Interlude 26

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The entity swims through the void and it remembers.  Everything is stored, dating back to the very beginning.

In the beginning, a species chokes their gray planet.  Here and there, landmasses appear, created by inhabitants to trap or uncover the scarce food that exists, but the landscape is largely liquid, water thick with silt and other particles.  The creatures worm in and around one another, and the planet has as much space taken up by the creatures as there is space left for other things.

Each has evolved the same capacity to shift between layers, to explore the alternate versions of this same world, and each of these other worlds are choked by more of the same creatures.  Still, they continue to reproduce, and in their spread, they have eradicated virtually every source of food from every world they can access.  The species is so numerous that it is nearly impossible to find space to surface at the uppermost areas of the water, where they might absorb starlight and radiation.  What little energy they do manage to acquire in the process is lost in struggles to stay at the top and the continued efforts to avoid being pushed and pulled down by the coils of their neighbors.

Tangle.

The ancestor is aware of this, fully cognizant that the fight over resources will soon reach a climax, and there will be a war where every creature fights for itself.  These wars are not graceful or sensible.  The strongest can be torn apart as easily as the weakest.  Once it starts, it will only end when a meager few remain.

Then, as they retreat to individual worlds to mend and restore themselves, the prey will multiply, and there will be a span of feasting for those lucky enough to survive.

With that, the process will begin anew.  The same things will occur.  This has happened no less than one hundred and seventy times, with little variation.  Each time it occurs, realities are left dead, the grace period before resources run out once again is shorter.  That the number of worlds exceed the number of particles that might exist in one world’s universe is inconsequential; the creatures multiply exponentially.

They are running out of time.

The ancestor knows this, and it isn’t satisfied.  It knows its kin aren’t satisfied either.  They are quiet, because there is nothing to say.  They are trapped by their nature, by the need to subsist.  They are rendered feral, made to be sly and petty and cruel by circumstance.  They are made base, lowly.

With all of this in mind, the ancestor broadcasts a message.  Each member of the species is made up of cells, of shards, and a typical broadcast is a simple concept, a single message nuanced by a million individual influences brought to bear by the shards that made up the speaker.

Proposal.

The message is voiced with violence, across innumerable wavelengths and means, through heat and motion and electromagnetics and light.  Each shard cluster retains different abilities, minor tools for self-defense and offense, for finding prey and helping the ancestor make its way in the cold gray mud.  In communicating, it turns the vast majority of these resources outward, to transmit the signal, and each form of communication has different ideas, different subtleties.  In this, a greater, complex communication is achieved.

The act of speaking nearly kills it, it is so starved for energy.

It continues, and because this message is so different from the screams and cries over food and territory and everything else, the others listen.  They expend their own energy to transmit it further.  The idea spreads across every possible world like a ripple.

A species needs to continue evolving.  It needs conflict and variation.

Failure to meet these objectives leads to self-destruction.

By the time the ancestor is finished communicating, it is depleted, unable to even move as it is shoved by the bodies of others that swim past.

Then, in bits and pieces, it is devoured.

Devoured not for energy, but for material.

The shards are absorbed, made a part of the eater, and the ones who eat swell in size.  Unsustainable sizes, but they grow nevertheless.

All across the possible worlds, the creatures turn on one another.  It is a war, but it takes a different shape, a different form.  This time they are not eating for energy, but to stay afloat and stay large enough that they are not subsumed by a greater whole.

The gray planet makes several revolutions around its star before things reach a climax.  Many of the creatures are so large they cannot subsist in one world alone.  They weave into one world and worm out into another.  Every flank is vulnerable to another of its kind lunging out into a world and attacking, consuming whole chunks at a time.  Heat, cold, electricity and mental manipulations are leveraged in these struggles, slowing their targets down enough for them to wrap themselves around, shear off a section to take into themselves.

More revolutions, and only a handful remain.  Energy is scarce, even with the individual bodies taking up whole oceans of the thin gray mud, absorbing all of the light and radiation they can.  Countless worlds have grown dim, absorbed of all possible life and nutrients in the course of struggles and fighting.

The smallest ones recognize the fact that they don’t have energy, that it would cost them all too much if they continued fighting this uphill battle.  They submit, and are consumed.

Two remain.

They spend time reorganizing themselves, shifting the sheer masses of shards they have acquired into forms useful for another task.

Once they are reformed, they leech all of the heat and energy from countless worlds and concentrate it in a single reality.  The energy boils the oceans of silt-choked waters, disintegrates the landmasses.

Their bodies form into a large, complex shape, with only small fragments in this one world.  The extensions of those same fragments extend into other realms, in concentrated, specific shapes, made for a purpose: to survive the next step.

The energy is released, and the planet shatters.

The shattering is so extreme that it extends into other worlds, through the same channels that the fragments used to extend into other realities.  Every single one of the remaining habitable worlds is destroyed in the ensuing blast.

And the fragments radiate outwards, shedding and dropping their protective shells as they sail into the black, empty void.

Gestation.

Still flying through the void, the entity forms the word in the midst of its recollections.

They are children.  Offspring.  They travel the void, hoping to encounter another habitable world.

This is the beginning.

Countless perished, no doubt, in contact with lifeless moons, expending the last of their energy to search the possible iterations of that moon for life.  More die within moments of the detonation, their outer casing too damaged, vital processes separated from one another

But others made contact with other worlds.

A world with life rooted in landmasses, weathering brutal storms of caustic acid.  The one who arrives on that world struggles to find a means of survival.

It finds refuge in one of the dying plant structures, provides ambient heat to nourish it, so that the openings might close up and the shelter be made more secure.

The planet revolves around its star many times.

Many, many times.

The one that occupies the structure has bred, now, fragmented into clusters of shards that could occupy others.

Some shards have different focuses.  This is the experiment, the test.

Of these plants, some thrive.  Others die.

The creature tests different capacities, different clusters of shards.  It watches, observes and records events into memory.

It borrows of the conflict and stress of this new, alien species.  It borrows of the evolution, of the learning, of the crisis.  In some ways, it is a symbiote.  In others…

Parasite.

The fragments continue to divide, feasting on abundant resources, on light and radiation and the alien food sources it has started to learn how to consume.  It spreads quickly now, across every possible variation of this world that sustains life.

It encounters another.  A later arrival to the same planet, a member of its own species, another that is multiplying and consuming and growing.  This new arrival chose a different means of survival, but it too chose a kind of parasitism.

They exchange shards where they meet.  In these shards are codified memories, as well as the most effective techniques they have observed.

The planetoid is small, the range of options limited.  A message is broadcast.  Mutual agreement.  They will move on.

Migration.

The process is similar.  Drawing themselves together.  There is cooperation, this time, as each shard returns to the source.  The hosts die in droves, and are absorbed for energy.

They gather into the same vast forms that span multiple realities, and they leech energy from other worlds to fuel their exit from a single one.  It takes time.

But something else occurs.  A broadcast from the other, followed by an attack.

A carefully measured attack.  The two creatures ruin one another with friction and pressure, burning hot, and shards are destroyed.  Many are partially destroyed.

The other creature joins shards together into combinations, discards and destroys.  Repeats the process.

New shards are created.  Different functions.  Forced mutation.

The end results parallel the studies the creatures have made of the plant life on this planet with its acid rain.

More blatant than intended in the beginning, but nothing lost.  New strengths, regarding growth and durability.

They concentrate the energy as they form themselves into an encasement around the small planetoid.

Shell.

The detonation of the small planet scatters the individual clusters of shards, and this time, they are better inured to the harsher elements of space.

So the cycle continues.

The next world encountered has sentient life, civilization.  A complicated, rich world.

It is a symbiosis, this time, more than parasitism.  The two species learn from one another.  The shards code the ‘technology’ of this new species into their memories.  They learn of warping space and gravity.

Until the species turns against them.  Those lucky enough to bind with the entity’s offspring war against those who do not.  Some seek to rule.

Monarchs.  The entity forms the thought, defining the memory.

The cycle is cut short by a forced exit, as the shards are rooted out and destroyed by the natives of this civilized world.  They meet, they bind and again they share ideas.  Richer perceptions, complex technologies and more are fashioned in the unity of three larger creatures.  It is through differences in the greater entities that a richness is created, new derivations, new connections that none would be capable of on their own.

The planet is expended, the offspring are cast off in every direction once again.

This time, they are capable of moving, of controlling their course.  Gravity, warping space.

The entity recalls all of this as it swims through the void and makes its way to the next target.  It can reach back into the depths of its memory to recall all of what came before.

Each time the cycle started anew, lessons had been learned, methods refined.  Each time, the spawn that are spewed out from the destroyed planet are more robust, larger, hosting innumerable memories.  Where memories fall in parallel, they are shared out, offered to others.

After more than three thousand cycles, there are safeguards, there are protections.  The arsenal of abilities, powers and protections the creature possesses have been built up.  The entity remembers past failures and has adapted so they will not happen again.

The entities travel with partners now, moving in spirals while maintaining a measured distance from one another.  Each is slightly different from the other, taking on a different role.  Attacker and defender, warrior and thinker, builder and destroyer.

This divide is so they are able to take a different stance, shape their shards in subtle ways and clarify the results when their shards are compared and joined once again – some shall be kept, others discarded.  Some will turn up interesting possibilities that can be explored when new shards are invented at the cycle’s end.

These individual focuses drive the pair, shape their tasks as they approach their destination.

The entity reaches out with clairvoyance, with precognition, and it views its destination.  It communicates, covering vast expanses of space, transmitting signals across channels formed of the very foundation of this universe.  These signals are broadcast only across specific realities, so that no aftereffects or lingering transmissions will contact a version of that world that hosts no life at all.

Destination.

Agreement.

Trajectory.

Agreement.

Each signal is nuanced, shaped with subtle details and clues by the trillions upon trillions upon trillions of individual shards that make up the entity.  Through these nuances, it conveys more information than an entire planet of sentient beings might in a hundred revolutions.

They have settled on a target.  Old lessons are remembered.  It is a planet of sentient lifeforms, more primitive than some the entities have run into, more advanced than others.  Social creatures, forming communities.  These societies teeter on fine balances, but they persevere nonetheless.  A world rife with conflicts, big and small.

Agitation.

The new hosts are to be bipeds, with a binary reproduction.  Not uncommon, and rich with potential.  Such a division and natural competition for reproduction fosters a natural evolution and development.  The entities will focus on them over any of the sub-species.

These bipeds raise structures of hard earth or plant matter for shelter against the elements, draping themselves in softer materials for further protection.  They shape the world around them, but are more immutable, unchanging in form.  Different from the entity, in many ways.

This was the stage in the cycle when the entity is most aware, most focused.  It observes the possible worlds and judges which would be best.

Colony, the entity voices the idea.

With that same signal, the various nuances suggest countless worlds that are to be removed from consideration.  Worlds without enough population.

Agreement, the response comes.

The entity’s counterpart is taking a passive role, investigating only to confirm, to validate.  This is concerning.  Where is the counterpart’s focus, if not on this vital decision?

Study reveals worlds with dominant belief systems, peaceful worlds, worlds crowded with twelve billion individuals.  Worlds with almost none.

The entity pares through these, deciding.

It investigates, and in the doing, it prepares some shards for analysis and understanding of this particular society and culture.  Language, culture, patterns of behavior, patterns of society.  This is something the counterpart should be emphasizing.

The process is interrupted by an arrival.

A member of their own species, approaching.  It was smaller, took a different form.  It used different means to travel.

This was what had distracted the counterpart.

Its ancestors had traveled a different path, easily hundreds of cycles ago, before the entities had begun traveling in pairs.  This new arrival had encountered different worlds, less worlds, and it had developed differently.

The lesser one crossed paths with the entity’s counterpart.  For a duration, they intertwined, meeting through multiple realities, their bodies rubbing and crushing against one another.

A sharing of details, a wealth of knowledge, from hundreds of cycles.  A sacrifice of the same.

The lesser one moves on, bloated with new shards and knowledge, but the counterpart flounders.

It sacrificed too much.

Concern.

Confident.

The counterpart is not worried.  The signal carries notes of hope for the future.  The counterpart will replenish its shards, its stores of knowledge, memories and abilities at the conclusion of this cycle, reuniting with the entity.

The counterpart is supposed to be the passive figure, the thinker, the planner, while this entity is the warrior, the protector.  The entity is forced to make up for the counterpart’s disability, to slow its advance through the void as they approach their destination and devote resources to analyzing, something the other should be doing instead.

The focus is on one reality.  They will subsume it first, then expand to others.  The most efficient route, achieving maximum amounts of conflict.  By testing their own shards against one another, they gather information.  The entity’s shards will fight among each other, and they will fight the counterpart’s, and they will steadily learn.

With a species such as these social bipeds, the entities can draw new conclusions, come up with new uses for shards.  It tracks and records details that allow it to shape new shards at the cycle’s conclusion.

But their new hosts are a weak species, fragile.  The abilities must be limited in scope.  Worlds that are too advanced would be too fragile, as advanced weapons eliminate too many, cut the process short.

Destination.

Agreement, the response is not so complex, is expressed in a softer, quieter manner.

Still, the pair have settled on a set of realities.

The entity focuses on one.  Enough individuals, natural conflict and confrontation.  A balance of physical and emotional stressors.  The environment is damaged, but not so much it would inhibit growth.

Hive.  The entity communicates the decision.

Agreement.  The counterpart grasps it immediately, knows which reality he means.

The focus changes.  An interplay of communications, one bouncing off the other, as they designate realities.  Each shard needs one, some shards need to cluster and reside across multiple realities.  They draw on these worlds for power, for energy, and thus fuel the techniques they have been coded with.

Each shard, in turn, needs a target.  The entity’s focus expands, designating likely partners.  Past mistakes have been accounted for, and the shards will connect in a covert manner.  They will reside in other worlds, uninhabited worlds, and they will remain cloaked and concealed in areas this new host species is unlikely to explore.

It is a negotiation.

Ownership here.

Claim there.

Territory here.

With each statement, they each catalogue the realities.  Similar realities are included together, for both the entities and the shards.  Too many complications and confusions arise when interacting with worlds that are exceedingly similar.  Not an effective form of conflict, when it is the same lessons learned over and over again.  It is better to connect them into groupings, limit exposure to each set of worlds.  One shard is capable of settling in a grouping of near-identical worlds, drawing energy from all of those worlds at once.

The entity looks to the future to check for danger.

Plague.

All signs point to the shards murdering their hosts.

The hosts must be protected, or this will be disastrous, counter-intuitive.  The entity adjusts the innate safeguards, protections to reflect the host species and their tolerances.  The bonding process will protect the host, where the host needs protection.  Shards that are capable of providing flame at will cannot burn the hosts, now.  Shards are reorganized, combined and clustered where necessary, to grant sufficient protection.

Infestation.

Better, but not perfect.  The entity refines the process, limits certain abilities, so they will not eradicate too many at a time.

Soft.  The broadcast is sent out to the counterpart, along with suggestions and tips on how to refine the shards.

Agreement, the counterpart accepts.

But the entity can still see fallout effects.  There are parallels in memory storage.  Not many, but there may be glimmers where the subject is capable of perceiving the information stored in the shard as the connections are formed.

For good measure, the entity breaks up one shard cluster, tunes it, then codes the effect into each and every shard.  It studies the host species further, refines, attunes.

It takes time, but the entity forms a sufficient safeguard.  The host species will forget any significant details.

The broken shard is cast off, joining countless others.  It will bond to a host.  The entity looks forward, checking.

After the target planet has revolved thirty-three times around its star, this shard will connect to a host.

A male guards his offspring, a female, with his size and bulk.  A group of hostile bipeds cluster around them.  They call out, making unusual loud sounds, suggesting intoxication.  One of the hostile ones gestures, gripping its male parts, pulling them free of their coverings.  A sexual gesture follows, waving the organ left and right, thrusting it into the empty air.

Sounds of amusement, laced with hostility.

The male and his offspring retreat as far against the nearest construction as they are able.

The shard connects, attaching to the male.

No.  It is ineffective.  The female is clearly more distressed.

Prey.

There is a way to maximize exposure to conflict.

The entity taps into its understanding of the bipeds and how they operate, recognizes the signs of distress, the nuances such things can have.

It views the future again, with changes made in the code.

This time, the shard settles in the male, then immediately shifts to the more distressed female.

Insinuation.  The shard connects to the host’s neural network.

The bond is created.

The shard opens the connection as the stress peaks, and the host doubles over in pain, bewildered, stunned.  The shard then forms tendrils that contact each individual in the area.  It retains traces of the entity’s tampering, of the studies in psychology, awareness and memory, and is quick to adapt.  It finds a manner in which it can operate, then alters itself, solidifying into a particular state.  The remainder of the functions are discarded, the ones in the shard itself are rendered inert to conserve power, while the ones in the host fall away, are consumed by the shard.  The host’s neural network changes once more.

The female disappears from the awareness of the hostile ones that surround it.

The entity looks to the future, to see if this is sustainable, efficient.

All seems well.

A view of other bondings suggests this emphasizes younger targets, particularly those in a middle stage of development, between a lesser phase and an adult phase.  Emotions are higher at that juncture, and the possibility of conflict increases further.

The entity allows for deeper connections to foster more conflict.  The underlying instructions are already present from previous cycles, and can be left largely alone.  These bipeds war with each other enough.  It will only serve to assist the most extreme cases.

Forget.  The entity informs its counterpart of the changes it made.

Agreement.  The counterpart acknowledges.

Emotion.  More changes.

Agreement.

Before the last response is received, the entity has already begun shedding shards that won’t prove useful or particularly problematic.  Shards for attack and defense, distributed over an even geography, an even timeline.

More complicated shards require more focus.  Ones that harbor stored memory of technology and development in past cycles are prepared so they might bond with a host and transmit that knowledge.

For others, there is no easy way to apply the contained knowledge, so they are coded to draw from the host’s recollection and awareness, or to search the entire planet for details and information on what it might be able to do.

Ones that alter the nature of the host in fundamental ways are planted throughout, so as to add more variables in how the others must adapt to them.  A host that chooses how gravity applies to it.  A host that can become a storm of friction, intensifying all friction in an area around it.  One that becomes immaterial.  Another that can make paths between realities, with safeguards to keep it away from ones the shards are rooted within.

The entity is approaching the galaxy cluster in question now, and it sees its counterpart doing the same, if at a slightly slower pace.  Both are trailed by a cloud of shards now, each cast off in such a way that it won’t reach its target location until a set time and date.

The entities begin to close their spiral dance, drawing together as much as they can with the counterpart struggling.

They approach their destination, and begin to disintegrate in great quantities, until thirty percent remains, twenty, ten, two…

It will take one hundred and sixty revolutions before their destination reality hits critical mass.

Three hundred and thirty-one revolutions before the shards reach a critical mass and enough information is gathered.  To look to the future and seek that information in advance would take too much energy.  To do this and fail would be a catastrophic setback in the cycles.

This suffices.  It spends the least energy for the maximum result.

The counterpart is descending, having selected a destination world.  It is hemorrhaging shards in clusters, due to the excessive exchange of shards with the lesser one, too soon before their arrival at their destination.  These shards are breaking off in huge volumes.

A check confirms these shards are coded, that everything is technically well.

Danger, the entity broadcasts.

Confident, the counterpart replies.

The counterpart remains secure.  Nothing to be done.

There is no more time to devote to the crisis.  The entity focuses on its destination, on the next part of the cycle.

The shards have largely been assigned to hosts.  They will remain latent, they will wait for the first crucial moment of crisis and use that to shape their function, to better assist their host.

It is impossible to check the exact circumstances for each event.  Some shards harbor particular concepts, and will shape their application to the host’s needs.  Others are coded with particular applications, and will either scan viable realities or the host’s frame of reference for how that application will come to pass.

Physical harm will grant physical assets, be it direct or abstract.  Immediate danger will nudge the shard towards defensive abilities.  Ranged attacks against living threats, an ability to shape or affect the environment against environmental dangers.

Successes will help refine the abilities, provide inspiration for the development of new shards.  Failures will help all the same.

In hosts, too, there will be variations.  The shards might seek out different hosts, if others are in range, as the perception-altering one did.  They will fragment and transmit to other hosts, as they grow and develop.

The entity is satisfied.  In terms of raw size, it is but a small fragment of what it once was, barely a cluster of shards now.  Its part in this phase of things is nearly done.

The next part of the cycle begins.

It chooses an unoccupied reality.  A barren planet.  Its perceptions focus on the landmasses in idle curiosity.  Different from the focus reality, but similar.

They have reached the solar system in question now.  They brush up against one another, and the entity shores up its counterpart where it can, sacrificing its own shards in the process.

Acceptance.  Gratitude.

The counterpart’s message is thin, but the entities are but a ten-thousandth of a percent of their original size.

It turns its attention to adapting.

In the course of thousands of cycles, the entities have refined their methodology.  There are no true points where they are vulnerable.

As the whole, as the entity, it is safeguarded by countless abilities, defenses, perceptions and options.  It is fat with the knowledge of every generation that came before, the mistakes, the problems, and the solutions.  While it travels the void, it is virtually untouchable.

But there have been times where the shards were vulnerable, after bonding with hosts.  Even now, there are dim possibilities that they might be rooted out.  There are issues where shards that have been coded to generate conflict could do too much damage, disrupting the cycle.

This is something that must be tended to.

The entity turns its attention briefly to their target reality, observes the various life forms.

Always, in the course of its examination of the possible futures, it was evaluating, checking to see what was necessary.

A quick glance into the future, not so deep a look as to expend too much of its remaining energy.  Conservation is key at this juncture, and from here on out.

The entity’s present configuration is satisfactory.  The chance the cycle can be interfered with has become infinitesimally small.

The shard that allows the entity to see the future is broken up, then recoded with strict limitations.  It wouldn’t do to have the capabilities turned against the entity or the shards.

The fragment it just used is sent off, directed to a small female.

The other fragments in that same cluster are retained.  To see the future is resource intensive, but the entity will harbor it as a safeguard.

More abilities are used to check, investigate, and then cast off.   The ability to communicate and receive signals is unnecessary now.  To transmit signals across wavelengths.  It, too, is intentionally crippled as an ability.  It would not do to have that one being used with regularity.  Such would be distracting for the entity and its counterpart.

When it knows the configuration is absolutely decided, it reaches for the last fragment it will cast off.  This one, too, it cripples, even largely destroys, so as to limit the host from using it in the same fashion.

In a haste to decide matters before it enters the stratosphere of that barren planet, the entity casts it off to a similar location as the future-sight ability.  A similar time, thirty-one revolutions from now.  The destination is a male, thin, in the company of strong males and females, drinking.

And with that, the entity lands on the barren planet.

The planet revolves around its star once before the entity even moves.

The entity rises and extends its perceptions across multiple realities.

It’s time.

Chrysalis.

The entity changes.

A star that burns twice as hot burns for half as long.

Not truly, but the entity is aware of the idioms and patterns of this world, is already thinking periodically in terms of the words and ideas of their languages, to frame thoughts for itself in this pivotal moment.  It serves to help codify the messages and intent.

The entities burn as hot as any star, with their sheer mass, their scale, the power they wield.  This is acceptable while traveling the void, when much of the body remains in a hibernation state.  Stored energy is expended as a resource, to view the future, to perceive and communicate.

But this is not sustainable here, in this phase of the cycle, when the entity is so much smaller.

The entity has cast off all but the most essential parts of itself, distributing the shards throughout this reality.  More shards will shower on other realities in time, likely around the point the first have started fragmenting in greater numbers

Cycle to cycle, the role changes.  Direct involvement, watching from afar, being visible or staying out of sight.  Different roles to shepherd the shards through different worlds.

The entity takes shape.  It retains the capabilities it had when it first arrived.

Imago.  Adult state.

Much of it is still too large for the target reality.  It leaves that portion of itself behind, maintains a connection.  A safeguard.  The body it uses is but an extension, a tendril.

It codifies the thoughts and memories of the society it investigated into a usable fashion.

Then it waits.

Sentinel.

Time passes.  A revolution of the planet around its star.

Something has gone wrong.  It is time, but it has not received a broadcast from the counterpart.

The entity emerges, stepping into the target reality.

It can see its shards showering down from above like meteors traveling the void.   The first to arrive.

It can see the shards of the counterpart.

Not all are intact.

Dead shards.  Damaged ones.  Vital shards, even, going to hosts.

The entity destroys these on sight.  They are corrupt, ruined.  They will fail to provide usable results.

Extending its perception over the world and other realities, the entity can sense everything at once.  It can sense conflict.  Wars.

It remains aware of its limited lifespan.  Three thousand and six hundred revolutions.  To search like this costs a tenth of one revolution’s time.  There is more than enough remaining before the cycle concludes.

Or there should be.

The entity abandons the search.  Enough information has been obtained for it to know.

The counterpart is dead.

For a very long time, the entity is still.  It does not move, and instinctively holds back every ability, as if conserving energy in the face of a vast threat.

But this is not a threat that it can weather, like a storm of acid rain: The cycle has been disrupted.

Worse, it is terminated.  The entities have altered themselves so that each half of a pairing serves part of a role.  It is only with the counterpart that it can gestate, that it can modify the individual shards, cast the next generation out and start the cycle anew.

In seeking to understand the host creatures, the entity had coded shards to emulate them.  It is those same shards that experience the entity’s first ever emotion.

Crushed.

The entity comes to experience a deep, profound sadness, for the very first time.

Time passes, as the entity considers the ramifications.  The sky grows dark, then light again.  Dark, then light.

A structure, a vehicle approaches.  A hull pierces the water as it draws nearer.  A crowd stands on the uppermost surface, gathering.  They stare, even babble among themselves, their voices jumbling together, a hum, a blur.  He can see into the other realities that lie adjacent to this one, similar people, similar crowds.

Drone.

Buzz.

They are communicating, and the entity is unconcerned.  It watches as they draw close to the edge of the vehicle, pressing themselves against the barrier that was erected at the edge.  They reach out.

They worship him.  Of course they do.  His form was crafted to fit the values of this reality.  They hold faith, and the entity chose a shape that fit the most celebrated figures of the most popular faiths.  Race divides this species, so the entity deliberately chose a form that didn’t fit any one race, with skin and hair given the color and texture of another thing they celebrated and worshipped – a mineral.

This is intentional.

The entity sees a shard already taking root in one of the vehicle’s passengers.  One of the dead shards, damaged.  The entity’s vision allows it to see the man’s inside, the damage.  He is dying of a systemic issue in his body, producing the wrong type of cells in the wrong places.

The entity reaches out, feels others touch his hand before the male finally makes contact.  A simple wavelength serves to kill specific cells.

The shard will grow now, damaged as it is.

With that, the golden man turns from the crowd and flies away.

The Entity slowed as a figure barred its path.  A female, with her arms outstretched.  Smaller life forms were arranged around and behind it.

Vaguely familiar.

“Stop, Scion,” the female said.

The entity came to a complete stop.  It could see the connection to the female’s shard, the activity as it broadcast signals, reaching out to contact lifeforms throughout the area, coordinating them.

All around the entity, there were shards in varying states of maturation.  The female’s was among the most mature.  Seasoned by conflict, heavy with information, lessons learned, tactics, applications, organization.  It had already fragmented once, heavy enough with information that it could afford to handle other roles.  The fragment would have a derivative ability, and given proximity, it would hopefully remain close enough to exchange information with the shard that it had split off from.  There were no signs of that exchange.  The female had separated ways from the fragment.

The entity recognized her shard.  The last one that had split off before the entity took on this form.

Queen.

The entity’s despair deepened for a moment.  It was a good thing that the shards were harvesting such good information, but nothing would come of it.  The cycle had been disrupted.

“I know you want to help, but it’s too dangerous.  You’re too strong, and this situation is fragile.  It’ll do more harm than good.”

More harm than good.  Scion accepted that as a given and decided to stay where he was.

The female kept on talking as memories stirred.

A male approached.  No shard, no powers.  The area was dark, the planet turned away from its star.  The entity was hovering over the highest point of a short bridge that spanned a river.

Lost.  It had created itself for a purpose it could no longer fulfill.

The male pulled off one foot-covering, hefted it, then threw it.  It bounced off the entity’s face, not even eliciting a blink.

The male hauled on the other foot-covering, but it was too tightly bound.

He gave up, half-hopping, half running up the length of the bridge, pounded his fists on the entity’s chest, scratched, clawed.  Aggressive actions, but it didn’t matter.  The entity was invulnerable.  It could glance into the immediate future and know there was no potential reality where this male would be able to harm it.

Not that it mattered.

“Damn you!” the male cried out.  “Fucking perfect golden man!  Fuck you!  Just… just bleed!  Fucking feel this!”

A strike to the entity’s face.  The male nearly fell from the bridge.  The entity would have let him.

“You don’t- you don’t deserve this!  This power!”  The male sniveled, mucus running from his nose.  Flecks of spit dotted his lips from the sheer force of his words.

“They keep saying you’re fucking sad!?  What do you have to be sad about?  You weren’t beaten black and blue by a fucking girl you were too chickenshit to hit back!  You haven’t been kicked around by motherfucking teenagers who thought it’d be good for a lark!  Buggered against your will… no!  You get to be untouchable!”

The male clawed and scratched, long dirty fingernails scraping at the entity’s body, clawing at a nipple, at the part the entity had crafted to look like genitalia.  Nothing did any harm.  Even the dirt skidded off, failing to find any traction in the entity’s skin.

The male collapsed, his face pressed up against the entity’s chest.  His mucus and saliva slid off with the same ease the dirt had.

“Fuck you.  Fuck you, golden man.  You don’t… you don’t deserve to be miserable.  Or you don’t deserve to be miserable and useless.  Fucking burden on society, distracting people from shit that needs doing.  Fuck you, you ponce.  You… Fuck you!  Go do something.  Never got that.  All these sad fucks that kill themselves or hide away… if you’re going to be miserable without a damn excuse, go to Africa and help those damn kids who were orphaned in wars.  Go… save people from burning buildings.  Help clean up after disasters.  Work in a fucking soup kitchen or something.  I don’t care.”

The man’s voice had gone quiet, barely more than a whisper.

Another pound of fist against the entity’s flesh.

