Interlude 8

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Coil held firmly to the philosophy that one couldn’t be too paranoid.  Every moment of every day was a delicate balancing act, anticipating any number of unseen threats from every possible angle, whether he was speaking with his subordinates or simply rising to meet the day.

In one reality, he was safely ensconced in his underground base, costumed, with no less than twenty armed soldiers between himself and the multiple sets of heavy metal doors.   He had spent his night reading, following the news and checking his stocks.  His location was known only to those who worked for him, individuals paid well enough that even if they did have reason to attack him, their ‘coworkers’ would have incentive to stop them.

Second reality:  He was waking up in an ordinary, slightly rundown home in the southwest end of the city.  He prepared and ate his breakfast, then stepped outside in his bathrobe to pick up the paper and the mail, pausing to wave to the neighbors as they led their two girls out of the house.  The flooding hadn’t affected their neighborhood as much as others, but the schools weren’t yet up and running, so the mother and father would be taking their girls to work with them for a short while.

He headed back inside, showered, then dressed in a button-up shirt, khakis and a silk tie.  He got in his four-year old prius and headed into the city.  What was normally a ten minute drive took him three-quarters of an hour, as he was forced to detour around destroyed roads, fallen buildings, and reconstruction work, move with the other drivers in a perpetual traffic jam from the moment that he left the little cul-de-sac where his house was.  To all appearances, he was an ordinary man leaving for work.  His identity, fabricated, was complete, a real job at a real company, records going back ten years in health, taxes, dentistry, house payments and more.

The soldier that met him was known to the other soldiers as Creep.  No captain would have the man in their squad, his predilections made him unemployable in the public sector, and the fact that Coil was the sole person who could and would provide him with the ‘payment’ he craved makes Creep as loyal as men can get.

Everyone had a hook, a vice or something they needed on a primal, desperate level.  Sometimes that need needed to be created, or nurtured, so it could later be hand fed.  Those people who were driven by such things, carried that craving for something especially close to the surface, were among Coil’s favorite people, coming in a very close second to people who were useful.  Those who were both useful and desperate for something Coil could provide?

Well, they were the Travelers, Creeps and Grues of the world.

Wealth would have to suffice for anyone and everyone else.

Creep remained the one individual that had the opportunity to discover Coil with the mask off, so it was worth buying his loyalty.  The man waited in the front seat of the white van, eyes forward, until he heard the three knocks on the back door of the vehicle.  He pressed a button, opening the door to allow Coil to enter.

Once inside the back of the van, hidden from Creep’s view by a barrier between the seats, Coil removed his clothes, folding them neatly.  He donned his costume, his second skin.  A zipper was hidden in the image of the long white snake that weaved up around the body of the costume to the head.  He drew it together around himself, tucked the metal tab of the zipper into a flap at his ankle. The fabric of the costume allowed him to see and breathe through it, but was an opaque black-gray to outside observers in all but the brightest light.

He was spending less and less time in his civilian identity, these days, to the point that he was pondering dropping it altogether.  He could be Coil full-time, when the base was fully set up.  For now, though, so long as he needed a bed, and a place to get away from the noise of construction, the ruse was necessary.  He seated himself in the one chair at the back of the vehicle.

To outside observers, Creep was an ordinary laborer driving an electrician’s van to the construction site.  Coil’s underground base had fallen just beyond the scope of the massive lake in the middle of downtown.  Had the crater extended another forty or fifty feet, it might have done more than crack the interior walls, cost Coil months of time rather than days, hundreds of thousands rather than thousands.

Creep directed the vehicle down the ramp and into the parking garage.  He stayed behind with the van as Coil departed.

Coil entered a doorway in the lowest, most secluded corner of the parking garage, entering a room with an electrical system behind a metal cage.  Opening the door to step into the cage, passing around behind the electrical box and passing through the concealed doorway there, he reached the heavy vault door that marked the entrance to his underground base.

Even after he was inside, with two employees waiting to greet him, a contingent of his squad captains standing at the ready, he remained careful.  Back in the other reality, he stood from his computer, traveled into the room beside his own.  He paused in the doorway, staring at the girl who lay on the cot.  She was dressed in white, unmoving but for the rise and fall of her ribcage, her eyes open.

“It’s morning, pet.  You know what questions I ask you.”

“It’s morning?” she asked, head rising.  “I feel like I just had dinner.  Candy?”

“No, pet.  It’s too early.  Now please answer my question.”

Petulant, she replied, “Zero point two five two percent chance there’s any problems here in the next hour.  Three point seven four four one percent chance there’s any problems before lunchtime.”

“Good girl,” he spoke.

With that, he collapsed that world where he had stayed up all night, studying the news, following international business trends, tracking the details on his troops’ most minor operations – he helped ensure the success of the major ones with his power.  The reality swiftly faded, leaving only the world where he had a full night’s sleep, ate a hearty breakfast, drove to the base with Creep.  Only the memories and knowledge remained.

Standing before his employees and soldiers, he divided realities once more, leaving only a heartbeat between the erasure of one existence and the creation of another.

He often wondered if he really was creating the realities, or if it was solely in his perception, foretelling futures to the extent that they hinged on his actions.  He’d asked his Tattletale, and she hadn’t had an answer for him.

He had hated these moments, before he’d acquired his pet and the assurances she provided.  These were the times when he was most vulnerable,  when he’d just started a fresh use of his power, his selves so close to one another.  It was sadly inevitable, unless he found a way to expand to a third world.  Though he knew the chance of danger was miniscule, that his pet could not lie to him if she had wanted to, he still made efforts to distance the two worlds as much as possible.

The first reality: “Captains, with me.  Empire Eighty-Eight is divided, and I’m going to direct you on a series of strikes to ensure we deal as much damage as possible before the two factions can merge once more.”

The other: “I wish to survey the base.  Captains, as you were.”

Two groups traveling in separate directions.  One of his selves traveled with the troops, down the metal staircase to the lower level, the other moving in the other direction, across the metal walkway, the two employees hurrying to keep up with his long strides.

He eyed the base as it was developing.  The massive quantities of crates and boxes were being unpacked, bunk beds for soldiers on call, a fully equipped medical bay, stocks and facilities for the kitchens, innumerable weapons.  It was taking shape, fine details emerging where there had been only right angles and neatly organized stacks boxes.

He owned the company that had built the underground shelters in Brockton Bay and neighboring cities.  Hiding the details on his base in construction was a matter of intercepting information at the right time and place, paying with his own money rather than the city’s, controlling what was reported and to whom.  His pet’s powers had assured him that nobody would be noticing any disparity anytime soon.

“The Travelers’ room,” it was more statement than question, but it required an answer.

A man in a sweater and small round-rimmed glasses, Mr. Pitter, spoke, “Done.  Individual rooms, furnishings, kitchen and wardrobes.  Some minor modifications are needed to make it more handicap accessible, but they could all move in today.”

“And the containment facility?” he asked, though he already knew the answer, from the interruptions while he spent the night in the facility.  He’d heard the noise of the work just hours ago, been informed that people were arriving.

“The vault door was placed just last night.  She was-” Mr. Pitter paused, “Agitated.  We had to call Trickster in to talk to her.  He’s here now.”

“I’ll speak with them.”

“Yes sir.”

He didn’t like interacting with people, especially not subordinates as important as the Travelers or Undersiders, without the ability to create or banish the reality if the discussion didn’t go his way.  Here, he was safe.  His other self was giving orders on movements, targets to attack, individuals to watch out for, informed by the night he had spent tracking the deployments and patrol patterns of the Protectorate and Wards.

He let Mr. Pitter take the lead as they headed to the Traveler’s apartments.  The man was small, unassuming, ordinary.  A registered nurse, he had an exemplary eight-year record of acting as nanny and caretaker to a pair of very ill children.  Then he had found out his wife had cheated on him, attempted to divorce her.  Deciding that wasn’t acceptable to her, the woman had set about dismantling his life, ruining his careers, friendships, familial relationships and everything else, laying accusations and planting evidence of the worst sort of crimes.  The sort of accusations and suspicions that a male nanny had to be leery of at all times.

Mr. Pitter was one of those particular people who was both useful and bought with stronger things than currency.  He would ensure the Travelers were comfortable and well stocked.  More specifically, he would take care of Dinah, ensure any and all dosages were clean and properly administered, that the girl was kept in the best of health.  All he had required was for his wife to disappear, the chaos and problems the woman had caused him discreetly sorting themselves out in the aftermath of her death.  He had gone from being a broken man to a person who was so unflinching in his duties that it had given even Coil pause.

Mr. Pitter knocked on the door, waited.  It was almost a minute before it opened.

Trickster stood in the doorway, unmasked.  His skin tone was darker in a way that left his ethnicity ambiguous, to the point where the boy could have been a darker skinned Caucasian, biracial, Middle Eastern or Eastern Indian.  His dark hair was long, hanging to his shoulders, and a hook nose coupled with a widow’s peak gave him something of a severe appearance.  His eyes, normally sharp, were bleary with sleep.

“Are you really that sadistic, Mr. Pitter?  I get dragging me here at five in the morning if Noelle needs it, but waking me up three hours later?”

The ‘nanny’ didn’t reply, instead stepping out of the way, to give Trickster a better view of Coil.  Trickster leaned out of the doorway to look his employer up and down, picked some sleep from the corner of his eye with his thumbnail.  “Damn it.  Okay.”

“Thank you,” Coil replied, “I would like to speak with your friend, downstairs.  Past experience has suggested this works best if you act as an intermediary.”

“I don’t know if that’s a great idea.”

“Indulge me.  Would you like me to wait while you wash your face?  Get dressed?”

“If we’re just going to talk to her, and if you don’t have anything else for me to do, I’ll probably go straight back to bed, after.”

“As you wish.”

Trickster pulled on a black bathrobe, cinched it around his waist, then stepped onto the metal walkway.

“Is there at least anything I can tell her?” Trickster asked.  “Anything encouraging?”

“Nothing definitive.  I had intended to introduce Tattletale from the Undersiders to this situation, ask her for her opinions.  That is, if she doesn’t already have some idea of what’s going on.  Either way, her talents might turn up some details we have missed.”

“Had intended?  I take it that she can’t, now, because of what happened at the hospital?”

“Something like that. She’s informed me that there’s currently difficulties within her group and requested that I not distract her or give her tasks until things have been settled ‘one way or the other’.  Her words.”

“That’s not really anything that’s going to give Noelle hope.”

“No.  No it isn’t.”

They headed back onto the walkway, then down the stairs.  A vault door, twenty feet across, was set into the concrete wall.  It loomed over them, three times as tall as even Coil was.

Coil stepped to the side, gestured toward the small monitor and keypad to the left of the door.

Trickster touched a button on the keypad, “Noelle?  You there?”

The monitor flickered.  A girl’s face took up most of the screen.  Her face was framed with brown hair, greasy, and she had dark circles under her eyes.  Her eyes moved as she looked at the monitor on her end, but she didn’t reply.

“Hey,” Trickster spoke.

“Hey,” her voice had a ragged quality to it, as though she had screamed herself raw.

“Coil wants to speak to you.”

There was a pause.  “Okay.”

Coil stepped forward so he shared the camera with Trickster.  “Noelle.  I’m sorry the construction work disturbed you.  We shouldn’t have been doing that so late in the night.”

“You locked me in,” Noelle accused him.

“For your safety, and ours,” Coil spoke.

“You agreed to this,” Trickster told her, “We talked about it.  You asked us to do this.”

“I know.  I-  I didn’t think it would be this claustrophobic.  Or lonely.  I swear I’m getting cabin fever and it’s only been a few hours.”

Trickster opened his mouth, then closed it.  When he finally found the words to say, he spoke, “You can call me any time.”

“Except when you’re doing a job.”

“You can talk to Oliver, then, or Mr. Pitter.”

“Oliver’s still busy talking to you guys, and Mr. Pitter creeps me out.”

Coil raised an eyebrow behind his mask, gave Mr. Pitter a glance.  The man hadn’t reacted.

Trickster diplomatically didn’t comment on Mr. Pitter’s presence nearby.  Calmly, he spoke, “We’re working on a solution.”

“You’ve been working on that for a month now!”  She began to shout, which only added to the gravelly quality of her voice, “Fix this!  Fix me!  You did this to me, Krouse!

“Noelle,” Coil spoke, controlling his voice, “Trickster is not to blame.  At the next possible opportunity, I will be inviting an employee of mine to speak with you and the rest of the Travelers.  Her power will provide hints.  I’ve also been in contact with the head of parahuman studies at Cornell.  An expert in the field.”

Her scream sounded through the intercom system, “That’s just more poking and prodding and theories!  You promised us you’d fix me!”

Punctuating her statement, there was a bone-rattling impact against the vault door.  Almost every soldier on the lower level stood or turned to face the doorway, hands on their guns.  Dust spilled out  from the joins where the concrete walls met ceiling.

Irritating.  Nothing more was going to come out of this conversation.   At least he knew the one thing he’d sought to find out: she was getting worse.  He used his power, obviating the reality with the raging girl in favor of the one where he was talking to his soldiers.

“-dersiders are otherwise occupied, so you’ll be supported indirectly by the Travelers.  Captain Heroux?  How fast can your squad be ready?”

“We’re ready to go at a moment’s notice.”

“Good,” Coil spoke.  “Be ready, I’ll have orders for you in less than an hour.”

“Sir.”

Coil turned, leaving the captains to their assigned tasks.  He glanced at Mr. Pitter, “The Travelers’ quarters are all set up, I trust?”

“Yes.  We just installed the heavy door in the middle of the night.  Noelle was agitated enough that we had to call in Trickster to calm her down.”

“I see.”

“He’s still here, if you want to talk to him.”

“Let the boy rest.  He’ll be tired.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ensure the girl has a double ration for this morning.”

“The costs-”

“Are my concern.  With her sleep disturbed, she is liable to be… cranky.  Let’s ensure she has little to complain about.  And Mr. Pitter?” he paused, “Speak with Duchene about the construction the second she comes in.  I want that door on the lower level reinforced.  Extend walls inward and put in a second door, if you have to.  Schedule any construction for the middle of the day, so we aren’t interrupting her sleep again, but I want it done as soon as possible.”

The man nodded, correctly interpreted the order as a dismissal, and hurried off.

That left him with the one remaining assistant following after him.  Cranston.  “Anything urgent?”

“No, sir.  The businesses you purchased are still struggling in the wake of the catastrophe, but we’ve received insurance payments-”

“Good.  We’ll discuss it later.”

“Yes, sir.”  Cranston hurried off.

Coil returned to the end of the complex furthest from the entrance, entered his quarters.  He paused at his computer to check his emails and the latest news feeds.  Nothing crucial.

He divided realities.  In one, he stayed at his computer.  In the other, he entered the room reserved for his pet.  “Good morning, pet.”

“It’s morning?” she groaned, sitting up.  “I thought I just finished dinner.  Candy?”

“You know my morning questions.”

He already knew the numbers – he noted they had barely changed, as she rattled them off – but if he always canceled out the reality where he asked her for the chance of any danger in the morning and never asked again because it would be redundant, she would never remember.  Even a mind like hers had its limits and boundaries.

“The chance my grand plan is a success, ignoring any uses of my powers?”

“Seventy two point two zero zero two one percent.”

Pleasing.  It was a number he could raise in the ensuing days and months with the use of his power.  Interestingly enough, the number was better than it had been before Leviathan attacked.

“Chance the issues with the Undersiders will be resolved?”

“Don’t understand.”

He frowned.  Another limitation.  She needed to be able to visualize the scenes.  “What is the likelihood that the Undersiders will still be serving under me, at the point in time my plan succeeds or fails?  To one decimal point?”

“Sixty five point six.  But they aren’t all the same Undersiders.”

“Oh?” he rubbed his chin, “The chance that my plan succeeds with this new group versus the old?”

“I don’t understand.  My head’s starting to hurt.”

“Just one or two more, pet.  If the group changes, is it more likely that my plan succeeds?  To one decimal point.”

“Yes.  Four point three to eleven percent, depending on who comes and who goes.”

“One more question.  What is the chance that I find a remedy to the Travelers’ circumstances?  To one decimal point?”

“Nine point five.  Candy?”

A full seven percent lower than it had been before the Endbringer attack.  Had a crucial individual died or left the city?  Or was his running theory correct?  Was there a reason Leviathan had come here, beyond the chance to attack a city already under siege?

It was hard to ignore the reality, that Leviathan, from the time he arrived, had gradually moved closer and closer to this location, where the girl had already been ensconced.  The Travelers had even picked up on that, called him, worried.

Something to ask Tattletale about, perhaps, when he introduced her and Noelle.

“It feels bad.  Wanting the candy so much, knowing I’m going to want the candy, seeing it like I do.  It builds up.”

Seven percent lower.  At what point did earning their loyalty fail to be worth the resources he was investing?

“Knowing I’ll get sick if I don’t get it, being able to see it, what it’s like, the getting sick, and as it gets closer to happening, higher percentages, it feels more real, so clear a picture it’s almost as bad as getting sick for real.  Even if there’s only a nine point two-”

“You’ll get some to tide you over in a bit, pet,” Coil interrupted her, in as reassuring a tone as he could manage.  It was impossible to conceal all of his irritation at being disturbed from his thoughts, but she was distracted enough by her own problems that she likely didn’t notice.

His plan was succeeding, though it had been delayed slightly by recent circumstances.  Potential enemies were divided or reduced in numbers, the city all the more vulnerable to being seized.  Victory was so close he could taste it.

Perhaps worthy of a celebration.  Coil maintained his own vices.  It would be unfair to expect more of himself, when he had the unique talent he did.

It had certainly been an expensive talent.  Even with his ability to game the markets in a way that clairvoyants and precognitives couldn’t detect, it had taken him years to pay it off.  A maddening, frustrating endeavor, when he had already been thinking of plans he wanted to set in motion, having to postpone them.  And he still owed a favor, even now, up to a week’s services.  He couldn’t be sure if he was powerful and secure enough to fight back if they demanded too expensive a price, or too much of his time at a point critical to his plan.

He canceled the reality where he stood at his pet’s bedside, found himself still at the computer.  Best to leave the world where his pet wasn’t so tired, in case he wanted to ask more questions that morning.

The worlds he created weren’t real.  They were little more than an especially vivid, accurate dream.  To enjoy a whole separate world, free of any consequences beyond the ones he wanted?  It would be unreasonable if he didn’t indulge in it.  Anyone would, given the chance.

These entertainments kept him centered, utterly calm.  He needed that, after the irritation of dealing with the Travelers’ girl.

He touched a button on his phone, “Mr. Pitter?  My office.”

“Yes sir,” the reply sounded.

He was on the brink of achieving his goals.  It would be a laughable tragedy, to get this close, only to have his power fail him, to accidentally choose the wrong reality, or to have his other self killed by accident or malicious intent, forcing him to live with the ramifications of these idle amusements.  For now, he wouldn’t touch his pet, nor any of his powered subordinates.  Not when he was this close.

A click of what appeared to be a part of his desktop wallpaper made his bottommost drawer pop open.

Mr. Pitter entered the room.  “Sir?”

One reality: “My pet needs her ‘candy’, a low dosage, please.”

The other: Another click of his computer mouse, remotely locking the doors.  Mr. Pitter turned, alarmed, tested the door.

For now, even with the safeguard of his other realities, he would do nothing he couldn’t explain away if he had to.  He wouldn’t entertain himself with anybody he couldn’t replace.  Mr. Pitter?  Replaceable.

No such thing as being too paranoid, after all.

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Extermination 8.8

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How was a city like Brockton Bay supposed to pay its respects to all the heroes, villains and miscellaneous others that died to protect it?  Until about five years ago, the answer had been a funeral.

It really hadn’t worked out.

On the surface, it was a great idea, had made for an amazing scene.  Grand speeches about great moments of true selflessness from even despicable villains, good guys doing the most heroic of sacrifices.

Except problems started to stack up.  Could the people in charge of the event really let someone stand up and give a eulogy for someone like Kaiser?  If they did, you earned the wrath of the dozens or hundreds of people who’d had their lives changed for the worse by Empire Eighty-Eight.

The uneasy solution had been to avoid saying anything about the local villains, beyond the fact that they had participated, but problems had stemmed from that, too.  Subordinates or teammates of the fallen villains had made a scene over these omissions, sometimes during the funerals, and villain participation in Endbringer situations started to decline.

More issues came up, rooted in the reality that people who went out in costume were more theatrical or dramatic as a rule.  Too many vying to take the spotlight, hero and villain alike, even some of the fallen, with measures or requests placed in advance.  It didn’t happen every time, but enough events became sideshows and media circuses that the whole purpose of the events was defeated.  The media was banned from recording the event, but the capes who’d sought to stand out only tried harder.  Fights had erupted.

So the funeral services became less frequent.  Then they stopped altogether.

A memorial was simpler.  All who had joined the fight could be treated equally.  There could be no snubs, really, nor could there be insults, dramatic oaths, taunts or speaking ill of dead rivals and nemeses before cameras or audiences of capes.  It was simply a dedication to the dead, a list of names, sometimes with a statue, if the groups involved could decide on something that didn’t too closely resemble a particular hero or villain.  Ever a difficult, delicate balancing act.

Brockton Bay’s memorial had no statue.  It seemed to be black marble with stainless steel in the core of the monument, so that the etched letters stood out in a metal gleam, even reflecting the sun’s light if the time and viewer’s position was right.  The overall shape formed an obelisk, with the corners and base unpolished and rough, only the four sides smoothed and polished.  It was out of the way, placed atop Captain’s Hill, at the base of the mountains to the west of the city.  I wasn’t sure if it was put there to stay or if they intended to move it after reconstruction and city revival efforts.

Even with the memorial being out of the way, set down in place five days after the attack, it had taken a full week before the worst of the crowds were gone.  Four times, I’d felt compelled to come see it and pay my respects, only to see the press of people and turn back.

Now I was here, along with a little less than a hundred people, only a small fraction of whom were actually viewing the obelisk.  Others sat on the hill or picnicked.  As strange and vaguely inappropriate as it seemed, I couldn’t really blame them.  The memorial had been put here, specifically, because the rest of the city had been devastated.

In any given area of Brockton Bay, there was flooding, shattered streets, collapsed buildings, septic conditions or ongoing reconstruction.  Often three or four of those things at once.  More than half of the city was without power, two thirds had no running water, and even with the rest of the country and the world pitching in, uneven food distribution, health concerns, lack of facilities and rampant looting and crime made for dangerous living.  Buses were leaving every hour with evacuees, but the city was still thick with crowds of people just struggling to get by.  Too many were people who had no relatives or friends to go to, who wouldn’t leave their remaining possessions behind to be taken by unscrupulous thieves.  Captain’s Hill, for now, was a place that was safe, dry and clean.

I walked around the monument, noting the names.

Escutcheon / Tyrone Venson
Erudite / Mavis Shoff
Fenja / Jessica Biermann
Fierceling /
Frenetic /
Furrow /
Gallant / Dean Stansfield
Geomancer / Tim Mars
Good Neighbor / Roberto Peets
Hallow /
Herald / Gordon Eckhart
Humble /

Gallant was dead. Unsettling to think that I’d met him and fought him.   Or, rather, I’d fought against his team in the same skirmish, even if we hadn’t actually paid attention to one another in the fight.  Now he was gone.

I could guess that the ones without names either hadn’t given permission for their names to be released, hadn’t written any will or had reason to keep their names private, protecting teammates.  I circled the monument, walking around to the right.

Impel / Corey Steffons
Iron Falcon / Brent Woodrow
Jotun /
Kaiser / Max Anders
Manpower / Neil Pelham
Mister Eminent /
Oaf / Wesley Scheaffer
Pelter / Stefanie Lamana
Penitent /
Quark / Caroline Ranson
Resolute / Georgia Woo
Saurian / Darlene Beckman

I noted Iron Falcon on the list.  A few nights ago, trying and failing to fall asleep, managing a half-sleep where my thoughts drifted, I’d made the connection between the boy I’d helped and the ‘Iron Falcon down’ report I’d heard from the armband.  The name had maybe stuck with me because I could remember reading about how it was becoming a trend for heroes to go the easy route and stick -hawk or some other bird of prey on the end of their names.  Laserhawk, Flame Falcon, Steel Eagle, and so on.  It had become unfashionable, but apparently Iron Falcon had stuck with it.

If his name was here, it meant he hadn’t made it.  Hadn’t it been a problem with his leg?  How did that kill someone?  It was hard to figure out how I felt about it.  Disappointed?  Sad for him?

It was hard to figure out how I felt, period.  Not just about the dead.

I shivered, and rubbed my arms to warm up.  It was sunny out, but cool air rolled down from the nearby mountains, and the amount of moisture in the air made for a damp cold.

Should have brought something warmer to wear.  I stepped back and out of the way so a pair of parents with a toddler could pass by me.

Rubbing my sleeves against my arms, I traveled around to the right, to the far side of the memorial, which faced the city.

Sham /
Shielder / Eric Pelham
Smackdown / Jennie Ryan
Snowflake / Charlotte Tom
Strider / Craig McNish
Uglymug /
Velocity / Robin Swoyer
Vitiator /
WCM /
Zigzag / Bennie Debold and Geoff Schearn

It was shorter than the other lists, the last list of names, so there was space at the bottom.  Someone had used the empty space to etch words into the marble.  It was crude work, with scuff marks around each notch where the tool had been off target.  The letters were all in capital letters, all straight lines – the ‘o’s were squares, the ‘B’s two triangles joined at one corner.

KOOROW   BULLIT
MILK                   STUMPY
BROOTUS  JOODUS
AXIL         GINGIR

How long had it taken her?  She would have had to come late at night, well after the crowd had left, sat there with a chisel, hammer and flashlight, painstakingly chipped the letters into the marble.  If she even had a chisel.  She might have done it with a screwdriver or something else she had at hand.

I bent down and ran my fingers over the letters.

“Sickening.” I glanced over my shoulder to see the father holding the toddler.  He shook his head, added, “Vandalizing this?  So soon?”

“They’re names, and this took time,” I said in answer, turning back to the memorial.  “They mean something to someone.”

“I think you’re right,” a girl said.

The father didn’t respond, just continuing to walk around the memorial.  I waited until the father was gone before I stood, checked to see that most of the people who’d been visiting were off getting their lunches, the rest out of earshot.  I turned to face the girl, sticking my hands in my pockets.

Lisa’d had the sense to dress warmer than me.  Her hair was up in two tight buns, just behind her ears, and she wore sunglasses, an oversized sweater and a skirt with tights underneath.  She had a backpack slung over one shoulder.  She smiled lightly, almost sadly.

“You getting by?” She asked me.

I shrugged, “I’ve got a cot in one of the shelters for people who lost their homes, and I have some of the cash I brought with me, so I have the basics of what I need.  Not sure if Coil cancelled my bank account or what, but I might have that too.  I’m surviving.”

“I figured you would be.  What I want to know is if you’re okay.”

I shrugged.  How did I respond to that?  Confess that I wasn’t sleeping?  That I had nowhere to go?  That I was angry enough in general that I’d been asked to leave one shelter, for yelling at someone who hadn’t entirely deserved it?

Could I even bring any of that up?

Instead, I guessed, “So.  You knew?”

“Yeah,” Lisa replied, bobbing her head in a nod.  “I’m so sorry.”

“You’re apologizing?” I asked, caught by surprise, “I’m the one who planned on screwing you guys over.”

“But you didn’t.  You changed your mind.  Me?  I had an idea of what you were up to, I lied to you, misled you.  Manipulated you.  Kept it all a big secret.  And I’m sorry for that.  Really.”

“How long did you know?  When I was lying on my cot in the shelter, wondering whether you did know, thinking back to your expression and the things you’ve said in the past, I thought maybe it was when I decided to leave the group over…”  I paused, looked at the people nearby, who might or might not be in earshot.  “…you know.  But no.  You’ve known from the start.”

“Since before we met.”

That was unexpected.  “What?  How?”

She turned her head, surveying the scene, the handful of people still around the monument, “Over there?”

I nodded.

We walked over toward the railing above the sheer drop to the base of the hill.  The position gave us a view of the entire city.  There was the ocean, the coastline with crews and machinery clearing away the wreckage of buildings and the PHQ.  Blinking lights marked the barriers and trucks around the perimeter of the massive hole Leviathan had made in the upper end of Downtown.  The hole was still largely filled with water.  People were still trying to verify if it would ever empty on its own, or if it would be a permanent part of downtown.

I couldn’t make out the details of the Docks, but I saw flattened and ruined buildings.  I’d scouted it early one morning, pulling on my costume and traveling the streets at an hour that even the roving mobs were asleep.   From a distance, with the help of my bugs, I’d verified it.  The loft was gone.

My dad’s house was intact, at least, if not in the best shape.  Still, even with two nights in a row with barely three hours of sleep between them, I’d held off on returning.  Too much I couldn’t explain.

Lisa leaned on the railing, “I didn’t think we’d win.”

I joined her, leaning beside her.  Maybe she could read something in the fact that I put myself far enough away that she couldn’t reach out and touch me, couldn’t push me over if she had a mind to.  Paranoid.  Looking over the city, thinking of the devastation, the hundreds of thousands of hungry, dirty, homeless people still in the city, I thought aloud, “Did we?”

“We’re alive.  That’s a win in my book.”

I didn’t respond, and a silence stretched between us.

“Okay,” Lisa told me, “No more secrets.”

“Sounds good,” I admitted.

“And I’m trusting you to use that brain of yours to know what parts of what I’m about to say should stay between us.”

“Okay.”

“Imagine this.  You walk down a street in an unfamiliar city, you’ve got an appointment to go to, but barely any directions.  You follow?”

I nodded.

“You come to a branching path.  Do you go left, do you go right?  Whatever decision you make, you’ve got to live with it, walk down that path, and if it’s wrong, you have to figure out how to get over to the other path.  And that keeps happening, until you get where you need to be.  Maybe you got lucky, picked the right paths, got there on time.  Maybe you were unlucky, and you were late.”

I nodded, not sure where this was going.

“That’s everyone’s situation, day-to-day, making choices.  Through resourcefulness, like using a cell phone to call for directions in our hypothetical situation, or talent, like me using my power, we can make it more likely we find the right paths, but we inevitably come to a choice between A or B at some time, right?”

“Right.”

“What if you could choose both?  Choose both A and B, so your A self knows what your B self knows and vice versa.  When you know path B is the right choice, you can make it so.  The world where you chose to go down path A is gone, vanished, so when you comes to the next choice, you can do it again.”

“Sounds pretty useful.”

“Trick being that you can only have two realities running in parallel at a time, and the only differences between those realities hinge on the choices and calls you make.  So you delegate.  You find people who will follow orders.  Sometimes you send them out to do something in only one world, so that if things don’t go the way you want, you can default to the reality where you didn’t send them.  Or, in simpler terms, in one world, you flip a coin.  In the other, you hold on a second, delay, say something.”

