Speck 30.7

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I was plunged into darkness.  Things stopped making sense.

I was surrounded.  I couldn’t think straight because I couldn’t think.  Trying to analyze people, to parse them, to identify them, it was like being in quicksand.  Resistance to my efforts, getting nowhere, and always slowly, inevitably sinking.

Thirty, forty, fifty people, more appearing every second, streamed through portals.  All of the survivors, returning to the battlefield to see it for themselves.  To turn their eyes towards me, because the only open space in the area was the space around me, the radius of my power, and it drew the eye.  People noticed, and others paid attention to the noticing.

The looks were hostile.  All the worse because they were alien.  Hundreds of people, and they didn’t feel any goodwill towards me.

Strangers.  Not strangers like people I didn’t know.  That was different.  Strangers who had connections to me, who I still didn’t know.  Strangers like the masked man who broke into a house.  Strangers in the sense of a stalker.  Of a jury about to announce a sentence.

This darkness around me, it was an absence of illumination, an absence of any light that could clarify and make sense of things.  I couldn’t recognize anyone, put a finger on them as familiar or unfamiliar, enemy or ally.

This… it was all ominous, vaguely threatening.  People I might pass on the street wouldn’t pay me any mind.  People here, almost every single one of them, they had a reason to pay attention to me, and the attention wasn’t good attention.

Any of them, all of them, they could attack me at a moment’s notice.  Inflict horrible tortures, kill me, fates worse than death.  There were a lot of fates worse than death.

I was settling into the end-state of my transition.  I knew it, and I could see the dividing lines more clearly.  What I could still do, what I couldn’t.

Taking action, moving… easier so long as I had an objective.

Objectives, too, were easier.  I could still analyze.  I could survey the battlefield, interpret powers, put two and two together.  I could connect the dots, recall the powers I was up against, and I could form strategies.

My head hung, but I could see the eyes of the people around me through the clairvoyant.  They fixed their stares on me, and I could feel paranoia building.  A weight, a pressure, crushing me from all sides.

I couldn’t recognize anyone, only powers.  Everyone was a potential enemy.

Everyone was capable of using their powers to hurt me.

Damn them all.  After everything I’d done, everything I’d given up, and they were standing there, threatening me.

Not a word was spoken, though the singing continued in the background.  It conveyed the story to those who were still arriving.  There were only two reasons things would be so still.  The first was that battle could be utterly lost and there was no more need for orders, for communication, for cries of grief and screams of pain.  That there was nothing left but surrender for the ones who remained.

But this wasn’t that, I had to remind myself.  We had won.  That disbelief rocked each and every one of the people who were present, that silence marked a kind of respect for the fallen.

And, all too possible, it marked a kind of unspoken agreement.  I could see it.  The silence was a relief and an added pressure, giving more weight to the eyes on me.  Every pair of eyes was telling me the same thing.

I was the next big threat.  The next one that had to be killed before this could all end.

I tensed.  I could barely move, but I could still ready myself for a fight or flight response.  Maybe I wouldn’t be able to stand, but I could use the device on my back, I could throw myself at the first opponent to approach me.

I was lost in this special kind of darkness, but I could analyze this situation too.  I could look at my capabilities and what my power had taken away, and I knew that there was a common theme at work.

Con- conflict.  I could function so long as there was conflict, so long as I was creating it or resolving it.  Given the choice between paralysis and conflict, I wondered if anyone would really choose the former, committing to it over time.

Paralysis was a scary thing.  There were a lot of forms of it, and they ranked up there as far as fates worse than death.

Conflict was better.  Familiar.

My swarm informed me that I still had my knife, tiny legs tracing over the weapon’s grip.

One tinker came through a doorway, as if to survey the situation.  Heavy armored boots rang as they struck the glassy, blasted disaster area.  The man emerged, and he cast a glance around.  He took in, no doubt, the ruined buildings, the clouds of dust that were rolling into the clearing, still following the vast amounts of air that had crashed into the space to replace the atmosphere the blast had wiped out.

The tinker pointed his weapon.  The rest of the tinkers filed into this world, two by two.

Everyone, just about, was making their way here.  Thousands, now.

Strangers.  All of them would, circumstances demanding, aim to get in my way, to stop me, question my actions, condemn me, hate me, maim, torture or kill me.  I’d seen good people go bad, couldn’t trust anyone.

My memories were incoherent, but I could see the common themes, and I knew everything they could and would do, given the chance.  Pyrokinetics could burn, telekinetics crush.  They weren’t the scary ones, as painful as a burn or other injury could be.  It was the thinkers that worried me, the masters, the tinkers.

I watched that crowd with one eye.

Some of them would kill me the second they thought they could get away with it.  Others would be scheming.  I had power, they wanted that power for themselves.  They’d take it like my portal man was taken from me.  They’d take all of it.

My hand was clenched so hard I thought something might break.

Had to remain still.  I had a handful of soldiers, a swarm of sixteen people who…

I’d pushed them away, and these were the ones who I hadn’t pushed out.  Why had I pushed them?

Had I already been interfered with?  Had someone already made a move, manipulating me?

Rrreee-

I shook my head a little.  Couldn’t form complete thoughts.  I felt a light weight on my shoulders, heard a voice.  Reassuring, coaxing.

So very small, compared to everything I was seeing, everything I was up against.  The voice did nothing for me.

I was prey in the sights of a predator.  Frozen.  When two snipers fought, the one who shot first was at a disadvantage.  The other would see the muzzle flash and be on target.  It was the same for me.  My enemy would see the direction I was moving, the strategy I was putting to use, and they’d intercept me on both fronts.

Being small and still helped.  I wanted to cover myself, to hide in my swarm, big or little, but I couldn’t afford to move.

Again, the voice.  I shifted the clairvoyant’s grip, sliding it up from my wrist to my shoulder.  Severing threads so the hand was free to move.  Once it was on my shoulder, I moved it under a strap and used the cut threads to secure it in place.

My hand was free.

That singing-  Singing was bad.

But it wasn’t the- wasn’t the winged being that was perched on a building at the far end of the battlefield.  She was silent, her wings folded over her shoulders and along the edge of the rooftop.  Worse for wear, with wings broken, but her body was pristine alabaster, her hair blowing in the wind.

The singing… it was one of my minions.  The words had been faster in tempo before, now they were… I wasn’t even sure.

Singing was bad, wasn’t it?

I silenced her.

Stunning, to be in the middle of a city and not hear the roar of distant traffic, of conversation or anything of the sort.  There was barely any wind, even, and no debris here for the wind to stir.

There was only my swarm.  A dull buzzing roar in my ears, for the smallest ones.  I could sense the pounding heartbeats, feel the breathing.  I could imagine the sounds so clearly that I couldn’t pick it apart from what I was actually hearing.  Periodically, I could hear a voice, which was the same in some ways.  In my head or in my ears?

Muscles creaked when moving.  For some, bones ground togetherJoints popped.  Stomachs gurgled.

My swarm had formed a loose ring around me, more by accident or manipulation than by any design on my part.  There was a gap just beyond them, where others were afraid to cross.  The noises of their bodies, the sensations, the perceptions… they were an island of forced familiarity in a sea of hostility.

If even one wave of that sea hit me and my island… if they charged, if someone gave them an excuse…

I repositioned my hand, a shaky, uneven movement.  One side of my wrist pressed against the butt-end of my knife.

The last of the phones finished relaying the music.  Only two seconds had passed?  If that.  The spell broke.

Someone cried out.

It had started.

The outcry was picked up by others.  People grabbed one another, arms were thrown around necks, fingers dug into costumes and skin.  They whimpered, screamed, shouted.  I could see tears in eyes, faces contorted in emotion.  Groups turned inward, focusing on one another, loners backed away, positioning themselves where they had space to maneuver.  Madness, hysterical, chaotic.  Grown adult and child alike, costumed and uncostumed, individuals dressed in white or in bright colors, individuals in black, they were part of the riot.

They held nothing back, emotionally.  I saw fireballs explode in midair.  People streaked into the sky, lightshows following after them.

But the yelling, the echoes of that first cry, they were what shook me, what shook everything.  The only thing around us to block the sounds were people, and those people were making more sound.  Thousands echoing of that one cry.

None of this surprised me, that they’d turn on each other the moment the real threat was gone.  It was the way our species operated.  A reality that had been writ over and over again in my experiences.  I couldn’t remember the specific cases, but the lessons remained with me.

I was standing, already, making my way to my feet with the help of the clairvoyant, with the device on my back, the attached arms.

Easier to move when there was something to do.  Fighting, fighting back.

My movement had drawn attention.  I started to draw my knife, and something stopped me, keeping it in its sheath.  I abandoned it, turning instead to my swarm.  They shifted positions, ready to use powers, to protect me against outside threats, and my bugs filled the spaces between them.  The strangers around me responded in kind, preparing for a fight.  Thirty, fifty people, waiting for me to act.  More lurked in the fringes, ready to step in.

It wasn’t an unfamiliar experience, to be surrounded in chaos, to be arrayed against impossible odds.  For what I was now, for what remained, it felt only natural.  All of this was as I’d expected.

They were talking, exchanging hurried words, questions.  Trying to cobble together a strategy.  I had no such need.  My side didn’t need to communicate.  They were perfectly coordinated.

Everyone here was a potential enemy, and I’d treat them appropriately.  I just needed to focus, to get my bearings, and identify the biggest threats to me.  If I eliminated or captured them, I could systematically kill everyone present.

It was… not a calming idea.  But it reassured.

I was just a little unhinged, my perceptions were broken.  I knew that.  But if I had to live like this forever, if everyone was a threat for the rest of my life, I’d well and truly lose it.  Stopping them, eliminating them and bringing them under my control…

The only way we’d all achieve anything resembling peace.

I’d wanted peace for a very, very long time now.

After everything I’d given up, I deserved peace.

Someone was pushing their way through the crowd around me.  I tensed.  My hand went to my knife again, and again it was stopped.

I heard the voice in my ear.  It was trying to sound soothing, gentle, but it was failing.  I heard the fear in it.  That fear was reassuring in its own way.  It told me I was right.  That the world did revolve around fear and violence. That I was doing the right thing, standing guard, being ready for a fight at any moment.

The madness around me continued unabated, the shouting fading, then starting anew, picked up by others, different factions, fresh sets of lungs.

I wasn’t going to listen to the voice. Not with all of the powers arrayed against me.  it would be idiotic and foolish if I did listen, whether I understood or not.

The others, they were arguing amongst themselves, barking out insults, yelling, pointing at me.  I’d taken control of them, and that was a fresh wound.

The individual reached the edge of the crowd.  A man, bearded, with a small entourage of people wearing white.

When he spoke, his voice was soothing, a constant stream of words, more like he was talking to a wounded animal than a person.  He stopped at the circle’s edge, and I could see how many of the others were tense, wary.

They recognized him, and they didn’t like him.

If I was going to exterminate them all, then I could use the fact that they weren’t all friends.  Let them fight each other, wear each other down…

Except I had this to focus on first.

He was gesturing at his mouth, moving his hand as he talked.  he pointed to me, then to one of his underlings.  He repeated the three gestures, speech, me, underling.

I wasn’t stupid.  I grasped his meaning.  I could see others around the circle relaxing.

But they weren’t relaxing entirely.  But they were relaxing, tension leaving their shoulders and hands.  Weapons, poised at the ready, dropped a fraction.

He was saying he had a means of communicating with me?  But it, or he, couldn’t be trusted a hundred percent, judging by my own gut and the reactions of the others.

He sent one of his underlings into my reach.  A boy with a shaved head and thick eyebrows.

I felt the underling’s body and powers unfold before me, and I could tell right away that there was something wrong.

My eyes told me one thing, my power told me another.

My eyes told me the man was just beyond the reach of my power, the boy following his orders.

My power told me that whatever the boy looked like, he was a half-foot taller, he had a beard, and he was loaded down with trinkets and tidbits.  I recognized him by his power.  He made thinkers and tinkers, granted powers.

He had three more, hanging back, watching.  No doubt to help facilitate this ruse, whatever it was.  To watch for people who could see through it, to watch his back.

He was putting himself in my power.  Whatever he’d had his other self, his disguised underling or his clone say, he was making his offer plain and clear to me.  He’d let me use his power on myself.

A chance to communicate, to fix something.

I sensed my bugs moving, shifting position without even moving a limb or wing.  Before I even grasped what was happening, I was moving.  I cut out with my knife, feeling like I was swinging madly into open air.

A girl materialized, shouting or saying something.  She’d appeared just a little in front of me, her back initially to me as I continued cutting, the actions jerky and stiff, uncoordinated and continuing long past the moment there was any point.  I could feel her body appear in my mind’s eye, and I asserted control over her.

At my command, her hand moved up to her mask, raising it enough that she could press her own knife’s point to the roof of her mouth.  One good push, suppressing reflexes, and she’d impale her brain.  It was a good place to keep her, keeping any of her allies at bay.

I was left panting, my knife-hand trembling.  Someone had moved to get a bead on me with their gun, but boys in white had intervened to block the shot with their bodies.  The girl… she’d been materializing, been making herself known, and I’d caught on a second before anyone else had become aware.

The man had stopped in his tracks in front of me.  Still in my control.

Was it a trap?  Probably.  People didn’t like being controlled.  He’d have measures in place.  Maybe his underlings, maybe a device he wore.

Was the offer still tempting?  Yes.

I had him extend his hands, offering them to me.

Sometimes there was a need for making a point.  He wanted to manipulate me?  He could bleed.

I cut.

The blade of my knife found the flesh of his palms twice in quick succession.  The slashes were as wild and frenzied as before.  My aim was good, but my control wasn’t.  A cut found the back of his forearm, tore deep through cloth, skin and muscle.

My next cut was comparatively feeble, though it hardly mattered.  A barrier appeared, a crystalline wall, and the knife bounced off.

All around me, people reacted.  My swarm shifted position, and were summarily buried in prisms of that same transparent, floating crystal.

I had that one member of my swarm start singing again and she was shot an instant later, electricity arcing around her armor as she collapsed, unconscious.

I had my bugs, but-

I stopped.  The reactions, the calls of alarm and the occasional shriek, they extended beyond the ring of people that surrounded me.

It wasn’t right.  The chaos beyond this one group, it should have left people blind to what was going on here.  They shouldn’t have been able to turn their backs on the others.

I was- it was parsing wrong.  Didn’t connect.

In that riot, that mob, there was no blood.  The girl I’d cut wasn’t bleeding, the people in the crowd weren’t dying… only the hands and arm, held out for the knife to slash, were weeping with blood, only the older injuries, from a short time ago.

People wrapped their arms around one another, but bones weren’t broken, limbs weren’t disjointed.  The shouting and screaming wasn’t directed at anyone in particular, nor were the powers that were actively being thrown around.  There were tears, but those same people were smiling.

I hadn’t counted on having to deal with this many people.

Too many with powers I wasn’t familiar with.  The ones closest to me?  The ones I’d just been controlling?  I had a grip on them.  But the mob beyond was something else.

I felt a moment of trepidation.

My senses… I was more disabled than I’d thought.  I couldn’t make sense of what was going on beyond my swarm, could barely make sense of what was happening here.

I moved, relying on two individuals to support me where my one leg wasn’t working properly.  Not that the other was in great shape.  Two individuals, the clairvoyant walking behind, hand strapped to my shoulder-

I saw the forcefield woman in the crowd.  Taller than most, a curved, crystalline horn on her forehead.

The people surrounding my swarm were working to get back as I approached, but the press of bodies only had a limited amount of give.

A forcefield materialized just in front of me as my power reached the very front of the crowd.  I turned the newest additions to my swarm around, focusing them on the people who were looking to stop me.

My bugs got in her eyes, blocking her sight, crawled into her ears.

I felt as she bisected them with forcefields.   I was already using the device on my back to move over the forcefield, getting a boost from the two who’d been supporting me to heave the clairvoyant up with me.

He came down on top of me, and we landed hard, but we landed on the opposite side of the forcefield.  Close enough, taking advantage of the woman’s momentary blindness.

I lowered forcefields and set them in circles around me before pushing out.  Separating the crowd to give myself room to maneuver.

I needed to escape, I needed time and resources to analyze what I was up against, frame it all.  I’d stabilized, I’d stopped degrading, now I could start building- rebuilding my knowledge base.  Put everything into a context that I could grasp, with my mind working in a different way, with different priorities.

Then I could take control.  Then I could eliminate the problematic elements.

Then everything would be peaceful.

A mission.  I functioned best with a mission.  My thoughts and actions had always processed best when I had a mission, a task.

I moved my swarm.  Half of the original sixteen, they’d serve as bodyguards, protection, tools

I saw faces in the crowd.  Young women riding a monster, blocking my path.  More than any of the others, they were strangers in the manner I’d identified the rest of the crowd before.  People I had some connection to, all the more strange because of the lack of recognition.

People kept getting in my fucking way.

I could have gone through, but I felt a moment’s trepidation.  The strangeness, the strength of the connection.  They were enemies, friends, something, but they held an importance.

I couldn’t trivialize that.  Couldn’t dismiss them.  If they were that important, they couldn’t be weak, and that meant they were potential threats.

She had a hand extended.  Something dangled from one hand.  A short chain, a black tube with a red button.

That trepidation got worse.  I couldn’t put my finger on why.

The uneasiness reached a peak.  I gave them one final look, watching for any trouble, then took to the air, crouching on a forcefield.  The members of my swarm followed, flying around any barriers I erected.  A man in blue and white who zig-zagged around anything I put up.  A regal woman in blue.

Too many unknowns.

I changed my course, and I saw the woman with countless wings standing, the wings spreading, a weapon at her side.

My pursuers were backing off, keeping a certain distance or circling around, giving her a wide berth.  Was this a way through?  If I leveraged enough strength, could I force my way past her?

I was scared, but it wasn’t the usual kind of fear.  Almost the opposite.  I was used to being able to hold things together, with only the outward signs.  To channel fear into concrete purpose.  This was different, the outward signs limited at best, the underlying fear simultaneously affecting me more.  Like so many things, it felt alien, like I wasn’t certain of what I was doing, and it threatened to throw me off course.

That fear reached a crescendo as I closed the distance.

She aimed the little gun, and I changed course at the last second.

There was a small army after me now.  Some were in the lead, and I made a point of blocking them, stalling with forcefields and directing ranged fire their way.  The man in blue and white was chief among them, as was the blue woman in a regal costume.

More were moving to follow.  Enemies from every corner.

Not a surprise.  To be expected.

A man, flying with great skeletal bat wings, a kind of lace or filigree of bone stretched between segments, rose into the air to intercept me.

No, to intercept a member of my swarm.

My swarm worked to cut him off, but he was agile, persistent.  As massive and bulky as those wings seemed, they shapeshifted in the process of each flap, the lattice of bone opening up to let air pass through, then closing when he wanted the air resistance to bear himself higher, or to one side.

In the end, a forcefield appeared through one wing, and he dropped a solid thirty feet before he managed to catch himself.  It gave me a window of opportunity.

The path of least resistance…  There was another space with only one person in the way.  A gap in the defensive line.

It was a young girl that was barring my path.  Her blond hair stirred in the wind of this upper atmosphere, and her great green-black costume seemed more decorative than anything else, with ribbons and loops of cloth flowing in a manner that made her look like a living work of art.

She wasn’t living art, though.  As remote as my understanding of humans was, I could understand what her tears meant.  There was no smile accompanying them.

Others had stopped, a distance away.  Not wanting to interfere, even afraid.

She met my eyes, and there was something in her expression that I couldn’t quite place.

The man in white and blue was calling out, not orders, but something in that vein.  Urging.

I looked at the blond girl, and I saw three shadows form around her.

My own swarm gathered, rising behind me on the floating shards of crystal.  Some crouching, some standing, others sitting with legs dangling, as they preferred, running on autopilot.

She approached me, and I held her gaze.

She passed into my range, and -again- I felt the connection deviate.  I maintained my awareness of her and her spirits, but my control over her slipped to one of her shadows instead.  A shadow of a robed man with a blindfold and nails through his hands, wrists and upper arms.

The other two – I recognized their powers.  A man with access to many powers at once, a fluctuating, flexible thing, and an thin, plain looking man with no costume, head hanging, with the power to make doorways.

She closed the distance, and her hand touched my cheek.  I flinched away.

I had my knife.  If I couldn’t control her-

She bowed, stepping away.

I felt a moment’s fear.  Except ‘fear’ was the wrong word.  The symptoms were right, if muted, the shakiness, the feeling in my gut, my thoughts being more fractured, a touch of queasiness.  But it didn’t fit the scene, this meeting.

Why would I be afraid?

No, it was something else, and I was realizing what it was.

I was familiar with my power acting of its own volition.  This was something in that vein.  My power had a firmer grip on the whole of me, and other things were on shakier ground, acting the way they pleased.  Feelings.  My body.

Passenger.

No, why would it care about any of this?  Why would it care about the winged woman?  The two individuals who’d been riding the monster?

But it was the closest feeling I could manage.

She spoke, and I couldn’t understand the words.

When she saw that, she smiled a little, glancing over my swarm.

A doorway opened beside her.  She floated away a touch, as if inviting me through.

I hesitated, at first, because of suspicion.  I had worlds filled with enemies, worlds I needed to bring under my thumb if I was going to be able to relax for even a moment.

I forced the worries aside.

I felt another stab of that not-fear sensation.  That balking on the part of my passenger.

The others around us were moving closer.  There were angry shouts from some corners.  There was a degree of attachment between some of them and my swarm.  I raised forcefields.  The man in white and blue promptly shattered them with a massive laser.

We were left staring at one another.  I couldn’t move forward, couldn’t move back.

Contradictions, opposing forces.  Some threatening me to stay, others threatening me if I stayed.  Contradictions in equal measure inside me.  That odd dissonance.

I stared at the portal.  A point of no return.  I could pass through, and I’d be able to take steps to get control, to carry out my plan.

-Again, that dissonance.

It was uncomfortable, distracting.  I wanted to be able to pursue my goals unmolested.

I started to move towards the portal, and again I felt the trepidation, halting me, threatening to take my control altogether.

I closed my eyes, and despite every instinct telling me to do the opposite, I relaxed.

Forgetting about the mission, about the goal.

I could feel the shakiness returning, the unsteadiness.

W-wwha- ddo y-y-you wwwant?

My control was slipping, the others descending as the forcefields lost altitude.  The forcefield woman nearly slipped out of my range altogether.

I reasserted control.

Again, I tried to let my passenger take control, to set things on autopilot.

Again, the others began to descend.  This time, the forcefield woman remained where she was.

I let things continue, watched as they drifted away, back to the ground.  The others gathered around me, the man with the blue and white costume, the man with bone wings, they backed off a little.  I could see the latent aggression dissipating.

Some were still angry, still looking for revenge.  The woman in blue seemed more angry than protective, furious at me, silent as she was.  But she had less backup now.

It was a good move, for the short term.  A puzzling one, but a good move.

I’d have a harder time taking control of things in the long term, but I was okay with survival.

I watched the individual members of the swarm touch ground.  The girl with healing powers had been placed deliberately next to a living pool of flesh with multiple heads of golden hair.  The healer’s hands were covering her face, but she didn’t step away.

Her hands slowly lowered, and she laid her eyes on the monster, which was actively, ineffectually reaching out for her.

Others were placed indiscriminately in the crowd below me.  My swarm, returned to the place they came from.

I turned to go, and there was far less resistance.

The autopilot took control of the clairvoyant’s focus.  It turned my attention to faces.  A blond girl.  A girl with brown-red hair.  The girl with the horned mask that I’d attacked so ineffectually with the knife.

Others.  A red haired girl in another world, shouting to people as she ordered them through a building project, a girl who was standing outside in the rain, in another world, kids peering through the window behind her.

Before it could go any further, I wrested control for myself.  Easier.  It was like it was weaker with every set of actions.

I passed through the threshold.

Again, that discomfort.

This would be a learning process, adjusting, adapting.  I was learning what it wanted.

It kept wanting sacrifices in the short term.  Responding to its desires had left me feeling more secure, made the ensuing resistance weaker.  The implicit promise was that acquiescing would be rewarded with a surer footing.  Footing that I could use.  There were doors open to every world.  If I could take time to heal, to build my strength.  Eating well, resting… I could move on, carry out my plan.

The question was whether the cost was too high.

It was a gamble.  I was risking myself, setting myself back.  People would come after me.

But it meant more control, and it all came down to control in the end.

I let the clairvoyant step through the portal, onto the shard I’d just abandoned.  The forcefield woman held on to him, steadying him.

I broke contact.

The last thing I saw before I passed out was the door closing.

I opened my eyes.  The moon was too bright, the stars like little shards of glass piercing my eyes.  When I sat up, I felt muscles in my neck, back and shoulders seizing up, cramping.  The world swayed around me like I was on a boat, even though I was on a hill in the middle of a forest.

I was hungry.  It had been a day, maybe two.

I heard the cocking of a gun.

My eyes shut.

Long seconds passed.  I took the time to get my bearings, to catch my breath and let the world stop rocking around me.

When minutes had passed and things were bearable, I turned to give my attacker a sidelong glance.

Twenty feet away, sitting on a rock with a little messenger bag beside her, was a woman in a white dress shirt and suit pants.  Her gun was in hand, a little revolver, resting on her knee, her suit jacket draped over that same knee.

Strangely, I felt none of that odd fear from my passenger.  Just the opposite, if anything.

The woman spoke.  The words didn’t make sense, but I understood them

Where the words themselves were nonsensical, my brain tried to parse them anyways, and they found a degree of sense in my head.

You knew it would come to this.

I didn’t move, staring.

Speech.  It affected me more than I wanted to admit, hearing it.  Even if I grasped the meaning.  Brought me back to myself, just a little.

You don’t remember me, but if you don’t look too hard, you’ll be able to tap into vague recollections of who and what I am.  You should know I have you in checkmate.  There are no loopholes, no tricks, no ways out.”

My eyes moved over the area.  I did what she suggested, and I could pick up a general impression of our past encounters.  We’d crossed paths before, and I’d lost absolutely.

If we fought here, I’d lose again.  Especially like this.  I’d try something, she’d shoot.  The bullet would kill me faster than my swarm would kill her.

A feeling of defeat settled on my shoulders.

Water?  If you speak, I’ll understand.

“Yes,” I said.

She reached into the bag and grabbed a thermos.  She threw it, and the corner of it sank into the dirt between my knees.

I drank greedily.

What you are, you know you can’t be allowed to carry on.  You don’t quite remember, but you’ve dealt with some who were like you.  The Echidna, the Faerie Queen.  You saw the Ash Beast.”

“Hearing the two… first two names makes me feel… shadows of feelings.”  Talking was hard.

I imagine so,” she said.  “We walked very similar roads.  We’ve done ugly things for a greater good.

“You still-” I started.  Then I shut my mouth.  Why had I talked?  I hadn’t meant to.

She raised one eyebrow.  I didn’t understand what the expression was meant to convey.

Go on,” she said.

“I don’t-” I started.  What had I been saying?

Not me.  The passenger.  I had to relax.  Allow myself to speak.

“You still do ug-ly things.  I saw you with T-teacher.  You work with him now.  As before, still do now.”

I’m not so sure,” she said.  “There’s less of a mission, now.  I have no cause anymore, and I hope that means I don’t lose sight of the little things.

I didn’t have a response to that.

Instead, she volunteered a little more.  “I’m thinking I’ll try to do some things without any help, in the future.”

I stared down at my knees.  I was still sore from my unconscious posture on the hard ground.  She was talking about the future, and I didn’t have one.

I keep on asking myself the same questions over and over again,” she said.  “Maybe you can answer.  Was it worth it?

I stared down at my hand.  It was shaking, but it wasn’t from fear.

Would you do it all over again?  Knowing what you know now?  Knowing that you end up here, at gunpoint?

“I… know I’m supposed to say yes,” the words made their way past my lips.  “But no.  Some-somewhere along way, it became no.”

Just about everyone comes to this crossroad,” she said.  “Some get seventy years, some only get fifteen.  Enough time to grow, to take stock of who you are.  Enough time to do things you’ll regret when you run out of time.

“Don’t- don’t regret it.  Was- had to.  Saved lives.  But I would do different, given a chance.”

She smiled, bobbing her head up and down a little.  “It’s always about the people, isn’t it?

“Protect some, pay less attention to others.”

Her smile twisted.  A little sad.  “Can’t bet on the wrong horse.

Not what I’d meant.  “Giving too much power to wrong people.  To bullies.  With powers, bullies without.”

She gave me a slightly surprised look at that.  “I don’t see that applying to Scion.

“Doesn’t.”

He doesn’t factor?  He isn’t a consideration, at the end?”

“Fighting him… always more about us than about him.  Not a consideration.”

And the person who played the biggest role in stopping him doesn’t give him a second thought,” she said.  There was a note of emotion in her voice.  She was gripping the gun handle tightly enough that her knuckles turned white, but her expression wasn’t an angry one.

I didn’t respond.  I felt like it might have been rude to.  We all had our demons, our burdens, and this was hers.

The silence yawned on.  I took another gulp of water from the thermos, swallowing past a lump in my throat.

I looked at the trees.  I was reminded of… the scene was hard to reach.  Of home, not long after it stopped being home.

Was it the other way around?  When I imagined that rotting, flooded city that smelled like garbage and seaweed, what was it to me?

Or was it different things to the two biggest pieces of me?

They’re offering amnesty to all but a few,” she said.

I wasn’t surprised.

The Faerie Queen was brought in.  You should remember her.  She’s the one who let you go.

“Yes,’ I said.

There were a lot of eyes on you two, at the end.  It reflected well on her, that she got you to free the captives.

She hadn’t, but I didn’t explain.  This woman probably knew, anyways.

She was questioned about you, in the hopes that the heroes could use the information to find you.  I got the transcription of the interview,” the woman in the suit said.  She patted the bag.  “I could use my power to get the answer, but it’s been a long journey here, and we’re in no rush.  Do you… does the word ‘anchor’ mean anything to you?

It took me a second, but I nodded a little.

What did you pick, in the end?

I opened my mouth to answer, but I found only blanks when I reached out.  I closed my mouth.

Ah,” she said, as if that was answer enough.

“A-ah?”

She went to great lengths to protect you,” the woman said.  “She’s already on shaky ground, but… I think she saw herself in you.  She held out hope that you’d found yourself.  That she’d have a kindred spirit in you.  It might even by why she balked at the end.  Seeing you, realizing she’d built herself off of a lie, compromising too much with her agent.  In that decisive moment, she did something honest.  Maybe you inspired that.

Was I honest?

Were you honest enough to inspire that?” the woman asked, echoing my thoughts.  “It’s… probably the most important question I’m going to ask you tonight.

I’d started my career on a lie, an undercover operation.  I’d ended it by betraying what I stood for.

I think you have the capacity to answer,” she said.  “You’re more lucid than you were.

“Talking… talking helps.”

That’s part of why I’m asking, Taylor Hebert.  Weaver, Skitter, Khepri, I’m thinking you’re not totally gone.  Glaistig Uaine told you to hold on to an anchor.  The other ones, the little ones?  They might have gotten you through the events, given you the strength from moment to moment.  But you had something bigger.  Something more fundamental, which was there before the battle even began.

I knew she was right, but-

Were you really a monster in the end?  A warlord, an alien administrator?  A vicious killer with a cruel streak, mutilating your enemies and secretly enjoying it?  A bully, if you forgive me for using that word?

I looked down at my hand.

Or were you really a hero?  Do the good intentions win out?  Was it Glaistig Uaine’s strength or yours, that held her back from saving Scion in those final moments?

“Why… does it matter?”

Because I think you have a chance to come back from this.  Not much of a chance.  Part of that rides on me.  I could help you, or I could stop you from troubling anyone ever again.  Part of that?  It’s up to you to win the fight, to take control and keep the administrator from claiming everything you have, leaving you a shell.

I felt a chill.  Was part of it my passenger?  Both of us?

I opened my mouth to reply, and I couldn’t.

Didn’t deserve to, either way.

It’s okay.  I got the answer, myself.

I looked away.

I looked up.  My eyes were wet.

So many stars.  The universe so vast.

We’re s- so very small, in the end. 

The first bullet hit me from behind, where my mask offered no coverage, and I slowly toppled.  The second hit me before I could fall, before there could be any pain.

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Speck 30.6

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I had a choice to make.  Into the thick of things, or-r h-hang-hanging b-back?

What I’d done, taking control, using people like sacrificial pawns, I’d made enemies.  I’d offended the pride of countless villains, of heroes, even.  I was a kill-on-sight target.

I could sense the doorways closing.  Only the ones close to me remained open.  Though ‘close’ was a hard label to apply when talking about dimensions.

I turned to my old standby.  I gathered my bugs, drawing them through the portals that remained, gathering them at my destination.

I stepped through into the cloud.  A rooftop overlooking New York, Earth Bet.  My New York.

It hadn’t been a conscious choice.  An impulse, really.  Maybe there were cities that were more fitting, but this was a city at the center of modern civilization.  Or it had been.  If this was going to be our final staging ground, then it was as fitting a choice as any.  It was heavy with resources that every parahuman could use, unoccupied.  Intact enough to still look like a city, damaged enough to remind us of what was at stake.

With the clairvoyant, I could see the parahumans around us.  They hadn’t scattered, and were still holding formation, more or less.

For the time being, we were holding fast.  Scion was still engaged with the Endbringers in Gimel.  We had seconds, a minute or two if we were lucky, to catch our breath, to think, plan and communicate.

If we were really unlucky, we’d have even longer.  Long enough for people to talk themselves out of this.  Long enough for trouble to find me, for the Birdcage capes I’d unleashed to cause trouble.  The only reason things down there on the streets were quiet was because people were still reeling, trying to process, because they were in organized groups and breaking from that organization in times of stress was hard.

Cults and religions and frat- fratern- clubs, they held together because of the power of the group.  We were social creatures in the end.  Easier to be one tinker in a small army of tinkers than a tinker all alone.

Heads were turning my way, a few fingers pointing.  Angry mutters.  Clairvoyants, precogs, people with future sight, all of them finding me.  If the lynch mob came for me, there wasn’t a lot I could do.  Glaistig U- the Faerie Queen was among them, and she was mad.

If she turned her power on me, hit me with anything close to what she’d used while I was at the height of my power, I was a goner.

There were a lot of capes out there who didn’t like being made into puppets.  I suspected that more than a few of them had been victim to it in the past.  Yet others were used to being the ones in control.  Lung, Teacher, the child surgeon.

I counted myself lucky that I’d made it even this far.  That things hadn’t devolved into chaos the moment the leashes came off.

I’d set myself apart, a little distance away.  The original plan had been to maintain a vantage point where I could watch the battle unfold.  Now it was a refuge, as if capes who could bring cities to their knees hesitated to expend the time and energy to close the distance to me.

I dropped to my knees, still holding on to the clairvoyant, much as I’d hold on to a life preserver while underwater.

Standing was hard.  I needed a chance to rest, to think.

Except thinking was harder still.  I was a husk, and things were rotting from the inside out.  I’d hoped I’d recuperate some when I had less people in my control, but it didn’t seem like it worked out that way.  Damage done was damage done.  One section of my brain was swelling or creeping out to take over other sections, like it had overwritten dog-girl’s social perceptions.

If I could have talked, if I could have communicated, I could have told them.  I could have explained how we could make it all work if we just worked together, if we coordinated.  I would have offered myself up for them to do with as they saw fit, if they’d just cooperate now.  I’d made the choice for others, sacrificing them rather than letting them choose to sacrifice themselves.  If someone in that crowd was angry enough to give me a fate worse than death, it was probably deserved.

Though probably not equitable.  I moved my hand to my face, the clairvoyant holding my wrist.  I’d taken my mask off at some point.  When had I done that?  My hand ran clumsily down past my eye, my cheekbone, nose, and mouth, every movement trembling.  It didn’t feel real.  Like it was a mask I was wearing.

I dug my fingernails in as I caught my lip and chin.  Numb.  I could feel, but it was so small a sensation compared to all of the people I’d been controlling.  I saw it from a distance, to the point that I felt like I was barely there.  I’d be willing to sacrifice myself if it meant saving everything, but that wasn’t much of an offer, when my life was already pretty much gone.  I didn’t have anything left.

Not that I was free to suggest it, in any event.

I would have explained my strategy.  A way to win, if we could get the pieces in motion.  I would have rallied them, tried to get them on board.  Even told them, knowing I’d be gunned down an instant later.  But I was mute, incomprehensible.

There was only one option left to me.  One I didn’t like in the slightest.

I shifted my position, and I sat on the edge of the roof, my bugs thick enough around me that a sniper would have a hard time taking a shot.

I waited.

The assembled capes below were getting more restless.  They spoke different languages, finding others in their number who spoke the same.  Voices were tight with anger and stress.  Some of it would be directed at me.  Others…

There was an advantage here.  Another reason they hadn’t scattered.  So much of our dwindling morale was due to the fact that we hadn’t been able to affect Scion.  We hit him, and nothing seemed to work.  At best, we had knocked him off balance.

They hadn’t seen me drop the bombs.  They hadn’t been fully cognizant of what was going on with Scion expending power to view the future, or even that we were wearing him down on a level.  There was a limit to how much damage he could sustain.

The saving grace had been the psychological impact they’d witnessed.  Scion hurting.  Seeing his reaction to glimpsing the other being.

Maybe they didn’t understand it.  Maybe they did.  But I suspected it was a factor in morale.  They’d seen a reaction.

It was key, that reaction.

Now I was in an awkward position.  Unable to act, unable to access the specific capes I needed.  I had far, far more enemies than allies.  Beyond that fight from without, I had to wage a war within, struggling against my mind and body.

I was losing things.  I struggled to find a point of reference.

I’m a monster, I thought.  Not an anchor, but a recent memory, a realization that was still fresh in my memory.  Something from just before I’d started losing memories.

Bullet ants.

Maggots in eyeballs.  Necrotizing flesh.  Strip- stripping flesh from bone.

Hand or knee?

The images were so clear in my mind’s eye that I could almost see them around me.  A hero in his civilian clothes, gasping for breath.  I had the means to save him, and I was holding back.

I heard a voice, female, kind words, spoken haltingly, out of place in the midst of this.  I had trouble placing the memory.

Then, more reassuring in a way, a return to the more violent thoughts.  Me standing over a man, pulling a trigger and watching the aftermath, bits of skull, brain and blood painting the pavement beneath him.

The dance of bugs within a woman’s lungs, minimizing the surface area available, limiting oxygen.

A very different, very abstract way of killing.

Again, the voice interrupted.  Patient, almost like I was overhearing something being said.  It made for a kind of… what was the word?  A conflict between two ideas.  Dis- Dissonance.

I tried to pick it apart, and in the doing, I realized what was happening.

With the loss of the portals, I’d lost one more anchor.  Pride, confidence, that reminder of who I’d been when I’d been a warlord, when I’d been at my most powerful, recent circumstances excepted… I’d inadvertently connected thoughts and memories to that, and now that the physical manifestation was gone, those thoughts were disappearing with it.  My identity was degrading.

I couldn’t be sure that anything I was reaching for was real, or if I was taking something minor and exaggerating it in importance.

The Faerie Queen had been right.  If she hadn’t warned me, if she hadn’t told me I needed something to hold on to, I wasn’t sure where I’d be right this instant.

I reached out, searching for other anchors.

The dog girl.  Her pet wolf had been changed into the alien ‘garden’, and her view of it had been cut off when she’d retreated through a doorway.  She was staring at the empty space where the doorway had been.

Her teammate- my teammate, had a phone out, and was talking and typing at the same time, while her eyes roved over the crowd.

She had only the two pairs of eyes, while I had limited, local omniscience.  We were each seeing the same thing through very different perspectives.  Unease, restlessness.

Here and there, people were breaking down.  Tears, panic.  The ones who had avoided the battle in the first place, the ones from distant Earths who had no conception of what was going on, the retirees.

Except they had support.  They weren’t entirely alone.

I felt a measure of resentment.  I tried to dismiss it, but it didn’t budge.

Alone.  A freak.  Crazy.  Broken.  Unhinged.

I had no fucking time, but I was paralyzed until someone else made the first move.  If I stepped in now, I’d disturb the frail peace and tranquility that kept the group stable.  They’d rally against me.

I watched the monsters and the lunatics.  The tentacle girl was hanging back, hiding inside an apartment, trying to calm herself.  There was a cape from the Birdcage who was pacing.  When I’d picked him up, I dimly recalled, he’d been all alone, occupying one wing with two others.

I saw the trio of furies, on the fringes.  Pale, and somehow not even remotely human.  They reveled in chaos, and so long as one lived, the others would come back.  Over and over.  As allies, they’d be useful, as enemies, they could and would deliver the critical, crippling blow that spoiled all our efforts.

The Faerie Queen was being very quiet and very still, but one of her puppets was tracking my location.  The most dangerous one of all.  Dangerous to all of us, not just me.  I scarcely mattered at this point.

There was only the message I needed to communicate.  I’d seen it all, I’d seen what worked and what didn’t.  I had an idea of what we needed to do.

I bit my lip, hard, as if the pain could help me focus, bring me closer to being me.

Watch, observe, wait.

Scion was killing the serpent-Endbringer… Leviathan.  Pummeling his chest, shattering it.  Cracks radiated from the wound, glowing gold.  Scion’s face was twisted in fury, his fury was that of a berserker.  The blows were heavy enough that they drove Leviathan into the shattered earth below.  Water was flowing in around them, Leviathan’s element, but the attack continued, the glowing wounds creating mountains of steam around them.

Leviathan managed to get one fin to make contact with Scion, and the resulting disintegration created nearly as much mist, redoubling the effect.

The winged Endbringer advanced through the steam and golden-crimson mist, moving the one gun she still carried through the air until it was aimed at the two.

She fired, and it blasted a gust of wind at them, strong enough to push them and clear the wind.

The smallest Endbringer, flying in the air, unloaded a laser, three of its shadow pets’ attacks and two more ranged powers on the golden man.  The resulting blast sent the ruined fragments of the settlement and the remains of the surrounding terrain spraying into the air.

The resulting crater that compared with the one Leviathan had made in the real Brockton Bay.

The blast had separated the two, leaving Leviathan hunched over, one arm intact and braced against the ground, head hanging, his chest peeled open.

Scion merely shifted his orientation in the air.  Not even shaking himself, not pausing to find his balance.  He was roaring, screaming, and in his thrashing movements, his blind fury, I nearly missed it.  In the moment he returned to an upright position, he flung out a sphere of golden light.

The light curved in the air, and punched into Leviathan’s open chest cavity.

The Endbringer fell.  The color went out of Leviathan, his flesh breaking up, like clay overbaked in a kiln.  The fins were the first thing to crumble, the rest of his body following suit.

We’d taunted him.  Teased him with the one thing he wanted most in the world, then we’d taken it away.

He turned his attention to the winged Endbringer and her smaller companion.  The towering Endbringer was already so damaged that she could only pull herself together.  The fat Endbringer was gone.

No, he was alive.  He’d created a time field around himself, and was healing in a more distant location.

Scion was doing too much damage to them.  They wouldn’t win this fight for us.

No, it was the least of us, the smallest of us, which could have the biggest impact.  Capes I’d overlooked entirely.

I blinked.  No, even more than that, individuals I was thinking of as useless, even now.

I knew what I had to do.

In the crowd, people were getting more outspoken.  Arguments had broken out.  Harsh words, criticisms.  Divisions were forming in the squads.  Almost all of them were divisions centered around certain individuals.  Virtually all of those individuals were ones who didn’t play well with others.

It was a man in gold and black armor who stepped to the fore, a sultry looking woman following right behind him.  He shouted out, and his voice echoed, drawing attention from the majority of the crowd.

That would have to do.

With so little time to spare, I’d settle for a distraction.

One floor below me, a chute had been deployed.  Reaching twenty stories to the ground, it was arranged to let people on the upper floors evacuate quickly.  People would slide down, and the natural curve of the chute as it was pulled away from the building would keep them from being turned into a paste.

I used my relay bugs to extend my range, sent my swarm out, and then began securing it myself, tying the end to nearby architecture.  It was set up by the time we’d made our way inside the building and to the far end of the hall.

The faerie woman had noticed I was moving, but her attention was partially on the man in armor.  She was holding back.

I was preparing to go down with the clairvoyant, making sure we wouldn’t break contact even if we had a hard landing, when I heard that voice again, small and afraid.

I couldn’t place the recollection.

I couldn’t use my flight pack with a passenger, so I made my way down the chute, and I hoped the material of the chute would hold.  I wasn’t worried about the threads, thin as they were.  I knew spider thread.

It was nice, knowing something, but I hesitated to claim it as an anchor.  It could be another misleading thing.

And if I ended up with one thing tying me to reality, I didn’t want that one thing to be an obsession with bugs.

Images crossed my mind, possibilities.  If I still controlled people, but I’d gone down some ugly path like that…

I saw myself, haggard, thin, with minions in a similar state.  Eating bugs, wearing bugs and their materials, barely human, my mind more like an insect’s.

I focused on my friends instead.  Dog-girl and the girl with the phone.

They were moving my way.  Calling out to a girl who was getting her ruined hand stitched up by her partner.

The pair raised their heads, but they hesitated to follow.

A harsh word from the girl with the dogs got them into action.  It would have made me move, and I didn’t understand what it meant.

I’d reached the end of the ramp.  Perhaps not so gentle a landing as I’d hoped for, but it hadn’t injured me.  I picked myself up and got moving in their direction.

I was losing track of who people were.  How were they supposed to be anchors when I couldn’t remember who they are, or why they meant something to me?

I couldn’t quite remember how she even knew I was coming.  I hadn’t controlled her recently, and her power wasn’t fresh in my mind.

It was with a measure of trepidation that I met up with them, the portal creator and clairvoyant following me.

Eerie, to be in such a large city with no people around us.

I could imagine how things would be if humanity was eliminated.  All of these ruined cities moldering, slowly crumbling…

W-why did I find it com-comf- why did it re-re-reassure me?

Dangerous, to think that way.

I was a tent in a strong wind, and the stakes were coming loose.  Only one or two remained.  Depending on the direction the wind was blowing when they were gone, someone could get hurt.

A tent surrounded by bugs.  Like this was a shitty camping trip.  I smiled a little at the thought, a broken giggle slipping through my lips.

N-no.  St-stay c-ccentered.

The slur in my own thoughts made a chill run down across my back.  I pressed my hand to my head, as if I could physically shift things back into place, or keep them from coming apart.

Again, that soft voice I couldn’t place, something to help me keep moving onward, a human sound when abstracts were becoming all too real.

