The Incursion spread, explosively, as Outstep disappeared from the world, red tendrils reaching out, groping about, cutting deep gashes into reality only for them to heal over in fits and starts.
Then it was gone, having fed upon itself until there was nothing left, in but a moment; not a single person had been connected.
The man sometimes known as the Dark breathed a sigh of relief. An Incursion was hardly a threat to him, personally, but it could harm his baby girl, nevermind all the other people within its range.
Or the long-term consequences to the world.
Another disaster averted. Let’s prepare for the next one, he allowed himself to think, sarcastically, before he put such thoughts out of his mind and turned to coordinating the clean-up, while also drawing all of the wraiths he’d created back in.
People get so testy about being possessed by eldritch shadow demons. Go figure.
He shook his head, beneath the cover of his shadow coat. Aaron was rubbing off on him again, making him indulge in sarcasm.
Since it was best to only indulge in such things sparingly, he instead focused on his tasks, trying to ignore the anguish he’d felt through his connection with Irene, while his wraith had been sharing Outstep’s time with her; she’d realized what was happening, of course.
She wouldn’t want him to come to her right then, though. No, she was all business, far too much like himself in that regard. Putting her feelings aside to rush back into the thick of things and help people wherever she could.
He’d have to make sure to be ready for the inevitable breakdown, once everything was done and she was back home.
Hopefully, Gwen would have found her way back to them by then – she was far better at actually dealing with this kind of emotion than he was, rather than just putting them aside to focus on something else, as he was wont to do.
And so he worked, using lesser wraiths to reach out to people and talk, coordinating more than he did anything directly, and his thoughts drifted to other matters. Once reality had settled down around the nucleus of the Incursion, he’d have to see whether anything was left of Mindstar. That girl had turned out to be full of surprises, even beyond what he’d expected; and she may yet become the key to finally putting that creature down for good.
Though he might have to brainwash her to put her to use; she was likely to be useless on her own, with her brother’s death.
Yet another thing Irene is going to be devastated by.
Other matters required his attention, as well. New Lennston had been devastated – not as thoroughly as Old Lennston had been, back in the day, but even so, it would take months to rebuild, and the loss of life, for all that the attack had been one of the briefer ones, was staggering. By his count, nearly a fifth of its population was dead or worse; a little over five-hundred and thirty-thousand people of all ages. That crystal power she’d expressed, had been one of her more devastating ones, in terms of civilian loss of life, accounting for a super-majority of the deaths among the populace. Most of his agents in the city were among the dead, as well.
And that was just the start of his problems, he-
Where is Irene?
Even after his wraith had let go of her – he couldn’t stomach possessing his baby girl, not even in such a situation – he had maintained an awareness of her, if not an eye on her, just in case she called for him or otherwise needed his assistance.
Now she’d disappeared from his awareness entirely, in the same moment that nearly all of the survivors had.
He turned around.
Where the battlefield that was New Lennston had been, a vast, jet-black sphere stood; perfectly spherical down to the nano-meter and so black it made his shadows look bright, as if it was less an object that stood there, but rather an absence of anything, even empty space.
He surged forward, slamming into the side of the sphere – his power washed over it to no effect, as it had so many times before.
The sphere had been placed precisely so it had captured nearly all the inhabitants of New Lennston that were left, while excluding those capes and cowls who’d retreated furthest back from the calamity… and, of course, so as to make sure he was not within.
But Irene was in there.
“NO! YOU FUCKING COWARDS!!!”
The sound of breaking concrete, steel and other materials died down, reduced to mere background groaning, as what had once been New Lennston settled into its new shape, divided up into six pieces, each in its own globule within the greater globule that was the Savage Six’ reality.
The skies above these fragments were of such a deep, unbroken black that one could get dizzy just looking up at them and finding no reference point, nothing for the eyes to focus upon at all; yet there was still light, a sort of diffuse kind that seemed to have no clear source, yet illuminated the landscape as a full moon might on a clear night.
People were still reeling, many of them having been thrown off their feet, or fallen onto their knees in horror, when a screen appeared in the sky above each fragment of New Lennston.
