“I’m not sure I’m happy with how that went,” Vasiliki spoke up as she came out from the room Basil had set aside for her and Dalia to change clothes in (even if Dalia would have preferred changing right in front of him… not that he was likely to notice).
Basil was already changed and at his work station, of course. It’d likely taken him less time to take off full-body armor and a skintight impact suit, and change into jeans and a button shirt, than it’d taken her just to get out of her costume; nevermind the time it took to take care of her hair and put fresh clothes on.
At least I got him to stop wearing sweatpants and random t-shirts, she thought with some satisfaction, as her eyes roamed his blade-thin body from behind, and then the side as he turned around halfway to look at her, his fingers still tapping ceaselessly across three keyboards, only one of which sported letters and symbols she could make sense of.
She was just looking to make sure he was sticking to the ‘no sweatpants’ rule she’d set, of course.
Oh, who are you kidding, Vas? You like how he looks. A lot.
Well, I’m kidding him. He’s the only person dense enough to buy that excuse unironically.
“What did you not like?” he asked, looking honestly curious, without missing a beat on his keyboards.
He’s not the prettiest boy I’ve ever seen, or even met, but there’s something about that face that- Her thoughts came to a crashing halt as her eyes roamed upwards over his face and above.
“Your hair,” she hissed, staring at the horror.
“You did not like my hair?” His curiosity turned to confusion.
“No, I mean, what’d you do with your hair? I showed you how to properly style it, didn’t I!?”
“I was in a hurry to implement some coding I came up with during the fight,” he replied, calmly. “So I just combed it back and…”
She hissed again, and walked over to where the lab chairs had all been pushed into one corner, ever since he decided it’d be more efficient to raise his workstations up and work on his feet.
Dragging a rolling desk chair over, she pointed at it with a finger, glaring at him. “Sit.”
“Vasiliki, I really ought to-“
“I do not have a comb here,” he said, petulantly, pulling his cellphone out of his pocket. A few twists unfolded it into an eldritch horror of a keyboard that he held like a game controller, immediately going back to typing, even as he looked up at her.
“I do,” she replied simply, stepping up in front of him, pulling the comb she carried around for her brothers from her purse, and got to work with it, and her bare fingers, fixing the mess he’d made.
Can build AIs, swords that can cut through steel and railguns small enough to hide in a backpack, but he can’t comb his hair right, she thought, more fondly than she’d admit.
If only he’d actually spare a look at her cleavage, especially in this position, but he only ever looked up at her face.
Stop it, Vas! He has a girlfriend. A girlfriend you like, even! One that’ll almost certainly join the team, too, once she figures out her power.
After a few moments of untangling the worst of the mess he’d made – she really needed to get him a proper haircut, to make this easier – she got back to her main point.
“I didn’t like how violent you and Dalia got, when we took out that panther hideout,” she explained. “I know they were doing really horrid things, but was it really necessary to break so many bones? I know Dalia’s kind of a blunt instrument, but you could certainly knock some normies out easily, without causing unnecessary harm.”
“The harm was not unnecessary though,” he replied, once she’d finished. “To be precise, the pain and discomfort it caused, and will cause, is not.”
She frowned, looking down from her work to lock eyes with him. “Explain, please.”
“New Lennston is in bad shape, after Hastur and the Spiteborn. The city is better at bouncing back from such events than most, but two S-Class events in short succession are still catastrophic. The only reason the police spared the resources to come out and take them in is that they were Black Panthers and those are currently at the top of everyone’s hit list. The authorities don’t have the resources to even apprehend all the criminals running around right now, much less prosecute and detain them. The panthers especially have been breaking their people out of jails and prisoner transports almost as soon as they are taken in… but they can not break them out of broken bones and torn tendons. As an added advantage, it might discourage at least some of them from returning to such practices.”
He looked down, away from her eyes, though not to look at what he was doing with his hands. “Until New Lennston has properly recovered, we only really have three options – take them in only for them to break out and go back to their prior behavior, brutalize them to keep them off the streets or outright execute them. Option three is unpalatable to us, and seeing how the prior behavior we found them engaged in was snatching orphaned children off the streets to sell into slavery, option one is even less palatable, at least to me.”
He fell quiet quiet, focusing on his work, while she finished fixing the mess on his head into a semblance of style, and thought about what he’d said.
She’d had trouble holding herself back from really hurting those slimebags, if she was honest with herself. They’d been snatchers, vermin of the lowest order, but… to deliberately cause crippling damage…
Heroes are meant to protect, not to hurt people… but then again, we often have to hurt people to protect others…
“I… will have to think more about that,” she said, finally, stepping back.
“Take as much time as you need,” he replied, getting up again to smoothly transition to working on his three keyboards again. “No one will hold it against you, if you decide you are not comfortable with this level of violence, least of all I.”
Hecate’s form turned into unnatural smoke, mid-leap, letting several bullets pass harmlessly through her.
The woman that was nude under her transparent armor stepped in the way of her smoke form, using a two-handed sword to slice through her, but to no avail.
