Extermination 8.4

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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.

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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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Interlude 7

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<Walk!> the soldier barked in Turkish.  He jammed his gun between her shoulderblades, hard.  He was twice as tall as her, far stronger than her, so there could be no fighting or resisting even if he wasn’t armed.  She stumbled forward into the shrubbery and trees, and branches scraped against her forearms and face.

One foot in front of the other, Hana told herself.  Her feet were like lead weights as she trudged forward.  The needles on the trees and shrubbery scraped against her skin.  Even the twigs were coarse, almost thorny, catching on her dress and socks, biting through the cloth to scrape her skin and stab at her shoeless feet.

<Faster!> the soldier threatened.  He said something else, longer and more complicated, but Hana’s Turkish wasn’t good enough to make it out.  She looked over her shoulder and saw the man back the way she’d come.  He made his meaning explicitly clear by waving his gun toward the other children, who were corralled in the midst of a half dozen other soldiers.  If she didn’t move faster, someone else would pay for it.

Seven years had given her village false confidence, let them believe that they were far enough away, secluded enough in the valley and forest, that they could escape the worst fighting of the ongoing war.  That illusion had been shattered just hours ago.

She had been hidden in the cellar beside her house.  She had heard the screams and gunfire.  Too much gunfire, considering how few working guns the men and women of her village had.  Guns and bullets were too expensive when you lived off your garden and what you could hunt, and a trip to the nearest city to buy such things was dangerous.  What they had were the leftovers, the handful of weapons taken off enemies by the guerilla fighters and left behind or traded in barter when they passed through the village for supplies and medical care.  Those who had the guns lacked the skill or training to use them.  The fighters were supposed to defend them against people like this, stop them from getting this far.

She hurried to take another step forward and flinched as a twig broke underfoot.  The smallest of whimpers escaped through her lips.

When the enemy soldiers had found her in the cellar, dragged her into a group with the nine other children of her village, she’d known that her parents were already dead or dying.  As the soldiers had marched them through the village and into the woods, she’d stared hard at the ground, tears streaming down her cheeks, unwilling to look at the blood, the bodies, that littered her hometown.  People who she had seen every day of her life.

Her eyes scanned the forest floor, but she had no idea what to look for.  A hump of earth?  Twine?  A dense patch of dry, brown needles?  She took another step forward, waited for disaster.  When it didn’t come, she stepped forward again, paused.

Only a short while ago, she had watched from a distance as Kovan, the fat older boy that had once called her names, stepped forward and had his leg fall into a hole.  He’d screamed, and when Hana and the rest of the children had rushed forward to try and lift him out, they had only increased the volume of his shouts and the ferocity of his thrashing.  With the Turkish soldiers watching silently behind them, Hana and the others had used their hands to scrape at the hard, rocky earth, revealing the wooden stakes that were lodged in the sides of the hole.  Each was set in the earth so they pointed downward at an angle, with some at the bottom to pierce his foot.  Supple, the wood had bent enough to let the leg fall down deep into the hole, but attempts to raise Kovan had only pulled his leg and foot up into waiting wooden points.

It was, she knew, one of the traps that had been placed by her village’s hunters or by the guerrilla fighters that defended their village.  They were all over, set throughout the woods, around her village, near roads and other important places.  She had overheard one of the fighters describing this very trap to her father.  She had been told, over and over, that she wasn’t to play in the woods for much this reason, that if she had to travel into the woods for any reason, she needed an adult to guide her.  The full reality of it hadn’t registered until she saw what had happened to Kovan.

They had tried for a long time to dig the boy’s leg free, knowing as they uncovered more and more of his pierced leg, saw the injuries and the quantity of blood, that he wasn’t going to be able to walk very far.  It was hopeless, they knew, but Kovan was someone they had gone to school with.  Someone they had seen every day.

A soldier had put an end to their efforts with a bullet through Kovan’s head, making Kovan the second of the children to die.

Hana was picked to go next.  To test the path.

She clutched the front of her dress, balling the fabric up in hands that were still covered in dirt and scrapes from her efforts to dig Kovan free.  One foot in front of the other.   Every single one of her senses was on edge.  She was hyperaware of the rustle of dirt underfoot, the scrape of pine needles against the fabric of her dress.  She could feel the warmth of the sun heating her skin when she stepped into a spot where the light filtered through the pine trees.

She blinked hard to clear her eyes of tears.  So stupid.  She needed to be able to see.  Any clue.  Any at all, to see a trap.  Crying was the worst thing she could do.

One foot in front of the other.

She stopped.  Her feet refused to go any further.  Trembling, she looked around.

If she took one more step, she knew, she was going to die.

There was no rationale for it, no reason or clue.  This patch of forest was no different from the rest.  A bed of red-brown needles underfoot, shrubs and trees pressing in around her.

But she knew Whether she took a step forward, to her right or left, she would be stepping into a trap.  A hole like the one that caught Kovan, or perhaps an explosive device, like the one that took Ashti.  At least she’d gone quickly.

The soldier that was watching her called out from a distance behind her, the ever familiar <Walk!> that was a threat and an order at the same time.

Sick with fear, Hana looked around, searching for something that could tell her where to go, how to move.

In that moment, she knew she wasn’t going to die right away.  She couldn’t walk any further, it was physically impossible, as though her feet were as rooted to the ground as the trees were.  They would make her watch as they tortured one of the other children to death.  Then they would start on the next, maybe Hana herself, until they had another child willing to act as decoy and clear the traps from their way in the simplest, most dangerous manner possible.

<Wal-

She saw something vast.

It wasn’t big in the sense that the trees or even the mountains were big.  It was big in the way that transcended what she could even see or feel.  It was like seeing something bigger than the whole wide planet, except more – this thing that was too large to comprehend to start with, it extended.  She didn’t have a better word to describe what she was perceiving.  It was as though there were mirror images of it, but each image existed in the same place, some moving differently, and sometimes, very rarely, one image came in contact with with something that the others didn’t.  Each of the images was as real and concrete as the others.  And this made it big in a way that she couldn’t describe if she were a hundred year old scholar or philosopher with access to the best libraries in the world.

And it was alive.  A living thing.

She knew without having to think about it, each of those echoes or extensions of the entity was as much a part of a connected whole as her hand or nose was to her.  Each was something this living entity was aware of, controlled and moved with intent and purpose.  As though it existed and extended into those possible selves all at once.

It’s dying, she thought.  The outermost extensions of the creature were flaking off and breaking into fragments as it swam through an emptiness without air, not moving but sinuously adjusting its self through the existences that held the echoes, shrinking away here and swelling there, carrying itself away at a speed that outpaced light.  In its wake, flakes and fragments sloughed off of the entity like seeds from an impossibly large karahindiba, or dandelion, in a steady wind.  Seeds more numerous than all the specks of dirt across all the Earth.

One of those fragments seemed to grow, getting bigger, larger, looming in her consciousness until it was all she could perceive, as though the moon was falling, colliding with the earth.  Falling directly on top of her.

-k!> the soldier finished without missing a beat.

Hana stirred, she was still in the forest, hands stinging with the scrapes, feet sore from the walking.  Her heart pounded and she could taste fear like bile in her mouth.

Already, the memory was fading.  Had it even happened?  As hard as she struggled to retain it, it was eluding her.  It was like a dream that escaped her when she woke, but so slippery that even the idea that she’d dreamed in the first place was quickly retreating from her mind.

The soldier shouted something too complex for her to understand, directed at his comrades.  Hana let the scraps of the memory slip from her attention.  This, here, was the priority.  Either she walked forward, and she would die, or she would stand by and watch the others die for her cowardice.  With just the vestige of an idea that something had happened, she had been shaken from her paralysis.  Maybe she could step forward.

She raised her foot-

And stopped.  Something stood in her way.  A blur hung in the air at chest level, crackling, shifting with a manic ferocity.  She let her foot fall back down where it had been a moment ago and stared at the kaleidoscopic shimmer of black and green.

She touched it, and felt a weight settle into her palm.  Her hand automatically closed around it, feeling the warmth of it.  It felt almost like when she pet a friendly dog.  An odd thought, given what she found herself looking at.

A gun, polished gray steel.  Somehow familiar.  Identical to the smallest guns she had seen the guerrilla fighters carrying.

I can’t use this.  The thought was cold in her mind.  If I use this, they’ll kill the others the second I fire.

The gun shimmered, became that blur of green and black, then settled into a new shape.  She’d seen this, too.  One of the fighters had been talking to Hana, showing her his English gun magazine, in an effort to get in good graces with her older sister.  This was similar to the gun she’d just had in her hand, but there was a metal tube on the front, nearly doubling the gun’s length.  The tube, she knew, made guns quieter.

The rest of the children and the other soldiers were far behind.  It was still nearly impossible, but-

<Walk!> the soldier behind her shouted.  <Walk or->

She wheeled around, holding the gun in both hands.  She took a second to steady her aim, and the Turkish soldier’s surprise bought her just enough time to pull the trigger.

Hannah’s eyes snapped open.

This is why I don’t sleep.

She was still wearing her costume, she noted, as she rose from her bed and walked to the bathroom.  At least she’d had the sense to remove her scarf so she didn’t strangle while she rested.

She was the only one who remembered.  Everyone else forgot that impossibly huge being, if they were even graced with a glimpse of it.  She couldn’t be sure.  If any others saw it, they would inevitably forget it before they could gather their thoughts enough to speak of it.  Like she was supposed to.

But she remembered.  She touched the combat knife that was sheathed at her hip, as if to remind herself it was there.  She harbored her suspicions about her gift: her powers had taken a part of her psyche and given it concrete form.  The angriest parts of her, the most childish parts, the parts of her that dreamed, and those that forgot.  The knife at her hip slept for her and dreamed for her, she imagined.  She had gone nearly a year at a time without needing to stop and put her head to rest on a pillow.

When she closed her eyes and let herself drift off, it was because she felt it was something she ought to do, not because she had to.  Even then, she never dreamed.  She remembered, instead, her mind replaying past events in perfect detail.  And through some chance of fate, this meant she remembered the entity, and she remembered forgetting it, as paradoxical as that was.

And she would never speak of it to anyone.

She’d killed the soldiers that held the other children of her village hostage.  After the first, she had feigned fear, pretended the guerrilla fighters were in the woods.  Then she had waited for the moment they were too busy watching the woods and mowed the rest of the men down with an assault rifle.  She didn’t even feel bad about it, nor did she lose much sleep that one of the children, Behar, had been shot in the skirmish.

She regretted the deaths, that went without saying, but she didn’t feel guilty about it.  Of the ten of them, seven had made it back, because of her and her gift.  They had returned to their village, moved the bodies out of sight, and did what they could to conserve their food until the guerrilla fighters came through once again.

Hana had made the others swear a promise, to not speak of her gift.  She knew the guerrilla fighters would recruit her, use her, if they knew.  Whatever this power was that she had received, she didn’t feel it was for that.