“Until every coin you’re flipping gives you a heads.  You’re talking about Coil,” I realized.

Tattletale nodded.

“He’s been doing that from the start?”

“Some.  The bank robbery, he had our back.  But timing was sensitive, and I guess he wanted to maximize the chances that he’d get Dinah, so he didn’t have a concurrent reality where he kept us out of action.  And, according to him, we succeeded in both cases, though Bitch got hurt in a fight with Glory Girl in the other one.  Lucky for us, I suppose, that the world where she didn’t get hurt was the same one where Coil got his captive.”

I winced.  Even an offhand mention of the role I’d played in what happened to Dinah elicited a painful stab of guilt.

“We didn’t have him for the fight with Bakuda, but we did have him for the fundraiser.  He had the other version of us in reserve.”

“And the fight with Empire Eighty-Eight?”

Lisa frowned, “Apparently that was one case where he saved our hides.  Remember that call I got?  Telling me to be careful?  Same thing he did with the bank robbery.  Tells one version of me to push us to be careful, tells the other to go in for direct confrontation.  Knowing how he works, I try to nudge us in one direction or the other.  The group of us that went in for the headlong attack?  We got taken down.”

“That happened?” my eyes widened.  That would have been the fight with Night and Fog, and it hadn’t been pretty as it was.  “Did we die?”

Lisa shrugged, “Not sure.  He didn’t elaborate, often doesn’t, unless it’s key info.  But Coil decided not to go with that option, so it was clearly worse than what did happen.  Or worse in his eyes.”

“Damn,” I muttered.  What had happened?  Not knowing was almost worse than hearing we’d all been slaughtered.

“Anyways, point of this explanation is this:  Knowing we had an imminent fight with Lung coming, knowing Lung planned to pyrokinesis our general area until he rooted us out, got civilians to finger us or brought in enough capes to make life difficult for us, I called Coil.  He said he’d help, told us to wait five minutes, then take the more direct route, straight into the heart of ABB territory.

“We go, we take out a contingent of ABB gangbangers and scare off Oni Lee.  Then I get a call back from Coil.  The other reality?  We left earlier, went a different route.  Got in a fight with Lung before you showed.  You decided to attack both our groups while we were occupied fighting each other, worn out, only Lung was stronger at that time, too strong for you to do too much.  By the time you realized you’d have to work with us to stop him, which wasn’t long, it was too late.  Lung was too tough.”

I tried to picture that scenario.

“I got away, managed to call Coil, let him know what had happened.  Coil, in turn, informed me in this reality, the one you remember.  Told me to watch out for a junior hero in the area.”

I nodded.

“So I told the group to hold up, fibbed a bit about needing to use my power, get a sense of things, like Lung’s location.  I was hoping that you were a new member of the Wards, that you’d call in help and deal with Lung without our involvement, that you’d leave, or even start the fight on your own.  You attacked him on your own.”

She shrugged, smiled a little, gave me an apologetic look with a tilt of her head, “And my plan worked out.  Of course.”

“Of course,” I replied, dryly.

“It might have ended there, but then Grue mistook you for a villain, and you didn’t correct him.  It was interesting enough that I played along.  The idea of recruiting you came when he was finishing his introductions.”

“So everything I’ve been through, all of this, it’s-”

“My fault, pretty much.  That’s why I’m saying I’m sorry.  I mean it, too.”

I sighed.

“It’s okay,” I told her.  “I think… I think if it happened again, I’d still want to be part of the group, want to have met you guys.  I’d want some stuff to go down differently.  Dinah, my dad, having things come out like they did after the battle with Leviathan.”

“We can’t take back what happened,” Tattletale said.  “But we can try to fix it.  Some of it.  You could go back home.  Face the music.  Tell your dad some or all of what happened.  You could go somewhere else, or I could convince the others to leave you and your dad alone, if you wanted to do that.”

“I’m not ready to go home just yet.”

“No?  I mean, I knew you hadn’t gone home yet, but I thought maybe that was our fault, you protecting your dad, staying away from places we’d know you frequent.”

“I’m still hurt, still mad at him.  Mad at myself, too.  I guess, more than anyone, I expected my dad to understand, to give me the benefit of a doubt.  And going home would be going back to the way things were, which is the last thing I want.”

“So you don’t want to go home, you obviously don’t want to go to the Birdcage, and you turned down an offer to join the Wards.”

I hesitated, “Yeah.”

“So, what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.”

“Become a hero?  Strike out on your own?”

I shook my head, stressed the words, “I don’t know.”

“No hard feelings if you want to go that way.  Again, I can talk to the others, ensure they don’t go straight for revenge or any of that.  We don’t hate you, now, hurt as some of the others might be.  Except maybe Bitch.  She probably hates you.”

Really, I don’t know,” I told her, exasperated, “I don’t like or even respect any of the heroes I’ve met, I don’t even see the point of it.  As villains, we faced down other villains.  It wasn’t so different from what I’d be doing as a hero… but what did we really accomplish?  What does anyone accomplish, if all we end up with is this?” I gestured out at the cityscape stretching out below us.

“Maybe you don’t know what you want to do because what you really want to do is come back.”

I didn’t reply for a minute.  The quiet was disturbed by the noise of not-too-distant helicopters moving over the city, some capes flying alongside them as guards.  It would be another drop of much-needed supplies.

I sighed, “They wouldn’t have me, and those guys won’t budge on the thing with Coil and Dinah.  Not really.”

“Probably not.  I mean, even if they took you back, you’d have to eat crow, accept a few concessions, like Coil’s ‘pet’.  There’d be no more playing around.  You’d have to go all-in, from here on out, if you expected to convince them you were legit.”

I shook my head.

“You want to be forgiven for what you did?  It’s not going to be easy.  There’s going to be a sacrifice on some level.  And that starts with giving up that stubbornness, being willing to talk to them.  To talk to me.  You might even change your mind, find yourself able to look past thing with the girl, for the sake of having friends, doing the things you want or need to do in other areas.”

I stood away from the railing, stuck my hands in my pockets to keep them warm.  “Never.”

“Never’s pretty final.  If you’re so certain, what do you have to lose by hearing everyone out?  Hearing me out?  I’ve got coffee and lunch in my bag, we can sit down, talk it all out.  If you’re willing, we can then go meet the others.  I’ll talk to them with you, back you up, keep Bitch from murdering you.”

I shook my head, turned and rested my back against the railing, looking at the memorial, rather than the city.

So many dead.  So pointless.  What was wrong with this world, that it was this fucked up?  That people like Sophia and Armsmaster were heroes?  That there couldn’t even be a proper funeral for the people who had given their lives, because of a small handful of grandstanding idiots?

The wind blew hard from the north, cold, blowing my hair into disarray.  I pushed my hair out of my face, tucked it behind my ear.  When I gave Lisa a sidelong glance, she was putting her hood up.

She spoke without looking at me, “I’d go on, ask about whether you prioritize friends or morals, talk about how you’ve grown as a person in so many ways since joining us, except my power informs me that you just settled on a decision.”

She was right.  As I stared at the monument, a goal was crystallizing in my mind, a focus.  I knew, now, what I wanted to do.

I had to change things.  I had to be better than them.  Than Armsmaster, Sophia, Coil, and all the others.

“Yeah,” I replied.  She turned to glance my way.

“And does this plan feature the Undersiders?”

I gave her my answer.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Extermination 8.7

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Sophia Hess was Shadow Stalker. 

I tried to pull all the individual pieces and clues together, fill in the blanks.  Did this mean Emma was a cape, too?  No – I’d seen Emma in the presence of other capes.  At those times, I knew, she’d have reason to be in costume if she had powers.

But those times I was thinking of, when my cape and civilian lives had crossed?  Emma had been at the mall, where Shadow Stalker had been on duty.  She’d been at the fundraiser, too.  As Shadow Stalker’s plus one?  Emma’s dad had been there as well.  Was that a clue?

A sick feeling in my gut told me that Emma knew about Sophia and Shadow Stalker.

I could even guess that Emma had found out sometime before high school started, while I was at nature camp.  It would have been an exciting revelation, a juicy secret, being a part of the cape community.  Seduced by that drama, Emma would have turned her back on me, became Sophia’s best friend.  The civilian sidekick and confidante to the young heroine; it was cliche, but cliches had their basis in something.

I was probably wrong on some level, but it gave answer to questions I’d assumed I’d never get an answer to.

A  hand seized me by the back of the neck, hauled me to my feet.

Numb, I wobbled, relying heavily on the painfully hard grip to stay balanced.  He turned me around, and I saw Armsmaster, his lips curled in a silent snarl of anger.   A glance at his shoulder showed no sign of the ragged mess from when I’d last seen him, but there was no arm either.  I thought I saw a glimpse of a flat expanse of skin.  Panacea’s work?

What are you doing here?!” he roared the words to my face.

When I couldn’t formulate an answer for him, he marched me out of the curtained enclosure, kicking the curtain so it slid shut, moved me towards the nurse’s station where Miss Militia and Legend were talking.

I apparently didn’t move fast enough for him, because he swung his arm forward, forcing me to stumble forward to keep my feet under me.

It was looking increasingly likely that I would get arrested, but my thoughts turned to the trio, and their crime and punishment.  Had Sophia, Emma and Madison had gotten off easy because Sophia was a superhero?  I had my suspicions that the schools worked alongside the Wards, things wouldn’t work if they didn’t, and the schools were a government institution just like the Wards were.  Did Sophia get easier treatment?  Two weeks suspension when she deserved expulsion?

Had my teachers been looking me in the eye while calculating ways to make things easier on their resident superhero?

Maybe.  More likely that it was some combination of ineptitude, laziness and ignorance, on top of being influenced by the school’s link to the Wards program.

Armsmaster slammed my upper body down against the counter of the nurse’s station, hard.  I grunted, as much in reaction to being brought back to reality as in reaction to the blow.

“Armsmaster!” Legend’s tone was a rebuke to Armsmaster for the show of force.

More able to take it in stride than the leader of the Protectorate, Miss Militia asked, “What happened?”

“Escaped her cautionary restraints, caught her peeping on one of the blue tags.”

“Damn it,” Legend muttered.

“Who?” Miss Militia asked, “And how bad?”

“Shadow Stalker.  Saw her unmasked.”

“I see,” Miss Militia spoke, “Nurse?  Would you see that everyone without clearance is put to work elsewhere, while we resolve this?”

“Yes ma’am,” the reply came from a man I couldn’t see.

I struggled to turn over, failed.  When I found I couldn’t budge Armsmaster’s grip, I gave up, slumped onto the counter.

“Who is she?” Legend asked.

“Skitter, member of the Undersiders, a group of teenage villains,” Miss Militia replied.  “Master-5, bugs only.”

“This situation is serious,” Legend spoke, walking around the counter until I could see him.  I saw nurses and others behind him staring, some of them being ushered away by an older nurse in scrubs.  “Do you understand?”

He nodded at Armsmaster, and Armsmaster eased his grip some, as if it would make it easier to talk.

I was opening my mouth to speak when the thought struck me – If Sophia was Shadow Stalker, did she know who I was?  She’d heard me talk in costume, hadn’t she?  I knew from the time the trio had overheard me in the bathroom and doused me in juice, that at least one of the girls could recognize my voice.

I shook my head a little, as if it could get my thoughts back on track.  “Nobody explained anything.  You guys were going to arrest me, so I thought I’d leave.”

“Hospital personnel aren’t permitted to talk to patients, liability reasons,” Miss Militia told me, echoing what I’d heard earlier.

“Figured as much when the nurse didn’t answer my questions,” I muttered.  No use dragging that nurse-in-training down with me.  She’d been nice.  “But Panacea did have words with me when she was putting me back together, and-”

“Panacea is a member of New Wave,” Armsmaster spoke, and I got the impression the explanation or excuse was meant more for Legend than it was for me, “She’s not official.”

“She’s the only person who would talk to me!” I raised my voice.

“I would ask you to keep your voice down,” Legend spoke, his voice hard, “There’s very few ways a situation like this can go, with a cape’s civilian identity at stake.  If you start shouting, specifically shouting what you know, it would severely curtail what options you have left to you.  Understand?”

When I didn’t come up with a response right away, he added, “If the tables were turned, if it was you who had your identity uncovered, you would want us taking the same firm hand, giving you that same respect.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle silently for a second there.  The armor of my mask clacked against the countertop as I let my head rest there.  Respect?  For Sophia?

Besides, I had suspicions that if the tables were turned, Shadow Stalker wouldn’t be pinned against the counter of the nurse’s station.

Taking a deep breath – no use digging myself in deeper – I asked, “You were talking options.  What are they?”

“If you were judged to have used an Endbringer situation to your advantage, you would meet the most serious penalty we can offer.  Those who violate the Endbringer truce are almost always sent to the Birdcage,” he let that last word hang in the air.

I had to keep myself from laughing again.  This shit was too ridiculous.  This was Sophia.  She was five times the villain I was.  The only difference between us were the labels that we stuck on ourselves.  I told him, “It was an accident.”

“Okay,” Legend told me.

Armsmaster told him, “Skitter here has been building a fairly strong reputation as an adept liar, so be cautious.”

“Oh?”

“She’s fooled my instincts and my hardware on more than one occasion.”

“Well, I suppose I’ll have to keep that in mind.”  When Legend returned his attention to me, his lips were creased in a frown.

What could I say to defend myself now?  Anything I said would be colored by Armsmaster’s undeserved comment on my personality.

“Another option would be for you to join the Wards.  We were willing to offer you this when we got around to talking to you, before seeing you on your way.  You would be placed under varying degrees of probation based on your past crimes, but you would earn a paycheck, you’d have a career-”

“No.” The word left my mouth before I even thought about it.

And when I did think about it?  No.  Not with Sophia there.  No way, no how.  If I stepped on her turf, I suspected one of us would kill the other.  Besides, there wasn’t one thing about joining the Wards that was even remotely redeeming.

“No?” he sounded surprised.

“Just… no.  I’d sooner go to the Birdcage.”  I was surprised that I actually meant it.  My contempt for the heroes was growing.  Armsmaster had refused to cooperate with me on any level.  Glory Girl and Panacea hadn’t done anything to earn my respect when I ran into them.  Topping it off, they had a personality like Sophia’s on their team?  I couldn’t even imagine joining them, now.

“I don’t think you understand what you’re saying,” Legend spoke as if choosing his words carefully.

I took a deep breath.  “Is there a third option?”

“You do not get to negotiate!” Armsmaster roared.  Heads turned.

Feeling a flare of anger, I retorted, “So he gets to yell, but I don’t?”

We have the authority here!” Armsmaster shouted.

“The only authority you have is the authority people give you.”  It wasn’t me who responded.  The voice was male, familiar.

“Grue!” I called out.

“You’re alive,” Grue responded.  “We thought-”

“Is she okay?  Tattletale!?”

“I’m at about ninety percent,” Tattletale’s voice informed me.  “You’re the one that gave us a scare.”

I sagged in relief.

“I would ask you to step back and let us handle this,” Miss Militia told him.  “If any of you do decide to stay, and Skitter divulges the confidential information she’s happened upon, you could be just as culpable, face the same restrictions and penalties.”

Grue replied, “So you want us to leave a teammate in your custody, here?  No.  That’s ridiculous.  I can’t speak for the others, but I’m staying.”

Teammate.  He’d said I was his teammate.

There was a pause.

“All four of you, then,” Miss Militia replied, sighing, “I expected as much.  I simply thought you should be informed.”

“Skitter,” she went on, “Just to be clear, you would be well advised to keep your mouth shut, until we’ve come to a consensus here.  Or you could get your team in trouble.”

“Noted,” I replied.

Armsmaster let me stand, but he settled his one hand on my shoulder, held on with an steel grip that left me no illusions about my ability to walk over and join my friends.  Ex-friends?  I wasn’t sure where we stood.  I hadn’t expected them to come to my defense.

Grue looked much as he ever did, a human shape wreathed in smoky darkness.  His skull mask showed through, when he was still like this, but his face was impossible to make out, let alone his facial expressions.  Even his body language was masked beneath the layer of darkness, when it was billowing around him like it was, making him seem larger.  I thought maybe he had his arms folded, but I couldn’t be sure, and he had his feet planted shoulder width apart.

Regent looked a little worse for wear.  He was wet, dirty, spattered in blood, and he had a long cut running from the side of his neck to his shoulder, down to his elbow, all neatly stitched up.  I hadn’t heard any alerts about him being taken out of action, so I assumed it wasn’t that serious.  That, or it was serious, and my broken armband hadn’t caught the message.

Bitch, by contrast, looked to be in better shape than anyone present, physically.  She stared at the ground, hands jammed in the pockets of mud-caked, soaking wet jeans.  Her hair was wet, pulled straight back and away from her face.  A hard plastic dog mask was raised so it sat on top of her head, cord dangling.  She was intact.  Physically.

Mentally?  Emotionally?  Her dogs were the closest thing she had to family, and she had watched seven or eight of them die.  She was rigid with tension and repressed anger, but she didn’t have anyone to direct it at, so it broiled inside her, just waiting for the slightest of excuses to be released and vented.  I wondered if Grue had told her to keep her hands in her pockets to keep her from lashing out and hitting someone.

Tattletale was on crutches with one leg bent to keep it away from the ground, had a bad bruise on her face, but was otherwise in one piece.  Her eyes darted to watch the three heroes and myself.

“Skitter escaped her restraints and uncovered another cape’s secret identity, and we can’t say for sure whether it was intentional or not,” Miss Militia explained to the rest of the group.  “In the interest of protecting that cape, who I assume isn’t well enough to join the discussion…?”

She looked at Armsmaster, who shook his head.

“…We’re left with three options,” she finished her thought.  “Jail time, especially if it’s discovered that this was intentional.  Joining the Wards under a probationary program-”

Regent snorted.

“Or, as a final option, some sort of collateral.”

“That option is generally reserved for capes we can trust,” Armsmaster spoke, his voice low.

My pulse picked up as I heard Armsmaster’s words.  This was a dangerous situation, all of a sudden.

“Collateral?  Explain?” Grue asked Miss Militia, apparently not gathering the deeper meaning of Armsmaster’s statement.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve run into a situation like this, though this is a first for an Endbringer event that wasn’t a blatantly intentional attempt to gather information on a rival.  In the previous case, the villain couldn’t be detained conventionally, and the Birdcage wasn’t yet running.  To top it off, he… wasn’t Protectorate material.  For reasons I won’t explain.  Yet every individual involved was concerned that if we didn’t resolve the case, it would be a costly loss of resources on both sides with an ongoing pursuit by the heroes, and there would be potential escalation leading to serious harm or death on one side or the other.”

Grue nodded, “So?”

“So he agreed to reveal his real face to the other cape, so that any abuse of the knowledge on his part could or would be just as damaging to him.”

Reveal myself to Sophia?  No.  On so many levels, no.

“I’m sorry,” I told her, “That doesn’t work either.”

Armsmaster tightened his grip on the armor of my shoulder until I could feel the pinch.  Miss Militia leveled a very cold look at me.  I saw Tattletale staring at me.  I met her eyes.  She was easiest to look at.

“You’re making a difficult situation even more difficult for you, by being stubborn,” Legend spoke.

“Knowing Skitter, I’m sure she has her reasons,” Grue replied.

“She always does,” Armsmaster replied.

Grue turned his head sharply to look at the hero.

No.  He wouldn’t.

“Well, you’ve made a good case,” Tattletale spoke, “Let me make mine?”

“One second,” Legend spoke.  He turned to Armsmaster, “I need more details on this group.”

“The one that is speaking is Tattletale, member of the Undersiders,” Armsmaster spoke, his voice a hair away from being a growl, “A master manipulator, penchant for head games, likes to pretend she’s psychic but she isn’t.  We don’t know her power, possibly clairvoyance, psychometry, or some combination thereof, but we’ve got her pegged as a Thinker 7.”

“Seven?  I’m flattered,” Tattletale replied, grinning.

“It’s reason enough to end this conversation here and now,” Armsmaster spoke, “Before you find some angle.”

“Fine,” Legend nodded, “That’s all I need.  Miss Militia?  Escort them away?”

Green-black energy leapt to Miss Militia’s hand, materialized into the shape of a gun.  She didn’t raise it, and she kept her finger off the trigger, but the threat was implicit.

“You start a fight here,” Grue spoke, “You better pray to some higher power that you can fucking spin this well enough with all those others looking, because it’s an end to the truce if you don’t, too many eyes on this.”

Grue turned his head, and I leaned forward a little to see what he was looking at.  There were capes at the far end of the hallway, staring at the scene, kept out of the main triage area by a set of PRT officers.  Trickster leaned against a wall with a cell phone raised, recording video.

“It’s not a concern,” Legend spoke.  “Miss Militia?”

“Come on, let’s walk,” she told the others.

“No,” Grue replied, his chin raising an inch, challenging, defiant.

Tattletale raised one hand, “If  could just say my piece, I-”

“Quiet,” Armsmaster interrupted her.

“Nobody ever lets me talk!” she spoke, turning on her heel to walk away, flouncing, almost.  It was a bit theatrical, overacting.  I wondered if someone that didn’t know her would catch it.  “Whatever.  Grue, let’s go.”

Grue looked at her.

“It’s cool,” she gave him a little smile, then she offered me one, “Hey Skitter, don’t sweat it.  We’ll handle this, kay?”

“Kay,” I muttered.  In a way, I was relieved at the idea of them leaving.  I had no idea what I’d do, but it was a relief anyways.

Miss Militia raised her gun a fraction, waved it toward the others to prod them onward.  One by one, they turned.  Tattletale led the herd in walking away, followed my Regent and Bitch.  Grue was the last to turn away, with Miss Militia following him.

When they were out of earshot, Legend floated over the counter to land in front of me.

“We’ve given you three options.  Pick one or I’ll choose for you.”

I opened my mouth, closed it.  The only things I could think of to say would only get me in more trouble.

This working?  This on?  Good.  The tinny female voice rang out from the armbands of the two heroes.

Armsmaster snapped his head around.  I followed his line of sight to where Grue, Regent and Bitch were standing in between Tattletale and Miss Militia.

For those of you who don’t have a front row seat, the very well armed Miss Militia is currently doing her best to point a Beretta 92fs at my head.  If this broadcast ends prematurely, you can all rest assured that the Protectorate is willing to kill and break the truce if it means censoring its dark, dirty little secrets.

Legend grabbed me, hauling me into the air as he crossed the length of the room, Armsmaster hurrying behind as we raced towards the scene.

“Free speech is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?” I saw Tattletale’s lips moving as she broadcast the message.  She wasn’t holding any buttons down on her armband, but it was going through with no difficulty.  Miss Militia held a handgun pointed at Grue’s heart.

Other capes were in the vicinity, some of the Travelers, New Wave, out of towners.  Not quite in earshot, maybe, but close enough to see everything unfold.

The heroine looked at Armsmaster as we arrived, “She said something about deep access, offered your name, then the armband asked her for your password.  She knew your password.”

“Armband, pause announcement,” Tattletale spoke.

Acknowledged.  Her armband replied.

With his one arm, Armsmaster reached for his shoulder, but his Halberd wasn’t there.  Photon Mom had apparently decided not to bring it when she’d carried him here.  No EMP burst possible.

“Let’s negotiate,” Tattletale spoke, taking a step to one side, ducking a little to ensure that someone else was always in between herself and Miss Militia.  Bitch scowled as the gun moved to point toward her head, with Tattletale roughly on the other side.

“Negotiate?” Legend asked.

“Sure.  Let’s turn things around.  You gave Skitter your three options.  Here’s my three.  Number one: Shoot us now, and confirm to everyone in this room, civilian and cape alike, hero and villain, that you’ve got something to hide.  It doesn’t even have to be lethal, people will still have their concerns if you knock us out rather than let us talk.”

Legend nodded, “Okay.”

“Two: I do my little announcement, and the truce ends.  I really don’t want to do that.  I recognize how necessary it is.  But if you decide that one cape’s identity maybe getting publically revealed is worth the truce, well, that’s on you, not me.”

“And the third option is that we release the girl,” Legend guessed.

“You got it,” Tattletale spoke.

“Except that you could be bluffing,” Legend frowned.  “You’re a master manipulator, according to Armsmaster.”

“True enough.  You know, Alexandria was giving me a recap on what I missed, in exchange for my intel on the Endbringer.  Let’s see… Armband, find me the largest break in casualties from the earlier Leviathan encounter.”

Found.

“Mark this time period.”

Marked.

“The notifications in the minute before the mark?”

Sundancer down, ED-6.  Eschutcheon deceased, CD-6.  Herald deceased, CD-6.

“What is the point of this?” Legend asked.

“Please replay us the notifications following the mark, until I tell you to stop.”

Manpower deceased, CD-6.  Aegis deceased, CD-6.  Fenja down, CC-6.  Fenja deceased, CC-6.  Kid Win down, CC-6.  Skitter deceased, CC-6. Kaiser deceased, CC-6.

“Stop.”

“What is the point of this?”  Legend folded his arms.

“Skitter’s right here, she’s not dead.”

“My armband broke,” I replied.

“Did it?  Or did someone break it?”  Tattletale’s gaze went to Armsmaster, her voice dropping in volume to ensure that our ‘audience’ didn’t hear.

“What are you implying?”  Armsmaster growled.

“I’m implying that you set things up to guarantee yourself a one-on-one fight with Leviathan.  Who cares, after all, if some villains get murdered in the process, if it means stopping an Endbringer?”

Armsmaster raised his voice, “This is exactly the sort of manipulation-”

“Elaborate,” the one spoken word from Legend was sufficient to cut Armsmaster off.

“Armsmaster has a fancy computer system in his suit, set it up to predict Leviathan’s movements and actions.  Clockblocker tagged the Endbringer, put him on pause long enough for Armsmaster to set up the playing field the way he wanted it, with that predictive program.  Leviathan’s going after the people who can make forcefields, and Armsmaster uses this, dangles Kaiser like bait, puts more villains – Fenja and Menja- in the way to Kaiser.  Sure enough, Leviathan marks Kaiser as a target, charges through the conveniently arranged villains, and goes straight to the spot where Skitter is.”

“Oh no,” I heard Miss Militia mutter under her breath.

“This is nonsense,” Armsmaster spoke, stabbing his index finger towards her, “Heroes died too.”

Tattletale didn’t hesitate a second in replying, “To your credit, if any credit is due, that was an accident.  Your program can’t account for that many variables, probably, in the chaos of a bunch of capes trying to keep Leviathan pinned down.  Either way, Leviathan did as you wanted, followed the path you plotted.  You used a directed EMP blast to nuke Skitter’s armband, ensuring that she couldn’t report Leviathan’s position and call in reinforcements, buying you time to take on Leviathan one on one.  Who cares if she dies, after all?  She’s a villain, and you’re positive you’ll win, that it’ll be worth the body count you just allowed Leviathan to rack up.  Except you lost.”

Armsmaster scowled at her.

“This is a serious set of accusations,” Legend spoke.

“Sure.”

“But it’s speculation.”

Tattletale shrugged, “Take Skitter’s armband.  It’ll have damage from the EMP hit.”

“You bitch,” Armsmaster snarled, “This is a lie.”

“Check the armband,” Tattletale repeated, “And you’ll see the truth.”

“Convenient that this would take days or weeks to check,” Armsmaster spoke.

“True, so how about I just do another announcement?  Tell everyone that’s still wearing an armband an abbreviated version of the same story I just told you?  How do you think they’d react?  If you’re really innocent, I’m sure your name would be cleared eventually, after the test results came back from the armband.  If it’s wrong, we get get in everyone‘s bad books for fucking around with an Endbringer situation.  Hell, I’ll even submit to being detained while you get things checked out.  You can take me from there to jail if I’m wrong.  Either way, you get some jerk in custody.”

Legend frowned.

Armsmaster lunged forward, swatting Grue aside with his armored hand.  He shoved Regent aside, reached for Tattletale.

A laser to the right shoulder spun him around, sent him sprawling to the ground.  His armor smoked where the laser had made contact.

“Who!?  Why!?”  Armsmaster flopped over, saw Legend with one open hand aimed at him.  “Legend?”

Miss Militia pointed her handgun at his lower face.

“So, I’m guessing you don’t want this getting out,” Tattletale spoke, looking at the heroine, “Let us walk away, I keep my lips sealed.”

“I know you were tired, that you hadn’t slept all last night,” Miss Militia told Armsmaster, ignoring Tattletale, “Frustrated, your dream taken from you.  But to go this far?”

“It was for the greater good,” Armsmaster replied, without a trace of shame or humility, “If it had worked, Leviathan would be dead, the man holding Empire Eighty-Eight together dead.  All of us survivors would have been legends, and this city could have risen from the ashes, become something truly great.”

“It didn’t work,” Tattletale spoke, “Couldn’t.”

“Shut up.  You’ve said enough,” Armsmaster spat the words, looked away from her, breathing hard.

“The way the Endbringer’s physiology works?  You could detonate a small atom bomb in his face, he’d probably survive.  Take him two or three years to recover, but he’d survive.”

“Shut up!” Armsmaster raised his head to shout at her.  He stopped, eyes flickering to me.  When he spoke again, his voice was almost calm.  “You don’t know everything.”

No.

“Her,” he pointed a hand at me, “She’s not who you think she is.”

I spoke quickly, “Grue, shut him up.”

Grue raised his hand.  But he didn’t blanket Armsmaster in his darkness.

“She’s a wannabe hero.  Has been from the start, since the night Lung was first brought into custody.”

Grue’s hand dropped to his side.

“I met her that night.  She said she was a hero, that you Undersiders mistook her for a villain.  I didn’t think twice about it until she arranged a meeting with me, the night before the bank robbery.  Told me she had joined your group as an undercover agent, getting the dirt on you so she could hand that group over to us.  Talked to me again the night you raided the fundraiser, out there on the balcony.  Told me if I let her go, she’d get the details on your boss to me.  Guess she hasn’t gotten around to figuring that little detail out, yet.”

I tried to speak, to say something, even ‘I changed my mind’.  My throat was too dry to form the words.

Armsmaster turned, shouted at the capes who stood watching, “You want to look down on me!?  I tried to save this city, I got closer to killing the fucking Endbringer than Scion!  That girl is the person you should be mocking, spitting on!  A wannabe hero without the balls to do anything heroic!  Planning from the start to betray teammates for fame!”

I stepped back, swallowed hard.

“Is this true?”

I turned to look at Grue, but he wasn’t asking me.  The question was for Tattletale.

“Yeah,” Tattletale confirmed, sighing.

