15.0 All Masks Fall: Intro

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The Incursion spread, explosively, as Outstep disappeared from the world, red tendrils reaching out, groping about, cutting deep gashes into reality only for them to heal over in fits and starts.

Then it was gone, having fed upon itself until there was nothing left, in but a moment; not a single person had been connected.

The man sometimes known as the Dark breathed a sigh of relief. An Incursion was hardly a threat to him, personally, but it could harm his baby girl, nevermind all the other people within its range.

Or the long-term consequences to the world.

Another disaster averted. Let’s prepare for the next one, he allowed himself to think, sarcastically, before he put such thoughts out of his mind and turned to coordinating the clean-up, while also drawing all of the wraiths he’d created back in.

People get so testy about being possessed by eldritch shadow demons. Go figure.

He shook his head, beneath the cover of his shadow coat. Aaron was rubbing off on him again, making him indulge in sarcasm.

Since it was best to only indulge in such things sparingly, he instead focused on his tasks, trying to ignore the anguish he’d felt through his connection with Irene, while his wraith had been sharing Outstep’s time with her; she’d realized what was happening, of course.

She wouldn’t want him to come to her right then, though. No, she was all business, far too much like himself in that regard. Putting her feelings aside to rush back into the thick of things and help people wherever she could.

He’d have to make sure to be ready for the inevitable breakdown, once everything was done and she was back home.

Hopefully, Gwen would have found her way back to them by then – she was far better at actually dealing with this kind of emotion than he was, rather than just putting them aside to focus on something else, as he was wont to do.

And so he worked, using lesser wraiths to reach out to people and talk, coordinating more than he did anything directly, and his thoughts drifted to other matters. Once reality had settled down around the nucleus of the Incursion, he’d have to see whether anything was left of Mindstar. That girl had turned out to be full of surprises, even beyond what he’d expected; and she may yet become the key to finally putting that creature down for good.

Though he might have to brainwash her to put her to use; she was likely to be useless on her own, with her brother’s death.

Yet another thing Irene is going to be devastated by.

Other matters required his attention, as well. New Lennston had been devastated – not as thoroughly as Old Lennston had been, back in the day, but even so, it would take months to rebuild, and the loss of life, for all that the attack had been one of the briefer ones, was staggering. By his count, nearly a fifth of its population was dead or worse; a little over five-hundred and thirty-thousand people of all ages. That crystal power she’d expressed, had been one of her more devastating ones, in terms of civilian loss of life, accounting for a super-majority of the deaths among the populace. Most of his agents in the city were among the dead, as well.

And that was just the start of his problems, he-

Where is Irene?

Even after his wraith had let go of her – he couldn’t stomach possessing his baby girl, not even in such a situation – he had maintained an awareness of her, if not an eye on her, just in case she called for him or otherwise needed his assistance.

Now she’d disappeared from his awareness entirely, in the same moment that nearly all of the survivors had.

No.

He turned around.

Where the battlefield that was New Lennston had been, a vast, jet-black sphere stood; perfectly spherical down to the nano-meter and so black it made his shadows look bright, as if it was less an object that stood there, but rather an absence of anything, even empty space.

No!

He surged forward, slamming into the side of the sphere – his power washed over it to no effect, as it had so many times before.

The sphere had been placed precisely so it had captured nearly all the inhabitants of New Lennston that were left, while excluding those capes and cowls who’d retreated furthest back from the calamity… and, of course, so as to make sure he was not within.

But Irene was in there.

“NO! YOU FUCKING COWARDS!!!”

***

The sound of breaking concrete, steel and other materials died down, reduced to mere background groaning, as what had once been New Lennston settled into its new shape, divided up into six pieces, each in its own globule within the greater globule that was the Savage Six’ reality.

The skies above these fragments were of such a deep, unbroken black that one could get dizzy just looking up at them and finding no reference point, nothing for the eyes to focus upon at all; yet there was still light, a sort of diffuse kind that seemed to have no clear source, yet illuminated the landscape as a full moon might on a clear night.

