-haired, nude woman who’d been protecting them from the Dark’s wraiths, keeping up a glowing white circle on the ground that moved with the group as they retreated along the metal walkway they were on. Even the Dark’s greater demons had been unable to breach it yet, though they’d also been unable to focus on it to any meaningful degree, either. “All of you, brace yourselves!”

Chronicle did just that, grabbing a hold of the rail next to herself, as even the Dark’s assault briefly stalled.

Near the centre of the Installation, four objects burst through it in showers of metal and salt water, shooting up into the air above, the force with which they’d broken through so immense it briefly caused the entire floating city to tilt left and right like a ship in a storm.

Everyone paused and stared up as the water streamed off what appeared to be four perfect, kind of liquid spheres, each of a different colour – white, red, black and green. Each seemed to be about twice the size of a person.

“Oh, Heng, what were you thinking?” Immanuel complained. “Blindly injecting so many samples at once… now we don’t even know which ones produced these.”

The four spheres hung in the air for a few moments, then they suddenly shot in four different directions, away from each other, without the slightest sound.

Chronicle stared up, dumbfounded. What’d just ha-

“Watch out!” Judicator cried, pointing ahead, causing her to look towards their enemy again – only to feel her blood run cold. Colder.

Several of the individualistic shadow demons had gathered up. One, humanoid with wings instead of arms and but a single red eye in the centre of its face, was floating above the others, staring resolutely at their small group, while smaller demons circled around it, absorbing attacks upon it with their own bodies, sacrificing themselves to keep it safe from the attacks of the remaining defenders – twenty, at best, by now.

Beneath it, a muscular demon with a lop-sided build, upper body far thicker, heavily corded with pulsing muscle, while the legs seemed almost comically thin, was holding a sword that was easily twice as long as the demon was tall, and half as broad, holding it two-handed and pointed at their group. Another demon, a curvy female shape with twisted, almost U-shaped horns growing out of its smooth, six-eyed head and standing on her toes, was pointing its clawed hands at the sword, eldritch blood-red flames streaming from them to wrap around the blade in a double-helix that continued to grow more and more dense, more and more bright. A third demon, featureless save for its six eyes and tentacles instead of legs, was spinning some kind of web between its long-fingered hands, casting out strands of it to form another, larger web in the air in front of the pointed blade.

“If that is what it looks like… I don’t think I’ll be able to hold out, Sir,” their protector admitted in a strained voice, without looking away from their enemy. “I’ll try to lessen the blow, at least,” she affirmed, her arms still raised, fingers together in a box-like shape.

“Wait for it,” was all Immanuel said in response.

“We need Konrad,” Judicator spoke in a mellow voice, though the note of worry underneath was unmistakable. “He’s our only hope to beat the adversary, or at least manage a proper retreat.”

“Wait for it,” their leader repeated.

“Sir, something is sapping my shield’s power!” Sablo cried.

Chronicle could do nothing but stare as the Dark’s demos built more and more energy up to unleash at them – the ribbons of almost liquid fire around the blade were so dense the sword beneath could no longer be seen, and so massive they more than doubled its size. The web between them and the sword had grown fantastically elaborate, as well.

Beyond the demons, the Dark himself stood, seemingly impassive as he stared at them, his form writing softly, dripping shadows – only it was dripping them up, rising towards the sky and fading away. A small detail, but like everything about the sight of him, about his whole presence, it profoundly unnerved Chronicle.

Then he made a gesture with his hand, casually dismissive, and his demons loosened their attack.

The muscle-bound demon raised its sword high, the blood-red flames of the female sticking to it, and swung it down with all its strength, unleashing the stored-up energy. The flames formed a huge, bloody fireball, which hit the web of light the third demon had woven – and was multiplied, huge becoming gigantic, a sphere of almost liquid flames coming straight at them, big enough to swallow a city block whole before it even exploded.

Chronicle didn’t see her whole life pass before her eyes, as the saying went. No, she only saw Yukiko, and…

A figure dropped out of the sky, wearing a black longcoat over broad shoulders and wielding a curved short-sword in his left hand. Chronicle saw long, messy blonde hair, for a moment, before the new arrival swung their blade at the incoming fireball, striking it at the very moment it came within reach of the blade.

The entire fireball was reversed and swelled in size, flying back towards the demons and their master, twice as big as it had been before.

“Friss das, Goldschmidt!” Immanuel cheered, throwing his arms up in the air, as everyone else just stared.

They couldn’t see the effects of the fireball upon the demons, as its own flames obscured the sight, but Chronicle was sure it had already passed over their position, hopefully destroying them, and was now rapidly nearing the Dark himself…

The fireball fell apart, dispersed in every direction, leaving behind a molten scar along its way; at its end stood the Dark, right arm extended towards them, the hand clenched into a fist, as if he’d just grabbed the gigantic sphere and crushed it.

Within the path of the fireball lay the molten remains of a gigantic sword, with no sign at all of its former wielder. To the left lay half of the demon who’d woven the glowing web, its left arm and most of its lower body gone. There was no way for Chronicle to tell whether it was still alive – if it had ever been to begin with – so long as it didn’t move . The female demon stood where she had, completely unharmed – clearly, she was immune to her own power’s flames, no matter how amplified.

Their savior stood up, dusting himself off before he made what Chronicle assumed to be a playful salute towards the Dark – and then he turned his back to him, facing them with a smile.

He was tall, almost two metre in height if not a little above it, and very muscular, wearing what must have once been a very expensive longcoat, now frayed and partially torn along its edges. It was unbuttoned, showing off a chest and stomach you could grind meat on, as he seemed to wear only a pair of black pants underneath, and brown boots.

Chronicle would have been deliriously happy to see a face as friendly as his, the easy, confident smile even in the face of one of their greatest enemies, but there was just something off, about those dark red, almost black eyes. Like something was… missing.

“Konrad, deine eklige Fresse ist zur Abwechslung mal höchst willkommen!” Immanuel greeted him, as their savior bowed deeply.

“Ach mein Freund, wir wissen doch beide, dass du dich stehts nach meinem Antlitz sehnst!” Konrad replied with a smile. “Jetzt beruhigt ihr auch alle mal während ich unseren Gast des Grundstückes verweise!”

He had barely finished his speech – not that Chronicle could understand either of them, she’d only just started learning German – when he whirled around and slashes his short blade in a wide, horizontal arc, just as a literal tide of demons closed in on him.

They were all obliterated, the entire mass of demons simply blown away into Nothingness, all the lesser ones gone. Only the greater demons, the ones which differed from the formless mass and had stayed back, still remained.

“Los gehts!” Konrad shouted and jumped, a single leap taking him across a hundred metre towards the nearest demon – the horned female – at such speed he seemed to all but teleport.

The demon raised a hand, bloody flames wrapping around it, but she was too slow – Konrad swung his blade and she was obliterated. Not slashed, not split in half, just entirely obliterated, leaving nothing behind.

“I rather liked that one,” the Dark complained, his voice barely restrained, bubbling with hatred just underneath the surface.

“I rather liked Brad and Rhoda and Jonas,” Konrad replied with a cheerful shrug. “But you k-“

“I really don’t care,” he interrupted him, as he suddenly appeared right in front of Konrad, looking down at the shorter man, as Konrad looked up with a smile. “Ich habe viele Geschichten über dich gehört, Konrad.”

“Nur gute, hoffe ich?” Konrad replied in a conversational tone, making no move to attack.

“Man erzählt mir du wärst der Stärkste der Starken. Stärker als dein Meister, falls es ihn überhaupt gibt. Stärker, sogar, als Gwen und ich.”

“Ich weiss nicht, ob ich stärker bin als ihr beide,” the shorter man replied, then chuckled. “Aber stärker als einer von euch beiden? Das könnte gut sein.” He tilted his head to the side and raised an eyebrow. “Lust, rauszufinden ob die Geschichten wahr sind?”

The Dark struck him, delivering a right-handed punch to Konrad’s face with such force, it created a sonic boom and distorted the air around them.

Konrad didn’t even move from his spot, though the punch did snap his head to the side.

“Ow,” he grunted, touching two fingers to his bloody lip. “Been a while since I took a hit that strong.” He looked up at the Dark, smirking. “My turn.”

He raised his blade, swinging with his left hand – but the Dark reached out, pushing his hand against Konrad’s wrist, arresting the motion before he could hit.

“No fair, I gave you a free shot,” the swordsman complained, though he didn’t sound particularly put off.

“I’m not here to play games,” the Dark hissed. “Now be a good lad and d-“

Konrad’s right fist connected with the Dark’s chest – he was just plain too tall to easily reach his head – and launched him across the ruined Installation, until he slammed into the remains of the Ascendant’s and Dusu’s lab, twisting and shattering them further than they already were.

“I think my punch was bigger than your punch,” Konrad said, as they watched the remains of the structure collapse, burying the Dark beneath the rubble.

***

Konrad opened his eyes, looking around inside his healing pod, and through the clear glass front. He made no move to cover himself up at all, rather, he just smiled at everyone.

“Yeah, this is everyone who made it out,” Immanuel answered an unspoken question. Konrad frowned down at him. “Thanks to you – if you hadn’t shown up when you did, none of us would’ve made it,” the one-armed man consoled him. “Except, possibly, for Bira and her doll, here.” He looked at the Ascendant, who’d moved away from his side and was kneeling next to the quietly breathing form of Elysium, who was lying on her side, and was pushing a gadget which looked like some kind of gun with a long needle coming out of the muzzle into her ear, not paying any attention to the rest of the room.

Konrad relaxed, shrugging those huge shoulders of his.

“I don’t know that you two should be so happy,” a new voice spoke up, as a stocky, plain-faced Japanese woman with brown hair in a bun entered, her heavy, practical work boots, jeans and dark green jacket contrasting greatly with the way everyone else in the room looked.

She’s going to die.

“For all your talk, we got ourselves kicked in our collective posteriors by one enemy, after getting ourselves completely shown up by a bunch of teenagers,” Heaven’s Dancer snarled at Immanuel and Konrad, her new host’s rough appearance making her look even angrier than she otherwise would.

“Totally worth it, though,” Immanuel replied with a smile.

“Worth it? Worth it!?” Heaven’s Dancer almost shrieked at them, clenching her caloused hands into tight fists. “How, in the name of God, was this worth it? What, exactly, did we gain?”

Immanuel opened his mouth to reply, but she cut him off with a sharp hand gesture. “No, don’t tell me yet.” She reached into her jacket’s pocket and pulled out a phone. “He wants to talk to you lot.” She pressed a number and then held the phone out towards them.