Bitch stared at me wide eyed, teeth bared, as if all basic human expression had left her as she regarded me.  Regent looked me up and down, turned away, as if in disgust, one fist clenched hard enough to make the area around the long stitched up cut on his arm stand out in white.

I couldn’t see Grue’s face, could barely make out his body language, but I knew that it would have stung ten times worse than anything else if I could see his expression in that moment.

Tattletale was the only one who didn’t look surprised.

I backed away a step, and nobody moved to stop me.  The heroes were preoccupied with Armsmaster, the Undersiders couldn’t or wouldn’t go around the gathered heroes to follow me.

Some of the capes that were in the vicinity were staring at me.  Murmuring.  Panacea was among them, looking at me as though I were from another planet.

I turned and ran out of the hospital, out the door and into the street, kept running.

Except I had no place to run to.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Extermination 8.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

All of the adrenaline, emotions and endorphins that had been building since I first heard the sirens, maybe even before them – when I learned about Dinah Alcott – made for one hell of a rush.  More relevant to the present, it made for one hell of a mental wipeout as I came down from the rush.  A low point to equal the ‘high’.

The background noise of screams, shouted orders of doctors and nurses, a hundred heart monitors beeping out of sync and my ‘cell’ of three curtained ‘walls’ cutting me off from everything else?   Didn’t help.

My arm hurt, and hanging from the manacle made that ten times as bad.  My back was the worst thing, a slow, steady, pain that terminated in my midsection. It seemed to build in intensity every second I paid attention to it, settling into a dull blistering of pain when I focused my attention elsewhere.  If I didn’t focus on keeping my breathing steady and deep, I found that I unconsciously held my breath to minimize the pain.  That only made it worse when I did have to breathe again, because it brought tightness in my throat and chest, along with agonizing coughing fits.

None of that was even touching on that growing terror over the fact that, hey, I couldn’t feel my legs, and it wasn’t getting better.

If my back was really broken, it could mean my best case scenario was surgery and years of physical therapy, years of crutches and wheelchairs.  My worst case scenario would be never walking again.  I didn’t have a power that would help too much on that front.  It would mean the end of my career as a cape, never having sex with a boy the natural way, and never going for another morning run.

I made myself take a deep breath.  It shuddered as I exhaled slowly, and not just because it hurt to breathe.

I couldn’t do anything about my back, in the here and now.  My arm?  Maybe.  The metal pole was fixed to the wall at every foot or so by horizontal bars, and the end of the manacle was stopped from descending any further by one of the bits that extended to the wall, three feet or so above my head.

I couldn’t really believe they were going to arrest me.  Like Tattletale had said, there were rules.  Largely unspoken rules, but still more important than anything else in the cape community.  You didn’t profit from an Endbringer attack, you didn’t attack your nemeses or take advantage of undefended areas to steal.  You didn’t arrest a villain that came to help.

Because when people started doing that, the truce broke and things became ten times easier for the Endbringer.

The manacle on my wrist made me wonder.  I’d made some enemies with the good guys.  Maybe I was getting some rough treatment because of it.

One ominous idea nagged at me, and I couldn’t get it out of my head.  It was that I might not get any treatment at all – for my back, specifically – because of grudges against me and capes who could ‘suggest’ that maybe the doctors’ resources could be better directed elsewhere.

If they went that route, one hundred percent deniable, excusable, then there’d be nothing I could do about it.

If that was what was going on, being manacled like this would be something of a slap in the face, a way of letting me know it was intentional, while keeping me from contacting anyone to complain.

My arm shifted involuntarily as I cringed at a painful intake of breath, swinging a little, and I clenched my teeth.

I turned my head, gripped the fabric of my pillow with my teeth, tugged and pulled my head forward at the same time.  It moved to my left.  I did it again, bumped my shoulder, making my arm swing on the chain once more.  I suppressed the noise I might’ve made at the pain, choked back the gorge that rose in my throat.

Whatever was going on with my back, it prevented me from sitting up, denied me the use of my abdominal muscles.  I could only work with my shoulders, my head, my teeth.

Shifting the pillow over several long minutes, I managed to gingerly ease it under my shoulder and upper arm.  Provided I didn’t move -which I couldn’t, really- it gave my arm something to rest on, prevented all of the weight from dangling off of my cuffed wrist.

Of course, I was now absent one pillow for my head and neck, and the propped up shoulder and arm made my back twist slightly, which only intensified the pain there.  I closed my eyes, focused on just breathing, tried not to pay too much attention to how slowly time was passing by, or the cacaphony of noise from the rest of the triage area.

I hated this.  Hated not knowing, not having any information about what had just happened, what was happening, what was going to happen.

Roughly half of my nightmares about being bullied took place in the classroom, knowing that a class was just about to end, or that a teacher was about to assign us group work.  That some group of faceless bullies were waiting to pull the worst ‘prank’ yet.  It was the idea that I was about to be put in a situation where something bad was about to happen, that it was inevitable.  Being helpless to do anything about it.

Maybe it was stupid, but I’d never failed to wake up drenched in sweat after that, even when I woke up before the follow-through.  The dreams had come less often after I got my powers, but they still came from time to time.  I had suspicions they might come even years after I left high school behind me for good.

But that state of mind in the nightmares?  I felt like that now.  Trying to keep from panicking, knowing that no matter what I did, I was counting on luck and forces beyond my control to not ruin my day, my week, my month.  Ruin my life.

I’d done the heroic thing.  Drawn Leviathan away from those in the shelter who were still alive.  A part of me was proud of myself.  The rest of me?  Faced with the idea of spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair?  I felt like an idiot of epic proportions.  I’d bought into the idea of the grand, noble gesture, and in the here and now it felt like I had to convince myself that what I had done mattered.  It sure as shit didn’t seem to matter to anyone else.

The chain of my manacle clinked taut as I yanked my right hand forward angrily.  The pain that caused me in my midsection stopped me from doing it again.

A girl in a nurse’s uniform pushed the curtain aside to enter.  I identified her as a girl rather than a woman because she barely looked older than me.  Bigger in the chest, for sure, but baby faced, petite.  Her brown hair was in a braid, and the lashes of her downcast eyes were long as she stepped to the foot of my bed, picked up a clipboard.  She was very carefully not looking my way.

“Hi,” I spoke.

She ignored me, turned her attention to the heart monitor, made a note on the clipboard.

“Please talk to me,” I spoke.  “I have no idea what’s going on, and I feel like I’m losing my mind, here.”

She glanced at me, looked away hurriedly the same reflexive way you’d pull away from a hot stove with your hand.

“Please?  I’m-  I’m pretty scared right now.”

Nothing.  She took more notes on the clipboard, noting stuff from the screen the electrode ran to.

“I know you think I’m bad, a villain, but I’m a person, too.”

She glanced at me again, looked away, returned her eyes to the clipboard and frowned.  She stopped writing as she glanced up to the monitor, as if she had to find her place or double check her numbers.

“I have a dad.  Love him to death, even if we haven’t talked lately.  I love reading, my- my mom taught me to love books from the time I was little.  My best friend, it wasn’t so long ago that she helped pull me out of a dark place.  I haven’t heard how she’s doing.  If she’s dead or if she’s here too.  Have you seen her?  Her name’s Tattletale.”

“We aren’t supposed to talk to the patients.”

“Why not?”

“While back, some cape sued the rescue workers after a battle much like this.  Hadhayosh, I think.”

“That’s one of the other names for Behemoth.  Like Ziz is for the Simurgh?”

“Yes, some heroes got hurt badly enough they wouldn’t recover, they knew they had no more income from their costume career, so suing, it was a way-” she stopped, closed her mouth deliberately, as if reminding herself to stay silent.

“You can’t tell me if my back’s broken or not?”

She shook her head, “No.”

“I won’t tell.  I won’t sue.”

“Saying that isn’t legally binding,” she frowned, again, “and It- it’s not that.  I’m just a nursing student.  I haven’t even graduated.  They recruited us to help meet demand, to do the paperwork and check that patients weren’t coding, so the people with experience could focus on handling the patient load.  I don’t have the training to diagnose you on any level, let alone your back.”

My heart sank.  “Have you seen Tattletale?  Have you heard if she’s dead or injured?  She wears a lavender and black costume, and there’s this eye in dark gray on the black part across her chest-”

“I’m sorry,” she hurried to the foot of the bed, hung up the clipboard.

I’m sorry?  Was that an answer – condolences – or was it a refusal to speak on the subject?

I might have made a noise, because she turned back, stopped.  I couldn’t be sure, though, over the sounds from the other nurses, doctors and patients.

“We’ve got a code!” someone screamed, just beyond the curtain.  “Need paddles!”

“Paddles are in use!”

“Then get me someone with electricity powers!  And you, resuscitate!”

I closed my eyes, tried to stop myself from imagining that they were talking about Tattletale, or my dad, or even Brian, though I was pretty sure Brian had made it out okay.  Even as I managed to dismiss those images from my mind, a voice in the back of my head noted that whoever was on the table was important to somebody.  So many beloved family members, friends, coworkers, gone from people’s lives.

“Do you want to call your dad?  Or try calling your friend?” the nurse-in-training offered me.

If she was offering for me to call Tattletale, that at least meant she hadn’t seen Tattletale’s body.  That was some relief.

I wasn’t sure if I should take the offer.  If I called my dad, would they track the call?  Find out who I was?  Would they track down Tattletale, if she wasn’t dead or dying?  Who else could I call?  Coil?  Way too many issues if they traced the call, and I wasn’t sure if Lisa had passed on word of our recent argument and/or breakup.  Grue, Regent, Bitch?  I wasn’t on their team anymore.

A darker thought struck me.

“Is that – would that be my one phone call?  These cuffs – am I being arrested?”

She shook her head, “I was just offering.  I don’t know if they’re arresting you.  Only thing they said was that I was supposed to fill in the charts for the patients on this end of the room that have the red tags.”

She pointed to a set of plastic tags that were clipped to the curtain rod, so that one large tag hung down on either side of it.  Was it to designate the seriousness of my injuries?  No, they hadn’t even examined me.

I drew a connection to my line of thinking from earlier – was it because I was a villain?  Did I get a mere check-in from the nurse-in-training while the heroes got actual nurses and doctors?  I hadn’t seen anyone put the tags up, but then again, I hadn’t been looking at the curtain rod right after I was stuck here.

“Okay,” I spoke, quiet, my thoughts going a mile a minute.

“The phone call, I can let you use my cell phone if you promise not to…” she trailed off, as if realizing the possibilities of what could happen if a villain had her phone number, contact info for her friends and family.  Yet she could hardly back out, not without potentially upsetting a bad guy.

I shook my head.  “No.  But it’s really good of you to offer.  Thank you,” I tried to put as much emphasis on the thanks as possible.  “With that kind of empathy, I’m sure you’ll become a great nurse.”

She gave me a funny look, then backed out through the curtain.  I could have called after her, asked for something for the pain, asked if maybe I could get some help, but I suspected she didn’t have the power to give me any of that.  I had no idea how long I’d be here, and I suspected it’d be worth more to have a potential friendly face around than go for the long shot and risk seeming manipulative or alienating her.  That, and I didn’t want to get her in trouble.

Minutes ticked on.  No more than three seconds passed without someone screaming or shouting orders or updates regarding a patient in crisis.  It would have been interesting to listen to, if I could make out more than half of it, and if the half I could hear wasn’t so horrible.

The anxiety over my circumstances and not knowing what was going to happen was gradually overriden by a maddening boredom.   I couldn’t move, had nobody to talk to, didn’t know enough about my present situation to think up contingency plans.

I closed my eyes and used my power, because it let me be outside my own body in a way, because it was something to do.

A handful of cockroaches from near the kitchen made their way through the walls, through an air intake grate in the wall, and up to my bed.  They gathered on my stomach.

I gathered them into a pyramid on my stomach, let them collapse.  Made a kaleidoscopic starburst pattern, then moved them all in sync to expand out into a perfect circle.

“You’re so creepy, you know that?” the voice was familiar, but I couldn’t place it.

“I’ve heard worse,” I replied, opening my eyes.  Panacea was entering my curtained enclosure, shutting the curtain behind her.  There was a PRT uniform with her.

“I’m sure you have,” she frowned.  Her hood and scarf were down, so I could see her face, much as I had during the bank robbery.  She had dark circles under her eyes that looked painted on.  She spoke, sighing the words, “I need your permission to touch you.”

“What?”

“Liability reasons.  Someone overheard you say you’ve got a broken back.  There could be other complications, and that takes people, time, equipment and money that the people in charge of this hospital are reluctant to spare at a time like this.  You could refuse to let me touch you, make the hospital give you the X-rays and MRI, get months or years of treatment paid for by the Preservation Act, all under oppressive confidentiality agreements that could cost the hospital millions.  It’s an option, but the treatment wouldn’t be as fast, good or effective as it would if I used my power.  You’d be shooting yourself in the foot for the sake of being stubborn.”

“Um.”

“Just agree, so I can move on to other patients.”

“What was it you said during the bank robbery?  You’d make me horribly obese?  Make everything I eat taste like bile?  What’s to stop you from doing something like that here?”

“Nothing, really.  I mean, you could sue me after I did it, but you’d have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, and that’d be damn hard if I gave the symptoms a time delay before they showed up.  Plus I’m a valuable enough resource that I could get help paying the legal costs.  And, let’s not forget, Carol, my adoptive mother, is a pretty kickass lawyer.  Whatever you did by trying to sue me probably wouldn’t cripple me as much as what my power did to you.”

“That’s not reassuring.”

“It’s not meant to be reassuring.  I suppose maybe you’ll just have to either trust in the fact that I’m a decent person or refuse my help,” she shrugged, glaring at me, “There’s a kind of poetry to this.  Like, a thief fears being stolen from the most, a scumbag… well, you get the drift.  The more horrible a human being you are, the more you’ll agonize over what I might have done to you, with a time delay of minutes, hours, days, years.  Yet if you’re a decent person, you’ll be more inclined to think better of me.”

“Are you?”

“What?”

Are you a decent person, Amy?”

She gave me an offended look.

“I envy you, that it’s so easy for you to think of things in terms of black and white.  I’d like to think I’m a good person, believe it or not.  Everything I’ve done, I did because I thought it was right at the time.  In hindsight, some of the ends didn’t justify the means, and sometimes there were unforseen consequences.”  Like Dinah.  “But I don’t think of myself as a bad person.”

“Then you’re either ignorant, deluded or you have a very twisted perspective.”

“Maybe.”

She went on, “Don’t really care which it is.  If you’re going to call yourself a good person,” she paused, shook her head a little, “Then don’t waste my time.  Give me an answer, one way or another, so I can get on with helping people.”

It wasn’t really a choice.  A long, hard road to recovery, possibly with no recovery at all, fraught with any potential health complications that the universe decided to hand my way, or healing for a broken back, with the potential health complications that Panacea decided to give me?

I mean, whatever she deigned to inflict on me would be calculated to make me miserable, if she went that far, but at least then I’d have someone to hate.

“Please,” I spoke, “Use your power.”

She nodded at the PRT uniform, who left the enclosure.  Then she approached the side of the bed.

“I’m going to have to move some of your mask aside, to touch your skin.”

“Permission granted,” I spoke, “Though I’ve been wondering since the bank robbery – why didn’t you reach up and touch my scalp?”

“No comment.”

Ah.  Something about hair, maybe?  A weakness in her power.  Maybe it was mucked up or confused by ‘dead’ tissue?

She fumbled with my mask for a second.

“Lower,” I informed her, “The mask and body part of the costume overlap just above the collarbone.”

She found it, separated the two, and touched a fingertip to my throat, like she was taking my pulse.

The pain left in an instant.  My breathing became easier, and I felt a steady pressure deep in my broken arm.

“You have a brain injury that’s not fully healed.”

“Bakuda’s fault.”

“Hm.  Outside the scope of my abilities.”

Ominous, but I wasn’t ready to put too much stake in what she told me, and what she might be leaving out.

“Okay,” my voice was stronger, without the crippling pressure in my chest and back.

“Microfracture in your shoulder, nerve damage to your left hand, reduced fine dexterity.”

“Really?  I hadn’t noticed.”

“It’s there.  I’m not going to bother with that, either.”

“Wasn’t expecting you to.”  Couldn’t let her ruffle me.

“Broken arm, broken spine, fractured ribs, small perforations in colon, kidney and liver, some internal bleeding.  This will take a minute.”

I nodded.  It was more severe than I’d thought.  That unsettled me some.

A part of me wanted to apologize for what had happened at the bank robbery, but the tone of our earlier conversation made it feel like I’d be trying to dissuade her from doing something malicious with her power.

Relief overwhelmed me as sensations began returning to my legs.  They were quick, like being shocked, but they ranged from hot to cold to the unfamiliar, running from my abdomen to the tips of my toes, tracing every internal area of my legs.

“Ow,” I muttered, as one line of pain drew itself from my hip to my ankle.

“I’ve got to test your nerves as I re-establish the connections, but I’m too tired to do it all with my power, and I can’t dope you up with endorphins because Armsmaster, Miss Militia and Legend will be coming to talk to you in a bit, and I’ve been told you need your head one hundred percent clear for that.  So some of this is going to hurt.”

“Wait, what?  Why do I need my head clear to talk to them?  Why are they talking to me?”

“Mmm.  I can feel your emotions in your body, hormones and altered chemical balances.  You’re scared.”

“Damn right, I’m scared – ouch.  Fuck, that stung.”  My leg jerked.

“It’s going to happen any time my concentration slips.  Best to stay quiet.”

“No, seriously.  Why are they talking to me?  Is that why I’m in handcuffs?  To keep me here until they, what, arrest me?”

“No comment,” she smiled a little.

“Hey, no.  You can’t call yourself a decent person and then leave me here agonizing over details.”

“I can.  I don’t know what they want to talk to you about, though I have… strong suspicions,” her eye drifted to my manacle.  “But I have been informed that you are to be lucid and fully mobile.”

“Why?”  I had a growing suspicion as to why, helped by her glance to my restraints.  If they were arresting me, they couldn’t have me agree to any deals or plea bargains while I was drugged up, or it would be thrown out of court.  I was pretty sure.  One semester of a law class didn’t exactly leave me an expert.

“According to the woman from the PRT that I talked to, it will work best if all of you are kept in the dark for as long as possible.”

“All of us?”  It wasn’t just me.

“A slip of the tongue.” She smiled slightly, as if enjoying stringing me along.

“Do these others include Tattletale?” I asked, “Did you heal her?”

She quirked an eyebrow.  “No.  I can tell you I didn’t.”

“You didn’t.  Because she didn’t need your help, or because she was already dead?  Ow!”

My leg jerked again, a muscle in my thigh clenching hard, not unlike a charlie horse.  It subsided.

“I think we’re done here.”

“Hey!” I raised my voice again, “Give me an answer!  Stop fucking with me!”

She lifted her finger from my throat, and many of my smaller bruises and scrapes began making themselves felt once more.  I could breathe without a problem.  I wiggled my toes experimentally, felt them move against the soles of my costume.  I moved my left arm, felt no pain.  Tugged on the chain with it and felt everything working as it should, no pain.

She leaned close, so her mouth was by my ear, “Not so fun, is it?  Let me tell you, this isn’t a hundredth of the mind-fuckery that your teammate was pulling on me, back then.”

“That wasn’t-” I stopped.

“What?  Wasn’t you?  You stood by and watched it happen, played along, took advantage of it.  Or maybe you were going to say it wasn’t that bad?  You really don’t know.  You don’t know me, you don’t know Glory Girl, you don’t know what Tattletale was saying, how she was threatening to ruin my life.  Imagine the person you care about most, finding our your darkest secrets.  Secrets that, even if they eventually came to accept it, you know they would taint and color every single conversation you have with them afterward.”

I couldn’t help but picture it.  My dad finding out I was a villain, what I’d done.  Forevermore having doubts about me.

“I’m sorry,” I spoke, my voice low.

“Maybe you are.  I doubt it.  I’m sorry to leave you wondering what happened to your teammate, what the big name capes are going to say to you, but I have others to help.”

She didn’t sound sorry at all.

“Hey!”  I raised my voice again, “Come back here!”

She turned her head to give me a dark look as she walked away, “Good luck with Armsmaster.”

I pulled on the chains, angrily.  I almost, almost sent the cockroaches on the bed after her.  I stopped when I saw the PRT uniform hold the curtain back for her in courtesy.

When Armsmaster and Legend arrived, it would be too late.

I sent the roaches after him, the PRT uniform.  They landed on him, individually squeezed into the pouches on his belt and bandoleer.

Found the keys on his belt.

Getting the keys out of the pouch was harder.  I had to be smooth, and the keychain was heavy enough that the roaches couldn’t pick it up with their mouths.  Instead, I tried lifting it up with the middle of a roach’s body, supported by the rest.  No luck, it slipped free off of the convex exterior of the cockroach’s shell.

I turned it upside down, instead, used the more textured underside to catch the loop of metal.  The rest of the roaches latched on, hauled the roach up and out of the pouch, squeezed it through the flap-covered opening, breaking it nearly in two against the metal of the ring as they drove it through the too-narrow gap.  One roach dead, but the keys were falling free of the pouch.

Instinct took over, and I unconsciously bid roaches to move into place beneath the keys as they fell to the floor, muting  the noise of metal against the ground.  They skittered my way, the weight of the keychain managed between them.

Hopefully people were too busy to notice the falling keys or the small number of bugs.  I suspected it was crowded and busy out there, from what I had glimpsed when I was brought in.  If people did notice, well, I was still getting arrested anyways, right?

Getting the keys up onto the bed would be harder.  I had the roaches put the keys beneath the bed, set them on the blanket, to start unraveling it.  Ten sets of mandibles -eleven now, as another cockroach came from the air vent- each working at individual threads.

I was torn between rushing this and doing it right.  I had to convince myself that I wouldn’t be dragged off to jail in the next five or ten minutes.  Probably.

It probably took that long to get a long enough piece of thread.  One group of bugs set to looping the thread around the keychain, tying it into a firm knot, while the others brought it up the side of the bed, up my body, my arm, and to my hand.  Once I had the thread in my fingers, I started winding it up around my fingers with a circular motion of my hands, reeling in the keys.

In a matter of seconds, I had the keys in hand.  Good.

The cockroach that had brought me the thread helped me figure out the keys that would work, traveling over them to eliminate the ones that were too large, acting as an added digit to help sort through them and putting the right keys between my fingers.  It guided the end of the keys into the lock.  The first key didn’t fit, too large.

The second unlocked the cuff.

I hurried to unlock the cuff on my left hand, flexed my hand and arm, rubbed at my wrists.

I pulled the covers off, swung my legs over the side of the bed, and gingerly tested them against the ground.  They supported my weight.

The relief was palpable.  Almost something I could feel, making me want to hug my arms around my body in quiet joy.

But my priority was getting out of here.  Not so easy, with the amount of capes and PRT personnel around.  No windows around me, but if I stepped outside the curtain and into the main area, I risked running into someone like Legend or Armsmaster.  I was assuming from what Panacea had said that they had been treated for the injuries that had taken them out of the fight and were up and about.

No, a better plan of action would be to keep out of sight.

I sent my bugs forward, tracing the lines of the curtains and wall.  Once I was sure that the curtains in the next few patient enclosures were closed, I moved the curtain to my right and headed that way.

Some cape I didn’t know was unconscious, blood smeared around his nose and mouth, almost caking the upper half of his mask to his face.

Another enclosure, an empty cot, with red stains on the sheets from whatever patient had been there earlier.

There was a window past the next enclosure.  I wasn’t sure if I could climb out, or if there would be somewhere to go once I had, but it gave me hope.

I pushed my way into the next curtained enclosure.  Stopped.

Oh.

There were shouts behind me, which might have been someone noting my absence.  I was at the point of not caring anymore.

I tried to take a step forward, to move to the bedside or around it, but my newly healed legs gave out under me.  I crumpled into a kneeling position.

Staring up at the occupant of the bed, a few things came to me.  For one thing, I got to experience first hand what Brian had told me, about how he’d gone cold, still and quiet inside on that day he’d gotten his powers.

For another, I realized why they’d had me chained up.  Kind of stupid not to, in retrospect.  A glance at the curtain showed a blue tag, the same style as the red one that had been on my curtain, plastic, unlabeled.

The bed’s occupant lay on her back, tubes running into her nose and mouth, an IV in her arm.  An ugly cut marred her right breast and shoulder, which were bare.  Smaller cuts covered the rest of her body.

Running footsteps and the sound of a curtain being heaved open in a neighboring section didn’t stir me from my daze.

The bed’s occupant wore Shadow Stalker’s costume, sans mask.

I recognized her.  Sophia Hess.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Extermination 8.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Lady Photon and the eighteen year old Laserdream landed beside Armsmaster, making a small splash as they touched down.

You could see the family resemblance.  They weren’t supermodel good looking, but they were attractive people, even with their hair wet and plastered to their heads and shoulders by the rain.  Both wore costumes with a white base color, had heart shaped faces, full lips and blonde hair.  Lady Photon’s costume sported a starburst on her chest, with several of the lines extending around her body, or down her legs, going from indigo to purple as it got further from the center.  Her hair was straight, shoulder length, held away from her face by a tiara shaped much like the same starburst image on her chest.

Her daughter had a stylized arrow pointing down and to her right, on her chest, with a half dozen lines  trailing behind it, over her left shoulder, one line zig-zagging across the others.  The entire design gradually faded from a ruby red to a magenta color in much the same way her mom’s did.  Similar rows of lines with the zig-zag overlapping them ran down her legs and arms.  She didn’t dye her hair in her ‘color’ like her younger brother did -had, past tense-, or wear the tinted sunglasses, but she did wear a ruby red hairband over her wavy hair, to ensure she always had a coquettish sweep of hair in place over one eye, and to pull the magenta, red and white color scheme together.

More than anything else, though, the two of them had the look of people who had seen half their immediate family brutally and senselessly torn apart over the course of one terrible hour.  As though they’d had their hearts torn out of their chests and were somehow still standing.  It wasn’t that I had seen anyone in those circumstances before, but that look existed, and they had it.

It was painful to look at.  It reminded me of when my mom had died.  I’d been in a similar state.

Lady Photon – Photon Mom to Brockton Bay residents and the local news media – bent down by Armsmaster.  She created a shaped forcefield tight against his shoulder, lifted him with a grunt.

“Take him,” Lady Photon’s voice was strangely hollow, though firm.

“No.  I’m a better flier, and more likely to hurt that thing in a fight.  I’ll take the girl and help against Leviathan.”  Laserdream had a little more life in her voice than her mother did.

The girl.  Like I didn’t warrant a name, or it wasn’t worth the effort to remember.  A part of me wanted to stand up for myself, a larger part of me knew this wasn’t the time or place.

After a long few seconds of deliberation, Lady Photon nodded.  She looked like making that decision aged her years.

Laserdream and her mom looked at me.  I felt like I should say something.  Give condolences?  Tell them that their family had died well?  I couldn’t think of a way to put it that didn’t tell them something they already knew, or anything that wouldn’t sound horribly offensive or insincere coming from a villain.

“Let’s go get that-” I stopped, both because I suddenly felt that something like motherfucker was too crass, and because I wanted to bend down to pick up Armsmaster’s Halberd, the one with the disintegration blade, grabbing the pole of it with my good hand. “Let’s go get him,” I stated, lamely.

It took some doing for Laserdream to lift me without pressing against my broken arm or touching the blade. She wound up holding me with an arm under my knees and the crook of her elbow at my neck.  She held the Halberd for me.  I resigned myself to being cradled – there was no dignified way to be carried.  She had morning breath, a strangely mundane thing – she’d likely been woken up at half past six in the morning by the sirens, hadn’t had time to brush her teeth or eat before coming here.

She took off, smooth.  It felt like an elevator kicking into motion, except we kept going faster, had the wind in our faces.

My first time flying, if you discounted the experience of riding a mutant dog as it leapt from a building, which was sort of half-flying.  It wasn’t half as exhilirating as I’d thought the experience would be.  Tainted by the sombre, tense mood, the sting of the rain and the bitter chill that went straight through my damp costume and mask.  Each time she adjusted her hold on me, I had to fight that deep primal instinct that told me I was going to fall to my death.  She was adjusting her grip a lot, too – she didn’t have superstrength, and I couldn’t have been easy to carry, especially soaking wet.

My power’s range was almost double the usual, and I had zero clue as to why.  I wasn’t about to complain.  Using Laserdream’s armband and my right hand, I passed on details.

“He’s at CA-4, heading Northwest!”

The roads beneath us were damaged, shattered.  When Leviathan had shifted the position of the storm sewers, he’d gone all out, and he’d gone a step further than just the storm sewer – he’d also torn up the water supply network for the city.  The occasional pipe speared up between the slats in the sidewalk, fire hydrants were dislodged, and the water that poured from these was barely a trickle now.  That might have meant too much was leaking from the damaged pipes to give the water any pressure.

As he’d beaten a path deeper into the city, he had found opportunities to do damage on the way.  A police car had been thrown through the second story of a building.  A half block later, as he’d rounded a corner, he had elected to go through the corner of a building, tearing out the supporting architecture.  The structure had partially collapsed into the street.

We passed over a gas station he’d stampeded through, and Laserdream erected a crimson forcefield bubble around us to protect us from the smoke and heat of the ongoing blaze.

“BZ-4,” I reported.  Then I saw movement from the coast, called out through the armband’s channels, “Wave!”

I was glad to be in the air as the tidal wave struck.  The barrier of ice and the wreckage at the beaches did a lot to dampen the wave’s effect, but I watched as the water streamed a good half-mile into the city.  Buildings collapsed, cars were pushed, and even trees came free of the earth.

No cape casualties announced from Laserdream’s armband, at least.

We passed over the Weymouth shopping center.  It had been devastated by Leviathan’s passage, then had largely folded in on itself in the wake of the most recent wave.  From the way the debris seemed to have exploded out the far wall, it didn’t look like Leviathan had even slowed down as he tore through the building.  That wasn’t what spooked me.

What spooked me was that I’d been through the Weymouth shopping center more than a hundred times.  It was the closest mall to my house.

When I sensed Leviathan turning south, towards downtown, I didn’t feel particularly relieved.  There were enough shelters and enough space in the shelters to handle virtually every Brockton Bay resident in the city proper.  From what I remembered, not everyone had participated in the drills that happened every five years or so, choosing to stay home.  It was very possible that some shelters near the residential areas might prove to be over capacity, that my dad, if he arrived late, might have been redirected to another shelter.  One closer to downtown, where Leviathan was going.  I couldn’t trust that he was out of harm’s way.

“He’s at or near BZ-6, heading south.”

