B015.∅.1 The In-Between Place

A boy’s eyes opened, to the sight of a strange ceiling made of some kind of wood and inlaid with metallic flower patterns.

What?

“Oh, you’re awake!”

He sat up and looked around, feeling almost in a daze.

He was lying in what appeared to be a gazebo made of wood and metal, surrounded by a lush field of bright blue flowers of a kind he’d never seen before, with long, thin leaves that rustled in the wind, creating wave-like patterns dancing across said field; beyond the field, he could see a forest made of luminescent trees unlike anything ever seen on Earth, and beyond that was the sky… a sky that was absolutely stuffed with stars. Stars upon stars, in more colors than he’d ever seen – colors that made his mind twist itself in knots trying to parse them, until his eyes moved on to more familiar territory.

Above it all towered a vast black hole in the sky, in lieu of a sun. Large beyond measure, taking up a full half of the sky visible from the gazebo, it was of a black color unlike anything he’d ever seen, so black his eyes slid off of it, unable to focus on the vast nothingness, yet it illuminated this place by its vast, incandescent corona, which outdid even the stars surrounding it with its multitude of impossible, ever-shifting colors.

A whole sky, most of which his eyes could barely focus on, and so they moved down again and came to rest on the other person standing within the gazebo.

She was a woman in her late twenties, though she may also have been a well-kept thirty-year-old. She was short, he doubted she cracked one-fifty, if that much, and wore a dress he’d have associated with the war period, blue with white dots, reaching halfway down her calves, while keeping the arms and shoulders bare, tying around her neck to stay up. Her strawberry-blonde hair was lengthy, reaching down to her knees, and while made straight by its own weight for most of its length, curled naturally at the bottom; it suited her pale skin and dark grey-blue eyes. A ring made of five delicate gold bands weaving around five tiny sparkling jewels in five different colors graced the ring finger on her left hand.

“How do you feel? I’m sorry if this all feels quite baffling, but I promise, you’re safe here,” she said, her gaze as soft and friendly as her words.

The boy looked down himself – he was still dressed in his jet-black, form-fitting impact suit, with its gleaming, golden connector strips and ports, but it was completely undamaged, pristine – and then up at her again.

“I am dead,” he stated, flatly.

The older – it was hard to judge her age, but she was in her late twenties, at least – woman’s eyes grew sad. “You were,” she replied, with a touch of… anger… in her voice. “You gave me quite the shock, you know? I was tending to my flowers when suddenly your body just crashed into the flower bed!” she elaborated, clenching her fists in a more obvious display of anger.

“I am… sorry, about the flowers?” he said in turn, not sure how to process that. He’d been dead and now he wasn’t? Or was this an afterlife?

“I’m not angry about the flowers, young man!” she shot back, eyes flashing with almost maternal wrath. “I’m furious that a child would be harmed so! You’re not supposed to get yourself hurt like that, you hear me!?”

He couldn’t help it, he cringed back, as some instinctual part of his psyche was stirred up and flinched away from the display. “I… shall endeavor not to die again?” he tried again.

The strange woman huffed in turn. “Do so! Now, you didn’t answer my question – how do you feel?”

“I feel… well enough, I suppose. Considering I was apparently dead and now am not…” He looked at her, feeling both tired and confused, even though his body told him everything was as fine as could be.

“That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement,” she replied with a sigh, as she stepped forward and put a hand on his head.

The urge to dodge or deflect it didn’t even come up, somehow, and the boy just froze up as he felt the oddly alien-seeming gesture, warm fingers running through his hair, while she reached for a very English tea service on a small side table next to the bed he’d been lying on.

“Would you like some tea?” she asked in that oddly warm tone of voice, pouring a cup full of black tea. He shrugged, then reconsidered and nodded in response.

“And perhaps you could tell me your name while we’re at it?” she added another question. “Also, how many spoons of honey would you like?” came yet another, as her hand held a delicate silver spoon over the honey pot.

“Two spoons, I think? I have never had honey with tea before… as far as I can remember,” he replied, with a qualifier he felt was necessary in order to stay honest.

Why he cared to be honest, he wasn’t sure of. Something about this woman was odd, outside his experience, and he couldn’t even name the issue.

“Aw, that’s a shame – honey’s the best thing you can add to tea, I assure you,” she replied, taking her hand away from scratching his scalp to pick up the cup and saucer both, and hand them to him.

He took it with a murmured ‘thank you’ and raised the cup to his lips – something told him it wouldn’t be too hot, and he was quickly proven right, as the tea was at just the perfect temperature to enjoy.

The woman stood back and watched, smiling, like there was something to enjoy about the sight of him drinking her tea… was that normal?

Something was off… like there was something missing. He couldn’t say what, but it was… discombobulating to say the least.

Then he realized she might still be waiting for his answer. “My name, my name is…” he began to speak, but then stopped.

Her expression grew concerned again. “Do you remember your name?”

“I do, It is just that…” he frowned. He knew his name. It was a long one, but it was his… was it? “I am not at all certain that it is my name anymore,” he finally admitted, lowering his head as if in defeat.

A truth he’d tried to ignore, for a while now.

Before he even knew what was happening, the teacup and saucer had been taken from his hands and he was enveloped in a warm, soft embrace.

“You poor boy,” she whispered, as she stroked his hair. “I don’t know what happened to you, but it must have been absolutely horrid.”

He froze up. There was no other way to describe it, his entire body locked up.

She was warm and soft and kind. She wasn’t exceptionally beautiful, either, so she didn’t set off that particular trigger of his. Everything about this scene, about what she was doing seemed deeply, fundamentally right.

It felt completely alien to him, and he couldn’t say why, but it was driving him crazy, his heart was racing and he was breathing hard and all he could think of was that this was all right and all wrong all the same.

“What is going on here?” he said, trying to regain his bearings. “Please, I just… I need to know. How am I alive? Where am I? Why am I here? Who are you?” He asked, begged for any kind of clarity, and for the chance to breathe again.

She let go of him, finally, stepping back, and the panic that’d been rising up and choking him diminished, though it did not disappear.

He looked down himself and realized his hands were clenched hard on the mattress he lay, digging deeply into the sheets. It took a considerable amount of willpower to make them unclench.

“I’m sorry if you’re distressed. I’m sure this must all be quite taxing for you,” the stranger spoke, softly, drawing his attention to her again. “Let’s start with something simple. My name is Angelica.” She smiled again. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. As to your other questions… if you think you’re up to walking a bit, we can go to my husband and he can explain everything to you.”

“Why can you not explain everything? Anything?” he asked with a frown.

To his surprise, she just rolled her eyes with an expression of fond annoyance.

“Because my dear husband is a complete drama queen, and if I took away his chance at expositing to someone new, he’ll sulk like an overgrown baby for weeks,” she explained. “So, once you’re finished with your tea and your scones, we can go meet him and I assure you, he’ll be jubilant to talk to you.”

The boy’s eyes flickered to the bedside table – there were, indeed, scones on the tray the teapot stood on, and they did look extremely appetizing.

Noticing that he did feel quite hungry, he finally sat up properly, putting his feet down on the floor, and dug into the food without much further ado.

The tea was sweet and the scones savory, and it went together perfectly. As soon as he bit into the first scone, his stomach growled and he felt even more hungry, causing him to dig in with more enthusiasm than he thought he could muster.

He was halfway through his second scone when a slightly electronic caw drew his attention to the gazebo’s railing above the pillow his head had been resting on.

A jet-black raven sat atop the railing, its form seemingly true to life, yet quite obviously artificial to the boy’s eye. The false animal tilted its head, looking at him with beady black eyes, letting loose yet another caw, then beat its dark wings and took off.

“You…” he spoke, as if in a dream, watching the raven fly a circle around his head, before it landed upon his left shoulder. It was heavier than one would expect of a bird of it s size, but not by much. “I made you, did I not?” he asked the avian machine, lifting a hand towards its beaked head. It moved, following programming meant to make it blend in and appear lifelike, and rubbed its head against his fingers.

Its feathers were soft, and surprisingly warm.

“I can barely believe you followed me all the way to this place, little one,” he whispered to it, and though he knew it to be far from alive, and following behavioral coding he’d written himself, he still felt himself warmed, emboldened, by its affectionate response to his touch.

“He arrived here moments after you did, dear,” Angelica explained with a fond smile. “And he’s refused to stray from your side for even a moment.”

The boy looked at the artificial raven, not sure what to say to that. He had programmed it to act in such a manner, and yet… for it to have come all this way, somehow, in pursuit of its programming?

Perhaps it was due to how vulnerable, how off-center he felt, but he found himself… touched.

“So, what’s his name? Or is he a she?” the woman interrupted his thoughts on the subject, leaning closer to run a single finger over the silky feathers on its head.

“A name? I… I never gave any of them a name, just… numerical designations. This one is RSC-42. The last one I built.”

“Eh? There are so many of them?” she said, surprised and, apparently, stunned by it. “That must have taken so much work! I couldn’t even tell he was artificial, until my husband told me!”

He lowered his head, taking another bite off his scone, instead of answering immediately. “There were, but most of them have been destroyed. This is the last one.”

“Hmm… then he should have a name, I think. Yes, I think he’s earned one, hasn’t he?” she suggested, playfully.

The boy tilted his head to the side, considering it. “I suppose so… would you like to name him for me?” I hardly feel like an authority on names, right now.

Her face brightened, breaking into a wide smile that showed gleaming white teeth. “Ohhh! I can? Thank you!” She looked at the ravenbot again, humming excitedly as she leaned in close, studying it. “Hm. Hmmm. Hmm…” She squinted, then stood up straight and pointed at it. “I know! We’ll name him Inkblot!”

The boy turned the name over in his head a few times, smiling in spite of being unable to really share in her enthusiasm. Then he looked at the raven, which just looked back at him without any comprehension.

“RSC-42, register new primary designation: Inkblot. Over,” he ordered the machine. The raven froze for an almost imperceptible moment, then it cawed loudly and beat its wings, before settling down again.

“I guess he likes it!” Angelica announced with a happy laugh, as if the little display was something truly special.

The boy could just shrug, and turn to his scone and tea again, while Angelica kept cooing over the artificial raven perched on his shoulder – who, of course, soaked it all up, as he was programmed to do.

It was all strangely soothing, even if it was spoiled by how out of place he felt.

Finally, he finished both his tea and his scones, and felt a great deal more relaxed for it, though even the good food couldn’t banish that persistent feeling of wrongness pressing in upon him here.

“I am finished, madam,” he stated as he stood up, only to find himself towering over the woman. “I believe I am ready to speak to your husband now.”

Angelica gave him a beatific smile. “Oh, no one’s ever really ready to talk to him, dear boy,” she said, reaching up to put a hand on his free shoulder and squeeze it reassuringly. “But he’s really not as bad as he may seem, so don’t worry.”

***

With those ominous words, Angelica turned around, and walked out of the gazebo, onto a winding path made out of polished rocks sunk into the earth, cutting a meandering way through the field of blue flowers.

The boy followed after her, walking with his ever watchful raven on his shoulder and barely a sound upon the rocks, thanks to the soft soles of his bodysuit’s feet. While she walked ahead of him, he wondered at this whole situation, even at the basic scenery laid out before him. It was all unreal – it was bright as day, yet the sky was dark and filled with stars. A black hole served as a sun taking over half the visible sky – and though the light it gave off was made of more colors than the boy could count, the actual illumination it provided was no different than that of the sun on Earth – yet it did not blot out the stars around it. At the same time, before his feet, blue flowers created a facsimile of water, as the wind blew over them, creating a sound not unlike music.

The most off-putting thing, however, beyond all the weird flora around him, was how wrong he himself felt to be here – like he just didn’t belong in this serene world.

He kept musing, fruitlessly, upon that fact as they walked along the path, then passed into the forest, which was made up of strangely smooth trees which, instead of leaves, sported slender tendrils made of something more akin to translucent flesh than plant matter, like a jellyfish’s tendrils. They rustled and whispered in the wind, too, as electricity seemed to run through them, to the tune of the sounds around, creating quite the light show, as Angelica and the boy passed underneath them.

In the end though, they merely passed through a small corner of the forest, taking them less than two minutes before they reached the end of it – and not one animal in sight, though he did hear things moving amidst the purplish and pink undergrowth.

“We’re almost there,” Angelica spoke up, stopping just as they stepped out of the trees.

The boy blinked and looked out – the forest floor transitioned into another field of blue lilies here, but the ground was sloped up towards his right, leading up to a small peak that looked out over whatever lay beyond… a peak atop which sat a stone platform, upon which in turn stood a tall, lonely figure, their back to the boy and Angelica, hands clasped behind their back. Dressed in regal, dark robes, their, his jet-black hair flew in the wind, wildly, far longer than men normally wore it.

Though the boy could only see his back, though his memories were fragmented to say the least, he had no trouble remembering this one, and a great many things snapped into clarity, even as a million more questions were raised.

“Go,” Angelica said, softly. “I’ll go get some condiments and drinks, then join you.”

His head snapped about, looking down at the diminutive woman. “I thought… you would accompany me,” he said, feeling disappointed, and even more surprised that he felt so.

She put a hand on his back, smiling up at him. “Drama queen, remember? Really, you don’t have to worry. I promise you, you’re safe here, and if he so much as implies otherwise, I’ll beat him up for you, ok?”

The boy blinked his eyes at the surreal suggestion. Just who was this woman? “Very… well,” he spoke, finally, having no idea what else to say.

Thus, he turned back towards the stone platform and the tall figure atop it, and started walking towards it. Fortunately, the path forked right in front of him, with one fork leading straight up the slope of the hill, even including a few stone steps in particularly steep parts.

Step by step, he advanced on the path up the hill, doing his best to ignore the foreboding sensation that was trying to overwhelm him, growing more intense with every step that brought him closer to the man atop the hill.

Like he is surrounded by his own atmosphere.

The man did not seem to move, standing still as a statue, save for his hair and robe fluttering in the wind, even when the boy reached the steps leading up to the stone platform, and went up to join him.

What the…

The platform was bigger than he would have expected – rather than a square, it extended outward from what he’d thought was a hill, except it wasn’t; it was a cliff, and the platform extended out over the sharp edge, where it seemed like nothing so much as if someone had taken a cleaver to the ground and cut everything beyond this point off, leaving this hill to look out over empty space.

Only it wasn’t space, really. It was vast, yes. It was filled with stars, yes. But those stars were not normal, no more than the stars in the sky above had been. Some were vast, some were small. Some had strange shapes to them, gnarled and twisted, shiny and smooth, and innumerable others. And the colors. More colors than existed in the normal world, colors the boy had no name for, many of which he couldn’t even look at without his eyes sliding off involuntarily.

And between it all… between all the stars, was not space. He couldn’t articulate how he knew, but his instincts told him that he was far, far away from any notion of proper space. The stars seemed to be all part of a single whole, instead, the gaps between them filled by something… other, something his eyes couldn’t focus on no matter how much he tried.

Whatever it was, it felt the same to his eyes as trying to stare up into that seeming black hole above, a fact of which he assured himself again by briefly looking up, before looking down again in the same direction in which the man next to him seemed to be staring.

That’s not what I’m here for, the boy thought, and averted his eyes, of his own choice this time, turning his head to look up at the man.

He took a deep breath, drawing some comfort from the light weight of his corvid companion upon his shoulder, and spoke up. “Emyr Blackhill.”

The tall man turned to look down at him with those maddeningly dark eyes. “Boy,” he spoke, in that deep, reverberating voice, a voice that would be booming, if he was not consciously restraining it. “I will not pretend to have foreseen this, but I can in all honesty say that I am not exactly surprised to see you here.”

“Why?” the boy asked, and it came out far more desperate than he would have wanted it to. “Why am I here? Why with you? How am I alive – did you bring me back? What… what is going on?”

Emyr stroked his smooth chin, looking down at the boy. “You want answers. I have some of them, though I suspect not all that you seek.”

“Will you give them to me?” the boy asked, very nearly begged.

“Yes,” the godly man replied, nodding to the boy. “Though there are some questions which I cannot currently, in good conscience, answer you, and some to which I genuinely don’t know the answers, I shall answer as many other questions as I am able.”

The boy’s face twisted. “Again and again, it comes back to this… Questions you cannot answer – and questions you will not answer? Will you at least tell me why you won’t answer questions you could?” In spite of his best efforts, his voice rose in anger towards the end.

“Because I don’t believe you are ready for the answers, boy,” the tall man answered, seemingly without any emotion.

“Why!? Why am I not ready? Who are you to decide that!?” the boy shouted now, feeling his heartbeat rise up again – but this time it was genuine anger, not the blind panic he’d felt earlier, when Angelica had hugged him. “Just tell me, please, what I want to know!”

The tall man tilted his head to the side, like some curious bird, seemingly unaffected by the boy’s outburst. “So be it – answer me but one question, and I shall hold back nothing. Any answer that is within my knowledge to give, you shall have.”

He blinked, only now realizing that he’d started to cry. “What is it? I’ll answer it, if it’ll only finally give me some answers!”

The tall man leaned forward a little, his hands clasped behind his back, and opened his mouth to say…

“What is your Name?”

The boy’s mouth opened, and then closed again. “That is all? I tell you my name and you will not keep anything from me?”

“My word on it,” the tall man replied, leaning down further (he really was a freakishly tall man). “So, again I ask.”

“What. Is. Your. Name?”

The boy licked his lips, stunned that it would be so easy. So he opened his mouth and replied…

“…”

His mouth closed again, and he blinked. Why didn’t I say anything?, he thought to himself, and tried again, as the tall man kept looking down on him with those calm, yet not cold eyes of his.

“…”

He couldn’t do it. He had so many answers he’d given in the past, but not a one of them felt right.

My name? Why… why can’t I tell what my own name is?

The world began to wobble around him, distorting, as his breathing quickened.

“M-my name… my name is…”

What is my name? It’s not that… not that one either… how do I know what my name is when I don’t know who I am?

Suddenly, just as the world began to drop away around him, he found himself caught by two long-fingered hands, one on his shoulder and one on his chest, above his heart, steadying him.

“It’s alright, boy,” Emyr said, his voice all the softer for its restrained, booming quality. “You can’t force it. Let it go. Breathe.”

He pushed, gently, on the boy’s chest, as if to physically calm his breathing – and somehow, it worked.

“Breathe.”

Slowly, breath by breath, he stopped hyperventilating.

“Breathe.”

Finally, he calmed down, and the world stopped spinning. The strong hands guided him to sit on a chair which hadn’t been there before, before a table just big enough for two – or maybe three – with a single other chair on the opposite side, its back to the drop-off behind, and the black hole sun beyond.

“I do not mean to mock you, boy,” the tall man spoke, gently, pulling his surprisingly warm hand away from the boy’s chest, while the other remained on his back, steadying him. “Nor to taunt you with knowledge, or in any other way. I am merely, genuinely, convinced that there is knowledge I possess, which you want, yet which would be harmful to you, as you are now. After all, you cannot even tell me your own name.”

“Can you not… can you not fix them? My memories? Free me from whatever is… is doing this to me?” the boy begged, as wretched as he felt for doing so, as he wiped tears away with his bare hands.

“I could, yes,” the tall man said with a nod, sliding his hand from the boy’s back to his shoulder. “But I shall not, not yet at least.”

The boy’s hopes dropped quicker than they’d risen. “Why not!?” he shouted at the man, only held back from jumping up into his face by the hand on his shoulder, opposite from his raven.

Inkblot cawed and beat his wings, as if in support of his outrage, as the boy stared at the Martian pseudo-deity’s face with wet, angry eyes.

He expected to see some manner of arrogance or sadistic amusement in the tall man’s expression, but instead there was only… calm. Empathy?

“I will explain. I promise you, I will explain, and then you can choose whether you want me to restore your memories or not. But you’ll have to listen first,” he spoke, softly, ignoring Inkblot’s agitated

The boy’s shoulder’s sagged, and he lowered his head. “Why… why can I not just have my memories? Everyone… everyone else gets to have that,” he whispered, as a childish, long-buried part of him wailed against the unfairness of the world, even as the bigger, more cynical part of him shouted it down for having unrealistic expectations.

The tall man raised a hand, gently wiping the boy’s tears away. “Take heart, boy. You are alive, and where there is life, there is hope – and as the mere fact that we are talking to each other here can well attest, even death is not always the end of hope.” He patted the boy’s back, once, twice, thrice, and then pulled his hand back.

For a moment, there was only quiet, but for the tall man’s near-silent footsteps upon the hard stone floor, and then the sound of him sitting upon the tall-backed, nearly throne-like chair opposing the boy’s much more modest one across the table.

An indeterminate amount of time passed, before the boy wiped at his eyes and cheeks with his wrists, then sat up in a more straight-backed fashion, facing the crownless king…

No, not crownless. The man had positioned himself so that the black hole sun’s corona surrounded his chair, like a vast, ever-changing halo – or a crown, more epic than anything made of mere metal and gems could ever hope to be.

The boy took a deep breath, trying to order the blasted wasteland of his thoughts and memories.

“Perhaps, that is a good place to start,” he finally said, his voice as steady as he could make it. “How am I still alive?”

Emyr looked at him over steepled fingers, his eyes so dark they seemed like black pits, not unlike the black hole sun behind him. “You are not ‘still’ alive – rather, you are alive ‘again’. When you came here, your body was dead, riddled with holes from whatever conflict you were involved in.”

The boy gulped, a hand rising to touch his forehead, where he… where he’d been shot through…

“I… I did not know you could raise the dead.”

“It is not something to be done casually, nor something I could do easily, upon Earth or Mars. But here… here, in this limina locum, there are many things possible, which would not be, normally. What is impossible in there, is merely difficult out here, and what is difficult to others, is easily done to me,” he explained with a sweeping hand gesture when he spoke of the ‘limina locum’, indicating their surroundings.

“I… I suppose that touches upon my next question. Where are we, and why am I here?” the boy probed further.

“Those are two simple questions, with complex answers, and they touch upon some matters which I feel you are not yet ready to know – but I shall try to answer them anyway,” Emyr said, returning to the steeple-handed position. “Recall – when last we met, there was something I gave you, which you took with you from that little world we convened within.”

The boy looked at him, confused – then it hit him, and he reached for the pockets in his impact suit with fumbling, clumsy fingers.

From one of them he pulled out something he’d pretty much forgotten he’d had, until he’d just been reminded – a simple star, about the size of a dollar coin and seemingly made of pure gold.

“The gold star,” he said, eyes wide.

“Precisely,” Emyr said, with a satisfied smile. “So, let us speak of stars, shall we?”