Through it, one could see a bright studio stage, full of blinking lights and loud sounds, sporting a set of huge glowing letters in the background announcing ‘THE 88th SAVAGE GAMES!!!’
At the center of the scene stood a man with carefully styled red-blonde hair, wearing an expensive suit made of glittery gold material, with a lacy shirt and a bright golden tie beneath, a rose made of pure gold, with diamonds between its leafs, poking out of his breast pocket and sporting a wide, fake, white-toothed smile, his once enthusiastic brown eyes devoid of anything but despair and misery.
Calvin Poth had once been Great Britains most popular comedian, a passionate libertarian and crown loyalist who’d often used his weekly evening show as a vehicle to make moral cases for and against various events across the world, condemning and ridiculing those he found to be repugnant and exalting (and ridiculing) those he found to be just, becoming quite famous for his understated style and dry, very british wit.
Until he’d taken aim at the Savage Six.
A week after a whole show spent making fun of each and every member of the six, he and his entire family had disappeared, in spite of the protective detail put on them.
In the four years since, he’d been forced to ‘host’ a demented game show for the Savage Six, accompanying each and every one of their ‘games’.
He never made a single joke during any of them, and only played up being bombastic and excited as can be.
“Good evening, New Lennston!” he shouted, spreading his arms wider than even his fake grin went. “And welcome to the eighty-eighth Savage Games! You, are the lucky ones who get to compete, one and all!”
“Oh, and to those whom have been here before – welcome back,” he added, leaning forward to wink at the camera.
Then he stood up again, throwing his arms out. “We have a great show prepared for you all – nay, a colossal one! Titanic! Divine! With all-new rules and stakes!”
He sighed, raising the back of his hand to his forehead, eyes closed. “You see, we do hear you. When you criticize us. When you demand we improve our show, that we innovate! And so, for all our most devoted fans, we have prepared all this – and without further ado, let’s get to it and not waste time!”
“First, you may notice that your beautiful, recently re-decorated city has been split apart – into six globules, in fact!”
A hologram appeared in front of him, showing the six pieces, each floating in a separate sphere.
“Fear not, these fragments are not entirely lost to each other – there are ways to cross from one to another, by walking through any passage marked by this symbol!”
A symbol that looked like six red chevrons arranged in a circular pattern replaced the image of the broken city.
“Any passage so marked leads to a matching passage in another globule; there are exactly five passages in every globule, leading to a matching passage in another globule. However, the connections are not permanent – they rotate, based on this lovely contraption!”
He skipped joylessly over to a contraption that looked like a lottery machine had mated with a distillery, then been set in the middle of two dozen funhouse mirrors, before the most distorted and weird reflection was pulled out of its mirror, which became then the object he was now gesturing at.
The only parts that were easily recognizable was a handle attached to a crank, which could be turned, and a disk with six smaller disks arranged in a circle along its rim, each containing an image of the various globules. Hundreds of tiny golden rods were affixed to the greater disk between the smaller disks, connecting them in a wild pattern – but there were exactly five such lines of rods that were aligned for each globule, connecting them together.
“Every so often, I shall turn this beautiful handle,” he explained, stroking the golden rod that made up the handle, with the red sphere at the tip, “and this shall happen!”
He turned the crank, and the rods spun chaotically, before realigning in a different pattern.
“And so the connections will change – don’t worry, it’s all purely random, no one, not even our beloved game masters will be able to predict it! Not even Heretic himself, who set it up! Because we are, after all, nothing if not fair!” he shouted at the screen.
“Now, I’m sure you’re asking what the point of all of this is – well, I’m glad you asked, because we’re not going to have our usual setup this time! You see, this time, our much-loved game masters are not going to be playing directly against you!”
He snapped his fingers, and six smaller screens appeared in the air above each fragment of the city, arranged in a circle and rotating beneath the greater screen that showed him.
Each one sported a different symbol.
One was partitioned into two squares, one white, one black; the white one showed a black smiling mask, the black one a sad white mask.
To the right of it, a black background, with a red point in the center, within a golden ring.
Next to that, a pair of vermilion eyes within a white gear, beneath which a pair of vermilion blades were crossed, all on black ground.
