B13.d 8 Bad People

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You’re going to die.

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

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

He’s going to die.

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

She’s going to die.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

You’re still going to die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s going to die.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait for it,” their leader repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Konrad relaxed, shrugging those huge shoulders of his.

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

She’s going to die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s going to die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YOU WILL ALL DIE!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YOU WILL ALL DIE!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YOU WILL ALL DIE!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YOU WILL ALL DIE!

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

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

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

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

Then, Darkness.

You’re going to die.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But, seriously, we-“

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

And just like that, he hung up.

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

It won’t be enough, and you’ll die.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Who the fuck had summoned a meteor?

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

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

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B13.19 Call of the Sleeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though they were pretty high up, he could still make out details by using his visor’s zoom function.

The Companions’ floating city had turned into utter Bedlam. The Dark’s wraiths were everywhere, hundreds, thousands of them. Most of them were the small ones he tended to produce en masse, skeletal humanoid torsos with blank, six-exed faces, emaciated, clawed arms and no real lower body as they crawled across the floor, simply melting into darkness where their hips should be and below, said darkness forming an almost serpentine shape, if a rather short one compared to the rest of them.

They were his weakest creations, and they went down by the dozens, crushed, torn, penetrated and otherwise relatively easily destroyed by the many, many powers the fifty or so metahumans of the Companions’ brought to bear, being only a little tougher – if at all – than normal humans.

Even so, their sheer numbers more than made up for it, and Basil watched with rather clinical curiosity as half a dozen of them managed to break through to Boltstar and literally pull his limbs off, before one used his own leg to bash his head in.

Chronicle either couldn’t or wouldn’t rewind him, and then his corpse was obliterated along with the wraiths when one of the newcomers unleashed a spherical, orange explosion that disintegrated both them and the ground beneath.

Everywhere he looked, the carnage continued. Fifty metahumans, none of them lightweights judging by what he’d seen of the Gefährten so far, and yet for all their power and numbers, they might as well only have been an annoyance to the Dark.

For the first time, Basil really understood how he could still stand at the top.

The wraiths moved in waves, surging against the villains, and every time they did, they whittled them down a little more, breaking up their formations, taking down one or two – even if they didn’t stay down.

Basil could see Immanuel, standing in a circle of white light maintained by a nude woman with strips of some kind of white fabric instead of hair, along with a man covered head to toe in crystal shards that seemed to have either been jammed into him or grown out of his body and another man in a golden robe, holding a set of scales in one hand and a crystal ball in the other. He was clearly giving out instructions, speaking to his companions (at least one of whom likely transmitted them), coordinating his troops. Chronicle was there, as well, clutching her book to her chest, shoulders hunched and apparently frantically using her power, over and over, continuously rewinding any one of her people who was killed or crippled, whenever she managed to get her eyes on them.

The Gefährten had the advantage of numbers and sheer power, with at least fifty different metahumans, but they just couldn’t seem to break through the Darkwraiths in force, and every time they exchanged blows, every time they broke another wave of wraiths on their defenses, they lost one or two more, sometimes permanently, and their formations kept being pulled apart, separating them.

Meanwhile, the Dark just kept spawning more wraiths, replacing his lost ones, buying time for the greater ones to return to him and be… repaired? Recharged? Basil wasn’t sure how it worked, but he was healing those with actual powers of their own, while sacrificing the mindless crawlers and some larger, sturdier, but still powerless brutes.

In spite of the mad rush of his creations, the Dark himself seemed calm again, coordinating the battle and clearly pursuing a strategy of dividing and then obliterating his enemies; and it was working.

The King of Supervillains towered above the carnage around him, standing tall as more and more wraiths poured forth from the darkness at his feet. His head didn’t move to track the battle around him, not that he needed to – it was pretty well-known that he shared his wraiths’ senses – and he only moved when someone managed to break through his wraiths’ lines to attack him directly, countering whatever they threw at him with contemptuous ease.

A murder of crows dove down at him, pulling together into the form of Karasuha as she brought her sword down upon the Dark’s head, but he simply caught the blade, arresting her entire drop, and reached up with his left hand, grabbing her head and smashing it down on the ground to hard it burst like a melon. Before he even rose up, he flipped her sword around to grab it by the hilt and beheaded a man in a cheetah costume who’d rushed up to him with unnatural speed.

Karasuha’s form flicked and she was returned to life, her sword back in her hands, but the Dark simply brought his now empty hand down in a motion reminiscent of a karate chop.

Her body flickered and was replaced by another, a huge mountain of a man – though he was still shorter than the Dark – with his arms raised and crossed, ready to take the blow.

The ‘chop’ simply cleaved through him, through his crossed forearms, through his head, his torso, his loins, splitting him in half.

And it wasn’t just the Dark himself who perpetuated the slaughter. There were other wraiths, greater ones. Each with unique variations to their appearance, they were fighting the Companions with their own powers – Basil counted eighteen of these unique wraiths, and each one was at least equal to any two of the Companions’ villains.

“Hey, Gloomy, didn’t your power say that Immanuel was more dangerous than the Dark?” Melody asked, her voice sounding much more steady and  calm than she looked. “Because he’s totally kicking everyone’s ass – and giving me enough nightmare fuel to last a lifetime,” she concluded as they watched one particularly brutal scene where a wraith unraveled into scores of thin black tendrils, which stabbed forth into an enemy’s body, then tore him to pieces, pulling him apart from the inside out.

Most everyone looked away from the gruesome sight.

”It did,” Gloom Glimmer replied in a subdued voice, looking down at the battle, her expression saddened. “It still does, in fact.”

”It occurs to me,” Basil interjected, making both girls and some of the others look at him, though he kept looking straight down, “That perhaps your power is judging how dangerous they are to you, personally, not how dangerous they are in general. I find it hard to believe that the Dark is that big a threat to his own daughter.”

Gloom Glimmer thought it over, then nodded.

“Dunno about you guys, but I’m plenty glad he’s dangerous right about now,” Tyche mumbled, barely audible since half her face was pressed against Hecate’s collarbone.

“A-fucking-men,” Spellgun agreed with her.

”Gloom Glimmer, please take us home,” Tartsche spoke up. “There’s nothing left to do here.”

”Hey hey!” Dusu spoke up in protest. “The f-“

Spellgun shot her in the face, knocking her out.

The Dark’s daughter looked down at the fight. “But…”

“Irene, the best we could hope for if we got involved in that would be to not be used against him by his enemies,” her team’s leader spoke softly. “Even you aren’t strong enough to help him, not against such an enemy.”

She didn’t look at him, didn’t look away from her father, but she nodded. “Ok,” came a soft whisper, and then the capsule they were in began to move, seemlessly. There was no feeling of acceleration, no G-Forces pressing them flat against the ‘walls’ – they simply accelerated, instantly, to such a speed that their surroundings became a blur. “It will take a few minutes to get there,” Gloom Glimmer explained as she finished fixing Polymnia up. “Does anyone else need healing, while I still have it?”

Basil leaned back as Gloom Glimmer went around fixing the last remaining bruises and other wounds they’d accumulated in their short – and very one-sided – fight against Immanuel.

He noticed that Hecate had turned her head, her hood now pointed towards him, looking at… Amy’s head on his lap, his hand stroking her hair as she slowly recovered.

”I am sorry,” he said quietly, so quietly the junior heroes were unlikely to hear it.

She turned away.

They kept moving without actually moving, until Gloom Glimmer walked up to him and Amy – the two of them sat a little apart from the rest – and squatted in front of them.

Basil looked at her face, trying to decipher her expression, but she just seemed calm to him.

“I’ll fix her up, if you don’t mind,” she spoke softly.

He nodded and took his hand off Amy’s hair, while Gloom Glimmer reached down and put her glowing palm onto the villainess’ forehead. Unfortunately, this also caused Graymalkin to snarl at her and leap off his resting place stalking off with the kind of offended aura only a cat could project.

After a few moments, Amy’s eyes fluttered open and she groaned in pain. “Ugh… my head… princess? Basil? What’s going on?” She looked at the two of them in confusion, yet still calm.

”We are safe,” Basil said, to head off a freakout. “Gloom Glimmer brought her father and then took us away. He is tearing the Gefährten up now.”

”Wu-what?” she stammered, shocked. “The boss is here? I’ve got to help him!” She shot up, using her power to stand up near-instantly, but Basil grabbed her by the wrist.

”I do not think that he needs any help,” he spoke calmly. “Plus, he seemed really angry at Immanuel… way beyond what I would expect, even in this situation.” He looked at Gloom Glimmer, as did everyone else in the capsule, all with the same question on their minds.

What the hell could piss the Dark off that much?

Gloom Glimmer sighed. “I don’t know. I really don’t. I’ve never heard of Immanuel before, and Daddy never mentioned anyone he hated that much to me before,” she explained, her voice betraying just a hint of a whine towards the end.

”Well, that’s a mystery then,” Amy quipped as she brushed her hand over Basil’s helmet’s top, a brief gesture of affection. “Still, he’s my boss and I should be there. You brats are safe now and I’ve got to make up for going down like an amateur twice now.”

She looked down at Basil, and their eyes met. He nodded, and she smiled. “Let me out, princess,” she said, using the nickname without any bite to it.

Gloom Glimmer shrugged and the capsule stopped its movements above the sea, the water stretching seemingly endlessly in every direction.

”Alright, see you later, Basil. Princess. Brats,” Amy said, looking at all of them, before she dropped through the floor, reangled herself in mid-air and then shot away so violently, she distorted the air around herself, though they heard nothing of it inside the strange capsule Gloom Glimmer had created.

They moved on again.

Basil looked away, briefly, then looked back at Gloom Glimmer, who was still sitting on her haunches in front of him and studying him, as if she could see through his mask.

She probably can.

“I know it sucks,” she said softly, making him look up at those unnaturally blue, warm eyes. “Family’s family but Wrong’s wrong, too and how’re we supposed to do the right thing there?”

He smiled weakly. “A catch-twenty-two if I ever heard of one.”

She smiled back. “Yeah. Look, I know we barely know each other, and this is obviously quite private and all, but… if you need someone to talk about it… you can talk to me. I understand, and I won’t judge. Just, uh, just wanted to say that,” she spoke, sounding insecure again as she blushed a bit and averted her eyes.

”I will keep that in mind,” He lowered his eyes as well, feeling strangely humbled by the offer. “Thank you.”

A few seconds passed, and then she did something he absolutely didn’t expect – Gloom Glimmer leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead, her lips and jaw going through his helmet like it wasn’t even there.

Her lips were warm and soft on his skin and felt a great deal of tension melt off at the simple gesture.

She leaned back again, far too soon. “I’m sorry we couldn’t find the cure. I… maybe we can find some other way to help Prisca.”

”Yeah, maybe…” He couldn’t bring himself to agree, not really, and looked away.

Gloom Glimmer didn’t press the point and walked back to join Polymnia, who wrapped an arm around her friend’s shoulders and pulled her head to rest against her shoulder.

Minutes passed, minutes during which Basil found himself unable to really focus on anything. There was just too much on his mind. Worry for Amy. Vasiliki’s reaction to the truth about his sister. Dalia’s own tragedy. Dusu. The Gefährten. The Sleeper. The constant presence of his power at the back of his mind, coming up with fragments of ideas even now, for him to try and assemble into a cohesive whole. Prisca.

He looked at Dusu’s passed out form. Just how am I going to explain this to her? To her mother? That it was all so…

Pointless.

He might have continued to wallow in his misery, had Tartsche not gotten up and moved over, stopping just a step away from him, his arms crossed as he looked down on him.

“I believe you promised me and the others some answers, Brennus,” he said in his usual calm, firm tones. “Much as I understand that you just took some major blows, I think it’s best we get this over with before we get back to New Lennston and I have to make a choice about how to proceed.”

Behind him, Tyche frowned and leaned forward, as if to get up, but Hecate pulled her back by the arm wrapped around her shoulders, while her other hand remained on Graymalkin’s back – at some point, he’d crawled onto her lap and curled up there.

The others all turned to look at Basil and Tartsche, as well.

“By ‘how to proceed’ you mean ‘whether or not to immediately tell Amazon and the UH in general’ about Mindstar’s and my relationship and our identities’,” he stated with neither rancor nor bitterness in his voice. It was just a fact.

Tartsche didn’t even look abashed or anything. “Exactly. This is too big, really. Mindstar’s a wanted criminal, and not a smalltime crook, either – having one of the Five blow her secret identity like that, that’s the kind of thing I’d normally tell them instantly. But,” he temporised, “I am willing to hear you out, first. Not just about you and her, but also about whatever the fuck,” he spoke the swearword like a gunshot, hard and fast, making nearly everyone jump where they sat, and Graymalkin throw him an annoyed look, “happened when Osore nailed you with his power.”

He turned his head and looked at the Japanese hero. “By the way, not cool, even if you knew what was going to happen,” he admonished him, then raised a hand to cut off any reply, “I know it saved our butts. Just saying.”

Turning back to face Basil, his mouth and jaw – the only part of his face currently visible, as he’d removed his helmet’s mouth guard – were set in a severe frown. “So, are you going to tell us what the fuck,” he made everyone jump again with the force of the expletive, “is going on? And before you say anything like that it’s private or that we’re better off not knowing or any of that crap, you owe us the truth, after all this,” he finished with a firm glare.

Basil met it without flinching, though at that point, that was simply because he was too worn out to react much, not because of any amount of fortitude on his part. “I do not have any secrets left, at this point,” he replied, looking over at Hecate. “Ask and I shall answer to the best of my knowledge.”

”Who are you, really?” Tartsche asked, straight up.

“I do not know,” Basil replied calmly, looking at no one in particular. “I thought I knew, but I have found that all my memories previous to about three, maybe four years ago are entirely fake. So are Amy’s, for that matter.”

He heard a few gasps, but didn’t bother to look at anyone to gauge their reaction.

”Three and a half years ago,” Bakeneko spoke up in a small voice. “That’s when we first met in middle school.”

“Wait, you know him?” Spellgun asked, startled.

Basil didn’t see it, but he was pretty sure Bakeneko was shrinking into herself at being the focus of attention all of a sudden.

“Y-yeah. We’ve been friends for… years. Though I, I didn’t know he was… Brennus… until recently,” she admitted in a near-whisper. “I didn’t know Amy was a villain, though… It just doesn’t seem to fit… I mean, she’s kind of… really weird, and a huge perv and totally overprotective and she always knows more than she should and… actually, it totally makes sense now.”

”Mindstar’s memory’s are fake, too?” Tartsche pressed on, focusing on the core of the matter. “Are you sure she’s not faking it? Making you think she’s your sister while suppressing your memories…” He seemed pretty uncomfortable bringing that last point up, but did it anyway.

Basil twitched, briefly, tempted to lash out at him for the mere suggestion, but…

”I have considered that,” he admitted, and a part of him felt like a traitor for doing so. “But I have dismissed it for several reasons. One being that she would have to be vastly more powerful than she has ever shown herself to be. Another the fact that…” he frowned, trying to figure out how to put it. “It is more of a gut feeling, really. But I know that she is my sister, even if we can not even remember our parents.”

He didn’t seem happy with that, but didn’t get push the point.

“There’s no way in heaven or hell my dad doesn’t know about that,” Gloom Glimmer stated firmly. “Not if it affects one of his Five.”

“You sure?” Tyche asked her, while her eyes remained on Basil.

”My dad’s the most nosey person on the whole planet,” the man’s own daughter stated with perfect conviction. “I’ll bet you anything he knows and hasn’t told anyone because he thinks it’s funny or something.”

“You really think he’d take such a risk with one of his Five, just for his own amusement?” Hecate asked in a disbelieving voice.

”Absolutely,” both Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia replied instantly and in perfect synch.

They gave everyone a few moments to digest that, before Polymnia spoke up next.

“What about your reaction to Osore’s power?” she asked through her vocoder, her eyes on Basil.

He sighed. “I have no freaking idea whatsoever,” he replied. “It has only ever happened when Osore used his power on me. Not even when I was in a life-threatening situation, like when Hastur had me in her clutches. I do not remember at all what happened during either episode, though I at least have a recording of this last one,” he explained, reaching up to stroke the head of his sole remaining ravenbot.

”No idea at all?” Tartsche asked.

Basil frowned. “Well… there is one… but is less of an answer and more of… another question. A whole host of questions, in fact,” he amended his earlier statement. “I may be connected to someone named Macian, somehow. At least, I found a journal written by him, amongst my things and I sometimes have memories of being another person, someone who’s also a gadgeteer.” Plus at least two distinct personalities in my head, other than my own.

“This is unbelievably fucked up,” Tartsche replied after a minute or so of just staring at him.

For just a moment, Basil felt a manic grin spread on his face as he looked up at the armoured boy. “Try living with it.”

Tartsche shuddered. “No thank you,” he said, finally. “Well, this was… not at all informative.” He looked around at the others, before focusing on Basil once more. “I’m sorry, but considering the situation, and what we know about your sister – if she even is your sister – and… everything… I can’t possibly justify not raising every alarm I can as soon as we’re back.” He groaned, reaching up to pinch his nose, only to remember he was still wearing his helmet. “Hell, I should probably take you into protective custody – or something – straight away, but I have the feeling that wouldn’t work out too well, considering what you did to the Skulls’ group.” He gave a side-long glance to Gloom Glimmer and Bakeneko. “Nevermind that I can’t be entirely sure whether all my teammates will support me on such a course of action.”

Both girls blushed and averted their eyes.

Basil raised a finger. “I know it is not exactly the smartest thing to do, but let me remind you that I have only ever been able to perform on that level after being affected by Osore’s power, so unless he shoots me again, you will not have to worry about that,” he corrected him.

Hecate palmed her own forehead.

With a chuckle, Tartsche responded, “Yeah, I’m not that slow. Still…” he put his hands on his hips, tapping his foot… which didn’t actually generate any sound, since there wasn’t actually any floor to tap it on. “Are you going to come in willingly? I know it’s an extremely shitty situation and all, but it’d help a lot, and ease a lot of worries, if you just came in and explained yourself.” He sighed, lowering his head. “The United Heroes are good people. And Amazon’s real fond of you. I’m sure we can work this all out.”

He looked up at the slightly older hero, then down again. Then at Hecate and Tyche, before he looked at his raven again. “I… do not regret what I have done today,” he said first. “Not the attempt to get into the base, not revealing myself or the risks I took. I only regret that it was not enough, and wish I could have done more, gone further…” He stopped, looking down again. “I will not run from it. But I will go and give Prisca the news myself, before anything else.” He looked up at Tartsche, locking eyes with him even through their masks. “You can make your report, meanwhile. Bakeneko knows where I live, and where my lab is,” he turned to look at his shapeshifting friend, “and she has my permission to share. You’ll find me… afterwards.”

”Alright,” Tartsche replied, turning his head away. “I believe you. And… I’m sorry.” There was a world of emotion behind those last two words.

“Thank you, Tartsche,” Basil replied, and took his helmet off, looking up at him with a tired expression on his face. “You went… above and beyond what anyone could expect of you, for the sake of strangers, and I thank you for that, from the bottom of my heart. You and all the others.” He looked around at the other teens, some of whom, at least, met his eyes.

Tartsche took a step away, then stopped. “You’re wrong, you know?” he spoke softly, making Basil focus on him again. “I expected more of myself.”

With that, he sat down next to his boyfriend again and fell quiet.

***

The rest of the journey passed in silence and they arrived in New Lennston, where Gloom Glimmer first dropped Basil, at his request, off in front of the hospital, before moving on to take care of the rest.

He didn’t know what Hecate or Tyche were going to do, but he had to prioritise somehow, and neither of them was dying right then.

Standing in front of the hospital, having appeared basically out of nowhere, he drew a great many surprised looks, in large part because he hadn’t bothered to put on his helmet, his drawn-up hood the only protection for his identity. Not that he really cared at this point.