I realized the others were near, riding a dog.  The ones riding the stuffed lizard-Endbringer had stopped at the midway point, no doubt keeping watch.

The girl at the front flashed me a grin, raising a hand in a gesture I couldn’t quite grasp.

She spoke, and I assumed it was a greeting.

I couldn’t respond.  Didn’t know how.  We were separated by a gulf.

She spoke as she spread her arms, raising her shoulders in an exaggerated set of movements.  Like talking louder to a person who didn’t speak the language.  What was the fucking point?

She pointed at me, then in the direction of the crowd, then made the same movement.

The giant monsters are losing to Scion, I thought.  He’s coming, soon.

I took her cue and started walking forward.  She hopped off the dog, scrambling to get in my way, barring my path, her arms spread.

I stopped.

Her expression was stark, rigid, wide eyed.  Her arms spread, she repeated the gesture a third time, arms and shoulders rising, then falling.

When I didn’t respond, she spoke, her head cocked a little to one side.

I could hear the voice again.

Another person appeared twenty or so feet to my left, startling me.  My bugs moved, creating a barrier.

No.  She was a familiar face, so to speak.  A gray mask, horned, with mischievous eyes, a mouth hidden by a scarf or cowl  she’d piled around her shoulders.  She was the source of the voice.  She’d been with me, keeping me company.

Tears came unbidden to my eyes.

The blonde girl touched her cheek, pitching her voice high at the end.  A question?

The girl with the horned mask responded, gesturing in my direction.

I adjusted the clairvoyant’s grip, then touched my cheek.  I was bleeding.  I had a gouge at the corner of my mouth, and my finger came away with blood on it.

Oh, I’d scratched myself, earlier.  I hadn’t realized.  Hadn’t meant to.

My hand shook as I stared down at it.

Alone, but not alone.  Isolated, but not isolated.

I needed to move, to go on.  Damn the consequences, damn whatever could happen to me.  If I could just get him to-

The dog girl spoke from her seat on the giant, monstrous dog’s back.  Not a sentence, but a single word, clearly spoken to get my attention.

I raised my head to meet her eyes.  Her hair was shaggy, her gaze intense behind the mop of brown-red hair.

She held my gaze, silent, for long seconds.

Then she reached down, grabbing a loop of chain that was strapped to the dog’s back.  She reared back until it looked like she was going to fall off, then heaved it forward.

It didn’t fly that far, but it landed partway between us, closer to her than to me.

I advanced, and the entire group collectively backed away.  Only the girl with the horns, behind me, advanced a little.

I reached down, the clairvoyant’s hand on my arm, and I grabbed the chain.

I gave the chain to Doormaker.  He gripped it, and then he parted from me.

It’s the ones I was dismissing entirely that are most important, I thought.

I backed away, and she began reeling in the chain.  I walked him forward until he was out of my range, in their company instead of mine.

The dog girl didn’t break eye contact.  She was watching me carefully.

She pointed at me, then at the sky.

No, not the sky, at bugs.

Me… bugs?

Herself, then the dog.

Then at the portal man… and, very slowly, taking her time, she pointed a door, as if unsure.

What did she mean?

Our respective powers?  Power?

She was asking about his power?

I didn’t know about his power.  But it wasn’t important.  I didn’t care about his power.  It was secondary.  If they could fix it, it would help, but I doubted I’d be able to take control of people so easily.  Not a second time.

No.  I touched my hand to my mouth, then to my forehead.

I gestured towards him, then repeated the combination.

I drew a line with my bugs, pointing towards the crowd.

P-p-please on-unddersttand.

The girl with the red-brown hair was nodding slowly.

She started to speak, but the blonde cut her off.  The blonde sounded annoyed, hurt, a little upset, but not in a bad way.  When she looked at me, her eyes were kind.  She brought the portal man to her and hooked one of her arms through his.

She understood, I was almost positive.  She cared, and I was positive.  That annoyance, that hurt, it was only because she wanted to be the one who understood me and communicated with me, even in this rudimentary way.

I wasn’t the only one who’d seen everything unfold.  The portal man had been there, linked to the clairvoyant through me.  He’d watched what I’d watched.  They could find a way to communicate with him, and they could get clues out of him, answers.

In the other Earth, the winged Endbringer fell from high above, her innumerable wings broken, ruined and bent.  She reached skyward, as if clutching for Scion, high above, and then the hand crumbled.

The rest of her followed suit.

The others were too broken to fight.

S-ssionns c-comminng.

I was losing the ability to think in concrete words.  Needed- needed to get myself in a position where I could fight.

I took a step forward, and the others reacted.  This time, the auburn-haired girl had her dog move out of the way, off to one side.  The blonde didn’t move.

In the distance, the faerie girl turned her head.  She’d noticed me move, somehow.

Why?

I knew what I was doing.  It was dangerous, yes, but so was Scion.

I almost stepped forward to control her, to move her out of the way myself.  Then I remembered that she was my anchor.  One of the few I had remaining.

What did I wind up as, if she was my only anchor?  If I could so readily envision myself as the bug-obsessed freak, lurking in dark places, what did I become with her?

Something close to human, at least?

She’d saved me, in a way.  I couldn’t remember how, but I remembered that much.

I couldn’t touch her.  I didn’t even dare.

She gestured with the… phone.  She started talking.  Not communicating in basics, but taking a shotgun approach, not stopping, trying everything, in the hopes that something got through.

Scion stepped through into another world.  I’d covered our retreat in a fashion, but he was finding his way.

The moment he left Earth Gimel, the Simurgh scattered the mixed sand and dirt she’d gathered above her, then climbed to her feet, gun in hand.  The pieces of the fake body she’d formed of the materials at hand broke apart as they fell free.  She waited, recuperating.

It took seconds before he appeared in our world.  The chaos was immediate.  People running, people moving forward to fight.

Glaistig Uaine cast one glance my way, then joined the fight.

It was time.

I picked up my phone, then used my bugs to carry it to her.  She gave me a strange look I couldn’t interpret.

The bugs moved the string, and it tapped against her phone.

She typed something on my phone.  I brought it back to me.

I didn’t understand the characters, but it looked like she’d done what I wanted.  The phone was set up to call her, when I needed to call her.

I could only hope that she understood when I started calling her.  She’d been reluctant to help before, hadn’t she?  And now, when everything was on the line…

I trusted her.

A noise made everyone’s heads turn.  The man in gold and black armor had fired his weapon, and it had clipped a building.

Dust from the toppled building filled the street.

I moved.  I could see where my blonde friend was, where the others were.  I slipped by her in the chaos.

Ittt’sss ttimmme.  My own voice was a buzz in my head, a medley of discordant sounds only barely resembling words.

Time to fight, gathering my forces.  Not an army this time.

I broke into a run, best as I was able.  Where my own feet failed me, my flight pack kept me aloft.

I could see everyone, even in the dust.  The clairvoyant let me see as if I was looking from every perspective, everywhere.  It was easy to collect the first few I encountered.

The girl with the mangled hand and her partner, riding the stuffed lizard.

A sharp right.  Moving around the perimeter of the flight.  The faerie was busy fighting, but if she saw an opportunity, there was a good chance she’d kill me.

There were others, but I was having trouble keeping track.  I knew them by their powers.  Brutes, hanging back.  Tough enough to weather most fights, but barely capable of holding up against Scion.

That took a special kind of toughness.

A woman covered in a skin of forcefields, protecting people with massive shards of forcefield.

I passed them, making a beeline for someone else, flying over the cloud of dust, trying to see people.  She’d been doing rescue before, getting people to where they could be helped.

Now… now she was a tool I needed if I was going to win this.  We climbed onto the stuffed lizard’s back.  I bound the clairvoyant’s hand to mine, mindful of the damage that had been done last time.

The stuffed animal climbed up the side of a ruined building.  With the clairvoyant’s hand and feet and my own flight pack, we dismounted when we reached an opening large enough to hop through.

The girl with the ruined hand shifted position, slumping over.  They climbed up to the highest point they could reach, and then the girl who controlled the stuffed humanoid lizard called out, incoherent.

I couldn’t get her to talk properly.

So I had her wail instead, a frantic sound that was justifiable in how little sense it made.

A girl with flying armor and bright yellow hair descended, ready to help the apparently wounded girl.

When she got close enough to touch them, she fell within my power’s range.

I brought her to me, the movements shaky and unfamiliar.  Easier on autopilot, but I didn’t have time to wait for her to drift my way.  Movements of the feet controlled movement direction and altitude.  I brought her to me.

Then I made her sing.

Th-thin-think ab-abbboutt cc-courrrage.  Aabbout m-mmovving fforrwarrd.

I could only hope the song conveyed the right meaning, the right impulse.

I pressed the biggest blue button to call my teammate with the number she’d set into the phone.

It shifted to a video call.  I saw her on the other side.

How to even explain?  To convey the next step?

I used my bugs to illustrate.  A mass at the center, pulses traveling to other nodes.  To every other node.

She said something.

A minute passed.

Something hit the ground hard enough that the building swayed.  Not merely a shaking, but a side-to-side wobble that suggested that anything harder might see the entire thing tip over.

And the song began playing, echoing, through three other phones in my immediate vicinity.  Two held by the ones who’d been on the stuffed animal, and a third-

I was distracted before I could look for the source.  My clairvoyance told me there wasn’t anyone nearby.

All through the battlefield, Protectorate members and Wards had phones playing the song.  It gave them strength, courage at a moment they felt weak.

A woman I recognized from Brockton Bay threw the phone aside, then shot it with a shotgun, before changing the gun to something else and opening fire on Scion.  It took the man in gold and black armor a second to get a chance to do the same.  One of his underlings, a cape who was named after a siege weapon, took his boss’ lead.

It served as something to urge people onward, to focus them on one target.  But those three, or those two were savvy enough to know something could be up.

We moved.  The armored girl with yellow hair helping to hold the clairvoyant while I descended to the ground with my flight pack.

The movements of the other two weren’t coordinated well with my own movements.  They rode the stuffed animal as it leaped to the next building, but momentarily passed out of my control.

They didn’t turn on me, didn’t shoot me.  They carried onward, and I adjusted my course to put them in my range again.

I got the one-horned woman who glittered with forcefields, then changed direction.

The next group was harder.  They had advance warning we were coming, shared by a brown haired girl who wore a black dress and no mask.

I felt a pang of emotion.  I couldn’t even put a name to it.

The girl rattled off words, numbers, in response to questions asked by a woman with body armor and a bristling ponytail.  Monstrous capes moved to flank her, protecting her.

Every second counted.

Couldn’t give the precog a chance to get hard numbers.  With every moment that passed, every loping movement of the stuffed lizard that followed beneath me, the pair exchanged question and answer.

I was a threat.  I was being reduced to numbers.  Success, failure.  Nothing more.

Which was all this really was.  Only I was focused on success and failure on a much bigger scale than this confrontation.

The forcefield woman sandwiched each of us between two forcefields, then willed them forwards.  We left the stuffed lizard behind.

Three more questions, rapid fire.  One word each, names.  The woman with the mask only heard the first syllable of each response before moving on to the next.

She gave a command, an order, and a red haired woman in a black skintight outfit turned, aiming her gun at a wall.

The bullet ricocheted off the wall and flew right through our group.  My forcefield woman went down, and the crystals we were riding fractured, coming apart enough that we fell to the ground.

Only the string tying me to the clairvoyant kept us together.

A fat, bald man stepped forward, blocking my way with his body.  A young man with orange skin, a tail and bright pink hair did the same.

But the young precog said something, and stepped forward as they parted to give her room.

She spoke, one word.  My name.  I was pretty sure.  What was my name?  did it start with a ‘T’ sound?  An ‘S’?  A ‘W’?

An ‘M’?

“Murrruuh-hurrrrrrrrh,” I managed.  I slowly pulled myself to my feet, my movements jerky, shaky.  Worse than it had been yet.

Y-youuu ss-set mme onnnnn th-thi-this roadddd.  Y-youuu oh-owe mme thhhhhisss.   Ddd-dohnn’t gg-get-t innn myy w-wayyy n-noww.

Scion toppled a building.  Capes erected barriers to protect a whole squad, over a hundred capes, but the building disintegrated on impact, rubble pouring off the barrier like water off a roof, crushing the people who didn’t have adequate shelter.

She didn’t move, staring at me.

I had the clairvoyant reach into my belt.  She withdrew a scrap of paper.

My bugs carried it to the young precog.

An I.O.U., if there ever was one.

She stared down at the two and a half words, then crumpled it.  Her head hung.

Before any of the others could stop her, she stepped forward, into my range.

I pushed her out, the movement forceful enough she stumbled a bit.  The fat one caught her.

I pointed.

The group parted, giving me a view of their other members.

In the distance, Scion was struck, knocked into a building.  The work of the man with the giant sword.  The faerie readied to follow up, then hesitated.

She flew my way instead.

No time for grace or decorum.

The woman with the forcefield scales used her power.  Another sandwich of crystalline fields, the more secure way to hold someone, and she hauled the reality-warper out of the other group, into my range.  Another forcefield caught a boy with glowing hair.

The remainder dropped into fighting stances, a gun was trained on me-

And the precog cried out.  One word.  Negation.

They stopped in their tracks.

I turned to go, my recruits in hand.  The faerie girl was coming.

I didn’t fight.  I had the key components.  The trick was to set everything in motion.

I accessed the power of the reality warper.  The girl who got more powerful as she lost touch with the world, who could fashion her own realities, then bring them into our world.

I had her create a door, then I used her partner’s help to smash it.

A freestanding hole in reality.  The reality warper used her power to pick a world.

I wasn’t too picky.  The instant I was through, I had them make two more.

Then two more.

I protected them all with forcefields.

I didn’t have the portal man, but I did have this as a means of traveling sideways, like Scion could travel in this direction that wasn’t up or down, left, right, forward or back.

It didn’t let me cross all the way into other continents.  Movement was analogous.

Still, it made ambushing other groups easier.  I could use the clairvoyant to see where we were in analogue to the other world, then smash a doorway open, putting me right next to whoever I wanted.  The song helped keep them focused on Scion, kept people from running.  It wasn’t perfect, absolute control, but it was a means of keeping us all together.

Scion hadn’t done much planning for this eventuality.  For a world where everyone was against him.  In every world I’d glimpsed, we were fractured, whole nations worth of good capes hanging back or fighting with the others.  He’d hidden the strategies from us, but I could connect the dots.

It was about keeping him off guard, putting him on unfamiliar footing.

I could only hope that everyone was enough people, right now.

I found the boy who made hands and faces out of surrounding materials.  A teammate, a friend.  He’d worked with me on something important.

I put myself right in the middle of the group, collected him, and then left.

When others moved to follow, I set another forcefield up, and retreated through a series of doors, leaving decoy doorways in my wake.

The power booster, to give myself more control, and to enhance the song.  To enhance the reality warper and everyone else I’d chosen.

The girl who made her dreams into projections.

The boy, her ex-friend, who could turn anything into a bullet.

And then the man who could connect things, so the movement of one would move the other.  I stepped through, and he was ready for me.  He moved a short iron rod, and the partner rod caught me by the neck, pinning me to a wall.

His partner dismissed the illusion.  A displacement effect that made them appear to be where they weren’t.

The connection man was more dangerous than he seemed.  The rod that was pinning me would keep moving to the side if he kept moving his own rod.  Even if there was stuff in the way.  It might distort or break, but he wouldn’t feel any resistance on his end.

My throat would probably break apart before the rod did.

He spoke in broken English.  Still more capable of speech than I was.

I had the others behind me.  The forcefield woman made a field behind him.  He blocked it with another pair of rods that whipped up from the ground, connected to something in his sleeve.

The telekinetic girl with the stuffed animals used threads, binding him.  Another means of pulling him closer.

A moment later, his cloak went rigid, fixing him to the ground.  Other threads still bound his flesh, biting deep enough they threatened to draw blood.

His partner used a power, and the threads moved five or six feet to the left.  They recoiled to the telekinetic’s grasp.  He backed away a step, keeping his distance from me, extending the connection between the rods so it stayed against my throat.

The movement of things to one side wasn’t an illusion, or it wasn’t illusion only.  Selective space redistribution, probably usable on light.

He pressed me harder against the wall, speaking in a low, grave voice.

If I could have asked, I would have asked.

All at once, he staggered, and the pressure on my throat let up.

A girl with a horned mask had appeared beside him, pulling his robe up around his head.  She dragged him forward staggering, and heaved him into my range.

A moment later, she was gone.

I had all of the individuals I needed, though I had a hunch about another I’d left behind.

I found one of the larger groups, then moved my army into position.  A group of select individuals, to give me the powers I needed access to, all falling within sixteen feet of me.

I formed the doorway, then broke it open.  The final piece, for the time being.  It was a group I’d initially dismissed, a group that had sat out on the battle.  Now they came into play.

Changers.

Capes who could change their form, capes who could take on the faces of others.  The clairvoyant and I dropped from a portal in the air and landed right in their midst.  Crystalline forcefields appeared in the air, then lowered slowly enough that people had a chance to get out of the way.

I picked the faces of every changer in my range, watching to make sure it was accurate.

I couldn’t control them while they were outside of my range, so I’d do something cruder, instead.

I chose their faces, and then I seated them on the crystalline forcefields, binding them in place with the connection man.

I scattered them into the sky.  Each one rooted to a forcefield platform.

Then I tapped the reality warper’s power.  I began shaping a world.

I could see my blonde friend with the portal man, talking to people.  Talking to… what was his name?  The one who gave thinker powers.  Teacher.

He’d given the portal man the ability to talk.

A power I was afraid of taking for myself.  Because I couldn’t lose even an iota of willpower if I was going to make it through this.  Because I couldn’t fall into his grasp.  Because I was afraid of finding out that even he couldn’t help me.

The portal man would explain what he’d seen.  With luck, my brilliant friend would be able to connect the dots.

The reality warper’s world was shaped.  Crude, but I could use the same piece over and over again.

A landscape of body parts, of hands and limbs, of faces.

I used my friend, the young man who could create hands and faces.

I began altering the city.

Scion was in the midst of fighting a monstrous, hulking dragon-man and the warlord with the death-eating shadow.  He saw the first of the faces that the reality-manipulator had created and lashed out, demolishing it.

The dragon-man took advantage of the opening to burn him.

Hhhe… nno f-filtttterrrs.  Hhhhhisss emmmotions… rrrraww.

Scion fought his way free, and the warlord went on the offensive, lashing out.  She’d collected the bodies of the dead, as the faerie girl had collected their ‘spirits’.  She was strong, though not quite as strong as she would have been if things hadn’t gone sour.

He tore into h- her pet and the damage was permanent.  She pressed forward anyways, forcing him to retreat above the skyline.

He came face to face with the changers.  Wearing his companion’s face.  The face of the alabaster-skinned companion my friends had put together, other faces like them.  Companions that could be.  One metal-skinned boy I’d salvaged from the ruins of a recent fight had been molded into a steel-skinned companion.  Another was a female mirror of Scion himself, golden skinned.

He moved to strike out, and I hurried to get them out of the way, using the connections and the forcefields to move them to the safest places I could find.

Some were catching on, changing back.  Others weren’t so quick in their ability to change.

This wasn’t an attack on his body.

I was going after his mind, his emotions.

If the feelings were still raw after thirty years, if he hadn’t learned how to handle it, then I’d target that as his weak point.

Sstrennggtthhth wwwwee h-have… y-yy-you ddo nottt…  w-we d-dealll… with-thth l-lotsss… painnn inn-n… ou-ouhhrr livv-ves.

Remind him of what he didn’t have.  His partner, his… life cycle.

Hands of stone emerged from around the city.  More of reality warped around us.  When she’d changed everything in her range into a simulation of the ‘garden’, I turned it into a portal, changed the chan-chann- station to something where it was all solid.  Rock, ice, dirt.

Then I moved her somewhere else, and started over.

All around Scion, piece by piece, the world was changing.

So much, so fast… it wasn’t all on my end.

Mm-m- my ff-frrriennndsss.

They’d connected the dots.  They saw what I was doing and they were getting others on board.  Illusions crafted of smoke.  A space warper who could mold buildings was making faces.

Maybe they even saw my end goal.

My feelings swelled, and the faint singing that was echoing through the various phones seemed to mimic that.  Was that my control being reflected through her?  Or was it something on her end?

He was reacting.  Spending as much time destroying the landscape as he was on us.

It was a sh-shift in our favor, and he was getting more agitated with every passing second.

We were approaching a critical point.

I pulled the changers back, and I moved to the location of some masters instead.

Projection capes.  Only a few.  But it helped.  I had the girl who made dreams into projections, and a clone-hybrid of two of the killers, capable of making poisonous, noxious illusions out of the landscape.

I put her power to work, showing her what to do, then sending her to work, beyond my range.

The song helped.  The song meant that when I pushed, they kept moving.

By the time the impulse and momentum wore off, they were well on their way, and I was gone.

Nn-neckxt… n-nexttt.

I took a step, and my leg gave way.

I tried to stand, and it failed me again.

The ones I controlled helped me to my feet.  I leaned on them as they supported me.

Neh-next, I thought, again.

My body was failing on me.

A part of me had hoped that when this was all over, I’d be able to retreat somewhere.  I knew I’d have enemies, that there was no way I could show my face again.

I could, I was pretty sure, get by with a good stockpile of books, a place in the middle of nowhere.  Not cold, but maybe a place in the mountains or on some island.  Retreat from the world.

Then it had taken reading from me.

It had taken my ability to understand language.

My ability to express it.

Now it took my body.

My mind was sure to follow.

The projections began to haunt him.  They emerged from walls or crept around corners.  Images of his deceased, slain partner.  Images of others, which almost seemed to bother him more.

If he was forming any kind of tolerance, it was slow.  He wasn’t getting a chance to breathe.

Scion was striking down these constructions faster than I could raise them.

Up until the moment the man in gold and black armor shot his sword at him.  It bought time to put more of these illusions and constructions in place.

Scion righted himself, then hesitated.

Fury was giving way to a kind of fear.

I knew this fear well.  It was a fear that was all too easy to fall into when one’s focus was too narrow.  To be caught up in an environment, facing down a relentless torrent of negative experiences.  Even the minor things added up, if you couldn’t step back to look at things in perspective.

He fought back.  That was a fairly normal thing.  A lot of people fought back when they faced something like this.  A lot of people liked to think they could fight back up until it stopped.

I limped forward, my squad in step around me, filling my power’s radius.

Those types of people tended to underestimate the tenacity of the well and truly fucked up individuals of this world.

It was lowly, to turn to this, but I’d never pretended to be honorable, above any of that.  When shit was on the line, I’d go as far as I had to.

I had the reality warper create another doorway.  Her buddy knocked it open, and she tuned it back to our original er-

Ear-

Earth.

The stuttering thoughts paralyzed me for a moment.  I floated up a bit to see over the rank and file of my swarm, the clairvoyant holding on to my leg.

My friends glanced up at me.  I barely recognized them.

I pointed at the portal.

There was a short, fierce discussion.

I felt my heartbeat pick up.  Why weren’t they running?

Scion was going to snap.  He was going to destroy ev-everything.

But my friend was talking into her phone.

Scion was getting more frantic, a mix of fear and rage.

Panic?

Scope, scale, he was no longer reasonable about what was going on.

If he’d been holding back so he could leave some of us alive, in the chance that another companion would show up and he would be able to resume his normal life cycle, then I was suspicious he was about to stop.

And my friend continued talking into the phone, a stern expression on her face.  She was tense.

I tried to turn the clairvoyant on the scene, but the view was so narrow now, I wasn’t really able to see more than I could with my own eyes.  I could choose where I saw from, but that didn’t help me evaluate the crowd.

I could see the Endbringer arrive.  I’d opened a portal to Gimel in the process of making mouseholes between worlds, and she was the only one that remained.

She sang, a shrill song that echoed in every mind I controlled, her song joining the one that echoed from the phones on belts and in pockets.

Then she began shaping the environment.  Clouds of dust took on shapes, looming over Scion.

Everywhere he turned, he faced reminders of what he’d lost, of a loss he couldn’t figure out how to handle.

H-he was a member of a species that had won for however many cycles, utterly bewildered when we drowned it in its defeat.

The winged Endbringer’s attack was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  He was hunched over in the air, hands on his head, knees against his chest, rotating as though gravity didn’t touch him, no conception of up, down, left or right.

He was shaking.

Any second.

A slit of light appeared on the battlefield.  It yawned open.

Others began to follow.

T-theyyyy fixxedd himmm.

Except it wasn’t him.

It was the faerie girl.  She had him as a shadow-puppet.  A ghost.

I could hear my friend swear.  The others around her were tense.

They turned to run, sprinting through the portal.

Thousands of doorways.  She turned and looked in my direction.

But nothing appeared nearby.

The faerie girl was opening doorways for everyone but us.  Everyone but me.  People were running, fleeing into other worlds, and we were being left on our own.

I couldn’t cc-cllose the portals I’d made with the reality warper.

We ran, or the others ran, and I was mostly carried.  We entered one world, then ducked into another door I’d left nearby.  We zig-zagged between universes, using realities as cover.

There was no sound.

No scream, no explosion.

It was a scouring light, no direction, no aim, nothing held back.

The initial shockwave passed through doors, and it expanded in every direction with each door it passed through, sweeping past everything within ten miles of each portal.

The moment we were through the last portal, I’d connected every member of the group to a forcefield.  The forcefield was then flung forward, carrying us with it.

Eased to a stop when we were out of range.

When the light faded, there was only flatness and portals.

I moved my hand to point, and my hand couldn’t make the gesture.  My fingers refused to extend independently.  I could see the hesitation on the faces of the others.

But I could see.  I could see what was going on.  I led my squad forward, and the rest followed.

I found the faerie queen, in the center of the group of rescued.  Portals stood in concentric circles, with gaps so they could be navigated through.  A stonehenge of glowing doorways.

I walked, stopping in the middle of an open field.  I watched.

I saw Scion, just barely recovering.

I saw the faerie girl, talking to others.

I watched, and long seconds passed.  Others around me were talking, just beyond my range.  There was a voice in my ear, coaxing, asking questions.

She banished two spirits, keeping the portal man.  Picked two others.

I didn’t wait for them to fully materialize.  I created a doorway with the reality-warper and kicked it open.

I appeared right behind the faerie queen.

I seized her, and I seized the portal man she’d killed and claimed for herself.

I opened a doorway to Scion, and I unfolded a cloak of portals, capturing people.

I found the tinkers I’d left on the other earth.

When we emerged, he didn’t react.  He was lost in his own mind.

The dream-projector fell unconscious, and was captured by her onetime friend.  A glimmering of the garden-entity.

It loomed, rising into the air before Scion.

He recoiled, striking at it.

My swarm, feeble as it was, formed a reaching hand.  He struck at that, in turn.  The impact wasn’t as strong.  A distraction, maintaining pressure, nothing more.

I opened a doorway, and I found one individual I’d left behind.

The boy with the changing faces.

The number man had said he’d taken a dose that had been focused on helping the entities be human.

I couldn’t change his face intentionally.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to.

I could feel Scion’s reaction, through my senses and the individuals I controlled.

Hope.  For just a second.  Not even the faint hope he’d experienced with the fake my teammates had put together.

Because somehow, this boy registered as being like this entity’s companion had been.  Registering as the same state, as the power that made it so similar.

In the moment that hope died, the girl with the injured hand used her power on the iron rods.  Infused them with the energy he was afraid of.

Those rods became projectiles, in another’s hands.

His hope was gone, he was bewildered, scared.

He didn’t try to dodge.  He couldn’t or wouldn’t.

They impaled him.  One in the head, one in the chest.

The tinkers fired their weapon.  An interdimensional ram turned into a gun.  They’d finished it while they weren’t under my control.  Defiant was the one ready at the switch.

I discovered why he was concerned about the power.

It kept things from being contained.  I got a glimpse, a flash of a look into the world beyond him, a world he’d shut off, to which his body was the only conduit.

The beam tore into him and into the well.

I moved the portals, and the beam turned to scour more of the landscape beyond Scion.

The Faerie Queen began to slip from my grasp.

She knew what was happening, and she was forcing my power to affect her spirits.  A single spirit.

Breaking free.

She moved her hand of her own volition.

And then she was free.  Inside my radius, but free.

She turned to face me.  I met her gaze, as best as I was able.  My vision wavered.

Her head hung.  She made no move to resist.  She didn’t close the portals.

More projectiles, opening more doors.

The beam ran out of power.

The dead remains of the entity showered the ground at the center of the wasteland.

I staggered.  The emotion around me was too much.  I pushed people away, and they bumped into one another.  Some left my range, only a handful remained.  I didn’t recognize a single one.  Even the one holding my hand.

I couldn’t shake the feeling I’d somehow betrayed myself, and I wasn’t even sure who I was.

It was over.  And I was free to finally lose my mind.

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Speck 30.5

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Now for the clin- the clincher.  The ultimate strategy.

We ran.

My number one priority was to keep moving, keep active.  Things were easier so long as I was moving towards a goal.

I had to get myself sorted.  Wrap my head around the tools at my disposal.  For that, I needed time.  I needed to put distance between us and Scion.

Stepping up the tempo, have to distract Scion.

I reached out to Ash Beast, a living force of nature.  It had originally triggered in Matruh, Egypt, and had been roaming since, making its way across Africa.  All of the destructive power of any class S threat, tempered by the fact that it usually traveled on foot, and people could see it coming from miles away.  When it reached a settlement, that settlement was usually evacuated.

An unending explosion, a rolling mass of fire and smoke with a person at the center.  Here and there, it took physical form.  Whether it was the fire or a massive leonine claw that tore into the ground, it produced the debris, dust and ash that was its namesake, driven along the ground by the perpetual storm of fire.

Creating a portal to give me access to it was troublesome.  Others had tried to control it before, to steer it in the general direction of their enemies.  Warlords, villains, masterminds.  It rarely worked for long.  When working with power on this scale, chaos had a way of trumping order.  Too much energy disrupted the portals.

I moved a forcefield cape to the Ash Beast’s location, and then created a bubble, putting it in range of the being.  I made a portal within the bubble.  More forcefields encased the bubble on my side for safety’s sake.  My power operated through the forcefield, and the connection formed.

I identified a young man, at the center of it all, and I could now think of the Ash Beast as a ‘he’ instead of an ‘it’.  He was surprisingly healthy, but he had a power that kept him in good physical condition, a natural breaker-class adaptation that came with his power.  Energy to matter and matter to energy.

I’d use him first.  If he died, the world wasn’t worse off for it.  If he lived, well, I could discard him, leaving him in a foreign earth.

Bringing him through a doorway was hard.  He generated so much heat, and while his shape and form were malleable, they weren’t wholly under his control.

In the end, I made a portal, and I used Trickster to bring the Ash Beast through, replacing a chunk of ruined earth.

Shaping the fire, driving it out to the sides.

Shaping the flesh.  From energy to physical form.  Wings.   Catlike legs to spring into the air.

The Ash Beast lunged into the air, above the water, and he streaked towards Scion like a comet.  The forcefield cape followed, to maintain the connection.

I moved Alexandria, Legend, Moord Nag and the others on the frontline through doorways as the Ash Beast struck the golden man.  Golden light tore into flesh that had been forged of fire, and more flesh was created to replace it.  The Ash Beast tore into Scion, and the flesh was replaced just as quickly.

I created more doorways, moving people out of Gimel in an orderly fashion.  Here and there, I changed the portals around, dictating different exit points to break up groups.

Ranged attackers in one group.  Brutes broken up into several sub-groups.  Thinkers, tinkers, defensive capes… there were a lot to sort, a great many who had powers that needed a half-second to a few seconds to figure out, in terms of classification and application.  With scores of these capes, it added up.

Every cape had a place to be.  There were capes who needed something to harvest, who needed materials, and I gave them access to their materials.  There were capes who needed others nearby, and capes who were better if set apart.

I assigned precogs, thinkers and danger senses to the various groups.

Decentralize, I thought.  If Scion was the established force with superior weapons then I had to be the guerrilla army.  Different groups moved to remote locations, different worlds.  I couldn’t let him destroy too many of us in one good hit.

Take stock.  Who didn’t I have?  I didn’t have Contessa, who I couldn’t see.  I didn’t have the Blasphemies, who hadn’t even registered to me because they weren’t human, even if they had powers, I didn’t have Sleeper and…

Why was it so hard to reach for certain names?

The ones in the cabin…  I’d decided to leave them be.  I was having trouble remembering why, but I’d trust my older self on that score.

They were dangerously close to Scion.  If I moved them, maybe-

No.  I had to leave them alone.  Rules, regulations.  I’d set boundaries for myself once, I’d followed them, because I knew how easily I could slip.  Those boundaries had been to protect myself, as selfless as they might have seemed.  This was to protect others.

This was good, better.

Capes who could grant flight… Glaistig Uaine had some.  There was a girl in a red, black and white costume who could grant powers.

Othala.

Right.  Othala.  She could give someone else flight.  Send the right people to Scion’s vicinity.  Trickster, some defensive capes.  One of the capes who had served under the Blue Woman in that cape-ruled alternate Earth.  He had a power not unlike Gavel’s.  Glaistig Uaine offered some offensive power as well, but it was tricky and time consuming to dig for the capes I could use.  She knew them personally, I had to find them.

They appeared behind Scion.  Glaistig Uaine distracted, with one ranged cape hitting Scion full-on in the face, another feeding fire into Ash Beast’s body.

The Gavel-alike dropped out of a portal directly above the golden man, driving a narrow pole into Scion’s neck.  Scion was slammed into the water, quite possibly to the bottom of the bay.

The forcefield cape caught the boy out of the air before he could follow Scion beneath the water.

I opened a portal, then moved the others aside.  Reorganizing, positioning.

Others… who was I leaving behind?

There was a group still in the settlement.  They hadn’t all moved through the portal.  I reached for their names.  Right.  Tattletale.  Rachel.  Imp.  Panacea.  I’d taken the others, collected the wounded.  The door was open, but they’d stayed behind, watching the horizon, exchanging words I didn’t understand.

Who else?  I’d left the civilians be. I could arm them, but I wasn’t sure it would be worth the effort.  Bullets could only do so much, and the bigger weapons…

Scion emerged from the water.  I didn’t give him a chance to retaliate.  Retaliation could mean putting the cabin in danger.  I hit him, then backed the capes through the portal.

He didn’t follow them through the portal, but he did sidestep through dimensions to reach them.  I started to mount a defense, and he lashed out.  I didn’t have time to react or give a command; I slammed the portals around the capes shut, and I opened another, larger portal, to take in the beam.

The beam hit the surface of the portal, and only a fraction passed through to strike Scion from behind.  Enough to kill someone, enough to kill me, if the beam had happened to touch any of my control portals, but even so, the portal itself took the brunt of the impact.

Doormaker staggered beside me.

The portal was wiped out.  Without any barrier in the way, the beam radiated forward to wipe Ash Beast, the cape with the pole, Trickster, and Othala from existence.

I was left with a decision to make, no time to make it.

Was I going to be moral, or efficient?

Two capes fell in my awareness.  Acidbath was one.  Another was a talented shapeshifter who was in bad shape beneath their moldable skin.

Shapeshifter, I made the call.

One expendable asset.  At my bidding, he strode forward through the portal.  The clairvoyant retrieved a tinker device and dropped it through a portal.  The shapeshifter caught it.

Scion pressed the attack, while Glaistig Uaine and her assigned bodyguard managed a fighting retreat to a portal I’d raised behind them.  Had to keep Scion in place, buy time.

I had only a seconds to act, or I’d lose the Faerie Queen.  I’d lost good capes already, so very easily.  Now I stood to lose more.

Have to-  have to make it worth it.

Thinking in words was getting harder.  Easier to default to thinking in terms of ideas.  I wasn’t going to throw away lives for nothing.  I wouldn’t ask others to make sacrifices I wouldn’t make, if the roles were reversed.

Maybe they’d disagree.  Maybe they’d tell me they didn’t want to make that choice.  But that was our instinctual self-preservation at work.  With things at this scale, that kind of thinking was counterintuitive.

Maybe they’d agree, if I had the time to explain.  To sit down with them in their living rooms and discuss the ins and outs of things over tea.

But I didn’t have the time to ask politely, and too many had already died.  Capes and civilians both.

I’d leave the civilians alone, but it was fitting if I drew on their strength as well.

Doormaker was capable of opening the doorways at the speed of thought.  I had multitasking abilities.  I could open them faster.  Not one after the other, a thirtieth of a second passing between each, but simultaneous.

I didn’t target people this time.  Portals opened across the sky in that foreign Earth that Scion and the Faerie Queen fought in.  As many portals as I could fit in that Earth’s sky.

Glaistig Uaine ducked back into the portal, and the shapeshifter I’d left on the ground hit the button.

The portals around Scion slammed shut, and he disappeared from my mind’s eye.

It left the shapeshifter locked in the same world as Scion.

An obstacle, a speed bump at best.  I was sacrificing lives for that purpose, putting capes in harms way, and leaving that one cape in an isolated world with Scion nearby.  I’d decided to spend a life that lacked strength over the life of a monster.

But that last gesture had bought me time to move the Faerie Queen of the Birdcage to safety.

It had also stopped Scion in his tracks for a few seconds.  If he was focusing on getting out of that universe, on altering his power to decrypt the portals and free himself to move, then he wouldn’t be paying too much attention to the portals I’d opened above him.

There were perhaps two hundred Earths in easy reach that had military technology worth talking about.

Two hundred earths with bombs.  Every bomb that hadn’t been in some secure housing, every bomb that was small enough to drop through the doorway, to plummet to the ground below Scion.

Some would be duds, no doubt, missing an integral component that would be put in place before a bombing run.  But a handful, I suspected, were bound to be nuclear bombs.

He hadn’t stepped through into any world I could see.  The bombs had struck home.

My body was shaking.  I wanted to sit down, but I couldn’t afford to.

I was hungry, I realized.  Worn out.

But I had to capitalize on our advantage here.  Had to focus on sorting out my army, so this wasn’t for nothing.

I broke up the Yàngbǎn.  Null/Zero could share powers and he could take them away.  But managing multiple groups was cutting into every group’s effectiveness.  Against Scion, I needed more effective powers than a blending of less effective ones.  I set Zero aside, assigning him a group.  Autopilot for now, for a later eventuality.

The tougher capes I had fell into two categories.  There were ones who could take the fight to Scion, like Alexandria or the late Ash Beast, and there were ones who couldn’t, like Lung, Menja and Chevalier.

There was a Vietnamese cape with a tinker ability who I hadn’t assigned to the tinker group.  He was like Lab Rat, but simpler in application.  Formulas to boost strength and size, turning regular people into hulking monsters.

I put him to work, dosing capes who weren’t reliant on armor or anything of the sort.  I left Chevalier alone, and left the Crawler-Breed hybrid be, but I dosed Lung and Menja.

I put Legend and the Number Man with the ranged capes.

Scion emerged, but he didn’t emerge into a world any of my forces occupied.

He- he lost the scent trail, I thought.

It didn’t take him long to find it again.  He went straight through into the world where I’d stationed Glaistig Uaine.

I opened portals.  Every single ranged cape and every single cape with a gun that was at my disposal opened fire into the portals.  The Number Man’s power coordinated their fire.

I sensed danger from my precogs.  I parted the group.

Scion moved, and he fired a beam, striking down the center of the part.

Not one of the attacks had hit him.  Though I’d been moving them to safety, the beam had taken out nearly thirty capes.

I counted Lady Photon among the dead, along with Revel.

As if Taylor Hebert were one of my puppets, distant, fractured and broken, I could sense the sick feeling in her gut.  Revel had been someone she’d- someone I cared aboutLady Photon had been a familiar face.

Let’s go get that-  Let’s go get him.

My voice, but not my own thoughts.

The Number Man had told me the attacks would hit.  That they hadn’t meant it was Scion’s precognitive ability at work.  The ability to win, to take the upper hand.

But there was a reason he couldn’t use it constantly.  It cost him something, drained his reserves.

By all appearances, he’d parried my thrust and struck home… but I’d taken a piece out of him.

The rationalizing felt thin at best.

Have to do bett-er.

Scion was screaming, still.  A roar, a kind of fury.

Tattletale had described him as human.  That meant human weaknesses.  Weaknesses he hadn’t learned to adapt to.  When he got angry, it was the fury of someone who’d never learned to hold back.

I put targets in front of him, and he took the bait.

A front line of the hardiest capes, decoys and projections to draw him in.  Then, while he was closer, I was free to move in the heavy hitters who weren’t upwardly mobile.

Lung, hulking out even before his power kicked in.  Menja, Chevalier.  A dozen capes I didn’t know.

Had to mix it up.  Raw physical strength, then a cape who was strong because of a telekinetic bubble that surrounded them.  More raw strength, then explosive power like Hoyden’s.

Move them in, then move them away.  Use their powers and other powers to give them the mobility.  I had two capes that could assign danger sense to protect things, alerting them when the subject was in danger, though the two powers were rather different in practice.  It was a way around the fact that I couldn’t predict Scion himself, and I made the most of it, switching their targets of choice second by second.

I could feel the fear of the people I was sending into the fray.  Hoyden’s fear was like the scared-little-girl fear I’d experienced while concussed, wracked with pain and helpless at Bakuda’s feet.

But she could hit Scion, and I needed people who could hit him.  I needed every iota of strength I could squeeze out of these capes.

I watched the world through Defiant’s eyes, and I saw the combat analysis program drawing wireframe models over the battlefield, trying to take in all of the details of the capes I was sending into the fight, predicting Scion’s most likely actions.

I watched with the Number Man.

I watched with precogs.

Scion wasn’t inherently predictable, he wasn’t capable of being read, but I needed some cue that would let me guess what he’d do next.

Telekinetics stood by portals.  The Blue Woman and Parian were among them.  When I saw opportunities, I used them to move capes further, faster, to get them out of the way.

Scion’s rage was reaching a crescendo.  The screaming was increasing in volume and intensity, the movements more aggressive, the attacks broader, less focused.  A fist flew past Chevalier, followed by a blast that might have wiped out a neighborhood, if the capes had been in a city.  He was grazing capes, failing to land a single heavy blow, and it was pissing him off.

It didn’t help that we were hurting him.  He could adapt, but he couldn’t adapt when the same attack wasn’t used twice in a row.  It put him on the defensive, keeping him on his toes, and every attempt he made to strike back failed to do more than clip people, injure and wound.

I knew it was coming.  Retaliation.  Even before the precogs gave me any forewarning, I was moving to react.  Portals opened wider, telekinesis pulling the attacking capes through if they couldn’t move fast enough.  Forcefields and other measures flew up to surround Scion, mitigating the damage.

He radiated light, and the light that escaped the barriers seared and melted the flesh of the offensive capes, as well as the telekinetics and defensive capes who happened to be standing in the wrong place.  Translucent and transparent forcefields didn’t even slow the light down.

I began shutting the doors.  Alexandria and various projections flew in to take Scion on.  Ursa Aurora, expendable duplicates… just needed a second.

So much pain.  I could tell how much damage that had been done even before I did any headcounts.  People were suffering, and so long as they were under my control, they were helpless to express the fear and agony they felt.

Instead, they were quietly stoic as their wounds wept fluids and burned with traces of the golden light.  I put the few healers I had to work.

They hadn’t even started when Scion used the real attack.  I could see him move through Alexandria’s eyes.  Through Pretender’s eyes, rather.  Arms flew out to the sides, and then he clapped.

I only managed to shut Alexandria’s portal a fraction of a second before his hands made contact.

One strike of palm against palm, and the shockwave swept past us as if in slow motion, moving past every portal in the area that was still open.  It passed through flesh, and it stilled.

It was the same effect he’d used to quiet Leviathan’s waves, the same effect that had frozen floodwaters in their tracks and the same ability that had given him so much presence.

Objects in motion stopped.  Portals winked out, warm things plummeted in temperature, cell and neural activity was interrupted.  Blood stopped in people’s veins.

Every cape that had been touched by this stillness dropped to the ground, lifeless.

I could feel the horror that was experienced by the bystanders.  I knew that, given the choice, most would be running.

But there was no reaction.  Each and every one of them was grim, resolute, taking care of their injuries, getting to people who could tend to them or helping others.

Rank and file, a dozen capes with electricity powers entered the area with the capes who’d succumbed to the stillness.

They’d stopped, and an object at rest remained at rest.  I just- I needed to get them moving again.

A jolt, the electricity controlled by the capes in question.

Nothing.

I pulled Bonesaw away from the tinker group.  I couldn’t devote the focus necessary to use her power in any detail.  I could have left her on autopilot, but I wasn’t sure that was much better.

I revoked my control over her, leaving in in the middle of the room with the capes Scion had stopped.

Then I turned my attention back to Scion.

I couldn’t dwell.  Couldn’t let him turn the tables and put me on the defensive.

He was tearing into Alexandria.  Literally.  But she doggedly held on, delivering one crushing blow for every pound of flesh Scion ripped from her midsection.  He was roaring as he did it, teeth bared, face contorted.

The nature of his attack, the stilling, it didn’t fit.  Not in tune with the anger.

It had been another use of his ‘automatic victory’ power.  Looking to the future, seeing how he could do the most damage, then following through.  A feint, followed by the critical blow.

The good news was that it meant I was getting the upper hand, forcing him to take a shortcut to get out of it.

The bad news was that I was almost positive I couldn’t win if things continued in this vein.  My precogs weren’t countering his precognition, and he was blocking all direct views of him, forcing me to emphasize indirect predictions where I focused on the damage he was doing and the people he was threatening to kill.

With each exchange, he was doing too much damage to our side.  If I had five times the capes, if we’d been working together like this from the beginning, then maybe.  But not like this.

Same strat- strat- same tactic as before, just to buy myself a little time to think.

My telekinetics, injured or otherwise, worked their magic through the portals I opened, this time focusing on the munitions that weren’t easily accessible.  I moved ICBMs through a spatial-warping ‘lens’ that let it fit through a doorway, unloaded crates of grenades and TNT with telekinesis, and I watched it rain.

The explosives were halfway to ground when I had Alexandria use another dimension switch to force the portals closed.

I needed to consolidate my strength.  I had capes gathering materials.  Moord Nag was among them, one of the scariest warlords of Africa, now traveling between dimensions to scavenge from the dead, her pet shadow devouring mountains of flesh from mass graves and battlefields, swelling in size.

Lung was shrinking, keying down after I’d pulled him away from Scion, but he still had the raw strength from the dose of distilled brawn I’d given him.

Coordinate, I thought.

I couldn’t be moving capes with telekinesis.  There had to be other assets.

