Handling the commotion of everyone coming back from the Legion fight, I was hard at work, healing everyone. Thankfully, anyone that'd taken the 'fire immunity' potion I could just hose down with Healing Flames and walk away from as they regenerated. There was another thump of an incoming teleportation, air displaced as a form too large and irregularly shaped to just be Herbert arrived, and I could feel the eddies of wind as those nearby turned and stared.
Rising up into the air, it was Herbert, with the half-transformation all his Replicants had worked out up, his version leaving him half-draconic, but he was holding an unconscious, blood-soaked Alexandria in one arm, a green crystal glaive that screamed Shard-created object in the other, but, beyond all that, was the fact that the man was completely naked.
It was easy enough to Stride next to them, the others having pulled back, though, looking around, I realized two things. The first, is that they weren't staring at the naked Break, they were staring at Alexandria. The second?
The woman had been disarmed.
And, given that he'd brought the Cauldronite here, Herbert wanted me to heal her. The woman was still bleeding, if slowly, which meant the wound was fresh, and that something about it was fucking up her own Personal Temporal Stasis Shard. If I left her alone, she might just die, and I'd be rid of a thorn in my side, but, as my ex-friend looked at me, still breathing hard from the fight he'd just escaped, I knew he expected me to save her.
I just really didn't want to.
But being a Hero was about doing what was right, and, despite her mountain of sins, I'd learned enough about the woman to understand she was, above all else, terrified of failing, and having all of humanity pay the price.
And, well, I got that.
Even if she wasn't nearly strong enough to pull it off, in every respect.
"Becky, you stupid, arrogant bitch," I sighed, as I took Alexandria from the man, casually popping off her helmet, showing she was out cold. "Don't make me regret this."
My hand started burning with purple fire as I held the woman, cradling the back of her head as my now finger-less hand pressed against her cold skin, the burning energy flowing down to her bleeding stumps. Simultaneously I reached Out, connecting to her Shard, and found that, somehow, it too had been damaged, so I started feeding it energy from my own eternally refilling reserves. The Shard, which I wasn't sure if I'd fed energy before, readily accepted it, and, with practice, I split my focus, the Grey and Faded Black hardened sphere of her power, already starting to shift, loosening up more and more.
Looking to Herbert, his power was still a raging plasma inferno, so bright it was hard to see clearly, so either whatever happened to her hadn't happened to him, or he'd shrugged it off. In the last few months, I'd realized that Dead Shards were oddly. . . fragile, compared to Natural Triggers, their lack of agency translating into a complete lack of self-preservation as well. And Abaddon Triggers, be they natural, like Break and Chuckles', or artificial, like Taylor and the others I'd implanted, were the most rugged of all. Knowing I'd been still for too long in the physical world, I asked, "So, how'd it go? What're Legion's powers?"
Break winced, "Sorry, man. I failed." And my ex-friend sounded truly regretful.
Lifting an eyebrow, wrapping us in a Sound Bubble, wondering what he'd fucked up this time, I asked with no small amount of suspicion, "What'd you do?"
"We lost Kansas City," the Villain stated, waving in the direction of the now Endbringer-controlled metropolis.
I waited for what he'd actually done, but he just looked sad and downcast, not meeting my gaze. ". . . And? Unless we got phenomenally lucky, we were always going to lose it," I prodded, Break blinking, as he looked up at me. Had he forgotten? "This was entirely a fact-finding mission, and, considering you have that," I said, nodding to the glaive that Break still held, "Unless you made it with powers and are hanging onto it for shits and giggles, I'm gonna say things went weird."
"I, uh, you weren't watching?" Break asked, confused.
I shook my head, glad I'd stayed back for more reasons than just the Warrior, who 'Vejovis' had told me had been waiting for me before he'd dismissed himself. "We had cameras, and the Fallen tried to attack while we were busy. Tried. But it kept me busy, well it kept Nephilim busy, and you didn't call for help. We didn't lose more than a few people, and none of them Hosts. So. . . you get eyes on the Endbringer?"
The Villain opened his mouth to respond, only to pause, frowning. "I, uh, no," he remarked, like he was just realizing something. "Not weird, not like some of the shit we've dealt with here, just. . . it used Minions. A lot of Minions. Coming through portals and shit, not people, like ya thought. And then, the more we fought, the worse the Minions got. Even the big bad dude at the end was just another freakin' Minion. But, the fight's over." He sent a heavy look towards the woman I was healing, her shoulders reformed, flesh slowly growing downwards. I could probably do it faster, but, if she started throwing hands as soon as she woke up, it'd be better if she didn't have any.
Turning over what he said, along with the Computer-Spiders Taylor and I had reviewing the footage taken, I could see what he was talking about. "So either the Endbringer will show up later, after it's taken over and done whatever it is this one does, it'll show up after we kill this 'big bad', so next time when we're prepared we can lure it out, or it's not even there."