He ignored the stares and walked into the hospital, ignoring the two armed security guards at the front entrance and simply breezing past the reception – he more than knew his way by now.

Walking through the hallways, ignoring every attempt to stop him or talk to him, he wondered whether he should’ve gone through with the idea of dragging Dusu in here and presenting her to Prisca and her family, but he’d dismissed it, and not just because he doubted that Tartsche would allow it – he didn’t want something like Dusu to spoil Prisca and her family’s final days together.

If she even had days left.

Oh God, I hope she isn’t already dead…

He could call Eudocia, ask. He hadn’t even thought to contact her.

Too late now. I’ll know soon enough.

He took the stairs up, eschewing the elevators – if he had to stand still for however many seconds it took them to go up, he’d explode.

Taking the stairs three steps at a time, he quickly reached the fourth floor and entered the intensive long-term care wing.

There, in front of Prisca’s room, sat several people on some chairs, while being watched over by multiple professional bodyguards in expensive suits – suits which, to Basil’s eye, showed modifications for combat and hiding weaponry.

As soon as he entered, the men whirled around at a sign from the one who’d been facing the door, drawing their weapons on him.

He ignored them and just moved on.

Beyond the bodyguards, a startled young woman rose up, and his heart both clenched and relaxed at the same time, though he showed none of it on his face.

Rosalie Fion took heavily after her mother, just as Prisca should have, and basically looked a lot like Gilgul, though older, being in her early twenties, and a little more lithe and a little less… top-heavy. She was wearing a simple, dark red dress that reached her knees, black stockings underneath and her rich red hair loose. She only wore a little make-up on her finely featured face and was currently busy staring at him, her mouth open.

That she was there, it meant that Prisca was still alive. She would have been inside the room if she was dying, and she would be mourning if she was dead. But that she was here also meant that there wasn’t much time left.

”B-basil? You… you’re…” She stammered, staring at him with wide green eyes the exact same shade as Prisca’s had once been.

He nodded to her as the guards stepped between him and the door (and Rosalie), though they seemed less openly combative now, as he seemed to be known.

Still, they were in his way, so he glared at them, briefly.

The first two men nearly fell over as they staggered aside, while the three behind took a startled step back, and he used the distraction to breeze past them, briefly nodding to Rosalie – and getting a nod in return – as he walked up to the door and, without bothering to knock, opened it and stepped through.

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B13.18 Call of the Sleeper

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He’d failed.

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

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

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

She has no cure. She has no cure. I can’t come up with one, I’ve never been that good with actual biology. Maybe, if she had the actual formula… but she said she put it all online already, and I’ve read everything there is on the plague online. Prisca only has a few days left, at most.

Life support could only keep her going for so long, especially after the additional damage Hastur’s attack had caused. She certainly wouldn’t survive a flight to England. Even if Gloom Glimmer teleporter her along with all the life support… no, she’d never survive the journey to Ember himself. And even then…

They’d opened the Protectorate again, on a limited basis, after he’d revived that baby, but… it was a toss-up whether he’d actually react to anyone who managed to get close enough. More than once, one of the countless hopeful had weathered the pressure of his empathic assault, managed to get the remains of a loved one all the way to him… only to be promptly ignored until they passed out or went mad.

Basil didn’t know whether he could make it through that, not with the way his mind had gotten screwed up, but he would do it.

However, there was no way Prisca could survive it. If he took her in while she was still alive, in her current condition, it’d likely kill her, if it didn’t destroy her mind.

Ember could fix that, obviously. Assuming he got to him.

What if I put her into stasis? the thought came suddenly. Put her into a state where she’s not truly conscious. It would protect her from his aura…

Don’t be stupid. Just wait for her to d-d-die and take her corpse to him.

The whole point of this is to make sure she doesn’t die in the first place!

Then forget Ember and the Protectorate! You need to focus on working out a cure!

How!? If even Dusu couldn’t… she’s been working on this for half a decade! I have days, at most! Nevermind that I’m not a bio-gadgeteer to begin with and this is, is, it’d take ten bio-gadgeteers to work this out!

Then find a non-biological solution!

How!?! I’ve tried so much… I can’t just replace her infected body parts, because every part is infected in three different ways? Removing her brain to later implant it into a new body, even if I could perform surgery like that, would be meaningless because her brain is also infected!

That’s it. Her brain, that’s the solution!

Of course… I can’t physically remove her brain, but I could scan it, save a complete engram of her brainwaves… it would require more storage than even my computers have, but I’m certain I could convince Mrs Fion to buy any materials I might need…

I save the complete engram. That’ll buy me time, it’ll allow me to figure out how to create a new, healthy body for her, then copy it over… since it’ll be made while she’s still alive…

It can only be made while she’s still alive.

That way, she’ll never have to experience death… whether or not we can get her to Ember…

I can call this Plan A, and getting her to Ember would be Plan B.

There is another issue. Would she want that? To be copied over to a new body? Technically, she wouldn’t be the same Prisca as before. Her mother might not want that, either.

I’m not a philosopher nor a priest. Leave the existential debate to someone else.

But shouldn’t any proposed solution be considered in light of Prisca’s wishes? She is the one whose life is at stake. Copying her mind into a new body – and it’s far-fetched to believe I could do that – only to create a copy of her which does not consider herself to be the Prisca would only serve my own peace of mind.

Stasis.

Like on Tartarus Star. That might be a solution. I could perhaps work out a stasis chamber, or maybe trade Stasis himself for the designs or a complete chamber… or perhaps Mrs Fion could buy one off of him… we could keep Prisca alive indefinitely while I work on finding a cure.

Stasis is no hero though. He works for the government and he is committed full-time to maintaining Tartarus Star. His technology is considered a national secret; it is very unlikely that he’d be allowed to reveal his designs, nevermind actually buying a stasis chamber off of him – they’re supposed to be incredibly expensive, to boot.

Between Mrs Fion’s wealth and the technology I can of-

***

A hand closed around his biceps, tugging him around. He looked up at Amy, black eyes to purple ones.

Hey, baby bro, she whispered gently into his mind. You need to calm yourself down, before you give yourself a stroke.

He looked away, then looked up at her, feeling his expression harden. I can not afford to, right now. I need to find a solution! Could you scan her mind? Perhaps she’s keeping something secret?

Amy shook her head, causing him to feel even colder inside. Even more so when he realised she was trembling, sligthly. Just what had she seen?

She didn’t lie, nor did she ommit anything. She really has no clue how to fix it, Amy told him. And… there’s more. The blood she took, earlier. And what they’ve been doing here. Where these monsters came from. I saw it in her mind.

What’d you see? Basil asked numbly. He wasn’t sure there was much of anything he could get worked up over right now, as worn out as he felt.

Too much, she replied. But first… what about her? She nodded towards Dusu, who’d calmed down considerably, simply sitting cross-leged on the floor and chuckling occasionally, completely unperturbed by the looks of disgust and hatred the others were throwing her. Maybe you’ll feel better if you give her one of those concoctions you said you’d prepared just for her?

Basil looked over his shoulder at Dusu. Those were always meant to force her to give up the cure, in the end, he replied. No point to that, now. Besides, how could I possibly top that? He gestured towards the twisted, half-decayed woman.

Let’s just get this over with and go home.

***

Melody wouldn’t have thought she could hate a complete stranger as much as she hated Dusu right then. Just looking at the woman sitting there on the floor, looking so darn amused.

Amused that she’d destroyed so many lives.

Amused that she’d drawn them into such a dangerous, unnecessary battle.

Amused that she’d crushed their hopes, Brennus hopes in particular, and of all those innocents she’d poisoned, and all those whom cared about them.

She’d used to have trouble accepting Irene’s insistent statement that her father, while evil, was far better than most. Even after meating him in person, she hadn’t really changed her mind.

But now? Looking down at this, this coprophage, this… bitch, she saw true evil. Senseless evil, evil that didn’t have a purpose other than its own betterment.

At least the Dark clearly cared about his daughter. Melody wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that Dusu didn’t have anyone she cared about, that she would have sacrificed her own child if she’d had one, just to try and undo her own fuck-up – for herself.

It took a lot for her not to unleash one of her more cruel tunes on her, just to make her suffer a bit. A bit more, she amended the thought, watching how the woman laboured to draw breath, the way she repeatedly twitched as if in pain, in spite of her carefree attitude.

A little tune to make her bowels empty themselves as violently as physically possible, or cramp up painfully and remain so for a while. Another to throw her sense of balance completely off for hours. Or perhaps one she’d never yet used, because it’d seemed too cruel, a tune that’d give the victim a painful tinitus that’d last for days, if not longer.

So many options. So many incentives to explore them, one by one.

Fortunately for Dusu, Melody was distracted from the recreatively violent train of thought when Brennus came back towards them, shadowed closely by Mindstar.

And wasn’t that a shock? When Mindstar had first appeared, she’d been scared, then relieved – she did work for the Dark, so she wouldn’t turn on Irene and her friends, right? Then it’d seemed like she was going to attack anyway, and Tartsche had tried to reach Brennus to protect him from her (she still remembered the briefing when they’d been told that she might target him – Tartsche had clearly remembered it, as well), only for her to slap them all down with literally just a thought.

She’d known that telepathy was Irene’s one true weakness, but she hadn’t expected it to be that effective.

And then it turned out that Brennus – no, Basil, that boy she’d sat next to in school a few times! – was her brother and he proceeded to beat her, one on one.

If it wasn’t for Irene confirming, while under the aegis of Tartsche’s power, that it was all genuine, she’d have thought the whole fight, no, their every interaction, had been staged.

Now, of course, she was instead faced with the fact that a boy she’d been thinking of as a friend, if a distant one, was the younger brother of a major supervillain…

Which, really, didn’t mean much to her, seeing how her best friend was the daughter of said supervillain’s boss. It would have been the height of hypocrisy for Melody to condemn Brennus for his relationship with his own sister, when she so readily accepted Irene’s relationship with her father.

The only thing she could, maybe, accuse him of was not being open about his relation to her, the way Irene was about her being the Dark’s daughter…

But then again, their situations were very different. Brennus, for one, didn’t have the aegis of Lady Light and the United Heroes to protect him.

I wonder whether she’s the reason he didn’t join us to begin with, she thought to herself as she watched them join the rest of the group.

All those thoughts and more continued on in her head, though they were quickly overshadowed by dismay at how utterly worn-out Brennus looked. In all the time she’d known him, she’d never known him to express a sense of defeat, a lack of purpose. Now though…

“Let us wrap this up,” he spoke in a listless tone. “We should get away from here.” He looked down at Dusu, his gaze briefly hardening – but then it softened into listlessness again. “What did she do with our blood?” he asked no one in particular, apparently.

It did seem directed at Mindstar, however, as she sighed and stepped forth, while Brennus’ helmet floated off the floor and into his hands. “I’ll show you,” she said, gesturing at the computer console.

Using her telekinesis, she logged into the system, making Dusu frown in annoyance. “Y’know, you don’t have to use telepathy… I’d just tell you, at this point.”

“Shut it,” several people said all at once.

“This is the place where they made those monsters that appeared yesterday,” Mindstar spoke seriously, with neither levity nor anger in her voice. “They’re all spawned from the same source…”

The screen switched to a three-dimensional model, showing the floating city they were on, before zooming out and moving down, showing an incredibly long tether that lead down into the depths – the same one they could see before them, dozens of cables thicker than grown men – and following it down…

And down…

And down…

Until it reached the bottom of the ocean, and the view moved, looking down from above, at an angle, at…

A gigantic something at the bottom of the ocean, connected to the station via the cables in front of them.

As the image focused on whatever was below, it was rendered in successively more detailed layers, with Mindstar talking over it, sharing what she saw within Dusu’s mind.

“They found something down there. Something huge. And I mean, really fucking humungous. It’s over a thousand miles in length, and over three in diametre,” the villainess explained as the bottom dropped out of Melody’s stomach, her eyes widening at the rapidly expanding sight of… that.

“What. The. Holy. Fuck,” Tyche succinctly summed up how they all felt.

“That’s what they used to make those monsters,” Mindstar spoke, her voice growing hushed. “They injected it with… human blood. It doesn’t always work out, not even one in ten times, but when it does…”

Brennus looked down at Dusu again. “So that is what you took our blood for,” he stated as he put his helmet on. “Mine and… whose else?”

Before Dusu could respond, Mindstar did so. “All of us. It wasn’t just the four you saw. They got samples from all of us…” She frowned, stroking her chin. “I mean, they came here and found them… put them here in other timelines… ah, fuck time travel! They got samples from each of us, except for the princess, using Elysium’s power.” She looked at the console. “And they injected it all into this thing. That’s what Dusu and that nobody over there were responsible for – figuring out a way to inject something through its armour, after the Gefährten realised that extracted samples bonded with human DNA.”

Melody’s fingers went to work, tapping the air to formulate a sentence. “And that’s how they made Crocell and the other three monsters?” she asked, keeping her vocoder’s voice much calmer than she actually felt.

“Yeah. Only successes they’ve had so far. They injected forty-three samples and only four of them spawned something,” the villainess replied in a cold voice, glaring at the unperturbed mad scientist on the floor. “Though they never injected so many at once, like she just did.”

“Hey, you can’t blame me for being in a bit of a hurry!” Dusu protested Mindstar’s accusatory tone. “Besides, aren’t you curious what might come out of it?”

“No!” shouted half a dozen people at once.

“Alright, so, may-be this is totally obvious and Ah’m just missing it,” Spellgun spoke up for the first time in a while, his accent even stronger than usual, “but what the fuck is that!?!” he gestured wildly towards the three-dimensional model on the screen.

“It’s God!” Syrinx shouted fervently, floating upside down where Mindstar was holding him in the air. “It’s a fragment of the divine tri-“

Hecate reached into a pouch on her belt and threw a handful of glittering green dust at his face, which flew farther and in a tighter stream than it ought to, and he went limp, falling asleep instantly.

“Oh, thank God,” Dusu rolled her eyes. “Guy’s a cutie, but h-“

Hecate whirled around so fast Melody actually jumped, and struck Dusu across the face with the butt end of her staff, knocking the woman over and causing her to cry out in pain.

“Don’t you dare address me in any way,” the slightly spooky superheroine snarled, her English distorted slightly by a faint accent Melody had never noticed before, her tone of voice so vicious it made nearly everyone take a step away from her, even Mindstar.

Not Brennus, nor Tyche, though.

Dusu rubbed her rapidly swelling jaw, having finally stopped grinning, or smiling or otherwise looking happy, as she glared up at Hecate – but she kept her mouth shut.

Mindstar actually looked impressed, giving Hecate odd looks, though the spooky heroine couldn’t see them.

“They’re not sure what it is,” Mindstar continued where she’d left off earlier. “Or at least, if the Gefährten know, they haven’t told Dusu. But she, and her co-workers have a few running theories – all unproven, admittedly. One is that it’s a metahuman whose manifestation just plainly went spectacularly wrong. Another is that it’s some kind of by-product of superpowers as a whole, maybe an animal that soaked up whatever energies power metahumans. And another is that it’s either the source of superpowers, or connected to it in some way.” She shrugged. “Honestly, they don’t even know how long it’s been down there. Seems like time goes wonky around it, so they can’t even analyse the age of the cracks in the rock around and beneath it that it’s caused, because they don’t age uniformly.”

No one spoke up for a minute as they digested that. Finally, Melody turned her head to look at Irene, who’d remained still so far, hovering an inch or so above the floor, her cape closed in front of her and her hood drawn deep, like a white shroud.

The hood twitched as Irene looked up, her face hidden in the shadows, mostly, save for her blue eyes. “I don’t know what it is. I have some suspicions, but… nothing I’m sure of enough to say,” she answered the unspoken question.

Melody felt both disappointment and relief, as part of her just plainly didn’t want to know what that thing really was – she was afraid that it was even worse than she could expect.

“The blood is already injected?” Brennus interjected, directing the question at Mindstar, at his sister.

His helmet-mask always distorted his voice, but even so, Melody’s ears had no trouble picking up the fact that he still sounded… defeated, really. His voice was flat, lacking its usual intensity.

“Yeah, it is. Nothing we can do to stop it anymore,” Mindstar replied, her voice softening almost imperceptibly (to anyone but Melody) as she addressed her brother again. “All we can hope for is that none of it causes this… Sleeper to spawn another monster.”

“How long did it take before they knew whether an injection had been successful in the previous cases?” Brennus continued his line of inquiry in that same tone of voice, his head tilted forward as he looked at something he was holding in his left hand. Melody couldn’t see what it was, though it had to be palm-sized.

“Anywhere between five minutes and three hours,” the answer came almost as soon as he finished. “If it doesn’t work, it’ll eject the rejected blood in crystalline form – they have computers looking out for it.”

As if on cue, a new window opened, showing a black-and-white image of a bismuth-like crystal growing in fast motion, right out of one of its scales, before it detached and floated away.

“Aaaaaand that’s one,” Mindstar sighed in undisguised relief. “Eight more to go.”

“Is there anything we can do to abort the process?” Tartsche asked quietly, sounding as calm as ever as he held onto Spellgun’s hand. “Force it to purge them all or something like that? Some way to make sure no more monsters are generated?”

Both Mindstar and Dusu shook their heads, one seemingly impassive, one very clearly quite pleased with herself.

“And there’s nothing here about a cure?” Tartsche pressed on. “She doesn’t know anything, or have anything we can make use of?”

Mindstar shook her head, and Tyche and Hecate slumped a little, while Brennus showed no outward reaction, though Melody thought she might’ve heard something from within his helmet. She wasn’t sure though, as quiet as he was being.

“We should go, then,” Brennus concluded what was obviously Tartsche’s thought process, putting away whatever he’d been looking at. There was barely any inflection at all left in his voice. “Every second we remain here just increases the probability of another enemy showing up.”

“Now that’s as good a straight line as I could hope for!” a new voice spoke up.

Melody squeaked in shock as she turned, just in time to see Mindstar stagger forward, nearly falling, her hand going to her neck and pulling a tiny dart tipped by a needle out of it.

“Huh?” She stared at the dart, her eyes growing unfocused.

Brennus grabbed her, pulling her away and behind him, revealing the person who’d stuck her with the dart, who…

Oh God he’s so yummy, was the first thought that came to Melody’s mind as she saw the gorgeous, brown-haired young man in what appeared to be black-and-gold workout clothes, only of much higher quality than usual, and reinforced, fingerless gloves.

If she hadn’t met so many insanely pretty men since manifesting her powers, she’d probably have squeed and melted on the spot.

He stood there, looking as calm as if he was just taking a stroll, with an easy smile on those perfect lips.

“Immanuel!” shouted Tyche, taking a step away from him.

Wait, Immanuel? That guy? Melody blinked, remembering what Tyche had told them earlier. Fuck, we have to-

She raised her arms to fire at him, only to stop when Irene cried out.

“Wait, no, stop!” Irene shouted as she was enveloped in ribbons of twisted space… and then she disappeared.

Immanuel looked at the empty space where Irene had just floated, looking only mildly surprised. “Heh. Nice one,” he said, grinning.

***

Space unfurled around her and dropped Irene onto a grassy hill, which looked out over a tranquil beach and the ocean.

“No!” she shouted, desperate, reaching for the power which had brought her there. “No, no! Take me back! I’ve got to get back, Melody is still there! My friends are all still there! Take me back, please!”

She begged her own power, even as she felt the teleporting effect – one she hadn’t had before, to her recollection – sink beneath the darkness, tears beginning to run from her eyes.

She’d been so focused on that giant thing below, that, that thing that might have been, just possible, one of them, perhaps. A steward, in this world. Her parents were going to flip out.

