You’re a complete fucking failure, Vasiliki.
Vasiliki groaned, leaning against a piece of rubble four or five times her size, bracing herself and pushing, shoulder to brick and mortar. Even for her enhanced strength, it should’ve been too heavy, but it was precariously balanced atop a mound of smaller fragments, and so began to shift almost immediately.
Even so, she had to push herself, the soles of her boots literally sticking to the ground, thanks to a gadget in them, one of the few things she wore that she hadn’t made by her own hands; as long as a current was running through them, they’d bond with whatever they were in contact with, the connection strong enough to easily hold her weight even when she hung off a ceiling, upside down, and from just one foot. The switch to turn it on and off was built into her gloves, left to left, right to right, so she could control them individually.
Thinking of the boots reminded her of who’d built them for her – though she’d worked the leather herself, and the inlays, and pretty much every part that wasn’t the gadget itself – and that made her feel like someone was shoving a glowing hot poker through her heart.
With tears in her eyes and searing holes in her heart, she pushed the shattered wall section off the mound of rubble, lifting up her cape to cover her face against the dust that was thrown up.
The noise was almost welcome, as deafening as it was, for breaking up the eerie quiet that had descended upon New Lennston’s corpse.
Once the dust had settled, she let her cape fall and bent over, picking up her staff.
Greenish witch-light ran through the carvings of the staff, spreading out from where she gripped it, down to the sharpened bottom, and up to the crystal the wood was holding up top, eliciting a brief flash.
It pulsed in her hand, though if anyone else touched it, they wouldn’t feel its beat.
She’d put the better part of her power into it, fifty-nine percent of the pneuma she had earned so far. It was very nearly alive by now, at least she thought so.
It had been his idea to measure out how much she put into each of her artifacts. To keep careful track of how much pneuma achieved what kind of effect, and the rate at which she gained more of it to apportion.
His idea, to work tracking spells into each item, even if it cost her some pneuma that could otherwise go into greater abilities, just in case.
You’re a fucking disgrace. Do you really think avoiding to think his name will make it hurt even a little bit less?
It wasn’t another’s voice she heard in her head, admonishing her, rubbing her many, many failures in her face. It was her own, wholly from within her, for her.
He is dead. Not just dead – gone. Because you couldn’t even hold on to his corpse.
She’d tried. Oh, she’d tried.
With nimble steps, balancing easily on the loose rubble, she hopped onto the top of the ruined building whose collapsed wall had buried her staff.
Up there, a cold, harsh wind was blowing, even though they were completely cut off from the world outside. Still, the air within this globule was… restless.
She could feel it in the air. Magic. A dark, twisted pneuma, which seemed to be everywhere now, settling on her home city’s corpse, rising up from the cracks, raining down from the darkness above…
Everywhere, cloying, cold and hot at the same time.
Heretic’s power. She could see it move in the air, move across the firmament above instead of stars, though she doubted normal people could see it.
She could see the perverse patterns it had been woven into, twisting reality into shapes it was not meant to take; the methodology was not so different from hers – hermeticism, if in a different style, as she was drawing on theurgic energies, and he… wasn’t.
If only you were worth a damn, you might actually be able to do something about that. Break those enchantments, cut the threads of power, release New Lennston back into the real world.
Looking up, she couldn’t see it. The enchantments were vast, and they clearly weren’t something recent – no, there were layers upon layers, visible even from down here, built up over decades. Refined, reinforced… even if she managed to gain access to them, she wasn’t sure she’d have the raw power to break them, much less deal with whatever safeguards had been set up.
Guess Heretic at least does solid work, even if he’s a complete scumbag. Unlike me.
Her staff pulsed, like a living heart was beating inside of it. There were lesser amounts of pneuma in her other items, in her Hypnoic Pouch, generating more dust for her to use as she used it up, into her Bag of Holding (she hadn’t been able to think of a proper Greek name for that, and besides, a Bag of Holding was kind of a classic), which was the closest to the enchantments that generated and maintained this space, if on a far, far, far lesser scale; into her fantasmaic belt, which allowed her to transform into a smoke-like wraith, into her cryptic hood, so it shadowed her face while still letting her see with full peripheral vision, into several lesser charms and tools she carried around in case she needed to work quickly; it was woven into the very fabric of her deftodermic suit, the layer between her skin and the scale armor he… Basil, had made for her… but they were all less than her staff, which didn’t even have a name, because it wasn’t meant to have one, it was to be an extension of herself, a focus for her powers.
She shuddered, tilting forward, almost but not quite falling; thinking his name had been a mistake.
