Basil knew he wasn’t the most… sensible person out there. He often overlooked people’s feelings, not out of malice or a lack of care, he thought, but simply because they tended to seem so… unimportant, compared to everything else on his mind. The inventions, the science, the fight against evil, the fight for good… compared to all that, there was precious little time to worry about how others were feeling, oftentimes, and there’d been steadily less and less time, to boot.
Still, he would have needed to be blind, deaf and an imbecile not to notice that something was seriously wrong with his friend. Dalia looked like she’d been crying a lot, in a very short time. The little bit of mascara she tended to wear even underneath her mask, against his recommendation, had run down her cheeks in two quickly fading black streaks; her eyes were bloodshot and all of that was visible because she wasn’t wearing her mask.
Stepping forward, he put himself between her and the junior heroes, if only for appearances sake, reaching out to put his hand on her right shoulder, as Hecate was hanging onto her left one, her arms around Dalia’s torso.
He squeezed it, feeling her tremble, then calm a bit. “Welcome back,” he spoke as softly as he could, trying not to show the anger he was starting to feel.
Someone had hurt her badly. He could tell. He could see it in her eyes.
That someone was going to hurt a lot, if he could in any way arrange it.
First, though, he had to take care of her. Or at least help do it.
“Thanks, guys,” she said in a wavering voice as she reached out, grabbing him by the shoulder and pulling him in so she could hug him along with Hecate.
He barely managed to get his rifle out of the way before he was being crushed against her – she definitely wasn’t watching her strength, squeezing as hard as she could. Not that he, or Hecate, were going to complain.
After a good half-minute of that, he finally pulled back, though gently. They weren’t exactly in a situation where they could afford to spend too much time on this, as much as he felt it necessary.
“Tyche, what-” he began, trying to inquire as to what happened to her while they were separated, but she cut him off as she looked up from embracing Hecate, her eyes painful to look at, but determined.
“I know where she is,” she spoke, her voice firmer than before, as if the little group hug had actually helped her a bit. He certainly hoped it did. “I know where Dusu is, and what way to take to her. But we need to hurry.”
Basil was still trying to process that statement when Hecate spoke up. “It’s ‘which way’, not ‘what way’,” she corrected Dalia, her voice wavering, as if she was on the verge of tears herself.
“Drop dead, Grammazon,” Dalia replied with a smile. “Any-way, we should hurry before more of these losers show up, right?” She looked at everyone else.
“I have a few questions, actually,” Tartsche spoke, coming closer with the others. “But you’re right, we should get away from here. First, though, I must insist we check you.”
“Check me?” Dalia asked in confusion, though Basil immediately picked up on what Tartsche meant.
As reasonable as it was, he still felt like slapping him over the head for possibly putting her in more distress. “He means that he wants to make sure you are not under some form of mind control or other coercion, and that you are actually who you say you are,” he explained calmly. “Remember the infiltrator protocols I made you memorise?”
She nodded, as understanding dawned on her face.
“Wait, you guys have your own infiltrator protocols?” Spellgun asked, sounding surprised.
“Of course!” he and Hecate replied in tune.
The junior heroes, minus Gloom Glimmer and Osore, looked at them in surprise.
Tartsche was the first one to recover. “Well, anyway, we don’t actually need that right now, provided that Gloom Glimmer’s power is cooperating?” He looked at his teammate, who’d pulled her hood up to hide her face, again, her cape falling over her shoulders to hide most of her form, other than the toes of her feet, clad in the black cloth of her suit.
She nodded, stepping forward. “I have just the power for that,” she spoke, her voice a little more normal than usual, without the odd harmonics beneath it that tended to freak Hecate out so much. “Do you consent to me using an Esper power on you, Tyche?”
“I get a choice? ” Dalia asked, surprised. “I figured you’d insist on it anyway.”
Gloom Glimmer shook her head. “I’d rather do this with your permission. It’s rather invasive, after all, and you have no way to tell whether I’ll look at more than just whether or not you really are who you say you are and whether you’re under the influence of another power.”