Somehow, even though she’d had her danger sense up and running, that man, that… Immanuel, he’d managed to sneak up on them, and then her power had reacted to the suddenly present, overwhelming threat by taking her away from her friends.

“Please, please, just take me back!” she shouted, trying to reach for that power again, only to get… flight and the power to tell where magnetic north lay. “No, I need to be fa-“

“Irene? What are you doing here?” a tired voice asked.

She whirled around, staring at the figure behind her with bloodshot eyes.

***

“I think you’ve all had more than enough fun,” Immanuel spoke in a conversational tone, clasping his hands behind his back as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

Basil didn’t give him a chance to say more – torn between checking to make sure Amy was going to be alright and taking down the new threat, he chose to trust in her constitution and went on the offensive – and launched one of his grappling hooks at him, aiming straight for his belt buckle.

Immanuel simply stepped aside, dodging it by a hair’s breadth with such ease, it seemed rehearsed. “For those of you who don’t know yet, I’m Immanuel, and I’m in charge of this charming base,” he continued on, as if nothing had happened, even as he bent over forward, letting a blast of green fire fly over him and splash over Tartsche’s protective field, blinding Spellgun and causing him to miss his shot, which instead hit Osore in the forehead just as he was gathering up a fear blast in his right hand; his mask cracked, though not broken, he was thrown backwards as electricity raced through his body, stunning him and causing him to fall gracelessly and heavily onto the floor. “And while I greatly sympathise with your noble intentions, I’m afraid I’ll have to stop you right here,” he concluded, standing up straight again, smiling at everyone around.

How did he just do that? Basil thought furiously, stepping back to keep some distance between himself and the new enemy. That was way too smooth… he must be an Esper. Some major combat cognition. He stared at the empty spot where Irene had just been, then at Amy behind him, through the eyes of his bedraggled ravenbot. And we’ve already lost our two strongest combatants.

“What did you do to Gloom Glimmer!?!” Polymnia shouted at Immanuel, both of her clenched fists – and the speakers on the wrist modules above them – aimed straight at him.

“Don’t worry, I just gave her a bit of a scare,” Immanuel replied soothingly. “I suppose her power decided she was safer away from me than next to me.” He tilted his head to the side, both as a gesture and to dodge a shot from Tartsche’s rifle. “Can’t blame it, really. In fact, I’m quite grateful – makes my job easier.”

His expression turned thoughtful and he tapped his chin. “Hmm… just forty minutes before she comes back… with Lamarr. Maybe the Dowager, though I doubt it.” He blinked, as if another thought came to him. “Hm, no. She won’t come – just Lamarr and some of his people. Goldschmidt wouldn’t let her back here.” Without even looking, he bent forward and also lifted his left leg up, as if to kick out, though he merely tapped the charging form of Bakeneko – in the middle of transitioning from a bipedal to a quadrupedal form –  on the shin, lightly, causing her to trip and bowl into Polymnia, who just barely managed to brace herself and not get bowled over as well, though she still missed her shot, the twin beams of focused sound going wide and tearing up some computer equipment on the far wall of the room. “Nothing I can’t deal with.”

Basil barely paid attention to his words, instead opting to study his opponent more closely. The way he moved, the way every dodge of his led to them hitting each other in some way… it reminded him of the way it usually went when Tyche fought, except far more controlled.

Deliberate.

Speaking of Tyche, she was just standing there, her hands trembling as she tried to aim at Immanuel – but he didn’t seem worried at all, and she didn’t seem capable of actually pulling the trigger.

“I, I thought you said, you wanted us to, to succeed,” she stammered, taking a step back from him when he turned his head to focus on her.

He blocked Basil’s punch, which he loosened the moment his attention was on Tyche, with an absentminded swipe, “I did and I do,” then he deflected a knee-strike to the groin by raising his own knee and gently pushing it aside, “Though I never said I thought it was actually going to happen,” he turned into the follow-up elbow strike that Basil turned his over-extended strike into, “I did know that Dusu has never been able to figure out a cure for her own work,” his arm came up, applying minimal force to Basil’s elbow and causing him to strike the air above his head, unbalanced by the flawless counter, “Nor did I say I’d actually let you all leave after you reached Dusu,” he placed one hand onto Basil’s chest and the other one’s forearm against his waist, pushing with both and flipping him over until he hit the ground with his head, only his helmet saving him from being knocked out, though it still rang his bells quite well, “Sorry,” the angel-faced villain concluded, smiling apologetically at Tyche.

She gulped staring at him with wide eyes. He just smiled back, throwing Basil’s combat knife, which he’d filched from his belt when he’d flipped him, at Polymnia, without even looking at her.

The blade pierced the membrane of her right wrist’s speaker just as she loosened another attack, causing a feedback that overloaded it and made it blow up around her arm, throwing her aim with the other arm off so badly she shot Bakeneko instead just as she was about to get up again, making her cry out in pain and tumble away from the armoured songstress.

Polymnia herself cried out in pain, her arm covered in bruises and cuts from the explosion, though her innate toughness and the layer of ballistic weave she’d between her skin and the actual mechanical parts prevented heavier damage.

“Now, I’m not a complete jerk,” Immanuel followed up, stepping forward towards Tyche with his arms spread wide, following it up by an absent-minded kick to Dusu’s throat, causing her to choke up and bend over in pain, just as she’d been about to speak up. “I really don’t feel like listening to you, Heng,” he quipped, and continued to walk towards Tyche with a disarming smile.

Basil groaned, slowly getting back up on his feet – the strain of the last few days was really starting to catch up to him – as he blinked the stars out of his view. By the time he managed that, the only ones left standing were himself, Tyche, Tartsche and Spellgun.

Amy was on the ground, moaning softly with unfocused eyes. Bakeneko and Osore were both still conscious but stunned, lying on the ground. Polymnia was on her knees, holding her mangled right arm to her chest, sniffling as tears leaked from her eyes. Hecate was on the ground next to Immanuel, who was still holding one of her arms by the wrist. Basil hadn’t even noticed her go down.

Both Tartsche and Spellgun were aiming their guns at him, but since he stood between them and Tyche, they didn’t want to risk taking the shot.

Tyche was staring slack-jawed at him, her grip on her rifle quite loose.

Graymalkin had curled up on Amy’s breasts, using them as pillows as he yawned.

“So, now that all that unpleasantness is over,” Immanuel said with a small sigh, seemingly not even winded. “How about we have a nice talk, hm?” He looked around at the teens. “I have no interest in keeping the lot of you here, really. In fact, I’m perfectly willing to let you get back home.”

“What is the catch?” Basil asked suspiciously, not believing him for a moment, even though everything about him just plain screamed sincerity.

“Well, you do have quite a lot of damages to make up for,” Immanuel replied, turning his back to Tyche and letting go of Hecate’s arm, so he could face Basil. “So I think it’d only be fair if you and Melody over there were to work for us for, let’s say… a quarter of a year, each.” He clapped his hands together, smiling brightly. “You two promise me three months of servitude each – no wetwork, nothing illegal, even – and I’ll not only let your friends go right now, I’ll even pay you both quite handsomly. And you can get back to your own affairs. How’s that sound?”

“Never,” Polymnia replied, her voice coming out distorted. “Like we’d ever agree to work for someone like you!”

“Now, don’t be judgemental,” Immanuel wagged a finger at her. “You don’t really know me just yet.”

“We’ve… seen enough…” Hecate groaned as she got up on her feet, leaning heavily onto her staff. “You fucking people belong in a maximum security prison… or better yet, six foot under,” she snarled, her eyes flashing with raw hatred within the shadows of her hood.

Language, young lady,” he frowned at her, mockingly. “What would your grandmother say if she heard you talk like that?”

Hecate flinched, snarling audibly at him.

He knows too much, Basil thought, his brain racing wildly, trying to come up with an idea on how to take him on. If he’s some kind of combat precog, then the only way to beat him would be to trap him in a no-win situation.

Great idea, mate! Except for the little fact that he’s holding all the cards in his hands!

You’re not helping. Either come up with an idea or else shut up.

“Now, as I was saying – this doesn’t have to end in more tears,” Immanuel continued. “If you two accept my offer, I’ll even let you use all our resources to try and figure out a cure for Dusu’s plague.”

Basil clenched his fists, hard.

Immanuel smirked at him. “You know there’s no way you’ll be able to save her on your own. She wouldn’t survive a trip to the Protectorate, and it’s unlikely someone with your manifold issues would be able to reach him, anyway. And you don’t have the knowledge base nor the resources to work out a cure – but we might.” He put his hands together, palm-to-palm, as if praying – or begging. “Please, Basil. Think about it. You’ve always believed that the ends justify the means, no? I’m offering you near-endless resources, and the support of our best bio-gadgeteers – including Dusu.” He gestured at the unconscious woman. “Consider how much it would improve your chances if you had the actual source of the plague to work with, even if she doesn’t consciously know how it works or how to fix it! Accept my offer and not only will your friends be able to go back home safe and sound, but you’ll also be able to save Prisca.”

He bit his lip hard enough that it hurt, feeling angry with himself just for considering the offer. Yet he did, and Immanuel knew he was saying just the right things.

“Basil, you know the choice is barely one,” Immanuel pressed on. “Not for you. You know what needs to be done, and what needs to be done is a cure being found for Dusus many victims – are you really going to decline an offer to do what you know needs to be done?”

He lowered his raised fists, letting his arms hang loosely. Fuck. He was right, wasn’t he? Even disregarding the fact that there was no other option he could see to get his friends to safety – Immanuel seemed quite confident he’d be able to deal with Gloom Glimmer and any reinforcements she’d be able to drum up, even if those were members of the Dark Five – he was completely out of options as far as actually saving Prisca was concerned – the reason he’d organised this entire, ill-advised operation in the first place!

Even if he’s lying about letting me leave freely, afterwards, I’ll stand a better chance of getting out of this, nevermind of fixing Prisca, by playing along for now.

It needs to be done.

He sighed, releasing a breath he hadn’t even realised he’d been holding, as his shoulders slumped, opening his mouth to-

“To pursue what is necessary is the province of beasts – a true man must pursue naught but what he desires.”

He clenched his fists again, feeling an angry heat rise up from his gut. A snarl escaped his mouth, making Immanuel frown, looking honestly serious for the first time yet.

“Fuck. You,” he snarled at the villain.

Immanuel tilted his head, looking actually surprised for once. “Hm. I suppose that’s a no, then.” He put his hands on his waist, huffing. “The day’s full of surprises.” He looked over at Polymnia, who was still on her knees and craddling her bleeding arm.

Even though she was crying heavily, she glared back at him with defiance in her eyes.

“That’s a no then, as well,” he concluded with a sigh, lowering his head and shaking it. “What a waste.” He looked around at them all, watching as they all slowly got back up on their feet, at least those who weren’t still standing. Even Amy was getting up, on wobbly feet, barely able to balance on her stiletto heels, but determined to try, clearly.

Everyone looked scared, worn out and just plainly tired, but Basil could tell that they all intended to keep fighting.

He raised his fists again, clenching them, facing the brown-haired villain.

Even now, Immanuel looked, at worst, like he was annoyed, not worried.

“Well, let’s do… this…” Immanuel began to speak in a chipper tone of voice, but trailed off, frowning as he looked around the huge hall.

The lights flickered, once. Twice. Three times.

When they came back on for the fourth time, a huge, vaguely humanoid shadow stood between Immanuel and Polymnia, to Basil’s right, his back to the Esper who’d just kicked them all around so easily, looking down at the crying Polymnia.

“Me- Polymnia!” cried a familiar voice, and an equally familiar, white-cloaked figure stepped forth from next to the huge shadow, rushing over to her friend and throwing her arms around the kneeling girl, hugging her tight as light spread from every point of contact between them, gathering around Polymnia’s wounds and starting to mend them.

“So, this is it, huh?” the Dark said, curiosity in his distorted, choral voice, looking around lazily. “Now where’s that giant…”

He suddenly cut himself off as he turned around and looked down at Immanuel, who’d moved back by several metre, almost running into Tyche – as if he’d been trying to sneak away quickly. In his current form, the Dark was more than two heads taller than him, and Immanuel was by no means a short man.

The two supervillains stared at each other, one’s expression hidden utterly beneath the darkness of his power, yet radiating a sense of utter, disbelieving shock, while the other’s expression was calm, friendly, even amicable, yet he radiated nervousness.

“You,” the Dark breathed, sounding stunned. Off-balance. His voice barely more than a whisper. “You’re alive.”

“Long time no see, Goldschmidt,” Immanuel spoke carefully, putting his hands in his pants’ pockets. “Surprise, I guess.”

Whatever Basil had been expecting to happen next – whatever anyone had expected, from Tyche to Gloom Glimmer, all of whom were staring at the scene with bated breath – none of them, he was sure, expected what came next.

The Dark sobbed, staggering forward by a step, reaching out with a hand towards Immanuel, hesitating, as if afraid that he’d disappear if he made too sudden a move.

“Oh, oh… thank God… thank God…” he sobbed, his voice soft, the tears actually audible, though invisible. “I was so afraid… so, so afraid… that you were gone…”

The shadows he was wrapped in began to boil, spreading out slowly around him, like tar slowly creeping over the floor.

“That you had died…”

The shadows rolled off of him, writhing, expending, contracting, increasing.

“That I would never get my chance…”

He took another step closer, his voice breaking, another sob escaping him, like the sound a wounded animal would make when it finally found balm for its pain.

Gloom Glimmer flew towards Tartsche and Spellgun, pulling Polymnia along behind her with one hand, as more, ghostly hands reached out for all the others.

“To kill you myself…”

Basil found himself being pulled towards Gloom Glimmer, along with all the others, as she shot straight up, throwing a solid black sphere that blew through the ceiling, paving the way.

“To finally, finally… hurt you!”

Beneath them, as they rapidly flew above the floating city, the Darkness exploded, a tide of boiling shadows wallowing across the floating city like a tidal wave.

And above all, there was a scream, a cry of such utter, unadultered, unrestrained hatred, it chilled the blood in their veins.

Over fifty figures who’d been floating, flying and standing around the building Dusu’s lab was in charged forward to join their master in battle.

And then the Dark went to War.

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B011.a A Dark Day

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November 11, a day after the Brights Debacle

“Denied. Denied. Oh, this looks interesting… no, denied. Denied… denied… ah, this one is good! Approved!”

In a brightly lit room, which was actually the whole penthouse atop the 112-story Empire State building (which he secretly owned), the man known as the Dark to most, Peter Goldschmidt to less, Father to two and Petey to one, sat behind a huge antique hardwood desk, in his human form, dressed only in a skin-tight black bodysuit, his back to the gorgeous view showing the city of New York at night and read a series of documents detailing various proposals for schemes of all kinds on a screen, one hand on the keyboard to scroll through them, denying most, approving some.

Despite what one might think, the true power of the Syndicate lay not in its access to nearly unparalleled organised criminal power, nor in its various elites – it lay in its powerful bureaucracy, which managed criminals both superpowered and mundane, all across the globe – even in places where the Syndicate was thought to have been fought off by other criminal organisations, like in the Sovjet Union. The system, though not free of many of the pitfalls of bureaucracy, was effective, efficient and tightly monitored, though not too tightly controlled – he’d learned that giving his people a sliver of freedom made them more likely to remain under control than ruling with an iron fist. Thus, the Dark was working through the high level requests for material, minions, super-powered operatives and much more, to keep an active hand in the day-to-day business of his Syndicate (even if he was only the official leader of about a third of it).

He was, in a word, bored.

Said boredom was making him more and more irritable. His secretary, who was as skillful as she was beautiful (a man of his position had to keep up appearances, after all, even if he had zero interest in her as a sexual or romantic partner), had already picked up on his mood and only forwarded him the most interesting requests. He also suspected that she’d subtly cancelled several appointments for the evening, but he wasn’t going to pry. Slivers, slivers, slivers. Besides, she really was exceptional at her job.

“Denied… denied… hmm… This one is actually good. Approved. Oh, another one. Approved.” He kept going for a few more minutes, then he stopped. “Seriously? An island base for… research into the next step of human evolution… again?” He looked at the name of the woman who’d sent the request. The Evolutrix. “Her again. When will this woman crack a biology book and learn how evolution actually works?” He sighed, resting his head on his hands, and his elbows on his desk for a moment. He’d already taken off his mask and hung up his robe, as no one was likely to see his true face here, at least no one he would mind seeing it. The windows were actually polarised so that one could only look outside and he’d have time to dress up before anyone came in, since the only ones who could just waltz into his office without paying with their lives were people he didn’t mind seeing him, anyway.

He groaned, refocusing his thoughts on the matter at hand again. The Evolutrix. In many ways, he supposed, she was not unlike the late Ascendant, except her insanity and methods were actually manageable. Most of her research was performed on animals anyway, and as to the rest… well, dead’s dead, whether one dies by a bullet through the head or by being experimented upon. There were always people the Syndicate had to dispose of, anyway.

Unfortunately, like most contrivers in the upper level of power, she was also stark raving bonkers, as Irene liked to put it. And it was getting worse, year after year. She used to be so reasonable, back in the day.

The problem with having a memory as astute as his was that he still remembered the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed teenager that he’d been introduced to by a former member of his Five, and who’d almost made the cut into the Five herself – only she wasn’t suited to being the face of his power, at all; her talents lay outside of combat.

And then she’d started becoming less stable. Less and less and less. Just this year, she’d blown through three research centers, with barely any results to her name apart from rapidly breaking down, insane mutants with random superpowers. She’d used to create custom-made powered combatants (though always with a countdown to their death attached) with various superpowers, but the quality of her work had dropped along with her sanity.

Now she was requesting another base to work in. An island base, because she wanted to experiment on whales, and she’d need both access to the ocean and a lot of space for that. Her goal being to retrace the steps of human evolution (which had nothing at all to do with whales, to his knowledge) and unlock a way to reliably grant powers to normies.

Even though he’d repeatedly tried to explain to her that powers had nothing to do with genetics. But she didn’t want to – or more likely, couldn’t – give up on her delusion.

Which, in the end, meant he had to make a tough choice. Just denying her request would not solve the problem. Cutting her off would be irresponsible – no one wanted a contriver like that alone and mad at the world. Killing her was out of the question; she’d been a loyal subordinate and hadn’t broken any of his rules in all her time as a member of the Syndicate. Which only left imprisonment or exile.

Both are cruel prizes to hand to such a loyal subordinate, he thought to himself. Yet I can’t ignore the issue anymore.

Exile would be too cruel. So, imprisonment. But a soft one. Retire her, set her up with the means to live comfortably, with access to a small, limited lab so she could keep her power in use. Assign someone to watch over her and manage her insanity. Arrange therapy – who knew, maybe she could conquer her madness and return to the fold?

Yes, that’s the way to go.

He made all the necessary arrangements, but before he sent the order, he specified that he’d escort her to her new sanctuary himself, once all was set up; he owed her that much, at least.

Then he went back to working through the remaining requests.

***

“I can’t take this anymore!” he shouted when his patience finally snapped, throwing his arms up into the air. Then he pressed a button on his intercom. “Denise, I need something to do that does not involve request forms. Now.”

Her cold, measured voice came through the speakers; he’d only known her to deviate from cold professionalism once, when he’d… pushed her, to see what she was made of. Aside from that occasion, she’d stared down even Walker and Amanda. “There is the matter of Kudzu’s disastrous showing yesterday, if you wish to interact with someone directly,” she said, as if she’d just been waiting to present it to him.

Come to think of it, she probably had. She knew his moods all too well, after working for him for the last three years.

“That sounds better than request forms. Get him and his team out of bed and gather them in conference room twenty-four,” he ordered her without bothering to hide the relief in his voice.

“Already done,” she replied. “They’ve been waiting for half an hour now.”

“Perfect.” And he meant it. Better to let him stew. “You continue to amaze me, Denise.”

“Naturally,” she replied before she went back to her work.