Her heart ached, her eyes swam in tears that made her see double. It hurt worse than when she’d found Gloom Glimmer holding his corpse. The sharp, soul-crushing pain she’d felt then, it had broken something inside of her – but it hadn’t gone away with that, no, it had stuck around, stuck to her, seeping in through the cracks of her broken heart; she’d held onto his corpse and wailed, because he hadn’t just been a boy she’d crushed on, he’d been a friend, a brother in arms, someone who’d… someone she’d clicked with, even if they’d both been too messed up to realize it properly, and even when she’d realized the depths of her feelings for him, she had held them back until the worst possible time to express them, when they’d both had even greater pain layered atop them.
His lies, his deceptions, the heartbreak of knowing he was in love with another girl, they hadn’t mattered then; when she’d held his body, riddled with holes by an uncaring, unthinking monster, all she’d been able to think of were the good times. The time they’d spent just talking, hanging out when Tyche hadn’t been around, or sometimes even while she’d been there, talking tactics, strategy, powers, society, science, philosophy… she had truly meant it, at the park, when she’d said he was the smartest boy she’d ever known. She’d become so much better a hero, for his help, the ideas and perspectives he brought to it – nevermind that it was only thanks to his inexplicable skills as a surgeon (and a heavy helping of Tyche’s luck, she was sure) that she’d even survived her first foray into being a vigilante.
And she’d never been, and never would be, able to repay him. She couldn’t even drag his body to the Protege, to revive him. When that wraith had connected her to the clocktower titan, it hadn’t allowed her to move his body, and the impetus to flee had been too strong. She’d come back, later, rushing to his remains, only for the world to be swallowed up into darkness so complete, so empty and disorienting, it’d made her hurl. She’d crawled on all fours to his corpse, as the world fell apart around them, only for his body to slip through her fingers, into a crack in reality, swallowed up, chewed up, lost in the nothing between worlds.
She couldn’t even give him a proper burial. Any grave she visited to remember and mourn him would be empty.
She clenched her hand, hard, causing her staff to flare with power, the carved wood groaning under the stress.
Up above her, the emblems of the Savage Six and their targets circled.
Targeting heroes… and Mindstar. Amy.
She hated her so much. It was a black, oily kind of hatred, that was always in the background, had been, even before she’d gained her powers. After gaining them, it’d become the source of her darkest spells, the kinds she’d consciously steered away from, until she’d needed to harness death utself to overcome Legend.
Being the fifth of eight siblings, she’d often been overlooked. The older ones were more active, they got more money for things, because what they bought, especially in terms of clothing, could be passed down to the younger ones – except for her, of course, because she was the only girl of the lot. The younger ones had always demanded more attention from her parents, and her parents had been busy to begin with, jointly running a popular restaurant.
Mariette had always been the one to make time for her. Her awesome big cousin, the only person in her family who understood fashion, who understood girl things. Who she could talk to. Who didn’t laugh at her, when the business wasn’t doing so well and they didn’t have money for new clothes, so Vassiliki had been expected to wear handme-downs from her brothers, and she’d taken to teaching herself how to tailor them to actually fit her.
Her cousin had encouraged it, even joined in, helping her learn, practice and do, though she herself had been horrible at it, while Vassiliki herself had ended up discovering a surprising talent.
Before long, Vassiliki had been tailoring and mending everyone’s clothes, and even making some of her own from scratch. She’d dreamed of becoming a professional tailor and a fashion designer, and Marietta had taken it seriously, encouraging her and even spending some of her own money to get her raw materials, tools and patterns.
And the books. How much time had they spent cuddled up together, reading books and talking about them?
Then, suddenly, Marietta had gained powers. She’d never told her how, why, and she still wondered what kind of trauma must have struck her cousin, that she wouldn’t share it with her.
Still, at first, it had been awesome. Her awesome cousin had gotten the most awesome power, creating orbs of light that she could connect to form various constructs who’d obey her commands; like constellations come to life.
Wolves had been her favorites, and so she’d become Lupus Maior, running with a pack of star-wolves through forests and national parks, hunting poachers and fighting people and companies who’d pollute and exploit the environment.
Until she’d run up against Mindstar, Amy, and been killed, her body crushed and torn so badly, the question of an open casket funeral hadn’t even come up.
The cousin who’d taken her out to the woods, when she’d been heartbroken over being rejected by a boy, and given her a ride on a pony made of stars, crushed into unrecognizable pulp that’d required a DNA test to identify.
It’d been one of the biggest levers behind her origin. Oh, the event itself had been pretty innocent… smoking some weed in the same cabin the two of them had hung out in so often… but what’d driven her there hadn’t been. Losing the one family member she felt understood her, being the odd one out in her family… the only girl among eight siblings, the academic overachiever, the bookworm who didn’t ever get into sports… pretty much the only thing she and her brothers could use to relate to each other was their love for Polymnia’s music.