When the fighters had returned, they saw the state of the children and elected to evacuate them.  The fighters took them to a city, and a man there saw that Hana and the others were shipped off to the United Kingdom, where many other refugees were going.  They were split up, and the others were sent one by one to homes for orphans and other troubled children.  Hana’s turn came late, nearly last, and she was taken to fly on another airplane to her own new home.  It was there she ran into difficulty.  She’d moved through the archway – what she would later learn was a metal detector – and it sounded an alarm.  Guards had found the weapon she couldn’t drop or leave behind, and Hana was carried off to another place.  Interrogated, asked many questions.  She was taken to the bathroom, patted down on her re-entry to the interrogation room, and they found the same gun on her that they’d taken away just half an hour ago.

Everything else had happened very fast, after that.  It was an American in a military uniform that rescued her.  He took her to America, saw that she was put with a family there.  When the first three Wards teams were established, she was enlisted.  She barely knew a hundred words of English, her numbers and the alphabet, when she first went out in costume.

Hannah bent over the sink and washed her face.  She found a toothbrush and cleaned her teeth, then flossed, then scraped her tongue.  Too easy to forget those things, without the rhythm of sleep to break up the continuity of days.  Better to do these things a little too often, than to forget.  She gargled with mouthwash, then bared her teeth to see the dentist’s work, where he had capped them.  Teeth that were perfectly shaped, white.  Not really hers.

Her weapon found its way into her hand at some point after she put the mouthwash down, a handgun not unlike the first shape it had taken for her.  She spun it around her finger by the trigger guard a few times before holstering it as she left the bathroom.  She went to the window and stared at the city across the water.  Colors shifted subtly in the refracted light of the PHQ’s forcefield, oversaturating the view like a TV with bad picture settings.

Even if she never dreamed, America still had a surreal, dreamlike quality to it.  It was so distant from where she had come from, so different.  There was no war here, not really, and yet the people here managed to find so much to  complain about.  Men in suits, trouble in love, medical care and not having the latest touchscreen phone.  Such complaints often carried more emotion and fervor than anyone in her village had used to bemoan the death of loved ones or the methodical eradication of their people.  When she heard the complaints of her friends and coworkers, she simply nodded and gave the necessary words of sympathy.

Bright lights and conveniences and wanting for nothing and televisions and sports cars and capped teeth and chocolate and the list went on…  It had taken her the better part of a decade to even start getting used to it, and everything moved so fast that any time she thought she was getting a grasp on it, there was something new, something she was supposed to know or understand.

She’d accepted without complaint when her adoptive parents told her to start writing her name in the more American ‘Hannah’.  She’d agreed and signed the papers when they took the last name her parents had given her and replaced it with their own. Small things, so minor, compared to what she had seen and done.  It didn’t bear complaining about.  Everyone praised her for how dutiful she was in school and her training.  She never gave up, never quit.  Why should she?  This was nothing compared to those hours she spent in that forest.

So hard to believe that the events from her dream had occurred just twenty six years ago.

It never felt entirely real.  More than once, she had let herself begin to believe she’d died, that she’d taken that step forward and never made it out of the forest.  She had made mistakes when she let herself think that way, had put herself in too much danger, back in her earliest years as a hero.  Now, when she found herself slipping into that mindset, she often tried to sleep.  Her memories as she slept were perfect, unblemished, almost more real than real life, which was why she never did it too often.  Ironic, given how necessary it often was, to keep her grounded in reality.

She’d grown to love this country.  Truly love it, for what it stood for.  She’d had to fight to wear the flag as part of her costume.  America wasn’t perfect, but nothing touched by human hands could be.  There was greed, corruption, selfishness, pettiness, hatred.  But there were good things too.  Freedoms, ideas, choices, hope and the possibility that anyone could be anything, here, if they were willing to strive for it.  As she accepted her new country, she let herself make friends, boyfriends, let herself get close to her parents and their church.  By the time she started college, her accent had all but disappeared, and she knew enough to at least pretend to know what others were talking about when they spoke of pop culture, music and television.

People were judgmental, she knew, and so she would never speak of what she had seen in that moment she received her gift.

Even among other faithful, she would be met with suspicion and scorn, were she to say she’d seen God, or one of His warrior angels, such as they existed beyond the scope of human understanding.  That He had given her this ability so she could save herself.  Others would offer different interpretations, argue that He had given such gifts to bad people, too, they would point to the science of it.  Maybe some small part of her suspected these hypothetical individuals were right.  Still, she preferred her faith to uncertainty.  The notion that this thing she had seen was something other than a benign entity watching over humanity, that it might be malign, or even worse, that it existed with no conception of the effect it had on mankind?  An elephant among gnats?  It wasn’t a comfortable thought.

She glanced at the clock; 6:30 in the morning.  She draped her flag-printed scarf loosely around her neck and lower face, then left her room.  The energy became an assault rifle hanging at her side, bouncing a comforting beat against her hip as she walked. She made her way up a flight of stairs and down to the end of a hallway.

She heard a male voice, a female one.  She paused at the open doorway and knocked.

“Yeah?” Armsmaster called out.

“Am I interrupting?”

“No.  Come on in,” he replied.

She stepped into the room.  It fell somewhere between a workshop and an office.  Two spare suits stood at one side of the room, each with minor functional differences.  A set of Halberds were placed on a rack behind Armsmaster’s desk, one shattered in pieces.  One of the spaces on the rack was empty – Armsmaster had the Halberd in front of him.

“You worked too hard and forgot to go to sleep again, Colin?” Hannah asked, though the answer was obvious.

He frowned, reached over to his computer and hit a button.  He saw the time, muttered, “Damn it.”

“Good morning, Miss Militia,” a woman’s voice came from the computer.

Hannah blinked in surprise, “Dragon.  Sorry, I didn’t realize you were there.  Good morning.”

“You’re up early,” Dragon commented. “And you were out late, from what I’m seeing on the web.  Trouble sleeping?”

“I don’t sleep,” Hannah confessed.  “Not really, since I got my powers.”

“Oh?  Me either.”

Colin leaned back and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, “I’d give my left foot for that little perk.”

Hannah nodded.  There were others like her?  She asked the computer screen, “Do you remember?”

“Sorry?  I don’t understand,” Dragon replied.

“Nevermind.”  If Dragon did remember, Hannah knew the answer to that question would have been different.  Dragon was too smart to miss the connection.

“We were talking shop,” Colin spoke.  He motioned to the Halberd he had in front of him.  “Procrastination through Tinker stuff.  I think tonight’s project was a success.”

“Oh?”

Armsmaster stood, seizing the Halberd in one hand.  He pressed a button on the handle, and the blade blurred.  Without even swinging the weapon, he let the heavier top end fall against an empty stainless steel mannequin that might have held a spare suit of his armor.  Dust blossomed where the blade touched the mannequin, and it passed through without resistance.  Pieces of the mannequin clattered to the ground.

“Impressive,” she told him.

He pressed a button, and the blur around the blade dissipated in a steel-colored smoke, leaving only the normal axehead top of the weapon.

“Only problems are that it’s vulnerable to forcefields, fire, and other intense energy, and the apparatus takes up too much space in the upper end.  Even with my power, it likely means I’d have to do without some of the kit I’ve gotten used to.”

“I trust you’ll figure it out,” Hannah told him.  Then with mock sternness, she put her hands on her hips, “Now, no more distracting me.  Just what are you procrastinating on?”

Colin ran one of his hands over his short cropped brown hair, sighed.  “Right.  You have as much say as I do, in this.”

He walked back to his desk and slumped down into his seat.  He kicked a screwdriver and a pair of pliers from the corner of the desk to put his feet up, one ankle crossed over the other.  Reaching in the opposite direction, he grabbed a stack of folders and let them fall to the desk.

“Piggot has decided to take action in reflection of recent events.  Both the Wards and the Protectorate are being restructured.”

Hannah winced, “How bad?”

Shrugging, Colin told her, “As far as the Wards go, we’re losing Aegis.  Piggot and the PRT want to see how he does leading a different team, and the boy’s parents are amenable.  He’ll stay in the Wards for a little longer, to suggest he’s younger than he is.”

“A shame.  Who do we get?”

“It’s a swap.  It’ll be Weld from the Boston team.”

“I don’t know him,” Hannah admitted.

“He’s a good kid with a good record,” Dragon chimed in from the computer, “Ferrous biology, absorbs metals through his skin.  Strong, tough, good grades across the board, high marks in the tactics simulations.  Likable, and a scan of the web shows feedback for him is higher than average, which is impressive, considering he’s one of the Case 53s.”

“He’s got the tattoo?” Hannah asked.

“The mark is branded into his heel, not tattooed, but yes.”

Hannah nodded.  “What else?”

Colin frowned, “We’re supposed to pick two others from our Wards team to transfer to one of the other major teams, nearby.  I settled on Kid Win, I’m stuck on the others.”

“Browbeat?”

“Too new.  Might be able to sell it to Piggot, but my suspicion is that she’ll think it looks bad, giving up our newbie.”

“Hm.  Gallant won’t be able to leave for Boston.  Too many logistical issues,” Hannah glanced at the computer.  She couldn’t say more.

“You can speak freely,” Colin spoke, “Dragon has either read the record in question, or she’s reading it as we speak.”

“Gallant has local responsibilities, and is expected to start helping with his father’s local business enterprise,” Dragon spoke, giving truth to Colin’s words, “Miss Militia is right, he’s a local fixture.  And his girlfriend is here.”

Hannah nodded, “Painful to give up Vista or Clockblocker.  They’re our big guns, and they’re local heroes after the role they played in that bomb scare.  Shadow Stalker?”

Colin shook his head, “There would be more trouble over handing over someone like Shadow Stalker to another team than there would be if we gave away a newbie like Browbeat.  Discipline problems.”

“Still?” she asked.  Armsmaster nodded.

Hannah frowned, “Alright.  This is what you do, then.  Propose Shadow Stalker and Kid Win.  If Piggot does refuse Shadow Stalker, and you should make an argument that Shadow Stalker might need a change of scenery, Piggot will have a harder time refusing Browbeat, right after.”

Colin rubbed his chin, where his beard traced the edges of his jaw, nodded.

“If she doesn’t agree to giving away either of the two, and you really should play hardball on that, you can offer Clockblocker.  He graduates this summer, anyways, and I’d say he’s got enough friends and contacts here that he might apply to come back to Brockton Bay to join our Protectorate when he turns eighteen.  Best case scenario for us, and it’s not like Boston or New York need more capes.”

Colin sighed, “You’re better at this than I ever was.”

Hannah wasn’t sure how to respond.  Colin had his strengths, but he was right.

He went on, “Congratulations.”  He picked up the second folder and held it out to her.

“What?”  She took it, opened it.