The area we were entering had been further from the heroes with the forcefields, where waves hadn’t had their impact softened or diverted by the the PHQ’s forcefield or the larger, heavier, blockier structures of the Docks.  Entire neighborhoods had been flattened, reduced to detritus that floated in muddy, murky waters.  Larger buildings, what I suspected might have been part of the local college, were standing but badly damaged. Countless cars sat in the roads and parking lots with water pouring in through shattered windows.

Laserdream changed course, to follow Lord street, the main road that ran through the city and downtown, tracing the line of the bay.

“What are you doing?” I asked her.

“The wreckage goes this way,” she responded.

I looked down.  It was hard to tell, with the damage already done, the water flooding the streets, but I suspected she was right.  One building that looked like it should have stood against the waves thus far was wrecked, and mangled bodies floated around it.  It could have been the tidal wave, but it was just as likely that Leviathan had seen a target and torn through it.

“Maybe, but he might have been faking us out, or he detoured further ahead,” I said.  I pointed southwest.  “That way.”

She gave me a look, I turned my attention to her armband, tried to discern where Leviathan fell on the grid.  Around the same moment I figured it out, I felt him halt.  “BX-8 or very close to it!  He’s downtown, and he just stopped moving.”

“You sure?” came Chevalier’s voice from the armband.

“Ninety-nine percent.”

“Noted.  We’re teleporting forces in.”

Laserdream didn’t argue with me.  We arrived at the scene of the battle a matter of seconds later.  Familiar territory.

I had been near here a little less than two hours ago.  The skeleton of a building in construction was in view, a matter of blocks away, an unlit black against a dark gray sky.  Beneath that, I knew, was Coil’s subterranean base of operations.

Parian had given life to three stuffed animals that lumbered around Leviathan.  A stuffed goat stepped forward, and sidewalk cracked under a hoof of patchwork leather and corduroy.  A bipedal tiger grabbed at an unlit streetlight, unrooted it, and charged Leviathan like a knight with a lance couched in one armpit.  The third, an octopus, ran interference, disrupting Leviathan’s afterimages before they could strike capes and wrapping tentacles around Leviathan’s limbs if he tried to break away.  Parian was gathering more cloth from the other side of a smashed display window, drawing it together into a crude quadruped shape, moving a series of needles and threads through the air in an uncanny unison that reminded me of my control over my spiders.

Leviathan caught the streetlight ‘lance’ and clawed through the tiger’s chest, doing surprisingly little damage considering that it was just fabric.  After three good hits, the tiger deflated explosively.

The octopus and goat grappled Leviathan while Purity blasted him with a crushing beam of light.  By the time he recovered, Parian was inflating the half-created shape in front of her, so it could stumble into the fray.  She turned her attention to repairing the ‘tiger’.

I was curious about her power.  Some sort of telekinesis, with a gimmick?  She had a crapton of fine manipulation with the needles and threads, that much was obvious, but the larger creations she was putting together – whatever she was doing to animate them with telekinesis or whatever, it left them fairly clumsy.  Did her control get worse as she turned her attention to larger things?  Why manipulate cloth and not something stronger, sturdier?

I wondered if she was one of the capes that thought of what she did as being ‘magic’.  Her power was esoteric enough.

A slash of Leviathan’s tail brought down two of the stuffed entities, and Hookwolf tackled him to ensure the Endbringer didn’t get a moment’s respite.  Leviathan caught Hookwolf around the middle with his tail, flecks of blood and flesh spraying from the tail as it circled Hookwolf’s body of skirring, whisking blades.  Leviathan hurled Hookwolf away.

Browbeat saw an opening, stepped in to pound Leviathan in the stomach, strike him in the knee Armsmaster had injured.  Leviathan, arms caught by Parian’s octopus and goat, raised one foot, caught Browbeat around the throat with his clawed toes, and then stomped down sharply.

Browbeat down, BW-8.

Leviathan leaned back hard, making Parian’s creations stumble as they maintained their grip, then heaved them forward.  The ‘octopus’ remanied latched on, but the ‘goat’ was sent through the air, a projectile that flew straight for Parian.

Her creation deflated in mid air, but the piles of cloth that it was made of were heavy, and she was swamped by the mass of fabric.  Leviathan darted forward, held only by her octopus, and the afterimage rushed forward to slam into that pile of cloth.

Parian down, BW-8.

All of the ‘stuffed animals’ deflated.

The girl with the crossbow and Shadow Stalker opened fire, joined by Purity from above.   Laserdream dropped me at the fringe of the battlefield with the Halberd before joining them, flying above at an angle opposite Purity’s, firing crimson laser blasts at Leviathan’s head and face.  Leviathan readied to lunge, stopped as a curtain of darkness swept over him, the majority dissipating a second later, leaving only what was necessary to obscure his head.  It took Leviathan a second to realize he could move out of that spot to see again, a delay that earned him another on-target series of shots from our ranged combatants.  Grue was here, somewhere.

It wasn’t much, I didn’t have many bugs gathered here yet, but I was able to pull some together into humanoid forms.  I sent them moving across the battlefield towards Leviathan.  If one of them delayed him a second, drew an attack that would otherwise be meant for someone else, it would be worth the trouble.

I looked around, trying to find Brandish, Chevalier, Assault or Battery, or even someone tough.  Someone that could take the Halberd and make optimal use of it.

One of crossbow-girl’s shots, like a needle several feet in length, speared under the side of Leviathan’s neck, out the top.  Shadow Stalker’s shots, at the same time, failed to penetrate Leviathan’s hard exterior.

“Flechette!  I’m getting closer!” Shadow Stalker called out, looking back at her new partner.

“Careful!” the crossbow-girl – Flechette, I took it – replied, loading another shot.

Shadow Stalker timed her advance with a pounce on Hookwolf’s part.  Empire Eighty-Eight’s most notorious killer latched onto Leviathan’s face and neck, blood spitting around where the storm of shifting metal hooks and blades made contact with flesh.  Shadow Stalker ran within twenty feet of the Endbringer, firing her twin crossbows.  The shots penetrated this time, disappearing into Leviathan’s chest, presumably fading back in while inside him.

Flechette fired a needle through Leviathan’s knee, and the Endbringer’s leg buckled.  He collapsed into a kneeling position, the knee striking the ground.

Leviathan used his claws to heave Hookwolf off his face, tore the metal beast in half, and then threw the pieces down to the ground, hard.  One landed straight on top of Shadow Stalker, the other almost seemed to bounce, rapidly condensing into a roughly humanoid form before it touched the ground again, landing in a crouch.  Hookwolf backed away, the blades drawing together into a human shape, skin appearing as they withdrew.  He brought his hand over his head and pointed forward at Leviathan.  A signal for the next front-liner.

Shadow Stalker down, BW-8.

I didn’t recognize the next cape to charge in to attack.  A heroine in a brown and bronze bodysuit.  She flew in low to the ground, gathered fragments of rock and debris around her body like it was metal and she was the magnet, then went in, pummeling with fists gloved in pavement and concrete.

You could tell, almost right away, the woman didn’t have much training or experience.  She was used to enemies that were too slow to move out of her way, who focused their attention wholly on her.  Leviathan ducked low to the ground, letting the heroine pass over him, then leapt for Flechette.  In the very last fraction of a second, the girl flickered, and was replaced by the brown-suited cape, who took the hit and stumbled back, fragments of rock breaking away.  Flechette dropped out of the sky where the cape had been, landed hard.  It took her a few seconds to recover enough to fire another bolt at Leviathan, strike him in the shoulder.  Trickster had just spared brown-suit from making a fuck-up that got someone killed.

The boy with the metal skin formed one hand into an oversized blade, as long as he was tall, managed a solid hit at Leviathan’s injured knee as the Endbringer whirled around to face Flechette.

Leviathan slapped the teenage hero down, swiped at one of my swarm-people, then was forced down onto all fours as Purity struck him square between the shoulderblades with a column of light.  A metal shelving unit shot from the interior of a store, Ballistic’s power, I was almost positive, and made Leviathan stumble back.

We had the upper hand, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.  More than once, in the past hour alone, the Endbringer had demonstrated that any time the fight was going against him, he’d pull out all the stops and do something large scale.  A tidal wave or tearing up the streets.

We did not have what it took to withstand another wave.  No forcefields, no barriers.

I had one of my gathered swarms explode into a mass of flying insects as they got close enough to Leviathan, make their way against the drenching rain to rise up to Leviathan’s face.  Many clustered in the recessed eye sockets that looked like tears or cracks in his hard scaled exterior.  Others crawled into the wounds other capes had made.

Briefly blinded, he shook his head ponderously, using his afterimage and one swipe of his claw to clear his vision.  He scampered back as his sight was obscured yet again by one of Grue’s blasts.

He lunged forward, stumbling into and out the other side of the cloud of darkness.  A swipe of his tail batted the metal-skinned boy away.  Another strike dispatched Brandish, who was moving in to attack with a pair of axes that looked as though they were made from lightning.

Brandish down, BW-8

Flechette fired one needle into the center of Leviathan’s face, between each of his four eyes.  It buried itself three quarters deep, speared out the back of his head.

He reared back, as if in slow motion, stumbled a little.  His face pointed to the sky.  He teetered.

Yeah, no.  Much as I’d like to to be, there was no fucking way it was going to be that easy.

That top-heavy body of his toppled forward, and it was only his right claw, slamming down to the pavement, that stopped his face from being driven into the ground.  The impact of his claw striking the ground rumbled past us.

The rumble didn’t stop.

“Run!” I shouted, my cry joining the shouts of others.  I turned, sloshed through the water to get away, not sure where to get away from, or to.

Leviathan and the ground beneath him sank a good ten feet, and water swirled and frothed as it began pouring to fill the depression.  He used his arm to shield himself as Purity fired another blast from above.  As the ground beneath him continued to sink, the water lapped higher and higher around him.

The Endbringer descended, and the area around him quickly became a massive indent, ten, fifteen, thirty, then sixty feet across, ever growing.  The force of the water pouring into the crater began to increase, and the ground underfoot grew increasingly unsteady as cracks spread across it.

I realized with a sudden panic, that I wasn’t making headway against the waves and the ground that was giving way underfoot.  The growing crater was continuing to spread well past me, rising above me as the ground I stood on descended.

“Need help!” I screamed, as water began falling atop me from a higher point, spraying into me with enough force that I began to stumble back, fall.

The ground in front of and above me folded into a massive fissure.  The movement of the cracked sections of road created a torrent of water that washed over me, engulfed me and forced me under.  The impact and pain from the force of the water on my broken arm was enervating, drew most of the fight out of me when I very much needed to be able to struggle, get myself  back above the surface.  I tried to touch bottom, to maybe kick myself back up, but the ground wasn’t there.  Feeling out with the pole of the Halberd, I touched ground, pushed, failed to get anywhere.

A hand seized the pole of the Halberd, heaved me up, changed its grip to my right wrist and pulled me up and free of the waves.

When I blinked my eyes clear of water, Laserdream was above me.  She faced the epicenter of the growing depression in the ground, flying backwards.  Her other hand clung to an unconscious Parian.  It seemed like the two of us were too much for her to carry alone, because she hurried straight for a nearby rooftop, carefully lay Parian down.

We hadn’t set down for more than ten seconds before the building shuddered and began to collapse.  The ground beneath the building cracked and tilted, no doubt because the underlying soil and rock was being drawn away by churning water.  The flooding in the streets was diverted into the deepening bowl-shaped cavity Leviathan was creating, filling it.  It was almost a lake, now, three city blocks across and growing rapidly. Only fragments of the taller buildings in the area stayed above the waves; some buildings were already toppled onto their sides, others half-collapsed and still breaking apart as I watched.  Some capes were climbing out of the water and onto the ruined buildings, with the help of the more mobile capes.  Velocity and Trickster were working in tandem, Velocity running atop the water’s surface to safe ground, trickster swapping him for someone who was floundering, rinse, repeat.

As our footing dropped beneath us, Laserdream reluctantly grabbed at my hand and Parian’s belt, hauled us back up into the air.

Above me, her armband flashed yellow.

“Armband!” I called up to her. “Tidal wave?”

“Can’t see unless I drop you,” she responded, over the dull roar of the waves beneath us.  With a bit of sarcasm and harshness to her tone, she asked me, “Do you want me to drop you?”

Right, I’d kind of messed with her cousins at the bank robbery.  She counted me as an ally, here and now, but she wouldn’t be friendly.

Myrddin and Eidolon moved from the coast to the ‘lake’ in the upper end of Downtown.  I saw and sensed Leviathan leap from the water like a dolphin cresting the waves, moving no less than two hundred feet in the air, toward the pair, lashing out with his afterimage in every direction.

I didn’t see how it turned out, because Laserdream carried Parian and me away.  I could sense the Endbringer through the bugs that had made their way deepest into his wounds, the ones that had found spots where his afterimage couldn’t flush them out each time it manifested.  With my power, I could track him beneath the water.  He was moving so fast that it was almost as though he were teleporting, finding the drowning and executing them.

Scalder deceased, BW-8.  Cloister deceased, BW-8.  The Erudite deceased, BW-8.  Frenetic deceased, BW-8.  Penitent deceased, BW-9.  Smackdown deceased, BX-8.  Strider deceased, BW-8

“Setting down again,” Laserdream said.

“But if there’s a tidal wave-”

“I don’t see one.”

I joined her in looking toward the coast.  The water was as stable as it had been since the fight started.

“If it’s a trick-”

With a little anger in her voice, a hard tone, she spoke, “Either we set down or I drop you.  I can’t hold on much longer.”

“Right.”

She carried me two blocks away from the crater.  The ground was wet, but no longer submerged, the road was torn up, shattered, covered with debris.

Laserdream checked her armband, “It’s one of the shelters.  They sprung a leak, need help evacuating.  I’m going.”

Dad.  It could be my dad.

“Bring me,” I said.

She frowned.

“I know your arms are tired.  Mine is too, and I was just hanging there.  I can’t tell you how thankful I am that you’ve done this much to help me, but we have to stick together, and you can fly low enough to the ground that you can drop me if you have to.”

“Fine, but we’re leaving the doll kid here.”

She laid Parian down in a recessed doorway, then pressed the ‘ping’ button on the girl’s armband.

I held the Halberd out while Laserdream walked around behind me.  She wrapped her arms around my chest and lifted us off.  Uncomfortable, and she was jarring my broken arm, which hurt like a motherfucker, but I couldn’t complain after just having asked to come.

Myrddin down, BX-9.

Laserdream carried us around the edge of the ‘lake’ that was still growing, if not quite so fast as it had been.  I saw others gathered at the edge of the water, forming battle lines where Leviathan might have a clear path to make a run for it. If he wanted to make a run for it.  As it stood, he was entirely in his environment, in the heart of the city, where he could continue to work whatever mojo he needed to bring more tidal waves down on our heads.  To my bug senses, Leviathan was deep beneath the waves, moving rapidly, acting like he was engaged in a fight.  Against Eidolon?  I couldn’t tell.  Every darting, hyperfast movement dislodged a few bugs, made him harder to detect.

The shelter was set beneath a smallish library.  A concrete stairwell beside the building led belowground to the twenty-foot wide vault door.  Fragments of the building and the ledge overhanging the stairwell had fallen, blocked the door from opening fully.  Making matters worse, the door was stuck in a partially ajar position, and the stairwell was flooded with water, which ran steadily into the shelter.  Two capes were already present, shoulder deep in the water, ducking below to grab stones and rising again to heave them out.

“What’s the plan?” I asked, as Laserdream set us down, I immediatelly sent out a call to summon bugs to my location, just to be safe.  “Do we want to shut the door or open it?”

“Open it,” one of the capes in the water said.  He ducked down, grabbed a rock, hauled it out with a grunt.  “We don’t know what condition they’re in, inside.”

Laserdream stepped forward and began blasting with her laser, penetrating the water and breaking up the larger rocks at the base of the door.

I was very nearly useless here.  With one hand, I couldn’t clear the rubble, and my power wasn’t any use.  There weren’t even many crabs or other crustaceans I could employ in the water around us, and the ones that did exist were small.

Then I remembered the Halberd.

“Hey,” I stopped one of the capes that was heaving rocks out of the stairwell, “Use this.”

“As a shovel?” he looked skeptical.

“Just try it, only… don’t touch the blade.”

He nodded, took the Halberd, and ducked beneath the water.  Ten seconds later, he raised his head, “Holy shit.  This works.”

“Use it on the door?” I suggested.  He gave me a curt nod.

Enemy location unknown, I could hear the cape’s armband announce.  Defensive perimeter, report.

There was a pause.

No reports.  Location unknown.  Exert caution.

“I’m going to try cutting the door off,” the cape spoke.  He descended beneath the water.  I could barely make out his silhouette.  Laserdream ceased firing as he made his way to where the heavy metal door was, stepped around and set to burning long channels in the side of the stairwell.  I realized it was intended to give the water in the stairwell somewhere to flow that wasn’t towards the people inside.

The door tipped into the stairwell and came to rest against the opposite wall, resting at a forty-five degree angle, sloping up toward the railing.  The water in the stairwell flowed inside, an unfortunate consequence.  The cape with the Halberd set to using the blur of the Halberd to to cut lines into the back of the door and to remove the railing, so there was sufficient traction for people walking up and out of the door.

I stepped down to investigate, sent a few bugs in to get the lay of the land.  The interior of the shelter was surprisingly like what Coil’s headquarters had been like, concrete walls with metal walkways and multiple levels.  There were water coolers and a set of freezers, bathrooms and a sectioned off first aid area.

It was clear that one of the waves or Leviathan’s creation of that massive sinkhole in downtown had done some damage to the shelter.  Water was pouring in from a far wall and from the front door, and twenty or so people were in the first aid bay on cots, injured and bloody.  A team of about fifty or sixty people were moving sandbags to reduce the flow of water into the chamber from the cracked back wall.  A second, smaller team was blocking off the room with the cots, piling sandbags in the doorway.  In the main area, people stood nearly waist deep in water.

“Everyone out!” Laserdream called out.

Relief was clear on people’s faces as they began wading en masse toward the front doors.

My dad was taller than average, and I hoped to be able to make him out, see if he was in the crowd.  As the group gravitated toward the doorway, however, I lost the ability to peer over the mass of people.  I didn’t see him.

I hung back as people filed out in twos and threes.  Mothers and fathers holding their kids, who otherwise wouldn’t be tall enough to stay above water, people still in pajamas or bathrobes, people holding their dogs above water or with cats on their shoulders.  They marched against the flow of water from the stairwell, up the back of the vault door and onto the street.

Mr. Gladly was near the back of the crowd, with a blond woman that was taller than him, holding his hand.  It bugged me, in a way I couldn’t explain.  It was like I felt he didn’t deserve a girlfriend or wife.  But that wasn’t exactly it.  It was like this woman was somone who maybe liked him, heard his side of things, validated his self-perception of being this excellent, ‘cool’ teacher.  A part of me wanted to explain to that woman that he wasn’t, that he was the worst sort of teacher, who helped the kids who already had it easy, and dropped the fucking ball when it came to those of us who needed it.

It was surprising how much that chance meeting bugged me.

A shriek startled me out of my contemplations.  It was quickly followed by a dozen other screams of mortal terror.

Impel deceased, CB-10Apotheosis deceased, CB-10.

I felt him arrive, a small few bugs still inside him, though most of the rest had been washed away in his swim.  There were so few I’d missed his approach.

Leviathan.

People ran back inside the shelter, screamed and pushed, trampled one another.  I was forced into the corner by the door as they ran into the shelter, tried to make some distance between themselves and the Endbringer.

Laserdream down, CB-10.

And he was there, climbing through the vaultlike door, so large he barely fit.  One claw on either side, he pushed his way through.  Stood as tall as he could inside the front door, looking over the crowd.  Hundreds of people were within, captive, helpless.

A lash of his tail struck down a dozen people in front of him.  The afterimage struck down a dozen more.

No death notice from the armband for civilians.

Leviathan took a step forward, putting me behind him and just to his right.  He lashed his tail again.  Another dozen or two dozen civilians slain.

Mr. Gladly’s girlfriend was screaming, burying her face in his shoulder.  Mr. Gladly stared up at Leviathan, wide eyed, his lips pressed together in a line, oddly red faced.

I didn’t care.  I should feel bad my teacher was about to die, but all I could think about was how he’d ignored me when Emma and the others had had me cornered.

One hand on my shoulder to steady my throbbing broken arm, I slipped behind Leviathan, hugging the wall, slipping around the corner and moving up the vault door with padded feet.

It was a dark mirror to what Mr. Gladly had done to me.  What Emma and her friends had done, I couldn’t say for sure that I would have had the mental fortitude to put up with it if I hadn’t gotten my powers – and for all he knew, I hadn’t.  I couldn’t know whether I could have dealt with everything that had followed the incident in January, if I could have made it this far if I hadn’t had my powers, these distractions.  In every way that mattered, Mr. Gladly turning his back on me, back there in the school hallway, a time that felt so long ago, could have killed me.

A fitting justice, maybe, leaving him in that shelter with Leviathan.

I saw Laserdream lying face down in the water, bent down and turned her over with my good hand and one foot, checked she was breathing.

The two capes, who I took to be Impel and Apotheosis, were torn into pieces.  I ran past them.  Ran past the civilians who Leviathan had struck down, ripped apart.

I stopped, when I found the Halberd, picked it up.  Found Impel’s armband, bent down and pressed the buttons to open communications, “Leviathan’s at the shelter in CB-10.  Need reinforcements fast.”

Chevalier replied, “Shit.  He must have gone through some storm drain or sewer.  Our best teleporter’s dead, but we’ll do what we can.”

Which left me only one thing to do.  I had to be better than Mr. Gladly.

I ran past Impel and Apotheosis, passed Laserdream, and reached the shelter’s entrance once more.

Leviathan was further inside, crouched, his back to me.  His tail lashed in front of him.  Terrified screams echoed from within.

It was agonizing to do it, but I moved slowly, to minimize the noise I made, even as every second allowed Leviathan more time to tear into the crowd.  To move too fast would alert him, waste any opportunity I had here.  A backwards movement of Leviathan’s tail arced through the air, fell atop me, forcing me down into the water.  Gallons of cold water dropping down from ten feet above me.

I swallowed the scream, the grunting of pain that threatened to escape my throat, stood again, slowly.

With only one hand, I didn’t have the leverage to really swing the Halberd.  I had to hold it towards the top, near the blade, which meant having less reach, having to get closer.

When I was close enough, I drew the blade back and raked it just below the base of his tail.  Where his asshole would be if he had human anatomy.  Easiest place for me to reach, with him crouched down like he was.

Dust billowed and Leviathan reacted instantly, swiped with one claw, fell onto his side when the damage to his buttocks and the hampered mobility of his tail screwed with his ability to control the movement of his lower body.  His claw swipe went high.  His afterimage was broken up by the the wall above the door, but enough crashed down in front of and on top of me to throw me back out of the shelter, into the toppled shelter door.  I was pushed under the water, the Halberd slipping from my grip.

I climbed to my feet at the same time he did, but I had a clear route up the back of the shelter door while he had to squeeze through the opening.  I was on the street and running well before he was up out of the stairwell.

I gathered my bugs to me, sent some to him, to better track his movements.  As he climbed up, I gathered the swarms into decoys that looked human-ish, sent them all moving in different directions, gathered more around myself to match them in appearance.

With the effects of my slash of the Halberd combined with the damage Armsmaster had already done, Leviathan didn’t have the mobility with his tail he otherwise would.  When he attacked my decoys, he did it with slashes of his claw and pouncing leaps that sent out afterimages to crash into them.  A swipe of the claw’s echo to disperse one swarm to his left, a lunge to destroy one in front of him.  Another afterimage of a claw swipe sent out to strike at me.

Water crashed into me, hard as concrete, fast as a speeding car.  I felt more pain than I’d ever experienced, more than when Bakuda had used that grenade on me, the one that set my nerve endings on fire with raw pain.  It was brief, somehow more real than what Bakuda had inflicted on me.  Struck me like a lightning flash.

I plunged face first into the water.  My good arm on its own wasn’t enough to turn me over – the road just a little too far below me.  I tried to use my legs to help turn myself over.  Zero response.

I’d either been torn in two and couldn’t feel the pain yet or, more likely, I’d been paralyzed from the waist down.

Oh.

Not like I really should’ve expected any different.  Neither case was much better than the other, as far as I was concerned.

My breath had been knocked out of me at the impact, but some primal, instinctual part of me had let me hold my breath.  I lay there, face down in two or three feet of water, counting the seconds until I couldn’t hold my breath any more, until my body opened my mouth and I heaved in a breath with that same instinctual need for preservation, filled my lungs with water instead.

The lenses of my mask were actually swim goggles, it was a strange recollection to cross my mind.  I’d bought them from a sports supply store, buying the useless chalk dust at the same time.  Durable, high end, meant for underwater cave spelunkers, if I remembered the picture on the packaging right.  Tinted to help filter out bright lights, to avoid being blinded by any fellow swimmer’s headlamps.  I’d fitted the lenses from an old pair of glasses inside, sealed them in place with silicon at the edges, so I had 20/20 vision while I had my mask on without having to wear glasses beneath or over it, or contact lenses, which irritated my eyes.  I’d built the armor of my mask around the edges of the goggles so the actual nature of the lenses wasn’t immediately apparent, and to hold them firmly in place.

Even so, when I opened my eyes, looked through those lenses for their original purpose, all I could see was mud, grit, silt.  Black and dark brown, with only the faintest traces of light.  It disappointed me on a profound level, knowing that this might be the last thing I ever saw.  Disappointed me more than the idea of dying here, odd as that was.

Through my power, I sensed Leviathan turn, take a step back toward the shelter, stop.  His entire upper body turned so he could peer to his left with his head, turned the opposite way to peer right.  Like a dog sniffing.

He dropped to all fours, ran away, a loping gait, not the lightning fast movement he’d sported when he first attacked.  Still fast enough.

My chest lurched in a sob for air, like a dry heave.  I managed to keep from opening my mouth but the action, the clenching of every muscle above my shoulders, left my throat aching.

Two seconds later, it hit me again harder.

Two blocks away, Leviathan crashed down into the water.

Another lurch of my throat and chest, painful.  My mouth opened, water filled my mouth, and my throat locked up to prevent the inhalation of water.  I spat the water out, forced it out of my mouth, for all the good it would do.

I’d left the fat cape to die like this when the wave was coming.  Was this karma?

Something splashed near me.  A footstep.

I was hauled out of the water.  I felt a lancing pain through my midsection, like a hot iron, gasped, sputtered.  Through the beads of water on my lenses, I couldn’t make out much.

Bitch, I realized.  She wasn’t looking at me.  Her face was etched deep with pain, fury, fear, sheer viciousness, or some combination of the four.

I followed her gaze, blinked twice.

Her dogs were attacking Leviathan, and Leviathan was attacking back.  He hurled two away, three more leapt in.

How many dogs?

Leviathan pulled away, only for a dog to snag his arm, drag him off balance.  Another latched on to his elbow, while a third and fourth pounced onto his back, tearing into his spine.  More crouched and circled around him, looking for opportunities and places to bite.

He clubbed one away with a crude movement of his tail, used his free claw to grab it by the throat, tear a chunk of flesh away.  The dog perished in a matter of seconds.

Bitch howled, a primal, raw sound that must have hurt her throat as much as it hurt to listen to.  She moved forward, pulling me with her, lifting me up.  When I sagged, she gave me a startled look.

I looked down.  My legs were there, but there was no sensation.  Numb wasn’t a complete enough term to explain it.

“Back’s broken, I think,” the words were weak.  The calm tone of the words was eerie, even coming from my own mouth to my own ears.  Disconcertingly out of place with the frenzied, savage tableau.

Leviathan wheeled around, grabbed another dog by one shoulder, dug a claw into the dog’s ribcage and cracked  it open, the ribs splaying apart like the wings of some macabre bird, heart and lungs exposed.  The animal dropped dead to the water’s surface at Leviathan’s feet.

Bitch looked from me to the dog, as if momentarily lost.  In an instant, that look disappeared, replaced by that etching of rage and fury.  She screeched the words, “Kill him!  Kill!”

It wasn’t enough.  The dogs were strong, there were six of them left, even, but Leviathan was more of a monster than all of them put together.

He heaved one dog off the ground, slammed it into another like a club, then hurled it against a wall, where it dropped, limp and broken.

With that same claw, he slashed, tore the upper half of a dog’s head off.

“Kill!” Bitch shrieked.

No use.  One by one, the dogs fell.  Four left, then three.  Two dogs left.  They backed away, wary, each in a different direction.

Bitch clutched me, her arms so tight around my shoulders it hurt.  When I looked up at her, I saw tears in the corners of her eyes as she stared unblinking at the scene.

Scion dropped from the sky.  Golden skinned, golden beard trimmed close, or perhaps it never grew beyond that length.  His hair was longer than mine.  His bodysuit and cape were a plain white, stained with faded marks of old, dirt and blood, a strange juxtaposition to how perfect and unblemished he looked, otherwise.  There was no impact as he landed, no great splash or rumble of the earth.  Leviathan didn’t even seem to notice the hero’s arrival.

Leviathan struck at one of the remaining dogs with a broad swing of his tail, caught it across the snout.  It dropped, neck snapped.  A short leap and a slash of the claw dispatched the last.

Scion raised one hand, and a ball of yellow-gold light slammed into Leviathan from behind, sent the Endbringer skidding across the length of the street, past Bitch and I.

Leviathan leaped to his feet, reared around, swung his claws at the air ferociously.  Water around him rose, rushed towards Scion, a wave three times as high as Bitch was tall.  Three times as tall as I might be if I could stand.

Scion didn’t move or speak.  He walked forward, and ripples extended from his footsteps, soared past us with some strange motive force.  The ripple touched the wave, and the tower of water collapsed before it got halfway to us, dropping straight down.  Liquid as far as the eye could see was being flattened out into a disquieting stillness by the ripples of Scion’s footsteps, like a great pane of glass.

Leviathan lunged up to the side of a half-ruined building, leaped down to a point three-quarters of the way between himself and Scion.  His afterimage slammed into the hero.

Scion turned his head, shut his eyes, let the water wash over and past him.  When the attack was over, he squared his head and shoulders, facing Leviathan head on, raised a hand.

Another blast of yellow-gold light, and Leviathan was sent sprawling.

I saw the ripples and waves of Leviathan striking the ground wash past us.  Saw, again, how the ripple of Scion’s footstep seemed to wipe out and override that disturbance, returning the water to a perfect flatness.

Leviathan grabbed a car, twisted his entire upper body to toss it in the style of an olympic hammer-throw.  The car hurtled through the air, and Scion batted it aside with the back of one hand.  The vehicle virtually detonated with the impact, falling into a thousand pieces, each piece glowing with golden-yellow light, disintegrating as they splashed into the water.

Scion raised one hand, and there was a brilliant flash, too bright to look through.