But that’s not all, isn’t it?
She walked through the desolate ruins of her home town, alone. There was no one there, no one she could see, no one she could detect with her sense for the pneuma around her. A sense that’d only grown stronger, sharper, over the last two days, even as her other senses had dulled from the lack of sleep, from the exhaustion and grief. Now she could even sense the pneuma within people, if at a shorter range, which she hadn’t been able to do before.
There was no one there, no one in reach. No one to reach out to. She sought support and she found none.
It cast her thoughts back to another time she’d been isolated. When she’d reached out for support, for succor in her grief and her family had failed her. It’d come out that she’d been the only one in the family whom Marietta had confided in, which in itself would have been yet another thing to put her apart from her family, but it had only gotten worse.
Shards of glass and bits of concrete and gravel crunched underfoot; she was walking through parts of the area which’d once been the Brights, only it looked like someone had cut through it, dividing it at an angle, then fit part of the old docks in, a sharp line running down the street, visible by how the tarmac of the docks did not at all mesh with the newer, cleaner streets of the Brights.
There was nothing to do, and so she reminisced how her uncle and her aunt had taken the news that she’d known badly. In their grief, they’d blamed her, condemned that she hadn’t tried to stop Marietta, hold her back from her path.
No one had come to her defense.
Eventually, she hadn’t been able to take the condemnations, both explicit and subtle, the whispers, the looks anymore. She should have confronted them, she should have called her family out on its bullshit, on that count and so many others.
Instead she’d turned away from it all, sought reprieve. To rest and recuperate, she’d told herself, to find a moment of peace and gather her strength. She wasn’t sure she’d meant it, or whether it’d just been an excuse.
She’d bought a joint from a schoolmate of hers, whose eyes had nearly dropped out when Vasiliki had approached him. It’d taken her longer to convince him she was for real than to actually buy the stuff. She’d wanted the joint, because Marietta had smoked, sometimes, though never in her presence; she’d known that she’d done it with friends she’d had in costume, though she’d never met them, because of secret identity concerns.
So she’d gone to the cabin, to smoke and try to feel closer to her cousin again. Take a step away from her family. She’d… gone a little overboard in her preparations, setting the place up like she was going to perform surgery in it, or else a magic ritual. Had even stripped naked, and packed her clothes into a trash bag, so none of the smell would cling to them.
She’d lit her joint and tried to smoke it, but even having researched online how to properly smoke weed, she’d coughed and messed up the first few drafts – it’d been disgusting. But she’d stuck to it, with single-minded determination, until she’d felt the effects set in.
Her mind had taken a step back from the world, to relax, but it’d missed a step somewhere along the way, and tripped, falling…
She didn’t know whether she’d passed out and just imagined the rest, or whether she’d actually gotten up and walked out into the woods, stark naked, but she remembered walking through a forest that was much different from what the forests around New Lennston were like. All hills going up and down, big gnarled trees, colorful bushes, silver light falling through thick leaves… it wouldn’t have been out of place in a fairy tale at all.
Strangest thing of all had been, it’d been day when she’d gone to the cabin, noon, but it’d been deepest night in the forest, the stars burning bright above, far, far more visible than they should have been this close to a major city.
Her goddess had come to her, then, as she’d been standing in a clearing, staring up at the milky way. Three women, titanic in stature, their heads had been so high, she’d initially mistaken their eyes for more stars, their flowing hair for part of the milky way. They’d stood in a triangle around her, each so vast, she had to crane her neck back all the way to see their heads, and then she couldn’t see what was below.
Their dresses, in a style of Ancient Greece, had been identical, dark green and jet black, contrasting their milky, pale skin and almost platinum blonde hair; and in spite of their size, the goddess’ bodies had looked youthful, like women in that perfect age that most of them either dreamed to reach, or fought so hard to get back to, when youth and maturity was perfectly balanced.
And they’d talked to her, in choir-like fashion, in a language that wasn’t a language, words that held so much more meaning than a mere combination of phonemes could hope to convey.
They’d talked to her of the past, the present, and the future. Of stories that’d been and stories yet to come. They’d told her that she was going to have a hard road, if she was to accept their blessing, but that that road would be one that’d lead her to the reward she sought above all others.
They’d talked her of stars that would go to war against each other. Of five that would burn brighter than any other. Of a dead sun and a black one, of a blazing one. Of a sleeping snake and a slumbering storm that would become a star. Of friends, of love and heartbreak, of victory and loss, of all the lost ones, the brave ones and the bright ones.