“Immanuel,” a raspy, deep voice spoke through it. It was so deep, it was actually kind of hard to make out what the man – and it was very clearly a male voice – actually said. A voice so deep, it made one feel like their bones ought to vibrate.

Sam had never heard it before, but Tsukiko tightend up in her arms, as if afraid. “W-what?” she asked her wife in a whisper.

“That’s him,” Tsukiko replied, but before she could elaborate, Immanuel replied.

“What an honour to hear from you so soon, oh fearless leader of mine!” he greeted him, standing up just so he could bow with a fancy flourish of his one good arm. “I thought you would be busy-“

“Save the theatrics, please,” the leader cut him off, sounding exasperated, though not unfriendly. “I already know what happened. Tell me how we profited from it.”

He’s going to die.

“Well, first of all, we know about a herefore unknown metahuman factor – the so-called Journeyman,” Immanuel began to enumerate as he sat down once more. “Someone who’s not merely a blank to Espers, but is, in fact, completely invisible – I could not perceive him even when I knew where he was, could not even perceive a blank like with DiL. I’ve already combed our records and he shows up nowhere.”

“Such information is valuable, but limited and hardly worth our losses.”

“Secondly, he inadvertantly preserved a major asset for us,” the one-armed Esper continued, standing up. “Though Bira is probably better suited to explaining this one.” He walked over to Konrad’s healing pod and began to shut it down, draining the liquid he was floating within.

“Huh?” Bira looked up, confused for a moment, then seemed to realise what was going on. She went back to work, looking at the small screen on the back of her needle-gun, as she poked around inside Elysium’s head with it. “Oh, yeah. This. Turns out, I know how Elysium actually died, way back then.”

“She was killed by DiL,” their leader stated simply. “Are you saying that is not true?”

“Precisely so, Sir,” Bira replied politely. “DiL never defeated her – Elysium killed herself, through overuse of her power.” She clucked her tongue. “It appears there was a flaw to it, after all – prolonged usage put a strain on her brain. Not enough to be a danger under normal circumstances, but after stretching two hours of real time over what must have been several years, fighting the abomination, it became too much and caused a lethal stroke.” She frowned, looking at the readouts as she held the needle still. “She probably never had to push her power far enough to notice it before, and so didn’t know to pace herself in the battle.”

“Interesting,” he said, sounding pensive. “How did this Journeyman preserve her for us, then?”

“Simply put, their battle pushed her far enough that I was able to notice the side-effects when I did a quick scan of her immediately after our escape, but not so far as to kill her and ruin the last ten years of work I did to actually get her working,” the Ascendant explained. “Now that we know, we can look out for it. I might even be able to make some modifications which will eliminate her weakness entirely.”

“Which brings me, neatly, to our greatest prize!” Immanuel butted in after stepping back from the pod, the glass sliding out of the way to let the now merely moist Konrad step out, unbothered by the temperature or his own nudity. “No, I’m not talking about us finding out about the Dark’s little rage mode,” he cut Heaven’s Dancer off before she could even speak, pointing a finger at her. “Though that’s certainly good to know…”

***

Chronicle pushed herself up, having fallen to her knees without even realising it, as she tried to get a better look at the pile of rubble the Dark had been buried underneath. “Is, is it over?” she asked, her voice shaking, holding out a hand to grab Karasuha’s as she joined them on the metal platform they’d ended up on.

Beyond them, the few remaining demons – greater ones, each and every – were standing there as if frozen, not sure how to react after their master was so suddenly punted aside.

“I can still feel his power,” Konrad replied to her question, joining their little group and grabbing onto Immanuel’s forearm by way of greeting. “Definitely a no, unless he decides continuing the fight is too big a risk and bails out.”

“Perhaps we should ‘bail out’,” Judicator spoke firmly, still holding his scales and his crystal ball up in front of himself. “Whether or not the Dark intends to continue, we have to assume that more opposition will arrive soon. Perhaps even her. I don’t think I have to tell you how ridiculously non-existent our chances of survival are if we have to fight both of them at once…”

Immanuel stroked his chin, then nodded. “Yes, that would be for the best,” he replied, looking aside towards where his former aide, currently Heaven’s Dancer’s host, joined them, her clothes torn to near-indecency, her shoes lost, but otherwise unharmed. “Let’s fall back to-“

Konrad whirled around to stare towards the rubble he’d buried the Dark under, a mere moment before all the demons let out howling screams and charged – straight towards their master.

Dozens, hundreds of demons, most of them lesser, but a few more of the greater ones, which Chronicle hadn’t even noticed before, crawled out from their hiding places around the city-sized Installation, some literally stepping out of walls or other structures, all of them charging into the rubble and digging into it, disappearing where their master had gone; the rubble beginning to shake as soon as they’d done so, pieces of it getting dislodged and tumbling down.

“What is he doing?” Immanuel asked, a hand held over his eyes for some shade as he tried to look closer.

“Whatever it is, it’s big,” Konrad replied to him, sounding quite relaxed, all things considered.

The rubble burst apart, blown skigh high in a fountain of dirt and debris as, with a titanic roar, a monster arose from amidst it.

Chronicle blinked, briefly believing that she was imagining this, yet even when Karasuha squeezed her hand hard enough to hurt, the image didn’t change.

A colossal, jet black dragon rose ouf of the dust, shrugging rebar and steel girders off its wings before it unfurled them.

A hundred feet long at least, from its head to its tail, it seemed to made out of solid darkness, its body oozing with shadows – oozing up, just as the Dark had. Scales could be made out which extended into razor-sharp spines, much like its wings, whose many sharp spines and scales made them look almost feathery. Its head sported six glowing red eyes in two rows of three, and half a dozen twisted, crown-like horns which extended backwards.

It raised one of its forelimbs, its upper torso configured more like a human’s than a lizards or any other kind of animal’s, putting five-fingered hands with razor-sharp claws up onto the remains of the building’s wall in front of it, then the other, propping itself up as it spread its wings wide, it thrust its head forward, extending its long, sinuous neck and roared.

The roar was like a physical force extending forward, distoring the air, the metal, the concrete, everything and with it came not sound, but a thought which slammed into their minds like the hammer of God.

YOU WILL ALL DIE!

The beast beat its wings and leaped forward, not landing on all fours before it pushed itself off again, half running and half gliding across the city towards them, the world itself distorting in the wake of its passing.

“Because of course he can turn into a damned dragon!” Immanuel ran his fingers through his hair, as the beast simply charged on, shedding the attacks the remaining companions were raining on it as if they weren’t even there.

As it reached the first group – five metahumans – they ran apart to dodge out of its way, but it paid them no mind, simply charging on.

One of them was clipped by its wing as it passed, and Chronicle watched in horror as the young man withered and died, dissolving into ash that seemed drawn towards the rampaging dragon.

The others were only a little more lucky than he, as the distortion around the dragon passed over them. When it was past, they had all visibly aged, some to the point of death, falling over as their bodies were left too weak to live; the others simply crying out in agony and horror.

“Don’t get near it!” Immanuel shouted at Prism, to have him relay it to everyone else. “Everyone, retreat in orderly fashion! Sablo, keep your circle up, it ought to repel this form!” He started moving backwards, but the Dark had become too large, was moving too fast.

“I’ll take care of him!” Konrad shouted, exhilerated and leapt at the beast, drawing his sword back for a big slash. “Have at you!”

The Dark slammed his forelimbs into the ground, violently arresting his charge as he used them like a pivot, whirling around; his tail slapped Konrad out of the way, all the way across the Installation and nearly into the sea, repaying him in kind for the earlier hit.

As the monstrosity completed its spin, facing them once more, it roared again.

YOU WILL ALL DIE!

Chronicle cried out in horror as that horrible voice slammed into her mind once more, staggering back and falling, even letting go of Karasuha’s hand.

Someone was screaming as the dark dragon charged onwards towards them, everyone it passed by simply… dying.

There was Arresto, who’d once survived a nuclear explosion, if a small one. The dragon simply brushed him with its wing, and he fell apart.

Radger, who could regrow even his own head, fell just as easily. So did four others, before the dragon broke through their lines entirely, simply ignoring any power thrown its way as it bore down on their group.

When its hand came down on their group, its claws slamming into the circle of protection which Sablo had pulled up, pressing against it to slowly sink into the sphere of its effect, Chronicle realised who was screaming.

She was doing it herself, screaming as loud as her lungs would allow her, completely helpless to do anything – she couldn’t even rewind herself, if he got to her, not only would she be irrevocably dead, but so would Karasuha, her Tsukiko, and all the others whose records she’d kept.

Sablo cried out in pain and her protective power shattered, the clawed hand breaking through. One of the claws cut through the nude woman, splitting her from head to groin, the two halves dissolving into nothingness as they fell apart.

Chroncile lost hold of her book, and of her bladder for that matter, as she looked up at the colossal beast bearing down on them, reaching for Immanuel with one of its huge hands.

“Cover me!” Karasuha shouted and charged towards the beast at the same time as Immanuel dodged backwards, slashing at its exposed palm.

Her blade flared up with purple light and bit deep, cutting through the black, spiny scales to sink into the flesh beneath, but the Dark did not rear back – he simply pushed on, crushing her underneath its paw.

Chronicle cried out in despair – she couldn’t reset her if she couldn’t see her – but the beast ignored that and raised its hand again, the sword already falling apart, consumed by the same effect as the one that was breaking down Karasuha’s crushed remains.

At the last moment before they fell apart entirely, Chronicle pushed her power out towards her, and she snapped back to her previous, recorded state, sword in hand – and promptly burst into numerous crows which flew apart, away from the beast.

Several of them grabbed onto the shoulders of Chronicle’s robe, pulling her away with madly beating wings, while the dragon pressed on, reaching for Immanuel, too fast and with too great a reach to dodge entirely.

Immanuel had reached Chronicle, who’d stood several meters behind him, when the claws came down on him, and though he avoided a direct hit, one of them nicked his left hand.

As it began to fall apart, another claw touched Chronicle’s hastily held-up left hand – a stupid gesture, like that would achieve anything – and then her left foot, before it slammed onto the platform, cracking it and breaking through, briefly arresting the beast’s charge by sheer dint of the sudden loss of footing.

Sam screamed, louder than she ever had, as she watched her hand and foot dissolve, the flesh blackening before it fell apart, the blackness slowly spreading up her limbs-

A sharp, clear pain came next, and her corrupted, dying limbs were severed from her body in a single stroke, along with Immanuel’s arm, halfway down his biceps.