The redhead surprised them all by chuckling, as if amusing. “Go ahead,” she said with a sad, brittle smile. “Can’t be worse than what’s already happened.”
Basil’s grip on his rifle tightened, hard.
Gloom Glimmer reached out with both hands, as Hecate stepped back, letting go of Dalia’s torso to hold her hand instead. She put her hands onto the redhead’s temples, gently, and lowered her head, standing there quietly for a few moments.
Then she stepped back, letting her arms fall down and disappear beneath her cloak. “She’s clean,” she announced, as her hands rose again, dropping two blue-and-white pills onto her palm, swallowing them quickly. “Can’t find any sign of mental tampering and she’s definitely whom she appears to be.”
Tartsche nodded, looking relieved. “Great. Sorry about that.” He gave Tyche an apologetic smile.
“Nah, don’t knock it,” she replied easily. “Only good sense. So, are we gonna get going before these bozos wake up?” She nodded towards the downed villains.
“Yes, let us get moving,” Basil agreed. “You can tell us what you found out while we are on the move.”
He looked around at the others, to see if anyone disagreed. No one did, and so they left, running (in Gloom Glimmer’s case, floating) after Dalia as she ran down the hallway.
The group quickly passed by the entrapped, unconscious Chronicle and ran down the hallway that Basil, Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer had come from earlier.
“So, how do we get to Dusu, and how do you know where she is?” Basil asked Dalia, keeping pace with her with some effort – apart from Tartsche, he was the only one in the group who didn’t have an enhanced physique, and unlike him, Tartsche hadn’t just come out of heavy melee combat with a sword-wielding lunatic.
“We’ve got to get to the train station – they have trains running through this entire place!” Dalia replied, looking at him over her shoulder.
He was glad to see that, now that she had something to do, she looked better, if marginally so.
“We’ve got to take the D1-line West – I came with the East line – to the D-hub, then take the D-line North to the main hub. From there, we can take the A-Line to the A-hub, and the A3-line to the last stop. That’s where Dusu’s lab is ‘posed to be, according to the guy I got this from!”
“Who’s that?” Hecate asked, as she stuck close to her friend without any apparent strain.
I need some proper power armour again, Basil thought in annoyance, even as he listened closely. Lugging this much gear around is such a pain, no matter how much I reduce the weight.
“Some guy named Im-Immanuel,” she replied, tripping over the name. “A creepy German guy, not that that’s anything unusual.”
“Immanuel, huh?” Gloom Glimmer spoke up while flying closer, briefly touching Basil on the back.
He almost yelped when he lifted off, floating along with her, though he reigned it in – and his legs immediately made their gratitude known.
“Yeah, weird name, right? Do you know him?” Dalia asked, looking forward again.
Basil frowned. He’d have expected her to keep looking over her shoulder and rely on her power not to trip up or run into anything. It might have been nothing, just a whim, but it felt more significant, considering the state she was in.
“No, unless he’s the famous eighteenth-century philosopher,” Gloom Glimmer replied. “It’s not the most popular name ever, but it’s pretty common in the German states, as well as other parts of continental Europe, though usually in a different spel- ah, but this isn’t important at all.” She popped another one of her pills.
Basil took note of that, if only because he’d finished analysis of the one he’d filched a while ago, and knew just what they did. Or didn’t do. I wonder whether I should tell her… but then again, I doubt Lady Light of all people would be lying to her daughter out of malicious reasons.
“Well, he hinted that he was, at least, old enough to know Weisswald, even though he looked like an early twenties sex god,” Dalia said casually.
“Yeah, that makes him even more trustworthy than just the fact that he’s in this place,” Bakeneko threw in with a sneer.
“I know, I didn’t trust him, either, but…” She paused, apparently searching for the right way to phrase things. “Everything he told me has been true so far, and… he said he wants us to find Dusu.”