***

They were interrupted by the sound of hard shoes on even harder stone, and before long, Angelica’s smiling face rose up from beneath the platform, carrying an old-fashioned, gold-embossed tray loaded with drinks and snacks.

“Ah, the woman arrives,” Emyr said, his voice warmer than the boy had yet heard it, and rose up from his seat.

“She arrives indeed,” Angelica replied, passing the tray to him, and rose up onto the tips of her toes, as he leaned down, bending at the waist – she looked even tinier than before, next to this giant of a man – and kissed his cheek, before they parted again, their motions so smooth as if they were doing a long-practiced dance.

Emyr walked counter-clockwise around the table, stopping halfway between his seat and the boy’s, and put the tray on the table, as Angelica stood on the opposite side, and with deft hands distributed saucers and tea cups that were even more exquisite in quality and material than the tray they had arrived upon. Emyr moved the cozy-covered pot of tea onto the table, followed by a plate of scones and another sporting genuine chocolate chip cookies.

Then, with a flick of his fingers, he made the tray disappear, and walked around the table once more, pulling a third chair out of nowhere, just as Angelica was moving as if to sit down on empty air, and crash down on the floor.

Smoothly, he slid the richly decorated, throne-like chair in place, one even more ostentatious than his own – and the boy somehow knew that it was his own design, not Angelica’s – as it was decorated with gold-wrought flowers sporting ruby-like petals.

The whole thing had gone off like a perfectly practiced show, every motion timed to appear as if they were merely one mind moving in two bodies, yet at the same time, it felt wholly natural for them, as Emyr returned to his chair, while Angelica lifted the tea pot. The cozy on it appeared to be the only thing on the table, other than the scones and the cookies, which did not come out of some flawless fantasy, looking rather handmade and fuzzy, in the colors of the Union Jack.

“I hope you like black tea,” Angelica said. “I’m afraid I forgot to ask, earlier.”

“I cannot say that I have any particular kind of preference, madam,” the boy replied, rather absorbed in looking at the ring on her finger… and then flicking over to Emyr’s hands, where for the first time, he noticed a matching band.

What?

She filled his cup with steaming hot tea, then did the same for her husband, followed by herself. After which she spooned two dollops of honey into his cup, two into Emyr’s, and but one into her own.

The boy picked up his own tea spoon – made of genuine silver, of course – and stirred his tea with it.

“You are his wife,” he stated, lamely, eyes moving from her to him and round and round and round…

She chuckled, picking up her teacup. “Of course I am. Who else could tolerate being married to this oafish troll of a man?” she replied, her voice overflowing with fondness.

“Indeed, I am a blessed man, to be favored by the woman above all other men,” the tall man said, looking as proud as the devil himself, before sipping his tea. “Of course, it does come with certain perks, if one is mine only beloved…” He gave her a playful sideways look, over his tea cup.

Angelica rolled her eyes. “Now, I do hope he wasn’t too overbearingly dramatic, my dear…”

“Oy…” the man in question protested, without any heat in his voice.

“He was not… I am afraid that, if anything, I was the dramatic one, madam,” the boy said, thinking of his tearful breakdown earlier.

“I’m sure you have excellent reason to be distraught, deary,” she replied with a warm smile, reaching out to gently brush his hair behind his ears, on both sides.

“Yes, well, in point of fact, I was just about to help him unbecome distraught when you arrived, woman,” Emyr interjected petulantly.

“Were you now? Then, please, don’t let me interrupt,” she said, throwing him a look the boy could not begin to parse.

Emyr snorted softly, then focused on the boy again.

“Now, you wish to know about this place, and how you found your way here,” he began as he put his cup down on its saucer. “I have already named this place Limina Locum – the Threshold Place, or simply the In-Between Place. To explain, though, where it is, and why you are here, I must explain to you the basics of multiversal mechanics, so… hm…”

He looked down at the table, and the boy found himself clutching his tea cup, forcing his body not to tremble as he stood to finally get some answers.

“Ah, I know. Let’s illustrate it like this…” Emyr whispered, though even his whispers were loud by normal measures, his deep voice carrying easily. His long, almost spider-like fingers grabbed the lacy, white tablecloth.

“Don’t you dare make a mess now, Emyr Blackhill!” Angelica warned him with a suspicious glare, just as he began to pull it up.

“Fear not! I am far beyond such mundane worries!” he replied with a smug grin, “Let this serve as a proper model, to explain transversal mechanics!”, and pulled upthrough the dishes on the table.

The boy blinked, as the tablecloth seemed to simply slide through everything, even the liquids, without a single stain upon it – it did not even stir the tea.

On his shoulder, Inkblot cawed realistically, as if in surprise, and beat his wings before settling down again.

Emyr pulled the whole thing up like it was a rigid sheet, and then let go, leaving it hanging in the air above the table.

“Let us imagine that this is the universe,” he said, raising his voice as he gestured with both hands at the cloth. “All of material reality, as a two-dimensional plain… and let us say that this is… yet another universe!” He grabbed the rim of the cloth and pulled it up by a handspan – yet left it behind as well, making two cloths that hung in the air, without touching each other.

The boy looked at it, frowning a little. “So the many world theorists are right, then?”

“Technically, I suppose,” Emyr replied with a shrug. “It is not as simplistic as there not being a wavefunction collapse, though… but let that not be our focus for now!” He gestures at his model again. “Now, there exist many realities, side by side – as far as I can tell, their number is infinite, or nearly enough so as not to matter to the likes of even me.” As he spoke, he pulled the cloth down again, creating a third ‘universe’ beneath the one they’d started with.

“Each world is separate from each other, for the most part. They each exist as their own closed whole – except for those occasions in which there is a certain crossover – which is a result of the way world’s vibrate.” He flicked the rims of the ‘worlds’ and set them to vibrating in place. “Each world vibrates at its own individual ‘frequency’, much like, say, each radio station has its own unique frequency.”

“So, going with that simile,” the boy interjected, “If one could, let us say, create a device by which to attune to a different frequency…”

“He or she could thus travel from one world to another,” Emyr finished, looking pleased. “That is essentially how transversal portals work – they tune anything which passes through them from the origin world’s frequency to the destination world’s frequency. Though do keep in mind that this is a very simplified way to look at it,” he cautioned with a raised finger.

The boy nodded, dutifully, finding himself utterly spellbound by the tall man’s speech.

“Of course, while I am portraying the worlds as spatially separate, it is best to think of them as overlapping.” The three tablecloths moved together, and did just so, overlapping, even as they changed colors – one remained white, another became blue and yet another green, their colors flickering through each other as they vibrated at different frequencies. “Though it is best for this demonstration if we keep them apart.” They moved apart again, atop each other, but retained their colors.

“So…” the boy spoke up, as the gears turned in his brain. “You called this the ‘In-Between Place’, meaning it exists somehow between two worlds?”

“Between all worlds, dear boy. Between all worlds, and the Source,” Emyr said, almost shouted, grinning roguishly. “We are in what you can picture as the membrane separating all material worlds from the Source of all Power. A place which exists between all realities, and outside all of them.”

“Hrm… that is interesting, but… it does not explain why you are here… or how I got here.”

“Just tell him already, love,” Angelica spoke softly, looking at the tall man with a gently reproaching look. “You’re getting long-winded again.”

“These are important matters, woman!” Emyr countered, aghast. “If I just tell him the answer to his questions without giving him a basic understanding of reality’s underpinnings, it will only confuse him further, not quench his curiosity!”

The boy looked at her and nodded. “Yes, this is actually really interesting. I want to hear more.”

Angelica looked him in the eyes, searchingly, for a moment, before she nodded. “So be it. But if he takes too long, say so, alright? You don’t have to be quiet and listen just to be polite.”

He nodded, then focused on the tall man again.

“Now, if we can continue without further distractions,” the tall man said, squinting at his wife, whom seemed entirely unperturbed. “Worlds each exist on a different frequency, their spacetime simultaneously overlapping and yet separate. To understand how you came to arrive here, of all places, you must know that this spacetime can be distorted. Mass distorts spacetime – and so does power, in all its forms. The more power, the more densely packed, the more it distorts the spacetime around it.”

He flicked his hand and a small rubber ball, of a blue color, appeared, which he promptly tossed onto the middle plane, at such an angle that it began to roll around the circular plane, once, twice… and it kept going, clearly not caring about such things as friction.

The boy blinked, as the cloths above and below seemed to also be affected by the ball – not only did it deform the middle plane, as it rolled around, but the planes above and below where pulled towards it as well, bulges travelling along beneath and above it.

“The effect of the Unawakened is negligible, of course, but even the least of Awakened are going to have an impact on their local reality, simply by being there – and more so by actively using their gifts.“ Emyr reached out and, plucking the ball from the cloth, yet the distortion remained in place, on all three cloths. “Even when the cause is removed, the distortion remains for a time.“ The distortions began to fade, the cloths smoothing out – the ones above and below more quickly than the one the ball had actually been moving upon, and there, the tail end of its trail ‘healed’ faster than where it had last been present. “Given enough time, distortions will disappear, as the walls between realities re-establish themselves… yet… hm… let’s simplify this,” he interrupted himself, flicking his fingers at the uppermost tablecloth, which promptly disappeared, “where was… ah, yes; conversely, if not enough time passes…“

The ball was tossed onto the now upper cloth, rolling in a steady circle to draw its trail of ‘distortions’ behind it, though it didn’t move fast enough to touch its own tail, before it smoothed out again.

Then, however, Emyr produced another, green ball, and tossed it onto the cloth. This one did not circle around – rather, it moved back and forth, from the rim to the center and at a rhythm that saw it never hit the blue one.

As such, it intersected the trail of the blue ball with is own.

At the point of intersection, a depression began to form, deepening each time one of the balls passed over it. Beneath, the cloth was bulging upwards towards it.

The boy watched with nigh-single-minded focus, processing the implications of the tall man’s words and the tableau he’d created.

Round and round, back and forth, the balls went, dipping into the ever-deepening depression beneath them. At the same time, the cloth beneath rose up, and up, until the tips of the two distortions touched, overlapped… and then kept going, moving through each other.

Even so, the two balls kept going as they had before, seemingly ignoring the other “reality”, sliding through it to continue on their path.

Furrowing his eyebrows, the boy felt a memory stir, one blessedly unconnected to his woes and thus easier to focus upon.

“A while ago, I read a report from a fellow gadgeteer,” he said, slowly, weighing each word he used as he processed what he was learning. “A friend of his had an odd experience… he had been on the road, driving a car from the West Coast to Chicago. Only a few hours into the drive, he found himself driving through a strange woodland scenery, though one which still contained the road he had been driving upon – yet he should have been in the middle of a desert area. After only a brief time there, he found himself driving down the road towards Chicago, mere hours having passed since his departure from Esperanza City… that would be where Los Angeles used to be,” he added, as the thought came that the two of them probably didn’t know about the new city.

Angelica merely looked curious, while the tall man smirked. “That friend of your fellow, did he happen to be Awakened?”

The boy nodded, and the tall man responded in kind, as he produced another ball, this time a yellow one.

“Observe,” he said, simply, and tossed it onto the cloth.

The yellow ball rolled towards the depression the green and blue had made, as if to cut straight through the cross they formed, trailing its own distortion after itself.

“When reality becomes sufficiently distorted, especially when further awakened people and their powers become involved, then, at times, things like these here happen…”

The yellow ball dipped down into the depression, as had the other two balls, but then it didn’t – instead, it rolled onto the second cloth, where it had overlapped with the first one, creating a “floor” within the depression that was higher up than the actual cloth – and which made for a much shorter route from one edge of the distortion to another.

It reached the edge of the ‘distortion’ and slipped back onto the upper cloth, continuing on its path.

“A wormhole,” the boy said, his eyes widening at the implications. “He slipped through a wormhole.”

“Essentially, so. He was… fortunate,” Emyr replied with a solemn nod.

“Fortunate how?”

The tall man looked at him with dark eyes, snapping his fingers to point at the tableau once more – where the yellow ball was rolling back the way it’d come. Once more, it slipped into the distortion. Once more, it slipped onto the second, lower cloth.

This time, however, it did not return to the original one when it reached the edge of the distortion. Instead, it slipped through the cloth it had started upon, and continued on to roll on the plane of the second, lower cloth, while the other two balls remained on the upper one.

“One’s return is not guaranteed,” the self-proclaimed Godking said in a severe voice. “Perhaps this man was merely possessed of good fortune… perhaps he had enough connections to Awakened of our world, that kept him anchored… but many have not had them. Though I can not prove it, I suspect that quite a lot of Awakened Ones whom, throughout the decades, have gone missing, did so because they slipped into another world… and found no way back.”

Angelica lowered her head, sipping her tea, as her face grew solemn, and the boy found himself leaning back upon his chair, putting his hands on the table in front of him, one over the other.

His eyes fixated on the lone ball in the lower cloth, lost to another world…

“Is that what happened to me? I somehow… slipped through the cracks?” he asked in a quiet voice which was barely even a whisper, growing thick.

“In a manner of speaking… yes.” Emyr tapped a finger on the table, steadily, like a metronome. “I am merely theorizing, of course, as I wasn’t present, but I suspect that however you died, it happened in a place of great… transversal instability? A great many powers being used, concurrently, most likely against each other, possibly in a location that’s prestressed?”

“I was within the area of Desolation-in-Light’s power… someone who is probably in the same category as you, Sir,” the boy agreed. “Hundreds of metahumans were fighting her for a prolonged time, and it all happened in New Lennston…”

“New Lennston, which was built upon the ruins of Lennston, which is where Point Zero took place, where all powers began,” Emyr completed the sentence, and thought. “One of the most unstable areas on the planet, to begin with. It is no accident that the area produces more awakened ones per capita than any other place in the world. Add in the influence of multiple powers, including this Desolation-in-Light and, well, I would bet a lot that Lady Light was involved, probably the Dark as well…”

The boy nodded.

“Yesss… distortions abounded. The fabric of reality, stretched thin…” The cloths stretched, growing thin in one particular spot. “Distorted,” They did that, as well, twisting up where they were stretched thin, “And then comes a youth with a particularly…”

He stopped, searching for the right word.

“Intense, perhaps?” Angelica suggested, from behind her cup of tea.

“Yes! Intense, perfect! Thank you!” he replied, exuberantly, grinning at her before he turned to face the boy again. “Intense, yes. An intense power, in such circumstances… you may have slipped through no matter what – but then you went and got yourself killed… which, honestly, you shouldn’t do.” He tapped the table with a finger, giving the boy a stern look. “Dying’s not a good idea. I speak from experience there.”

“I… shall endeavor not to die again?” the boy repeated his earlier words, confusion obvious in his words.

“Good boy!” Emyr shouted. “So, you died! And death, it is not so much a state of being as it is a process – a process which releases certain energies, sets certain mechanisms into motion. A process which, I might add, can be reversed, so long as it is not yet completed, which is why you yet live again;” he explained in a more somber tone. “Death is inherently a transition, but also a separation. As your physical body dies, that which we call the mind fades away, as it is pulled-“

He stopped when the boy raised his hand, questioning.

“Are you talking about souls?”

The tall man folded his hands on the table, his countenance becoming more somber. “That is a question even I know not the answer to with any certainty. What I do know is this – there is a Source, an Origin for all Powers. All humans alive since Point Zero have been connected to it, as if by an umbilical cord extending from our brains all the way to… there.”

He raised a long-fingered hand and pointed behind himself, as his mouth spread into a wide, wolfish grin that looked all the more imposing for the bright gleam of his teeth in contrast to the shadows which suddenly fell over his face.

The boy followed his gesture, and stared straight at the blackness-that-was-not-black, the vast, eye-straining gap in perception which dominated this alien sky.

“That is… the source?”

“That it is. The Source of it all. Every human being is connected to it, leads back to it. I know not whether we are born from it, but we are destined to go to it, when our time is over. Like a line cast out, the strand which connects us to the Source reels us in when we die, as if our body was an anchor keeping our mind and, yes, perhaps we can call it that, our soul, tied to reality, an anchor which we lose along with our physical form.”

“Everyone who dies thus merges with the Source – and much like an object which has crossed the Event Horizon of a Black Hole, once one has crossed a certain point in his process, they are gone forever, beyond any hope of resuscitation or revival; however, the process is not an instant one, nor uniform. For some, ‘dying’ may take but hours, or days. For others, months, or years.”

“Or decades?”

Angelica chuckled at that, as her husband picked up his own cup and drank some tea.

“No. Not decades. The longest time span between one’s physical death and one crossing the point of no return, that I know of, took a little less than a single decade.”

The boy looked around their strange location, then at the couple in front of him. “What is this, then? Should not the both of you be long… gone?”

That wolfish grin returned again, nearly splitting the tall man’s face from ear to ear. “Ah, we should be – both the woman and I should long since have faded away. Yet I knew of this… celestial mechanism, and so chose to prepare for it.”

Angelica leaned forward. “An insurance, if you will,” she said, calmly. “In case his numerous plans for his own – and my – immortality or revival fell through.” She leaned in closer towards the boy, raising a hand to seemingly shield her mouth from Emyr’s sight, as she stage-whispered to the boy, “Which, of course, they did.”

“Well, excuse me for being unprepared to deal with weaponized anti-reality and a hermaphroditic pseudo-god of death out for my blood!”, Emyr grumbled, all regality disappearing as he sulked. “Honestly, it’s a testament to my sheer brilliance that I managed to take down all but that one down, or that I’m still here with even a chance of returning left to me.”

“Which one was the… hermaphroditic pseudo-god of death?” the boy asked, confused. He dimly remembered a fragment…

There were eight, actually. The count starts at Zero, not one.

“Do you mean the zeroth member of the Seven Regicides, which you mentioned during our last meeting?”

“Yes. Nasty fellow, that one,” Emyr leaned forward, putting his elbows on the table, and resting his chin on his intertwined. “Not that I want to undersell the efforts of the other seven – they fought marvelously, and even figured out a means by which to immunize themselves to being directly affected by my power, but it was thanks to that other creature that they were able to break through all of my defenses and… best me,” he elaborated, twisting his face up as the last two words seemed to all but physically hurt him to say. “So in the end, it took another god, to overcome m-“

“You are no god, Emyr Blackhill,” Angelica spoke teasingly, leaning over towards him.

“I actually created life! I populated a planet! Woman, what else need I do to be a god?” he shouted, throwing his arms up in his most theatric reaction yet.

“Don’t be dead.”

He deflated, slumping back against his high-backed chair. “Jesus died, too.”

“He planned to, though. And he came back. In three days,” she continued with a very amused smile on her face.

“Why do you keep taking the piss out of me, love?” he whined, looking down at his knees, rather than at her or the boy.

She cooed, reaching out to stroke his hair. “I do it because I love you, of course. Also, watch your language, there’s a child present.”

The nigh-omnipotent conqueror of all man-kind pouted like a child, yet did not rebuke her caress or her words. If anything, he leaned a little into it.

The boy watched, once more experiencing that sensation of alienation. Looking on a scene he’d seen before, but which didn’t seem quite real or true to him. Something he lacked a reference for, perhaps.

It was kind of sweet, though, and it didn’t seem staged.

“A word of advice, boy,” Emyr said, while shamelessly enjoying his wife’s caress. “When you choose your wife-to-be, make sure it’s someone smart and bold enough to always know when and how to deflate your ego. Life is better that way.”

“It is true,” Angelica agreed with an exasperated look thrown Emyr’s way, before focusing on the boy again. “Look at how inflated my dear husband’s ego got, when I was gone. The ‘Godking of Mars’,” she mocked, rolling her eyes and dropping her voice when intoning the title. “Could’ve used someone to keep you grounded, my dear, sweet, narcissistic husband.”

Emyr was about to respond to that, when the boy interceded again, trying to keep the conversation focused.

“Excuse me, but could we perhaps get back to the point of how I am here, what this ‘In-Between Place’ is and, seeing how you brought it up, how you are here, madam?” he asked with a gesture towards Angelica. “You passed away decades ago. In fact, it is popularly believed that your passing was his Origin,” he continued, when they didn’t interrupt, pointing with both hands at the tall man. “You did not seem to be alive during his reign as ‘Godking’, which as far as we know began five years after your passing, so how are you now? Are you even alive? He apparently is not, but I am, supposedly, yet I have not observed any difference between his and my state of being! The exact number and nature of the people involved in your defeat is incredibly interesting, but also, as far as I can tell, entirely irrelevant to this.”

The two of them looked at him with odd expressions, matched in spite of their very different features. As if they were not used to being pushed.

“Of course… I apologize,” Angelica replied, blushing a little. “It’s been a while since we’ve had to consider anyone but each other, I hope you understand.”

Emyr didn’t look nearly as bashful as his wife – if at all – but he seemed more amused than offended by the interruption.

The boy took a deep breath, then released it, calming himself. “I suppose I understand.”

That earned him a grateful smile from Angelica.

“Very well, very well,” the tall man spoke, sitting back as some of his regal countenance returned to him. “As she just noted, I prepared for the eventuality of death, and the possibility of there not being a quick revival. But how to assure that neither I, nor my beloved, would be lost to each other?” He gestured at their surroundings. “Thus, I constructed this… afterlife, of sorts. At least, that was my intention. A place in-between life and final death, catch and preserve our selves, until such a time as we can return to full life,” he explained, a rather prideful smirk on his face, not that it wasn’t warranted. Then he sobered up, though. “Of course, it was meant to allow for an easy return. Simply open the right door and step back into life, for both myself and any others whom I gave entry to it. And it would have worked,” he snarled, looking aside with a frustrated expression. “It would have, were it not for that spear. It limits my power, prevents it from reaching back into reality proper. Here, I remain as powerful as ever. But my power reaches no further than this liminal land, which will become important later.”

He paused, taking a breath and calming himself. “Thus, I wrote this land, as a contingency. Thus, when I was slain, I came here, rather than fade away. As for the woman, I had already resurrected her years earlier. When I first unlocked this greater form of my power, the first act I undertook, was to call her back to life,” he explained further, reaching out to put a long-fingered hand onto his wife’s, sliding his fingers into the gaps between hers, so the could both curl them up and squeeze each other. “It was a success, if not quite in the way I had hoped.”

At the boy’s questioning look at that statement, Emyr actually averted his eyes, and it was Angelica that replied for him, reaching out with her free hand to squeeze his shoulder. “With Emyr, everything’s in the wording… the way he worded it, back then, he gave me back my life… a life which had ended after a scant twenty years,” she explained, softly, as Emyr lowered his head.

It took only a moment for the boy to take that idea to its logical conclusion. “He brought you back, but you were set to die again after twenty years… at which point he was no longer around to resurrect you again. Instead you came… here.”

“Got it in one,” she praised him with a bright smile.