Ah, the confidence of youth. He got up, pulled on his mask and his robe, and took the elevator down to conference room story, calling up his wraith as he walked by Denise.

Time to have some fun.

***

Kudzu and his people had been roused from sleep for this, which was all well and good in the case of Kudzu himself, but he would’ve preferred not to torment the two kids who’d escaped along with him like that.

The man himself looked quite cowed, even before he saw him enter through the tall door (it would not do to have the king of supervillains have to stoop over to get through doors in his own fortress, not even when said king’s usual form was ten feet tall). He was still wearing his ‘costume’, save for his mask, and looked like he hadn’t slept at all. No surprise there. When he saw him enter, he went pale as a ghost, which Peter enjoyed far more than he should, really.

The other one, the boy – Leet – was sitting on a chair wearing a sweater and sweatpants hastily thrown over his pajamas, his short hair a mess. Coupled with his rather pear-shaped physique, it made him look quite pitiful. It didn’t help that he looked like he hadn’t slept at all since the caper, which was no surprise considering all his closest friends had been apprehended (and they hadn’t been broken out, yet). It was also no surprise to have him throw venomous looks at Kudzu, who’d been responsible for the whole thing, in-between giving the third person in the room love-struck puppy-dog eyes. He was looking at him with a mix of awe and fear, which also suited him just fine.

The third one – Calculass, and wasn’t that a pun of a name? – was the only female in the room right now, and she looked like the only one who’d gotten any sleep since the caper went off, as well as the only one who was relaxed, her chair tilted backwards with her feet resting on the table. She also looked like she’d actually had the time to shower and just generally get in shape, because her black hair was clean, shiny and finely braided. She was wearing a skin-tight dark green bodysuit with a few white details and apparently nothing else. Her face showed mixed heritage – Caucasian and Japanese Asian, if his guess was right – with a pleasant heart-shape and a small upturned nose, along with sharp black eyes. Unlike the others, she didn’t seem disconcerted by his appearance, the only change in her behaviour being a gleam in her eyes and the lowering of her feet off the table as she put the electronic toy she’d been playing with aside (he’d long since given up trying to keep up with the names and models). It was probably easier for younger people (she was fifteen, by his recollection).

If what he’d read about her power was correct (though her file was still woefully incomplete) then she’d probably expected being called in to begin with, and prepared accordingly. Likewise, she’d probably predicted that it wouldn’t be just their supervisor who’d show up for this.

Speaking of which, their supervisor was also present, a short, round man of Italian cast, with an ill-fitting, oily mustache and no other hair at all, in an expensive business suit. He was sitting on the side opposite to the one the three supervillains had taken their seats on, with several folders spread out in front of him. He nodded reverently at the Dark. Peter barely remembered his name, even though he made a point to know every member of his organisation. Luciano… something. He couldn’t tell, which annoyed him.

“Good evening, he began as he walked around the long table on the side of Luciano, then took a seat at its head, facing the door. “Let’s get down to business.” He looked at Luciano with all six of his red eyes. “Luciano, if you would please refresh everyone’s memory as to why we’re here?”

“Of course, Sir,” the short man said, his chest swelling with pride at being addressed with his first name by the Dark.

If only he knew it’s merely because I can’t remember anything else about him, Peter thought to himself with some amusement.

Luciano rifled through his files and pulled what had to be the official report out, several pages of small writing.

“The cliffnotes, please,” he intercepted before the man could get started. If I have to listen to one more full report tonight, I’ll have to kill someone.

“Oh, of course. Well,” the man floundered for a moment, before he caught himself and put the notes down, beginning to recount the events. “Yesterday at two pm and eight minutes, Kudzu and his associates, which include the currently present Leet, his apprehended teammates Foxfire, Fulcrum, Razzle and Lag, as well as the currently absent mercenary Phasma – who refused shelter after the event – and Calculass, junior member of the Pre-Apprentice program, who was sent along as an observer, attacked and took over control of the New Lennston Brights Arcades, so as to access the last remaining vault of the supervillain Lanning, currently incarcerated with no parole; to that end, Kudzu also hired a team of specialists in breaking into such buildings. Furthermore, he was also granted thirty trained baseline combatants equivalent to SWAT combatants.”

Kudzu shifted on his seat, growing more and more uncomfortable. The Dark ignored him for now, ostensibly watching Luciano, though he was, in truth, mostly paying attention to Calculass and Leet. Their behaviour was so different, yet both clearly showed impatience and an intense interest in him… probably waiting to hear him speak, to find out what he had to say.

Luciano continued to sum up how the operation had progressed, all the way up to the disastrous end. “Finally, though the vault was successfully opened, one of Lanning’s now-rampant creations immediately attacked the specialists and killed them, then went on a spree through the Arcades – with greater casualties prevented only thanks to Razzle safeguarding the hostages – which was stalled by the intervention of junior hero Polymnia and the vigilante Brennus, then ended by junior hero Gloom Glimmer when she broke through the shielding that had been thrown up to disguise the entire event. Kudzu, Calculass and Leet were able to escape, though everyone else was either killed or detained.”

The Dark nodded. “All in all, a complete disaster,” he concluded before he turned his head to face Kudzu, who shrank into his seat. “Do you have anything to add?”

He watched as the man pulled together what little remained of his self-esteem and set his jaw. “Yes, Sir. I do not dispute any of the statements Mister Calientri made, but I wish to add that I could not have predicted the presence of two superheroes – one of whom had apparently kept a major aspect of her power secret until then – nor Lanning’s rampant robot monster,” he explained. “Nor was I expecting Phasma – who could’ve easily put the robot down, as well as subdued the two heroes long before reinforcements could’ve arrived – to prove so… passive.”

“Phasma’s lack of cooperation, though understandable considering her connection to Brennus, has been noted and she willingly returned the advance on her payment to us; she won’t be hired again until she has proven to have worked through her issues,” Luciano replied after a glance from the Dark.

Basil, Basil, Basil, he thought. So adept at meddling in everything you are connected to even remotely. And I can’t touch you, of course, since you’re Amanda’s brother. Nor could he touch Melody, not that he would’ve retaliated against a junior hero, anyway, not for this kind of interference. But even if he would’ve, her relationship with Irene prohibited any and all actions against her, if only to preserve the peace at home.

“Phasma’s performance does not concern us, though,” he said. “She is an auxiliary operative at the best of times, a mere mercenary most of the time. This meeting concerns the catastrophic way in which the opposition encountered was handled by you, Kudzu.” He fixed the man with a hard look, making him shrink back into his chair again. “Frankly, I am quite a bit more concerned about the way you managed to get no less than four of our new talents arrested than the loss of the other personnel, or the failure to procure the diaries.”

Kudzu gulped, and Leet gave him a grateful look for prioritising his friends (and calling them all ‘talents’, he suspected); he was unlikely to blame the Dark for this disaster, anyway, but it was always good to solidify peoples’ loyalty.

Calculass only smirked, as if she’d seen through the act.

Interesting. I wonder whether she is simply astute, or her power helps. If she’d managed to get placement in the apprentice program without a team, then she ought to be a special talent.

And yet her file had not been flagged for him to read, even though he’d explicitly ordered that he be kept up to date on any special talents within the organisation. Maybe it was just an honest mistake. Maybe someone was trying to keep her off my radar.

Or maybe he was just so bored that he was reading way too much into a single smirk.

Fortunately, Kudzu drew his thoughts back to the matter at hand when he tried to evade responsibility. I wonder how he’ll try to achieve that.

“Sir, please, this is being blown way out of proportion,” he began. “Yes, there were multiple factors I hadn’t predicted, and yes, I failed to achieve my objective, but the talents you assigned to me are all still alive, and since the ones that were captured are all minors, and lack unmanageable powers, breaking them out of whichever juvenile detention facility they will be put into should not be an issue – and I will gladly do it myself, on my own dime-“

“Enough!” he shouted, slamming a fist on the table. Time to end this charade.

Everyone went quiet, even more so once he began leaching the light out of the room, casting an oppressive gloom about everyone. He rose, slowly, reaching out for Kudzu. The fool leaped off his chair and ran for the door – he’d probably set up some crazy escape plan, just out of habit – but Calculass reached out with one foot, tripping him.

He fell on his face with a yelp, and then the Dark was upon him. Lifting the man by the neck, he held him up so his head was almost touching the ceiling.

“On your own dime, eh?” he growled, making his wraith pulse for extra effect. “How very gracious of you. How noble. How utterly asinine! Of course you’ll break them out free of pay, and you know why? Because otherwise, I will break you! Does your intellect suffice to understand that?” He shook the man until he nodded. “And as to why I’m doing this myself, instead of letting Luciano rip into you – I know you accessed our files on the capes of New Lennston, so you ought to have known that Polymnia and Brennus both are hands off! Had you actually killed either of them, your punishment would’ve been far, far harsher than you can imagine, boy.

The man paled, though Peter was sure he didn’t realise just how close to a gruesome death he’d gotten. Amanda had been screaming bloody murder within an hour after the whole thing had become known, and he’d just barely talked her down before she went after Kudzu – fortunately, Basil hadn’t actually been hurt, and so she’d finally calmed down, after he’d promised to personally take care of the issue.

Calming down Irene had been considerably easier – the girl was taking much more after her mother than him, and she’d been willing to let it go, so long as she never had to see or hear of Kudzu again.

“As if all that were not enough, you lost the diaries! They were either destroyed or picked up by someone we don’t know about, which at best means the Syndicate will have to pay top dollar to get them back, if we ever get them at all!” he shouted at the man, his eyes flaring up like blood-red stars. He could smell the man soil himself as he threw him towards the door, before he calmed himself down, letting light fill the room again. “You have forty-eight hours to draw up a plan to break the survivors of your failure out of prison, and another seventy-two hours to pull it off; don’t you dare show your face to me again unless you succeed.”

The man nodded fearfully, all but crawling out of the room and breaking into a run.

The Dark returned to his seat and took a look at the three who remained. Luciano looked calm and professional, though he could see the signs of nervousness and fear in him… ah, he’d been the one to sign off on this operation, and he was fearing that he’d be punished as well.

“No blame lies with you, Luciano,” he soothed his worries. He’d have preferred to use his last name, now that he knew it, but he’d already used his first name before – switching to his last name could be seen as a kind of punishment, and that was not the message he wanted to bring across. “You followed procedure perfectly, and Kudzu’s failure will not reflect back on you.”

“Th-thank you, Sir,” the man breathed in relief.

“The same applies to you, Leet,” he continued, turning to look at the boy. “Your performance was exemplary. I fear you were simply outmatched against Brennus, which is no fault of yours.”

“Yeah, uh, I didn’t know anyone could work like that. He was shutting me out of any system he got access to without even trying, even though he had barely any resources and I doubt he studied the Arcades’ security systems beforehand,” the boy said with a blush that offset his annoyed look. “I read up on the guy, and I can’t even begin to guess at what he’s capable of – what is even his speciality?!” he asked, sounding as exasperated as he looked.

You’re not the only one who’d like to know that, he thought to himself. “Sooner or later, a pattern will emerge and then we’ll figure out just what his limitations are.” He turned away from the boy and looked at the girl. “Do you have anything to add, Calculass?” he asked curiously.

“I think Kudzu could’ve dealt with the heroes, or with the rampant contrivance – it was just that both together were too much, especially since Polymnia turned out to have an ace in the hole like that,” she stated firmly, her voice carrying a French accent… French Canadian. “He completely failed to adapt his pre-conceived plans, though; I think that’s a limitation of his power, not of himself – he needs to work in advance, not on the fly. He really should never have been allowed to actually lead a mission himself.”

“His power may be thus limited, but being aware of that and knowing ones own limitations – or rather, not doing so in this case –  is on him; he’s been active for years and has still failed to figure it out, it seems.”

She just shrugged. “Well, that’s all I had to add, I guess.”

Liar. He didn’t know why, but his gut was telling him that there was more that she wanted to say. But why was she holding it back?

He looked closer at the girl. She was relaxed in a calmly detached sort of way – her profile suggested sociopathic tendencies and a certain amount of general detachment from the real world – but she was definitely holding something back…

Ah. That’s how it is.

“Luciano, Leet, you two are dismissed, please, return to your rooms – you’ve both earned some sleep,” he said. He looked straight at the girl. “I would like to have a private word with Calculass, anyway.”

They nodded and got up to leave, though Leet threw the girl a worried look which she ignored. “Um, good night, Calculass. And good night, uh, boss,” he threw in at the last minute.

The Dark acknowledged him with a nod, though Calculass gave no sign of even having noticed him. He left after Luciano.

“That was rather mean, to ignore him like that,” he said lightly. “Why the cold shoulder?” The more he knew about her, the better.

She looked up at him, sitting up straight. “It’s more likely that he’ll stay infatuated with me, without demanding actual reciprocation, if I give him the cold shoulder in between a few sparse responses; responding too much might lead to him growing impatient and demanding a definitive answer as to my interest in him,” she said coldly.

“So you’re just stringing him along in order to exploit his talents?”

“No. He does that all on his own – even if I rejected him, I doubt it would end his interest in me, and it might merely lead to him growing actually obsessed with me; better to make use of it while it lasts.”

“How very calculating of you,” he joked.

She rolled her eyes. “Wow, I’ve never heard that one before.”

“What did you expect with a cowl like that?” Not that it’s nearly the worst cowl I’ve ever heard, he thought, reminded once again of ‘the Evolutrix’.

She actually blushed a bit. “It’s from my favourite book series, alright!?” Then, as if as an afterthought, she added, “Sir.”

“I see. So, what’d you want to say earlier?” he finally got to the point.

“I noticed some weird interference, during the mission,” she said at once. “Sir.”

He tilted his head. “Define interference.”

“Interference with my power,” she complied. “Do you know how my power works?”

“I’m afraid I only know that it’s based on numbers and that you have been classified as a potential A-Class Esper – which is very curious, as I am supposed to be briefed on every such individual as soon as they’re classified, yet I’d never even heard of you before this debacle.”

She looked down at her hands on the table. “I, ah, wouldn’t know about that…”

He chuckled good-naturedly, making her look up at him in surprise. “Who’s your master?”

“Dominaria,” she said before she swallowed dryly.

Ah, light dawns. “You know why she tried to keep you hidden from me.” A statement, not a question, backed up by as stern a glare as he could manage (he could manage a very stern one, especially with six eyes).

She looked down again, her shoulders slumping a bit. “She… she’s planning a coup. Not that I think that she’s got any chance, but… she’s planning.” She hunched her shoulders, then looked at him with wide eyes. “Please don’t hurt her. I know she’s… but…” Words failed her, obviously.

“Oh, I’m not going to hurt her, child,” he said. “I’ve known about her little schemes for a long time now; I just didn’t know about you.”

“You know…” She cut herself off, and her eyes… flickered for a moment, her pupils refocusing visibly. “Oh. Better the devil you know.”

Interesting. Quite so. Dominaria is quite useful despite her overblown ambition; better to let her think I haven’t seen through her little games and make use of her, instead of inviting someone more competent to take her place. But enough of that, please tell me about that interference.”

She cleared her throat, then she sat up straight, instead of lounging or being hunched over. “As you know, Sir, precognitive powers, as well as some other Esper-type abilities, interfere with each other when being focused on the same or closely related subjects – for example, when multiple espers are part of the same operation, especially when they are on opposing sides.”

“I am all too aware of that, believe me,” he said, reaching up with his hands to massage his temples. “And I have very vivid memories of the migraines that come with it.” That was a straight lie – he’d never had to deal with the downsides of esper-abilities himself – he had his wraiths for absorbing the unsavory side-effects of powers like that.

She smiled in sympathy. “Yeah, me too, Sir,” she said, shuddering a bit as she no doubt remembered suffering through the backlash of her power. “So, anyway – my power is partly precognitive, and even its present-focused components appear to suffer from the same interference; it wasn’t so bad when I was working together with Kudzu, as his power mostly works in advance, and not while we were together out on the field; and even then, we were on the same side, and I was just an observer, not an actor.”

He nodded, to show that he was still following her.

“But then it got weird. It was like someone with a major esper-ability – some kind of serious precog, probably, since they always cause the worst interference – had suddenly, and out of nowhere, inserted themselves into the situation. I only dodged a migraine because I was, as I said, just an observer, and holding my power back in general; and Kudzu probably didn’t even notice, he doesn’t seem to be too aware of his power’s workings – but I have no doubt that it contributed to his catastrophic failure to adapt to the changing circumstances.”

Well well well, I guess I might’ve been a little too hard on the man. Just a little bit. “Do you have any idea who might’ve been responsible?”

She shook her head. “Only wild mass guessing, Sir. Nothing based on any evidence.”

“Tell me your top theory, please,” he asked nicely. The girl was quite astute – few people her age were that aware of the inner workings of the more subtle powers, even other espers; even veterans like Kudzu often lacked the proper awareness of the subject matter.

“I suspect one of the heroes, Sir,” she said. “Polymnia already concealed an impressive level of brute power – it would not be too much of a stretch to assume that she’s kept another ability secret. However, multiple powers are rare, and three powers of such diversity are even less likely. So I’d probably bet on Brennus. We barely know anything about his abilities anyway, it is reasonable to assume that he has a precognitive ability on top of his Gadgeteering which he doesn’t advertise.”

Not as far as I – or he – he can tell. “Reasonable. Of course, there might’ve just been a precog hiding among the civilian hostages. Then again, they wouldn’t have been able to interfere too much in the situation without giving themselves away, which they didn’t…” He made a break in his speech, inviting her to conclude the thought. Just to see if she’d realise what he was talking about.

“And a passive precog is not really going to interfere with active ones – they need to actually use the information they get in order to force our powers to try to account for them… which would cause their power to have to account for ours, provided we’d be interested in and able to respond… which would initiate the cycle of interference, which it did, which implies that the precog actually did act, and did not merely observe as I did; they would’ve caused far less damage if they’d acted like I did.” She shook her head. “This is so frustrating, Sir.”

“That’s the life of an Esper, dear. Believe me, it’s even more frustrating for those who aren’t blessed with that kind of ability. Why didn’t you want to say this in front of the others? Your observation would not have put you at a disadvantage in any way.”

“I’m naturally secretive, Sir,” she said. “I prefer to keep the circle of knowledge small. Controllable. There was no need to share it with the others.”

“My, you’re already talking like a veteran. I approve.”

She blushed and smiled a bit, shifting around on her seat in a pleased way; then she fixed met his eyes directly for the first time. “So… what now, Sir?”

“Now you will explain your power to me. And then I’ll decide whether you’re more useful as Dominaria’s subordinate, or whether to use you somewhere else.”

She swallowed dryly, but didn’t speak up, looking… really rather scared, her earlier cheer gone. Sociopathic tendencies? Either she’s a world-class actor, or she’s more normal than her psychological profile suggests.

“Begin.”

She nodded, and took a deep breath. “Well, my power relies on numbers, as you already know. I… see numbers, everywhere. She looked around the room. “The length of things, the height, angles, weight, whatever – it starts simple, but builds up. For example, I look at you, and my power immediately compares your height to my own, and so I know that you’re exactly three metre tall.”

He raised a hand, interrupting her. “It uses the metric system?”

She frowned. “Actually… now that you mention it, no. Not really. But… when I have to express the numbers, they come out in the metric system… it’s hard to put into words, I only see and work with numbers in a system that has no words, no descriptions. Just numbers and graphs, but as soon as I try to put it into words – whether in my head or vocally – it just naturally parses into the metric system; but I can also parse it into the imperial system. I just… prefer the metric system. It’s way more elegant.”

“Not to mention sane,” he added.

She smirked, relaxing a bit. “Yeah, that. So, to get back to my power… I start with simple numbers. Like your height. Then, I calculated your weight, which is only seventy-three kilogram, which suggests that you’re either insanely underweight, or this appearance of yours is not really your physical form.”