“There’s a change to our team, too, according to Piggot and the rest of the oversight.  You’ve been promoted.  Within the next two weeks, this building and this team will be transferred to your command.”

She stood there, paging through the folder of paperwork, stunned.  “Where are you going?”

“Chicago.”

Hannah broke into a smile, “Chicago!  That’s fantastic!  A bigger city, a bigger team!  Where’s Myrddin being moved?”

“He stays in Chicago.”

Hannah shook her head, “But…” she trailed off.

The hard look on Colin’s face was telling enough.

“I’m so sorry,” she spoke.

“It’s the politics,” Colin spoke, leaning back, “I’m good at this.  Better than most, if you don’t mind me boasting.  Everything I bring to the table, I worked my ass off for.  But when it comes to shaking hands, managing people, navigating the bureaucracy… I’m not good at it, won’t ever be.  Because of that, I’m getting demoted, and I can probably give up on ever being in charge of another team.”

“I’m sorry.  I know how much you wanted-”

“It’s fine,” he said, but it was clear in the curtness and hardness of his tone that it wasn’t.  He turned away and touched his keyboard.  In the darkness of the room, his face briefly reflected the blue light of the screen.  His brow furrowed.

“Dragon.  That program you gave me, predicting the patterns of class S threats, remember it?  I made a few modifications, to see if I couldn’t catch any highlights, I’m running a dozen of them concurrently.  One, I called HS203.  I want you to look directly at this.  I’ve put it behind some pretty heavy security, but if you wait a second, I’ll-”

“I’m already looking over it,” Dragon interrupted.  “I see what you did.  Linking my data to atmospheric shifts.  I think I see it.”

Hannah walked around the desk and leaned over Colin’s shoulder to see the screen.  A map of the east coast was superimposed with a rainbow hued cloud.  “This doesn’t mean anything to me.”

“Nothing’s truly random,” Colin explained, his voice tight, “Any data shows a pattern eventually, if you dig deep enough.  Dragon started work on an early warning system for the Endbringers, to see if we can’t anticipate where they’ll strike next, prepare to some degree.  We know there’s some rules they follow, though we don’t know why.  They come one at a time, months apart, rarely hitting the same area twice in a short span of time.  We know they’re drawn to areas where they perceive vulnerability, where they think they can cause the most damage.  Nuclear reactors, the Birdcage, places recently hit by natural disasters…”

He clicked the mouse, and the image zoomed in on a section of the coastline.

“…Or ongoing conflict,” Hannah finished for him, her eyes widening.  “The ABB, Empire Eighty-Eight, the fighting here?  It’s coming hereNow?

Colin didn’t have a reply for her.  “Dragon?  Brockton Bay falls within the predicted zone, and the city is on the list of locations that rate high enough on the sensitivity or negative media scale.  Add my data, the correlations between abrupt microshifts in temperature, air pressure and-”

“The data is good.” Dragon’s voice, synthesized to mask the most telling details about her identity, held no trace of doubt.

“Good enough to call for help?”

“Good enough.”

Colin moved quickly, spinning in his chair to reach a small console.  He opened a glass panel and flipped a switch.  Air raid sirens immediately began their ominous whine.

“Dragon, I’ll contact Piggot and the Protectorate teams.  You get hold of everyone else that matters.  You know who’s most needed.”

“Already on it.”

He turned to Hannah, and their eyes met briefly.  Much was communicated between them in that moment, and she wasn’t sure she liked what she saw in his eyes.

A glimmer of hope?

“Miss Militia.  Recruit the locals.  And we need a place to gather.”

She swallowed her concerns.  “Yes sir!”

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Buzz 7.12

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“We’re not to blame for what Coil did,” Grue told me.

“We sure helped it happen.”

“There was no way we could know what he was really doing.”

“Because we were complacent, not paying attention.  Because of that, and because we assisted Coil in distracting the capes, Dinah has been held captive for what, three weeks?  Almost a month?”

“Almost a month,” Tattletale echoed me.

I looked at Tattletale, noted how she was refusing to look anyone in the eye, and I had an uncomfortable thought.  “Did you know about this?”

“I-” She stopped to give a little sigh and briefly make eye contact with me before staring back down at the ground.  “I had an idea, sort of.  I didn’t think it would be this ugly.  It’s hard to explain.”

“Try,” I spoke, my voice hard.

“She disappeared from the middle school near Arcadia the same day we robbed the bank.  Obviously, Coil wanted to ensure the Wards weren’t close enough to interfere, probably why he was so keen on us doing the bank job, after I suggested it.  I made the connection, after.  I just didn’t think – Nothing he said or did led me to think it would be a serious kidnapping.”

“What else could it be?” Grue asked her.

“Her uncle’s one of the mayoral candidates in the election this Summer, you know that?  I knew Coil was putting a lot of value on getting hold of her, I thought maybe he was kidnapping her to use her to ransom for the uncle’s campaign funds, or to get the uncle to drop out of the race in a more direct play.  I had a suspicion he got her to cooperate with some sort of incentive.  Figure out she’s unhappy at home, give her a place to stay and some sort of bribe.  Either way, it’s more fitting with his methods to date, and it would have been short term or more benign.  Not so bad.”

“Kind of off there,” I said, bitterly.

“I’m aware,” Tattletale answered, with just as much emotion in her voice.  “I don’t like it either.  He’s been around me enough, communicated with me enough, to have an idea of stuff that I won’t necessarily know or think to look for.  I didn’t even know she had powers, or how Coil would have found this out or found her.  This is out of character for him.  Ruthless, power hungry.”

“If it bothers you that much, tell him to fuck off,” Bitch cut in, sounding irritated.

“It’s more complicated than that,” I said.  “We can’t just walk away and leave her like that.”

“And some of us are kind of relying on Coil for some major stuff,” Grue spoke.  “Some of us have people we can’t leave behind.”

I looked at him, surprised, “I don’t want to say your sister isn’t important, but… are you really willing to let Dinah stay in captivity, just for Aisha?”

“If it comes down to it?  Yeah.”

I stared at him.

“I’m being practical, Taylor,” Grue lapsed into using my real name, “People are suffering all around the world.  We ignore what’s happening elsewhere every second of every day, focusing only on our country, our city, our neighborhood, or on the people we see daily.  We only really care about the pain and unhappiness of our loved ones, our friends and families, because we couldn’t stay sane if we tried to support and save everyone.  Nobody could try to do anything like that, except maybe Scion.  I’m applying that concept to a smaller scale.  My family and my team, they take priority, and they take priority in that order.  If I have to choose one way or the other, I’m going to take the option that includes Aisha and you guys.”

“This is different from ignoring starving kids in a third world country or ignoring some homeless guy on the street,” I told him, “You’ve seen Dinah in person, you’ve looked her in the eye.  You’re already involved, you’ve played a role in her situation.”

“I’m not saying I like it, I am definitely less sure I want to work with Coil, now, but I’m saying it’s something that we should discuss and come to a consensus on.”

I looked at the others, “You feel the same way?”

Bitch gave me an annoyed look.  Okay, I wasn’t expecting an ally there.

Regent shrugged, “I’ve told you where I come from, how I grew up.  I’ve seen similar stuff before, only it was my dad’s powers, not drugs.  I’ve got a high tolerance for that shit.”

I tried to convince him, “Didn’t you leave Heartbreaker because of stuff like that?  Aren’t you just getting back into the same situation with Coil?”

“I left my father because he was trying to control me and force me to be someone and something I wasn’t.  It wasn’t even remotely interesting or fun any more.  The day that happens with Coil, I’ll leave him too.  For now, it’s a good gig.”

These are the people I’ve been associating with?  I looked to my last hope for a backup and support.  Tattletale.

She had her thumbs hooked into her belt, her shoulders hunched forward a little, where she leaned against the wall.  She didn’t look happy.

When she met my eyes, she gave a little shake of her head.

“Coil’s not stupid,” Tattletale told me, “He knows what he just did, he had every reason to suspect that one or two people in our group might find his methods distasteful.  He calculated this.  He’s testing us, making sure we’ll stick around when it’s time to make the hard calls.”

“If this is a test,” I spoke, feeling my heart sink, “I think I fail.”

“Don’t say that,” Tattletale spoke.  “Grue’s right, we need to discuss this as a team.”

“Discuss what?  Whether to stay with Coil?”

“Yeah,” the word was a half-sigh coming out of her mouth.

“That you guys even think it’s negotiable is pretty fucked up,” I replied.  The anger and betrayal I was feeling made my tone harsher, harder.

I don’t know what I expected, but I stood there for a few seconds.  Maybe I was waiting for an apology, some sort of excuse, or an admission from them that I was right.

None of them opened their mouths to offer any of that.

I turned to leave, pushing the hatch open as I stepped back into the gravel lot that surrounded the high-rise in construction.

“Come on Taylor,” Grue called out behind me.  I didn’t listen.

“Hey!” He raised his voice.

I didn’t reply.  I was too angry, and as moronic as it sounded, I didn’t want our parting words to be me cussing at him.

I was three paces away from the hatch when I heard the crunch of gravel behind me.  I wheeled around to see Grue closing the gap behind me, one arm outstretched, as if to grab me.

My temper exploded at the same time my bugs did, spilling out from beneath my costume.  At my instruction, they swept between Grue and I, creating a barrier of sorts.

I was already thinking of how I’d deal if it came down to a fight – his costume covered his skin, but I remembered the vents on the edge of his mask, that redirected the flow of his darkness from his face out the edges of his mask, so the skull image would stand out.  In a pinch, my bugs could get in that way.  His power didn’t really affect me, but would a slow trickle of my bugs into his mask compensate for his obvious advantages in hand to hand fighting?

I heard the growling of Bitch’s dogs.  They weren’t full size, but they were bigger than normal, locked into the beginning stages of their transformations.  In the dimly lit lot of the construction area, I could see their shadows through the haze of my swarm.  Dealing with them would be hard, if not impossible.

“No,” Grue spoke, on the other side of the swarm.  “Fuck.  Let her go.”

I turned and fled.

The loft was empty, with only Angelica present.  Behind her, the TV had been left on, a low level of background noise and activity to reassure the dog, maybe, or just Alec being lazy about turning everything off.

Angelica moved very slowly as she climbed down from the couch and approached to investigate me.  Whatever her past experiences, she had never learned to like any humans other than Bitch, so I only got a cursory sniff before she turned to shamble back to the couch.  Whatever energy she’d expended to get to me, check me out and return to where she’d been resting, it didn’t leave her with enough of a reserve of strength to hop up.  She settled down under the coffee table, watching me with her one intact eye, a perpetual wink, if winks could be wary or threatening.

Fog had done a number on her.  It was hard to believe, but she was better than she’d been a few days ago.  Bitch had intended to use her power on the dog, but Lisa had advised against it, warning about the threat of cardiac arrest.  As a consequence, Angelica had spent the better half of a week so lethargic, weak and still that I’d frequently looked at her and wondered if she’d stopped breathing.  I wasn’t so attached to her that I’d be upset if she died, but knowing how much the loss of a dog would gut Bitch had given me enough of a reason to worry about the critter.