“Did he say why he’d want that? It sounds mightily suspicious,” Polymnia spoke as she jogged along.
Dalia nodded, without turning around. “Yeah, he said he thought she wasn’t really worth the effort to support anymore, and this is some kinda last test for her to prove she’s worth being around, otherwise she might as well get whatever she deserves.”
“Now that’s just gotta be bo-” Bakeneko began to say.
“That makes sense,” Gloom Glimmer interrupted her, speaking quietly. “The Gefährten have done this before, like that mess in Chicago a while ago. That was them putting the former Ascendant to the test.”
“Wait, the Ascendant is a member of these madmen!?” Tartsche and Spellgun asked in concert, sounding shocked. Everyone else was staring at Gloom Glimmer as well, at the same time.
“Yes, I… heard about it from Dad. The Ascendant is a legacy that’s belonged to the Gefährten since the beginning, really. But the former holder wasn’t living up to his duties – making more people have origins and manifest – so they gave him one last chance to prove he was worthy of the name. Now that he’s failed, there’s probably an all new Ascendant, somewhere around here,” she explained.
They took a right turn down another hallway, finally leaving the waxen section behind. Not that cold steel was any more comfortable or anything, just more… normal.
“So this is a reasonable course of action for these people?” Basil asked, wanting to make sure.
“As far as I know, yes,” Gloom Glimmer replied firmly. “I’m not an expert on them, obviously, but it fits.” She fell quiet for a moment. “Say, where’d you meet this guy? He must be pretty high up in the hierarchy here, to make a decision like that.”
Dalia gestured up towards the roof and ahead. “On the top of that huge-ass tower in the middle of this fucking place. Some kind of meditation chamber, it was.”
Basil, Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia traded glances; he could tell they realised what that meant.
“What did you just think?” Hecate asked, looking back at the three of them over her shoulder, running ahead with Dalia. “You three were trading very knowing looks there.”
“Gloom Glimmer used a danger sense earlier, when she found Polymnia and me,” Basil explained. “Among other things, it told her that there was a massive threat at the top of that tower, someone more dangerous than even the Dark.”
That caused a few moments of silence.
“Oh,” Dalia said, almost gasping. “Fits, I guess… he was really extraordinarily scary, as nice as he was…”
“What can you tell us about him?” Basil pressed the issue, as he reconsidered just how much he could afford to trust her right now – if this was someone more dangerous than the Dark, so likely more powerful than the Dark and someone who was also old enough to have known Weisswald, then it stood to reason that he might be powerful or skillful (or both) enough to evade detection by Gloom Glimmer, as powerful as she might be.
“He… he was really way, way pretty, like,” she began to reply, her speech a little stuttering. “Like, the prettiest guy I’ve ever seen, ever,” she continued, speeding up. “He didn’t use any obvious power or anything, not that I noticed.”
They reached a small train station that was, like most of the complex so far, completely abandoned, both train tracks empty.
Slowing down, then stopping near the edge, they gathered around Dalia, though they kept a little distance, so as not to crowd her; only Hecate remained right next to her, still holding onto her hand, squeezing it in support.
“He just… well, he just talked to me. But… he knew a lot. WAY too much,” she whispered, looking down at her feet. “He knew, he knew about my equipment… he knew how my power worked better than I do… he knew my name.” She shuddered, as several people around her gasped, and Hecate stepped even closer, letting go of Dalia’s hand to wrap her arm around her waist instead, pulling her into a hug.
“Oh Tyche, I… I’m so sorry,” she whispered, putting her other arm around her, as well.
Dalia turned fully towards her and embraced her in turn, hiding her face against the side of Hecate’s hood.
Basil was pretty sure she was crying.
He… he wasn’t sure how to describe how he felt. Wrath was too soft a word to describe it.
If he could find out hers, does he know that of the others here? Or would he only find out if we came too close, if he found out via his power?
He looked around at the others, seeing various degrees of shock and outrage on their faces… and no small amount of fear.