“That is correct,” he admitted. I’m liking this. “How did you calculate my weight? Did the number just come to you, provided by your power?”

She shook her head. “No. I mean, I can do that, too, but it… no, let’s not do this out of order. I’ll get to that later, alright?”

“It’s your power – you ought to know how to explain it,” he agreed.

“I had trouble with your weight, for a moment, because it’s so disproportionate to your height – normally I compare a person’s height to the noise they make when they walk, the way their body moves, how much they sink into their seats, and so on. With you, those numbers were out of proportion, or plain hidden – I can’t tell how you move beneath those shadows, for example – and it took me a little longer than usual to get your weight. I had the same problem with lung capacity and fitness; normally, looking at a person’s body, listening to their voice and their breathing is enough to determine those numbers; but with you, it’s all skewed.”

“We keep coming back to that problem. Please use someone other than me as an example,” he told her.

She nodded. “Alright. Let’s take Kudzu. He’s one meter and seventy-three centimetres and nine millimetres tall – which I could tell by comparing his height to mine – and he weighs sixty kilogram and two-hundred and fifty gram. He has slightly below-average lung capacity at five-point-five litres and his muscles show slightly blow-average density, too. His bones are average for men of his age, in terms of density. All these numbers were inferred from observing his height, movements, breathing and speech. I also have numbers on his reflexes – again slightly below average for men of his age – and other statistics,” she recounted with some pride in her voice.

“Impressive. But that is hardly the reason why you’ve been given a Esper classification.”

“No, that’s just how it starts,” she corrected emphatically. “I can add any number about a subject to their… their profile. And the more information I already have, the more I can compute. But I have to be careful how far I stretch it – if I work off of too little hard information, I not only tend to reach wrong numbers, but I risk my models collapsing and causing me a huge migraine. Also, it’s easier for other espers to block me if I rely on too little hard information.”

“I think you’ll need to explain that more elaborately,” he admitted suspiciously.

“Well, for example – let’s say I want to calculate a weak point in a person’s body, to cause the maximal damage with a simple strike,” she said, her eyes staring off into the distance. “Even if, say, I only have a person’s height and weight – and nothing else yet – my power can jump ahead, giving me numbers I haven’t worked up to yet – like the shatterpoint of a person’s right arm’s bones. But if I use that… that soft number to calculate how to hit for maximum damage, and that other person is also an esper of some kind, then my calculations are far more likely to be off than they would be if I were to work up to the shatterpoint by analysing bone density, muscle density, previous damage and so on and getting the same, but hard number to use.”

“But if you already have those numbers, you are resistant to the effect?” Please say no, please say yes…

“Yes, that’s it. I become more resistant to interference the more hard numbers I have. And the effect is even more pronounced if I have hard numbers on an esper’s power – if I really analyse it, and I let my power work out their power by processing observations, reports and so on, then I can start to work against them without their power interfering with mine.”

Oh, this is going to be a problem… “How very… interesting. But I assume there is a limit to this?”

She nodded. “Yes, very much so,” she admitted sullenly, as if the thought of her power being less than perfect offended her. “Figuring out powers is really hard, especially the more subtle ones. And even more so if they don’t have external effects. I mean, calculating the strength and toughness of a brute is trivial. As is range, accuracy and heat of a laser beam,” she said off-handedly with a shrug. “But working out a person’s precognition, or their enhanced intelligence or to which extent they can mimic powers? Not so much, not usually. And when I work with complex, subtle stuff like that, I have to be even more careful not to slip and leave too many gaps in my calculations – it can happen unconsciously, without me noticing it – which leads to migraines again.”

“You mentioned earlier that you have precognitive abilities. Explain that, too.”

“If I have enough numbers on something, I can calculate probable future actions and events, as well as how likely they are to happen,” she replied with a proud grin. “The more I know, the further into the future I can look, and the more accurate it becomes. It gets even better if I have information on previous behaviour – or, even better, if I have first-hand experience. Which is why I could tell that there was a seventy-nine percent chance of Kudzu trying to escape when you increased the pressure on him, and I’d already calculated how to stop him – a simple trip was enough – as well as how to trip him the best way – maximised effect, minimised risks for me; after all, I didn’t want to twist my ankle, or have him step on my foot,” she finished with a disdainful sniff.

She’s adorable. “And you can predict anyone so long as you have numbers on them?”

“No. I can’t predict DiL, not really. I can create a… a model of her, something to fill in the gap, but it’s still a gap, and so my predictions are largely useless, at least in the long term – I can’t predict where she’ll strike next, nor even where it’s most likely to happen – and I can’t figure out any weaknesses, either – I just get a migraine out of trying. I might be able to predict her behaviour in the short term, if I was present during an attack, but I wouldn’t bet on it. There are some people who’re just… living gaps for my power, no matter how much or how few numbers I have on them.”

I almost wish Gwen was here to hear this… though she’d probably snatch the girl right up. “Let me guess – Ember and Pristine are also living gaps to you?”

She nodded. “Yes. And… uh… I tried to… to analyse Gloom Glimmer – just as a thought exercise, of course!” she admitted, making a rather ridiculous-looking calming gesture, as if she was afraid he’d lash out at her for even thinking about it.

“And what was the result?”

“My power works normally on her… sometimes. And sometimes, she’s as much of a gap as… the others. I can still predict her using a… let’s call it a theoretical model, I mean, I remember the numbers I use when my power is working normally on her, and I can use them to create a gap-filler, but even though those same numbers worked just fine before, my power treats them as if they were soft numbers, and not the hard numbers I was using before. It doesn’t help that I don’t really have any firsthand experience with her, only reports and videos on the internet.”

“Numbers from firsthand experience are more useful?”

“Yes, extremely so. Far less risk of unconscious gaps if I’m actually there, experiencing things firsthand.”

“What about non-sentient targets?”

“Easy stuff,” she said, her grin returning to her face. “A rock falls the same way, every time. I just need to know its weight and shape. Animals vary. The more complex they are, the more information I need to predict them; insects and the like are trivial, mammals are more complex; no animals are half as difficult as humans, though.”

“I must say, your power is impressive. No wonder Dominaria would like to keep you to herself.”

She blushed. “Uh, yeah. She’s said that, too.”

He noted the blush. Considering Dominaria’s usual modus operandi, he wouldn’t put it past her to have used her power to make the girl fall in love with her… whether or not she was interested in females.

Then again, she didn’t seem to have that strong a hold on her… espers tended to be more resistant to mental powers.

I see quite a bit of research coming my way… though I could also outsource it, I guess.

“I think I’ve heard enough for now,” he concluded. “Thank you for your cooperation. You may go to your room – sleep, for you will need to be on the top of your game tomorrow.”

She paled. “W-why, Sir?”

“Can’t you tell?” he asked curiously.

“I don’t have nearly enough numbers to predict you, Sir,” she said.

“It comforts me to know that my mysterious mysteriousness remains mysterious to you,” he chuckled as he rose up and walked around the table – on her side. She didn’t flinch or shrink away when he reached out to run his palm over her head, but she did shiver. Not fear. Not arousal… but something else. Ah, she’s attracted to power, he deduced. She wasn’t the only esper in the room, after all. “You’ll need to be well-rested for the first day of the rest of your life. I wish you a good night… and sweet dreams.” And with that, he left the girl and took the elevator back up.

***

He dismissed the wraith while on the elevator, and walked by Denise’s desk – taking the time to give her blonde-haired, pale face a look that implied appreciation of her beauty, to appease her vanity – with a light step. “Denise, I want you to re-assign Calculass,” he told her.

“Where to, Sir?” she asked without preamble, and without even asking who he was talking about.

“To me. I’m taking her on as my personal apprentice.”

That got a reaction out of her. Her cool, collected mask slipped for just a moment, betraying surprise, before she got herself under control again. “I will do so, Sir.”

“Call her up tomorrow at eight o’clock. She is to assist you the whole day,” he ordered.

She nodded, already tapping her keyboard. “Shall I put her through the wringer, Sir?”

“Absolutely. I want to know what she’s made of, whether she can swallow her pride and do work that, to her, would be beneath her and her power,” he elaborated. “Don’t be too obvious about it, though – with her power, she’ll probably figure out that she’s being tested sooner rather than later, but the longer it takes her, the better. Best not to mention that she’s to be my apprentice, either – only tell her she’s supposed to assist you. Don’t mention me, and don’t let her contact me; as far as it concerns her, she’s been assigned to be your bitch, and nothing more.”

The corner of her left mouth ticked up. “Oh, I think I’m going to enjoy this a lot, Sir,” she admitted as she made the necessary arrangements.

“I’m sure you will,” he said with a gentle touch to her shoulder. “Also, make sure she doesn’t contact Dominaria in any way.”

“Of course, Sir.”

He nodded and walked to the door. “I’ll be in my office then.”

“Yes Sir. I sent a new batch of request forms to your computer – the urgent ones have been added to the front of your queue, the rest to the back.”

He groaned with as much feeling as he could put into it. “You know, if I see just one more request form, I’m going to take over the world and wipe out the very concept of request forms!” he swore.

“You make that oath three times a week, and the request forms are still here. I suppose they are mightier than you,” she said in a perfectly level voice.

“No one respects me anymore,” he complained as he entered his office.

“The request forms certainly don’t, Sir,” she said to the sound of her fingers flying over the keyboard.

***

Sitting at his desk, he reached for his phone before he’d get back to those infernal request forms. He pressed the first speed dial button.

The phone barely had a chance to ring before it was picked up.

“Hello Petey!” said Gwen’s bright voice, and immediately, he felt at ease. Much more pleasant than request forms.

“Hello Gwen,” he replied warmly, as he put his robe and mask aside. “How’re you doing?”

“Oh, I’m quite well, my dear. Just hunting down a few annoying villains. Same old, same old,” she answered. He didn’t hear anything other than her voice, since she usually used a directed microphone that picked up only her voice when in the field.

“Anyone I know or should be worried about?”

“No. Just a bunch of teenage hotheads who think it’s funny to advertise online that they’re planning to sexually assault heroines – I’m going to teach them a lesson,” she said, with a little annoyance and a subtle thread of outrage sneaking into her otherwise happy voice. “What about you?”

“Oh, I just found a possible proof of your theory on the mechanics of precognition,” he said off-handedly, as if it wasn’t anything special.

“What? Really!” she spoke, her voice rising a little higher. She sounded very pleased. “Who, or what, is this proof?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” he asked and hung up on her. Then he blocked her number on his phone, for the time being, laughing to himself all the while. Oh, this would annoy her for hours. She’d get all worked up and annoyed with him… and then, maybe, he’d let her ‘convince’ him to tell her, later on… perhaps in bed. Yes, that would serve nicely. They hadn’t had much time together lately. So busy, the both of them.

His mirth lasted all through the first ten request forms, four of which he approved. Then he was back to being deathly bored.

***

He had slipped into a mercifully numb fugue state, as he worked through his queued up work, when his intercom buzzed him back to life.

“Yes?” he asked, just in time for the door to open and Wyrm to simply walk in. She was one of the few people who were allowed to do that. “Nevermind,” he said into the intercom. Then he turned to her. “Hello, Wyrm,” he greeted her as he looked her up and down. “How are you doing?”

She was wearing a new power armor again – she never left her den without wearing power armor, though a quick check with his wraith confirmed that it was her at least, and she wasn’t trying to pass a remote-controlled drone off as herself again.

This armor was remarkably sleek, even considering her usual designs, which had actively avoided the clunky look of her early power armor (she was still getting embarrassed about that) for decades now, and it even hinted at some female curves underneath. Her helmet looked sleek, with a smooth faceplate and a stylised draconian design on the sides and top, extending out to the back. A backpack of sorts extended from her back, with what looked like two folded dragon wings attached to it which lacked the skin between their bones. The whole armor was coloured mostly black with glowing neon blue bits all over. It would most likely look pretty eerie in the dark.

“I’m just/ fine,” she said in her usual way of combining various soundbites from various sources, as she walked up to his desk and let the wooden panel which hid his projector flip open.. “It’s really/ inefficient to/ have me come personally/ for every report./ A video conference/ would be much more efficient,” she brought up her usual argument while she began to remove the old projector and install a new one she’d brought with her.

He smiled at her, already looking forward to whatever new gadget she’d come up with. “Perhaps, but if I didn’t make you come here for reports, you’d never leave your den at all, except on a mission,” he reiterated his usual response.

“What is the purpose of/ a den/ with every possible/ comfort and/ tool/ if I have to leave it?” she asked without bothering to look away from her work.

“None whatsoever!” he said cheerily, which earned him a deadly glare (though anyone who didn’t know her well enough to read her tells would think she’d only looked up from her work). “What do you want to talk about, my dear?” It can’t possibly not be more interesting than request forms.

“You asked me to/ investigate the source of/ Brennus’/ income,” she said, and he immediately became more serious, straightening himself out.

He’d been waiting to find out about that. “What did you find out?”

“I found out/ where it came from,” she replied. “Robin Hood.”

“Robin Hood?” He hadn’t heard anyone use that handle in… a long time, really. “Who is that?”

“Not who/ what?” she corrected him as she finished working on the projector and closed the panel. “I wasn’t sure/ at first/ but I’m now sure/ that it’s an/ AGI.” She walked a few feet away, letting the screen roll down, which she promptly dismantled.

Now the last bit of his cheer went away. “What kind?”

“I am absolutely certain/ that it’s a Gadget,” she replied, and then fell quiet to let that sink in while she carried the old projector and the screen out of the room for housekeeping to take care of.

He leaned back in his seat and raised a hand to put his palm on his forehead. Just great, he thought. A contrived AI was one thing – they were only rarely able to interface with non-contrived systems, and even if they did – they inevitably caused damage to whichever normal system they managed to interact with, which both limited their utility and their ability to use subterfuge, as their impossible nature caused glitches and worse in the programming of actually functional computer systems. An AI created by a gadgeteer… was not so limited.

They’d learned that the hard way, just a few years ago.

“What do you know about it? Is it anything like Morgana?” he asked, referring to the AI which had very nearly destroyed the British finance system in her effort to wipe the Syndicate off the British Isles.

She thought it over for a moment, sitting down on his desk right next to his left hand, then she spoke up, turning her head so her helmet was looking straight at him – though he knew she was using micro-cameras all over her helmet and armor to have a constant field of view of three-hundred sixty degrees anyway.

“My report/ took this long to complete/ because I wanted to be sure/ of what I found,” she began. “My conclusion/ after extensive research/ is thus:/ Robin Hood/ was created by/ the same person as/ Morgana.”

He groaned softly, rubbing his forehead. “Any clues as to who that person might be?”

“None,” she replied. “Occam’s Razor/ suggest that it’s/ one of four people./ Unless we assume/ it is someone who is/ entirely unknown/ in which case we/ would have nothing to go on.”

He motioned for her to continue. She turned to look towards the door, and the projector she’d just installed popped up. It promptly projected a file into thin air.

The image was crisp and looked almost solid, showing the image of a young Chinese woman, perhaps in her early twenties, with long, straight black hair and an arrogant look on her pretty face that belied the usual stereotypes about Asian women.

Peter, of course, knew that face. “Su Ling,” he said, even though her name was being projected next to her image, along with several bits of information on her – birthdate, height, weight, etc.

“Though there is/ little reason to/ believe that she is/ alive/ Su Ling has proven/ herself capable of/ creating true AI./ They may have been/ created before/ the Viridescent Dawn/ or perhaps/ she survived and/ has been creating them/ ever since.”

A chilling thought – if Su Ling survived, I wouldn’t be surprised if she were mad at the world, and out for blood. There was no telling what kind of damage she could cause. “We did find and positively identify her corpse, though,” he said.

“True, but/ considering her abilities/ it would be foolish to/ entirely discount her/ after all/ she could’ve made them in advance, as I said.”

“Alright. Go on.”

The file changed, showing the face of a preteen girl. She was cute, as all children were, with rosy cheeks and curly blonde hair, though perhaps a little heavier than was the average for a child. Her bright brown eyes were glittering with mischief. Her codename was also displayed in the lingo of internet denizens and English both: I<3U/I Love You.

“Though she is/ rather young/ I Love You/ has proven herself capable of/ creating Artificial Specialised Intelligences./ She may well/ have made the jump to/ Artificial General Intelligence.”

“If it’s her, then we can at least deal with it easily,” he replied. “We know where she lives, we can talk to her, convince her to take any AGIs she has down – or turn them to our purposes.”

“I have been/ talking to her/ through an Instant Messenger./ She is/ too enamored with her freedom/ to toe the line./ That is all/ I can say about her,” she admitted.

“Still, it leaves us options, if she really is the one – though I doubt it,” he concluded. “I hope not. I’d rather not have to move against a child that age… not again.”

“Fortunately, there are/ two more options,” she continued, and the image changed to show the mask of an angelic, porcelain-skinned woman with vermillion-coloured eyes. “Though/ Atrocity/ is not a/ gifted programmer in the sense that/ she is extremely limited in what she can produce/ her speciality is, after all/ man-machine integration./ She may well have managed to/ encode a human brain/ or fuse a/ human brain/ to a computer system/ thus allowing it to/ operate not unlike/ an AGI.”

“That’s a stretch, dear, even considering the Savage Six’ predilection for defying expectations.” He tapped drummed his fingers on the desk in a short staccato. “Nevermind that I sincerely doubt she wouldn’t just go for the maximum possible amount of damage all at once.”

“Perhaps, which is why/ she is only the/ third-most/ likely known choice,” she replied. “Robin Hood’s/ nature suggests/ a more benevolent creator,” she continued. “Speaking of which.”

The image changed to show an image from a battlefield – a city, torn asunder in metahuman combat, under a jet black sky. In the center of the image was a young boy, older than eight but younger than ten, in the middle of leaping from a crashed truck towards several of the Six’ heavily armored minions, who were shooting at him with assault rifles.

The boy was laughing as he pointed a gadget gun at the men, wearing jeans, sandals and a black shirt himself, and bullets bounced off of a force-field around him, projected by the harness he’d strapped over his shirt.

“Macian,” Wyrm said simply. “No other name/ known. Only this one/ image/ exists, and the image quality/ does not allow/ reliable face-matching./ Known connection to/ the Savage Six./ Suspected connection to/ Brennus.”

“And then there is Eudocia…” Peter whispered. “Basil believes that Macian made her. I am inclined to agree, which would indicate Macian as the source of all our trouble.”

“You should/ just let me/ take/ Eudocia/ for research,” she said, sounding almost petulant.

“There’d be no way to hide her loss from Basil. And you know the rules – he’s safe so long as he doesn’t become an active threat to the Syndicate. Even then, Amanda would have to be consulted.”

“I’m not proposing that we/ attack/ him/ I just want the/ box!” From petulant to annoyed.

“No. Not yet. Besides, Eudocia is merely a very sophisticated ASI, as far as Basil himself has been able to determine,” he replied calmly. “It may not be connected to Morgana and Robin Hood at all. Do you have any other information to tie them together?”

She shook her head.

“Alright,” he replied. “Let’s shelve this for now. We should focus on what we do know – namely, this Robin Hood AI. What is it capable of? What does it do and where is it located?”

The projector shut off. “I have not/ been able to/ determine its/ physical/ location./ It deals in/ money./ Exclusively so,” she said. “Stealing money from/ criminals and corrupt governments/ as well as/ some/ other politicians./ Redistributing it to/ people in need/ charities/ and hero organisations lacking support.”

“So the money it gave Basil may not have anything to do with a connection between them and merely have been him helping out an up-and-coming superhero?” he threw in.

“Possibly not./ Though/ it/ usually only donates to/ proven heroes/ with very few exceptions,” she answered. “It is/ very good at/ what it does./ Where it not for/ me/ tracing/ Basil Blake’s money/ I would probably not have/ found it.”