It was strange to think I was walking away from this: the loft, the dogs, and the others.

I didn’t know how to parse what I was feeling or thinking.  I felt angry, betrayed.  Standing in the living room of the loft, the feeling of being lost was particularly keen.  I didn’t have a plan, and I’d had a plan for a while, now.  For my first year and a half of High School, it had been all about getting through to the end of the day, reaching the weekend.  When the weekend came, it was about recuperating, rebuilding my mental and emotional strength to face the coming week.

Then I had gotten my powers.  I’d reached my very limit, the moment I might have cracked, and my powers had given me something else to strive for; being a superhero.  There’d been so much to do, so much to plan, prepare and research, that it had given me a reason.  I was hesitant to define it as hope, but it had given me something to focus on beyond the next twenty four hours.

Everything else had flowed from that point.  Meeting the Undersiders, committing to a new plan as an undercover agent, with a new goal of getting info on them and their then-anonymous boss.  When I couldn’t do that in good conscience, I changed my plan to getting to know the others, being a friend to Bitch, bonding with Brian.  Admittedly, I’d had varying degrees of success, in the short period I’d traveled that road, but it had been enough for the present.

And now I was adrift.

I was, in a way, back to square one.  I had to get through today, then get through this week.  I’d figure out where to go from there.  I headed to my room.

My backpack sat beside my bedside table, and a quick investigation revealed it still contained a lot of what I’d stashed in there a week ago, back when I’d expected to spend a few days at Brian’s.  Clothes, basic toiletries, cash, an unused disposable phone.  I added more money, the card with the info for my supervillain bank account, and a few more things.  Checking the room for anything I thought I might need, I found myself looking at my dresser.  Resting on top were the katana I’d claimed as a prize from one fight, and the piece of amber Brian had given me.

I stuck the amber in my bag, surrounding it with clothes to pad it, and then zipped it up.

The alarm clock marked the time at 6:40 in the morning.  If Coil hadn’t called for the meeting at this strange hour, if I hadn’t been packing, this would be about the time that I headed out the door for my morning run.

Leaving like I was, hurrying to be gone before the others caught up with me, I was leaving a lot of stuff behind.  Clothes, furniture, pictures.  Without even realizing it, I’d sort of begun making this space my own, decorating and personalizing it.  Settling in, in a way I hadn’t when I’d been planning to betray the group.

I was putting clothes on over my costume when Lisa’s voice came from the doorway, “Where are you going to go?”

I turned to look at her, and her expression changed.  Was it the look on my face?  I wasn’t sure what emotion I was conveying.  Anger?  Disappointment?  Regret?

“A motel, maybe,” I said.  “Why?  Are you going to have to hunt me down?  Tie up a loose end?”

“You know we wouldn’t.”

“Sure.  I suppose he’ll send the Travelers after me if he goes that route.”  I pulled my mask off and put it away in the backpack.

“This feels bad, Taylor.  You really have to go?”

“I don’t even want to look at myself in the mirror, right now.  Even if we came to some sort of agreement, made a plan to save her together, go against Coil…” I trailed off, trying to find the words, “I can’t face everyone else and pretend like things are normal.  Even if we were working to save her… it feels disrespectful.  Dinah deserves better than that.”

“Believe it or not, Brian’s as freaked out as you are.  If he’s being weird or out of character, it’s just him defaulting to his core programming, you know what I mean?  Like Bitch getting angry, or you going quiet and wary.”

I shrugged, tied my sweatshirt around my waist, told her, “In hindsight, I don’t think it was that out of character for him.  Part of the reason I’m leaving.”

“Is this leave permanent or temporary?”

“Don’t know.”

“Are you going to do something stupid like try to rescue Dinah yourself?”

“Don’t know,” I repeated myself.

“You’re aware that there’s an outside chance that if you try, we might have to try and stop you.  Depending on what agreement the rest of us come to about the current sitch.”

“Do what you have to, I’ll do the same.”

“Alright, then.”

I slung the bag over my shoulder, faced the door.

Tattletale spoke, “I’m not saying goodbye, because this isn’t.  I’ll resolve this situation with Coil and his captive myself, if I have to, if it means we can have another civil conversation in the near future.  Stay alive, don’t do anything rash, and be open to hearing us out in the future?  Surely our friendship is worth doing that much?”

After a moment, then I gave her a single nod.

Lisa moved out of the doorway to let me through.  When I turned in the direction of the living room and the stairwell, Lisa almost deliberately turned in the other direction, toward the kitchen.  As if following me to the exit constituted some vague sort of farewell, and she was sticking to the idea of refusing to say goodbye.

I was halfway down the stairwell to the first floor when I heard it.  A whining noise, like you might hear from a particularly large baby preparing to scream.  The nasal ‘wa’ sound stretched out, so loud it was painful to listen to.  A siren?  An air raid siren.

I reversed direction and ran back up the stairs.  Tattletale was already in the living room.  The TV was showing evacuation directions in a rotation of images:  Leave your homes.  Find the nearest shelter.  Follow the directions of local authorities.  Leave your homes…

“Bomb?” I asked, raising my voice to be heard over the siren, “Bakuda leave something behind?”

Lisa shook her head.

I’d seen her in the presence of Lung, around Glory Girl, Bakuda, Purity, Night and Fog.  Looking at her, now, I saw an expression on her face that I hadn’t seen in any of those scenarios.  There was no trace of her vulpine grin, none of her characteristic humor or reckless abandon.

“Then what is it?”  I asked her, though I already had a dark suspicion.  Even the Bakuda’s terrorism campaign against the city hadn’t warranted the sirens, and that left very few possibilities.

Her response was one word, final. “Endbringer.”

“What- but-”  I turned toward the stairs, then back to Tattletale, “My dad.  I’ve got to-”

Tattletale cut me off, “He’ll evacuate or get to a shelter like everyone else.  Taylor, look at me.”

I did.

“The others and I, we talked about this possibility.  It came up before we met you.  You listening to me?  You know what happens, the usual response.”

I nodded.

“We all decided we’d go.  That we’d try to help, however we could.  But you weren’t a part of that talk, and there’s tensions in the group.  You’re pretty much not on the team, right now, so if you don’t want to-”

“I’ll go.”  I didn’t even need to think about it.  I would never be able to forgive myself if I walked away, knowing there was something I could have done to help.

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Buzz 7.11

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

The skeleton of a building loomed over us.  Girders and beams joined together in what would become one of Brockton Bay’s high rises, twenty stories tall.  At the base of it was a sea of crushed stone, with innumerable bulldozers, piledrivers, loaders, mixers and graders standing still and dark.  The only light came from the buildings and streetlights on the surrounding streets.

Tattletale put key to lock and let us through the fence that surrounded the site.  She held the gate open as Grue, Regent, Bitch and I filed through, followed by Judas and Brutus.  The two dogs were nearly normal in size, nothing that would raise alarm if someone saw us at a distance.  When we were through, Tattletale shut the gate and reached through the gap to put the lock back in place and click it shut.

Gravel crushed underfoot as we made our way to the unfinished high rise.  Tattletale pointed to a hatch, surrounded by a rim of concrete.  The hatch itself had a yellow warning sign reading ‘Drainage’, sporting images beneath of a man wearing a hazmat suit and a man wearing a gas mask.  She fiddled with the keyring to get the right key, undid the lock and raised the hatch.  Stairs led down into a darkness that looked and smelled very much like a storm drain.

As we descended, the smell got stronger.  We passed through a door with metal bars, and then traveled down a long hallway.  The room at the end of the hall was small, with one other door and a small surveillance camera in one corner.  The door we faced had no handle, forcing us to wait.  It took about twenty seconds before someone opened the door for us.  One of Coil’s men.

The interior of the sub-basement had none of the smell of the previous chambers, and consisted of two tiers with walls of poured concrete.  The upper level we stood on was an arrangement of metal walkways that extended around the room’s perimeter.  Crates and boxes filled the level below, and I could see fifteen or so of Coil’s people down there, sitting on crates or leaning against them, talking among themselves.

Each soldier was outfitted in a matching uniform: shades of gray and some black, hard vests with raised collars to protect their necks.  Only a few wore their balaclavas, and I could see a variety of nationalities in a group that was mostly men.  All of the soldiers had assault rifles somewhere nearby, slung over shoulders with straps and leaning against walls or crates.  Polished steel attachments on the underside of each gun’s barrel contrasted with the dark gunmetal tone of the rest of the equipment.

The man who had opened the door for us inclined his head in the direction we were to go.  We traversed the metal walkway, and passed more of Coil’s soldiers.  I saw one squad of six below us was gearing up, pulling on masks and checking their guns.  Five seconds later, we passed Circus on the walkway, in a costume and makeup of red and gold.  Oblivious to us or our passing, she was leaning against a wall by a stack of cardboard boxes, standing intimately close to a young soldier with close-cropped red hair and an ugly scar running down one side of his neck.

We found Coil at the end of the walkway, talking to four people who most definitely weren’t soldiers.  Each wore a suit, and none seemed the type to carry a gun.  There was a heavyset woman, a man who must’ve been fifty or sixty, a man who stood no more than four feet tall and a blonde woman who barely looked out of high school.

“Cranston, can you have it for tomorrow?”

“Yes, sir,” the blonde woman replied.

“Good.  Pearse, the soldiers?”

“Squads Fish, Nora and Young are suited up and ready for your okay,” the short man spoke.

“And the replacement recruits?”

Pearse handed Coil a set of folders, “I’ve put post-its on the most promising.  We need two to make up for one soldier that was recently injured, and one that decided to skip town.”

Coil tucked the folders under one arm, “Good.  Duchene, I’ll talk to you later tonight about our preparations.  The rest of you, I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

The suits marched off, with all but the fat lady passing us to go the way we’d come, along the metal walkway.  The woman headed down the stairs to the lower area with all the soldiers, and a group of people that weren’t in uniform flocked to her.  People with clipboards and crowbars.  The construction crew?

“Undersiders,” Coil spoke, “You’ve recuperated this past week?”

“More or less,” Grue replied.  He had his arms folded.

“Excellent.  And what do you think?”  He gestured to the underground complex around us with a sweep of his arm.

“It’s impressive,” Grue spoke.

“Once things are set up, some of this will be a base of operations for the Travelers, the rest of this space serving as a place my men can meet before they deploy.”

“Right,” Grue replied.

“So.  I expected a reply once you felt you were healed and ready for more work, or if you decided on a reply for my deal, but I got a sense this isn’t quite that.”

Tattletale spoke, “We can’t keep doing this, Coil.”

It was hard to tell, but I suspected that did something to knock Coil off his stride.  “Hm.  Elaborate?”