His eyes drifted from that discombobulating smile to the soothingly familiar demigod whose hand she was stroking now. “The spear prevents you from… not from giving her life, obviously, as you were able raise me as well… but she is stuck here, because you can not send her out of this space.” He frowned. “Which means I am trapped in this space, as well. Never mind that I still do not know why I ended up here in the first place.”

He tapped the bare wooden tabletop with a finger, next to the golden star still lying there.

“Dear, perhaps it’s time for a little brevity?” Angelica said to her husband.

“Hrm. I suppose so,” Emyr grumbled. “Soul of Wit it is, then. Alright. I mentioned earlier that worlds overlap, but they each vibrate at a different frequency.” The boy leaned closer, almost hungrily so. “Everything that is part of a world vibrates on the same general frequency. There can be slight variations, but they are ultimately negligible – imagine, if you are tuning your radio to a station, you don’t necessarily need to hit their frequency exactly – just by getting close enough, you’ll still receive that station, though it may be distorted. To apply that to the matter at hand, when your personal frequency does not quite match that of any one world, you are liable to default automatically to the one you are closest to; imagine the worlds as depressions in the fabric of reality, with the interstice between worlds being the tall, impossibly thin rims; unless your frequency is balanced perfectly between two worlds, you will slide down into one of them. Over time, as you remain in the same world, your frequency becomes more and more alike that of the world, even if you started with another. It will never be perfectly the same, there is always a range within which we vibrate; that range is greater for living beings, than for inanimate objects and greater still for those like us whom are innately connected more deeply to our extra-versal power source than others, which is another reason for why the Awakened, or metahumans if you prefer the more plebeian term, are prone to slip through the gaps.”

He snapped his fingers at the floating table clothes and still-rolling spheres, and they dropped down, again through the objects onto the table, the cloths becoming one again, and the balls landing on top, remaining unnaturally still rather than roll around.

Meanwhile, the tall man barely took a breath, before continuing in his explanation. “Now, we come to you. You died, and moreover, you were in a particularly unstable region of reality. Possibly, someone tried to move your corpse from one reality to another, or perhaps into a pocket dimension – do you think that was likely?”

“You made a Bag of Holding? That is an impressively useful item to have.”

“Yup! Awesome, isn’t it? And it’s even better than the game version, because it’s compartmentalized. I can store different things in different sections and recall them at will! I even have a stasis section, to preserve stuff in!”

“So it’s more of a Handy Haversack than a Bag of Holding, ain’t it?”

“Hrm… I suppose so. But it looks like a bag and Bag of Holding sounds more respectable than Handy Haversack.”

“Sure thing, Heck.”

“Don’t call me Heck!”

“Alright, Heck. Anyway, B-Six, can’t you make a sci-fi Box of Holding? It’d be sooo useful, and way less of a copyright infringamadinger!”

“It’s called copyright infringement, you philistine…”

“I tried to build something like that, but found myself unable to, sadly. It would be incredibly useful – fortunately, Vasiliki’s should be more than sufficient for our groups’ needs.”

“That’s sweet of you to say! Look, she’s even blushing!”

The boy shook his head at the surprisingly vivid memory. He could even remember the smell in the air of that moment, a mixture of the bag’s fresh leather, Vasiliki’s perfume – she’d come really close when showing off her contrivance, forgetting her usual poise and reserve in almost childlike excitement – and freshly soldered circuits.

It hurt too much to focus on that, so he moved on.

“It is… possible, that a friend tried to store my body in a pocket reality,” he replied, nodding slowly.

“Which would mean that, for the briefest moment, even if you were merely moved into a pocket reality – a bud on the reality you’re within, rather than a separate one altogether – you had to, briefly, cross an interstice, a moment, a space, where your body’s frequency was being adjusted, like a knob on the radio being turned, moving reception across bands of frequency. Normally not a problematic matter, but when done in an area like New Lennston, right after or during massive distortions caused by a major battle of dozens, even hundreds of awakened ones, while the subject is also an unusually powerful one – thus already far more prone to a wide frequency range… a confluence of many factors coming together, to make things go wrong, in all the right ways.”

He put his elbows on the table, leaning forward, his hands extended towards the boy. “Instead of your body moving properly into the pocket reality, while your power and your cognition were pulled and assimilated into the Source, reality had become so thin and unstable around you that they dragged your body with them into this transitory space.”

“How could my… soul… drag my body here, physically?”

“Normally? Not at all. But when all other laws of reality fall away, in a space thinned out and broken down, the last law that remains is the law of connection. That which is connected, draws together. Imagine it as your body… hm…” He stroked his chin again, thoughtfully, seeking words.

Angelica jumped in again. “Imagine your body growing so light that it’d float on the air. So untethered it could be pulled just by tossing a silk thread on it, pulling on the thread, and have the friction between your body and the thread provide enough of a hold – not because your body itself was changed, but because all other forces working on it had either been disrupted or outright fallen away.”

The boy nodded. “That makes sense, going by the premises as presented.”

Emyr pouted at his wife, who just sat back with a satisfied smile and bit into the last soft cookie, ignoring her husband’s annoyance with practiced, even joyful ease.

Emyr grumbled something under his breath, before clearing his throat. “Moving on. As she said, your body was unmoored to such a profound degree that any connection, no matter how slight, could pull it around. Any resonance whatsoever,” he explained, leaning more heavily on his elbows, his head moving closer to the boy. “If you were one of the people for whom I created this artificial afterlife for, then it wouldn’t matter how you died, barring a few extreme causes – you’d always come here, with or without your body. But, if one is in such an unstable state, then the slightest resonance can change one’s course entirely; such as the resonance between my power and an item I created wholesale with it,” he concluded, gesturing at the golden trinket.

The boy picked the star up, turning it over in his hand, contemplating the little thing with something akin to awe. “That is it? That is all it took?”

“When reality itself breaks down, then, by definition, the normal strictures of probability and possibility no longer apply.”

They all fell quiet, as the boy processed these revelations, his mind a quiet storm of thoughts, not all of which related to the situation at hand.

Then Inkblot pecked at his fingers, snatching the star up and holding it in his beak.

The boy gave his pseudo-corvid companion a long look. “So then Inkblot managed to find his way here, what, because of his resonance with me? My power? Since I made him myself?”

“Unless you also gave him the capability for transversal travel, yes, that would be the most likely explanation,” Emyr agreed.

“That answers how and why I am here,” the boy continued, after a short break spent just looking at the mechanical bird. “Now, I would like to know why I should even consider not to restore my memories? Especially since I am apparently trapped here anyway.”

“Straight to the point,” Emyr sighed. “Very well. Come,” he rose to his feet. “This is something that will be more easily understood when shown.”

“Do finish your tea at least, dear,” Angelica cut in, looking at the boy with a slight smile.

The boy stood up, then stopped, looking down. Why are there so many crumbs on my plate? he thought, in surprise. He hadn’t even realized he’d eaten any cookies or scones… but he still had their taste in his mouth (it was delicious). No… Angelica kept giving me some, while Emyr was talking. He’d failed to consciously process it, having been so enthralled by the man’s words. But he had eaten them.

Things keep slipping.

With a blush, he picked up the seemingly fragile teacup and drank the still-warm black tea.

The honey really does suit it well.

“Thank you, madam,” he said, politely, if still weirded out by it all. “It was… it tasted really well.”

“I’m glad. Now you two go have your talk,” she replied, standing up and starting to gather the used dishes.

“You are not coming along?” He couldn’t tell why he felt the need to confirm it. Having her around felt weird.

She gave him one of those strange smiles of hers. “I think it’s good for boys to have some time to themselves. I’ll be in my observatory, but if you do need me – even if it’s just to remind my dear husband to be a little more succinct – simply speak my name three times in succession and I’ll be with you in the blink of an eye.”

He opened his mouth to question that, then he remembered who’d made this place and its rules, so he just nodded to her.

Without another word, he followed after Emyr down the steps from the outlook platform.

For the first time that the boy could remember since hitting his growth spurt – not that that meant much – he had to walk faster than usual just to keep up with another person’s casual stride. Emyr Blackhill really was freakishly tall, taller than any man or woman he could recall meeting (again, that hitch in his thoughts, like a mental snort at the ridiculousness of him relying on his memories) that hadn’t been altered by their powers.

Then again, perhaps he had? Perhaps it was deliberate, he’d used his power to enlarge himself, not to superhuman height, but so as to stand above most normal persons. It would fit him.

It didn’t feel right, though.

“Observatory?” he repeated the word, to focus on something else instead, as he followed the tall man and felt like a little boy running after his giant of a father.

“The woman has always been rather scientifically minded, in stark contrast to myself,” Emyr responded, half-turning his head to look at the boy with a surprisingly fond, gentle smile. “She always dreamed of studying the natural sciences, before her first life was cut short. In her second life, she did do just that. Physics, in point of fact. To her, this fragmentary place is less a prison and more a little heaven, where she can probe the very fabric of reality and study its inner workings. To that purpose, I created an observatory for her use, among other things, and she has well-refined it in the years since.”

The boy looked behind himself, up the hill they were descending from, at the slight, unassuming figure at the top. He wouldn’t have pegged her for a scientist, though perhaps the fifties’ housewife aesthetic was to blame for that more than anything else, never mind how off-balance he felt around her.

“After all these decades, she could likely teach you a fair few things,” the tall man added, with mirth in his voice. “Your own power notwithstanding.”

That actually seems like something I’d really enjoy… if only this woman wasn’t so strange. “Why do you keep calling her ‘the woman’?” he asked, instead of vocalizing those thoughts.

Emyr chuckled. “You don’t read many of the classics, do you?” he asked with another look over his shoulder, as they hit the pathway that the boy and Angelica had first approached the hill by, turning right to follow it away from the gazebo the boy had woken up in. “It’s a literary reference, ‘in his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex’, though it is not a romantic thing, nor even a thing of love, in that story,” he explained with another wide, toothy grin. “Besides. She is quite literally the only female in this world.”

The boy mulled that over. “Does she have a name like that for you?”

“Oh, she has given me many. Clod, troll, oaf… I could go on, but I think you get the gist of it.”

“Yes, I do. Why does it feel like I am always at risk of suffocating around you?”

“You are sensing the distortion I am causing in reality,” Emyr explained, his tone shifting to a more serious one. “Your brain merely interprets it as a kind of pressure. It could as well have been felt as heat, as a charge in the air, you name it. Powerful awakened ones, particularly older ones, distort reality more strongly, and most our kind can sense that, can sense our mere presence.”

He mulled that over, as well. “I observed the same sensation when I was in Lady Light’s presence, though not in the Dark’s. Lady Light’s was even more intense than yours, even though she is weaker than you are, so it can not simply be due to strength. One would also expect the Dark to be her equal in such matters, as well.”

“It is not solely due to raw power – it also depends on location, circumstance. The form in which a person’s power expresses itself, how intensively it is being used… I presume you interacted during a crisis in which she was using her power more heavily?” He stopped in his speech, looking at the boy for confirmation.

“Barely an interaction, even,” the boy confirmed with a nod.

“Meanwhile you and I have only ever interacted in – to me – more relaxing circumstances.” He stroked his chin, thoughtfully. “Furthermore, I would bet my entire collection of Shakespears’ works that the lady is capable of far more than she publicly pretends to be, much like her counterpart. Speaking of said counterpart, the very nature of the Dark’s power is to spread himself thin. Fissioning off pieces, fragments, shards of his power, his very self. Doing so dilutes his presence.”

The boy didn’t reply immediately, considering that, too, while their steps took them towards a stone-wrought gate-arch, beyond which he could see a rather quaint-seeming country house in a style he dimly connected to England, in his mind, though he couldn’t quite say why.

The arch itself was an elaborate thing, technically being five arches standing corner to corner in the rough shape of a pentagon.

No one said anything, until they reached the arch, where the tall man knocked on the stone with the knuckles of two fingers, in passing.

It was as if he’d turned the knob on an old-fashioned television, causing the image beyond the arch to distort, the space within the pentagon seeming to fuzz, then come into focus again.

The boy and the tall man walked into the new space – or was that through? – and continued into what appeared to be a vast cave system illuminated by crystals growing out of the rocks above, casting everything in a soft, neutral light. The ground was surprisingly smooth, as if many people had often walked this path and worn it out; between that, and the soft shoes built into the boy’s suit, he made nary a sound walking upon it; yet Emyr’s footsteps were much sharper, and echoed through the caves, seeming somehow louder, heavier, more real than they should be.

“When I was but a child still living in the old country,” Emyr spoke in a surprisingly soft voice, “I once disregarded my mother’s warnings, as well as my father’s advice to heed said warnings, and went into the woods to explore them. There I came across a cave, which, being but a foolhardy tot, I chose to explore.”

He looked up at the vast ceiling of stalactites and the crystals which grew between them, like distant dots of lights, tiny stars, in the darkness above. “The awe, the fear, the wonder I experienced that day has stayed with me ever since.”

The boy followed his gaze, looking up at the starry ceiling, and found something within him respond to the sight. A memory, buried, denied to him, yet so close to his heart he could still feel its echoes.

He’d looked up at the stars once, he was sure, and felt something much alike what the tall man spoke of.

“Though I have at times lost my way… lost sight of what was most important… I never forgot the wonder of my early days, and it has ever guided me back unto the path.”

Knowing not what to reply to that statement, feeling only a great sadness upon him, the boy stayed quiet, and so did the tall man, for a time.

Then, they came upon a crossing of many cavernous tunnels, branching off from the way they came. All seemed similar to each other, but for one, which split off to the right, and was illuminated by a radiance of a fel red color coming from within. That was the direction the tall man led them towards.

“Why are we walking?” the boy asked, after a few steps. When the tall man turned his head to look at him, he continued, “Why that arch? Why not simply speak us to our destination?”

“Why not? Why not simply speak tea into existence, at perfect temperature? Why bake the pastries we enjoy, rather than speak them into being?” the man elaborated. “Why indeed? This is a lesson only learned too late, after I died – what we achieve does not matter alone, but how we achieve it,” he said, his voice much softer than its usual booming quality. “You’d do well to remember that, boy. The journey matters as much, if not more so than the destination. Now hush – sooth is upon us.”

The radiance illuminating the cavernous tunnel grew brighter, as its source came into sight – after but a hundred paces, the tunnel opened up into a larger cavern, one which looked far less terrestrial than the earlier parts; the stone was the same, but crystals jutted out from every wall, spikes made of a translucent material like glass, each dozens of meters long, all homing in towards the center of the cave, with only a single gap created by the tunnel’s opening into the cavern providing a pathway in.

Within said center, they all terminated in hair-fine tips, all equidistant from the very center, forming a perfect sphere around…

The boy had to blink, looking twice, then thrice, before he was able to properly parse the sight. A golden rectangle made of pure red, blood-like light floated a place above the floor, at the very center of the half-sphere formed by the spikes.

From said rectangle – the boy immediately thought of it as a door, as he tried to make sense of it – from said door reached forth hands… many hands. Dozens, hundreds of hands, each one glowing as if made of translucent glass filled with all the colors of the rainbow – all but red.

Fingers curled around the edges of the door, as if clinging to it, while many more reached forth, akin to tentacles, reaching for the spikes around them, yet seemed to reach an invisible barrier instead, unable to fully make contact.

The limbs writhed and groped, seemingly mindless, as if seeking…

They’re seeking methe boy thought, and though he knew not how he knew, he knew it to be true.

“What is… all this?” he asked in a low voice, almost whispering, as if trying not to be heard by those strange limbs.

“This is the crux, the choice you must make,” the tall man replied, as he stepped forth, then half-turned towards the boy, standing with his side to him, so the boy could see both him and the door. “I moved it to this place, to contain the will of your tormentor; but this door is in fact the same passageway through which you entered our little demesne. It opened up in the sky above, at the boundary of this realm, and you tumbled through.”

He cleared his throat, looking the boy straight in the eyes. “As has already been established, my power is limited by the boundaries of this realm. I can not send you back to Earth. I simply can not, no matter how much I would like to. However, if you were to step through this door, you would be able to retrace the path you took to come here, and return to the world of the living.”

The boy blinked, looking away from the man and to the door, feeling… hope? But also a nameless dread, bloom within him. “W-what… what is the catch?”

“It is not by my power, that the door is still open. The pathway should have closed as soon as you passed through, yet it is being held open from the other side,” he explained, gravely. “Held open, in fact, the very same power which denies you your true memories, your true self!”

Before the boy could even react to that, the tall man suddenly stood in front of him, his long-fingered hands on his shoulders, as he leaned down to look him in the eye. “That is why I said you must choose, whether you wish for me to restore your memories! It is by the power that has so defiled your mind that this pathway is being maintained!” He leaned closer, his eyes boring into the boy’s. “The will of they whom so wish to keep you in their thrall is the breadcrumb trail that can lead you back home! It is within my power to break their hold over your mind, to set you free, but doing so would wipe away your route home – you would be stranded here, as I and the woman are. Do you understand, boy? Do you understand the choice you must make?” he spoke, more intense than he’d been throughout their entire acquaintance so far.

The boy just nodded, unsure as to whether he’d be able to form coherent words, as overwhelmed as he felt now.

“Know though, that to choose to step through this gate is perhaps not your sole way of escape,” the tall man added, cautiously, which immediately threw the boy’s thoughts into disarray, just as they were starting to sort themselves out again. “You could have me sever the strand of connection… free your memories. You would be stranded here, true, but you would have every resource you needed to exert your power, and both mine and the woman’s knowledge to expand your own; given what I have seen of the true nature of your power, I am certain that, in time, you could devise your own means of escaping this limited place, and returning to the material realm on your own terms.”

He paused, for a moment, then chuckled. “Naturally, Angelica and I may well use those means to travel back as well, and circumvent the spear’s bindings. So I confess some preference to you choosing that option.”

“Why would you not just restore my memories then?” the boy asked, his voice trembling, even taking a step back from the tall man. “Why even give me the choice?”

“What worth is there to a path, if it is not one chosen freely?” the tall man replied, his voice colder. “I am not so desperate, nor are my woman and I so miserable here, that we would force such a choice upon you. Upon a child, even less.”

He sighed, closing his eyes. “There is only one thing I will force upon you, my boy. Choose to return, or choose to stay – but choose, you must. The one thing I cannot bear is the indignity of indecision.”

The tall man opened his eyes once more, standing with his back to the door, between it and the boy; its fel light outlining his vast form, turning him into something quite grand and terrible to behold.

“So if you have any more questions, boy, ask them now. And if not, choose!”

15.6 All Masks Fall

I really hope Melody’s alright, was the thought foremost in Irene’s mind, as she watched a flesh-colored crystal creep all over Bloodbath’s limp body, encasing him from head to toe, much like Slice Bride and Bullrush had already been encased.

Covered so, with half of Slice Bride hanging off the free-standing wall of a broken apartment building, kept alive only by the same stasis crystals which trapped her, Bullrush lying on the ground by said wall and Bloodbath bent over the window sill and frozen in stasis, the three villains wouldn’t be able to do anyone any harm for a while – potentially for years, if they weren’t freed by someone with the right power.

Irene hadn’t felt like being particularly kind to them, beyond refraining from just plain killing them all.

“You can come out now!” she spoke, her voice bright and clear, not betraying the dark knot of fear for her friends.

A quick look up at the screens showed her that Atrocity had yet to get Tartsche to drop his defenses, and so long as he didn’t… well, the Six were something else, alright, but even collectively, they were no Emyr Blackhill. Tartsche, Tyche and her mother would be safe, for the time being.

While she looked, people gathered around her, carefully avoiding a patch of churning, bubbling blue liquid light that still stuck around from the brief scuffle with the Rabid Wannabes. People, adults and children in dirty, dust-covered clothing, some sporting hastily bandaged wounds and bruises.

“Are they… dead?”, one of the men asked, a rugged fellow with gang tattoos in white ink on black skin, looking at Slice Bride’s encased form. She’d named him Swirlyhead in her mind, when she’d caught a glimpse of him a month ago, during a drug lab raid she’d assisted the police with.

“No, merely in stasis,” Irene replied, barely paying attention. The crystal chrysalis power was dropping away, now that it was no longer needed, as did the power she’d used to tag them all, the ability to speed up time for herself… a power all too reminiscent of Jared, the poor fool, if not quite as powerful, nor quite as limiting as his. That left her with the low-key danger sense she’d kept since this whole mess started, and another, more crucial power.

“Should be dead,” he snarled, spitting at her. Several of the others in the group mumbled their agreement with the sentiment.

Irene turned away – she didn’t like the sentiment, but she could hardly fault them for it, so she chose to stay on task.

“We should move on – there ought to be more people out there, still,” she said, doing her best to sound confident and, well… like she knew what she was doing.

It wasn’t easy, because she was never quite sure of her own decision-making. But her current plan seemed quite good.

As long as she didn’t run into Mindfuck, of course.

Just then, as if in response, another power manifested, joining the two she was maintaining. A mental effect, it felt like a kind of immaterial rubber, wrapped around her, carrying a hodge-podge of emotional states and discordant thoughts, a barrier between her mind and any outside power.

Experimenting, she pushed the rubber, stretching it away from her. It thinned the protective layer around herself, but she was quite sure if she touched someone else with it, they’d get one hell of a headache out of it.

It was also completely insufficient. The protection was strong, but became fragile when she used it to attack. Worse, it didn’t feel efficient – actively holding off a mental assault, it’d quickly wear out, based on what she could get off of inspecting the power. All Mindfuck would have to do would be to sustain his assault for a minute or two, and then he’d have her.

Irene knew herself well enough to know that once he got through, there’d be no way for her to break free on her own; she was just too vulnerable to telepathic assaults. The things the Savage Six could inflict upon innocents with her as their puppet were too horrible to contemplate.

She dismissed that power, letting it sink back down into the darkness – but doing so took her danger sense with it, as well, the minor power slipping away from her so quickly, she only realized what was happening when it was already beyond her reach, just barely having the time to focus on keeping a hold of the other power she had to maintain.

Focus, Irene. You can’t afford to slip up like that! she admonished herself, climbing as gracefully as she could (which wasn’t much, without a power to help) over a mound of rubble, and then down the other side, followed shortly after by the survivors she’d gathered up.

Two new powers rose up together. One was small, one was familiar, one of the biggest powers she ever got, and all too rarely.

The first settled in as an expanding, invisible force-cloud which filled the air around her and gave her feedback on anything within – she knew this power, if she condensed the cloud, she’d be able to move objects, or blast them about, at the cost of reducing the area she was getting feedback on. Versatile, useful, a single power that allowed her to move, perceive, attack and defend all at once.

That was the lesser power.