Konrad was back, looking as serene as before and no worse for having been hit directly by the abomination. though his coat was even more tattered and torn.

The Dark roared at him, pulling himself out of the wrecked and twisted metal of the platform they’d just been in.

YOU WILL ALL DIE!

And it swung its free fist at him, but this time, Konrad was ready, and he dodged, leaping forward to slide under the strike, before he launched himself up.

Using both a long wind-up and the momentum of his leap and spin of his body, he punched the colossal monster in its sternum and hit with force way beyond his size and proportion.

The dragon was blown away, launched through the ruins behind it, through walls of steel and concrete, almost all the way back to where it had first burst ouf the rubble.

Konrad landed on his feet, then flinched, looking at his right arm – it was starting to dissolve, too, though very slowly.

Clucking his tongue, he shook his arm out, visibly expelling a black mist-like substance from it.

His arm was mangled, but not gone, and he was still alive.

Chronicle fell onto her side, starting to feel cold as her blood escaped her through the raw stumps of her arm and leg, feeling Karasuha reform behind her and pull her into a warm, comforting hug, before she began to do something with her numb limbs.

Looking around, there was barely anyone left. Prism had been reduced to a mummified corpse, Heaven’s Dancer had lost both legs and was bleeding heavily. Judicator still stood, if shakily so, but his crystal ball lay shattered all around him.

Immanuel was using his own belt to tie off his remaining arm, looking pale and not entirely self-assured anymore.

There were less than ten of their number left, gathering around him and Konrad, looking for orders, for direction, for protection.

He looked around at everyone, then at Konrad. “We retreat,” he said simply. “Everyone, move to the nearest escape pod. We have to get away before he pulls out whatever next trick he has in… store…”

His eyes grew wide as the dragon rose out of the shattered rubble, howling in rage.

YOU WILL ALL DIE!

The beast rose up on its hind legs, spreading its arms and wings wide as it roared to the heavens, even more of its body oozing upwards and dissolving into the sky.

Chronicle’s consciousness was rapidly fading, darkness creeping across the edge of her vision…

No, that wasn’t just her fading consciousness… a shadow was spreading across the Installation, as something above blotted out the sun, causing the others to look up in horror, but she was too weak to do even that…

“Du willst mich doch wohl verarschen…” was the last thing she heard, an utterly disbelieving whisper from Immanuel.

Then, Darkness.

You’re going to die.

***

“Don’t look at me like that,” Immanuel complained as the others glared at him. “I had no idea he could do that!”

“Hey hey, relax,” Konrad calmed him, patting his back. “I took care of it, and we got something out of the whole thing, right?”

“Took care of it? Took care of it!?” Heaven’s Dancer shrieked. “You nearly died! He destroyed the Installation, beyond any hope of recovery! He killed everyone we had left, except those in this room, including my body, with one blow!”

Calm down,” the leader admonished everyone, and silence fell. “Immanuel, how is this worth losing the Installation and so many of our companions? Don’t tell me it’s because you figured out the Dark’s weakness, we already know several.”

“No no, oh wise and fearless leader of ours,” Immanuel assured him with a smile. “It’s not his weakness I figured out. It’s hers.” He grinned, and it went all the way up to his eyes. “Ironic, that it would be the Dark who’d finally betray her, if unwittingly – but now I know Gwen Whitakers one true weakness.” He made a fist, pumping that arm. “Now we can-“

“Leave it be for another time,” the leader cut him off. While he – probably – couldn’t see Immanuel’s face, Sam was quite sure he heard Heaven’s Dancer’s amused giggle at the sight of it.

Even Sam felt a smile tug at her lips, seeing it.

“Skyfall’s project is complete,” he continued, unperturbed. “And she has workable results to show for it. We are thus moving Project Chainbreaker to the top of our priority list. You are to provide her every resource she requires, including yourself.”

“B-but… Whitaker and Goldschmidt…” Immanuel stammered, looking, for the first time, like he was truly not sure what was going on.

“The Abomination has just appeared in New Lennston,” the leader pressed on. “While it’s unlikely either of them is going to die, they will be far too caught up in dealing with that, and with the aftermath, to interfere with Chainbreaker. Once that is complete, we’ll have plenty of time and opportunity to dispose of the both of them at our leisure.”

“But, seriously, we-“

“That was an order, Immanuel,” the leader cut him off. “Whitaker and Goldschmidt are ultimately of no consequence to our greater plans. We need merely make sure they don’t interfere with the steps leading up to our goal, which the current deluge of crises shall provide. Now be about your work.”

And just like that, he hung up.

Sam looked at Tsukiko, feeling endlessly relieved – anything, not to have to face the Dark again.

It won’t be enough, and you’ll die.

“Alright people,” Immanuel said, finally, after taking several deep breaths, his usual cheerful disposition returning slowly. “You heard our fearless leader. Let’s all get to work.” He looked at the stump of his arm, then over at Sam, who was curled up against her wife, still. “Bira, please start work on replacement limbs for Sam, first. I can make do with just one arm for the time being.” He nodded to the two of them, before looking out over everyone else in the room. “I thank you all for your bravery today. Fear not – our brothers’ and sisters’ sacrifice will not have been in vain, nor go unavenged.” He bowed his head to them. “Have a good night.” And with that, he left the room, followed closely by Konrad, who threw them a playful salute.

Sam sniffed, looking up at Tsukiko with a weak smile.

Her wife’s response was almost blinding, as she leaned down and kissed her, hard.

Sam wrapped her arms around Tsukiko and held onto her for dear life. They may have been doomed, but she was going to stay brave and fight on, even in the face of invincible opponents. Maybe they were all going to die, but she would try, at least. Even if it was pointless.

***

The cool blue waters of the Pacific Ocean made for a mostly uniform background over which Amy flew, trying to make her way back to the base of the Gefährten – though she was rapidly starting to think that it was pointless, as she had no way of making out where exactly it was.

Before, she hadn’t truly thought about it, having been beside herself with rage and worry, mindlessly flying in the direction her power told her Basil’s mind lay, but now that he wasn’t there, anymore, she had no way of tracking the place, other than flying straight towards the West, hoping to trace back the route they’d taken flying out of it.

Even so, she did it, focusing on casting her power out ahead of her, scouting for any signs of her goal, even if the largest reason she did so was not to support her boss, or make up for her lackluster performance, but simply so she wouldn’t have to think about what Basil had said to her, and what’d happened, and the ramifications of both.

However, with no goal in sight, those memories and the thoughts attached to them were beginning to creep back into her consciousness. She wouldn’t be able to ignore them for long.

Just then, though, she saw something which simultaneously filled her with elation – if the base of the Gefährten wasn’t there, then she’d never find it – and dread.

Who the fuck had summoned a meteor?

She flew towards the gigantic, glowing rock falling from the sky, tracing its trajectory towards its impact site, and could soon see, faintly, the glittering that indicated the huge metal city she was looking for.

What the fuck is going on? I hope the boss is still alive…

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B13.19 Call of the Sleeper

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Gloom Glimmer’s power drew them together above the floating city, as the ribbons of distorted space intertwined around them, creating something of a shell that they all sat within.

She’d grabbed everyone who’d been in that room, other than the Dark himself, Immanuel and Syrinx. Even Dusu was there with them, looking down at the floating city in shock.

Basil didn’t even have the energy left to feel disgust or hatred, or even satisfaction at seeing the grin wiped off her face – though he’d enjoyed seeing Hecate beat on the woman a bit – as he leaned back against the odd ‘wall’ of the capsule they found themselves in.

Amy was with him, her head on his lap and groaning as she came out of the daze caused by whatever drug Immanuel had injected her with. She was still far from lucid, but at least he was pretty sure it wasn’t anything that’d cause lasting damage.

The others weren’t in much better state. Gloom Glimmer was crouched over Polymnia, who’d taken a worse beating than he’d thought at first, slowly healing her mangled arm as the young gadgeteer sniffled, trying not to cry anymore. They’d taken her armour off, leaving her only in her spandex shorts and top, and her armoured boots, while Gloom Glimmer also fixed multiple bruises across her exposed skin.

Tartsche and Spellgun were huddled together, with the latter all but sitting atop the former’s lap, looking through a pair of copper binoculars at the battle going on below.

Bakeneko was hugging Osore, shuddering and sobbing, while her boyfriend showed all the emotional range of a rock, even though Basil was quite certain he had recovered fully by now – if his regeneration worked off of feeding on fear, like the rest of his powers, then he’d certainly gotten more than enough energy to work with by now.

Tyche had paired up with Hecate, hugging her knees to her chest as she leaned into Hecate’s side, while the witch was stroking her hair with one hand and staring into the distance – or maybe she was looking at something, but he couldn’t tell what.

He looked away from her, with an odd, painful feeling in his gut.

The only one who seemed comfortable was Graymalkin, who’d reclaimed his resting place atop Amy’s breasts, curling up and yawning before he closed his eyes. The thought of how she’d freak out once she woke up and saw that almost brought a smile to his face, before he was reminded of… well, everything else, and that smile got squashed like a bug; so instead, he focused on the scenery below instead.

Though they were pretty high up, he could still make out details by using his visor’s zoom function.

The Companions’ floating city had turned into utter Bedlam. The Dark’s wraiths were everywhere, hundreds, thousands of them. Most of them were the small ones he tended to produce en masse, skeletal humanoid torsos with blank, six-exed faces, emaciated, clawed arms and no real lower body as they crawled across the floor, simply melting into darkness where their hips should be and below, said darkness forming an almost serpentine shape, if a rather short one compared to the rest of them.

They were his weakest creations, and they went down by the dozens, crushed, torn, penetrated and otherwise relatively easily destroyed by the many, many powers the fifty or so metahumans of the Companions’ brought to bear, being only a little tougher – if at all – than normal humans.

Even so, their sheer numbers more than made up for it, and Basil watched with rather clinical curiosity as half a dozen of them managed to break through to Boltstar and literally pull his limbs off, before one used his own leg to bash his head in.

Chronicle either couldn’t or wouldn’t rewind him, and then his corpse was obliterated along with the wraiths when one of the newcomers unleashed a spherical, orange explosion that disintegrated both them and the ground beneath.

Everywhere he looked, the carnage continued. Fifty metahumans, none of them lightweights judging by what he’d seen of the Gefährten so far, and yet for all their power and numbers, they might as well only have been an annoyance to the Dark.