When the spots faded from my vision, I saw that one of the damaged buildings was emanating that same light the pieces of the car had, was toppling, tipping towards Leviathan.  Scion, fingertips glowing, started his slow advance as the structure was pulled atop the Endbringer.  The ripples of his footsteps erased any disturbance in the water from the building’s collapse

Leviathan heaved himself out of the rubble, turned to run, only for water to rise and freeze solid in one smooth movement, forming a wall as tall as Leviathan was, a hundred feet long.  He paused for a fraction of a second, to gauge which way he might go, poise himself to leap over.  Scion caught him with another golden-yellow blast before he could follow through.

The movement of the water and the creation of the ice hadn’t been Scion.  Eidolon approached, flying close, raising one hand to create a ragged mess of icicles where Leviathan was to land.  Some impaled the Endbringer, but by and large, they shattered beneath him, left him scrabbling for traction and footing for long enough that Scion could shoot him again, send him through the barrier of ice as though it were barely there, tumbling.

Scion paused, turning to look at Eidolon, his eyes moving past Bitch and me like we weren’t even there.  His eyes settled on the hero, the most powerful individual in the world staring at the man who was arguably the fifth.

His expression was so hard to read.  I knew, now, what people had meant, when they said they thought his face was a mask, a facade.  Though it was expressionless, though there was nothing I could point to to explain why I felt the way I did, somehow I sensed disgust from him.  Like nobility looking at dog shit.

Scion turned away from Eidolon to focus on the enemy once more.  He blasted the Endbringer again.  Floated up and moved past Bitch and me faster than I could see, to strike the Endbringer a fraction of a second after the blast of light struck, stopping there in midair to blast Leviathan a second time as the Endbringer was still flying through the air at the punch’s impact.  Everything about Scion and his actions was utterly silent. His movements or attacks didn’t even stir the air.  Only the effects, Leviathan striking the water, the breaking of ice, generated any movement, shudders or sounds.

Eidolon froze the water around Leviathan’s four claws, giving Scion the opportunity to land another blast.  Leviathan turned, raised a spraying wall of water to cover his retreat.  Scion sent out one blast of his golden light to strike the wave, following up with a second blast before the first even made contact with the water.

Seeing the second blast coming, Leviathan leaped to one side.  No use – the blast of light curved in the air to head unerringly for him, struck him down.  Edges of the Endbringer’s wounds glowed golden yellow, drifted away into the air like flecks of burning paper caught in the updraft of hot air.  A fist imprint near the base of Leviathan’s throat glowed with edges of the same light, the wound continuing to spread and burn as I watched.

A tidal wave appeared in the distance, at the furthest end of the street, near the horizon.

Scion sent out a blast of golden light the size of a small van, darting to the center of the wave, disappearing into a speck of light before it made contact with the distant target.  The middle third of the wave buckled, fell harmlessly into a splash of water, all momentum ceased.  The other two sides of the wave curved inward, bent, to bear unerringly towards us.

Another blast of golden light, and one side was stopped, stalled.  A third blast was spared for Leviathan, who was getting his hands and feet firmly on the ground, crouching in preparation to run.  The Endbringer was knocked squarely to the ground.

Scion stopped the third wave in its tracks with a fourth blast, but the water was still there, and it still bowed to gravity.  The water level around us rose by a dozen feet, momentarily, slopping as gently over us as physically possible, like a lap of water on the beach.

When the flow of water was past us, I could see a fifth blast of light following Leviathan, who had used the cresting water to swim away.  He was making his way to the coast.  Scion rose, flew after his target with a streak of golden light tracing his movement.  Eidolon followed soon after.

Ten, fifteen seconds passed, Bitch holding me, averting her eyes from the corpses of her dogs, jaw set, not speaking or moving.

A teleporter appeared beside Laserdream, a distance away.  He looked at us, startled, glanced at his armband.

“You okay?” he called out.

“No,” I tried to shout back, but my voice was weak.  Bitch spoke for me, “She needs help.”

“Bring her here, I’ll take her back.”

Bitch carried me, dragging me by my collar to where Laserdream lay.  I grunted and groaned in pain, felt those hot pokers through my upper back and middle, but she wasn’t the type for sympathy or gentleness.

The teleporter touched one hand to my chest, another to Laserdream, who turned her head to look at me.

There was a rush of cool air, and we were in the midst of chaos.  Nurses, doctors, moving all around us.  I was lifted and placed on a stretcher, hauled up by four people in white.  There were shouts, countless electronic beeps, screams of pain.

I was placed on a bed.  I would have writhed with the pain of being shifted if it weren’t for my general inability to move.  There was a heart monitor on one side, a metal rack with an IV bag of clear fluid on the other, thick metal poles beside each, stretching from floor to ceiling.  Curtains loomed on either side of me, making for a small room, ten feet by ten feet across. The emergency room, triage or whatever was in front of me, past the foot of the bed, a dozen more cots, doctors doing what they could for the massed injured, civilian and cape alike.

All around me, nurses moved with a rote efficiency, to put a clip on my finger, and the heart monitor started beeping in time with my own heartbeat.  One put some sticky glue on my collarbone, pressing an electrode down there.

“My back, I think it’s broken,” I said, to no one in particular.  Nobody in particular replied.  All of them too busy with set tasks.  People seemed to approach my bedside and leave to go attend to another patient elsewhere.

“Your name?” someone asked.

I looked to the other side of me.  It was an older woman in a nurse’s uniform, pear shaped, gray haired.  A man in a PRT uniform stood behind her, holding a gun on me.

“Skitter,” I replied, confused, feeling more scared by the second.  “Please.  I think my back’s broken.”

“Villain?”

I shook my head.  “What?”

“Are you a villain?”

“It’s complicated. My back-”

“Yes or no?” the Nurse asked me, stern.

“Listen, my friend, Tattletale, do you know-”

“She’s a villain,” the PRT uniform cut me off, touching his way through some blackberry device with his free hand.  “Designation Master-5, specifically arthropodovoyance, arthropodokinesis.  No super strength.”

The nurse nodded, “Thank you.  Handle it?”

The man in a PRT uniform holstered his gun and stepped up to the bed.  He grabbed my right wrist, clasped a heavy manacle around it, fixed it to a vertical metal pole by the head of the bed.

“My other arm’s broken, please don’t move it,” I pleaded.

He gripped it anyways, and I couldn’t help but scream, strangled, as he pulled it to one side, clasped a manacle down on my wrist, hooked the other side of the manacle to the second pole.

“What-” I started to ask a nurse, as I forced myself to catch my breath, stopped as she turned her back to me and pulled the curtain closed at the foot of the bed, walked past it.

“Please-” I tried again, looking to the PRT uniform, but he was pushing his way past the curtain, leaving my company.

Leaving me chained up.  Alone.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Extermination 8.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I got my orders and left behind a bizarre scene where Armsmaster was working hand in hand with Kaiser, of all people.  Kaiser worked to build the same sort of trap that he’d imprisoned Lung in, some time ago, creating bars of metal between and around each of Leviathan’s limbs, a cage tight to the body.  Rune and another telekinetic were working to bend the metal from Kaiser’s shaken barrier around Leviathan’s limbs and face.

It wouldn’t last.  Leviathan was too big, his tail extended a long distance behind him, and it was thin and supple enough to slip through almost any barrier Kaiser could erect, strong enough that it could bend metal.  Leviathan would get free, there could be no illusions on that front.

While Kaiser worked, Armsmaster was simultaneously ensuring that he could maximize the damage delivered the second Leviathan moved again.  Gingerly, he worked with the grenades the Protectorate had liberated from Bakuda, the same explosives Miss Militia had been firing at Leviathan, and hooked them up as motion activated or proximity mines.  A complicated affair, I imagined, when your target could start moving any second, and when you couldn’t fully know or understand what the individual bombs did.

In the end, though, it was still our best bet to do one final measure of damage against Leviathan before he was free to wreak havoc once more.

There were a little more than fifty of us left.  Hookwolf, Fenja, Menja, Genesis, Aegis and Manpower were among the fifteen or so standing combatants that remained and were able to go toe to toe with Leviathan.  Parian, the girl in the doll costume, had formed some massive stuffed animals – a lion and a pig that stood as tall as Leviathan’s shoulder.  Tougher than they looked, according to her.  I had my doubts.  I mean, it wasn’t just that they were stuffed animals, but according to Parian, this was her first fight.

Too many others were capable of delivering the hurt, but were too fragile: Browbeat, Shadow Stalker, Lady Photon, Purity, Laserdream, Brandish and others I didn’t know.  The Ward with the crossbow, some guy with crimson skin.  There was a light show in the sky above as Kid Win teleported in pieces of the cannon he’d had at the bank robbery, manifesting them onto a hovering platform set directly in front of Leviathan.  He’d get anywhere from a few seconds to a minute’s worth of concentrated fire with the gun firing on the highest settings, directing a beam through a gap in the bars to where Narwhal’s razor sharp forcefield had opened a gap in Leviathan’s neck.

Beyond those first few moments after Leviathan woke up, it woul be anyone’s guess.

I hurried away from the site Armsmaster had indicated to me, my right hand on my left elbow, keeping my arm from moving too much.  Sector CC-7, a block and a half South, a block West.  So strange, to think that this was an area I’d walked through a dozen times, on my way to or from the Loft.  Now I was looking at it as a battlefield, trying to figure out what routes Leviathan would take.  What things I had to watch out for – the grates leading down to the storm sewers, the rain barrel on top of one of the buildings that might or might not be intact enough to retain any water in it.  Puddles.

Stuff I could use…  hardly.

It wasn’t like there was any weapon I could deploy, no feature of the terrain I could use to deliver the critical blow.  This was Leviathan.  A creature that had killed more people in the last 12 years than I had even seen in my entire life.  Seen in person, anyways.

I was scared.  A huge part of me wanted to just close my eyes and hope Leviathan didn’t come, that I wouldn’t have to deal with him.  It would be nice to join the three hundred and fifty thousand other Brockton Bay residents that were trusting the heroes to handle things, find a peace of sorts in surrender and helplessness.  Except I couldn’t.  I’d seen firsthand how Leviathan had taken down some of the strongest capes.  I couldn’t find refuge in that kind of trust anymore.  My mental and emotional resources were better spent on figuring out how to help than they were on hope.

I was hurting, too.  The only thing keeping the throb of my arm from consuming my attention was the fear.  It was a kind of grim cycle:  the pain reminded me of why I should be scared, but the emotion and the adrenaline kept the pain as this intensely unpleasant background chatter in my brain, where it might have crippled me otherwise.  It was a teetering balance that had me on edge in a way I’d never experienced to this degree.  There were probably people who lived for that hypervigilant, heart-racing, brain-going-in-overtime experience.  I wasn’t one of them.

Priorities.  Back to what I was thinking about – there obviously wasn’t anything to be found here that would win me a fight against Leviathan or even hurt him.  Ridiculous to think that way.  Any advantages to be gained would be ones that kept me alive.

I wiped the beads of water from my lenses with my glove, which only seemed to divide each of them into a mess of smaller droplets.  Leviathan was bigger than me, stronger, faster, tougher.  I had to think like a mouse who might run into a murderous cat at any moment.  Like prey.  Use my small size.  Hide.  I needed a position that kept me out of sight, gave me a good vantage point, but left me free to make a run for it.  A spot where I had an escape route if things got bad.  To top it off, in the event Eidolon couldn’t stop the wave, I could also do with cover.

It was the sort of street you saw often enough in the Docks.  Large buildings lined either side, like giant boxes made of concrete or brick.  I could have maybe found a fire escape to climb up, in the hopes that I’d be out of reach of the wave, but my experience with Lung back on day one had taught me better.  The higher ground was an advantage, sure, but if your opponent could get up or down from that location faster and more easily than you could, that stopped being an asset really damn quickly.  If there was anything that was going to be useful, it would be on ground level.  I saw a rusted van that had sat in front of an old workshop since I’d first passed through this area, all tires flat, windows broken, interior gutted.  A chain link fence stretched between two buildings, but someone had cut the wires that connected the fence to the frame, so half of it was curled back and waving slightly in the wind and rain.

No, those things weren’t useful.  Larger scale?  There was an old roof supported by two pillars, attached on one side to a building, a carport, perhaps.  The roof was mostly intact, corrugated steel with a smallish hole in one lower corner, which meant the area beneath it was largely dry, but for a small puddle.  It was also exposed on three sides, which meant I couldn’t stay there.  My bugs could.  It was a place they could keep dry until I needed them.

I’d been acutely aware of my bugs since the battle started, and for the second time I could remember, I found my power was responding far more effectively as I called for them.  My reach extended further, my bugs were fractionally more responsive.  The last time this had been the case, it had been when I teamed up with Bitch, Sundancer and Newter and wound up fighting Oni Lee and Lung.  I couldn’t explain it, but I wasn’t going to complain.  I needed every small advantage I could get.

As they began gathering under the carport, my mind returned to that notion of being successful ‘prey’.

When I’d originally designed my costume, I’d picked the darker colors, made sure that the varieties of chitin I used to make the armor were spaced out so the individual shading would retain some ‘speckling’ after being painted, all for a reason.  Camouflage.  I’d known I’d have my bugs all around me.  I’d known I would be standing in the midst of them while they gathered into swarms, would have them crawling on me from time to time.  So I’d picked darker colors and made my armor mottled to blend in with the bugs that were, obviously, specks.

Just hiding inside my swarm wouldn’t be enough.  Too easy for him to attack just the one cluster, tear through me.

So I gathered more than one smaller swarm, clustering them in areas where it was dry.  The interior of the rusted van, under eaves, in doorframes and on a roof, under a large rain barrel.

Then, struck by a little inspiration, I condensed the nine swarms into human-ish shapes.  Black silhouettes crouched, stood tall with arms akimbo, leaned against walls, leaned partially outside the driver’s side window of the van.  In the gloom, through the rain, it was deceptive.  Deceptive enough?  I couldn’t be sure.

I felt the bite of cold air.  A chill breeze, going straight through the soaked fabric of my costume.  When I looked down to where the long road sloped to the edge of the water, I saw the reason for the chill.  Eidolon was flying at the coast, focusing blue rays on the water around the shattered boardwalk and debris at the water’s edge, hardening the waves into irregular sheets and glacier-like formations of ice.

Dangerous.  I could remember seeing on TV that they’d tried something like this a few years ago.  A Tinker using an ice engine, I think.  I didn’t know exactly how or why, but judging by the fact that they hadn’t used the tactic again, I got the impression It had turned out really badly.

My guess was based on the notion that hydrokinesis was the movement of water, and ice was just water in another form.  It wasn’t that Leviathan would levitate the chunks of ice.  Nothing so blatant.  Rather, when a tidal wave did break through the ice, rolled up onto the battlefield with frozen shards and chunks caught up in the current, Leviathan might move those chunks a little faster in the wave’s passage, make them hit a little harder, and give them a tendency to strike where they could do the most damage.

That was my suspicion, anyways.  The heroes didn’t exactly dish out the full details at press conferences, afterward, so I could only make an educated guess.

Either way, it was a delaying tactic.  Holding off the damage, in the hopes that we could end this or get reinforcements before Brockton Bay became another Newfoundland.

We were hoping for Scion.  The first cape, the golden skinned man.  The guy that could go toe to toe with an Endbringer and win, if things hadn’t already gone too far south.  If Behemoth hadn’t already turned the area into a radioactive, magma-ridden wasteland.  If Leviathan hadn’t built up enough momentum with his waves.  If the Simurgh… Ok, the Simurgh was different, I had to admit.  The issue with her wasn’t so much winning the battle.  It was what came after.  Win every battle against her, lose the war, more or less.

The problem with waiting on Scion was that the guy wasn’t exactly in touch with the rest of us.  There was speculation he had at least one human contact – someone that had given him clothing and a costume, at least – but he never bothered to stop long enough for anyone to pass on any requests, to tell him to go to X place when we gave him Y signal.  He rescued people twenty-four-seven, three hundred and sixty five days a year, handling crises only as they came to his attention, which meant that sometimes an Endbringer came and Scion was wholly occupied with saving sinking ships, stopping landslides and putting out housefires.  I wondered what he was doing now.

My swarms were in place, which left me having to decide where to hide.  The carport was too in the open, none of the eaves left me a good enough escape route, and as for the space under the rain barrel on the roof, well, I wasn’t that stupid, and I’d already dismissed the roof as an option anyways.

I started toward the rusted van.  I was halfway there when I reconsidered.  As comforting as it might be to have the safety of metal around me and to be more or less concealed, it posed some of the same problems as the rooftops.  If things turned sour or if an unexpected situation arose, I’d be trapped.

After a moment of tense consideration, I reluctantly decided on the carport, hunkering down in the gloom and hoping the shadows there would help conceal me.  It offered me an escape route – around the back of the building, or through the side door, it gave me cover from the rain and any debris, and it gave me concealment.  I’d have to cope with the lack of cover from any incoming waves or Leviathan himself.

Secure in the amount of bugs around me, I collected the ones that could go out in the rain and manage reasonably well.  Primarily roaches.  I sent them out in the general direction of where Leviathan and the others were.  The better a sense I had of any imminent encounters, the better I could react.

Manpower deceased, CD-6.  Aegis deceased, CD-6, my armband spoke, at the same moment my bugs reached the area around where Leviathan had been.

He was awake again.

Aegis would have been covering an aerial route, keeping Leviathan from heading to the rooftops, which meant Leviathan went up.  I had the mass of roaches ascend, trying to get a sense of his location.  I tried to use my armband to help gauge the direction he was traveling, but since I couldn’t move my arm, it was difficult at best.

Fenja down, CC-6.  My head snapped up.

I found them.  Fenja and Menja were duking it out with Leviathan.  Both were nearly as big as he was, which was saying a fair bit.  I knew their power warped geometry to make them bigger, simultaneously reduced the effective size of incoming attacks by an inversely proportionate amount.  Six times as tall and a sixth of the hurt, on top of the benefits of being bigger.

Fenja deceased, CC-6.

It wasn’t doing them a lot of good.  Not Fenja, anyways.

I saw a light as Kid Win rose above the level of the buildings, fired a painfully bright beam down at the EndbringerAfter the laser petered out, he rose up higher again, to keep out of reach.  He was in the middle of firing another beam when the laser flicked around nearly three hundred and sixty degrees, spun by a massive impact.

Kid win down, CC-6.

And then Leviathan was in view, entering the same street I was on.  As if to herald his coming, a massive wave crashed hard against the barrier of ice Eidolon had erected around the wrecked Boardwalk, the spray seemingly reaching nearly to the stormclouds above.

One shoulder was bloated, five times the normal size, twisted, like it was covered in elephantine tumors, bleeding openly.  He was injured in other places, had a hole through the side of his stomach, a larger blackened wound at the base of his neck, and a fifth of his face was missing, torn off below the cheekbone.  He didn’t seem to be suffering much.  He held Kaiser’s upper torso in the one claw, tossed it casually to one side.  The man’s legs were nowhere to be seen.

Wait, what?  I hadn’t heard the report on Kaiser’s death.  I checked my armband, where my arm hung immobile at my side.

It was dead, offline.  Black screen.

I didn’t have another second to worry – Leviathan was extending one claw in my general direction.

The water that had pooled shallowly beneath the carport trickled his way, as if it were moving downhill, gathered in a rising bulge of water on the street in front of the carport, swelling to five feet in height, fifteen feet across.

Unsure what to do, I remained absolutely still.

A movement of his claw, and the bulge broke, spilled to one side as an onrushing wave.  It swept beneath the rusted van, suddenly rose to heave the vehicle in Leviathan’s direction.  The van rolled once, skidding toward the Endbringer, threatening to strike one leg out from under him.  He stopped it by punching it through the roof, into the front end of the van.  He stabbed the other claw through at the same point, tore the van into two halves that he tossed to either side of him.

A flick of his tail, and he sent a blade of water slashing through the air at the rain barrel, slicing through the swarm and stilts.  The barrel crashed to the rooftop, and water cascaded out.  A twisting movement of his claw, and that cascade of water flowed off the roof in a small, controlled wave, moving like a speeding car, straight towards the carport on the other side of the street, toward me.

I caught a glimpse of Leviathan rearing back in reaction to something as I legged it, left my swarm behind as I ran perpendicular to the wave’s direction, away from Leviathan.  I leaped as I felt it make contact with the swarm, felt it slam into my legs a fraction of a second after.

I’d cleared enough ground that the angle of the hit didn’t throw me straight into the side of the building.  I was thrown a distance, rolled on my side, on top of and over my probably-broken arm.

Pain consumed me.  I writhed, my good hand pressing on my bad arm.  I gagged, pulled my mask up to throw up, as if my body was trying to find some way to rebel against the pain.  I tried to climb to my feet, but I was too weak, dizzy, and my good arm gave out.  I landed face first in dirty water.

I had no idea how long it took me to pull myself together.  It could have been two minutes, it could have been ten seconds.  I managed to climb to my feet.  Stumble back toward the carport, staying to the shadows.

As I approached the corner of the building, I saw Armsmaster fighting toe to toe with Leviathan, a Halberd in each hand.  One was similar to the one he’d used the night we attacked the fundraiser, capable of unfolding into a grappling hook, the other was simpler, a dull stainless steel from tip to butt end, with no decoration or style to it.  The head was surrounded by a strange blur that seemed static, unmoving around the blade and point.

Leviathan slapped his tail at Armsmaster’s legs, and Armsmaster leaped over it, swiped out with the blurry Halberd.  It carved a chunk out of Leviathan, left a cloud of dust that the rain quickly drove down into the expanse of water beneath them.  The Endbringer reared back in pain, and Armsmaster stepped forward, leaped up higher than any normal human could, and caught Leviathan just above the knee with the Halberd, driving the blade nearly a third of the way to the bone.

Leviathan retaliated, swiping at Armsmaster, but the hero planted a foot on the uninjured part of the knee, and kicked himself back and out of the way.  The afterimage followed him, and he swiped at it with the other Halberd.  The blade erupted with a flame like a giant purple blowtorch, turning the worst of the afterimage into steam before it could crush him.  He turned his back so the steam didn’t billow against the exposed flesh of his face.  Some remains of the afterimage struck his armor, but he slid back and rolled with the impact, keeping his feet on the ground the entire time, enabling him to leap and roll to one side as Leviathan’s tail came down from behind and directly above him.

Leviathan was badly injured.  Ichor poured from six large wounds that hadn’t been there when he’d arrived on the street.

“You dumb brute,” Armsmaster growled.  He was panting for breath.  “Every fight you’ve done so far, that we’ve got on camera?  I’ve watched it, put it through programs.  I’ve got a computer on my back that’s relaying to a supernetwork, noting your every move, using subsonic pulses to read every aspect of the street, the surrounding buildings, every feature of the terrain.  I know exactly what you’re going to do next – you’re going to try to catch me from behind with a wave.”

Leviathan lunged, swiped with the oversized claw.  Armsmaster rolled to one side, then swung both Halberds behind him to intercept the wave that was coming from behind, vaporize it.

“You don’t even speak English, do you?  Or you’d know what I was saying, you’d know I already won.  The others helped, slowing you down, stopping the waves.  But this victory, this killing blow?  It’s going to be mine.”

Leviathan lunged, stopped, letting his water echo get ahead of him, then lunged again, a half second later.  Armsmaster leaped out of the way of the echo, drew his knees to his chest to avoid a claw swipe while he was still airborne, and sent his grappling hook between Leviathan’s feet to pull himself to the ground in a flash.  He skidded with the momentum, right between Leviathan’s legs, and raised the blurry Halberd to strike Leviathan between the legs, against the first ten feet of Leviathan’s tail.  The tail was turned to dust where the blade made contact, the plumes of it briefly obscuring Armsmaster.

“This cloud around my blade?  Nanotechnology.  Nano-structures engineered to slide between atoms, sever molecular bonds.  Cuts through anything.  Everything.  Like a sharp knife through air.”

Leviathan whipped his tail at Armsmaster.  Armsmaster stepped out of the way, slapped at the tail with the broad side of the blade.  More dust, another chunk of flesh gone, ichor pouring from the injury.  He ducked the echo as though it were an idle afterthought.

Leviathan turned to run.  Armsmaster sent out one blade like a grappling hook, circled the smaller of the Endbringer’s claws with the chain.  Leviathan moved, oblivious or uncaring, and Armsmaster waited until the slack was out of the chain, pressed a button.

The chain and Halberd ceased moving, and even Leviathan’s strength ceased to move it.  Rather than pull away, the Endbringer skidded, fell on his back, wrist still held by the chain.

A half second later, the chain went briefly slack, then rigid again as Armsmaster reeled himself in. He drove the blurry blade straight into Leviathan’s face with all the force of his forward momentum.  He pulled it free, slashed again, then freed the chain and used it to pull himself across the street, out of reach of Leviathan’s violent response.

Armsmaster called out, “Let’s see how quickly you respond to classical conditioning.  Every time you try to run, I’ll do something like that.”

Leviathan had no reply.  He simply climbed to his feet, swiped a claw through the air.  Armsmaster parried the afterimage that sailed through the air toward him, using the purple flame.

“For the record, that last trick was a temporal stasis trigger, with thanks owed to the cooperation of a subordinate of mine.  Drains my battery reserves, but you don’t understand that, do you?”

Leviathan lunged, and Armsmaster fired out the grappling hook, stopped it in mid air by freezing it in time.  Leviathan ran himself through on the chain, the thing spearing deep into his neck and out the back of his torso.  Uncaring, the Endbringer continued to charge at Armsmaster.

Armsmaster let the chain go slack, ducked a swipe of the tail, leaped forward and to one side to avoid the claw that followed.  Another small hop and roll ensured he moved right beneath the afterimage, and he made two swipes with the blurry Halberd at the back of Leviathan’s thighs as he passed behind the Endbringer.  His chain reeled in, pulled free of Leviathan’s neck wth a spray of blood, came down and across Leviathan’s hip to snap back to the top of the Halberd.  He fired it off again to get himself more distance, pulling himself across the street, spinning to face Leviathan once more as he stopped.

He passed one Halberd to the other hand, so he held two, wiped some frothing spittle from his mouth with his gauntlet.  “I am going to be the one to take your head, abomination.  I can only hope you know mortal terror in your last moments, know what you’ve inflicted on so many others.”

Leviathan stood, straighted itself, touched its claw to its ruined face, then its neck.  The amount of blood it was losing – it seemed somehow more than Leviathan should have been able to contain within himself.  I mean, he was big, but this was a lot of blood.

For several long seconds, Leviathan didn’t move.

“Delaying, buying time for a tsunami?” Armsmaster laughed, and Leviathan cocked his head at the display of emotion.  “No.  Three point four minutes before the next big wave breaks through the ice.  Dragon’s probes are giving me the data on that.  This will be over before then.”

He stepped forward, then stepped again, waiting for some cue from Leviathan.  On Armsmaster’s third step, Leviathan took a small step back, lashed his tail behind him.

“Finally scared?” Armsmaster taunted.  “Good.”

Nausea and pain was welling up in me again as I watched from the corner of the building, under the carport, threatening to override my sense of awe.  It was all I could do to keep quiet, keep from distracting Armsmaster, or distracting Leviathan and throwing some wrench in Armsmaster’s data.  The last thing I wanted was to become the hostage that made Armsmaster hesitate for the fraction of a second that cost him -cost us all-  the fight.

Armsmaster went on an all-out offensive, slashing as fast as his arm could move, cutting leg, knee, tail, leg again, moving out of the way of Leviathan’s attacks as though it were easy.  For ten seconds he continued, relentless.

“I should thank you, monster,” Armsmaster spoke, after he’d just finished a backflip that had carried him near enough to Leviathan’s torso to strike the creature across the lower belly.

Leviathan lunged, dropping to all fours, as if trying to swamp Armsmaster with a huge volume of water by way of his afterimage.  Armsmaster was already casting his grappling hook out, pulling himself out of the way.  In the final moment before he pulled away, his other Halberd swung up and into Leviathan’s neck, making a wound mirroring the spot where Narwhal’s forcefield had cleaved deep, the one Kid Win had undoubtedly opened wider with his laser turret.  Armsmaster reeled the hook back in.

The Endbringer turned, as if to run, only for the loop of the grappling hook’s chain to pass under his ‘chin’.  Armsmaster heaved himself up and onto the Endbringer’s back, drove the Halberd into one side of the neck, lengthening the cut he’d just made.  He stepped on the top of the Endbringer’s head, leaped down, catching the Endbringer across the face with the Halberd as he descended.  Leviathan collapsed, going spread-eagle.

Armsmaster slashed at Leviathan’s forearms as the Endbringer started to clmb to his feet.  More damage done, though it didn’t stop Leviathan from rising.  While Armsmaster pressed the attack, his armband hissed with a message I couldn’t make out.  I glanced at mine – still broken.

“This will be over before then,” Armsmaster echoed an eariler statement, speaking more to himself than to the armband or Leviathan.

Leviathan hopped backwards to create some distance, staggered a little as the more injured of his two legs failed to take his weight, used his smaller hand to stop from falling a second time, poising himself on three limbs.

Armsmaster used his grappling hook to haul himself close, readying to make another slash for the neck.  He changed his mind as the ground rumbled, pulled the hook free to latch it on a garage door.  Countering his forward momentum, he swung himself to one side of the road, staying out of Leviathan’s reach.

The ground rumbled again, brief, intense, stopped.

Armsmaster touched a hand to the side of his visor, and I thought I saw his lips crease in a frown before he turned his head away from me.

Another fierce rumble, and a crack appeared like a seam down the center of the street, a straight line as far as I could see in either direction.

Leviathan raised his claw, and the road suddenly split, heaving upward as a concrete pipe wide enough to fit a man crested from the pavement like a whale rising from the waves.  A second later, water gushed forth, veering toward Armsmaster.

The storm sewers.

Armsmaster hesitated, then threw his grappling-hook-Halberd forward into the onrushing waves like a javelin.  The gush of water froze in time, and he leapt forward, stepping on the furthermost extensions of the immobile spray in a parkour-style ascent over the water and the pipe.  The water resumed its regular motion as Armsmaster took his final leaping step off the top, heading straight for Leviathan.

Leviathan moved faster than he had in the last minute, caught the blade in his claw.

Dust rose from the claw as the blade sank deep, blood poured out, but the blade remained fixed in place.  Armsmaster tugged, failed to dislodge it.  He tried to pull away, but I could see Leviathan had caught onto his hand and wrist with his clawtips, while the Halberd sat embedded in his ‘palm’.

“How!?” Armsmaster roared.

I didn’t hesitate a moment in sending out my bugs.  Three swarms, shaped like people, more as a general cloud.  The bugs all sagged beneath the drenching rain, the ones on top taking the brunt of the downpour.