“I don’t care if it’s penance or if it’s a fucking way to kill time.  Do some goddamn good, and maybe you’ll feel like you’re worth a damn.  Maybe you’ll stop being so fucking miserable.”

The entity continued to stare out over the city.  It absorbed the words, considered them.

It was a task.  A role it could play.

It was something.  What had this male said?  Which were ones the entity could achieve?

Save orphans in wars.  Rescue people from burning buildings.  Clean up after disasters.

The entity took flight once more.

The entity remained patient.  Patient then, patient now.

“…You could go to Houston or New York, even.  That’s far enough away from Jack,” the young female with the administration shard was still speaking, quiet, intense, urging without prodding.

The entity and the young female were still hovering over what was becoming a major site of conflict.  The entity extended its senses over the area.

At the center of it all was a man.  Not at the center, but everything tied to him.  Everything moved in relation to him, and he moved in relation to others.

The entity stared, intrigued.

“…We can’t stay here.  Come on.”  The female host was still talking.

The female paused, waiting.

“Orrrr you don’t understand what I’m saying.  Or you don’t care.  Fuck me.  Listen to me, Scion.  Pay attention.”

The entity turned its attention to the young female.  Its hands found the entity’s, pulled.

There was a meaning behind the gesture, but the entity was too lost in observing what was going on below to care.

A confrontation had started between a young male and an older one.  A fragment of a shard against a very mature shard.  The most mature shard in this area, at a glance.

The more mature power was unleashed.  A wavelength power, a kinetic transmission.

The entity watched, and it recognized the shard at work.

The broadcast shard.  One that had been crippled, just like the shard of the female that floated before the entity now.  The same shard that had managed communication between the entity and its counterpart.

The entity turned to observe another conflict.  One shard was connected to eight individuals.  A lesser shard, connected to eight unusual hosts.

The eight advanced in clusters, moving towards the various individuals that seemed to be hostile to them.  The shards connected to each individual provided more detail than anything else.

“You big golden idiot!  Come on.”

Her subjects formed a thick cloud, blocking the entity’s vision.  No matter.  It could still perceive the world.

“Come on!”

She pulled harder.

The entity turned to follow the confrontations.

The male with the broadcasting power was swinging his sword.  The younger one was erecting defenses, lashing out.

Their shards were reacting.  The entity could see how every aggressive shift in the younger one was met by an instinctual retreat in the older.  Cause and effect, invisible but there.  The nature of the shifts changed as they started speaking.

To strike the one with the mature passenger was akin to trying to catch a leaf in the wind.  The hand moved the air which moved the leaf, and it slid just out of reach, just beyond the hand’s grasp.

Ah.  There.  A narrow miss.  The male slid out of reach, and he prepared to go on the offensive.  His shard shifted, just as ready and able to capitalize on the weakness in offense as he was able to evade trouble in defense.

A shard flared to life, and the entity saw an effect take hold around it.  It reached out and found a barrier it could not penetrate.

Cell.

Its hand was moved back to the previous position.  It was caught in a sinkhole of distorted time.  Over and over again, it moved in a steady loop.

Snare.

A trap.

The city burned, and the entity wielded its power.  Controlled wavelengths disrupted the molecules, extinguished each source of heat, inside and out, rendering it a little cooler than the ambient temperature.

Countless individuals fled for safety, running in droves.  The entity watched, but it did not rest.

It hadn’t rested in years.  The longest it had stood still was in the company of Kevin Norton, where the man gave it a white covering that clung to its body.  As instructed, the entity kept the cloth clean, pushing out energy in patterns and yields that would drive out the soil and smoke while leaving the cloth intact.

It lowered itself to get a better angle on one blaze in the basement area of a library.  In the doing, purely by accident, it lowered itself to eye level with a female on a balcony.

The female was startled, afraid, unable to even breathe.  It could look inside the female and see the emotions as an increased heart rate, hormones and adrenaline churning through her system.

It almost blurted out the words.  “Kto vy?

The entity understood the Russian words as it understood all languages, through the knowledge it had scanned for and codified, prior to arriving.

It remembered the instructions Kevin Norton had provided.  To be polite, to be considerate.

Speaking, nonetheless, was an unfamiliar concept.

How to answer?  The entity did not know what it was.  It had no role but the one ascribed to it by Kevin Norton.

In thinking of the man, the entity thought of a thing the man had said.  A word in the midst of a story about ill-behaved spawn.

As it did most words, the entity had searched its memory for details on the concept.

Zion.

A promised land.

A utopia.  A harmonious kingdom.

The promised land could be this world at its climax, the shards at critical mass, the entity and its counterpart bringing about the end of the cycle.  It could be utopia, as the entity understood the term.

It could be the world at peace, people saved from hardship, as Kevin Norton had described it.

Whether the entity was somehow able to return to its original task or whether it continued carrying out Kevin Norton’s answers in an attempt to find itself, the term fit.

Zion,” it spoke.

Memories.  A refuge, a reminder of how things should be, if the cycle were intact.  There would be more shards, more conflict, but it would be more controlled.  The dead shards polluted the setting, almost too numerous.

The female with the administrator shard had long since fled, covering the retreat with her small army of lesser lifeforms, more traps snapping into place in her wake.

It thinks of Zion, and it thinks of other metaphors and ideas.  In the thirty-three revolutions since arriving on this planet, the entity has had time to think.  It has saved a lot of individuals from harm, heard many prayers.

It was aware of everything that occurred around it.  The planet’s star moved across the sky, above the dark, heavy clouds of moisture.  Small movements, but movements nonetheless.

It thought of the beetle in one mythology, rolling the orb across the sky.

It was an idea that persisted across mythologies.  ScarabChariotThe Brother.  The Sky Barge.

Abstract thought.  Was that the sort of pattern that led to a connection, an inspired idea in the development of new shards?  The entity wasn’t sure.  Its counterpart was supposed to handle such matters, retain that capacity for thought and analysis.

Its physical body continued to loop in time.  It didn’t matter.

The conflict continued.  The broadcaster was moving in and out of trouble, relying on a pronounced projection that was being emitted by a dead shard to provide further protection.  There was another entity nearby.  A boy with another dead shard.  Odd, that they had gravitated towards the broadcaster.

Mature shards, a situation ripe with conflict, so much to be gained, and nothing could be done with that.  The entity felt a hint of another emotion, dismissed it.  The simulation of the host-creature’s psychology was only that.  A simulation.

It would spend some time here.  Nothing would change in any event.  Kevin Norton had passed.

The entity observed the ongoing conflict.  No less than five seconds after it had been trapped, two figures had emerged from a doorway between worlds.  The entity could see the paths forming, trace them back to the source.  Another world, a living world without a shard occupying it.

They engaged the eight with their own perception abilities, intervening to assist a group of others.  As a pair, they opened fire with guns, then waded into hand to hand combat.

The entity looked at the male, and it saw the connection to the same shard as the eight.  His connection was stronger, more mature.

It looked at the female, and it saw a shard that wasn’t its own, but wasn’t dead.

Puzzling.

The fight progressed.  Strikes with weapons and with the creature’s limbs were evaded, a careful dance of attacks where each edge and bludgeon touched skin, many even shaving off the finer hairs from cheeks, noses and chins.

The male fought the eight in such a way that they couldn’t move without exposing themselves to attacks from the female.  Each movement placed the male in a path for obvious harm, a fatal blow, but the eight could not capitalize on that.  At the same time, he positioned himself in such a way that four or five at a time were unable to retreat.  Not just in reach of weapons, but in reach of arms, elbows, for being taken hostage.

The female felled three of the eight, and the situation was decided.  The remaining five dropped to a position where they sat on their knees.  She spoke, and an interdimensional portal appeared behind them.

They crawled through, heads down, and the portal closed.

The pair glanced up at the entity as another wormhole opened.  They stared.

The entity, in turn, faced a different direction, but it could perceive them nonetheless.

They disappeared back into the portal.

Puzzling.

The entity observed as the fight concluded elsewhere.

The broadcaster remained unaware as an individual without any attachment to shards at all entered the confined space, unloading a vaguely familiar substance over the group.  Something the entity might recollect if it had access to all of its memories.  A technology.

It didn’t matter.

The entity watched as the broadcaster was sealed in a time distortion.

A female, standing just outside another time distortion, walked around the effect, charging objects with energy.  The entity could see as the small pieces of alloyed metal unfolded, taking shape in not just this world, but all realities, at the same space and time, bristling with an effect that would sever their attachment to most physical laws.

They were thrown, and they disrupted connections to two shards at once.  The projection disappeared, only to reappear a distance away.  The boy who had created the time distortions fell as well.

Sting, the entity thought.  Once it had been a weapon for his kind, against his kind, back in the beginning, when they had dwelt in oceans of gray sludge.

The others hurried to confine the broadcaster.  They were apparently aware of what he could do.

Interesting.

“Just you and me,” Tecton said.  “That’s what he said.  Between gasps of pain, anyways.  ‘I wish I had better company, but I’ll take what I can get.  Ironic, that you’re so boring.”

Golem looked at his old leader.  “That’s it?”

Tecton shook his head.  “He said, ‘I bet you think you’re noble.  You’re not.  You’re uglier than any of us, sparky.”

“And?”

“And that’s it.  The D.T. guy foamed up the gap, I raised the shelf, you closed the hand, and he was completely sealed in.”

“You’re right.  That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“He hasn’t ever met me.”

Golem shook his head.  “Doesn’t seem world ending.”

I always hated the blank… slates,” Jack groaned the last word.  His utterances were finding an odd cadence or rhythm between the gasps of pain, the fresh wounds that were actively criss-crossing his body, opening his stomach, his intestine being gripped and pulled through the wound as if by an invisible force.

The foam weighed him down, and in the midst of the complete and total darkness, he stared skyward.

“…Never that interesting…”  He grunted.  “Never created art, never… created variation...  you’re worse than… most…”

High above, the entity listened.

Tattletale listened over the earbud microphones as Tecton finished relating Jack’s statements.

She raised her eyes from the computer.  Her underlings were arranged around the room, along with others.  Her soldiers were at the ready, alongside Imp’s Heartbroken,  the first and second in command of the Red Hands, Charlotte, Forrest and Sierra.

Sierra was bouncing her leg nervously.  She’d cut off her dreads, and her hair was short to the point of being in a buzz cut, with a fringe flopping over one side of her forehead.  But for the hair and two small hoop earrings in one ear, she was a businesswoman.  Had to be, when she was the ostensible owner of all of Brockton Bay’s prime real estate.

Charlotte was in the company of one of the children, holding him close.  Her fingers toyed with a paper origami cube, and she was doing her best not to look like she was poised on the edge of her seat for any news at all.

The second she gave the word, they’d be ready to evacuate the city, to get people onto the trains and moved through the portal.

But…

“Things have settled,” she said.  “Jack is contained.”

She could see them all relax as if strings that had held them rigid had just been cut.

“That’s it?”

“I don’t know,” Tattletale said.  She grinned wide.  “But if the world is ending, then it’s an awfully quiet end.”

There were chuckles here and there, nervous relief.

“Go home, or go do whatever,” she said.  “I’ll be in touch with more news, let you know how your territory leaders, past or present, are coping.”

As a crowd, the others began filtering out.  Sierra stayed where she was, pensive, but the nervous bouncing of her leg had stopped.

Charlotte, too, remained.

“Sup?” Tattletale asked.

“It’s him,” Charlotte said.

“Aidan.  Hi Aidan.”

“He triggered yesterday.  It… didn’t take much.  Which is probably good.”

Aidan hung his head.

“That’s excellent,” Tattletale said.  She looked at the seven year old.  “How are you?”

“Okay.  Had a nightmare for the first time in a long, long time.  I woke up and I was sleepwalking, and I didn’t know where I was… I got scared, and then it happened.”

“What happened afterwards?” Tattletale asked.

“Birds.”

“Birds.  I see.  Interesting,” she said.  Her eye moved over to the boards that marked the perimeters of the room.  Each was packed with information in her small, tight, flowing handwriting.  Messy, but she’d gotten good at putting pen to paper these past few years

“I push and the birds go where I pushed.  Or I pull and they fly away from that spot.  It’s hard to do.  I can see what they see, but not while I’m controlling them.”

“Like Taylor, but birds, and not that flexible.  I see.”

“We suspected he would trigger,” Charlotte said.

Tattletale looked up, surprised.

“Aidan had a dream one night, back when the nightmares stopped.  He drew that picture.”

“Picture?”

“I gave it to you.  I kind of emphasized it might be important.”

“Pretty sure that didn’t happen,” Tattletale said.  She stood from her desk.  “Sorry, Aidan, to squabble in front of you, but Charlotte needs to remember I don’t tend to miss stuff like that.”

“All that money you’ve given me for helping to look after the territory?  The money for the kids?  I’d stake it all on what I’m saying now.  I promise, I swear I handed you that picture.”

Tattletale frowned.

“I swear,” Charlotte said, for emphasis.

“Then there’s a fucked up stranger power at work.  Don’t like that idea.  Let’s see.  Um.  I store everything in a rightful place.  If you handed me a picture… was it here?”

“Here.”

Tattletale crossed the room.  She pulled a bin off a shelf, then sorted through file folders.

Charlotte said, “There.”

Tattletale stopped, then went back a page.

“Huh.  I stand corrected.”

There was a beep on the computer.  Tattletale went back to the computer to investigate, shrugged, then sat down.

“Well?” Charlotte asked.

“Well what?”

“The picture.”

Tattletale frowned.  “What picture?”

“What’s going on?” Aidan asked.

Charlotte stalked over to the bin that was still out, grabbed the paper, then slammed it down on the desk.  “I don’t think a piece of paper can have superpowers.  Pay attention.  Focus  Memorize.”

Tattletale frowned.  She turned her attention to the paper.

There was a block there.  She felt it slide out of her mind’s eye, caught herself.

She turned her attention to the surroundings, the underlying ideas.

“Aidan?  Describe it to me.  I don’t know what you drew.”

“Those are kind of like fish, or worms, or whales, but they fold and unfold in ways that are hard to understand, and there’s stuff falling off them.  Those are stars, and-“

Tattletale felt something fall into place.

As though a floodgate had opened, the pieces started coming together.  She stood from the desk, striding across the room.

There were still gaps in her work on the boards, where she was outlining everything, trying to decipher the underlying questions.  Now, she began unpinning things from the board.

She was remembering, and she was putting it together, now.  There was a block, but she’d formed enough connections now that things were going around the block.

The whole.  The idea had stuck with her.

All powers fed back into a greater whole, each was a piece of a greater construct.

Of Aidan’s fish-whale-worm things.

But that wasn’t it.

No.  It didn’t fit in terms of timeline.

There was more.

“Like gods,” she said, recalling.

“Like viruses, like gods, like children,” Charlotte said.  “Back on the day I first met you, you said that.”

Like viruses, infecting a cell, converting it into more viruses, bursting forth to infect again.

Like gods.  So much power, all gathered together.  All powers stemmed from them.

Like children.  Innocents?

Blank slate.

“Oh,” Tattletale breathed out the word.

“Tattletale?” Sierra asked.

“Oh balls.”

“I’m notDarwinist,” Jack gasped.  “None of that… bullshit.  Augh!  I’m… I think it is simple-“

He continued grunting.  His switch to turn off the pain took a second to activate, took deliberate action, but getting in the rhythm meant he could buy himself one or two seconds of relief with each loop.  It was a question of concentration, and his concentration slipped.

“It’s simpler.  Us monsters and…  psychopathswe gravitate towards… predation, because we were originally… predators.  Originally had to hunt…  Had to be brutal, cruel…”

He paused, spending a few moments grunting in pain, letting the loops continue.

“Order to survive.  Violence was what made us… or broke us back… in the beginning.”

The entity was patient.  It had time to spare.

Saint swayed slightly in his seat.

The information continued to stream in along a dozen different channels.

Too much.  It was too much, but somehow, somewhere along the line, they’d succeeded.

Jack was contained.  Things were quiet.

Until he noted someone bludgeoning their way through Dragon’s password security.  A series of personal questions, ranging from a favorite texture to something about a pet name for Dragon to a question about the first results of the ten by ten game.

The first two were answered in order.

DefiantGetting access to the system?

No, too crude, too obvious.

The individual stalled on the last question.

He waited a few long moments, then saw the same individual making calls to Defiant.  Three communiques, initiated within one or two seconds of one another.  Then emails, to the PRT and Defiant both.

Saint intercepted it.

Fuck, finally!”

“What are you trying, Tat-“

Shut up and listen, douchestain.  It’s Scion.  He’s the point where it all catalyzes!  And I just clued into the fact that he can probably sense Jack!  Get Grue back to the area, blanket Jack in darkness, now!  Now, now, now!”

“Mags!” he shouted.  “Dobrynja!  Get Grue back to the scene now!  This is it!”

“On it!” the reply came back.  There was a pause.  “Grue is four miles away!”

“Teleporter,” he said.

“We don’t have any that survived the last few Endbringer fights!”

Saint hesitated.

Too far, it would be too late.

The woman who claimed she could control Scion.

His tired fingers flew over the keyboard.  He dug up the file.

It had been seen to.  They’d taken her name, but there’d been no proof.  Hearsay.

Hearsay was better than nothing.

The cyborg was piloting the closest Azazel.  Controlling it could be seen as an attack.  The cyborg would fight, wrestle him for control.

He opened up the window for a message, instead, even as he used the full access Dragon had for every camera, email and phone message to find this Lisette.

A Hail Mary, if there ever was one.

“Defiant,” he said, overriding everything in his way to open communications with the cyborg.  “Help me.”

The entity followed the movements of the various individuals around the battlefield.  More containment foam was being layered over the broadcaster, burying the area.

A noise, a blare that had people doubling over, covering their ears, started emanating from one of the craft.

The craft launched a second later, flying right for the time distortion.

It crashed into the area of warped time, wrapping forelimbs, tail and rear claw around the irregularly shaped feature.

The blaring noise stopped as a voice emanated from the speakers.

“Scion.  Zion.  Golden Man.  It’s Lisette.  Kevin Norton introduced us.  What the man down there is saying… whatever he’s saying, don’t listen.  Turn away.  Please.

Turn away.

The entity moved, and it broke through the time distortion effect with ease.  The craft fell head over heels before propulsion kicked in.  It had to fly in zig-zags to keep pace with the entity’s slow retreat from the scene.

I- uh.  You broke free.  Okay, good.  Leave.  Run!  Please go.  I’m- I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to talk to you before.  You never came back to that spot, and I could never reach you to talk to you.  There was help you needed and I couldn’t give it.  I went to authorities, and nobody believed me.  But now, now maybe I can give you advice.  We can work on this together?  As a pair?  Is that alright?

The entity didn’t respond.

I hope it’s alright,” she said.

The entity took flight, leaving it all behind.

Leave.  Run.

It didn’t return to the task of saving lives.  For a period, it only flew.

It stopped when it had circled the world twice, hovering over the ocean where it had first appeared.

The broadcaster had finished speaking just a moment before the craft had launched, oblivious to the blaring noise that had been intended to drown him out.  What I don’t understand, is why a blank slate like you would default to doing good deeds, rescuing cats from trees.  Why not turn to that violence, as our ancestors did?  It drove them, just like it drives the basest and most monstrous of our kind.

Had he known he had a listening ear?  Had it merely been a struggle to continue doing what he’d instinctively done for decades?

The shards retained memories, motivated, pushed.

The entity looked to the future, looked to possible worlds, and it saw the ways this could have unfolded.  It burned a year off of the entity’s life, but he had thousands to spare anyways.

There was a scene where the entity stood over the broadcaster’s corpse and ruminated on what had driven the male to such extremes.  The shard wasn’t a particularly aggressive one.

A scene where the man died, and years passed, the entity slowly coming to the same conclusions as it observed the rest of the species.

The entity had done good deeds for years, at Kevin Norton’s suggestion, waiting and hoping for the reward, the realization.  When none had occurred, it had simply kept doing what it had been doing.  Seeking out alternatives wasn’t even in the realm of imagination, because imagination was something it lacked.

It had power, though, and if either the counterpart or the cycle had been intact, they could have filled in for that imagination.

Still, it could experiment.

It gathered its power, then aimed at the nearest, largest population center.  Kevin Norton’s birthplace.

The golden light speared forth, and the island shattered, folding, parts of it rising from the ocean.  Crumpled like paper in a fist.

The entity did not eliminate the smoke or the waves that followed.  It simply let the aftermath occur.

The simulated human mind within the entity felt a glimmer of something at that.  Pleasure?  Relief?  Satisfaction?

Something deeper inside, something primal, tied to memories back in the beginning, before the beginning, responded in a very similar fashion.

The entity extended its perceptions outward, felt the reaction, the outcry.  It turned words around in its head, as if it were broadcasting to itself.

Scourge.

Extermination.

Extinction.

That last one was the one to fit.

An interesting experience.  After so much focus on the species as a whole, the evolution and development of the shards, on the cycle

In this, it almost felt like it was evolving as an individual, moment to moment.

The entity opened fire once again, and this time it struck out at the coastline on the opposite side of the ocean.

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Interlude 26b

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The house was bustling with activity, even this early in the morning.  Ten children, aged four to seventeen, were doing their utmost to get ready for their morning activities.  It was a rule, that everyone had to keep busy.  A way, really, for the Gails to have a chance to breathe.

“You all set?” Mr. Gail asked, looking at him.

“Yeah.”

“Need a ride to your co-op?”

“No.  Takes about as long to take the bus.”

Mrs. Gail smiled.  “Thank you, Theo.”

He shrugged, feeling awkward.  It had only been a few nights ago that she’d brought him an ice cream sandwich, something she hadn’t done for the other foster kids the Gails were looking after.  She’d thanked him ‘for being one of the easy ones’.

He hadn’t eaten the ice cream sandwich.  Getting fit was too important, and it was already an uphill battle.

Still, it had been nice.

As he’d started habitually doing, he took time in front of the mirror to check his appearance before making his way out the door.

It was all too surreal.  Endbringer attacks every two months, punctuated by periods of mundane life and intense, focused training.  Life continued as normal, with just a little more fear.  It wasn’t the reaction he might have expected, but it was a reaction.  Everyone was a little different, animated, as though they sensed the encroaching danger, the ominous, inevitable end.  Just like one person might react to a near-death experience with a new gusto for life, society as a whole reacted to each Endbringer attack.

Not celebrating, not with the inevitable death tolls, but perhaps breathing a collective sigh of relief.

In a way, Theo mused, people seemed to sense that there was a dark cloud on the horizon.  Beyond even the Endbringers, there seemed to be an unspoken acknowledgement that things were well beyond their control.  That this thing with capes and parahumans wasn’t going to turn out alright.

The illusion built up around the whole ‘cape’ thing had broken, but people weren’t talking about it.

Surreal, as though everyone was spending more time pretending than they were spending focused on reality.

Odder still, that he’d been one of them.  He’d grown up with the reality of what happened when powers came in contact with the people who shouldn’t have them, but he’d pretended.  He’d wrapped himself in delusions and false assurances.

Getting off the bus, he arrived at the PRT building before many of the employees.  It was easier that way, because it meant he didn’t need to go through all of the usual precautions.

Taylor was awake when he arrived, her hair damp from a recent shower.

“Want to run?” she asked.  She was already stretching her arms.  She had little enough body fat that the muscles stood out in her arms and shoulders.  Her long black curls were tied back into a loose ponytail, with some strands already slipping free to frame her face.

Muscles or no, she was still narrow, still tall.  If he didn’t know her, and if the situation called for it, he might think he could take her in a fight.  Building muscle came easily to him.  Building fat did too, unfortunately, but the end result was that he was physically imposing, even at sixteen.

Yet if they scrapped, he suspected he’d be left crumpled in a heap on the ground.  It was the way she fought.  The way she thought.

“If it’s okay with you,” he said, “I was kind of thinking I wanted to do some sparring first.”

She didn’t give any indication that it bothered her.  “Sparring’s fine.  You’ll be sore for the run, though.”

He shrugged.

“Well, maybe that’s good, learning to exert yourself when you’re hurting and tired.  Stretch well, though.  We don’t want you to lose more time to any injuries.”

He winced.  Few things set him back in his fitness regimen like a twisted ankle or stubbed fingers.

“Yeah.  I’ll stretch after I’ve got my stuff on.  Meet you in the gym?”

“Sure,” she said.

He was about to leave and do just that, but Taylor spoke up.  “Theo?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you still getting anything out of this sparring?  We’ve come up with techniques, you’re stringing them together, but there’s only so much you’re going to learn from me.  You might be better off working with the others.”

“I’m… no.  I’d like to keep sparring with you.  I’ll let you know if I don’t think I’m getting anything out of it.”

She nodded.

All business.  Hard.  So focused she was almost cruel, at times.

He left, heading to his quarters to collect his gear.

Spider silk bodysuit on.  Heavier weave fabric over that, followed by the armor, which went on in layers.

The weight of it was a comfort.  It was familiar, just a touch musty.

There was a knock on the door.  “Theo?”

Theo turned, then opened the door before returning to his armor.  He tested where the panels at his hip were placed, then adjusted the position on the belt before locking it in place.  “What’s up?  You’re here early.”

“Had a thought on the suit last night, knew I had to come in early to implement it or I’d be distracted all day, trying not to forget about it.”

Theo smiled.  “Tinker life is hard.”

Tecton chuckled.

“So you just wanted to say hi?”

“No.  There’s something else,” Tecton said.

Theo strapped on his pauldrons.  They consisted of more panels, and in a pinch they could be strapped to a point on his side or at his hip.  Backup, in case others were removed.

“I guess it’s kind of like the armor tweak thing.  I’ve got to bring this up now or I’ll never be able to find the right time, or I’ll forget, or whatever.”

“It’s serious?”

“Serious-ish.”

Theo turned, giving Tecton his full attention.

“It’s come up with the others, because there’s been points where things got uncomfortable, awkward, and we had to talk.  You’re the only one I haven’t discussed it with.”

“Weaver?” Theo guessed.

“Weaver.”

“I think I can guess where this is going.”

“She pushed Cuff a step too far, back when we went after Topsy.  It worked out.  Grace found herself at odds with Weaver when we went up against Deathadder.  There were hard feelings for a bit after that.  I don’t think Weaver knows she’s doing it.”

“I think she knows,” Theo said.  “I don’t know if she cares.”

“That’s not better.”

“Wasn’t saying it was.”

“Listen, Theo.  I’m not going to tell you to stop being her friend-”

“Is that what you told the others?”

“No.  But she isn’t exactly buddy-buddy with anyone else on the team, is she?”

“She’s not good at making friends.  I’m not either.  I get what you’re saying.”

“I hope so.”

“But we came from the same city.  We’ve got common background.  And we’re maybe the only people who are buying into this end of the world thing.”

“That’s- that’s good.  That’s fine,” Tecton said.  He didn’t manage to sound convincing.  “But…”

Of course there’s a but.

“…I can tell you, she pushes herself hard.  We’ve all seen it.  She expects everyone to match her in that, up until you demonstrate you can’t.  She’ll back off then, but… that’s not a guarantee that there won’t be some permanent damage.”

“Permanent damage,” Theo echoed his team leader.

“Physically, emotionally.  Or even to your relationship with her.  I hate to put you on the spot, but… do you like her?”

“As a friend, sure.”

Tecton didn’t respond.  He waited.

Theo shifted his weight, felt the armor at his shoulder shift, and turned his attention to adjusting the clasp.  It made for an excuse to break eye contact.  “Nobody else is here, right?  Nobody’s going to overhear from the hallway?”

“Just me and you.  I ran into Weaver as she was heading upstairs.”

“She can hear through her bugs.”

“I know.  I asked her not to listen in.  I’m going to hope she won’t breach that trust.  And if she does, if she is listening, then maybe hearing what I just said will be a wake-up call for her.”

Theo nodded.  He ventured, “A little.”

“A little wake up call?”

“No.  What you were saying.  I like her a little.  But that’s not really me and her.  That’s me being a big enough loser that I fall in love with any girl that spends more than five minutes with me.  We wouldn’t work out, I know, because I know how hard she can be to get along with.”

“You’re not pursuing anything?”

“If I like anyone, it’s Ava.  But she has the boyfriend-”

“Not anymore.  It was another point of contention, Weaver keeping us so busy she couldn’t maintain a personal life.  We’ve… geared down on that front, made sure we had downtime, but that didn’t fix the rift in her relationship.”

“Oh.”

There was a pause.

“Wait a while before approaching her,” Tecton said.  “You’d make a good pair, and I think you’re both nice enough you’d make it out okay after a breakup.  Anything more, anything that happens after this, do your best to convince me and the bosses it isn’t happening.”

Theo nodded.

“But on the subject of Weaver, I don’t think it would be nearly as good or welcome.  I’d even recommend you back down.  I can arrange training schedules with the others, if you want to maintain your regimen.  Work on your versatility.

“I appreciate the offer-”

“-Hear me out,” Tecton said, raising one gauntlet.  “You like her.  Maybe you’re a little in love with her.  That’s normal.  I’ve been there, had that phase where I fell in love with girls really easily, ’bout a year ago.  I’m glad I came out of it in one piece.  So to speak.”

Tecton laughed a little at that, self-depreciating.  Theo smiled in sympathy.

Tecton continued.  “But there have to be times you’re… not so keen on her.  You said it yourself.  She’s hard to get along with.”

“Yeah,” Theo said.

“I’m worried that if this training continues, a rift will form.  You’ll stop being able to function as a team.”

Theo nodded.  “I understand where you’re coming from.  I do.  But…”

“But you’re going to keep doing it.  The training.”

Theo only nodded.

“Good luck, then.  I should get going to school.”

“Later, Everett.  Thanks for being straight with me.”

“Later, Theo.  Patrol tonight.  You and… Cuff?”

Theo smiled, shaking his head a little.  “Sure.”

With that, Tecton was gone, his heavy boots making surprisingly little sound as he walked over to his own quarters to remove the armor.

Theo prepared the rest of his armor, leaving the mask off, and walked briskly over to the gym.

Weaver was already in her full costume, framed by a half-circle of bugs.

“Done?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“Everything okay?”

He nodded.  “Yeah.”

“I was thinking you should work on your vaults with the hands chained together.  If you-”

“Full contact,” he blurted out the words.