For the first time, Basil really understood how he could still stand at the top.

The wraiths moved in waves, surging against the villains, and every time they did, they whittled them down a little more, breaking up their formations, taking down one or two – even if they didn’t stay down.

Basil could see Immanuel, standing in a circle of white light maintained by a nude woman with strips of some kind of white fabric instead of hair, along with a man covered head to toe in crystal shards that seemed to have either been jammed into him or grown out of his body and another man in a golden robe, holding a set of scales in one hand and a crystal ball in the other. He was clearly giving out instructions, speaking to his companions (at least one of whom likely transmitted them), coordinating his troops. Chronicle was there, as well, clutching her book to her chest, shoulders hunched and apparently frantically using her power, over and over, continuously rewinding any one of her people who was killed or crippled, whenever she managed to get her eyes on them.

The Gefährten had the advantage of numbers and sheer power, with at least fifty different metahumans, but they just couldn’t seem to break through the Darkwraiths in force, and every time they exchanged blows, every time they broke another wave of wraiths on their defenses, they lost one or two more, sometimes permanently, and their formations kept being pulled apart, separating them.

Meanwhile, the Dark just kept spawning more wraiths, replacing his lost ones, buying time for the greater ones to return to him and be… repaired? Recharged? Basil wasn’t sure how it worked, but he was healing those with actual powers of their own, while sacrificing the mindless crawlers and some larger, sturdier, but still powerless brutes.

In spite of the mad rush of his creations, the Dark himself seemed calm again, coordinating the battle and clearly pursuing a strategy of dividing and then obliterating his enemies; and it was working.

The King of Supervillains towered above the carnage around him, standing tall as more and more wraiths poured forth from the darkness at his feet. His head didn’t move to track the battle around him, not that he needed to – it was pretty well-known that he shared his wraiths’ senses – and he only moved when someone managed to break through his wraiths’ lines to attack him directly, countering whatever they threw at him with contemptuous ease.

A murder of crows dove down at him, pulling together into the form of Karasuha as she brought her sword down upon the Dark’s head, but he simply caught the blade, arresting her entire drop, and reached up with his left hand, grabbing her head and smashing it down on the ground to hard it burst like a melon. Before he even rose up, he flipped her sword around to grab it by the hilt and beheaded a man in a cheetah costume who’d rushed up to him with unnatural speed.

Karasuha’s form flicked and she was returned to life, her sword back in her hands, but the Dark simply brought his now empty hand down in a motion reminiscent of a karate chop.

Her body flickered and was replaced by another, a huge mountain of a man – though he was still shorter than the Dark – with his arms raised and crossed, ready to take the blow.

The ‘chop’ simply cleaved through him, through his crossed forearms, through his head, his torso, his loins, splitting him in half.

And it wasn’t just the Dark himself who perpetuated the slaughter. There were other wraiths, greater ones. Each with unique variations to their appearance, they were fighting the Companions with their own powers – Basil counted eighteen of these unique wraiths, and each one was at least equal to any two of the Companions’ villains.

“Hey, Gloomy, didn’t your power say that Immanuel was more dangerous than the Dark?” Melody asked, her voice sounding much more steady and  calm than she looked. “Because he’s totally kicking everyone’s ass – and giving me enough nightmare fuel to last a lifetime,” she concluded as they watched one particularly brutal scene where a wraith unraveled into scores of thin black tendrils, which stabbed forth into an enemy’s body, then tore him to pieces, pulling him apart from the inside out.

Most everyone looked away from the gruesome sight.

”It did,” Gloom Glimmer replied in a subdued voice, looking down at the battle, her expression saddened. “It still does, in fact.”

”It occurs to me,” Basil interjected, making both girls and some of the others look at him, though he kept looking straight down, “That perhaps your power is judging how dangerous they are to you, personally, not how dangerous they are in general. I find it hard to believe that the Dark is that big a threat to his own daughter.”

Gloom Glimmer thought it over, then nodded.

“Dunno about you guys, but I’m plenty glad he’s dangerous right about now,” Tyche mumbled, barely audible since half her face was pressed against Hecate’s collarbone.

“A-fucking-men,” Spellgun agreed with her.

”Gloom Glimmer, please take us home,” Tartsche spoke up. “There’s nothing left to do here.”

”Hey hey!” Dusu spoke up in protest. “The f-“

Spellgun shot her in the face, knocking her out.

The Dark’s daughter looked down at the fight. “But…”

“Irene, the best we could hope for if we got involved in that would be to not be used against him by his enemies,” her team’s leader spoke softly. “Even you aren’t strong enough to help him, not against such an enemy.”

She didn’t look at him, didn’t look away from her father, but she nodded. “Ok,” came a soft whisper, and then the capsule they were in began to move, seemlessly. There was no feeling of acceleration, no G-Forces pressing them flat against the ‘walls’ – they simply accelerated, instantly, to such a speed that their surroundings became a blur. “It will take a few minutes to get there,” Gloom Glimmer explained as she finished fixing Polymnia up. “Does anyone else need healing, while I still have it?”

Basil leaned back as Gloom Glimmer went around fixing the last remaining bruises and other wounds they’d accumulated in their short – and very one-sided – fight against Immanuel.

He noticed that Hecate had turned her head, her hood now pointed towards him, looking at… Amy’s head on his lap, his hand stroking her hair as she slowly recovered.

”I am sorry,” he said quietly, so quietly the junior heroes were unlikely to hear it.

She turned away.

They kept moving without actually moving, until Gloom Glimmer walked up to him and Amy – the two of them sat a little apart from the rest – and squatted in front of them.

Basil looked at her face, trying to decipher her expression, but she just seemed calm to him.

“I’ll fix her up, if you don’t mind,” she spoke softly.

He nodded and took his hand off Amy’s hair, while Gloom Glimmer reached down and put her glowing palm onto the villainess’ forehead. Unfortunately, this also caused Graymalkin to snarl at her and leap off his resting place stalking off with the kind of offended aura only a cat could project.

After a few moments, Amy’s eyes fluttered open and she groaned in pain. “Ugh… my head… princess? Basil? What’s going on?” She looked at the two of them in confusion, yet still calm.

”We are safe,” Basil said, to head off a freakout. “Gloom Glimmer brought her father and then took us away. He is tearing the Gefährten up now.”

”Wu-what?” she stammered, shocked. “The boss is here? I’ve got to help him!” She shot up, using her power to stand up near-instantly, but Basil grabbed her by the wrist.

”I do not think that he needs any help,” he spoke calmly. “Plus, he seemed really angry at Immanuel… way beyond what I would expect, even in this situation.” He looked at Gloom Glimmer, as did everyone else in the capsule, all with the same question on their minds.

What the hell could piss the Dark off that much?

Gloom Glimmer sighed. “I don’t know. I really don’t. I’ve never heard of Immanuel before, and Daddy never mentioned anyone he hated that much to me before,” she explained, her voice betraying just a hint of a whine towards the end.

”Well, that’s a mystery then,” Amy quipped as she brushed her hand over Basil’s helmet’s top, a brief gesture of affection. “Still, he’s my boss and I should be there. You brats are safe now and I’ve got to make up for going down like an amateur twice now.”

She looked down at Basil, and their eyes met. He nodded, and she smiled. “Let me out, princess,” she said, using the nickname without any bite to it.

Gloom Glimmer shrugged and the capsule stopped its movements above the sea, the water stretching seemingly endlessly in every direction.

”Alright, see you later, Basil. Princess. Brats,” Amy said, looking at all of them, before she dropped through the floor, reangled herself in mid-air and then shot away so violently, she distorted the air around herself, though they heard nothing of it inside the strange capsule Gloom Glimmer had created.

They moved on again.

Basil looked away, briefly, then looked back at Gloom Glimmer, who was still sitting on her haunches in front of him and studying him, as if she could see through his mask.

She probably can.

“I know it sucks,” she said softly, making him look up at those unnaturally blue, warm eyes. “Family’s family but Wrong’s wrong, too and how’re we supposed to do the right thing there?”

He smiled weakly. “A catch-twenty-two if I ever heard of one.”

She smiled back. “Yeah. Look, I know we barely know each other, and this is obviously quite private and all, but… if you need someone to talk about it… you can talk to me. I understand, and I won’t judge. Just, uh, just wanted to say that,” she spoke, sounding insecure again as she blushed a bit and averted her eyes.

”I will keep that in mind,” He lowered his eyes as well, feeling strangely humbled by the offer. “Thank you.”

A few seconds passed, and then she did something he absolutely didn’t expect – Gloom Glimmer leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead, her lips and jaw going through his helmet like it wasn’t even there.

Her lips were warm and soft on his skin and felt a great deal of tension melt off at the simple gesture.

She leaned back again, far too soon. “I’m sorry we couldn’t find the cure. I… maybe we can find some other way to help Prisca.”

”Yeah, maybe…” He couldn’t bring himself to agree, not really, and looked away.

Gloom Glimmer didn’t press the point and walked back to join Polymnia, who wrapped an arm around her friend’s shoulders and pulled her head to rest against her shoulder.

Minutes passed, minutes during which Basil found himself unable to really focus on anything. There was just too much on his mind. Worry for Amy. Vasiliki’s reaction to the truth about his sister. Dalia’s own tragedy. Dusu. The Gefährten. The Sleeper. The constant presence of his power at the back of his mind, coming up with fragments of ideas even now, for him to try and assemble into a cohesive whole. Prisca.

He looked at Dusu’s passed out form. Just how am I going to explain this to her? To her mother? That it was all so…

Pointless.

He might have continued to wallow in his misery, had Tartsche not gotten up and moved over, stopping just a step away from him, his arms crossed as he looked down on him.

“I believe you promised me and the others some answers, Brennus,” he said in his usual calm, firm tones. “Much as I understand that you just took some major blows, I think it’s best we get this over with before we get back to New Lennston and I have to make a choice about how to proceed.”

Behind him, Tyche frowned and leaned forward, as if to get up, but Hecate pulled her back by the arm wrapped around her shoulders, while her other hand remained on Graymalkin’s back – at some point, he’d crawled onto her lap and curled up there.

The others all turned to look at Basil and Tartsche, as well.

“By ‘how to proceed’ you mean ‘whether or not to immediately tell Amazon and the UH in general’ about Mindstar’s and my relationship and our identities’,” he stated with neither rancor nor bitterness in his voice. It was just a fact.