Leviathan planted one foot beside Armsmaster for balance, reached out with his free claw, and pressed the tips against the side of Armsmaster’s throat and torso.  Still holding on to Armsmaster’s hand and wrist, he pushed against the side of the man’s body.  Armsmaster screamed, a frantic noise that seemed to redouble in urgency with every breath.  He tipped over and fell with a splash.

The Endbringer stood, showing none of the frailty or pain it had been displaying seconds ago.  The injuries were there, to be sure, his head hung at an angle because of the way the weight of his head hung on the intact portions of his neck, but he wasn’t suffering, had no trouble putting his full weight on his more injured leg.  Had it been an act?

The Endbringer dropped Armsmaster’s arm and Halberd, where the weight of the metal armor and device pulled them beneath the water.  A lash of his tail dispatched two of my three swarms.  He watched, seeming not to care, as the third ran up to him, smashed against his leg.  The bugs spreading out, burying themselves deep into his injuries. I was hoping to find some weakness, devour him from the inside out, but the bugs might as well have been biting on steel.  Nothing budged beneath their jaws, their stings couldn’t penetrate.

He turned, crouched, bolted West, away from the coast, full speed.

I hurried to Armsmaster’s side.

“You,” he groaned.  His left arm was gone at the shoulder, torn out of the socket.  Blood poured from the wound.  “You’re dead.”

“Hey, you’re not making any sense.”

“He killed you.”

Had my armband announced my death when it glitched out and died?  Assumed total destruction of my unit, and me with it?

“I’m alive.  Listen, I’m going to try and find your arm, my armband got broken, maybe something got dislodged when Leviathan broke my arm.”

He only groaned unintelligbly in response.

I ran over to the general area where Leviathan had dropped Armsmaster’s arm.   I tripped over the crack that ran down the middle of the street, got my feet under me to keep running, and began feeling through the water.

I came within inches of touching the submerged blade, turning my hand to molecular dust.

Finding the arm, I picked it up.  Heavy, almost too much to hold in one hand.  It wasn’t just the weight of the armor or the fact that it was a muscular, full-grown-man’s limb – the gauntlet had been crushed around the pole of the Halberd, crumpled like tinfoil.  With the arm and weapon in a bricklayer’s grip that was painful to maintain, I hurried back to Armsmaster’s side, dropped them near him.  I shook him, hoping to get him alert, to no avail.

With my only working hand, I pried the Halberd free of his glove, rested his arm across his chest, and pressed the button.

“Armsmaster down!  CC-7!  Leviathan is heading West…”

I felt the bugs I’d clustered in Leviathan’s wounds change direction.  The compass point between West and Northwest was what?  More Wests than North.

“Cancel that!  He’s going West-North-West from my location!”

My voice echoed back to me in the Armband’s tinny voice a half-second after I’d finished.  Armsmaster’s armband changed to display a red dot, tracking Leviathan’s movements, or the closest approximation the system could guess.

“Roger, sounds like he might be heading for one of the shelters, lots of people packed into a space where they can’t run, vulnerable,” someone replied, “Medical help incoming.  Whoever this is, you can track Leviathan?”

“Yes, as long as I’m within a few blocks of him.”  Again, the system relayed my message. Affirmative.  Range restriction of ‘a few blocks’.

Did it really need to reword what I said?

“Can you fly?  Chase him?”

“No.”  Negative.

“Then I’m sending a flier your way, to ensure you stay close enough.  We need eyes on this bastard, and you’re them.”

“Got it!”

There was only silence after that.  Teeth clenched, shivering, I pressed my good hand as hard as I could manage against the ragged mess of Armsmaster’s shoulder, trying to slow the blood loss.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Extermination 8.3

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As tough or invincible as a given cape might be, most were still hemmed in by the restrictions and boundaries of physics.  Getting hit by something that weighed nearly nine tons sent men, women, boys and girls in costume flying, if it didn’t kill them outright.

Leviathan’s echo added surprising quantities of water to the battlefield.  Every step and movement he made, he filled the space he’d just left with water.  How much water did it take to displace something as big as he was?  However much it was, he created something like three times that amount when he took a single step forward, when you accounted for the space his body moved through.  A hard amount to eyeball, because it had the same momentum his movements had, and some of it crossed great distances as he lunged and clawed his way through the front line of capes.

Sham down, CD-5.  Acoustic deceased, CD-5.  Harsh Mistress down, CD-5.  Resolute deceased, CD-5.  Woebegone down, CD-5

I had to help, somehow.

I pressed both buttons on the armband and spoke into it, “Direct me to the wounded I can help.  I do not have mobility powers.  I am not very strong.  I do have basic first aid training.”

There was a pause, then a female voice, synthesized, just sharp enough to be heard over the noise of lasers, guns and rain, “Acknowledged.”

The response both relieved and terrified me.  I’d halfway expected that to fail.

My armband beeped and flashed, and I saw a red dot on the map, along with an arrow at the edge of the square screen.  As I moved my arm, the arrow adjusted to keep pointing the same way.  It was directing me to near where Leviathan was.

Lashing out with tail and claws, he was advancing steadily through the ranks of defenders.  The occasional strike from a strong hero or one of the ranged combatants slowed him, made him stumble, if it hit in the right spot or pushed him off balance.

I hesitated to get closer.  I hated myself for doing it.  I was here for a reason, to do something.

Legend fired a salvo of lasers at Leviathan, and the beams turned at right angles to strike Leviathan in precise areas, knocking his feet from under him, slamming him down into the road, catching him under the chin.  Leviathan raised a hand, and a geyser of water rose to block more incoming lasers.  Legend’s lasers simply turned at angles to circle around Leviathan, strike the Endbringer from behind.  They left Leviathan so hot that his flesh glowed a yellow-orange around the areas they struck him.

I took the opportunity, found some measure of courage and hurried forward to my target.

There was a leg, half floating, weighed down on one end by a metal boot on the foot.  Someone in a leather costume lay on their back, barely conscious, bleeding from a gash that had opened them from the left hip to their right shoulder, a cloud of blood spilling out in the filthy water that came halfway up to our knees, an inky black color in the gloom.

Icouldn’t help them, as much as it pained me to ignore them, move on.  I had to trust that the armband would direct me to someone I could help.

I found the person my armband was directing me to, some teenage boy with a metallic bird design to his costume, the helmet that covered the upper half of his face looked like a bird’s head, maybe an eagle.  I knelt by him.

There was a crash as Leviathan whipped his tail toward Legend, a blade of water soaring through the air to strike the hero out of the air.  The onslaught of lasers interrupted, Leviathan shifted from a crouch on one side of the road to being the midst of the defending heroes in one fluid motion, resuming the carnage in the span of a heartbeat.

Fierceling deceased, CD-5.  Adamant down, CD-5

He was way too close to me for comfort – a single leap on his part would close the distance to me – but freaking out over it wouldn’t help anyone.  I could only hope that the front line would hold for long enough for me to help this person.

“What can I do?” I asked the bird-costume.

“Leg,” he said, voice strained, “Help me stand.”

His left leg, I realized, was smashed into pulp from the knee down.  I crouched, helped him get his arm over my shoulders, and used my legs to heave both of us into a standing position.  The bird-costume was below average in weight for a teenage guy, but it wasn’t exactly easy.  He was wearing armor.

I might not have been able to get both of us up to a standing position like that if it weren’t for my weeks of running.

He leaned on me heavily with each step forward, and we retreated from the front lines.  Someone with the ability to fly landed not far from me to pick up the man with the gaping wound across his torso, flew off with him.  Two seconds later, a teleporter blinked into existence near us, touching two fallen capes, and disappeared with them and a bathtub’s worth of water.

I wanted to apologize for not having a better power to help this person, but the breath would have been wasted.  It was hard work to help him along, to slog through the water.

The fight was ongoing, with a dozen heroes in Leviathan’s vicinity, more than twenty others shooting at him from range whenever there was a clear shot.  Yet more were on the fringes, to keep him from slipping past the combatants and to take the place of the fallen.  It wasn’t enough – the damage we were doing was negligible and his long strides were advancing him further and faster than the rest of us could back away through the water.  Trash and debris threatened to trip us up with every step we took.  He forced a fighting retreat, moving quickly and often enough to avoid being caught by any concentrated fire.

Our progress was agonizing.  Move too slowly, and we fell behind, move too fast as we waded through the trash-ridden water, and we risked falling, lost precious time.  Had to find the middle ground, and we weren’t moving fast enough even if we did find that sweet spot.  Hell, it would have been kinda difficult even without my burden.

Chubster down, CD-5. Good Neighbor deceased, CD-5.  Hallow deceased, CD-5.

It was Alexandria who speared forward to confront Leviathan.  He saw her coming, ceased his onslaught to rear back and then lunge ahead to meet her.  When they were only fifteen feet apart, he stopped, let his water echo rush forward to meet her.

Anyone else might have been staggered in the face of several tons of water moving forward at the speed of a locomotive.  Alexandria intertwined her fingers, swung her arms forward as though she were holding a baseball bat, and cracked her hands against the image a second before she disappeared headlong into it.  There was a sound like a bomb going off, water spraying everywhere, followed by an earthshaking crash as Alexandria used the crook of her arm to catch Leviathan around the neck and heaved him backwards and onto the ground.

Most of the capes took the chance to retreat and expand the gap between themselves and the Endbringer, firing lasers or sonic blasts or whatever else at him as they retreated.

It was so strange to think I was just like the rest of these people.  Even after all this, the last few long weeks to get used to being in costume, it felt like I was the bystander.  Maybe it was that my power was ineffectual here, in the water and the rain, maybe everyone felt that way.

A flier with fringes of ribbons down the sides of her arms, legs and body landed next to me, “Give him to me.”

We transferred the bird-boy to her grip, and they were gone in an instant.  My armband flashed and pointed me toward the next target.

A series of explosions and a massive collision marked Dragon firing a full salvo of missiles and entering close quarters combat with Leviathan.  Alexandria was gone – no, wait, she was rising from the water, where Leviathan had been holding her down.  Standing, staggering, falling again.  Had he been drowning her?

Dragon began breathing out a stream of what might have been plasma in Leviathan’s face.  From his increased struggles and frenetic clawing at her, I gathered he didn’t like it.  Still, it was doing surprisingly little damage to him.

Leviathan found a point to get a solid grip on Dragon’s armor, and tore off a plate.  His next swipe took off another, and it careened a good twenty feet before landing with a heavy splash, close enough to me that I was caught in the spray.

I hurried to the next target on my armband.  It was a woman witih a white costume, white hair and what was probably skull paint on her face.  It was hard to tell, and not just because of the rain smudging the make-up.  Nearly half her face was torn off.  Glanced by one of Leviathan’s claws, maybe, or caught by the lash of water from his tail.

“Hey,” I shook her gently by the shoulders, “You awake?  You alert?”

Maybe a stupid question.  I didn’t even know if she could talk with her face like that.

A small wave sloshed against us, she sputtered and turned her head, didn’t respond.  That was a ‘no’ to at least one of my questions.  I suspected her condition was a combination of shock and blood loss as much as anything else.

Too heavy for me to lift, and I didn’t have first aid supplies.  Fuck, I could have kicked myself for that.  Anything I did have – epipens, smelling salts – were probably spoiled by the water and the septic conditions.  Not that they would have helped.

I looked up, looked around.  Spotted what I needed.  Someone was manifesting green fireballs in his hands, lobbing them at Leviathan, where they exploded violently.

I rose, hurried to him, keeping low so I didn’t walk face first into anyone’s laser blasts or gunfire.  “Your fire, is it radioactive? Is it anything special, extra dangerous?”

He gave me a look, lobbed another fireball, “It’s fire, it combusts if I concentrate it.”

“Okay.  Great.  I need your help.”

He nodded.

I showed him the woman.  “Blood loss is a problem.  She needs the wound cauterized.”

His eyes widened, “I can’t do that!  Her face-”

“-Is half scraped off.  She’s not going to care about a burn.  There’s nothing close to a clean bandage anywhere here, and she’s going to die if we don’t stop the blood loss.”

Looking a little sick, he nodded, wreathed his hand in flame and then pressed it against the woman’s face.  She pulled away, made a gurgling noise.  I gripped her head and shoulder to keep her in position.

“Come,” I said, after he pulled his hand away, “Help me move her.”

Greenfire – I wasn’t sure on his name, and it didn’t seem the time to ask – hooked one arm under her armpit, I used both hands under the other one, and we hauled her off to one side, into an alley, propped her up sitting.

“I’ll stay here,” Greenfire said, “Keep an eye on her.  You go.”

I nodded, pressed both buttons on the armband and spoke, “Next!”

As we emerged from the alley, there was a massive explosion, five times what had followed when Dragon launched her missiles at Leviathan.  Leviathan reeled – He had a shallow burn along one side of his neck, more on his face, one of the four glowing orbs of eyes were dim, but it wasn’t as much damage as I might have suspected.  He lashed his tail violently, as if in anger, or maybe he intended to use the echo of his tail’s lashing to strike down others, I couldn’t be sure.

It was a contingent of lesser heroes that joined the fray, now.  It was as though the tougher fighters were staggering their attacks, to ensure that just the right amount of force was being exerted to keep Leviathan on his heels, taking the maximum amount of damage while being prevented from taking out too many capes at once.  These three were clearly members of the same team, flying in formations, moving in sync.  Two of them had super strength, and were gripping at the damaged areas of Leviathan’s flesh, tearing, pulling away as he lashed out in response, while the third had a massive battleaxe with what looked like a chainsaw setup on each blade, opening more wounds.  The damage was superficial, only taking off slices of Leviathan’s hide, but surely stripping away his hard exterior would help in the long run?

The armband directed me to someone that was already getting assistance.  An obese cape in armor, getting CPR from a man with a princess-bride style mask over the upper half of his head, a goatee, a chainmail lined mantle and a shotgun three times the normal size.  He didn’t know what he was doing – the fat man’s chin was almost touching his collarbone.

When I moved to take over, Shotgun Westley left without a word, wiping his mouth and unslinging his gun as he ran back to the fray.  I was irritated.

Hew down, CD-5.

It was my first time giving CPR for real.  So much harder than it was in the class, on so many levels.  I don’t know if it was the fat man’s powers, his weight, his armor, or some combination of the three, but it took incredible effort to actually fill his lungs.  Just doing it made me want to gag.  He’d vomited a little at some point, and though I’d wiped it away as best as I could when I was done checking his mouth for blockages, the taste lingered.  The taste of salt water only accented that flavor, sort of the same way table salt did with a cooked meal.

Strapping Lad down, CD-5.  Intrepid down, CD-5.

I was aware of Narwhal stepping into the fray, in my peripheral vision.  She raised her hands, manifesting a dozen forcefields like oversize crystal shards around her, then flicked them forward.  Like guillotine blades, the forcefields raced toward Leviathan, faster than the eye could follow, sunk into his flesh.  Those that glanced off stopped mid-air to turn around, edges against his body, getting in the way of his legs moving.

There was a horrendous crash, I looked up, pausing to catch my breath, saw the remains of a car falling apart around Leviathan.  Another crash, a piece of rubble turning to dust from the speed of the impact.  I couldn’t see through the bodies, but I had an idea of who it was.  Ballistic.

A dumpster hit Leviathan in the upper body with the speed of a bullet, and he folded backward, his shoulders hitting the ground while his legs and feet were still held against the ground by a mess of razor blade forcefields.  Narwhal sent another forcefield flying into his neck, and it cut as deep as any attack had yet.  Blood spilled down from the opened wound, thick, more like ichor than anything I was used to seeing.

I heaved another breath of air into the lungs of the fat man, he sputtered, coughed up a mouthful of dark water.  I knew I was supposed to follow up on the CPR, but there was no way I could move or roll this guy.

Unable to do anything but wait and see if he recovered, I raised my head to watch the continuing battle, feeling just a touch dizzy.

The ranged attack continued.  Miss Militia had a bazooka as long as she was tall, and was firing a series of warheads into Leviathan.  She wasn’t reloading, either.  Between shots, the weapon crackled with energy, fresh ammunition loaded into the chamber by her power.  One projectile fired off each second.

There was the girl with the crossbow, who had been with Shadow Stalker.  She had a teammate next to her, handing her the needle-like bolts from a quiver, was loading them into the large crossbow and firing them as fast as she was able.  More than any other attack, the bolts were stabbing deep into Leviathan.

The attacks were actually having an effect.  He was on the defensive, now, and he was hurting.

We’re winning, I thought.

A flash to my left caught my eye.

It was my armband.  The screen was ringed by a square of yellow, a yellow triangle with a black exclamation mark pointing in Leviathan’s general direction.

People were shouting.  Screaming, Narwhal was moving forcefields up in between us and Leviathan, other forcefields were going up.

“To me!” someone near me shouted.  I turned to look, saw Shielder from New Wave.

Tidal Wave.

The fat man’s eyes weren’t even open, he moved too slowly as I shook him.

There was no helping it.

I gave the fat man one backwards glance, and bolted for Shielder. I mouthed an apology I didn’t have the breath to utter, more for my conscience than for the man I hadn’t saved.

Shielder waited until the last second to erect his cerulean bubble around himself.  I caught a glimpse of one cape, a step too slow, getting trapped on the outside, a half second before the wave hit.  Crushed against the exterior of the solid-light forcefield by the onrushing waters.

I’d been in an earthquake before.  A three on the Richter scale, brief.  I’d been at home, and a check of the house afterward only found a few books knocked off the shelf, a mirror fallen from the wall in the front hall.  This was a hundred times more intense, the water rolling over us, against the nearby buildings, making the ground shudder.

For one brief moment, we were submerged, currents running past Shielder’s bubble.  water in front of us, to either side, behind and above.  Outside the translucent bubble, I saw a massive dark shape zip past us, saw Shielder fall to his knees, as though the force of the water against the bubble in Leviathan’s wake was nearly more than he could bear.

Heavy casualties, please wait, a chorus of identical voices announced, coming from the armbands of those ten or twelve of us in the bubble.  Telling us that we’d just taken losses so heavy that the Dragon’s computer system couldn’t or wouldn’t list them all.

The water surging around us stopped abruptly, evaporated into a mist in a second.  Swirling, the mist began drifting.

Myrddin, working with Eidolon. They stood in the center of the road, Eidolon turning the water into mist, while Myrddin gathered it.  Myrddin’s wooden stick was held aloft, and the mist was forming a sphere the size of a beachball at one end.

Ok, I could almost buy the wizard angle, seeing that.

Leviathan leaped from the roof of a nearby building, landing in the midst of one group that was still reeling from the wave, started tearing through them.

The armbands remained ominously silent, even as I watched the casualties.

Myrddin pointed his staff and launched that orb at Leviathan.  It hit harder than anything yet, and the brute was sent flying into the interior of a nearby building.

“Seal him off!” someone shouted.  Chevalier.  “Make him come back our way!”

Forcefields went up around the exterior of the building.  The building itself bulged and warped as Vista exerted her power, thickened the walls, made the middle floors of the building draw together slightly, a slight hourglass shape.  I saw her, wet and worn out, one hand raised, shouting something I couldn’t make out at one of the out-of-town Wards.  The Ward was speaking into his armband, replaying some message.

Depart from the rooftops, buildings may come down imminently, my armband announced.

Flying capes left the roof of the building, each carrying someone.  They were still leaving as Leviathan lunged through the side of the building and the forcefields that had been reinforcing the walls.  He tried to retreat, was stalled by more forcefields.  I saw a figure on the far side.  Bastion.  The hero who had been in the news over his racist tirade.

Bastion bellowed, “Do it!”

Leviathan lunged, crashed through one barrier, making it shatter like glass, only for another to appear immediately after.  He turned to head our way, was stopped by another.

“Fucking do it!” Bastion called out, barely audible.

The building above him bent and the midsection, unable to support the upper floors, crumbled.  The upper half of the building crashed down atop Leviathan and Bastion.

Vista turned, wrapping her arms around the Ward next to her, burying her face in his shoulder.

“Move forward!” Armsmaster called out, “He’s going to want to escape to recover!  We can not let him!”

Leviathan had more than halved our ranks with the wave.  I could see people face down in the water.  Others were crumped up, their bodies contorted, broken, still.

And the damage to the city was just as bad, in a different way.  I stared at the wreckage, the block and a half of shattered buildings, and saw a looming mess of arches and massive iron beams and girders, unable to comprehend what it was.

It dawned on me.  The PHQ.  The headquarters of our local superteam, tourist attraction, torn from whatever fixtures had rooted it in place, smashed to ruins against our coastline.

The Armband spoke.  Losses are as followsDebaser, Ascendant, Gallant, Zigzag, Prince of Blades, Vitiator, Humble, Halo, Whirlygig, Night, Crusader, Uglymug, Victor, Furrow, Barker, Elegance, Quark, Pelter, Snowflake, Ballistic, Mama Bear, Mister Eminent, Flashbang, Biter…

The names kept coming.  I almost wanted to cover my ears, but not knowing for sure was worse.

…Cloister, Narwhal, Vixen, The Dart, Geomancer, Oaf, Tattletale

The recitation continued, but I was numb to them.  Tattletale?  I started, looked around, as if I could find her.  Where had she been?

No, what I suddenly really wanted to know was what the armband meant by losses.  Were all those people dead?  Was Tattletale dead?  Why wasn’t the armband directing me to help someone?  Was there no point, or were our numbers so reduced we couldn’t afford to?

I could hope it was the latter, but having seen some of the injuries I had, it didn’t make me feel better.  It was almost worse, thinking that Tattletale might by lying somewhere, bleeding out or unable to breathe, not getting help.

“Be ready!” Armsmaster called out.

Leviathan heaved himself up out of the building’s remains in one motion, used his tail to pick up and fling a mess of broken wood, concrete and rebar at us.  Aegis threw himself into the cluster of projectiles, but two capes were struck down by smaller chunks.  A third was folded in half by the arc of water from Leviathan’s tail.

Brigandine deceased, CD-5.

I couldn’t afford to dwell on what might have happened to Tattletale.  I wiped beads of water from the lenses of my mask with my gloved hands, pushed my hair out of my face, and made a note of my bugs.  There were scant few in the way of bugs that could navigate in this storm.  Myrddin had banished the water from the wave, somehow, but the downpour was making the streets flood fast enough that I didn’t trust anything to crawl.  No, my power was dead useless, here.

Leviathan turned around, lashing his tail behind him to cast three lashes of water our way, then crouched.

“He’s running!” someone called out.

Leviathan dashed away from us, fast, only to skid to a stop and turn a corner for cover as Legend, Lady Photon, Laserdream and a half dozen other heroes opened fire from the skies above.

Others had picked themselves up, were moving into the side streets and alleys to follow, intent on cutting him off.  I looked around, glancing over at the injured and wounded, knowing Tattletale was among them.

Eidolon was staying behind, raising his hands, and green sparks began rising from the ground, clustering around Eidolon and the fallen, obscuring them.

A second later, he and half of the bodies that had been scattered around the battlefield disappeared, the sparks blooming outward in twenty small firework explosions.

I took that as my cue to join everyone else in the pursuit.  Eidolon could help the wounded.  I couldn’t, really.

I ran after the others, nearly tripping into a pothole in my hurry.  My armband showed a green icon for Leviathan, and I followed it.

Rounding a corner, I came up at the rear of a small crowd, perilously close to the Endbringer.

Fog was blocking one route, while Sundancer stood at another, her superheated orb between her and Leviathan.  The remaining capes were divided between the other two possible alleys Leviathan might have moved through and the air above him.  Legend was hammering Leviathan down to the pavement with a series of laser blasts.

“Care!” Miss Militia cried out, “Fire in the hole!”

She fired a shot from her grenade launcher, grabbed another grenade with a blinking LED from her vest and loaded it into her gun.  Why?  She’d shown with the bazooka that she didn’t need to load ammunition, hadn’t she?

Then I realized why.  It wasn’t the kind of ammunition you found in normal guns.  The first shot exploded into a mess of golden sticky ribbon, familiar, though it somehow escaped my memory where I’d seen it.  The second exploded in midair, near Leviathan’s shoulder, leaving the tips of the scales and one gaping wound glinting like crystal.  As Leviathan moved to recoil, the edges of the crystal separated from his flesh and seeped with that dark ichor.

The third was a modified explosive I recognized.  It bounced off the ground between Leviathan’s foot and the hand he had planted on the ground, landed a ways behind and to the side of him, and exploded much like any other grenade might.  What I recognized was the shimmer in the air around it, a near perfect sphere encompassing the surrounding area, catching Leviathan’s leg, the end of his tail, part of his waist and stomach.

The explosion made Leviathan rear back, and the water that followed in his wake moved slower in that bubble, slowed down with each passing second.

Leviathan himself wasn’t as affected, and he had one foot and an upper body outside of the bubble to help him pull himself free.  He raised his leg free of the golden string goop and up out of the sphere, lashed his tail toward the crowd I was at the back of, catching three people, entwining the tip around their arms, legs and necks.  He flicked them into the center of the time distortion bubble, where they got caught, unable to make their exit fast enough to avoid being frozen in time.

Jotun deceased, CD-6.  Dauntless deceased, CD-6Alabaster deceased, CD-6.

He lashed his tail, sending out a scythelike blade of water toward the other group, turned and leaped.

Miss Militia down, CD-6.

Fenja and Menja moved to attack him, each tall enough to be at his shoulder level, but Leviathan was quicker.  He darted backward, gripped the side of a building, and turned to run up the wall.  He used his tail to radically adjust the angle of his ascent, hooking it on an open window and swinging himself forward over the edge of the roof, before anyone on the ground could get a bead on him.  Debris fell where his tail had pulled through a section of the wall.

Though he’d disappeared from my line of sight, I saw his afterimage continue rising.  Shielder, floating in the air with the help of his sister, used a forcefield to stop the pair of them from being pulverized.  The shield flickered out of existence a fraction of a second later.  His reserves were exhausted, after helping save me and others from the last wave.  He wasn’t strong enough to take a hit from Leviathan or his afterimage.

Legend fired a barrage of lasers at Leviathan, but the Endbringer was quick to hop to one side, landing on the roof’s edge.  He made a sudden, standing leap a good eighty or a hundred feet into the air, tail extending to reach for the airborne heroes.

The whiplike tail struck Legend, and there was a firework display of light and sparks, Legend tumbling out of the sky, head over heels.  In the same movement, the tail reached for Laserdream and Shielder.

Legend down, CD-6,  The armbands announced, just in time to coincide with Legend hitting the ground.

Laserdream put her own shield up, and I could remember how Photon Mom, Laserdream and Shielder all had the same basic powers.  The difference between them was that while Photon Mom’s powers were well rounded, Shielder had a far, far, better forcefield, almost no flight ability and weak laser blasts.  Laserdream was the opposite… her lasers and flight were good enough, but her forcefield, not so much.

Leviathan wrapped his tail around the spherical forcefield that surrounded the siblings, bringing it and the pair down toward the roof as he fell.  When they were halfway down, the constriction of the tail broke through the forcefield, snaked around Shielder’s body and Laserdream’s arm.

The Endbringer landed on the roof with a shuddering impact and a showering of detritus, crashing through the roof.  He bounded up to the edge of the roof, lunged off it.

I could see it like it was slow motion.  Laserdream’s hand glowed and she fired, using the concussive force of her laser to get her trapped hand free, flew up and back out of the way as Leviathan continued to fall.

Shielder, still in Leviathan’s grip, had his upper body brought down against the ragged edge of the building in passing.

Shielder deceased, CD-6

Laserdream’s ragged scream was like something distant, something I was barely aware of, because Leviathan was landing back in the area where the two alleys met.  He leaped in Sundancer’s direction, caught the ground with the claws of his hands and feet to halt his momentum.  His echo surged forward, some striking the superheated orb, where it blossomed into massive clouds of steam.  The rest went low, catching Sundancer below the waist, sweeping her legs out from under her in one violent rush.  She flipped forward, her upper body colliding with the ground.  The miniature sun winked out of existence.

Sundancer down, CD-6.

Turning on the spot, Leviathan moved his claw, creating a wave with all of the water he’d generated since entering the alley, driving it into one of the two gathered groups.  As those capes stumbled and fell back, Leviathan leaped over the time distortion bubble, landing at the front of the other group.  The group with some of the local wards, Velocity, some of Empire Eighty-Eight, and out-of-town capes I couldn’t name.

The group I was at the rear of.

Someone stepped up to grab him mid-lunge – some woman I didn’t recognize, who Othala was touching.  She was granting this woman some form of invincibility that let her take a hit and not get knocked away by Leviathan.

Invincible though she might be, she couldn’t do anything to stop the afterimage from crashing against and around her, through our assembled ranks.

I was shoved back – not by the water itself, but the tide of bodies that were struck, crushed and thrown by the afterimage.  As I was pushed backward, hard, I was spun by an impact at my shoulder.  My arm slammed against a windowsill, and it exploded with a sharp, jarring pain.  I landed on my back, saw someone else get sent head over heels over the crowd, colliding against the wall with an audible cracking sound, landing limp as a rag doll, a matter of feet from me.  He had a trumpet and a flag on his chest.

Escutcheon deceased, CD-6Herald deceased, CD-6.

Kaiser – I hadn’t even seen him in the group – erected a latticework of blades across the front of the alley, between us and Leviathan.  It wasn’t enough.  Leviathan tore through them like I might tear through a wicker basket.  Edged pieces of steel spun through the air and clattered to the ground.

Kaiser changed tactics, creating columns of steel instead, each three or four feet across, harder to shatter.  They were slower to emerge, but they bent rather than broke.

Leviathan responded by pushing.  He exerted his full strength on the barrier of blades and the columns, leaning against them.  The walls broke around the base of the columns, and the pieces of steel fell.

A stab of pain from my arm reminded me I was hurt.  Fuck, it hurt a lot.  It throbbed, and each throb seemed to be worse than the last.  I felt shaky as I used my good arm to stand.

Leviathan didn’t make noise.  I kept expecting a roar, or hiss, or something, but Leviathan was dead silent.  I somehow imagined a victorious howl as he broke through the barrier, crouched, and lunged into the crowd.

He stopped, and I thought he was using his afterimage, halting so it could rush forward, but even the watery echo stopped a second after it appeared, only the very edges of it continuing forward to crash violently against the sides of the alley.

For several long heartbeats, it was nearly quiet, but for the sound of rain, people’s noises of pain, mine included, and the sound of one of Kaiser’s iron columns ripping free of the wall and falling atop a pile of blades.

It took me a second to realize what had happened.  Leviathan hung frozen mid-pounce, and his emerging afterimage similarly stood there, frozen in time.  In the midst of the afterimage was Clockblocker, half-immersed in water.