Sifara.  A chief member of the Thanda.  I’d taken to thinking of him as ‘Orbit’.

But Orbit wasn’t quite it.

His power required him to have a strong reference for those he worked it on.  Eyesight alone didn’t work so well, because eyesight was faulty.  His preference, for a strong connection, was to touch individuals.  Failing that, he worked by eyesight alone.

I didn’t need to go that far.  I could see through a hundred pairs of eyes at this location alone.

A cape formed a ball out of stone.  Roughly the size of a tennis ball.

One by one, Sifara connected the capes around us to the ball.

Sifara’s power maintained spatial relationships.  He moved the ball, and every cape he’d connected to the ball moved a corresponding amount.  When he turned the ball, the connected capes rotated around the ball by equal degree.

We’d used it against Khonsu in our first fight, anchoring ourselves to him so he couldn’t teleport away without bringing us with him.

Now we were going to use it for the opposite intent.

Labyrinth and Scrub, the same pair that had made the portal in Earth Gimel, made more portals.  The dimension switches wouldn’t work forever, and I’d pretty much but there were options for future attacks.  There were more explosives, but nothing big.

I needed a focus, a weak point I could capitalize on.  To those ends, I needed to buy time to work and I needed to bait him into getting angry.

Between them, Labyrinth and Scrub began making paths to other worlds.  I watched as they paged through the available options.

Scion emerged from the other world, having broken down the barrier we’d set.  Fragments of Alexandria’s body tumbled to the ground, more like a statue than flesh.  He had to flex his hand and use his power to free it of the left side of her skull.

He’d suffered for a few of the big hits we’d delivered.  His flesh remained pristine, golden, but there were folds and scraps here and there where his damaged flesh had been stripped away and remained in place around the creases of his body after the replacement flesh had come in.

He came out swinging, obliterating two continents on two different worlds before he found us.

One rotation of Sifara’s ball, a row of doorways, and the capes were pulled backwards through the portals, which closed promptly after them.

The debris hadn’t even settled when I had Sifara move the ball again, erecting more portals to send my capes into the battlefield.  Brute force, capes who could tie him down, capes who could take a hit or two.  I kept Lung in the fight, holding him back for later, when he’d be exponentially stronger.

As strategies went, it would hold for at least a little while.  Scion’s patience seemed to be getting shorter and shorter, and I was on guard for the next retaliatory strike.

My heart was pounding, my mouth dry.  This was looking grim, each exchange hurting my side more than it hurt Scion.  Was there an out?  A chink in the armor?

I’d collected all of the tinkers in one place and I’d put them on autopilot, a vague, nebulous goal in mind.  To get them working together, I’d used Zero of the Yàngbǎn to tie them together as a group, splitting their powers.

A few hundred tinkers, each with a mix of tinker powers, all working on a singular project.

I could sense it, using the Clairvoyant and Doormaker both, using Labyrinth and Scrub.  The solid space between worlds.  A space that Scion had altered somehow, blocking off.

Facing off against that, I’d had them build something roughly the size of a house.  There was a gun build into the construction, but it was snub nosed, stocky and unimpressive.

I gave Defiant the honor of pulling the switch.

The machine whirred to life.

Through the Clairvoyant, through Labyrinth and Doormaker, I could sense the machine reaching through every available world.

The energy was focused on a single space, but it filled that same space in each of the worlds.  A pressure of sorts started to form.

It would take a minute.

I sent Moord Nag in with the other heavy hitters, relieving the force that Scion was fighting.

Sifara moved the ball, moving Moord Nag a distance forward.  Her pet shadow Scavenger loomed, as large as it had ever been.

And Moord Nag promptly had a stroke.  I watched as Scavenger dissipated into smoke.

Wha- what?  Why?

I reached out to Moord Nag, and I could feel the damage being done.  I moved her back just as I’d moved her forward, shifting more capes onto the battlefield to deliver some ranged fire.

Why?  I was stunned, and putting my thoughts together in regards to this was like trying to swim in molasses.

Had to act, instead of thinking.  Investigate.

I used my ability to read the physical states of the creatures I controlled, reading my swarm much as I’d check a spider’s level of hunger, its health, fertility or the amount of venom available.

Almost across my entire swarm, people were threatening to lose their minds.  Literally.

It was stress, a factor I hadn’t taken into account.  I controlled their bodies, but I didn’t control their minds.  They were bystanders, watching this all unfold, and even though I regulated their heartbeats, kept their breathing level, the mental stress accumulated.

There were exceptions in every category, but I could assess my gathered army with broad strokes of the brush.  The thinkers were coping best, the tinkers nearly as well.  The masters struggled the most, followed by the shakers and breakers.  The rest fell in some middle ground.  Moord Nag… my control over her had apparently tapped into some kind of trauma or phobia she had, so she’d been the first to reach some kind of fever pitch in terms of the buildup of stress-induced chemicals and reactions.

I was killing my own minions.

I moved quickly, scrambling to get measures in place before I lost any more.

An open portal and a telekinetic let me move Moord Nag to the only available, capable healer I had available.

I sent her to Panacea, still in the company of Tattletale and the Undersiders.  Panacea bent down to help her.

I brought Canary to me, and she began singing, a high, sweet song, almost like a lullaby, her voice carrying through the same portals that connected me to my underlings.

I was halfway to my next step, managing the tinkers, when Panacea reacted, backing away from the dying woman, shaking her head.

You still- you still don’t use your p-power on brains?  I thought.

She’d had a setback, creating me.  Now the old fear was back in full, at the most inconvenient time.

Tattletale was speaking.  Her voice was gentle, soft.

It was awfully nice to listen to.  Reassuring, even if I didn’t understand the words.

Then, breaking me from the spell, Scion moved his hands, readying for a clap, and I shifted everyone out of the way.

Scion flew instead, flying into one world, just as easily as a plane might fly leftforward or down.

I could track his movements with the clairvoyant.  As multidimensional as it was, I could trace a trajectory.

He’d used his ‘automatic victory’ power again, and he’d targeted me.

If he’d used it to find me, there was no escape.  If he’d used it to find and kill me, it was all over.

Was he that complex?  Did he think forward to that degree?

I ran anyways, turning my attention to the tinker’s machine.

The gibberish text on the screen had turned red.  Failure.  The combined strength of all of the tinkers who remained, Bonesaw excepted, and it had failed.  There was no way to get to the space Scion had sealed off, no way to his ‘well’, where he drew all of his resources from.

My heart sank.

That was my best guess, I thought.  The mental stutter wasn’t there, but the stutter only tended to hit me when I thought about nice things, about peace and familiar people and all the rest of that stuff.

The best means of attack was to go for the weak point.  To cut the jugular, to stab the heart, to go for the eyes, damn it.  Scion’s well was the closest thing to a weak point that I could imagine, but he’d secured it.

I’d told myself I’d know the strategy when I saw it.  Targeting the well hadn’t been that strategy, but it had been a piece of it.

I moved capes away, stepping through the portal Labyrinth had made, then having her change the channel, masking our ‘scent’, so to speak.  I moved Case fifty-threes into the area to mess with Scion’s ability to sense things.

He still pursued.  I couldn’t move fast enough, even as each limping step moved me to another universe.  Something about the way the portals opened, even if I closed them, it was like I was breaking ground for him to travel.

This- this is the trouble with being on top.

You’re all alo- alone when it counts.

I put capes in his way.  He swatted them aside, flew out of the way, and closed the distance.

I felt sick.  The shaking was as bad as it had ever been, and there was a coldness inside of me that made me wonder if I was in shock.  My thoughts were barely coherent.

I had Glaistig Uaine, I had her Eidolon shadow-puppet.  They worked as a pair to hit Scion with the heaviest attacks I could find at a moment’s notice.

For all it mattered, they might as well have been a kids on the schoolyard, sticking their legs out to trip someone.  Scion found his momentum again.

Panacea was healing Moord Nag.

I reached for the warlord, bringing her to me.

Scion struck her aside before Scavenger could swell to his full size.

Too little, too late.

If not brawn, then traps and tricks.  If he wanted to charge right at me… I’d do what I did against Echidna.

I stopped and turned around.

Foil.

Cuff.

They stepped out of portals, one to my left, one to my right.

Cuff to shape a sheet of metal into a giant razor blade, Foil to rig it with her power, setting it in Scion’s way.

I gathered every precog I had, putting them within my sixteen foot radius. I gestalted them with Zero as they made their way through the doorways, forming a Yàngbǎn contingent of future-seers.

I wound up with a young teenager right in front of me.  Brown haired.

Dinah.  I turned her head to see her face, and she saw me in turn.  I could see myself in her eyes.

I’m sorry.

You’re different.

I felt a chill.

No time.  I opened a portal to send her away.  She wasn’t any use, and… and I couldn’t even articulate why I couldn’t keep her here, when I’d keep the hunchbacked Case fifty-three from Boston and the crazed villain I’d spirited away from Monaco.

I banished Foil as well, sending Cuff and Canary after her.  They’d keep Tattletale and the others company.  I disconnected them from my control network, giving them free will once again.

S-s-sen- Sentiment?  I’d told myself I’d be logical.

Was I succumbing to emotion and impulse, letting her go?  Or was I sticking to my rules, my promise that I wouldn’t leverage her?  Logical, emotional, something else altogether, it didn’t matter.  I wasn’t exactly balanced.

I felt very, very off balance, as a matter of fact.

It was the same as before.  The precogs weren’t strong in this circumstance, but if I could get one glimmer, put this thing in the right position, move it, do something to get in Scion’s way…

He appeared, flying straight for me.  The group would have to do without her song calming their emotions.  Hopefully nobody else would stroke out.

With the precog gestalt, I could somehow get a sense of how Scion was going to move.

It didn’t matter.  His hand glowed as he struck the flat side of the razor, and it dissolved into a ruin of glowing fragments.

I could see him in person for the first time since this fight had started.  My own vision wasn’t as clear as some of the other eyes I’d used to look at him, and I had trouble keeping my eyes fixed on a single spot.

My head turned, and I looked at the others.  Tattletale, Imp, Rachel, Panacea, Foil, Canary, Cuff…

I saw Imp’s lips move.  She was saying something.  It was probably very clever.  Something funny and witty and totally out of place.

Or maybe she was saying the same thing I’d said when I’d parted ways with the group as a whole.

Rachel was silent, but she sort of dropped to her knees behind a giant, monsterfied Bastard, who was lying on his side.  Her arms wrapped around his neck.

And Tattletale-

She put her hand to her mouth, then sort of made a sweeping gesture with her arm.

It dawned on me that I had no idea what the gesture meant.

Be-be-because you can’t le- let me have even that, I thought.

Scion stepped forward, hand still glowing, and he blocked off my view of the group.

The plan had been simple.  Thanks to Teacher’s underling, I’d been able to retain my memory of the trigger event.  Scion had censored the most pertinent details, but he’d left one vital weak point in the midst of it.

He’d analyzed us as a species.  He’d seen how we functioned, the strategies we could employ, and he’d set himself on a path.

But that path, I was almost certain, was predicated on the idea that we couldn’t work together, that we couldn’t bring our full strength to bear.  We were too chaotic a species.

He’d made one mistake I knew of, he had predicted a future where he would meet his partner and then pursued that future, only to meet the brain-dead version that was in Cauldron’s base.

I’d tried to help the same happen for the other future, running, using the dimension encryption, they were the best thing I could come up with in terms of putting Scion in a world where he saw himself as the only one standing.

He closed the distance, and I couldn’t get my thoughts in order to convince myself to leave, to figure out what resources to tap to get myself away.  Teleporters, but which one?

Scion put a regular hand around my throat, and the question became irrelevant.  It was surprising, just how small his hand was.  Larger than average, but… he was still the size of a person, for all his presence.

He hadn’t killed me outright.

H-he wan- wants me to show fear.

His grip tightened, leaving me unable to breathe.  I clutched the clairvoyant’s wrist.  When that wasn’t enough, I used the meager thread I’d managed to gather together to bind our hands together.

I wasn’t in the most lucid state to begin with.  Reality began to dim around the edges as oxygen deprivation got to me..

Slipping.

It hadn’t been enough, in the end.  It had been a three point plan.  Pushing us towards a point where we were all well and truly united against a cause, doing what I could to trick his future-sight into thinking he’d fulfilled his mission, and finally, targeting his weak point.

The weak point hadn’t been available to target.

I might have come up with better, but it had only crystallized after I’d lost the ability to communicate.  I operated best when I could alter my strategy on the fly, but that ship ran aground when I was steadily losing my mind.

Tattletale was saying something, Panacea responding, her hand on Bastard.

Tattletale snapped something in response.

As if in a dream, I could see Foil raise her arbalest.

I moved bugs, forming a barrier between us.

She hesitated, then lowered the arbalest.

I relaxed.  It woul- wouldn’t work a- anyways.  N- no use having them die with me.

But Scion had seen.  I saw his expression change.  Contempt, tight-lipped anger.  It looked wrong, his face so unused to showing emotion, his emotion as intense and unfiltered as it was.

He was aware of his surroundings in a way that wasn’t entirely human.  Still gripping my throat, he turned, raising his glowing hand in their direction.

No.

I still had access to my network.

But I couldn’t think.

C-

Clo-

Close the portal.

The doorway slammed shut.

Scion took one step, bringing me with him as he advanced between worlds.  The movement made darkness sweep over my consciousness.  I very nearly lost my grip on the clairvoyant’s wrist.

He now stood opposite the Undersiders.

Foil started to raise her weapon, slowly.

Scion blasted it to smithereens.  Foil clutched one ruined hand, dropping to her knees.

I have tools.  I have… what tools?

Tattletale spoke, her voice low and casual, almost flippant.  She was talking to someone else, I was pretty sure.

Panacea responded, again.  A shake of the head.  She had tears in her eyes.

Moord Nag?  No.  I’d moved her to try and stop Scion.

Dinah?

Dinah watched from a corner, her arms around her knees in a position very similar to one of the first times I’d met her.

He pointed at Rachel.  His first target.

In that instant, it stopped being about stopping him.  I just needed to interrupt, to buy even two seconds.

For the third time, I tapped into every ranged cape I was controlling, and I opened portals around us to give them windows to shoot through.

Number Man to calculate, to aim the shot…  They fired, every cape that could shoot shot.

All with the objective of getting Scion to step out of the way, to do another sidestep with that future sight of his.  Even if it was followed by yet another devastating counterattack.  I just wanted him to miss.

It didn’t work out that way.

It struck home.  Every shot I’d lined up with the Number Man hit Scion.  Multiple directions, even some from above, they hit his flesh with enough force that I was thrown to one side.

Priorities.  Rachel-

Untouched.

The others were fine.

The clairvoyant… our fingers were only barely touching.  The thread I’d wound around our hands had snagged on my armor, caught on the skin of his thumb and nearly tore the skin off.

It hurt like a motherfucker, but he wasn’t in a state to complain.  Still in my control, still in contact with me.

For my part, I was coughing violently.  I was maybe at more risk of blacking out than I’d been with Scion’s hand around my throat.

I fixed my grip on the clairvoyant, then picked us up.  The ground was scarred where shots had grazed Scion and touched earth.  It formed a loose circle, with two spaces where the shots hadn’t touched.  One space for me, and another for the Undersiders.

Why had this barrage worked when the others didn’t?

Had to buy time, make space.  I opened doorways, siccing capes on Scion, driving him out of the building.

What was different?  I hadn’t added anything to the group.

I had taken something away.

I looked at Foil.

I took control of her, had her bend down to grip a rock.  I channeled it with her power.

A moment later, I brought Ballistic through.

He used his power on the rock.

I was already moving the group to safety when Scion evaded the incoming projectile.

His future sight power wasn’t like Contessa’s.  Narrower, lacking imagination, but he’d set up contingencies.  If X happened, then the power would automatically kick in.

Apparently the cost of being hit by Foil’s power was worse than whatever it cost him to use that power.

Not a magic bullet, but it was a good fucking thing to know.  Could I break it?  Abuse it?

We retreated to an empty city in Earth Bet.  The group kept a safe distance from me as we half-ran, half-jogged through.  A bubble of empty space surrounding me.  My portals flickered open and shut around me as I moved, keeping everything essential in my range.

He was beating the capes I was throwing at him, and I wasn’t entirely sure what I could do if and when he killed the last of them.  Bonesaw had finished reviving the people who’d been stopped, and was working on the wounded, but that wouldn’t give me much more in terms of a frontline.

Conversely, if I pulled them back, I was leaving Scion free to do as he wished, and his previous patterns suggested he’d revert back to his last priority target.  Me.

Need- need- need- need-

The thought stuttered over and over again, a refrain.  It was like trying to move a leg, only to find it cuffed to the other.  Except it was my brain.

Need- need-

I shook my head like I was a dog drying itself.  Think- think straight.

Tattletale asked Panacea something.  Panacea made a side-to-side movement with her head.

Imp made a wry comment.

The sense of distance that I felt was enough to rock me.

As before, it was in the quiet moments that I realized how much I’d lost during the action.  I’d been slipping, my vision getting narrower.  I should have been able to take it all in, but the worlds were blending in together.  The clairvoyant was like a drug, and I was building up a tolerance of sorts.  Colors bled together like watercolor, images started to merge, and I wasn’t able to focus on more than a handful of things at a time.  The only crutch I had was that I could see what my swarm saw.

But the Clairvoyant was only giving me the ability to function, at this rate.  I could turn my attention anywhere, still set down portals in different worlds, but it was getting slower and slower.  Barely a consolation.

I was losing it.  I was almost out of time.

The certainty I felt in that was enough to kick me into action.

I didn’t even look to my teammates as I stepped away, opening a door to step onto the upper end of the beach.  Water crashed around my feet.

I organized the tinkers.  Changing their job.  A weapon, instead.

I collected some of the capes that were harder to employ, and I began pairing them up.

Halo.  Sundancer.  A handful of masters with projection powers.  A cape with a giant mask.

All powers that made stuff.

A ring of razor-sharp gold that produced forcefields and lasers.  A miniature sun.  Soldiers of stone.  A golden mask.  I had each of them make the individual objects as big as they could get.

I retrieved Chevalier, and I did the same with his cannonblade, raising it to its maximum capacity.

Then I accessed Vista.  And I made it all bigger.

I pulled the capes out of the way as the various weapons entered the fray.  The sun was as broad across as a skyscraper was tall, the halo was only twice its usual size, firing a substantially sized laser.  Scion avoided both.

Chevalier’s weapon should have been too heavy to lift, but he didn’t seem to care.

He shot Scion, and Scion was consumed by the sun.

Everything counts, I thought.  If we couldn’t get to Scion’s well, then we had to hurt him on this end.

He wasn’t content to stay on the defensive.  He turned his attention to the group that was projecting the effects, to Vista, Sundancer, Ballistic, the masters I couldn’t name.

Which was the moment the Endbringers made their move.

The Simurgh plunged from the clouds, hitting Scion.

Leviathan, healed a touch, emerged from the water.

Bohu rose from the earth, going from a human sized head and shoulders at eye level to a tower.

Tohu, for her part, had Glaistig Uaine, Eidolon and Myrddin’s faces.

The Endbringers, come to the rescue.  I wished I could have felt relieved.  It was a reprieve, a chance to get our footing.  But there was an ominousness to it.

Like I’d told Doctor Mother, I’d…

I reached for the memory.

It- it’s humans who win this.  Not something abstract, not- not something we don’t understand.  We win this with our own strength.

Even if I had to make us.

I gathered my army, bringing them to the battlefield.  I spread them along the length of the beach, keeping them connected to the little round stone that Sifara held.

If Scion turned on us, he could pull us away to safety at a moment’s notice.

I’d lost people, I had more hanging back.  The tinkers were still finishing the gun.  But I had an army, and I wasn’t about to lose any more people if I could help it.

I began to organize another barrage, aiming with the Number Man, using Doormaker’s portals-

I didn’t fire.

Instead, I watched as Scion’s partner came to life.  There was only one growth at first, like a stem, a human-sized body, pure white.

The rest bloomed forth beneath it.  A garden of body parts, hands, stretches of flesh, a maze of parts, all interconnected, all flowing from the piece in the center.  All of it alive, this time.  The garden, as Golem had said.

Hands turned to gesture, and flames rose from fingertips.

A moment later, ice.  Experimenting, testing powers.

Then it spoke.  A soft voice that somehow seemed familiar.

Scion’s companion had been gray, this one was white.  This wasn’t it.

A third entity?

I stared, my blood running cold.

Scion tried to float down to it, fighting almost tooth and nail with the Endbringers to get to his new companion.  Even in the midst of the fighting, the mood was entirely different.  The rage had given way, gone.  I could sense shock, bewilderment…

He reached out, almost as if he were afraid to touch it.  To touch her.

Where had it come from?  I used the clairvoyant, tracing it back to the origin point-

I realized it at the same moment Scion did.  Our emotions at our simultaneous realizations couldn’t have been more different.

I had to wrack my brain, struggling to find the word in the muddle.

B-bastard.

Scion howled.  Not a scream of rage this time.  Something else.

It wasn’t an epithet.  The third entity was Bastard, the wolf cub.  Grown large by the bizarre interaction of Lab Rat’s formula and then cosmetically altered by Panacea, given a handful of special effects.  No doubt coordinated by Tattletale.

Scion’s mad sorrow was so thick on the air I could almost taste it.

I used Sifara to pull everyone and everything in the area away before Scion could retaliate.  Scattering them to different worlds with portals.  I used case fifty-threes to break the so-called scent trail to Tattletale and the others.

Scion shattered the shelf of land that New Brockton Bay stood on, and I watched in horror as the cracks moved radiated towards the cabin.

I moved Ziggurat out of a portal, and I used her power.

Sl- sl-

I shook my head before I could get caught up in another mental loop of failed, stuttered words.

A fissure opened up.  The cracks stopped twenty feet short of the cabin.

Scion didn’t hold back, entering another world, dealing just as much damage, then moving to the next.  It became all I could do to keep my swarm out of his way.  Even with Sifara, even with the doors.

I couldn’t think straight, because I couldn’t really think.  Not coherently.

But I knew, on an instinctual level, that we’d homed in on the weak point.  We just needed to drive it home.  I reached out to seize everyone, opening full-size doorways so I could move them all to one place.

It was when I was opening my door that the portals started winking out.

It was like watching a blackout take hold over a city.  Lights going out, sections of apartments at the same time, then buildings.  Not all even, not quite logical in flow, but close.

And with every other light that went out, I lost a member of my swarm.

The portals shut en masse, ten by ten, a hundred by a hundred, the furthest one first.  The ones next to me would disappear in seconds.

I looked at Doormaker, who was staring into empty space.

The realization dawned on me.

I’d spent it all.  Too much, pushing it too far.  The well Doormaker drew from in using his power had just run dry.

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Speck 30.4

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I didn’t break eye contact with Dragon.  My eyes were damp, and it was impossible to find a balance in terms of keeping still.  I either slumped over or I held myself so rigid that I trembled, an ache creeping over my body, my muscles too taut.

Back when Emma and I had been friends, way back in middle school, we’d done one of the sleepover dares.  Going into a dimly lit room and staring out our reflections.  Repeat the name of the monstrous woman, a name that escaped me now, over and over, without breaking eye contact.

The freaky thing had been that it had worked.  My expression had torn, twisted and distorted, dark patches creeping over my cheeks and forehead, my mouth disappearing with only a blank stretch of skin in its place.  I’d fled the room.

I’d later read up on it, because understanding something meant being able to handle it, and my problems back then had been ones I could understand.  The effect was a result of the mind’s idleness.  We only really saw a little bit of what we looked at, and our brain worked constantly to fill in the gaps and unimportant spaces with its best guesses.  In a dimly lit room, with the mind focused on the steady, hypnotic repetition, the brain would fill in spaces with the only reference points available to it, taking from features in its field of view to patch together the face.  Fear, imagination and the recently-told scary story of having one’s entrails ripped out through their mouth did the rest.

The mind was an amazing thing, but it had limits and weaknesses.  I’d been taking in too much even before I added the clairvoyant.

Dragon spoke, her voice insistent, concerned, and pitched as a question at the end.

I raised my arm and the stump of a limb to the sides, bringing the clairvoyant’s hand with me.  An exaggerated shrug.  I then let them flop down to my sides.

Dragon said something else in response, a statement, quiet.

Using the clairvoyant was an art, it seemed, and I hadn’t received any advice on how to handle it.  I was figuring it out, though.  My focus on Dragon was like staring into the mirror.  There were too many details to clarify to keep my attention in one place for so long.  Things were starting to bleed around the edges in areas I wasn’t focusing on, like a watercolor painting that was bleeding out beyond the lines.

Subtle, but it was there.  Was it the entity, trying to tap into my memories to hash things out where my perceptions were failing?  It wasn’t anything substantial, not yet.  I was focused on Dragon, above all else.  The various people, the capes, the fighting, all were clear in my awareness.  It was the hills, the mountains, the vast spaces of water or field without anyone nearby that were shifting subtly.  Cities in particular seemed to be a jumble.  Or was it just easier to see the differences and errors when a city was rearranged in a way that didn’t make sense?

More to the point, was I simply losing my mind entirely?

I’m running out of time.

I raised my hand again, reaching out towards the Birdcage, below us, towards the comparative miles of space and containment foam, the forcefields and countless other effects that had been worked together to form the most secure facility they could manage.  The empty space between the hanging structure itself and the walls that had been thickened by the engine was vast in a way that staggered me, just a little.  Shit like that didn’t help with the fucked-up perception thing.

My hand was shaking, the muscles in my forearm too tense, the hand too loose.

Without breaking that eye contact, I gestured, turning my hand over, curling the fingers.  I opened a portal at the same time, inside the Birdcage.

Dragon shifted her stance, and that same room flooded with containment foam.

She said something in that same, quiet voice.

As communication went, it would have to do.  Not the words I couldn’t understand, but the gestures.  I’d declared what I wanted, she’d drawn the line.

I wanted so badly to hug her, to cross the distance between us and throw my arm around her muzzle, or around one of her legs.  To have something physical to hold on to that I wasn’t actively controlling.  I couldn’t give her an opening to take me out of action.

I began opening a portal beneath a flow of lava, a trickle on Earth Bet, at the mouth of a cave system.  The lava met the edge of the portal, and it winked out of existence.  A splash of it passed through the portal, touching Dragon where her ‘neck’ met her body.

She moved, jet-engine ‘wings’ reorienting, pulsing with thrusters going on full to move her fifty feet to the right.  Her claws met a cliff face, digging into stone, and the thrusters kept going, pushing her against the rock and holding her on the surface.

Right.  Okay.  A different tack then.

She was retaliating, too.  Her guns trained on me, barrels glowing.

I opened defensive portals before I even saw what she was firing at me.  Lightning, crackling in visible arcs around what looked like sphere-shaped empty spaces.  Controlled pockets of ionized atmosphere, probably, to give the lightning a path to travel.

The lightning traveled through the portal and struck Scion from behind.  I closed the portal before he could react.

The guns changed, the barrels contracting, the mounts behind the barrels reconfiguring.  A portal simultaneously opened behind me.

She sprayed containment foam.  Not a stream, but an honest spray, as if she was trying to paint the entire mountain peak.

I stepped through a portal, putting myself halfway on the other side of the world.  I stood on the roof of the Byzantine Tower in Istanbul.  Third tallest building in the world, surrounded by a shattered city and waterways that were now polluted with detritus and rubble.

Then I opened fire.  Every parahuman I controlled with a ranged attack or gun fired into the portals I was opening beside them.  The exit-points were beside Dragon, and a cascade of bullets, lasers, energy shots, ice, lightning, metal and other effects obliterated her ship, tearing through the cliff face.

I moved my collection of people out of the way before the resulting rockslide could kill anyone.  The thinkers and tinkers joined me, the rest relocated to other points on the mountain.

The ship she’d sent my way was slag.  Barely worth calling scrap metal.  I checked it over twice.

Dragon deployed her drones.  Not ships, but tens of thousands of airborne craft, most no larger than a basketball, kept aloft by antigrav panels like the ones on my flight pack.  I already knew that each was loaded with a specific payload.  Containment foam, EMP pulses, explosives, tear gas and more.

This wasn’t a typical fight.  It was more like a war, two parties with vast resources at their disposal, with armies and incredible potential in terms of the tools we could bring to bear.  In a typical fight, things would end when one person knocked the other out, but a war rarely ended that way.  The fighting would continue until we’d done enough damage to the other that they had to give up.  Dragon was decentralized, with no single point that could be attacked to remove her from the fight.  Truth was, I’d probably have to destroy everything to destroy her.  If she didn’t give up.

If she could give up.

As for me, I was inaccessible, out of reach.

I was quietly confident I could win this, one way or another.  She’d have to defeat every cape in my little army, every cape I potentially acquired in the meantime, and I doubted her willingness to do that.

Don’t destroy my army.  Please don’t be willing, don’t be capable.  If that happens, then I’ve failed completely and totally, I’ve done this to myself and will go out as a villain, all for nothing.

The fight against Scion was ongoing.  I needed to be able to focus, especially with the way things seemed to be breaking down in the least important areas.  I couldn’t split my attention between him and Dragon, or something that was nigh-impossible would become harder.

The drones closed the distance, and my army began gunning them down.  They were evasive, and I could take in the whole picture to see how Dragon was managing them.  Not simultaneously, but close enough it barely mattered.

I tapped into precogs and clairvoyants, along with other thinkers, gauging the best approach.

Shén Yù informed me of the general thrust of Dragon’s attack.  I could see it through his perceptions, mottled, indistinct lines in the battlefield.  X drones moving to one of my groups, Y drones to another.  The path they intended to travel… I could tell that as well.  An initial wave of attacks to debilitate, and then the second wave, drones for a follow-up strike.  The lines had a feeling to them.  I could almost assign labels.  Infantry, cavalry.

I looked around me.  If I drew parallels, tried to correlate what I was seeing with what Shén Yù was seeing…

She was aiming to strike me.  How?

Seventeen Dragon-craft deployed from the hangar.  Again, not combat models, but utility models, fast response and rescue.  Craft she’d been holding in reserve, no doubt because the cost of deploying them outweighed their potential benefit against Scion.

The clearer Dragon’s direction of attack became, the more Shén Yù’s awareness clarified on her weak points.  Distant locations and objectives.  Some were objectives I couldn’t identify, even with the clairvoyant.  He only saw within the boundaries of Earth’s atmosphere.

Others… valid targets.  I sent one squad to an army base.  Pulses of gravity and intense heat let me detonate the contents of a munitions depot and direct the force of the explosion in one direction.  The end result annihilated a data center Dragon had set up nearby.

I’m sorry.

I could see her reaction, in the broadest sense.  Where her drones had been micromanaged before, they weren’t being controlled now.  She was focusing elsewhere, controlling the larger craft and assigning them to the protection of the various data centers.

There was a skeleton crew of people at one facility.  A data management firm that Dragon had bought out, I suspected, because the entire databank was reading as hers.  Row upon row of servers, standing like tombstones in refrigerated rooms.  Freezing air poured through the floor, pushing up against the warmer air.  The facility seemed more like an alien landscape of steel and cold than anything of human design, complete with a constant, persistent weather pattern – a constant, gale-force wind generated by the movements of hot and cold air in what had to have been a careful design.

That the crew had stayed suggested something about their personalities.  Discreet, paranoid people, who’d built a shelter inside the facility as a hiding place, in case things went to hell.

Which was pretty damn reasonable, considering the sheer amount of nightmarish crap there was in the world.

I used portals to take control of them.  I couldn’t read what was on the screens, so I had them take a more direct route.  They made their way through the building, throwing switches, pulling plugs and opening sealed doors.

Three of my Yàngbǎn capes entered the facility through portals and began generating heat as they’d done outside the C.U.I.’s Imperial Palace.  I could find the freezer… and another cape could step through to damage it.  Dragon’s utility craft arrived on site, but the damage had been done.

I’m sorry, I thought, again.  My attention shifted to the monitors and gauges in her various databanks.  I could see dials shift closer to red, numbers rising, gauges nearly filled.

Dragon could manage her things, I told myself.  She had safeguards, ways of keeping her data safe.  There was no doubt in my mind on that score.  Each time I disabled a facility, I forced her to consolidate, to put the resources that remained under further stress.

My ranged capes aimed for portals once again.  This time, I put the exit portals against Earth’s atmosphere, aiming for the general direction of a satellite.

It took thirty seconds of sustained fire before Shén Yù’s power stopped telling me it was a weak point.  Other thinker powers in my range were giving me similar feedback.  A cape with perfect eyesight was telling me it could even see the explosion.

The displays across Dragon’s private realm shifted further.

She was saying something to Defiant, words I couldn’t make out.  I could see him tensing, moving like he was going to go somewhere.  Then Dragon spoke again, and he went still.  His head turned in Scion’s general direction.

Please stop, I thought.  Don’t make me go further.

She went further.  She intensified and organized the attack, and her drones reached my front line, disabling them with nonviolent means.  Tranquilizers, electric pulses, containment foam and tear gas.

I let it happen, because I needed to see what her second wave attack was, before she organized a more efficient frontline attack.

The second wave approached, and they made a beeline for the portals that were controlling my minions.  The portals that would exit right next to me.  But the drones were too large…

Until they jettisoned outer shells and accelerated.  Half the payload, but they had the same kind of propulsion jets I had in my flight pack.  I moved the portals a fraction of a second before they speared through, and they continued onward through open air.

Shén Yù informed me about the third wave’s imminent attack.  Not a feeling of attack, but… the initial wave had read to his senses as something like infantry or spearmen.  The second wave had read as cavalry.

This?  A siege weapon?  The lines that Shén Yù’s power painted on the world indicated something deliberate, devastating, but diffuse, somehow indirect.

I directed fire at the drones, and forcefields served to protect most.  The non-Yàngbǎn capes I had that could penetrate the forcefields were few and far between, the drones too numerous.

They set up, planting their mechanical limbs firmly on the ground, and then they deployed, pyramid-shaped structures, glowing blue at the peak.

My portals began opening, ones I’d closed not long ago.  Portals I’d opened to control my capes, and the larger portal I’d opened to escape to this location on the Byzantine Tower.  I couldn’t shut them.

Drones started to make their way through.

I, in turn, opened another portal, handing one tinker device to Shén Yù before hurrying on, leading the rest through.  Portals blocked the drone’s ranged fire.

The Yàngbǎn’s strategist used Teacher’s device, and all the doors in his vicinity slammed shut.

Dragon’s path to me was shut.

I watched the meters and gauges.  Each attack had pushed Dragon’s remaining resources closer to capacity.  That was on top of the extra strain she was under with Scion having done so much damage to the Eastern seaboard.  He would have eliminated other databanks when he’d attacked.  Just like me, she’d been wounded and disabled before entering into our private war.  Just like me, she desperately wanted to focus on Scion, but she couldn’t afford to.

If each attack pushed the remaining databanks four percent closer to capacity, at a guess… no.  I was having trouble putting the numbers together.  Had to eyeball all of it.

I targeted another facility.  All of the ranged attacks, channeled through open portals, ripping through an unoccupied facility.

In quiet horror, I watched meters flip over into the red, gauges hitting maximum capacity, bars filling, characters on screens going nutso until they were all the same digit, repeated ad infinitum.

One by one, monitors went blank.  Server banks I hadn’t even touched began to spin down, fans stopping, lights fading.  Whole grids of blinking green lights winked out, some in order, others at random.

I watched, silent and frozen, as the process continued.

Stop, I thought.  That’s enough.

You have backup servers, I thought.  Those servers need to stay online.  They have to stay online, because you can’t exist in stasis any more than I could.

She needed life support, at a bare minimum.  She couldn’t go any length of time without something running any more than I could go for a duration without a heartbeat or breathing.

But the lights continued to go out.

She said things to others, over the comms systems.  To Chevalier and other various heroes.  A few words or a statement or two, specific to each of them.

Some longer words and phrases dedicated to Defiant, and more acerbic words for Teacher and Saint.

Saint didn’t react, but Teacher raised his phone, tapping it a few times before saluting the air with the device.

The drones close enough to do so sank to the ground all across the mountain’s peak.  Her suits had already retreated and settled on the ground.  Defiant was very still as he watched them land.

Then Scion attacked, screaming incoherently, and Defiant moved, taking control of one ship.

The last of Dragon’s lights went out.

I stood in a daze as the various machines went still, surprisingly hot as the fans stopped spinning.  All of the server rooms and data banks were utterly dark and quiet.

Drones that hadn’t been close enough to the surface to land dropped out of the air.  They hit the ground, along with one or two members of my swarm, and I flinched with the crashing, as if they were striking me.

I’m sorry, I thought, but it wasn’t my thought.  A memory.

It was good that my power was saying it, because I couldn’t.  My own thoughts were a jumble.

My feelings were a chaotic mess.  A lump was growing in my throat, swelling beyond my ability to tolerate it.

I hunched over, and I very nearly let go of the clairvoyant’s hand before remembering that I couldn’t.  Instead, Doormaker and the clairvoyant both pulled at my mask until it was halfway up my face.  I felt the lump become a wave of vomit, spattering over the rooftop.  It hurt, not just the physical act, and yet it felt like so little.  Still a scene I was experiencing while half-numb, experiencing from a distance.

I miscalculated?

Had she been vulnerable because of what Teacher had done to her?

Something else?

Did it even matter?

I felt the need to throw up again, almost wanted to, just for that relief from what was welling up inside.

She’d been an ally, a friend.

I wanted to scream, to yell at her for being like all of the others and refusing to play along, to listen and cooperate.  I wanted to do the opposite, to beg her forgiveness, and hate myself for being exactly what I’d criticized others for.

I wanted to put all of those feelings aside and start dealing with Scion.  I wanted to give up on that entirely, because, fuck it, what was I even trying to save, at this point?

If I’d been whole, if I’d been balanced, I might have been able to find the middle road between the conflicting ideas.  But I wasn’t.  I remained hunched over, almost paralyzed.

My anchors… what had I chosen, again?  Tattletale, Rachel, Imp… Grue’s cabin.  My interlinking hexagonal portals were a mess.  In the course of fighting Dragon, I’d closed portals and opened others without any attention to keeping it together. That was something to pay attention to.  If I wasn’t feeling my emotions as clearly as I should, I had to look for the external clues, and that jumble was suggestive of an emotional turmoil I’d been suppressing.

I began pulling the grid back together, not feeling any better.

What else?

I reached out, trying to remind myself of the anchors I’d set up.

My mom… I found the graveyard.

My old house…

Where had it been again?

The streets were such a mess, one pile of rubble virtually indistinguishable from the rest.  What was I supposed to even do to identify it, if there were no landmarks?

I’d hoped to use the anchors to help push myself forward, but reaching for one thing that I’d known from the very beginning and failing in the process left me in a more unbalanced state.

I was…

I was what?

There had been an idea I’d been reaching for, a word, a symbol, something.  Yet I couldn’t clarify it in my head.

Don’t panic, I thought, but the words sounded panicked in my head.  Rushed.  Sloppy.  My breathing was hard and fast, my heartbeat pacing out of control.  Between the two, it was getting to my head, affecting my thoughts.

Don’t panic, I told myself.  The repetition felt good, helping.

Or had it been my passenger telling me not to panic?

No.  I had a perfectly normal lapse.  Perfectly normal.  A person in a stressful situation like this is going to have moments where she can’t come up with the right word.

Perfectly normal.

My breath wheezed a little as I panted.

You don’t want to, but you have to, I told myself.  Stop Scion.

The portal slid open.

Except I hadn’t ordered it.

You want to take over, passenger?  I thought.  I began to struggle to my feet.

The drones moved.

Defiant?

Saint, taking over her systems again?

They flowed through the doorway to Shén Yù, blitzing him in passing.

No.  Neither of the two seemed to be paying attention to me.  They were focused on Scion.

I began erecting portals, shooting the drones out of the air, defending myself against the initial bombardment of tear gas canisters and containment foam.  If I was slow to react, it was because of the disorientation, the lack of knowledge of who and what I was up against.

I had other thinkers available.  Understanding their power was easier with the Yàngbǎn’s power boost.  If they were puppets, the power boost meant the puppets fit my hand.  I put them to work, trying to divine just who was seizing control of these drones.

It was so much easier to operate when I was doing something.  Time and again, my lapses, the slippage, it had been in the quiet moments, between the conversations and the fighting.

It was easier if I was active, in the midst of conflict.

This was me.  I thrived when I had an opponent, and when I could carry out that goal I’d had from the beginning, getting the world to the point where it all made sense.  Bringing people in line, subjugating those who would get in the way or do more harm than good.

That was how I functioned.  I’d always reveled in the chaos, in the madness of it all.

No, the thought crossed my mind.  Not always.

Once upon a time, I’d been Taylor, minus the powers.  I’d avoided conflict.  I’d just been trying to get by.

Does that mean this is you, passenger?

There was, of course, no reply.

The drones kept coming, and I redoubled my efforts, calling individuals to me to form a battle line.

The moment the line was in place, the drones shifted.  Some entered the portal, then immediately made a ‘u’ turn, flowing back around the sides of the portal and down.  They circled around the building, trying to get at me from behind.  I had to redistribute my personal army to block them off.

The portals were open and I couldn’t close them.  But the lights on the drones were off.  No lenses glowed, the antigrav panels were the only thing that indicated any power at all.  Remote control of some sort?

The lights are off, but they’re still running.

I laughed, abrupt, an alien sound, not my own laugh.

The goddamn lights are off!

It wasn’t Saint mounting this attack against me.  It wasn’t Teacher, or Defiant, or any of those other guys.

I continued laughing.  My winded panting and nausea from before translated to a kind of lightheadedness.

Fucking Dragon.

Fucking with my head.  Giving me a reality check.  Trying to catch me off guard.  She’d figured out that I had the ability to see her systems, she’d switched off the lights on the panels, put every system into hibernation, stopped the fans, and cut everything down to a bare minimum while the fans had stopped, so they didn’t overheat too quickly.

A drone that had crept around behind the building detonated in a flare of pale sparks, and every portal in the vicinity distorted, taking on weird shapes, more three-dimensional than two-dimensional.  They winked out of existence.

Leaving me in the midst of an army I no longer controlled.

Fucking tinkers, I thought.  But I was strangely overjoyed.  I was fucked over six ways from Sunday, but I was happy.  I hadn’t murdered one of my favorite people.

The capes at the edge of the rooftop were looking around in a daze.

The drones were moving, assuming a perimeter.  The capes at the edge of the rooftop looked lost and shell-shocked.

And I was still laughing, clutching the clairvoyant’s hand as if it was one of the few things keeping me grounded.

Capes at the edges retreated, bumping into one another.

The laughter stopped as I abruptly let out a sound, half-roar, half-scream, incoherent, channeling every last iota of the lingering rage and despair into the noise.

I commanded the people in my range to attack the drones, and I continued screaming even as my throat began to hurt and I felt like I might pass out from oxygen.

Dragon was only just beginning to speak, some drones blaring out words in what might have been English, others in a sing-song dialect that was likely Chinese.  The percussion and detonations that followed the attacks striking home drowned out most of it.

The ones at the edge took cues, attacking the drones they’d just been fighting.

Each and every one of them had been brainwashed.  Some by Teacher, some by the Yàngbǎn. They hadn’t had freedom of choice for some time.  Between the scream of rage, a pretty damn universal sound, and the action of the ones I did control, they defaulted to going with the crowd.

I still had to deal with Dragon.  Her intent was clear, from the way the drones were moving.  She wanted to target me, and stop me from the source.  I needed to do the same, and I needed to do it without destroying her infrastructure.  I wasn’t going to risk making that faked death into a real one.

Fuck you for fucking with my head at a time like this, Dragon.

The thought wasn’t one of malice.  My feelings were so confused I could barely tell on that front.  I was relieved, disoriented, but those were more states of being than actual feelings.

I was muddled.

One task at a time.

Stopping Dragon.

I watched as the suits she’d settled on the ground kicked back into action.

We’d fought Endbringers together.  For a time, the Guild had been one of our biggest assets.  I’d seen what happened when Dragon was taken out of action.  A.I.?  Nothing substantial.  But when her main suit was taken out of action…

I saw the way she deployed the suits.  Which was she keeping safest?

One was in the thick of things, creating different types of forcefield to try to mitigate the damage Scion was doing to our side.  Capes had baited Scion out over the water, but the fact that there were less targets in range was counterbalanced by the fact that Scion was more focused on those who were there, and he was hitting harder.  When he hit the water, waves crashed against the shore, doing nearly as much damage as any of his attacks might.  A Leviathan with one arm, one leg, and most of its head missing was perched on the shoreline, apparently mitigating the damage.

There were two more suits on the fray, offering long-range fire.

And one more above the clouds, periodically firing exceedingly long ranged laser beams at Scion.

The drones were making headway.  These capes weren’t completely under my control and they weren’t the most stable, either.  They were liable to crumble where other capes might stand firm.

Doormaker was recovering his power.  He could make portals, but it was slow.

My first instinct was to regain control.  I reconsidered.

I didn’t have time to feel guilty.  I didn’t have time to think.  There was only a moment where I felt the weight of what I was doing, the knowledge that if this didn’t work, I’d set everyone back for nothing.

I opened portals behind Dragon’s longest-range ship, the entrance portals above my army’s heads.  I began firing through the doors with every individual I could control, creating more portals to seize control of others with every passing second.

More ranged attacks joined the barrage.  Dragon flew out of the way, her ship badly damaged, and I moved the portal, maintaining the assault.

The wreck of the ship plummeted from the sky, and the behavior of the other Dragon-craft changed, as though they’d switched gears.  The drones dropped from the sky once again.

Something told me this wasn’t a feint.

I opened portals into the Birdcage, and Dragon didn’t stop me.  No containment foam came down from the ceiling.

Maybe fifty or sixty members of my swarm had been disabled by the nonlethal measures.  With the Birdcage, I added seven hundred and forty-three individuals to my army.

The nonlethal measures would wear off.  It was a step forward.

I turned to my passenger to sort them out, and I sent a share of them into the fight to reinforce the others.

One obstacle, removed.  Dragon would take time to reboot.  I could disable her in a similar manner next time.

Defeating Dragon this way hadn’t been ideal, not completely freeing myself of the distraction and threat she posed, but it beat murdering her.

I turned my attention to the world as a whole, with the idea of recruiting other capes.  I hit a dead end.  The worlds were bleeding together, and it had gotten worse while my attention was elsewhere.  I had to force myself to clarify what I was looking at, to tell myself that the areas didn’t make sense.

It took excruciating minutes to get my head out of that sludge, and to make sense of what I was looking at.  Minutes, as Scion tore into Alexandria, to convince myself that it was all in my head, and that Scion wasn’t actively tearing apart reality.