Then, a stylized pink brain on blue ground, with a spike being driven into it at an angle.
After that, a black ring on a white ground, with nothing else.
Finally, a white skull on black ground, with a crown of flames.
“For this special game, we are going to split all participants into four groups! Yes, four of them – the Game Masters, the PCs, the NPCs and the Mobs!”
“The Game Masters, well, you all know them – our beloved Six!” The six rotating emblems blinked, briefly highlighted.
“The Mobs, you know them too – our many, many staffers, supporters, die-hard fans and hopeful pretenders to the GM spots! They will be out in force, as they usually are, and raisin’ hell and fun among PCs and NPCs alike!” Images of various minions in all kinds of outfits and styles flickered quickly across the screen.
“As for the NPCs, well, those are… all of you, but for the PCs!” He grinned, snapping his fingers to point at the screen, and thus at his terrified audience below.
“Ah, but now you’re asking, Cal, aren’t we usually the PCs in these games? Why are we being demoted? What the hell is this!?” he said, miming listening to the screen. “Well fear not, for being an NPC still means you get to participate – just in a different way! Just wait and see!”
“Now, the PCs, they are going to be special this time. Because…” A drumroll played. “There will be only six! Yes, six PCs, one for each GM!”
New screens appeared beneath the emblems, empty for now but for the letters ‘PC’ blinking across them.
“And here’s the thing – the GMs will only be going after the PCs! Yes, my dear audience, for once, you need only fear the Mobs… well, mostly.” He snapped his fingers into airguns again, grinning at the camera.
“Now, let me explain – each GM has chosen one person among those drafted into the game, whom is going to be their target for the next one-hundred and forty-four hours – six days, that is!” A digital display appeared, floating around the circumference of the jetblack sky, showing a static 06:00:00:00.
Calvin continued: “And while their respective PC is still alive, the GM is not allowed to harm any NPC, directly or indirectly – unless, of course, they are attacked first, or the NPCs actively protect or hide their respective PC. If, however, a GM manages to capture and kill their chosen PC, they are henceforth free to do as they please, so long as they do not kill the PC of another GM! If at least one PC survives to the end of the time limit, the GMs will admit defeat and cut the game short, returning you to the boring outside world, with no Seventh Day taking place.”
He leaned in towards the screen, wagging a finger. “And if, by some miracle, all six PCs are still alive by the end of the time limit, not only will the GMs release you all, but they will also turn themselves in with the authorities – yes, for the first time, we are offering a Total Party Kill Ending for the Game Masters!”
An unseen audience gasped and cried out inside the studio.
“However! If all six PCs die before the time limit is up, well… then there will be an extra special penalty for the NPCs – namely, a whole day, a Seventh Day, of the GMs and Mobs hunting you to their hearts’ content, with no restrictions whatsoever!”
“But what is this – ‘Calvin, should we not, then, do our level best to make sure the PCs all survive? Even if some of us die protecting them, we could at least cut the game short, or even force the GMs to turn themselves in to the authorities, or else be known to have become the most despicable of despicables – rulebreakers!'”
He nodded sagely, standing up straight and fussing a bit with his jacket and tie. “Yes, yes, dear hypothetical querist, that may be so – but things are rarely so simple. Because, you see – there are some special rules regarding the consequences of a PC’s death.”
“First! If a PC is slain by a Mob, said Mob and their entire troupe will get a special reward!”
“Second, and this is the big one – if an NPC slays a PC, that NPC will be allowed to choose five other NPCs, and will then be released from the game arena immediately, along with a generous cash prize of six million pounds sterling each! Yes, we are actually offering you an early way out – all you need to do is kill one of the designated PCs and you and five people of your choosing – family, friends, whoever, as well as any assorted pets, will get off early! Aren’t we generous?”
Calvin’s grin had by now become rictus-like, looking like it ought to split his head open and let the top half fall off the bottom. “And with that, let’s see whom will be the stars of this week’s show!” He rubbed his hands together. “Oh my God, I can’t wait!