“Someone get him out of there!  He’s going to suffocate!” I shouted, my voice made that much more edgier and strained by the pain I was in.  My voice, though, coincided with no less than five other cries, all rising to be heard over everyone else.  Trap Leviathan, contain him, use more of those grenades to get him before he got free.  Someone was even shooting arcs of lighting at Leviathan’s frozen form.  Too many commands from too many people who hadn’t fought with or against Clockblocker, who didn’t know how his power worked, who had conflicting ideas on what we had to do.

This chaos would fuck us over, keep us from accomplishing anything before Leviathan got free.  We needed order, and most of the people who could have given it to us were out of action or nowhere nearby.

The armbands.  Armsmaster had said it prioritized orders based on need.

My left arm hung by my side, and I couldn’t even bring myself to raise it.  Just gravity and the weight of my hand pulling down on it was excruciating.  The idea of pressing the buttons was too much.

I reached for the person next to me, grabbed her wrist.  Some woman with a crescent moon on a blue costume.  She gave me a startled look with a lost, shellshocked expression.  When I first pressed against the  communications button, she moved her arm, as if she thought I was guiding her movements.

“Stay still!” I snarled at her.  When I pressed again, depressing the two buttons with my pinky finger and thumb, she held her arm firm.

I shouted into the armband, “Clockblocker down, CD-6!  Need a teleporter to get him free, stat!”

The time freezing effect of Clockblocker’s power lasted anywhere from thirty seconds to ten minutes.  How long had we spent, here, since Clockblocker had given us this momentary reprieve?  It was hard to judge the passage of time with the adrenaline, the frenetic pace of the ongoing battle.

Trickster appeared in the place of the blue moon Woman, tipped his hat at me.

“Clockblocker, in there,” I pointed with my good hand.

Trickster frowned, looked around.

“I apologize for desecrating your body, brave hero,” he spoke, looking down at where the cape with the trumpet icon on his chest had flopped, dead.  “You do good work even in death.”

Was he mentally cracked?  Was he serious or was he playing around?  I suspected the latter, but kidding around and wasting time in a situation like this?

In a second, the cape was replaced by an unconscious Clockblocker.  The pane of his helmet was cracked and leaking a trail of blood.  I bent down to examine him, was pushed out of the way by someone else.  Some woman with a costume that outlined her bones, like a really good version of the skeleton costumes you saw on Halloween.  She began using her fingers to check Clockblocker’s neck, and I couldn’t help but suspect she was a doctor.

“Listen!” the voice that cut through the shouts and the frantic chatter was authoritative, strong.

Armsmaster.  He had Myrddin, Eidolon and Chevalier just behind him.  People turned to listen, myself included.

“He’s torn through our front line, he’s taken down some of our best, and he’s deliberately targeted and eliminated most of the capes who were in Bastion’s group.  We have precious few left who can take a hit from this creature and survive it, and we’re running low on those who can wall off another tidal wave or block his path.

“We’re not going to be able to go on with Plan A.”  The words hung in the air.

“This brute is hurt, but we don’t have the resources to hold him down while we hurt him any more.  We’re too tightly packed, like this, and it’s too easy for him to take us down in droves.   Two or three more minutes of this, and there won’t be any of us left.”

Armsmaster turned, looked up at where Leviathan stood, frozen.  He pointed up at the Endbringer with his Halberd.  “We spread out.  The second this beast is free, he’s going to look for a way out, to run and heal up what we’ve done to him.   So we cut him off, we slow him down and keep him from getting to any areas where he can do real damage.

“Eidolon is going to leave, do what he can to minimize the damage from the waves and ensure the rest of the city doesn’t get leveled while we’re fighting here.  The rest of us are going to slow Leviathan down best we can, take any opportunities we can to hurt the motherfucker.  In just a second, we’re going to organize you guys, put the toughest and strongest closest to this bastard, space out the people who can hurt him, get the weakest ones positioned to pass on word if they see him slip past us.

“This is our plan B.  We stall, from here on out we prioritize survival over putting this abomination down, and we fucking pray that Scion notices there’s an Endbringer around and shows up before this city and everyone in it is a memory.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 8 (Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“I think we’ve got a stray, Tasha.”

Tasha frowned as she looked up from her cell phone, and looked to where Daniella, behind the register, was pointing.  Her lip curled in distaste.

It was a girl, fourteen or fifteen, with dirty blond hair – both in the sense of being greasy and in color – tipped with streaks of blue.  Her clothes looked like they had only barely made the cut for the goodwill bin, and had been worn for weeks or months since she’d gotten them.  The girl was pretending to look through a collection of jackets that were still left over from last spring.  People like that weren’t supposed to be able to walk around the Boardwalk and bother people.

“I’ll handle it,” Tasha told Daniella.

She quietly cleared her throat, straightened her back and approached the girl with a fake smile plastered across her face.  “Can I help you?”

“I’m good,” the girl shoved one jacket to the other end of the rack, and Tasha couldn’t help but imagine a fingerprint being left on the leather.  She wouldn’t be able to get that image out of her head until she evicted the kid and chedcked over the jacket herself.

It bugged Tasha that the girl hadn’t left.  Most cleared out when confronted, well aware they were in the wrong place.

“I’m going to be blunt, then.  You can’t afford these jackets.  That one you just pushed aside?  That’s a design by Fendi.  It’s over four thousand dollars.”

“No shit?  It’s ugly.”

Tasha pursed her lips, glanced at the other customers in the store.  A pair of college-age girls, a woman and her boyfriend.  Nobody seemed to have heard the vulgarity, or the crass insult.

Leaning close, Tasha hissed, “Do I need to call security, you little idiot?”

‘Security’ served as a euphemism for the enforcers on the Boardwalk, paid uniforms who patrolled the streets and the stores, keeping an eye out for the homeless, gang members and shoplifters.  Their methods were as blunt as methods got.  Victims generally weren’t in a position to go to the cops and complain, or the police simply overlooked the enforcer’s activities.

“I really hate being called stupid,” the girl spoke, meeting Tasha’s eyes with a glare.

“You must be new around here if you aren’t-“

“Shut the fuck up,” the girl interrupted her, with enough force and hostility that Tasha stopped mid-sentence.  “Breathe in my face again and I’m gonna gag.  Your breath smells like vomit and a halfhearted attempt at covering up the smell with candy.”

Unconsciously, Tasha’s hand rose toward her mouth.  She stopped and folded her arms, as if to prevent her hand from straying again.  She tried to gather her composure, tell off the girl, but the girl was already speaking.

“Your boyfriend is cheating on you, Tasha Fowler, sleeping with your best friend.  Pretty fucking ironic, given how unattractive your friend is, and your continued attempts to puke yourself thin and make yourself pretty for him.”

Tasha felt a cold feeling in the pit of her stomach.

“If you hurry and run the entire way, you can catch them in the act.  But you can’t waste a second.”

“How do you…?”  Tasha asked, but the girl was already looking through jackets again, clearly not listening.  Tasha glanced at the door.

“Go!” the girl suddenly barked at her.  Startled, Tasha moved toward the door, and then she kept moving, running.

As the saleswoman left the store, the door banging closed behind her, Daniella stared first at the door her coworker had just escaped through, then at the ratty little girl.

The girl turned her head, pretending to examine a jacket, so she could hide a vulpine smile that spread across her face.

They arrived on site in a clap of thunder.  She almost lost her footing, but Grue offered her a steadying hand.

The downpour immediately drenched every part of her that had still been dry when the tidal wave crashed into the lobby.  She used her hands to pull her soaking hair back out of her face, combing it back into place with her fingertips.

“He’s down there, Tattletale,” Grue spoke.

“Yep,” she replied.  Leviathan was in the midst of the shattered Boardwalk, pushing one section of the wooden walkway out of his way with the tip of his tail.

“Bigger in person,” Regent spoke.  His normally loose fitting shirt clung to him.  After moving his arms and watching the water dripping off of the soaked sleeves, he pulled it off, so he wore only the closer-fitting mesh armor he’d had on beneath.

Tattletale grinned.  Sometimes you couldn’t do anything else.  “We are so fucking out of our depth.”

“Everyone is.  Even Legend,” Grue replied.

“Listen,” she said, “If I die-“

“None of us are dying,” Grue spoke, his voice hard.

Odds are one of us is going to.  Statistically speaking,” Tattletale pointed out.  “As there’s only four of us…”

“Three.  Bitch isn’t here and Skitter’s not in the group,” Grue spoke.

“Right,” Tattletale answered.  She looked for Skitter and spotted her in the jumble of people, on her hands and knees in the receding waters from the tidal wave.  The girl stood, coughed a few times, water spraying from the fabric of her mask, then turned her attention to surveying the scene in that peculiar way she did.

Skitter was so focused on the scene that she didn’t even seem to notice the bugs congregating around her.  More than one out-of-town cape gave her a weird look when a bug flew by, to settle on a wall or somebody’s shoulder, but the girl was oblivious.  Maybe she was so used to being self conscious and imagining people avoiding her or looking at her funny, she couldn’t see it when it was real.  Funny, that Skitter had turned her ability into such an effective tool for sensing and assessing her environment, yet she was so unaware of some things.

She’d be better at using my power than I am.

Skitter had a piece of wet paper hanging off her shoulder, some trash that the wave had picked up, but there was nobody to point it out or pick it off.  She was alone.  Tattletale felt a pang of sympathy.  She’d never been able to stand being isolated, had always had her family, with roommates, friends and fellow squatters living with her after she’d run away.  Taylor, though, seemed to gravitate towards solitude.  She pushed people away, and when it came down to the nitty-gritty, when their group had found out the details with the kidnapped girl, Taylor had left.  Tattletale couldn’t imagine doing the same thing, and she had strong suspicions Taylor was closer to the others than she was.  It was a damn shame that things had gone that way, because she been blossoming as a person, lately, actually connecting to others.  To Bitch, even, of all people.

Tattletale couldn’t help but feel regret, too.  She had to admit the schism was at least partially her own fault.  Not paying attention, not getting the right info.  Tattletale couldn’t help but feel she should have been watching out for this sort of thing, knowing that it would take so little to spook the most sensitive member of their group.

She’d grown lax.  It had been easy to, with the knowledge and comfort of the fact that Coil’s power gave them something of a safety net.   But when she’d phoned, informed him, her fingers crossed, he’d told her that he was already focusing on other things.  He could only make the call on one series of events with his power, after all, and in the wake of the Endbringer’s arrival, he had greater priorities.  The opportunity had been lost.

If I die,” she spoke, leaving no room for further argument, “An envelope should arrive in the mail for me, a week or two after I’ve bitten it.  I wrote it.  It’s got all my passwords and account numbers for the money I’ve set aside, so far.  You guys take it, give some to Taylor if you run into her.”

“Alright,” Grue spoke.  Tattletale quirked an eyebrow at him.  She’d expected more resistance.

“And if you happen to get yourself killed, we’ll make sure Aisha gets what she needs.  Just so you know.”

He didn’t voice a response, but he nodded once.

She cast another glance Skitter’s way.  She should’ve asked, before they parted ways.  Would Taylor want her dad to know what she’d been up to?  It was impossible to say.  Taylor wouldn’t want her dad to know about her villainous activity, but to at least have him know she’d gone out as part of a huge sacrifice like this?  Maybe.

“Get Ready!” Legend cried out.

Tattletale grinned, turning her full attention to the Endbringer from beneath the waves.  It was crouching, preparing to charge.

Using her power wasn’t a switch she turned on.  It was letting the walls come down, letting the information start pouring in.  It meant a killer migraine if she used it too much, especially on people or living things, but if she had a headache three hours from now, it would be a damn good thing.  It would mean she was alive.

Getting rid of the saleswoman had been easy-peasy.  The bit about the cheating boyfriend had been an outright lie.  In a similar vein, the part where she’d mentioned the best friend had been an educated guess, but the salesgirl, Tasha, wasn’t the type to have a friend prettier than her.   The way she’d obsessed over her phone and the revelation about the eating disorder were clue enough that the woman had been deeply insecure.  By the time she realized she’d been played, she would still feel compelled to hurry home and check.  Probably bad karma to leverage that sort of weakness, but it meant getting one obstacle out of the way.

The woman had been a bitch anyways.

Lisa watched out of the corner of her eye as the cashier picked up the phone, her eye on attitude, posture, body language, volume of speech.

Worry; calling coworker, not getting response.
Quiet, hushed; hiding anxiety from customers.  Wants to convey professionalism, confidence.
Anxiety, wants to convey professionalism: new to the job, only started two weeks ago.  Doesn’t know how to open safe: not much money in register.  Doesn’t know how to close store alone.  Still no response desperately needs break for bathroom and to sneak a smoke not allowed to smoke on the job looks bad for customers and manager has hard stance on it making clothes smell.

Lisa closed her eyes briefly, took a small breath to center herself.  This power was new, untrained.  It had a way of running away from her, overwhelming her and leaving her bedridden with headaches if she wasn’t careful.  People were too random, too chaotic, too complex.  She could only push herself like this for an hour or two every few weeks before she started to suffer.  It was getting better over time, as far as her tolerances, but the rate of improvement was agonizingly slow.

No, she had to focus on the essential detail: the girl behind the counter wasn’t calling security.  This was good.  And given the other bits of information Lisa had picked up, she could be sure the cashier would probably be calling other coworkers before getting someone to kick her out of the store.

Which meant Lisa could do what she came here to do.  She turned her attention to the man that sat on the leather covered bench by the change rooms.  Thirty-something, wearing fashionable clothes and a nice jacket that was perhaps a bit too big for him, hair recently cut.  He waited with his attention on his smartphone, while his girlfriend or wife tried on something.  Deserving of a little more scrutiny.

Expensive clothes, expensive phone; wealthy.
Confident, patient despite being in a position many guys hated; mature, adult.  Clothes style match his personal tastes, not the type to dress according to girlfriend’s tastes. Tall, athletic: exercise habits developed in military but not currently enlisted this ties into confidence and patience he’s used to waiting and-

She stopped.  Needed to get back on track.  Just needed a starting point to get at the stuff he’d keep secret.  Confidence, military.  How would he pick a four digit number?

Confident and military trained; goes out of his way to keep numbers random.  Looks early thirties; born late 70’s.  Tendency to go with higher number to start.  8 or 9, mid-range number like four, five or six, then high, low, no repeating numbers.  Dressing in darker jacket, pants, trimmed beard, conservative; number will be even-even-odd-odd or odd-odd-even-even.

“Something else,” she murmured to herself, as the flow of information began to slow.  If it slowed enough, it meant that there weren’t enough points of reference to generate new data, it could even mean her power would start supplying information based on speculation or falsehoods.  She chanced a look at the cashier, but the girl was studiously ignoring her, for the time being.

She looked back to the man.  Shoes were nothing special.  No logos or brand names on anything he wore, that she could see… but he was using his left hand on the touchscreen of his phone.

Southpaw; tendency to go for numbers on left side of keypad, eight, then four, seven, then one or three.  One.  8471.

Good.  And his wallet…

Southpaw, confident; wallet in left jacket pocket.

He was distracted.  She abandoned the coat rack and approached the man, being careful to stay directly behind him, in his blind spot.  His jacket was unbuttoned, and the end with the pocket was draped beside him on the bench, the pocket facing her.  Easy grab.

Wallet in left jacket pocket; intended to help mask presence of gun holstered at left hip.

She turned a hundred and eighty degrees on the spot and walked back the direction she’d come.  Concealed gun?  Not worth it.

Her retreat stopped when she saw the man that was entering the store.  Maroon uniform, cap, belt.  One of the enforcers from the Boardwalk.  Shit.

She glanced at the cashier.  She didn’t need her power to read the girl’s look of surprise and relief to know that the girl hadn’t made the call.  Bad luck?  She looked at the enforcer.

Moving with purpose, going out of his way to avoid looking at her; most definitely coming for her.

Had it been the girl she’d scared off, Tasha?  Probably not.  Did it matter?  She turned and looked for another exit.  The boyfriend with the smartphone was standing up, saying something to his girlfriend in the changing room, walking towards the clothes rack.

Placing himself in way of exit, position of hand; preparing to draw on her if she gets too close to making a run for it.  In cahoots with the enforcer.

Which could only mean one thing.  She looked back at the enforcer that was getting closer to her.

Working with the ‘boyfriend’; Not an enforcer.  Ex-military.  Has gun.

To top it off, the girlfriend was leaving the changeroom, talking cheerfully to her boyfriend as he pulled a dress off a rack.  Her hand was too close to her oversize bag, which was open.  That one was a gimmie.  A team of three, each with guns, all of whom were after her.

Trap.

“No kidding,” she muttered to herself.  How had they tracked her down?  She had been careful to stay out of sight of security cameras, and she had avoided poaching at the same location more than once.  She’d used a different ATM each time she drained some rich schmoe’s bank account, hidden her face from the hidden cameras at each.

She bolted, shoving a display of sunglasses on top of the enforcer, ducking around to his right, out of his reach.

It was a miscalculation, he didn’t care about the sunglasses.  He pushed the rack to the ground, hard, and closed the distance with a single long step.  He had superior reach, strength.  His fist swung in one fluid movement with his step forward, striking her in the stomach, just below her ribcage and off to one side.

Striking solar plexus; trained in martial arts, striking to inflict maximum pain, disabling-

“Urggunnnh,” she swore, as she crumpled to the ground.

“Oh my god, oh my god, what the fuck did she do?!  The merchandise!” The cashier shrieked, shrill.  “I’m going to be in so much trouble, oh my god.”

“Phone the security office after I’m gone,” the not-enforcer spoke, “My supervisor will take it out of my pay.”

“Oh my god,” the cashier spoke, hands over her mouth, oblivious to his words.

“He-” Lisa began to speak, then grunted and choked as she was heaved up to her feet by the back of her shirt.  The not-enforcer twisted the fabric of her shirt until his hand was knotted up in it, the collar tight against her throat.  “He’s not…”

She gave up before going any further with her protests.  It didn’t matter.  Nobody would believe her.  A ratty young teenager from the poor part of town, being paranoid about the cops?  Nobody would step in for her, here.

“I’ll talk to her,” he spoke.  “Let’s see.”  He patted her down with his free hand, brusque, not giving a second’s thought to the fact that she was a girl and a minor.  He reached his hand into her back pocket and when he pulled it out, he had a small knife clasped in it.  Not hers.  He placed it on the counter.

The cashier stared at the knife, eyes widening, then she turned her attention to the merchandise.  Ignoring him.  What the enforcers did wasn’t something that few bystanders were willing to dwell on.  But these people wouldn’t step in.  Not for a potentially dangerous teenager that had been carrying a concealed weapon.

Had he been a real enforcer, Lisa would be scared enough.  There were stories.  People having their fingers broken for shoplifting, being beaten insensate, and there were even tales of the rare girl or boy getting raped by the really twisted fucks.  When the enforcer was done making sure the offender in question wouldn’t come back to the Boardwalk, they left the bloodied person in the back of an alley, worked with another to stick them in a dumpster, or if it was late enough that nobody would see, they would toss them off the side of the boardwalk.  A fifteen to twenty foot drop, depending on the tides and the location of the drop, onto sand or into water that was freezing cold for half the year.

He marched her out of the store, heaving her to the right to keep her from bumping into the doorframe.

He wasn’t an enforcer though.  And he had a gun.  The looming punishment was a little more final than what the enforcers tended to pull.

Has gun; has killed before.

He might kill her.  It wasn’t like she hadn’t done something worth killing over.  She’d drained people’s bank accounts, pocketed the funds.  Thousands of dollars, sometimes.

A spot of light hung in the center of her vision.  She’d pushed too hard with her power.  She’d have to conserve the use of her power, now, or the migraine would knock her out cold when it arrived in force.

There were people all over the Boardwalk.  The tourists watched with idle curiosity while the locals averted their eyes.  Such a contrast there – the locals knew what was up.  It was just inconvenient to pay attention to it.

He forced her into a side street, then rounded a corner so they were behind the row of stores.  He shoved her against a wall, held her there.

She spoke, “Tell me what they’re paying you, I’ll double it.  I won’t have the money right away, but-“

“Not negotiating,” the enforcer spoke.

A few long seconds passed.  She pushed the welling nervousness down, did her best to offer him a smile with her face smushed against the brick.  She asked him, “What’s next?”

“For now, we wait.”

Waiting she could live with.  Waiting wasn’t getting shot and left for some store employee to find as they took out the trash.

It took a minute before the boyfriend and girlfriend rounded the corner.

“Marcus, you know that’s no way to handle a lady,” the ‘girlfriend’ spoke.  She had a posh English accent.  When she spoke again, the accent remained, but the upper class lilt was gone, her voice serious, “Turn her around.”

Marcus, the ‘enforcer’, hauled on Lisa’s shoulder, flipping her around, before planting his palm on her collarbone and pushing her back against the wall.

The ‘boyfriend’ was holding a phone to his ear.  He handed it to the English woman.

“You have a phone call.  We advise you take it,” the woman smiled at Lisa.

Lisa accepted the phone and held it to one ear.

“‘Sup?” she injected playfulness and good humor she definitely didn’t feel into her voice, grinned for the benefit of the three adults with guns.

“I apologize for the manner of our meeting, I hope my soldiers were not too rough on you, Lisa Wilbourn,” the voice on the other end was smooth, calm, unruffled, “Or is it Sarah Livsey?”

“Either or,” she replied,  “Lisa these days.”

“As you wish.  I have been watching you for some time, Lisa Wilbourn, I have become aware that you are something special, and I would like to buy your services.”

Word choice, buy vs. hire: large amounts of money involved.
Word choice, buy vs. make an offer: not really a negotiation.

She glanced at the weapons the three hired guns had in hand.

“I’m listening.”

Leviathan whipped his tail around, slamming it through the ranks of capes.  Immediately after, a lash of water followed in the wake of his movement, cutting down yet another line of gathered heroes and villains.  The armbands announced the losses to the defending side with every attack Leviathan made.  Tattletale hung back, further than even the ranged attackers, and watched.

Steady blood flow from small wounds, asynchronous movement; has blood but no comprehensive cardiac system
No cardiac system, no mouth, no nose, no apparent ears: nonstandard nervous system.

“Educated guess says your power doesn’t work so hot on him,” she told Regent, as the two of them backed away.

“Fuck, no.  If I can do something, my power’s probably gonna backfire like crazy, and I think that bastard’s quick enough that he’s not about to fall flat on his face.”

Tattletale glanced at where Skitter was hurrying to assist one of the wounded.  Even knowing Taylor was out of earshot, she was careful to lower her voice, “And I guess your secret weapon isn’t going to work either?”

“Take two or three times as long, probably, if it worked at all,” Regent grumbled.  “Fuck, I’m useless.”

“Then use that first aid training Grue made us get, help out, and keep an eye out in case your power’s needed.”

Alexandria flew toward Leviathan like a black arrow.

Leviathan charged forward as if to meet the heroine in a head on collision, then stopped abruptly.  His ‘echo’, like a model of himself shaped out of water, continued forward with the same momentum he’d had while sprinting forward.  The heroine used her hands to break the surface tension of the water with a deafening crash, plunged through the water and out the other end, toward Leviathan.  She caught him around the neck and slammed him down against the road hard enough that even Tattletale, at the rear lines of the battlefield, had to adjust her footing as the impact rocked the ground.

Whatever advantage Alexandria had gained, it didn’t last long.  Leviathan’s tail snaked up and around the heroine’s neck, catching her.  He whipped her into the ground, beside him, up into a wall, then back down.  This time, he held her beneath the water, using one claw to help pin her.

Dragon, racing forward through the air with an earsplitting roar, launched the full complement of missiles she had on her suit.  Before the munitions even struck Leviathan, Dragon was shedding the jet engine atop her, the missile launchers, and other extraneous devices, much as a space shuttle cast off pieces of itself as it launched.  The suit collided with Leviathan a half second after the missiles exploded against his torso and shoulders, and steel claws gripped his limbs.

The ‘face’ of her armored suit opened up and began discharging a blue-white flame into his face.  The ‘flames’ didn’t move like flames should, spilling off him and down into the water, where they pooled on the road and continued to burn – after a fashion – beneath the water.  Leviathan, for his part, began tearing into Dragon, clawing away layers of armor with each swipe of his claws, almost uncaring as to the liquid fire that was spilling over him..

Between the smoke from the missiles and the steam that arose where the liquid fire touched water, Tattletale was having trouble seeing the battle.

Tattletale pressed the two buttons on her armband, “Give me a flier to get me to a better vantage point.  Moderate priority.”

It took only ten seconds before one of the Silicon Valley capes arrived.  The man with the jetpack gripped her wrists and carried her up a dizzying height to the roof of the nearest building, five stories tall.  She moved to the edge, being careful to stay out of the way of the other capes that were already set up, raining bullets, flames, lasers and other projectiles down on Leviathan at every opportunity.  The Endbringer was still battling Dragon, had dug deep enough through metal and armor to reach the center of her suit.

Dragon ejected, skidded to a stop eighty feet away, a smaller suit of armor with thin arms and legs, each tapering down to points.  The suit Dragon had left behind glowed red, orange, white, then exploded violently around Leviathan, as though every crevice had been packed with high explosives.  Leviathan reeled, lashed his tail, and then lunged back toward the gathered capes.  He was intercepted by three flying capes this time, who harried him with superstrength and the case of one hero, an oversized battle axe.

Dragon enters battle with suit packed with explosives, risky, current suit has insufficient room for arms and legs: Suit unmanned.

Remotely controlled?  Tattletale raised an eyebrow.  She hunkered down to to watch the fight, mentally opening those doors that let more information flow.

Leviathan, nonstandard cardiac, nervous systems: irregular biology.  No standard organs or weak points.  No brain, heart or center of operations for rest of his body.
Irregular biology, no vulnerable organs: body divided into layers, extending down to hyperdurable core body, each layer down is slightly more than twice as durable as previous. Exterior skin is hard as aluminum alloy, but flexible, lets him move.  3% deeper in toward core of arms, legs, claws, tail, or .5% in toward core of head, trunk, neck, tissues are hard as steel.  6% in toward core of extremities or 1% toward core of main body/head, tissues strong as tungsten.  9% toward core of extremities, 1.5% toward core of main body, head, tissues strong as boron.  12%-

She had to stop, start again.  Her power did that, if she didn’t focus, kept giving her a steady flow of information but not information she could use.

Leviathan had dispatched the three flying heroes and was dueling with Narwhal.  Ballistic from the Travellers was providing supporting fire, sending trash, dumpsters, rubble and pieces of the street careening into Leviathan.

Another try.

Durable layers to body, no conventional organs, irregular biology: Tissues mend from the inside out, layers expanding to fill wounds and integrating into surrounding structures.  Not human.

Knew that much.

Not human: Never was human.

That gave her pause.  But she could imagine Grue shouting at her, “Something we can use!” and that was nudge enough to get her to focus her efforts.  “Weak points.”

No vulnerable organs, hyperdurable tissues: simple organs exist at core of torso, where there is highest amount of surrounding tissues.  Optimal thickness of layer and narrowness of body part at upper arms, just before shoulder joint, and upper thighs, just below hip joint.

Something she – everyone – could use.  She pressed the button for the communicator on her armband, “He’s got weak points, sort of.  He’ll take the most damage at the arm-“

She was cut off by a blared warning from the armband, and a shuddering rumble of the roof she and the squad of ranged combatants had gathered on.  The rumbling only intensified with each passing second.

“Wave!” someone screamed.

Forcefields went up, and being as high as they were, they were out of reach of the worst of it.  She could see it, a tide of water several stories high.  The impact was reduced to a manageable level  only by the shattered Boardwalk and fallen buildings at the end of the road, the uphill slope.

The crash when when the wave rolled against the side of the building was enough to knock over nearly everyone on the roof.

Structure, building age, strength of wave; building will hold.

Hope the people on the ground are as fortunate.

Except another problem became immediately clear.  Without the interference of the most durable front line combatants, Leviathan was able to move freely.

The building shuddered, one wall of the building began to crumble, and Leviathan climbed fast enough that his momentum carried him twenty feet above the rooftop.  He landed in the midst of them, and the roof crumbled beneath his mass.  Two people closest to him were swallowed up as the roof disintegrated underfoot, tumbling towards Leviathan.  He adjusted the position of his feet and one hand, to place them at the still-intact portions of the roof’s edge, where the structure was strongest.

Only a second after he’d landed, the water that followed in his wake crashed down on the roof, splashing out to push everyone present ten or fifteen feet away from Leviathan, tearing the gaping hole in the roof open even further.  Tattletale gripped the edge of the roof to keep from being pushed over, choked as water forced itself into her nose and mouth.  A less fortunate cape screamed as she fell.

This would be a good fucking time to act, Regent.

Wave; Regent briefly incapacitated.

“Fuck,” she muttered.

Hadn’t Taylor been in a situation like this when they’d met?  With Lung?  How had she coped?

Right, she hadn’t.  We stepped in.  Great.

The armband was still rattling off the casualties from the wave.  As Tattletale coughed, tried to clear her mouth enough to breathe, Leviathan lashed out with the one claw that wasn’t planted against the walls of the building, easily striking two heroes down.  From the damage done, it was painfully obvious that they weren’t invincible or anywhere close to it.  A third person gravely injured by the crushing flow of water that followed in the wake of his claw, momentum and a lack of attachment to Leviathan’s own body letting it extend well beyond his reach.

Some cape wearing armor studded with stone imagery retaliated, some sort of power that let him generate matter, like chunks of rock or metal pouring out in a stream, spraying into Leviathan’s face, making the creature pull back.

Leviathan retaliated with a whiplike lash of his tail, bisecting the man.  Of the twelve or so that had been on the roof a minute ago, only three remained.

Not even looking her way, Leviathan raised one claw in Tattletale’s general direction.  The water on the roof shifted, surged toward Tattletale in an isolated wave as tall as she was, lifting her, pushing at her.

The sting of the spray and the salt of the water blinded her.  There was a brief dizzying moment where she realized she couldn’t tell which way was up.  She realized she was falling.

Stupid, the thought was an accusation, biting, directed wholly at herself.

She was the last to arrive.  She grinned as she joined the group that had gathered by the entrance to the Trainyards.  So these are the people Coil found.

“You aren’t wearing a costume, and you’re late,” spoke the tallest of the three present, his voice echoing as if from someplace more distant than he was.  He was covered in darkness that smouldered like a low flame, obscuring him, drifting off in faint wisps.  At times, she could see the image of a skull in the midst of it.  Intriguing.

Darkness generation; muffles sound.
Muffles sound, light: inhibits radiation, microwaves, radio frequencies, miniscule effects on the transfer of kinetic energy-

“Don’t have one,” Lisa replied, before she could get lost in the flow of information and took too long to respond.

“You’ll have to get one.”

Orders, demands, statements, condemnations, use of skull in costume: solo operator, organized, careful to divorce emotion from action & agenda.  Falls back on order, rules, self discipline in times of stress.