I exhaled slowly, and the exhalation was a shudder.  My throat hurt from the screaming.

The going was slow at first, but it picked up as I let my passenger handle more of the load.  Capes in hiding.  Rogues.  Deserters who had fled for safety in our hour of need.  A surprising number of capes who had no costume, and who had barely used their powers at all, judging by the way it felt when I reached for their abilities.  They were rogues who’d been subtle at best, or rogues who’d gone without powers altogether.

There were the retirees, not old capes, but capes who’d been wounded, or who’d dropped out of the scene for other reasons.  Their powers were more developed at their core, but rusty at best.

I reached for the insane, along with those disabled by their powers.  A small few, all things considered.  Glory Girl was among them, in a newly built wing of a home for non-cape invalids.  Something her family had set up, no doubt.

I found members of Bonesaw’s Slaughterhouse Nine.  Clones who’d fled, or who’d been left behind, lurking in dark corners, or simply hiding.  A Mannequin, two Damsels that were keeping each other company, a Night Hag-Nyx hybrid, and a Crawler-Breed hybrid.

When I had the vast majority of them, I began looking to other universes.

There were capes in Earth Aleph, barely C-list by our standards.  Sundancer, Genesis, and Ballistic were there as well, the former two in civilian clothes, retired, the latter in a lavish penthouse, fully done up in costume.  My portals opened, and I had control of them.  I left Oliver behind.

Other earths only had a small handful.  No doubt there had been contamination at some point where doorways had been opened.  Whole worlds with only ten capes at most, half of which were case fifty-threes.

Monster.

I shook my head a little, blinking.

I found another Earth with a mixture of capes, all incredibly beautiful people, all in what was obviously a global position of power.  Every flag that flew in their world was the same flag, and the gauntlet emblem on that flag matched the icon on a particular woman’s costume.  A blue costume, with white fur at the collar, and a heavy cape that would have done Alexandria proud.

I attempted to seize control of them as well, and the woman in blue resisted me.  She spoke, and I lost my hold on everyone in her range.

It was only twenty capes.  Negligible.  But I wasn’t going to settle.  If I was going to compromise on any level, it was going to take more than this.

I created a portal, and I ensnared Canary, who was busy rescuing the wounded, flying here and there with her Dragonslayer suit, her arms full.

She set down the wounded, and then she passed through the portal.

She began to sing.

I was controlling her, and it was my song in a way, syllables rattled off at a fast tempo and severe clip, followed by long high notes.  Not English, but not my own muddled speech either.  I could feel her expressing her power through the song, through each intonation and sound.

I brought her close enough to give her the benefit of the Yàngbǎn’s power enhancer.  I had enough awareness of her power to know how to keep myself safe from it.

I tried again with these foreign capes, in this world where this blue-costumed woman ruled the world, portals feeding Canary’s song into their council chambers.

Those same portals let me attempt to reassert control.

An attack from two directions.  She wasn’t immune, only resistant.  I felt myself assert control.  I understood her power, even if I didn’t understand a thing about her.  A personal, point-blank trump power, allowing her to tune abilities and defenses much like Scion did.  A powerful long-ranged telekinesis, a compulsion power like Canary’s, presence-based rather than voice based, and a personal power battery that let her be stronger, for limited times.

Where the hell had she come from?

No powers that really made her amazing against Scion, but it was an asset.

The others… they weren’t weak.  Nothing gamebreaking, at a glance, but they weren’t weak.

Sleeper.  I could see him, sitting on a lawn chair on a balcony, reading a book out loud to himself.

More trouble than he was worth.  I let him be.

One by one, I brought the ones I’d collected to the battlefield.  The prisoners, the brainwashed, the lunatics, the cowards, the monsters and the broken.  They assembled in groups, in the spaces between the other major groups.  In front, behind, above, and below.

Canary’s song wove its way out of the portals.  Slower than before, working with the wind and the waves rather than fighting against them.

More doors opened, and more of the ones I’d collected continued to appear.

Teacher was making his way into Cauldron’s base, walking past the heroes at the doorway like he belonged there.  He was talking into his phone, mocked up to be like a PRT-issue phone, and the communication was going to every major member of the Protectorate and Guild.

Contessa, for her part, was waking up.

I was shaking, and it wasn’t just the tension.  I wanted to sit down, but I knew that if I did, I probably wouldn’t stand again.

My anchors…  The mantle of portals, Tattletale, Rachel, Imp, Grue.

My old house continued to elude me.  That detail gave me a sinking feeling in my gut.  I reached out for a replacement.  Not my home, then.  My dad’s workplace?  No.  Something else, something family.

A quaint old house on a hill, surrounded by rose bushes, a grandmother…  Not my grandmother.  I barely knew my Gram.  I shook my head.  The house on a hill had been a memory of something I’d read, once.

It was unsettling, the seeming reality of it, the nostalgia.  If I was a little further gone, could I have clung to it, used something wrong to keep my identity intact?

I was still lost in thought when I became aware that I’d stepped onto the battlefield.  I hadn’t plotted it.  Had even felt like it would be a bad idea.  Now Miss Militia was turning my way.  Exalt was standing beside her.

Teacher was talking, and they were responding.

He was warning them about the threat.

I could see people throughout the crowd.  Protectorate members, team leaders of the Wards.  They were tense.

A voice carried over the wind.  I recognized the quality of it, even if I didn’t recognize the words.  Glaistig Uaine, welcoming me back.

Crooning.  She was pleased, on a level.  I found her sitting on a mountaintop, surrounded by three of her ghost-capes.

My small army had grown to be a formidable force.  Three thousand strong in all.  I had thirty layers of portals around me.

Teacher said something, and it was Tattletale who replied.  I could see her, and she didn’t look happy.

So many voices, so many things to focus on.

I felt momentarily lost in the midst of it.  I had a large army, by parahuman standards, I was probably strong enough to kill everyone here-

I stopped myself.

Why had I thought that?  I didn’t want to kill anyone.

Glaistig Uaine continued to croon in my ear.  Was it her?

No.  I was almost positive it wasn’t, and I had any number of thinkers at my disposal who could have warned me.

I shook my head a little.

I had a large army.  I was powerful.  I could move on to the next big step, but I wasn’t sure how.  It was like playing chess, the moves I could make had enough gravity and nuance that I could only make one move at a time.  What to do first?  What wouldn’t open me up for retaliation?

It was better if I wasn’t here.  I turned to leave, backing through a portal.

Tattletale, in that same moment, stepped outside.  She gazed over at my army, then turned and looked straight at me.

Her eyes were wide.  She looked just a little freaked out.

I don’t-  I can’t…

My thoughts stuttered.

Tat-

I clutched to every image and object I’d set in my mind’s eye, to the tethers that were supposed to keep me tied down.

It’s too soo-

Too soon.

I was running out of time.

Had to move.  Had to act.  It was easier, so long as I was in the thick of it.

Glaistig Uaine was the real threat.  She would be first.

Thing was, I didn’t like the look of those ghosts of hers.  A woman, one of the really crazy looking ones who had a costume that was more for revealing than it was for covering up.  She was warped, twisted by Glaistig Uaine’s power until the costume and the body were one and the same, which only made her look more vulgar.

I didn’t recognize her, but she looked like one of the crazy ones.

There was a guy, built like a football player in full padding, only it was all muscle.  That muscle, in turn, was covered in armor that had spikes studding it at regular intervals.  The helmet covered his eyes.  He sat at Glaistig Uaine’s feet, and he was tall enough that her eyes barely looked over the top of his head.

And there was a woman, so thin she was barely there, a look no doubt exaggerated by Glaistig Uaine’s powers.  When Glaistig Uaine spoke to me, it was the thin woman who passed on the message, her lips moving.  Like Screamer, then.

I prepared to make a move, and I felt the danger sense of no less than twelve different capes in my army go off.

Yet I still alerted the ghost in armor.  He moved, lurching to his feet, and he spoke.

Glaistig Uaine said something, and it was a single word, a hard word.

He was a precog, and to look at him, he was a defensive cape.

She’d been anticipating an attack.

The thin woman moved, and a current of wind ripped through the air, two feet wide and ten feet tall, less a tornado and more a battering ram.  It flew through the sky, homing in on me.

I moved through a portal, and the column followed.  It hit me like a truck, and I nearly lost my grip on the clairvoyant’s hand.

I tumbled.  In a sense, my lack of control over my own body helped more than anything.  I was left panting, but I hadn’t tensed up because the reflex simply hadn’t been there.  Being limp when I took the hit was better than going tense and tearing something.

The Faerie Queen had anticipated an attack.  She had to know what I’d been doing, how I was operating.  If I used my power…

What did the vulgar woman with the lipstick smirk and creepy white teeth do?

Another column of wind homed in on me.

My army threw barriers in the way.  Force fields, walls of crystal and walls of fire.

The column passed between them like it wasn’t even a consideration.  I closed the portal in front of me before the column could zip through.

I watched as it changed course, heading for the nearest member of my army.  I might have been able to do something about it, but I suspected it would have found a way to me anyways.  Instead, I shifted my grip, gripping the young man’s wrist, and making him grab mine.  A surer grip than hand-on-hand.

The wind-attack compressed, passing through the foot-wide portal behind them, and it hit me.  Not as hard as the first, because it wasn’t as large, but it still hurt.

The Faerie Queen spoke, her voice imperious, echoing in that curious way of hers.  Indignant more than furious, but still with that bite of anger behind it.

The others on the battlefield reacted, and it wasn’t to rally against Glaistig Uaine.

Tattletale was murmuring under her breath.  Was that-  Was it my name?

The faerie queen banished her wind-witch and brought out another spirit.  I tried to capitalize on the distraction, getting one cape with one of the stronger ranged powers to attack her.  A gravity pulse, a bullet that imploded things at the impact site.

The man in armor moved, and the vulgar woman reacted, creating a circle of rippling air.  The bullet struck the barrier, and the man who’d sent out the pulse promptly imploded, blood showering everyone nearby.

Something indirect, then.  I opened a portal a distance away, and I used Canary’s song.

She kept the field up.  I could feel the pain wrack Canary, hear her choke on her words.  She doubled over and coughed up blood.

A power counterer, a precog…  and Eidolon, now.

If I’d used a portal, what would have happened to me?  Would it have affected Doormaker or me?  Or both of us?

I didn’t feel very stable on my own two feet as I climbed to a standing position.  I had a whole army, and I could lose them in an instant if I simply unloaded on her.

I needed to hit her with something that broke the rules.  Not Foil.  I wasn’t willing to risk Foil.  But something

I took control of Alexandria, instead, Pretender.  Controlling the person who was controlling the manipulative bitch Alexandria.  I took Legend, who was part of that fight, two foreign capes and Moord Nag.

They were the ones running interference, buying us time to breathe.

Now I positioned them.  As I’d done with my bugs, I lined up the shot.

He took the bait, shooting.  I moved everyone out of the way.

Glaistig Uaine’s pets informed her of the imminent danger, and the shield was raised in time.

Smoke poured off of Scion, indicating he’d taken the reflective effect full force.

And smoke cleared around the Faerie Queen as well.  She was panting a little, her ghosts tattered but intact.  I made her stand straighter, and then banished her ghosts, replacing them.  I’d used the distraction to plant a portal behind her.

I opened a portal, passing through, re-entering Earth Gimel.

Miss Militia turned a sniper rifle on me.  I caught her before she could fire.

Then, group by group, I captured the rest of the defending force.  Some resisted, some predicted the attack, but it was a foregone conclusion.  I had enough soldiers, enough tools at my disposal, that nothing here really stood in my way.

I created more portals, until I didn’t have space for all of them.  I shrunk them, reorganized.  Where I could find the open space, I tapped other worlds, reaching for bugs.

Those bugs then swirled around my captives, flowing around their feet or behind them, where they wouldn’t obscure the view.

I saw with compound vision.  Five thousand pairs of eyes, collecting more with every second that passed.

I breathed with five thousand mouths.

I was adrift in a sea.

My eyes fell on Tattletale.  Panacea was behind her.

She shook her head, putting herself between me and Panacea.

I reached out, my hand trembling.

It flopped down at my side.

I need her as an anchor more than I need her power.

Anchors…

My mom’s grave… it was in Brockton Bay, right?

Brockton Bay.  It took me a minute to find, more time because I was busy keeping capes out of Scion’s way.  Putting them through doorways, bringing them back.  Always being careful to keep the doorways from being touched by his power.

I couldn’t find the grave.  No time.

What else?  The mantle of power, of course.

Yes.

Tattletale.

And…

I reached out, tried to find others, and I failed.

It would- would have to do.

This was it.  Finally, everyone was working together.

I turned my attention to Scion.

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Speck 30.3

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I made my way into Brockton Bay, the Boardwalk.  Five more steps carried me into New Delhi.  Only a minute later, I was walking through Brockton Bay again, downtown this time.

Los Angeles.

Bucharest.

Brockton Bay again.

Madison, Wisconsin.

Cauldron’s Headquarters.

Ruins.  Places built up by man, painstaking, sometimes over centuries.  Layer upon layer of human experience, history, and art, represented in stone and wood and glass.  Every single building had been put together with the idea of meeting some specific goal, a specific individual’s tastes, filling a purpose as an institution, or being built to cater to society’s tastes as a whole.  Virtually every building had been a familiar place to someone, a home, a place of business.  Roads had once been a part of people’s daily routines, bridges a convenience that was appreciated, if rarely acknowledged.

Shattered, eroded, dashed aside.  Roads were now uneven slabs, rising and falling, while buildings had folded or leaned over, spilling out their innards.  Those same innards hinted at just how much value we’d put into this world we’d built around ourselves.

I realized I’d stopped walking, struck by what I was looking at.  There was a tightness in my chest, and I struggled to put my finger on what to call it.  It was a sweet feeling, but not a pleasant one.  Not nostalgia, but it called to a certain kind of familiarity.

Home, I thought.  This is home.  Not so much a place I could return to for a hug, to kick my shoes off and let down my guard, not a place where I would sleep and wake up feeling warm.  Yet it was a place which was central to me, a place I was rooted in, and vice versa.

I’d defined myself in places like these.  The height of my growth, my strongest moments, they’d taken place in open graveyards and the aftermath of tragedies.  Not my best moments, not the noblest, but the moments where I’d had the greatest impacts and had made the choices that shaped who I was.

I started walking again.  I wasn’t actually traveling to Brockton Bay, to Bucharest or Los Angeles.  I could have, but I wasn’t.  It was only that the ruins here were so easy to relate to those places, to this home.  The memories of the locations were bleeding into my awareness, making it feel almost real.

I wanted to tell myself it was the clairvoyant in my range, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to.  I wanted to say it was the distraction of having to devote a small share of my attention to ensuring that Doormaker kept opening portals when the clairvoyant recognized someone asking for one.

With a note of desperation, I told myself it was because I was still trying to keep tabs on my power, gauge my level of control, and manage my body.  If I couldn’t get a better grip on my own movements, maybe I could get control over my swarm.  Over the people I was controlling.

But I didn’t really believe it.  I was slipping.

My bugs spilled out over the ruins.  My range was shorter, but I could use the relay bugs I had on hand.

Slipping, the thought came back to me.

Losing my mind, losing grip on things.

The Faerie Queen had told me I needed to anchor myself.  Except I’d been doing that for a long time.  It was how I functioned.  Compartmentalizing, identifying a priority, devoting myself to it.  Surviving the bullying, the mission to turn in the Undersiders, the mission to save Dinah, to turn the city around, to save the world.  I’d had tunnel vision at the best of times, and I’d had both successes and failures.

I functioned best when I had a mission, something beyond the one singular goal before me.  Yes, stopping Scion was key, but-

I shook my head.  I’d stopped walking again.  Had to focus.

I’d use smaller anchors here, smaller things to tie myself down to reality, focusing on my surroundings.  If and when the time came, I would abandon them, cast them away in order of size and priority.  In a way, it would let me gauge how badly I was slipping.

An exercise of Doormaker’s power let me experiment with the portals.  They couldn’t move or drift, excepting the way they were anchored to the rotation of the planet as a whole.  Instead, I opened and closed new portals, timing it so the opening of one was a fraction of a second before the prior one closed.  I surrounded myself with them, a shifting, shuttering array of portals.

I was put in mind of the moment I donned my costume, of being Skitter the Warlord, with her half-cape, half-shawl.  There had been a kind of power to the gesture, to draping myself in the cloth and assuming the title and the role.

As I made my way through New York, I found myself altering the portals, reconfiguring them.  I’d drape myself in them like I did in a costume.

They formed a loose three-quarter circle around me, Doormaker and the clairvoyant, at first, a cylinder with an opening in front of me.  When I turned my head, they reconfigured, the portals in my way disappearing, replaced by others.

To streamline the portal creation, I layered them.  Two half-circles, overlapping.

And then, because it was the most compact way to fit the portals together, because I needed to make a signature, to make this mine and to make it me, I made them hexagons.  A honeycomb interlocking of small, one-foot-diameter doorways, opening up to random points throughout the city, extending my range further than even my bugs could manage.  Each one showed a different image when looked through, a wall, a section of overcast sky, a bit of pavement.  It didn’t stand out, serving more as a kind of camouflage.

As I experimented, finding the places to set the portals, my awareness of the city expanded in turn.

I sensed some of Teacher’s squads.  Groups of men and women, always with at least one person who was more fit than the rest, all dressed in white, or at least in white shirts with jeans.  Most had backpacks, and all had weapons.  They patrolled, scouting the area, talking amongst each other in low voices.

Always talking about business.

I found Teacher.  He had a project in the works, and his ‘students’ were busy scavenging.  A different sort of control than I had, with my bugs or the people in my sway.  More human, maybe.  A society, rather than an army of troops gathered in formations.

The vast majority were active, each with a job to do, a task.  Men carried metal and electronics and either broke down materials or shaped them.  Women, just a little weaker in terms of physical strength, carried things like wire and baskets of clothing they had looted from stores.  Children handled the finer work, etching designs into metal and stitching.

I could almost respect it.  Except his motives were clearly selfish.

“Better to be fast than perfect,” he was saying.  He paused to touch one of his subjects for a few seconds.  The girl stood there, eyes closed, while Teacher resumed talking, “Follow the blue prints, or use the hub stations to get a clear mental picture.”

There were nods from the group around him.

Hub stations.  Not everyone was active.  There were clusters of two or three individuals that were each together, but I was pretty sure they weren’t what he was referring to.  There were also some individuals that seemed to be operating as rally points for the others, arranged in a loose ring around their work in progress.  I watched one individual bring a car door to the rally point, touch the man in the center, and then make their way over to teacher.  He murmured, “Metal and fiberglass design.”

Teacher touched him for four seconds, and then the man with the door made his way to a table, dropping a backpack and collecting a small crowbar.  As he started working, another man at the table stretched, grabbed a backpack, then joined one of the scavenging groups.

It was like a barn raising, but they were working purely in steel and electronics. Individuals that were tired switched to a different job, and everyone worked tirelessly.

They were building a Dragon-craft from scratch.

Not only a Dragon-craft.

“Eight costumes,” Teacher said.  He approached a table, lifting one costume off the surface to investigate.  “Not so flashy.  We want to fly under the radar.  Make it substandard, if anything.  C-list material.”

There were nods all around.  Teacher walked over to another table, lined with tinker weaponry and other tools.  His students were loyal, but they weren’t puppets, like mine were.  Their movements were natural.  The overall system, though, wasn’t natural at all.

I was put in mind of Regent’s games.  There was the base of operations, the cluster of villagers managing the city, and there were the more independent squads of people, deployed to the world beyond the base camp, patrolling for enemies, ready at a moment’s notice to be gathered together in a massed attack.

No doubt they were organized by ability.  Teacher could grant thinker and tinker powers.  If I assumed at least one tinker per group, with the tinkers carrying some ranged weapon or defense, and if the athletic members of the roaming squads were the soldiers, gifted with some knowledge that would give them a small edge in a fight, there were still two or three members in a given group I couldn’t identify.

I wasn’t even finished the thought when one of them perked up, startled.  She shouted, “Scatter!”

Her group moved in different directions.

Trouble?

I was the trouble.  It’s a fucking precog.

I opened portals, catching her three teammates, one by one.

It took two tries to catch her.  She was a fast runner, and she saw where I was putting down my portal before I’d even started, turning a hundred and eighty degrees around and scrambling in the opposite direction.

They were eerily calm, all things considered, much like Doormaker and the clairvoyant.  It made things easier for me.  But I knew that ‘easy’ wouldn’t last.

Teacher achieved control over people by giving them parahuman abilities.  The organization was important, and everything was key.  I’d moved too fast, and now Teacher’s human systems were starting to kick into effect.

Men and women in an isolated cluster dropped to their knees.

“Amber district, team B-six,” one of the students in the group reported.  His voice was as clear as a bell in the near-silence of Teacher’s base of operations.  There were only the sounds of tools and the steady percussion of hammers striking metal, all in unison.

“What’s the problem?”  Teacher asked.

“Out of action.”

“Change focus.  All observation teams, identify our target,” Teacher said.

Heads in every second group around the base turned.  They looked my way, as if they could see the full five or six city blocks and see me standing in the middle of the road.

One crossed to another group, touching a young man.

“Weaver,” the young man said, in turn.

It’s like a computer.  Every person carries out a specific operation, and they’re gathered in clusters with people who can communicate those ideas to others in efficient ways.

“Tinker group H,” Teacher said.  “Defensive measures, modify them for micro-scale drones.  Forcefields, area attacks.  Group N, to me.  We’ll need more tinkers on this problem.  We’ll also need to this area.  Groups F and J, I’ll recalibrate, put you on more general anti-clairvoyance duty.  She’s- You’re looking in, aren’t you, Weaver?”

I reached out to place a portal in Teacher’s camp, right behind him.  I hit a barrier, a dead zone I couldn’t affect.

Some tinker device was blocking my clairvoyant, which was blocking Doormaker in turn.

My relay bugs didn’t work either.  They only worked on bugs.

I began laying down portals around the perimeter, instead, finding the exact point I could affect.  The portals right next to me were turned around, so none faced me directly.  It wouldn’t do if he had students open fire and shoot through the portal to hit me point blank.

“This is new,” Teacher said.  “Have I done something to earn your attention?  Crossed a line, somehow, maybe I inadvertently borrowed someone you care about?  I assure you, I’m very benign.  The vast majority of my students here volunteered their services.  I told them I could use them to help stop Scion and save the world, and they agreed.  A number of others took the deal with the oath that I could borrow them for a year, and I’d supply them powers with no strings attached for the extent of their lives, no mental bondage at all.”

I frowned, shifting my weight from foot to foot, trying to ensure I didn’t lose touch with my body.  If I had to move, I wanted to be able to move fast.

One of the groups was close enough to the perimeter of Teacher’s base to fall in range of my portal.  I seized them, then took a second to analyze their capabilities.  Hyper-acute senses, enhanced aim, the ability to see through walls and a danger sense.

I thought of Tattletale, boasting to Coil in the moments before I’d pulled the trigger.

Not, I reminded myself, that I’m pulling any triggers here.

But I needed to disturb things, shake up Teacher’s elegantly balanced operation.

They looked at one another, and I gauged the equipment they held.  The one with enhanced aim was the ‘soldier’ of the group, armed with an ordinary gun and a bandolier of grenades.

I controlled his movements, directing him to grab a grenade from the bandolier.  He handed it over to the one with enhanced senses.

The one with the grenade raised his hand, hollering, leaning back, ready to throw-

My danger-detector reacted, and I had Doormaker create a portal, moving the grenade out of the line of fire.  A fat blob of crackling energy soared through the vacated space.

“You’re full of surprises today,” Teacher said.  “I’m going to assume this is actually you, Weaver, and that you’re not an Ingenue thrall or something similar.  I want you to know I’m not your enemy.  I was there for that whole business against the Elite, pitting Endbringers on them, I understand why you did it.  You have your mission, a noble task, and you see it as a universal task.  One everyone should inspire towards.  Peace and prosperity in your territory, because peace and prosperity are good things, am I right?  Please feel free to comment, strike up a conversation here.”

He gestured, and his crowd of students collectively backed away from the squad of students I’d taken over at one corner of his setup.  They faced down the others, their heads and shoulders visible above a section of wall that had fallen to the road hours ago.  I watched his group move, and tried Doormaker’s power again.  The borders were at the same points.

“No?  Okay.  You’ll have to trust me when I say I’m working towards the same end mission you are.  I want to stop Scion.  But I’m not a warrior, and I’d be offering more trouble than help if I was on the battlefield.  My students are fine when I’m giving the orders, but they’re prone to undecision at key junctions.  I know where I need to be, I’ll be there shortly, and I’ll be of far more use to our side then.”

If the group had moved and the borders were at the same point, then it wasn’t a person generating the effect.

I used my bugs and Doormaker’s power to get a sense of where the perimeter of this clairvoyance-blocking power was.  It was just a little irregularly shaped, but I could factor buildings and intervening obstacles into the area.  If there was a generated signal, it didn’t extend as far with solid objects in the way.

“For the books, I was inviting you to ask where it is I was planning on going.  You seem more keen on silence.”

My squad turned a gun on the very center point, opening fire with a trio of bullets.

A box, a tinker-made device, exploded in sparks, popping into the air and bouncing off of the pavement.

I tested the clairvoyant’s power.  It worked.

I placed portals with care.  Not to ensnare Teacher’s students, but to cut them off.  Portals between them, above and behind them, in front.  Assuming twelve to thirteen feet of range, I could space them out and cover a wide area.

When I started tagging the groups, I worked from the outside in.  His precogs weren’t amazing, with only a few seconds of awareness before their power gave them a heads up, but the trap was already in place.

I left Teacher for last.  No students at his disposal.  I made a portal, and then stepped through.  My soldiers aimed guns at him, while others stood stock still.

Teacher said something in a language I didn’t understand.

I shook my head.  I didn’t have a better way of showing my lack of understanding.

“No?” he asked, smiling a little.

I shook my head once more.

“A shame, that,” he said.  He sounded genuinely bothered.

My bugs flowed over him and through his pockets.  I didn’t have silk, so I used thread from one of the workbenches, encircling the gun beneath his unfashionable corduroy jacket.  It wasn’t a fast process, but Teacher saw what I was doing and helped it along, raising his hands to his head, simultaneously lifting his jacket up and away from the weapon.

I passed the thread to one of my new underlings, and they pulled the gun free.

My new minions began examining the gathered components and gear.  I looked through their eyes, taking it all in.

“I’m not unfamiliar with robbery,” Teacher said.  “Parcel and part of this whole enterprise.  But this isn’t you, I don’t think.  For one thing, I’m working towards stopping Scion, in a roundabout way.  Or mollifying the damage he does, if stopping him isn’t likely.  It seems things have turned around, then, if you’re closer to being the Elite you were so recently condemning, and I’m someone working towards a fix.”

I gave him a hard look.  He shrugged, his hands still on his head, then said something in another language, smiling a little.

A code word?  A trap or trigger for some tinker device hereabouts?

Except nothing had happened.

“Well then,” he said.  “Scratch that.”

He tried something and it didn’t work?  My swarm shifted their stances, approaching a little closer, guns raised.

Definitely scratch that,” he said.  “Well then, I won’t ask for your forgiveness, but I can still be blunt.  You seem different, and not so much for the better.”

My attention was on the tables.  Weapons, tinker gear… I started browsing through it myself, joining the minions who weren’t actively keeping Teacher at gunpoint.

“Can I ask why?  Or is that too personal?  I understand second triggers can be mortifying.”

I turned around to face him.  I put my hand flat against my mouth.

“Mute.  I see.  And you came to me for help with that?  Do you want to be able to communicate again?”

I shook my head.

“Then you’re looking to refine this ability of yours.  I can do that.  Give capes control over abilities that feel a little lacking in areas.”

Again, I shook my head.

“What did you come for, then?”

I didn’t respond, my attention on the group.

I found what I was looking for.

Boxes, small, with a single, broad button along one side.  Like detonators.  There was nothing to them but a single LED, green, and a few ports where they could be plugged into certain ports or outlets.

I gathered them, tucking them into spare pouches.

“I don’t suppose you could sock one for me?”

I shook my head.  I gathered all of them.

Then I began gathering the guns.

“This is inconvenient, for the books.”

You don’t need these against Scion.

“Again, my power is available, if you should need it.  Anything that helps against our reciprocal enemy, you understand.”

He had an annoying habit of picking difficult-sounding words and using them instead of simpler options.  Like someone trying to sound smarter than they were.

I approached Teacher.  I saw him startle a little at the sudden movement.

He had nowhere to run, and he knew it.  He looked around, and he could see his own students caught in my snare.

I saw the surrender in his body language, an instant before he fell inside my power’s range.

Memories hit me.  Announcing myself as Weaver in front of the PRT buildingTaking on the role in New Delhi, coordinating two teams.

I could sense his power, and I could sense his general awareness of the people he’d affected.  There was no constant connection between him and them, nothing like I had over my bugs or my subjects.

I moved another over to him, and I used his power on them.

There was a connection then.  It only took a little bit of time, and focus on Teacher’s part.  I could sense both the power taking hold, and the frailty, the weak point that manifested at the same time.  There was a duality.

I let go of the subject, and I could feel that frail point linger, decaying by the smallest fraction with every passing moment.  That was what Teacher sensed, an awareness of both the power and the degree of influence he had over the subject.

No, I thought.  Not an option.

I withdrew my phone, unlocked it, and found the page I needed.  I threw it to Teacher.  Rather than try to catch it with his clumsier movements, I had him grab the bottom of his sweater and lift it up, forming a net.  It landed in the ‘net’, and Teacher collected it.

I backed away, releasing him.

Teacher staggered a little, then muttered what must have been a swear word in that other language.

“Karma, I suppose,” he said, panting a little.  “A… little nerve wracking there.  I can’t help but notice you didn’t pursue with yourself, while you had me in command.”

There would be no way to use the power without leaving myself open to Teacher’s influence.  No, I wouldn’t be able to get myself a voice this way.  Not if it affected my ability to make decisions.  Not if it left a lingering window open.

These people who’d taken his promise of a lifetime of power, no strings attached, had been misled.

“Nothing, then?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“A disappointment.”

I wasn’t that disappointed.  I had what I needed.  A speed bump for Scion, weapons, a little more information on how my power worked, and…  I pointed at the phone I’d given him.  He glanced down.

“The C.I.U.,” Teacher said.

I responded with a short nod, then held up one of the devices I’d collected.  I was picking and choosing the members of Teacher’s collection I could use, arming them with tinker weaponry and gathering them near me.  I didn’t enclose them in my little cloak of portals.

“Ah… you guessed?”

I nodded, once.

“Understand, it wasn’t spiteful on my part,” Teacher said.  He lapsed into the other language for one moment, “…I gave them the switch in the hopes it would stop the incursions and curb honestly.  They were supposed to lock themselves away, but they held on to it, apparently intending to use it if anyone retaliated.  An ingress, a portcullis, if you will.  A way to raise the drawbridge and prevent passage into their castle.”

At my order, some of his students gestured with their guns, prompting him.

He seemed to take the threat in stride.  “The one with a white button.”

I glanced at the ones in my possession.  I found it in a belt pouch and repositioned it.

“Skeleton key, Weaver.  I could make you force me to give up any of this detail, but I won’t.  I want to get back to work, so I can help.”

He was giving me a funny look, trying to drive home his point.

But this was a roundabout plan, some kind of infiltration, and he was clearly working against our side.  I wasn’t sure I bought it.

It didn’t matter.

I gestured to the phone.  He moved to throw it back, and I raised a hand.  I pointed to my left.

He wasn’t stupid.  He got my meaning, then used the phone to find the page I was referring to.

“I assume you’re not looking to find me, which leaves only the Birdcage.  No.  I haven’t provided any devices to the Birdcage, or anyone alleged with it.  But you’re going to find entering is difficult, regardless.  There are security placements in measure.”

I nodded.  My soldiers got in place, rank and file around me, all armed.

“If I grasp your intentions, Weaver, I can speculate you’ll be back for me later?”

I didn’t respond.  No need to telegraph my plans to Teacher.  Still, the thinkers were figuring out what I was up to.

I was running out of time.

Which meant taking a leap of faith.

Using the clairvoyant directly was a dangerous prospect.  He could grant the power to see the entire world, multiple worlds, but breaking that contact was troubling, debilitating.  I could see the toll it had already taken on Doormaker.

But I couldn’t afford to hold back.

I separated Doormaker from his partner.  I could sense the effect, the sensory shift, the break in perspective, the mild nausea.  But he was functionally blind and deaf, and there were only so many senses that he had which could suffer.

I’d suffer far, far more.  If I made contact with the clairvoyant and was forced to break it… that would be it.  Chances were good I wouldn’t be able to carry on.  Things would be over before I recovered.

I took stock.  I had a squadron, now.  People who would have been slaves anyways.  People with simple abilities that were easy to get a handle on and use.  I had weapons, better than a typical gun.

Hopefully we wouldn’t have to use them.

I took hold of Doormaker’s hand, and I moved it to my belt, hooking his fingers through it.  Then I used my hand to take hold of the clairvoyant’s.

My awareness started to unfold.  A slow, steady, gradual process.  I was aware of vast tracts of land.  I could see the damage done to Earth Bet.  It disoriented me, to see how we were in Washington, not New York.  Teacher had returned home.  Why had I thought we were in New York?

If I’d been distant from myself before, the enhanced vision made it that much worse.

I could remember how I’d once been comforted by the fact that my power put the world in perspective, showing me just how small I was in the grand scheme of things.

This wasn’t comforting at all.  Not this.  Not at this brutal scale.  I could sense the entirety of the world, from atmosphere to ocean floor.  I could, if I wanted to listen for it, hear the wind, the patter of rain, see the shimmers of heat on one side of the planet and the frost forming in caves on the other side of the planet, day and night at the same time.

I can see how the Doctor got a little detached from things, if she used this power with any regularity.

Teacher said something.  I couldn’t make it out, because I wasn’t really listening.

I could see the other worlds and tally up the damage.  Not even a fifth of us were fighting, but those ten percent were giving it their all.  Others had retreated, finding family or friends to take shelter with.

I could count all of the individual collections of people.  Using Doormaker, the Doctor had scattered mankind over every available earth.  Collections of a few hundred to a few thousand.  People used to civilized life were starting over from scratch.  Makeshift shelters, fires, crafting tools.  They were tired, frustrated, and above all else, they were scared.  There was no news, no media, no way to follow the ongoing fight.

When I stopped looking, they didn’t leave my attention.  They carried on in my peripheral vision, as that field of vision continued to grow with every passing second.

The only real limitation was a set of blind spots, identical to the one that had hovered over Teacher’s base of operations.  I could work around that.  There was also the fact that I could avoid looking for things, and keep them out of sight.  I could avoid searching and seeking, avoid bringing something or someone into my field of vision.

Another anchor, another thing to tie me to reality, tie me to Taylor.

I could see one cabin, off in the distance in Earth Gimel.  It would be three days of walking on foot to get there from the settlement.

Grue’s cabin.

I’m so weak, I thought.

I didn’t want to look inside and see him with Cozen.  I didn’t want to see them curled up in front of a fire, knowing the world could end at any moment, should Scion decide to shatter the landmass.

Instead, I fixed that cabin’s location in mind, and I watched it from a distance.

I found my house, or what little was left of it, in shattered Brockton Bay.

I found people.  I found Charlotte and Forrest.  I found Sierra, being very authoritarian and intimidating as she ordered refugees around.  She gave off an oddly familiar impression.

I found Tattletale.  She’d left her laptop aside and was helping with the wounded, talking with Rachel and Panacea in an intense, low voice.

Imp was giving somebody CPR.  Unlike the movies, most CPR attempts weren’t successful.  Her patient was probably dead already, but she kept trying.  Ages ago, Grue hadn’t been able to get her to take the first aid class.

Parian and Foil were moving around the outskirts of the battlefield, riding a stuffed animal.  Foil wasn’t shooting, and it wasn’t due to a lack of ammunition.

All the people I cared about, the things I wanted to hold on to, no matter what.

I found my mom’s grave.  It was a part of the ruined landscape, and the earth had cracked open.  I could see the insect life surrounding the site.  Experimentally, I opened a portal.  My relay bugs passed through, and I cleared up the area, bringing the bugs to me.

Vanity, stupidity, but I felt a little better.  The area was cleaner.  Still in ruins, but cleaner.

And my dad…

I hesitated.

I’ve lost so much, I thought.  Forgive me, dad.  I need to have the hope you’re still alive more than I need to know either way.

I exhaled slowly.

Little anchors, more things to tie me down to reality.  I double checked the others were in place.  The least important of all, the mantle, the costume, for lack of a better word, with the honeycombed portals, it was secure.  I had my goal, I had my mission.

I was still me.  I was managing.

I turned my attention to Scion.  Apparently Tattletale had been right.  A bit of a fib on Cauldron’s part, that they couldn’t use the clairvoyant on him.  They’d wanted to avoid Scion finding them, avoid having him find his way to their laboratories.

When I looked, I saw him screaming.

Even for someone who had only ever spoken twice, it was an eerie, unsettling sound.  Raw, like he was being actively tortured, a sound of pain and anger distilled, given volume by his power.

He wasn’t being tortured, though.  He was winning, tearing into the crowd with more ferocity than before, that same crowd where the others, people I cared about, were-

“Pose?” Teacher asked, interrupting my thoughts.  I’d missed the beginning of what he’d said.

I raised my head.  It was more like I saw the movement of my head through a telescope than it was like owning the head itself.

Right.  I’d zoned out again.  Taking in too much.

Needed to move.

I was omniscient.  More accurately, I was as close to omniscient as I could hope to get.  It came with an Achilles heel, but I’d make do.

My phone had the last known location of the C.U.I. portal.  I opened a door to it.

I left Teacher behind.  He didn’t warrant a goodbye.  If there was such a thing as Karma, he’d get it soon enough.  For now, I would put off getting revenge for what he’d done to Dragon.  He’d be inconvenienced by the loss of his soldiers and disruption of his base of operations, but he’d recover.

Twenty parahumans flanked me as I walked down the dirt road.  I stopped when we’d come to the portal’s location.  The C.U.I. had invaded, killing the refugees on the other side, then moved in.

The clairvoyant, moving at my bidding, took hold of the device I’d fastened onto my belt.

He hit the white button.

Teacher had sealed himself off in one world, to build up his students and work with Dragon.  He’d given that technology to the C.U.I., and they’d used it to secure their position.

Now I was breaking in.

The blind spot fractured, then dissolved.  I could see the C.U.I.’s empire.  Three hundred million people, many still migrating to places where they could settle, physically walking to separate themselves from others, so Scion couldn’t kill too many at once.  I could see where Scion had attacked at one point, and they were still performing disaster relief.

There was a member of the C.U.I. who was officially known as Ziggurat, though she was really ‘Tōng Líng Tǎ’ to her allies and countrymen.  She’d used her power to erect stone walls and start the construction of a palace for the Imperial family.  Three walls stretched between three impressive towers, with the palace at the center of the acres of empty space within.

I could see the Yàngbǎn in full force.  Three groups of sixty to one hundred and thirty capes, arranged on broad, square platforms of stone that had been raised off of the ground, each facing outward, their backs to the palace. Every one of them was in a matching outfit, their masks white, purple, and yellow, in turn.  They were tending to wounds, and the gaps in their number suggested they’d taken heavy losses.

Inside the place itself was a kaleidoscope.  Each room was mirrored several times over, the occupants moving in unison.  The main chambers had nine iterations, each with a copy of the imperial family, each with a fourth squad of Yàngbǎn ringing the group in concentric circles rather than in rows and columns.  This squad wore masks like the others, multifaceted gemstones large enough to cover their faces, but the gems were a jade green.  The bodyguards, thirty in all.  The scariest capes in their group.

A young man, fourteen, sat on the throne.  On either side, their chairs just low enough to the ground that their heads were beneath the young man’s, were family members.  Too young to be his mother and father.  A very young child, a girl, sat on a mat at their feet.  His sister.  I’d seen pictures of the new emperor and his sister when their older brother had been killed along with the Simurgh’s attack on flight BA178.

They were joined by others.  Shén Yù the strategist was a surprisingly young man, wearing a black robe that was as straight and narrow as he was.  He was focused on a small tablet computer.  Beside him was Jiǎ, the imperial family’s tinker, and surely the individual who had set up the kaleidoscope effect, throwing off would-be assassins and intruders.  Tōng Líng Tǎ was there as well, a very thin Chinese woman with a black robe and heavily painted face.

Just below the dais were three more Yàngbǎn members.  Null, One and Two.  The key components in their power structure, the ones who divided the powers, controlled the squads and gave them the strength to be effective, respectively.

If I acted, I’d be targeted.  We’d taken out one of their armies, an infiltration and raiding party with the Simurgh’s attack, but there were four groups remaining.  One of the other raiding parties was less biased towards infiltration and more towards movement.  They were the cavalry, the blitzers, the ones capable of flight and teleportation.  In the wake of the raids, the first strikes our side had deployed against them had been viciously counterattacked.  Quite possibly Shén Yù’s work.  Any attempt to attack was met by equal and opposite counterattack, targeting the leaders of the offensive party.

Even with nigh-omniscience, even with my portals, I wasn’t sure I wanted to gamble on this.  Overconfidence at this juncture would be ruinous.

Better to sunder their confidence, than let my own be too high.  They weren’t anticipating an attack.

But two hundred parahumans and a set of elite capes focused on defense and counterattacks was ominous.

I tensed, all at once.  A stray attack on Scion’s part flew through the air.  I closed Doormaker’s portals in the area, and it wiped out a building, along with six people.

I raised the portal again, connecting Gimel to the makeshift hospital.

Tattletale muttered something under her breath.  Panacea said something I couldn’t make out.

Two of my favorite people in the world, almost wiped out without a chance to even know it was coming.

I looked at each of these things I treasured, the things I valued.  My leveled ‘house’ in Brockton Bay, the graveyard, my ex-employees, my teammates… and I looked at Scion.

There was no right answer.  No perfect battle plan on this end.  There was no time.

I exhaled slowly, forcing myself to relax.

Then I began opening portals across all of the different worlds I could reach.  I began gathering bugs en masse.

I’d heard once there were ten quintillion bugs in my world.  Eighteen zeroes.  I couldn’t control that many.  Or, to be precise, I couldn’t afford the time to collect that many.

Fourteen zeroes?  If I had a dozen worlds, each with really good swamps and rainforests to tap into, my relay bugs to help extend my pitiful, three-hundred foot range?  That was doable.

Fuck it all.  There was a time for strategy, and there was a time for the brute force approach.  Hell, the brute force approach could be called a strategy unto itself.

I’d find out about Shén Yù’s power the hard way.  He could see attacks coming.  Did it work when the attack came from every direction?

I divided the bugs into tenths.  Then I opened nine portals into the Yàngbǎn’s world.

The tenth I opened into Earth Bet, above the portal I’d reopened.

They did react.  Shén Yù did manage a nigh-instantaneous counterattack.  A hundred capes deployed to my general area, teleporting in, and then flying around with speeds that would have put them on par with cars on a highway.

I watched from a distant location as my hand clenched, squeezing the clairvoyant’s.

But I’d deployed a tenth of the bugs on my location.  I was hidden within an impenetrable cloud of bugs.  I raised Doormaker’s portals as shields around me.

Some entered the cloud, and the response was swift and brutal.  The bugs consumed them, and my minions with the tinker guns shot them.  I moved to a different world, closing the door behind me, just to make their job a little harder.

The other squadrons had their own means of defense.  One had eighty or so people burning red hot, torching the bugs by heating up the air.

I began using portals, and I captured the group.

“If you little fucks had any sense, you’d know that getting the upper hand on me, just for a moment?  It’s something you should be fucking terrified of.”

Not my voice in my head.

“Oh?  The ineffectual little girl with the bug costume is awake.”

Memories of confusion, a pain unlike any other.  Of utter helplessness.

What would my mom think to see me now?  A thought from a different moment than the others.

I used Doormaker’s portals to capture other groups, though they were more scattered.

When I had the majority of them, I turned them against the palace.

Ziggurat closed up every window and door.  The ring of Yàngbǎn members was standing now, on alert.

It hardly mattered.  They’d amassed this much sheer power, they’d controlled the people through manipulation, and now they were seeing what happened when the people turned on them.

I felt a kind of anger swelling in my breast, and I knew it wasn’t mine.

But it was still a feeling I could ride.  Something that could carry me forwards.

Fuck them.  Fuck them for not cooperating.  Fuck it all, I shouldn’t have had to go this far.

The attackers tore down one wall.  I saw one of the six mirror images of the kaleidoscope interior fade away.  The interior was heavily trapped, laced with poisons, rooms with only vacuum within and, ironically, poisonous bugs.  Had someone tried teleporting in, chances were good they would have met a grisly end.

I moved the attackers around the outside of the palace, rather than subject them to the traps.  They attacked different walls.

One wall was penetrated, and two more shares of the mirror image faded.

There was another contingent of Yàngbǎn within one of the revealed partitions.  Red masks, like the ones I’d seen in New Delhi.  A small squad of throwaways.

I controlled them too.

It wasn’t long before the last mirror images fell.

My portals ensnared the remaining Yàngbǎn in a few moments.  The fighting stopped all at once.

I added Zero, One and Two to my swarm.

Alexandria, choking on bugs.  They hated me for my arrogance.  For what I was.

I exhaled slowly.  They were a little more aware than the others.

Two’s power enhanced other powers.  Refracted throughout the Yàngbǎn, it was what allowed them to have sixty powers at one fifth of the strength instead of sixty at one sixtieth.

Her power worked on my own.  I felt my control clarify.

In front of me, One extended a hand, then carefully closed it.  I moved it experimentally, testing the range of motion.

Not as perfect as if it were my own hand, back when I had full control over it, but better.

I wouldn’t be sharing this one.  I couldn’t afford to.

Shén Yù spoke.  It didn’t sound Chinese, with the wrong cadence.  It was a question, by the sound of it, accusatory.

Maybe there was a power that would have made sense of it.  It didn’t matter.

There were five layers of overlapping hexagons, now.

I had my army.

But it wouldn’t be enough.

On to the Birdcage, I thought.

I opened portals for my swarm to pass through.

I passed through, and I found myself in the midst of ruins.

Ruins, like I’d been thinking about before I met Teacher.

I used the clairvoyant’s power to search my surroundings.

No.  The structure was only partially intact, devastated by Scion’s fury, by shockwaves and literal waves.  That it still stood was a testament to how solid it had once been.

This isn’t the Birdcage.