The screen beneath the flame-crowned skull began to rapidly scroll through an indeterminable sequence of images, until it settled on a pink musical note within an equally pink outline of a heart, upon a blue ground.
At the same time, the image of a technicolor-haired, busty teenage girl in a partially transparent armor appeared on the screen next to Calvin, along with some stats of hers, and of course, her name.
“And our first star, the world-wide sensation before she was thirteen, and one of New Lennston’s rising stars – Polymnia, the Metahuman Pop Princess!” A fanfare played, taken from one of her own songs, as if to add insult to injury. “Will her beautiful music manage to soften Fire Burial’s heart, or will she end up just another flash-in-the-pan pop star? We shall see!”
The screen beneath the black ring scrolled through all the options, and then settled on a purple starburst on black ground.
The image of a tall, slender woman in purple spandex, with rich black hair (with purple highlights) and purple eyes, as well as unnaturally pale, almost pure white skin, appeared.
“Ohhh, Pristine has picked a real challenge – the dreaded, the sexy, the mysterious, the unpredictableeee… Mindstar!”
Next came the screen beneath the spiked brain, scrolling through options until it settled on a stylized hoplite’s helmet, in gold, on red ground.
An image of the athletic interim leader of the New Lennston United Heroes appeared, in her red spandex outfit, without her power’s armor active. “Turns out Mindfuck might be barely with us anymore, but he is still capable of some sweet, sweet irony – the great and greatly disgraced Amazon! Will her defenses suffice to keep him out, or will she once more lick the boots of someone with a mightier brain than hers?”
He’d just barely finished his spiel when the screen beneath the eyes-within-a-gear began to flicker through the images, finally settling on a pair of red dice showing snake eyes on white ground.
“Yet another beautiful lady – my, we seem to have quite the estrogen brigade at hand already, don’t we?” Calvin asked the audience, as the title card showed a young red-head in skintight scaled armor, whirling upside down around a black staff like an exotic dancer; her armor was partially transparent around her cleavage, midriff and legs, and she wore a short, black leather jacket, sporting an infectious grin. “Will Tyche’s luck suffice, or will she become the victim of a true Atrocity? Only time will tell!”
The screen beneath the golden ring and red circle began to flicker, and then settled on a a variation of Lady Light’s famous symbol – the downwards pointing triangle within a circle; but while Lady Light’s was traditionally white on black ground, this one was colored black upon a white ground.
The title card showed Gloom Glimmer, floating in the air; wearing her skintight, yet rather thick bodysuit made of an almost velvet-like material, all in black, and over it, the pure white, hooded cape that’d been passed down to her by her mother, her jet-black hair flying free while her eyes glowed red on black sclera.
“No surprises there – of course our MVP Heretic chooses to challenge the big unknown, the greatest challenge, the Princess of Power – Gloooooom Glimmer! Who shall emerge victorious from this battle of titans? We are all waiting with bated breath to find out! But really now, five ladies? Dear GMs, please, we need some testosterone here, else people will start thinking we’re weird and prejudiced!”
The last screen, beneath the sock and buskin scrolled, and then settled quickly on the last image. A metal-grey gear on bright yellow ground, trailing flames as if racing at great speeds.
On the title card, the image of a black man leaning on a car that could best be described as three hot rods and a monster truck thrown together and somehow made to be a single vehicle showed. He wore a stylized race car driver’s jumpsuit, in yellow, with stylized red flames on the cuffs, lower legs and diagonally across his chest, wearing a yellow-and-red domino mask underneath a shaved head, flashing bright teeth and holding a heavy-looking, yellow-colored, red-flamed helmet with stylized exhausts flaring out like wings.
“Can this be… I can’t believe it! Yes, our glorious leader has chosen to re-ignite the old rivalry – speed junkie versus speed junkie, speedster racing speedster, pedal-to-the-metal action unlike anything we’ve seen since the glorious days of the Speedfreaks and the Swift Simians – Hemming vs Hotrod!”
Another fanfare played, trumpets and drums, while an unseen audience cheered and whistled.
“And that’s it, folks! You know the players, you know the rules – let the 88th Savage Games beeeeeegiiiiiiiiiin!!!”