Gloom Glimmer was hard to read, her face and body almost entirely hidden, but her mouth was set in a tight line. She had no reason to be worried herself – her identity was public anyway, and anyone who tried to go after her family rather than her deserved what they got, but she seemed angry nonetheless.
Polymnia, Tartsche, Spellgun and Bakeneko looked fearful. Each of them had a secret identity, and (likely) family to care about, even if Aimihime, at least, didn’t like her father all that much.
It was impossible to read Osore and Basil frankly didn’t know a thing about the boy other than that he was ethnically Japanese. He really should have asked Aimihime more about her boyfriend, what kind of friend failed to even think of that…
He couldn’t see Hecate’s face right then, but he knew her well enough to know that she must be terrified, seeing how tight she was with her (very expansive) family.
Basil himself… well, if there was a villain out there – mayhaps a really powerful telepath? – whom could find out secret identities easily, or whom had an organisation with the resources to do so, even for obscure, young heroes like Dalia, then that was a problem, but not so much for himself. His only family was Amy, and she certainly didn’t need any protection from enemies who’d be interested in someone of his level.
Still, I need to talk to Amy about this… assuming she doesn’t kill me after this stunt.
Just then, the train arrived. A quick look at the driver’s cabin as it passed showed that it was automated, and the doors opened smoothly.
They entered, together, Dalia disentangling herself from Hecate to do so.
Inside, the train car was… surprisingly normal. Simple, lightly padded seats with red cotton covers. Everyone sat down, with nothing better to do, except for Basil, who leaned against the window right next to the seat that Dalia and Hecate sat down on together, putting Dalia between himself and the Greek witch; Gloom Glimmer didn’t so much sit as move into a lotus position in mid-air, lowering herself until she was level with the seat that Polymnia sat on, since the latter’s armour took up a little too much space to make for comfortable sharing of the seat.
The others also paired up – Bakeneko and Osore, and Tartsche and Spellgun, the four of them facing him and his team, while Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia sat at a right angle to the rest, their seats facing the back of the train.
“Is that why you are not putting your mask on?” Basil asked in a soft voice, looking down at Dalia as he folded his arms in front of his chest.
“Oh, that?” She looked up with a surprised expression on her tired face, fresh tear tracks visible on her cheeks, through her mascara. “I completely forgot about this, sorry…” She pulled a tissue paper out of a pocket of her leather jacket, spitting on it a few times before she wiped the mascara off her face, then she pulled her mask back on. “I guess, yeah, I didn’t see the point, so I forgot about it,” she said, her voice now slightly muffled by the mask.
Basil relaxed, just a little bit – he hadn’t even noticed, but he was glad she had the added protection against strikes or shots to her head, even with the opening for her red hair in the back, he’d been more tense than he would otherwise have been while she’d been so exposed.
“What else can you tell us about this Immanuel? Did he give you any hints as to what his power is, or his true designs?” And how much did he really know about your power? Basil wasn’t sure he wanted to draw too much attention to that, not with the junior heroes around. Anything he said might move up the ladder, in time, and a probability manipulator would be a prime target for recruitment, maybe even more so than himself.
“As I said, he was… nice,” she spoke, her head lowered and her hand holding tightly onto Hecate’s. “Even while he… spoke about some… troubling things… private things.” She looked up at the junior heroes. “I’m sorry, you’re all great and all, but…”
Tartsche raised a hand, looking surprisingly calm in spite of the situation. “We understand. You don’t have to tell us about that. Just tell us any salient information you may have on him.”
“Um… there’s one thing that stuck out. He seemed to have some kind of… well, when I asked him where you guys all were, he immediately knew, and could point it out to me,” she replied quietly. “Like, knew it down to which level of the tower you were in, or that B-Six here and the Popprincess broke out with some anti-EMP stuff. But he said it was ‘a pain’ to keep track of you.” She looked at Gloom Glimmer.