“I was sort of thinking I’d take a backseat role, serve as your contact, the gal on the other end of the phone, keeping you guys on track, feeding you info.”

“Fuck that,” the only other girl in the group spoke, jabbing a finger at her, “If you’re taking an equal share, you’re gonna get your hands dirty too.”  One of the dogs that accompanied the girl growled, as if to punctuate the statement.

Word choice, ‘too’:  haunted by demons.
Swearing: Antisocial.

Unhappy with status quo:  seeking to change things, seeking money, power, prestige.
Antisocial, swearing, clothes prioritizing function and comfort over style:  not seeking human connections, prefers company of dogs.  Powers relate to dogs.
Powers relating to dogs, not seeking human connections, antisocial, inner demons: powers side effects disconnected standard human empathy and understanding, no longer grasps full extent of human relations, signals, signs, cues-

Tattletale shrugged, admitted, “My power isn’t so good in a direct confrontation.”

“Figure it out,” the darkness generator told her.

“Alright, can do,” she assured him.  As much to test his patience and see his limits, she grinned and offered the words, “Should be fun.”

The darkness generator folded his arms .

Folded arms: Irritation, doubt.

She glanced at the one person who hadn’t spoken yet.  Hard ceramic mask with a blank expression frozen on it, a coronet set atop black hair, renaissance era clothing.  Only his eyes were visible.

“Barrels of fun,” the boy spoke, in a tone that might have been sarcastic, or might have been disinterested.  His eyes met hers.

Disinterest or affected disinterest, lack of engagement, lack of pupil dilation or contraction coinciding with eye contact:  limited emotional depth, deeply repressed emotions and/or depression.  Sociopath.

Odd as it was, she felt better, knowing these things.  She liked to think that everyone had roughly the same measure of fucked-up-ness in them, some weird or offensive element.  Knowing that it was so close to the surface, or relatively close in the darkness manipulator’s case, it was almost reassuring.  It meant that she didn’t find out something ugly days, weeks or months down the line.

Which was a set of memories she was not keen to dwell on.  She pushed that thought & the emotions that boiled up with it out of her mind and grinned as though she found Regent’s comment amusing.

The darkness generator made a noise, which she realized was a sigh.  He spoke, “Alright.  We do this team thing, we’re going to do it properly.”

“Of course,” she smiled wider.  As much to irritate him as anything else, she added, “How hard could it be?”

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Extermination 8.2

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There was a quiet murmur through the room at Legend’s words.  One in four dead.  And that didn’t mean the rest of us would get away unscathed.

“I’m telling you your chances now because you deserve to know, and we so rarely get the chance to inform those individuals brave enough to step up and fight these monsters.  The primary message I want to convey, even more than briefing you on the particulars of his abilities, organizing formations and battle plans, is that I do not want you to underestimate Leviathan.  I have seen too many good heroes,” he paused for a fraction of a second, “And villains, too, die because they let their guard down.”

Legend paused, glanced out the window.  The storm clouds had reached the beach, and torrential rain stirred the water into a froth.  Not just rain, but buckets of water.

“We think of Leviathan as the middle child; he was the second of the three to arrive.    He is not the physical powerhouse Behemoth is, nor the cunning manipulator that the Simurgh so often proves to be.  That said, I would advise you to think of him as having many of the strengths of both siblings at once.  You’ve seen the videos on television and the internet.  You know what he is physically capable of.  I want to be clear that despite the image he might convey, he is not stupid, and he can display a level of cunning and tactics that can and will catch you off guard.

“I will tell you what you may not know from the videos.  He feels pain, he does bleed, but few attacks seem to penetrate deep enough past the surface to seriously harm him.  He is like the other two Endbringers in this respect.

“What sets him apart is his focus on water.  You’re likely aware of his afterimage, his water echo.  This is no mere splash of water.  At the speeds Leviathan can move, surface tension and compressibility make water harder than concrete.  He also has a crude hydrokinesis, the ability to manipulate water, and there will be water on the battlefield.  We believe that this is what lets him move as fast as he does when he is swimming.  Faster than he is normally, far faster than any speedster we have on record.”

He went on, “Were it just that, this fight might still warrant a show of force like what we’ve gathered here.  But things are more serious than that, which brings me to our primary concern.  As much as Dragon and Armsmaster’s advance warning might give us the opportunity to make this a good day, other issues threaten to make it just the opposite.

“I spoke of Leviathan as a hydrokinetic.  I can’t state this enough – Leviathan is primarily a hydrokinetic on a macro scale.  There is no better illustration than the days where Leviathan won.

“Newfoundland,” he spoke.

I knew exactly what he was speaking of, and mouthed the date as he spoke it, “May ninth, 2005.  Nearly half a million dead.  The Canadian island simply gone, after the shelf of land holding it up cracked in the face of what we now understand were incredible pressures beneath the water level.

“Kyushu, the night of November second and the morning of the third, 1999.  His sixth appearance.  Nine and a half million killed when the region was swamped with tidal waves from every direction while Leviathan disrupted prearranged evacuation attempts.  Nearly three million evacuees rendered homeless, a nation sundered.

“These were errors, grave mistakes from defending heroes.  We had but one strategy at the time – to hem him in, minimizing the effects of growing waves and casualties until Leviathan was beaten into a retreat or Scion arrived.  These areas, however, were too vulnerable.  Waiting let Leviathan build up the strength of his attacks, and we lost.”

He paused.  “We have since classified the locations the Endbringers target as either hard targets or soft targets.  The hard battlefields are where we stand our ground, buy time, wear him down.  The soft ones are locations where we cannot afford to do this.”

The television screen showed a cross section of Brockton Bay as seen from ground level.  The West end of the city was bordered by hills, and the terrain sloped gradually from the base of the mountain down to the water.  Directly below the image of the buildings that marked the city’s location, there was a large cavern, bordered by rock on all sides except the part nearest the beach, which was sand.  It was marked blue – filled with water.

“Brockton Bay, this location, is a soft target.  The city was originally founded at this location because of the proximity to the coastline for trade routes and an aquifier that provided the first settlers with access to fresh water.  This aquifier, essentially an underground lake beneath the city, is our weak point.  From the moment Leviathan shows himself, we expect Leviathan will stir and manipulate this underground reservoir to erode the surrounding sand, silt and rock.  Add the tidal waves from above, with the resulting tremors and impacts…”

I doubted anyone failed to understand what would follow.  A section of the city, perhaps most of the city, could collapse into the aquifier.

He paused, “We have to end this fast.  Each wave he brings on top of us is stronger than the last.  This means we have two priorities.  First, we cannot let him out of our sight.  From the moment the battle is initiated, we hem him in, sustain an offensive onslaught.  If we let him slip past our defensive lines, precious time will be wasted chasing him, getting him in another situation where we can contain his movements.

“Our second priority is that we need to find ways to hurt him.  If you cannot, if your attacks are deflected or prove otherwise useless, work to support those who can.  It is vain to hope to kill him, but he can be whittled down enough that he will flee back to the ocean, and if we hurt him enough, it may delay the time before he is capable of making another attack elsewhere.”

Legend frowned.  The windows were rattling with the force of the rain against them.  It was almost impossible to see through them with the water that streamed down, and the overall gloom beyond.

This is what the Endbringers are.  As of yet, we’ve been unable to stop them, unable to get through even one confrontation without grievous losses, be it civilian casualties, the loss of a city, or the loss of the lives of some of the bravest and strongest of us.  And they will keep coming, one after another, winning these small victories, and winning some major ones.

“You are doing a good thing.  The greatest thing.  This is why we are tolerated, why society allows and accounts for the capes that walk the streets and fight in its towns.  Because we are needed for situations like this.  With your assistance, we can forestall the inevitable.  Your efforts and, if you choose to make them, your sacrifices, will be remembered.”

He looked to Armsmaster.

Armsmaster spoke, authoritative, less impassioned, but confident, “The Wards are handing out armbands of Dragon’s design.  These are adjustable to slide over your arm and should be tightened around your wrist.  The screen on the top of the armband notes your position on a grid, as well as Leviathan’s last updated location.  Use this.  You’ll also note there are two buttons.  The button to the left lets you send messages to everyone else wearing an armband.  It will not, unless you are a member of the Protectorate or otherwise a veteran of these fights, directly communicate what you say to everyone else wearing an armband.  Dragon has a program screening messages and passing them on through the network based on priority, to cut down on unnecessary chatter that could distract from crucial information.  If you must bypass this three to five second delay, speak the words ‘Hard Override’ before conveying your message.  Abuse of this feature will lose you the ability to send any further messages.”

“The second button is a ping.  Use it in the case of an emergency, to alert others if you are in danger or hurt.  If it is not an emergency, but you want assistance, such as a flier to get you to another vantage point or you see an opportunity to turn the tables, press both buttons, tell the armband what you want.  Dragon’s program will prioritize your needs, with assistance being directed your way if others are not occupied with more pressing matters.  The armband tracks your condition and will automatically send a ping if you are badly injured or unconscious.”

Legend called out, “Capes!  If you have faced an Endbringer before, stand!”

I watched as the rest of the Protectorate, about a third of the out-of-town Wards, Bambina, half of a commercially sponsored cape team and the Travelers stood.  I couldn’t help but notice Armsmaster lean over toward Miss Militia, whisper something in her ear, and point at the Travelers.  Miss Militia shook her head.

“When in doubt, follow the orders of the Protectorate first!  We have trained, organized and planned for this!  The others who are standing, now, are the ones you listen to if we aren’t contradicting their order!  They have been through situations much like this, you go with their instincts!

“We are splitting you into groups based on your abilities!  If you are confident you can take a hit from Leviathan and get up afterwards, or if you have the ability to produce expendable combatants, we need you on the front line!  You will be directed by Alexandria and Dragon!”

As a share of the crowd moved toward one corner of the room, Armsmaster stepped down from the podium to approach Tattletale, Grue and Regent, “Where’s Hellhound?”

“At least call her by her real name,” Tattletale glared up at him, “She’s not here.  You knocked her dogs around enough to know they aren’t that tough, and that means you’re implying they’re expendable.  Be glad she wasn’t around to hear that and figure that out.”

Armsmaster opened his mouth to respond, but broke off when Legend called out his name.

“Armsmaster and Chevalier will be leading the hand to hand combatants who do not fit in Alexandria’s group!  Anyone who thinks they can harm or hamper Leviathan in close quarters, you’ll be assisting and reinforcing the front line!”

Armsmaster strode away from the Undersiders, and I saw Assault, Battery, Brandish, Night and Fog move to join that group, among others.  Smaller than the first group, but I suppose it took a certain amount of bravery to be willing to get close to an Endbringer when you weren’t invincible or close to it.

The boy with the metal skin began to pass through my row.  He handed me an armband from a bag, and I slid it over my hand and cinched it in place.  A flat, square screen showed a satellite view of the building we were in, and the surrounding parking lot and beach.  A display read: ‘State name’.

I pressed the communicator button and spoke, “Skitter.”

My name appeared on the display, with a yes and no display in the corners over the respective buttons.  I confirmed it.

Legend was still organizing the groups.  “-forcefields, telekinesis, whatever your power, if you can interrupt Leviathan’s movements or help reduce the impacts of the waves, you’re the backup defense!  Bastion will direct you!”

I was also all too aware that the size of the group that was still sitting was dwindling, and I had no place to go.

“Movers!  We need fliers, teleporters, runners!  You’ll be responding to pings!  Rescue the fallen, get them to emergency care, assist any others where needed!  Myrddin will give you your orders!

“Long ranged attackers, with me!  If you fall in more than one category, go with the group where you think you’ll be the greatest assistance!”

Did I count as a long ranged attacker?  No, my power wouldn’t hurt Leviathan.  I turned to look at those of us who were still seated.  I recognized Grue, Tattletale, Regent, Othala, Victor, Panacea and Kaiser.  There were a half dozen more who I’d never seen before.  People from out of town.

“The rest of you-” Legend was interrupted by shouts.  Bastion bellowed, pointed, and the people in his team moved.

Layers of forcefields went up around the far wall in front of and behind the front windows, and they weren’t enough to take the hit.  The building rocked with an impact, the forcefields to the left collapsed, and the water began to rush in, carrying chunks of brick, glass and the metal windowframes into the lobby.

One of the television screens toppled in the onrushing flood.  The other two showed a flickering series of images, a half second of each.  The coast of Brockton Bay being struck with a wave.  The ferry, the harbor down at the south end of town, the boardwalk, all smashed by the initial wave.  I saw a glimpse of a tall figure in the middle of one shot, little more than a blur behind the spray of water and the rain.

There was a loud groan, and the ceiling at one corner of the room began to descend swiftly toward the ground.  Narwhal flicked two fingers up in that direction, and shored the ceiling with some forcefields, but I saw other portions of the ceiling begin to sag, gallons of water pouring through the gaps in the ceiling tile.

“Strider!” Legend bellowed, over the noise and chaos, “Get us out of here!”

A voice sounding from the armband, female, synthesized, except I couldn’t make it out over the noise.

The air was sucked out of my lungs, and there was a noise like thunder.  My entire body was rattled down to the core, and I thought I might have been struck by lightning.  I was outside, I realized, on my hands and knees in what I first took to be the middle of a shallow river.  The rain that pounded down on us was more like a waterfall than any rainstorm I’d been in.  The taste of the salty ocean water filled my nose and mouth.  My soaked mask clung to my lower face, forcing me to hang my head to keep my breaths from pulling more water into my mouth.  A few coughs and heavy exhalations cleared the worst of it away.

We’d arrived in the middle of a road, one I’d crossed several times when going to the loft or leaving it.  It was still dark out – either the sun either hadn’t started to rise yet, or the storm was enough to obscure it.  The ‘river’ that I was kneeling in was the ebb of water from the first tidal wave, receding downhill toward the beach and the ocean.  It brought waves of trash, litter, broken windows, wooden boards and dead plants with it.

I looked around, saw the other heroes and villains composing themselves, climbing to their feet in the knee deep rush of water.  A few fliers were conveying our ranged combatants up to the rooftops.

At the end of the road, downhill, was the Boardwalk, or what was left of it.  From what I could see through the downpour, the wooden pathways and docks had been shattered by the initial wave, to the point that many were standing nearly straight up, or were buckled into fractured arches.  Water frothed and sprayed as it rushed back against the ragged barrier that had been Brockton Bay’s high end shopping district.

He was there, too.  I could see his silhouette through the rain and the spraying water that was the tidal wave’s aftermath, much as I had on the television set.  Thirty feet tall, the majority of him was was muscled but not bulky.  His hunched shoulders, neck and upper torso were the exception, bearing cords of muscles that stood out like steel cables.  It gave him a top-heavy appearance, almost like an inverted teardrop with limbs and a tail.

His proportions were wrong – his calves and forearms seemed too long for his height, his clawed fingers and digitigrade feet doubly so.  He moved with a languid sort of grace as he advanced through the spraying water.  His arms moved like pendulums, claws sweeping against the water’s surface, while his upper body swayed left and right, as if to give counterbalance to his great height.  His tail, forty or fifty feet long and whiplike, lashed behind and around him in time with his steps, perhaps borne of the same need for balance that gave him his teetering gait.

Gallons of water poured around him in the wake of his movements, roughly the same amount of mass as the body part that had just occupied the space.  This ‘afterimage’ streamed down him and splashed violently against the water he waded through.

As he got closer to the heroes and villains that were organizing into lines, shouting something I somehow couldn’t hear over the buzz of fear and adrenaline, I could almost make out his face.  It was something you never really saw in the videos or pictures.  He had no nose or mouth, no ears.  His face was a flat, rigid expanse of the same scaly skin that covered the rest of him, like the scales of a crocodile’s back.  The hard, featureless plain of Leviathan’s ‘face’ was broken up only by four cracks or tears – one on the right side of his face, three on the left.  In each of those dark gaps, the green orbs of his eyes glowed with a light that pierced through the rain.  His head moved faster than the rest of him, twitching from one angle to the next like someone’s eyeball might flicker left, right, up and down, taking us all in, uncannily out of time with the rest of his body.

“Get ready!” Legend howled the words.

It was hard to say whether Leviathan heard the command or if Legend had spotted some tell, but Leviathan dropped to all fours at the same time Legend gave the command. With Legend’s cry still ringing in the air, Leviathan moved.

He was fast.

Fast enough that his clawed hands and feet didn’t touch the road beneath the water – after the initial push, his forward momentum was enough to let him run on the water’s surface.

Fast enough that before I could finish drawing in a breath, to scream or shout something or gasp in horror, he was already in the middle of us, blood and water spraying where he collided with the lines of assembled capes, and the armbands were beginning to announce the hopelessly injured and deceased.  Carapacitator down, CD-5.  Krieg down, CD-5.  WCM deceased, CD-5.  Iron Falcon down, CD-5.  Saurian down, CD-5…

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Extermination 8.1

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The crush of bodies was a tide that Tattletale and I had to push through.  There were a thousand or more scared people in our immediate area, surging against and around us.  Even our costumes didn’t give people much pause or reason to give us space.  Thoughtless in their panic, the crowd was guided only by the barricades of policemen and police cars that had been established at the intersections to guide the masses to the shelters.

Everybody had been informed, in the pamphlets that came in the mail and in schools, about emergency procedures.  There were multi-level shelters spaced around the city, enough for people to hunker down in for a few hours.  They’d all been told that they could bring our larger pets if the animals could be trusted to behave.  They could bring only necessary medical supplies and what they could have on their person.  People weren’t allowed to use their cars, unless they were in one of the areas on the periphery of town.  Too easy for there to be an accident in the panic and hurry, leaving everyone else stuck in a traffic jam when disaster arrived.

But people were stupid.  A chronic condition of our society, that so many people somehow thought they were special, the exception to the rule.  In this panicked crowd, every rule was being broken.  There were people with luggage on wheels, one kid carrying a lizard in a glass cage.  People were pushing and shoving, shouting and swearing.  Pets were reacting to the ambient stress with barks and snarls, dashing around and getting others tripped or tangled up in leashes.  Tattletale and I passed two cars that were even making their way forward in the midst of stampede, inch by inch, honking their horns the entire time.  Between the air raid sirens and the honking horns, I couldn’t make out the words people were shouting.  I could barely think.

We reached a trio of police officers, who had used their cars and yellow tape to cordon off two sides of an intersection.  I could see the eyes on the officer nearest me widen in recognition.  He was about to say something, but the officer next to him put a hand on his shoulder, reached in the window of the police car.  He pushed pieces of paper into each of our hands.

I glanced over it, found what I needed, and gave him a curt nod.  Tattletale grabbed my hand and pulled me away.

The paper, labelled at the top with the words ‘Parahuman Response’, contained a picture of our destination in black and white and directions on how to get there.  It wasn’t far – the area which divided the Docks and Downtown, a short distance East from the mall where Brian and I had gone.

The closer we got to our destination, the more the crowd thinned out.  We saw another crowd moving toward a different shelter as we got close, but we could avoid that by detouring around that particular set of streets.

As we got close enough for me to wonder what direction to take, I saw the streak of smoke as an huge armored suit plunged down from the sky, just a block away.  It was clue enough for Tattletale to pull me forward to follow it.  Reaching the end of the street, we saw our destination on the other side of a nearly empty four lane road.

The building was fairly nondescript.  Six stories tall, it featured dark brown brick and dark tinted windows, and sat alone on a grassy hill.  A nearly empty parking lot sat between us and the building, and a stretch of beach sat on the far end.  People in PRT uniforms stood guard around the parking lot and entrance, and four of the five vehicles in the parking lot were PRT vans, with turret-mounted hoses and armored exteriors.  As good an indication as any that this was the meeting place.

Past the hill and to the left was Dragon, in a mechanical suit that was as large as two PRT vans put together, four legged, with what looked like a single jet engine on top, still smoking from her recent flight.  On either side of the engine or oversized jetpack or whatever it was, were two shoulder mounted missile launchers, each pre-loaded with four missiles longer than I was tall.  She was facing the water, unmoving, like a gargoyle standing guard.

I saw what she was watching.  A stormcloud in the distance.  It hung over the water with an opaque curtain of rain descending down from it.  It was gradually getting closer.

As we approached the parking lot, a squad of PRT officers blocked our way.  I felt a moment’s trepidation.  Were any of these the same people we’d attacked at the Protectorate’s fundraiser?  I couldn’t tell, with their helmets and tinted faceguards covering their faces.

With a sound like a muffled thunderclap, a half dozen people appeared in the center of the empty lot.  When I saw who they were, I was awestruck.  That wasn’t hyperbole or whatever, I was using the word awestruck in the original, zero-embellishment sense of the word.

Alexandria stood at the head of the crowd that had just arrived.  Her head turned from one side to the other as she surveyed her new surroundings, the long, straight black hair that spilled from the back of her helmet sweeping from one side to the other.  She was everything that made you think ‘superheroine’; athletic, tall, muscular, but still feminine.  Her costume was black and light gray, with an image of a tower in the center of her chest, and she featured a wide, heavy cape that flowed over her shoulders and draped onto the ground beside and behind her.  Alexandria. 

Her team – people I recognized but couldn’t necessarily name – followed behind her in a loose formation.  Only one man in a blue and black uniform and cap stayed behind in the middle of the parking lot.  He looked around for a few moments, then disappeared with a crack and a whoosh, smaller than the one that had brought the entire group there.

Tattletale and I circled around the parking lot, to avoid getting in the way of any incoming teleporters.  We were nearly to the door when we heard another group arrive behind us, the same way Alexandria had come.  Teenagers, this time.  I couldn’t place them, but the brighter colors of their costumes led me to suspect they were heroes.  The man who’d teleported them in said something I couldn’t make out over the the wailing air raid sirens, and they quickly set to marching in our direction.

Leading them out of the parking lot was a shirtless, muscled boy with metal skin, eyes and hair and a strange texture to his shoulders and spine.  Among other things, I noticed the tines of a fork sticking out near his neck, and what might have been the wires of a chain link fence half melted into his opposite shoulder.  But where that strange half-melted-metal texture didn’t cover him, his metal body was exceedingly detailed and refined.  His ‘skin’ was a dusky dark gray metal with the slightest of swirls of lighter metals in it, and his ‘adonis’ musculature was perfectly etched out in the metal, with silver lines tracing his muscle definition like veins of metal in raw ore.  His eyes, too, were silver, and two lines ran from the corners of them down his cheekbones and to the sides of his jaw.

He clapped one heavy hand down on my shoulder as he passed me and offered me a tight smile.

It seemed we were allies, at least for the time being.

Tattletale and I followed his group into the building.

Folding chairs had been set into rows and columns in the center of the lobby, facing a trio of widescreen television sets, which in turn were backed by a series of large windows overlooking the beach.  Through the windows, we had the perfect view of the looming storm.

As daunting as the approaching clouds were, what drew my attention was the crowd.  There were people filling the lobby.  Only a few were local.

Empire Eighty-Eight was here, at the back corner of the room.  I saw Hookwolf there, half covered in a layer of his metal hooks and barbs.  I didn’t see Cricket or Stormtiger.  He glared at Tattletale and I.

The Travelers were all present, I noted, the only other local team of villains to show.  Faultline’s crew was absent, and I couldn’t help but note that Coil wasn’t around.  He wasn’t a front lines kind of guy, but he’d at least supplied his soldiers for the ABB situation.

The local heroes were present in force.  I wasn’t surprised – skipping this fight, as a hero, let alone a team of heroes, would be unforgivable to the public.  Aegis was talking with the metal skinned boy who’d arrived at the same time as Tattletale and I.  A large group of fifteen or so other teenagers were gathered and talking amongst themselves.  There was some joking, the occasional laughter, but it felt forced, strained.  False bravado.  I was assuming they were all Wards, from at least three different cities.

The kids from New Wave were near the Wards -Glory Girl, Panacea, Laserdream and Shielder- but they weren’t really joining in with the conversation the Wards were having.  I could see Glory Girl and Gallant standing together; she was holding his hand.  Panacea was sitting backwards on a chair just beside where Glory Girl stood, her arms folded over the chair back, chin resting on her wrists.  She glared at the two of us, though the look was mainly directed at Tattletale.  Near Panacea, the adults of New Wave had pulled the folding chairs into a rough circle so they could sit while they talked in a bit of a huddle.

The Protectorate was present, and it wasn’t just the locals, but the big guns.  Armsmaster, standing a little taller and looking more confident than I’d seen before, with not one but two Halberds connected to his back, was having a quiet conversation with Miss Militia and Legend.  It took me a second to absorb that picture.  That was the head of the Protectorate, the leader of the largest team of capes in the world.  What’s more, he was right in front of me, having a conversation with someone I’d talked to.  Ridiculous as that sounded, it affected me.

Legend sported a skintight blue costume with a design in white that fell somewhere between flame and electricity in style.  He had a perfect physique – one I didn’t mind giving a second glance-over – a strong jaw and wavy brown hair.  If Alexandria was the flying bruiser that just about every other flying bruiser strove to match up to, then Legend was at the head of the pack when it came to being flying artillery.  His firepower was on par with Purity’s, if not outright surpassing her, and he was far, far more versatile.

Knowing I’d seen two members of the leading three figures of the Protectorate, I looked for the third.  I glanced past Myrddin, from Chicago, with his brown burlap robe and wooden staff, Chevalier, in gleaming silver and gold armor, carrying his cannonblade, and Bastion, who had earned a great deal of bad press, lately. Someone used a cell phone to catch Bastion using the word ‘spic’ several times as he yelled at a kid who only wanted to take his picture.  He was studiously ignoring Kaiser, who was standing nearby, staring at him, taunting him without speaking or doing anything.

It was only at the back corner of the room that I found the third member of the Protectorate’s triumvirate.

Eidolon stood behind one of the large television sets, staring out the window.  He wore a blue-green skintight suit that expanded into a voluminous hood, cape and sleeves that draped over his hands.  The interior of the hood and sleeves wasn’t shadowy, but illuminated with a soft green light.

Debating the relative strengths of various capes was common enough, in the schoolyard and elsewhere.  If Alexandria and Legend fought, who would win?  Would Boston’s Protectorate win against Brockton Bay’s team?  What if you removed Boston’s weakest members until the sides were even in number?

When the question inevitably got to who was the strongest, the ‘big five’ were generally ruled out, in the sense of ‘well, yeah, but besides them‘.  Scion got counted as a part of that group because the powers he did have were head and shoulders above just about everyone else’s.  Eidolon was almost the opposite, because he had every power, though he could only hold on to a handful at a time.  Then there were the Endbringers, because they mandated situations like this, where even Scion or Eidolon plus multiple teams of capes weren’t necessarily enough.

Sure, some loyal people might argue that Legend was better than Eidolon, or maybe even some other cape like Dragon or Alexandria.  Generally speaking, though?  Eidolon was a top dog.

I looked away from Eidolon, to check out the rest of the crowd.  There were a few other unofficial teams of heroes, including Haven, the Christian team from the bible belt, and two teams with corporate sponsorship that were being very careful to not interact with one another.  Some sort of bitter rivalry, there.

A scattered few independent heroes and villains were around as well.  Few I could name.  I saw a girl dressed up like an old fashioned doll.  Parian.  She was local, and she wasn’t hero or villain.  A rogue, who only used her powers for business or entertainment.  She could sometimes be seen doing some promotion for a store downtown, giving life to some massive stuffed animal or a store mascot.  She’d done an interview in a magazine I’d read back before I had powers, and I knew she was a fashion student, though she wasn’t revealing just who she was until after she was more established.  She looked as though she were trapped in a conversation with a curly haired, dimple-cheeked villainess that looked no older than eight, who wore a frock that was maybe from the same period as Parian’s.  The pseudo-child was Bambina, if I was remembering right.

Parian was rescued by one of the out-of-town Wards, a girl in a skintight costume with a visor covering her eyes, nose and ears, with a quiver of what looked like giant needles and a massive crossbow.  The Ward said something to Bambina, who scowled and managed to look cute while doing it.  Then the heroine ushered Parian over to where she’d been talking with Shadow Stalker.  What in the world could that group talk about?  I might not have been alone in thinking that – Shadow Stalker seemed unimpressed with the new addition to their group, judging by her body language.

Tattletale spotted the Undersiders before I did.  I’d been looking for Bitch and the dogs as things that would stand out in the crowd, but they weren’t present.  Tattletale squeezed my hand and gave me an apologetic smile before letting go, patting me on the upper arm, and crossing the room to head over to where Grue and Regent sat.

The two boys glanced my way, then turned their attention to Tattletale.  Ignoring me.

That… really stung.

It was sort of inane, that I was concerned over something like that, given the seriousness of the present situation.  We were here because we faced the very real possibility of facing down one of the Endbringers.  I shouldn’t be worried about broken friendships.

But I was worried about it, stupidly.  I felt like I was back in school, the only kid left when everyone else had found their groups, and a hit to my confidence was not what I needed on a day like this.  I looked for a place to sit, and settled for a chair in the overall vicinity of the Undersiders and the Travelers.

Sundancer glanced at me, noted my presence, then she seemed to go out of her way to avoid looking at me again.  That caught me off guard, because I’d somehow let myself believe I’d left our cooperative battle against Lung with a good impression.  It seemed she wasn’t so willing to look past the fact that I’d carved out Lung’s eyes.

Feeling more and more like an outsider, more out of place, I watched as others filed into the room.  More of the Protectorate, and a small few members of the Guild.  Narwhal turned heads as she entered the lobby.  She stood seven feet tall, with a curtain of glossy, pale hair extending almost to the backs of her knees.  She was unclothed, not even wearing a skintight costume on her long limbed body, but it somehow wasn’t obscene.  Her skin was layered with fine crystal scales that caught the light and scintillated with faint rainbow hues.  A single horn stood out from the middle of her forehead, three feet long.  She ignored stares as she found a space to lean against a wall near the front of the room.  She had her chin against her chest with her eyes closed, as though she were resting, or concentrating.  Or maybe it was a habit she’d picked up when standing straight meant stabbing the average ceiling with her horn.

Yet more were continuing to arrive when Armsmaster and Legend turned away from their conversation and walked up to the front of the room.  The din in the room quieted, and every set of eyes was on them.

Legend cleared his throat.  He had the kind of voice that you listened to, “We owe thanks to Dragon and Armsmaster for their early alert.  We’ve had time to gather, and that means we have just a few more minutes to prepare and brief for Leviathan’s arrival, instead of jumping straight into the fray as we arrive.  With this advantage, some luck, teamwork and hard effort from everyone, I hold out hope that this could be one of the good days.”

A pre-battle speech from Legend.  It almost made the lousiest, most painful and dangerous situations I’d put up with since putting on my costume worth it.

“But you should know your chances going in.  Given the statistics from our previous encounters with this beast, a ‘good day’ still means that one in four of the people in this room will probably be dead before this day is done.”

Or not.

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