That good?”

“Yes./ It is an AGI/ after all/ yet one which/ focuses on/ a single field of/ activity,” she admitted. “Its ability to/ evade notice and/ escape pursuit/ is nearly on par with mine/ but stealth is much easier than/ tracking on the internet/ especially for something like/ that.”

He opened his mouth to respond, but stopped and leaned back to think it over. An AI that was limiting itself to redistributing money like that… was a reason to worry, but probably not a threat. Maybe. Possibly.

“Has he stolen from us?”

“Yes/ though only/ small amounts.” She threw up a file of a middle-aged hispanic man. “This accountant/ of ours/ has been stealing/ from us,” she explained. “Robin Hood/ found out and/ has been taking money/ from the accounts he manages./ As doing so would also/ reveal his own duplicity/ he has not reported this.”

Oh, the irony. “So Robin Hood inadvertently helped us find out about a leak in our own finances,” he said humorously. “How much did our accountant steal? And how much did the AI take?”

“Eight hundred and/ forty-four/ thousand dollar and/ twenty-two thousand dollar/ respectively.”

“Robin Hood took relatively little money,” he observed.

She nodded. “From what I could find out/ it prefers to deal in/ small amounts./ Five hundred here/ two thousand there./ The money it/ gave to/ Basil Blake/ was among the largest/ amounts it ever/ moved.”

“Interesting… did you interact directly with it?”

“I attempted to/ but it is rather/ skittish./ It seems to/ prefer to/ abandon any project/ it is/ working on/ rather than risk/ being found/ and/or/ analysed,” she replied. “It took me/ three days/ just to confirm/ it exists/ and two weeks/ to determine its/ nature.”

He put his fingers together in front of his face, tapping his chin with the indices. “So we have an AGI of unknown origin, which steals mostly small amounts of money to redistribute among heroes, charities and generally needy people; which is doing its best to stay hidden and not draw attention; and which has been active for… how long?”

“I was able to/ confirm activity/ over the last/ two years and/ seven months,” she answered immediately. “Should I/ attack it?/ Given some additional resources/ and two weeks/ I ought to be able to/ track down its/ physical location.”

He thought it over for a few minutes, quietly. She wouldn’t mind waiting – a few minutes were little to her, provided they were well-used.

“No,” he finally decided. “We ought not antagonise it, so long as it is… tame. That might push it into rampancy, or worse. No, we ought to reward it.”

“What?” she asked, surprise showing through in her (limited) body language. Mostly in the abruptness with which she moved her head to lock onto him again.

He nodded, quirking his mouth into a smile. “It did help us find a traitor in our midst. Transfer the usual reward – subtracting the money it already stole from us – to the account it was moving the money from ours to. No additional messages.”

“It used/ several accounts/ just for that one/ source.”

“Then to any one of them,” he replied, dismissing that issue. “Just make sure it gets the money. That way, we’ll both express that we are aware of it – and of its theft – and that we are… reasonable. Who knows but that it will cooperate with us some day.”

“Very well./ What of/ the accountant?”

“Have an example made of him, and anyone else involved in his treachery,” he replied with a hard voice, the mirth gone. “With extreme prejudice.”

She nodded simply, and had probably already sent off the orders before he even finished his sentence.

“Is there anything else?” he asked. He knew she disliked wasting time, so best to press on.

“Yes/ there is,” she replied. “You have/ chosen an/ apprentice again.”

“Yes, I have. Calculass caught my interest, and work has been… quite boring lately,” he explained, not surprised that she’d already known about it. “Do you object?”

“Not directly,” she answered. “I am more concerned/ with your habits regarding/ your apprentices.”

He raised an eyebrow, looking up at her ‘face’. “Whatever do you mean?”

“You/ only took apprentices/ twice before,” she explained. “You took/ Sweetspot/ after/ Aaron/ ran away/ and you took Cataclysm/ shortly after DiL’s/ birth.”

He frowned – he’d never really paid attention to that happenstance before.

“Now Irene/ is striking out on her own/ and no longer needs you/ as much as before,” she continued unabashed, “She/ has chosen being a/ superhero/ pursuing her mother’s path/ instead of yours./ And now you take/ an apprentice/ and a teenage girl/ near her age/ as well.”

He sighed, putting his right elbow on the armrest, and resting his cheek on his hand. “I never… thought about it that way. Do you think I should… abort?” he asked honestly.

“I don’t think/ that that is necessary/ so long as you/ are aware of/ just what you want,” she replied simply. “An apprentice will/ certainly alleviate/ the moods you’ve/ found yourself in/ since Aaron returned/ and Irene left/ and it never hurts to/ encourage great potential.”

He nodded. “Thank you for pointing all that out. I shall take her as an apprentice – she is talented enough to warrant it, even if you disregard my… empty nest syndrome, I guess.”

“Good./ There is/ one more/ subject which/ we need to talk about,” she said, getting off the desk and walking around it again.

“Do tell,” he said curiously.

The projected image changed, showing… Amanda, in full costume. “I have to question/ your decision to/ hand over full/ operational control/ of North America/ to Amanda Blake,” she explained. “Though she is powerful/ she is too unstable/ to shoulder the responsibility./ As I have said before/ she is unfit to be a/ full/ member of the Dark Five.”

“Objection,” he… objected, sitting up straighter. “She has vastly improved lately, ever since her and Basil’s relationship has become strained – and their falling out has pushed her to excel, where before she mostly slacked in her criminal duties.”

“Which is/ admittedly/ impressive/ and worrying at the same time,” she replied, calling up a picture of Basil next to Amanda’s.

The boy was looking rather unhealthy on this rather recent picture, making Peter frown. He’d known, thanks to his wraith, that Basil was cutting back on both sleep and proper eating lately, but he hadn’t known it had gotten this bad. I might have to intervene before something irreversible happens.

“The fact that/ her brother has/ such a massive impact/ on her efficiency as a/ villain/ would suggest that/ removing him from the picture-“

“Stop,” he cut her off sharply. “Don’t even finish that sentence. You know the rules.”

“I know them/ but they are still/ largely incomprehensible to me/ or rather I should say/ your rigid adherence to them/ even when responsibility could be diverted/ seems inefficient to me. We could/ be rid of the boy/ and pin it on/ someone undesirable/ so as to/ motivate/ Amanda Blake/ to even better performance.”

“Or break her, instead,” he replied. “Nevermind that rules really aren’t worth the ink they are written with, if one does not adhere to them even when safe from repercussions – it’s not a Contractualist tenent that one obey the law even in the absence of repercussions for nothing.”

“Contractualism/ is not for/ supervillains,” she shot back. “Nevermind that your decision/ as to this subject matter/ is largely driven by/ sentiment/ rather than/ philosophical deliberation.”

“Sentiment is important.”

“I find it largely confusing.”

He smiled sadly at her. “I know. But you could understand it; if you did, I would feel fully comfortable handing the Syndicate over to you, and retiring. But you do not, yet, and thus I am still the better choice to lead.”

“I doubt that/ I shall ever/ understand this,” she said with an indifferent shrug.

His smile turned knowing. “Is that why you still wear the nightdress Hurton gave you?”

She froze for a full minute. Then she turned away. “I wasn’t objecting to/ Amanda Blake’s/ promotion/ solely due to/ her brother’s influence/ on her,” she said, obviously hoping he wouldn’t pursue that point. “She is an/ unstable serial rapist/ and her status as a/ member of the Five/ reflects badly upon us/ despite our best efforts to/ foster as positive a/ public image/ as possible. Nevermind how/ unreliable she is/ or need I mention/ her loss of control/ during the Hemogoblin incident?” She turned around to look at him again.

Oh, I’ve been waiting for this.

“Why are you/ grinning like that?/ It’s creepy,” she said. “And annoying.”

“Well…” he reached into a drawer of his desk and pulled out a thin folder. “Take a look at this – it’s Walker’s report on the incident.”

“I’ve already read it,” she replied.

“Not this one,” he said, his grin almost splitting his face. “This is the actual report, which he didn’t transfer into the system at my behest.”

She walked over and picked the folder up, reading through it in moments.

“What… what is this?” she asked, and the soundbite fit just perfectly. “Why would you/ keep this a/ secret from me?/ What does it/ even mean?”

“I wasn’t keeping it a secret from you, specifically,” he told her, standing up. He held his wrist with his hand behind his back, and walked around the desk. “But considering Amanda’s abilities, keeping it unknown to anyone but me and Walker was the best option for making sure she did not learn of this… also, I wanted to surprise you, once my research into the matter was complete – which it now is.”

“Explain,” she demanded.

He smirked. “As you can tell from the report, something isn’t quite right with Amanda’s… perception of things,” he began. “She reported torturing Switchbitch,” he spoke the name with distaste – really, the taste of some people!, “to death, and according to Walker’s official report, she also abused the woman sexually… or so it seemed. After Amanda had left, Walker decided to eat the woman’s remains, and found them to be… changed. His curiosity piqued, he investigated and found that she had been killed before her weapon was forced up her anus, nor was there any sign of sexual contact of any kind.”

He paused and reached out for the floating projection. To his delight, it still recognised his hand signs and it called up several news reports.

‘New Supervillain seduces Hero to the Dark Side’

‘Fallen Superhero revealed to have been brainwashed and abused!’

‘Mindstar declared S-Class threat. No Kill Warrant yet – why?’

The articles continued like that, showing the progression of Amanda’s career as Mindstar, including all her sexual escapades.

“I decided to make a new background check, to see whether there’d been any history of mental illness in her family,” he explained. “Imagine my surprise when I found out that her entire past – including her parents – is entirely fictitious!”

“No,” she contradicted him. “I ran the/ background check/ myself/ before we contacted/ her./ They are real.”

“They were, at the time – or at least the documentation was,” he replied firmly, but gently. “But they are not. Amanda’s and Basil’s life in New Lennston is real. They have lived there for more than five years, and though numerous people remember interacting with their parents, I am absolutely sure they never existed to begin with.

She stayed quiet, probably doing research of her own even while she listened. He decided to continue.

“Considering all this, I decided to dig further; their past before coming to New Lennston is entirely made up,” he elaborated. “Basil’s memories of his family and life before that are very real – but they have no basis in reality. The same for his memories of financing and building his own base. As an aside, the fact that their parents – and their deaths – were never real to begin with certainly explains why even Basil does not appear to mourn them, or to have been actually affected by the loss – even if he has false memories of the event, he lacks the actual experience.”

“I can count the/ number of people/ who have proven to be/ capable of affecting/ long-term memories/ in anything but the/ crudest/ way possible/ on one hand/ and still have/ fingers left,” she stated simply.

“Quite so,” he agreed with a nod. “But it becomes more interesting still,” he threw in. “You see, though Mindstar’s career is quite real… her escapades are not.”

“What?” she asked flatly.

“You heard me. I went after and investigated all her supposed victims in the time since the Hemogoblin incident,” he explained. “From the sorority to Amazon, I investigated them all. Hell, I even did some deep mental probing, just to be sure!”

She nodded, waiting for his verdict.

“I couldn’t believe what I found! It made no sense at all!” he said with exasperation in his voice, throwing his arms up as he dramatically walked up and down the projected screen. “So I snuck into the Blakes’ residence and-“

“Probed Amanda Blake?” she asked. “That is/ incredibly risky/ considering her own/ powers.”

He waved her off. “No, I didn’t probe her… not mentally. I did do a full physical on her while she slept, though.”

“You/ snuck into a young woman’s home/ and did a full physical examination on her/ in her sleep?/ That is rather/ creepy/ even by/ your standards,” she commented, though he doubted that she disapproved.

“Compared to killing people, that’s really rather tame,” he defended his decision. “But never mind – what is important is not what I did, but what I found.”

“And what/ did you find?”

He walked over to his chair and sat down again. “As far as I can tell, both from the physical on Amanda, and the deep probing of her ‘victims’ and other partners, I can say with confidence that Amanda Blake…” He paused for dramatic effect. “Is a virgin.”

She tilted her head to the side. “Impossible,” she replied. “She has/ numerous lovers/ chief of all/ being Markus Birkovich./ He would not/ be satisfied with a/ merely platonic relationship.”

“And he isn’t. He’s very satisfied by their deeply physical relationship,” he replied. “Though he is as wrong about that as Basil is about financing his projects on his own, or as wrong as Amanda is about abusing her numerous victims.”

Her head tilted to the other side with a mechanical whirring sound. “What is/ going on here?”

He shrugged. “I am not quite sure. Amanda believes herself to be a rapist, she has even admitted that to her brother – not that it’s a secret. Amazon is absolutely certain she was sexually abused. The sorority girls Amanda visited still have wet dreams of the night they spent with her. Markus vividly remembers their frequent trysts. Notice a pattern here?”

“Yes/ and I am very worried,” he she replied. “Why are you/ promoting her/ instead of/ cutting all ties/ before whatever this is/ causes any damage/ to us?”

He spread his arms. “What, and ruin the suspense? This is the most interesting thing to happen in years!” he answered with a wide grin.

She slapped a hand to her armored forehead. “Oh please/ not this again.”

“C’mon dear, you can’t tell me you don’t want to know how this’ll play out! And besides, we know something is wrong – we can plan accordingly, keep her away from any truly sensitive information and keep an eye out for whomever is responsible for this – I don’t know about you, but I want a metahuman that powerful either on our side, or dead. And we won’t find them if we cut Amanda off.”

“So we…”

“We watch. We stay vigilant,” he said firmly. “And when the time comes, we’ll strike without mercy.”

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B011.15 Monkey Family

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I bolted off at my top speed, leaving everyone else behind. For once, the monkey was being cooperative, and fully so, pouring on the speed; one step carried me across the old sewage plant, to a tunnel that led towards Old Downtown. Another step and I crashed through a wall at the end of the tunnel without slowing down by a noticeable amount.

When I made my fourth step, sounds vanished as I shattered through the sound barrier.

I hadn’t reached speeds like these with such ease since I’d fought my demented half-sister during the war; even before that, I’d only managed them less than a dozen times, tops. I was soaring, I was roaring as a primal joy filled me, howling right along with the monkey as our thoughts lined up and we tapped reserves of power I’d forgotten I’d had.

We broke through more walls than I could be bothered to count, all but disintegrated a rusty old school bus when we went through it, gave a rather diverse-looking gang gathered around a portable television a nasty case of burst eardrums (and a shattered television); I focused ahead, I sped up and we. Went. On.

I felt the monkey’s skin attach directly to mine, mingling, melding, the separation vanishing for the first time in nearly two decades; my senses were escalating even faster than my speed did, the world around me slowing to an almost still image I was soaring through, every step taking me several hundred feet ahead. I could see every speck of dust in the air, I could feel the ground crack and liquefy with every step I took, I could feel the air slam into me over and over and over, trying to skin me alive, to shatter my bones, yet unable to do more than stir my fur and draw my lips back further widen the manic grin I felt stretch across my face, two rows of teeth revealed in all their sharp deadliness. I felt more than fast, more than powerful. This, this was what my power, what I was made for, just utter abandon and speed; In that moment, I felt more than human, more than metahuman – I felt like a god, utterly free and untouchable!

This, I could do forever. But alas, the downside of being as fast as me was that, even with my rapidly accelerated perception, the journey was not all that long. Eight steps, in total, until I burst through a wall thicker than many a skyscraper – or perhaps it hadn’t been a wall at all, it might just have been undeveloped earth and rock between the last tunnel I’d been in (less than a tenth of a step long) and the water distribution centre.

I don’t know what the Ascendant and his people had expected to see coming, if they’d expected anything at all, but I was entirely sure they hadn’t expected a furry blue monkey to burst through the wall and scream bloody murder.

To be perfectly honest, I liked what I saw. There were thirty-three people in the room (super-fast perception plus infravision equals lots of battlefield awareness) and all but three had an abnormally high body temperature, practically glowing to my vision.

Two of the three people without the spiking body temperature were in the back of the installation, out of sight of my normal vision – even their heat signatures were hard to pick out through all the intervening material.

The third person was much colder than a person should be, and a look through normal sight revealed a literally white-skinned woman with blue lips, wearing winter clothing; she was standing atop a railway that overlooked several water-purifying tanks, the metal around her iced over; looked like a pretty classic ice cowl, really.

The thirty burning people – all of them also enlarged to ridiculous degrees – were spread all around the place. Those I could see looked like the thugs I’d seen in Chayot’s memory, wearing dark clothing and masks – only the Ascendant must’ve shot them up with something, because they’d all grown to over ten feet of height, ripping through most of their clothing – the only things that still fit them were their masks, which still sat on their now ridiculously small heads, in between shoulders that big enough for someone like Volca or Tamara to fit into without trouble.

I could have – and probably should have stopped, looked around and made a plan on how to proceed, but I hadn’t reached this kind of level in a long time, and if I was honest with myself, I just wanted to cut loose.

Never mind that I was still angry as all hell and wanted to take vengeance on these people. I hadn’t forgotten the burning rage that had driven me earlier, and now was my chance to teach these clowns that you don’t mess with my family.

All these thoughts and observations went through my head in the time between bursting through the wall and landing on the ground, almost exactly beneath the cold woman.

And then it was monkey fun time.

***

My first move was as simple as it proved to be effective – I kicked off the ground, going straight up towards the cold woman. I didn’t know how exactly her power worked, but given the choice between taking out two of thirty juiced up normies (there were two that I could hit at once, just a few feet ahead of me) and one unknown metahuman… Well, I picked the popsicle.

I’d slowed down a lot, and no longer moved at super-sonic speeds; thus I could hear her try to shout something – or perhaps scream in horror – before I hit the railway from below. I reached out with my hands, grabbing the metal and tearing it in half right beneath her feet. Then I used both my momentum and my hands on the two halves of the railway to soar higher, tackling her.

Bones broke audibly, specifically those of her legs and she got all of a second of screaming in before my tail whipped up and wrapped around her throat, cutting it off. What most people don’t realise is that, if you do it right, choking someone out is a matter of a few seconds, tops.

I landed on the left side of the railway, letting her dangle off my tail, legs shattered, until she passed out – in plain sight of the mooks.

They didn’t take it well, at all. No less than eight of them leaped at me from below, but I’d been counting on that. I tossed the woman aside, to the far end of the railway, and went to work.

Reaching around me with both arms, one leg and my tail, I ripped huge chunks of the railway off and threw them at the four closest mooks. Before the projectiles were even halfway to their targets, I leapt off the railway, over the vats. I’d seen three enemies close together, and I flew straight at them. I couldn’t see their faces, but I could see their eyes through their masks – they widened in surprise at my high-velocity assault on them before they’d even gotten close.

Tough luck. You shouldn’t have taken this job, I thought as I gut-kicked the one in the middle with both feet. As he folded over, the air knocked out of him, the other two tried to grab me as they flew past – but I was faster; I grabbed each of them by their normal-sized heads, wrapping my hands around them, and pulled them down after me.

The one I’d kicked hit the ground with an impact that created an actual crater around him. Coming to a dead stop, I swung the other two head-first into the ground to his left and right.

All three went limp, but I didn’t waste any time – before their bodies had even fully touched the ground, I’d already kicked off towards five charging brutes.

I slammed into their leader just as the chunks of rock and concrete from the hole I’d blown coming in hit the ground and I did not rip off his head, as quick a solution as that might’ve been.

I did, however, see my father come through a wall (without blowing it up. Negative points for the weak entrance) dragging Warren, Malphas and Volca through (he was stretching his role there, I was sure; still, such an ability could easily be explained as a capability kept secret for emergencies, so…) and I decided to let them in on the fun, so I slammed my forehead into the centre of the guy’s face, grabbed the mooks to his left and right and threw them right at the group.

Then I went to town on the two still standing and trying to tackle me.

Tackle me.

The result was as hilariously one-sided as one could expect.