"I, uh, what?" Break asked, confused.
I thought it obvious, but the other man still was in fight-or-flight mode, so I didn't hold it against him. "Well, if it's a Master, like Lady Bug and I are with insects, then it might be like me, and fight from the front, or it might be like her," I explained slowly, feeling Alexandria stiffen slightly, as the frozen planetoid of her power thawed, shifting to the oceanic form that people like Dean and Quinn's had turned into, and the woman woke up, but pretended to still be unconscious. I had to hand it to her, if I couldn't feel her power, and wasn't just as focused on her as I was on Break, I might not've noticed.
The 'Villain' I was talking to nodded, "And she doesn't fight anywhere close to where she actually is, if she can avoid it. Fuck. So, what, Legion was hiding nearby?"
"Or maybe it was in another state, or another country, or on the other side of the world, or even, like, on the moon or something, though then it'd probably be a bit obvious," I stated, making a note to ask Ziz. "It's an Endbringer, and just like Behemoth was a blaster, but ridiculous, and Leviathan's a Shaker, but ridiculous, it sounds like it's Minion Master, but ridiculous, and those guys are all about attacking without actually being there."
"Endbringers always attack a location personally," Alexandria disagreed, and Break's eyes darted down to her, as he realized she was awake.
"And your sample size is three," I reminded her, not pretending to be surprised myself. "Ziz broke a lot of paradigms, and it looks like this 'Legion' does the same. Also, hold still if you want me to finish healing your arms. Also Also, you owe me, Becky."
The woman frowned, blinking, showing that, yeah, I'd healed her eye during the Echidna fight like I thought I might've. "You unmasked me," she stated neutrally.
"If you would've rather bled out, I can cut them back off," I mused, bluffing, as the damage to her Shard had already been undone, and then some, but the upside of having literally infinite power was that I could spend it freely, predisposing her Shard to be against killing its metaphorical Sugar Daddy. "Besides, that's rich coming from you, Cauldronite. Maybe focus on the fact that you were, shall we say, disarmed? How'd that even happen?"
"One of these," Break said, lifting the glaive, the color matching the weapons and armor of the soldiers the Endbringer had summoned, though it didn't look like the spears they used. "The Praetorians could use them like lightsabers."
Frowning, I started to argue, even as Taylor, listening in and reviewing the footage faster than I did, directed my attention to a version of Legion's soldiers that towered over the others, which our people took apart at a distance, no one getting in range of it until it was dead. The fact that the damn thing worked as a handheld Yamato Cannon was worrying, but, since he was holding it without issue, maybe on the big soldier could make it work. However, "Plasma blades shouldn't counter temporal. . ." I started to say, before realizing he was just giving me his observation, not intel on what it actually was. "Right, like Lightsabers, so they just cut through things. You could do the same with a monomolecular blade and, well, a number of powers, including something like Becky's, since like tends to negate like. Anything to add, Becky?" I asked, knowing full well that it'd somehow struck her Shard, but I wasn't going to tell her that.
Alexandria frowned, clearly not happy, but, just like Break thought she would, or else he wouldn't've brought her, she was playing nice. It didn't hurt that I was literally the only person around that could heal her. "Before the. . . Legatos arrived, they could not do so."
Shooting Break a look, the 'Villain' was happy to explain, "Next version up of the Minions empowered the ones below it. Kill 'em, and it knocks the other back down till another shows up and takes over. Legatos, I guess, was the fourth rank up. Praetorian was the third."
My patient's elbows had reformed, that power thankfully able to create flesh ex-nihilo, the 'Get Better' treatment likely fixing a number of other issues she'd had in the process. Looking her in the eyes, I remarked, "This sounds like it'll be harder to take out than Behemoth or Leviathan. Would you like us to share footage? Possibly research data?"
Alexandria frowned, stating, "If you have samples, you should turn them over."
What's that? The sound of my goodwill fading? "You're right. If you have samples you should turn them over. We could study them for you, since you'll be busy figuring out how to eat without hands," I replied dryly. At her scowl, I slowed my Healing Fire, pointing out, "Do you want fingers, or not? Your power won't play well with most cybernetics."
The woman's expression flickered into a momentary grimace, my own power playing holy hell with her own tendency to offload her thinking to her Shard, the woman likely feeling her own emotions more cleanly than she had in years, while also unable to deny that they were her emotions, and not a Master power, her perfect memory able to differentiate the two. "We will remove confidential information," she stated.
"Duh?" I replied, smiling at my victory. "You don't need to know our internal command structure to figure out how to kill Legion, and we don't need yours. I wouldn't trust any 'insights' you let slip, to be honest."