She rushed against and around her, reforming behind her and amidst the group of devotees.
Solidifying, she whirled around and ran the sharpened bottom of her staff through the woman’s knee with such force, it nearly ripped her leg off entirely.
The woman screamed and Hecate turned to smoke again, as the other devotees opened fire again, shouting something she didn’t bother to listen to.
She didn’t want to hear what they had to say.
One of the men had aimed particularly badly, and the shotgun pellets meant for her, instead blew away the face of one of his friends.
Meanwhile, the nude woman fell on her good knee and on the ruin of the other one, where thigh and calf were attached, barely, by nothing but strips of skin, meat and blood vessels, the ligaments and bones gone. Landing on that mess only caused her to cry out, hoarsely, in mortal pain.
Hecate solidified again, in front of the semi-nude woman, putting her between herself and the other devotees.
With a scream, she swung her staff, unleashing its power – but her emotions were so frayed, she didn’t just use the power within it, she also, at the same time, fed more pneuma into it.
By all rights, she should have lost control over the effect, using her magic in such a haphazard way, the energies requiring time and finesse to control; but she was so angry, she didn’t care, and just pushed through, pumping her pneuma and that oily blackness in her heart into the staff and the effect it unleashed.
Liquid green fire with black flickers within poured forth from the jewel at the tip of her staff, lashing out in an arc; not like water tossed from a bucket, but not like flame from a flame thrower either, it was something between liquid and gaseous, something almost but not quite real.
The flames struck seven devotees at once, at chest height, across biceps or shoulders, depending on their individual height.
Oily, black-green not-quite fire flared up, melting, consuming flesh, rushing up but not down.
The men and women so struck screamed, briefly, before the flames consumed their lungs, throats, tongues. Flesh melted off, except melting implied that there was something liquid left – there wasn’t, what melted off was consumed to fuel the flames, as they licked up, consuming faces, eyes, hair… and the brains in their skulls.
The corpses collapsed, reduced to pure white bones marred only by an oily, black liquid that shimmered green, from where they’d been hit and up, but left seemingly untouched below that line.
Blood poured out of the wounds, spreading quickly.
Everyone froze, and stared, especially Hecate.
Then the woman in front of her screamed in rage and fear, lifting her sword to strike at Hecate, and she reacted without thinking, swinging her still-burning staff like a mace, smashing the crystal into the side of her head.
The woman barely had time to gasp, before the flames ran from her right ear over the right half of her face, into her skull, and burned out her brain, and the other eye, leaving the entire right half of her face just a bleached, oil-covered skull, the left seemingly untouched but for the missing eye, and she too collapsed, while the flame shot down her throat, consuming flesh and cartiledge, until it reached and consumed her heart, as well, creating an open channel down her middle, straight to it, that showed nothing but bones.
The remaining three devotees looked down at the defiled corpses of their companions… and turned tail, each running in a different direction, away from her.
You do all this, and you think I’ll just let you get away? So you can turn around and hurt others again!?
She screamed again, like a banshee, hate overcoming what revulsion or horror she felt at just having ended eight lives in about as many seconds, and contributed to the death of another.
More black, oily pneuma, thick, pregnant with hate, poured forth from her, more than she should have had access to, as if her goddess was rewarding her for being consumed by it.
Spreading out like a wave, it rekindled the embers of flame left in the corpses of her victims.
Green-black flames burst to life in their chests, where their hearts should have been, and licked up into their heads, flowing up and out of their necks to create collars of flickering fire, and gather in their empty eye sockets, like lidless, burning eyes.
The corpses sprang into action, moving… beyond unnaturally. Arms and legs moved as if independent of one another, bending every which way but the right one as they simply rushed, running, crawling, dragging themselves after the fleeing devotees. Even the half-naked woman, flames dancing, contained within the transparent shell of her armor, came after them, fire pouring forth out of the hole where her knee should have been, calf and foot moving as if still connected, but backwards, as she crawled with her chest up towards the sky, like a twisted bug.
Still, as wretched as their movements were, they were effective, and they caught the three survivors before they could even get out of sight, bore them down and…
… finished them.
Hecate felt the blackness in her rise, surge, only growing stronger.
It’s too much, I… I can’t control this…
It wasn’t meant to work like this. She was supposed to build her spells in advance, carefully design them, work them into carefully curated items. Without a focus, there was no way she could control this.
More black pneuma was pouring forth from her, searching hosts… crawling towards the corpses of the innocents, which the devotees had slaughtered, even while the bodies she’d reanimated were dragging their slaughtered victims back towards her.
No! Not them!
They’d been innocent. They didn’t deserve this.
With an act of sheer will, she pulled the black pneuma back, forcing it to coalesce inside her, like filling her throat and stomach with thick, burning hot oil.
I have to… have to st-stabilize…
She arched her back, then bent forward, vomiting sheer blackness onto her staff.