Irene braced herself as the other one settled in, and her mind came unstuck, her viewpoint seeming to shift, like the whole world took a step to the left, and she stepped right instead…

***

The scene was awash in blue, like someone had messed with the color settings of the whole world.

He stood upon the rooftop of a small office building, his form that of something resembling, if anything, a kind of long-limbed, mini-van-sized sea star, standing atop three limbs, with four more stretched out into the air.

Eye-like organs studded his entire body, and in between them, where there wasn’t enough space for more eyes, tiny hairs and fleshy tendrils extended, capturing mediums other than light as they seemed to flow in an invisible current that didn’t line up with the air movements around them.

The four limbs stretched into the sky all fanned out into ear-drum-like membranes, which were vibrating at such a high frequency, they were only visible as a pale blur which, much like the rest of his form, only had any color because the entire scene was blue-shifted.

Hemming. Gathering information? What is he looking at…

Her viewpoint shifted, focusing in the direction he seemed to be looking into – and saw the UH HQ, or what was left of it.

The gleaming skyscraper had seemingly been cut at the middle, the upper half collapsing to the side and smashing the buildings there, but the lower half still stood tall.

Is he looking for Hotrod? He did mark him as his target, and I guess looking for him where he has his workshop first makes sense… but this scene is blue, why would Hotrod still be in there?

***

“I’d say something to the effect of ‘are you crazy’ and ‘what are you doing in your workshop of all places’, at such a time” Patrid’s smooth voice intruded upon Hotrod’s workshop, as he stepped into the red-shifted scenery. “But frankly, I cannot even pretend to be surprised to find you here.”

While there were often commonalities, each gadgeteer’s workshop tended to be unique, and Hotrod was no exception. His place, which took up two entire underground levels of the UH HQ, with no walls or any other subdivision, looked, fittingly enough, like a gigantic garage, if it had been thrown together for an over-the-top action movie.

Mechanical limbs, bigger and far more elaborate (and in some cases, slapdash) than anything you’d find in a normal car factory dotted the workshop, which was laid out in three dimensions, rather than two, with parts, tools and projects stacked atop each other where floor space had run out.

One could have spent days, perhaps weeks, exploring the place, and still not be able to catalogue everything in sight, but Patrid walked straight towards the center of the gym hall sized floor, where a humungous… something with nineteen wheels was held up by half a dozen robotic limbs atop a circular, elevated stage, while half a dozen more such limbs, mounted upon a rotating wheel set around said stage, welded parts onto it and otherwise did various work.

Standing atop an elevated platform with a half-circular control console, and wearing what looked like a mechanic’s overall crossed with a computer’s motherboard, stood a slender, medium-height man.

He didn’t wear a mask – not that he needed it, when he didn’t have a civilian identity, and pretty much never used his original name anymore, anyway – and his dark brown skin was covered in a sheen of sweat that made his bald pate seem outright polished, as dark, brown eyes threaded through with circuit-shaped mercury focused on the work ahead of him.

Patty and Hotrod together again? Wow…

“I am well aware of the situation outside, brother,” he said, without diverting his attention, coordinating more robotic arms than he had fingers to work simultaneously. “Which is why I absolutely must finish this project… I would not have thought they would attack us here, so soon,” he added with a frustrated growl.

Patrick hopped up onto the platform, easily clearing six meters of height with the same effort a normal man might put into going up a single step, coming to a halt right next to the man calling him ‘brother’, whom could not have seemed more like his very opposite if he’d tried – blue-eyed, blonde-haired paleness in a white suit and tie, on a black shirt, perfectly composed like he’d just come out of the wardrobe and off the hands of a team of make-up and fashion specialists.

“They are here, though. And Hemming has marked you for his target, now,” he replied, his voice seemingly as casual and uncaring as it usually was.

Oh Patty, just because you pretend doesn’t mean we buy it…

“I know,” Hotrod replied, gnashing his teeth – which appeared to have all been replaced by steel replicas, which were also threaded through with circuitry, which, in turn, was flashing with energy travelling through it, as his tongue played over them, like they were just yet another control element. “But this is my magnum opus, as much as I may try, there is a limit to how much I can rush it – and there is no way I can face them with anything less.”

Patrick ran the fingers of his right hand through his hair, slicking it back. “Good thing I just so happened to come across someone that might be helpful there,” he said with a smirk.

Who?

“Who? I can’t just have any gadgeteer help me with this project, it requires a very specific skillset,” Hotrod replied through gnashed teeth again. “Even Polymnia could only supply some isolated systems, and that girl is ridiculously versatile.”

“Dunno about the little songbird, but I think I can help some!” a new voice spoke up from the entrance to the workshop, as two new figures walked in.

Both her viewpoint, and Hotrod turned around to look at the newcomers.

Ehhh?!

“What are you two- how did you get here?” Hotrod asked, as all the machines he’d been controlling ground to a halt – it seemed all he could do was keep his jaw from hitting the floor.

“They were comin’ to help with the previous situation, but arrived just moments before the Six pulled us into this mess,” Patrick explained, smirking. “So as soon as they knew what was going on, they made their way here to see about coordinating the response.”

“And I tell you, it was no easy feat managing to get here without drawing attention… but I’ve got a good feeling that the Six don’t know we’re here yet,” the second newcomer said, approaching.

“So, let’s get crackin’ on this project of yours, Hotshot!” the other said, his voice overflowing with excitement.

“The name is Hotrod, when will you get that through your skull?!”

***

Her consciousness drifted back to her own body, barely a second having passed in the present, the colors returning to normal. Irene continued on her way, using her telekinetic cloud to shift and move rubble, clearing the path for the ragtag group of survivors she’d gathered, letting her non-linear vision recharge… it was a shame that, not only did she rarely get that power, it also never lasted long, and could only be used a few times before it was gone again.

I’ll have to pick my targets… I don’t think I’ll get more than two more views, three if I limit myself to red scenes, she thought, pulling her hood down, and her cloak closer about her body, pretty much hiding herself from view beneath the thick white cloth. Still, she looked up, briefly, at Fire Burial’s screen, her heart skipping a beat as she saw a fireball explode against Melody’s sonic shield.

Oh God, I wish I could be there to help Melody, she thought, averting her eyes from the scene. Teleportation and reality shifting had been some of the first powers she’d gained upon arriving here, but however Heretic did it, she was barred from moving between the pocket spaces he’d created, except via the seemingly randomly shifting gateways.

Melody, Harry, Thomas, they all needed her help… nevermind Jared’s little sister, or Hecate, or Tyche… and she didn’t even know how many others had been caught up in this.

At least Patty and the guys ought to be alright, as long as they stick together.

That had been a red scene, so it’d happened in the past… but her vision of Hemming spying on the UH HQ had been from the future, so presumably, they’d have the time they need to finish Hotrod’s big project… a magnum opus he’d been designing specifically to challenge the Six, especially Hemming…

Have they somehow foreseen that? Is that why Hemming has marked Hotrod as his target, because he wants to eliminate him before he finishes it? Or because he relishes the challenge? He once went after Hotrod’s old team, the Speedfreakz, specifically to prove himself the greatest speedster in the world… a title he’s now lost to Tachyon, but nevertheless… the rivalry exists.

She turned a corner, onto a larger street, grabbing up three devotees wearing red armor pads on their body and joints, with the cloth in between colored golden, and choked them out, tossing them into an alley before the civilians could catch up and get scared by the lowlifes.

No, they couldn’t have foreseen it… predicting the creation of gadgets is nigh-impossible, doubly so for a magnum opus, and powerful gadgets are in themselves blindspots to most forms of extra-sensory perception… one of the few things they really do have in common with contrivers.

It was why no one had seen Su Lin coming, nor been able to respond to her in a timely fashion – the woman’s average creations had made put gadgeteers’ magna opera to shame, not to mention what her big builds had done…

It was another reason why the Six were so difficult to pin down… Hemming was an incredibly powerful Esper, Atrocity was a powerful gadgeteer, Pristine was a permanent blindspot and Heretic, like all high-end contrivers, couldn’t be looked at directly with any form of pre- or post-cognition… even cycling through over a dozen such powers, Irene had only been able to get a few indirect glimpses of him, as if her powers shied away from focusing on someone so twisted. She’d burned through all those powers, just to get a basic idea of what to do.

Which didn’t even account for any specific counter-ESP measures they all but certainly had taken to further protect themselves.

Even so, both pre- and post-cognition still work within this space and my power’s been surprisingly cooperative ever since this mess began, she continued her train of thought, only to have it turn sour.

Why couldn’t it be this helpful before? was a thought that kept coming up. W-why couldn’t I get the crystal stasis when Basil was, when he…

She shuddered, hugging herself beneath her cloak, then pulled it tighter about herself, trying to feel like there was someone holding her.

She’d seen people die before, but… never someone she’d known, someone she’d liked. Never in front of her, never all but in her arms, only to hold his corpse…

I was so useless. Why couldn’t you fucking give me a single good power to save him with? she thought angrily at her power. You just gave me a crystal stasis power that could have preserved him, at least! Or how about some time reversion? Healing? Anything? I’ve saved people from worse than what happened to him, in the past, so why couldn’t I do it then?

“M-miss Gloom Glimmer?” a hesitating voice pulled her out of the spiral of dark thoughts, causing her hood to twitch to the left, so she could look at the middle-aged woman in the dust-covered sweater dress that’d walked up to her. “Excuse me, but… do you know how soon we can take a break? Some of the children, I don’t think they can last much longer like this.”

Irene turned more fully, looking past her and at the ragtag group she’d gathered, even as her non-linear perception came back online.

“Just a little further,” she tried to reassure the woman, as the pressure on her mind built up – maintaining one power for over an hour was not something she could do casually. “We’ll keep an eye out for a place to take a short break in, alright?”

The woman, and the others behind her, relaxed a bit, even the big tough guys that were trying to look like they could keep going for hours more – but the truth was, they were all exhausted, regardless of their physical or mental fortitude.

“Let’s get a move on. And don’t forget to prevent the children from looking up at the screens,” she added, softly, trying to sound like her mom (and doing a poor job of it, in her mind).

“Y-yes, of course,” the woman agreed, throwing a brief look up herself, only to cringe and retreat to join the group proper.

Irene wanted, so much, to look up. Or better yet, use her power to gaze into the future, make sure Melody and the others would be alright, but…

I can’t. If I see you die, too, I don’t think I’ll be able to do what needs to be done, she thought, morosely, turning away from the group to advance further down the street, looking around for a building that didn’t look like a trap. And I can’t afford to waste a charge, anyway… so what should I look at next?

***

The scene was blue-shifted again. It would perhaps have been better to only look at red scenes, not blue ones, to preserve her power’s charges, but Mindstar was beyond crucial – the woman had revealed some startling capabilities, and the thought of her falling into the hands of the Six was beyond terrifying to Irene.

Two scores of corpses with holes burned into their chests walked in lockstep through Mackenzie Park, led by a girl with a glowing staff and dark eyes, dragging a ragged-looking, babbling Mindstar after her.

Hecate, oh God. What’s happened?

Both of them seemed to be in reasonably good physical health, at least… but mentally…

Hecate’s eyes looked wrong, like a light had gone out inside, to be replaced by something darker, harsher. Her mouth was twisted into a snarl of pain and cold rage, and the hand holding onto her pulsing staff was shaking with barely restrained violence.

Mindstar, meanwhile, looked like she’d gone through a shredder. Her costume was barely decent anymore, showing as much skin as it covered, and was soaked through with blood, though any wounds she may have had had long since healed. The woman was barely able to walk, even though she had taken those ridiculous heels off and was wearing a pair of scavenged boots that utterly clashed with her outfit.

Or, considering that she was babbling incoherently while clinging to Hecate’s hand like a lost child, she probably hadn’t done that on her own – it seemed more like something Hecate would think of, even in such a situation.

“Can’t feel him can’t feel him can’t feel him can’t can’t so far so far fading fading connection disrupted disrupted the sun is lost again again back back like winter again again can’t can’t can’t…”

“Will you shut up already?” the witch hissed at the broken woman. “If you’re going to keep talking, at least tell me something I want to know!”

She looked over her shoulder at her… prisoner? Companion? Ward? Irene couldn’t tell.

As her ire grew, the walking dead hissed and snarled towards Mindstar, without so much as missing a step. Almost all of them looked the same – a hole in their chests, to show a burning heart, burning eyes and a collar of flames about their shoulders. They were, one and all, devotees, mostly Pristine’s, wearing see-through clothing or armor, but also a few of Fire Burial’s devotees, which tended to wear flame-patterned clothing of various kinds, and they all moved with an unnatural fluidity, in perfect synch with each other.

I didn’t know Hecate could do anything like this…

Mindstar whimpered, shrinking away from the dead – which meant moving closer to Hecate, as there were undead all around her, otherwise.

Hecate sighed, and kept walking, holding the older supervillain’s hand. “Lupus Maior. Do you even remember her?”

Lupus who?

“Your cousin cousin. Star wolf girl,” Mindstar mumbled, quieting down a little. “Remember Basil? I can’t find Basil, I should be l-“

Cousin!?

“Basil is gone,” Hecate said, harshly, yet it cost her several tears to do so. “Why did you kill her? She was a freaking tree hugger, all she did was hunt poachers and illegal pollution, why the fuck did that merit the Dark Five taking an interest in her?”

“Star wolf, star wolf, cute little star wolf… I think… forest? Was tracking… hm… Basil? I was looking for B-“

Hecate interrupted her with a snarl: “No, not Basil! It had nothing to do with Basil! Just tell me what happened to my cousin! Lupus Maior!”

Mindstar whimpered, looking down. “Bad wolf. Bad wolf, bad wolf. Boss said to find out about bad wolf, stop it stop it, find Basil, gotta find Basil I need Basil, Basil-“

Just what is all this about?

“What does any of that mean?” Hecate asked. “Why did the Dark want you to go after my cousin?! Why was she so bad?”

The broken villain shook her head again. “Not star wolf, bad wolf. Bad wolf, bad. Bad wolf ate star wolf, so so, um, have you seen Basil? I need to find Basil, I really really need to f-” She was cut off as she walked into Hecate, who’d frozen in place.

Hecate let go of her hand, whirling around, and Mindstar cringed, pulling back and averting her eyes from those dark, dull green orbs. “What do you mean, ate her? Are you telling me you didn’t kill her? Am I really supposed to believe that!?!” she screamed at the cowering villain.

“No no I killed killed the star wolf girl, killed killed her. Bad wolf got her so I killed killed her,” she mumbled, wringing her hands, her eyes fixated on a spot on the ground. “Y-you know Basil? Can you tell me where Basil Basil is, I need, need Basil to make, make better, head hurts hurts hurts I hurt hurt need Basil Basil Basil…”

Hecate threw her head back and screamed, roared, the sound coming out with an almost physical effect, causing Mindstar to fall on her butt, and even the undead surrounding them staggered back.

“I can’t take this anymore? Why the fuck do I finally get to talk to you, when you’re too fucking messed up to actually answer clearly?!”

“Sorry sorry I just just Basil I need Basil need Basil please-“

“Basil is dead! He’s dead, don’t you get it!?” Hecate screamed at her, throwing her hood back as she leaned in and stared Mindstar in the eyes, hot tears running down her cheeks in endless streams. “He’s dead and there’s not even a corpse left because I was too fucking stupid to hold on to him and now he’s gone and gone and gone!”

Her voice cracked over the last few words, as she fell to her knees, hiding her face in her hands.

Mindstar knelt down as well, almost knee to knee with the sobbing witch hero. “He always comes back, you know?” she said, in a voice that didn’t suit her curvy, adult form at all – she sounded more like a tween than an grown woman. “He went away so many times, but… they said he’d died so many times, but… but he always came back, back to me, me…” she spoke, her voice barely more than a whisper.

“To you? They? What… just what is the story behind you two?” Hecate asked, begged really, putting her hands down on her knees. “What is going on? Why did Basil have all these holes in his memories, and who was this other guy that’d take over every time Osore used his power on him? And what in all sweet heavens is wrong with you?”

I wonder whether Papa knew anything about this

Mindstar, Amanda, averted her eyes. “I don’t, don’t re-re-remember… much, just… something… bad people… s-s-seven, bad people, they, they hurt us… over and over and over… it was always… always him, that pro-pro-protected, m-m-.”

***

Irene blinked, as the scene disappeared and she was once again seeing in normal colors, nary a second having passed in the present.

Darn it, ran out early! she thought, angrily. Just when it had gotten… interesting.

She knew it wasn’t the best use of her resources, but… Irene felt like she really ought to know the truth behind Basil and Amanda. Her gut told her it was important, even now, with Basil dead and gone.

Her thoughts hitched again, as her ruminations summoned up a memory of holding the dead body of someone she thought might have become a friend of hers, a boy so weird and yet nice she’d actually felt almost normal, the few times they’d actually gotten to talk… like he didn’t care about, or even notice, how odd she herself was, like most everyone else tended to…

Shaking her head, Irene stomped onwards, holding onto her powers, even though the headache caused by forcing the third one to keep going was getting worse and worse.

Just a little longer, and I’ll be able to release that one, she promised herself.

A flick of her finger, and invisible force flew into the keyhole of a heavy steel door she’d seen in one of her visions, earlier. She felt out the tumblers within and aligned them with barely a thought, unlocking and opening the door.

“In there, quickly,” she instructed her followers, stopping next to the door while they passed by.

She looked them over as they went, smiling reassuringly, or sternly in the case of a few guys who couldn’t keep their eyes to themselves, and reached out to stroke the heads of the little ones that passed her by, getting a few sweet smiles and even a lovestruck blush from one of the boys.

Soon.

She followed inside after them, using her telekinetic cloud to close it behind them without making a sound, then dismissed that power.

Two new ones rose up almost immediately, while Irene followed them into what appeared to have been a gambling parlor, now abandoned and covered in a layer of dust from the cracks in the concrete ceiling.

People spread out and sat down on plush chairs, or just flopped down on the floor, while a few of the guys went immediately to the bar at the back.

Irene tapped the two new powers she’d gained, gesturing at the short hallway they’d come in through, and created a glyph that was invisible to anyone but her, storing a full charge of the other power, a powerful ‘shock’ of distorted space into the trap, for later use, then she walked into the parlor, and to the corner of the room furthest from everyone else, leaning her back against the wall, hood and cloak drawn tightly about her.

Soon… now I can afford to look again, I suppose…

***

“Who!? Who’re you talking about, what seven people, who… who’s behind all of this? Are they the ones who’ve been, mucking with your and Basil’s heads?!”, Hecate pleaded with the broken woman, even more desperate for answers than Irene herself felt.

Wish I could give you a hug right now…

“I don’t, don’t… n-no, I think, I mean, I don’t know know know, I don’t, I can’t… I need Basil, he would know, maybe?” Amanda replied, sounding confused, one hand to her head. “It hurts to think, and Basil always makes the hurt go away, I need him!” She started to cry, sobbing like a little girl. “I want my brother!”

Hecate lowered her head. “He’s gone, Amy-“

The whole scene distorted, fuzzed, suddenly, as if the signal was being lost.

“Did… say… Am-my?” Fragments of a new voice managed to get through, before the auditory noise of the distortion got too bad to still make out anything meaningful.

What!?

She saw Hecate whirl around, still on the ground, looking.. up?

Another distortion, like the gray flickering in an old television.

A blindspot?

Hecate said something, looking upwards, while Amanda scrambled back… or did she fall? Was she pulled? The distortion was getting worse and worse…

Pristine?

***

Irene shook her head, feeling the non-linear perception fade from her grasp, sinking back into the darkness.

A blindspot… she was quite certain that was Pristine, judging by Hecate looking up at someone… it could theoretically have been Heretic, but he was after Irene, not Mindstar, while Pristine was explicitly targeting the villain, all but certainly hoping to die at the hands of the woman who’d managed to hurt even Bree.

Poor Amy… poor Hecate. I’m not sure how soon this will take place, she thought, morosely, but I’m not sure that I’ll be able to help you two out. If, if only, I knew how to really use this power…

She blinked as someone tugged at her cloak, and she looked down to see a blushing eight-year-old boy, holding up a glass with a fizzy brown liquid inside.

“F-for you, Miss Gloom Glimmer!” he said, unable to meet her eyes for more than a second, the words coming out with an adorable, light lisp, caused by several missing teeth.

“Thank you, Ricky.” She smiled as she took the glass from the blushing elementary schooler, and sipped the still cold, fizzy sugar water.

The boy nodded, mumbling a quick “you’re welcome” before he ran off to join his father and older brother at the bar.

So cute…

She’d actually met him and his family, at a PR event a few weeks ago… well, to be fair, she’d met everyone currently in this room before…

She felt the spatial shock power fall away, leaving her with the slowly diminishing glyph trap – which, fortunately, she only needed to trigger the one she’d laid out now, so it didn’t hurt that it was fading away already – and the power she’d been maintaining for a good hour now.

Another two powers rose up, a perception power and… the ripples, again.

Irene’s senses expanded, as reality suddenly seemed to expand into many, many more dimensions than just the three most people thought of. She could see flows of energy and distortions of spacetime, see the patterns of Heretic’s power weaving through everything, maintaining this isolated space, and she could see so much more… a power that would let her see her foes’ powers, possibly even decypher them in detail.

The other, the ripples she so often gained… they always took on a different form, though it was always one of the strongest powers she could get. It’d let her reshape matter in the past, or counter other powers’ effects, or slice through matter and energy both…

This time, it took on a far more violent and direct form than it’d ever had. She could feel the shape of it, as she focused on its light… shape-able beams of something which was neither energy nor matter, more akin to a distortion in spacetime, that’d zero out anything it came into contact with…

Her eyes widened, as she processed it – she’d never had a single offensive power that was this enormously powerful… frankly, she almost never got an esper power as good as this hyper-dimensional perception, nor were her visions often as good as the ones her non-linear perception had given her, or the precognitions she’d gone through earlier, after arriving in this place… just what was it that made her power be so much more cooperative and have so much more oomph to it, all at once?

Some kind of interaction with Heretic’s isolated space? Is it because I was so close to Bree, perhaps? Or because I was so close to the Incursion event?

She emptied her glass, knowing that there wasn’t much time to ruminate on such questions, nor to enjoy the fizzy drink. She’d need to focus soon, and-

The whole building was shaken by a massive impact. Concrete and rebar cracked like they were nothing, and the entire structure seemed to cave in around them all.

Irene cried out, dropping her glass and raising her cloak over her head to protect herself from the dust that fell filled the remnants of the room, as all of it, every bit but the corner she’d been standing in, collapsed, crushing the men, women and children she’d been protecting faster than they could cry out.