Tartsche didn’t even look abashed or anything. “Exactly. This is too big, really. Mindstar’s a wanted criminal, and not a smalltime crook, either – having one of the Five blow her secret identity like that, that’s the kind of thing I’d normally tell them instantly. But,” he temporised, “I am willing to hear you out, first. Not just about you and her, but also about whatever the fuck,” he spoke the swearword like a gunshot, hard and fast, making nearly everyone jump where they sat, and Graymalkin throw him an annoyed look, “happened when Osore nailed you with his power.”

He turned his head and looked at the Japanese hero. “By the way, not cool, even if you knew what was going to happen,” he admonished him, then raised a hand to cut off any reply, “I know it saved our butts. Just saying.”

Turning back to face Basil, his mouth and jaw – the only part of his face currently visible, as he’d removed his helmet’s mouth guard – were set in a severe frown. “So, are you going to tell us what the fuck,” he made everyone jump again with the force of the expletive, “is going on? And before you say anything like that it’s private or that we’re better off not knowing or any of that crap, you owe us the truth, after all this,” he finished with a firm glare.

Basil met it without flinching, though at that point, that was simply because he was too worn out to react much, not because of any amount of fortitude on his part. “I do not have any secrets left, at this point,” he replied, looking over at Hecate. “Ask and I shall answer to the best of my knowledge.”

”Who are you, really?” Tartsche asked, straight up.

“I do not know,” Basil replied calmly, looking at no one in particular. “I thought I knew, but I have found that all my memories previous to about three, maybe four years ago are entirely fake. So are Amy’s, for that matter.”

He heard a few gasps, but didn’t bother to look at anyone to gauge their reaction.

”Three and a half years ago,” Bakeneko spoke up in a small voice. “That’s when we first met in middle school.”

“Wait, you know him?” Spellgun asked, startled.

Basil didn’t see it, but he was pretty sure Bakeneko was shrinking into herself at being the focus of attention all of a sudden.

“Y-yeah. We’ve been friends for… years. Though I, I didn’t know he was… Brennus… until recently,” she admitted in a near-whisper. “I didn’t know Amy was a villain, though… It just doesn’t seem to fit… I mean, she’s kind of… really weird, and a huge perv and totally overprotective and she always knows more than she should and… actually, it totally makes sense now.”

”Mindstar’s memory’s are fake, too?” Tartsche pressed on, focusing on the core of the matter. “Are you sure she’s not faking it? Making you think she’s your sister while suppressing your memories…” He seemed pretty uncomfortable bringing that last point up, but did it anyway.

Basil twitched, briefly, tempted to lash out at him for the mere suggestion, but…

”I have considered that,” he admitted, and a part of him felt like a traitor for doing so. “But I have dismissed it for several reasons. One being that she would have to be vastly more powerful than she has ever shown herself to be. Another the fact that…” he frowned, trying to figure out how to put it. “It is more of a gut feeling, really. But I know that she is my sister, even if we can not even remember our parents.”

He didn’t seem happy with that, but didn’t get push the point.

“There’s no way in heaven or hell my dad doesn’t know about that,” Gloom Glimmer stated firmly. “Not if it affects one of his Five.”

“You sure?” Tyche asked her, while her eyes remained on Basil.

”My dad’s the most nosey person on the whole planet,” the man’s own daughter stated with perfect conviction. “I’ll bet you anything he knows and hasn’t told anyone because he thinks it’s funny or something.”

“You really think he’d take such a risk with one of his Five, just for his own amusement?” Hecate asked in a disbelieving voice.

”Absolutely,” both Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia replied instantly and in perfect synch.

They gave everyone a few moments to digest that, before Polymnia spoke up next.

“What about your reaction to Osore’s power?” she asked through her vocoder, her eyes on Basil.

He sighed. “I have no freaking idea whatsoever,” he replied. “It has only ever happened when Osore used his power on me. Not even when I was in a life-threatening situation, like when Hastur had me in her clutches. I do not remember at all what happened during either episode, though I at least have a recording of this last one,” he explained, reaching up to stroke the head of his sole remaining ravenbot.

”No idea at all?” Tartsche asked.

Basil frowned. “Well… there is one… but is less of an answer and more of… another question. A whole host of questions, in fact,” he amended his earlier statement. “I may be connected to someone named Macian, somehow. At least, I found a journal written by him, amongst my things and I sometimes have memories of being another person, someone who’s also a gadgeteer.” Plus at least two distinct personalities in my head, other than my own.

“This is unbelievably fucked up,” Tartsche replied after a minute or so of just staring at him.

For just a moment, Basil felt a manic grin spread on his face as he looked up at the armoured boy. “Try living with it.”

Tartsche shuddered. “No thank you,” he said, finally. “Well, this was… not at all informative.” He looked around at the others, before focusing on Basil once more. “I’m sorry, but considering the situation, and what we know about your sister – if she even is your sister – and… everything… I can’t possibly justify not raising every alarm I can as soon as we’re back.” He groaned, reaching up to pinch his nose, only to remember he was still wearing his helmet. “Hell, I should probably take you into protective custody – or something – straight away, but I have the feeling that wouldn’t work out too well, considering what you did to the Skulls’ group.” He gave a side-long glance to Gloom Glimmer and Bakeneko. “Nevermind that I can’t be entirely sure whether all my teammates will support me on such a course of action.”

Both girls blushed and averted their eyes.

Basil raised a finger. “I know it is not exactly the smartest thing to do, but let me remind you that I have only ever been able to perform on that level after being affected by Osore’s power, so unless he shoots me again, you will not have to worry about that,” he corrected him.

Hecate palmed her own forehead.

With a chuckle, Tartsche responded, “Yeah, I’m not that slow. Still…” he put his hands on his hips, tapping his foot… which didn’t actually generate any sound, since there wasn’t actually any floor to tap it on. “Are you going to come in willingly? I know it’s an extremely shitty situation and all, but it’d help a lot, and ease a lot of worries, if you just came in and explained yourself.” He sighed, lowering his head. “The United Heroes are good people. And Amazon’s real fond of you. I’m sure we can work this all out.”

He looked up at the slightly older hero, then down again. Then at Hecate and Tyche, before he looked at his raven again. “I… do not regret what I have done today,” he said first. “Not the attempt to get into the base, not revealing myself or the risks I took. I only regret that it was not enough, and wish I could have done more, gone further…” He stopped, looking down again. “I will not run from it. But I will go and give Prisca the news myself, before anything else.” He looked up at Tartsche, locking eyes with him even through their masks. “You can make your report, meanwhile. Bakeneko knows where I live, and where my lab is,” he turned to look at his shapeshifting friend, “and she has my permission to share. You’ll find me… afterwards.”

”Alright,” Tartsche replied, turning his head away. “I believe you. And… I’m sorry.” There was a world of emotion behind those last two words.

“Thank you, Tartsche,” Basil replied, and took his helmet off, looking up at him with a tired expression on his face. “You went… above and beyond what anyone could expect of you, for the sake of strangers, and I thank you for that, from the bottom of my heart. You and all the others.” He looked around at the other teens, some of whom, at least, met his eyes.

Tartsche took a step away, then stopped. “You’re wrong, you know?” he spoke softly, making Basil focus on him again. “I expected more of myself.”

With that, he sat down next to his boyfriend again and fell quiet.

***

The rest of the journey passed in silence and they arrived in New Lennston, where Gloom Glimmer first dropped Basil, at his request, off in front of the hospital, before moving on to take care of the rest.

He didn’t know what Hecate or Tyche were going to do, but he had to prioritise somehow, and neither of them was dying right then.

Standing in front of the hospital, having appeared basically out of nowhere, he drew a great many surprised looks, in large part because he hadn’t bothered to put on his helmet, his drawn-up hood the only protection for his identity. Not that he really cared at this point.

He ignored the stares and walked into the hospital, ignoring the two armed security guards at the front entrance and simply breezing past the reception – he more than knew his way by now.

Walking through the hallways, ignoring every attempt to stop him or talk to him, he wondered whether he should’ve gone through with the idea of dragging Dusu in here and presenting her to Prisca and her family, but he’d dismissed it, and not just because he doubted that Tartsche would allow it – he didn’t want something like Dusu to spoil Prisca and her family’s final days together.

If she even had days left.

Oh God, I hope she isn’t already dead…

He could call Eudocia, ask. He hadn’t even thought to contact her.

Too late now. I’ll know soon enough.

He took the stairs up, eschewing the elevators – if he had to stand still for however many seconds it took them to go up, he’d explode.

Taking the stairs three steps at a time, he quickly reached the fourth floor and entered the intensive long-term care wing.

There, in front of Prisca’s room, sat several people on some chairs, while being watched over by multiple professional bodyguards in expensive suits – suits which, to Basil’s eye, showed modifications for combat and hiding weaponry.

As soon as he entered, the men whirled around at a sign from the one who’d been facing the door, drawing their weapons on him.

He ignored them and just moved on.

Beyond the bodyguards, a startled young woman rose up, and his heart both clenched and relaxed at the same time, though he showed none of it on his face.

Rosalie Fion took heavily after her mother, just as Prisca should have, and basically looked a lot like Gilgul, though older, being in her early twenties, and a little more lithe and a little less… top-heavy. She was wearing a simple, dark red dress that reached her knees, black stockings underneath and her rich red hair loose. She only wore a little make-up on her finely featured face and was currently busy staring at him, her mouth open.

That she was there, it meant that Prisca was still alive. She would have been inside the room if she was dying, and she would be mourning if she was dead. But that she was here also meant that there wasn’t much time left.

”B-basil? You… you’re…” She stammered, staring at him with wide green eyes the exact same shade as Prisca’s had once been.

He nodded to her as the guards stepped between him and the door (and Rosalie), though they seemed less openly combative now, as he seemed to be known.

Still, they were in his way, so he glared at them, briefly.

The first two men nearly fell over as they staggered aside, while the three behind took a startled step back, and he used the distraction to breeze past them, briefly nodding to Rosalie – and getting a nod in return – as he walked up to the door and, without bothering to knock, opened it and stepped through.

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B13.18 Call of the Sleeper

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He’d failed.

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

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

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

She has no cure. She has no cure. I can’t come up with one, I’ve never been that good with actual biology. Maybe, if she had the actual formula… but she said she put it all online already, and I’ve read everything there is on the plague online. Prisca only has a few days left, at most.