The woman nodded at that, mollified, before a look of confusion flitted across her visage. "My powers You're. . . before Leviathan, David, that was you?"
Ah, so she noticed I'd done something, when Interface latched onto my probe and wouldn't let the fuck go. "Thought Eidolon could use the boost," I lied, deciding to lean into it, as it was only a matter of time before they realized there was something. . . different with the people I'd administered 'power counseling' sessions to, "given how sick his power looked. I wasn't as good with it as I am now, obviously."
Shifting focus, I reached out to her Shard, which seemed more like an ocean world than the frozen, brittle ice-ball it'd been before. Speaking without words, I impressed upon it two simple thoughts, both true, but also both things that'd help keep Becky on the straight and narrow.
If I die, The Warrior will kill every Shard in his insanity.
If I'm supported, I can complete the Cycle and spare the Hosts.
I flared the Healing Fire to cover any secondary effects imparting my statement might set off, Alexandria's hands reforming in seconds, one last concentrated shot of 'Get Better' covering any issues, before I pulled back on my Temporal Protection, the woman floating in the air as Herb telekinetically summoned her helmet, offering it to her.
She took it, looked around, and I could tell she was trying to figure out the exit, since the meetup area was inside a large, purpose-built building in Midgar. "Break, you want to show her out?" I prompted. "And maybe get some pants?"
The man frowned, then looked down, only now realizing he was naked, a glowing outfit made of hard-light appearing around him, from an unfamiliar power he'd likely copied during the fight, and offered his hand to the woman, who took it, both of them swirling away with Herbert's copy of Strider's power.
Reaching out to Taylor, I asked, ~Any Casualties?~
~For others, hundreds. For us, none,~ she replied almost instantly, as I flew up, dismissing the Sound Bubble, catching the attention of everyone gathered.
Reaching out, I addressed all those gathered,
Good job! You faced the unknown, with skill, wisdom, courage, and teamwork, and, because of that, you came away the victors.
At my words, there was some stirring, a large number of the Hosts clearly not feeling like they'd won, just as Herb had. Shaking my head, keeping my voice warm, understanding, and still congratulatory, I told them,
Today was not about defeating this Endbringer, this Legion. If you look to history, you can see how disastrous the first attacks of Endbringers normally are. Today, there were no civilian casualties, no one from the Penumbral Defenders died, and that, itself, is historic. Yes, others perished, but we can only offer to help others, not force them to fall in line. We will be thankful of their sacrifice, and it was a sacrifice, while wishing they could have listened to reason and worked WITH us, but, at the end of the day, that was their choice to make.
Sighing, I opened my hands,
Such is Free Will, for it makes the choices you make YOURS, both the decision to reach out and help your fellow Host, but also the decision to reject that help, and both must be respected, however regrettable an end that can lead a person. No, today we plunged headfirst into the unknown, and braved the dangers, descending into Tartarus, and coming out with invaluable knowledge. Knowledge that will mean that, next time, we WILL be ready. Perhaps we will kill this Legion then, or take what we've learned and refine our approach, until the Legionnaires' leader lies dead at our feet, just as Behemoth does, and we move onto the next one, and so on, until we WIN this war of ours, and take Earth back for Humanity.
Floating higher I slowly spun, seeing everyone gathered, and told them,
Today was a victory, not just for ourselves, but for all who fight the coming destruction. Walk away from here with your head held high, celebrate tonight, and, tomorrow, we will begin the task of continuing to progress, in our studies, in our constructions, in our training, so that one day we can live without fear of the monsters that threaten everything we hold dear. Know that I am proud of you, and look forward to facing what comes next, together!
With a fist raised, those below me cheered, and smiling, I Strode back to my office, spotting Taylor in my seat. The girl raised an eyebrow, asking, "Was that a prepared speech?"
"Nah, off the cuff. Not bad?" I questioned in turn, walking over, as she slid out of my spot and jumped up onto my desk instead.
Wiggling her hand, she smiled, "I'd give it an eight. A bit too much 'Humanity, fuck yeah', a bit too light on specifics."
Plopping down, letting my armor slough off me, forming casualwear, I told her, "You Humans need that, with what you're facing." Taylor frowned at that, but didn't say anything else. "And Specifics? I don't have any. So, any preliminary results from the samples?"
Taylor reached out through the IN, telling me a moment later, "The Legionnaires have crystal flesh, but it's. . . thin. Like Endbringer skin, except it's all of the way through. The Centurions are denser, and the single Praetorian corpse we have is closer to the samples pulled off Leviathan and the others."
"So the rank and file, are, what. . . Endbringer hairs?" I offered, Taylor blinking, checking something, then nodding.
"Actually, yeah. It's close to the sample Ziz gave us. I'll have to thank her next time she drops by," she remarked, clearly amused by what she was saying. "That explains how it can make so many, at least. And there's no difference in their bodies if they were killed when they were 'empowered' or not."