“We keep getting through these fights by the skin of our teeth.  We’re not up to it.  Just a few days after we helped take down the ABB, a situation that had two of our members facing down Lung and Oni Lee, we were up against the Protectorate, the Wards and Empire Eighty-Eight in the span of forty-eight hours.  Even with your people and your powers to help, we’re not strong enough for this.”

“I see,” Coil turned to face the lower section of the sub-basement and look down at his people.  He rested his hands on the railing, “Are you terminating our arrangement?”

Tattletale shook her head, “We’d rather not, but it depends on what we agree to here and now, in this meeting.  We talked this over for the past week, and I’ll be blunt.  The one person who wasn’t keen on taking your deal changed her mind, but the rest of us now have some serious reservations.  And it’s not just the issue of our safety.”

Coil nodded.  “Well, let me start by saying I’m pleased to hear about your change of heart, Bitch.  Can I ask what prompted it?”

Bitch shot Tattletale an irritated look, clearly unimpressed that Coil had been informed on our negotiations.  Still, she gave him a response.  “Decided it wouldn’t be so bad to get help with my dogs.  I still think you’re full of shit, but way I see it, you can be as full of shit as you want, so long as I get what I want.”

“I suppose I’ll take what I can get.”  Coil sighed a little, “Which leads me to our subject of discussion.  Would I be right in assuming these reservations our Tattletale has mentioned have something to do with me, and how I operate?”

Grue and I both nodded.

“And you’re among these individuals with doubts, Tattletale?”

“Sorry.  I’ve worked with you for a while now, I know what you can do, I even like and respect you.  What you’re going for.  But this last play of yours was fucked up on a lot of levels.”

“Yes,” Coil conceded, turning back towards us, “You’re right.  Too heavy handed a maneuver.  A tactical nuke where a rocket launcher might have sufficed, with undeserving parties suffering for being too close to the real targets.”

“Us, and the families of the members of Empire Eighty-Eight that you outed.”

Coil nodded, “So the two main points we need to discuss are the apparent carelessness of my maneuver against Empire Eighty-Eight, and the risk your group has been facing in the field.  That said, if these issues are addressed in a satisfactory manner, would I be right in thinking you are prepared to accept my deal?”

Tattletale glanced at each of us, myself included, then told Coil, “Maybe.”

“Good.  Shall we walk?  I’ll be more able to answer your second concern when we get to the other side of this complex.” He stepped away from the railing and extended a hand, inviting us to join him.  He walked with his hands clasped behind his back, leading us around the end of the room to the walkway opposite the one we’d traveled to reach him.

“First off, apologies are in order,” Coil spoke, “Your concern over the way I outed the Empire’s members is entirely deserved.  In truth, it was a plan I had begun before I even knew of your existence, Undersiders.  My initial attempts to divine the secret identities of my enemies were slow to bear fruit, and my hired men often underwent weeks of investigation only to find they had been barking up the wrong tree.

“For almost four years, I have invested funds and time in the possibility that I could find the weak point of my enemies: their civilian lives, the faces under the masks.  For years, I was disappointed.  In my early days, I had less money to fritter away, my facility with my own power was not what it is today, and many of the failures on these fronts were costly.

“As I began to amass my fortunes, this became easier.  I could hire better investigators, pay the right people to divulge information and unseal court records.  Pieces began falling into place.  With my recruitment of Tattletale, I was able to avoid a number of wild goose chases.  It was still slow, and the turnover rate of Empire Eighty-Eight was frustrating, especially as I aimed to have the complete picture, with no member of Kaiser’s empire left unmasked.  My efforts with the local heroes were no better, if for different reasons.

“For some time, aside from regular payments and some direction, my attention was elsewhere.  It was only two weeks ago that I was contacted by my investigators and told that I had what I wanted on Empire Eighty-Eight.  To have it come together at that time, when the Empire was one of the sole barriers remaining before me, it seemed to be serendipity.  I jumped on the opportunity.”

Grue spoke to Coil’s back, “And you forgot about us.  What it might look like.”

Coil turned his head, “Yes.  I’ll admit I am not proud of my failure to see the bigger picture, and I assure you, it is not a mistake I am prepared to make again.”

“That’s it?  You say ‘I’m sorry’ and we’re just supposed to accept it?” Regent spoke for the first time since we’d arrived.

Coil stopped, and we were forced to stop or we would have walked right into him.  He spoke, “If you accept my deal, I will undertake no plan of this scale without first consulting you, the Travelers and the independent villains that work for me.  It is my hope that you would be able to inform me about any flaws or unintended consequences regarding my schemes.”

Grue unfolded his arms, “I can’t say for sure.  Maybe.”

I spoke, “I like the idea, but no offense, I’m not sure I trust you that far.  And don’t say that Tattletale would find out and tell us if you bent the rules and tried to slip something past us.  She’s not infallible.  Sorry, Tattle.”

Tattletale shrugged at that.

“I’ll leave you to think on the idea,” Coil spoke, “There’s no action or gesture I can really take that will earn your trust in one fell swoop.  All I can do is to work with you, giving you no more reason to distrust me.”

“Sure,” I replied, noncommittal.

“Now, that leaves one us final issue to remedy.  Your worries for your safety.  I wish to show you that you are in good hands, and I’m prepared to reveal one of my secret weapons,”  Coil came to a stop outside a door.  A soldier stood nearby, smoking a cigarette.

“Fetch her,” Coil ordered.  The soldier nodded, squashed the cigarette against the wall, pocketed the butt and went through the doorway.

Coil walked over to the wall where the soldier had extinguished the cigarette and used his thumb to wipe the smudge on the wall away.  He spoke to us, “If I told you I knew where Kaiser was hiding out from the heroes, alongside his bodyguards and perhaps a handful of his lieutenants, that I wanted you to defeat them in a nighttime ambush, this would be an example of the sort of situation you’re concerned about facing?”

“Yep,” Tattletale replied, “Even with your power-”

“-You have your worries, yes,” Coil finished for her.  “Forgive me if I do not elaborate on the subject of my abilities, or give Tattletale permission to do so.  We- ah, here she is.”

The soldier came through the door, with a girl in tow.  Twelve years old or so, she had dark circles under her eyes, and straight, dark brown hair that was in need of a trim.  She wore a white long sleeved shirt, white pajama bottoms and white slippers.  She didn’t make eye contact with anyone, staring at the ground.  Her right hand gripped her left elbow, and the fingers of her left hand drummed an inconsistent beat against her thigh.

Coil bent down and pushed the hair away from the girl’s face.  She looked at him, then looked away.

“I need some numbers,” Coil spoke, gently.

“I want candy.”

“Alright.  Candy after six questions.”

“Three,” she grew more agitated, turned as if to walk away, then turned back in his direction.  She was fidgeting more.

“Five questions.  Is that fair?”  Coil turned and sat on the metal walkway, beside where the girl stood.

“Okay.  Five.”

“I’d like these people,” Coil pointed at us, “To go fight Kaiser, tomorrow night at eleven in the evening.  You remember them?  The Undersiders.  And you remember Kaiser?  From the pictures I showed you?”

“Yes.  You asked me this before.”

“I did.  But I want the Undersiders to hear what you say.  Give me a number.  How would they do, without my help?”

“Forty-six point six two three five four percent chance they all come back.  Thirty three point seven seven nine zero one percent only some come back.  That’s one question.”

Coil paused to let that sink in, then looked up at us, “She calculates possibilities, we think she does it by seeing all the potential outcomes of an event in a fraction of a second.   Her power categorizes these outcomes and helps her to figure out the chance that a given event will come to pass.  It isn’t easy for her, and I try not to tax her abilities, but you can surely see why this is so valuable.”

I hugged my arms close to my body.  When I glanced at the girl, I caught her looking at me.  I looked away.

“Candy, now?”  She started to bite at her thumbnail.  Looking at her other hand, I saw her nails were bitten to the quick.

He moved her hand away from her mouth, “Four more questions, pet, then candy.  Tell me the numbers for the same situation, but if I sent the Travelers instead.”

“Sixty point two one zero zero nine percent chance they all come back.  Forty-four point one seven four three percent chance but someone gets hurt or killed.”

“Good girl,” he turned to look at us, “The Travelers are powerful, so it stands to reason their chances are higher.  But I’ve found that your group benefits more from a use of my power.  Pet, tell me the numbers for the same scenario, for both the Travelers and the Undersiders, but let’s say I was helping them in my usual manner.”

“That’s two questions.  Two teams, two questions.  No cheating.  I get really bad headaches when I try to get too many numbers.”

“Okay.  Answer those two, then there’s one more before you get your candy.  I just need to know the chances that the teams will come back intact.”

The girl nodded, a little too quickly and eagerly, “Those people there have a thirty-two point zero zero five eight three percent chance to come back with nobody dead or seriously hurt if you help them.  The Travelers have a forty-one point-”

“No, stop,” Coil stopped her, “That doesn’t make any sense.  You gave me different numbers before.  Those numbers are lower than the ones they’d have if I didn’t help.”

“It’s the numbers in my head.”

“The numbers are wrong, pet.”

She shook her head, raised her voice in a surprisingly sudden fit of anger, “No!  They’re right!  You just don’t want to give me any candy!”

Coil put a hand on her shoulder.  She pulled away, but he held her firm.  He had to raise her voice to be heard over her squeals, and he shook her just a little to be sure she was listening, “Last question, then you’ll get your candy, I promise.”

She began to settle, and Coil was calmer when he spoke again, more like his usual, reasonable self, “Just give me the number, again, if I sent the Undersiders out to fight Kaiser, without giving them my help.  What percentage, that they come back intact?”

“Twelve point three one three three percent-”

Coil stood, swiftly.  He turned to the soldier that stood nearby, “Give her what she wants.”

The soldier guided the girl back through the door.

Coil muttered to himself, “There’s some anomaly at work, here.  The numbers can’t skew that much, that fast.  More than a thirty percent drop…”

“Coil?” Tattletale spoke.  She looked a little pale.

“Tattletale, do you know why the numbers would change?  Does your power tell you anything?”

She shook her head, started to speak, but was interrupted.

“Then go,” he ordered her, ordered us.  “I will contact you later, and we will finish this conversation then.”

“I-”

Please,” he stressed the word, “See yourselves out.  This situation, whatever it is, demands my attention.”

Tattletale nodded.  Together, we headed around the walkway to the door we’d come in.  We were halfway up the stairs to the hatch when Regent commented, “Well, that was surreal.”

“Not the word I’d use to describe it,” I replied, quiet.

“What’s her deal?  Is she like Labyrinth?  Powers fucked with her head?”

I looked at the others, then turned to look at him.  I couldn’t help but let a little venom seep into my voice as I asked him, “Are you dense?”

“What?  She said she got headaches, Coil said it was hard on her, using her power, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think there’s something going on mentally, especially seeing how she acted.”