I don’t think that I broke their spines, but at the very least, they’d be in a lot of pain, for a long time, unless whatever they’d taken came with a lot of regeneration.

Warren, Malphas and Volca were getting ready to intercept the two I’d thrown at them and my father was running towards one of the metal vats. Seven enemies were down, two more about to get the shit kicked out of them. Leaving twenty-four targets.

I shouldn’t give the Ascendant too much time to do whatever it is that he’s doing, I reminded myself between seconds.

Twenty-two thugs left. They were gathering in one spot and seemed to be hefting weapons – I had to move fast.

Fortunately, moving fast is part of my power description.

There were twelve huge vats for water purification before it was fed into the city’s pipes. They were organised in four rows of three vats each, with the control room and the central access pipe on one side of the huge installation and my entry point pretty much on the opposite side. I was right in the middle of the vats, and the thugs were gathering behind the next row.

I don’t have much time – but I only need to scatter them, I realised and ran towards the gap between two vats. The sound of the rocks I’d blown into the facility impacting the floor reached me just as I reached twenty of the remaining thugs, who were busy picking up what seemed to be heavily customised rocket launchers.

Those were most likely no threat to me, or to Dad, but they could very well kill any of the others. Not that I would’ve let them pull off whatever they were aiming for anyway.

The juiced-up thugs didn’t even know I was there until I slammed into their midst at two hundred miles an hour, clotheslining no less than five of them as an opening move, two on the left and three on the right; I’d always rather enjoyed mixing wrestling moves into my fighting style – they were surprisingly effective and watching professional wrestling matches on television used to be something me and dad used to bond over, before things went bad.

The five unlucky assholes I hit first were down and out instantly, save for the third one on my right side (I hadn’t managed a full hit), and now I was in the middle of the group, which meant they’d have to be utterly insane to use their weapons on me.

Fortunately for everyone involved, these weren’t the kind of weapons you just had to aim and pull the trigger to use – never mind that they were still in the process of assembling half of the human-sized things, anyway. Unfortunately for them, I was also too fast to give them the chance to put up an effective defence, anyway.

I roared at the top of my lungs, not long but short, explosively – I’d shattered glass and burst eardrums with my roar before – to stun them, and then I went apeshit on them (heh).

My fists flew, breaking bones left and right – though I limited myself to striking at extremities, to reduce the chance of lethal blows; Hennessy’s and Camille’s request sat oddly with me, as did Journeyman’s words. I’d never really lost sleep over killing. Not during my stint as a villain, certainly not during the war, nor during the years after. But now…

I’d been told, from two sources that had a great deal of weight with me, that I shouldn’t kill. Journeyman, who’d so often given me good advice (and was the closest thing to a true friend I’d ever had, aside from Warren), and my own daughter and her girlfriend. I wondered whether Journeyman had known that they’d ask me that… no, stupid question; of course he’d known. There was no way this was a coincidence, not when he was involved.

But why had he preempted the girls’ request? Because, now that I thought about it, it had been more than just a plea to spare the Ascendant. They’d pretty much told me that they didn’t want me to kill, period. Not just in this one case.

Because, one way or another, it’d be on them for not stopping me. At least, in their heads, it would be, as unreasonable as that was.

And I couldn’t do that to them, not to Hennessy and, yes, not to Camille, either. She might have rubbed me the wrong way, but she was good to Hennessy, and that was more than I could say about myself.

All I could do, in the end, was to sigh. Which brought me back to the here and now – among the broken – but still alive – bodies of twenty enhanced thugs. Two of them hadn’t even hit the ground yet, still falling down in slow motion as I refocused on the present.

Two thugs left. As well as the Ascendant and whoever the other one with him is. I looked around, with both my normal and infravision, only to find that my team had taken care of the rest. Malphas, Volca and Warren had downed the two whom I’d thrown at them, my father had taken out (non-lethally, which was pretty surprising to me) the other two and was waiting near the place where the last two active heat signatures were.

No time to waste. I went and joined my father, after telling Warren to stand watch with the others.

I didn’t want them involved in the finale. However it turned out, they’d sleep better if they remained ignorant.

***

We didn’t bother with big entrances, not at this point. Father and I just walked, without a word, down a short hallway made of concrete and lined, left and right, in pipes of various sizes and colours. It ended in a reinforced steel door with the words ‘Central Pipe Access’ written on it.

Father and I raised a foot each and kicked the door out of its frame, sending it flying across the room beyond.

There was a yelp, and the sound of a gun being drawn and cocked.

Father let me take the lead, and I simply walked in in full monkey form, stooped over to fit through the door, with my hands entwined behind my back.

Within, I found two men standing over a contraption they were about to lower into a hatch in a big red pipe. The machine looked like some kind of tubular nightmare made of brass, gold and plastic, and did not inspire confidence at all. Of the two men, one was reasonably tall, thin, and wearing a pure white priest’s robe, with a mask depicting an angelic face; the other one looked like the thugs outside, only he was still normal-sized and fully clothed; he was holding a pretty heavy-looking handgun and put five bullets into my chest, and three more into my head, before I’d even fully entered.

I barely felt them, but still. I had to set the tone of this meeting, not them. To that end, I took a single step towards them, ignoring the burning desire for bloody murder at the sight of the Ascendant, and backhanded the last of his thugs, throwing him across the room. The man slammed into the wall and slid down with a sigh, the breath knocked out of him. Father walked over there to stand watch over him, while I approached the other one.

“The Ascendant, I presume?” I asked, without bothering to mask the pure hatred I felt for the man, the desire to kill him; nor did I hold back the monkey’s growl. “I’ve been hoping to talk to you for a while now,” I continued, while I reached out with one hand and pulled the contraption off the hatch.

“N-no, put that back!” he shouted in a shrill voice, all but leaping for the contraption – though there was no way this scrawny guy could lift it, not unless he shot himself up with his own drugs – it was almost as big as he was, and probably quite a bit heavier. “I need the dispenser, I need it!” he shouted as he tried to reach it, with me holding it out of his reach like a school bully denying a smaller boy his action figure or something.

Good God, this is the monster that hurt my girl so much? THIS? I thought furiously as I brushed him back. He fell on his ass like a freaking pushover, and started sobbing. Sobbing. For crying out loud, he was… he was acting like…

“I need that! If I don’t do this, they’ll take my name away!” he cried. “I need it, I n-“

“Oh, shut the hell up,” I said as I lashed out with my tail, hitting him in the gut. He slid back against the wall, the air – and fight – knocked out of him. Then I looked at the contraption. “This. It’s supposed to poison the water supply, right?” I asked the Ascendant, though it was my father who answered.

“Yes. He’s used a similar contraption before,” he said from where his hulking grey form stood over the downed minion.

I nodded to myself – and then I squeezed, crushing it. The Ascendant made a desperate, weak scream as I snapped it in two, watching various fluids spill over my hand and onto the ground, as the pieces tumbled down and hit with a metallic crunching sound.

“He’s not going to use this one, though,” I said with a satisfied growl in my voice.

The… little man in front of me was just sobbing now.

“I can’t believe it. This man, he created all this misery? I expected more from the Gefährten,” I almost-whispered.

“I guess we know now why they wanted to purge him. Can’t have been hard to find someone more appropriate to the job,” he replied casually. “Though my reports suggest he used to be much more… together. Perhaps his power has degraded his mind. Or perhaps just the threat of disappointing the Gefährten was enough to make him crack.”

“Yeah,” I breathed, though I wasn’t sure what I was agreeing to. This was… not what I’d expected. “We’re done here, let’s go,” I said, turning around – though I didn’t leave him behind. I picked him up with my tail instead.

“Why not just kill him here?” Father asked. “We have time. We can enjoy it.”

“No,” I said firmly. “He’s going to the authorities, and he’s going to stand trial and be judged fairly.”

Father tilted his head, clearly confused – or at least surprised. “Seriously? Why the sudden about-face?” His voice almost slipped into his natural tone, for just a moment. I enjoyed that way more than I should.

“H- Chayot and Dearheart contacted me, asked me to spare him. To have him stand trial, as he should,” I said. Then I had a thought, and I reached around myself with my tail, so I could look straight at him. Snot was running down from beneath his mask, and his eyes were bloodshot and wet.

So pathetic. “Did you hear that, you piece of trash? The only reason you’re living through this is because the girls you hurt, the children you tortured, they want you to be treated fairly. No, not fairly – better than you could ever deserve. Do you get that!?” I screamed the last sentence into his face, revealing rows of teeth and covering him in spittle.

He nodded frantically in between sobs, but then he shook his head. “It don’t matterrrrrr,” he whined. “Th-they’re… they’re going to kill me, anyway. Just for failing. And so I don’t t-t-talk.”

“He’s right,” my father agreed. “He’s dead already. And we do need some intel, to be perfectly honest.”

I turned to look at him. He approached me in turn, leaving the thug behind. “I’m not going to kill him. Not going to leave any evidence. But it would be irresponsible not to extract as much information as we can from him, before he vanishes either into prison or is killed by his own people,” he stated firmly.

Why does he have to constantly make sense? I asked myself, but there wasn’t really any argument to be made. Really, I had no reason to even think it over – the Gefährten were major trouble, way worse than the Syndicate, and any edge against them was worth this.

“Alright. But be quick about it,” I said, dropping the Ascendant.

While my father went to work on him – I doubted there’d be much of a challenge, not with a man this broken – I went to take a look at the thug I’d downed earlier.

There, I met my next big temptation. His mask had fallen off, revealing features I’d seen before.

It was the same man I’d seen in the visions Hennessy had shown me. The one who’d taken her.

The one who’d kicked Tamara’s head when she’d already been on the floor, paralysed by poison and half-mad from fear for her child.

Boots, all around us. Boots, kicking. Boots, falling.

I blinked, looking down at his bloody face – I’d broken his nose. He wasn’t unconscious, though. But he wasn’t all there, either.

A black boot, dropping down. I remember the sound, the crack. The spray of warm blood, its taste when some droplets flew into my screaming mouth.

I shook my head, realising that I was bent over the man, ready to tear into him, to rip his fucking head off with my bare teeth!

I remembered the light dying in those big, warm brown eyes, I r-

I pushed myself away from him, growling under my breath.

This isn’t the way, I thought to myself. Not anymore. Really, it never was. They were never worth it to begin with. And there… I felt a kind of peace. I still hated them, but… no, it was done.

Once more, I looked down at the thug. He wasn’t anything else, after all. Just a thug. He’d hurt those I loved… but that was over. He was over, as surely as if I’d bitten his head off.

There was no need to literally do it, not anymore.

I waited for my father to finish extracting as much as he could out of the former Ascendant, then we left together, taking two criminals with us.

I did make sure to have him tell me what he found out, though. Just in case.

***

The next three hours passed in a blur. I mostly let my father do the talking. Warren snuck off with Volca and Malphas, after they made me promise to meet them all later on.

We called down the authorities, and the actual adult superheroes of Chicago showed up to pick up the trash. I hadn’t seen or heard from any of them, aside from Vek (who was just staring at me, as I stood in my pristine suit and tie in front of the piled up thugs – who were slowly reverting to normal size – and the tied up (and unconscious) Ascendant.

I smirked at her, while my father introduced himself as my hireling and handled the nuts and bolts.

Honestly, I couldn’t care enough to participate. I smiled at the cameras as journalists had gathered near the entrance to the water works, reporting as the police carted the goons out, and two men dragged the Ascendant to the paddy wagon. People cheered when they did that.

I just felt… pleasantly numb. It was only thanks to my father’s ingrained lessons that I bothered to smile and do some pleasant chit chat with a few reporters, giving them some nice soundbites.

***

Before I knew it, we were standing in front of Tamara’s house, just as the sun was setting. Father was back in his Dark form, though I doubted anyone but me could see him.

“Will you be alright from here on out?” he asked.

“Yeah. Yeah, I want to do this on my own,” I said. “Afterwards, though… I’d like to talk to you. At my place.”

“Yeah?” he asked, and I heard something almost like… hopefulness in his voice(s). I couldn’t be sure, but… it was a nice thought.

“Yeah. Drinks are on me.”

“I’ll be there,” he said, before he sank into his own shadow and vanished.

I smiled to myself – though I couldn’t tell why, things were just… just a blur right now. I looked at the house – nice and sturdy, picturesque really – and I tried to put my current state into words.

The closest I could come up with was a feeling like… like something had been knocked loose. Something old and scabbed over, broken and yet so persistent. I wasn’t miraculously healed of all my issues or anything, but…

But for the first time since mother died, I felt like I could finally start to heal.

I walked up to the door and rang the doorbell.

***

Little feet pounded the stairs and then the little princess opened the door. She was now wearing a bright yellow dress and a matching tiara, with diaphanous golden butterfly wings and a golden wand in her hand.

She grinned up at me. “Hello, Mister Henny’s-other-Dad!” she chirped, and I couldn’t help but grin right back.

“And a hello to you, too, dear Fairy Princess,” I said, just as Tamara rounded the corner into the hallway.

She was dressed in casual stay-at-home clothes, and looked like she’d been crying – she didn’t look sad though. When she saw me, she smiled brilliantly, and even more so when the little princess turned to her and asked, “Mommy, how’d he know I’m a Fairy Princess!? I’m supposed to be in disguise!”

Tamara laughed and picked the little girl up, then she looked at me, looking radiant herself.

God, I could just look at her all day. As inappropriate as that would be now. And as if to underline that fact, Phil joined us, putting a long, thin arm around her shoulders.

“Hello, Kevin. Or Aaron, I guess,” he said, and he looked like he couldn’t decide whether to smile or frown at me. “They’re in the living room. Take your time.”

Tamara mouthed a ‘Thank you’ before she leaned closer to give me a kiss on the cheek (causing the little princess to giggle, and give me a mirroring one on the other one). Then she went up the stairs.

I looked at Phil, again. He looked back. I grunted. He grunted. I entered, taking off my shoes, and went to the living room.

When I entered, I saw Hennessy (in sweatpants and a pink baby tee) and Camille (in a matching outfit, only with a green top instead of a pink one) sitting on the couch, their eyes wet as they watched the television, holding hands.

Well, Camille was watching television. Hennessy was looking at me, and I got the feeling that she’d been tracking my movements as soon as I’d entered the range of her ability.

Camille turned, as well, and I got another memory for the records; I had made a lot, in my life, but this one, this one was unquestionably beautiful: Both girls broke into relieved, radiant grins, and then Hennessy literally leaped across the room and into my arms, wrapping her legs around my waist for some extra hold.

And when I wrapped my arms around her, I felt like I’d finally done something good.

***

It was nearly midnight before I got back home, but father was still there, despite my tardiness – and he wasn’t alone.

He was sitting at my bar, the living room lit brightly by numerous indirect lamps, without any wraith to obscure him, in his black robe and skin-tight suit; and on the other side of the bar, currently mixing some manner of cocktail, was Journeyman in his dark blue robe.

Just like the last time (many years ago) I’d seen them both together, I was struck by how similar their costumes were, save for the colour of their robes and Journeyman’s mirror mask.

Neither of them had ever told me what was up with that. Or rather, Journeyman hadn’t. Father claimed he didn’t know why Journeyman dressed the way he did.

But that wasn’t important right now. Instead of pursuing the thought, I took off my jacket and tie, opened a few buttons on my shirt and sat down next to my father.

“Gimme something good, barkeep,” I said in the worst Chicago accent I could think of. “I got a lot to  celebrate.”

“Most certainly,” he said, as he filled a big glass with whatever he’d been mixing – obviously, Journeyman had known just when I’d show up, and what to prepare for me.

“I gather that the girls were pleased,” father said as he raised his own drink, the tip of the glass vanishing in the shadows of his hood. He sounded… quite pleased himself.

“Very much. I’m now invited to their bi-monthly Saturday barbecue; they want to introduce me to the rest of their team,” I said happily.

He nodded.

Journeyman filled a third glass with a sparkling blue concoction for himself.

We drank in silence.

Really good stuff.

After a while, father broke the quiet. “I have a confession to make,” he said, his voice even.

I looked at him with suspicion. How foreboding, coming from you of all people, I thought but didn’t say. Instead, I let silence speak for me.

“While you were busy with the girls, I snuck into the house,” he said. When I opened my mouth, he raised his hands to forestall an angry comment. “I had good reason to do so. Let me explain.”

I closed my mouth again and nodded. It couldn’t hurt to hear him out, and he usually did have a good reason for anything he did… unless that reason was ‘to annoy someone’.

“These last few years, I have been paying a lot of attention to the rising number of second-generation metahumans,” he started.

I blinked. I had not expected that. “Second-gens? What’s so special about them? I’m second-gen,” I said. “We’ve been around for ages, there are even third- and fourth and fifth-gen, probably even more, out there.”

He and Journeyman both shook their heads. “No, you’re not a second-gen metahuman, Aaron,” father replied, taking another sip from his drink. “Your power is… connected to mine. Your… power certainly took some inspiration from mine, thus explaining the visual similarities,” he explained. “But you’re still a first-generation metahuman. It takes more than simply being connected to another metahuman to become a second-gen. And the differences between first- and second-generation powers are… profound.”

“How so? And what does this have to do with you sneaking into Tamara’s house?” I asked with a frown. I was getting pretty worried there – he wasn’t usually this talkative when it came to powers.

“I’ll get to that. Anyway, second-generation metahumans are a result of multiple very precise circumstances,” he continued, his drink now put aside to let him gesture with his hands. He’d turned to face me, and was getting quite animated, as he usually did when it came to subjects he was really interested in. “Keep in mind, though, that a lot of this is just conjecture – there haven’t been enough cases I could study to draw definite conclusions yet – and whatever Gwen may have found out, she does not share with me.” He sounded quite annoyed by that, but continued in the same tone of voice as before. “It takes two metahumans to produce a second-generation metahuman. They have to both be close enough to heterodyne, and be doing so frequently. They have to both be emotionally and physically close to the recipient – like, for example, living in the same house, or working at the same place – and they have to repeatedly heterodyne their powers over a period of at least a year, it seems. In this case, it just so happens that…”

“That Hennessy and Camille did just that… and with no less than two normies around who spend a lot of time with them;” I concluded, thinking of Phil and the little princess.

He nodded. “Yes. The girl, Charity – she’s a second-generation metahuman, though she hasn’t manifested yet.”

I… didn’t know how to take that. That could be a bad thing… or a good thing. Or neither. But there was one thing… “Wait, what do you mean, she’s a metahuman, but she hasn’t manifested yet?”

“I told you. Profound differences,” he replied casually. “A second-generation metahuman is already connected to their…” He searched for a word. “How to call them…”

“Tenants,” Journeyman suggested. “I call them the Tenants.”

Father shrugged. “As good as any. Yes, such a person – like Charity – is already connected to her tenant. With her, it’s not a question of if she’ll manifest – just when.”

Tenants, huh? This was so much new information. Focus on Charity first.

“And anything could set her off,” Journeyman continued. “The… threshold is far lower. Something as simple as being shoved during a game or losing a toy might be enough to make her manifest.”

“Oh no… I have to warn them!” I said, my head filling with horrific visions of Charity randomly getting powers and hurting the others, ready to jump up and-

“Relax!” they both said in unison.

I didn’t relax, but I stayed in my seat.

“First of all,” father said, “I’ve already taken precautions. The girl is being watched, and I have a wraith ready to intervene, if worst comes to worst. Second, second-generation metahumans – those I know about, at least – are amazingly stable. Not a single one of them that I know about – save for two extreme examples – gained powers beyond their control; and the likelihood of derangements is so low it’s almost non-existent, compared to first-generation metahumans.”

Taking a deep breath, I drank from my glass again. “Alright. Alright. But…” I frowned. “Didn’t you say Mindstar’s a second-generation meta? From what little I’ve heard of her, she’s anything but stable.”