People were still reeling, many of them having been thrown off their feet, or fallen onto their knees in horror, when a screen appeared in the sky above each fragment of New Lennston.

Through it, one could see a bright studio stage, full of blinking lights and loud sounds, sporting a set of huge glowing letters in the background announcing ‘THE 88th SAVAGE GAMES!!!’

At the center of the scene stood a man with carefully styled red-blonde hair, wearing an expensive suit made of glittery gold material, with a lacy shirt and a bright golden tie beneath, a rose made of pure gold, with diamonds between its leafs, poking out of his breast pocket and sporting a wide, fake, white-toothed smile, his once enthusiastic brown eyes devoid of anything but despair and misery.

Calvin Poth had once been Great Britains most popular comedian, a passionate libertarian and crown loyalist who’d often used his weekly evening show as a vehicle to make moral cases for and against various events across the world, condemning and ridiculing those he found to be repugnant and exalting (and ridiculing) those he found to be just, becoming quite famous for his understated style and dry, very british wit.

Until he’d taken aim at the Savage Six.

A week after a whole show spent making fun of each and every member of the six, he and his entire family had disappeared, in spite of the protective detail put on them.

In the four years since, he’d been forced to ‘host’ a demented game show for the Savage Six, accompanying each and every one of their ‘games’.

He never made a single joke during any of them, and only played up being bombastic and excited as can be.

“Good evening, New Lennston!” he shouted, spreading his arms wider than even his fake grin went. “And welcome to the eighty-eighth Savage Games! You, are the lucky ones who get to compete, one and all!”

“Oh, and to those whom have been here before – welcome back,” he added, leaning forward to wink at the camera.

Then he stood up again, throwing his arms out. “We have a great show prepared for you all – nay, a colossal one! Titanic! Divine! With all-new rules and stakes!”

He sighed, raising the back of his hand to his forehead, eyes closed. “You see, we do hear you. When you criticize us. When you demand we improve our show, that we innovate! And so, for all our most devoted fans, we have prepared all this – and without further ado, let’s get to it and not waste time!”

“First, you may notice that your beautiful, recently re-decorated city has been split apart – into six globules, in fact!”

A hologram appeared in front of him, showing the six pieces, each floating in a separate sphere.

“Fear not, these fragments are not entirely lost to each other – there are ways to cross from one to another, by walking through any passage marked by this symbol!”

A symbol that looked like six red chevrons arranged in a circular pattern replaced the image of the broken city.

“Any passage so marked leads to a matching passage in another globule; there are exactly five passages in every globule, leading to a matching passage in another globule. However, the connections are not permanent – they rotate, based on this lovely contraption!”

He skipped joylessly over to a contraption that looked like a lottery machine had mated with a distillery, then been set in the middle of two dozen funhouse mirrors, before the most distorted and weird reflection was pulled out of its mirror, which became then the object he was now gesturing at.

The only parts that were easily recognizable was a handle attached to a crank, which could be turned, and a disk with six smaller disks arranged in a circle along its rim, each containing an image of the various globules. Hundreds of tiny golden rods were affixed to the greater disk between the smaller disks, connecting them in a wild pattern – but there were exactly five such lines of rods that were aligned for each globule, connecting them together.

“Every so often, I shall turn this beautiful handle,” he explained, stroking the golden rod that made up the handle, with the red sphere at the tip, “and this shall happen!”

He turned the crank, and the rods spun chaotically, before realigning in a different pattern.

“And so the connections will change – don’t worry, it’s all purely random, no one, not even our beloved game masters will be able to predict it! Not even Heretic himself, who set it up! Because we are, after all, nothing if not fair!” he shouted at the screen.

“Now, I’m sure you’re asking what the point of all of this is – well, I’m glad you asked, because we’re not going to have our usual setup this time! You see, this time, our much-loved game masters are not going to be playing directly against you!”