“The candy she was asking for was a euphemism for drugs,” I spoke, and saying it aloud made it somehow more real.  I hugged my arms tighter against my body, “He’s keeping her strung out so she’ll cooperate, give him his numbers.”

“I don’t think-”

“Shut up,” I cut Regent off.  “Just shut up.  I- I can’t argue with you on this.  Please.”

He stopped.  I looked at the others.  Grue had his arms folded, and was standing very still.  Bitch just had her usual angry look.  Tattletale looked pale, even for the single lightbulb’s worth of light we had in the stairwell.  She wouldn’t meet my eyes.

“You’d know if you watched the news,” I told Regent, “If you read the paper.  I hate that I have to explain this, when I don’t even want to think about it.  She’s the missing kid.  Remember our bank robbery?  How we were weren’t even front page news because an amber alert took priority?  That was her.  Dinah Alcott.”

The revulsion and anger that was welling up in my chest and throat made me want to throw up, hit something, right there.  Some of that emotion, a lot of it, was directed at myself.  I looked to Tattletale, “Tell me I’m wrong.  Please?”

She broke eye contact, which was answer enough.

“Get it, Regent?” I asked him, “The bank robbery was a distraction for the local capes, so Coil could be sure to get away with taking the kid.  We played a part in that. We made that happen.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Buzz 7.10

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Whether I shut my eyes or suffered the effects of the flashbang grenade, the effect would be the same.  The moment we took our eyes off Night, she’d become what Tattletale had termed ‘all monster’.

I opted to have more control over my temporary blindness, clamping my hands over my ears, dropping into a crouch to shove my face against my knees, eyes wrenched shut.  I sent every bug in my immediate vicinity toward Night, in the hope of slowing her down even a fraction.

The flashbang went off while it was still over us.  The last time I’d been around one when it went off, I’d had a wall between me and the detonation.  I wasn’t so lucky this time.  It wasn’t just bright and loud.  The blast rattled through me, left me dizzied, unable to balance, almost incoherent.  It was scarily like the concussion I’d endured.

Night was already moving.  My bugs were my only sense that still worked, but they couldn’t get a grip on the surface of her body.  She moved too fast, and her skin was smooth and oily, slick with some sort of lubricant.  The result was that I couldn’t really make her out in the darkness.  I only got flashes, the vaguest sense of how she was put together.  I was reminded of the ink blots I’d seen during my brief stay in the mental ward.  Every fraction of a second, it was a different set of ink blots, a different shape, all edges and angles and sharp points, entirely up to interpretation.

She struck at Judas a half-dozen times in the span of a second, her limbs flashing out and striking hard enough that I could feel the vibrations in the air.  Judas staggered away from her, colliding with me and one of my teammates.  I felt Judas’ crushing weight against my own body, the raw meat feel of his flesh and the stone hardness of his bones smothering me, before he shifted his weight and lurched back her way.

From the way Judas’ movements followed Night’s as she moved back, and the rigidity of his face and neck, I knew he’d managed to get a grip on her with his teeth.  He weathered the hits as she continued to thrash him.  He seemed to be getting the worse end of the exchange, but he’d taken away some of her leverage.

Blinking, I tried to focus on Night, but I saw double.  For several long, terrifying seconds, I was unable to bring what I was seeing into focus.

Judas was thrown against a wall, and went limp.  The furrows Night had carved into his face left more gouges than untouched flesh, his face a mess of shattered bone and hamburger meat.  With Judas’ bulk out of the way, I could make out Night, backing away.  My bugs settled on her, and she pulled her cloak up to shield her face, still walking backward.

Snapping my head around to check, I saw our escape route barred by Fog’s mist.  I could see Angelica’s silhouette in the midst of the cloud.  Bitch and Tattletale were struggling to drag Grue back away from the advancing mist.  Grue, too weak to stand, was trying to use his darkness to wall Fog off.  Grue might have stopped Fog entirely, except he was so weak that his darkness was dissipating almost as fast as he produced it.  Fog slipped through the largest gaps and continued a slow but inexorable advance.

Night was still struggling to get away from the bugs as they navigated around the folds of her cloak and the coverage of her mask.

Drawing my baton, I started to advance on her.  Night was human like this, vulnerable.

She drew her hand from her sleeve.  Another canister with a pin in it.

“Regent!” I shouted.

He snapped his hand out, and Night’s arm bent in a palsied, twisted angle.  The grenade fell to the ground, and Night fell on top of it.

I thought that Regent had been the cause of her fall, until I saw her raise her head, her good hand holding the grenade, pin held in her teeth through the fabric of her mask.

She pulled the pin free, and black smoke began billowing from the upper end of the canister.

It was suicidal, perhaps one of the dumbest things I’d done yet: I charged her.  She was already standing, holding the canister out in front of her to ensure the plumes of colored smoke obscured her quickly.  I struck at her hand with my baton, knocking the smoke grenade to the ground.  I stooped for it, but she stepped forward, blocking it with her body, seizing my shoulders.

She wrestled me to one side of the alley, perhaps to try and push me away and buy time for the smoke to build up, maybe for another angle.  I wouldn’t find out, because I brought my baton against the side of her face.  I got a sense from the feeling of the hit that she didn’t wear any armor or protective wear beneath the cowl and mask.

Night staggered from the blow, and I drove my shoulder into her.  It wasn’t as effective as I’d hoped, but I did get her far enough away from the canister that I could duck down and scoop it up in one hand.

I dashed away, past her, and she struck me from behind.  I knew from the magnitude of the impact that she wasn’t in her human shape as she hit me, and for one paralyzing moment, I suspected I’d made a terminal error.

The blow was enough to knock me to the ground and make me roll a half-dozen times before I could stop myself.  I cast a glance over my shoulder as I stopped.  Night was there, and the residual smoke from the canister that surrounded her had apparently been sufficient to block my teammates’ view.  Stupid of me to turn my back.  I was lucky that she hadn’t had more than a second or two in her transformed state to act.

I scrambled to my feet, not taking my eyes off her, and rapidly backed up.  A piece of the armor on my back dangled from where she’d cleaved through it, swinging against my backside in time with my steps.  I held the smoke grenade low, to minimize how much it obscured my vision.  When I’d backed up enough that there was an alley to my right, I threw the smoke grenade away.

Night stopped following me, then swept her cloak up to shield against the bugs that still swarmed her.  I couldn’t go as all-out as I normally might with my swarm, without risking that I’d obscure my own vision of her and give her another opportunity to transform.

Second try, then.  Baton in hand, I charged her.

She was thrashing beneath her cloak, six or so paces away.  The bugs were nipping and stinging flesh.  Good.  One or two more good hits with the baton, she’d be disabled.

Night bent low, and I thought maybe she was down for the count.

Then she swept her cloak off and threw it up into the air.  It opened wide and momentarily filled my field of vision.

I heard her footsteps, two normal ones, heels clicking rapidly as she ran, then the noise of claws scraping against hard ground.  She tackled me, keeping the fabric between us, and my baton slipped from my grasp as her weight slammed into the trunk of my body.  The cloth of her cloak caught on my right hand and face.  An angular arm with too many joints seized my right leg, another two latched onto my right arm and neck, respectively.  Her grip and proximity to me held the cloth in place, kept her obscured.  I was hefted high into the air with a speed that dizzied me.

She dropped me, making me grunt as I landed.  Above me, my bugs touched her very human body.  I struggled to pull the cloth free, but it caught.  After a few seconds of ineffectually trying to remove the cloak from myself and see what was happening, I was almost frantic.  I brought my own bugs down on top of myself to get a better sense of what was happening.

Hooks.  The black fabric of the cloak was woven with black-painted hooks at regular intervals.  She’d worn that layer facing the outside.

“You’re boring people, you know,” I heard Tattletale’s voice, and felt a fractional relief.  I focused on pulling the hooks free.  Not that many were caught on the fabric, but there were some caught on the textured exterior of my armor, others on the straps that held my armor in place, a couple in my hair.

“I saw your info.  Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt.  First located in Hesse, Germany, moved to London, then Brockton Bay, Boston, then Brockton Bay again.  No kids.  Cat.   Nothing interesting about you, besides the obvious.  I’m thinking you even have your dinners on rotation.  Chicken and rice on Mondays, Steak and potatoes on Tuesdays?  Something like that?”

I pulled the cloak free and held it in my hands.  I saw Tattletale on the other end of the alley.  Fog had advanced quite a bit, but Regent and Bitch had apparently gotten Grue up on Brutus’ back, and both Brutus and Judas were with them, Brutus moving painfully slowly, while Judas was apparently blind or nearly blind from the damage to his face.  They all stood not far behind Tattletale, masked by traces of the smoke from the smoke bomb.

Night stood closer to me than the others.  I could see how she had various pieces of equipment strapped to her hips, forearms, and back.  Grenades, canisters, knives, something that looked like spray paint.  She swatted at the bugs that were crawling around her face and eyes, but her attention was on Tattletale.  I could have stood, maybe, but I didn’t want to draw her attention.

“So I was at a loss to figure out how to fuck with you.  You’re two dimensional.  Until I remembered that you left the Empire when Purity did.  And when she came back?  So did you.”

Night cocked her head a little to one side, listening.  Again, she slapped at the bugs on one side of her face.  Her face didn’t feel swollen, from what my swarm was conveying.  Her eyes were open, blinking closed when a bug touched her eyelash.  I suspected she healed back to perfect condition whenever she entered her other form, which would include cleansing herself of any toxins or allergens.

Night looked down at me.  Pale blue eyes.

“Hey!” Tattletale spoke, “Pay attention!”

Night drew a knife from a hip sheath.  She bent down over me.  I dropped her cloak and struggled to reach behind my back for my own knife, but she was faster.  The blade pressed against my throat.  My hand caught her wrist, stopping her from going any further.  I was pretty sure my costume could take a cut from a knife, but if she found the gap where my mask was separate from the body portion of my costume that extended around the lower part of my neck, she could slide the blade through with no difficulty.

“Damn you!” Tattletale shouted.  I was only aware of Night’s unwavering, unblinking gaze, the feel of her wrist in my grip.  Then the gunshots.

Night didn’t even scream.  She dropped partway on top of me, falling onto her side, her weight on my legs.

The villainess lay there, silently writhing, hands behind her back.  Blood welled from holes in her lower back and the space where her buttock met her thigh.  I glanced at Tattletale, who had her gun raised, looking slightly surprised and disturbed by what she’d just had to do.

Any sense of relief I felt at Night being taken out of action was short lived.

Too bright to look at, Purity hurtled down from the sky to land just beside Night and me.  I saw her raise one hand toward Tattletale and the others, energy welling up.