Mentally, she was pulling on her pneuma, weaving it into strands that were then woven into the pre-existing patterns of her staff, like threading new thread through old holes and nooses.
It was too much, easily as much pneuma as she’d ever had, before, and the only item she had which could possibly contain that amount of power, without outright exploding, was her staff, and so she vomited and wove, wove and vomited, black liquid seeping into the wood, wrapping around the wood, threading through the wood, and then all up into the crystal at the top.
She lost track of time, her entire concentration consumed in directing the pneuma into the right shapes, so it’d settle into her staff, rather than explode outwards without control.
Until, suddenly, it all snapped into place. The last adjustment she’d made having, apparently, been the final one needed, as the black pneuma settled deeply throughout her staff, which was now visibly pulsing with black-green light, a flame of the same color burning within the crystal at the top.
Hecate let go of it, staggering back, only to fall onto her butt and stare up at what she’d created.
Before the staff could fall, a hand in a transparent glove reached out and caught it. The woman in the transparent armor, she was standing now, a corpse with a burning skull and a burning heart. She and the other seven, they stood upright now. Somehow, stabilizing the spell into her staff had also stabilized them.
What have I done?
She stared up at the monsters she’d created, as they stood there, staring at her with green lights shining forth from empty eye sockets, crowned and collared by flames of the same color.
And then it hit her.
She’d killed people.
Not monsters. Not Spiteborn, nor Hastur’s victims. Not the mindless drones that made up the Skulls collective.
Real people. Criminals, murderers, yes. Supporters of monsters.
And she still felt the same.
She didn’t feel any more wretched than before. The blackness in her heart had neither increased nor decreased.
Like it didn’t matter at all.
She was more horrified at creating these creatures, than at just having killed eleven people, and contributed to the death of another. Killings done in anger, when she was fully capable of taking them down non-lethaly. She could have snuck up on them, and used her Hypnoic Dust to put them all to sleep.
Sure it could be argued that these people had long since discarded the right to live, having willingly joined the Savage Six. Or that she couldn’t afford to babysit them, and when they woke up again they’d just rejoin the rest and go back to murdering.
Basil’s words about the three options they’d had dealing with the panthers, in those bad weeks right after the Hastur Incident burned bright in her memory, now.
But they hadn’t, earlier. None of that had. It had not been calculus that saw these people dead.
She’d just wanted them dead, for her own sake. To get some relief.
And so they’d died.
She did not feel relief.
She did not feel horror.
She did not feel sadness.
She only felt the same blackness as before.
Slowly, moving no less wooden than her creations, she stood up, grabbing her old, new staff from the burning corpse’s hand.
It felt so much heavier now. So much more powerful.
It was no longer just a staff she could leave nameless.
Walking over to the corpse of the man who’d had his face shot off by one of his fellow devotees, she touched the glowing, fire-filled crystal to his chest, right above his heart.
Green-black fire flared, and burned a hole in his chest, consuming his heart. Replacing it with a nucleus of fire, far more dense and uniform than it had been before she stabilized the new spell.
The fire did not ride up to consume his head, though flickers of flame did appear in his ruined eye sockets, and a collar of green flames appeared around his neck, dancing atop his collarbone and shoulders, as he got up, looking at her with burning eyes.
So, Vas. You skipped straight past Necromancy and into Necrothurgy. So much for having standards – good thing Legend isn’t here to see, right?
She could’ve laughed, if there’d been any joy left in her heart.
There was, still, only blackness.
She walked from corpse to corpse, raising the three her… vrykolakai, that was an appropriate name for these creatures… the three brought down by her vrykolakai.
Then she stopped and looked at her staff.
So much power. I can feel it pulse inside, like a black heart pumping green oil.
Twelve vrykolakai created, and it still had capacity left to make more.
It needed a name, though.
The right one came to mind, easily.
“Necrodulon,” she whispered, softly, and the staff flared with power, accepting its name.
To think she’d thought of her staff as a lightbringer once, a torch to hold up, to protect the living.
Now it was a torch that enslaved the remnants of the dead…
A soft, keening sound drew her out of her ever blacker thoughts. A whimper, the sound of a child in pain.
The girl they were tormenting!
She whirled around, dark intimations pushed aside, and rushed towards the noise.
It came from the crater she’d noticed earlier. The one that looked like it’d been made by the same object that’d blown a hole through one of the buildings surrounding this area.
A metahuman? Did she get blown here, during the fighting? She could be hurt.
She reached the rim of the shallow crater, where the devotees had gathered earlier, her vrykolakai following right behind in lockstep.
Looking down at the woman lying there, she felt her heart skip a beat.
The crater was shallow enough it only took her two steps to reach the center, and stand above the mostly nude woman clad in tatters of a velvet-like, purple suit, every inch of her exposed skin covered in disfiguring, aged-looking scars, curled up into a fetal position as she whimpered and keened.
The vrykolakai around her shuddered, fires flaring up, as the blackness surged inside.
Hecate lowered her head, letting cape and cowl envelop her form, as she whispered, “Mindstar.”