I nodded, "Which tells us the empowerment is either a power, which we might be able to fuck with, or the real Legion extends more of itself into the empower, which makes killing the empowered ones hurt more. Maybe it works in nodes, with the higher ranked ones allowing more of itself to manifest in this dimension?"
My partner shrugged. "Maybe?"
I laughed, as it was a stupid question, given that we'd just started looking into Legion. "Fair enough. How about The Warrior?"
"Still waiting," Taylor sighed. "I wish we could just do something about him."
"I'm strong, I might even be able to fight Legion myself, but the difference between Scion and I is the difference between Legion and you, Lady Bug," I told her, only realizing after the fact that she might take offense at that, but the girl knew me, so she just nodded.
"But we're both getting better," she pointed out.
"That we are," I smiled back, closing my eyes and letting out a long breath.
The Fallen attack had been unexpected, apparently the rest of the cells, 'families', whatever, across the country hadn't taken too well to Herb smacking the local chapgter down, and waited until the next attack before moving. Well, the next American attack, as no one had gone to China when Leviathan gave the CUI a multi-tsunami enema. The Fallen were expecting light resistance, all of our Hosts gone to fight Legion, but ran right into the teeth of our Shardless guard force, those men and women trained by dealing with countless Anomalies, then our Tinkers in Arachne Assemblages got involved, getting free testing of some of their gadgets without having to jump into an unknown Endbringer fight, then Taylor and I had closed the trap, eviscerating the survivors from the first two groups.
You'd think they'd realize that going after the group that killed one of their gods wasn't the best of ideas, but. . . cultists, what did I really expect?
Wait, does this mean we're gonna get Legion themed cultists now?
Yeah, it probably did, which meant we'd probably have to deal with quislings the next time it showed up, idiots thinking they could switch sides and join Legion's ranks. And, hell, they might even be able to do so. I doubted it, but until either Herbert or I got eyes on it, we wouldn't be able to tell for sure.
Piggybacking off Taylor's connection, I reviewed the streams of footage we'd gathered from the hundreds of cameras we'd set up, both on our people and released to float about invisibly, the Legionnaires leaving them alone. It was only at the end, when we got Death-Spheres that they were taken out, though that seemed to be more from random fire than anything else. Even now, we had a few cameras still in place, the drones having pulled back and were watching as the Legatos oversaw the re-establishment of a new base-camp in the crater Herbert had created, instead of moving it to somewhere more convenient, which suggested they couldn't.
Watching Herbert's final attack in slow motion, half the powers ran into each other, negating themselves, the man having clearly thrown everything and the kitchen sink at his foe, and it hadn't worked. Seeing him get blown to his constituent atoms a moment later was. . . not good, but he was back a fraction of a second later, grabbing Alexandria and outing.
~Here,~ Taylor prodded me mentally, as I watched some of the other groups trying to hold off, first the base soldiers, which our people had labelled as 'Munifex', then Centurions, then Praetorians. Comparing them to our own people's efforts was night and day, the chaotic pell-mell of 'every man for himself' fighting, even amongst the PRT, was just. . . pathetic.
Speaking of every man for themselves. . .
"Vejovis," Quinn commed my office. "You have a visitor."
Sighing, I pulled my focus back in a little, and stood. "I'll go deal with her."
"You could just tell her to go fuck herself," Taylor offered innocently.
Glancing her way, I proposed, "Would you say that to your father?"
That caused her to pause, brows, knitting in thought, before she slowly nodded. "When he acts like that? Yeah. Why do you think I sleep here?"
Pausing, I glanced her way, not having given it much thought. "I, uh, that's. . . not good, Taylor. Do you want to talk about that, or something? She can wait."
Smiling slightly, the dark-haired teen waved me off. "We still talk. He just tried to pull that 'when you live under my roof' shit. So I left. Made him nicer, actually. Too bad you can't do that with her."
I rolled my eyes, "Different issues, different solutions. But. . . are you sure?"
Taylor's smile broadened, and she laughed, waving once more. "Go deal with your cousin, Lee."
"Hey, she might be here because she realizes she needs our help," I offered, getting a disbelieving look from my partner, and suited up, Striding to outside the waiting room built into the wall that Dragon and Grace had been directed to. I could whitelist them when it came to our security. . . but maybe when Grace had stopped freaking out.
She should've realized what we're dealing with by now, I thought, any canon knowledge she had well and truly fucked with the appearance of a completely new Endbringer. Maybe she's ready to work together! Opening the door and smiling, I greeted the pair with a, "What's up, Grac-"
"Where the fuck were you!?" my cousin demanded. "And don't say you were there! Whatever that was, wasn't you!"
. . . or not.