He snapped his fingers, and six smaller screens appeared in the air above each fragment of the city, arranged in a circle and rotating beneath the greater screen that showed him.

Each one sported a different symbol.

One was partitioned into two squares, one white, one black; the white one showed a black smiling mask, the black one a sad white mask.

To the right of it, a black background, with a red point in the center, within a golden ring.

Next to that, a pair of vermilion eyes within a white gear, beneath which a pair of vermilion blades were crossed, all on black ground.

Then, a stylized pink brain on blue ground, with a spike being driven into it at an angle.

After that, a black ring on a white ground, with nothing else.

Finally, a white skull on black ground, with a crown of flames.

“For this special game, we are going to split all participants into four groups! Yes, four of them – the Game Masters, the PCs, the NPCs and the Mobs!”

“The Game Masters, well, you all know them – our beloved Six!” The six rotating emblems blinked, briefly highlighted.

“The Mobs, you know them too – our many, many staffers, supporters, die-hard fans and hopeful pretenders to the GM spots! They will be out in force, as they usually are, and raisin’ hell and fun among PCs and NPCs alike!” Images of various minions in all kinds of outfits and styles flickered quickly across the screen.

“As for the NPCs, well, those are… all of you, but for the PCs!” He grinned, snapping his fingers to point at the screen, and thus at his terrified audience below.

“Ah, but now you’re asking, Cal, aren’t we usually the PCs in these games? Why are we being demoted? What the hell is this!?” he said, miming listening to the screen. “Well fear not, for being an NPC still means you get to participate – just in a different way! Just wait and see!”

“Now, the PCs, they are going to be special this time. Because…” A drumroll played. “There will be only six! Yes, six PCs, one for each GM!”

New screens appeared beneath the emblems, empty for now but for the letters ‘PC’ blinking across them.

“And here’s the thing – the GMs will only be going after the PCs! Yes, my dear audience, for once, you need only fear the Mobs… well, mostly.” He snapped his fingers into airguns again, grinning at the camera.

“Now, let me explain – each GM has chosen one person among those drafted into the game, whom is going to be their target for the next one-hundred and forty-four hours – six days, that is!” A digital display appeared, floating around the circumference of the jetblack sky, showing a static 06:00:00:00.

Calvin continued: “And while their respective PC is still alive, the GM is not allowed to harm any NPC, directly or indirectly – unless, of course, they are attacked first, or the NPCs actively protect or hide their respective PC. If, however, a GM manages to capture and kill their chosen PC, they are henceforth free to do as they please, so long as they do not kill the PC of another GM! If at least one PC survives to the end of the time limit, the GMs will admit defeat and cut the game short, returning you to the boring outside world, with no Seventh Day taking place.”

He leaned in towards the screen, wagging a finger. “And if, by some miracle, all six PCs are still alive by the end of the time limit, not only will the GMs release you all, but they will also turn themselves in with the authorities – yes, for the first time, we are offering a Total Party Kill Ending for the Game Masters!”

An unseen audience gasped and cried out inside the studio.

“However! If all six PCs die before the time limit is up, well… then there will be an extra special penalty for the NPCs – namely, a whole day, a Seventh Day, of the GMs and Mobs hunting you to their hearts’ content, with no restrictions whatsoever!”

“But what is this – ‘Calvin, should we not, then, do our level best to make sure the PCs all survive? Even if some of us die protecting them, we could at least cut the game short, or even force the GMs to turn themselves in to the authorities, or else be known to have become the most despicable of despicables – rulebreakers!'”

He nodded sagely, standing up straight and fussing a bit with his jacket and tie. “Yes, yes, dear hypothetical querist, that may be so – but things are rarely so simple. Because, you see – there are some special rules regarding the consequences of a PC’s death.”

“First! If a PC is slain by a Mob, said Mob and their entire troupe will get a special reward!”