The blast of light momentarily blinded me, and it struck me just why Purity had Night and Fog working as part of her personal squad.  There were no happy coincidences there.  She must have calculated how their powers could collectively work together.  Her light and Fog’s mist could blind their foes, with Night leveraging any opportunities gained.  Alabaster and Crusader?  Probably intended as the front line, to slow the enemy down, take out the problem targets and buy time for the core group to do what they needed.  Or to do what they were doing now, and occupy enemies elsewhere.

When I could see again, I tried to grasp what had changed and what had happened.  Dust filled much of the alley, Night stood beside Purity, unhurt, and my teammates were on the ground.  No blood.  Nobody dead or dying.  At least, nobody that hadn’t been dead or dying when Purity arrived.  I was getting worried about Grue.  He didn’t look nearly as lively as he had two minutes ago.

A channel had been carved out of the brick wall to Purity’s right.  Motes of light still danced around it.  An intentional miss?  No.  It would have been Regent throwing off her aim.

“Purity!  Kayden!  Not looking for a fight!” Tattletale called out.  She raised her hands, her gun dangling from one finger by the trigger guard.

Purity just raised her hand, and more light began glowing in her palm.

“Dale and Emerson!”  Tattletale added.

Purity didn’t lower her hand, but she didn’t shoot either.  “What?”

“Aster.”  Tattletale stood up, “She’s at Dale and Emerson.  Outskirts of town.  The PRT has a safehouse there, for when a villain’s after someone, or in case some member of the Protectorate or Wards gets outed, and their family needs a spot to stay.”

“How-”

“You worked alongside me when we were dealing with the ABB.  Your subordinates and allies have as well.  You know I have my sources.”

“Don’t believe you.  You have no reason to tell me this, you told everyone-”

Tattletale interrupted, “We didn’t tell the media that stuff.  I’m even a little pissed about it.  Not just about us getting blamed, but that they didn’t just attack you, but your families?  It’s fucked up.  Entire reason we came here was to set the record straight and get you your kid back.”

“Kaiser said-”

“Kaiser thought he’d get more out of this debacle if he turned you against us, first, before directing you at the people or person who really sent the email.”

Purity shook her head.

Tattletale added, “It’s up to you.  Who are you going to trust, when Aster is on the line?  Me, or Kaiser?”

That was her argument?  I started to move to where I could attack Purity if it came down to it.  A spearpoint pressing down against my collarbone stopped me.  I looked up and saw Crusader behind me.

Purity dropped her hand to her side.  She told Tattletale, “You’re coming with me.”

“Didn’t expect any less.  But you’re letting my team go, and this destruction stops.”

“And how do I know you’re not just sacrificing yourself for them?”

“Because whatever else you might be, Kayden, you somehow, in some warped perspective, see yourself as an upstanding person.  And if I wasn’t an honest person when it counted, I wouldn’t trust you to hold to that.  Make sense?”

It didn’t to me.  It was circular reasoning.  I wouldn’t have listened if it were Tattletale trying to convince me  The question was whether it would get through to Purity.

Purity stared at Tattletale for a long time.  I was acutely aware of the spear at my chest, which Crusader could thrust through my costume and into me with a momentary use of his power.  How easily Purity or Fog could give Night the opportunity she needed to slaughter my teammates.

“You’re aware of the consequences if you’re wrong?”

“I’m not stupid,” Tattletale spoke, “You take out your anger on me, I wind up dead or maimed.”

Purity stepped forward and grabbed Tattletale’s wrist.

“The others walk,” Purity spoke to her subordinates, leaving no room for argument or discussion.  She wrapped one arm around Tattletale’s ribs, and they were gone in a flash of light, a trail of firefly-like lights dancing in Purity’s wake.

In that same momentary glare that had carried our teammate and Purity away, Night had moved into the midst of our team.  She had a knife held with the blade pointed out of the bottom of her fist, pressed to Regent’s throat.

“I get it,” Regent replied, with a disinterested tone, “You could kill us right here.  May we go?”

Night sheathed the knife and walked through the group to Fog, who was gathering himself up in a human shape again, turning away to exit the alley.  Crusader, on the opposite side of us, was rising back up to the sky.

I breathed a sigh of relief as Purity’s squad disappeared.  I held my breath again when I saw Grue and, further down the alleyway, Angelica.  Grue’s darkness was reduced to mere wisps around his body, which I took to be a bad sign.  Hurrying toward him, I retrieved my cell phone, went down to the bottom of the contact list.

It rang three times before it picked up.  I heard ambient noise, maybe a fan, but the person on the other end didn’t respond.

“Coil,” I spoke, “It’s Skitter.  We need that doctor of yours.  Fast.”

“Can you get to the same location as last time?”

“I don’t know.  Grue and the dogs are hurt.  We may need a ride.”

“I will arrange it.  Expect a call from the driver shortly.”  He hung up.  Not quite so friendly as the last time we’d talked.

I set to helping Alec steady Angelica while Bitch worked with Judas, who’d been effectively blinded in the fight with Night.   She guided his head and shoulders under Angelica’s body, so the smaller ‘dog’ was draped over him.

Once Angelica was in position, I hopped up behind Grue and helped him turn him over, to examine his chest.  I applied pressure and used the remainder of the bandage I had in my utility compartment to try to staunch the bleeding.  When I talked to him, asked him to verify that he was okay, his replies were monosyllabic and fairly nonsensical.

Between Judas’s canine burden and the damage Brutus had apparently sustained to his side, the two dogs moved slower than I normally walked as they plodded down the alley.

Every moment was nerve wracking.  I kept waiting for someone in the Wards, New Wave or Empire Eighty-Eight to find their way into the alley, spot us and pick a fight.  Worse, I harbored grave concerns that Grue might stop breathing.

The phone call from Coil’s people came when we’d reached the beach – the closest spot I could think of that would put us out of line of sight in the continued fighting.  I directed the guy on the phone to our position, and in my nervousness, I had to get them to verify, twice, that they’d safely made it through the barricade without any trouble.  All we needed was another ambush at the barricades from more of Hookwolf’s underlings.

The moment the pair of ambulances arrived, we loaded Grue into the back of one, the three dogs into the other.  Brutus and Judas had shrunk, having shed the layers of added bulk, and were more or less alright underneath it all.  Angelica, though, had been in Fog’s mist, and wasn’t any better even though she was almost normal size.  She’d inhaled the mist, drawn it into her lungs.  I could only surmise that it had consequently made its way into her bloodstream, and from there, to the rest of her body.  Only time would tell how much damage Fog had done to her from within.

I went in the ambulance with Grue, and watched as they gave him extra blood and tended to his chest.  Between my first time job patching up his chest, the fact that he’d torn it open, and my haphazard attempts to wad it with bandages and stall the blood loss as we retreated from the scene, it was a mess.  I cringed, feeling guilty, waiting for one of Coil’s medics to call me on something I’d done wrong.  They worked in silence, which was almost worse.

I sent Tattletale a text:

Frog A.  Got Coil’s people to pick us up.  Brian is getting help.  Dogs are mostly ok.  Text me back.

We pulled in behind the doctor’s office, and Tattletale still hadn’t replied.  I was surprised that the ambulance with Bitch, Regent and the dogs hadn’t come with us.

The doctor was a cranky old guy that Coil’s medic referred to as Dr. Q.  He was a thin-lipped man, about my height, which made him fairly small.  His hair was either recently cut or he got it cut regularly, was slicked close to his scalp, and seemed too dark given how old his face and hands were.  He took over for the medics as they carted Grue in, and they left with a nod to me.  I nodded back, unsure of how else to respond.

I stood by Grue’s bed with my arms folded and watched.  Dr. Q checked the work the medics had done in suturing up Brian’s chest and muttered to himself that it was competent.  When he’d verified they hadn’t screwed up, he took the time to clean Brian’s chest and remove the remaining threads from the first job.

“The bug girl,” he finally commented.

“Yeah.  I’m really sorry about bringing the bugs to your place, last time.  I see they’re gone now.”

“They are,” was his response.

I nodded.  I checked my phone again.  Still no response from Tattletale.

Minutes passed.

“Okay,” he pulled off his latex gloves, “Nothing more we can do for this lug.  You unhurt?”

I shrugged, “More or less.  Got jabbed in the stomach, I have my aches and pains, hurt my ear earlier, but I already got it taken care of.”

“I’ll verify that for myself.”

He checked my stomach, which required me to take off the top of my costume, and he prodded the bruise Cricket had left me with cold, dry fingers.  Then he had me remove my mask to examine my ear.  Apparently, he didn’t deem Brian’s job satisfactory, so I was sat down on a stool so he could clean it up.

He was partway through the job when my phone vibrated.  I read it and heaved a sigh of relief.

Tattletale:

Avocado c.  she got what she needed.  omw

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Buzz 7.9

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“You going to be okay?” I asked, as Grue zipped up his jacket.  With his t-shirt removed, he was wearing the leather jacket over his bare, freshly stitched skin.  I couldn’t imagine it was remotely comfortable.

“I’ll be fine.  Let’s end this ASAP.  Bitch?  The dogs.”

I winced.  I wasn’t looking forward to riding.  It was too soon after our previous escapade, and I was still sore.

Bitch whistled and pointed, and we headed out the front door of the church.  The moment we were outside, Grue hauled himself up onto Judas’ back, and I could see him hunch over for a moment in pain.

“Seriously, are you going to be-”

“I’m fine, Skitter,” Grue spoke.  He was creating darkness around himself, and his voice had that hollow quality to it.  “Just drop it.”

The ‘drop it’ line hit a little too close to home, echoing what I’d said at the mall after Brian’s rejection, and once or twice after that.  I was made acutely aware of that little rift I’d generated in what had been a fairly easygoing friendship.

Regent and Bitch were climbing onto Brutus, while Tattletale was examining her phone.  That left two dogs to ride.

I looked at where Grue sat, and decided it would be less awkward if I didn’t ride with him.  I approached Angelica, extended my hand for her to sniff, then climbed onto her back.

“Tattletale,” Grue spoke.  “I thought we were in a hurry.”

She put the phone away, then climbed up behind Grue.

“Coil?” I guessed.

“Yep.”

“And he’s saying?”

“To be careful.”

Grue gave a hand signal, Bitch whistled to give the dogs the order, and we rode.

Angelica was happy to follow the others, which freed me from the burden of getting her to follow my instructions.  That only left me the task of holding on and ignoring the ache in my leg muscles and stomach.

Tattletale was able to give us a general idea of which direction Purity was, using her power, and it only took us a few minutes to spot the telltale pillar of white in the distance.  Purity’s light, not aiming at a building, but lashing out.

As we got closer, the situation became clearer.  Purity, a flare of white against the backdrop of the gray sky, was surrounded by other figures, easy enough to make out with their predominantly white costumes.  New Wave.

The leader of New Wave had named herself Lady Photon, but in the wake of New Wave’s founding, and the revealing of their secret identities, the media had latched on to the idea of a superheroine mom and dubbed her Photon Mom.  It was apparent to anyone who followed cape news that the name really bugged her.