She stopped.  “Sorry.  I should have asked.  Seems like you know what you want to do, already.”

“I do.  Yeah,” he said.  “You against me.  A real match.”

She nodded.  “This have something to do with your talk with Tecton?”

“Yeah.  But not like you’re thinking.”

“Alright,” she answered.  Her bugs shifted position.

It was a signal.  Theo let himself settle into a better fighting pose, hands close to the panels.

She didn’t fly for cover.  She didn’t move further away from the surfaces of the ground, walls or ceiling.  She made a beeline straight for him, flying low to the ground.

He created hands, but she reacted with an inhuman quickness.  A fault of his power, that it was so easily telegraphed.  Kaiser wasn’t so unfortunate.

But that wasn’t the entirety of it.  Her bugs crawled on the ground’s surface.  She felt their movements like she felt a touch on her own body.  The moment a hand started protruding, she knew.

Bees, wasps and cockroaches settled on his armor, covered his lenses.  He shook his head to clear his vision, saw her fly right between his legs, turning her body to slip through the gap.

He turned, felt a hand on the side of his head, a pull that capitalized on his shift of balance.

He looked up just in time to see the lights of her flight pack go dark.  She let herself fall, settling one knee on his shoulder, the other at the space where his shoulder joined his neck.  Over a hundred pounds of weight settling on top of him while he was off-balance, disoriented.

He fell, and she leaped off him, out of reach.

Roll with the attacks, use them.

He let his chest strike the ground, his arms sinking into the ground.  He reached.

But she was too quick, already reacting.  She positioned herself on the battlefield, not behind him, not on either side, but above.  Forcing him to look up, disorienting.  A slight shift of position forced him to turn around to keep her in sight.  A failure to keep her in his sights saw her darting close to strike, to knock him off-balance.

And that was her.  The bugs were massing, looping threads of silk, biting and stinging.

Short of her refusal to deal permanent injury or kill him, she barred no holds, showed no mercy, offered little kindness, if any.  There wasn’t a thought to his morale, to the fact that she was systematically, methodically destroying the confidence he was building up.

No.  Not heartless, not wholly inconsiderate.  She tore him down because she trusted him to pull himself back together, to rebuild that lost confidence and redouble his efforts.

Nevertheless, this was one of those moments where he found himself hating her a little.  His fondness for her shrunk a fraction.  He felt, even though he’d asked for this, the slightest sense of betrayal.

Nothing Tecton had said was new.  He knew this stuff.  Knew that walking down this road and continuing this training was going to hurt things between himself and Weaver in the long run.  Somewhere along the line, their friendship would suffer.  They’d dial up the seriousness of what they were doing, focus more on business than friendship.

He knew.

She knew.

Weaver caught his legs, flying between them, catching his knees in the crooks of her elbow, dropping him onto his back, hard.  He was already feeling trepidation at the run they’d scheduled for after this.  It was going to suck.

But it was necessary.  If she could just impart one useful lesson, it could make all the difference.  Some technique, some of her ruthlessness… something.

Anything would do.

Hookwolf’s storm of blades had been augmented to an endless range, the strength of the cuts, thrusts, slashes and stabs augmented a fraction by Jack’s power.  It didn’t make the cuts more severe, but only extended the strength and severity of the cuts to the peak point in the blade’s movement.  Heavy armor plates were scarred, cut and torn away.  The wounds to Golem’s face, arms, chest and legs were different, the pain oddly delayed, as if it took time to sink in.

Blue.”  The voice sounded so far away.

It was the push he needed.  He twisted around, very nearly collapsing in the process.  The blades scarred the armor at his back, and precedent suggested it wouldn’t last more than a few seconds.  It was a chance to move.  To run.  He’d have time to run, to get to the nearest alley, before the armor was shredded.  He could use his power to block it off, to buy himself time, contact the others…

All he had to do was put one foot in front of the other.  Get away first, then attend to the rest.

His foot raised off the ground, and as if he were walking through a doorway that marked the point between reality and a dream, he felt the strength go out of him.  He felt red-hot pain that seemed drastically out of proportion for the small areas it was concentrated into, all across his front.  Felt warm, damp blood in his boots, squishing between his toes in their spider silk stockings.

The shock of it was the worst part.  Stunned, unable to shift mental gears, Golem collapsed.  The pain was worse, as he landed flat on his stomach.  He let out a guttural groan, mingled with despair.

Too hurt, too damaged.

I’m sorry, Theo.”

The last words he’d ever hear?

He waited for the end to come, but Hookwolf had stopped.

“This is the point where we have a long talk, Theodore,” Jack said.  “So I’ve had Hookwolf ease up on you.  You can bleed out while I taunt you, and maybe I talk about what I could do when we revisit your stepmother.  Gray Boy is the only person who may be able to touch her, but that doesn’t mean Bonesaw can’t give him a few things.”

Golem’s fingertips scraped against the surface of the road, as if he could find some kind of traction there.  When that failed he clenched his hand into a fist.

“It’s my favorite part,” Jack said.  “Except… you’re clearly not interested.  Stop talking, Jack.  Which means we skip right to it.”

Golem couldn’t see, but he felt it as Jack struck him.  Not Hookwolf’s blade, but that damn sword.  It hit him in the side, shearing through the metal of his armor, stopping at the reinforcing struts and spider silk armor beneath.  The force of the blow was enough to flip him over onto his back.  He was left gasping.

Golem shifted his head, saw his own chest as a mess of blood and grit from the road, a ruin of shredded armor.  The damage extended down his legs to the tops of his boots.

Further down, Jack rode Hookwolf like Hannibal astride his elephant, a small contingent of his ‘army’ behind him.

“What was it I said, back then?  Crotch…”

Jack lowered the blade, pointing.  He stabbed it forward a fraction, and Theo felt the impact on his armor, between his groin and his thigh.

“To…”

Jack moved the blade.  It dragged along Golem’s intact armor, and he could feel metal parting, the armor shifting, pulling against his ravaged chest.

Like a dream, something surreal.

He thrust his hands into the panels at his sides.

Hands emerged from his ruined armor, no larger than his own.  Each hand grasped the wrist of the other, pulled to draw each other closer together, to draw the ruined armor together.  Jack’s blade moved faster, before Theo could shore up the rest, raking across his ribcage, shoulder and the edge of his chin.  He could feel the blade rasp through bone.

Jack didn’t lower the sword after striking.  He left it there, his arm extended, the point aimed at the horizon.

It was a cue, an order.  The Nine began advancing, a crowd of them.

“D-” Golem started to speak, but his face was too ruined.  Couldn’t see out of one eye, and that cut to his chin made even moving his jaw too painful.

RedEleven.

He didn’t even have to think about it.

He created two more hands.  Large hands.

It was a gamble, but any maneuver would be in a situation like this.  Two hands, each on opposite sides of the street.

Just as Theo had created hands to jab at Jack’s knees or to strike at Crimson’s weak points, he created them to strike at a different sort of weak point.  Shaped into fists, the hands slowly, inexorably extended into the corners of buildings.

When the hands stopped making headway, he opened them, felt how slow they were to move, as if he were flexing his hands inside thick clay.

Nevertheless, he closed the hands on major supports, and pulled, withdrawing them back into the ground.

Had Bohu made the buildings sturdier in the course of attacking the city?

Theo used the last vestige of strength to wrench with one hand, to twist, in an attempt to get that one vital support to come down.

The building remained standing.  Too thick, too solid.

But the building on the other side of the street, the one he hadn’t touched, it shifted, then slowly toppled into the middle of the street, leaning slightly away from Golem in the process.

Which helped less than he might have hoped.

He reached down once more, feeling the pull against cuts on his chest as he moved his arm, and a large hand emerged from the ground, helping him to his feet.  He used it for support as he got his feet under him.

He felt as lightweight as a cloud, but that was deceptive.  His armor was heavy, and his strength was dribbling out of him in a hundred thin streams.  He moved in a deliberate way as he planted one foot in front of the other.

He could patch up his armor or he could knock down more buildings.

D- muh,” he mumbled.

Red.  Help’s on the way.  Ten questions left.  Do your best.”

Golem began tearing down the next set of buildings.  Too many in that group of Nine would survive or avoid the impacts, but it was something.

Ten questions, and Jack was still okay.  Jack was too quick, too fast.

It reminded Golem of sparring against Taylor.

He hadn’t won those fights either.

Hadn’t won any, up until the point where the deadline for the end of the world was imminent.  He suspected that was a mercy, a small encouragement.  An intentional loss.

The buildings crashed down behind him.  He couldn’t run, but he could manage a limping jog.  He began to patch up his armor.

There was a sound of a blade leaving its sheath, somewhere behind him.

He turned, and saw a Mannequin approaching, rounding the corner at the end of the alley.  Blades extended from the tinker’s forearms.  The expressionless face still managed to stare.  If anything, it was more expressive than half of the people Golem interacted with, by virtue of body language alone.  It moved with a kind of anticipation, let itself shift and flop this way and that, almost in a taunting way.  With swagger.

Golem backed away, found himself at a corner, and turned to enter the adjoining alley.

A wall of criss-crossing blades barred his way.

Bohu’s work.

It made him think of his father, a man he had to go to great effort to see as his dad.

Golem reached into the wall, saw the Mannequin move, dodging the outstretched hand.

He extended another hand, and it reached out from the first’s palm, catching the Mannequin around the throat.

Entomb, he thought, almost hearing Weaver’s voice uttering the word.

He created more hands, binding, holding, getting as much of a grip as he could manage against a foe that was as smooth as chrome, hard as crystal.

His target struggled and squirmed, very nearly slipping free as he let his neck disconnect, cut the chain that attached torso and head.  Golem caught one leg around the ankle.

Mannequin disconnected that too, leaped-

And was cut short by a hand emerging above him, knocked back down atop the lump of frozen hands of concrete and brick.  Theo gripped Mannequin’s arms and legs, then extended one arm and punched one hand into the neck-socket the head had fit into.

Others were approaching at the end of the alley.  A Crimson, swollen with blood.

The man barreled through the alley, his path of destruction not reaching the hands that held Mannequin a matter of feet over his head.  A Murder Rat followed just behind him, pointing with one foot-long blade.

Signaling others.

Theo used hands of stone to break and bend the lattice of blades, then created more to fashion a set of stairs, footholds to walk up as he made his way to the roof.

Footholds too fragile for Crimson to use, with his excessive weight and massive feet.

The man started to climb, and Golem interfered.

The Murder Rat was a bit of a problem, though.  So were the ones that were due to follow.

Using hands and feet both, he made his way up a hand-made staircase without rails, approaching the rooftop.  He concentrated, collapsing more buildings.

Ran his fingers along the panels, and felt the steel in Hookwolf’s body, as the creature moved Jack out of the way of danger.  Siberian would be close.

Golem used his power to find the concrete, finding the area closest to where Hookwolf had been, and then began bringing down more buildings.

Slow, too ineffectual for a face to face fight, but it was a good way to apply pressure.  Keep Jack on his heels, wondering if Golem was close.

Heartless, ruthless, reckless, even.  There was no telling which heroes were near.

But the Golem of myth, the creature of clay fashioned by the Rabbi Bezalel, was heartless as well.  There was only the will, the order, the message, inscribed on its forehead.

Fitting, in a way.

He’d regretted choosing the name, not long after Weaver’s video of New Delhi had reached the public, setting the identity and name in stone.  Regretted it because it was petty, because it was ill-fitting, and above all, he came to regret it because of the heartless nature of the creature he’d named himself after.

Now, he clung to it.  The message, the objective.

He reached the top of the staircase he’d made and came face to face with Chuckles.

The clown was fat, tall, and generally pear-shaped.  It was dirty, grungy, almost fetid, smelling of sweat and blood and worse things.

No wonder.  He can’t even clean himself, with arms like those.

The Chuckles had arms that zig-zagged, consisting of more elbow than arm.  They trailed behind him like ribbons, and the hands at the end were large and blunt-fingered.

“Ha,” Chuckles said.

The clown drew one arm close, folding the elbows, then lashed out with a surprising speed, extending the elbows all at once.

Golem let himself fall face-down on the rooftop before the fist could connect, unsure if he’d even be able to rise.

The clown laughed, a discordant sound, as if there were a different voice for each syllable of the utterance.

Super speed in the head and legs, super strength in the chest and arms.  He had to deal with perceiving the world too fast, unable to communicate.  Only managed to teach himself to make a sound like laughter.  Kind of.

Went crazy.  Like Purity’s going to.

Already, the clown was preparing to strike again, planting his feet, rearing back, and condensing one of his accordion-arms by folding all of the elbows.

Theo reached into the ground, creating a large hand from beneath Chuckles.  He closed the fingertips on a single point.

Chuckles crumpled, but Theo’s grip between his legs was strong enough to hold him upright.  Hanging limp, in too much pain to move, Chuckles giggled.  A strained sound.

A scrape marked an approach at the other edge of the roof.  Golem raised his head and saw a Murder Rat approaching, trailing her claw-tips on the ground.

Cuh,” he managed a single syllable.

Red.”

Attack?

He lashed out, and she dodged.

He struck out, this time with two interconnected hands, and she slipped out of reach.  Too fast, too flexible.

She closed the distance as he rolled onto his back.  From various collapses and falls, he’d had dirt caked into the wounds.  It might lead to blood poisoning, might lead to infection, but it was helping to staunch the blood.

Fat lot of good it would do him now.

He reached for a panel, but the blades of her claws punched into the ground around his wrist, pinning them.  He moved his other hand, and she did the same.

Couldn’t move his wrists.  His feet-

He didn’t have the abdominal strength to raise them.

Her mouth, conical, shaped by surgery into the vague shape of a rat’s snout, riddled with canines, lowered towards his face.

Her eyes are so humanI wouldn’t have thought.

He closed his eyes.

Golem seized up in pain as he felt something press up against the left side of his face, twisting every wound that had already been present.  A tongue draped against his chin, and he could feel her hot breath.

Hot blood flowed around his neck.

Enough that he could put the pieces together.  Know that it was too much for any one person to survive, no matter how immediate the medical assistance.

“Golem.”

He opened his eyes to see Weaver perched between Murder Rat’s shoulderblades, her flight pack glowing.

Murder Rat had collapsed, her face against his.  Her eyes were rolling up into their sockets.

The blood that was flowing wasn’t his.

“Shit, I can’t believe you made it,” she said.

“Nuh,” he responded.

Not so sure.

Weaver hopped down, then kicked Murder Rat off.

He wanted to hide, to crawl away.  They’d put so much time into it, but in the moment, eye to eye with his enemy, he hadn’t been able to manage it.

He’d failed to kill Jack.

“Can you fight?  Do you need me to get you help?”

He shook his head, not sure which question he was answering.

But he was able to raise his hand, then lower it into the rooftop.  He pushed himself to a standing position with his power.

Bitch was present, along with Tecton, Parian and Foil.

He felt the painted steel panel, sensed Hookwolf.  So little of Hookwolf was usable, his power needing sufficiently thick material to use, but he could track the man.

His least favorite of his dad’s old lieutenants.  Kayden had been kind, if not quite a mother.  Krieg had been respectful.  Hookwolf had treated him as the fat, scared little boy he’d been.

He pointed in the direction that Hookwolf was.

“Jack?” Weaver asked.

Golem nodded.

“You stay.  I’ll call for help, and we can go after Jack.”

“Nuh,” he managed.  He set a hand on her wrist.

“Okay,” she said.

“Golem,” Tecton said.  “I know I’m not your team leader anymore, but-“

He realized how hunched over he was.  With excruciating effort, he managed to pull himself to an upright posture, meeting Tecton’s eyes.

“You’re too hurt.  You’re dead weight.”

I could use my power,” Dinah said.

“Nuh,” he said.

“We let him come,” Weaver said.  “Parian?”

“On it.”  Parian hopped down from the dog’s back.  Spools of thread unfurled, each tipped with a needle.

The dog landed on a rooftop.  The pain was bad enough he considered throwing up, or throwing himself off.  Either would probably tear stitches.

They approached one spot at the edge of the roof.  Golem accepted help in dismounting, then eased himself to the ground.  The others hunkered down to get a view of the scene on the street below.

Nostalgic,” Weaver said, her voice barely audible.  Rachel grunted.

Jack was atop Hookwolf, giving orders to his minions.  The Siberian was on the ground.

Foil lowered her crossbow, aiming.

Weaver placed a hand on top of the weapon.  When Foil looked her way, Weaver shook her head.

“It’s not him,” Weaver whispered.

A monster that looked to be one of Nilbog’s creations, outfitted with one of Bonesaw’s control frames crawled along the edge of a rooftop.  It perked up and looked at them, tensed.

Foil shot it before it could open its mouth.  It died without a sound.

Chevalier approached.  Nearly blind, he crouched in the center of the roof.

Hoyden and Revel were conspicuously absent.

“He…” Golem started to speak, winced.

Heads turned his way.

“He’s… like Weaver.  Some… other power.”

“Another power?”  Tecton asked.  “People have speculated, but-”

“But… few survive meeting him.  Minor.  He… probably doesn’t know.  But… reaction too fast.  Too efficient.”

They fell silent.

“A thinker power?” Tecton asked.

Golem considered, then nodded slowly.

“I believe it,” Weaver said.  “Like me?”

“Senses things… that kind of reaction time.”

“Tattletale?” Weaver asked.

At first he thought she meant like Tattletale.

No.  It was a question.

Yes,” Tattletale said.  “Can’t say much more than that.  Sorry.  Drawing blanks.”

“Trump card,” Golem said.  “Dinah.”

Heads turned.

“She’s talking to you,” Weaver said.  “We can give ourselves optimal odds.”

Yes,” Dinah said, but from the reactions, she spoke only to Golem.  “Seven questions, Theo.

Seven questions.  Seven chances to make this count.

Red or blue wouldn’t cut it.

“We called for reinforcements.  Chance of assistance from outside?” he asked.

I can answer that for you,” Tattletale said.  “You’ve got capes converging on your location.”

I’m not asking,” Dinah said, “You’ve still got seven questions.  But the more time that passes, the worse chances are getting.  I can see a lot of dead ends coming up.  You need to act.

“If we attack Jack right now, what’s the chance of the world ending?”

Ninety-seven percent chance, but the alternative is worse, and it’s getting worse every second!

He barely had time to register the thought.

This was it.  The moment.

“Go,” he said.

The defending capes moved in.  Foil slid down, her cleats digging into the surface of the building to afford her some drag, then leaped off to stab a Crimson through the skull.

Tecton jumped.  His intact piledriver-gauntlet punched the ground, breaking his fall by making the surface almost fluid.

He struck the ground again, and the shockwave destabilized every one of the Nine in the enclosed area.

Foil threw darts, killing two more.

Parian’s stuffed creation landed atop Hookwolf’s head, and the two dogs used the opportunity to leap down.

Jack’s defending group of minions was thin at best.  The one atop Hookwolf moved to stand-

And was promptly shredded as Hookwolf stirred into action.  He shook, and the illusion was turned into a cloud of smoke, billowing out towards Foil, Tecton and the dogs.  The two young capes staggered back, covering their noses and mouths.

“Where’s Jack?” Golem asked.  His entire body ached, and a heavy feeling, like a bruise multiplied in intensity a thousand times over, had settled in his abdomen, making it hard to breathe.  “Left or right?”

Left.”

He turned, moving towards the edge of the rooftop.  A Hatchet Face, Breed, Cherish and King made their way towards the entrance of the alley.  Golem created hands to block their path.

The Hatchet Face raised his axe, then chopped at the hand.  It cut a gouge into it.

Golem created a large hand at the roof’s edge, then pushed it off, dropping it straight onto the two villains.

The concrete fist shattered into pieces.  Impossible amounts of dust billowed out from the hit.

Did I get him?

No.  The Hatchet Face marched on, pushing at the hand and shoving it down.

On the other end of the alley, Hookwolf’s body of whirling, scraping blades altered, becoming more shapeless.  No legs, no arms.  Just a blob.

A blob capable of moving with surprising speed.  It leaped up onto a building face, then dropped down towards Foil.

Golem changed tactics, using his power to block the blob.  He failed, serving only to change its course.  Foil was quick enough to leap to one side.

The second the blob landed, the sheer surface area meant the countless blades that all moved in the same direction were able to get a grip, like a monster truck tire spinning freely.

It meant that Hookwolf was able to reorient himself, veering straight for Foil.

Parian’s creation threw itself at him, sandwiching him between it and the wall.  Blades and hooks scraped against fabric, but failed to deflate the creation.  Momentarily, he was trapped.

Golem raised large hands to cup the blob, holding it in place.

Up until the moment Hookwolf deformed himself, flowing through the gap between the hands like a fluid.  He perched himself on twenty or thirty stilt-like legs, raising himself above the ground, surveying the area.

A second later he lunged, and one of Rachel’s dogs intercepted him.  Blades shredded one muscular, bone-encrusted leg.

Chevalier, standing at the roof’s edge, took careful aim and then shot Hookwolf.

Hookwolf’s individual components scattered everywhere as a hole was blown into the shifting mass of metal blades.

But he reformed himself again, a wolf-headed serpent, too narrow a target to shoot.

The gang of lesser Nine members approached the periphery of the fight, but they didn’t join it.  They watched as Hookwolf fought.

Where’s Jack?”  Golem asked again.

“Five questions left.  To your right.”

He glanced left, then right.  Tried to imagine the paths Jack might have traveled in the span of time Dinah had suggested.

Weaver was drawing her swarm together, and she attacked the least likely target.

Her bugs flowed into Hookwolf’s shifting mass of blades.  Countless bugs no doubt died.

Silk thread?  Golem thought.

Except Hookwolf wasn’t even slowing down.

Weaver drew out a line of bugs across the alley.  Foil rolled, raised her crossbow-

Hookwolf slashed out, extending a long, wavy piece of metal to cut at the crossbow.  Foil pulled it out of reach, but her shot went wide, sailing off into the distance.

She drew her rapier from its sheath, throwing it in the same motion.

It penetrated Hookwolf, sailed past him to impale the side of one of the tombstone like buildings.

Hookwolf wavered, then collapsed into a heap that looked like it would make for an exceedingly dangerous game of pick-up-sticks.

Where’s Jack?

Left, then right?  He’d ask again, but he couldn’t help but think that he’d get an equally perplexing answer.

He hadn’t seen Jack move.  Weaver hadn’t seen Jack move.

There was a crash as an Azazel landed at one mouth of the alley.  Heroes deployed.  a battered Cuff and Grace.  Clockblocker, Kid Win and Vista…

Defend the perimeter!” Chevalier ordered.  He lowered his cannonblade, pointing it at the newly-arrived Nine.  They tensed, but the King looked over his shoulder at the Cherish, and when he looked up again, he was smiling.

“Hold off!” Golem said.

Chevalier stopped.

Weaver was amassing her bugs, poising them for an attack on this squad of reinforcements.  The bugs stopped as well.

No.

Something was wrong.

Shit on me.  I can see through Chevalier’s helmet-mounted camera.  It’s a trap!”

He’d been right.

He reached down, using his power.  The mouth of the alley was narrow.  Easy enough to close off, trapping the villains within.

Two hands, positioned to divide this group of Nine from one another.

They reacted, backing away as giant hands rose like tall, narrow walls, separating them from one another.

Two remained untouched.  The King and Hatchet Face.

Or, Golem thought, Jack and Siberian.

Weaver was already attacking, and it was a form of attack that suggested she knew exactly who she was up against.  Bugs flowed past them, stringing thread, binding.  The two in the back were the targets.  Nothing she could do against Siberian or Jack.

Golem struck out, two hands reaching out from the walls on either side.

He felt a moment’s hesitation.

“Dinah.  Attack?”

Attack.  Chances are getting better.  Ninety-two percent.”

Monsters, but…

The training had offered something, at least.  Or maybe the pain he was feeling with every breath served as a motivator.  He managed to find the aggression inside himself, to strike out at someone who wasn’t even aware of him.

The illusions collectively shattered as he squashed the head of the ‘Cherish’ against the wall.  Nyx.

Which revealed the other three.

Jack.  No surprise.  Hidden inside King.

Siberian.  To be expected.

And Gray Boy, squashed against the wall.

His heart dropped.

He drew in a deep breath, feeling every sutured wound straining, very nearly coughed and lost the air he needed.

“Gray Boy!” he shouted.

Just the act of shouting made him double over in pain.

“Run!” Weaver called out.

Tecton slammed his piledriver into the wall.  The cloud of debris offered a small amount of cover.  Too small.  It wouldn’t be enough.  He ran, and Bitch whistled, the dogs stampeding past her.

The corpse flickered, and Gray Boy reappeared, sitting atop the forearm of the hand that had squashed him.  He hopped down.

His time loop power protected him.  Any time he was hurt, any time he was debilitated, his power would kick in, taking him back as far as he needed, allowing him to maintain his position if he wanted.  He’d remain conscious, retain any recollection, and with his offensive power, he could shut down any threat.

It was that same power that kept him from aging.  Aging was a danger, change was a problem, so he continually retained his appearance from the very moment he’d triggered, reverting back several times an hour, or any time he even got dirty.

A multifaceted, instinctive defense.  An offense that could trap Scion.

Parian’s creation blocked his view of Foil and Tecton.  He froze it, looped it.

Jack, for his part, drew his sword.  He cut, and the weapon sliced through the cloth.

“That’s spider silk,” Parian said.

Three questions left.  Three moves.  The last few had bought them time, had broken the illusion.  They hadn’t been caught off guard, at least.

Foil threw darts.  Gray Boy froze them in mid-air.

Weaver’s bugs dissipated through the alleyway, blocking Gray Boy’s sight.  Cover, for her allies.

“Doesn’t matter,” Gray Boy said, his voice high.  “Don’t really need to see.  Just have to guess.  Stop running!”

He used his power, and the area at the far end of the alley was frozen.  A ten foot high wall of looped air.  Tecton slammed into it, struck the air as if it were a solid wall.

He punched the wall, and it shook.  Gray Boy proceeded to freeze the walls on either side.

A dead end.

“Shooting in the dark,” Gray Boy said.  “Let’s see.  There!”

One section of bugs were caught, trapped in a loop.

“A miss.  Phooey.  There!”

Another section of bugs frozen.

And Foil shrieked.

Shrieked again.

Shrieked again.

A loop.

Parian’s own scream joined Foil’s, but there was no loop there.

“Gotcha,” Gray Boy said.

Weaver hung her head.

“We’re going to walk out of here,” Jack said.  “In… about five minutes.  We’ll freeze everyone we see.  Tell them to run if you want.  It won’t matter.”

Foil’s screams continued.  Each the same length, with variations on the tail end, as she managed to reassert control over the bodily impulse that was being performed anew each time.

Jack and Siberian advanced, passing Gray Boy as they closed the distance on Tecton.

“How much more damage can we do?  Is it a question of doing as much damage to as many people as possible?  Can we get a second trigger event out of one of you?  Bring about the end of the world?”

Jack seemed so pleased with himself.

Jack has a thinker ability. 

What?  Not precognition.

“Or is it about doing something significant?  Does killing Scion count?”

The heroes outside the perimeter were aware Gray Boy was inside.  Had to be, by Foil’s voice.  They were caught between watching for outside threats, of which there were bound to be few, and guarding against an approach from within.

What does Jack do?

He grasped for a thought and failed.

No.  He needed to think about it from a different angle.

What does Weaver do?

“Dinah.”

Three questions left.

“What’s the chance?  For what I’m thinking right now?”

Allowing for the fuzz I’m getting from Scion’s presence above you?  Seventy.

Seventy.

The numbers are better,” she said.  “You’re on the right path.”

“I know,” he said.

Jack had raised his sword  to Tecton’s throat.  The Siberian stood behind him, one hand on his shoulder.  Gray Boy looked up and Golem leaned out of sight.

“Weaver, you have anything up your sleeve?”

“Yes and no.  A way to stop Siberian, maybe.  Or Gray Boy, maybe.  But… I need an opening to do either.  A distraction.  And whichever one we don’t stop is going to destroy us.”

“Okay,” Golem said.  “I’ll get you that distraction.”

“Was going to use my bugs, get Clockblocker.  With him, maybe we can take out both at once.”

“Don’t,” Golem replied, tensing up despite himself.  He’d nearly raised his voice to the point that Jack could hear.  Foil’s continued screaming drowned him out.

“I… won’t.  What are you thinking?”

“That there’s an answer.  A stupid, silly answer.”

He stood, resisting the urge to groan, and he approached the end of the rooftop closest to the heroes who were defending the areas outside of the alleyway.

He gestured, signaling to one.  When they didn’t move, bewildered, he created a hand, pushing them.

Others, he stopped.  A shake of his head.  Clockblocker was out.  So was Imp.  Grue, Vista, Kid Win, Cuff and Grace wouldn’t do.

Only this person would serve.

“Two more questions?”

“Yeah.”

“Left or right?”

Right.

The long way around.  Not the way he would have expected.

“Now, or wait?”

No response.

He gestured, and he created hands pointing the way.

Now,” she said.

He shut his eyes.  This was it.  Last question asked.

“Be ready,” he said.

This would be the moment everything fell into place.

The man made his way down to the end of the alley, and Golem created more hands;  six hands in a matter of seconds, sticking out of the wall.  Each pointing in the direction they needed.  He created a platform and started raising it.  Raising their potential savior up towards the top of the wall of looped time.

“You’re- he’s walking into a trap,” Weaver said.  “They’ll see him.  They’re looking right at him.”

Something was wrong.  Something missing.

“Attack.  Sound the attack.  Distractions!”  The words were wheezes.

Weaver signaled, her bugs drawing words.

Chevalier shot his cannonblade into the far end of the alley, furthest from the villains.

Golem created a hand.

Just what they needed.

The man leaped down from the top of the wall.  His light armored suit absorbed his fall, made it quiet.

The D.T. uniform.

He sprayed containment foam at both Jack and Siberian.

Nothing.  It wouldn’t achieve a thing.

But Tecton took the moment of Jack’s blindness to duck, to strike the ground.

The Siberian wasn’t immune to gravity.  She fell, and just for a moment, she broke contact with Jack.

Tecton slammed his fist into Jack’s stomach.

The D.T. officer had turned the containment foam onto Gray Boy.

Except Gray Boy reappeared, out of the way of the stream.