“Mindstar was broken long before she gained her powers,” he replied casually.

I frowned some more. There was another question… the answer to which might clear up a lot. “The two extreme cases you mentioned… Desolation-in-Light and Gloom Glimmer, right?”

He sighed, slumping a little over the bar. “Yes. Let’s not go into that.”

I let it drop, though I was a good deal wiser on the subject now. If the threshold that has to be reached for manifestation is lowered, then that could explain how DiL manifested so early.

Though that didn’t explain how that same thing could happen to their next baby, and even give it such similar abilities.

Questions on top of questions.

We all fell silent for a while.

Journeyman refilled all our glasses with different concoctions. We drank. They were good.

“I’ll still tell them… tomorrow. Since there’s no need to rush it.”

“Of course. They ought to know anyway.”

More minutes passed.

“What will you do now?” Journeyman asked, looking at me. Father also turned to look at me again, clearly curious.

“I… have the beginnings of a plan forming in my head,” I said, surprised to find that, yes, I was working out a plan. “A plan that’ll involve Warren, Volca and Malphas, especially. And the entire rest of the city, too.”

“Care to share it?” father asked with some amusement.

“And ruin the surprise? Hell no!” I grinned at him. I couldn’t see his face, but I was pretty sure he was rolling his eyes. “But it won’t be anything you’d expect, I promise.”

He sighed. “Alright. I’ll look forward to it, I guess.” He emptied his glass, then rose up. “I have got to go. There’s lots of work to do… and no small bit of paperwork, either.”

I chuckled to myself. “You sound like a paper pusher from a bank or something.”

“Yeah, sometimes, it feels that way,” he said as he walked towards the door.

He stopped in front of it, his hand on the door knob.

I suddenly realised that Journeyman was gone. Just vanished. I looked at my father. His head was slightly lowered, enough so to be visible even from behind, despite his robe.

Time passed.

“Aaron?” he said, softly.

“Yes?

“I was afraid,” he admitted, though I had no idea of what. Not that it mattered. I’d never heard my father say anything like that. “I was so afraid, after your mother died,” he continued. Then he shook his head. “No, even before that. But then, I always had her to reign me in. After she died… I was so afraid, that this world would swallow you up as well. That you wouldn’t be ready to face it.” He took a deep breath, before the words continued to explode out of him. “I’m not trying to excuse how I treated you. I don’t expect you to forgive me. I just… I ask you to understand – I was scared, and I just wanted you to be safe. To be strong and cunning and ready, so you would be safe, and able to keep those you love safe, too.”

I stared at him, my mouth wide open, and I was infinitely grateful that he stood with his back to me, so he couldn’t see the tears running down my face.

“I just… I’m sorry. That’s all,” he finished.

***

An infinite amount of time passed, before I found my voice again. Time during which I relieved all the memories I had of our time together – both the good and the bad – and my limited interactions with my own children.

I thought about it. I reviewed it. And I concluded… “I can’t forgive you, dad,” I said, my own voice choked up for more than one reason. “But… I’ve got children of my own now… and I… I understand.”

He nodded quietly. Then he pulled the door open.

“One more thing,” I threw in. “You… you had another child. Gloom Glimmer.”

“Irene,” he said gently.

“Yes. Um… I just hope you…” I didn’t know how to say this without being hurtful.

Fortunately, he said it for me. “You hope I won’t screw up the way I did before.”

I nodded, even though he couldn’t see.

He continued nonetheless. “I’m still hopeless, I’m afraid,” he said, his voice dripping with… some emotion I couldn’t parse right now. “Fortunately, I have Gwen to reign me in. Irene has grown up to be a fine young hero, despite my worst efforts, and she’s got a stronger moral  compass than either me or her mother.”

“That’s… good, I guess.”

“Yeah. Though…” He chuckled. “She asked me for dating advice. Me.” He sounded self-recrimating when he said that, weirdly enough.

I tilted my head. “Why’s that so funny? You know a lot about dating. And seduction. And all things interpersonal.”

He laughed quietly, this time. The first genuine laugh I’d heard from him in a long time. “Oh, I know all the ways the game is played, but… I’ve only ever been in love four times, I’ve dated three women, and I only got serious with two, in the end. And one of them, I was born and grew up with.”

“Oh. Yeah. Funny that she should ask you.”

“Yeah. Well. Have a good night, Aaron.”

“You too. Sleep tight… dad.”

He left.

***

I turned around, and there he was again. Journeyman.

He put a glass filled with something fizzy and pink in front of me, and I took it. He was holding one that was as yellow as a canary.

“What a day,” I said.

“There are days like these,” he agreed, putting his elbows on the bar and leaning on them. He had a question. Unspoken, but there. I could tell, just by glancing at the images in his mirror, by reading the atmosphere.

I looked down at my drink. It wasn’t pink, really. Darker, more purple. Like Hennessy’s eyes. I thought about all that had happened. All I’d seen, and heard, and felt, and done, and not done, and thought about, and not thought about. Along the way, I also decided there was one more stop I had to make, before I could turn in for the night. But that was for later.

Now, I had to answer the question. The same question he’d asked me after I’d run away from my father. The same one he’d asked me before I left for the war. The one he was asking now.

I thought of Hennessy’s smile, and Elouise’s smile, and how it felt to hold them in my arms. I thought of father’s apology and Tamara and so much more.

There were still dark spots. I still didn’t know who’d paid those assassins to come after me – I’d have to follow up on that, perhaps arrange a meeting with Sara. I still had to find my place here in this city. See if my plan was viable, what could be done. My future was still unsure. Heh, I thought to myself. Why should I be any different?

Then I smiled, looking at him again. “Yeah. I think I’m going to be alright.”

He raised his glass. “Cheers, mate.”

***

I’d breezed past the guards and security measures, making sure not to alert anyone. I’d snuck through the building, until I found the door.

It was perhaps not entirely appropriate, especially at this time, but… I didn’t want to miss one more second.

I knocked on the door with one hand, the other holding a big bottle of chocolate milk and a movie disc.

The door opened after a minute, and Elouise looked at me in surprise. Her white hair was a mess, she was wearing a crooked green nightrobe and her face looked a little pale without her make up – but when she saw my smile and the bottle and the disc, and she smiled back, it lit up the world.

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B011.14 Monkey Family

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We all stared down at the dying villain, as he squirmed weakly on the ground, a sound coming from his mouth that was too ragged and burned to be called a moan.

“Fuck me, he’s still alive,” Warren whispered, clearly audible thanks to his helmet’s effect on his voice.

“Not for long,” Volca snarled and bent down, lifting her transformed arm.

I caught her by the wrist, ignoring the damage the heat did to my monkey skin. When she looked up at me with murderous eyes, I just sighed. “He’s already dead,” I told her. “His body just hasn’t caught up to it yet.”

She snarled at me but her arm reverted back to flesh and bone. “He’ll suffer more like this, anyway,” she concluded. “So, what’s next?” came the follow-up question.

I looked up from the squirming form on the ground to see Warren and Volca both looking intently at me (I couldn’t see Warren’s face, obviously, but I could feel his attention). Waiting for leadership. Fuck, why am I the designated leader?

Well. No use in complaining. I straightened up. “First, we need to take care of Volca’s wounds, and check up on Malphas.”

“He… he’s still alive?” Volca asked, her voice half hopeful and half incredulous. When I nodded, it was like a hundred tons had been lifted off her shoulders. Meanwhile, Warren had picked up his severed arm and attached it to his armor’s back, possibly with magnets of some kind.

“Warren, pick up the trash. I’d rather not leave him lying around unsupervised, not while he’s still alive.” He obeyed, using four smaller arms (including the one that had previously held a gun) to pick up the dying supervillain. I picked up Volca against her protests, and far more gently than Warren did with his charge, and we walked to where I’d left Malphas earlier.

Instead of the crippled preteen boy, though, we found my father – in his Rhino form – and a giant made of metal.

It stood a good twelve feet in height, its torso bulky, reinforced in the most simple way – by making it of a lot of steel. A lot of it. Its head was ridiculously tiny compared to the rest of it, a half-spherical helmet with a small eye slit and a crown of horns. Its arms and legs were oversized, too long, and made of tightly wound cords of metal, like exposed muscle in copper and steel, its hands and reverse-jointed, digitrade feet ending in razor-sharp claws.

Judging by the huge chunk of metal missing from the tenements, several tons of material had gone into its construction, metal compressed as far as it was possible – perhaps even a bit further. No way to tell, with how some powers could just plain ignore minor details like time, space and common sense.

Father was watching it as Malphas tested the movement of his new armor, before he turned to face the three of us.

I didn’t know about Warren, but Volca and I were staring at him, slackjawed, a particularly vivid expression in my case, since I still had my monkey skin up, and its jaw included two rows of razor-sharp teeth the size of an adult’s fingers.

“I’m good to go,” came Malphas’ voice from the headpiece, seemingly recovered from the ordeal.

I looked at him, then at my father, narrowing my eyes. Had he done something to give the boy a boost?

“You need to rest, Malphas,” I told him instead of pursuing that point right now. “You lost too much blood, you have to recover first.”

He shook his head – or rather, slid the slit he was looking through left and right – and lifted his new right arm, palm up. Then he clenched it into a fist, the metal flowing in smooth, life-like movements. “I’m good. And I need to go after the guy behind this, even if his patsy is down.” He threw a hate-filled look at the burned form Warren was carrying around. Blauschwinge had gone mostly still, the only indication of his not being dead being the odd squirming motion, and that ragged moan.

“Same here,” Volca said as I put her back on her feet – groaning when her weight settled on her cut and bruised legs – and got ready to say something more, when her gaze fell on Lag’s remains.

I didn’t want to watch. I’d seen this scene play out far too often in my life, yet I couldn’t avert my eyes from the sight of something behind her eyes breaking, couldn’t close my ears so as not to hear the soft, broken sound she made as she stumbled over to her, pulling her mask off to throw it aside.

She slid down onto her knees, a hand reaching out to touch Lag’s cheek. Warren turned away, Malphas looked down in self-blame, father looked at her in what I recognised as a pensive mood.

I approached him, leaning in to whisper. “No.”

He looked at me, his eyes amused. “No?”

“No.”

He nodded. “Alright.” He stepped away.

I approached the sobbing girl – and I couldn’t think of her as a woman right now, all I could think of was the lost girl I’d seen in her eyes, heard in her voice – and knelt down next to her, dismissing my monkey skin entirely. She didn’t react when I put an arm around her shoulder. I didn’t talk. As bad as the situation was, we could afford to give her a few minutes.

“I should be the one who died,” she finally said.

“Why?” I said, not bothering to contradict her. She wouldn’t be receptive to that.

“He hit me. I was reckless, and he hit me. I thought I was dead, I knew I was dead but she… she…” Her voice broke, she hunched over more and sobbed desperately, making small, sad sounds.

“She took the harm, took it on herself. But it was too much, all at once. Even her power couldn’t compensate,” I finished for her. My gaze went to the dead girl’s head, and I reached out to remove that featureless mask. Beneath, she looked so very… cold. Not peaceful. Just dead, but… there was something graceful about her delicate face. Death had lifted all pain and stress from her. You must’ve loved her so very much.

“Sh-sh-she always did that,” Volca sobbed, and then it all came out like a flood. “When my mom died, her family took me in. She took me in, like I was really her sister, not her dad’s by-blow with a hooker. When her parents died, she took care of me. When we ended up on the streets, she took care of me, always… always being there. I was such a little bitch, I screwed it all up. Got powers, became a criminal even though she wanted me to be better. Got hurt, she got powers and took the hurt away, all for me. And now… I dragged her into this, I… she’s dead…”

I pulled her close, holding her with one arm while she cried and shivered. I didn’t speak – I’d gone through this often enough to know that platitudes like “it’ll be alright” or “you shouldn’t blame yourself” wouldn’t mean shit.

Instead, I waited for a minute or two, then I looked at my father. Wordlessly, he produced a compact first aid kit and handed it to me. I let go of Volca and started taking care of her wounds.

“What did you find out?” I asked him, while I worked on her.

“I found the Ascendant. He’s holed up in the lowest level of the Undercity, beneath the old Downtown area,” he explained calmly.

I nodded. Figures he’d go deep. “Defences?”

“About two scores of juiced up thugs, but no other metahumans, as far as I can tell,” he replied. “This… is troubling. It’s so very unlike the usual Gefährten operations. I can’t begin to guess what they’re up to, as it is.”

I frowned, and turned to Malphas, who was watching me and Volca. “Did Blauschwinge say anything? Why’d he attack here?”

“He came after these two for not killing that lawyer,” Malphas explained. “He wanted me to hand them over, but I wouldn’t do that, so we fought.”

Volca spoke up, though her eyes remained glued to her sister’s face. “He kept ranting something about some kind of test he had to pass or something.” Her voice was calm now, steady, but the hurt showed through still.

“Test? Are you sure he spoke of a test?” father asked, his voice animated. It was more of a reaction than I’d seen in him show at my running away from home, though that might’ve been simply due to the role he was playing, and not genuine agitation. It was always hard to tell where the mask ended and the man began.

“Yes,” she replied simply, without paying him further attention.

“I heard him rant about it, too,” Warren confirmed her story. “He also said something about ‘that bitch Skyfall’ – in German, though – and a ‘fearless leader’.”

“Aap Oordra,” my father snapped. “I need to talk to you. Privately. Now.”

I looked up at him with a frown, having just finished applying first aid to Volca’s worst injuries. “I’m not done h-“

“I can do that,” Warren threw in. “I’ve got first aid training and all.” His armor opened up, letting him climb out in full costume.

I nodded and let him take over – not that Volca seemed to notice – so I could walk a big away from the group and behind some old, rusted machine that still stood there.

“What is it?” I asked my father.

He turned around from where he’d been watching the group, leaning against the edge of the machine. “That’s an interesting group you’ve gathered,” he said, apparently unconcerned about anything.

“Yes, they are. Now, why’d you freak out? Don’t deny you did,” I cut off his denial. “Who is Skyfall, and what’s this thing about a fearless leader?”

“Not a fearless leader. Just Fearless Leader. It’s a codename… though an informal one, I think,” he explained. “It’s how the members of the Gefährten refer to the organisation’s leader, instead of using whatever his actual codename may be.”

I goggled at him. “Wait, are you implying that even you don’t know who’s behind all this?” The Dark not knowing about his greatest rival for the title of ‘Number One Supervillain’? That was about as realistic as there being a sin the Devil has never indulged in.

“I’ve never been able to find out. Gwen doesn’t know, or at least she won’t share. Any member I’ve ever interrogated either didn’t know or didn’t give it up. For all I know, Fearless Leader may as well not exist, and the three top executives are just pretending like he does while being the actual leaders.”

“I assume Skyfall is connected to these top executives?”

He nodded. “They are the Gefährten’s elite. The most powerful, devious and successful of its members. The names have been passed down since the inception of the group, from person to person, usually upon the former bearer’s death – sometimes at the hands of their successor.”

“Bad news, eh?”

“Very. Heaven’s Dancer – the only one with but a single bearer, she’s an original member of the group – is by far the worst of them. Then there’s Cloudlander – he’s held his name for almost twenty years now, longer than anyone else save for Heaven’s Dancer. And they have a recently ascended member, Skyfall. I only knew that it’s a teenager behind that name. Now I can infer that it’s also a girl or woman.” He sighed. “Gathering intel on them is a pain.”

“I guess so. So, why’d you freak out so much? You didn’t pull me aside just to expose on this.” He tapped his foot, annoyed, at the accusation of a freakout. Ah, pride is so easy to tease.

“Because I think I know what’s going on here – and it’s worse than them just being after your daughter and her friends,” he said calmly without responding to my jab any further. “They’re testing the Ascendant and Blauschwinge.”

“Testing?”

“The Gefährten have long traditions associated with the codenames they use. Both ‘the Ascendant’ and ‘Blauschwinge’ are legacies passed down for the better part of a century. You don’t just get one of these names for free. You’ve got to earn it. And then you have to keep it.”

I frowned, crossing my arms in a move that, though I’d never admit it out loud, mirrored his own stance almost perfectly. “So this is all… a performance review?”

He chuckled. “Never thought of using that term, but yes, that applies. Blauschwinge is… was famously unstable, and too arrogant. He got his name by killing his predecessor, and he hasn’t exactly performed well. Too many failures, too many retreats without accomplishing anything other than mindless destruction. It’s their practice to put people who are not living up to their name to the test. Send them out, tell them to do something that’ll impress the leadership – or die trying.”

“So what, he and the Ascendant are causing chaos just so they’ll get to keep their names!? What kind of priority is that!? And why’s the Ascendant on review?”

“Their names are their lifes, Aap Oordra. They live and die with them, unless they step down to pass them on – and neither of them is likely to want to give up the power and prestige that comes with those names, especially the Ascendant; he’d lose all or at least most of his funding without the backing of his name. And as to why he’s on review…” He shrugged, rolling his huge shoulders in an equally huge motion. “I can only speculate, but the Ascendant’s purpose has always been to find means by which to ascend humans – to let them manifest powers. Yet the current Ascendant has been… less than successful. As far as I know, he only had one truly impressive success – the incident during which Dearheart and her friends gained their powers, and even there, his success rate was just barely above the normal power distribution. This is just speculation, but his superiors are most likely fed up with him and have given him this one last chance to retain his name.”

I looked down at my feet, not sure how to react to this new information. All this, for what amounted to a performance review? I shook my head. No use brooding about morals right now. “Do you think he’s going to go after Chayot and the others?”

He shook his head. “No, or at least not primarily. Capturing them won’t help him retain his name – he needs to validate that he can live up to it, which means…”

“Somehow causing multiple manifestations in a short amount of time,” I concluded. “We need to take him down fast, before he causes a tragedy… another tragedy.” I looked at the others – they were talking among each other, with Malphas having opened his armor, reshaped the chest into a comfortable-looking seat for him to sit on. Volca seemed to be focused on Malphas’ injury, her own now properly taken care of. “Let’s involve them. They might come up with a good idea.”

He shrugged and followed me back to the group. I quickly explained the state of things to them. “Now we need to figure out what he’s up to, and stop him from doing it.”

“The guy wants to make lots of people manifest, right?” Malphas spoke up, his eyes dark and focused. “From what I know of history, most who want that try to just hurt as many people as they can.”

I snarled under my breath, though I immediately regretted it – the sound, twisted and amplified by my monkey skin, made everyone but my father flinch. “Judging by his history, I doubt he’ll be any more inventive.” I looked at my father. “So the question is, how is he going to do it?”

“He’s a contriver,” my father explained. “He has a huge breadth of options to choose from; however, to my knowledge, he prefers to use drugs and potions – he usually has several thugs with him which have been empowered by his creations – as well as long-term torture, both physical and psychological.”

My monkey nails dug into its palms as I was reminded of what he’d done to my daughter. “So, how could he use that to affect a large enough number of people… can he make poison gas? A hallucinogenic, perhaps? It would be easy to affect a lot of people with that.”

Volca bit her lip, shoulders hunched, and shuddered. I couldn’t tell Warren’s reaction, but it couldn’t be good. Malphas shivered. Father seemed fine.

“I can’t be certain, but I believe he’s only ever worked with liquids,” he stated.

I nodded. Warren shook his ‘head’. “This is crazy,” he breathed, exasperated. “What kind of madman… how’d he even spread a drink like that around? And why’s he beneath Old Downtown?”

“Because…” I began, but cut off. I had no idea. There wasn’t really anything interesting there, not since large parts of Chicago had burned down back in nineteen-seventy-two. “I don’t know. There isn’t much there, it’s mostly just some public facilities, like the power station, the purifi-“

“The water works!” Malphas shouted in horror.

We all looked at each other for a moment, and I was sure even my father shared our mortification.

Then we all ran towards the Old Downtown area.

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