Lady Photon’s daughter and niece were in the air with her.  Laserdream and Glory Girl.  Mother and daughter shared the same general powers; flight, the ability to raise forcefield bubbles around themselves, and the ability to project lasers from their hands.  As a consequence, their fight with Purity was something of a light show.

Below, it seemed, there was an all-out war.

As she targeted Glory Girl, one of Purity’s blasts of light slammed into the edge of a rooftop.  Debris showered down, but was deflected by a bright blue forcefield.  That would be Shielder’s power at work.  He fought alongside Flashbang and Brandish, and I could identify Krieg, Victor, Othala and Alabaster in their immediate vicinity.  Further away were Night, Fog, Panacea, Vista and Clockblocker.

“Around!” Tattletale pointed over Grue’s shoulder.

Wordlessly, Grue steered Judas into a turn.  Bitch, astride Brutus, a bit ahead of Judas, looked over her shoulder and turned to join them.  Angelica was happy to follow after.  Together, we detoured left to a side street running parallel to the ongoing battle.

“Why?” I called out.

“Safer!” Tattletale replied, without turning to face me.

A crash behind me made me duck.  Manpower, a powerful seven foot tall athletic figure decked out in white and yellow, had been thrown through a brick wall.  Maybe more than one.  He seemed unhurt, but he was a fairly durable guy.  Personal electromagnetic shielding, if I remembered right.  He was still struggling to his feet after we left him behind.

“What’s our plan!?” I shouted, raising my voice to be heard as one of Purity’s blasts crashed down to the street to our right.

“Get her attention!” Grue replied.  He pointed,  “Up!”

Bitch whistled, and Brutus surged forward in our pack.  Brutus turned partway into an alley and leaped.  He latched his claws on one wall of the building, half turned, then leaped across to the neighboring building.  Zig-zagging upward, he ascended to the roof in a span of seconds.

Oh hell no.

Judas followed, and Angelica was only a heartbeat behind.  If I’d thought our travel over the rooftops on our last escapade had been rough, this was sadistic.  Or masochistic.  It depended on where I assigned the blame.

We reached the rooftop just in time to nearly be squashed by a huge chunk of building that dropped from the sky like a meteor.  Angelica lurched under me as she leaped to one side.

New Wave’s fliers and Purity weren’t the only ones in the air.  Aegis was also up there on the side of the good guys, but Purity had backup from Crusader and Rune.

Crusader was flanked by a half dozen translucent replicas of himself, each armed with a ten foot long spear.  He could use his power to generate ethereal simulacrums of himself, a legion of ghosts, if you wanted to be dramatic.  I was more willing to peg them as some sort of semi-sentient forcefield molded in his shape or some telekinetic energy infused with fragments of his ego.  Whatever.  The important thing was that his images could carry him up into the air, letting him fly, and they could pass through walls, armor and other solid barriers to impale you with those spears of theirs.

Rune was the source of the debris that had struck us, which was rising back into the air as I watched.  A teenage girl in the service of Empire Eighty-Eight, Rune was a powerful telekinetic capable of lifting nearly a ton.  Several things weighing up to a ton, judging by what I saw.  She hovered in the air, crouched atop a piece of building as big as a garbage truck, with more similarly sized pieces of rubble orbiting her.  The drawback to her power was that she needed to touch things before she could move them with her mind, but that seemed fairly inconsequential right this moment.

The pair of villains were running interference for Purity, distracting and trapping the heroes to set them up so Purity could blast them out of the sky.  Purity was too high up for us to interfere with, which meant we had to find another way to get her attention.

Regent handled that for us, sweeping his arm to one side.  Rune slipped from her position on her floating piece of balcony.  Another gesture from Regent, and the girl was left hanging from the side.

“Don’t kill her,” I told him.

“Right,” he looked up at the girl.  Seeing her struggle, he shouted, “Better make sure you can land somewhere safe!  I’m dropping you in three seconds!”

The rock drifted in our general direction, and we backed the dogs up.  When Rune was over the rooftop, Regent swept his hand to one side and brought her down to a painful landing.

“Fuckers!” the teenager in the cowl and robe screamed, “I’ll squash you!”

The big pieces of rubble in the sky above drifted our way.  One suddenly stopped levitating and dropped.

We were already kicking the dogs into motion, leaping to the neighboring rooftop, when the debris struck with a series of crashes that suggested the debris had punched through the roof and even the one or two floors below it.

Crusader was apparently too occupied covering for Rune’s sudden absence to come after us.  That meant that all we had to worry about was keeping from being crushed by Sabrina the teenage nazi.

Note to self:  I apparently wasn’t one of those capes that was good at the repartee, banter or name calling.

One piece of debris soared over our heads, then plunged to stab downward through the roof in front of us.  The dogs were agile enough to leap out of the way.

In the heat of the moment, we didn’t anticipate it rising again.

The debris thrust up through the edge of the building’s roof, and the dogs had to skid to a halt to avoid treading on crumbling rooftop.  With the damage the building had sustained, our footing grew unstable.  The ground sloped, Angelica scrabbled for a grip, and then the section of roof beneath us began to slide down toward the street.

Brutus pulled clear easily enough, but the continued drifting of the piece of debris forced Bitch to direct him down toward the alley, off the rooftop.

The rest of us had a harder call to make.  We were sliding off a precipice, and it was a good ten story drop to the street.  The nearest and only available rooftop to leap to was the one we’d just left, which was in ruins.

Judas, I saw, managed to clutch the edge of the sliding raft of rooftop and get the leverage for a jump.  Brian, Tattletale and Judas reached the alley, where they could rebound off the walls until they reached relative safety.

I was about to urge Angelica to do the same, when that drifting debris of Rune’s shifted position to block off the alleyway.  Another of Rune’s pieces of building approached from her direction, promising to smash us if through some miracle, the section of roof Angelica and I were standing on didn’t break free.

But we had another option.  If I could only convince Angelica.

“Go!” I shouted at her, kicking my legs.  She pushed forward, and the movement only accelerated the decay of the fractured rooftop beneath her paws, prompting it to slide and tilt.

Angelica ran toward the building to our right.  To the right of the alley.  She clearly intended to leap to the building face, use her claws to dig into position there… and there would be nowhere to go from there.  Even if she could hang there indefinitely, or scale the wall back to the street, Rune would scrape us off the wall with a levitated piece of rubble.

I grabbed a horn at the side of her head and hauled on it, pulling her left.  She resisted, hauled right, but I tugged again.

“Go!” I shouted at her.

She lunged straight for the floating piece of debris.  Her claws latched on it, and for a moment, we hung there, Angelica in an undignified pose with her upper body hanging onto the thing, back legs dangling.

It drifted downward, slow at first, then faster, as though Rune couldn’t support the weight of us and the chunk of building.  Angelica scrabbled for a grip, pulled her body up and forward, and found the footing to leap.

We reached the alley, Angelica found footing on the wall, and then made her way safely to the ground.

As we landed heavily, I fell from Angelica’s back.  My hands were stiff from the deathgrip I’d just maintained, and my legs were a wreck.

Still, hard to complain.

“You okay?” Tattletale called out.

“Yeah.  You guys?”

“Not so hot,” Grue replied.

He was leaning against a wall, with Tattletale at his side.  Darkness radiated from every part of his body but his chest, and I could see how  he’d unzipped his jacket to investigate the damage.  He was bleeding from the cuts on his chest.

“Fuck, I knew you weren’t good to go!” I struggled to my feet and rushed to his side.  “You pull your stitches already?”

“Other things to worry about!” Regent called out.  “Incoming.”

I looked, and sure enough, Night and Fog were striding into the alleyway.  Night sported high heeled boots that clicked as she walked, and there was the gender difference, but the two were otherwise very similar.  Cloaks, cowls, no logos or other decoration.  Gray for him and black for her.

“Retreat,” Tattletale spoke, “Just don’t turn your backs to them.”

Fog moved forward, his limbs and legs dissolving into a cloud as he advanced on us.  His pace was slow, only a little faster than we moved walking backward.

Bitch had to whistle twice to get a growling Angelica to retreat.  The dog seemed set on protecting her master, attacking this threat, and was slow to obey.

The fog reached her, and we heard a strangled yelp, an unnatural sound from the throat of an unnatural animal.  I saw Bitch start forward.

“No!” I caught her shoulder.

I might have argued, told her why she couldn’t or shouldn’t attack, how useless it would be against a man that turned to a sentient gas.  I didn’t get a chance.

While our attention was on Angelica, Night took the opportunity to blindside Brutus.  He was thrown bodily into our group with enough force to to bowl us and even Judas over.  Night just stood there, standing straight, heels together, one arm outstretched in front of her.  I hurried to my feet, my legs and knees aching, putting one hand on Brutus’ shoulder to steady myself.  It was then that I saw the damage she’d done to him.

A dozen gouges criss-crossed his side, each wider than my handspan.  One of the gouges had even shattered some of the protective bone plating.  Brutus exhaled slowly, shuddering.

She’d done that?

I sent my bugs at the woman, but the delay Night had created had bought time for Fog to get close.  His mist blocked the path to Night, reduced the woman to a faint silhouette, and where the cloud passed, my bugs were crushed alive in midair.  The mist swelled forward, and we backed up as best as we were able.

I checked our escape route.  It was blocked by none other than Night herself.  Had she teleported?  Cloned herself?  No, it wasn’t cloning.  I couldn’t see her silhouette anymore.

“What the fuck is this woman?” I asked, “Tattletale?”

“You know how the Manton effect could maybe be a psychological block that comes parceled with our powers?”

I nodded, once.

“Okay, well, imagine that this woman got powers that let her turn into something so wrong that she’s got some sort of mental block that keeps her from transforming if anyone can see.  Maybe because she’s so ashamed of being seen like that.  When nobody’s looking, though, she’s a monster.  Lightning fast and all sharp.”

“That’s…”

“Not even remotely close to the truth,” Tattletale confessed.  “But it’s the best I can offer you.  Don’t take your eyes off her.”

“Right.”

I began massing my bugs.  I was going to need to catch Night off guard, debilitate her enough to take her down before she retreated to safety.  Swarm her, swat her down, then we’d figure out how to deal with Fog.

A bit optimistic, but it was a plan, anyways.

Night reached into her sleeve and retrieved a canister.  I recognized it immediately.

A flashbang grenade.

“Tattletale?”

“I see it,” she murmured her response.  “Grue, we’re going to need you to cover this shit.”

I felt a ton of weight suddenly press heavily against my back.

“Grue!” Tattletale shouted.

Grue had fallen against me, and he slid from that position to staggered to the ground at my side, landing with his hands and knees on the ground.

“Blood loss,” Tattletale intoned.  “Fuck, Grue, pay attention, you’ve-”

Night pulled the pin from the flashbang and threw it high into the air above us.

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