The containment foam froze in mid-air.

No.

The Siberian leaped out of the fissure, then paced towards Jack.

Her hand stopped an inch away from him.  She lowered it.

Jack had turned gray.  Trapped, looped.

“Pathetic,” Gray Boy said.  “Stupid, useless.  I thought you’d do something interesting, but you made yourself prey, instead of the predator.  If you’re going to be prey, I want you to be my prey.”

It dawned on Golem.  Gray Boy froze him.

Foil’s screams continued, and were soon joined by Jack’s, as Gray Boy started using his knife, reaching within the field.

Up until the moment Foil, still screaming, using her augmented sense of timing to measure the length of each scream, stepped around the monochrome field he’d cast just in front of her.  She threw a handful of darts through the Siberian and Gray Boy’s head as his back was turned.

The Siberian flickered out of existence as Gray Boy collapsed.

Neither reappeared, healthy or otherwise.

“Get back from Jack!”  Weaver called out.  “Quarantine him!”

Tecton used his piledriver, erecting a shelf of earth.  Golem stepped back, then did the same, folding large hands around Jack.  Jack’s voice was mellow, inaudible, with a funny cadence.

The D.T. officer, for his part, tore the containment foam hose free.  He got gunk on himself, but he managed to direct the resulting stream at the gaps.  Sealing Jack, burying him.

They stood in silence, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“We got him,” Weaver said.  She raised a hand to her ear.  “We got Jack.  He’s down.  Everyone report in.”

Houston is safe,” Defiant reported.  “Battered, but safe.

“What are the numbers?” Golem asked.  “Dinah, if you give me one more answer today…”

No response.

Reporting from New York.  We told Bonesaw Jack was down, and she just surrenderedNo idea what to do.

Chevalier answered, giving instructions for containment.  Bonesaw was loaded with viral charges and worse.  Quarantine was best.  Nilbog could be taken to a secure facility.

“That’s… are we safe?”  Golem asked.

“Unless the catalyst event just happened,” Weaver replied.  “Get sorted, get organized.  First aid, asap.  We need to check all info, then we quarantine ourselves for the time being.  Stay calm, stay focused, be alert.”

There were nods all around.

They made their way to the ground.  Waiting as the others joined them.

Weaver looked at Bitch.  “Guess we can hang out for a bit, while we wait to see if there’s any lingering effects or traps.”

“Hanging out sounds good.”

She looked at Golem.  “Yeah?”

He shook his head.  “I don’t-”

“I don’t either,” she said.  What they didn’t was unclear, but the message still served.  “You beat Jack in the end.”

“I wish I was so sure,” he said.

“So do I.”

A long pause reigned as Tecton and Foil caught up with them.  Parian wrapped her arms around Foil, openly sobbing.

“Anything?  Any clue what might have happened?”  Weaver asked.

“No,” Bitch said.

“No,” Golem answered.

“Jack said something,” Tecton said.  “I don’t… I don’t think I should say it.”

Just like that, the peace was gone.

“Was it-” Golem started.  “No.  Stay quiet.”

Weaver hung her head for a moment.

“I don’t think it was the catalyst,” Tecton said.

“Pick someone you trust,” Weaver said.  “Someone you know to be sane and safe and non-dangerous.  Then whisper it.  They’ll give a second verdict.”

Tecton’s eyes fell on Golem.

Golem nodded.

Tecton leaned close.  “Doesn’t make any sense.  Nonsensical.  He said-

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Interlude 26a

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Theo exhaled slowly.  He hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath.  Inhaling again, the smell of shit and blood was so heavy on the air it choked him.  His suppressed cough was almost a grunt, almost a gag.

His eyes returned to the two bloodstained spikes that had been stabbed into the wall.  It was the space where Nilbog had been crucified, apparently.  Something dangled from one of them.  A tendon, maybe, a vein, or a strip of meat.  The goblin king had been torn down with enough haste and enough force that some part of him had been left behind.

He’d spent some time staring at the metal spike with flesh dangling from it.  The others were busy.  It made sense to take the time to strategize, to get equipment and gear in order, familiarize himself with every tool and technique this squad of capes had on hand.

Thing was, Theo didn’t want to, even as he knew it was the smart thing.  The others seemed to recognize that and weren’t pushing him, weren’t approaching.  Maybe they’d brush it off as a kind of meditative thinking, a mental preparation for the fight that was to come.  Maybe they’d see it for what it really was.  Avoidance.

Staring at the wall and trying not to think about anything was easier than looking down, seeing the dead members of the Slaughterhouse Nine, and maybe seeing Aster in the mess of bodies.

Being silent was easier than having to look the others in the eyes and pretend he was alright, risking that they’d offer some gentle, kind condolences, and he’d have to be stoic in the face of it.

Men weren’t supposed to cry.  It would be disastrous, shattering their image of him, creating too much doubt at such a crucial juncture.  He could imagine how they’d react.  Some of them would be awkward.  Defiant, maybe, would avert his eyes.  Bitch might say something harsh.

Revel, probably, would be nice about it.  Offer a pep talk, a hug, heartfelt words.  Tecton would be much the same.  Parian and Foil, even, might be kind, if he went by descriptions Weaver and others had offered of them and the little clues he’d seen in interacting with them.

The moment he pulled himself together, if he could pull himself together, Chevalier would be at his side, all business, outlining the situation in clear, defined ways.  Framing it all into plans and setups that would put less stress on Theo, no doubt, but not in such a way that anyone could say anything about it.

Hoyden?  Hard to say.  She lived with this wall that she’d erected around herself.  Layers of defenses, in bravado or being snarky or being sarcastic or aggressive or avoiding the situation.  In combat situations or real life, Theo suspected there were very few things that really got to the heart of Hoyden.  When they did, they hurt.  How would she react to someone being vulnerable?

And then there was Weaver.

She was in the periphery of his vision, sitting on a computer case, staring down at the floor.  As ever, her mannerisms were peculiar.  She was so still.  If it weren’t for the bugs, or the fact that her head would periodically move, as if she were looking over the dead, he might have thought she’d stopped, like a machine with the battery removed.

She would be assessing who was dead, who wasn’t, planning and adjusting her expectations for the coming fight, quite possibly.  Probably.

In the midst of that, was Weaver thinking about Aster?  The fact that she, either by aiming a gun and pulling the trigger or by giving the order to Revel and Foil, had killed a toddler?

Weaver was a hard person to deal with.

Taylor, not so much.

If that was all it was, he wouldn’t have worried so much.

There were other possibilities, ones that troubled him.  What if he approached them, and nobody offered condolences at all?  What if they accepted it as a cost of doing business, a necessity in dire circumstances?

What if he did show emotion, and none of his allies offered any emotional support at all?

Kayden had been the closest thing he had to a mother.  If it hadn’t been for Jack’s game, then Theo suspected he might never have rated.  He wasn’t her first priority.  That would be Aster.  Not her second.  That was her mission, nebulous as it had been in recent years.  He hesitated to believe that he’d even rated third place.

He struggled to convince himself he placed fourth or fifth, even.

But she’d been there.  She’d shown kindness, had stepped between him and Father when the situation demanded it.  There had been gentle moments, like the time they’d been watching television one morning and a cape had talked about how tinkers were their least favorite type of opponent to fight, and he and Kayden had laughed, because Kayden and her group had run into Leet just a week before.

Stupid things, in the end.  Nonsensical.  But stupid, nonsensical things were sometimes the most important.

He’d never had friends, before he got his powers.  Even now, he wondered if he’d have really formed the friendships he had if they’d chanced to meet in some universe where powers didn’t exist.

Being alone as often as he had, Theo valued the connections he had made.  Even connections with Justin, Dorothy and Geoff.  Crusader, Night and Fog.

On the flip side of that same coin, he felt the betrayal of Justin leaving him behind.

Above all, he felt the quiet, perpetual horror of knowing that Crusader was still screaming, his throat never going raw, as Gray Boy’s loop continued without cease.

Kayden would be standing a short distance away, stoic, trying to keep from slowly going insane as Justin’s screams continued without end.

He’d lost people who were important to him, in maybe the most horrible way possible.  He’d lost his father, and Kayden, Justin, Geoff and Dorothy, and now Aster.  He’d lost them to violence and stupidity and madness, and he could see the allure in how the others seemed to be functioning, bottling it all inside.

He could see the twisted logic of it, even.  As if there was a binary to everything, every enemy was somehow a twisted mess of emotion, layered by a seeming calmness, while every ally seemed to be cold inside, with only an act on the surface.

He looked down at his mask.  A metal face with lenses over the eyes.  Stoic, expression neutral, or a little stern.  He’d chosen it at first because his real face was a little too round for a mask, but the PR teams had wanted to get more faces on the team.  He’d compromised, and hadn’t given his mask much thought beyond that.

Except time had passed, and he’d found himself wondering if he liked the message it conveyed.  By necessity, capes went down a road where they had to become cold and unflinching.  They had to become numb, had to inure themselves to hard decisions.  It jarred, to wear a mask that seemed to symbolize that transition, that while wanting nothing less than to walk down that road.

Back in Brockton Bay, New Wave had tried to start something, capes without masks.  It had been disastrous.  The message had been lost in the ensuing celebrity, and that had only intensified after one of the core members of the group was found and killed in her civilian identity.

He wondered if they’d been right to try.  If capes really needed to just… drop the mask.  To cry and let the feelings out.  So many got their powers through trauma, but they bottled themselves up, erected defenses, developed coping mechanisms.  If New Wave’s idea had taken off, would things be better?

Didn’t matter.  Here they stood.

He could make it through this, save the world.  They could find the source of the Endbringers and defeat them, could clean things up, get things in order and stop all of the real monsters… he could go to college, get a career and find a girl and marry her, and at the end of the day, Justin would still be screaming.

Aster would still be dead.

The ugly decisions would have been made.

He stared up at the bloody spikes in the wall, an image that would be burned into his mind’s eye, remembered as the point he stood at the threshold.  A mirror to where he’d been in the beginning, when he’d met Jack.

Bitch paced around the edges of the room, impatient.  She’d had to shrink her dogs to get them to an appropriate size, and was keeping them small in case the portal wasn’t accommodating enough.  Here and there, she barked out orders to get the animals away from the bodies.

It grated.

“None of those invisible fucks,” she said.

“Okay,” Weaver answered.  Her voice was quiet.

Theo almost took her voice as a cue to reevaluate how she was reacting to what had just happened, then stopped himself.  Losing battle.  No point.

Then, for some bizarre reason, Bitch approached him.

A sleek Doberman nudged at his gauntlet with its nose.  He looked down and then scratched it behind the ear.  It didn’t matter if the dog bit him – he was wearing a gauntlet.

When he looked up, he could see Bitch staring at him.  Her face was barely visible behind her hair.

“Can I help you?” he asked.  His voice came out harder than he intended.

She didn’t seem to notice or care.  “You’re her friend, aren’t you?”

I don’t want to talk about Weaver.

He didn’t venture an answer.  He couldn’t say yes, not honestly, but he suspected Weaver had a different answer to the question.

“You’re both acting different.  I can see it.”

“Kind of warranted, in this situation,” he said.  “In case you didn’t notice, the last few members of my family just got killed.  I just need a bit of time alone to think.”

His voice had almost broken.  Couldn’t break down.  Not like this, here, with her.

She hadn’t taken his hint.

“They were buttholes, weren’t they?  Purity and her gang.  The nazis.”

The dog nudged his hand again.  He gave it a more intense scratch before answering, “White supremacists.  They… weren’t the best people ever.  But they were still my family.”

She kept looking at him, almost glaring.  She didn’t answer or elaborate, leaving the conversation to die.

Go away.  I don’t want to hit you.

He kept silent, hoping she would just leave.  Willing her to leave.

“Stay, Huntress,” she ordered.

Then she walked away, leaving the dog at his side.

Theo scratched the animal under the collar, and watched it crane its head to one side, enjoying the contact.

It helped, oddly enough.  Having contact with another living creature without all of the issues and hassles of dealing with people.  No judgement, no worries, just… this.  Being alone without being alone.

His father had always preferred cats, and the creatures had never been easy to bond with.  This was nice.

Theo sighed.  He glanced at Weaver in his peripheral vision, and saw that there was a dog sitting next to her.  A mutt, at a glance.  The animal was resting its chin on her shoulder.

She saw him looking, glanced at Bitch, who was walking with her husky puppy following behind her, then shrugged.

He lowered his eyes from Weaver… no, from Taylor, then scratched Huntress again.

“We have the coordinates.  Waiting for a charge,” Defiant announced.  He was already flanked by the Dragon’s Teeth he’d brought with him.

“All gather,” Chevalier ordered.

Bitch snapped her fingers twice, and her dogs returned to her.

Theo raised his hands to his face to rub his eyes, and he felt damp on one cheek.  One tear, fresh.  He wiped his face, glancing around to check if anyone had seen it.  No, not judging by the angle.

He donned his mask.

Golem now, Golem thought.

“We need to decide who goes where,” Defiant said.  “The first teleportation marked coordinates on Houston.”

Weaver spoke up, “I noted Shatterbirds and Burnscars leaving, some Damsels, bunch of others I didn’t catch, but they had weapons and I’m thinking Winter or Crimson.  There were some I parsed as hostages, but it’s only in retrospect that I’m thinking they were Nice Guys.”

“The second group made their way to New York.”

“Bonesaw and a captive Nilbog that’s apparently rigged to create things on demand,” Weaver said.  “Crawlers, Breeds and a handful of others I didn’t identify.”

Chevalier reacted to that, flinching.

His city, Golem thought.

“And the last group headed to Los Angeles.”

“Jack’s group?” Golem asked.

“Yes,” Weaver said.  “He brought the Siberian, Hookwolf, Gray Boy, all eight Harbingers, and there are Psychosomas and Nyxes.  One or two others I didn’t place.”

“Los Angeles?” Chevalier asked.  “What area?”

That area,” Defiant answered, looking at the computer.

Chevalier nodded slowly.

Golem stared at the screen.  He could see the satellite image, the concentric circles that marked the area around the blinking blue dot.

“Charge prepared.  We can send one group at a time.  They’ve already got a twelve minute headstart.  It’ll be another eight minutes before we can send the second group, eight minutes after that before we can send the third.”

“The first group to arrive can call for help and get support to the other locations,” Chevalier said.

“Then why split up?” Weaver asked.  “We should all hit Jack’s group, trust others to help in New York and Houston.”

“Everyone else is closer to New York,” Chevalier said.  “But Houston…”

“We can call in favors,” Weaver said.  “Moord Nag’s apparently on board, though we don’t know why.  Cauldron’s on board.  If we can get Tattletale in contact with them, that’s handled.  But we can’t do that unless we leave.”

“That’s my city,” Hoyden said.

“I get that,” Weaver replied, “But we’re doing nothing constructive if we split up, and we’re definitely doing nothing constructive as long as we sit here.”

“Once we leave,” Defiant said, “We break the configuration cell and everything here breaks down on a Euclidean level.  There’s no going back, changing our mind.”

“I get that,” Weaver said, “But two or three of us aren’t going to do anything special.  We need big guns.”

Golem closed his eyes.

There she is.  Weaver.

“She’s right,” Chevalier said, looking at Hoyden.  “We’ll send every set of reinforcements we can, but it’s not worth what it costs us, to break up our group.”

“Shit,” Foil said.

Hoyden had gone stiff, bristling for an argument.

“I’m not saying we should abandon Houston,” Weaver said, before Hoyden could speak.  “Defiant, can you postpone the collapse of this area?”

“Yes, but I don’t feel comfortable doing it,” he responded.

“I think you should,” she said.  “Toybox left enough stuff behind.  Use it.  Stay behind, arm yourself, then throw everything but the kitchen sink at them.  You remember how the scar formed in Brockton Bay?”

“Mm,” he said.  “Tinker technology takes time to understand, to prepare.  Too dangerous otherwise.”

“There’s a solution to that.  I’ll point the way.”

Defiant hesitated.

Golem looked around the group, saw the expressions on faces, saw how even Hoyden had relaxed a fraction.  Even the Dragon’s Tooth officers that accompanied them were a little more at ease.  There were no answers in this situation, but there was a possibility.  An option, vague as it was.

“Okay,” Defiant said.

Then, without so much as a farewell or a ‘good luck’, he hit the enter key.

Golem appeared a full four feet above the ground.  He hit the ground and let his legs sink in, absorbing some of the fall.  A second later, he pushed himself out.

Just the use of his power gave him a sense of the area.  Touching the pavement gave him a sense of how all of the pavement around him was organized.  It had been folded into itself, folded around, thinned, thickened, bent at right angles.

Looking around, he could see how the buildings had been altered.  Textures had been removed, similar materials blended into one another, everything fortified, thickened, weaponized.

All around them, the buildings were like tombstones.  Windowless, angular, all expression and human touches removed from them.  Spikes studded corners and blocked alleyways, criss-crossed in front of doors, and carpeted pathways.  Some were metal, others camouflaged.

They’d figured out how to fight Tohu and Bohu during the Los Angeles attack.  The trick was responding quickly, stopping them before Tohu had her masks and Bohu managed her influence.  They’d won, for lack of a better term, managing the fight without the casualties they’d seen in the prior attack, but they’d still lost a chunk of the city in the time it took them to beat and batter the towering Bohu into submission.  Now Santa Fe Springs and all of the neighboring districts were uninhabitable, due to the traps that riddled it, the way the infrastructure had been completely and totally compromised.

Easier to found a new habitable area than to try to fix this, routing new pipes and power, managing traps both subtle and blatant.

Those same traps would be a problem here, but they weren’t entirely incapable.  They’d dealt with this before.

Bitch’s dogs grew abruptly, then shook, sending blood and bits of flesh and bone everywhere.

“HQ, come in,” Chevalier murmured.  He continued to speak, delivering the information about Jack and the target areas.

“Area’s empty,” Weaver said.

“A trap,” Golem responded.  “Has to be.”

“Has to be.  Why else come here?”  Foil asked.

“Nyx illusions,” Tecton said, “He doesn’t know we’re aware of who he brought, so he’s set them up to stall us.”

Nyx.  Her gas is concentrated into solid shapes that move at her will.  Break that shape and it becomes a cloud of poisonous gas.

“Not that easy,” Weaver said.  “Maybe he knows we know, and it’s a double-bluff.”

“Parian?” Weaver asked.

Parian nodded.  She unfurled the bundle of cloth from her back, then quickly shaped it into a roughly humanoid shape.

A moment later, it was stomping ahead, forging the way.

Golem fell in step beside Tecton.  Every footfall on a surface concentrated his awareness, informing him of every surface of a matching material in the area.  Lightning flashes in his consciousness, showing the landscape around him.  He deliberately stepped on other materials to inform himself on concrete, on brick, on steel and glass.  His heavy boots made for a rhythmic sound, accompanied by the sounds of Chevalier and Tecton’s own heavy footfalls, and the rougher patter of the mutant dogs.

Stop.”

A girl’s voice, over the comm system.  Not Tattletale.

Golem, tell them to stop.  Now.”

“Stop,” he said.

A second later, he wondered if he should mention this phantom voice.  A trick on Screamer’s part?

Thirty one,” she said.

“Thirty one?”

More uses of my power.  I’ve been testing it, straining it, figuring out my limits.  I can’t make promises.  Might be less.  Might be able to squeeze out more.  But it’s the best I can give you.

The numbers clued him in, belatedly.

Dinah Alcott.

There’s bigger problems,” she said.  Her voice was quiet.  “In two minutes, everyone but you dies.  Seventy-two percent chance.

He stopped short.

“Golem?”  Hoyden asked.

“Solution?” he asked, he raised a hand.

Can you think in abstracts?”

“Abstracts.”

“You’re… kind of scaring me, Golem my boy,” Hoyden said.

“He’s talking to someone in the comms,” Weaver said.  “Tattletale?  Not Tattletale.”

Red means forward, left, attack, team.  Blue means back, right, retreat, solo… I can only ask a certain number of questions a day.  Ask, I can narrow it down, but it’s less help I can give later.

One keyword, and he had to figure out what option it led to.

Blue, Tecton.  Retreat.”

“Back up,” he said.

Collectively, they retreated several steps.

A moment later, one small group of the Nine appeared, pushing their way through solid doorways, leaving colored smoke in their wakes.

Each was young.  Teenagers.  Each had a matching mask, a snarling face, complete with fangs and glowing dots in the dark eye sockets.  Their clothing flowed, with hoods peaking above their heads.  Each carried a different improvised weapon.  A fire axe.  A two-handed shovel.  A makeshift spear.

“Harbingers,” Weaver said.  “Don’t let them get close!  Finish them quickly!”

“Color,” Golem whispered.

Blue.”

He went with his instincts more than anything else.  “Retreat!  Run!”

Parian’s doll reached out, and the Harbingers slipped out of the way of the hands, dodging by virtual hairs as they spun in tight circles, ducked and rolled.  It was like the thing was moving in slow motion, but it wasn’t.

A fire axe and two kitchen knives slid through the creature’s body, severing seams.  It deflated explosively.

Foil opened fire with her crossbow, aiming so it was on a path to hit two of the enemies, and the Harbingers dodged the shot.

She’s not supposed to miss.

Tecton shattered the ground, but it didn’t make the slightest difference.  The Harbingers didn’t slow down.

They turned to run, belatedly.

Hoyden and Chevalier held their ground as others mounted dogs or took flight.  Golem ran his fingertips along the panels at his armor, feeling the connections to the various substances around him flare, touched the one for pavement.

He thrust his hand inside.  A small hand, emerging as fast as he could shove his hand inside the panel.  He reached for the closest Harbinger’s foot.

The young villain pulled his leg up out of the way, virtually spinning as he stepped to the side, planted the same foot on solid ground, then resumed his forward momentum.  No luck.  It was like Harbinger could see it coming.

Weaver’s bugs were swarming the Harbingers, but they took to spinning, relying on the movement of their hoods and the flowing black clothes to drive the bugs away, batting them aside.  Even the threads seemed to fail to do anything substantial, getting caught up in the approaching villains as they moved.

Like whirling dervishes, they closed the distance.

He thrust his hand into the pavement again, and this time, he created a platform like the one he’d fashioned in Ellisburg.  Raising them up off the ground, out of reach.

If there was any difficulty getting down and resuming their search for Jack, he’d deal with that when they weren’t all about to be murdered.

The Harbingers scaled the sides of buildings as if they were running across horizontal terrain.  Weapons, fingers and boots found traction in the surfaces, and they climbed with an easy, almost eerie ease, as though they were almost floating.

Climbing faster than the hand was rising.

Three reached the top of the building, and as if they’d coordinated, planned this well in advance, they set foot on the edge of the rooftop and kicked off.  They ignored the bugs that plagued them as if they weren’t even there, weren’t binding them with silk.

They flipped heel over head, their backs to Golem, Hoyden, Tecton and Chevalier, the two Dragon’s Teeth.  Rachel, Parian and Foil were on the dog’s backs, and Weaver was airborne.

The Dragon’s Teeth aimed containment foam at the three Harbingers.  The clones pulled off their flowing jackets with sleeves that almost covered their hands, catching the foam, then landed.  One swept the bundle of foam to try to knock a D.T. officer off his feet.  The officer hopped up, then struck out at the Harbinger clone.

No use, Golem thought.  A mistake.  Harbinger caught the arm, almost effortlessly turned around, pulling him in the direction of the turn.  A little push, and the soldier fell.

He’s okay,” Dinah said.  “Blue!”

Run, retreat.  As if there was a place to go.

Two attacks struck in concert, a kitchen knife and a fire axe, and a heavy piece of Tecton’s armor was decimated, one gauntlet ruined.

No use.

One more landed on the heel of the hand.

Revel opened fire with a dozen orbs, but the enemy avoided them with an almost casual ease.  She reprogrammed them, altering the orbs’ properties, and this time they homed in on their targets.  The Harbingers dodged them, used the changed trajectories to lure them into nearly striking the D.T. officer and Chevalier.  She stopped, hanging back.

Chevalier swung his sword, pulled the trigger mid-swing to shoot at one Harbinger that stood on a fingertip of the reaching hand-platform.  Both attacks missed.

The Harbinger closest to him stepped close, almost casually, and drove a paring knife through a slit in Chevalier’s visor.

His good eye, Golem realized.

Nobody had figured out Harbinger’s power, before Harbinger disappeared off the face of the planet.  It was an ugly reality that such questions weren’t always answered.  The best guess suggested a hyperawareness of space and the movements of their own bodies.

But being able to figure out that Chevalier was half-blind, being able to blind his good eye?

One stepped close, holding a ball-peen hammer in each hand.  He closed on Golem, invading his personal space, until their noses were touching.

Golem tried to wrap the Harbinger in a bear-hug, felt only the faint drag of cloth against the metal of his gauntlets, empty air.  His intended target had ducked low.

He drove a knee forward.  Tight, contained movements, give them as little to work with as possible.

No contact.  Of course.

He was rewarded with a swat of the hammer against his mask, shattering one lens.  He’d thought he was out of reach, but the boy held only the very end of the hammer between index and middle finger.  He tossed the hammer in the air, letting it spin head over end.

Golem struck at the flying hammer, but another strike of the hammer caught his arm.  His fingertips fell short, and the handle of the weapon rolled over the back of his hand.  The Harbinger caught it, then thrust it forward in the same motion, driving the top of the hammer against Golem’s nose.

“Don’t kill him,” another Harbinger said.

“I know,” was the reply.

They didn’t even sound winded.

None of the others were doing demonstrably better.  The remaining D.T. officer was holding his own, but the others were being slowly, systematically beaten.

He’s dragging it out.  They’re making this into a game.

No use letting this go on.

He retreated, only to find one Harbinger sticking a foot out, planting a foot on the small of his back.  He was pushed forward, then promptly struck in the abdomen.

Rather than try to defend himself, he tucked his chin to his collar-bone, let himself fall, and thrust his hands into the armor panels for pavement.

Double-thrust, one hand extending from the other, pushing Chevalier off the hand.

Another motion, simultaneous, to bring a hand of stone out of the wall behind Chevalier.  It emerged slower, but it formed a shelf, and Chevalier landed on that ledge.

The Harbingers could dodge, but his teammates were valid targets.

Another thrust, this time for himself.

Selfish, maybe, but he couldn’t save anyone if they were interfering with him.

One struck at his leg as he launched himself off the hand.  It altered his trajectory, put him on a course where there wasn’t anything nearby to catch himself with.

Two hands, into brick.  One connected to the other.  While they were new, he could move them.  Trouble with having them against the side of his body was that he couldn’t get a full range of movement like he could get with his arms.  No matter.  He caught himself by the mask, then pulled himself closer to the building.

Another hand, another shelf.

Hoyden exploded, but the Harbingers didn’t get hurt.  They spun, spreading the damage around like a person might roll to absorb a fall, ducking and sidestepping to put themselves at the periphery of the effect.

Scion’s closing in,” Dinah said.  “Blue, Golem.  It’s still blue.  I can’t use my power too many times today, but your numbers are getting worse and the answer keeps turning up blue.  Retreat, go right, go solo or go back.

Someone needs to intercept Scion,” Weaver said, over the comm system. “We can’t have him get involved.

You go,” Chevalier said.

Golem searched the sky, then spotted Weaver at the fringe of the battle, surrounded by a cloud of bugs.

She took off.

Golem grit his teeth.  More immediate things to focus on.  He tried to launch Tecton to freedom, but the Harbingers intercepted him, driving Tecton out of the way in the same instant the hand appeared.

The D.T. soldier managed to deliver a glancing blow.  Golem couldn’t tell if it was intentional or not, because the hit was followed by the D.T. soldier being caught with a length of cloth wound around one wrist.

Tecton stepped in, drawing attention and striking out with his gauntlets, one damaged and one intact.  It bought the D.T. soldier some room.

Golem took the opportunity to launch the soldier to safety.

There were others on the ground, approaching.

One of these bastards could probably take us apart.  Eight of them, we can’t hurt them, we’re losing time, burning resources.

Tecton glanced at Hoyden.  A communication seemed to pass between them.

They struck the palm of the hand, and the entire thing shattered.

Hoyden, Tecton and five of the Harbingers descended with a shower of rubble.

Hoyden and Tecton broke their fall with uses of their respective powers.  Hoyden hit the ground to generate an explosion.  Tecton punched the earth with his piledriver in the instant he reached solid ground.

The Harbingers didn’t have that ability.  A five-story drop.  People had died or been seriously hurt after a three-story drop.

Nobody told them that.  In the midst of the thin cloud of dust and the chunks of debris, the Harbingers moved without wincing or giving any sign of pain, their black-clothed forms rising from the ground like spectres.

“Talk to me, Dinah,” Golem said.

Situation’s getting worse.  Numbers are getting worse, across the board.  I’m not asking any specific questions, but I can sense it, just… the big picture.  It’s not working.

There’s an answer here, and we can’t see it.

“Blue… Backwards, go right, retreat, solo?  What’s that last one?”

Abstracts.  Nothing specific.  It’s only as meaningful as it helps you come to the right decision.

He stared at Hoyden and Tecton, surrounded by the eight Harbingers.

“If I leave… how does that change the numbers?”

Success.”

“Chances for Tecton and the others?”

Better than they were.

This was hell, Golem mused.  This was the nightmare that had driven Weaver from her home city, drove her to surrender.

The right path, but god damn, did it look ugly.

He bit his lip, then formed another pair of connected hands to launch himself skyward.  He reached the apex of his flight, then created a shelf to land on.  He did it again, and this time the shelf he created was just at the edge of the roof.  He stepped over onto the rooftop, then broke into a run.

“Saving Tecton, red or blue.”

Golem, we didn’t get a chance to go over this earlier, but you need to know… I can’t ask that many questions.  I’ve been saving my power for the last big confrontation.  Tattletale said this is the time to act.  I used my power twice to answer big questions earlier today.  Another three to figure out who I needed to talk to, and that told me-

“I’m the best partner for you?”

Right now, yes.  Listen.  Twenty-six questions left.  We haven’t even found Jack.  I can’t figure it out.

He stood on the rooftop, then extended his arms out to either side.

She couldn’t read his mind, so it was only identifying options.  Everything to the left of his nose was blue, everything to the right was red.