Life support could only keep her going for so long, especially after the additional damage Hastur’s attack had caused. She certainly wouldn’t survive a flight to England. Even if Gloom Glimmer teleporter her along with all the life support… no, she’d never survive the journey to Ember himself. And even then…

They’d opened the Protectorate again, on a limited basis, after he’d revived that baby, but… it was a toss-up whether he’d actually react to anyone who managed to get close enough. More than once, one of the countless hopeful had weathered the pressure of his empathic assault, managed to get the remains of a loved one all the way to him… only to be promptly ignored until they passed out or went mad.

Basil didn’t know whether he could make it through that, not with the way his mind had gotten screwed up, but he would do it.

However, there was no way Prisca could survive it. If he took her in while she was still alive, in her current condition, it’d likely kill her, if it didn’t destroy her mind.

Ember could fix that, obviously. Assuming he got to him.

What if I put her into stasis? the thought came suddenly. Put her into a state where she’s not truly conscious. It would protect her from his aura…

Don’t be stupid. Just wait for her to d-d-die and take her corpse to him.

The whole point of this is to make sure she doesn’t die in the first place!

Then forget Ember and the Protectorate! You need to focus on working out a cure!

How!? If even Dusu couldn’t… she’s been working on this for half a decade! I have days, at most! Nevermind that I’m not a bio-gadgeteer to begin with and this is, is, it’d take ten bio-gadgeteers to work this out!

Then find a non-biological solution!

How!?! I’ve tried so much… I can’t just replace her infected body parts, because every part is infected in three different ways? Removing her brain to later implant it into a new body, even if I could perform surgery like that, would be meaningless because her brain is also infected!

That’s it. Her brain, that’s the solution!

Of course… I can’t physically remove her brain, but I could scan it, save a complete engram of her brainwaves… it would require more storage than even my computers have, but I’m certain I could convince Mrs Fion to buy any materials I might need…

I save the complete engram. That’ll buy me time, it’ll allow me to figure out how to create a new, healthy body for her, then copy it over… since it’ll be made while she’s still alive…

It can only be made while she’s still alive.

That way, she’ll never have to experience death… whether or not we can get her to Ember…

I can call this Plan A, and getting her to Ember would be Plan B.

There is another issue. Would she want that? To be copied over to a new body? Technically, she wouldn’t be the same Prisca as before. Her mother might not want that, either.

I’m not a philosopher nor a priest. Leave the existential debate to someone else.

But shouldn’t any proposed solution be considered in light of Prisca’s wishes? She is the one whose life is at stake. Copying her mind into a new body – and it’s far-fetched to believe I could do that – only to create a copy of her which does not consider herself to be the Prisca would only serve my own peace of mind.

Stasis.

Like on Tartarus Star. That might be a solution. I could perhaps work out a stasis chamber, or maybe trade Stasis himself for the designs or a complete chamber… or perhaps Mrs Fion could buy one off of him… we could keep Prisca alive indefinitely while I work on finding a cure.

Stasis is no hero though. He works for the government and he is committed full-time to maintaining Tartarus Star. His technology is considered a national secret; it is very unlikely that he’d be allowed to reveal his designs, nevermind actually buying a stasis chamber off of him – they’re supposed to be incredibly expensive, to boot.

Between Mrs Fion’s wealth and the technology I can of-

***

A hand closed around his biceps, tugging him around. He looked up at Amy, black eyes to purple ones.

Hey, baby bro, she whispered gently into his mind. You need to calm yourself down, before you give yourself a stroke.

He looked away, then looked up at her, feeling his expression harden. I can not afford to, right now. I need to find a solution! Could you scan her mind? Perhaps she’s keeping something secret?

Amy shook her head, causing him to feel even colder inside. Even more so when he realised she was trembling, sligthly. Just what had she seen?

She didn’t lie, nor did she ommit anything. She really has no clue how to fix it, Amy told him. And… there’s more. The blood she took, earlier. And what they’ve been doing here. Where these monsters came from. I saw it in her mind.

What’d you see? Basil asked numbly. He wasn’t sure there was much of anything he could get worked up over right now, as worn out as he felt.

Too much, she replied. But first… what about her? She nodded towards Dusu, who’d calmed down considerably, simply sitting cross-leged on the floor and chuckling occasionally, completely unperturbed by the looks of disgust and hatred the others were throwing her. Maybe you’ll feel better if you give her one of those concoctions you said you’d prepared just for her?

Basil looked over his shoulder at Dusu. Those were always meant to force her to give up the cure, in the end, he replied. No point to that, now. Besides, how could I possibly top that? He gestured towards the twisted, half-decayed woman.

Let’s just get this over with and go home.

***

Melody wouldn’t have thought she could hate a complete stranger as much as she hated Dusu right then. Just looking at the woman sitting there on the floor, looking so darn amused.

Amused that she’d destroyed so many lives.

Amused that she’d drawn them into such a dangerous, unnecessary battle.

Amused that she’d crushed their hopes, Brennus hopes in particular, and of all those innocents she’d poisoned, and all those whom cared about them.

She’d used to have trouble accepting Irene’s insistent statement that her father, while evil, was far better than most. Even after meating him in person, she hadn’t really changed her mind.

But now? Looking down at this, this coprophage, this… bitch, she saw true evil. Senseless evil, evil that didn’t have a purpose other than its own betterment.

At least the Dark clearly cared about his daughter. Melody wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that Dusu didn’t have anyone she cared about, that she would have sacrificed her own child if she’d had one, just to try and undo her own fuck-up – for herself.

It took a lot for her not to unleash one of her more cruel tunes on her, just to make her suffer a bit. A bit more, she amended the thought, watching how the woman laboured to draw breath, the way she repeatedly twitched as if in pain, in spite of her carefree attitude.

A little tune to make her bowels empty themselves as violently as physically possible, or cramp up painfully and remain so for a while. Another to throw her sense of balance completely off for hours. Or perhaps one she’d never yet used, because it’d seemed too cruel, a tune that’d give the victim a painful tinitus that’d last for days, if not longer.

So many options. So many incentives to explore them, one by one.

Fortunately for Dusu, Melody was distracted from the recreatively violent train of thought when Brennus came back towards them, shadowed closely by Mindstar.

And wasn’t that a shock? When Mindstar had first appeared, she’d been scared, then relieved – she did work for the Dark, so she wouldn’t turn on Irene and her friends, right? Then it’d seemed like she was going to attack anyway, and Tartsche had tried to reach Brennus to protect him from her (she still remembered the briefing when they’d been told that she might target him – Tartsche had clearly remembered it, as well), only for her to slap them all down with literally just a thought.

She’d known that telepathy was Irene’s one true weakness, but she hadn’t expected it to be that effective.

And then it turned out that Brennus – no, Basil, that boy she’d sat next to in school a few times! – was her brother and he proceeded to beat her, one on one.

If it wasn’t for Irene confirming, while under the aegis of Tartsche’s power, that it was all genuine, she’d have thought the whole fight, no, their every interaction, had been staged.

Now, of course, she was instead faced with the fact that a boy she’d been thinking of as a friend, if a distant one, was the younger brother of a major supervillain…

Which, really, didn’t mean much to her, seeing how her best friend was the daughter of said supervillain’s boss. It would have been the height of hypocrisy for Melody to condemn Brennus for his relationship with his own sister, when she so readily accepted Irene’s relationship with her father.

The only thing she could, maybe, accuse him of was not being open about his relation to her, the way Irene was about her being the Dark’s daughter…

But then again, their situations were very different. Brennus, for one, didn’t have the aegis of Lady Light and the United Heroes to protect him.

I wonder whether she’s the reason he didn’t join us to begin with, she thought to herself as she watched them join the rest of the group.

All those thoughts and more continued on in her head, though they were quickly overshadowed by dismay at how utterly worn-out Brennus looked. In all the time she’d known him, she’d never known him to express a sense of defeat, a lack of purpose. Now though…

“Let us wrap this up,” he spoke in a listless tone. “We should get away from here.” He looked down at Dusu, his gaze briefly hardening – but then it softened into listlessness again. “What did she do with our blood?” he asked no one in particular, apparently.

It did seem directed at Mindstar, however, as she sighed and stepped forth, while Brennus’ helmet floated off the floor and into his hands. “I’ll show you,” she said, gesturing at the computer console.

Using her telekinesis, she logged into the system, making Dusu frown in annoyance. “Y’know, you don’t have to use telepathy… I’d just tell you, at this point.”

“Shut it,” several people said all at once.

“This is the place where they made those monsters that appeared yesterday,” Mindstar spoke seriously, with neither levity nor anger in her voice. “They’re all spawned from the same source…”

The screen switched to a three-dimensional model, showing the floating city they were on, before zooming out and moving down, showing an incredibly long tether that lead down into the depths – the same one they could see before them, dozens of cables thicker than grown men – and following it down…

And down…

And down…

Until it reached the bottom of the ocean, and the view moved, looking down from above, at an angle, at…

A gigantic something at the bottom of the ocean, connected to the station via the cables in front of them.

As the image focused on whatever was below, it was rendered in successively more detailed layers, with Mindstar talking over it, sharing what she saw within Dusu’s mind.

“They found something down there. Something huge. And I mean, really fucking humungous. It’s over a thousand miles in length, and over three in diametre,” the villainess explained as the bottom dropped out of Melody’s stomach, her eyes widening at the rapidly expanding sight of… that.

“What. The. Holy. Fuck,” Tyche succinctly summed up how they all felt.

“That’s what they used to make those monsters,” Mindstar spoke, her voice growing hushed. “They injected it with… human blood. It doesn’t always work out, not even one in ten times, but when it does…”

Brennus looked down at Dusu again. “So that is what you took our blood for,” he stated as he put his helmet on. “Mine and… whose else?”

Before Dusu could respond, Mindstar did so. “All of us. It wasn’t just the four you saw. They got samples from all of us…” She frowned, stroking her chin. “I mean, they came here and found them… put them here in other timelines… ah, fuck time travel! They got samples from each of us, except for the princess, using Elysium’s power.” She looked at the console. “And they injected it all into this thing. That’s what Dusu and that nobody over there were responsible for – figuring out a way to inject something through its armour, after the Gefährten realised that extracted samples bonded with human DNA.”

Melody’s fingers went to work, tapping the air to formulate a sentence. “And that’s how they made Crocell and the other three monsters?” she asked, keeping her vocoder’s voice much calmer than she actually felt.

“Yeah. Only successes they’ve had so far. They injected forty-three samples and only four of them spawned something,” the villainess replied in a cold voice, glaring at the unperturbed mad scientist on the floor. “Though they never injected so many at once, like she just did.”