“Second, and this is the big one – if an NPC slays a PC, that NPC will be allowed to choose five other NPCs, and will then be released from the game arena immediately, along with a generous cash prize of six million pounds sterling each! Yes, we are actually offering you an early way out – all you need to do is kill one of the designated PCs and you and five people of your choosing – family, friends, whoever, as well as any assorted pets, will get off early! Aren’t we generous?”

Calvin’s grin had by now become rictus-like, looking like it ought to split his head open and let the top half fall off the bottom. “And with that, let’s see whom will be the stars of this week’s show!” He rubbed his hands together. “Oh my God, I can’t wait!

The screen beneath the flame-crowned skull began to rapidly scroll through an indeterminable sequence of images, until it settled on a pink musical note within an equally pink outline of a heart, upon a blue ground.

At the same time, the image of a technicolor-haired, busty teenage girl in a partially transparent armor appeared on the screen next to Calvin, along with some stats of hers, and of course, her name.

“And our first star, the world-wide sensation before she was thirteen, and one of New Lennston’s rising stars – Polymnia, the Metahuman Pop Princess!” A fanfare played, taken from one of her own songs, as if to add insult to injury. “Will her beautiful music manage to soften Fire Burial’s heart, or will she end up just another flash-in-the-pan pop star? We shall see!”

The screen beneath the black ring scrolled through all the options, and then settled on a purple starburst on black ground.

The image of a tall, slender woman in purple spandex, with rich black hair (with purple highlights) and purple eyes, as well as unnaturally pale, almost pure white skin, appeared.

“Ohhh, Pristine has picked a real challenge – the dreaded, the sexy, the mysterious, the unpredictableeee… Mindstar!”

Next came the screen beneath the spiked brain, scrolling through options until it settled on a stylized hoplite’s helmet, in gold, on red ground.

An image of the athletic interim leader of the New Lennston United Heroes appeared, in her red spandex outfit, without her power’s armor active. “Turns out Mindfuck might be barely with us anymore, but he is still capable of some sweet, sweet irony – the great and greatly disgraced Amazon! Will her defenses suffice to keep him out, or will she once more lick the boots of someone with a mightier brain than hers?”

He’d just barely finished his spiel when the screen beneath the eyes-within-a-gear began to flicker through the images, finally settling on a pair of red dice showing snake eyes on white ground.

“Yet another beautiful lady – my, we seem to have quite the estrogen brigade at hand already, don’t we?” Calvin asked the audience, as the title card showed a young red-head in skintight scaled armor, whirling upside down around a black staff like an exotic dancer; her armor was partially transparent around her cleavage, midriff and legs, and she wore a short, black leather jacket, sporting an infectious grin. “Will Tyche’s luck suffice, or will she become the victim of a true Atrocity? Only time will tell!”

The screen beneath the golden ring and red circle began to flicker, and then settled on a a variation of Lady Light’s famous symbol – the downwards pointing moon sickle within a circle, from which three lines radiated; but while Lady Light’s was traditionally gold on white ground, this one was colored pure white upon a black ground.

The title card showed Gloom Glimmer, floating in the air; wearing her skintight, yet rather thick bodysuit made of an almost velvet-like material, all in black, and over it, the pure white, hooded cape that’d been passed down to her by her mother, her jet-black hair flying free while her eyes glowed red on black sclera.

“No surprises there – of course our MVP Heretic chooses to challenge the big unknown, the greatest challenge, the Princess of Power – Gloooooom Glimmer! Who shall emerge victorious from this battle of titans? We are all waiting with bated breath to find out! But really now, five ladies? Dear GMs, please, we need some testosterone here, else people will start thinking we’re weird and prejudiced!”

The last screen, beneath the sock and buskin scrolled, and then settled quickly on the last image. A metal-grey gear on bright yellow ground, trailing flames as if racing at great speeds.