“Red or blue.  Now.”

Blue.  Twenty-five.

“Jack’s to my left,” he said.  He turned ninety degrees.  “Again.”

“Blue.  I’m-  My power’s getting fuzzier.”

Scion.

He looked up at the sky.  Weaver with her swarm was there, forming a great wall across the sky, as if to draw attention to herself.  Scion was approaching, a ray of golden light streaking across the overcast sky above.

Scion shut down precog abilities.

He felt something knot in his stomach, an ugly feeling, ominous.

“Let’s get as much use out of it as possible.  Saving Tecton and the others… Red or blue!”

“Red.  Twenty-three.”

He hesitated.  “It’s not me going back?”

“No.  I don’t think so.  I just asked and it said no.”

Break it down.  Attack, left for blue.  Group, forward for red.  “Again.”

“Golem, we can’t waste questions like this.  We-“

“Please.”

“Red.”

Group or forward, he thought, assigning colors to each option.  “Again.”

“Blue.  Somewhere between eighty and ninety percent chance.  I- I’m going blind here, Golem.”

Group.

Group, but not returning to join the others?

He went with his gut.

“Tattletale, are you listening?”

Yes.”

“Reinforcements.  Call in the big guns.”

“With Jack close?  That’s against the quarantine.”

“Dinah, does it improve our chances, everyone’s chances, as far as this end of the world scenario?”

Yes.  A lot,” she sounded genuinely surprised.  “Twenty.”

Cauldron’s refusing aid,” Tattletale said.  “They said it’s because Scion’s presence is blocking their clairvoyant.  They’re lying.

High above, Scion reached a stop, hovering in front of Weaver, who hung in the air in turn, using her flight pack.

Golem tore his eyes away from the scene.  He glanced down at the street, where Bitch, Parian and Foil were reinforcing Tecton and Hoyden, backing them up as the Harbingers approached.  One Harbinger threw something, and a dog dropped like its heart had stopped.

He shook his head.  He could watch forever, but they were better served by having him elsewhere.

The sooner he got Jack, the better.

“Jack is southwest of my location,” he reported.  “Heading off solo on precog advisement.”

He bolted, running.  His power bridged gaps between buildings.  He set his foot down on the corner of one rooftop, then vaulted himself over a trap that he sensed just a foot in front of him.  His landing jarred it into motion, provoking a deadfall, a slice of building that toppled and dropped onto the narrow street below.

Another hand broke a row of spikes that lined the edge of another rooftop.

Once, he’d been fat.  Once, he’d been out of shape.  Two years and a mission had given him the chance to remedy that.  He wasn’t conventionally fit, still had a bit of stockiness to him, but the fat was gone.  He had muscle.  Running with Weaver had made this doable.

Twenty more precog answers.

“Numbers if I stay on the rooftops?”

Twenty to thirty percent chance of injury or being taken out of action.

“If I’m on the ground?”

Fifty-something.  Eighteen questions left.

Her numbers were getting less accurate, the picture of the situation cloudier.

Too many powerful individuals in the area, too many chances of disaster, too many unknowns.

He set foot on one rooftop that had changed less than most, and the lightning flash was a staggered one, as his feet first touched gravel, then the material of the rooftop beneath that gravel.

The next rooftop wasn’t made of either material.  It wasn’t made of brick or concrete.

He created two hands, chaining them together, and extended the hand into the building.

It detonated into a massive cloud of smoke.

He launched himself away to avoid it, but it wasn’t enough.  The smoke flowed towards him like a wall, too vast to avoid.

Too vast to avoid so long as he remained on the rooftop.  He shoved himself off, created more hands to form a series of ledges that might serve as a staircase.

The smoke still loomed.

He got as close to the ground as he could, then launched himself to safety.

Golem was panting as he rested on the ground.  Psychosoma’s monsters emerged from the smoke, one using the same ledges he’d created to descend, the other crawling on the outside of the building.  Homeless, to look at them, twisted into monstrous shapes.  False shapes.  He could deal enough damage and break the effect, and they’d be human again, unhurt.

Simpler than it sounded.  If he broke the effect for one, the other would tear the freed victim apart.

Golem rose to his feet, backing away as swiftly as he could.  He was out of reach of the smoke, but these things, they were a distraction, a speed bump.

He waited, dropping into a fighting stance as they approached.  They broke into runs, charging him blindly, two figures so thin they didn’t look real, their fingers and feet twisted into claws as long as his forearm.

They plummeted into a pit in the middle of the road.

Golem rose from the fighting stance, then hurried on.  His footsteps continued to mark the surfaces around him, making it clear where there were more of Nyx’s illusions, more traps left over from the Tohu-Bohu attack.

His other enemies wouldn’t be so gullible.

“Left or right?” he asked.  He had a mental map of the surroundings.

Left.  Somewhere around a ninety percent chance Jack’s in that direction.”

Each question narrowed down the possibilities.  From fifty percent of the area to twenty-five percent, then twelve and a half percent… now six percent.  It was a small enough slice that he didn’t need to wonder as much.  If he kept on this course, he could find his target.

Right route,” Dinah said.  “It’s… it’s really fuzzy, but I still feel like the bloody, ugly ends aren’t so close.

“A good feeling,” Theo said.

In a numbery way.

A numbery way.

“Status,” he said.  “Not a question.  Just… I need to know what’s going on.”

The others are… okay,” Dinah replied.  “Defiant just arrived in Houston with a giant robot that only has one arm and one leg, and we’ve got…”

Dinah’s voice continued, but he didn’t hear it.

Golem slowed to a walk as he saw his new surroundings.  The tombstones of Bohu’s area were still here, but they were scarred.

A thousand times a thousand cuts.

“Theodore,” Jack said.

Jack emerged, and he wasn’t holding a knife.  He held a sword, nearly four feet long.  A claymore.  His shirt was unbuttoned, showing a body without a trace of fat.  His beard had been meticulously trimmed, but that had easily been a day ago.  His neck had scruff on it.  Strands of dark hair fell across eyes with lines in the corner as he stared at Golem.

Golem had gotten this far.

Now what?

Jack let the blade’s point swing idly at calf-level, pointed off to one side.  Cuts gouged the road’s surface.  Theo let his fingers trace the panels on his armor.  Steel, iron, aluminum, woods, stone…

His second sense marked various items in the surrounding area that were made of the same substance, even marked the trap off to his left, but it didn’t touch any part of the sword.

“All on your lonesome,” Jack said.

“Yes,” Theo answered, sounding braver than he felt.

His finger touched other panels.  Brick, asphalt, concrete, porcelain…

The sword remained out of his power’s reach.  He’d put so much stock in being able to disarm Jack.

With each contact, he felt the accompanying flashes, tried to put together a mental picture of his surroundings.

Two false building faces, just a little ahead of him.  They had to be Nyx-made.  If he advanced, she’d break the illusion, and he’d be surrounded in the noxious smoke.  At best, he’d pass out.  At worst, he’d pass out and wake up to permanent brain damage and organ failure.  Or being in the clutches of the Nine.

Jack let the sword swing, and Golem tensed.  The blade didn’t come anywhere close to pointing at him, but Jack’s power cut shallow gouges into the surrounding brick, stone and pavement.

“Alone,” Jack said, again.

Because of you, Golem thought.

He clenched his fist.

Tears were forming in his eyes.  Ridiculous.  Wasn’t supposed to be what happened in this kind of situation.

Jack, in turn, smiled slowly.  “Quiet.  I was thinking that after all this time, we could have some witty banter.  You can scream your fury at me, curse me for killing your loved ones.  Then you do your best to tear me apart.”

“No.”

“Oh!” Jack smiled wider.  “Show mercy, then?  Walk away from the fight and show you’re the better man, rather than descending to my level?  I’ve been waiting for someone to pull that ever since I saw it happen in a movie.”

“This isn’t a movie.”

“No.  It’s very, very real, Theodore,” Jack said.  He paced a little, letting the sword drag on the ground.  The blade was white, Golem noted.  White, exceptionally sharp.

Mannequin-made?

Or was this Jack an illusion?  Nyx could imitate voices.  She could create the gouges in the walls by way of the illusory smoke.

Golem paced a little too, mirroring Jack’s movements.

“Well, I’m not sure what you expect, then, Theodore.  The fat little boy promised me he’d become the kind of hero that would put down monsters like me.  I gave you two years, and you’ve made it at least partway.  Did you change your mind on the killing part?”

“No.  I will kill you.”

“So tough!  So brave!  All of this from the-”

Stop talking, Jack.  You’re not that clever, not as sharp as you like to think.  You talked to me about keystones?  Bullshit.  You’re a sad, pathetic killer with delusions of grandeur.”

Jack’s smile dropped from his face.  He held the Claymore with one hand, the blade’s point touching the ground, and spread his arms.  His unbuttoned shirt parted, showing the whole of his bare shirt and stomach.  Showing himself to be vulnerable, exposed.

“Then do your worst, Theodore.  Because if you don’t, I will.”

Dinah,” he whispered.

With you.  Gray boy isn’t near.  Nyx and Hookwolf are.  Fifteen questions.  I had to use one to help the others.

He nodded slowly.

I don’t like the illusory building faces.  Too much poisonous smoke was needed to make that sort of thing, it had to be multiple Nyxes working in concert.  They’d be close, probably.

Which said nothing of the other threats that loomed behind the fog.  Psychosoma’s creations?

Golem reached up to his gloves, then tore off the protectors on his knuckles.  They fell to the ground.  Beneath were spikes.

“Nice touch,” Jack said.

Golem spread his arms.  “What do you-”

Red.”

Mid-sentence, still talking, he let his arms fall, driving them into panels at his side.

Jack hopped back out of reach of the hands, seizing his sword.  He drew it back.

Blue.”

Golem created another hand.  Not to catch Jack, but to catch the blade.

It had backfired, if anything.  The hand caught the tip of the blade, but the sword slid free of the grip and flew around with more force.  Golem leaped back, letting himself fall, and let his feet slide into the pavement.  Two boots rose from the ground, shielding him as the slash caught the surface.

Weaver’s lessons.  Catching the enemy off guard by any means necessary, rolling with the punches, or rolling with the effects of the enemy’s attack.

Had to use Dinah’s ability, divide everything into two equally viable actions, so he wasn’t caught off guard.

Still prone, still shielded and out of sight, he reached into the ground with both hands.

Two hands, flattened, jabbed for Jack’s leg, stabbing at ankle and calf.  Jack backed away again before they made contact, slashed again.

This time, the slash caught a section of Golem’s armor that was sticking out of cover.  The cut made a mark nearly a foot deep in the ground, but it served only to split the pauldron in half.  A section of metal fell to the ground.

He created two connected hands of pavement, then whipped them to throw the section of pauldron at Jack.  The trajectory suggested it would fly a little to Jack’s left.

Golem jabbed one hand into the ground, and a flattened hand stabbed out from the spinning piece of metal, extending as the projectile flew.

Jack ducked, but Golem was already thrusting his other hand into the earth.  It jutted from the hand he’d created, doubling the length in short order.  More of a crude boomerang in shape than a chunk of metal.

It only clipped Jack, just barely.

“Clever boy,” Jack said.  “You-”

“Stop talking, Jack,” Golem responded.

For Aster, for Kayden, even for the others…

He thrust his hands into the ground, repeatedly, and they stabbed at the underside of Jack’s feet.  He leaped back out of reach and swung his sword the instant he touched ground.

The action cut through the remainder of the shield Golem had raised, but it also kept Jack in one place.  He caught the underside of Jack’s foot.  Jack stumbled as he pulled himself free of Golem’s grip.

He reached out to stab out with two interconnected hands, the same technique he used to launch himself.

But Jack evaded it, slid out of the way, almost as if he knew the strike was coming.

Golem moved to get into a position to strike again, and realized in the moment that it would take too long.

He was crouched, still, his hands remained buried, and Jack was already drawing his sword back.  He couldn’t mount a defense in time.

He braced himself.  With luck, his armor could take it.

The attack didn’t come.

No.  Jack laughed, instead.  His icy blue eyes were fixed at a point beyond Golem.

Golem chanced a look over his shoulder.

He saw a figure dropping out of the sky, trailed by what looked like a comet’s trail of black shapes.  Weaver.  Her course changed as she flew away, using the Bohu-warped buildings for cover.

And where she’d been, just moments ago, a dull gray light hung in the sky.

Scion.  Trapped in Gray Boy’s time-well.

Jack’s laugh rang through the area.

The figure inside moved, but only barely.  The well trapped powers within.  Kayden’s lasers wouldn’t exit the area.  Crusader’s duplicates wouldn’t be able to wander beyond the well’s limits.

And Scion didn’t appear to be any different.

“I’m sorry, my boy,” Jack said.

Golem whipped his head around.  Jack had backed up a short distance.

Jack chuckled, as if he still found something funny about the situation.  “Ah well.  I’m disappointed.  I’m not sensing it, your killer instinct.”

“I’m prepared to finish you,” Golem said.

“You’re prepared?  Maybe.  But not practiced.  No.  I don’t see this going anywhere interesting.  It’s about the ripples.  You remember our conversation?”

Theo nodded slowly.  The ripples from a butterfly’s wing.  The effects that extend out from any event. 

“You?  This?  It’s nothing.  What ripples extend from this?  You’re weak.  That?” Jack pointed at Scion, trapped in the sky.

Golem chanced another look.  Nothing had changed.  Scion remained fixed in place.

That interests me.”

He climbed to his feet, eyes on Jack’s weapon.

Jack reached into his belt, then drew a knife.

Golem tensed.  Faster than the sword, if not quite so capable of chewing through his armor.

But Jack didn’t attack him.  He struck at the building faces.

The surfaces dissolved into rolling clouds of smoke.  Golem vaulted himself back twice in quick succession to escape it, then continued to back away for good measure.

“You’ve failed to amuse me.  A shame your sister’s been shot, and there’s nothing interesting to do with the hostages,” Jack called out, his voice ringing along the length of the street.  With no details or features on the outsides of the buildings Bohu had altered, the voice carried in an odd way.

A shadow emerged.  Jack, riding atop a massive six-legged beast.

As Jack approached, he became more visible, and the nature of the beast became clear.  He stood on Hookwolf’s back, between the creature’s shoulders.

Other shadows appeared in the mist, and they, in turn, clarified as they approached.  Crawlers.  Mannequins.  Crimsons.  Others.

Done in by my dad’s lieutenant, Golem thought.  No way he was walking away from this.

“I suppose we’ll kill you,” Jack said.  “And you’ll just have to take me on my word when I say I’ll find something suitably horrific to do as punishment for your failing our little game.”

Theo raised a hand as a shield even before Jack used his power in conjunction with Hookwolf’s.  A hand of pavement, struck by a thousand slashes in a matter of a second, whittled to nothing.  Then he had only armor, and that, too, started to come apart.

The cuts that followed parted flesh.

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Sting 26.6

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The large box sat in between the benches and seats at the back of the Pendragon, beside a heavy device with an ornate looking gyroscope on the top.  I could feel the bugs within.  I instinctively knew what they were, how they operated, and could even pinpoint exact bugs in the swarm, among dozens of their kind.

I focused on them.  It was almost meditative.  I’d taken to focusing more on the conscious uses of my power, so I’d be more aware when I was making unconscious use of it.  There was nothing I could do about the fact that my passenger apparently had a hand in how my bugs were controlled, but I was trying to train myself to recognize it when it happened.

Rachel was focusing on her dogs in much the same way I was focused on my bugs.  Her hands ran over their bodies, fingers combing through their fur, tracing the lines in their athletic little bodies.  Bastard submitted to the touching without complaint or reaction.

I could sympathize with Rachel some, now.  We’d gathered our strike force together from among the people who I was familiar with and the people who were intact enough to fight, but my relationship to each of these people was iffy at best.  Focusing on our minions was easier.

Chevalier sat in a seat that put his back to Defiant’s chair, so they faced in opposite directions.  He was talking in a low voice that didn’t cut through the drone of the Pendragon’s engine.  Defiant responded without taking his eyes off the controls.

Revel leaned back her head back and resting against the vibrating outer hull of the Pendragon, eyes closed, lantern in her lap.  She looked almost meditative, to the point that I didn’t want to disturb her.

Tecton and Hoyden were talking in low voices.  Both were Protectorate members, now.  Tecton had passed the reins to Grace, and Hoyden was now the little fish in the big pond.  I didn’t want to interject.

Parian and Foil were holding hands, sitting with their arms pressed together, heads leaning to either side so that Foil’s temple sat against the top of Parian’s head.  Even now, it was hard to think of them as Undersiders.  Lots of mixed feelings in the background there.  I’d turned Parian onto this path, and in the doing, I’d done the same for Foil.  For Flechette.

There was a crash, and the Pendragon shifted, almost veering into a dive.  Defiant corrected the course.  “Passing over the wall!  One clinging to the top of the ship!”

Revel stirred.  “Do you want me to fly out?  I can escort us in.”

“No.  The Pendragon is built to take a beating.  We’re more secure with the ramp closed and everything sealed off.  Hold tight.  This is going to get worse before it gets better.”

There was another crash.  I debated sending my bugs outside, then rethought it.  No use, for much the same reason sending Revel out wasn’t going to change things.

Rachel looked exceedingly uncomfortable, and the dogs were reading her body language and getting anxious as a consequence.

I winced at the sound of tearing metal, followed by a sudden shift in the ship’s direction.  Something had been torn free.  Defiant corrected course again, compensating.

I wanted to say something to Rachel, to calm her or the dogs down, or simply to reach out and connect in the same way that the others in the craft were finding solidarity.  The problem was, I wasn’t sure what to say.  We’d separated, had walked different paths, and I’d betrayed her on a level.  I’d led her to believe she had a friend in me, and then I’d walked away.

She met my eyes, scratched Bastard at the top of his head, then asked, “What?”

“You’re okay?”

“Yup,” she said.  She didn’t look okay.  She stroked two different dogs, but I almost felt like the gesture was more for her sake than for the dogs.

“Not right now.  Just… in general?  Are you okay in general?  Living on the other world?”

“Yup,” she said.

I sighed, turning my attention back to the box.

“I’m hoping my dogs are okay,” she said, staring down at the metal floor.  “Been a while since I’ve been away from them like this.”

“You have people, right?  People you…” I let the sentence hang as I tried to recall whether trained was something appropriate for people and not dogs.  “People you trained, to look after your dogs.”

“Yeah,” Rachel said.

“Setting down!” Defiant called out.

There was another tearing sound, like nails on a blackboard scaled up to a volume that made it resonate in my bones.  Maybe the worst sound I’d ever heard.

Just that thought brought back recollections.  The dull, faint sound of an old doctor’s body hitting the ground, after Mannequin cut her throat.  My dad’s voice, crying my name, sounding very distant despite the fact that he was right next to me, in the moments before I killed Alexandria and Director Tagg.  The non-sounds Brian had made as he’d opened his mouth, noises so quiet they weren’t even whispers, as he hung in the refrigerator, post-Bonesaw, pre-second trigger event.

No, there were worse sounds than the screech of metal tearing.  Sounds I’d barely registered at the time, but nonetheless sounds that haunted me.

“Tattletale sent us some old guy to teach us how to butcher the bison,” Rachel said.  “None of the others are any good at it, and it’s harder without the dogs there to help haul it off the ground by its back legs.”

The Pendragon set down.

“Taking off will be harder than landing was,” Defiant said.  He didn’t flinch as a creature pounced on the glass of the ship’s windshield.

A heartbeat later, something hit the outside of the craft.  Something big.  The thing on top that was tearing at the metal struck again, no doubt peeling away at an armor panel.

“-And I’m thinking they’re probably getting hungry.  Fucking up good meat, not carving out the fatty bits.  Or they aren’t getting all the blood out.  You have to cut deep to bleed the motherfuckers.”

Distracted by the landing, some of the junior heroes were paying attention to Rachel now.

“What the hell is she talking about?” Hoyden asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said.  Then I glanced at Rachel.  “Either of you.  Rachel, they’re going to manage fine.”

“They’re going to manage,” she said.

Defiant was already out of his seat.  He had approached the device he’d placed next to my box and managed to get it going just as Rachel finished speaking.

Every monitor in the Pendragon’s cabin flared to life.  Countdown timers appeared, white numbers on a black background, with fainter, smaller timers above and below.  I knew they would be the minimum and maximum times.  The one in the middle was only an estimate.

The craft was struck again, and a dent in the outer walls nearly knocked Tecton from his seat.  Everyone reached for something to hold on to, as the Pendragon nearly tipped over onto its side.  The dogs barked at the disturbance.

“There are forcefield generators,” Defiant said.  “But they take time to recharge.  We’ll hold out for as long as we can before using it, waiting until they are more numerous, and our options are limited.”

“Four minutes,” Tecton observed, looking at the monitors.

“We- I think so,” Defiant said.  “Plus or minus one minute and thirty seconds.  The forcefield generator is housed in the underside of the craft, to provide stronger defense from below.  It’ll last after the walls come down.”

“Defensive positions,” Chevalier said.

“Protecting the decoder is a priority,” Defiant said.

We stood from our seats, backing towards the center of the craft, the decoder and my box of bugs at our center.  I reached back and opened the box, letting the bugs flow out.

Without my even asking, Defiant opened the ramp at the back a fraction.  Like a flower blossoming, slowly at first, then with increasing speed, I could feel my awareness expanding.  I could feel the outside of the ship, the creatures that were gathering in ever-increasing numbers.  Every shape and size imaginable.

Three were making good headway against us.  I could identify the same creature, I was pretty sure, that had been pummeling the wall at the outer perimeter of Ellisburg.  It was a quadruped, and it moved with a surprising slowness as it paced away from us.  Strands of fur longer than I was tall hung off it, and its head was one armored plate with eyeholes, the edges flaring out and away from its head at the sides and back, allowing its long, pointed ears to freely move behind the plate.  It lowered its head in the direction of the craft and tested the ground with one scuff of a spike-studded hoof against the pavement.

I set bugs to attacking its eyes, driving them into ear canals in hopes of distorting its sense of direction.  It aborted the charge to shake its head violently.

“Possible incoming right in front of you, Tecton.  Any second now.”

“Right,” he said.  He held his ground.

“Might be worth moving,” I said.

He looked back at me.  “Aren’t we supposed to defend the decoder?”

“Switch,” Chevalier said, with no elaboration.  Tecton hurried to take up Chevalier’s position towards the nose of the craft, while Chevalier lowered his cannonblade in the direction of the bulge on the wall.

There were two more creatures that were gouging the hull.  One used oversized claws to pry at metal plates.  Another was drooling acid onto the roof.

I could sense the round-headed bald girl from earlier as well, one creature that moved with a startling speed as it scratched at the outer edges of the craft, one way, then the other, so the gouges in the metal formed hatch marks.  Burrowing, almost.  Burrowing very slowly.

Something howled, and it was loud.

The creations were piling around the craft, with a number gathering on the window over the cockpit.  Tecton tensed.

“The window is stronger than the metal,” Defiant said.  “Don’t panic.”

“It isn’t as flexible,” Tecton said.  “One good hit like the one that dented the wall there and it won’t hold up.”

“It’s designed to take rocket launcher hits head on,” Defiant said.

“That doesn’t mean it’s designed to take them from an angle,” Tecton retorted.  “My power gives me a sense of structural integrity.  I’m saying I’m worried.”

“Fine,” Defiant said.  He watched the ramp, not moving an inch.  “Be worried.”

The charger was incapacitated, its eyes devoured, eardrums perforated, with bugs crawling through the middle ear fluids that were pouring down its ear canals..  I diverted bugs to the thing that was clawing the armor plates off of the outer edges.

An instant later, the charger lunged forward.

No sense of direction, no ability to see, not even any balance, beyond what its four legs offered.

But it was big, and its target was big as well.

“Heads up!” I shouted.

It slammed into the side of the Pendragon, closer to the back than the location of the first hit.  The metal tore where two sections joined together, and a monitor fell to the floor, shattering.

Creatures began crawling through the gap.  Defiant moved his spear to the opening, then activated the gray blur.  He held it there, allowing them to die and be wounded on contact.

Golem used his power, raising a hand of metal to cover the opening.

Defiant lowered his spear and canceled out the blur.

The disintegration effect might have been worth keeping on hand, but I could understand if he was concerned about another impact knocking someone into the spearhead.

Creatures had hopped onto the charger’s back, and were helping guide it, babbling and screeching, tugging on its fur.  It followed their directions, retreating.

I directed my bugs to attack, stinging and biting each of them on the same general side.  They reacted, tugging and pulling away, and the charger changed direction.  Only his flank glanced the back of the craft, and he trampled through a crowd of the little bastards who’d congregated on and around the ramp.

The round-headed girl sat there, half-crushed, and then began to swell.

“Heads up!  Your left, Defiant!” I shouted.

She detonated, and gunk spattered the ramp.  I felt bugs die on contact.

The ramp began to melt like candle wax.

I moved bugs to the fray while Hoyden and Defiant advanced on the ramp.

The creatures came in as a singular mass.  Dozens at once, practically crawling over one another.  A spine glanced off of Defiant’s armor and came within inches of striking the decoder.  Foil swatted it out of the air.

Parian’s first doll joined Rachel’s dogs in reinforcing the space behind Hoyden and Defiant.  Hoyden kicked and punched at the creatures, and small explosions tore through their ranks.  One punch, two or three creatures dead.  One landed on her, claws extended, and then promptly flew away as another detonation of flame and smoke flared from the point of contact.  She was barely scratched.

If those claws were poisonous, though…

Still, she made for a competent front line, beside Defiant with his disintegrating spear.  Every movement of the spear was as precise as Hoyden’s explosions were erratic.  The blur effect cut through the enemy like butter, and in the rare occasions where the target did slip away or dodge the attack, Defiant followed up with jolts of electricity and darts.

The charger steered around and began to pick up speed.

“Chev, incoming!”

I tried to distract the charger again, targeting the riders, but it didn’t work.  This time, they pulled in different directions, or simply dropped off.  It continued on course.

It struck only two or three feet to the left of the first point of damage, and opened up the side.  The thing with claws on the roof, squinting against the steady damage my bugs were doing, hopped over and began to pry the gap open wider.

I moved a swarm over the gap, trying to hide the entryway, but it did little good.  Both Parian and Rachel shifted position to defend the opening.  Golem began trying to patch it up.

“Careful!” Defiant warned, glancing over one shoulder.  “Too much extra weight and we won’t be able to take off!  Containment foam instead!”

The perils of physics-defying powers.  Golem and Rachel both broke the laws of conservation of mass, and now we risked paying for that.  The Dragon’s Teeth stepped forward to take over.

I could see the charger turning around.  One creature was on its back, a heavily armored thing that had hard, multifaceted eyes like an insect.  My own bugs couldn’t damage the orbs.  It cheered in a high voice, urging the charger on, with some English words peppered in the midst of its gibbering.

One more minute to go.  If we were lucky, it could open any second.  If we were unlucky, it would take two and a half minutes.

Two crawled in through the crack in the side, clinging to the ceiling as they made their way in through the cloud of bugs.  I pointed, and Foil slashed at them with her rapier.  Tecton squashed another with his piledriver.

Over where another of the creatures had been trying to burrow into the side, a creature pushed it aside and spat.  The effect was the same as the exploding bubble-head girl from earlier, if less dramatic.  Looking at the exterior wall, I could see the hatch-marks appearing in the side as though they’d been drawn in marker, pale against the dark metal.  They spread, the effect broadening, until the hatch marks were drawn out in white and the surrounding area was paler.

Something punched through, then reached in blindly to scratch and claw.  Golem’s reaching hand broke the claw.

More spots were appearing, though.  Dents, gouges, acid…  I attacked the creatures that were doing the most damage, as far as I could identify them, but there were more waiting to take their places.

“Nilbog’s creatures!”  I spoke, raising my voice.  I spoke through my bugs outside.  “We mean no harm!  We will bring you back your king!”

Nothing but cries of rage and hate in response.  No use.

Thirty seconds, now.

The holes in the exterior opened enough for the creatures to start pushing through.  The acid burned them where they made contact, but that same contact opened the holes wide enough for others to follow.

The charger lunged, charging again.  There was really only one rider it was listening to, but that pilot was a tough one to hurt.

The thing screamed one word in English, twice in quick succession, its voice high,

“Jump!  Jump!”

The charger leaped.  The result wasn’t graceful, nor was it particularly on target.  What it did do was allow the charger to get one foot up on the side of the Pendragon, its upper body partially on the roof.  It kicked and struggled in its attempts to move forward, and found one leg caught in the tear it had made on its last charge.

It placed the foot on top of the hands Golem had raised to block the gap, and sheer weight tore them down.  It slumped, falling, and then brought the end of its nose inside the ship, dragging it against the tear in fits of thrusting, struggling to free both it and its leg, succeeding only in doing more damage.  Reinforced shafts and beams held against the damage, but could see how each wiggle was bending the thick bars.

“I thought you said this thing was tough!”  Foil shouted.

“It is,” Defiant said.

“Forcefield might be a good idea!”  I called out.

Defiant didn’t respond.  Hoyden had made her way down the ramp and was dishing out the hurt close-range.  She was keeping the melee threats on their heels with a constant, aggressive offense, while her secondary powers rendered her resistant to the damage that came from a distance.  Defiant was left to defend the opening himself.

I drew my knife and my handgun and advanced until I was just behind and to the left of DefiantHe shifted position a fraction, allowing for the extra assistance.

Who knew we’d get to this point, Armsmaster?  I thought.

Fighting side by side.  I used my knife to impale one creature in the neck, then kicked it back down the half-ruined ramp.

Two of the countdown clocks had hit zero.  The one clock remained.  The high end of Defiant’s estimation on the decoder’s progress.

“One minute,” I said.

“Maybe,” Defiant said.

Maybe?”

“We took the time this past year to find Dodge’s old exit points, talking to ex-customers of the-” he stopped, grunting as he swept the spear at one persistent spine-spitter, “-Toybox group.  Used it to get readings, test the decoder.  But this portal has different metrics, updated technology.  More recent tech.”

“It’s not a guarantee?”  Hoyden shouted the words, as explosions continued to rip out around her, tearing through the assembled creatures.  They were keeping a healthy distance, now, which meant her very presence was keeping a whole area clear of the blighters.