“Hey, you can’t blame me for being in a bit of a hurry!” Dusu protested Mindstar’s accusatory tone. “Besides, aren’t you curious what might come out of it?”

“No!” shouted half a dozen people at once.

“Alright, so, may-be this is totally obvious and Ah’m just missing it,” Spellgun spoke up for the first time in a while, his accent even stronger than usual, “but what the fuck is that!?!” he gestured wildly towards the three-dimensional model on the screen.

“It’s God!” Syrinx shouted fervently, floating upside down where Mindstar was holding him in the air. “It’s a fragment of the divine tri-“

Hecate reached into a pouch on her belt and threw a handful of glittering green dust at his face, which flew farther and in a tighter stream than it ought to, and he went limp, falling asleep instantly.

“Oh, thank God,” Dusu rolled her eyes. “Guy’s a cutie, but h-“

Hecate whirled around so fast Melody actually jumped, and struck Dusu across the face with the butt end of her staff, knocking the woman over and causing her to cry out in pain.

“Don’t you dare address me in any way,” the slightly spooky superheroine snarled, her English distorted slightly by a faint accent Melody had never noticed before, her tone of voice so vicious it made nearly everyone take a step away from her, even Mindstar.

Not Brennus, nor Tyche, though.

Dusu rubbed her rapidly swelling jaw, having finally stopped grinning, or smiling or otherwise looking happy, as she glared up at Hecate – but she kept her mouth shut.

Mindstar actually looked impressed, giving Hecate odd looks, though the spooky heroine couldn’t see them.

“They’re not sure what it is,” Mindstar continued where she’d left off earlier. “Or at least, if the Gefährten know, they haven’t told Dusu. But she, and her co-workers have a few running theories – all unproven, admittedly. One is that it’s a metahuman whose manifestation just plainly went spectacularly wrong. Another is that it’s some kind of by-product of superpowers as a whole, maybe an animal that soaked up whatever energies power metahumans. And another is that it’s either the source of superpowers, or connected to it in some way.” She shrugged. “Honestly, they don’t even know how long it’s been down there. Seems like time goes wonky around it, so they can’t even analyse the age of the cracks in the rock around and beneath it that it’s caused, because they don’t age uniformly.”

No one spoke up for a minute as they digested that. Finally, Melody turned her head to look at Irene, who’d remained still so far, hovering an inch or so above the floor, her cape closed in front of her and her hood drawn deep, like a white shroud.

The hood twitched as Irene looked up, her face hidden in the shadows, mostly, save for her blue eyes. “I don’t know what it is. I have some suspicions, but… nothing I’m sure of enough to say,” she answered the unspoken question.

Melody felt both disappointment and relief, as part of her just plainly didn’t want to know what that thing really was – she was afraid that it was even worse than she could expect.

“The blood is already injected?” Brennus interjected, directing the question at Mindstar, at his sister.

His helmet-mask always distorted his voice, but even so, Melody’s ears had no trouble picking up the fact that he still sounded… defeated, really. His voice was flat, lacking its usual intensity.

“Yeah, it is. Nothing we can do to stop it anymore,” Mindstar replied, her voice softening almost imperceptibly (to anyone but Melody) as she addressed her brother again. “All we can hope for is that none of it causes this… Sleeper to spawn another monster.”

“How long did it take before they knew whether an injection had been successful in the previous cases?” Brennus continued his line of inquiry in that same tone of voice, his head tilted forward as he looked at something he was holding in his left hand. Melody couldn’t see what it was, though it had to be palm-sized.

“Anywhere between five minutes and three hours,” the answer came almost as soon as he finished. “If it doesn’t work, it’ll eject the rejected blood in crystalline form – they have computers looking out for it.”

As if on cue, a new window opened, showing a black-and-white image of a bismuth-like crystal growing in fast motion, right out of one of its scales, before it detached and floated away.

“Aaaaaand that’s one,” Mindstar sighed in undisguised relief. “Eight more to go.”

“Is there anything we can do to abort the process?” Tartsche asked quietly, sounding as calm as ever as he held onto Spellgun’s hand. “Force it to purge them all or something like that? Some way to make sure no more monsters are generated?”

Both Mindstar and Dusu shook their heads, one seemingly impassive, one very clearly quite pleased with herself.

“And there’s nothing here about a cure?” Tartsche pressed on. “She doesn’t know anything, or have anything we can make use of?”

Mindstar shook her head, and Tyche and Hecate slumped a little, while Brennus showed no outward reaction, though Melody thought she might’ve heard something from within his helmet. She wasn’t sure though, as quiet as he was being.

“We should go, then,” Brennus concluded what was obviously Tartsche’s thought process, putting away whatever he’d been looking at. There was barely any inflection at all left in his voice. “Every second we remain here just increases the probability of another enemy showing up.”

“Now that’s as good a straight line as I could hope for!” a new voice spoke up.

Melody squeaked in shock as she turned, just in time to see Mindstar stagger forward, nearly falling, her hand going to her neck and pulling a tiny dart tipped by a needle out of it.

“Huh?” She stared at the dart, her eyes growing unfocused.

Brennus grabbed her, pulling her away and behind him, revealing the person who’d stuck her with the dart, who…

Oh God he’s so yummy, was the first thought that came to Melody’s mind as she saw the gorgeous, brown-haired young man in what appeared to be black-and-gold workout clothes, only of much higher quality than usual, and reinforced, fingerless gloves.

If she hadn’t met so many insanely pretty men since manifesting her powers, she’d probably have squeed and melted on the spot.

He stood there, looking as calm as if he was just taking a stroll, with an easy smile on those perfect lips.

“Immanuel!” shouted Tyche, taking a step away from him.

Wait, Immanuel? That guy? Melody blinked, remembering what Tyche had told them earlier. Fuck, we have to-

She raised her arms to fire at him, only to stop when Irene cried out.

“Wait, no, stop!” Irene shouted as she was enveloped in ribbons of twisted space… and then she disappeared.

Immanuel looked at the empty space where Irene had just floated, looking only mildly surprised. “Heh. Nice one,” he said, grinning.

***

Space unfurled around her and dropped Irene onto a grassy hill, which looked out over a tranquil beach and the ocean.

“No!” she shouted, desperate, reaching for the power which had brought her there. “No, no! Take me back! I’ve got to get back, Melody is still there! My friends are all still there! Take me back, please!”

She begged her own power, even as she felt the teleporting effect – one she hadn’t had before, to her recollection – sink beneath the darkness, tears beginning to run from her eyes.

She’d been so focused on that giant thing below, that, that thing that might have been, just possible, one of them, perhaps. A steward, in this world. Her parents were going to flip out.

Somehow, even though she’d had her danger sense up and running, that man, that… Immanuel, he’d managed to sneak up on them, and then her power had reacted to the suddenly present, overwhelming threat by taking her away from her friends.

“Please, please, just take me back!” she shouted, trying to reach for that power again, only to get… flight and the power to tell where magnetic north lay. “No, I need to be fa-“

“Irene? What are you doing here?” a tired voice asked.

She whirled around, staring at the figure behind her with bloodshot eyes.

***

“I think you’ve all had more than enough fun,” Immanuel spoke in a conversational tone, clasping his hands behind his back as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

Basil didn’t give him a chance to say more – torn between checking to make sure Amy was going to be alright and taking down the new threat, he chose to trust in her constitution and went on the offensive – and launched one of his grappling hooks at him, aiming straight for his belt buckle.

Immanuel simply stepped aside, dodging it by a hair’s breadth with such ease, it seemed rehearsed. “For those of you who don’t know yet, I’m Immanuel, and I’m in charge of this charming base,” he continued on, as if nothing had happened, even as he bent over forward, letting a blast of green fire fly over him and splash over Tartsche’s protective field, blinding Spellgun and causing him to miss his shot, which instead hit Osore in the forehead just as he was gathering up a fear blast in his right hand; his mask cracked, though not broken, he was thrown backwards as electricity raced through his body, stunning him and causing him to fall gracelessly and heavily onto the floor. “And while I greatly sympathise with your noble intentions, I’m afraid I’ll have to stop you right here,” he concluded, standing up straight again, smiling at everyone around.

How did he just do that? Basil thought furiously, stepping back to keep some distance between himself and the new enemy. That was way too smooth… he must be an Esper. Some major combat cognition. He stared at the empty spot where Irene had just been, then at Amy behind him, through the eyes of his bedraggled ravenbot. And we’ve already lost our two strongest combatants.

“What did you do to Gloom Glimmer!?!” Polymnia shouted at Immanuel, both of her clenched fists – and the speakers on the wrist modules above them – aimed straight at him.

“Don’t worry, I just gave her a bit of a scare,” Immanuel replied soothingly. “I suppose her power decided she was safer away from me than next to me.” He tilted his head to the side, both as a gesture and to dodge a shot from Tartsche’s rifle. “Can’t blame it, really. In fact, I’m quite grateful – makes my job easier.”

His expression turned thoughtful and he tapped his chin. “Hmm… just forty minutes before she comes back… with Lamarr. Maybe the Dowager, though I doubt it.” He blinked, as if another thought came to him. “Hm, no. She won’t come – just Lamarr and some of his people. Goldschmidt wouldn’t let her back here.” Without even looking, he bent forward and also lifted his left leg up, as if to kick out, though he merely tapped the charging form of Bakeneko – in the middle of transitioning from a bipedal to a quadrupedal form –  on the shin, lightly, causing her to trip and bowl into Polymnia, who just barely managed to brace herself and not get bowled over as well, though she still missed her shot, the twin beams of focused sound going wide and tearing up some computer equipment on the far wall of the room. “Nothing I can’t deal with.”

Basil barely paid attention to his words, instead opting to study his opponent more closely. The way he moved, the way every dodge of his led to them hitting each other in some way… it reminded him of the way it usually went when Tyche fought, except far more controlled.

Deliberate.

Speaking of Tyche, she was just standing there, her hands trembling as she tried to aim at Immanuel – but he didn’t seem worried at all, and she didn’t seem capable of actually pulling the trigger.

“I, I thought you said, you wanted us to, to succeed,” she stammered, taking a step back from him when he turned his head to focus on her.