“Well, hello there, my pretty!” a bombastic voice called out, as a huge, draconic shape rose out of the dust and rubble, stretching wings made of crystalline red spheres and metallic golden rods.

The rest of its, his body was constructed of the same parts, repeated and arranged over and over, far larger than the crude humanoid form he’d been using for decades, his chest alone was now the size of a minivan.

And that was just what she saw with her normal eyes… there was so much more to him, when looking at him with the hyper-dimensional perception she currently enjoyed. Rivers, torrents of energy and spatial distortions ran into, through and around the spheres making up his body, modulated by the rods which seemingly served no purpose but an aesthetic one.

Not only could she see how every part of his ‘body’ was either the source of, or the control elements for, a different contrived ‘spell’, she could also see the layers upon layers of protective ‘enchantments’ he’d worked around it, like an onion of invisible shields covering nearly every possible avenue of attack. And those were just his passive defenses.

Looking at him was like staring into the sun, a concentration of sheer power exceeding all but a very few people she’d run into… her parents, Journeyman, Basil and Emyr, two or three others, tops.

And all that power was now gathered and focused at her… and she studied it, even as the innocents’ blood spread across the floor, threatening to soak her feet, her heart beating a mile a minute in her chest.

“Sorry about squashing the extras… it wasn’t intentional, I promise! Just got excited about finally me- why are you smiling?” He tilted that massive, expressionless head of his to the side.

Now.

Irene’s smirk broadened as she released her hold on the manifestation power she’d held onto for so long, feeling her headache drain away at the same rate at which that power sunk back into the darkness.

Heretic’s entire form shuddered, and he tilted his head the other way, confused, as the innocents he’d just slaughtered all… faded away, broken bodies, clothes and spilled blood, all gone in but the blink of an eye.

“They weren’t real? Wha-“

A twitch of her left index triggered the glyph trap she’d laid out when she came in, unleashing an explosion of distortion, as strong as she could possibly make it.

It rippled out and through the room, and briefly, for but a moment, disrupted his many shields, creating the finest gap, one that would have been impossible for her to see, much less exploit, if it wasn’t for the hyper-dimensional perception she was using.

She thrust out her arm, and unleashed a beam of un-space, a distortion that chased the light away, creating a solid black pillar that extended from her hand and in through the gap of his many shields.

Past the gap, it forked in two, then one branch forked again, and they speared through four scarlet spheres and seven golden rods, ones she’d identified with in the precious few seconds she’d been able to focus her new sight upon him – this had been the part of the plan she’d been least sure about, as she hadn’t been able to predict where exactly she’d have to strike, having had to count on getting the right power to identify her targets when he was before her.

Her power provided, and she did just that.

Heretic’s whole form shuddered and reared back, as above, in the sky, lights flashed, and for a brief moment, everything in this space seemed to become a negative of itself, reality itself seeming to stutter for a moment.

Up above, Calvin Poth cried out, ducking away from the contraption he’d been using to randomize the pathways between the pocket spaces was torn apart from the inside out.

“What the – how? Did you… what… what!?” the demented mass murderer whined, looking down at Irene’s smirking face.

She rarely felt so much like her father, but right now… yeah, time to tap into his example, a bit.

So she let out her most mocking evil laugh, feeling a new power come up to replace the manifestation she’d held onto for so long to fake being surrounded and distracted by innocents.

Stars filled her long, jet-black hair, glimmering amidst the silken strands, as her sclera turned black and her iridae as red as the eyes of her father’s wraiths.

“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked, using the new power of gravitation to rise up into the air, until she was at ‘eye’ level with the draconic shape before her. “They weren’t even extras, just props I made to distract you from what I was really doing with the survivors I found.”

He turned his head this way and that, rods and spheres shifting, adjusting his senses – something which she could see happen, now, with these greater senses of hers.

“You destroyed my control units… no one can control how the pathways shift now! You…” In spite of his utterly inhuman, unnatural form, his voice was very human, and betrayed a note of all too human shock and even a hint of awe. “There’s no one here, is there? No one but you and me, not in this entire globule!”

She smirked, just like how her daddy had taught her to, feeling more powerful and in control than she’d ever been.

“Correct. I evacuated this space, and I’ve been leading you on while I did it. I knew you wouldn’t truly leave the connections between the spaces up to chance, not without a way to manipulate the odds in your favor, so I baited you into the perfect chance for me to take that little cheat of yours away from you!” she explained with a feeling of utter exhileration.

“How long have you known I’ve been watching you? Just just how long have you been fucking playing me?” he asked, spreading his wings and raising his shoulders to take on a more imposing posture.

So she put on the most smug smile she could, to be as offensive to his ego as she could. “That’s the wrong question to ask you know?” she replied to his question with another question, coyly touching a finger to her chin.

“And what is the right question then, you screwy little minx?”

Her smile turned into a grin. “Just how long have you reprobates been under the delusion that you had a bead on me?”

About Comments…

Hello everyone,

this isn’t a story post, sadly, but one regarding some technical difficulties that have been ongoing for a while – it appears that wordpress has some kind of issue that keeps pending comments off the list for me.

Some appear, some don’t. Some come in days, weeks or, in a case I noticed today, months late.

If you’ve been commenting here for a while and your comments have yet to appear, that may be the reason for it. I’m trying to figure out how to fix this, but for now, it appears that whether or not I even get to decide whether to approve a comment or not is up to the RNG.

Sincerely,

Tieshaunn Tanner

15.5 All Masks Fall

Exposed – she was tough, but not very strong. If anything, she was weaker than her sheer mass would suggest. Defensive mutations, sacrificing power for survivability. She was tall, broad, closer to a male heavyweight lifter than any kind of woman, but was on record for only having the strength of a normal teenage girl. What made her problematic was how tough she was, her body adapted to easily resist temperature extremes and electrocution, as well as being slashed, stabbed and especially blunt impacts. What made her dangerous was her ability to generate fire or ice, the ‘or’ being operative, from her hands. She could shoot streams of flames that’d not only burn, but adhere to solid objects and, provided there was fuel available, spread out; alternatively, she could fire something halfway between a foam and a liquid, a substance which would absorb any heat it got into contact with and turn into ice. If she covered a person with it, they’d end up like the two preschoolers kneeling by the swings, arms wrapped around each other – frozen solid from head to toe, as all warmth was leeched from the victim, the liquid that’d covered them expanding into irregular icicles.

El Conquistadore – he was the real danger to watch out for. His power meant that he had complete control over any water outside of a living body, so long as he was in contact with it – and as Melody walked out from her hiding place and approached them under the cover of her cone of silence, she could see that he wasn’t just wet, he stood in a puddle of water which extended into multiple streams connecting him to the four pools of water and the pool of blood and gore. Smart, smarter than his lifestyle suggested he was, which bode ill for anyone facing him. Via those streams, he would be able to control all that water at will, move it around like an extension of his body, use it to smash people to paste, to drown them or otherwise to assault them. Worse, if he managed to make physical contact with exposed skin – and Melody was quite aware of the fact that most of her upper body was fully exposed – his power would extend into her body, and he could paralyze her, tear apart her insides at a moment’s notice or simply cause her to explode. Her physical toughness was unlikely to be sufficient to even slow him down.

I need to take them out fast. But first, I need to make sure I won’t hit the civilians, as well. Without the tuners in my armor, I don’t have the precision to take them down from this angle, without at the very least crippling the father and son, she thought, stepping closer, trying to stay behind the two villains.

If she could get close enough to strike, physically, then she might be able to take out El Conquistadore before the battle even begun; Exposed on her own was dangerous, but Melody was confident she could take her on by herself without endangering the civilians.

She was barely halfway along the way to reaching the villains – not making any sounds at all meant she was well-concealed from detection, so long as they didn’t turn their heads – when the young man that was bleeding out through his stump, his father unable to staunch the bleeding, looked up and straight at her.

He moaned, in pain most likely, almost certainly involuntarily, but it was enough. El Conquistadore turned his head and looked, only for his eyes to widen when he caught sight of her.

You,he snarled, his beautiful face contorting into utter hatred. “I remember you – you’re that cow that made me shit my pants in front of everyone!” he explaimed, speaking with an unmistakable, though easily understandable, Spanish accent.

“Oops,” she replied, feeling her face heat up a bit, actually. “I forgot I used my brown note, back then…”

Just as she had expected, those words only made him angrier, as a vein began to stand out and pulse on his forehead.

“You forgot!? You turned me into laughingstock, you coño!” he shouted, as the water and blood rose out of the pools around them, like fat, bloated spiders standing on spindly legs, ready to strike.

I’ve got to deal with this the same way Brennus took on Mindstar – an enemy who’s way more powerful than me, who only needs to hit once to beat me, so I only get one shot to do this right, she strategized in her head, even as she deliberately put a swagger into her step, the way she’d seen older performers walk when they wanted to appear extra-sexy. Add a sweet, but condescending smile, tune her vocoder for maximum mockery…

“Well, I just assumed you of all people would be able to clean up easily,” she said.

That did it. The bastard lost it, screaming, his pretty face distorted in anger; a gesture made the streams of water he was using to stay connected to the pools leap up into his hands, held like reigns or leashes, and he snapped them towards her.

“You puta, I’m going to…”

Four blobs of dirty water and one blob of blood and worse shot at her, but she was already moving, having expected a straight-forward, blunt attack like this.

If he’d been smart, if he’d retreated instead of attacked, put the hostages between himself and her, spread the water out to make the terrain impassable and hem her in… she could have been in serious trouble.

This, this was easy to deal with. Dude has a surprisingly thin skin.

She shot forward, low and fast, moving her legs as hard as she could; with strength far in excess of what would be needed to normally move a body as heavy as hers, that meant some serious burst of speed that she could generate, using it to close the distance between herself and him.

“… grab those fat cow tits of yours and…”

Melody dove underneath the attack, rolling past him. She was so close to the armless young man now, one of his feet was between her knees, as she came to a halt, twisting left at the same time that she stood up.

El Conquistadore was slow to react, turning at the waist, left arm trying to track her, but too slow to do so. His lack of actual training showed, because he’d have had a better chance of tagging her if he’d just lashed out with his power, rather than try to bodily turn and aim at her.

Exposed, on the other hand, was already in the perfect position to hit her, the civilians, or even both.

Melody didn’t give her the chance. As she came up, she grabbed the woman’s outstretched right arm. She couldn’t be sure that a punch or a kick wouldn’t be absorbed, or at least mitigated by her weird biology – but Exposed had been so kind as to publish her precise weight, and keep it updated to boot.

Seventy-eight kilogram and some change was far below the kind of weight Melody felt confident tossing around.

She pulled on Exposed’s arm, taking her off her feet, and swung the woman with all her strength at El Conquistadore’s legs.

He cried out, his legs smashed out from under him, flipping him over and disrupting his concentration on his power.

The blobs of water and gore collapsed, momentum causing the resulting flood to surge towards them, but at least the actual attack was foiled.

Melody continued her swing, then released Exposed’s arm, tossing her across the misshapen area and into one of the empty pools.

Dirty water washed over her feet, the prone El Conquistadore and the civilians, and Melody kept moving, knowing full well that she was one brief touch to her exposed stomach, arms or face away from being completely at the scumbag’s mercy.

She put her feet on his wrists, while he was still sputtering and spitting out water, and bent over.

He began to say something in Spanish, but she just thrust her hands down, crossing her arms. Her armored fists hit the wet, soggy ground next to his ears. She’d crossed them, so the back of her left gauntlet was next to his right ear, and the back of the right one next to the left one.

Speakers just a few centimeters away from his ears.

She dialed the volume way up and triggered them, even as the parts of her visor that fit like headphones over her ears clamped down and sealed themselves to protect her sensitive hearing.

Even so, the noise was horrible. A huge, sharp, high-pitched wail, so powerful that, even though the gauntlets were designed to focus sound only in specific directions – in this case, directly into his ears – she could feel the vibrations in her bones, in her teeth. Water was blown away all around them, and the father and son were thrown over, from sitting up on the ground to lying flat, followed by the mother and her child, whom threw herself over the boy and covered his ears with her hands for good measure.

Their reactions were nothing compared to El Conquistadore’s, whom bucked and strained, almost managing to dislodge her from atop him. His eyes were wide, and filling with blood already as capillaries burst, his mouth wide open as he screamed – but Melody doubted anyone could hear even a hint of it, next to the wail her gauntlets were generating.

The sight turned her stomach.

She still kept it up until he went limp, blood running from ears, eyes and nose, before she cancelled the shriek.

The sudden absence of her gauntlets’ wail plunged the area into almost painful silence – which was promptly broken by the roar of a stream of fire, coming right at Melody’s head.

She could have jumped up to dodge the shot, but that’d expose her to a follow-up attack while she was airborne and thus far more restricted in how to react. She could have used her sonic shield, but, it wasn’t very good at dealing with heat.

Instead, she threw herself forward, rolling out of the way as soon as she heard the roar of flames.

The stream cut through where her head had been just a second ago, and was then followed up by a spike of ice cutting through the air towards her.

Melody planted her feet in the soggy ground and slammed her forearms together, side by side, triggering her sonic shield – the one-directional version of her cage, as she lacked the multiple speakers of her power armor that’d allow her to project the more powerful version.

Even so, the icicle smashed into it and bounced off in pieces, failing to even push her back, in spite of the slick mud she was standing in.

Exposed climbed fully out of the pool that Melody had thrown her in, her odd face twisted in a snarl of anger.

“You’ll die for that, you fucking cow!”, she screamed, gathering flames around her hands, clenching them into fists.

Melody huffed at that. “You were going to kill me anyway, so that rings rather hollow as an added threat!” she replied, starting to walk slowly to the left, as if trying to circle her enemy, though mainly, she wanted to make sure the civilians wouldn’t be in either of their firing lines.

If I get close enough… could I repeat El Conquistadore’s takedown? Her physiology is clearly not entirely human anymore… frankly, she’s basically a Chimaera type, and mostly a defensive one at that, so… would it even work? she thought to herself, feeling far less confident than she pretended to be.

Fortunately, acting confident even when she wasn’t had been one of the first and most useful lessons she’d learned being a performer.

“Maybe I’ll draw it out now,” Exposed snarled, her hands filling with fire again. “Roast you from the toes up! I wonder how you’ll be singing while I do that!”

Fuck, these crazies are so boring to listen to, Melody thought to herself, feeling weary.

Not too weary to dodge the next blast of fire though – thank God for all those training sessions she’d hated for taking her out of her workshop.

Roll over shoulder, to the side – Exposed tried to anticipate that, using her other hand to add a second stream of liquid fire, but she’d either forgotten or not realized that Melody was physically enhanced as well; the second stream lagged behind her, missing wide.

Still, all was not well – too much of the area around the civilians was burning, and just one mistake on Melody’s part could spell doom for them, if they were caught in Exposed’s fires. Worse stills, the fire she created didn’t seem to stop burning. Rather, it spread, even with nothing to fuel it, flowing over the pavement like a thick, viscous fluid.

Melody ran, breaking out to the left, seemingly to circle around Exposed.

The misshapen woman tried to track her with her arm, but here a downside of her specific delivery method became clear – she was essentially shooting liquid, rather than some kind of beam; it was slow, like trying to follow a target with a water hose, the fluid lagging behind the nozzle.

Running a spiral let Melody evade it and close the distance, as the woman utterly failed to adapt, just standing there and spinning about trying to hit her, laying out an ever-tightening circle of fire.

Can’t get out of this without getting burned now, Melody thought, closing in.

“Stop running and stand still, already!” Exposed shouted, sounding a great deal younger than she looked – filled with an almost childish indignation that only made her seem more unhinged.

Fuck you, Melody thought, as she closed in and leapt onto her.

Exposed squealed, but was neither fast nor trained enough to react – being forced to take martial arts classes paid off, as Melody leapt onto the woman’s back, or to be more precise, she grabbed her outstretched arm while leaping, the same one that was emitting the stream of burning liquid, and used it like a lever to swing herself around her enemy, putting her whole weight into the motion to again plant her feet and lift her up.

“What the-“, was all that Exposed had time to say, before she slammed head-first into a patch of cracked pavement with such force, her head was half-buried in it.

She did not pass out, even with that; instead, she kicked out, wildly, catching Melody by the shoulder.

The kick was nothing special, it would not even have budged Melody, with her feet planted as they were – but indeed, raw pain shot through her body and she reared back, crying out, almost stumbling into the ring of fire around the two of them.

What was that? She looked at her left shoulder, and saw the skin there frozen, cracking open to show raw redness beneath. How? She looked at Exposed’s foot – it was oozing with a clear, white-blue liquid, sizzling with cold as it dripped to the pavement.

She can emit that stuff from parts other than her hands? A trump card she held back until now?

Exposed put her feet down and pushed with her arms, pulling her head out of the hole it’d made in the ground, whirling around to glare at Melody.

Though her strange physiology had saved her from having her head caved in or her neck snapped, she had taken some serious damage – her already misshapen face was smushed further, there was no other word for it, the nose ripped open and flattened, several of her flat teeth missing, visible through torn lips, and her forehead had been ripped so badly a flap of skin was hanging down, covering her left eye.

Even so, she was already, and visibly, starting to mend.

“Ahhhh’ll kiiiill youuuuu!” she screamed, mad with rage – but she didn’t watch her footing, nor the use of her power, and slipped on the very frozen gel her right foot was still spreading, forcing herself into splits.

Ain’t gonna get that good a chance again! Melody thought, jumping forward, and thrust her thumbs into her ears, as hard as she could, even though her shoulder screamed in blinding pain.

Exposed screamed in pain, as Melody felt the sickening sensation of her thumbs piercing the woman’s ear drums.

Go down already! Melody thought, screaming wordlessly at the same time, unable to form the words out loud, and triggered her gauntlets at the highest setting, channeling it through her thumbs and right into the villain’s skull.

It felt like her bones were cracking, breaking, but the effect on Exposed was nothing short of gruesome, as her widely-spaced eyes flew open and bugged out, going cross-eyed, blood vessels all over her face bursting, as the vibrations ran through her cranium and bounced around inside.

Melody was way beyond caring whether or not she killed. She could feel sick and rotten later, after she’d taken these monsters out.

To that end, she kept up the assault, even as bloody froth bubbled out of her enemy’s mouth, and she would have kept it up until Exposed’s brain liquefied, if she could.

However, as her punches and shoves proved unable to dislodge Melody – Exposed really did not have a lot of physical strength – the villain changed it up, pulling out another trick which wasn’t on her record.

Blue and red liquid, droplets and rivulets, oozed out of her skin, all over, and reacted against each other, before Melody could do more than lean back, her thumbs still stuck inside the woman’s ears.

Heat and cold reacted with each other, and there was a powerful explosion, which literally blew her off of the villain, a sharp pain in her thumbs making her feel like they’d finally snapped for good.

Melody tumbled across the ground, until she slammed into an outcropping of concrete, hard enough it stunned her even through her enhanced physique.

Exposed was even worse off – the woman was screaming at the top of her lungs, scrambling about, trying to get on her feet, yet unable to. Blood was pouring out of her ruined ears, and though Melody had been unable to kill her, she’d utterly destroyed her inner ears, completely robbing her of any sense of balance.

She lay there, dazed, watching the woman spew burning and freezing liquid here and there, her screams so loud they cut even through her daze and made her ears hurt.

Fuck, I didn’t mean to torture her, Melody thought, horrified at the display.

She got up, slowly, walking towards the trashing woman, as she stopped using her power and just rolled left and right on the ground, screaming way past the point where a normal human’s throat would have become too raw to continue.

“Don’t worry, I’ll put you to sleep,” Melody said, her artificial voice calm and soothing, as she reached the writhing woman. “It’ll all be over soon.”

She reached out with her right hand, idly noting that her thumb, while broken, was already mending, aiming to lull the woman to sleep with one of her slower melodies..

And then there was a spark, a tongue of flame, connecting with Exposed’s wide open mouth.

And the deformed villain burst into flames from the inside out.

Melody cried out, horrified, raising her arms to shield herself – but she was not burned. Rather, the flames which consumed her down to a charred skeleton roared up, almost like a burning snake, and before Melody could do anything to help, lunged over to El Conquistadore’s unconscious form, setting him ablaze as well.

“Well, I guess now I know why Hemming wanted to give these posers another shot,” a mocking female voice spoke up.

Melody turned left and looked up, her blood running cold as she saw the speaker – a young woman, barely in her mid-twenties, if that old, standing atop a ruined building. Stark naked and clearly comfortable with it, she had bright red, nearly knee-length hair, which seemed to be threaded through with licks and flickers of real fire and a pair of eyes which, though green, seemed to burn from the inside, the green colors flickering with the illumination from within, her pupils turned to red-orange dots.

She would have been beautiful if it wasn’t for the contemptuous expression on her face, and the deranged look in her eyes, as she brushed her hair back behind her ears with both hands.

“That was bloody hilarious,” Fire Burial said with a childish grin on her face.

15.4 All Masks Fall

Melody had read a lot about how horrific telepathy was to those who’d fallen victim to it. To have someone else invade your head, your thoughts and memories – things that, above all else, should be sacrosanct. She’d read reports of people, civilians and heroes alike, who’d reported to have felt more violated by having their brains looked through than by straight-up mind control. Reports by psychologists, theorizing that the reason why telepathy in all its forms was so feared was because it was so far outside the human experience.

To have your body violated, horrific though it is, was something that, sadly, humans had had a long, long time to adapt to, both mentally and socially. But before the advent of powers, a direct violation of the mind had, to anyone’s knowledge, been impossible, and it struck right at the core of people themselves; thus the visceral, extreme reaction to it.

Mindstar’s career was emblematic of that. She had been just a B-Class villain, bordering on A, and then she’d been revealed as a telepath. She wasn’t the strongest mind-controller out there, she hadn’t even been the most powerful one on the East Coast, but the sheer fear that true telepaths generated had vaulted her up to S-Class, even before she’d managed to actually give Lady Light a fair fight.

Melody had never really absorbed all of that information, not really. Her only experience with telepathy had been through Irene, who’d mostly used it only as an advanced com-system in combat, and so they could chat and gossip while seemingly doing serious stuff, and who’d only ever read the surface thoughts Melody had concentrated on, that she’d been willing to share.

Now, though, now she understood. Better than she’d ever would have wanted to. All her power, all her gadgets, had come to naught. Mindfuck had, apparently, not even been anywhere close, and he’d slapped her down with literally just a thought. Riffling through her memories like they’d been an open book. Forcing her to re-experience her own fantasies, and the… the climaxes… she’d experienced, in the course of… her explorations… all at once.