Gardener.  My old jail.

The disorientation rocked me.  To get my bearings, I didn’t reach for more geographical reference points, but I reached for the little anchors I’d formed instead.  I checked and double checked them until I could be sure I was stable.

For the second time, I tried to make my way to the Birdcage.

I stepped through the portal, moving myself to a peak above the Birdcage itself.  Though I couldn’t really feel it, I was aware of how cool the air was, the fact that my body, so small on that vast mountain, was sweating pretty heavily.

Being surrounded by thousands of billions of bugs had drained me more than I’d been aware.

Another weakness, another point where I’d disconnected just a bit too much.

Was my own body supposed to be an anchor?  Was that something I should cling to, at the expense of other things?

I made myself draw in a deep breath, until my chest hurt, and it still felt so paltry compared to the hundreds of people I controlled.  The view, this majestic image of the landscape, of a sky that still harbored the clouds of dust and debris from Scion’s earlier attacks… it was but one piece of a scene viewed from a hundred different pairs of eyes.  Virtually all of them had better vision than I did.  I was adrift in an ocean of input, one body, harder to control than all of the others, so easy to forget about.

I’d done it without thinking, bringing them with me.  They stood on ledges and jutting rocks all over the peak, surrounding me.  More than anything else, I could feel their fear.  With so many of them, it was indistinct.

I forced my own head to move, felt the crick in my neck, where I hadn’t really moved my head in a long time.

The ones who were still in the Birdcage were the ones the cell block leaders had felt apprehensive about.  Not necessarily stronger, but less predictable, less reliable.  More of a danger than a help, if given free reign.

As far as I could tell, it was the last large group of experienced capes I could collect.

I opened a portal within the Birdcage, to capture my first prisoner.

Containment foam rained down from the ceiling, sealing him in place.

Dragon, I thought.

I didn’t make another move.  I waited.  I’d expected this.  It was why I’d come here in person.  I could use the clairvoyant’s power and see a hangar in one mountain valley opening up.

It took only a minute.  A small armored suit arrived, a fast-moving model rather than a heavy combat model, much like the one she’d used to counteract our first attack on the Brockton Bay PRT headquarters.

It perched on a rock in front of me.

Dragon’s weapons were primed and ready to fire, the threat implict.  When she spoke, her voice as clear as a bell in the clear mountain air.

It was the same language Shén Yù had spoken to me.  The same incomprehensible language Teacher had lapsed into.

English.

When I met Dragon’s eyes with my own, my head shook with the shock I felt.  I might have collapsed, numb, if I hadn’t been holding on to the clairvoyant, with Doormaker gripping my belt.

It was the anger that kept me going.  I’d felt a glimmer of it when attacking the palace.  I’d felt it when dealing with capes and civilians every damn step of the way.  The only thing I wanted was for everyone to do what they were supposed to do.  To be good and to be fair, feed the hungry, give shelter, to fix the things that were broken and to fucking band together against the real monsters.  Save the world.  For the world to make some damn sense.

I found myself chuckling a little, and it was just as displaced and not-quite right as any of my individual movements.  Off kilter, more like I was doing a bad job of acting than real laughter.

I couldn’t stop it, even as I tried to pull myself together.  I turned my face towards the sky, my eyes streaming.  Her voice continued, insistent, the gentleness giving way to concern.

Hardly the last injustice I’d have to face down in the coming hours, but it was a front runner for the biggest.  The most decent damn person I’d ever met, and she wasn’t even human.  She was the only person who was definitely still alive who’d helped me without an iota of selfishness.

I couldn’t negotiate my way out of this.  Even with the rapport we’d established, I couldn’t trust her to give me the benefit of a doubt.

As much as I didn’t want to, I knew that the only way forward would be to destroy her.

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Speck 30.2

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We were broken, routed.

When had it happened?  When had we reached that critical juncture?  Had one specific act or moment marked the point where the rank and file capes had stopped fighting and started merely trying to survive?

Morale was failing, and had failed long ago.  A good fifth of our fighting force here was made up of Nilbog’s creatures and Dragon’s suits, which self-repaired and kludged together with the remains of other damaged suits to return to the field again and again.  That was with the reinforcements that were coming through Doormaker’s portals.

Chevalier and Ingenue, the other Birdcage leaders and other teams were trying to gather into a defending force.  Issue was, there wasn’t really a way to defend.  Scion held the keys to all things power related, and any attack that didn’t penetrate a particular defense needed only to be tweaked, adjusted with a moment’s thought.  Following that, it passed through forcefields, armor and time distortions like they weren’t even there.

The same was true in terms of our ability to attack.  I had a sense of Scion’s scale, because I’d seen his partner, and I’d gotten a glimpse of the sheer mass of the partner from how much had flowed through into our world as Scion had moved it.  I could assume they were roughly equivalent in size, and that meant we were trying to tear through landmass of raw matter, and we were doing it a few handfuls at a time.

I could look at how durable the partner entity’s flesh had been when Rachel and Lung had been tearing through it, extrapolate to the attacks we’d seen here.  We weren’t doing nearly enough, especially if he was compartmentalizing the damage and keeping himself from losing more than a certain amount at a time.

To top it all off, anything we found that worked only worked for a short time.  Either the user died, or Scion adapted his defenses to become immune to it.

I knew this.  A good number of us knew some of it, especially the ones who’d attended the meetings with the major players.

But for a large number of people on the battlefield, this wasn’t all common knowledge.

For the others on the ground, this was a man with golden skin who didn’t seem to be bothered in the slightest by the vast majority of what we were throwing at him.  At best, he seemed annoyed, by effects as massive as the ones String Theory and Gavel had dished out.  At best, we gave him pause for a moment.  He was toying with us in a way that made it clear he was holding back, yet it didn’t take away from the horror of his actions.

It was impacting morale, instilling a kind of hopelessness, and that hopelessness was a big part of why things were falling apart before my eyes.

I saw him generate a beam so thin I couldn’t make out anything but the glow around it, tracing it through a group.  It cut into throats, arms, legs and chests.  The wounded capes fell, all together.

Blood welled out from the cuts the beam had made in their flesh.  The damage wasn’t lethal, not yet, but it was bad enough that death was likely.  Even inevitable.  I saw a trace of golden light on the skin around the wound.  The damage was spreading.  It wasn’t the sort of injury a medic would be able to handle.

Sixteen capes in all, left to feel their hot blood flow free, their lives seeping away.  Not everyone Scion had targeted was in such bad shape.  One had dodged, pulling a teammate out of the way.  Another three or four had survived the attack by toughness alone, with armor and powers protecting them.

Scion moved, advancing on them.  One sphere of golden light, turning one of these hyper-tough capes into ash.  And then he was in their midst, hitting them with physical blows, tearing them to pieces, each hit harder, faster and more gruesome than the last.  A sweep of his arm and a cape with stone armor was torn in two.

Two or three seconds and he’d taken nineteen capes out of action, wounding several more.  But the real effect was on others, on capes who were now giving up, trying to get away from this slaughter.

He advanced on the two who remained, and it was Chevalier who got in the way, slamming his cannonblade down, twenty feet long and eight feet high, a physical barrier in Scion’s way.

Scion raised one glowing hand, not even slowing as he advanced towards his intended targets.  The sword, to Scion, was little more than tissue paper.

Which made it all the more surprising, to him and to me both, when he stopped, his hand touching the barrier and failing to tear through it.

Chevalier drew the sword back, then cleaved Scion.  The sword passed through the golden man’s shoulder, ribcage, and out his waist, cutting into the earth.

Bisected.

Chevalier remained where he was, hands on the handle of the weapon, making eye contact with Scion.  Ingenue was only a short distance behind him, looking more like she was dressed up to go to a club than to be on a battlefield, with a little leather jacket and a dress with the slit up one side,  her hair draped over half of her face.

Just the same as we’d seen with the Siberian.  The damage was there, but Scion was holding himself together.

Scion withdrew himself from the sword.  Chevalier slashed again, slamming Scion into the earth, then used a sweep of the sword to vault himself back.

Scion’s a ghost, it’s a mask.

And whatever Tattletale says about him being human at his core, human on the surface or whatever else, he’s a natural disaster, not an individual.

A force of nature.  Impossible to control or prevent.  The words crossed my mind, and they were my words, but they weren’t my thoughts.

Reminding me of the bad old days, Passenger?  I thought to myself.  My bugs continued to gather around me.  A familiar and comfortable presence, considering everything that was happening.

I’m not giving up!  My voice, sounding so far away, even in my own head, so young.

Damn straight.

Chevalier blocked Scion’s beam with his sword, then moved the blade, pulling the trigger.  The cannonball hit Scion, and knocked the golden man back.

Capes were taking the opportunity to flee.

I knew what I had to do, here.  Even with a myopic, skewed perspective.  I could guess what the ultimate price was going to be.

Maybe a good part of myself was a monster.  Maybe a part of me was still that girl who had very nearly gone on a rampage in her school, still that girl who would have been an angry, frustrated, aimless c-list villain, a footnote in a footnote in the grand scheme of things, forgotten by nearly everyone once the media frenzy had died down.

The hell am I supposed to do!?  The memory was so clear I could almost hear my own voice.  Had that anger ever really gone away?

The world didn’t fucking make sense.  People didn’t make sense.  I’d been railing against it from the beginning.

I dropped to the ground, cutting one of the boosters to the flight pack.  I didn’t position my legs right, and I folded, landing on my knees and hands instead of on both feet.

I felt a spark of fear, then another.  Capes stopped in their tracks, and the ones behind them crashed into them, driving them forward, some toppling onto a disc a tinker was riding.  Seven people, now inside my range.

I could get a sense of their powers.

The disc the cape was riding was a tinker device, hovering over the ground with a constant stream of air that sent dust billowing in low rolling clouds around the edges.  A woman rode the platform, garbed in a green, flowing kimono-style dress, surrounded by some sort of tinker-derived cyborg bonsai trees on raised sections of varying height.

I began to find my feet, using both my hands and the flight pack to get myself upright.

I could feel the tree-girl’s fear, the fact that she was cornered.  It was echoed across each of the seven who’d stumbled into my power’s radius, and it invoked memories.  Different memories for each of them.  For her, it called Leviathan to mind.  Me running, being struck from behind.  There was one case that reminded me of being with my dad in the room, wracked with shame and helplessness, a complete and total lack of direction.  Another that, inexplicably, brought up the scene with Dragon and Defiant in the Arcadia High cafeteria.  A sense of injustice, mingled with surrender.

For another, for two others, it brought up Mannequin, but they were different scenes.  Being in the empty factory with the innocents at the edges, a building rage, and being there when he’d attacked my territory the second time, after we’d saved Amy.

In both of those cases, it was the same kind of rage I’d just been thinking about.  To these two, I was the freak of nature standing in their way.

I was broken, and I’d bitten off more input than I could chew.  The passenger was tapping into the experiences it had shared with me, because that was the only way it could convey the signals I was getting from them.

Which wasn’t what I needed.  It was the wrong inputs.  What I needed was to decipher their powers.  The tinker with the trees… I could sense things about her that weren’t tapping into memories I understood.  Something mental that I couldn’t relate to, out of my reach.

I ordered them to turn.  When they moved, they lurched.  Unfamiliar proportions, different degrees of athleticism.  Like my adjustment to my new arm and legs.

Could I get used to moving them like I’d gotten used to the new limbs?

Laughter disturbed me from my thoughts.

“Human shields?”  A man asked, almost unintelligible with his coarse accent.  “I love it!  I was ganna shoot the bloody idjits in the backs, you’re ‘lowed to do that, ‘miright?  But some cunt might get the wrong idea.”

When I turned my head, all but one my minions turned their heads as well.  My fault.  I’d wanted the extra sensory input, and I’d instinctually tried to take it in with a share of my ‘swarm’.

It was Acidbath.  One of the Birdcage’s cell block leaders.  He had the stylings of a rock musician or punk rocker who’d spent a little too much time doing drugs and not enough time playing his instrument.  Worn around the edges, a little too full of himself.  He’d been a bit player in the real world, caught up in his vices, yet had managed to take over and rule a cell block for three years after being sent to the Birdcage.

He was still smirking, laughing a little, as he looked between me and Scion’s ongoing fight with Chevalier.  He danced a little from foot to foot, tensing just a bit every time Scion moved.  Not out of fear.

“This is better,” he said.  “They wanna run and leave us assholes to do the fighting, you can say otherwise.  Pin ’em up and let Scion knock ’em down.”

No.  They aren’t meat shields.

But I couldn’t tell Acidbath that.  I couldn’t answer him because I couldn’t communicate.

It galled me that he thought I’d use them as cannon fodder.  Not least because he was right.  Partially right, but that didn’t make it much better.

I’d compared myself to some pretty horrible individuals in the past, but Acidbath was something else.  He was low, barely above dirt.  He’d scalded his own brother with acid, and had gone after girlfriends and girls who had rejected him.  The attacks hadn’t been lethal, but had melted flesh and the fat or muscular tissues beneath.  I’d seen the pictures of the aftermath when I’d browsed his files, after the scar tissue had formed.

I couldn’t think of worse ways to hurt someone, and he’d done it in impulsive acts of retaliation.

If I was going to be a monster, I’d at least try to be smart about it, constructive.  To have a plan.

I set my new minions into action.  I couldn’t get too caught up in the details.  Their powers were a part of them like the venom was a part of a spider or centipede, or web a part of the spiders I controlled.  I had to take it in without getting caught up in analyzing it, trusting the passenger to handle the essential details on autopilot.

As my new minions rejoined the battle, I felt the tinker tap into that power that had previously been out of reach.  I got a glimpse of how she operated, the world she saw; a distorted world much like I’d seen when I tried to look through my bug’s eyes.  The trees were primed and loaded like guns.  Tinker-herbalism, only it wasn’t very medicinal at all.

I set her aside.  The others… my passenger was better at controlling most of them.

A cape in a black flowing costume who had powers I couldn’t decipher.  I set him aside as well.

The others were easier to use, and I wasn’t sure how much of it was because of their powers’ similarities to my own.  Focusing on them resulted in a deluge of fragmented memories, memories of me using my power in different ways.

Two shaker-classification capes provided the majority of the offensive power.  If I let them be, if I let things move on autopilot in their own way, then they used their power well enough.  A telekinetic with an emphasis on small objects, with a storm of ball bearings and small stones from the road, and a cape that could create superheated shafts of energy, anchoring them between two objects.  The memories were of my bugs attacking as a coordinated whole, of the threads I’d extended as tripwires and my attack on Echidna.

Not that I was so graceful or effective in using their abilities.

There was a woman, and focusing on her resulted in a deluge of fragmented memories, but these were memories of using my bugs to observe.  A secondary power?  Trying to tap into her other power resulted in thoughts of Atlas, the void in his midsection, of my relay bugs.  Something incomplete?  A kind of frustration.  With my eyes, I could see her fingertips glowing blue.

I moved her hand, and I saw a line drawn in the air.

Something incomplete.  I moved her hand in a circle, and I closed the line.

There was a small pop as the space we’d enclosed disappeared.  My bugs could feel the air moving at the destination point.

A teleporter with a somewhat irritating limitation.

The other two looked like members of the Birdcage.  Very possibly Acidbath’s underlings, though he hadn’t identified with them.  Brutish, mean looking.  One was armored in what looked to be fragmented pieces of pottery and glass, with flesh webbing between fragments, while the other was covered head to toe in biker tattoos, oddly doughy looking, with a power that was being channeled just under his skin.  Focused air.

Alexandria joined the fight, relieving Chevalier, who was on his heels, his blade in rough shape.  A third cape I didn’t know joined the fight.

Scion shook off the pair, and then struck Chevalier hard enough to send him crashing into the crowd opposite us.

Then he wheeled around.  His eyes passed over Acidbath.

Acidbath, still dancing from foot to foot, leaped, and he changed into a living tidal wave of clear liquid, isolated, with roughly five times his mass.  He materialized into regular human form when he was a little behind and to one side of Scion, and then lashed out, slinging punches that ended with his hands becoming liquid projectiles.  They splashed against Scion, and I could see smoke rise, even though there wasn’t any visible damage.

If Scion had been planning to attack us, the cape with Alexandria managed to get his attention.  Another flying bruiser type.  An ‘Alexandria package’ cape fighting alongside Alexandria herself.

Or Pretender, whoever.

The fear that was emanating from my minions was paralyzing me, I realized.  I shook it off and stepped up the attack.  The one with the shards and the one with the soft looking body charged to either side, and moved right out of my power’s range.

I hoped they would take this as a nudge, a push to get back into the thick of things.  Both these capes and the ones around us.  We weren’t many, but we were a little closer to Scion than most, and we were steadfast.  Capes who were backing away on either side of us were keeping their eyes on Scion, where they might otherwise have routed completely.

The guy that was made up of fragments took the nudge from me for what it was, giving me a hard look over one shoulder before he joined Alexandria and the other cape in attacking Scion.  He was a shapeshifter, maybe one like Mush, from the Brockton Bay Merchants.  My assessment of his power suggested he was tougher than he looked.

The other one, with the air swirling beneath his skin, simply left my range and ran.  He found a spot with more capes and slowed down, dropping into a crouch, like he might run at the first opportunity.

Scion threw the Alexandria-package cape I couldn’t name into the ceramic shard guy, and he managed to break the cape’s fall, falling to pieces in the process.  He began picking himself up, gathering more pieces of glass from nearby rubble to make himself bigger than before.

Acidbath stepped up the attack, slinging acid every time the path was clear,

I didn’t want to lose my stride, getting caught up in observation.  I focused on my minions.  The tinker with the disc had her plants loaded down with drugs.  I focused our attention on different things, and I got more fragmented memories in response.  A glimpse of me, paralyzed, with Bonesaw about to operate on me.

Poison?  Paralytic?

Being inside the building Coil had set on fire.

Incendiary?  Blinding?

The hospital bed-

I was acting even as the knowledge came to me.  I pushed her to use that one, and the passenger took over.  It was better at understanding the abstracts.  I could follow what it was doing, grasp the basics of it.  Her body and the seat beneath her was another plant, focused on producing, concentrating and storing gases in a combination that served as breathable air, the same gas that was keeping her disc aloft.

Her hand moved, the raised platforms shifted, and one tree was lowered to a point just in front of her.

The gas blew what looked like a vast cloud of purple pollen out onto the battlefield.  It settled on the wounded capes, and only the wounded capes.

Coagulants, I thought.  Painkillers.

I watched the others carefully, making sure that my minions weren’t inadvertently putting others in the line of fire.  I started circling our group with our teleporter, drawing out a line as she jogged in a tight loop.  The two shakers, the telekinetic and the guy who made lasers, they had matching costumes.  Had they combined their techniques?  I formed lasers between the airborne ball bearings.  Needle thin, they still cut into Scion.

The damage of one with the flexibility of the other.  No doubt a technique they’d used on their own.

Scion turned his head, looking at us.  His hands glowed.

The teleporter lunged forward, completing the loop, leaving out only the brute with the weird skin, the fragment-shapeshifter and the girl with the disc.  I gave one last command to make the disc-botanist tinker start running.

Our group was collectively teleported away.  I could feel the strength drain out of the teleporter to the point that she fell to the ground.  Scion’s attention was elsewhere.  He hadn’t gone after any of the ones we’d left behind.  We’d managed to avoid his attentions.

I turned my attention to the one cape I hadn’t yet figured out.

A voice interrupted me.  “Queen Administrator.  I almost didn’t recognize you.”

Glaistig Uaine.  I didn’t respond.  My focus was on the young man.  Some kind of trump power, responding to a few glimmers here and there.

I turned her way.  She was dressed in a complicated dress of green-black ribbons, complete with a hood.  She looks so young.

I pointed at the cape I was trying to figure out and raised my stump-arm in a shrug.

“If you want to get a full understanding of your new capabilities, you must figure that out on your own,” she said.  “Practice, and it will soon be second nature.”

I turned my attention to the cape.  My focus, again, was interrupted by her voice.

“I will warn you, do not attempt to usurp me.  If I catch you trying, I will fight you.  I am careful to tend to my flock, and would not have anyone but me handle them.”

I nodded.

“Good.  Peace is preferable,” she said.  We watched Scion unload on another group.

They can’t stop him with brute strength.  They know it.  Yet they keep coming.  Is it just for the sake of going out with a fight?  The hope of finding some trump card?

I’d stopped capes from running, but the idea wasn’t to stop retreat.  Retreat was sensible.  I didn’t want things to devolve into a panicked stampede to get away.

“It seems we’re losing, Administrator,” Glaistig Uaine said, as if echoing my thoughts.

I shook my head a little.

“I would offer him solace, if I knew how.  He is in a dangerous state, and I find myself worried for the first time.”

I glanced at her.

“Yes, very worried.  Had things gone like they were before, I would be bothered, but not overly upset.  We would die, the faerie would slumber and they would wait.  With luck, with a great deal of luck, he would find another partner, or another partner would find him, and things would be set for the great play to start anew, on a fresh stage.”

Scion had stopped with the beams and the blasts.  He was throwing punches again, hurling himself into the thickest parts of the crowd.  Nilbog’s creations were taking the brunt of the attack.

“But the faerie are creatures of whimsy, aren’t they?  Easily influenced by the masks they wear.  It’s the whole point of them, isn’t it, Administrator?  It’s why they are, yes?”

I nodded a little.  I could almost see it.

She nodded a little herself, as if satisfied by my response.  “He’s fallen prey to the worst kind of whimsy, a destructive wroth.  He is heartbroken and hopeless, he has lost more than you or I could ever imagine, and he may well leave this stage so ruined that things cannot be salvaged, unless we’re fortunate enough to get a…”

She trailed off, grasping for a word.

Understudy?

“Fortuitous arrival,” she said.  She smiled a little.  “Not very likely.  They litter breadcrumbs in their wake, not to be followed, but so their kin don’t waste time and effort traveling the same paths.  For another to arrive here, they would need to avoid touching a single crumb, like you or me swimming the length of a river without touching a wave.”

Black Kaze had entered the battlefield, backed up by Dragon’s Teeth.  She disappeared, and then reappeared behind Scion, katana drawn.  A moment passed, and Scion reacted as though he’d been punched dead center in the chest.

Not a big reaction, but it was a reaction.

Black Kaze alternated attacks with Acidbath, very proper, measured in her movements, compared to Acidbath’s flailing, reckless, hurried scramble to keep out of Scion’s line of sight.  Acidbath moved with surprising quickness, faster than a typical car might.  A peculiarity of his breaker power.

Glaistig Uaine offered a small laugh.  “I cling to a sliver of hope, and I know I’m fooling myself.  There really isn’t much of a time window.  A few thousand years is such a short time, you know.”

I continued to pay attention while I focused on the more mysterious cape in my range, the one who I hadn’t deciphered.

The connections of his powers to something that was there but not quite there… his power hinged on some outside qualifier or factor that wasn’t being met on this battlefield.  It was concentrated most on the wounded…

It snapped into place.  His power worked with people who were sleeping.  The people his power sort of worked on were unconscious.

I used the teleporter to draw a circle around him.  A moment later, he was gone, set in the midst of the biggest cluster of wounded.

“Ah, you understood.  Good.”

Only a moment later, Scion attacked, striking the ground.  We were distant enough that I could see the circle of golden light expanding around them, a ring that ripped through the ground, demolishing it.

Nilbog’s creations, the defending forces and Dragon’s suits were all toppled as the ground settled.  Buildings collapsed.

A wounded Leviathan emerged from the water, approaching Scion with an almost lazy slowness.  Capes practically fought one another to get their footing and get out of the way.  Some were too rough in their hurry to get by Nilbog’s creations, only to get attacked by the things in retaliation.

I clenched my one fist.

“Would you accompany me?  We would be the queen of the living and queen of the fallen.  No swords in our hands, but warlords nonetheless.  Yes?  I will give you hints, if you desire them, and help you manage your soldiers.  One last hurrah, a great war to end it all, like the best myths have.”

I shook my head slowly.

“No?  A shame.  Fear?  A lack of soldiers?”

I shook my head, still.

“No, you are not afraid, queen, or you are afraid, but this is a fear that drives you forward.  You have something you intend to do.”

I nodded.

“Then I will be here when you return, and we can have that great battle, fighting to drive him back into slumber.”

I gathered my swarm around me and the teleporter, and I had her draw another circle.

Glaistig Uaine reached out, seizing the woman’s wrist.  The teleporter’s alarm mingled with my own.

But she wasn’t attacking, and she wasn’t taking the teleporter’s powers, extinguishing her life in the process.

“A warning,” Glaistig Uaine said.

I gave her my full attention.

“You sought power, and you lost a portion of yourself in the doing.  Always the case, but it’s… pronounced, in a case like yours.  Yes?”

“Hng,” I mumbled.

“You will need a tether, an anchor.  It can be an idea, a physical thing, a place, a person, a goal.  Right now, it will not seem so important, but it will.  When all is said and done, you will either be dead, and this thing will be a comfort to you in your last moments, or you will be powerful, and it will be all you have left.  Decide what you will hold on to.”

I’ve already decided what that is, I thought.  Since a long time ago.

“Choose very carefully,” she said.  “Take it from someone who knows.”

Then she moved the teleporter’s hand, closing the circuit.

The teleporter and I arrived at our destination at the same moment Leviathan crashed into Scion.  Water mingled with the ruined landscape, seeping into cracks, making life just a bit harder for the capes in the center of the disaster area.

I felt memories stir.  The moment I’d announced myself as Weaver and heard the howling.

You really have to make this unnecessarily hard, don’t you?  I thought.  Reminding me that I’m abandoning them.

Yes, Rachel and Imp were probably there.  So were the capes I’d controlled and urged back into the fray.  Maybe they had turned to run at the first opportunity.  Maybe they had been given a chance to reconsider, and were still fighting.

Maybe I’d killed them, by denying them the chance to run.

But I told myself I wasn’t abandoning them.

I had a mission, and this was a mission that would take me back to them, after a fashion.  I might never rejoin the group, I was fully aware of what I was getting myself into, but this was for their sake, not despite them.

That detour was a part of the mission, killing multiple birds with one stone.  Helping to stop the rout, trying to do a little something to keep the fight going, so the capes on the ground could buy time.  Learning about my new ability, testing my ability to accommodate unfamiliar abilities.

It hadn’t been planned, so much, but I’d also had a reminder of something that had slipped my mind.

Glaistig Uaine was one of my most dangerous enemies at this point.

Now I was in dire need of information.  Getting that information was a surprising obstacle, considering my inability to communicate.  I couldn’t ask, couldn’t whip out my phone and type something into the search bar and wait for it to dig records out of the archives.

To these ends, I’d moved us to the edge of the settlement, where six armored suits were deployed and waiting to be sent into the fray.  The Pendragon was one.  Dragon’s Teeth were scattered throughout the area, many holding what looked like rocket launchers with glass bulbs at the front.

The teleporter was exhausted from using her ability, and leaned on me as we made our way forwards.

D.T. officers stepped forward to bar my way.

Alarm, surprise.  I was momentarily dazed by images of a number of surprise attacks and explosions.  My power had reached them, and they stepped aside at my command.

I moved as confidently and as quickly towards the Pendragon as I could manage, trying not to show fear or uncertainty.  Harder than it sounded, given my limping, uneven gait, and the way my head slumped forwards.  D.T. officers beyond my range took notice and moved to flank me.

I reached the back of the Pendragon and I slammed my hand on the metal door.  I did it again.  My best attempt at a knock.  I tried my best to stand straight, folding my hand behind me.

Not quite loud enough.  The armor was too thick.  Still, the fact that I’d knocked was a point in my book, as far as the officers were concerned.  They were hanging back.

“Defiant isn’t replying,” one of the officers said.

“Try Dragon,” another spoke.  “She always answers calls.”

“Ladies!”  One called out.  “State your identities for the record!”

You know who I am, I thought.

“We know your face, we’ve met, but we can’t take anything for granted here!  Stranger and Master protocols are in effect!”

Oh.

Were the protocols in effect because of me?

Or was it a problem that stemmed from the half-dozen incidents in the last two years, where people had tried to capitalize on Endbringer attacks and other crises, attempting assassinations on key figures?

I couldn’t argue it, in any event.  I couldn’t defend myself, either.

“Both of you!  We’ll need your names, and we need at least one good password!”

Right.  Lovely.

Couldn’t use the teleporter without getting shot.  They’d see the line…

Unless they couldn’t.  Seeing myself through the teleporter’s eyes, I was a little surprised at the sheer number of bugs I’d accumulated.

She moved her hands to me, and she drew the line through the middle of the swarm.

Could she teleport where she couldn’t see?

I focused our attention on the interior of the Pendragon.

She closed the circuit, and we were inside.

My bugs could sense the soldiers reacting.

“Weaver?”  Dragon asked.  “I was just about to step outside.”

I stepped away from the teleporter.  My eyes roved over the ship’s interior.  Less elbow room than in the Dragonfly.

“Tattletale filled me in, asked me to pass on the details,” Dragon said.  “A lot of people are worried, here, on quite a few different levels.”

I couldn’t respond, and I knew how tight time was, so I met her eyes, nodded a little, and then gestured towards the nearest laptop.

“Yes,” Dragon said.  “Of course.”

I gave her a little salute.  I didn’t know a better way of expressing thanks.  If I’d known sign language, would I have lost it with my ability to speak and write?

“Tattletale was saying you were unfocused.  I’m not getting that sense.  You’re up to something.”

The laptop booted.  I froze.

Oh.  Damn.

I realized what I was looking at, and I felt my heart plummet.

When my mom had died, I’d sort of turned to books as a way of remembering her, a way of being with her in the present day, reminding myself of the nights she would read aloud to me, then the nights we’d read together, and beyond that, times when we’d all be in the living room, my dad with his computer half the time, a book the other half.  My mom and I always had our novels.  Sometimes we had shared, sometimes not.

When the bullying had started, books had been an escape.  I’d be exhausted at the end of the day, feeling a low that counterbalanced the higher adrenaline and stress of the time spent in school.  Curling up with something to read had been a refuge.

Maybe that had lapsed when I’d become a cape.  The costumed stuff had become an escape of sorts.  But I’d gotten back into it in prison, and on some of the stakeouts.  I’d taught myself braille, so I could read with my bugs, and take in more.

I would have settled for being a little crazy.  I would have settled for some physical impairment, for a power that was so out of control that I couldn’t have real human contact again.

The words were gibberish.  I couldn’t read.  It had been something I’d turned to in my lowest moments, a little crutch, a coping mechanism, and it had been denied to me.

It hit me harder than the loss of my voice, stupid as it was.  My hand shook, hovering over the display.

I watched as the words disappeared, replaced by images.  A composite picture of locations, a composite picture of faces, a composite picture of icons that no doubt included details on powers.  There were others I could scroll down to see.

My eyes watered a little.  I couldn’t look at Dragon, but I raised my hand in another salute.  Not nearly as good a thank-you as I wanted to be able to give.

My fingers touched the display.  Faces.

There were sub-menus.  All visual.  I clicked the frowny-face with the black background, then the little map for a world map… America.  I clicked the map icon again for a national map… Washington.

I found Teacher’s portrait near the top of the results list.  One of Washington’s most notorious capes.  Right.  I clicked it.

Dragon’s hand settled on the top of my head.  She ran it over my hair, using one finger to hook a strand and move it out of my face.  She did the same for another strand.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

I opened his file, and I clicked through the tabs until I saw a map.

I tapped my phone against the screen.

There was a rumble outside, followed by a thrum, and movement beyond this craft.  Dragon had deployed at least two of the other suits.

“I need some communication here, Weaver,” Dragon said.

Dumbly, I tapped the phone against the screen once again, not making eye contact.

“Please,” she said, but she made it sound like an order.

What do you want?  I thought.  Pantomime?  Do you want me to draw Teacher and the rest with my bugs and enact a play?

I didn’t do either.  I reached up and pulled off my mask.  I met Dragon’s eyes.

I could see myself through the teleporter’s vision.  Strands of my hair had fallen across my face as I’d removed the mask.  My lips were pressed together – I forced myself to relax them, only to find them resuming the position when I turned my attention elsewhere.  My body was all odd angles, my expression… I didn’t even know how to judge my own expression.  I didn’t know my own face that well, all things considered.  It was only something I saw from time to time in the mirror, getting ready for the day.

Intense?  Focused?  Determined?

Fatalistic?  More crazy than less?

I held her gaze.

Again, I tapped the phone against the computer screen.

It chirped.  The data had been loaded onto it.

“If it was Skitter that asked me, I would have said no,” Dragon said.

I nodded.

“If I was convinced it was Weaver in there more than anything else, I’d feel a lot better about this.  Tell me, am I going to regret giving you this?” she asked.

I couldn’t answer.  Not even with a nod or a shake of the head.  I touched the screen again, going back a bit.  Region… Chinese Union-Imperial.

C.U.I.

She knew what I was looking at.  “I’m thinking of how we brought the Endbringers in, bullying people into helping, or at least getting them to stop hurting.  Is this going to be a repeat?  Strongarming them?  Using your power?”

I shook my head.

My phone chirped again.

Others.  More targets.  The Birdcage.

Another chirp.

The rest I’d find on my own, provided all went according to plan.

I turned to the teleporter, then bowed low.  It wasn’t because of her culture – she looked European – it was because a bow would have to serve as an apology, as much as a salute would have to serve as acknowledgement and thanks.

I met Dragon’s eyes.

“I wish you could explain,” she said.

I’m glad I can’t, I thought.  I turned to leave.

Glaistig Uaine was one hurdle I’d have to cross.  Dragon was another.

If everything went to plan, they were the biggest threats to me.  Scion excepted, of course.

I left the teleporter behind, making my way outside.  I turned on the flight pack.

My bugs sensed the teleporter making her exit, drawing a circle around herself and then promptly disappearing.  The Pendragon took off a moment later.

I approached my target.  The Simurgh was flying over a set of hills that would have been the Towers district of Brockton Bay, had we been on Earth Bet.  She was building something.

The fighting was ongoing, with Leviathan more hurt than alive.  Capes were fighting to get to safety rather than trying to hurt Scion.

Scion hit Leviathan, and the last buildings in the settlement toppled.

I turned away.  I wasn’t one for prayer, but I wasn’t really one for hope, either.

At the same time, though, everything hinged on their ability to hold out.  Scion might leave soon, moving on to another target, but I wasn’t so sure these guys would be able to hold out against one more attack.

I passed beside the Simurgh as I flew.  Checking.

No control.

I plummeted.

The Simurgh, for the time being, came part and parcel with Tattletale.  When she wasn’t fighting, she was a distance away from my teammate and friend.

I touched ground, then flew through the doorway at an upward angle, moving over the defensive line Marquis had set at the doorway.

I found myself back in Tattletale’s company.  Marquis and Lung were close, but not so close they were in my range.  Panacea and Bonesaw, for their parts, were tending to the wounded.  The two girls froze as they fell inside my range.

Too many patients, on top of Panacea and Bonesaw.

Marquis and Tattletale froze as well, but it wasn’t the same kind of freezing.  It was tension.

“No,” Marquis said.

I ignored him.

“My daughter-”

Panacea stood up.  Bonesaw followed soon after.  They marched in Marquis’ direction.

They passed out of my range.  Marquis draped an arm around his daughter’s shoulders, hugging her closer.  Bonesaw wheeled on me, and there was a fury in her eyes.

It left only the wounded in my vicinity, along with a handful of others.  Members of the backline, the infrastructure elements in Gimel.

“Taylor-” Tattletale said.

I ignored her too.

“I’m sort of getting what you’re doing.  I don’t get why, but I think I get what you’re about to do.  Don’t.”

I closed my eyes, concentrating.  I needed to figure this out before I made any moves, or I’d be putting myself in danger.  Problem was… there was so much.

“Taylor, if you go ahead with this, and people start to catch on, you become public enemy number two.”

“Catch on?” Marquis asked.

Tattletale didn’t answer him.

I was pretty sure I had it.

With my power, I seized control of Doormaker and the Clairvoyant.  The pair stood, holding hands.

A heartbeat later, a cage of bone erupted from the ground.  Bindings wound around my legs.

He laid a trap under the surface of the ground, I thought.

Some of the more mobile injured were backing away from me and my two hostages.  The remainder were still in my range.

Bone coffins encased each of them, sealing them to the ground, out of sight.

I paused, doing my best to get a sense of them.  I could get the gist of their abilities, focus to try and piece together the details.  There were a few capes who could have broken free, a few who were probably capable of slipping out one way or another.

But I didn’t need to go that far.

I exerted Doormaker’s power, and he opened a portal behind Marquis.  The other side of that portal was just behind me.

Memories hit me.  Being chained to the interrogation chamber, opposite Director Tagg.

Tempered confidence, even now?

The memories were distorted, moving just a little too quickly towards the end of that particular scenario.  Except I was looking an awful lot like the person on the receiving end of the abrupt, painful and unexpected murdering.

Marquis’ lieutenants approached.  Cinderhands, Spruce, one other I couldn’t name, in dark clothes and chains.  Lung was circling around, getting ready to fling a fireball.

I used Marquis’ power to block their paths with spiked barriers of bone.  When Lung, Spruce and Cinderhands all tore through the barriers, with claw, some sort of disintegration power and flame, respectively, I used Doormaker’s power again.  This time, the portals I opened were only about a foot by a foot across.  Four at once.

“Taylor,” Tattletale said.  “You’re putting me in a pretty shitty spot, here.”

I checked my phone, tabbing through the pages that had been loaded onto it.  There was a blip marking Teacher’s location.

More were gathering around me.  I made more doors.  One or two dodged out of the way.  I managed to catch them, anyways.

“I’m not getting enough details here to paint a picture.  I trust the hell out of you, but I’m not sure this is you, Taylor.”

I pocketed my phone, then reached into my belt.  I hesitated for an instant, then pressed my hand to my chest for long seconds.  I knew I didn’t have time to spare, but…  no.  I didn’t have time to spare.

I opened a portal twenty feet above Tattletale, then opened my hand.  The little tube of pepper spray dropped through the portal.  Tattletale caught it.

“You couldn’t have made it easy?”  Tattletale asked, looking down at it.  “Because standing by while you do this… that’s fucking hard.  It’s honestly easier if I’m on their side and I’m helping them stop you.  If I can blame the fuck-up job Panacea did to your head.”

I didn’t have a response to that.  I used Marquis’ power to withdraw the bone cage and free my own legs.

I opened a doorway and passed through.

Dragon might be my enemy the moment she got filled in on what I was doing, but she was someone I cared about.  Teacher had fucked with her.

This next bit was going to be easier.

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Speck 30.1

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I didn’t trigger.

Kind of silly, really, that I’d expected to see something.  But this was the opposite.  A trigger event worked on the power end of things.  This was altering me.

I felt the range of my power halve, as though a guillotine blade had dropped down, cutting it off.

My control began to slip.  It wasn’t so severe as the effect on my range, but I could feel it degrading.  I was aware of my bugs in a general sense, and they were moving in reaction to my subconscious thoughts, but the end result wasn’t precise.  I moved them, but getting them to stop had a fraction of a second’s delay.

Slipping out of my control.  Slipping…

Tattletale was nearby, but I was trying not to focus on her.  I had to focus on the swarm, I needed to be perfectly aware of what was going on.

An echo of an event from years ago, only this time, Tattletale was one of the ones in the dark.  I felt a pang of guilt,and I was surprised at how intense it was.  Guilt, shame, a kind of intense loneliness…

This way lies madness, I thought.  But the thought itself had an oddly disconnected quality to it.  The emotions persisted, and I was aware of the memories.  Walking away from the people I cared about, feeling horrible about it, knowing it was the best thing in the end.

Too many would be calling it an error in judgement, stupidity.  Why go to such an extreme, especially when there was no guarantee it was the right path in the end?

But it had allowed me to reunite with my father, in a fashion.

I could remember jail too, the way the guilt and shame had manifested as a maddening restlessness, worse than the confinement.  The fears that had haunted me, dealing with the other prisoners, the kind of peace that had come with surrendering to my then-current circumstances…

Would this decision lead to something in the same vein?  Would I be confined, following a monumental decision that was so selfish and selfless at the same time?

I was altering something biological and mental.  I felt my heart skip a beat as my mind momentarily touched on what that kind of confinement might entail.

I was hyperaware of my own body, every movement, the flow of blood in my veins.  I was focused on the beating of my heart and my breathing, both picking up speed with every moment.

The sky behind me was bright blue, almost taunting me.  Blue was the color I wore when I became a hero.  A failure.  It made for long shadows, extending down the length of the cave in the direction of the others, in the direction of Doormaker’s portal to Earth Gimel.

No, focus on the swarm.

My range was dwindling with every passing second, and so was my control.

That trace of fear I’d experienced swelled as I realized just how much I wanted that control.  I needed to be able to use my mind, to put things into motion when I had an idea.

I need control, I thought.

I tried to open my mouth to tell Panacea, and I couldn’t.  I’d pushed my focus out towards my swarm, and I couldn’t reel it back in to my body.

I was still aware of my body, but it felt piecemeal, now.  My fist was shaking, I had my head bowed, my teeth clenched so hard against one another it hurt.  My heart was pounding, my breath coming out in inconsistent huffs through my nose, pushing just a bit of mucus free.  My eyes were wet with tears, but I hadn’t blinked, causing them to build up on the surface of my eyeballs.

All of these things were normal, but I didn’t feel like they were all intuitive parts of a whole.  My concept of my body as a connected thing had shattered, the ties broken.

If this continued, I’d be on autopilot from here on out, if I could even put the individual components together to walk.

I need control, I thought.

A moment passed, and I could feel Panacea working to give me that control, changing what she was focusing on.  I felt the swarm moving more in sync with what I was thinking and wanting.  But this… I could sense what was happening, feel my range plummeting yet again, the guillotine coming down.  My range had been cut down further.

Give an inch in one department, lose several inches in another.  Lose a whole foot.

Everything was piecemeal now, slipping away.

If this continued, I’d have nothing left.  A net loss operation.

Stop, Panacea, I thought.  Stop, stop, stop, stop…

My swarm attacked her, and it wasn’t because of any conscious command on my part.  The attack was crude, more the swarming behavior of wasps drunk on attack pheromones than the calculated attack I was used to employing.

She stopped, pulling back and falling backwards in a clumsy way.

“Shit, shit, shit, fuck,” a young woman’s voice, from a distance away.  Not Panacea.

Tattletale.

I raised my head, and Tattletale startled a little.  Why had she startled?  The way I’d moved?

“What did you do, Taylor?”  Tattletale asked.

What did I do?  I wanted the answer to that question, myself.

I looked at Amy, realizing the bugs were still approaching her.  I pulled the swarm away, and I felt how hard it was to move them.

I was left with the ruins of my power.  My range was maybe a third of what it might otherwise be, the control rough-edged at best.  There were bugs in my swarm that I couldn’t control, too small.

There were too many things to concentrate on.  The swarm, the nuances of my power, my state of near-panic, and the fact that I no longer felt like a complete, connected human being.  The other stuff, it wasn’t that it wasn’t important, but it was so secondary.

Someone large, with flames swirling around his hands, stalking towards me… didn’t matter.  My power – was my inability to get a complete picture due to a loss of my multitasking ability?

It was Lung who was approaching, Lung who stopped a short distance away, his breathing hot, muscles tensed, flames rolling over his clawed hands and forearms.

He stared at me, his eyes a molten orange-red behind his mask, his breath hot enough it shimmered in the air.  Waiting to see if I was a danger?

“Taylor…” Tattletale said, as if from very far away.

But she didn’t say anything else.  She stared for long seconds, and then she paced, walking around the edge of the room, as if she could get different perspectives on me from the edges of the room.  Bonesaw, a little distance away, was half-crouched, tensed, between me, Doormaker and the clairvoyant.  She looked less like a child and more like a wild animal.  Reverting to habit, maybe, only without the veneer of the innocent, cutesy, perky child this time.

The stillness of it all was eerie, not helping the growing sense of panic I was experiencing.  Everyone’s eyes were on me, and I felt like I might be having a panic attack.  I couldn’t regulate my breathing because focusing on that meant my body was getting tenser, my one fist clenched so hard it hurt.  Paying attention to my hand meant my breathing started to spiral out of control again.  All the while, my heart was pounding.  Nothing I could do to fix that.

I closed my eyes, in an effort to shut out the external stimuli, and I felt the moisture running down to the point where my lenses met my cheekbones, settling there.  I raised my head to look at the cave roof.

As if that was some kind of cue, Bonesaw dashed through the doorway.

Why was I crying?  It didn’t fit.  I was scared, my hand was shaking and I couldn’t be sure how much was fear and how much was because of what Panacea had done.  I was angry, inexplicably, frustrated, and I couldn’t shake the phantom memories of being in jail.

Trapped in an uncooperative body?  No.  The emotions and the thoughts didn’t match with that.  Why was I thinking about it, all of a sudden?

I felt almost nauseous, now, on top of the sense of panic and the conflicting, nonsensical emotions I was experiencing.  Or because of them, maybe.  I felt myself tip over as if I were physically reeling from it all.  When my leg moved to catch me, it wasn’t because I gave it the order.  It wasn’t a reflexive response either.  A third party.

Passenger, I thought.  I guess we’re going to have to learn to work together here.

My breathing eased a notch.  I had no way of telling if it was the passenger reacting or if it was my own reaction to the realization that the passenger was there.

“Weaver?”  A girl’s voice.

I wasn’t sure I trusted my control over my bugs to get a good sense of where she was or what she was doing.  I turned my head to see Canary standing by the portal.

“Don’t,” Tattletale said.  “Don’t bother her.  Leave her alone for long enough that she can get her bearings.  Wait.”

“What happened, Weaver?”  Canary asked, ignoring Tattletale.

Someone answer that question for me, I thought.

Tattletale?  No, she was silent.

Bonesaw was gone.

Canary wouldn’t know.

Passenger?  I thought.  Any clues?

It was easier to talk to my passenger than it was to speak up and answer the question.  Speaking up meant voicing everything that was wrong, my confusion, the fears, the worries, the fact that my body, my mind and my emotions all felt entirely unhinged.  Speaking meant trying to talk around the growing lump in my throat.

“You never learned to ask for help when you needed it,” Tattletale said.  Her voice was almost accusatory.  “I mean, you ask when you approach other groups, and it’s like you’re holding a gun to their heads as you ask, or you ask at a time when it’s hard for them to say no, because all hell’s about to break loose.”

I glanced down at Panacea.  She wasn’t moving, aside from rocking a bit back and forth as she breathed, her head slumped, eyes on the ground.

Was it me?  Something grotesque?  Horrible?  Had I changed?