They all looked at her, and Basil, at least, felt very curious about what that could mean.
“That could mean he’s a pretercognitive,” Gloom Glimmer explained calmly. “I know that some aspect of my power messes with them, though I don’t know what, exactly. I can’t do it deliberately, at least.”
“Preter-what?” Aimi and Dalia both asked at the same time, and with nearly the same voice.
“Pretercognitives are particular sub-category of Espers…” Basil began to answer…
“What did I tell you about Exposition, Brennus!?” Hecate snapped, pointing an accusatory finger at him.
Oh, come on… “Two sentences or less…” he grumbled, remembering one of her many, many lectures.
“And you remember the penalty for breaking that rule?” she pressed on.
No more free food at your family restaurants, he thought as he nodded. “Yeah.”
She nodded. “Good. Continue.”
He grumbled something under his breath about people who were ungrateful about getting detailed information and continued, trying to ignore the amused looks everyone else was giving him.
“Pretercognitives are a sub-category of Espers, specifically Post-, Peri- and Precognitives; that is to say, people who view, in some manner, the past, present or future. They are the rarest form of Espers and some of the most powerful and interesting powers out there, particularly the various forms of Precognition, belong to that class,” he said, stopping before he could actually recount the sum of his knowledge about the subject – and he’d researched it extensively, for various reasons.
Gloom Glimmer nodded. “Also, they’re known for having strange interactions and suffering interference from some kinds of powers, of which mine appears to be one. Sometimes, they work on me just fine and sometimes… not.”
“Alright, so we can reasonably assume that he has some form of Pretercognition, though he may also simply have been patched into their computer and surveillance systems – there ought to be more security around here than we have noticed so far,” Basil followed. “Anything else?” He asked, after the others nodded.
Dalia shook her head. “Not really. I mean, he might have been a telepath, to figure out so much about me, but… he also knew stuff I didn’t know about, so… I dunno.”
“Where all the things he knew that you didn’t know just about your power? Because if so, he might have some kind of power analysis ability,” Hecate proposed.
Her friend shook her head, though. “No, he knew more than that.”
They looked at each other, Basil, Hecate and Dalia, before falling quiet.
That’s it then. I don’t have the foggiest idea what kind of power he might have, beyond it being some form of Pretercognition, which might mean anything, Basil thought to himself.
“Uh, this is all fun and all,” Spellgun spoke up, making everyone look up at him. “But we’re kind of ignoring the fact that, whatever his power is, it probably doesn’t matter if Gloomy is right and he’s just going to let us take on Dusu. We should maybe focus on that, first, then worry about him.”
“What if he, however, objects to us leaving after we’ve performed this little ‘test’ for his subordinate?” Basil countered, perhaps a little more sharply than he needed to.
He really was, rather extraordinarily so, angry, even if he had so far managed to keep it simmering beneath the surface.
“Then we deal with that later,” Spellgun stood his ground, setting his jaw. “Let’s focus on our immediate problems, and worry about the rest if and when we get to it.” He looked around at everyone in turn, as if challenging them to disagree, but no one spoke up.
He does have a point, after all, Basil thought. “So be it then,” he agreed, finally. “Our next issue, then…”
“Excuse me,” Polymnia spoke up, raising a hand as if she was in school. “I do actually have something huge to talk about!”
They all looked at her, but she was looking just at Basil… or rather, at his left gauntlet.
Ah, right, I forgot that this would happen…
“Brennus, you have a force-field projector!” she spoke intently, her vocaliser sounding far too human. “That’s a huge thing! When did you come up with it, when did you find the time to build it? What else can it do, other than that shield? And do you think you can make more? And what is it with that thing attached to your thigh?” She finished by pointing at the ovoid that was magnetically attached to his thigh armour.
Everyone’s attention was on him, now, ranging from curiosity to concern to… well, he wasn’t sure what Hecate was thinking, exactly, but she seemed amused.
