Scene 23 – December 19th
Interior MLED Compound, Continuous
A familiar, indescribable white light began to shine from everything as an unmistakable effect that could only be Anima’s aura swiftly spread through the building. It crackled like fire around the edges of the rubble, which leapt into the air and began reforming back into the walls and ceiling that had been torn up by the battle – even the sword and shield Amethyst had just made from himself tearing themselves free of his grasp, white lightning bouncing between their shards as they split apart and joined the repair effort.
All eyes stopped and stared at the phenomenal display of power, but, I thought, for different reasons. The knights seemed to be shocked and frightened, if I was reading their body language right – I and the other Journeymen, however, were shocked and horrified.
Anima kept a large store of zoetic energy, but there was a limit – and this was surely beyond it.
She was going to kill herself.
“Loki!” I called, abandoning the paused battle and rushing over to him. “What’s happening? Why would Anima – I mean, she -”
“I know,” he said, scanning the screens and models that surrounded him. “She – my god.”
“It’s not just the Compound,” Loki said grimly. “It’s the whole fucking city.”
“How the hell is she doing this?” asked Hypos, rubbing at his face – the rest of the Journeymen had gathered as well. “This is…”
“And why is she doing it?” Referee quietly asked, worried.
“I thought you weren’t going to get back for a few hours?” I commented to her, noticing that eyes were forming out of the walls and scanning the area.
She shrugged. “My connecting flight got moved up. I’m just glad Journey had enough distance to pick me up, because this… I mean, mom is…”
“We have to-” Loki began, but was interrupted by a voice coming from the wall behind us.
“Oh, thank god, I found you!”
It was Anima’s voice, coming from a remarkably realistic face that one of the wall tiles had warped and shifted into, the eyes fading back into the metal. This… was new. As far as I know, Anima couldn’t normally see or speak through her golems, and they tended to be somewhat crude.
“…Anima?” Loki asked. “What’s going on?”
“I saw that alert and I was so worried about you all!” she simpered. “I’m glad to see that you’re all safe.”
“It was nothing,” Journey said flippantly. “Literally, nothing – no one was here when we arrived.”
“Wait, that…” I frowned. “…no, that’s right. It must have been… a drill, I guess?”
We all exchanged confused looks, nodding to each other after a moment. Why else would all six of us have shown up ready for battle?
“Even so,” Anima said, “it’s a dangerous world out there.”
“Yeah, well,” Hypnos said, a little bitterly, “we did all volunteer for this, however dangerous it is.”
“Anima,” Loki said again, “what’s happening? Why are you-”
“I can’t risk any of you getting hurt,” the heroine interrupted. “You understand, don’t you? You’re like my children – all of you, not just Molly.” A pair of large, hulking figures muscled their way free of the walls, still covered in a gleaming white aura – each bore Anima’s face as well. “I need you all near me, where I can keep you safe,” all three said in unison.
I took a step back from the golems in alarm, a chill running down my spine. “Seems to me like you’ve got no issues with range right now,” I couldn’t stop myself from saying.
Anima’s golems frowned. “I need you safe.”
“Journey,” Loki whispered, his eyes wide and frightened, “Get us out of here.”
The teleporter scooped Referee up in one arm and wrapped the other around Loki, and a moment later they were gone. The golems began to rush at those of us remaining, but before the cracks in spacetime that were left behind by Journey’s passage could even fade, she was back and taking hold of me and Hypnos.
Scene 24 – December 19th
Exterior City, Early Afternoon
Journey deposited us in a side-street not far from the Compound, right next to Referee and Loki, then vanished. She reappeared an instant later and set Sequoia down beside us.
“Thanks for the evac,” the dryad said to her, and she nodded, breathing deeply – I wondered if teleporting so many people so quickly was hard on the young woman.
“Holly, you should make us all invisible,” I said, noticing that he was beginning to hyperventilate. “And quick, before…”
She was nodding and brushing her fingers together before I could finish, putting a bubble of normality around the six of us. Only a moment later, eyes were opening and closing on walls all around us, moving like a wave across the city out from the Compound, just as I had feared.
Fortunately, Loki’s illusion had gone up in time – the searching eyes passed over us without recognition, and Anima’s attention seemed to turn elsewhere. The two of us each let out our own sigh of relief, but Loki still seemed incredibly nervous. I kept an eye on him.
“…hey, Holly?” Hypnos said after a moment.
“What the fuck?”
“I’d like to know that too,” Journey agreed. “I trust you with my life, Loki, but why are we running away from Anima?”
I tilted my head, confused. “You guys didn’t notice?”
“She was way stronger than usually somehow,” Referee said, “And… I don’t think that was all.”
“It wasn’t,” I said. “She was… off, somehow. She wasn’t behaving normally. I know I haven’t known her as long as most of you, but… I’ve never felt threatened by her before now. Back there? I felt in danger.”