Nothing’s a guarantee, I thought.

“I never guarantee anything,” Defiant grunted, echoing my thoughts.  “Except for a select few promises I make to people I love and people I hate.”

Rachel’s dogs were tearing into the goblins as they made their way through the gap beneath the charger that had wedged into the gap, each dog biting their mouths down once or twice in quick succession before flinging the things away just so they could have their mouths free to bite others.  Their paws swept out to club and claw at the creatures.  Tecton and Foil guarded the space between dogs, striking out to catch the ones which slipped between the dog’s legs.

I plunged my knife down to stab one of the softer looking targets, then danced back to avoid the spatter of acid that flowed from the wound.

“I’m getting buried!” Hoyden shrieked.  She’d been targeted by some critters that were dissolving into a slurry as they burned, with tendrils extending out to draw in the wounded and dead.

They’re reincarnating, feeding on themselves to make more.

“Stop using your power!” Defiant ordered.

“I can’t!  They’ll kill me!”

I glanced over my shoulder at the clock, then whipped my head back around as a creature pounced, trying to wrap itself around my head.  I shot it, feeling a flare of relief that I hadn’t just been killed, mingled with a regret over the loss of the bullet.

“How is it not done yet!?” I shouted.  “Zero on the clock!”

Defiant didn’t respond.

“Defiant!  Do we take off!?”

The charger, still caught in the gap, found the leverage to strain against one of the reinforcing girders that maintained the craft’s structure.  It began to slide down, and Golem raised a stainless steel hand to keep it from stomping on the decoder.

The hand wouldn’t be strong enough.  If that thing shifted its weight any more-

“Defiant!” Tecton shouted.  “What are our priorities!?  Can we take off?”

“No,” Defiant responded.  “We stay.  Wait, cross our fingers.”

I glanced back to see Golem and Tecton exchanging a glance.  The creature struggled again, sudden, and the beams shifted further.  One more struggle like that, and the little hand wouldn’t hold it up.

A big hand, though, might cement our fate, take away our maneuverability.

“Saint,” Defiant said.

I glanced back at him.

“Don’t fuck us on this.  We need those Azazels.  We need an escape route.”

Saint?

The fact that Dragon was debilitated was another trick, an extremely ill-advised play against the heroes, capitalizing on our distraction with something greater.

“I’m going to fucking kill Saint,” I said.

“If we survive this fucking-,” Tecton said.  He grunted and fell on his armored rear end as a dog jerked to one side, accidentally body-checking him.

“Not a suicide mission,” Defiant said, carrying out only one half of a conversation we weren’t entirely privy to.  “Back us up, now.”

A pause.

Defiant spoke, and his tone of voice had changed.  He wasn’t talking to Saint.

“Toronto, Ontario.  Canada.  Yonge Street.  Just behind a place called Greenway.  I’ve commissioned a thinker-investigator calling himself Gleer to track them down.  If only some of us make it, do me a favor, and remember that Saint is the one who fucked with one of our biggest truces yet.  Saint took down Dragon, and he just left us to die.  The Azazels are apparently better deployed elsewhere.”

The charger bucked, and Golem created a large hand, not to catch the descending foot, but to divert its direction.  It crushed my empty bug box.

This much weight on the craft, the loss of so many external components… we wouldn’t be able to fly.

The roof came partially off.  More streamed in through the resulting gap, dropping down into the middle of the cabin.

Revel unleashed her lantern.  Spheres of light and flame flew out in every direction, burning through the ranks of the smaller creatures, zig-zagging to maximize contact between them.  The charger died, going limp.

A moment’s reprieve.

Defiant used a grappling hook from his glove to try to catch Hoyden, only for it to fly off in another blast of flame.

He tried again, but this time, he whipped the chain, so the length of it wound around her, then yanked her inside.  He signaled, and the forcefield went on.  In seconds, we cleared the few that had survived from the Pendragon’s cabin.

Creatures died as they made contact with the field.

Defiant dropped his spear, turning to the device that Dodge had set up.  Data appeared on the monitor.

“Give me a connect to Alcott,” he said.

Tattletale’s voice sounded through my earbud.  “You sure?  You know-”

“Time is of the essence.  Now.”

Righty-o.”

The rest of us exchanged glances.  Rachel was tending to her dogs, Parian was binding wounds with spare cloth and creating more constructs, and Golem was patching up the damage.  Not fixing anything, but barricading.

She’s on the line.

“Top half of the list, success?”

Zero,” Tattletale said.

“Last quarter?”

Yes.”

Defiant typed on the keyboard.  “That’s it.  Narrowing down possibilities.  Thank you.”

We waited, looking through the spaces where the barricades hadn’t yet gone up, at the creatures that waited.  Hoyden submitted to some bandaging on Parian’s part.

I watched the forcefield flicker.  It seemed to coincide with what Defiant was typing on the keyboard.  A strike of the enter key, and it flickered and went out.

“I’m taking it down early,” Defiant said.  “We need the power.”

Barely a minute.

The creatures approached hesitantly, then broke into a run.  I could see the dogs tense.

“Back up,” Defiant said.  “Now.  Huddle!”

We did, swiftly retreating until we were clustered around the center of the cabin, shoulder to shoulder, our backs to the device. My bugs filled the gaps.  The creatures, in turn, gibbered, squealed, screeched and roared.  They howled and stomped and drummed fists on chests.

Impacts made Golem’s hands bend, and I could hear a dozen points where they were grabbing at the plates of metal and straining to bend and peel them.  That horrible sound, in innumerable places around the craft.

And then silence.  Darkness.  Air rushed around us, equalizing throughout a vast, empty space.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire, I thought.

We broke the huddle, our headlights and flashlights going on.  Rachel’s dogs could be seen in the darkness, their eyes glowing red and orange in the reflected light.

“It seems we have company,” Jack said.

I could see the others startle.

“No, I’m not standing next to you.  Borrowing Screamer’s power to broadcast, to have a little chat.”

No.  Couldn’t afford to listen to him.  If any of us were problematic, or if it was someone listening in, anything he said could be the catalyst for the end of the world.

Problem was, Screamer was a bitch to shut down.  Ear plugs wouldn’t be any guarantee.  If she was forced to, she would use the vibrations of people’s bones to transmit words.

Jack continued, “I confess, I do like this part.  The chatting.  It’s safe to keep my distance, but it’s boring, really.  You challenge somebody, pit mind against mind, but how much do you truly get to know them?”

“Move,” I said.  “Fan out, find Screamer as soon as possible.”

My bugs flowed out in advance of the group.

“This, the conversation, it’s what turns a mindless killing spree into something more, an art.  Bonesaw is fond of telling me that true art speaks for itself, but really, there needs to be a relationship between the artist and audience, if only because there’s a lot of idiots out there.  Some people need it spelled out for them.  Hi Theodore.”

Golem clenched his fists.

The area was vast and empty.  Every surface was granite, rough but not so much so that it would be painful to walk on with bare feet.  The wiring was crude, small floodlamps strung out in strings, like oversized, colorless, exceptionally boring Christmas lights.  Wires had been stapled against the walls, fixing them in straight lines, but the excess draped loose at the bases of those same walls.

The lights were bright, but they only covered two-thirds of the area.  The spaces between those same lights were dark to the point of being almost pitch black, the afterimages in my vision making it look like things were moving in the shadow.

“Gray Boy is retrieving your sister this very moment, Theodore.”

Golem stopped in his tracks.

“Yes,” Jack said.  No elaboration.  Answering a question that hadn’t been asked.

“Can’t communicate with our people while we’re here,” Defiant said.

“Keep moving,” Chevalier gave the order.

Jack spoke, his voice smooth.  Or Screamer spoke, mimicking what he was saying, quite possibly in the exact tone and cadence.  “We got video.  I thought about having it be silent, in black and white, but Gray Boy wanted color.”

My scout-bugs found no signs of life.  Only bizarre constructions.  Crystal pillars with more wires stringing to them?  Where was Jack?  We passed through a room with what looked like a dentist’s chair.  Tools and pieces of the mechanical scalpel-spiders littered the room.

Bonesaw’s operating room.

“I like to think this is a win-win situation for me,” Jack said.  “Wait until you hear.  We’ll get the video up in a moment.  Play it on the speakers, maybe, or show it on the computers, if you can find one soon.  Does this break you, or does it give you that burning fury that drives you to go the extra mile and try to kill me?”

We entered the main area, and I stared.

“Oh god,” Foil said.

There was a crunching sound as Chevalier let his sword drop, the metal biting into the floor.

The crystalline pillars were vats.  Cloning vats.  Each marked with a name of one of the Nine.

They were full.  Babies floated within each.

“Cherish says you found the clones.  Yes.  We’re doing another batch.  Didn’t take much time to prepare, and it was bound to be either a nice follow-up or a good surprise for you if you happened to catch up to us here.  You know I’m close.  Do you take the time to eliminate each of these things, or do you come after me and leave them behind?”

“We can have someone stay behind, clean up,” Chevalier said.

“I wouldn’t say that, Chevalier,” Jack responded, his voice carrying through the vast chamber with two or three hundred vats spaced evenly throughout.  “See, we mixed things up a little.  There’s a specialized cleanup area that can kill the Crawler clones.  We gave them their powers right off the bat.  Mixed them in with the others.  You’ll have to be fairly discerning, and devote manpower to the task.”

I thought about using my power, but there weren’t any bugs native to this area.  I was limited to the ones that I’d brought with me.  Not enough to cart two or three hundred children off to some special device.

“A distraction,” Defiant said.  “There’s another option.  A bomb.  If we track down the device Dodge used to create and maintain this dimension, we can collapse it.”

“How fast?” Chevalier asked.

“Fast,” Defiant answered.

“Poor sportsmanship,”  Jack rebuked them.  “Let’s try a different distraction then.”

A computer monitor on the desk flickered to life.

“I’m excited,” Jack said.  “Gray Boy is working on getting the video up.  Funny thing.  The real Gray Boy wouldn’t be able to do this, but we gave this one the memories of a real child.  Came with the necessary skills.  I’m almost disappointed.  People are so much more interesting when they’re flawed, aren’t they?  Oh, here we go.  I haven’t even seen this.  Let’s see…”

The video started playing.  The camera wiggled and wobbled as Gray Boy ascended a staircase.

He came face to face with PRT officers.

“Best not to watch,” Revel said, her voice gentle.  “It’s not worth it.”

Golem didn’t take his eyes off the screen.  Revel approached him, putting one hand on his shoulder.

Others turned to keep scouting the area.

I joined them.  This place was massive, but my power had range.  I needed to find Jack, and that was a bigger priority than seeing the scene as it played out.  Rachel walked between the rows and columns of glass vats with me.  Her dogs trailed behind, their spikes and spurs occasionally tapping or dragging against the glass of the vats.

There we go,” Gray Boy said, his voice high, as he spoke in the video.  I could barely make it out with my own ears, but I had my bugs to help.  It didn’t hurt that the ones who’d remained behind were utterly silent as they watched.

I’d already seen, in a sense.  I’d figured out what was behind the tarp back in Killington.  Gray Boy’s victim.  The only one, as far as I was aware, who was still alive.

But Gray Boy didn’t kill.

Let’s adjust… there,” Gray Boy said.

Please… don’t… please… let…

The voice was halting, cut short at steady, regular intervals.

Me… go… please… oh… god…

Shhhh,” Gray Boy’s voice was a hush, but it carried through the speakers that were planted throughout the area.

I… don’t…

I said be quiet,” Gray Boy said.  “I’ll do you a favor, even.  I can make this painless.  I just need you to talk to me.  Tell me a story.

A… story…?

I’m sure you can come up with something good.  Let’s start with your partner.

There was a scream.  I tensed.

The scream didn’t stop.  It continued, a steady, constant loop, the beginning the same, the ending varying.

What… story?”

The scream changed, intensifying.  It continued looping, just a little louder, a little less usual.

Don’t be a baby,” Gray Boy said.  “That’s only a pocket knife I cut you with.

Trucks… vampir… dragons… what… do… you… want…

Think about it,” Gray Boy said.  “When I come back, I want to hear it.  If it isn’t a good one, I’m going to light a match.  They say a burn hurts more than any other kind of pain, inch for inch.  Look, see!  I’ve got a whole matchbox here.  A whole matchbox just for you two, and all the time in the world.

The man’s oddly rhythmic screaming continued, dropping in volume.  It was barely audible as a door shut.

I forced myself to keep walking, exploring with my bugs.  Tunnels, side-rooms, many occupied with old devices, things belonging to the Toybox residents that had apparently claimed spaces in here for themselves.

“Can your dogs pick up a scent?” I asked.

Rachel shook her head.  “Wrong breeds.  They’re not trained in tracking people.”

I swore under my breath.

“Kayden.”

Golem’s voice, from far away.

Gray Boy had found Theo’s family.

Move your hand,” Gray Boy said.  “You know it won’t work.  I’m too hard to kill.

A pause.

I’m going to give you a choice.  You can put the little girl down and let me have her, and then I’ll use my power on you only, or I can use my power on you both.”

There was no reply.

Don’t be silly,” Gray Boy warned.  His tone was flat, almost without affect.  “Give me the girl.  I promise I won’t do anything to her.  Can’t say the same for any of the others, but you and I both know that nothing they can do even compares to what happens when I use my power.

A sound.  A whimper.

I’ll even let you choose.  What kind of hell do you want to go to?  I can use fire, or knives, or I can hit you with something heavy.  I like that little statue over there.  There’s cold, probably.

A sound, a bang, a crash, echoed over the speakers.

I continued pacing down the row of vats.  I reached the end, then traversed an open, empty space before reaching the start of a complicated, almost labyrinthine tunnel network.  My bugs struggled to trace the contours of the space and find their way to the next area.

When they did, they found it was an even bigger space than the one Rachel and I were in.  A giant robot stood in the center, half-complete.

A toddler started shrieking, her wail audible over a hundred speakers throughout the complex, each just a fraction out of sync with the others, given the speed of the signal traveling as compared to the speed of the ensuing sounds.

Not bright,” Gray Boy said.  “And the baby’s crying.  No wonder, with you trying to throw her out the window.

There was only silence in response.

I thought you’d use your laser instead.  Do you think your baby can fly?  Here.  I’ll make the loop longer so you can talk.

I… had… to… try…

Maybe.  But now I have to punish you.  I could hurt you, like I do with most people.  Hurt you while you’re looping through the same action, so you feel that pain over and over and over and over again.  The only thing that doesn’t change is your brain.  That keeps going.  The pain is always fresh, it never gets easier to deal with, but I’m told there’s a certain point where you crack, and you go around the bend.  Takes a few days for most.  Then you get to a point where you work through your issues.  You don’t want to, but you do, because the only thing you have to occupy yourself with is the pain and your own thoughts… so you get mostly better, and then you crack up again, and you get better, and that becomes a loop of its own…

Fuck… you…

Until well after the sun goes out, they think,” Gray Boy said.  “Speed of thought, can’t turn it off unless I’m using it on myself, and I don’t think anyone’s immune.

Bastar… d…

But I do that to everyone I use my power on.  Like a snap of my fingers, just like that, anyone around me is caught in a loop.  What kind of special punishment could I give you, murdermommy?

There was no reply.  The child continued to cry.

Who’s this one?  The woman?” Gray Boy asked.  “No answer?  How about… now.”

There was a pause.

Most scream when you stab them.  Oh well.  Maybe this one?

I changed direction, walking along the wall to get a sense of the greater complex.  There was no way to check the area at the foot of the giant robot without navigating the labyrinth.  My range wasn’t that long.

Nope.  And… this one!”

A scream.

There we go.

Crusader…

I’ve decided, murdermommy.  I won’t do anything to you for now.  I’ll let you wonder what the others did to your little girl.  Then, maybe, if she’s still alive, I’ll bring her back to you and I’ll use my power on her while you watch.  Maybe a week from now, maybe a month, maybe years.  Decades, even.  A hundred years?  They have cryogenics and brain scans and cloning vats and more!  We could show up a thousand years from now, just to say hi to you.

No…

You lose track of time, like that.  Standing there.  But maybe if you keep yourself sane, you’ll be able to offer advice so it won’t be so unbearable, so you can converse and tell stories and keep each other happy.  Maybe, if you keep it together enough, you can convince me to let her go.  I’ll give you a… one in twenty chance.

No…

Tell her to listen to me.  To obey me.  You know what happens if she doesn’t.  Convince her.

Aster… do… what… he… says…

Good.  You hear that, Aster?  Good.

Come… back…

Her voice was quieter, almost drowned out by Aster’s wailing.

A door shut, the speakers echoing the sound all throughout the complex.

The rhythmic screaming of the PRT officer grew louder.

Sit,” Gray Boy’s high voice sounded.  “Don’t run, little girl.  Listen to me like mommy said.

The man’s screaming grew louder still.

So whiny.  I just cut up his face.  So?  Tell me a story?

Silence.

Okay.

A sound of a match being struck.

We… were… briefed… on… Jack…  we… don’t… know… how… he… ends… the… world… we’re… suppose… to… implemen… quarant… ine…”

I stopped in my tracks.

He… talks… to… someone… and… catalyz… es… someth… ing…

The PRT officer had been asked to weigh an eternity of torment against the lives of billions, and she’d chosen the selfish option.

Every… major… group… helping… teams… defeat… Jack…  Cauldron… Thanda… PRT… Protector… ate… Wards… Brockton B… ay villains… Moord Nag… Irregulars… Faultline… Triumvirate…”

We’d just lost our last major advantage in determining how this could play out.  Jack was getting everything.  He was a wiki-walk away from getting details on everyone who was arrayed against his new Slaughterhouse Nine.

I could sense the others as they moved through the complex.  I beckoned Rachel and her dogs, then mounted up.

I kicked the dog into motion.

Others… I… can’t… recall…  they… are… keeping… powerful… people… away… from… Jack… to… avoid… catalyz… ing… they… are… employing… strike… teams… to… take… down… smaller… groups…”

And you’re here because?

Because… Aster… supposed… trigger… young… usually… one… child… in… family… know… Jack… coming… probably… in… person… chance… she… is… catalyst…

There’s a lot of people who could be the catalyst,” Gray Boy said.  “You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to cover all of the bases.”

Low… chance… but… still… chance… thought… we… could… protect… with… Night… Fog… Purity… Crusader…”

Well,” Gray Boy said.  “That was boring.  I wanted a story with neat monsters.”

I gave serious consideration to switching the earbuds to a setting that would make them serve as earplugs.  I made myself keep listening as the screaming started, keeping my ears peeled for clues.

My swarm-sense, at the same time, was searching more of the area.  I brought bugs to me, then sent them off into new corridors as I reached them.

Too few bugs in this entire place.  No moisture to feed them, no food sources.  Only a scant few that had no doubt been brought in accidentally.

I thought the story was interesting,” Jack said, his voice sounding as though he were speaking in my ear.  “See, I had a plan in mind, but now I’m rethinking it.  If I’m supposed to be a catalyst, then it can’t be any of the others.  Bonesaw would get the credit for any plagues or clone armies we deployed, even if I gave the order.”

I grit my teeth.

“But if the effect is broad, well, giving the order could be a part of it.  Our Harbinger has been giving us some very good advice.  Talking about the critical places to strike.  What happens if we attack certain targets?  The world teeters on the brink of falling to the Endbringers.  Divide my remaining soldiers and attack key points in the infrastructure, and maybe that’s game over for humanity.”

Here.”  A voice over the comms.

Or Screamer fucking with our heads?

“Verify.” I spoke over the comms.

Nobody called back to verify.  A sign I was on the right track?  I kicked the dog to drive him to move faster.

“Or if Gray Boy uses his power on Scion, perhaps?  We could assassinate some key figures.  Win-win, because we either deliver a critical blow or we might run into the right person to bring about the end of the world.  So many possibilities, really.”

I could sense them.  Easily two hundred of the Nine, accompanied by a mess of Nilbog’s creations, hooked up to Bonesaw’s control frames.  Nilbog hung on the wall above the group, limbs splayed, tubes feeding into him as blobs dropped down and were captured by a small army of mechanical soldiers.

I closed my eyes for a moment.  A trick?

No.

Two years of emotions caught up with me in a single instant.  I felt fear grip me, anxiety seizing my entire body, adrenaline flooding through my body.

Yet, when I spoke, my voice was calm.  “Weaver here.  I’m using my first priority passphrase.  Danny and the Rose.  Look for the flare.”

Message received loud and clear, Weaver,” Tecton said.

I drew a flare from my belt and lit it, throwing it to the ground.

That done, I glanced over my shoulder at Rachel.  She nodded.

Jack’s voice echoed through the complex.  I could sense him with my bugs now.  He was pacing back and forth, while all of the other Nine were stock still.  “Attack the cities, target Scion, assassinate all of these powerful capes that are coming after me…”

Or I could do all of the above.”

I hopped off of the dog’s back to make it through the doorway, then ascended the spiral staircase.  The dogs struggled to follow, and I signaled for them to stop.

Couldn’t have them blocking my retreat.

I wasn’t sure what I could do, but there had to be something.

I reached the top of the stairs, then stopped, my back to the wall beside the doorway.  I held my gun.

The sole remaining Cherish said something, a murmur.

Weaver.” Jack said.  Screamer repeated the word after him, and it carried through the air, an echo.

“Hi Jack,” I said.  I hung my head, focusing on what my power was telling me.

The bugs I had in the room clung to particular members of the group.  They were eerily still.

“Gray Boy is standing right in front of me,” Jack said.

“I know.”

“Most are shut down.  Using a control to keep them still.  Too unmanageable in a group like this.  That doesn’t mean you have the slightest chance of accomplishing something.”

“I have to try,” I said, echoing Purity’s words from the video.

“Such sad, small words,” Jack commented.  “You don’t have to.”

I had tricks prepared, but none of them were remotely viable.  Not with Bonesaw so close.

I would die, and she would revive Jack.  At best, I’d slow them down.

“You’re too big for your boots, Weaver,” Jack said.  “You had a few critical successes and you’ve run with them.  Earned yourself a reputation.  But at the end of the day, you’re still the same pathetic bug controller who got her powers because her mommy died.”

He likes to talk.  Every second that passes is a second we’re catching up.

“People probably said the same thing about you in the beginning, Jack,” I said.  “Too big for your boots.”

“They did.  My trigger event was a little more dignified, though.  No matter.  I’ve been at this a long time.  You’re barely a concern.”

“Want to fight, Jack?” I asked.  My bugs moved through the crowd as I noted each of the threats that were present.

“Eh,” Jack said, shrugging,  “I can take you.  Step through that doorway, and I’ll give you a fair fight.  One on one.  Look.  I’ll even put my knife in my belt, hands on my head.”

I had an assessment of their group.  I couldn’t account for Nilbog’s creations, but I knew which members of the Nine were present and where they were situated.

“You said it yourself,” Jack said.  “You can’t afford not to.”

Too true.  The others weren’t close enough yet.

“Why this fixation on ending the world?” I asked.

“Nuh uh uh,” Jack answered me.  “Not going to get bogged down in a discussion.  We have a situation.  I’m going to walk away in about fifteen seconds, unless you want to have a duel.  Knife against knife, or gun against knife, if you prefer.  You win here, it’s a coup for the world.  What better option for the make-believe queen?”

The make-believe queen?

Maybe a name Cherish had given me.  I tightened my grip on the gun, but I kept my finger off the trigger.

Someone advanced.  I felt tripwires snap and break.

Letting a hostage go?

I turned and started to fire before the individual in question could step through the doorway.  By the time I made the conscious decision and started squeezing the trigger, the individual in question was emerging.  The bullet made contact, passing through their head.

A life taken.  A hostage killed.  But I couldn’t afford to take any chances.

No.

I shook my head a little.

A Nice Guy, not a hostage.

He needed to focus on people to use his power.  That focus was far weaker if he couldn’t see someone.  My voice would be another vector, as well as knowing my location.

“That was impolite,” Jack said.

“No tricks.”

“I could send Siberian after you,” he said.  “She wouldn’t even have to kill you.  Just hold you still.  Bonesaw and Gray Boy could have worlds of fun.  Remember what we did to your team leader?  Imagine the eternity of pain Gray Boy could deliver after our Bonesaw has given you more nerve endings to work with.”

“You could,” I said.

The others were getting closer, reaching the foot of the stairs.

Cherish spoke.  “The others are here, Jack.”

“Then your time is up, Weaver.  I hope you don’t regret your hesitation.”

I wouldn’t.

I drew in a deep breath, waiting for the second Jack turned, then stepped into the doorway.

Then I opened fire.

I’d first run into the scenario when I went up against Mannequin, before running up against Glory Girl.  The first time I shot a gun, I hit my target.

Now I had a better idea of why.

Having bugs over the entire area, I had a sense of the area, of the topography, of where everything was.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was an advantage.  Something to help aim the shot, to help give me a sense of the path the bullet would travel.  It was like being able to reach out with my arm in a perfectly straight line, touch my target, then aim along the line.  The same effect I’d granted Foil, so she could snipe Tyrant.

The sole remaining Siberian moved to Jack’s side before I could pull the trigger.

I wasn’t aiming for Jack.  It wasn’t even a consideration.  Like he said, he had Gray Boy with him.  The second I stepped into their sight, I was a goner.

My bullet took Cherish in the head.  Another bullet struck Screamer.

I hesitated.

Then I shot Aster, who was held in a Hatchet Face’s arms.

Manton-

No.  Too dangerous.  Gray Boy was moving, trying to get to a better vantage point.

I turned, activating my flight pack for a boost of speed.

The Siberian broke away from Jack, giving chase.  Crawlers advanced only a pace behind.

In that same moment, I drew out more lines, giving the signal.

Revel and Foil both opened fire, their energy-orbs and bolts tearing through the walls and into the rank and file of the Slaughterhouse Nine.

“No!”  Jack ordered.  “Siberian, with us.  The remotes are programmed?”

“Yeah,” Bonesaw reported.

“We go.  Divide into groups.  One major target each.”

Jack quickly sorted them out, his Siberian touching him, Manton and Bonesaw as the bolts and orbs continued to tear through his crowd.  One or two dead every second.

And then they separated into groups.  Bonesaw paused, then broke away, joining her crowd before hitting the remote.  They disappeared.

Another group gone.

Then the remaining three disappeared all at once.

I collapsed on my hands and knees as I reached the bottom of the staircase.  The others that had managed to reach our location stood over me.

“They’re gone,” I said, panting not from exertion, but the sheer panic of what I’d done.

“We give chase,” Chevalier said.  He looked to Defiant.  “Can we?”

“We can if there is a computer,” Defiant responded.

I only nodded.

“Good,” Defiant said.

I looked up as Golem approached, Revel beside him.

“Aster’s dead,” I said.

He went very still.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Did you-”  He started, then he stopped, staring down at me.

“Nevermind.  Sorry for asking,” he said.  “Whatever happened, it’s for the best.”

He didn’t sound like he believed it.  He didn’t sound confident in the least.

It’s for the best, I thought, as Golem joined Chevalier and Defiant in heading up the stairs.

“Can you tell me the order they went off?”  Defiant asked.

I nodded.

“Good.  Then I think we can figure out which went where.  We can eliminate this place as an escape route.”

Which meant we knew which way Jack had gone, and he couldn’t run anymore.

Final encounter.

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Sting 26.5

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Unholy screams and screeches followed us as we made our retreat, landing beyond the walls of Ellisburg.  In moments, Nilbog’s fairy wonderland had become a hell on earth, thousands of demons crawling from the literal woodwork to attack.  The ground split as subterranean creatures emerged, while others climbed out of buildings that seemed to have been built around them.  One was somewhere between a dragon and a gargoyle in appearance.  Big, leathery wings, with a gnarled body and a leering, fanged face.

The flying creatures, the gargoyle-dragon included, took flight perching atop the walls, then backed down as a barrage of gunfire and superpowered attacks assaulted them.

“Shuffle!” Revel cried out her lieutenant’s name.

Shuffle stepped forward and used his power.  Teleportation, but not teleportation of living things.  Not people, anyways.  Grass didn’t hinder him much.

He teleported the landscape.  A hill was bisected and placed against the ruined entrance of the facility.

His power was unpredictable.  There were metrics he couldn’t quite grasp or understand.  Teleporting things in sometimes teleported things out.  In attempting to shore up the wall, he created gaps.

But this was a known issue, one he’d been dealing with for some time.  Unsurprised, he fixed the resulting hole with two more followup teleports.  If any terrain was removed, it was inside the structure, unimportant.

Something inside Goblintown struck the wall, hard, and then started clawing at it.  I could sense it’s silhouette with the few bugs I had near the area.  It was four-legged, with all of the most effective parts of a rhino, bear and elephant combined, and it was big enough that I suspected it could make its way through the great concrete wall.

Defending capes had gathered in a loose ring around Ellisburg.  Revel and Shuffle were among them, which I took to be a sign that Golem’s group had handled whatever issues had arisen in Norfolk.  The heroes opened fire as the gargoyle-dragon thing explored the upper edge of the wall again, and it disappeared, only to make an appearance further down, trying to find a spot where the defensive line was weaker.

This was the worst case scenario, on so many levels.  We couldn’t afford to be dealing with this.

“Two more attacks,” Revel said.  “Just minutes ago.  Two different cities.  The situation in Redfield is still ongoing, which means we have three crisis situations set up by the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“Four, if you count this,” Shuffle said.

The creature hit the wall again.  Shuffle shored it up, placing the other half of the hill against it.

“This is getting out of control,” Revel said.

“You’re implying we had control,” Jouster said.  He stood off to one side, with the defensive line of capes.

More out of control,” she said.

I’d been placed on the ground as the capes landed.  I was aware that someone was checking me for injuries, but it seemed secondary.  I stared up at the overcast sky, watching the rare raindrop tap the lens of my mask.  My mind was whirling while my swarm was feeding me information on the ongoing fight, both inside and outside the walls.

I stirred as I heard Golem’s voice.  He was sitting a short distance from me.  “This is my fault.”

“It was a lose-lose situation,” I said.  I moved my arm to allow the medic to check my ribs.  “Jack set it up this way.”

“I could have done something.  Said something different.”