Above all else though, they’d been there, for her, impossibly vast and eldritch, and yet closer to her heart than her own family had been, at that time. Giving her the succor she’d craved.
Accepting her blessing had hardly been a choice at that point.
And so here I am. She did warn me that I’d experience heartbreak and loss.
She’d lost Stephanie, somewhere along the way. Her childhood friend, BFF, almost sister. They’d grown apart in the few months of her career as a cape, a gulf forming between them, as much as they’d tried to stay connected. Now she spent most of her time with her other friends, or with her new boyfriend Tim, who’d experienced the same gulf forming between himself and his friends, Aimihime and Basil.
She’d grown more and more apart from her family. The sting of having had to bear her grief alone, it hadn’t allowed her to accept her uncle and aunt’s apologies, when they’d moved past their grief enough to realize how monstrously unfair they’d been to her.
Rejecting them had meant rejecting her parents and brothers, too.
Tyche, Dalia, was now pulling away, horrified by her own power; what had drawn them together, once, was now pushing them away.
Then Prisca had died, in spite of all the blood they’d shed, literally and metaphorically, to save her. Considering the devastation, there might not even have been a body to bury, anymore.
Now Basil, too. Gone beyond all hope.
And there was little Vasiliki, walking through the corpse of a dead city, serving as a graveyard to the people still within, all alone, with the black ichor of grief and hate in her heart and pulsing witch-power in her staff.
She felt it, at the very edge of her range. The pneuma of humans.
No time to grieve. If there’s survivors, they’ll need me.
She broke into a run, through the ruined streets, her heart pounding in her chest.
Only to skip a beat, when she heard a dull gunshot sound, and felt pneuma be released into the air.
Mentally, she reached for her belt – all it took was a thought, and she dissolved into black smoke with green lights flickering within, shooting down the street and towards the people.
She shot into a storefront that’d still retained its glassfront, shattering it, her smoke form flowing through and around shelves of groceries, past storage in the back, and out the backdoor into a kind of courtyard with a single access, to which several stores connected, for trucks to drive in with deliveries without disturbing the customers out on the street.
It was surrounded by the buildings of the block in a U-shape, with the opening of the U being the access way for trucks and the like, barely wide enough for a truck and a normal car to fit in side by side, if that much. One of the buildings around the area had collapsed as something had apparently shot through it and slamming into a parking space, creating a crater from which cracks spider-webbed out over the concrete.
There were people there, like she’d sensed, and corpses besides.
A dozen men and women, in clothing she recognized from documentaries and news reports, from images and videos uploaded to the internet. They wore normal clothes, mostly, except for two in bodysuits and one woman whom was nude but for her armor. They all had see-through armor panels strapped to their torsos, their shoulders and arms, forming skirts around their hips, and more such panels on their legs. The panels were shaped to evoke the shape of a nude woman, both on the men and women wearing it, and they also had helmets of similar make, with clear, transparent visors in the shape of a woman’s face, most turned up, not revealing their faces – the visors hid nothing – but freeing them, as a few of them smoked, and others drank or ate, stuff taken from an upturned delivery truck lying nearby, wares spilling out of its broken backside.
They were armed, too, with some with guns, some with swords, and some even with rifles.
Devotees. Fans of the Six who’d joined them to live in their demented horror show of a reality. The people Poth had described as ‘Mobs’. These ones seemed to belong to Pristine’s faction, going by the style of their outfits.
Someone was there, amidst their group on the ground, lying on the ground as their tormentors occasionally kicked them.
Several men lay or knelt in a row, blood and other fluids pooling around them. They’d been tied up, made to kneel and… her stomach turned, and flipped.
It looked like guns had been shoved into their mouths, and the triggers pulled, blowing holes in the backs of their heads and necks. They were all far beyond her ability to save them.
Her body reformed, standing atop an abandoned car with shattered windows, causing it to groan and squeak lightly as her weight suddenly settled atop it.
In the otherwise dead-quiet false night of this land, it was more than enough to be heard by everyone in this dead-end behind the facade of the Brights, and the Savage Six’ devotees turned to face her, all together, some raising their weapons.
The person they’d been tormenting – Vasiliki couldn’t see her, but she sounded like a woman, a girl perhaps – sobbed softly, behind them.
They stared at her, stunned, and perhaps, at least a little intimidated.
She, meanwhile, stared at the scene, and felt something inside of her snap, as black ichor bubbled up to fill her gorge, black, dark, toxic hate.
Dalia, marked for death and worse.
Her family, possibly dead.
So many people, dead dead dead.
But these people, this scum, was alive?
Hecate’s hand clenched around her staff so hard, the wood groaned, flaring up with excess energy, and she threw her arms back, screaming her hate and grief at them, before she threw herself into the fight.