She choked on that thought, only to realize it wasn’t just a mental choke. Scrambling up, she was barely able to turn away from the prone, curled-up mess that was Kizzy, and throw up.

Oh God…

Her skin was crawling, from head to toe, and she felt like she needed to take ten showers, and scrub until her skin was all gone to feel even remotely clean again.

And then he’d made her choke Kizzy, and there’d been nothing she could do to stop it, other than appeal to their own fucked-up rules.

Oh, Kizzy, I’m so sorry.

She turned around, still on all fours, and found Kizzy still curled up into a tight ball, sobbing.

“Kizzy. Can you… hear me?” she asked fearfully, as she reached for the girl, sitting back on her heels and pulling her onto her lap.

There were blackening bruises around her neck, and Melody’s heart broke all over again at seeing them.

She drew the girl to her bosom, hugging her… not too tightly. As gingerly as she could, like she was made of spun glass.

Kizzy sobbed and sobbed, and Melody cried with her. What else could she do?

***

After what felt like hours, but which her visor told her were only a few minutes, Kizzy went limp in her arms.

At first, Melody panicked, fearing after-effects of her choking her, that maybe she’d caused even more damage than the bruises betrayed – but no, she’d simply passed out, slipping into merciful unconsciousness.

I need to get her away from all this. Somehow. I need to get away, somehow.

She stood up, thanking whatever God there may be, that she’d been given some measure of super-strength along with her primary power, as it made Kizzy’s weight completely negligible to her.

Unfortunately, it didn’t make her any less unwieldy to carry. Especially since she needed to have her arms free, to be able to properly defend herself.

In the end, after some thought, she ended up taking off her hoodie – so much for covering up, but it wasn’t like that’d helped at all – and using it to tie a seat, of sorts, for Kizzy, so she was on her back, piggyback style. Not the most secure thing, but it’d have to suffice until she woke up again.

Then she set off once more, splitting her attention between her echolocator and trying to come up with some, any plan.

She couldn’t come under Mindfuck’s power again. She just couldn’t. Even now, just thinking of the experience, it made her knees weak, and her… tender bits, burn up in shame. If he got ahold of her again… she wasn’t sure she’d be able to get up again, even if she survived it.

But… he’d let some things slip. There’d been rumors for years now, that Mindfuck had lost a lot of power, or at least been holding back. For years, he hadn’t performed his favorite ‘game’, forcing an entire city’s population to live through the experience of him abusing a child, and the experience of being the child so abused, at the same time. His cruelties had become… far smaller in scale, though no less horrific.

What he said… some boy, someone managed to ‘break’ him? Cripple him?

If that was true… if she ever ran into that boy, whoever he was, she’d give him her first kiss, that was for sure.

Because that meant… she had a chance to get away. If he was too weak to send to an entire city, now, then perhaps, the reverse was also true – and he’d all but stated that. He couldn’t just connect to every mind at once anymore, nor find any mind within his range… he had to search. To look for someone.

All she had to do was find a way to escape his ‘sight’, however it worked.

Not easily done, at all, not when she didn’t know the exact mechanics and limitations.

What else do I know? I read up on these guys, but they make a point of obfuscating what they’re truly capable of.

One limitation that she did know about, with reasonable certainty…

She looked up at the false sky, and the ‘game show’ running above. It was currently quiet, showing ‘live feeds’ from various parts of the Six’ world… they weren’t pretty sights, but at least none of the ‘PCs’ had been slain or captured y-

Oh no.

She stopped, mid-step.

One of the screens, Atrocity’s ‘game cam’ she supposed, showed said demented disgrace to all gadgeteers, in a sleek, snake-like body, several children held hostage with her trademark reddish blades.

And just a few meters away from her, Harry knelt on the ground, one arm around Thomas’ shoulders, the other holding two redheads, a mother and a daughter going by their age difference and similar faces, spreading his power over them.

Red hair… and Atrocity is there… is that Tyche… and her mother?

She had barely processed all that, when Atrocity drew one of her blades diagonally across a little boy’s stomach, then nudged him forward.

The boy fell on his knees, guts starting to spill out of the razor-fine cut, his hands trying to-

Melody averted her eyes. She couldn’t look. If she saw the child’s face, she knew she’d never be able to forget.

Instead, she looked at the group, as far as that was possible, huddled under Harry’s power. Thomas had his face pressed against his love’s chest, clutching his rifle tightly. Dalia’s mother was holding her daughter, so she couldn’t look, and had her eyes averted.

Harry was wearing his helmet, so it was hard to tell, but she would have wagered anything he was watching that child die, and blaming himself, as if it was his fault.

It was just the right kind of wound, too. Lethal, but probably not instantly so, calculated to be survived, possibly, if immediate aid was given.

Aid they had all been trained on, to know how to provide it.

Harry’s power had originated from him trying to save children, at the risk of his own life.

It was a calculated move, trying to goad him into dropping his power to try and save that child.

Melody had never hated anyone or anything as she hated Atrocity then, upon that realization. Not Hastur, not the Panthers, not Dusu, not even Mindfuck.

And she couldn’t do anything about it, anything at all.

***

Even with her echolocation, it took her a while to find the portal. It turned out to be the door to a broom closet in the back of a small ice cream parlor, which, when opened, seemed to lead into a school classroom.

The edges of the door were kind of fuzzy, and Melody’s echolocation got a lot of static, though she was at least able to tell that there was no one in that room she couldn’t see, at least.

Of course, portals, especially interdimensional ones, interacted in the weirdest, most screwy ways with… pretty much everything. Powers, technology, you name it, portals messed with it.

She was counting on it. Mindfuck had, to anyone’s knowledge, never exhibited the ability to reach across dimensions. It was a common enough limitation to nearly every power she knew of, that’d had its interactions with such phenomena recorded.

Here’s to statistical probability, Melody thought, as she made sure she had a good grip on Kizzy’s arms slung over her shoulders, and stepped into the portal.

As she entered the interface, her power went wild. From the usual background musical score she could never quite blend out, which rose to the surface if she focused on it, it turned into an utter cacophony of discord. No coherent ideas at all, no analysis or inspiration, just mad discord.

Woo, this is worse than being teleported!, she thought to herself, and took another step, out of the interface between realities and into the school classroom.

The madness dropped away, her power stabilizing nearly instantly, back to its usual background hymn.

After she’d made sure, with her own eyes and her echolocation, that no one was nearby, she focused on her power, experimentally, and the music came into focus.

It was richer, somehow, like a new depth had been added to the notes, but it was fading even as she listened.

But for a few precious moments, at least, she caught a glimpse of ideas she’d never have considered possible, before. Principles of interdimensional transition, applied to sound, and more.

She looked at the portal, mournfully. There was no time. The new ideas were fading already, too incomplete to do anything with, and she couldn’t afford to hang around this place and hop in and out of the portal, as much as she wanted to.

Maybe I can talk Irene into making a portal in my lab, sometime, she placated herself, settling for making sure Kizzy wasn’t going to slip off, and held her left gauntlet into the portal, then slowly, carefully, pulled it out, as she engaged her scanners. She scanned the portal from the outside, just to be thorough, and then hopped in one more time, using  scanners built into her gauntlets to scan herself, focusing on her head, both within the portal, during transition, and right outside.

There was no time to even glance at the data, but at least she could be sure it would be there, waiting to be analyzed, once this mess was over.

Provided I’m still alive and sane enough to do so, she couldn’t help but remind herself. Either way, enough time spent on this. I need to move on and… survive, I guess. I have no earthly idea how I might actually get out of here, she thought, quietly. Maybe, if I can find Irene, or hold out long enough for her to find me, we can figure something out together.

Kizzy stirred, on Melody’s back, so she interrupted her deliberations in order to step into a different classroom and carefully lower her onto the teacher’s chair.

“Kizzy?” she asked in a worried voice, feeling, not for the first time, subtly wrong about it, as if she was pretending to feel these things, like a person whom deliberately pitched their voice in a way so as to convey something that wasn’t true – except for her, it was always the case, be it true or false. “Can you hear me?”

The little blonde stirred away, eyes fluttering open. Melody was expecting her to break down into tears, or scream, but what she got hurt her heart worse somehow.

Kizzy dropped her eyes down, and didn’t say anything. Didn’t show anything, her pretty face – she still had that angelic look young boys and girls tended to keep into their tweens, before diminishing baby fat and the progression of puberty matured their features – completely flat, showing no reaction at all.

She just nodded.

In spite of her earlier thoughts, Melody now felt glad that she couldn’t use her natural voice and had to rely on her vocoder. The voice it produced didn’t tremble, crack or choke up unless she wanted it to, and she very much didn’t want it to right then.

“I took us away from that horrid man,” she explained softly, running her right hand’s fingers over the girl’s left cheek, wishing she wasn’t wearing thick, electronics-filled gloves. “We should be safe from him, for now.” But not from whichever other monsters are around, she privately thought to herself. Though at least I ought to be able to do something against the others.

Kizzy nodded again, eyes downcast. Still not a peep from her.

“I’m sorry, but we need to keep moving. Do you think you’re up for walking, or should I carry you again?”

Instead of vocally answering, Kizzy stood up, and gave her another nod.

I’m so sorry I can’t just give you a thick, soft blanket and some hot chocolate and some music, but we really need to find help, she thought, rather than said, as she draped her hoodie over Kizzy’s slender shoulders. It wasn’t as nice as a proper blanket would have been, but at least it was warm, another layer between her and this cruel pseudo-world the Six had created.

Not that her problems didn’t start before, and will continue long after I get her out of here.

And she was getting her out of this place, even if it was the last thing she did.

She owed Jared at least that much.

***

The city outside the school looked as desolate as the last place they’d been to, if in a different fashion. More suburban, but the very geography had been shifted, distorted. Buildings were too close together now, streets snaking rather than straight, when they should have been a perfect grid.

Arsville Heights, she thought, recognizing one of the richest neighborhoods in New Lennston. The kind of area where several buildings were built of stone, three or four stories high and just a step short of being outright mansions, with generous greenery around them and high fences or walls encircling each property, side by side with less opulent, yet still rich single family homes.

Once upon a time, in the days of Old Lennston, it’d been the kind of neighborhood that the lesser Goldschmidt family branches had lived in, until the Dark’s reputation had driven his younger siblings and their families away from Lennston entirely.

Now it’d been twisted and distorted. Buildings had been moved together, the ground between them folded, literally folded away, or raised up and tilted, so one building lay on its side atop another, somehow without collapsing when it absolutely should have. Streets wound and twisted, few of them still level, none straight.

It was disorienting to look at, frankly, and even her echolocation had trouble mapping anything beyond her immediate surroundings – there were distortions in space, weird echoes and even less tangible disruptions in the way sounds propagated, which her program couldn’t possibly decipher in its current form.

In the end, she was forced to turn its range way down, just so she wouldn’t get disoriented by the discordant feedback. Down to just eleven point four-oh-five meters.

Still better than relying just on her eyes.

Is this place really this quiet, or is all the noise just not coming through? she wondered, while she and Kizzy walked down a street which should have been broad enough for two cars to drive down side by side, but which was now barely a back alley that’d fit maybe three grown men.

She kept looking over her shoulder, too, at Kizzy. To her consternation, the girl hadn’t made a meep, since rousing from unconsciousness, which was doubly problematic, because Melody, quite frankly, sucked at the non-vocal parts of communication. It wasn’t that she was incapable, when she focused, but ever since the onset of her powers, she’d been unable to take non-vocal cues in subconsciously (unless they were stupidly obvious), like people tended to do – she had to focus to do it, and she suspected that even with all her attention so focused, she stil fell short of what normal people could read.

Point being, with Kizzy refusing to talk, at all, even when prodded, she had no idea how to talk to her, how to help her.

Focus, Melody, she thought to herself. Get her out of this hell-hole alive, then worry about getting her some therapy. Because oh God, will she need therapy. And so will you.

Thinking of therapy only made her think of her handler. Stephanie. She’d been having a meeting with her, drinking tea and talking about Melody’s recent adventures and misdeeds (if she survived this, she was going to be in so much trouble over the Gefährten incident) when the alarms had gone off. Stephanie had taken one look at her and realized that she was going to fight, no matter what – it wasn’t like she could stop her, physically, anyway – and had just hugged her and wished her luck, before running for the bunker.

I really hope she’s alright, Melody though, as she lifted a half-open door that led nowhere off its hinges, and laid it out as a gangplank over some trashbags that’d burst open and spilled their reeking contents over the tiny alley they were walking through. I hope Irene is alright. I hope Harry and Thomas and Tyche and her mom will make it out as alright as is possible, and Hecate and AImihime and Goudo are alright, and…

And so it went, round and round and round, for several more minutes of silent progress in this twisted, uneven nightmare of a former city.

***

Two hours and eleven minutes later, Melody heard someone cry out in the distance. A young man, if she had to guess, analyzing what she heard while accounting for the omnipresent distortions.

Her tracking systems, meant to trace any possible call for help back to its origin, kicked in, only to flounder in the face of the twisted reality around them.

Then the young man screamed again, quickly joined by an older woman, and a child whom was too young to distinguish sex by the way their voice sounded.

Melody looked ahead – the ‘alley’ was sloping up sharply, far more so than any real alley or street would ever have been built, an angle over forty-five degrees, steep enough it would be easier to climb than walk – then behind herself, at Kizzy, caught in indecision.

Someone needed her help, but the only way to get to them would be to risk leaving Kizzy behind, then come back for her…

No. No way, I-

Kizzy looked up at her with those empty, dull eyes, and seemed to regain some measure of focus, reaching out to push against the small of her back.

Melody blinked, surprised. “You want me to go?” she asked, surprised.

Kizzy nodded, pushing again.

She leaned down and kissed her on the forehead. “I’ll be as swift as I can. Hide, until I come for you.” She should give her instructions for what to do if she didn’t come back, but frankly, she didn’t think Kizzy stood a chance to make it through this without her around.

Besides, she was determined to get her out, herself, and that meant coming back.

She ran, leaving Kizzy behind, swearing to herself that she’d be back.

***

You’ve got to be shitting me, was all she could think, at first, as she got close enough to the source of the screams. Those two!?

She’d only had to run for what would have been a single city block, if that much, before the alley opened up into a larger square, what must have once been a playground, or maybe a backyard with a swing and other toys, mushed together with two or three pools and various kinds of greenery.

There were several corpses strewn about the area – three people, burned beyond recognition, but adult by the size of the remains, two children who’d been frozen solid hugging each other. One of the pools was filled with blood and gore, as if several people had been torn apart, put through a blender – or perhaps, made to blow up.

There were only four civilians left, a woman holding a small boy, her son by the look of things, in her arms, kneeling. Her husband, kneeling as he held a younger man, probably a younger brother or perhaps an older son, trying to staunch the bleeding of the stump extending from his left shoulder.

Over them stood two all too familiar figures. One was a woman, all nude, not that there was much to see – her body was stocky in an unnatural way, the skin too smooth, bulging on her form, like extra layers of fat had been inserted between skin and organs, giving her a strangely flat, shapeless physique. Not fat, but far from slender or normal. No hair on her head, nor eyebrows, her facial features oddly spaced apart and dulled, flattened, making her look like a rough, yet perfectly symmetrical doll. She had nipples, but they too were off, too flat, like tea cup saucers, and it was impossible to tell whether the slit between her legs was her actual slit or simply another fold of her layered armor of fat. Flames danced in the palms of her hands, as she talked to her companion in a drawl, revealing a set of flat, blunt teeth, as if she had only molars, all around, no incisors or any other type of tooth. Her eyes, in contrast, seemed completely normal, in size and shape, only spaced too far apart, muddy brown and utterly unremarkable in and of themselves.

Not much would have been known about her background, if she didn’t feel compelled to utterly and completely expose herself to the public. She’d filled out her own wiki page, on every such site collecting data on cowls, metahumans in general, criminals, and so on, and as far as anyone had been able to tell, it’d all been truthful. Often painfully detailed. Her entire biography was known – once a teenage girl, she’d gone hiking and camping with family and friends, only for the entire group to be caught in a blizzard, cut off from the outside world. Long-ignored issues had flared up and people had turned on one another, until she’d snapped, gained powers and killed everyone else present, then walked out into the blizzard, naked, no longer bothered by the weather, and become a serial killer.

As if her presence wasn’t bad enough, next to her stood one of the prettiest guys Melody had ever met, a young spaniard just three years her senior, with the kind of haunting good looks that just screamed ‘metahuman’. He wore only a pair of faded, torn jeans, showing off the kind of body that’d make a girl’s knees weak, and a face that was prettier than most girls’ Melody had ever known, without being the least bit feminine. Bronze skin and tousled, blond-brown hair completed the look, as he grinned at the misshapen woman, flashing perfect teeth. He was wet, literally, from head to toe, his jeans only tighter for it, and didn’t seem to have any problem with her waving handfuls of fire so close to him.

If the woman had once been a normal girl who’d been caught up in a bad situation and snapped, this guy had been despicably evil long before gaining superpowers. A little over three years ago, almost four now, when he’d been a little younger than Melody, he’d lived in a Spanish village, near the border to Portugal, where a woman had disappeared, one day, only to be found five days later, having been raped and drowned in the river, left to be washed away. A week later, a younger woman suffered a similar fate, reappearing, dead, seven days after disappearing. It’d happened twice more over the following month, each victim a little younger than the last, before the case drew enough attention to cause a cape to come over, all the way from New Madrid. An esper, he arrived just days after another girl, barely a teen, disappeared, and quickly narrowed down the suspect pool to the husband of the first victim. He’d led the police to lay a trap where his power told him the girls were taken to be drowned alive, to catch the culprit in the act and save the girl.

He’d been right, the culprit appeared that night, and he brought the girl with him, still alive, if horribly battered.

Only it hadn’t been the first victim’s husband, but her fourteen-year-old son who’d been responsible.

They tried to capture him, but he gained powers, then, and used the very river they’d cornered him at to kill all of them, the cape included. He’d only spared his original victim, after subjecting her to even more abuse, before simply wandering off. What followed had been two years of vagrancy, alternating between laying low and committing horrible, heinous deeds. The kind of criminal Irene would describe as base, in the worst kind of way. His crimes had been so debased that, had he been caught, he’d have been executed, in spite of his age.

It wasn’t until an EU-wide death warrant had been issued that he’d decided things were getting too hot for him, and disappeared, only to re-appear months later as a member of the Rabid Eight in New Lennston.

He was the one responsible for the blood-and-gore pool, if she had to guess. He could only control water he was in contact with, but he could also control the water inside a person’s body, provided he touched them directly. Making people ‘pop’ like over-filled water balloons had been a signature of his.

Exposed and ‘El Conquistadore’. The two newest members of the Rabid Eight, before Melody, in her first ever engagement as Polymnia, had helped bring them down and in.

Well, she’d showed off against them, before Irene had shown up and slapped them down like the shitty little gnats that they were.

Now she’d have to deal with them all on her own. While they had hostages. And she had to worry about the Savage Six dropping down on her, as opposed to having a team of young heroes and the world’s most powerful BFF-to-be for backup.

And she didn’t have her power armor or speaker-arms either.

Fuck my life.

15.3 All Masks Fall

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This noise is killing me, came the unbidden thought, as Melody moved carefully through a ruined husk of a mall.

It was the same mall whose shelter Hastur had corrupted, killing thousands of innocents, and wrecking the building.

Bree’s attack had only made things worse, and the place now looked positively post-apocalyptic, with collapsed ceilings, dust everywhere, puddles of water from broken piping, and so on.

And above all of it, that horrid noise. It wasn’t as bad as Bree’s presence had been, it wasn’t making her ears bleed at least, but good God was it annoying. A constant background thrum and whine, always changing, so she couldn’t even get used to it.

Sometimes, Melody really hated her power.

At least it keeps me reasonably warm. After she recovered her senses within this place, she’d found that her power armor was wrecked beyond use. Damage from operating it within Bree’s field, more damage it had incurred during the attack on the Gefährten, which she probably hadn’t managed to fix entirely because power armor just wasn’t something she was that good at, and Hotrod had been busy with his own project, they’d all piled up and left her all but stuck inside immovable scrap.

So she’d hit the emergency release and gotten out of it. Then she’d detached the gloves and bracers where she’d concentrated most of her sonic equipment, from it, relying on her innate strength and stamina to carry them now.

Which, of course, also meant that she was left barefoot, wearing nothing else but her visor, an athletic (pink) bra and athletic (pink) briefs made of spandex, in a ruined city currently hounded by six insane serial killers and their habitually rapacious devotees.

Maybe I should’ve listened to Mister Patrid and gone with a proper impact suit. Looking hot as heck doesn’t exactly help me right now.

It had been a childish thing, now that she thought about it, to specifically insist on transparent armor panels, just to show off the body her powers had given her.

Going from a mousy stick of a girl to a sex bomb was one hell of a rush, which was why she’d never begrudged Aimihime her own escapades, nor Dalia’s hers.

Girls who’d been pretty to begin with, like Irene and, according to Dalia, Hecate, just didn’t get it.

At least her physical enhancements made her pretty resistant to heat and cold.

Not that it matters now. I need to figure out what to do – I have freaking Fire Burial coming after me!

She stopped, standing with her bare feet in a puddle of reasonably clean water, feeling glass shards crunch between her toes. Her skin was bulletproof to small arms fire and seriously resistant to anything short of armor-piercing rounds, so she didn’t have to really worry about anything she was liable to step on actually causing her harm. She still wanted to find some proper shoes. And pants, or at least a skirt. And some kind of shirt.

Then again, I am inside a mall… there ought to be at least some clothes left in one of the stores, right?

She looked around, eyes searching. Quickly finding her target, she took a running start, then leapt all the way up to the second level. Gloved fingers caught onto the railing, and vaulted her over it, metal bending slightly, but her landing itself was otherwise completely silent.

Score.

The clothing store she’d aimed for still had at least half of its inventory inside.

She went in, rifling through the womens’ section. Finding a pair of stretchy jeans that fit was easy enough, as were socks and sneakers – she quickly cleaned her feet with some low-level sonic waves before putting them on – but finding a top that actually fit her ridiculous (but still very much appreciated!) bust size in a comfortable way proved to be a challenge. In the end, she just grabbed a hoodie that was probably a size too big for her, all in sky blue, with a white flower in tribal style stenciled on the back.

Should I try to… no, I couldn’t try to hide as a normie without discarding my tech. And without it, I’d be far less able to protect anyone.

She tied her hair back into a knot. With the noise cancellation active, there was no sound to stimulate the dye, leaving her hair to be unnaturally black, without any lustre or shine to it.