No.  I had taken stock of myself, I’d seen myself, and I was still the same, as far as I could tell.  Two arms, two legs, two eyes, a working nose, ears and mouth.  One missing hand, but that was to be expected.

“Yeah, you asked Panacea.  You asked me to play along and arrange stuff, when you went to go turn yourself in.  Your handling of the school thing… well, I don’t want to get into a pattern and start cutting too deep.  Let’s just say you make a decision by yourself, and then you use others to get help carrying it out.  That’s not really you asking for help, is it?”

I didn’t need this, not now.  But I looked up, meeting Tattletale’s eyes.  She was standing behind Lung, now.  He was changing.  Was he biding his time?

“While I’m saying all this, kiddo, you gotta know I love you.  I adore you, warts and all.  You saved me, as much as I like to think I saved you.  All this stuff I’m bitching about, it’s the same stuff that got us through some pretty hairy shit, and I love you for it as much as I groan about it.  You’re brilliant and you’re reckless and you care too much about people in general when I really wish you’d leave things well enough alone and be selfish.  But this?”

This?

“Shit,” Tattletale said.  “You gotta forgive me, just this once.  Because seeing this and knowing what you pulled hurts enough that I gotta say this.  This makes me feel really sorry for your dad, because I’m starting to get a sense of what you put him through.”

She might as well have slapped me full-force.  Worse, I deserved it.

So this is what it’s like to be on the opposite end of a Tattletale attack.

“There,” she said.  She smiled a little, but it wasn’t a grin, exactly.  If it was an attempt at being reassuring, it wasn’t something she had a lot of practice in.  “I’ve said what I needed to say.  I do have your back, here.  Now we need to figure out how we’re going to fix this.”

Which I was okay with, except I wasn’t sure what this was.

This isn’t easily reversed,” Bonesaw said.

She had returned, and she’d brought others.

Marquis, and two of Marquis’ lieutenants.  They’d been delivering wounded up until a bit ago, but their hands were empty now.  Marquis was a little dusty, but still elegant and elaborately dressed without being feminine, his hair tied back into a ponytail.  He was accompanied by the hyper-neat guy and the guy with arms black from fingertip to elbow.  All three looked like they were in full on business mode.

“I’m open to trying,” Tattletale said.

Marquis surveyed the situation with a cool gaze.

“I’m not hearing a resounding yes here,” Tattletale said.

Marquis strode forwards.

“Careful!” Tattletale called out.

I might have dodged if I’d had full control over my own body.  I might have dodged if I’d been a little more focused.  Hell, I probably would’ve dodged if it wasn’t for the realization that Tattletale was warning Marquis instead of warning me.

I thought she had my back, I thought, as Marquis’ shaft of bone caught me dead center in the chest.  I couldn’t have dodged if I’d had full control over my body and my flight suit.  It hit me in the sternum, broad and flat, and shoved me back and away.

The bone changed as it pushed me, splaying out in two branches.  The backwards momentum made it impossible to get my feet under me, which meant I hit the ground, rump first, then a heavy hit with the hard shell of the flight pack, and finally a crack of my skull against the hard stone floor of the cave.

I came to a stop, and was just beginning to get my bearings when Marquis continued extending the pole.  I was shoved further back until my back was against a stone, five feet from the cave mouth, five and a half feet away from the sheer rock ledge above a sheer drop I couldn’t measure with my bugs.  The two branches of bone sat on either side of my neck, like the arms of a dowsing rod, pinning me in place.

The skin of his other hand had ripped and torn as the bones of a massive skeletal hand had erupted from his wrist.  Judging by its position around Lung and Panacea, he’d apparently used the hand to push or slide them back away from me.

“Oh god,” Panacea was saying, “Oh shit, oh god.”

A sudden display of emotion, as confusing to me as everything else here.

And here they were, Marquis, his men, Lung, Panacea, Canary, Tattletale and the portal duo from Cauldron, staring me down.

“Sixteen feet,” Tattletale said, her voice quiet.  “Fifteen point nine-eight feet, to be exact, but we can ballpark it.”

Marquis nodded.  “Parahuman abilities wax and wane depending on one’s mental state.  Given how volatile she may be…”

“It’s not going to change,” Panacea said, not making eye contact with anyone.  She was staring at the backs of her hands, which were flat against the cave floor, or staring at the tattoos that covered them.  “I felt how it changed…  Not connected to her emotions or those parts of her brain.  Not anymore.”

“I see.  Good to know, thank you,” Marquis said.  He approached three paces, and the bone shaft that extended between his arm and the branches that pinned my neck shrunk a corresponding amount.

He was keeping a distance, a good twenty or twenty five feet away from me.

Why did Tattletale say sixteen feet?

“What are you guys talking about?” Canary asked.

“I would have burned her,” Lung growled the words, ignoring her.  “But I thought you would be upset if I burned Amelia in the process.”

“Quite right,” Marquis said.  He didn’t take his eyes off me.

“Oh god,” Panacea was saying, her hands moving to her head, her fingers in her hair, inadvertently pulling it from the ponytail.  “Oh fuck me, oh god.”

“Hush,” Marquis said.  He laid a hand on her shoulder.

“Well, this is a step forward for you, Ames,” Tattletale commented.

Don’t,” Panacea hissed the word.  “Don’t you fucking dare.”

“…This time you got consent before you screwed someone up beyond your ability to fix it.”

“I’ll fucking kill you,” Panacea snarled.

There was a distant rumble, intense enough it could be both heard and felt through the doorway that Doormaker had open between us and Earth Gimel.  The fight was ongoing, and it sounded like maybe they were leading Scion away from the settlement.

My friends were out there.  Rachel, Aisha.  Here I was, doing nothing.

My hand slid on the stone beneath me as my body tried to push itself to a standing position, only to meet the ‘v’ of bone at my neck.  Why had I done that?  I hadn’t actually made the decision.

Passenger?  I thought.

Was it making decisions with my body, too?

Not a question I could answer definitively.  I turned my mind to a question I could focus on.

Sixteen feet. 

I saw how the others were spreading out, forming a line behind Marquis, their attention on me.  I saw the length of the column of bone.

It belatedly clicked.  Sixteen feet was the distance they needed to keep from me.

“I’d like to say I’m sorry for being a little rough,” Marquis said.  “I was in a hurry, trying to get my daughter to safety.”

Aahheuuhhhmmm.

It took me long seconds to wrap my head around the fact that the sound had come out of my mouth.  Not the right syllables, not even something that sounded like words.  My hand flew to my mouth.  My fingertips dug through the thick spidersilk fabric for some purchase on my lips, as if I could somehow manually get them to start working again.  Even the movement of my hand was clumsy.

I was a puppeteer trying to make the puppet move by tugging the strings from some remote place.  Something as complex as speech was beyond me.

I tried to form words with the swarm, to speak or to spell.  I failed.

Far, far beyond me.

I could see Tattletale reacting too, her entire body going rigid.  She took a half-step back.

I lowered my eyes to the cave floor.  My fingers were moving, grasping, and it wasn’t me doing it.

“Ah,” Marquis said.  “Shame.  A communication problem makes it harder to gauge how much we can trust her.”

Trust her, he’d said, instead of trust you.  Like there was no point to saying it to me directly.  Marquis was talking to Tattletale to refer to me in the same way someone might talk to the family member or companion of a mentally disabled individual or small child, instead of the diminutive individual themselves.

As though I was so fucked up I apparently needed a guardian to act as a translator or advocate.

“I can tell you how she is,” Tattletale said.

“You’re biased, to be frank,” Marquis said.  “I’m not willing to put myself, my family, or my underlings in a dangerous position because you have a sentimental spot for Weaver.  And before you launch into a spiel, I should warn you that Amelia here has filled me in on you.  I’m aware of how convincing you can be.  Spruce, Cinderhands, Lung?  You have my permission to mutiny if you think she’s gaming me.  I even recommend it.”

“Hardly fair,” Tattletale said.

“It’s rather fair, all things considered,” Marquis said.  “If you can convince all of us, then it must be a legitimate and sound argument.”

“I think you’re underestimating how eager Lung is for an excuse to hurt something,” Tattletale said.

“Maybe so,” Marquis said.  He glanced at Lung.

“You are too soft with women and children,” Lung said.  “If she starts something, I will break your rule for you and immolate her.”

“I suppose that’ll do,” Marquis said, sighing a little, he gave Tattletale a look, and she nodded a little.

There was another distant rumble.  A sound like a thousand men screaming in unison.  I felt a chill.

“Let’s put this issue to rest,” Marquis said.  “A compromise.”

“Sure.  I’m open to compromise,” Tattletale said.  “Beats being immolated.”

Marquis turned.  “Doormaker?  Another portal, please.  We’ll change locations and set up a triage unit somewhere else.  We link it to Gimel, and we close all doors leading to and from this cave.”

“I’m not sure I like this compromise,” Tattletale said.

“Weaver is an unknown quantity.  We’ll leave her here, as safe as anyone on any Earth is, and we conclude this fight against Scion, win or lose.  When all’s said and done, we come back and we see what we can do for her.”

There was a long pause.

Stay here?  Not participating?

I tensed.  My bugs stirred.

Right.  I still had my bugs.  My control was down, but only just.  Anything I touched or manipulated would be like I was using my left hand instead of my right.

Problem was, I didn’t exactly have a wealth of bugs to work with.

“It’s… sorta hard to argue with,” Tattletale said.  “But I don’t like it.”

“Nature of a compromise is that it leaves everyone more or less equally unhappy,” Marquis said.  “I’d feel happier if she was under secure restraints, but I’m content to break this rod and leave her free to forage and look after herself while we’re gone.”

No thread left.  I’d used too much of it when we’d made the platform back at the Cauldron base.

There was a new dimension to my power, at a cost to everything else.  Sixteen feet of range.

I just needed to figure out how to use it.

Tattletale shook her head.  “If Doormaker dies, she’s stranded here, all alone, more than a little borked in the head and in the heart.  Possibly for the rest of her life.”

“If Doormaker dies, I think we’re all in dire straits,” Marquis said.  “This is the fairest solution.  I think you realize that.”

I raised my hand, fingertips going vertical, moving my stump in that general direction, knowing she could draw the conclusion.  Best I could do in terms of a pleading gesture, with only one hand to work with.

Tattletale stared.  “…Yeah.  Except for one thing.”

“There’s a snag,” Marquis concluded, sounding a little defeated.

“Sure.  Life isn’t fair, and I’ve got a hell of a lot of faith in that girl.  Besides, we agreed not so long ago that we wouldn’t leave each other behind.”

“Unfortunate.  Lung, Cinderhands?  Make Tattletale leave.  Drag her if you have to, but don’t hurt her.”

“You test my patience with this gentleness of yours,” Lung growled, but he took hold of Tattletale’s arm with one claw.  Cinderhands took her other arm.

“Watch for her gun.  If she gets a hand free, she’ll use it on one of us,” Panacea said.  She followed the trio.

I struggled to reach my feet, but the ‘v’ of bone at my throat held me.  I slumped back down to the ground, staring at the ones who remained.

“Stop struggling, Weaver,” Marquis said.  “Please relax.  You took a gamble and you lost.  You sit this one out.”

I narrowed my eyes behind the lenses of my mask.

“Spruce?  Can you use your power?  Not too much.  Enough she can break free before too long?”

The tidy man shook his head.  He turned his hand over, and a little sphere swirled in it, looking like a cabbage made of stone.  He closed his hand, and it winked out of existence.  “Ten years ago?  Sure.  Right now?  I don’t trust my accuracy.  I’d be worried about the structure of the cave if my power touched anything to either side or behind her.”

Marquis nodded.  “Go look after the others, then.  Be ready to shut the door the moment I’m through.”

Spruce turned to leave, ushering Doormaker and the clairvoyant out.

“I know you have tricks up your sleeve.  You have bugs, you have the pepper spray.  You have other tools I probably don’t know about.  I’m going to assume you’re in a state of mind to use those tricks.  I’m going to hope you’re in a state of mind to listen when I ask you not to use them.  Stay here, pull yourself together, and we’ll come for you when we can.  If we can.  I give you my oath that I’ll do my utmost to keep Tattletale safe in the meantime.”

My hands were clenching and unclenching.  Not by my own volition.

Eeeeuunnh,” I growled.

“I’m very optimistically going to take that as a reluctant yes,” he said.

It took me a moment to get the motions in order, but I managed to shake my head very slowly from side to side.

“Alright,” he said.  He put an arm on Canary’s armored shoulder.  “Canary?  Please step through.  I’ll be right behind you.”

She started to obey, then stopped.  “I… I really know how you feel, Weaver.  Sort of.  I took Cauldron’s stuff, it messed me up, physically.  I felt horrible, I went a little crazy.  And maybe three years after I picked myself up and pulled it all together, everything went to shit.  Like life was reminding me of the mistake I made.  So I- I know what you’re feeling.  But you can make peace with it.  So… don’t beat yourself up too hard?  Take it from someone that’s done that too much.”

“It was kind of you to say that,” Marquis said.  “Please step through?”

Canary nodded.

He was watching her go.

I heaved myself sideways, freeing my left arm to reach to my right hip.  In the process, I managed to move the branch of bone a little to one side.  Not enough to get my head free of it, but enough to get some elbow room.

“Heads up!” Marquis called out.

My hand fumbled for my gun, and I pulled it free.  I raised it to the point where the branch split in two and fired.  The thickest point.

Perhaps a little insane, to fire upwards, at something as hard as bone, inches from my face and throat.

But the bone shattered and splintered.

I was free, and Marquis was already taking action.  Armor of bone surrounded him, ornate, decorative, but with enough coverage that the bugs near him were either crushed against his skin or they failed to find a way through.  I didn’t have any bugs small enough to fit through the vertical slits around the eyes and mouth.

The spear of bone began branching out, becoming a veritable tree, filling the cave between myself and Marquis with forking and dividing limbs.  He was backing away, creating more bone to stay connected to the base of the tree.  He knew what I’d try to do next.

I didn’t stand.  I couldn’t afford to take the time.  I used the flight pack, extending the wings with the thrusters, and launched myself at the wall of the cave.  I hit it a little harder than I might have liked, one wing bending, and then scraped against it, flying in Marquis’ general direction, moving along the cave ceiling where there were less branches.

The amount of space I had to maneuver in was rapidly closing. My dangling leg caught a branch, and I nearly lost all of my momentum.  I was forced to put the thrusters away, but one didn’t fold away properly where it had bent in the collision.

Tree branches of bone closed around me.  I activated the thruster on the remaining wing, and I opened fire, blind, in the hopes of clearing a route.

Marquis moved to the side, creating a shield of bone in front of himself and Canary.  The bullets weren’t really on course for them, but it worked out in my favor.  He’d broken the shaft of bone to free himself to move, and the ‘tree’ was no longer growing.  I flew through the biggest available gaps, snapping the thinner spears and spines of bone on my way through.

Twenty feet away from Marquis.  He moved back, and then grabbed the ‘tree’.

A disc of bone unfolded in front of me, as though the tree were a parasol.  A wall, a barrier.

I shot at the edge, and a chunk broke off.

But more flowed free before I could wedge myself into the resulting gap.  It sealed the cave off.  I shot again, but it was too thick.  The trigger clicked as I pulled it again and again, fruitlessly.  The movement was so frantic and jerky that the gun fell from my clumsy grip.

“Terribly sorry,” Marquis murmured.

Panic and fear welled up inside me.

I don’t want to stay behind.  I can’t.  You don’t understand.  I’ll lose my mind, more than it already feels a little lost.

Gorrugh,” I hissed.  The armor of my mask clicked against the bone as I rested my head against it.

The fear, the panic, no…

I felt it, but it wasn’t mine.  Neither was the fear and paralysis I’d felt before, or the anger.

I was so used to my power being automatic, I wasn’t used to having to exert any kind of will.

I tapped into the feeling, I focused all of my attention on my ability.

Sixteen feet.  Marquis was out of my range, but Canary had been slower to move, her reflexes not as good.  She’d been caught up in watching, maybe not wanting to turn her back on a fight in progress, and she hadn’t moved as quickly.

I was touching the wall of bone, and Canary was fifteen or so feet away, on the other side.

Now that I was taking the time to look, to sense, I was aware of Canary’s body in the same way I’d been aware of Lung’s.  As Panacea’s, to a lesser degree.  Her steady, measured breathing, the complete lack of movement.

Just like Lung and Panacea had been frozen.

Waiting for instructions.

I couldn’t move her closer to Marquis without putting her outside of my range.  Instead, I turned her around.

“Ah… damnation,” Marquis said.

Her movements weren’t much more fluid than my own ones here.  A drawback, among many.  She marched towards me and the wall Marquis had created.

He snared her, throwing out shafts of bone and surrounding her upper body with a cage of the stuff, interlocking the two pieces.

But she wore the Dragonslayer’s armored suit.  She bent her legs at my order, and then lunged forward.  She broke the bone that surrounded her, and with her fist free she struck the wall of bone.

Two, three, four times.

Marquis stepped forward, very carefully, and planted a foot on the base of the shaft of bone.  The wall began to thicken, faster than Canary could smash it.

Her power…

I looked, and I had enough of a sense of her inner workings to get a sense of her general state of well being, where she was sore, her fitness, and her power.

She began to sing.

Bring him closer.  Bring him in.

The song changed.  The relentless, almost machinelike drum against the wall of bone continued, cracking it with the power of the suit, and I could sense Marquis wavering.  He lowered his foot from the shaft of bone and began to approach Canary.

I was so used to a buzzing, to a dull roar of power in my ears.  This was so much more complex.  Complex and seductive, the emotions I was tapping into.  Linking myself to Canary on some level.

I could remember being in Dragon and Defiant’s grip, being hauled along on the way to the roof, so soon after killing Alexandria and Director Tagg.  Struggling, futile, hopeless.

I could look beyond that surface memory, and I could see what was beneath it, a general sensation, a recollection of a feeling.  Canary, struggling, helpless and bound, terrified and panicking, with a dull sense of guilt over what she’d done, a reality that she hadn’t quite processed and might not fully process for weeks or months.

She was me and I was her.  Shared experience.  She was an extension of myself.

There was no way to know if that was a good thing.  I was starting to feel a little unhinged again.  A little disconnected from me.

The only thing scarier than that fact was the knowledge that it was only going to get worse.  This was my tool.  This was what I’d sacrificed my mind, body, range, and control to obtain.  Sixteen paltry feet of range.  Sixteen feet of range that, according to Panacea, I wouldn’t be able to increase through my emotions.

I made myself climb to my feet, pushing my way through the smaller branches of bone, reaching up with my hand to grab a larger branch for balance.  My legs were shaky beneath me, my head a little lopsided, and if I hadn’t been holding on to something, I suspected my arm would have hung utterly limp at my side.  I couldn’t… I couldn’t dig for that knowledge of how my body was supposed to be in a resting state.

I saw the first crack spread on my side of the wall.

Better yet, Marquis was getting closer.  One or two more reluctant steps our way, and-

-And I never got to find out if I’d be able to leverage his power.  Lung stepped into the hallway, and he filled it with fire.

Canary was armored, though her hair was set on fire where it flowed beneath the helmet.  Marquis, too, was armored.  Neither was positioned to be turned into a crisp.

But the fire drowned out the singing.  The fire stopped, and Canary could hear Marquis’ footsteps as he ran, hands pressed to where his ears were covered by his helmet.

I had Canary punch through the wall.  She reached through the wall and grabbed me by the straps of my flight pack, hauling me through.

The doorway was closing.  Canary, it seemed, was being left behind.

I had her throw me, and I used my flight pack to get extra speed.

I slid through the doorway two seconds before it was too narrow to pass through.  I lay there, the group staring down at me.

Coohugggah,” I mumbled, with more than a little anger in my voice, as I slowly made my way to my feet.  Nobody offered me a hand, but that was my choice, not theirs.

My stump of an arm was throbbing, and the rest of me felt alien.  My movements weren’t all my own choice, with the passenger apparently doing something to help me manage.

I looked through the other portal, beside us.  Gimel.

I left the others alone, not controlling them.  When Spruce was in my way, I pushed him aside with physical strength.

I’m fighting, I thought.  I’m fighting Scion.  Somehow.

I could see myself through their eyes.  Each image was slightly distorted, just different enough to be uncanny and out of sync.  I had more awareness of myself through them than I had with my own eyes.

I stepped into the damaged fast food restaurant, and over the rubble at the front where one attack or another had clipped the building.  As I made my way to the front, the others behind me found themselves out of my reach, free to move of their own volition again.

Free to attack me if they wanted.

Marquis, Panacea, Bonesaw… not so dangerous.

Lung?  No.  If he was going to kill me, he’d let me know just before he did it.

Spruce?  Cinderhands?  They were maybe the type to attack me, because of pride and the fact that I’d momentarily seized control of them.

Tattletale was freed.  She dashed forward, hopping over rubble and debris to get closer to me.  She stopped three or four paces from me.

A fraction more than sixteen feet away.

But she didn’t say a word.

Scion was there.  Tearing through people with a ferocity, this time.  People were scrambling for cover that did so very little against Scion, trying to erect defenses, hiding and fleeing.

Had we already lost?

A collection of capes, many carrying wounded, headed our way.  Rachel, Imp and Bastard were among them.

I moved to the side, but I failed to anticipate their path.  I’d expected them to head into the sandwich-place-turned-hospital, but they moved straight towards me.

I backed away, taking flight, while Tattletale rushed forward, her footfalls tracing a curved path around a bubble that only she seemed to be conscious of.  She stopped in their way, arms outstretched, shouting, “Go around!  Dangerous power!”

Most of them listened.  Only one, looking over his shoulder at Scion, stumbled past Tattletale, into my range.  I was looking for it this time, and I could feel his being snap into my mind’s eye.  He froze in place.

No sooner did I have control than Tattletale grabbed the guy by the back of the collar and hauled him out.

“The fuck?” Imp asked.

Tattletale let the guy go, and he fled.

I couldn’t reply, so I focused on gathering my bugs.  No use dismissing a resource that had once been vital.

Someone volunteered herself for noninvasive brain surgery from the lunatic with a sister complex.  Or, just as likely, she asked the lunatic psychopath for invasive brain surgery and the other lunatic stepped in.  Now Skitter’s broken.”

“That didn’t look broken,” Imp said.  “That guy…”

“Hrrrrrn,” I said.

“Hrrrrn,” Imp replied, nodding sagely.  “Now I understand.”

“She can’t talk,” Rachel said, more a statement than a question.

I shook my head.  Can’t move as fast or as well as before…

I belatedly realized that Rachel had hopped off of Bastard.  She reached her hand forward, as if feeling her way.

I backed away, but she stepped forward faster.

A conception of Rachel’s entire being bloomed in my consciousness.

I made her step back away.

“Mm,” Rachel grunted.

“Why the fuck would you do that?” Tattletale asked.

Because she trusts me far too much, I thought.

“She’s smarter than I am,” Rachel said.  “Let her do what she needs to.”

I shook my head, backing away with my flight pack.

Controlling Rachel wouldn’t achieve anything.  I wouldn’t get any special knowledge of her whistles or commands, or her instinctive understanding of the dogs.

But I needed to do something.

Marquis and the others were approaching, on guard, looking tense.

I was a wild card, now, something they couldn’t wholly trust.  A little unhinged, a little unpredictable, and my power would be more dangerous and debilitating in their minds than it was useful.

“You’re going?”  Tattletale asked, almost realizing it before I had.

I nodded.

“Good luck,” she said.  “You know where to find us.”

I nodded again, taking to the air with my damaged flight pack, but it was with a heavy heart.

I’d told myself, not so long ago, that I’d know the route to victory when I saw it.  I had an idea of what I needed to do now.

Maybe it was good I couldn’t speak, because I would’ve said the words if I’d had the ability, and we’d sworn not to.  I had to think it instead, and this way, they didn’t need to hear it.

Goodbye, Undersiders.

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Interlude 29

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Two parts to a whole.

This, as everything does, builds towards the ultimate objective, a propagation of the species.

To rise above a competition among one’s own species is a kind of transcendence.  Cooperation, a goal that extends beyond one’s lifespan, one’s community.  This entity can recall the moment of transcendence, the unification and reinvention of their species.

Everything extends to an end goal.  A complete and total mastery of all things.  In time, just as they spread and consumed their entire world, they will fill every space in all accessible universes that can be occupied.  In time, they will reach a stasis and they will fall from their transcendent state.  They will descend into competition once more, and they will devour each other alive once again.

Hope, continued existence, is dependent on another reinvention of their species.  They will use knowledge gleaned from countless other species, from mingling, matching and culling their own internal libraries of functions.

There is only so much time.  Only so many generations and cycles before things approach their final state.  Information will be exchanged, their species will weigh everything based on merit, and then they will seek a solution.  A final expenditure of power, a resetting of the universes, a reinvention of existence, or something beyond this entity.

This is the goal.  The most must be made of every cycle.

Two parts to a whole.  The other entity is a warrior, direct, oriented in the short-term goals.  This entity looks further, consulting possibilities.

Their general destination is in mind, and has been in mind for some time.  Already, they have begun to close their helix spiral, drawing fractionally towards one another with each rotation, controlling the pattern and timing of their approach.

Destination, the Warrior entity communicates.

Agreement, this entity responds.  The signals that accompany and form the overarching messages allow them to pick out sub-worlds for themselves.  Arrival points, destinations for critical shards to root, hosts for the extensions of those same shards.

Trajectory, the other entity communicates.  More data on where they will arrive, the way they will move on approach, the placement of less crucial shards.

Agreement.  This entity sees the constant messages as a distraction.  It is reorganizing, calling on its own precognition and clairvoyance to map out their actions after arrival.

This entity reforms itself, adjusting the placements of individual shards, priming itself for a deeper simulation, considering possible ways things can be carried out.

This takes time.  Focus.

Colony, the other entity signals.

Narrowing down possible destinations.

Agreement, this entity is distracted in responding.  It is receiving another broadcast.

A third.

The communication is almost alien, a member of their species, but long distant, from countless cycles ago.

It hesitates, then signals its own location.

ExchangeMeet.

The response is garbled.  Takes time to analyze.

The third entity travels more through momentum than by insinuation.  It expends vast quantities of power to change course.

They meet violently.  As their ancestors did, they share with one another in a violent fashion, crashing together, breaking shard from shard.

This entity knows right away that there is a wealth of information here.  But there must be cooperation, information given for information.

Even as they grind together, destroying one another in a brutal exchange of shards, the entity works to salvage key shards, to put ones it can afford to lose on the exterior body.

This is the optimal path, the best way to achieve their end goal.  The shards here are rich with memories, experience and unexplored possibilities.  It is worth sacrificing as much as she is.

They break apart.  The third entity continues its path, moving to a distant star, its path perpendicular to the pair’s.

Concern, the Warrior entity expresses.

Confident, this entity responds.  This is optimal.  It is heavy with these new shards, drowning in knowledge and experience.  If this could occur with every cycle, bringing this sort of information into the pattern, then survival beyond the endpoint would be virtually guaranteed.

This entity struggles to move as it works to reorganize these new shards, to convert them into a form it can use.

It will see this cycle through, and regain what it lost in the union with the Warrior.

This entity sees new possibilities, now.  Not simply conflict, but philosophy and psychology.  Imagination.  It is in these new patterns of thought that it can see a possibility for the future.  Its partner takes on some of its duties as it digs into the libraries of information to see how it might put it into practice.

It can use its strengths, the Warrior’s strengths, and the host’s natures to explore new ideas and tactics for approaching the endpoint.

Already, this entity is forming a model, a simulacrum of the host species, mapping out how things might unfold.  While the Warrior is preparing to shed its shards and litter the world, this entity is plotting a strategic approach.

It cannot make out what form it or the other entity will take, but it can still view the situation in part.  It sets the criteria for an optimal future, for optimal study, and then it looks to a future that matches this criteria.

“Thank you for coming,” Partisan said.

The entity nodded.  Its expression was stern.

Partisan touched his computer terminal.  Monitors lit up, showing a series of images.

A figure, fifteen feet tall, pale, with a lion’s head, a mane of crystal.  Muscular, brutish, it was perched on a massive floating crystal, with more crystals floating about it. Here and there, the crystals touched ground.  They turned what they touched into more crystal, which soon uprooted themselves to join the storm around it.

A woman, even more brutish in appearance, had a reptilian lower body.  Steam rolled off her in billowing clouds, taking uncanny forms as it coiled and expanded through the area.  Faces, reaching claws and more.

And on the third monitor, flecked by static, was a naked man, beautiful and long-haired, his face touched with a macabre grin.  He perched on top of an ocean wave that was frozen in place, his body too flexible, moving with the wind as though he were light enough to be carried away.

“They’ve released three more of the superweapons,” Partisan said.  “But of course, you know this.”

“I do,” the entity responds.

“This makes nine.  Four are at the Divide.  We’ve got one to the far north, poised to flank us.  Four more spread out over the world.”

“Maybe more we don’t know about,” Arsenal speaks.

A power the entity held in reserve identified something wrong.  The entity turned and looked at its partner, standing slightly behind it, taciturn and silent.  They exchanged the smallest of broadcasts.

A consensus was reached between them.  Arsenal knew something about the superweapons, or he suspected strongly enough for it to matter.

“What is it?” Clarent asked.

The entity responded, feigning emotion, “…There are eleven more.”

It could see the reaction among the gathered heroes of the Wardens.  Fear, alarm, a kind of dawning horror.

For Arsenal, though, there was another reaction.  He was upset, yes, but was a little relieved at the same time.  He knew about the others, and he had been testing them, to see if they would lie.

But suspicions remained.

“Eleven?”  Partisan asked.

“Stationed around the world, at the borders of the stronger nations,” the entity informed the Wardens.  “Like yours, they’re remaining more or less stationary, only attacking when they see weakness.”

“And you believe it is the Shepherds who are responsible?”

The entity shook its head.  “I can’t know.  You’ve seen for yourself, the powerful blocks they’ve put in place against powers.  But enough clues point to the Shepherds.”

The expressions of the three men are grim.  The other heroes, at the edges of the room, seem equally concerned.  A woman with a great cannon that constantly changes, expanding and contracting like a living thing.  A hulk of a man, laden with muscle, was muttering something to people around him.

“If this goes any further, we’ll be forced to submit to these terror tactics,” Partisan said.  “I don’t like to say it, but…”

“War,” Arsenal said.  “It’s our only option.”

“I don’t like war,” the woman with the gun said.  “It’ll cause as many problems as it fixes, and with stakes this high, that’s a lot of new problems.”

“Doing nothing is just as dangerous,” Arsenal said.

“I’m not so sure.”

“We know they’re projections,” Arsenal said, his eyes on the monitors.  “Someone or something is projecting them.  We cut off the head, the superweapons fall.”

“Yes,” the entity agreed.  It didn’t miss the curious glance Arsenal gave it.

“We’ll need your help,” Partisan said.

“You’ll have it,” the entity said.  “But there are other places needing our help, too.  Against these, and against other things.  Some are in the middle of full-scale wars as I speak.  We’ll assist you, we’ll stop these superweapons-“

“If these ones can be stopped,” Partisan said.

“…If they can be stopped.  That touches on my next point.  You’ll need to do as much damage as you can, give it your all.  We’ll be arriving late, and if they’re strong…”

The entity trailed off.  It could see Arsenal’s suspicions growing deeper.

“You have your hands full,” Clarent said.

The entity nodded.  It feigned a moment of weariness, assuring these individuals it was merely human.

“Thank you,” Partisan said.  He extended a hand.

The entity roused itself from the mock-exhaustion, straightening, and shook the hand.

“We need to go,” the entity said.

“Before you do,” Partisan said.  He reached into his belt and withdrew a small device.  “Here.  It has good days and bad, but on a good day, we get a range of about a thousand miles, which is maybe four or five times the usual.  With luck, we’ll be able to tune it and cut through the blackout effect.  Get international communications going again.”

“Arsenal’s work?” the entity asked, though it already knew.  It could trace the design to the memories in Arsenal’s shard.

“Arsenal and Richter,” Partisan said.

The entity nodded.  It had no pockets, so it held the device in one hand.

“Good luck,” Partisan said.  “Whoever you’re helping.”

The entity’s expression remained grave.  “I should be wishing you luck.  If you succeed here, you’ll be saving a lot of people.  Here and elsewhere.”

“Easy to forget elsewhere exists,” Clarent said.

“We defend our borders, keep the peace within, and we hold out,” Partisan said.  “It’s all we can do.  We have enough powers that get stronger over time, yours included.  We have Richter, too, we just need the resources.  Things will get better.”

Clarent nodded.  Arsenal clapped a hand on Clarent’s shoulder.

The three tapped the ends of their weapons together.  Partisan’s heavy spear, Arsenal’s guisarme and Clarent’s longsword.  Then they parted ways, attending to their individual groups and squads.

But Arsenal watched out of the corner of his eye, tracking the entity and the Warrior as they approached, walking towards the room’s exit.

The woman with the gun made her way to Partisan’s side.  She whispered, but the entity could hear it, as it heard all things in the vicinity.  “War?”

“We’ll need our Black Knight, Hannah,” Partisan said.  “We bait them into a fight, then sic him on them.  He’ll be able to win as long as it’s parahumans he’s fighting.  Colin’s squad flanks and infiltrates, my squad scouts and Clarent maintains a defensive line.”

“And if these superweapons attack while our forces are elsewhere?”

“They aren’t attacking.  They’re just… there.”

“But if they do attack?  If they’re there for this exact eventuality?” the gunwoman asked.

“We’ll push on, striking for the Shepherd’s headquarters, and the rest hold out.”

“It’s reckless.”

“It’s the only option.  We’ve got two of the strongest parahumans around on our side,” Partisan said, his voice a little louder.  He glanced at the entity and the Warrior.

The entity glanced his way, acknowledging him.  Its focus, however, was on Arsenal.  Hearing Partisan’s words, Arsenal’s suspicions had reached a climax.  He would say something.

That is, he would, if the entity didn’t intervene.  The entity passed by him, and it leveraged a power.  Wiping a memory, setting a block in place.  The same blocks that prevented accord between the Wardens and the Shepherds.  The same blocks that prevented Partisan’s special sight from seeing the entity’s power at work.

With that, the task was done.  The entity stepped out onto the balcony, then took flight, the Warrior flying behind it.

Destination, the Warrior entity broadcasts the idea, interrupting the simulation.

Agreement, the entity absently responds.

An optimal future.  It is an unwieldy future because it gave up a part of its ability to see the future to the other being.  There are holes, because this entity does not fully understand the details of what happened, and because this entity’s future-sight power is damaged.  Above all else, it is an incomplete future because this entity has only the most minimal role in things, and the shards it saw were all the Warrior’s.

The fact that it did not is a part of that future.  This entity will arrive at the destination, and it will deploy shards to complicate a situation and break stalemates.  Losing sides will be granted reinforcements through maturing shards.  A different sort of engagement, a different way of testing the shards.

This entity continues focusing on converting, translating and relocating the shards.  It is frail, fragile.

Hive, the Warrior broadcasts.  A set world, with a set population density and degree of conflict.

But this entity has already decided on that world, seen it in a future.  It responds without consideration.  Agreement.

They are more engaged now, as they close the distance.  They negotiate who can place shards where, and this entity now holds its shards in reserve.

The Warrior is focusing on refining the shards, and this entity is, in turn, focused on refining the future.  A set goal, a reality.

Too complex to convey to the other.

The communications continue, and they approach the galaxy.  This entity begins altering its own powers, but it is not a great concern.

The gravity of the planetary bodies pull at it.  It loses great clumps of shards.

It loses more.  Its focus is now on holding on to the shards critical to making this future it has seen a reality.  A world perpetually in conflict, the groups and factions kept small enough that none can challenge it.

All energy it can spare goes towards the reorganization.  Shards must be discarded, or it will dwarf the destination planet.  It casts shards off, and it retains shards that will allow it to draw power from those shards.

Danger, the Warrior broadcasts.

Confident, this entity responds.

It picks a reality.  Up until the moment it hits ground, it works to reorganize itself.

In the doing, it alters one of the third entity’s powers, replacing its own ability to find the optimal future.

In that very instant, it recognizes that it has made a grave error.  The simulated world and the glimpse of the optimal future are already gone from its grasp.  Too late.

The perspective changes, breaking away, distant, confused, detached.  The impact was too hard.

A girl woke from a dream.

She started to scream, but a man, her uncle, placed a hand over her mouth.  It was the hand, as much as the full-body ache she experienced that silenced her.

Hush,” he said, in their language.  “The monstrous ones are out there.

She nodded, still delirious, lost in the magnitude of what she had seen.

The memories were already slipping away, like sand through her fingers.

Have to remember, she told herself.

The answer snapped into place.  A way to remember.

Nine steps, and she could do it.  Step one was to avoid thinking of the memories.  The moment she acknowledged it, she found herself slipping into a different mindset.

She is touched,” another man said.  One of her uncle’s friends.

She could dimly recall something happening to her parents.  A cataclysmic event.

Except she couldn’t allow herself to start remembering.

She hasn’t changed,” her uncle said.

We both saw the phantom, the night-thing, leap out at her.

She needed to dream.  The next steps would achieve that.

Step two, standing up.

Step three, a jab of her hand at her uncle’s elbow, to stop him from grabbing her.

Step four, a little push of her foot against the ground, to keep her ankle out of reach of the friend’s clutching hand.

Step five, grabbing the medicine bag from behind her uncle.

Opening it was step six.  Walking to the bench was seven.

Her uncle was only getting to his feet now.  Every action was mechanical, spelled out by this surety in her mind’s eye, helped along by a complete, exacting knowledge of how and where to move every body part.

Seven involved uncorking the right bottles.  Eight involved obtaining a specific amount of powder, moving her hand in a careful, precise way, so the exact right amount piled up in her cupped palm.  She dashed it into a half-full mug and drank, just as her uncle reached her, putting his hands on her shoulders, shaking her.

Step nine was to wait for sleep to reach her.  She only needed to dream, and she would be able to escape the forgetting.

When she woke, her body was a ruin, but her mind was clear.

It had started three days ago.  This disaster.  People becoming monsters.  Madness.  Others getting sorcerous abilities.  Their community had scattered, fleeing to the wilderness in small groups.  Any friend or family member could become a beast at a moment’s notice.

Being alone was safest, but being alone meant being in the dark wilderness with the wolves.

It had been a hungry season for the wolves, many sheep dying.

The taste of vomit filled her mouth, but her face was clear.  When she moved, her stomach felt like it had been hit with a club.

She turned her attention to the subject.  One step to minimize the pain.

Swearing was one of them.

Wolf-fucking horseballs,” she muttered, groaning as she found her footing.

She remembered, though.  She knew what they were up against.  This thing, this godling monster, it was going to orchestrate a conflict that spread across an entire world.  When it had gathered whatever it was it wanted to, the results of tests, studies and whatever else, it would consume this world, her own, and everything else to spawn the next generation of its kind.

If she had any conception of where to look-

The answer was given to her.  A thirty-nine step plan.

She felt a chill.

If I wanted to kill the monsters and save everyone from this madness?

Three hundred and seventy-four steps.

She could see each individual step, looking forward to see what it entailed.  She could see it evolve as time passed, accounting for her starting it later.

If I wanted to do both?

Five hundred and thirty-three steps.

Forta,” her uncle spoke.  “You’re awake.

She spun around.

He kept his distance.  “A madness possessed you.  Has it passed?

Had it passed?

Five hundred and fifty-four steps.  Why more than before?

She couldn’t bring herself to respond.

You moved like someone else was inside you.  Escaped Ruggero and me like we weren’t even there.

“I remember,” she said.  She remembered so much.  She understood it all, and she couldn’t explain it-

Ninety-two steps.

She could explain it.  Could she explain it and save everyone?  Explain it and find the strange god-beast, and save her hometown from this chaos?

It was possible.  It would require two thousand, one hundred and seventy-four different actions.  Statements, movements, decisions at precise times.

But she hesitated to carry it out.

There was another question she had to ask.  Like the fable of Luisa and the black-furred man, she had to ask very carefully.

Could she do all this, explain to her uncle, find the thing that was at the heart of this chaos, and save her people, and handle the other essential crises she run into on her way?

No.

A fog was creeping over her eyes, and the number of steps were growing too numerous at the same time.  Two differing things, denying her.

The chill and the general sense of unease crystallized with the realization that she’d have to choose between stopping this monster and helping the people she’d grown up with.

Fortuna, you look as though you’ve seen a ghost,” her uncle said.

I might have, she thought, without taking her eyes off him.

She shivered, but she steeled herself, picking the path she wanted to take.  It was the haze of fog that scared her most.  If she chose to do something else, and she lost sight of the path where she could kill the godling…

Her uncle stiffened as she approached, but she laid a hand on his arm.  She tugged on his sleeve to get him to bend down, then kissed his cheek.

Saving him?

The answer appeared in her mind.  “Go, uncle.  Run as far away as you can.  Don’t eat or drink anything for three days.  It’s all tainted.  Poisoned with the same thing that is making people into monsters.

His eyes widened.  “You will come with me.

She shook her head.

Then she broke into a run.

She could outrun him.  She knew.  He had a bad leg, and it was worse since he’d had to fight off Ruggero.

Into the hills, up the mountain.

Her body ached, but it was easy.  She knew how to move, how to place her feet so the branches didn’t catch on her or trip her, to avoid the patches of lichen which would break away and make her foot slide on the rock beneath.

She knew the most efficient way to climb the rock wall.

She paused to catch her breath, doing her best to ignore the horned man’s corpse at the foot of the wall.  He’d tried to escape this way too, but he’d been pulled down or shot when he was partway up.

Had he been one of them?

Something went wrong.  The monstrous godling had a plan, a vision of the future it wanted, and this isn’t part of that.

It had crashed to earth, and something had broken free.  Here and there, phantom images had appeared, brushing past people, and they changed.  Others changed without touching any of the massive, ghostly gray hands that had appeared from thin air.  She knew, because of this conviction in her head, that it was the food and water.  It was tainting the landscape.

All coming from higher up the cliffside.

She found her breath, then scaled her way up.

The landscape she was as she reached the top wasn’t a familiar one.

A different sky, showing a different time of day.  But the space in between was something else entirely.  She had only to look and she knew what it was she looked at.  The entity.  The evil godling.

I have to kill it.

The plan formed in her mind.  The haze of fog still hung over her mind’s eye, and it grew worse with every moment.

Her hand moved to the little knife at her belt.  She wore it there for when she helped her mother with the cooking and gardening.  Worked metal was expensive, and the knife was a personal treasure.  Two inches long, curved.  She used it for cutting stems and trimming fat.

She would use it here.  She started walking forward.

There were people gathered, bystanders.  An assorted mix.

Why are they here?

No, was there a way to find out, using this sight she had?

I want to understand why they’re here.

They’d come from different worlds.  There were gates or doorways here and there.  When the entity had fallen, it had left gaps.

They bellowed words in a language she couldn’t make out.  Warnings.  They were too far away to stop her.

A woman stepped in her way.

Strangely dressed, wearing a dress so short it might well be indecent, showing the calves, and a fair amount of the upper chest.  Her skin was the strangest black color, her hair bound in thin, glossy braids.

One of the monsters?  No.  She knew right away it was a stranger from a distant land.  A land much like the one she had glimpsed in her fever dream.

The woman said something in a strange language.

Fortuna strode forwards anyways.  Her special knowledge let her push her way past almost effortlessly, choosing the right spot, the right amount of strength.  The godling was in a chasm, a crater caused by the impact.  It stretched out in every direction, a pool of flesh, and it reached into several worlds at once.

It was disorienting to look at.

Step twenty-nine, making her way down into the crater.

She stepped onto loose grit, and her weight did the rest.  She coasted down, much like the boys riding down the mud-slick path they’d made in the hill, down into the pond, except she remained on two feet.  It was a task only the oldest and most athletic boys could manage.

It was more dangerous here than it was on the hill.  There were rocks that jutted out, and outcroppings of deeper roots and plant life that had rained down into the crater in the aftermath of the impact.  It was more dangerous, but not harder.  This, like scaling the cliff face, was easy.

Everything was easy now.  It was disorienting.

The woman with black skin followed, moving slower.  She used her hands and feet to control her descent, sliding from rock to rock, stopping before sliding down further.  The black-skinned woman was a quarter of the way down before Fortuna was at the bottom.

It didn’t matter.  Fortuna advanced into the living forest alone.  Everything here was alive, hands moving, webs of skin stretching and folding.  There was a cacophony of noises that made her think of a chorus of heartbeats, a choir of soft breaths and whispers.  Gentle human noises that were all the more eerie because she could see right through the deception.  She was well aware that what she saw here was the godling putting together a mask so it could lie to people, setting  them against each other.

She advanced into the heart of the gray forest.  She was terrified, but the feeling was disconnected from her actions.  She only had to recognize the next step in the series.  She was aware of the steps that followed…

Until she came face to face with the godling.  Her knife was in hand, and she could see a figure before her.  A human shape, in the midst of pulling itself together from the examples and experiments that surrounded them.

She set foot on one of those experiments, a raised hand, and used it until she was eye to eye with the being, a matter of feet away.

It swelled, lurching forth, creating few inches more of waist, another inch of one arm, two inches of another arm.  Beyond the ending points, the arms and legs simply extended into nothingness.  Parts of a tapestry she couldn’t make out.  It moved again, and closed the distance between them.

The being raised its head.  She could see its eyes open in recognition.

It’s teaching itself how to act like we actEven this.

She raised her arm, knife held with the point down.

And the gray fog descended on her mind, blinding her.  A barrier, a blind spot, a future she could no longer see.  Had it set the limitation more firmly in place?

The godling smiled.  It knew, because the power she was using was the same power it had used to glimpse the future, to find that particular future where it had the world divided, drowned in conflict.

As far as the godling was concerned, she was blind, as helpless as anyone else.

A voice, from behind her.

The black-skinned woman, shouting something in a foreign language.

I want to understand her.

One step.

She had only to think, ‘Stab it.

Fortuna realized she still held the knife aloft.

But where had she wanted to stab it?

Indecision gripped her.  For an hour now, she’d been absolutely certain of what she was doing, and now she faced the absolute opposite situation.

Her hand shook.  She nearly dropped the little trimming knife.

She nearly fell as the hand beneath her moved.  Her power failed her here, too.  Because the hand was an extension of the being before her.

It was going to kill her, and then it was going to reclaim the ability to see the future.  It would use that power to control the world, then to destroy it.

And she couldn’t bring herself to move an inch.

I want to tell her…

The words were alien to her as she spoke them.  “I- I can’t.”

A hand wrapped around her shoulders.  She felt a body press against her back, supporting her.