He blocked Basil’s punch, which he loosened the moment his attention was on Tyche, with an absentminded swipe, “I did and I do,” then he deflected a knee-strike to the groin by raising his own knee and gently pushing it aside, “Though I never said I thought it was actually going to happen,” he turned into the follow-up elbow strike that Basil turned his over-extended strike into, “I did know that Dusu has never been able to figure out a cure for her own work,” his arm came up, applying minimal force to Basil’s elbow and causing him to strike the air above his head, unbalanced by the flawless counter, “Nor did I say I’d actually let you all leave after you reached Dusu,” he placed one hand onto Basil’s chest and the other one’s forearm against his waist, pushing with both and flipping him over until he hit the ground with his head, only his helmet saving him from being knocked out, though it still rang his bells quite well, “Sorry,” the angel-faced villain concluded, smiling apologetically at Tyche.

She gulped staring at him with wide eyes. He just smiled back, throwing Basil’s combat knife, which he’d filched from his belt when he’d flipped him, at Polymnia, without even looking at her.

The blade pierced the membrane of her right wrist’s speaker just as she loosened another attack, causing a feedback that overloaded it and made it blow up around her arm, throwing her aim with the other arm off so badly she shot Bakeneko instead just as she was about to get up again, making her cry out in pain and tumble away from the armoured songstress.

Polymnia herself cried out in pain, her arm covered in bruises and cuts from the explosion, though her innate toughness and the layer of ballistic weave she’d between her skin and the actual mechanical parts prevented heavier damage.

“Now, I’m not a complete jerk,” Immanuel followed up, stepping forward towards Tyche with his arms spread wide, following it up by an absent-minded kick to Dusu’s throat, causing her to choke up and bend over in pain, just as she’d been about to speak up. “I really don’t feel like listening to you, Heng,” he quipped, and continued to walk towards Tyche with a disarming smile.

Basil groaned, slowly getting back up on his feet – the strain of the last few days was really starting to catch up to him – as he blinked the stars out of his view. By the time he managed that, the only ones left standing were himself, Tyche, Tartsche and Spellgun.

Amy was on the ground, moaning softly with unfocused eyes. Bakeneko and Osore were both still conscious but stunned, lying on the ground. Polymnia was on her knees, holding her mangled right arm to her chest, sniffling as tears leaked from her eyes. Hecate was on the ground next to Immanuel, who was still holding one of her arms by the wrist. Basil hadn’t even noticed her go down.

Both Tartsche and Spellgun were aiming their guns at him, but since he stood between them and Tyche, they didn’t want to risk taking the shot.

Tyche was staring slack-jawed at him, her grip on her rifle quite loose.

Graymalkin had curled up on Amy’s breasts, using them as pillows as he yawned.

“So, now that all that unpleasantness is over,” Immanuel said with a small sigh, seemingly not even winded. “How about we have a nice talk, hm?” He looked around at the teens. “I have no interest in keeping the lot of you here, really. In fact, I’m perfectly willing to let you get back home.”

“What is the catch?” Basil asked suspiciously, not believing him for a moment, even though everything about him just plain screamed sincerity.

“Well, you do have quite a lot of damages to make up for,” Immanuel replied, turning his back to Tyche and letting go of Hecate’s arm, so he could face Basil. “So I think it’d only be fair if you and Melody over there were to work for us for, let’s say… a quarter of a year, each.” He clapped his hands together, smiling brightly. “You two promise me three months of servitude each – no wetwork, nothing illegal, even – and I’ll not only let your friends go right now, I’ll even pay you both quite handsomly. And you can get back to your own affairs. How’s that sound?”

“Never,” Polymnia replied, her voice coming out distorted. “Like we’d ever agree to work for someone like you!”

“Now, don’t be judgemental,” Immanuel wagged a finger at her. “You don’t really know me just yet.”

“We’ve… seen enough…” Hecate groaned as she got up on her feet, leaning heavily onto her staff. “You fucking people belong in a maximum security prison… or better yet, six foot under,” she snarled, her eyes flashing with raw hatred within the shadows of her hood.

Language, young lady,” he frowned at her, mockingly. “What would your grandmother say if she heard you talk like that?”

Hecate flinched, snarling audibly at him.

He knows too much, Basil thought, his brain racing wildly, trying to come up with an idea on how to take him on. If he’s some kind of combat precog, then the only way to beat him would be to trap him in a no-win situation.

Great idea, mate! Except for the little fact that he’s holding all the cards in his hands!

You’re not helping. Either come up with an idea or else shut up.

“Now, as I was saying – this doesn’t have to end in more tears,” Immanuel continued. “If you two accept my offer, I’ll even let you use all our resources to try and figure out a cure for Dusu’s plague.”

Basil clenched his fists, hard.

Immanuel smirked at him. “You know there’s no way you’ll be able to save her on your own. She wouldn’t survive a trip to the Protectorate, and it’s unlikely someone with your manifold issues would be able to reach him, anyway. And you don’t have the knowledge base nor the resources to work out a cure – but we might.” He put his hands together, palm-to-palm, as if praying – or begging. “Please, Basil. Think about it. You’ve always believed that the ends justify the means, no? I’m offering you near-endless resources, and the support of our best bio-gadgeteers – including Dusu.” He gestured at the unconscious woman. “Consider how much it would improve your chances if you had the actual source of the plague to work with, even if she doesn’t consciously know how it works or how to fix it! Accept my offer and not only will your friends be able to go back home safe and sound, but you’ll also be able to save Prisca.”

He bit his lip hard enough that it hurt, feeling angry with himself just for considering the offer. Yet he did, and Immanuel knew he was saying just the right things.

“Basil, you know the choice is barely one,” Immanuel pressed on. “Not for you. You know what needs to be done, and what needs to be done is a cure being found for Dusus many victims – are you really going to decline an offer to do what you know needs to be done?”

He lowered his raised fists, letting his arms hang loosely. Fuck. He was right, wasn’t he? Even disregarding the fact that there was no other option he could see to get his friends to safety – Immanuel seemed quite confident he’d be able to deal with Gloom Glimmer and any reinforcements she’d be able to drum up, even if those were members of the Dark Five – he was completely out of options as far as actually saving Prisca was concerned – the reason he’d organised this entire, ill-advised operation in the first place!

Even if he’s lying about letting me leave freely, afterwards, I’ll stand a better chance of getting out of this, nevermind of fixing Prisca, by playing along for now.

It needs to be done.

He sighed, releasing a breath he hadn’t even realised he’d been holding, as his shoulders slumped, opening his mouth to-

“To pursue what is necessary is the province of beasts – a true man must pursue naught but what he desires.”

He clenched his fists again, feeling an angry heat rise up from his gut. A snarl escaped his mouth, making Immanuel frown, looking honestly serious for the first time yet.

“Fuck. You,” he snarled at the villain.

Immanuel tilted his head, looking actually surprised for once. “Hm. I suppose that’s a no, then.” He put his hands on his waist, huffing. “The day’s full of surprises.” He looked over at Polymnia, who was still on her knees and craddling her bleeding arm.

Even though she was crying heavily, she glared back at him with defiance in her eyes.

“That’s a no then, as well,” he concluded with a sigh, lowering his head and shaking it. “What a waste.” He looked around at them all, watching as they all slowly got back up on their feet, at least those who weren’t still standing. Even Amy was getting up, on wobbly feet, barely able to balance on her stiletto heels, but determined to try, clearly.

Everyone looked scared, worn out and just plainly tired, but Basil could tell that they all intended to keep fighting.

He raised his fists again, clenching them, facing the brown-haired villain.

Even now, Immanuel looked, at worst, like he was annoyed, not worried.

“Well, let’s do… this…” Immanuel began to speak in a chipper tone of voice, but trailed off, frowning as he looked around the huge hall.

The lights flickered, once. Twice. Three times.

When they came back on for the fourth time, a huge, vaguely humanoid shadow stood between Immanuel and Polymnia, to Basil’s right, his back to the Esper who’d just kicked them all around so easily, looking down at the crying Polymnia.

“Me- Polymnia!” cried a familiar voice, and an equally familiar, white-cloaked figure stepped forth from next to the huge shadow, rushing over to her friend and throwing her arms around the kneeling girl, hugging her tight as light spread from every point of contact between them, gathering around Polymnia’s wounds and starting to mend them.

“So, this is it, huh?” the Dark said, curiosity in his distorted, choral voice, looking around lazily. “Now where’s that giant…”

He suddenly cut himself off as he turned around and looked down at Immanuel, who’d moved back by several metre, almost running into Tyche – as if he’d been trying to sneak away quickly. In his current form, the Dark was more than two heads taller than him, and Immanuel was by no means a short man.

The two supervillains stared at each other, one’s expression hidden utterly beneath the darkness of his power, yet radiating a sense of utter, disbelieving shock, while the other’s expression was calm, friendly, even amicable, yet he radiated nervousness.

“You,” the Dark breathed, sounding stunned. Off-balance. His voice barely more than a whisper. “You’re alive.”

“Long time no see, Goldschmidt,” Immanuel spoke carefully, putting his hands in his pants’ pockets. “Surprise, I guess.”

Whatever Basil had been expecting to happen next – whatever anyone had expected, from Tyche to Gloom Glimmer, all of whom were staring at the scene with bated breath – none of them, he was sure, expected what came next.

The Dark sobbed, staggering forward by a step, reaching out with a hand towards Immanuel, hesitating, as if afraid that he’d disappear if he made too sudden a move.

“Oh, oh… thank God… thank God…” he sobbed, his voice soft, the tears actually audible, though invisible. “I was so afraid… so, so afraid… that you were gone…”

The shadows he was wrapped in began to boil, spreading out slowly around him, like tar slowly creeping over the floor.

“That you had died…”

The shadows rolled off of him, writhing, expending, contracting, increasing.

“That I would never get my chance…”

He took another step closer, his voice breaking, another sob escaping him, like the sound a wounded animal would make when it finally found balm for its pain.

Gloom Glimmer flew towards Tartsche and Spellgun, pulling Polymnia along behind her with one hand, as more, ghostly hands reached out for all the others.

“To kill you myself…”

Basil found himself being pulled towards Gloom Glimmer, along with all the others, as she shot straight up, throwing a solid black sphere that blew through the ceiling, paving the way.

“To finally, finally… hurt you!”

Beneath them, as they rapidly flew above the floating city, the Darkness exploded, a tide of boiling shadows wallowing across the floating city like a tidal wave.

And above all, there was a scream, a cry of such utter, unadultered, unrestrained hatred, it chilled the blood in their veins.

Over fifty figures who’d been floating, flying and standing around the building Dusu’s lab was in charged forward to join their master in battle.

And then the Dark went to War.

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