“No.  We played the cards we had available, it wasn’t enough.  Bonesaw’s power and Siberian’s invulnerability made for ugly trump cards.”

“There had to be a way.”

“We’re coping,” I said.

“Are we?” he asked.  “It doesn’t feel like it.”

“We came through every challenge he set in front of us so far.”

“That doesn’t mean we’re doing okay,” he responded.

I didn’t have a response to that.

He stood.  “I’m going to go talk to some of the people in charge, find out where I can be useful.”

“Okay,” I told him.

He walked off, and I let my head rest against the ground.

Jack had a game plan here, and the more I thought about it, the more the ‘game’ seemed to be a farce.  He knew we were helping.  He was setting up situations where we had to help.  When we’d started winning, maybe even winning faster than he’d anticipated, he’d ratcheted things up.

Just as it had at the outset, the situation now seemed to offer Theo the same dilemma as Jack had aimed to provide early on.  To go after Jack or focus on bigger things.

It was measured, calculated, and it suggested that Jack was fully aware and fully in control of what was going on.

A cape knelt beside me.  “Are you alright?”

We’d only gone through a small fraction of the Nine.  Even assuming every group we had run into had been exterminated, there were so many left to deal with.

My strengths lay in problem solving.  Jack’s strength lay in problem creation.

We came up with a solution to whatever crisis he posed, he responded by creating another, something offbeat enough that we had to change things up.  Specialized groups of his pet monsters, two scenarios at once, and now we had new issues popping up before we’d finished with the last round.

The clones weren’t as fleshed out as the originals.  A little more reckless.  They were being set up to fail.  Were they scary?  Yes.  Were they effective?  Yes.  But we were winning, and Jack wasn’t using them in a way that kept them alive.  They were expendable assets.

It was all too possible that we could keep winning, if the game continued down this road.  We’ll lose some, but we’ll come out ah-

No.

Golem was right.  We’d achieve a steady stream of victoriesNothing more.

“Weaver?”

I pushed myself to my feet.  A cape put his hands on my shoulders, to try to get me to stay still.

“I’m fine,” I said.  “I got the wind knocked out of me.”

“If you have an injury-”

“I’m pretty experienced when it comes to being injured.  I’m fine.  Really,” I said.

He didn’t move, but he did let his arms drop from my shoulders when I pushed them off me.  I found my feet, straightened, and felt aches all across my back where I’d collided with the ground.  I’d be one giant bruise tomorrow.

Then again, if we saw tomorrow, it would be a bonus.

The fighting against Nilbog’s creations was still ongoing.  The flying gargoyle-thing had made it over the wall and was being swarmed by defending capes.  Others were just now starting to climb over, and did their best to avoid the ranged fire that pelted them.  Eight or nine more creatures flew over, only these ones carried smaller ‘goblins’.  The winged ones were shot out of the sky, but many of the smaller creatures managed to survive the fall into trees and the midst of the heroes.   The ones that did went on the offensive with zero hesitation.

“Need the Azazels!” someone shouted.

I directed the few bugs I had in the area to attack, assisting with bites, stings and silk cord.

I would help, but I wouldn’t join the battle.  Not this one.

No, I’d used up every bug in my reach, and the damned goblin-things were too good at killing them.  Nilbog had no doubt designed them to live off of a diet of insects, to supplement their diminishing supply of protein.

I made my way to the Dragonfly, my flight pack dangling from the damaged straps I’d looped around my shoulders.

I’d very nearly told myself that we were coming out ahead.  Golem had been a dose of reality on that front.  We weren’t coming out ahead.  Jack was spreading fear, he was killing innocents, and he was whittling us down.  Doing so with such expendable forces cost him nothing.  Now, with Nilbog in his possession, he had access to that many more monsters and freaks that he could just throw away.

There was no guarantee we would continue down this road unfettered.  Just the opposite.  I fully expected Jack to turn to the rules he’d established at the very beginning and state how blatantly we were cheating.  Then he’d carry out his threat, murder those one thousand people, and move on.

I reached the console, shrugged out of my flight pack and sat down.

I pressed a button, “Defiant.  Not a priority, but get in touch when you can.”

It took a minute before I had all of the individual windows open.  I set it so I could track the feeds provided by the various members of the Wards and Protectorate.  Some were here, others were investigating the sites where more members of the Nine were taking action.

Redfield.  The Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards were holding a defensive position, their backs facing one another.  Foil took a shot at a flesh toned blob that leaped between rooftops, then swiftly reloaded.  Skinslip.

Skinslip was a minor regenerator with a changer ability, allowing him to manipulate his own skin.  I could see him using it to scale a surface.  He extended that ability by flaying people and crudely stitching or stapling their skin to his own.  The regeneration connected the tissues and extended his power’s breadth and reach, but it didn’t prevent all rejection or decay, forcing him to replenish it from time to time.  He was a newer member, but they’d still cloned him.

A quick check of the computer noted the members of the Nine they’d seen and fought.  Three Skinslips.  Three Hatchet Faces.  Three Miasmas.  Three Murder Rats.

Hatchet face excepted, they were enemies who were exceedingly mobile.  Skinslip’s skin acted like a grappling hook, it let him climb, and it broke any fall.  He could also smother and bludgeon his opponents with it, if he felt the need.

Miasma was a stranger, invisible and undetectable but for an odorless gas he gave off that wore away at other’s minds, causing headaches, ringing in the ears, watery eyes and eventual blindness, memory loss and coma.

Murder Rat, for her part, was agile.

It meant they were up against nine opponents that were fast or slippery enough that they couldn’t be caught.  That group was supported by a trio of Hatchet Faces that could steadily lumber towards the group, keeping them moving, ensuring they couldn’t simply maintain a defensive position.

The camera images that Clockblocker and company wore shifted as they scrambled away.  There was a shudder as a mass landed in their midst.

Hatchet Face, dropping down from a vantage point somewhere above them.

Rachel’s dogs went on the offensive, attacking him, but their flesh was already sloughing off, their connection to Rachel shut off, their bodies disintegrating.

Parian’s creations were already deflating.

More range than the Tyrant had possessed, and the power loss was immediate.

Foil shot her crossbow, but it did surprisingly little damage.  Hatchet Face pulled the bolt from his shoulder with no difficulty.

“Behind us!”

The camera swiftly changed direction.  A Murder Rat had landed opposite the Hatchet Face, sandwiching the group between the two villains.  The camera panned, taking in the area, and I could see the silhouettes of other villains on nearby rooftops.  More Murder Rats and Skinslips.

Hatchet Face threw the last dog aside.  It collapsed in a slurry mess of loose skin and muscle.  The dog fought its way free, shaking itself dry.  Bastard was already free.

Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Imp said.  “My power’s gone.

Mine too,” Crucible said.  “Turned off like someone flipped a switch.

I closed my eyes.  I was too far away to help, couldn’t think of advice to offer.

We’re not powerless,” Grue said.  “We’ve got strong costumes.  We know how to fight.

Tattletale’s voice came over the comms, “He’s strong enough to swing that axe through a car, tough enough you could flatten him with a steamroller and he’d get back up when you were done.

We run then,” Grue said.  “We deal with Murder Rat and then we scram.  Make some distance.

He’s not fast, but he’s not a slowpoke either.  You don’t have muscles like that and find yourself unable to run.

Be constructive,” Grue said.  “Solutions?  Options?  Any ideas?

Yeah,” Rachel said.  “This.

She wheeled around, pointing.  Both of her dogs bounded towards the Murder Rat.

I couldn’t see Hatchet Face with the directions the cameras were pointed, but I could see the groups converge on Murder Rat, bull-rushing her as a mass.

Murder Rat swatted at the dogs, slashing Bastard along the ribs, but Rachel stepped in the way, blocking the follow-up attacks with the sleeves of her silk-weave jacket.

Murder Rat, about to be surrounded, leaped up to position herself on a wall, slamming her claws through a plate-glass window to grab the inside of the windowframe.  Blood ran down her wrists.

Foil took aim and fired, and Murder Rat leaped before the bolt made contact.

She tagged the dog.  Mouse Protector’s power,” Tattletale said.  “Watch out.

A camera, Vista’s, focused on the dog.

“Hatchet Face incoming!”

Clockblocker, Crucible and Toggle turned around, but Vista remained fixated on the animal.

The moment the group was distracted by the incoming titan, Murder Rat appeared.  She drove her elbow into the side of Crucible’s throat, bringing one foot up to rake the side of his leg, but didn’t get any further.

Vista fired her gun straight into the villain’s back, then wheeled around and shot Hatchet Face in the chest.

Grue blanketed the area in darkness a moment later, the monitors going silent and dark.

I realized I’d been clenching my fists.  I loosened them, then opened and closed them a few times to ease the strain.

Escalations, I thought.

The situation outside was worsening, but the Azazels had mobilized.  They laid down the metal poles along the tops of the wall, opening fire with their lasers.  That done, they joined the fight against the dragon-gargoyle thing that was continuing its suicidal attack against the defending capes.  Chunks of it were being blasted and torn away, but it was doing a little damage to the defending capes.

The metal poles blossomed into the branching ‘gray blur’ nanotech barrier that would disintegrate on touch.

On the set of screens to my left, the Chicago Wards were joined by others as they ventured into what seemed to be a warzone.  Civilians were fleeing in a panic, while the heroes advanced against the press of the crowd with a steady, wary caution.

The nature of the threat became clear.  Rounding the corner, a single entity trudged forward.  It was tiny, and it bore a large white cube on its back.

To look at it, I almost thought it was an Endbringer.

It wasn’t.  It was only the second-scariest member of the Nine, xeroxed.

Eight Siberians.

One carried the cube, no doubt a container bearing the Mantons within.  The other seven followed a pattern, lazy loops that brought them back to the cube every few minutes.  They plunged through walls and into apartments and businesses, they returned with blood wicking off of their hands, feet and faces like water off a duck’s back.

I opened a communications channel.

“Weaver here.  Don’t fight.”

Wasn’t going to, but what the hell are we supposed to do?” Tecton asked.

Eight Siberians.  Even without any other members of the Nine on the sidelines, it was an impossible fight.

“You need to run.”

Run?  The civilians-

“Will have to run as well,” I said.  “There’s nothing you can do.  Accept it.  You can’t slow her down, you can’t deny her what she wants.”

We have to be able to do something,” he said.

“There are options,” I said, “But it’s not worth it.”

What?  Saving civilians is-

“You’d die,” I said.  “It would be a distraction, but you’d die.  The civilians would die all the same.”

What is it?

“She’s still subject to gravity.  Far as I know, she can’t fly.  You drop her into a hole, she’ll climb out.”

No point,” Grace said.

“No point,” I agreed.  “Unless you get lucky.”

Lucky?

“Drop the one that’s carrying the cube into a fissure or pit, if she falls far enough and the cube gets wedged in the crack, you’ll separate her from the cube.  You’d have to destroy it before another Siberian makes contact with it, kill all of the Masters that are generating the Siberians.”

It could work,” Wanton said.

“Unless she moves fast enough to avoid the fissure,” I said.  “Which she can.  Unless she’s digging her claws into the outside of the cube for a handhold, which she might be.  Unless another Siberian returns before you manage to break into that cube, which is very possible, considering that cube looks like something a Mannequin made.”

“We have Grace, and we’ve got Cuff.  We have Cadence and Enforce here, too.”

Enforce?  Oh.  N-Force.

“I don’t think it’ll be enough,” I said.  “There’s too many maybes.  You become a target of the Siberians the instant you try something, and you die if this doesn’t work out perfectly, which it won’t.”

You want us to let civilians die.

I stared at the screen.  They were backing away swiftly now.  A Siberian hopped onto the top of the cube, then looked directly at the group of heroes.

A moment later, she leaped off to one side.

Flaunting their invulnerability.  Taunting.

“Walk away,” I said.  “We’ll send others in.  Others who can do something.”

Who?”

I thought of how Rachel had changed tacks, ignoring the biggest target to go after the Murder Rat.  It hadn’t been much, but it had caught the villain off guard, baited the Hatchet Face into an aggressive charge rather than a slower, more strategic advance.

“Switch it up.  Go to Redfield.  You guys specialize in containing and crushing the enemy.  The Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards can head to your location at the first opportunity.”

I didn’t wait for a response.  My console was displaying an incoming message.

“Gotta go,” I said, closing the comms channel, hanging up on Tecton.  I responded to the message.

Defiant here.”

“Was just about to contact the Undersiders.”

I heard.  I’m already giving orders for them to back out.  Sent a helicopter in to pick them up, hoping it gets to take off again.”

“Helicopter?”

A.I. suits aren’t cooperating.  I’d send one against Hatchet if they were-“

Defiant?

“One suit just took off.  Reinforcing the Undersiders.”

I could sense the fighting outside.  My bugs were doing precious little against Nilbog’s rioting army.  The capes were whittling them down, killing them in droves, but it was time and effort taken away from containing the Nine.  Which was exactly what Jack wanted.

In the same instant Defiant had talked about the suit taking off, one of the Azazels had gone still.

Something was seriously wrong.

What do you need, Weaver?  I have things to handle.”

“Two years ago, I was told we couldn’t go after the Nine, because we can’t decode the portal without knowing the exit point.  They just used one.”

It’s in Ellisburg.

“It’s our fastest route to Jack.  How long does it take to tap into the portal?”

Depends on the means we use.  It doesn’t matter.  The portal isn’t accessible.

“We’re losing, Defiant.  We’re winning the fights but we’re losing in the long run.  We need to act decisively.  End this.”

You want to use the portal entrance, knowing where it is?

“Yes.  We just… we need capes that we can count on, on a lot of levels.  And I need your help.  Can you arrange for a sturdier ship?  The Dragonfly won’t cut it.”

Yes,” he said.  “That can be arranged.  I’ll have to pilot it myself.

“If this doesn’t work out, if we get overwhelmed, then that’s it.  We can’t afford the losses at this juncture. I get that.  But we can’t afford to not take this opportunity.”

Another pause.  Was he typing something?

“What’s the status?”

“We’re losing containment in Ellisburg.  Siberians are racking up casualties, and Redfield isn’t doing great either.  Your Undersiders will be evacuating if they can make it another two blocks to the helicopter without getting intercepted… I’m not sure what they can do against eight Siberians.

“More than the Chicago Wards can.  But that’s not enough on it’s own.  We need to call in the big guns.  We know Jack’s nowhere nearby.  It’s a safe time to put them into play.”

We have people on call, but we’re holding them back,” Defiant replied.  “Jack will hold his strongest cards in reserve for last.  Chevalier advised that we catch him off guard.

“There’s no point anymore.  Stop holding back.  Jack’s escalating when we do.  We established a tempo, he’s matching us.  Let’s go all-in.  We’ll get him to play every card he has on hand, and maybe in the process, we’ll see him make a mistake.”

He’s not one to make mistakes.

“We lose nothing, and we gain time,” I said.  “Which big guns do we have?”

The Thanda.  Cauldron has volunteered the services of their two elite members.  The Las Vegas Capes offered help, as did the Ambassadors.  The Alcott girl has her ability to foresee the future, but she’s trying to reduce the strain she experiences so she can offer more assistance at the most critical juncture.

“The fight with Jack.”

Yes.

“Okay.  That… probably makes sense.  Listen, I’ll handle what I can from here, take some of the load off your hands.  I’ll see if I can’t get recruits from among the capes I trust to handle their own.”

Do.  And I would appreciate it if you would consider me one of them.  I’ll be there with the Pendragon in twenty minutes, I just need to pick up the technology for hacking the portal.”

“Bring me some bugs when you come.”

“Yes.”

That said, he hung up.  No pleasantries.

It was a relief.  Down to business.

Fifteen minutes to go.

I waited impatiently for the capes in question to gather.  We needed good capes, powerful capes.  Too many were occupied elsewhere.

A whole contingent had deployed to Hyde Park.  None of my teams.  Dragon’s Teeth, the New York teams, the Texas teams.

I picked Jouster’s point of view.  I knew him, and it would afford me the most opportunities to see other capes and figure out their identities.

Population of three thousand five hundred, and the place was empty.  No victims, no members of the Nine.  No blood, no violence, no signs of any disruption.

But the first wave of capes had been whittled down, going silent on the radio before disappearing entirely.

Now, as the teams moved through the city, there was nothing on the video, which ruled out Nice Guy.  That left only a few options.

Stranger protocols in effect,” the captain of the Dragon’s Teeth reported.  “We’re going full dark.  Eyes on the lightning.

“Eyes on the lightning,” I responded.  For the moment, I was filling in for Dragon’s absence and Defiant’s preoccupation.  I knew about the Dragon’s teeth, had studied their operations book.  I wasn’t an armchair general, but I’d have to settle for being one here..

They were using those full-face helmets to block off all sight, to shut out all sound.  Their uniforms offered full coverage.  The only things they would rely on were video cameras on their helmets and the battle computers that were wired into their helmets.

It wasn’t enough, apparently, to see anyone or anything.  Things seemed eerily quiet.

Jouster jumped as one cape cried out.  The man’s back arched, first one way, then the other.

“Psychosoma,” I reported.  “Stranger four, master seven.  First squad, get guns trained on him, everyone else, scan the area.  Master protocols.  Confirm everything.”

“Don’t shoot without confirmation,” someone warned, off-camera.

“How the fuck are we supposed to confirm?  Let them attack us?”

Nobody responded to that.

Still, they obeyed the instructions.  Jouster was among the ones who turned to search the surroundings.  The point of his lance was visible in the corner of the screen, as he held it ready.

Nothing.

The man screamed louder.

He twisted, his ribs distending, his mouth yawning open.

It’s an illusion, I thought.

Kind of.  Sort of.

Not really.

It was really nice to think of it as a really convincing illusion.  That was a reassuring way of handling it.

Because the alternative was that Psychosoma was doing the sort of thing Labyrinth did, pulling otherworldly things into our reality to replace objects and people.

When killed, they’d revert back to how they’d been before.

The man continued to twist and distort until he wasn’t recognizable anymore.

The thing whirled around, reaching back with one claw, preparing to strike at a comrade.

A cape incinerated him before he could get any further.

The illusion was dispelled.  The wrong illusion.  Purple smoke flowed out from around the corpse of the young hero.

Nyx!” someone spat the word.

Jouster swiftly backed away.  Every cape in the group was wearing a gas mask, but that was not an absolute guarantee.

Two more people in the group began changing.

A mix of Psychosomas and Nyxes.  Who else?

“She’s covering the area with her smoke,” I spoke, over the channel.  “You need to clear it.”

“On it.  Cover your eyes!”  Jouster hollered.

Jouster raised his lance, then struck out at a light pole.  Lightning flared out, impossibly bright, and the camera briefly went on the fritz.

Somewhere in the midst of that, reality became clear.  Bloodstains everywhere.  Corpses were draped over every surface where the investigating capes weren’t likely to step – on car hoods and roofs, on light poles and in trees.

And in the midst of the crowd, there were the enemies, simply standing and observing.  Nyxes, Psychosomas and Night Hags.  The Nyx were women with pale red skin and black eyes, fog bleeding out of the vents at their arms and backs.  The Psychosomas were men, tall, bald and narrow, with pencil-thin mustaches and beards, spidery fingers and clothing that hung off them like it had been draped on.  The Night hags, by contrast, were women, dark haired, dressed in black, with skin as white as chalk.  Their dresses seemed to bleed into the surrounding landscape, so that everything within fifteen feet of them was covered in that crumpled-looking black cloth.

The Nyx clones and Psychosomas ran for cover.  The Night Hags were the cover.  D.T. soldiers and Wards opened fire.  Hoyden struck a car with literal explosive force, and sent it flying.  Ninety percent of the offense was directed at the Night Hags.

The women practically disintegrated as the bullets, flames and other projectiles made contact.  Their bodies shattered into thousands of black shards.

Moments later, they emerged from the landscape.  One park bench distorted and reconfigured into a new Night Hag.  That Night Hag was summarily slain, and reformed herself out of a nearby patch of grass.

Location possession, in a way, but it was shallow.  She was most effective with materials that stood above the ground’s surface.

In the midst of dealing with the approaching Hags, the D.T. officers and heroes were left to handle the victims who had appeared to be transforming.  When the smoke had burned away, one had been revealed to be fine, crouching with his hands over his head, the other was still afflicted.  They shot the victim and broke the effect.

More smoke was flowing in with surprising speed and quantity, erasing the images of blood and bodies.  The Night Hags were turning translucent, nearly invisible-

And they were gone.

Jouster moved to strike the light-post again, only for black hands to grab him and pull him into darkness and illusory fog.

The image on my screen distorted, then went utterly black.

There was a sound, like a slow, wet grinding sound.  Chewing, as if from a dozen mouths at once.

I changed camera perspectives.

“-break up the fog!”  someone shouted.  Two more of their allies were starting to change.

Someone threw a flashbang.  It didn’t disrupt the smoke.

What do we do!?” one of the capes shouted.  He was almost more frantic than the Dragon’s Tooth soldiers around him.

The sound of a gun being cocked turned heads.

The camera turned as well.

It was Contessa, accompanied by the Number Man.  Both held guns.

She shot one of the afflicted, then walked past the other, ignoring him.  She opened fire in the fog.  One clip, each shot aimed and measured, fired with a peculiar rhythm.  One, then two in rapid succession, one, then two in rapid succession.  She reloaded with an almost casual ease, then slid the gun into its holster.

The Number Man had her back.  He fired into the darkness three times.

It took two minutes for the smoke to clear.

Two Nyx dead.  Three Psychosomas.  Four Night Hags.

The doorway was already opening for the pair to make their exit.

“Dude, who the hell are they?”

“The bogeymen,” Hoyden said.

“Shit,” someone said.  One of the capes.

“They’re on our side?”  Another asked.

“Apparently.”

“Then why don’t they go after Jack?” a cape asked.

Because she fits in the same category as Eidolon, I thought.  Too dangerous to allow her to make contact with the man.

I wasn’t even that comfortable with them helping here, but there weren’t a lot of excellent options for thinker capes who could simply cut right through the layers of deceptions the enemy had been using.

I noted the capes who were present and still in fighting shape.  I’d hoped for Jouster.  No such luck.

I dialed Hoyden’s phone, watched her pick up on the video.

“Need a hand with something,” I said.  “I’m going to send a ship your way.”

Ten minutes to go.

The Undersiders stood far enough away from the Siberian cube that the camera couldn’t even make out the one who carried the thing.

“This,” Imp said, “Is your classic case of putting all your eggs in one basket.  Really.”

He finds the Siberians boring, I imagine,” Tattletale commented, over the channel.  “Before, they were an enigma.  Now they’re just… the same thing, over and over.  Tearing people apart.”

“Just tell me this isn’t going to be the moment of idiocy that ends the world,” I said.

No way,” Tattletale said.  “I promise.”

“You’re absolutely certain?”

Ninety… three percent certain.

“That’s not good enough.”

Geez.  You’ve lost your sense of humor these past few years.  I’m kidding.  I’m sure.

“You’ve been wrong.”

I’m right.  I swear.  Now stop fretting!  Wait…

The Siberians left, engaging in another brief spree, attacking civilians.

“Let’s not wait too long,” I said.  I felt a sick feeling in my gut.  Had I been right to send away the Chicago Wards?  Seven or so people were dying every one or two minutes.

Wait…

The last group of Siberians abandoned the cube, leaving the carrier holding it.

Wait…

One more returned after a very brief trip, cast a glance around, and then fled.

Now.

Clockblocker fired his threads from his gauntlet.  They surrounded the cube-carrier, and he froze them.

Unstoppable force against an immovable object.

Which won?

The Siberian made contact with the thread and flickered out of existence, and the thread went limp.  The cube fell with a crash.

Others began to return.  Vista was distorting the cube, creating gaps, weak points.

Thanda,” Tattletale said.

Clockblocker activated the device on his back.  A dome unfolded around him, almost like a tent, though more rigid.

Rachel had already fled with her dogs.  Even so, it was tight, everyone pressed together inside.

He froze the dome.

I regretted that I didn’t get to see the follow-up attack.

The Thanda had a cape that was sort of in the same vein as Shuffle.  A teleporter of landmasses.

This cape didn’t need to teleport things onto solid ground.  In fact, he specialized in the opposite.

A large building was teleported into the stratosphere, where it summarily fell on the cube.  I could hear the crash through the cameras the Brockton Bay Wards wore.

Siberians down, I thought.

One more group to handle.

“Rachel’s on her way to me,” I said.  Grue was out – I didn’t trust him in a face to face confrontation against the Nine, and he hadn’t volunteered.  Imp was out as well.  Too risky, too much of a coin toss, whether her power would be seen through.  “Foil?  You know what we’re doing.”

On my way.

I’m coming too,” Parian said.

I’ll be on the comms,” Tattletale responded.

Tecton slammed his gauntlets into the ground.  Murder Rats were knocked down from the walls.  The streets had been shattered, and the dismantled craft lay in the streets, with one dead Miasma nearby.

Another slam, combined with an activation of both piledrivers, and he created a fissure, breaking up the ground beneath the two remaining Hatchet Faces.

They made steady progress anyways.  They were too strong, their stride too long.  Tattletale had been right.  Running was difficult at best.

Cuff used her metallokinesis to heave a small disc of metal.  Effective enhanced strength, along with the ability to control the rotation of the projectile, the ability to control the flight of it after it left her hand…

It slammed into a Hatchet Face’s collarbone, burying into his flesh.

He broke into a run, axe held aloft.

She prepared to throw another disc, only for a Murder Rat to leap onto her from above.

The metal blades of Murder Rat’s claws were swept aside as if Cuff had parried it with something physical.  Cuff settled for striking Murder Rat across the eyes with the razor edge of the discus.

Grace followed up with a crushing kick from a steel-toed boot.  A Murder Rat pounced on her, then vaulted off with enough force that Grace’s head struck the ground.  Grace didn’t get up.

Skinslips moved to flank, simultaneously reaching out with cloaks made of skin and shielding their real bodies with the amorphous limbs of stolen flesh.

Romp’s animated constructions stumped forward, providing just as much raw mass to defend against the reaching attacks.  They picked up speed as they moved, charging like bulls, catching the Skinslips well off guard.

The fight was well in hand.  Murder Rats leaped up onto building faces so they might be able to leap down and strike a vulnerable target, but Tecton made the entire neighborhood shake.  The Murder Rats were trapped where they were, clinging to the surfaces, unable to attack.

One caught a discus with her claws, then let it fall to the ground.

No.  There was one more threat.  Tecton’s helmet caught it on camera as it loomed on a nearby building.  A Mannequin.

Only it was three times the usual size.  Fat.

Cuff flung another discus.

It’ll glance off, I thought.

It penetrated.

Pressurized moisture exploded outward, crusted immediately into a small, spiky mass of ice.

Ah.

It leaped down, and the ground shook.

Then, casually, it grabbed the most unhurt Hatchet Face with both hands and whipped its upper body a full three-hundred-and-sixty degrees around to fling him into the mass of defending heroes.

Tecton punched, his piledriver extending, but it did surprisingly little damage.

And with the Hatchet Face so close, the Chicago Wards were left powerless.  Only tinker devices worked.

The Mannequin charged.

Being a tinker, the Mannequin didn’t suffer at all in the midst of Hatchet Face’s power.

Direct your attacks on the Hatchet Face, now!” I ordered.

A piledriver-gauntlet hit him, followed by another.  Cuff used a discus to slash at his throat, but it barely cut.

He was still alive – his power wasn’t canceled out.

The Mannequin let blades extend from his wrists and elbows.   Not long, sleek, elegant blades like the original Mannequin had used, but heavy, crude ones, like axe heads.  Cuff screamed as he brought one down onto her armored shoulder.  She folded over in an awkward way as she collapsed to the ground.

He spun around, almost skipped to one side to avoid Tecton, then directed attacks at Romp.

She took shelter behind her no-longer-animated creation, and the Mannequin-thing turned away, directing his attention at Tecton, who was trying to bash the Hatchet Face’s head in.  It was a narrow window of opportunity, here.  The other, injured Hatchet Face was approaching.  If he didn’t manage it in five or so seconds, there would be two to contend with.

A heavy bullet caught the Mannequin in the back of the head.  Ice cascaded out the back in a giant spike.

Tecton used the opportunity to slam the upper ridge of his gauntlet into the Hatchet Face’s mouth and extend the piledriver full-force.

That did it.

More bullets pummeled the Mannequin.  One resulting chunk of ice partially encased Tecton, only to shatter when he pulled back.

Further shots followed, but they veered in awkward directions, sinking to hit the ground too early.

He has another power.  One that was being canceled by Hatchet Face.

Winter’s Power, I realized.

But Grace had powers now too.  She grabbed Hatchet Face’s weapon and swung it, was nearly trapped in the ice that exploded out from the wound.

Romp’s creation charged the ceramic man, and Tecton raised a shelf of ground around him to limit his movements.

He was being abused, battered.

Tecton’s head turned, and I could see Chevalier on the camera.  Revel was beside him.

Chevalier fired his cannonblade again.  One shot to polish off the remaining Hatchet Face that was closing the distance, and another directed at the Winter-Mannequin.  The Winter-Mannequin’s power took the impetus out of the second shot.

The Wards were moving slower now too.  Reacting slower.  Tecton barely resisted as the Mannequin seized him in one hand.

Didn’t even get up after the Mannequin virtually punched him into the ground.

Blades extended from his palms, the Mannequin spun like a top.

Chevalier charged, and the Mannequin changed tacks immediately, using a chain to draw himself up to a rooftop, where he clumsily climbed over the edge.

Ranged attacks didn’t work, and he was deceptively dangerous in short range.

Revel launched energy-orbs, but they barely seemed to touch the Winter-Mannequin hybrid.

Then Wanton closed the distance.

Ice chipped away, and the resulting chunks flaked away at the other pieces of ice.  It was soon a localized blizzard, and the large hunks of ice that clung to the Mannequin’s suit began to break away.

More ice appeared, but it, in turn, was broken by the yet-larger chunks that had been picked up.

The storm began to slow as the Winter-Mannequin concentrated his power on a smaller area.  The storm came to a standstill.

Chevalier raised his cannonblade to fire, only to stumble, dropping his weapon.

Miasma.

Indiscriminate attack, Chevalier!” I said.  “Revel, get down!”