On the title card, the image of a black man leaning on a car that could best be described as three hot rods and a monster truck thrown together and somehow made to be a single vehicle showed. He wore a stylized race car driver’s jumpsuit, in yellow, with stylized red flames on the cuffs, lower legs and diagonally across his chest, wearing a yellow-and-red domino mask underneath a shaved head, flashing bright teeth and holding a heavy-looking, yellow-colored, red-flamed helmet with stylized exhausts flaring out like wings.

“Can this be… I can’t believe it! Yes, our glorious leader has chosen to re-ignite the old rivalry – speed junkie versus speed junkie, speedster racing speedster, pedal-to-the-metal action unlike anything we’ve seen since the glorious days of the Speedfreaks and the Swift Simians – Hemming vs Hotrod!”

Another fanfare played, trumpets and drums, while an unseen audience cheered and whistled.

“And that’s it, folks! You know the players, you know the rules – let the 88th Savage Games beeeeeegiiiiiiiiiin!!!”

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14.a.5 Out of Time

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Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dude was scary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck, they’re all dead, aren’t they?

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

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

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

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

He had to think of Kizzy, first.

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

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

***

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

What?

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

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

Measured out to an inhuman degree.

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

… : 31

… : 30

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

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

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

… : 29

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

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

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

… : 28

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

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

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

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

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

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

RUN UP THE CLOCK?

YES || >NO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His imagination shut down at that point, mercifully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All I do, I do for you, Keziah.

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

The display flickered, as the words were replaced.

ALL THAT WE DO, WE DO FOR HER.

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

Again.

And again.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

My costume is becoming a part of me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just how big an explosion is this going to be?

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

And so he ran towards the ‘incursion’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boss’s power is really fucking hardcore.

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

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

Jet black.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was less than a foot in yet!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He tried really hard not to make them out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course he knows…

He just nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He trailed off, unable to put it into words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six, as two more appeared.

Ten. Eighteen. More.

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

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

Those cords… if each is a wraith…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I say that out loud?

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

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

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

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

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

What did matter…

All that we do, we do for her.

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

His sister… Keziah. Kizzy.

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

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

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

The Incursion’s progress was slowed even further.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was going to shine brighter than he ever could.

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

And then he was no more.

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14.a.4 Out of Time

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Not so long before the Crocell Fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to shine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn, she looks good.

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

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

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

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

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

Still, it all but bowled Kizzy over.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was strike one against that theory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The princess… stark naked…

Naked…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She wouldn’t really have to try.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, speaking of stuff I just saw…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your uncle sounds like a perv.”

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

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

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

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

“Can I see it?” he asked curiously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Jared.”

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

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

Well… might as well…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She seemed to think it over, and nodded.

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

Alright, that actually is pretty uncomfortable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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vote for brennus

14.a.3 Out of Time

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6 minutes ago

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

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

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

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

It was then that he noticed the blood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The residual grin dropped off of Thomas’ face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Not so long ago

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

“Dream on, butt boy!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not that Jared could ever blame her for that.

Not that he’d ever say so out loud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. Wasn’t gonna ask, though.”

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t very hard to do, really.

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

“Denise.”

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

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

“Nope.”

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

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

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

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

Scary thoughts.

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

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

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

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

“Uhhhh…”

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

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

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

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

“Welll… Ah wasn’t… but my pops was.”

“Oh…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh no.”

***

Three minutes ago

“Oh no.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not that she seemed to notice.

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

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

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

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

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

***

Shortly after the Miami Attack

He felt so fucking useless, looking at his sister.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jared spent most of his sessions talking about Kizzy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

60:00

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

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

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

All in all, a pretty good power.

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

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

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

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

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

Well, he liked using his power.

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

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

Time slowed down again, the world coming into focus.

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

***

Two minutes ago

“-good it did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4:23

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time.

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

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

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

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

He didn’t even want to think the alternative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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vote for brennus

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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