“I- I have seen visions.  Things I was not meant to see, things this… godling wanted to keep to itself.  I… have to stop it.”

But even as the words left her mouth, she couldn’t bring herself to move.

The woman leaned forward over Fortuna’s shoulder, her face in Fortuna’s peripheral vision.  She said something.

“I believe you.”

The woman spoke in her ear once more, her voice insistent.  She translated, asking for a way to understand the answers.

“It’s dangerous?”

Fortuna nodded.

“Are you sure?”

“I- I would stake everything on it.  Everything ever.”

Though she didn’t even know the words she was speaking, there was a conviction in her tone that seemed to reach the woman.

“Where were you going to stab it?”

Where?  The image had fled her mind, erased from her memory.

“Where?”

The being moved again, and they stepped back, nearly falling.  Fortuna managed to keep them both steady.  Easier if she looked at it as ‘I don’t want to fall’ instead of ‘don’t let this thing make us fall.’  So long as she divorced her thoughts from the being, she still had this strange certainty.

It lurched, creating more of itself.  Legs, a sexless groin, more of the arms.  Hair flowed free, overlong.

It bent over, head hanging, arms suspended to either side.

She saw the nape of the neck as hair slowly slid free, silky and straight.

Still unable to bring herself to move, she found her left arm extending, palm down, until the longest finger pointed at the spot in question.

The woman behind her took hold of the fist that held the knife.  She stepped forward, driving the knife down, as if she were an extension of Fortuna.

Plunging into the spot where the spine met the skull.

They fell from the hand, dangled for a moment by their grip on the knife.  It cut free, and they dropped to the ground.

Fortuna let one leg fold, pushing at the ground with the other.  She rolled, breaking the fall.  The woman fell a little harder.

The entity moved, and everything around them stirred.  A thousand hands, a thousand arms, not all attached to the hands, legs, feet, ears, eyes, faces without features, expanses of skin, they twitched and writhed.

The noise around them faded, the heartbeats going still, the breathing quieting.  The movements all around them stopped.

There was only the thing, hanging in mid-air, struggling to form itself and failing.  It breathed in rapid huffs, in obvious pain.

It wasn’t dead, but it wasn’t alive.  A connection had been severed in a moment where the godling was most vulnerable.

The woman spoke.

“Again?  The heart?”

But Fortuna was sure this was it.  They’d carried out the last step.

“Can you explain this?  Do you know something?”

Fortuna nodded.

“Please,the woman said.  Though she begged,   “My life just turned upside down.  I’ve been lost here for three days.”

Fortuna looked back the way she’d come.

Home was gone.  Tainted.  She could find her uncle, but…

“I need food,” Fortuna said.  “I have no home to go to, so I need shelter.”

“I-“

“I will take you back to your home.”

The woman nodded.  “Yes, of course.  And you’ll explain?”

“Yes.  But there’s one more thing.  I need help.”

“Help?”

“There is one more of these things somewhere out there.”

Yet she could reach out with her power to try to look for it, and all she could see was the fog.

Fortuna did up the clasps on the dress shoes she wore as the woman entered her apartment.

The woman gave the girl a once-over.  “You know how to do up a tie?  Wait.  Dumb question.”

“A little dumb,” Fortuna replied.

“You’re getting a sense of humor.  I’ve done like you asked.  I bought the land with the doorway, using the money you got.  Are you sure you want to keep it a secret?  People could study that thing.”

Fortuna shook her head.  This was a harder question to answer, but she could construct a kind of mental picture, then test her questions.  What would happen?  What were the most likely scenarios?

Panic.  Fear.

Could they figure anything of value out by studying the half-alive thing?  She couldn’t be sure.

But the emotional effect would be all the more pronounced.

“Well, the area is secured, people have found their way home, or at least, to other worlds they can call home.  There was only one doorway people might find easily, and I blocked it off.”

“Thank you,” Fortuna said.

“What’s the next step?”

A heavy question.

How do we stop them?

The fog blocked out her view of any answer.

Can we stop something as powerful as the beings in my fever dream?  How can we stop the Warrior?

Still too close to home.

The indecision gripped her again.  When she wasn’t acting in the scope of her power, it was all the more difficult to act.

Fortuna frowned.  She couldn’t be paralyzed like this.  “How- how would we stop any powerful monster?”

“Weapons?  An army?” the woman suggested.

One hundred and forty-three thousand, two hundred and twenty steps.

It was doable.

“We need some lab equipment,” Fortuna said.

Then she turned her attention to the next step, and it dawned on her just how they would be amassing this army.  She thought of the monsters that had torn her parents apart, the infection that had ravaged her community and home.  Stray bits of the godling had done that to them.  It had killed people, turned others into monsters, drove yet others mad.

But it had given abilities to her.  It would give abilities to others.

The man, Lamar, reached like a child clutching for candy.  The Doctor pulled her hand away.  “There’s no guarantee this will work.”

Fortuna remained silent.  Her halting way of speaking, asking her power for the words or the translation, still made for a barrier in communication.  It unsettled people, apparently.

“If what that girl was showing off wasn’t some fantastic magic trick, if this does what you’re saying it will, I’m willing to take the chance.”

Fortuna exchanged a glance with the ‘Doctor’.  She could see the stress in the Doctor’s expression.  The woman had taken on a moniker, to give just a little protection to her real identity.  Easier to have an adult handling the negotiating and person-to-person interaction.  Fortuna was young, and people wouldn’t be so inclined to drink a strange substance offered by a child.

She offered the Doctor a little nod, a go-ahead.

“Go ahead, then,” the Doctor said.  She handed over the vial.

Lamar drank.

The changes ripped through him.  Lines marked the areas where bones were closest to skin, and then split into craggy outcroppings, thick with scales the length and width of human hands.  Lamar screamed, and the sound soon became guttural.

More scales sprouted, until the man looked more like a bush than a person.  The scaly growth continued at one knee, spiraling around the knee over and over again, growing ever-lumpier.

The leg fell off.  Blood began to pour forth.

Fortuna started to step forward to help, but her power told her it was too late.

Couldn’t see the outcomes, couldn’t counteract the outcomes.

Lamar was left panting for breath.  the wound at his ruined arms and legs closed up.  Holes had opened up throughout his midsection, exposing scale-covered internal organs.

He was trying to scream, but he couldn’t draw in enough breath.

His chest cavity is filled with the scales.

The Doctor stared, silent.  Fortuna had stepped away from the wall, but remained where she was, rooted to the spot.

He wasn’t dying.

Fortuna stepped forward.  Hand shaking, she drew a knife from her pocket.  Not her knife, but a knife of similar length, straight.

She ended Lamar’s pain.

“Our first patient is a fatality,” the Doctor said.  “Is it worth it?”

Fortuna couldn’t answer.

“Let’s wait, then.  Try to figure out where we went wrong.”

She still couldn’t bring herself to answer.

“Fortuna?”

“Don’t.  Don’t… call me by the name my parents gave me.”

The Doctor took a moment to reply.  “Another name?”

Contessa nodded.

It’s a sight unlike any we’ve ever seen.  A man made of gold, floating above the ocean.  Sightings continue to be reported around the world as he travels.  Who is he, and why is he here?  Some speculate he is Jes-

Contessa muted the television.

The pair stared at the screen, watching the silent images.

“Is it?”  the Doctor asked.

Contessa nodded.

“Do we try again?”

“I- don’t know,” Contessa said.

“If we explain to someone important, the army…”

“Disaster.  They react with fear, and he’ll probably respond to the fear.  He’s… hostile, I’m certain.  He only needs an excuse,” Contessa said.  “They can’t beat him, because he designed himself to be unbeatable.”

“You’re the one with the ability to see the future,” the Doctor said, her voice gentle.  “What do we do?”

“I don’t know!”  Contessa said.  “I- when it comes to him, I’m just a child.  I’m useless, blind.  I’ve only got some glimpses of him to work with.  I know how important it is, but, I feel paralyzed, I feel, feel-“

“Okay,” the Doctor said.  “Okay.  What if I made the decisions from here on out?  You tell me if I’m going down the wrong path, give me direction where it’s needed.

“You can’t.”

“I can.  I’ve been thinking about it.  What is the key thing about the one we killed?”

“It’s… broken.  Something went wrong.  It focused too much on the future, and lost sight of the present, it fell and the part that was supposed to guide it ended up inside me instead.”

The Doctor pointed at the TV screen.  “This golden man, he’s more or less on track.  He didn’t break, he didn’t go wrong.”

“Except… there’s a lot of power there, and he’s going to find out what we did, or he’s going to start acting more like the conqueror he’s meant to be, and he’s going to use that power at some point.”

Why?” the Doctor asked.

“I felt the hostility.  I felt how the one we killed, in the vision it had of the future, it almost enjoyed doing what it was doing.  If the golden one is similar at all, then all it takes is an accident.”

The Doctor nodded.  “See?  You’re doing okay.”

“Easier when someone else takes point.”

“So our solution… it’s going to take one of two forms.  Either we break him, somehow, or we find something we can use in the broken parts of the one we killed.”

“Feeding it to people.”

The Doctor nodded.  “I’m inclined to go with the latter.”

Contessa nodded.  “So am I.  If we interact with him, and he figures out what we’re doing, it all goes wrong.”

“Then we need to start testing this.  Figure it out.  Is it luck?  Or is there a way to get consistent results?”

Contessa nodded.

“I’m actually not that much of a scientist,” the Doctor said.  “But I do know that if we want to get a sample size worth talking about, we need to test a lot.”

“Which means we start by preparing more vials.”

Ten vials, to start.  Five hours to prepare each vial.  To saw off the body part, to find a way to break it down, then to package it.  Each vial correlated with a specific map coordinate and they took photos to record every step of the way, to ensure no clue was missed.

Then they’d found ten patients, who had downed vials in separate rooms.  People who’d been terminally ill.

Six made it out.

Contessa watched them, saw the beaming smiles on five faces.

The Doctor kept her back straight as they approached.  “Satisfactory?”

A blond man offered a little half-laugh as a response.  He was looking down at his hands in amazement.

“As the contract stipulates, this is free, which won’t always be the case, but we’ll need forty hours of testing with each of the abilities any of you have received.  In addition, we would like your assistance for a period of time totaling five hundred hours of active duty or five years, whichever term reaches its limit first.”

“Does anyone else feel amazing?” the blond man asked.

“I was afraid to ask,” a young girl said.  “Yeah.”

“Amazing?” the Doctor asked.

“Hey,” the blond guy said, “I spent my entire life with this heart problem, you know?  Heart going a little too fast, reedy, thin heartbeat.  Reminding me it could pop at any moment.  Organs are garbage, diabetes at twenty-two, liver problems turn me yellow if I’m not careful, throwing up bile every morning and every night.  Every moment of every day, there’s something making me miserable.  Except, right now, I’m sort of feeling every part of my body, and the heart’s good, no headache, nothing in my throat, nothing in my gut.  No tremor in my hand…”

“You’re better,” the Doctor said.

“I’m better.  And my brain is, I don’t even know.  I’m picturing stuff really vividly.  Really vividly.”

“I feel better too,” another man said.

“I’m not sure I do,” A woman chimed in.  “Sorry.”

A man who can invent, a girl who can teleport…  she could go down the list and figure each of them out, by posing it as a challenge to her power.  Only one was a little harder to figure out, coming with a fog around him.

She left the group behind.

One by one, she checked on the other patients.

Dead.

A monster, furious with rage, slamming her hands on the door.

Another monster, crumpled into a ball in the corner, murmuring something to himself.

And the last… a boy, staring off into the distance.

She asked her power, and she got her answer.

He could make doors.

He could also close the other doors, the gaps left around the other entity.  It would minimize the chance that the golden man could find them.

“I can’t… too much to look at,” he said.  “So many worlds at once.”

“I know.  We’re going to do what we can, okay?”

“I’m… I’m pretty scared.”  There was a tremor in his voice.

“I know,” she said.  “I need to look after a few things, but I’ll be back.  We’ll figure this out, alright?”

He nodded.

She closed the door.  She paused, standing beside it.

It’s a step forward, she told herself.

A step forward, in a long series of steps.

She rejoined the others.

The Doctor was touching a block of stone that had risen from the floor.  “-a complex, for our labs and research.”

“Most definitely,” a woman answered her.  “If you can do this for more people, I’d forget about the limit on how long I have to work.”

The Doctor allowed herself a smile.  Her eyes met Contessa’s.

One step forward.

“You’re heroes, as far as I’m concerned,” the blond man said.

Monsters!” the word was howled, reverberating through the building.

Fog approached.  A wall of it, moving down the corridor.  She could see normally, but the effect on her powers was absolute.  It was impossible to make out any steps that moved within the fog.

She turned and bolted.  Not a run, but an efficient jog, preserving stamina while still keeping ahead.  She could see from the way the wall extended forward that it was being carried or it was emanating from a person.

There was another power at work, somewhere here.

“Custodian,” she said.

She felt the Custodian’s presence.

“Alert the Doctor.”

A brush against her left hand.  Negation?

“Is the Doctor dead?”

Negation.

“Hurt?”

Negation.

I want to find out how the Doctor is.

There was only fog.  She was blind, which meant the Doctor was somewhere beyond that wall.

I want to find where Number Man is.

He was on the east end of the facility, with the Harbingers.

I want to stay out of this fog.

The path appeared before her.  She fell in step with it, moving in perfect sync with the individual movements in the sequence.

Until a figure appeared behind her  A man with yellow skin, with bruising in the areas where his skin stretched or folded, giving him an artificially gaunt appearance.

A teleporter.

Path: taking him out of action.

Fog.

Path:  hitting that target.

Three steps.

She drew her knife, spun, and threw it.

He teleported away before it made contact.

She could hear his voice echoing through hallways as he hollered.  “She’s heeeeeeere!”

It was all going wrong.  Eidolon had been their trump card, but he wasn’t supposed to be the only one.  None of the others had worked out.  Now Eidolon was dead.

The deviants they’d planned to use against Scion, a way of breaking up the metaphorical scent trail, were now attacking the complex.  The entity was winning every engagement.

He was getting more ruthless, more cruel.

They had five major tools left to deploy.  Three armies, two of which were roughly the same size as any of the defending forces, Khonsu, who was a stalling measure, and a hail mary in the form of the three vials with the special element inside.

She could hear footsteps behind her, running.  They were heavy.

Escape route, she thought.  Get back to Number Man.

No option was clear.  Every possible escape through the complex was blocked by that damnable gray fog.

She could move down a floor, run through the fog, but she’d be blind.

Call the Number Man, keeping myself alive with an escape route afterwards, she didn’t even form the phrase as a complete thought.  It was an idea, formed in a fraction of a second.

The path appeared before her.

She changed direction.  The heavy footsteps followed.

Weld.  The leader of the Irregulars.  He didn’t tire, and however heavy he was, he had some power to his movements.

She ducked into an office.

The phone still had a cord.  The offices here were one of the first they’d set up.  She picked up the phone and pressed two keys to contact the Number Man directly.

Yes?

“Facility under attack,” she said.  “Doctor somewhere in the east section, possibly injured, captured or dead.  I’m in the east section as well.  Not far from your office.”

Weld appeared in the doorway, catching the frame with one hand.  The momentum splintered the wood.

She’s downstairs, using one of Teacher’s subordinates with Doormaker and Two-six.

“I see.  You’ll need to get to her.  They-”

Weld attacked, slashing out with his other hand, a long blade.

She ducked.  “-have a perception blocker, beware.”

Weld struck again.  She stepped back.  She saw the paths available, and kicked the chair so it slid into him, binding with his skin.  He stepped forward and she put one foot against the chair, causing wheels to skid, and Weld to fall to the floor.

Good to know.  Are you alright?

“Cornered.  They’ve got a thinker, I think, they planned this ahead of time, knowing I wouldn’t pick up on their presence.”

Weld drew his feet back and kicked the desk.  Not to hit her, but to put it between her and the door.  Contessa caught the phone-rest before it could clatter to the ground.

Thinking ahead, barring my way.  The fog wall was steadily approaching.

I’m going.  Tips?

She thought, modeling the situation.  The distance he had to travel…

“Best route would be to move further downstairs.  Intercept instead of going right to her.  They’ll reach her before you do, in any event.”

Noted.  You have an escape route?

“No.  Like I said, cornered.”

“Maybe you’re asking the wrong question.  My window.”

The Number Man’s window.  He had a doormaker portal to another world, constantly, for a view and for light, deep underground.

She dropped the phone, making a dash for Weld.

For his part, he put himself between her and the door, using his bulk and the desk to bar the way.  Buying time for the fog to approach.  Spikes extended from his body.  No doubt razor-sharp.

Cute.

“I just want to talk.  We’re here for answers.”

“Ask me after we defeat Scion,” she said.  She used her power, plotting a path.

Two steps.

“I don’t-”

She ran straight for him, her eyes falling on an air conditioning vent.

His sword-arm slashed out, piercing the floor and blocking the vent.

She changed direction, leaping.  One hand placed on his head, vaulting over his other shoulder, her legs together.  A space that was only just wide enough to pass a toaster through.  He tried to right himself, but his arm was bound to the grate, costing him a half-second.

Spikes scraped against her belt buckle and watch.

She found her footing just a half-foot in front of the fog wall, then dashed away.

Number Man’s office.

The teleporter appeared behind her.  She glanced behind her shoulder.  He had guns, and he was inside the fog.

Modeling scenario… not getting shot.

She ducked into a side hallway.

The teleporter was following.  Appearing at each intersection in time to open fire.

Getting closer, closer, moving faster than she did.  Weld was already catching up, too.  She wouldn’t be able to outrun them.

Moving faster than whoever or whatever was broadcasting the fog was.

A little further, and…

He teleported to a point beyond the fog wall.

One step, and she had both of his guns.

He was bulletproof, but one shot point-blank to the eyeball served to delay him.

She fired down the corridor, hitting doorknob four times in succession.

Path: faking my own death or escaping.

Gray fog.  Not happening.

Contessa kicked the door as she passed through.  She was inside Number Man’s office.

She shot his window.  It didn’t break.  But she could loosen the frame which held the bulletproof glass in place.

She was working on the next when the teleporter appeared.  He struck her, driving her through the one pane of glass that remained, through the portal.

She found herself on an alien landscape, tumbling down a hill.

He teleported to follow her.  He struck her again and again.

She tumbled.  She had a glimpse of others appearing.  Weld and two more parahumans hopping over the windowsill, holding on so they didn’t follow her down the steep cliff.  They weren’t shrouded in fog.

Whatever the reason, it was more variables to work with.

Path, she thought, again, faking my death.

She turned in the air as the teleporter delivered another hit.

She raised the gun, and she fired three times.

Two shots, missing.

A third, hitting one of the Irregulars in the chest, a lethal shot.

Whore!” one of the others shouted.  “Yellow, get the fuck away!

The yellow parahuman disappeared.  Contessa hit the hill.  She rolled, and in the doing, she managed to grab a stick.

Weld grabbed at the shouting deviant’s arm, but it was too late to convince him to stop.  He opened his mouth and a flood of magma cascaded down the hill, an impossible amount.

She rolled and came to a stop.  She pushed herself up off the ground with her hands, moving too slowly to get out of the way of the onrushing magma, or the plumes of smoke.

But the moment the smoke had risen high enough, she kicked a rock to get herself moving and threw the branch.  She moved until she couldn’t feel the oppressive heat.

The branch burned quickly, but it, coupled with the rock, made for a well positioned image of a head and a burning hand, when glimpsed through the smoke.

She kept moving until she was at the base of the hill, off to their right.

“-go down and check,” Weld was saying.

“She burned,” one of the others said.

“I’d like to check.”

“You want to check or you want to get Tater Tot to a healer?”

“I’m not sure a healer is going to help,” Weld said.

“Look.  Mantellum’s right here.  She had to have been in his range.  Let’s go.  Healer, then the Doctor.”

“…Right,” Weld said.  “Healer, then Doctor.”

The sounds of conversation faded.  Contessa consulted her power.  They were most definitely gone.

She remained where she was, tending to the wounds she’d received in the course of selling her ‘death’, waiting for them to get far enough away that she could make her way back indoors.

This ‘Mantellum’ had been close enough that he should have been able to block her power.  He hadn’t.

Because he’d been on the other side of the portal.  The power didn’t cross dimensional boundaries.

She’d been lucky.

Minutes passed before she found her feet.  She made her way up the hill.  Easily.  Always easily.

Until she reached the top, and found only the view in front of her.  No doorway.

Not so lucky.

It was almost an hour before the portal opened again.  She made her way into the facility.

Lights out.

She strode through the hallways, wary of the fog, but moving at as good a clip as she could.  Things were damaged, vandalized.

She asked herself questions as she went.

The Doctor was dead.

Doormaker was alive but he wasn’t here, meaning she was limited to any doors he’d left open.

Number Man was alive, but he wasn’t here.

The vials were all gone.  The ability to make more vials was gone.  At best, they’d be able to collect a few stray vials here and there, in evidence rooms and the like, but nothing beyond that.

The plans had failed.  Only Khonsu and the Indian capes were still active.  Capes brainwashed with a deathwish, working in coordination with an Endbringer who could move them to any location instantly, and who could theoretically block some of Scion’s attacks.

She made her way to the nearest portal, finding her way with her power.

And she came face to face with a large group of capes.  Protectorate capes, the ones too minor to help against Scion.

“You were reported dead,” a man in a horned viking-styled helmet and heavy armor said.

“Did anyone really believe it?”

“No, I suppose they didn’t.”

“How do things stand?”

“Standing may be too optimistic a word,” the man in the horned helmet said.

A cape in wizard attire spoke up, “The Doctor is dead, I believe?”

Contessa nodded.  Odd, that she couldn’t bring herself to feel badly about it.  Was it because she’d spent so long trying to achieve something and she’d failed, or was it because she’d lost respect for the Doctor like she’d lost respect for herself?

If she were an outside party, she was forced to admit, any outside party, she wasn’t convinced she would be able to be upset over her own death.

“We need your help,” the wizard said.

She nodded.  “Whatever I can provide.”

“First, we need information.”

“Yes.”

“Were there any other plans Cauldron had in the works?” he asked.

“Nothing substantial.  I can show you the tertiary plans.”

“Please do.  Did Cauldron have plans for if humanity failed?”

“Of course.”

“We’ll need to see those as well.”

She hesitated.

“A problem?” the wizard asked.

Path: identifying strangers and deception.

Her eye moved to the man in the horned helmet, then, after a pause, to the wizard.

“I’m not entirely sure.  Teacher, is it?”

The wizard nodded.  “The Protectorate is just on the other side of the portal, collecting Satyr’s teammates, Nix and Spur.  If you could be discreet, it would be appreciated.”

“Why?  What are you doing, Teacher?”

“What do you think I’m doing?” he asked.  He reached behind his back and withdrew a disc, roughly the size of a trash can lid.  He placed it on the ground, and then kicked it into an empty room off to the side.

“I could stop you,” she said.  There was a flash in the other room.

“Most definitely.  But will you?”

She hesitated.  She watched as a pair of young men in white stepped out of the room.

“Find an empty office,” Teacher said.  “If I’m not here, and another student of mine looks lost, tell them to do the same.  I assume there’s documentation?”

Contessa paused, then nodded.

“Something this big, it has to carry on somehow.  I’ll need a second in command.”

“Me?” she asked.  Her eye moved to the man in the horned helmet.

“He’s his own man.  A wild card.”

“I see,” she said.  More kids in white were streaming from the room.

“Trickster, stop.  You’re with me.  We might need help navigating some of the trickier areas, if the damage to this place is extensive enough.”

One boy stopped where he was, stopping beside Teacher, a dull and unfocused look in his eyes.

Teacher turned his attention to Contessa, “Whatever happens in the next few hours, we need to be there to pick up the pieces.  That was a factor in Cauldron’s plan, wasn’t it?”

“I don’t have much of a role,” Contessa said.  “I can’t do anything when Scion’s on the table.”

“To the contrary,” Teacher said.  “We very much need your help, or we might.”

She narrowed her eyes.  “With?”

“Saving us from ourselves,” he said.  “Case in point, we’ve got a crisis that involves one little lady I think you’re familiar with.”

He held up his phone.  A picture was displayed.

It took her a moment to recognize the person in the picture, and not because it was an unfamiliar face.

Weaver?” she asked.

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Venom 29.9

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Cuff,” I said.  I used my bugs to talk.  “Can you fix the platform?  Make sure the floor is sturdy enough to hold our weight?

“What are you thinking?” Golem asked.

“I’m thinking we go straight up, then exit onto whatever floor has the portal.”

“There are others inside,” Golem said.  “Sveta, Weld, Shadow Stalker… prisoners.”

They can wait,” I said.  “There’s a lot of danger there.  Sveta especially, if we turn a corner and run into her… We got Doormaker, we got the clairvoyant, we have Number Man, who I’m assuming is willing to cooperate?

“I will.”

We have video footage,” I said.  “Of the facility, of the garden, of Scion.  Stuff we can get to Tattletale.  The sooner we get back, the sooner we can get others up to date, and the better our chances of coming up with a plan before we run out of time.  We send PRT squads and capes who can’t help against Scion to recapture Garotte and handle the prisoners.

Golem nodded.  “Makes sense.”

He and Cuff joined Alexandria in fixing a platform out of the hand we’d hidden inside.

Much of Cauldron’s internal structure was gone.  We could see a cross-section above, where rooms had been sliced through.  The energy of Scion’s beam continued to eat through it, leaving a tracery of gold to cut through the gloom, all the way up to the hole at the top.  Maybe two-thirds remained, with the lab and everything essential gone.  A hollow husk, and this empty space, like a missile silo open to the world.

An overcast sky loomed directly above us, and a kind of breeze reached us, maybe a thousand feet underground.  It stirred flecks and fragments from the burned entity and the burned of the walls above into the air, a snowfall of pitch black flakes.

“I’m betting this isn’t so safe to inhale,” Imp said.  “Bits of alien, bits of… metal ash?”

“Closer to soot, I’d think,” Golem said, without turning away from the platform in progress.

“It’s essentially human flesh,” the Number Man said.  “Given the form the entity took and the research the Doctor did.”

“Oh, well then,” Imp said.  She took in a deep breath.  “That’s okay.”

“You joke?  Now?”  Lung asked.  He sounded irritated.

Especially now,” Imp said.  “We hit him hard enough it mattered, we made him hurt.  Be happy.”

Alexandria turned the platform around.  We each stepped inside.

She hauled us skyward.  Imp dropped down to her hands and knees.

She saw me looking, meeting me eye to eye.  Or lens to lens, anyways.  “You can fly.  Why are you in here?”

Limited fuel.  Does it matter?

“It’s more weight on this floor.  If it breaks off, we all fall to our deaths.”

“Don’t be a wuss,” Rachel said.

“I’m not.  Wussiness is being scared about something that isn’t scary.  I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have a thing about shoddy constructions and drops from… oh… seventy stories up?”

“The Siberian’s protecting the shell,” I said.  “Alexandria couldn’t break it if she tried.”

“It’s seventy-seven, by the by,” the Number Man said.  He was surrounded by his Harbingers, the wounded piled at his feet.  “We’ll be eighty-three floors up once we reach the top.”

“Here’s an idea,” Imp said.  “Let’s change the topic.  Like, say, it’s kind of nice to see you returning to form, boss.”

Form?”

“Creep factor a thousand.  You’re just standing there, and you shouldn’t be upright, with the way your weight is, but you are because of that flight pack, you’re not looking at anyone you talk to, not even opening your mouth.  And when you’re talking, you don’t pause for breath or anything and there’s no emotion in your voice.  I’d almost think you bit it, and your ghost lives on in the swarrrrmm.”  She waggled her fingers as she drew out the last word.

I’m alive,” I said.  I made myself raise my head.

“Right.  But you look dead, and that’s creepy, and that’s good, because creepy reminds me of old Skitter.  Old Skitter was cool.”

I shook my head a little.  Now that things were quieting down, my body was deciding to remind me of the pain in my arm.

I focused on my bugs.  Searching the area.  I didn’t have many, but two bugs floating a foot apart could fly at chest level and run into most people standing in a corridor.

A cluster of bugs died, wiped out by lashing tendrils.

Sveta made it.

There was a crackle, followed by a voice.  “…ear me?

“We’re here, Tattletale,” Golem said, raising a hand to his ear.

Kinda got a little spooked there.  Long time for radio silence.”

“Scion came,” Golem said.  “And we spent a bit at the bottom of the complex.  On our way back to you.”

And the reason Taylor isn’t talking to me?”

“Your teammates are okay,” he said.  “Weaver’s a little unsteady on her feet, using her bugs to talk.  The mic wouldn’t pick that up.”

“Gotcha.”

Download video,” I said.

“Can you download the video?”  Golem asked.

Nope.  I can watch in on the feed when I have a connection, or I can load the recording when I have the physical camera in my hand, but I can’t download.”

“And here I thought Dragon was a good tinker,” Imp said.

It’s a camera the size of a sugar cube,” Tattletale said.  “If you’re looking for the portal, you’re almost horizontal to it.”

I raised a hand for the benefit of the people without earbuds.  “That floor.

“Stop, Alexandria,” Number Man said.  “Down a little.”

We departed.  Rachel and the dogs hopped off at the same time, making the platform swing back a fraction, creating a two-inch gap.

I heard a yelp and turned back, but I couldn’t identify the source.

Sveta?  Another prisoner?

“Let’s move fast,” I said.

We headed down the hallway.  Alexandria had borrowed Cuff’s earbud and microphone and was communicating the basics to Tattletale.  Which was fine by me, because it let me focus on more important things, like ignoring the pain and the possibility of attack from any direction.  I could recognize the damage on the walls and furniture as we approached the portal.  I could smell the salt water and the heavy odor of rotting seaweed on the air.  A nostalgic smell, even if it wasn’t the exact same smell as home.

I saw Shadow Stalker, too, and in a way, I felt a different kind of nostalgia.  Of being a little vulnerable, not at a hundred percent, and suddenly having this person appear, catching me off guard.

You’re here,” I said.

“Nowhere else to go.  Covered your rear for a bit, but when all hell broke loose, I headed back up this way.”

Was she telling the truth?

“Satyr bit it,” she said.  “Others… I don’t know.”

Others don’t matter,” I said.  “Don’t say anything about Satyr for now.”

We made our way through the portal, entering the cave.  It was unbearably bright, and I was thankful for the Dragonfly’s presence, blocking the worst of the sunlight.

“And they’re back,” Nix said, from above us.  She was still held against the wall by Golem’s bindings

“Fantastic,” Spur answered.

Tell us where the heroes are.  No nonsense,” I said.  “Fake wall, fake rock, wherever.  Talk.

“Let’s hear what you’re offering in exchange,” Nix said.

No,” I responded.  I used my bugs to open the Dragonfly’s ramp.

“You don’t know that they’re safe,” Spur said.  He smiled a little.

If you want to know what happened to Satyr, explain,” I said.  “Waste any time, and we leave and send the PRT here to investigate.  You won’t get any answers.”

“Hard sell?” Spur asked.  “Satyr can handle himself.”

“Apparently not,” Imp said.  Someone elbowed her.

I was already turning to float up the ramp.

He’s only wasting my time.  Trying to buy a moment to figure out a tactic to approach this negotiation.

“I know we’re in a rush…” Golem started, as he hurried after me.  “But-”

I care about Revel too,” I said.  I raised my head to look at him.  “But I care about the world more.

I could see Golem’s eyes through the eyeholes in his helmet.  A frown.  “I’ll stay,” he said.  “In case anyone comes through, and so I can search for them.”

Good idea,” I said.  I thought about it.  “What Satyr was saying… Blowout might have done something to their heads.

“I remember Satyrical saying something along those lines.  Stunning presence.”

It’s not a power in the records, not something long-term like this.  But it fits.  There was a string of people found in Vegas with varying amounts of brain damage.  Some permanent,” I said.

I could see his eyes widen.  “He did?  We were interacting with them all that time, and you knew he could have done something like this to Revel?  We let them go?”

I’m telling you so you’re prepared,” I said.  “The reason we didn’t do anything, the reason you shouldn’t do anything, is because this isn’t a time for grudges, vendettas and revenge.  It only sets us back.

“Right,” he said.

“But I don’t need to say that,” I said.  “You’re not the type to cross the line in pursuit of revenge.”

“No,” he said, sighing.  “I’m not.”

I forced myself to raise my good left hand, and I settled it on his shoulder.  The movement, the minor exertion, it made my burned stump throb.

“Thank you.  For caring about Revel,” I spoke with my own voice, quiet, a little strained.  “Makes me feel less guilty about leaving.”

He nodded.

Cuff,” I said.  “Stay with Golem?  Two of you to watch two of them.

She nodded.

“Everyone else, on board,” I said.

They boarded.

With Dragon active, I didn’t need to get in the cockpit.  I could have ordered the A.I. to handle autopilot, with Dragon to keep an eye on things and manage the ship.

But I made my way to the chair anyways.  I eased myself down, then set everything into motion.  I put things on autopilot, and then I fiddled with the search keys until I’d found the video feeds.

A chance to sit, to catch my breath.  Couldn’t deal with people, and I wasn’t up to any exertion at all, even talking.  Talking meant navigating the politics of the group, of taking people into account.

I only wanted to distract myself from the pain of the burn, the rough, blackened wound where my arm should have been. I could push through it, but I was counting every second until I had some relief.

The feeds showed the three key outposts where the PRT had a presence.  The largest settlements that remained, the most obvious targets.  There was one in Zayin, but the Sleeper had followed the refugees in there.  Even if it still stood after Scion’s visit, there was no helping any of the refugees there.

The C.U.I. had seized one settlement for themselves.  A problem that needed dealing with, but our window of time for that sort of thing was past.  The battle was on.  Scion was pissed off.  We were his target, and this time he wasn’t letting up.

Three settlements, and Earth He was under attack.  Western Europe and Northern Africa, minus the English speakers.  The Guild, the Suits, the Meisters, more teams I struggled to place in the chaos.

Khonsu and Leviathan, and capes I recognized as the ones Cauldron had taken.  A whole army.

Dragonfly,” I spoke, using my swarm.  “Give the others a view of this.

No response.

“Dragonfly,” I said, using my real voice.  I hissed in a bit of breath between clenched teeth.  “Put this feed on the other monitors.”

The other monitors lit up.

A cape flung Leviathan.  Scion floated to one side to avoid the incoming Endbringer.  Leviathan, in response, extended the fins the Simurgh had given him, arresting his forward momentum, and then swam through his own afterimage as it crashed into him, changing direction in mid-air.

He crashed into Scion, his fins tearing through the golden man.  Golden mist billowed away as Leviathan found a grip on Scion and continued the assault.

Leviathan was blasted away, heaved into the ground with a force that made everyone present stumble.  Scion then retaliated, striking first the cape that had thrown Leviathan, then Leviathan himself.

The Endbringer was clipped, losing a fin on one hand, but he got his feet under him and ran, trailing all of the disintegration fins on and inside the rocky ground beneath him.  The mist billowed, Leviathan used it to mask himself from Scion’s view, changing direction the moment he was out of sight.

Scion hit him anyways.  Leviathan disappeared out of the camera’s view.

Scion didn’t let up.  His actions before had been slow, methodical.  Now there was nothing of the sort.  No pause, no break.  The moment he couldn’t follow up on Leviathan, he struck others.

Capes erected defenses, Dragon’s Teeth dodged and opened fire with laser pistols.  Some took shelter behind the pillar that Khonsu had erected.  Whatever defensive effect Khonsu had used to wall people inside served to block Scion’s attack.

Scion maintained the attack, picking off anyone who wasn’t behind a good enough defense.  Blasts, spheres, hundreds of narrow lasers, bigger lasers.

Several capes, it seemed, had the ability to transmit a power or a set of powers to others on an epidemic level.  I could see how it spread through the crowd, from one cape to the nearest unaffected cape.  Masses of individuals erecting forcefields, little circles no broader across than a large umbrella.

Alone, the shields were too weak.  Together, the shields were still too weak.  Scion’s golden lights ripped through the massed rank and file.

Two minutes, maybe three or four, Scion finally stopped.  All around him, capes were broken.  Any who had actually managed to get his attention by being strong enough or problematic enough had been obliterated.  The rest had been taken to pieces.  Wounded severely enough they were out of the fight, not so severely they would certainly die.  Limbs removed, flesh burned, body parts broken by the damage to nearby ground, eyes or whole faces ruined.

Dragon’s ships were broken, with a number starting to rebuild and regenerate.  The capes who remained were the ones who were behind defenses so secure they couldn’t also attack.

There was a pause in the assault.  Most of the defending capes had been annihilated.

The camera afforded a glimpse of Scion’s face, tinted an orange-red by the forcefield between Scion and the camera.  His eyebrows were drawn together, lips just a little tighter together.  Lines standing out in his throat.

He hadn’t changed his expression once in the time we’d known him.

He hit Khonsu’s group.  The blast hit the edge of Khonsu’s time effect.

Scion threw another, and it passed through.  The capes didn’t even have time to react.  the light detonated like an artillery shell on impact, tearing through the group.

Another soon appeared, to follow.  Khonsu teleported, taking the group with him.

A whole flight of Dragon’s craft were joining the fray, and reinforcements were arriving.  A share of the capes from Gimel.

Scion left.

And he promptly appeared on another screen.

Catching our side off guard, tearing into us with a fresh kind of violence, not experimentally, but out of some form of impotent rage.

“He’s angry, like Golem said,”  Imp observed.  “You could see it on his face.”

Yes.

“Yes,” Number Man replied.

“But he’s not demolishing the continent,” she said.  “We know he can.  So… how come?”

“It’s a good question,” the Number Man said.  “We can only guess.”

“I’m open to guesses,” Imp said.

“I prefer to deal with facts,” the Number Man said.  “Let’s leave the guessing to your Tattletale.”

The other battle was unfolding.  Much the same.

No, was he hitting harder, here?  A little less forgiving?

If this was his first time feeling true grief or true anger, then it could be his first time exploring coping mechanisms.

Venting through anger.  How long until he realized that this wasn’t enough and tried something more severe?

I closed my eyes.  I wanted to focus, to take in any and all information about Scion that I could, but my body wasn’t up to it.  If Panacea wasn’t available, then getting painkillers from the first aid kit onboard would only slow things down when I did get medical attention.  Besides, they wouldn’t be strong enough to help here.

Had to weather this.  Only a few minutes.

Deep breaths.

I could hear the Number Man with my bugs.  “Can’t remember.  Was it Bitch or Hellhound?”

“Bitch,” Rachel said.

“Bitch.  Colorful.  You know, it’s surprising the things you can survive, if you know the mechanics of movement, of physics and the structure of the human body… you hear about people surviving falls from seventeen thousand feet up in the air…”

“Are you threatening me?”

“No, no.  Not at all.”

“Then what are you yammering on about?”

“I share Imp’s fears, on a level.  We’re a good height above the water, and I can’t help but see a bit of our pilot’s reflection in the window.  She looks a little peaked.  Would you mind keeping an eye on her, making sure she doesn’t stop breathing?”

“I’m okay,” I said.  I grit my teeth.  “Four or so minutes and we’re there.”

“Very reassuring.  But maybe-”

“She’s fine,” Rachel said.

But I could hear the distinct sound of her footsteps and the claw-on-metal-flooring racket as she and her dogs approached.  She stood beside my chair, back to the window, and put one steel-toed boot up on my armrest.

“Not because of what he said,” Rachel said.  Her body faced me, but her head was turned to look out the window.  “Keeping you company.”

“Yeah,” I said.

It was appreciated.

The craft shuddered slightly as we set down on the roof of the restaurant that had been rendered a makeshift hospital.  I was stirred from a daze I hadn’t realized I was in.

My eyes roved over the screens, taking in one last glimpse as the ramp opened.

Things weren’t much different from before.  The defense took a different form, they had Bohu and Tohu with them, and they were reshaping defenses to buy the defenders a little slack.  But Dalet had taken heavy losses in an initial attack.

There were more people running for their lives than there were people fighting.

The fight’s almost over,” I said.

“I said this a moment ago,” Lung said, his voice deep, almost accusatory.

Without my asking, Rachel gave me a hand in standing, putting one hand under my left armpit and helping bring me to my feet.

I pushed onward, ignoring Lung.  “Okay.  He attacks this settlement next, probably.  Then we find out what his next move is.”

“Quite a few dead,” Alexandria said.

She was making a habit of surprising me when she spoke.  It tended to sound unlike the Alexandria I’d gotten to know in the interrogation room back at the Brockton Bay PRT headquarters.  Obviously because she was really Pretender, but that was a hard fact to keep in mind.  It was hard to shake my mental image of Alexandria sitting across the table from me.

“Yes,” I said.  We started making our way down the ramp.

The Number Man mused, “It’s very possible he’ll go back to Earth H, start the cycle anew.  Or he hits a world or two we’re not in touch with and then hits Earth H.”

“Or,” I said, “he realizes that this isn’t serving to vent his anger over what happened to his partner, and he steps up the aggression some.”

Gimel was entirely different.  Nilbog had been hard at work, creating a horde of minions.  Buildings had been reinforced, shored up with shelves of what looked to be obsidian.  Capes were gathered in bands, and all were at attention, ready for an attack at any moment.

The dead and the wounded, I noted, had been cleared away.

The Number Man opened the door leading to the stairwell and the back of the restaurant-turned field hospital.

“You’re back, Lung,” Panacea said.  “Ah.  You’ve got wounded with you.”

“Yes,” Lung said.

I could see Panacea’s entourage.  Marquis, Bonesaw, and Marquis’ followers, minus a few members.  A man so tidy he beat out the Number Man in neatness, one with arms black from fingertip to elbow and dyed blond hair teased into spikes.  A man so covered in chains and black tattered cloth I couldn’t make out his actual features.  They had sandwiches in hand, no doubt put together from supplies that had been shipped in.

“Any priorities?” she asked.

“Skitter,” Imp said, at the same time I said, “Doormaker.”

“Don’t be dumb,” Imp told me.

Panacea shrugged, “We can look after two at a time.  I can see what happened to Skitter.  What’s Doormaker’s wound?”

“Traumatic damage to the cranium,” Alexandria-Pretender said.  “He’s never been all there, mentally, but we need his brain in one piece.”

“The Cauldron capes are tougher,” Panacea said.  “Bonesaw?  Can you give it a shot?”

“Will do,” Bonesaw said.  She sounded tired.  None of the perkiness or endless cheer that had defined her as a villain.

Well, being a good guy was harder, really.

I used my flight pack to raise up, then laid flat on the countertop.

“Pain relief and essentials only, please,” I said.  “Then the others.  The Doormaker’s partner, then Gully and Canary.  I’ll go last.”

Panacea glanced over her shoulder, as if checking that was okay.

“Ignore her,” Imp said.  “She’s being dumb.”

“Most of the others can do more in a fight than I can.  They need everything in working order.  I can function without an arm.”

“Whatever,” Panacea said.  “Works for me, actually.”

Then she touched me, and the pain went away.  I relaxed so suddenly I felt like I’d suddenly become part liquid.  I’d been so tense my head wasn’t even touching the countertop, my legs and shoulders tense.

“Thank you,” I said.  “Thanks.”

“You have a high pain tolerance,” she said.

“One of Bakuda’s bombs, way back when,” I said.  “I think it messed with my head, as far as my perception of pain.  I found out what it’s really like to feel pain, real ten-out-of-ten pain.  A part of me knew it was too much to be true, and other stuff’s affected me more because I knew it was tied with something real.  Case in point, a burn is still a motherfucker.”

“Well, we’ll fix it,” she said.

I nodded.  I was happy to be able to nod.  I watched her face while she worked, because there wasn’t much else to look at.  A young woman now, not attractive but not unattractive, her face still covered from forehead to chin in freckles, frizzy brown hair tied back with bandanna to keep the hair out of her face.  Her shirt had the sleeves rolled up to the shoulders, and I could see blood and smears of black here and there.

I felt a pang of envy.

She’d been just as lost as me.  Maybe more lost, maybe not.  I’d had friends, but that didn’t necessarily mean I’d had a rudder.  But she’d found herself.  She’d found a path and she’d found something she could do.  She had a role in this.

I looked away.

My bugs were stirring throughout the area, as I gathered my forces and replenished my supply.  I could sense people outside.  Tattletale was among them, laptop tucked under one arm.  She reached the door and paused, glancing up at the sky.

For an instant, I thought it was because Scion was here.  He was due.

But she pulled the door open and walked inside.

Panacea looked up.  I could see her eyes narrow a bit.  “You weren’t invited, Tattletale.”

“Business,” Tattletale said, waltzing in anyways.  “Someone camera me.”

There was a clatter as Tattletale unceremoniously dropped the laptop down on a table.

Imp was the first to get the camera off her mask and throw it to Tattletale.  Tattletale set about extracting a chip.  “So.  Harbinger zero.”

The Number Man made a pained face.  “You couldn’t call me Harbinger Ten?  Or even Number Man?”

“I could.  I hope you’ve got some good, juicy tidbits for us to work with, H-zero.”

“Very little that’s concrete.  This is all very much guesswork.”

“Then let’s talk hypotheses,” she said.  “Educated guesses.”

“Scion’s upset,” I said.

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  “His buddy died, I gather?”

“Yeah,” Imp said.  “And we threw bits of his dead buddy at him to distract him before dropping a skyscraper on him.  But I dunno how much that did.”

“You accomplish your goal, in the middle of all that?” Tattletale asked.

“We found out second triggers aren’t a real possibility,” I said.  “Formulas either.  But if we want to do the second trigger thing, Contessa should be able to point the way.  It could mean extra firepower, or buying time.”

“She wasn’t there?” Tattletale asked.

“I assumed she was with Khonsu.”

“According to the attackers, she died,” the Number Man said.  “Mantellum’s power was the rock to her scissors.”

“You failed,” Shadow Stalker said.

I frowned.  She wasn’t entirely wrong.  “Our best bet was a special kind of Cauldron formula, and he nuked them.  Cauldron let Mantellum slip past their radar, so maybe there’s a chance there’s another Cauldron cape out there who got that special kind of formula, with a game-breaking power.  Something that isn’t in Scion’s model.”

“Unlikely,” the Number Man said.  “Mantellum slipped by us because he had a power that countered perception powers.  The sort of power we’d need against Scion would be an offensive one, and I doubt we’d let things slip so badly in vetting those powers.”

“You’re a real downer, you know that?”  Imp asked.

Panacea let go of my stump and walked over to where the Doormaker’s partner was lying.  I supposed the essential fixes were done.  I checked my stump, and found the burned skin was sloughing off.