Thinking about her looks put her to thinking about Jared. He sure had made a habit of commenting on them, particularly her bust. It’d annoyed the hell out of her; as much as she liked showing off, she liked some class, and he’d had none. Never quite crossing the line into harrassment, but gleefully dancing next to it.

And she was quite certain she was going to miss it.

The clockwork giant had been him, she was sure. A swan song. She’d heard the tune of his power before, and the giant had been the tune, made flesh. Or crystal clockwork, as the case may have been.

Working together with the Dark, of all people, to save them all from whatever DiL had done.

That terrible un-sound. She shuddered just thinking about it, remembered the utterly wrong way it had sounded to her ears, even in those seconds and minutes she’d been linked to Jared’s Giant, nevermind the sheer, mind-rending cacophony right after, as it had exploded, then imploded.

Whatever it’d been, she was certain it would have destroyed them, if not for Jared’s sacrifice and the Dark’s efforts.

Goodbye, Jared. You were an insufferable ass, but you were a hero, and you went out like a boss.

I just wish you’d shown me more of the hero and less of the ass, in the time we’d known each other.

She froze, as another thought rose up, suddenly, as if thrust up into the spotlight by some unseen hand.

And, oh God, what’s going to happen to Kizzy now? Jared was the last family she’d had left.

She’d be alone now. A foster family was nice and well, but…

Glass crunched outside. The sound of boot on shards. From across the mall, but within the main area.

The parts of her visor that extended to cover her ears, looking like concave blue metal disks, turned on at a subvocal sound of hers, little more than a very precise vibration along a specific frequency, transmitted to her visor via her jaw and ear bones.

Irene’s idea, not hers, as much as it embarrassed her a little to admit it, even to herself. Making use of the fact that, while she couldn’t speak, she could still hum and make other sounds, and not only that, but she could produce frequencies humans shouldn’t be capable of. Having a smart friend could be very enlightening.

Since she wasn’t talking anyway, it was only efficient to use her throat to control her gadgets, though sadly, the system was still in the prototype stage, and she could only control her visor with it, so far.

Still, the echolocators went online, and her gauntlets began to transmit sounds on a frequency far too high for most organic life to pick up.

She listened to the map it was creating, walking out of the store, squatting low so she wouldn’t be easily visible, and directed the sonic pulses in the direction she’d heard the sound come from.

A child! she thought, as her pulses traced the outline of a young girl, going by general body shape and the skirt she was wearing. All alone, and scared, going by body posture and heartbeat.

Melody jumped onto the railing and ran towards her, completely soundless and faster than a normal person could hope to move.

She only stopped when she was close enough to see the child, leaping off the railing onto a large support pillar, clinging to it hard enough her fingertips sank slightly into the concrete, causing dust to rain down.

Her eyes widened when she saw, and recognized, the girl.

No way!

She leapt down, straight off the second level, and landed, silently, a good distance away from the girl, trying not to startle her too much.

The girl still gave a squeak and stumbled, staggering back, to fall into a puddle of water and crushed glass.

Melody leapt forth, faster than the girl’s eye could likely follow, and grabbed her at the last moment before the pretty black pinafore dress touched the water.

The girl squeeked, ready to run – or panic, or both – before she recognized her.

“Melo- Polymnia!” the little blonde squeaked, her tear-stained face briefly lighting up.

“Hey there, Kizzy,” she greeted her, with a smile that she knew didn’t reach her eyes, after she’d pulled her up onto her feet again and gotten her hands free. “What are youujsglj-!”

She was interrupted when Kizzy threw herself at her with such vigor, it nearly bowled her over, wrapping thin arms around her neck and holding on for dear life.

Careful not to hurt her with her oversized, rigid gauntlets, Melody hugged her back.

They couldn’t afford the time to just stay there and hug, but she took the time anyway, because Kizzy needed it, and if Melody was honest, she needed it, too.

Her heart ached in a way it never had before. Watching so many people be slaughtered by Bree, unable to help. Losing Brennus, a colleague who was almost a friend, whom she admired as a gadgeteer and as a hero. Losing Jared, who’d been way too annoying to admire even as a hero, until he’d gone and died for them. Now this, trapped in a world of horror and evil, singled out to be a crazy, cannibalistic pyromaniac’s plaything.

She really needed a break from it all.

“I couldn’t find anyone,” Kizzy said, after a whole minute of them just clinging to each other. “I was with my family but then the world went weird and I was alone and I thought I’d find Jar Jar, but there’s no one around, and, and, and…” She trailed off, looking up at Melody with big, tear-filled eyes.

Melody felt herself choke, even as she seemingly spoke without issue, her fingers twitching to form words. “It’ll be alright. You found me, and together we’ll figure it out somehow.”

Except for finding Jared. Because I felt, heard him die, saving fucking everyone.

“O-ok. Yeah. We can do it,” Kizzy said, earnestly, nodding. “We’ll, we’ll find Jar Jar and w- what?” She looked at her, confused, as if she’d seen something.

Of course she had. Melody had felt the stab of pain and grief, when she’d spoken of Jared again. And she’d never been good about schooling her expression, even for lesser things than these.

“Kizzy, I’m sorry, but-“

“No,” the little girl whispered. Her hands slipped off of Melody’s shoulders, where they’d been resting, and clasped each other in front of her heart. “No, no, no…”

She wanted to lie, so much, but she couldn’t. She’d never been very good at it, and it would have been wrong besides.

It was too late, anyway, because Kizzy could clearly see the answer on her face.

Her expression crumbled in time with her heart breaking.

Melody closed her arms around the girl, as she began to scream, and held her together as well as she could.

***

The city outside of the mall was strange to look at. With the sky a pure black above, but for the ‘display’, it should have been as dark as night-time, or if it was illuminated, one would expect said illumination to come from the screens above, but it wasn’t. Instead, a kind of diffuse, source-less light filled everything, and cast strange, warped shadows that seemed to be somewhere else each time one blinked.

It was pretty disconcerting, and made worse so for Melody because of the background thrum of Heretic’s power.

“That song you say you hear around me? The bad feeling you get from Patrick? That’s our powers,” Irene had told her, one night while they’d cuddled up on the couch, with irresponsible amounts of sweets, chips and soda, binging on streaming shows. “That’s why it gets louder the more my power is in control – that means it’s closer to the… forefront, I suppose. Pressed against the walls of this reality, making them thinner. Creating… vibrations, I suppose one could say, only it’s not the air that vibrates, but reality itself.”

Answering one question by opening up a billion more. It was typical of Irene. Not that Melody could blame her – her parents had made her swear to be careful about what she shared with others, about powers, and Melody was quite certain she’d shared more with her than she should’ve.

It was quite possible that Melody was among the top ten best-informed people in regards to powers and transdimensional theory in the world, at the very least top twenty, by now, just on stuff Irene had let slip.

If only I had the chance to lock myself in my lab and just work out all the ideas this is giving me, she thought in the now, mournfully.

Looking down her left side, she saw Kizzy, holding onto her hand as they walked under the false sky. The girl had cried and screamed for fifteen minutes straight, and then she’d gone entirely silent. Not a peep from her since, empty eyes remaining downcast.

Instead of being able to just detach from the world and work on her tech, Melody had to take care of this poor girl, and she didn’t know how to. She’d never had younger siblings, only older brothers and a sister, and certainly no one who’d ever gone through anything like this. Or was still going through it.

All I can do right now is be there, and keep her safe from the monsters.

And so they trudged along, searching for other survivors. With her noise canceller and echolocator both active, she and Kizzy were as silent as ghosts, and she could hear everything happening within two city blocks.

So far, she hadn’t picked up any signs of life, other than a few very disturbed dogs she’d decided to steer clear of. As well as a ton of insects, which she also steered clear of.

I wonder just how many people got trapped in here hello my dears you’re a surprise.

Melody froze in place, as Kizzy gave a jump, squeaking.

That hadn’t been her own thought, at the end there. And looking down at Kizzy’s shocked face, she’d heard it t-

Not your thoughts but mine now all mine.

“P-polymnia, I, I’m hearing someone in my head,” the girl whispered, wrapping her arms around Melody’s waist.

“I know, I hear him too,” she replied, quietly, putting a hand on her back.

Like having something oily in her head, within her brain.

I t-t-take, offense to tha-tha-that. I… I am not… oily… smooth. Mmm…

Shivers ran down her spine.

And then more than shivers. Hands, all over her, under her clothes, on her back, her breasts, her buttocks, her-

Suddenly, the phantom sensations cut off, as quickly as they’d come, the absence so intense it caused her to drop to her knees, even as Kizzy cried and tried to push away hands that weren’t there.

T-t-too o-old. You’re w-w-wa-a-way too old for me. My little fire-ire-cracker would l-l-like you though. I th-th-thi-ink, the oily voice stuttered inside her head, and every time it did, it was like her own thoughts stuttered with it, like there was something broken there.

Br-broken. Yes. Broken. Ever since h-h-he broke me. He. That boy. Wretched boy, wretched boy, evil, evil, evil boy, he br-br-broke me!

What had been an oily, stuttering whisper in her and Kizzy’s heads became discordant screaming, like raw hate pouring forth from somewhere, into them, searing their brains.

Hate that boy! Hate him hate him hatehatehatehim! it, he, screamed, his thoughts seeming to grow both more coherent and more unhinged.

The pain was indescribable. Worse than being in Bree’s presence by orders of magnitude, it made her and Kizzy collapse, writhing and screaming for no one to hear.

Then it suddenly cut off, and they both went limp, breathing hard.

Melody felt like she’d nearly torn her own muscles off her bones. Sore from head to toe, and still with the memory of dozens of hands all over her, touching her where no one but herself had touched her before, at least since she’d been a baby.

It felt-

D-d-don’t l-l-lie. You, you, l-l-like that. You-you-you’ve fa-fa-fantasi-sized… I know…

Unbidden, unwanted, memories came up, as vivid as if they were real, of fantasies she’d had. Naughty ones, even some dark ones, after reading some screwed-up fanfiction about herself (she’d never read any again, after that one). And with them, the things she’d done to accompany them, the sensations…

Her body arched, mouth wide open in a sudden, unbidden squeal of pleasure-that-wasn’t-pleasure, like being force-fed one’s favorite meal until it became disgusting.

Dirty girl. I d-d-don’t like th-th-that… I pre-fer the in-no-ce-nt ones… well, with one… two ex-ex-ex-ceptions. My li-li-little girls. But not o-o-others that are, are… soiled.

Melody went limp again, as he stopped forcing her to relieve that pleasure, and curled up into a ball, whimpering with tears in her eyes.

Y-you’re both, too old… too, too old… if only… ca-ca-can’t… con-con-connect, to so, so so so many, anymore… not since… that boy… b-b-broke…

Melody’s body moved on its own, and even when she tried to stop it, after the initial shock and confusion, it didn’t listen to her at all, as she threw herself around, clumsily, and closed her hands around Kizzy’s throat, squeezing.

Kizzy’s eyes went wide, filled with fear, confusion, pain and worse, as she tried to push Melody off, but she doubted that the little blonde could’ve fought her off even if she wasn’t superhumanly strong.

N-no… please… please, don’t hurt her! she begged inside her own mind, as she watched her body squeeze, slowly, crushing the life out of the girl she’d just sworn to herself she’d protect.

Wh-why not? She, she, she’s too, too old to, play with. B-b-but… maybe… will hurt a little, little, little, less, for, for a bit, i-if, I, make you, you, hurt her.

Kizzy’s struggles grew weaker, rapidly, before they ceased altogether.

N-no! No… the rules! Melody cried inside her own mind, desperately reaching for the only way out she could think of. The rules say you can’t hurt anyone but your chosen target, until and unless you’ve taken them out! Did you take out Amazon?

Oh. Right. I forgot.

And just like that, she had control of her body again. Gasping, she immediately let go of Kizzy’s throat.

The little girl’s body shuddered as she gasped for breath, eyes fluttering open, looking around wildly.

S-sorry. I forgot. Hrm… got to… to find her… used to be… easier… I used to be… so much… stronger… I I I wi-will… come back… to, to-t-to p-p-play with you, later, then. Un-unless, my firecracker, f-f-finds you, first…

The connection, so much more crude and coarse than Irene’s gentle touch upon her mind, cut off, gone as suddenly as it had come.

Melody fell down on her side, and drew a crying Kizzy into her embrace, curling up around her, as they both sobbed.

She’d never felt so powerless.

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vote for brennus

15.2 All Masks Fall

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“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-“

“Sit.”

He sat.

“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.

W-what…

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.

But people.

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.”

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15.1 All Masks Fall

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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.

Basil

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.

Oh Basil…

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.

Isolation.

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-

People.

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.

Then, another.

And another.

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.

Marietta, dead.

Prisca, dead.

Basil, dead.

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.

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15.0 All Masks Fall: Intro

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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.

No.

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.

No!

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!!!”

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14.a.5 Out of Time

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Now

Jared ran through slowed, sluggy time. Over rubble and around rubble, vaulting over people frozen in place, most still oblivious to what was coming.

Not that he himself really knew what was coming, other than that it was bad.

And so he ran, pushing as many seconds into his time as possible, and it still didn’t feel like it was enough – the calamity, whatever it was, was edging forward, spreading; it had already enveloped Mindstar and was reaching the edge of the crater, towards the Dark and the others whom had gathered there.

I could help them, came a treacherous little thought. Maybe, if I use up all my stored time, I could save one or two.

But doing so meant splitting his time. Taking just one other person along for the ride, it’d halve his remaining time. Two people, he’d be down to a third.

The city was too damaged, even if he found his bike, he could not possibly use it to speed things up. Even now, running away on his own, even with time slowed to such a degree that even the most precariously unstable rubble could not shift beneath his weight, or at least not in time to matter, even now it was wearisome and difficult, to run and climb over it all – and his power actually boosted his endurance a great deal!

No, he couldn’t help anyone, except maybe himself. Not even his team.

As if on cue, he caught sight of the boss and the buttboy, the former standing tall, stalwart as ever, a hand on his boyfriend’s shoulder as the latter knelt over another cape he didn’t recognize. One of the boss’s feet was touching said cape’s shoulder, spreading his power over them as well.

He could tell, because here, in this world, it actually had a visible effect, causing the three of them to look washed-out, colorless. He could no more affect them now than he could outside his power – he couldn’t even give them any of his time, to bring them up to his speed.

At least you two’ll be safe, he thought, with that usual stab of jealousy he got when he saw the two of them together. It was a small one, the kind he often felt when he saw people his age in a relationship, but it was there, nonetheless. Why can’t I have that? was what it said, each damn time.

At least the Kitty and Osore were so weird about their relationship, he didn’t feel jealous of them, too. Most of the time. Hell, he wouldn’t be surprised if Osore didn’t give a crap about her, and was just so apathetic he didn’t care when she hung off of him or kissed him.

Dude was scary.

And also likely to die, along with his girlfriend, if I don’t help.

He shook his head, and focused as he got to a particularly difficult section – a collapsed building that stood in the way of the straightest line away from the time-explosion, too broad to feasibly run around and be faster than try to scale it.

And scale it he did, leaping and crawling as necessary, using broken bits of concrete and cracked glass that should never have borne his weight as footholds without even shifting them, scaling a good twenty feet of rubble to reach the peak.

From there, he could finally see the area beyond the desolation. The suburbs to the South-West of New Lennston, to be precise. Where he’d taken Kizzy, to keep her out of the fight and as safe as can be.

There was no telling, though, how far this explosion was going to reach. The normal rules clearly didn’t apply here.

So, he was going to run there, grab Kizzy, and take her as far away as he could. Carry her, running, away from the devastation, like he had before, and like he was likely to again, in the future, as long as that monster persisted.

He looked over his shoulder, back the way he’d come. The slow-motion explosion had spread further, crawling forth. He couldn’t say what’d become of the Dark, he’d been on the other side of the explosion from where Jared had started running, but tendrils of it were already reaching for some of the people standing at or near the edge of the crater. They were too far away to tell whether any of them had even started to react to it. If they’d even get a chance at it.

Fuck, they’re all dead, aren’t they?

Not just his team, but everyone else within reach. Well, maybe not the princess. Certainly not the Dark. But the rest of his team, sans the boss and the buttboy. Jugs, Kitty, Osore. Bismuth was probably still somewhere in there. The adults. Hecate and Tyche, though he hadn’t seen Tyche earlier.

Now there was a girl he thought he could have a relationship with. Heroic, gorgeous, fun-loving, easygoing, just the right amount of crazy and flirty.

I hope your luck doesn’t run out here of all times, Red.

He looked down at his feet, feeling shame well up within him. He couldn’t possibly help. Even if he might have, at first, he’d run too far away by now, and every second he dithered up here was another second lost. All he could hope to achieve was to die together with his friends.

He had to think of Kizzy, first.

I’m sorry, everyone. I wish I was stronger.

With tears in his eyes, he turned away from the battlefield…

***

… and found himself staring at his clock, red digits floating before a pure white background, measuring the minute and a half of time he had left to spend.

What?

He blinked, and when his eyes opened again, the digits were no longer floating freely before the whiteness. Instead, he saw an incredibly long display, like what one would see on an old-fashioned digital clock, stretching to the left and right, circling around him as he turned his head – a perfect ring of a display, filled with bright red numbers separated by blinking colons.

And there weren’t just the seconds and minutes he was used to seeing whenever he closed his eyes. No, the digits continued to the right, and circled nearly entirely around the display, back to the minute digits at the front. He didn’t even know the words for the measurements, and he wasn’t sure there were any. Hundreds of thousands of digits, millions, time defined and measured out to an incredible, impractical degree, measured out far, far past the point of practicality for human action, thought, even conception.

Measured out to an inhuman degree.

Most of the numbers weren’t moving, but for the digits at the very end, that is to say, directly to the left of the minute digits. The smallest measure of time his power knew, ticking down at what felt like a snail’s pace, the display changing so slowly he could see the old digit fade out and the new one brighten up in slow motion.

… : 31

… : 30

He blinked again, and once more the sight was changed. Where before there had been but a white backdrop, there were now shapes, barely visible. Like looking at something move within a bank of mist, except one couldn’t see the thing itself, only the way it affected the mist.

Vast, vast shapes moved in jerky motions behind the display. Gears, spools, levers. Disconnected, seemingly, as if pieces between them were missing, or perhaps simply not visible yet.

As he watched, one of the largest gears shifted a little bit, a fraction of a turn; it set off a lever that seemed to need at least one more gear between them to be set off, snapping up to strike at and bounce off of… nothing?

… : 29

“What the hell is going on!? Hello!?!” he shouted, turning around in place, looking for a clue.

As he did, the scenery changed again, the giant gear shifting one more position ahead and causing the lever to bounce off of something, audibly this time, like a giant clockwork making all a single, vast motion; and by the time he was looking at the ‘front’ again, the gears and levers and other pieces had become visible, made of strange metals that didn’t look right to his eye, with fine strands of something spun between them, being threaded through the titanic clockwork.

Time. It’s threading time, he comprehended, without knowing why or how he did so.

… : 28

He himself stood atop another giant gear, made of some kind of brassy-golden material that was too rough to be metal and too smooth to be stone.

And then something else moved. Something vast, so vast he could barely comprehend its motion, and not just because it was effectively invisible, an outline in the mist, only this was an outline in the light; something that’d been draped around and over some of the gears, levers and the display itself, lazily, like some kind of gargantuan snake.

He thought he saw the outline of a hand, fingers, though he couldn’t make out how many fingers; but certainly more than five.

The… whatever it was, it almost seemed to reach for him, and he took an instinctive step back, raising his arms in defense – not that it would’ve done any good.

But it stopped short of reaching him, and instead, pointed down at the display directly in front of him (yet so far away he wasn’t sure he could ever reach it).

The numbers there, they flickered, as Jared lowered his arms and stared; shifting through numbers, letters, then disappearing, nearly all but a few to form a single message.

RUN UP THE CLOCK?

YES || >NO

The little triangle pointing at the ‘No’ disappeared, and appeared next to the ‘Yes’, then faded and appeared at the ‘No’ again, flickering back and forth between them.

His jaw worked, wordlessly, for a moment, as he processed it all, intuitions coming into his mind he’d never have thought of on his own. “I…”

“Beware,” a new voice spoke, from the left.

Jared jumped and squeaked in a way that his friends would certainly have had a laugh about, whirling about to look at the intruder in a place he’d never, ever have expected to see one.

The figure before him was… indistinct, though in a different way to the  thing on his clock. It was humanoid, certainly, human-like even, but it was hard to make out more; completely white from head to toe, it seemed to consist of dozens or more people, all overlapping each other, but no two of them quite the same in dimensions, blurring the outline of the gestalt into a flickering, shifting mess. There were no facial features he could make out, nor any other identifying features at all, really.

It turned its head away from the clock, and looked – he presumed – straight at him. “You should think again, whether you want to say yes,” it spoke, its voice an inummerable chorus. “This is not a choice you can walk back.”

“I, I think I know that,” he replied, looking away from it and up at the question on the clock’s display. “This, this is what they call a swan song, right?”

“It’s the option of one,” the figure clarified. “A choice, you have to make, here, beyond the reach of other people. To give your life, in a way, in exchange for power. A great deal of power, if for a limited… time.”

“Enough power to save everyone?” he asked, choked up.

The figure seemed to pause, for a moment. “No. Not everyone, not by yourself. This area’s always been fragile, ever since the Beginning; the incursion she’s set off will spread, unless counter-acted appropriately.”

“Spread, how far?” he asked, dazed. This was all, too damn much.

“Far enough you may not be able to get Keziah to safety, without this power,” the strange thing retorted.

It was like a drop of super-freeze dropped into a bucket of water, causing ice to spread all throughout Jared’s body, as he imagined those eldritch bolts and tendrils spreading far enough to reach his little sister and…

His imagination shut down at that point, mercifully.

“There’s no way to stop this?” he asked, hoarsely. There were tears in his eyes, that he wasn’t bothering to wipe away.

“None you could walk on your own, nor one I could tell you of.”

“Who… who are you?” he finally asked, turning his head to look at the stranger, his shoulders slumping. He felt so tired.

“Merely a friend,” it replied, simply and with finality.

The mechanism advanced one more step, and Jared found that the entirety of their surroundings were now taken up by titanic a titanic clockwork engine.

“I never would have thought a swan song would look like this,” he said, when it became obvious it wouldn’t further elaborate.

The stranger shrugged, and turned away to look up at the clock and the still-invisible giant sprawled all around and over it. “It is different for everyone whom this offer is extended to. Everyone’s world is quite different after all.” It looked around at their surroundings. “This clock of yours is quite interesting, really. So many details, hidden beneath the surface. Still, it is hardly the time for idle chatter.” It turned its head to look at him. “What is going to be your choice?”