Loki nodded. “Quinn’s right. Anima was acting really weird. I… I think she’s being mind controlled or influenced somehow – maybe by whatever is letting her do this,” he gestured to the aura that still encompassed the entire city.
“Letting her see and talk through the golems, too,” I added. “I don’t think she can usually do that.”
“She can if she’s fueling them directly from her own life force, instead of using built up stores that came from others,” Loki told me. “That means that we can be pretty confident this is some kind of massive boost to her personally, not… I don’t know… the result of stealing a few thousand peoples’ life force. She wouldn’t do that. I don’t think.” Under his illusory form, my presence felt him produce a phone and begin dialing – Loki’s shape, however, remained leaning against the wall where he had planted himself after Journey dropped us off.
“Morbid,” Journey commented.
“But I don’t know what the power-boost could be.”
“Could it have something to do with whatever called her, Zookeeper, and Canaveral away this morning?” I asked.
“Seems likely, and it’s all we have to go on right now.”
“Wait, time out,” Sequoia interjected. “Are we contemplating what I think we are?”
“With how Anima is acting, and the scale of the threat, we can’t not do something,” I pointed out.
“We could call in other MLED heroes,” he suggested. “Link up with some agents and get some extra manpower on our side, maybe – we’ll need it, against her.”
“I’m making that call already,” Loki said, the illusion of his form tapping the earpiece that was part of his costume, even as his real body spoke into the phone – that answered my question of who he was calling. “But Omnipresence isn’t available right now and neither is Aegis-”
“As usual,” Hypnos muttered.
“They’re busy people,” Sequoia scolded him.
“-which means it’ll be a while before anyone can make it here, at least an hour,” Loki continued, and I felt him hang up. “And the only team within a wide radius with a decent chance of winning is us anyway.”
“Yes, really,” he confirmed.
“Why us?” I asked.
“Because I’m here to even the scales,” Referee reminded us with a shy smile, although I was pretty sure she was trying to cover up her worry. “When I’m around, no opponent is out of reach.”
I grinned at her under my mask and offered a fist bump, which she returned after a moment. “You’re right. We’ve got this.” That was the most confident thing I had heard the normally shy girl say, at least around me. We hadn’t spent much time together, between the age gap and how often she was out traveling, so I was glad that she was finally warming up to me.
“Before we go, however, we need more intel,” Loki said, glancing at the walls with obvious distase as another wave of eyes washed over the city – Anima apparently still searching for her ‘children’. “Hypnos, you were on console – what can you tell us?”
He sighed. “The Magnificent Maxwell was stirring up trouble. They called Arthur Peregrine about it, and apparently he’s gotten his hands on Excalibur.”
“…what, really?” I said.
“The real Excalibur?” asked Loki, sounding surprised.
“Apparently, yeah. Peregrine said that the sword was a generic empowerment thing, and the boost it gives applies to everything, including psychological defects. He thought Max had gone full-blown narcissist from taking it. Maybe Anima grabbed the sword and can’t control her helicopter mom?”
We considered this. “It seems as good a theory as any,” Loki decided. “Can you check?”
Hypnos leaned against Sequoia, who wrapped one arm around his shoulders to support his boyfriend, and closed his eyes. “One sec… yeah,” he confirmed. “I’m looking in on the Higgins Museum now.”
“Is that where things went down?” I asked.
“Yup. I see… Zookeeper, Canaveral, and Max are all in what kind of looks like a playpen, being watched over by some golems – would be funny if this situation weren’t so shitty. I think Keeper and Navi are planning something, although I can’t tell what since I left my hearing with you guys – Max seems to be out cold. And Anima is definitely holding a sword, looks like a rapier. Not what I’d have guessed Excalibur to look like, but whatever.”
He paused for a moment, then continued. “We may have a slight problem, though – I just pulled out a little to check for guards outside, and Anima turned the whole damn museum into a giant golem. It’s… pretty tall, and looks mobile enough that Journey won’t be able to teleport into it. You’re still having trouble with teleporting onto or off of moving things, right?”
“Wow,” a voice said, and we all turned in surprise to see that five knights were standing just inside the normalcy bubble. “You guys are doing great with the planning!”
Scene 25 – December 19th
Exterior City, Early Afternoon
We halted in our flight a few streets away from the compound, ducking into an alley after the eyes that had sprouted from every surface in the city had faded. Viv whipped off her stealth cloak, massively expanded from a hasty spell she had cast on it to allow us all to gain its benefit, and threw it to the ground – it was smoldering already, and as we watched it began rapidly shriveling. A moment later, it had shrunk to nothingness, releasing a burst of blazing white light as it did. Fortunately, the light went unnoticed by passers by, swallowed up by the greater light of a crackling aura that seemed to have consumed the entire city.