“My gauntlet’s a force-field projector, yes. I came up with it after we worked on the Arc Caster… well, it’d be more accurate to say that working on the Arc Caster allowed me to finally finish some fragmentary ideas I have had for a while now. I cannibalised some other projects of mine and assembled this prototype.” Polymnia looked like she wanted to say something, but he pressed on, turning to the other new invention he’d brought along. “As for th-“
He was interrupted, suddenly, when the lights went out, from one moment to the next, followed by red emergency lighting turning on.
Everyone who was seated jumped up, reading powers and weapons, but the train kept driving, though slowing down.
“What happened!?” Tartsche asked, his voice firm. “Gloom Glimmer, do you see anything?”
“No! I was looking out for anything dangerous or such, but I didn’t see anything coming!” Gloom Glimmer replied as she floated up by a few inches, her cape billowing open. Her hands were clenched into fists. “But we definitely just… enterd the territory of some kind of power. A dimensional shift? Yeah, I think that’s it – we’re in some kind of pocket dimension.”
The train slowed further, then stopped, and the doors opened.
Basil traded glances with Hecate, before he turned around to look at Gloom Glimmer. “Can you get us out of here? Straight out, with some kind of power?”
She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry… dimensional travel is a rare one, even for me,” she replied. “And this place… it is protected, somehow. People aren’t supposed to get out, even with that kind of power, I think.”
“So then… how can we get out?” Tartsche asked, holding an assault rifle in each hand. Basil was pretty sure they were loaded with lethal ammo, unlike the usual rubber bullets he fired back in New Lennston.
“I figure we have to find whoever made it and get them to let us out. I’m certain they’re in here with us, somehow,” she answered.
“No use in dallying then,” Basil said, loading a new shot into his rifle. “Let us go out and look for them.”
As soon as they stepped out of the train car onto a dark floor made of regular squares, Basil immediately noticed something new.
“I am glowing red,” he said flatly, looking down at his left hand, turning it so he could look from every direction. It – and the rest of his body – was surrounded by a halo of soft, almost imperceptible red light.
Looking around, he saw that all the others were surrounded by the exact same glow.
“Any idea what this means?” Spellgun asked, holding tightly onto his rifle.
“I… think it has something to do with… not being part of this reality?” Gloom Glimmer said. “Ugh… I think this is a contrivers work, it’s not usually this hard to figure a power out… but I think we should look out for anyone with a differently coloured glow about them.”
“I CAN’T ASK FOR A LINE MORE STRAIGHT THAN THAT!” a female voice boomed from all around them.
Basil raised his rifle, turning in a circle to survey their surroundings quickly.
They were in a huge, bare room, so large that the walls and ceiling couldn’t be seen – just a floor made of perfectly regular, glossy black squares, fitted so tightly they seemed almost like a solid piece, illuminated by a light that seemed to have no source, casting soft shadows on the ground.
The only break in the pattern were the train tracks and the car they had come in on, which seemed to come from and go to nowhere.
Then, in the distance with the train car in Basil’s back when he looked in that direction, a glow appeared, a glowing white point that extended into lines spreading over the sky.
“Uh, guys, I’m feeling some really, really, really powerful magic around here…” Hecate said in a hushed, almost awed voice.
“Oh shit,” came from several mouths all at once.
Basil stayed quiet, aiming in the direction of the light with his rifle, even as the lines formed mystical designs, pentacles, circles and other diagrams, several layers of them, interlocked and shifting.
Finally, a person appeared in the distance, walking closer.
He was tall, a man built like a bodybuilder’s ideal, muscular without being ridiculous about it; he wore a silver bodysuit and a white cape, his curly blonde hair slicked back over his head, his face open, friendly and honest. The kind of face you could instantly trust in a crisis, who’d console even the most despondant, panicked innocent. His smile was all the same, only even more so.
He was surrounded by a soft blue glow.
Dalia was the first one to manage coherent words at the sight. “Guys… isn’t that… the Protector!?“