Jared looked away again, up at the clock. If I’d been asked a few seconds earlier…

He would have said no. It was the only thing he could have said. No matter what else, Kizzy had to take precedence, and he had to be alive to take care of Kizzy.

But now… this stranger, this ‘friend’ had said that he might not be able to get her to safety on his own. Certainly not with his power as it was, and maybe even accepting a swan song wouldn’t be enough? But it would be more likely to be enough.

Then there was the question of whether this… person… was even trustworthy. There were two reasons, mainly why he accepted what he said, though – one, it just fit how shitty the world was too well, and two, if someone untrustworthy had access to him here, at what felt and seemed to be the very center of his power, well… then he was fucked, anyway.

So in the end, it all came down to the whether he was willing to sacrifice his life for Kizzy’s sake.

All I do, I do for you, Keziah.

He reached out with his hand, pointing at the ‘Yes’ option, and the triangle switched over.

The display flickered, as the words were replaced.

ALL THAT WE DO, WE DO FOR HER.

The invisible thing rose up – and then came down, smashing through the gears and springs and levers of power.

Again.

And again.

As if in a frenzy, it struck and lashed out, like a snake – or arm – possessed, smashing the machinery around them, the cacophony of destruction utterly defeaning, driving Jared to stagger back and nearly fall over.

Time that had before been threaded carefully through the system poured forth like liquid light, rushing towards him, as the display flickered, danced with disjointed lights, and then went black, all black, save for a single red symbol.

The light rushed forth and into Jared, faster and harder than he could react, into his mouth and down before he could even gasp for breath, let alone screaming, filling him to bursting and beyond.

***

He exploded into motion, leaping off the giant mound of rubble he’d been standing upon. Still in the air, he felt his vision change, sharpening; even with his helmet’s visor set to let him see beyond the boundaries of his power’s sphere, at the cost of being unable to see his immediate surroundings as anything but a blurry mess, the two halves of his vision focused, independently, until an equilibrium was reached, and he could see clearly, both near and far – further than ever before, all the way to the horizon.

Reaching up with one hand, he touched his helmet, to pull it off – but he could not move it, and when he touched it, he felt his hand, like he was touching his face; except he felt the helmet, through his hand.

Even as he touched it, it smoothed out, shifted. Merging with his face, he realized, as he felt the air rush past his body on the approach to the ground, as if naked.

My costume is becoming a part of me?

He’d heard the stories about Swan Songs, how weird things got. That people who underwent one, they changed before dying. It was a poorly understood thing, unsurprisingly. Swan Songs were rare to begin with, they could not be triggered deliberately (and who would want to, really?) and they rarely lasted for long, on top of only really happening during times of crisis.

His thoughts were disrupted as he landed on the broken ground, on all fours. The impact was barely a consideration, even lighter than it would usually be. Less than ten percent effect.

Time was pouring out of him, beyond any reason, extending his seconds beyond what he’d ever been capable of.

His body moved, lightly, as if he was weightless, leaping forth away from the suburbs. Arms and legs moved in strange synchronicity, bending oddly, the forelimbs lengthened to let him run on them properly.

He didn’t have much time, he knew that. And just grabbing Kizzy and running with her, he didn’t think that was going to be enough.

No, if he was doing this, he had to do it smart.

His power was such that, he was quite certain he could have grabbed Kizzy and run halfway across the continental United States, if he’d so wished. Or the other way, across the ocean.

And yet, the stranger had said that may only maybe save her.

Just how big an explosion is this going to be?

There was only one person he could think of, that might be able to tell him, who was also within reach.

And so he ran towards the ‘incursion’.

It looked different, now. Its rate of progress had slowed, almost to a stand-still, but where before it had looked like some kind of negative light, black cracks spreading like slow-motion lightning, it now looked alive to his eyes. Red, like molten rubies, and pulsing, ripples running up and down the stuff at such speeds, he could barely follow them even now, with time slowed to a near-stand-still.

It looks like blood, he realized. Pulsing like there’s a heart, somewhere in there, beating.

He ran towards the tendrils of bloody light, soon entering the area where the glow they gave off tinted everything a deep, shimmering red. Entering it was like suddenly plunging into water, as if the light it gave off had real mass, impeding his motions; but he pressed through regardless, forcing himself to keep going.

And the closer he got to it, the more he felt his body change. Saw his body change, as the arms that were reaching ahead of him, to grab onto the ground and propel him forward, elongated and smoothed out, what had once been his suit becoming his skin, his skin becoming like crystal; and the crystal cracked, cracks spreading through it, through which came forth a stark white glow that seemed unaffected by the red glow of the incursion, pushing it away, even, rather than mixing together.

That wasn’t even the weirdest part. As he passed other people, he found that they, too, looked changed. The metahumans, at least. From a distance, they just looked as he would have expected them to, merely washed out in red, but whenever he passed close enough to one or some for his bubble of light to cover them, if partially, the oddest sight took place. He saw things, beyond them, as if they were lenses that refocused his light, projecting strange visions beyond them.

There, a girl he’d seen on some show before, in a black bodysuit so tight it would have been utterly indecent, if not for the red, brown and orange leafs stuck to it in swirling patterns, some of them covering the most critical areas. As he passed her by, she became a lens that showed him a vast, autumn-colored forest, only it was a forest without a sky, without earth or animals or anything but the trees and their leafs, growing everywhere, above, below, to the sides.

He ran past her, and then past his two teammates and the cape they’d been helping, but yet again, they were dead to his power, washed out grey figures whether they were within or without his bubble.

Boss’s power is really fucking hardcore.

He ran in a loping kind of gait through this silent, red world, the light shining forth from him growing stronger, until it reached as far as his bubble usually did, casting his immediate surroundings in stark clarity, while everything beyond the bubble was frozen redness and shadows. As the red light was pushed away, it became easier for him to move; still underwater, perhaps, but now he was running inside an air bubble that moved with him.

Soon, his path took him around the red stuff, and there he saw what he’d been looking for – the frozen form of the Dark, a tall, jet-black mass of shadow, legless, as if fused to the ground, the tendrils of red stuff curving around him.

Jet black.

Even standing right in front of the glowing red stuff, its light did not seem to touch him at all – not only was the Dark himself as, dark, as usual, but there was an entire area around him, a bubble two times as big as the one around himself, that the red stuff could not penetrate – instead, it had wrapped halfway around it, enveloping the Dark like amber around an air pocket. Where Jared’s bubble was filled with incandecent light, however, the Dark’s was filled with something much bleaker, much harsher, casting everything within the bubble in stark relief.

He immediately found a new obstacle – the bubble was nearly solid, to him. His own bubble deformed around it, rather than overlap, and when he came up against it, it was very nearly solid, denser by far than the Incursion’s own… whatever it was. Aura. Presence.

A problem, whatever he chose to call it. Pressing against it was like trying to push spun glass into old, extra-thick honey – he felt like his spiffy new crystal arms were going to snap, any moment.

He looked at the ground to cover, before he could reach the Dark. His new arms were about ten feet long, and he could cover about as many feet with a single step. There were about sixty feet of harsh, bleak-lit space between him and the Dark.

Five steps and then reaching out. You can do it, Jared.

He leaned into the Dark’s bubble, shoulder first, to spare his fragile-feeling arms the pressure, slowly, laboriously, forcing his body into the oppressive light.

Strangely, it didn’t hurt, not quite. He wasn’t sure he could feel real pain anymore, with his body the way it was. But he felt the pressure, constricting him, pressing against his body from every which way, unevenly – far more heavily on the parts of him closer to the Dark than not. The increase in pressure was so rapid, so intense, he actually could feel the difference, inch by inch, compacting him, crushing, restraining, cracking the crystals of his body, so dense it seemed to actually dim the light shining from within, rather than have more of it spill forth from the fresh cracks.

He was less than a foot in yet!

Thank God I don’t need to breathe anymore, he thought, as he took his first, laborious step into this oppressive bubble. Cracks spread further over his red-and-white skin, shining with dim, almost condensed light.

It felt like he was dying. Even without the need to breathe – he hadn’t even realized he wasn’t breathing anymore, until he wasn’t able to and found he didn’t need to –  the pressure was too much. One step, but he’d ended up taking less than five feet with it, for he just couldn’t force it in that far. Three feet crossed, at best. He’d need nearly double the steps… more, if the pressure increased even further.

Nevertheless, he took the next step. He was dying anyway – what was there left to lose?

The only thing that could still scare him now was the thought of failing to save Kizzy, and that was certainly a reason to move forward, and not retreat.

Step by step, he wandered deeper into the oppressive bleakness, feeling his body break down, pieces of crystalline costume-flesh flaking off to reveal more of the glowing innards, and yet, he somehow kept finding the strength to move on, step by laborious step.

It took him ages – in a second – to finally reach the Dark’s towering, time-frozen form. By that point, his body had broken down nearly entirely, leaving him as a dim, solid silhouette of white light, framed by an irregular lattice of silvery crystal strands.

Even now, grown to more than twice his height, he was smaller than the Dark, stooped over as he was, pushed down by the oppressive weight.

As he approached him, strange strands became visible, tendrils of… something, that extended out from his form in every direction, frozen in place – they did not seem solid, but rather made of some kind of black mist, frozen mid-swirl in some places, solidified into strands in others, until they trailed off into nothingness…

He could not guess as to their meaning or purpose, but there had to be thousands of them, if not tens of thousands, though curiously, there were none in the direction he was approaching from.

Those barely visible faces were still all over the Dark’s form, as well, frozen in place, rather than constantly shifting, which made it easier to make them out.

He tried really hard not to make them out.

Instead, he reached out, laborious inch by inch, until he could put his hand onto the Dark’s left arm, at the elbow.

His form flickered, the light within pulsing, from his core to his arm, from his arm into the Dark. The entire form twitched, shuddering from head to… bottom, the faces animating only to disappear into the greater darkness, as the strands came alive, extending every which way, twisting, twitching, dissolving and reforming, still trailing off into nothing.

The tall, shadow-wreathed figure turned his head, looking down at him, while pulses of white light kept flowing into him, providing him with a share of Jared’s time.

Six glowing red eyes focused on him, as the pressure mercifully disappeared.

Jared shuddered, nearly losing his grip on the man, as his entire form unwound, no longer restricted – like a spring that’d been compressed, only to suddenly be released, he nearly doubled in size, all parts of him swelling as his inner light blazed forth.

He would have lost his grip on the Dark, by his own sudden growth, but his arm split, from the elbow up to between middle and ring finger, only for light to pour forth and form two whole forearms and hands, one still holding onto the Dark with unnaturally long fingers.

Crystal began to grow atop his glowing flesh, like ice forming on a surface when the temperature fell sharply, and soon he was – mostly – whole again, covered in crystal with pulsing vein-like cracks running through it.

“One would think I would get used to this, but even after nigh-on a century, I still can’t quite stomach a child dying in front of me,” the Dark spoke, pensively.

“It was either me, or everyone else. I think,” Jared replied.

The Dark seemed to hear it, though. “Ah. Did a Friend tell you that?”

Of course he knows…

He just nodded.

The Dark sighed, and looked over his shoulder. “An Incursion… of course,” he spoke, and even through the distorted chorus of his many voices, he sounded incredibly, unbelievably tired.

“What’s going to happen?” Jared asked, while he kept sharing his time with the Dark.

“The Incursion will reach out for every metahuman within a radius of… four and a half miles, just about,” the Dark said, hand raised to stroke his shadowy chin. “Each metahuman it connects to will then become an amplifier, extending the effect – exponentially so. Every other metahuman whom falls within the extended range will extend it in turn, and every baseline within that range will also become connected, though they won’t boost the effect further.”

“That… what… and then what?” That sounded horrific, considering how this thing already looked.

“Something worse than mere death, young man,” the Dark replied, simply. “Fortunately, thanks to the choice you made, we have a chance to avert the worst of it, by moving every metahuman here beyond its initial reach.”

Jared shuddered, his new form creaking with the motion, still growing, though not as explosively as before.

“What about, Mindstar?” he asked, looking towards where the woman still ought to be – if there was anything left of her.

The Dark looked in the same direction. “We cannot reach her, I’m afraid. Perhaps her shields will be enough to prevent a connection… she is clearly far more powerful than even I suspected, which is frankly rather disconcerting when- ah, no matter.”

He made a dismissive hand motion, as if he was tossing the thought aside.

“Let us focus. You could share your time with other people, in the past, to pull them into your pocketed timestream. Your capacity to do so ought to have increased considerably now.” It was a statement, not a question. “We need to extend your power to everyone else here, so they can move out of the Incursion’s range.”

“I’m not sure I have enough time left to do that,” Jared replied, looking down at the Dark – he’d grown a few feet, since they’d started talking. “This thing is spreading, even now, even though we’re progressing at one hundredth of a second!”

He looked at the tendrils of redness extending from the central mass that filled out the crater. They’d crept closer already.

“Even if I had time enough to spare, I don’t think I could get to everyone in time, I’d still need to run to everyone, pull them into my time, get them to safety, run back, over and over and the way you described it, if it connects to just one person…”

He trailed off, unable to put it into words.

“Fear not,” the Dark said, calmly, moving away from the Incursion, his bottom half sliding over the rubble without disturbing it. Jared followed, keeping his hand on the Dark’s shoulder, as those strange tendrils flowed out behind him, trailing his path. No matter which way the Dark turned or moved, it seemed like the tendrils always extended every which way around him, but towards Jared. “You were wise to come to me, first. Together, we can save everyone.”

There was not a doubt in his voice that Jared could detect, and he felt oddly reassured by it, which was just freaky because the Dark was being reassuring. His parents used to sing poems about how horrible a monster he was, to get him to behave, telling him that the Dark would come for him if he stole cookies from the cookie jar or didn’t pick up after himself.

“Cool. Great, I mean… yeah,” he stammered, unsure of what to say, while they put distance between themselves and the Incursion. “Speaking of saving everyone…”

The Dark looked over his shoulder at him, and there was something strangely sad about the expressionless shadow one could see, crushing Jared’s faintest hope before he could even speak.

“I’m sorry, but no, young man. Saving you, is beyond me at this point, beyond any means I am aware or even suspecting of,” he replied, his choir-like voice tender, like many greaving people layered on top of one another. “You have tipped over the edge… like an object which has crossed a singularity’s event horizon, there is now only one way to go for you, and that is not the way back.”

Jared lowered his head, briefly. It had been a faint hope, barely hope really, but still, it hurt to have it squashed.

“Focus, now. We have a great task to perform.” As he spoke, the Dark raised a long-fingered hand and put it onto Jared’s side – he had grown so tall, even the Dark could no longer reach any higher, as toll and long-armed as he may have been. “Do you have any last words you wish me to know or convey? Any last wishes?”

Jared looked at him, and if he’d still had eyes, they would have been staring. If he’d still had a mouth, it would have been slack-jawed. Entrust his last words to the Dark? Yet another thing he’d never ever have dreamed.

There were some things, though, that he would want to say, some things that… that mattered…

“Tell, the boss and… I mean, tell Tartsche and Spellgun… and the others, on my team, tell them goodbye. Tell them not to miss me too much, but not too little, either. Tell Polymnia I’m sorry I was such a jerk to her, and… tell the princess the same. I should’ve been nicer to her. And… that she’s not stupid, for the things she hopes for. Honestly, I think it’s rather awesome that she can hold on to that kind of hope.”

The words were spilling out of him, faster than he could think about them. “Tell Amazon she was a rockin’ boss, and tell Bismuth thank you, for everything she did for Kizzy. She’s awesome, and I’m sorry about what happened to her sister. And… tell Kizzy, that… that I’m sorry.”

He hesitated, because entrusting the Dark with words was one thing, but asking for something more… I hope to God you’re right about your dad, princess.

Jared raised his head – slightly, for he was too tall to see eye-to-eye with the Dark anymore, but enough to look him in the eyes. “And, my sister, Kizzy… she doesn’t really have anyone, won’t have anyone, once I’m gone…” A foster family is not the same as having a family. There won’t be anyone to watch out for her once she’s older. The UH will make sure she won’t lack money, but…

“I shall provide what protection and resources I can. You have my word,” the Dark spoke, and it was with the same casual conviction with which he’d said they could save everyone.

Something within Jared relaxed, like a knot, slightly unwound. He still wouldn’t be there for her himself, but at least, this way, he’d done all he could.

Almost done, all he could. He still had to stop this ‘Incursion’.

“How are we going to do this?” he asked, once he’d regained his composure.

“Behold.” The villain gestured dramatically with his free hand, and a shadowy form burst forth from the mass of shadows that ringed the pillar of his lower body.

A spindly, emaciated humanoid figure, made of an oily black substance, wreathed in shadows, burst forth – a Darkwraith, but a small one, it was basically just a torso, arms and an eyeless head, using its arms to drag itself forward at an impressive speed.

As it separated from the Dark, a strand of darkness remained, like the countless others that extended from his form, except this one seemed more – it was solid, rather occasionally dissolving into dust-like darkness before reforming, and it extended, at first, from where the Dark’s feet ought to be, to beneath the wraith’s form… to its stomach?

An umbilical cord? As if this couldn’t get any more disturbing.

Light pulsed down the cord, from the Dark to the wraith… from Jared to the Dark.

He’s sharing my time with the wraith. Holy-

The wraith rushed forth, trailing the umbilical, which moved up the Dark’s body as it extended, as if pulled out, until it connected to the pinky of his free left hand.

Jared could feel the drain of time, as he was now sharing it between three.

Four, as another wraith burst forth, fed pulses of time through its umbilical.

Six, as two more appeared.

Ten. Eighteen. More.

His growth accelerated, as he found his thoughts drifting into a strange state, the sensations his body was feeding back to him changing in ways he had no words to describe.

The Dark moved, pulling himself up to stand atop Jared’s left shoulder, right hand on his head, hundreds of cords extending from his left hand, like a puppeteer’s strings, with pulses of time-light trailing down their length.

Those cords… if each is a wraith…

Even with his thoughts becoming strangely dream-like, he could still draw the implication.

There were thousands of currently inert cords extending from the Dark’s form, and more joined them every passing moment as Jared grew in stature, and his awareness expanded in breadth and depth.

“Just how many wraiths do you have out there?” he asked, and his voice was huge, booming forth in strange ways, as if it produced its own echo; his body was as large now as Crocell had been at its biggest.

The more of my power I draw, the more I change, he realized. The less human I become.

“Never enough,” the Dark answered his question, even though Jared had already half-forgotten he’d asked it. He sounded resigned. “There’s never enough of me to go around. Never enough of anyone.”

Hundreds of wraiths were running to the people around the area, and merging with them.

The people came to life, as the wraiths became a part of them, connecting them to the Dark’s hand, fingertips to their navels.

The first few looked confused at first, then horrified at what they saw, as they looked either at the cords of oily darkness connecting to them, or up at the titanic figure that was Jared, or at the Dark, whom stood upon his shoulder like some kind of twisted pet.

Then they moved, and the motion was strange, starting suddenly – after a moment’s confusion, Jared’s new senses allowed him to see what was happening, the Dark’s intent moving down the cords, along with the time they were meant to convey, pushing everyone to flee.

“What about them?” Jared asked, pointing with one of the dozen arms he now sported at the little group under the aegis of Tartsche’s power. No wraith had connected to either of them.

No, his name was… what was his name, I don’t…

“We cannot connect to them,” the Dark replied, calmly, his attention focused on managing his many, many wraiths. “Neither can the Incursion – they will be safe.”

Jared tilted his head, only he didn’t tilt it spatially, but in a different way, like tilting it in time, and he looked ahead.

The Dark was right. He couldn’t see any future in which they were harmed by these events.

Since when can I look into the future? he asked himself.

“Don’t focus too hard on that,” the Dark told him, firmly, his voice somehow able to penetrate the dream-like haze that the boy’s thoughts were descending into. “We are already using up your time too quickly – don’t waste it on looking ahead.”

Did I say that out loud?

“There is no longer a distinction between what you think and what you express. Be very careful,” the Dark explained, patiently, as heroes, villains and bystanders were moved out of reach of the Incursion.

The awareness of the thing that had once been a boy extended in twists and turns that would have made no sense to the human it once was; and it could perceive, though not see, everyone within a great distance. People were moving to safety. Some faster than others, but all were moving, either under their own power, or being helped by others whom could move quickly and carry loads.

It wanted to help, to reach out with its many arms and help those whom were wounded, those whom were weak or just naturally slow, to get them to safety, but it knew the truth of the Dark’s words – it was spending time in colossal amounts, and anything it did threatened to spend even more, to make it even less human; and deep down inside it knew, once the process was far enough along, it would slip away and be drawn in to… to whatever was to come.

“Focus on what matters,” the Dark commanded, his alien voice cutting through the daze and straight to the mind of the boy within the thing. “Cast out your anchors. As long as you have at least one, you can prolong your existence, and save so many more people.”

The thing did so, seeking the boy’s memory’s for what mattered.

What did matter…

All that we do, we do for her.

Yes… a promise made, at the start and at the end of it all. A promise the boy made to himself, for the sake of his sister.

His sister… Keziah. Kizzy.

Kizzy had once had a brother… had a brother… and that brother’s name had been…

Jared. My name is Jared. I am Kizzy’s big brother, the boy thought as he awakened from the daze of power.

His titanic form shuddered, and shrank down by nearly half – and instead, time slowed even more, as he squeezed nearly twenty more seconds into each real second.

The Incursion’s progress was slowed even further.

“Impressive. What a tragedy, that one with such fortitude of mind is to die.” The Dark actually sounded genuinely aggrieved by it.

“It’s alright,” Jared said, slowly, his voice rumbling along, echoing off of nothing… or at least, nothing in this reality, at least. “I’ll last long enough to finish this.”

“As you say, young hero,” he said, and then turned away again, focusing on his wraiths and the people they connected to.

Meanwhile, Jared held onto his memories, his self, for as long as he could… piece by piece, losing them, as they moved on ahead to await him on the other side.

Finally, the Dark managed to move the last person out of reach of the Incursion. By that time, Jared had long since forgotten speech entirely, and so the shadow man merely bowed, deeply, and shot away.

With there no longer being a need to conserve time, he couldn’t resist the temptation to spend what he had left to look ahead, to see what would become of Kizzy.

Pain and heartbreak, grief and sorrow, horror and despair. But also… pushing past that… he got a glimpse, of a girl, a young woman, in costume, standing tall among a line of heroes.

She was going to shine brighter than he ever could.

Jared closed eyes he no longer had. His final thoughts were of his parents and his sister.

And then he was no more.

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