“What the hell is going on?” Percy snapped at Viv. “This is Anima’s aura – how is she affecting this much?” He cast a quick suspicious look at the wall, eyeless once more. “Shouldn’t spending this much energy kill her?”
“I don’t know,” Viv admitted, pulling off her helmet and rubbing at her temples. She ran a hand through her hair before taking a deep breath and pulling the helmet back on. “But I have a guess. The thing that Max was after was n artifact that increased his power, right? What if Anima got her hands on it?”
I glanced at the street. “That… would be bad,” I said. “I know Morgan said a city-level threat, but… this is beyond what I was expecting.”
“We can’t let something that powerful stay in the hands of the MLED,” Percy said. “Not when the Ambrosia Company has a death grip on the DMO.”
“But… can we even face up to power on this level?” Tristan asked, sounding worried. “I mean, we’re badass and all, but… I mean, we were trying to steer clear of professional heroes for a reason. None of us anywhere near Dad’s level, even together.”
We found ourselves all looking to Viv for guidance, even mom. She was, after all, the tactical leader of our group – the one who had whispered advice in our ears and helped us turn the tide against the Journeymen, at least until Journey and Referee had shown up.
Viv sighed. “I don’t know what to do, guys. This isn’t a situation we expected – when mother and I were planning, we assumed that the MLED would just toss the artifact over to Peregrine, not use it themselves.” She patted her hips, then butt, then groaned. “Fuck, no pockets in this armor! I don’t have my phone!”
“Where’d you leave it?” Tristan asked.
“It should be on the table next to my bed,” she said, “but don’t -”
“-go into my – damn it, Alacrity!” Viv swore. She turned to mom as the green mist left in his wake began to fade. “I didn’t give him permission to go into my room!”
“I’ll scold him when this is over,” Mom said, making a calming motion. “Right now I’m afraid we have bigger things to worry about.”
“I guess so, but honestly, if he was going to run home he might as well have -”
“Here you go!” Tristan said, skidding to a halt next to my sister and holding her phone out to her. He wobbled for a moment before Percy put out a hand to stabilize him – the kid was still getting used to super-speed.
Viv glared as she plucked the phone from his hand. “Don’t go into my room without asking, brat.”
“It seemed important!”
“If you were going to rush home and leave a massive pointer right to where we live,” she growled, pointing at the trail of mist he had left behind him, “then why didn’t you grab a bullhorn too, and shout ‘this way to the Round Table’s hideout! Right this way, Champions!’”
“Vivian,” Mom said sternly.
“It’s Dame Acumen,” Viv hissed. “We have codenames for a reason!”’
“Dame Acumen,” I said, putting a hand on my twin’s shoulder. “Calm down. Our home is under protective wards, remember? No one is going to be able to follow Alacrity’s trail back.”
I could practically feel the tension draining from Vivian’s posture, and a moment later she turned away from the rest of the family to lead her head against my chest. Then she started gently knocking her head into the breastplate of my armor. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” she muttered. “Enhanced senses, super-intelligence, and an eidetic memory, and I can still overlook things. I’m an idiot.”
“You’re not an idiot,” I said, hugging her. “You’re the smartest of all of us even without that helmet.”
“Except for mother.”
“Except, maybe, for Morgan. Now, what were you going to do with your phone?”
She dialed a number and stepped away from us to make the call. “Hi mother,” I heard her softly say before I turned back to my mom and brothers.
“She feels a lot of pressure being in charge,” I quietly confided in them. “She was really hoping that Morgan would come in person.”
“Why didn’t she, again?” Percy asked mom.
“Morgan isn’t as anonymous as the rest of us can hopefully be,” Mom explained. “The MLED never learned that the Mountain King was Arthur Könberg, and so they have no reason to look at our family, even though they’ll almost certainly notice that we’re using his armor. But Morgan knows Arthur Peregrine, and he’ll be looking at this whole series of events when he has time. If she isn’t seen to be involved, he won’t connect it to us.”
“Right, right. The whole apprentice thing.”
Viv returned to the group, whispering a few words to her phone that caused it to wrap around her wrist like a bracelet. “Okay, so I talked to mother,” she announced. “She didn’t expect this either, and she says it’s bad news. We have to get the item away from Anima, and do whatever it takes to ensure it. Which means…” She sighed. “We’re going to have to work with the Journeymen.”
“We’d better get moving, then,” I said, sighing just as heavily. “Who even knows where they are now? I doubt they stayed where Anima could see them. And with Loki’s powers of stealth…”
“I’m pretty sure my helmet can let me see through those,” Viv said dismissively. “And I have a hunch about where they ended up…”
If you enjoy my writing, please consider sponsoring me on Patreon. If you can’t afford a recurring donation, you can make an individual donation through Paypal, or purchase one of my books. The more I make from my writing, the more time I can devote to it, which will improve both the quantity and quality of my work.