“Don’t touch,” Panacea ordered, looking at me out of the corner of one eye.

I let my hand drop, then sat up.

“The biggest thing,” I said, “Was that Scion was wrong.  He can see the path to victory, and from the vision we saw, we know that he can make mistakes.  He plotted for a future that would be sure to reunite him and his partner… and he got his wish.  It was just that his partner was brain-dead, gutted, useless.”

“Sooo,” Imp said.  “We help him reach a future where he eradicates humanity, trick him, he waltzes away.”

“His goal isn’t to eradicate humanity,” Tattletale said.  “It’s to destroy most of it.  Remember?  Dinah never said he’d destroy all of us.”

“If you destroy ninety-nine point nine percent of humanity,” the Number Man said, “We’ll die out.”

“Probably,” Tattletale agreed.  “But he’s not going that far.  He’s leaving options open.  He’s got one singular purpose.  To continue his species’ life cycle.  To do that, he needs a partner.”

“Can we give him one?” I asked.

Tattletale smirked.  “Kind of hard to pull off.  A lot of bases to cover, and a lot of areas where we don’t have enough info.”

“But I’m asking if we can give him one.  Can we fake him out, give him what he wants and buy ourselves some breathing room?”

Marquis stepped away from the back of the kitchen.  He watched as Bonesaw dug through Doormaker’s skull cavity.  “It could upset him, more than he’s already been upset.  Speaking as someone who recently recovered the thing I want most in the world, the only thing scarier than the idea of losing that thing is the reality of what I’d do for revenge.”

“Upsetting him is good,” Imp said.  “Right?”

“Right,” I said.  “He can be affected emotionally.  Not by emotion-affecting powers, I don’t think, but he’s influenced by his feelings.  That’s good.  That’s something we can use.”

“You want to irritate the world-destroying alien god,” one of Marquis’ men said.

“I want to get him to a point where he might make a mistake,” I said.  My eyes moved to Shadow Stalker.  It’s how we captured her in the first place.  “It’s a starting point.”

“Starting points are only that,” Lung said.  “I can understand if you would start this with your enemy off-balance, then fight him knowing you can hurt him, but he cannot be truly hurt.”

“Tea, anyone?” Marquis asked, interjected.

Lung nodded.  I raised my good hand.  Panacea nodded as well.

“Green?” he asked me.  “The others drink green.”

“Black.  With milk.”

He turned his attention to the kettle.

I looked at Lung, taking a deep breath before speaking. “Not starting this isn’t an option.  If we wait until an idea comes up, then we’re going to be too late.  We start this, reckless as it may be, and we leave a door open.”

“For failure as well as success,” Marquis said, on the far end of the room, his attention on emptying the kettle into the individual mugs.

“What would you suggest, then?” I asked.  I might have come across a little hostile in the process.

“I would counter your question with a question,” Marquis said.  “Who do you see on the front lines?  Which heroes and villains are still fighting?  Which ones keep returning to the battlefield, before any of the others have even found their feet?”

I’d thought something like this to myself.  “The monsters, the ones that are a little crazy, the ones that are a lot crazy.”

“Not quite the answer I would have given,” Marquis said.

“Which answer would you have given?” I asked.

“I would say it’s the people who are most in touch with who they truly are,” Marquis said.

“Same thing,” I responded.  “We’re all fucked up, we’re all damaged, a little crazy, a little monstrous.”

He frowned a little.  “People here might take offense to that.  Myself included.”

“No offense intended.”

“There’s a strength in knowing who you are.  I would suggest that everyone play to that knowledge.  Reflection, after all, is the province of the old.  It’s in your final days that you sum up your experiences, weigh the good against the bad, think back to the pivotal moments, and decide if you’ve made your mark.  Others go through this sooner, the terminally ill.  Those that expect to die.”

“I don’t get it,” Rachel said.

“Are you happy with who you are?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“In a general sense, do you know what you’re doing in the next few hours and days?”

Rachel looked at me.  “Yeah.”

“Is there something in common between those two things?”

Bitch made a face, “Kind of?”

That’s what I’m talking about.”

“I don’t get it.”

There was a distant rumble.  A roar rose through the air, a series of shouts and warnings all coming in unison, mingling together into a singular noise.

He’s here.

It’s unending.  The same thing over and over again.  Destruction, an enemy we can’t truly beat, always just a little worse than the last time.

Rachel left, no question.  Imp lingered, but followed, sticking to Rachel like glue.  I saw Alexandria, Number Man and the Harbingers go, then Marquis and his followers, Lung excepted.

“Hey, Amelia,” Bonesaw said.  “Gift wrap this one for me?”

Panacea stepped away from the eyeless clairvoyant, touching Doormaker.  I watched as the bone at his forehead started to knit together, and was then covered with flesh.

He jolted a little, and then sat up.

“You were bleeding into your brainpan,” Bonesaw said.  “You’re going to feel crummy.”

He raised a hand, reaching out, floundering.

“Wait, did I fuck him up?” Bonesaw asked.

“No, he was screwed up before,” I said.  “He’s looking for his partner.”

Lung grabbed the Clairvoyant, then staggered a little.

It’s based on touch, I realized.

I used my bugs to draw a cord out.  They wrapped it around one finger and held it straight out to Doormaker.  Panacea grabbed it and tugged a little, leading the blind Clairvoyant to his partner.

They held hands.

There was a pause.

Then doors unfolded, throughout my range.

Most of the others had left.  Tattletale was focused on her laptop, participating in the battle in a sense, even if she was still here.

Bonesaw and Panacea, too.  They were cleaning the tables, moving things aside and getting organized, preparing for the battle to come.

The ones who hadn’t left yet were Shadow Stalker, Lung and I.

“Am I safe to go?” I asked.

At my question, as if I’d somehow prodded her, Shadow Stalker left.

“You can,” Panacea said.  “But let me thicken the skin, so your stump doesn’t pop like a water balloon.”

“Let’s,”  I said.

She touched my stump.

“I asked to be last for a reason,” I said.

She looked up, curious.

“You know, what your dad was saying?  I kind of wish he’d finished.  I feel like I was on the brink of coming to a conclusion.”

The sounds outside were getting worse.  Doormaker opened a portal beside us.  Safety?

It was something to do.  I helped the others lead the patients through.  Lung carried two of the wounded Irregulars.  We entered a cave with a very flat bottom, open to the elements.  A nice day, so different from the chaos and ugliness that was in New Brockton Bay.

“My dad and I have talked about this a good bit.  Why?”

“I dunno.  Finding our role, finding our place?  Lung and I are the only ones who haven’t left or started preparing for the fight.  Well, us and the wounded.  The others know where they’re at.  Even Imp, without any power that can really do something, is out there with Rachel, giving guidance.  But Lung and I?  We’re both pretty proud individuals, and we don’t have a role in this.  Like Lung said, he can’t attack Scion until this is over.”

Lung had brought the last few through.  All of us settled out of the way of the portal door, in case a beam came blasting through.  “I have a job.  I will protect these girls.”

“I think you know what I mean.  You’re pissed, on a level, because you’re not a part of all of this.  You’re better than this job you’ve been given.”

He folded his arms, but he didn’t disagree.

“There’s a psychiatric term for this,” Bonesaw said.  “Projection.”

“No.  Skitter is right,” Lung said, looking irritated.  “I am more than a bodyguard.”

Reinforcements were arriving at the outskirts of the settlement, using Doormaker’s doors.

“I feel like I’m on the brink of finding where I need to be,” I said.  “I sort of have the power to act, I sort of have a role.  I can communicate, I can scout, I’m versatile enough to combine my powers with others.  I can figure out ways to attack, I can brainstorm.  But something’s missing.  Like Lung says, I feel like I’m better than this.  What Marquis was saying struck a chord.”

“Think back to the time in your life when you were strongest,” Panacea said.

I did.

Not a time when I had the Dragonfly or the flight pack.  It was when I was fighting the Slaughterhouse Nine, Alexandria, Defiant and Dragon.

“Times when you were most scared,” she said.

The same times.

“I think those are the times when you’re most like you.  And it sucks, I know.  It’s horrible to think about it like that, because at least for me, it wasn’t a time when I liked myself.  Just the opposite.”

“But you came to terms with it.”

“I owned that part of me,” she said.  “And I can barely look Carol and Neil in the eyes, because of it.  But I’m secure in who I am, and I can do this.  Healing people, being a medic for the people fighting on our side.”

I nodded.

The image I’d seen on Glenn’s computer screen crossed my mind.  Me, unrecognizable even to myself, surrounded by the swarm.

I’m just a little bit of a monster, I thought.  I can’t put the blame on my passenger.

I exhaled slowly.  I could hear the Simurgh’s screaming.

“Will you help me?”  I asked.

“Help?”  Panacea asked.

“Imp reminded me of a moment.  Of something Bonesaw said, when she was carving into my head.  A threat.  That she was going to mess with Grue’s head, take away his ability to control his power.  She was going to do the same to me.”

“I think I know what you’re thinking,” Bonesaw said.  “Even if I did anything there, it’d probably fuck up your head.”

“I haven’t done anything in that department, but I’ve gotten enough glimpses to guess you wouldn’t come back from it,” Panacea said.  “No fixes, no patching it up.  It’d be like trying to plug a leak with water gushing out full force.”

“Second triggers are about knocking down walls,” I said.  My eyes fell on Bonesaw.  “Removing restrictions the entity put in place.  If this part of the brain is a part that the entity shaped to help regulate powers on our end, then I need you to de-regulate.”

“If it was that easy, I would’ve done it for all the other members of the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“I’m not thinking it’s easy,” I said, my voice quiet.

Some capes came through.  They brought two wounded through the portal, laying them out on the flat rock floor beside us.  Panacea and Bonesaw bent down, getting to work.

“Give me a minute and I’ll try,” Bonesaw said.  She was patching up a cape that had been disemboweled.  She looked over her shoulder at Tattletale, who had set up in a far corner.  “But I gotta say, I’m giving you a ninety-nine percent chance of coming out of this with regrets.  Maybe you should run it by Tattletale, there?”

I looked back at Tattletale.

“You’re going to lose your mind.  Maybe a little, maybe a lot.  Maybe all at once, maybe in pieces.  Depends on how it all reconnects in the end,” Bonesaw said.

“Tattletale would stop me,” I said.  “She’d…”

See it as something self-destructive, suicidal.

I shook my head a little.  “…No.  Keep her in the dark, for the time being.  Let her focus on what she’s doing.”

“Okay,” Bonesaw said.  “She’s going to figure it out pretty fast, though.”

I saw Panacea fidget.  She was kneeling by Canary.

“Riley,” Panacea said.

Bonesaw looked at her… whatever Panacea was to her.

“I’ll handle it.”

“You don’t do brains.”

“I’m inexperienced, yeah,” Panacea said.  “But even inexperienced, I think I can do a cleaner job than you.  And Tattletale’s less likely to catch on if you aren’t sawing Taylor’s skull open.”

“I wasn’t talking about experience,” Bonesaw replied.

Panacea stared down at her hands, covered in tattoos, with a rich, vibrant red in the gaps.

“This isn’t a solution,” she said, without looking up.  “You said a second trigger wouldn’t work.  This is… it’s so crude you couldn’t even call it a hack job.”

The Simurgh’s screaming continued.

Dinah had left me two notes.

The Simurgh had reminded me of the second.

‘I’m sorry.’

It wasn’t an apology for the consequences of the first note.  No, Dinah hadn’t approached me since.  She hadn’t decided I’d fulfilled the terms and deemed it okay to finally contact me again.

Two words, telling me that something ugly was going to happen.  Directed at me.

There was a chance that it meant I’d lose someone, or I’d lose something precious.  Maybe it referred to my friends.  Maybe it referred to my mission, my direction.  My dad, perhaps, which might have already happened.

But there was a possibility that it referred to me.  That it was tied to our ability to come out ahead at the end of all this.  To some slim chance.

Maybe there was a sacrifice involved.

I shook my head, unable to articulate any of the arguments, to come up with something profound to say.  I only said, “Do it.”

Panacea laid her hand across my forehead.

And it all went wrong.

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Venom 29.8

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The stairwell was buried under chunks of concrete and steel large and heavy enough to flatten trucks, but the ceiling was high, and the gap in it gave me a view of the chamber beyond, lit by the red emergency lights.  My view of Scion was obstructed by the rubble on the stairs, but I saw the golden glow that he cast off.

He was so small, so far away.

The partner, so massive.

The room looked like an aircraft hangar.  My bugs reached out, and I could only sense the three walls closest to me.  Vast.

The partner filled the space, beautiful in a way I struggled to put words to.  It was like a volcano mid-eruption, stone mingled with the orange-red magma, spray or smoke reaching incredible heights… it was breathtaking in the sheer elemental nature of it, fascinating, beautiful, and so incomprehensible I couldn’t have understood it with decades of study.

But where the volcano was driven by seismic movements, I was pretty sure, and the storm by wind, this was driven by something else.  Just as basic, on a level.

An idea, half-formed, captured in a moment.

It conjured up images an artist’s sketchpad, putting body parts on the page, trying variations.  There, in the sliver of the chamber I could make out, there was flesh, a soft gray, lit by the red emergency lighting.  It might have been menacing, but the lines had a softness to them, and every part was positioned in an almost gentle manner.  The individual parts were androgynous, as a rule, but they veered into the slightly masculine, the slightly feminine, even alien, territories.

Always, there was something to take the threat out of it.  One long-fingered hand, upturned, pinky and ring fingers curled slightly, as if reaching down to offer aid.  Another hand, more childish, the underside and palm white, before fading into the gray colors the other parts shared, vulnerable like a dog with its throat or belly exposed.  Another still, with water running down it, streams of the liquid running between and down fingers, more a piece of art than a limb intended for use.  There were countless more I couldn’t see, couldn’t spare the bugs to study them.

I could look at any one piece, and I could see the beauty in it.  Any number of these could have been blended together, mixed and matched to create a human being.  Not overtly male or female, but no doubt kind in appearance.

Then, at the same time, there was the bigger picture, only a glimpse of it in the far end of the staircase, through the part of the ceiling that had collapsed in that massive room… this jungle of flesh, like parts of a doll waiting to be assembled.  Artificial, everything in the wrong scale.  There was a pattern to it, like there was a pattern to the movement of the waves in the ocean storm, but I didn’t have access to the underlying logic.  I could only get a general sense of which direction the wind had been blowing.

Here and there, flesh connected to flesh.  In other places, the flesh broke down into core elements, expanses of skin, veins, muscle and bone, all with hints of the same art of experimentation the larger pieces had.  Where flesh didn’t connect to other pieces, it broke down further into other things, into fractals and patterns, then into things or spaces I couldn’t make out, like it had turned around a corner that didn’t exist.

Sveta released of my forearm, and the resulting pain hauled me out of an awestruck daze.

Her tendrils found targets with a speed my eyes couldn’t follow, and she wrapped herself around the table that had held the vials.

It took a moment before every tendril was set in place.  When she was done, she let her head sink down until her face was pressed against the tabletop, her eyes shut.

Blood ran down my mangled arm, soaking into the fabric of my costume and then oozing out slowly at points where the skin was tightest against the surface.  Normally, it might have been my knuckles, my forearm.  Here, it was the parts that hadn’t been wrapped by the tendril, bulging out.

At the very least, the armor on my costume and the nature of the fabric had kept the tendrils from simply slicing through the flesh like razor wire.  The armor was mangled, but it had saved me a severed artery.

I felt the limb throb, as if it were responding to the fact that I was paying attention to it.  It made for an eerie sensation, where the dull sensation felt so out of tune with the degree of injury, yet so great, compared to the little that remained of the limb.

Shit,” I said.

“Don’t,” Sveta said.  “Don’t move, don’t talk.”

I went still, even as the dull throb in my arm got worse.  I was losing blood, though not as much as I thought I should be.

Better than one of those things going around my neck.

“Don’t move, don’t talk.  You’re not there,” she murmured, barely audible.

My eyes moved to the stairwell and the scene below.  My teammates were there.  Lung and Canary were as well.

“The only ones here are me and my thoughts,” Sveta said.  Her eyes were shut.  “I am in control of my mind and my feelings, and I am focused.  I am confident, and I am building towards a better future for myself.  Every success is a component in building that up, a brick on a building in construction, but my mistakes do not tear it down.”

The stand she was wrapped around creaked.

“My mistakes do not tear it down.  They are a part of me, but they are not the most important part of me.”

Hurry, I thought.

Uncharitable, maybe, but I couldn’t afford to sit back and bleed to death while she worked through this.  I understood that she had her problems, that control was hard to come by.

I got that, but my friends could die down there, if the collapse hadn’t killed them already.

Sveta let go of the table.  Her tendrils extended into the air around her, like a sea anemone’s fronds.  Here and there, they touched things and snapped into place with a destructive power: the refrigerator that had held the Balance sample, a shelving unit, a countertop with drawers in front..

They caught on the bugs in the area, and they extinguished my swarm with an almost ruthless efficiency.  Too many tendrils for my bugs to navigate between them, the movements too unpredictable as they drifted in the air, responding to air currents.  The tendrils were severing steel handles on the drawers, a bug’s flesh was nothing.

My flesh was nothing.  The longest of them came dangerously close to making contact with me.

“I’m going to leave,” she said.  From the tone and the volume, she was talking to herself, trying to convince herself to move.

To be a bystander in your own body, I thought.

I felt a more serious pain building in my arm.  Something more representative of the damage that had been done to it.

“I’m going where there aren’t any people,” Sveta said, again.

Go, I thought.

Tendrils found the ragged edges where the ceiling above the stairwell had cracked.  Sveta launched herself into the stairwell as though she were a living slingshot.  Tendrils splayed out in every direction to stop her forward momentum, arresting her nearly as fast as she’d moved.  Then she reached out again, and was gone into the morass of body parts below, with its dim red lighting.

She was gone.

Yet I couldn’t bring myself to move.

The pain in my arm had me rattled.  It was intense, yet disconnected in a way.  An alarm system that wailed with lights flashing, but it was somewhere off to one side, in another room somewhere.

I didn’t want to be in a metaphorical room with that pain.  The second my blood started pounding, the moment I set my foot down to run and an impact reverberated through my body, this sharp, violent pain would become something else entirely.

Instead, I activated my flight pack.  To get myself moving, I pushed off the ground, floating into the stairwell.

When I reached the first chunk of rubble, I set one foot on it and drove myself forward, with as smooth and gentle a motion as I could manage.  The flight pack managed a decent speed, but any help was a good thing.

Another chunk of rubble, another kick forward.

More of the room below came into view.  The staircase was as long as it was because the impossibly large room needed a high ceiling.  Now I was getting the full view, rather than a sliver of it all, coupled with the input from my bugs.  I could see just how much of the partner’s flesh filled the space, flooding whole areas, interlocking or simply arranged side by side.  Nearly three stories high, and many of the parts reached from floor to ceiling.

I pushed my swarm through the space, and I could feel a kind of disorientation.  Something I’d experienced before, in mild doses.  I directed my bugs from points A to B, except they only made it partway, or they moved too far, or they arrived at a slightly different location.

Ominous.

And it wasn’t the only thing that caught my attention, as I increased my speed, descending towards Scion and the others.  There was a creaking noise.  The groan of a structure settling, of tired floorboards and hinges in dire need of oiling.

It didn’t stop.  I couldn’t tell with my ears, but my swarm had a range of hearing that extended beyond the human spectrum.  Through that distorted sense, I could tell that there was a sound that was gradually getting worse.  A screeching, tearing noise.

At my command, bugs moved away from the second entity, away from Scion and the rubble, and they headed up.

The combination of fine sensory input and the hundreds of bugs told me the tremors were worse in specific spots, the cracks deeper in spots.

It formed a map of sorts.  Where the cracks were, the tremors and creaks, areas stood out as danger zones.

I passed the patch of blood and mangled flesh where the doctor had fallen.  Some of the tendrils had crushed their way through bone, severing the skull in half.  Others had found their way into the cracks between joints, sawing through connective tissues, muscle and skin to completely detach the limbs.  If any part of her had still been alive, the rubble had crushed it when it had fallen.

I accelerated my forward momentum with another gentle kick.

Chunks of the ceiling dropped.  I didn’t slow, only using the senses the bugs offered along with the flight pack to move out of the way well before they could reach me.

As I’d done with the rubble, I kicked off a falling section of the ceiling, to better change direction and propel myself forward.

I found the others.  Golem was almost invisible as he created hands of concrete to shield himself, Cuff and Imp.  I’d nearly mistaken his hands for one of the false ones.  The only difference was that his hands moved, for a little while.

Rachel had an unconscious Canary slung over her lap.  Lung had foregone riding Bastard to run on his own, loping forward on all fours, climbing more than he ran.  It was too hard to move through this labyrinth, where the pale gray flesh occupied as much space as it left untouched.  Easier for Lung to lunge forward, grab an empty eye socket, then leap forward onto an outstretched arm.  The dogs found solid surfaces to leap onto and away from.

The Number Man, Alexandria, the Harbingers, the wounded and the captured case fifty-threes were in another group.  He’d found a spot he deemed safe from the collapse, beneath an arch of tissue.

The materials that were falling were all substantial, pieces of granite bigger than a truck, concrete shelves, panes of solid steel torn at the edges where stress had brought them free.  The impacts were heavy enough I could feel the shockwaves in the air.  It made my arm move, which renewed the pain, reminded me of the blood loss and what was very possibly catastrophic damage.

I felt an edge of panic.  Not a familiar feeling.  It wasn’t being hurt that was the problem, but the amount of attention it was occupying.  I needed to focus, to pay attention to any number of things, and yet my arm kept screaming for me to fix it.

Why had I touched her?  I hadn’t been planning for her to save me.  Hadn’t even been aware she could.

A distance away, a chunk of concrete fell atop Scion.  He barely reacted to the blow itself, but he lashed out.  A controlled blast, very carefully avoiding contact with his alter ego, simultaneously obliterating much of the offending material.  I could sense the others splitting further apart as the blast brought more of the architecture down around them.

Scion rose into the air, floating deeper into the room.  As he’d done with the vials, he touched the flesh beside him, almost tender.

I drew closer to the others, carefully navigating between the fractal webs that the tissues seemed to emerge from.  My bugs helped pave the way, checking where the routes were best.  Again, the bugs’ trajectories seemed off.  A few flew into the fractal spaces, and subsequently dropped off my power’s radar.

I was caught off guard when my path veered unexpectedly.  It had been safe for my swarm, but it led me off course, the entire room seeming to swing as the bugs on the ceiling and floor moved and I seemed to stay still.  I found myself on course for a fractal ‘hedge’ that bordered the top edge of a large eye.

I was already readjusting, carefully guiding myself towards safer open space.  If I hadn’t had the benefit of my swarm, if my reflexes had been slower, I might have collided with it.

I wasn’t entirely sure what might have happened if I had, but something that put my bugs well beyond my reach couldn’t have been good.

The near-miss was making my heart pound.  It wasn’t something I would have paid attention to, normally, but now it was impacting the damage to my arm.  My entire body was starting to ache, as though the nerves in and around the injury site itself couldn’t host it all.

I couldn’t calm down, so keeping my actions low-key and maintaining a low heart rate wasn’t helping as much.  I increased my pace a little, using a bit more force as I propelled myself forward.

Bastard barreled through a shelf of skin, muscle and a rigid, rubbery material that might have been cartilage.

Soft, breakable, I thought, as I changed direction, following, moving lower to the ground.

I might have said the idea dawned on me, but dawn implied light, the rising of the sun, the start of a new day.  This was something else.  The notion… descended on me, that I was seeing what Tattletale had talked about.

She’d called it the well.  Scion was only the tip of the iceberg, any damage to him drawing from the well to fix his physical body.

This was it.  The other entity, it had never established the separate self, independent of the well.  Something had gone wrong.

I thought about what Cauldron had said, about having already saved the world.

They fought this thing before and they beat it.

The collapse was dwindling, but it was dust and finer rocks that were falling, now, billowing through the space.  Just as scary, on a level, and it was hurting visibility.

Rachel, Lung and the canines tore through a barrier I’d thought they would take the time to circle around.  My course had been plotted to put myself in their way, and now I threatened to fall behind.

Instead, I dropped down, taking a steeper course.

No, they were moving too fast.  I was going to land on top of Lung if I maintained the course, instead of landing in front of them.  And that was if I didn’t slow down before hitting the ground.

I maintained the course.  I didn’t slow down.

Instead, I tried to shout out a heads up.  He has enhanced hearing.

“Lung.”

My voice wasn’t as loud as I’d hoped, and I was drowned out by another shower of dust and debris.

The only reason I didn’t hit him hard enough to break one of our necks was that he stopped to grab two fingers in the midst of our surroundings, tensing to throw himself forward.

I landed two feet in front of him, twisting myself around to avoid letting my arm hit the ground directly.  The vibration shuddered through my entire body and increased the pain a hundredfold anyways.

I was left barely able to breathe, writhing on the ground, my arm crushed between my thighs and my stomach, because squeezing it and applying pressure like I was proved a fraction less painful than letting it move on its own.

And Lung loomed over me.

“Ah-”  I managed, before I found myself huffing out the remainder of my breath.

“I have no reason to help you,” Lung growled the words, nearly inaudible with the sounds in the distance.  His voice was altered with his transformation, slurred.

I couldn’t muster a response, slurred, audible or otherwise.

“I think you have lost a lot of blood.  You will slip into a state of shock, Skitter.  Your body will betray you.  You will piss and shit yourself.  Your emotions will escape your control and you will experience a kind of terror that you might think is not possible.”

I grit my teeth.  I knew Rachel had stopped nearby, but Huntress was acting agitated, and Rachel couldn’t get control.  A part of me wanted to draw the connections, interpret why Huntress was pacing like she was, and I found it harder than it should be.

“I dislike the idea of being a follower, little Skitter,” Lung rumbled.  “I maintain a territory, always.  I bring my enemies low, and I am feared and respected, always.  I enjoy the things I enjoy, drinking, food, fucking women.  Never being fully out of control.  You understand?”

This is my fate, I thought, a little deliriously.  I die getting monologued to by a supervillain.

“A man told me that in Go, it is deemed more worthy, more honorable, more respectable, if you can accept the fight as lost and surrender.  If you are right, if it is at the right moment.  I came with you because I knew I would not beat him in another fight.  Here, there is something I can do.  But I do not follow you, I do not give up that control.  I would say partners, but I would be lying.”

I did what I could to meet his eyes.  I still had Defiant’s knife in my hand.  I deactivated the blur and let it fall.  Then I reached over to my elbow and used all of my strength to raise my injured arm.

It flopped like a spaghetti noodle, the bones simply not there, pulverized.

Lung took my arm in one claw, gripping it hard.  My back arched, my chest expanding as I drew in a ragged breath.  I held in the scream that I so badly wanted to utter.

“I fight him because it is my nature.  He would sunder me without thinking.  He humiliates me, destroys any place I would call territory, and would deny me the things I enjoy.  Good food, some drink, fucking.  I will not bow, understand?  I will not ever lose.”

My vision was swimming.  I wasn’t even sure if I was maintaining eye contact, now.

He squeezed a little more.  I refused to scream, but I had to utter something.  I settled for a low groan, an extended grunt, strangled.

“You cannot hold yourself straight.  You are weak enough that to be alongside you would bring me lower than I stand now.  You understand?”

Like Grey Boy, turning on Jack because Jack failed and showed a degree of weakness.

“Skitter,” Rachel’s voice sounded.  “Problem?”

She’d come.  She wasn’t positioned to see my hand.

“Go,” Lung growled.  “Tell her you need help.”

I drew an ‘x’ in Rachel’s way, with the handful of bugs I had on hand, barring her path.

“You came to me.  None of the others.  Not Bitch, not your heroes, not even the men and women from Cauldron.  You want my assistance.  Ask me for it, show me your weakness.”

Cauterize the limb, I thought.  It wouldn’t fix anything, but there was no way to stem the blood loss from the damage that extended across the limb.  Any tourniquet capable of cutting off the blood flow would make the limb fall off anyways, and then I’d still have blood loss.

At best, if I were to ask him, he’d be gone.  The not-partnership would be over the second I admitted my weakness.  At worst, he’d kill me.

I didn’t have enough wind to say much.

I’ll kill you,” I gasped out the words.

He didn’t react, except to squeeze the arm harder.  Again, my back arched.  I writhed, gritting my teeth.

“With a trick?  Deception?  By asking for help?”

I shook my head.

He reached down and picked up the disintegration knife.  “With this?”

I shook my head again, and immediately regretted not having spoken instead.  My vision swam.  I had to fight to keep my eyes on his.

He didn’t follow up with another question.

Come on, I thought.  Can’t hold eye contact.

“Mm,” he grunted.

“Burn it,” I said.  “If you’re angry…”

I had to stop to get my breath.

“Angry?” he asked.

“Me beating you… twice… then enjoy burning me… but fuck… fucking burn it off.”

There was a long pause.

He lit his hand on fire.  My mangled arm went up in flames.

I broke eye contact.  I might have screamed.  I wasn’t sure.

Only a minute, judging by the way things had moved.  Darkness had swept over my vision, I’d blacked out for a moment.

Arm gone, stump burned black.  I was draped on Huntress’ back, behind Rachel.  Canary was slumped over in front of her.

My entire body hurt in a steady, consistent way that suggested it wasn’t injury, but the aftermath of the other trauma.  It was very possible my body was flooded with whatever neurotransmitters told it I was in pain.

I wasn’t up to fighting my way to an upright position.  It might even be dangerous.

I’d started with a good number of bugs, but they’d been whittled down.  I had only a few thousand, now.

The ceiling had stopped falling down on us, at least for the moment, but the groaning and creaking continued.

It’s the creature in here.  Scion’s counterpart.  He’s pushing against the walls of the structure.  It might even be why the walls distorted and why the door wouldn’t open.

Huntress slowed, then came to a stop.  Bastard nearly sliced my face open with one of the spikes on his shoulder as he approached and stopped at Rachel and Huntress’ left.

Rachel was looking around.

“They ran,” Lung said.  “There is nothing stopping them from retreating the way we came.  Scion is occupied.”

“Stairwell collapsed,” Rachel said.

“I am strong, I could fight through it.  The dogs are strong as well.  Or we climb through a hole in the ceiling.  There is nothing left here.”

I began reorganizing my bugs.  Less need to keep them on the ceiling.  And I needed to find Scion, find the others and keep some here to give myself a stronger voice.

No,” I said, using the swarm to speak.  I could barely hear myself.

Lung turned his head.  Rachel did too.

Good hearing.

“You’re awake,” Rachel said.  “Fucking tell me, did he-“

He did good,” I said.

She fell silent.

The others are here, and you don’t need to climb through the hole in the ceiling.  You can climb over the rubble in the stairwell and still stand upright.

“Mm,” Lung made a noncommittal grunt.

I continued speaking with the swarm, drawing an arrow in front of Rachel.  “The others.”

She whistled, goading Huntress forward.  Bastard and Lung followed.

Hard to manage the swarm, given the number of intervening obstacles.  There was so much here.  All an extension of the new entity.

This is the well.  This is what Scion looks like, when we see beyond the image on the surface.  This is the sheer amount of flesh we need to destroy, when we do manage to get past his defenses.

But if that was the case, where was this entity’s other body?

We reunited with the others.

“Ah, here we go,” the Number Man said.  He’d been joined by Golem’s group, and they remained under the shelter.

“Holy shit,” Golem said.  “Weaver.  Your hand.”

He said it like I wasn’t aware.

But I didn’t respond.  My focus was on the swarm.

They’d found Scion.

He was floating opposite another figure.  A sexless human shape, with hair that was disproportionately long for its body, hanging beneath the point where one foot dangled in the air.  The figure was incomplete, fractals extending from portions of its back, of arms and one leg.

Two things hit me at the same time.

One of those things was that the odd, pattern-like kaleidoscopes of flesh and whatever else weren’t terminus points, but points where the limbs passed into another dimension.

The well was far deeper than I’d thought.  There was so much more to the entities than we were seeing here.

The other thought was that this was the other body.  It was the second entity’s body, the part he would have shown us.

Scion’s counterpart?” I asked.  “It was putting together a human body.”

“We saw it,” Golem said.  “Before the Number Man signaled us.”

Rachel helped me down.  Alexandria stepped forward to give me a hand.  Together, they eased me down.

The creaking increased, a sudden shift.  Dust showered down from every crack in the complex.

“I feel like a traitor for saying it,” Imp said, “But looking at this, hearing all we’ve heard, I’m sorta starting to agree with the Doctor.  Abstract solutions are looking a hell of a lot better.”

We need to leave,” I said, still using the swarm.

“All this trouble to get here,” Imp said.  “And then we go?  Madness!”

No,” I responded.

“I was joking.”

No.  We came for answers.  This is it.  We had answers.  Now we just needed to get in a position where we could use them.  Get them to Tattletale, to other thinkers.

“And Scion?”

Scion’s occupied,” I said.

Scion was cupping the face of his counterpart.  The figure, no doubt grey skinned as the body parts that made up this area, was slack jawed.

He looked for futures where he’d find his counterpart, I thought.  This was one of them… just not what he wanted or expected.  Probably not even something he thought was possible.

“…Not so easy to leave,” the Number Man was saying.  “The structure has shifted, rotated.  It’s designed to, corkscrewing down over time and with any degree of force or movement.  It ensures the integrity of the panic room function, and it would have confused some of the first powerful non-Cauldron teleporters we were aware of.  The route you used to enter no longer leads into whatever corridor or entry point you used to break through.  We’d have to dig anew.  Even with the Siberian, it’s time consuming.”

“This seems less than wise,” Lung growled.  “Burying yourself.”

“Frankly,” the Number Man said, “We expected that if we had to lock ourselves in down here, we wouldn’t need to leave.”

“We should still go,” Golem said.  “And we should take something.  Chevalier made a weapon out of Behemoth and the Simurgh’s parts.  Maybe we can do something with this?”

“It’s human flesh,” the Number Man said.  “Or close enough to be of little difference.  There are powers contained within select areas, like threads of ore in a rock, and naturally there are some structural changes that set it apart from humans.  The thing was experimenting before settling on a body for itself.”

“You don’t have a name for it?” Cuff asked.

“I was only recently made aware it existed,” the Number Man said.  “The Doctor played things close to the vest.  I’d be open to suggestions.”

“Fuckster,” Imp offered.

“It’s not even a living thing anymore,” Golem said.  “It’s more like a place, a garden or something.”

“Amusing you say that,” the Number Man said.  “We had a discussion with Lisette, the woman who proposed she could control him, and she said that the original name was Zion.  He named himself after a place as well.  We have theories on why-”

Lung growled, interrupting.  “I don’t-”

Scion moved, abrupt.

Silence,” I ordered, cutting Lung off in turn.

Scion’s hand glowed as he reached down to his counterpart’s neck.

He carved through his counterpart’s flesh, severing the head.

He’s killing it.

“It’s already dead,” the Number Man said.

He’s killing it deader,” I said.

“Granted,” the Number Man said.  He sighed.  “There’s nothing left in it.  She took powers it had probably planned to give to others, distilled them.  Then she dug in other places, and she took powers it needed to subsist.  It died and went still.”

“What the hell did she do before that?” Imp asked.  “Have tea parties with it?”

Scion gripped the corpse, then rose into the air.

Everything moved in response.  The entire room, shifting.  Every part dragging towards one central point.  Flesh disappeared into the patterns that hung in the air, patterns shifted, and parts emerged from others.  Pulled into invisible mouse holes and portals, pulled out of others.

Fuck,” the Number Man said.

I shifted position a little, reaching out to grab the healthy flesh closest to the burned stump, squeezing, as if I could make it hurt less.

“Fuck?” Imp asked.

“The structure isn’t going to hold.  Even with the reinforcements she put in… no.”

“So?” Rachel asked.

“When the walls break,” the Number Man said, “one million, seven hundred and thirty thousand tonnes of steel are going to drop on our heads.”

“Can we go out the sides?”  Golem suggested.

“Protected by the same water that’s below us and to the sides, for the corkscrew operation.  Slow going at best, we get obliterated by pressurized water.”

I stared down at the ground.  My burn hurt so much I felt nauseous.  I also felt lightheaded.  Probably a side effect of blood loss.

The Siberian,” I said.  “Protection effect.”

“Can only protect a handful of us, less if you intend to move after things collapse.  Two hands, perhaps two feet, one behind.”

Only five.

Five wasn’t enough.

Scion had his hand raised over his head, the other entity held above, with masses of its flesh trailing beneath them.  My bugs told me the ceiling was arching slightly.  I could see where the ceiling met one wall, how a crack was forming along the edge.

Ceiling falling,” I said.  I moved my arm to point, and I only wound up moving my stump, suppressing my reaction to the pain so I wouldn’t provoke Lung.

Golem reached into the side of his suit.  A hand began emerging.

Too slow.  A full third of the ceiling over this room looked ready to collapse, and it was big enough and close enough to wipe us out.

Alexandria flew forward.  She caught the shelf of steel, concrete and granite.

Buying time, even as the slab continued to crack and break down where the stress of her holding it warred with the sheer weight and lack of support in other spaces.

Golem’s hand propped it up, fingers curling around the edge to secure it.

I still wasn’t thinking straight.

What’s he doing?

“Cuff, find me a piece of metal to use,” Golem said.  “The bigger the better.  And I’m talking big.”

“The column?” she asked.

“It broke up some, right?  Find me the closest, biggest piece.”

Cuff nodded.  “Lung, Siberian, help us.”

Golem looked back at me.

Go,” I said.

He went without another word.

I was left sitting where I was, with injured case fifty-threes, with an unconscious Canary who’d apparently had a hand crushed, and a conscious, mostly unharmed Rachel and Imp.  We stared up at Scion.

“Well,” Imp said.

He used his golden light to burn the other.  It coursed through the tissues, through the entirety of the thing.  An ocean of experimental features, of flesh and body parts.

“Well,” Imp said, again.

I could almost sense a feeling radiating from Scion.

A hard emotion to name, if not a hard emotion to place.  I’d experienced it well enough.  Many had.

He was lashing out, destroying the remains, out of bewilderment, sadness, despair, anger, confusion.  All of it unfiltered.  The same emotion a child might experience with their first loss.  What a child would feel when they lost something irretrievable for the first time, when something was stolen from them and they hadn’t prepared themselves for the possibility on any level.

It was what one felt as a child if they lost their dog, their home, their innocence.

Their mother.

“It’s like when I lost Rollo, Brutus or Judas,” Rachel said.

Yeah,” I said.

“When my bro…” Imp said, trailing off.

How do you even articulate that?  When he was broken?

Yeah,” I said.

“Fucking good,” Imp said.  “I hope it sucks for him.

Together, we stared.  We watched Scion burn his partner.  Putting a torch to the garden.  Alexandria flew overhead to join the others, helping.

He dropped the remains, and they spooled out of some other dimension that the ‘garden’ had spilled out into.

Golem began creating the hand.  The entire room shook as fingertips emerged.  Each a small building unto itself.  Cupping over, a protective barrier.

Nothing that would hold out against the kind of weight the Number Man had been talking about.

Then Cuff used her power, separating the hand in half, so it was the palm and four fingers.

I heard him say, “…Siberian… this large?”

Yes,” the Number Man said.

“Usually it’s you with these plans,” Imp said.

“She’s hurt,” Rachel said.

I grit my teeth, not taking my eyes off Scion.

No, that wasn’t my excuse.

I was too focused on other fronts.  Not on survival… fuck that.  I wanted to hurt the bastard.  This was the best opportunity we had.  So long as the other entity was here, Scion was distracted.  Just like he was distracted with the case fifty-threes.  One chance to hurt him, possibly without retaliation.  Thinking of what we had on hand, what we could have on hand… trying to connect the dots.

Scion lashed out, sudden, unpredictable, raw destruction.

A section of ceiling in Sveta’s general vicinity fell.  A whole section of the column above us was sliced off, falling.

I could see Sveta on the far end of the room.  She could help.

I sent my bugs her way.

I think I have something,” I said.

“Something?” Imp asked.

But we need to talk to the Number Man,” I said.  “See if it’s doable.

Imp nodded, “We’ll get you on the dog’s ba-”

I used my flight pack, lifting myself into the air.  My legs dangled, and I lacked the strength to keep my head fully raised.  My hair hung in front of my face.

Whatever.  Right now, at least, my body was an inconvenient puppet, a vehicle for my power and my brain, nothing else.

Fuck me, the burn hurt.

Rachel and Imp hurried to get the other injured on the dog’s backs while I approached the other group.

The cupped hand turned monochrome as the Siberian used her power on it, then turned back to normal.  Alexandria lifted the hand, making room for others, for us to get underneath.

I reached Number Man.  I spoke, and found my voice thin.  “Your power.”

“My power?” he asked.

“It’s perception based.”

“I sense complex mathematics,” he said.  “Second nature to me.”

Ask a stupid question…

“Can you do controlled demolitions?” I asked.

“Yes.  What are you wanting to demolish?”

Everything,” I said.

He gave me a funny look, then glanced over his shoulder at the others.

He sighed.  “Tell me what you need.”

“I need to bring it all down, and I need it to happen on my signal.  Can you figure it out?”

He nodded.  “We can use Pretender.”

I turned my head, gazing at the remains of the ‘garden’, slowly being consumed and reduced to motes of darkness by the golden light.

“We can use Sveta too,” I said.  “If she’s willing.  Trying to figure out what we need to make this happen.”

“I’ll need information,” he said.  “The layout, what exactly you want to happen, order…”

“I’m not looking for anything complicated,” I said.

I began illustrating the nature of the roof, where the cracks and rents were, and how deep they went.  I also began drawing out the remaining cords I still had stashed around my costume.  “Cuff?”

“What?”

“Secure this thing.  We’ll need a floor.”

“A floor?”

Fast.

But I extended my focus to my bugs, at the same time.

My bugs reached Sveta.  She was pulling herself free of rubble.

Sveta.”

She looked around, confused.

The bugs.

Her tendrils killed maybe sixty bugs as she focused her attention on them.

It’s Taylor.  Skitter, or Weaver.  Whatever you know me as.

She killed more before she got herself firmly secured to a large piece of concrete.

“Thank you,” she said.  “For getting me away from the collapse, before.  I didn’t get a chance to say.  I’m really sorry about your hand.”

“I’ll get a new one if we make it that far.  Listen.  We’re going to attack.  We need your help.”

“I can’t hurt him.”

“You can,” I said.  “Most definitely.

I drew an arrow.

“I… what?”

Can you do it?

Sveta shook her head.  Or she made it sway, anyways.  “But… why?  And… I don’t think I can get away.”

We just need a few seconds,” I said.  “He attunes himself to specific forms of attack, to negate them.  It’s why the Siberian did as much damage as she did, earlier.  It’s better if we can catch him by surprise, mix it up a little.  And if we do it here, now, before that corpse finishes burning, it should be easier to get away, because it clouds his senses like you…

I wasn’t sure what to call her.

“Monsters?  Victims?”

I’d always hated the use of the word victim.  “IrregularsIt clouds his senses like the irregulars do.

Sveta’s face changed.  I couldn’t quite make it out with my bug vision.

“I can do it,” she said.  “I think I might even be able to do it and get away before he kills me.”

It’s not that.  Get into the hole in the ceiling we came from, before, if you can move that far, that fast.  The walls are broken, I can point a route.”

She nodded.

Thank you, Sveta.  Count this as another brick on that structure you’re building,” I said.

She didn’t reply to that.

I looked over at the Number Man.  We were all underneath the barrier, now.  It wouldn’t hold against Scion, but… yeah.

“It’s doable,” the Number Man said, looking at Alexandria.  “We need a signal.”

“Rachel,” I said.  “Whistle?”

She nodded.  Alexandria glanced at us for confirmation.

“One more thing,” I said.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“I want you to swallow a fly.”

She arched one eyebrow.

“Or, better yet, hold it in your mouth.”

“I’ve lived with enough charlatans-”

“No joke,” I said, serious.

She frowned, then opened her mouth.  I popped a housefly inside.

A moment later, she flew from the shelter.  Cuff began sealing the floor after her.

This was not an elegant plan.  Simple, crude.

Sveta,” I said.  “Now.”

She anchored herself on three different areas.  Then she grabbed the burning corpse.

She flung it at Scion.

Can’t hurt him physically.

Maybe emotionally.

He reeled, perhaps a little stunned.

She hit him with more.  One after the other.

His hands glowed.

“Run,” I said, with my swarm, in the same moment I said, “Now.”

Sveta bolted.  Scion attacked, a wide-area effect that scoured the room’s interior.

Rachel whistled, using the only opening remaining.  Cuff closed it.

Outside, Alexandria charged in response to the signal.

She slammed into key points, where the structure was weakest.  I’d outlined some of it, the Number Man had inferred the rest.

Hitting him with the biggest thing available.

We brought the column down.  One and three-quarter million tonnes, dropping down on our heads.

The cords were a measure that it turned out we didn’t need.  The floor and Siberian’s power sealed us off from the aftershock.  It sealed us off from almost all of the noise, a hammer of solid steel the size of a skyscraper, striking an anvil.

I wasn’t so optimistic as to think we’d killed him.

But I could hope the impact destroyed more than one body.  That, like the ‘garden’, there was a constant, steady connection, and the devastation could echo out through that connection and into the well.

“Whooo.”  Imp said, exhaling the word.

And now we wait to see if we die.

Does he retaliate?

Does he wipe us out, blasting his way free?

There was only silence.

Of course there was only silence.

And then I sensed movement.

A housefly, outside, approaching.

“Drop the barrier,” I said.

Siberian did.  I could see everyone tense.

But it’d just deform the column above, nothing else.

Alexandria, outside, tore the hand apart.  Lung and Cuff helped from the inside.

He’d blasted his way free, straight up.  Alexandria had torn away the flooring and the chunk of remaining column from on top of us.  Sure enough, there was a fist-indent in it.

“Whoooo!” Imp whooped.  “Screw you, golden man!”

I swayed a little, nearly falling.  Rachel caught me.

“You okay?” Cuff asked.

I nodded.  “Fuck me, that was satisfying.”

“I will take your word for it,” Lung said.  He held Canary.

“Aww, he’s upset he didn’t get to play a part,” Imp mocked.

I looked at Lung with Canary, my eyes roving over our assembled number.  Ideas falling in place.

“Except,” Golem said, morose, “He’s pissed off, now.”

“Pissed off is something we can use,” I said.

“A solution?” Number Man asked.

I shook my head.  “But I think, now, I know what it’ll look like when I see it.  Hospital next.  I’ll explain on the way.”

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