Chevalier swung, very nearly striking Revel as she dropped flat to the ground.  He connected with something, and Miasma appeared in an explosion of thick green smoke.

The villain rolled, then disappeared again.

But Revel was following up, spitting orbs of energy out of her lantern.  Miasma wasn’t fast enough to dodge all of them.  He, and another Miasma behind him were burned, holes the size of softballs punched through their torsos.

Cuff was helping Tecton stand, using her metallokinesis to push at his armor.  Once he was standing, they worked together to outfit Tecton with one of the specialized shots we’d prepared.

The Mannequin wasn’t going to go down to fast moving projectiles or short-range attacks.

They’d take him down the same way I’d fought him ages ago.

Tecton used his piledrivers as a sort of gun, launching two cup-shaped hunks of metal with material strung between them.

The net unfolded in the air, and it draped over the Mannequin.  Spider Silk and metal wire interwoven.  It caught on the ice and the extended blades, and snagged on fingers and chains.

The Mannequin was still struggling to escape when Chevalier slowly closed the gap, bringing his sword down like a great guillotine.  He had one hand pressed to the side of his helmet.  Blood streaked down his arm.

Last group, for now.  I watched as they checked on the injured.  Chevalier’s eye had been stabbed, but not perforated, and Grace had suffered a heavy blow to the head.  Cuff’s shoulder socket had been broken by the Mannequin.

I almost hated to ask.

“Tecton,” I said.  “We’ve got a game plan.  Maybe a way to get Jack.  You up for helping?”

My team isn’t in good shape.

“If you want to stay, keep doing this-”

No,” he said.  “No.  Just… maybe my team should sit the rest of this out.”

You’ve all done good work,” Chevalier said.  “Above and beyond the call of duty.  You don’t even have to ask.

I’ll come on this mission, if you have a use for me,” Tecton said.

“I do.”

I’ll come as well,” Chevalier said.

“You’re injured.”

A pause, as if waiting for me to realize what I was saying.  This was the guy that had gone up against Behemoth face to face, scarcely an hour after suffering critical injuries in an assassination attempt.

I’ll come,” he said, again.

“Glad to have you,” I said.

It was suicidal.  Returning to Nilbog’s kingdom, where his creations had riled themselves up, hungry for blood.  I could only hope that their forces would be thinner towards the center, with the sustained attack on the surrounding capes.

I glanced around the back of the craft.

Chevalier.  Revel.  Hoyden.  Tecton.  Bitch.  Two dogs and Bastard.  Foil.  Parian.  Me.

Two Dragon’s Teeth to round out the group, so we had people trained in the use of containment foam and other PRT munitions.  Veteran PRT soldiers outfitted with the best gear the Guild could provide.

And Defiant up at the cockpit, rounding out our group.

I felt my pulse quicken.  My hand traced over the box that Defiant had brought, with all the bugs I needed.

Nilbog’s army seemed endless.  We’d only seen a fraction of it.  It flowed over, under and through the walls, in numbers that tied up the defending capes.  Our battle lines couldn’t hold a position for long before something threw them off.  Someone vital would get injured, or a creature would burrow out from beneath the ground.  Something would fly over to land in the middle of the back line, forcing a reorganization.

We weren’t being overwhelmed.  Any cape was stronger than the typical starved, desperate, reckless monster.  But this was definitely not helping.

A man’s voice came over the comms.  “Three new locations with attacks.  Coordinated strikes.  Harbingers sighted.  They are reinforced by Nilbog’s creations.

Bonesaw got something set up already, I thought.

Defiant was clenching his fist.

Who was the man?

“Doesn’t matter,” Defiant said.  “Our focus is here.”

“Fuckin’ right,” Hoyden said.  She turned to smile at Rachel.  “Right?”

Rachel only frowned, turning her attention to the dogs that sat between and on either side of her legs.

Hoyden punched Rachel in one arm, then grinned. “Right?”

“Right.”

“Right!”  Hoyden grinned.

Heavy metal boots banged against the ramp as our last attendee made his way into the back of the craft.

Golem sat down opposite me, silent.  He briefly met my eyes, and I nodded.

He didn’t react, casting his eyes downward.

It was nothing.  A minor thing in the grand scheme of it all.  I tried to tell myself that he was strong when it counted, whatever his doubt in the quiet moments.

The ramp closed with a bang.  Golem jumped a little at that.

It didn’t do a lot for my confidence.  I glanced around at the others, wondered who else had seen it.

The Pendragon took off.

And off we go, into the lion’s den.

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Sting 26.4

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Ellisburg loomed before me.  A small town, surrounded by a massive wall.  Ellisburg had been situated by a river, and the wall included a section of the waterway.  The building that managed the flow of water was bigger than any structure within the walls, a filtration and guard system that ensured that nothing was making its way up or downstream from the small town.

It was a risk to even have the measure, no doubt, and it would cost money to operate and maintain.  There had to be a reason they had included the river rather than section the river off altogether.  A compromise?  Something to keep the goblin king happy?

I’d only been a toddler when the walls had first gone up.  Outside of that bit of news, the Ellisburg situation wasn’t one that came up a lot, yet it had somehow found traction in the public consciousness.  It was something we all thought about from time to time, something that loomed as a possibility in everyone’s mind.

Would today be the day the wrong person got too much power?

Would today be the day our hometown was effectively removed from the map, surrounded by sixty-foot concrete walls?

The dashboard indicated the Dragonfly was now approaching the designated landing point.  The A.I. had suddenly decided to ground itself, landing in a nearby field, costing me precious minutes, while Dragon had been silent on the comms.  I’d left a message, trusting her A.I. to pass it on, and hadn’t received a response yet.

My attempts to patch into the feeds and get a view on what was going on with Jack hit a brick wall.  The corner of the monitor still showed the cube folding through itself in the corner, Dragon’s loading message, as if the process had hung.

I’d manually piloted the craft back out of the field, and the A.I. had kicked in to handle the flight codes and necessary messages to air traffic control and nearby aircraft.  When I’d input my destination for the second time, the craft mobilized.

But the silence, the strange blip in the A.I.’s direction, it left me uneasy.

Now, as we took a circuitous route around Ellisburg, to a field beside the large filtration and security building, I could see the Azazels, parked at the edges of the same location.

That was the point I felt alarmed.

I hit the button on the console/dashboard. “Dragon?  Requesting confirmation on the situation.  You intended to intercept Jack before I got here, but the Azazels are dormant.”

No response.

“Dragonfly,” I said.  “Display non-system processes and tasks last carried out.”

It displayed a list.  In a matter of seconds, the scroll bar was barely a line, with thousands of individual instructions noted in collapsed menus.  A prompt reminded me I could load more with a request.

“In the last minute.”

The list wasn’t much shorter.

“Communications-related.”

There.  Besides the orders I’d just given, I could see the message I’d sent to Dragon.

“Status of message?  Has she heard or read it?”

The loading symbol appeared in the corner.  It should have been nigh-instantaneous.

“Cancel that.  Give me manual access.”

A keyboard appeared on the dashboard.  I couldn’t use it right away, though.  I was forced to pay attention as the Dragonfly reached the field and hovered.  I lowered the ship down.  The small craft shuddered as it touched ground.

Using the keyboard and the manual access, I began digging through the data.  I navigated the menu the A.I. had provided, then opened the submenu to view the details on the message I’d left Dragon.

My message was in the priority queue, but it sat at the 89th position on the list of messages Dragon would be getting to.

I dug a little, and found the list was growing.  Ninety-four, ninety-five…

Where the hell was Jack?  I contacted Defiant.

Defiant here.”

“Weaver.  What happened?  Is the Slaughterhouse Nine situation resolved?”

“No.  He entered Ellisburg.”

I closed my eyes for a second.  It took a moment to compose myself and get my thoughts and priorities in order.  “And the suits?”

Ignore the Azazels.  Listen.  I’ve got a lot to handle and coordinate right now,” Defiant said.  Was there a tremor of emotion in his voice there?  “Golem’s on his way.  Wait for backup.  I’m sending Dragon’s Teeth your way.  Teams from across America are joining the fight now that the full situation is leaking. I’m putting some on containment and quarantine detail, make sure the Slaughterhouse Nine situation doesn’t get beyond the areas the attacks are directed at.  I’m going to send a few your way.  Ten minutes.

“Jack’s already in the city, and you want me to wait ten minutes?  That long, and Jack could get what he wants.  I’ve got the Azazels nearby if there’s trouble-”

The Azazels aren’t… reliable.  Consider them compromised, but a non-threat at the same time.  Listen, there are things I need to take-

This is the highest priority,” I said.  “Isn’t it?  Jack?  The end of the world?”

A pause.  “Yes.  Of course.  But I can’t help you while I’m on the phone.

A note of deceit in that.  He was covering for something.

Something happened.

I thought of what had happened at the school, the way Dragon had stopped abruptly.  I’d read the records, knew the gist of the story.  Dragon had been in Newfoundland when Leviathan sank it, had escaped, only to shut herself away from the world, never venturing outside the expansive building complex she’d had constructed in Vancouver.

She hadn’t left Newfoundland unscathed, I was almost certain.  Brain problems, body problems… I couldn’t be sure.  Probably both.  She had no doubt integrated herself with technology to cope, enhance and expand her capabilities.

Except that her technology was failing.  The way she’d collapsed at the school, the speech problems she’d suffered, the slow recovery, now this…  It was the only theory that made sense.

She’d pushed herself too far, something had gone wrong, and now Defiant faced losing the one person on this planet who could tolerate him for more than ten minutes at a time.  No small wonder he was out of sorts.

I considered how I’d feel if it was one of the Undersiders.

“Defiant,” I said.  “I’m going in alone.  Send Golem in after me if he wants to come, reinforcements can hang back or come with, depending on your judgement.  I’ll handle things on this end.  You focus on what you need to.  Focus on Dragon, focus on damage control.”

A pause.  “There’s nothing I can do for Dragon right this moment.  The best I can do is maintain the momentum and keep things coordinated, and hope that Dragon’s substitution can maintain the back-end.”

I didn’t respond to that.  I was already getting ready to go.

Thank you, Weaver.

It was uncharacteristic of him to thank me.  A pleasantry.  How upset was he?

I couldn’t spare another thought on the subject.  I was out of the Dragonfly at the first opportunity, making my way towards the quarantine control and filtration building.  It was squat, concrete, hardly pretty.  As I got closer, I could hear an alarm.

The front doors had been torn apart.  It might not have been so impressive, but these were the same vault doors we saw with the shelters that studded every likely target around the world.

The gouges were narrow, a finger’s width, as though someone had dragged their hands through the steel like I could drag my fingers through half-melted butter.  Siberian.

Jack had brought protection.

My bugs flooded into the facility, past the second dismantled vault door.  The alarm was louder as I ascended the concrete stairs and made my way into the building.

The emergency lighting was on, casting the area in a red glow.  My bugs searched and scanned the area, in case any members of the Nine were lurking in wait.  So many ugly ways this could go.  So many threats that Jack could have on hand.  Cherish?  Screamer?  Nyx?  Ways to fool my senses, ways to shut me down or defeat me.  My only recourse was to get them before they got me.

Hey, passenger, I thought.  Do me a favor.  If I get taken out of action and you step up to fight, work on taking out Jack, alright?

My bugs stirred, moving further down the hall.  It was so far from a conscious direction that I wondered for a second if the passenger had listened.

No.  I’d tried hypnosis, I’d tried other things.  Some in Mrs. Yamada’s office, other times in the PRT’s labs, after dark, off the record.  Nothing brought the monster to the fore.

Just my subconscious.

Just.  Like that wasn’t something I couldn’t help but wonder about.

But I’d made peace with it.  I couldn’t barter with something that wouldn’t talk back, but I could accept it, test and acknowledge my limits as far as they pertained to the entity that was apparently granting me my abilities.

I wouldn’t turn away from it, wouldn’t tell it to go away or hold back in my abilities.

My bugs marked the area, giving me the information I needed to navigate the facility.  It proved easier than I might have expected.  Rather than follow the winding corridors and make my way to the security checkpoints, I followed the path of casual destruction Siberian had left in her wake.  She’d knocked down walls to create the shortest possible route from the front doors to Ellisburg.

No casualties that I could detect.  No nonhuman life.

Had Dragon ordered this place evacuated before she was incapacitated, or had Nilbog gotten here first?

My bugs started to scan the area beyond the facility, inside Ellisburg.  They made it about ten feet before something like a frog’s tongue began snatching them out of the air.

I withdrew the swarm back to myself, hiding my bugs beneath my cape and skirt, and I made my way through the opening into Ellisburg.

A goblin wonderland.  It was clear he’d altered it from its original layout, likely over the course of years.  The remodel had been more aesthetic than functional.  Floorboards had clearly been dug up and moved to the exteriors of the buildings, creating roofs and building additions that spiraled or twisted, with more boards propped up flat against the building faces on one side, painted or modeled in the same way the towns had been put together in old western movies.

The walls that surrounded Ellisburg had been painted as well.  To look from a distance, Nilbog’s kingdom extended to every horizon, with crooked, impossible landscapes at the periphery of it, like an ocean frozen in time, grown over with grass and trees.  Oddly enough, they had painted the sky as an overcast one, where it was visible above the lush, unpredictable fields and forests.

Within the city, the trees had been immaculately cut and trimmed, and the shapes were just as strange; trees that were perfectly round, cubes, cones.  Where new trees were growing on lawns, as dense and close together as trees in an orchard might be, I could see heavy wires wound around them, guiding their growth into twists and curves.  The art of bonsai taken to a bigger scale, cultivating each tree in form.  Already, some of the largest ones were properly set up, meshing together with counterparts on the opposite sides of the street, forming lush, living wooden arches.

The grass had been cut, and I could see the attention to detail there, even.  There were innumerable flowers growing across lawns, but the grass was neatly cut beneath and around them, as if someone had taken shears or scissors to the blades that grew between the flowers.  I couldn’t make out any rhyme or rhythm in how the flowers or plants were laid out and how they grew.  It was an injection of color in the same way a random splash of paint from a palette might be applied to a canvas.

And then, as if to remind me that this wasn’t friendly territory, there was a scarecrow in one garden.  The clothes were brightly colored, the pose one of a dancing figure, but that wasn’t the eerie thing about it.  The head was a skeletal one, a dog’s head stripped of all flesh, turned skyward with its mouth opened in joy.  The hands that clutched the rake and watering can were held together by wire.  A very small human hand.

For all the signs of careful tending, the entire place was still.  A town that could have been taken from a storybook, desolate.  There wasn’t any sign of chaos, nor the destruction that would follow from an attack by the Slaughterhouse Nine.

But more than anything, what threw me was the absence of insect life.  No spiders spun webs.  Even the ground had little in the way of ants or earthworms.

A trap?  I looked behind me to see if they were planning on walling me in, and came face to face with one of Nilbog’s creations.

It hissed, its breath hot and reeking of bile.  Fangs like a viper’s parted, the distance between them great enough that it probably could have sunk some into the top of my head and the underside of my chin as it closed its mouth.  I stepped back out of reach, then forced myself to stay still and wait.

The mouth closed, and I could see how the creature’s head was smaller than mine.  It wasn’t more than four feet tall, covered in pale brown scales.  The reptilian face could have been in a children’s movie, if it wasn’t for the eyes.  They were dark, black, and cold.

It clung to the wall, its feet placed higher up than its hands, opposable toes gripping the frame that had been around the vault door.  I noticed it was wearing white shorts, with one suspender strap over a shoulder.  A taloned claw held a softball-sized chunk of the wall.

Was it fixing the wall?

“I’m not a threat,” I told the lizard-child.

I felt hands touch my belt and jumped, seizing the wrist of the offending hand in an instinctive motion before I’d even looked to see who it was.

A girl, five or so feet tall, her face mottled with purple veins that spiraled across her perfectly round, puffy, hairless head.  Her eyes were tiny and piggish, her fingers blunt, barely a half-inch long, her mouth too small for her face.  She wore a sack that looked like it had been sewn to work around her oversized head.  Her hand was on my knife.

The lizard boy had extended frills at his arms, neck, and the edges of his face, colorful, brilliant, and held out by a framework of needle-fine spines.  His mouth hung open, viper’s teeth revealed.

I looked beyond this pair, and I could see signs of others.  Eyes reflected light in the shadows beneath steps, from windows.  There were large, bulky silhouettes in the windows, some holding smaller figures on their heads and shoulders.  I couldn’t make out much, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

That was twice now that they’d snuck up on me.  Quiet motherfuckers.

“I’m sorry for grabbing you,” I said.  “You wanted my knife?”

She took it, her tiny black eyes glaring at me from the midst of her oversized head.  The lizard-boy eased his frills down somewhat, but his mouth remained open.

“I’d like to see Nilbog,” I said.

She ignored me, her pudgy, blunt-fingered hands fumbling through the pouches at my belt.  With painful, clumsy slowness, she divested me of my taser, the pepper spray, and the spools of silk, both conventional and Darwin’s spider silk.

I winced as one spool fell to the ground and unwound partially, dirt getting caught up between the strands.  That would be a pain to fix.

I could see more of the things making appearances now, getting close enough for me to see as they took interest in what was happening.  Eyes appeared in the windows, reflecting the light in curious ways.  Eyes from within the trees, between the slats of stairs… some faces.  They ranged from artistic and beautiful to horrific.

Every single one of them was a weapon.  Going into this situation was a repeat of the information gathering and problem solving issues one faced when going up against an unknown cape.  If it came down to a fight, I’d have to figure out how they operated, and the full extent of their capabilities.

Trouble being that there were a hell of a lot of these things.  Hundreds, even thousands.

I waited patiently.  No use complaining, even if every second counted, and Jack was no doubt having words with Nilbog.

“Nilbog is in danger,” I said, trying a different tack. “The man with him, he has dark hair, a beard?  He’s with a striped woman.  Bad people.  I think they’re going to try to hurt Nilbog, hurt the man who made you, so you get upset and leave this place.”

Her hands fumbled with my flight pack.  I felt her touch the arm at the side of the pack, with its narrow arm.  She took hold of it and pulled.

“I can take that off,” I said.

She grunted, and I started to move to oblige, only to get a protest.  The frills on the lizard boy extended, and her own head swelled, the skin getting thin enough in the process that I could see a fluid filling the lower half of her head.  I moved my arms away from the straps, and I watched them both relax over long seconds.

When she was sure I wasn’t trying something, she grunted again, louder, a frustrated, constipated sound.  A communication, but not one meant for me.

Her friend emerged from a garage, lifting the door to lumber forth.  He was big, fat, and moved on four limbs that each had opposable digits.  His massive belly swung right and left as he loped, so distended and so close to the ground as it swung that I worried it would hit something and split open. His genitals were almost bigger than I was, and they were, along with his sensory organs, the only way I could really tell his front from his back.

The sensory organs consisted of slits running top to bottom from a ridge at one end of his body.  There was no room for a brain, no eyes present.

This organ granted him enough awareness to approach, probably by way of scent, but it didn’t give him the fine tuning he needed to find us, specifically.  The round-headed creature approached him, took hold of a fistful of chest hair and led him my way.

I backed up a little as they approached, and received a hissed rebuke from lizard-boy.

I remained still.  The safest course.

The girl-thing moved the brute’s hand towards me, and I stayed still as she gripped the arm and placed it in the hand.

He closed his fist around it.

“Wait,” I said.

He hauled on it, clearly intent on tearing it free.  I was thrown, sent rolling until I landed in one patch of grass, dazed, startled, just a little hurt.

The brute approached, the round-headed girl hurrying after.

Before I could rise, he’d already fumbled for me, and seized hold of the mechanical arm.  This time, he managed to pull it free.  I used the antigravity panels to control my flight as I was thrown, controlled my landing, and hurried to get my hands to the straps.

There was a wail behind me, a warning sound.  I saw the others react, but kept working through the straps.  Two at the shoulders, one across the chest, beneath my armor-

The pack fell free.  I chanced a look over my shoulder, and I saw a number of Nilbog’s creations gathered, close enough that they could have lunged for me.  One was a very tall, long-limbed man with skin that looked like a Siamese cat’s, covered in a very fine fur.  His face was split by a wide, toothless mouth, his eye sockets little more than indents filled with fur.  He held a makeshift spear with a flag on the end, which had been painted brilliant colors, and wore a matching loin cloth.  Probably the most dangerous one in my immediate vicinity, just in terms of how fast he could probably close the gap and murder me.

“Safe,” I said.  “No danger.  I’m safe, the pack’s off.”

I waited, tensed, as they studied me.  Enemies on all sides.

Jack was invincible, I wasn’t.  But if I was going to achieve anything here, it couldn’t involve destruction.  I’d read the files on Nilbog, I had a sense of him, in the most general terms.  I was banking everything on his megalomania overriding his desire to collect just a little more in the way of resources.

I kept my voice level and calm, “I’d like to see Nilbog now.”

Were they hungry?  If this became a fight, I’d have to defend myself with the bugs in my costume and the bugs in the quarantine and filtration facility.  I could use the swarm to equip myself with the stuff that had been dumped on the ground, but that required that I survive long enough to do so.  Were there ranged attacks here?  Assassins?

Desperate situations called for risks.  This was my gamble.

“I have a gift for him,” I said.

Something seemed to ease in them.  I watched as some turned away, finding their way to resting spots.  The tall man with the loincloth worked his overlong body under a porch, where he could rest in the shade.

I didn’t receive an escort, but the ones along one road moved aside, sitting or standing on the sidewalks.

I walked with my head high, and sent a handful of bugs forward.  More than a few of Nilbog’s creatures took the opportunity to snap them up.

A soft rumble sounded above.  Lightning.  Rain began to patter down, light.

My surviving bugs gave me ears on the scene before I arrived.

“Lipsy?  Tell the cook to serve us something.  I fancy a salad, and something robust.  I think it should taste sweet.”

The alterations to the surroundings only grew more focused and extreme as I found my way to the center of Ellisburg.  Building faces were covered in wild plant growth, and there wasn’t a single building without more extreme modifications made to it.  Glances indoors showed little more than barren exteriors with the floorboards pried up, or clusters of Nilbog’s creatures lurking in the unlit gloom within.

“I’ll look forward to this, god-king.”

“You should, you should.”

“Your hospitality astounds me.  I’m unworthy.”

Hardly.”

So Jack was situating himself as someone subservient, even servile, so as not to challenge Nilbog’s alpha status.  He was playing nice, even.

If I tried the same, I’d only be working to catch up, to earn Nilbog’s trust.

I approached the town center, and found myself in the midst of a crowd of Nilbog’s creatures.  Goblins and ghouls, muppets and horned moppets.  Big, small, thin and fat.  Each was exaggerated, twisted, as if Nilbog had gone out of his way to insert traits and qualities that separated them from humanity.

The creatures stepped out of the way as I made my way closer.  Nilbog sat at the center of a long table, and two more tables extended from the ends to form a loose ‘c’ shape.  Checked tablecloths in eye-gouging color contrasts covered each table.  Jack sat at the end furthest me, and a man with white and black stripes sat beside him.

Bonesaw was only a short distance away, sitting on the shoulders of what looked like a flayed bear.  The thing had claws two or three times the usual size, it’s mouth yawning open like it had been broken.

Nilbog was immensely fat, easily four hundred pounds, and sat on a throne that had apparently been cobbled together from dismantled furniture.  His face was covered with a paper mask.  Other creatures sat on chairs to his left and right.

The arrangement of the tables created an open space that could host their entertainment.  I looked, then wished I hadn’t.  A bloated, coarse-looking creature lay on the ground, almost like a potato made of hair and flesh.  Smaller things were busy carving gouges and holes into it.

The resulting wounds regenerated, but not before the smaller creatures inserted body parts into the openings, allowing the regenerated flesh to close tight but not close completely.

I averted my eyes from the scene, content with not letting my brain register which parts were being inserted and what they were doing after the fact.

“Another guest!” Nilbog cried out.  He spoke like he had a bad accent, but it wasn’t.  He’d affected strange and overdramatic tones for so long that his voice had warped, and he’d had no ordinary people to hear or talk to and measure his voice against.  “A friend of yours, sir Jack?”

I could see Jack’s eyebrows raise in interest.  “Not at all.  Skitter, was it?  Except you’re going by another name, now.”

I ignored Jack.  “Nilbog.  It’s good to meet.”

Nilbog didn’t look impressed.  “Sir Jack was more obsequious when he introduced himself.”

“That’s because he’s a two-bit thug, Nilbog.”

Jack chuckled at that.

“A two-bit thug?  You’d insult my guests?”

“If those guests include Jack,” I said.

Nilbog narrowed his eyes.  “I will not have fighting in my glorious kingdom.  Jack has agreed to a ceasefire while we dine.  You will do the same.”

“I already gave my weapons to your underlings.  You should know that the black and white striped man is a living weapon, much like your creations.”

Nilbog glanced at the male Siberian.  “I’m not concerned.”

“I imagine you aren’t,” I said.  Where’s the real him?

I had to be careful in how I used my bugs.  Sending them into buildings would only reduce the size of my swarm, but there was relatively little chance that Manton would simply be hanging out in one of the hollowed-out buildings.

“So,” Jack said.  “Are you going to have a seat, or are you going to continue to be rude?”

“I’m waiting for our host to invite me to sit.  Forgive me, Nilbog,” I said.  I glanced at the fat man.  The grease on his skin made it look like he’d oiled himself.

“Sit.  But I’d like to hear who you think you are, whelp, if you won’t bow down to me.”

I approached the row of chairs opposite Jack and the Siberian, and one of the critters hopped down, scurrying under to join the festivities in the center of the tables.  I took the vacated chair and sat.  I might have removed my mask, but I was all too aware of the silverware in front of Jack.

“I’m your equal, Nilbog.”

Jack laughed again.  Nilbog seemed to react, almost looking flustered, before turning to me.  “You insult me.”

“Not at all.  Ignore the thug that’s sitting over there.  I’m a queen, a goddess of my own realm.  Or I was.”

Jack was smiling, clearly amused.  Then again, he was safe.  He was untouchable with Siberian beside him, and he was only feigning weakness to get past Nilbog’s defenses.

“A queen?”

“A queen.  With that in mind, provided you give your permission, I’d like to offer you a gift.  A… peace offering, to make up for the fact that I entered your territory uninvited.”

“Of course, of course!”  He was almost childlike, so easily moved by this promise of a gift, his mood changing so quickly.  Guileless.  He’d been surrounded by yes-men for more than a decade, with barely any human contact, his defenses were gone.  “I forgave Jack the lack of an invitation, I’ll extend you the same courtesy.  This gift?”

I called on the swarm I’d kept within the quarantine facility.  “Resources are slim.  An isolated kingdom like yours, providing for your subjects is hard.  You do an admirable job despite this.”

“Of course, of course.”

He was eager, impatient.

“I’d feed your subjects,” I said.  “Protein.  You need it to make more.  To keep the ones you currently have in good health.”

“Yes, yes” Nilbog said.  My bugs were just now arriving in the area.  “This will do.”

The full swarm arrived, the vast majority of the ones I’d kept in the Dragonfly, and the ones from the area beyond the Ellisburg walls.  I gathered them on plates in piles.  His minions devoured them, licking at the plates, picking with talons, or simply lifting the plates and tipping the insects into open mouths.

I wasn’t surprised when Nilbog turned his attention to his own plate.  My eyes fell on Jack.  He still had a slight smile on his face.

He held the cards up his sleeve.  I’d played mine for a minor advantage, but he had Bonesaw.  One virus or parasite in the midst of these creatures, and they could go berserk, roaming the countryside until they were put down.  He had Siberian, which meant he was safe, meant he could kill me or Nilbog whenever he wanted.

But he wasn’t going to.  This continued as long as the game was still on.  He thrived on this interplay.

As more bugs continued to arrive, I used them to search the area.  Nothing.

Below ground?

Earthworms, ants and pillbugs dug through the soil beneath the park, searching.  Some of Nilbog’s creatures were beneath the earth, ready to spring up and attack.  Others were beneath, eating whatever they could find.

In the midst of my search, I found something.  Not Siberian’s creator, but nearly as good.

Nilbog himself.

He sat directly beneath his ‘throne’, and was connected to the fat man by what seemed to be an umbilical cord.  This cord gave him control of the body, fed him sustenance, let him stay safe while the decoy sat up here.

One card for me to play.

“I think the bug queen here should explain how she came to nobility,” Jack said.

Setting me up to say something incriminating, I thought.  “As you did, Nilbog, I claimed a realm for myself.”

“And you left it, apparently.  If you’re truly a queen, you’re a foolish one.”

“I did leave it,” I said, “Because I had to, to save it.  I had to protect my subjects, to fight my people’s enemies.  I have not been as fortunate as you.”

“No,” he said, uncaring.  “Apparently not.”

“If it came down to it, would you step up to protect your creations?  To protect this town you made?”

“You’re sounding a great deal like sir Jack,” Nilbog commented.  He frowned.

“He’s trying to convince you to go to war,” I said.

“To take pre-emptive action,” Jack clarified.

“I’ll do neither.  Not war, not pre-emptive action.  I have what I need.  I’m a content god, a happy king.”

You’re starved for real human contact, I thought.  Or you wouldn’t have let us join you at the table.

My bugs continued to search, though the bastard creatures were coming out of the woodwork to catch and devour them.

Where in the hell was Manton?

Jack spoke, “It’s a question of whether you act now and preserve what you have for the future, or wait and let them come and kill you.  They’ve been systematically seeking people like you, eliminating them.  I could show you proof, given a chance.”

“I’ll make it simpler,” I said.  “You don’t need to leave your kingdom, your garden.  You don’t need to go to war with an outside party you don’t know or care about.  You want to know what happened to my kingdom?  That man, right over there, sir Jack, destroyed it.”

“Nonsense,” Jack said.  “I’ve been sleeping these past few years.  Naps are such an underrated pleasure.”

“They are,” Nilbog said.  “All of my subjects nap every day.”

“Let me explain,” I said.  “I had a kingdom that I ruled.  I had a king that ruled with me, who kept me company.  I had wealth, people I cared about, people who cared about me.  Power.  I was a god in my domain, and those who stood against me were driven off.”

Nilbog shook his head.  “You need a heavier hand to rule.  More loyal subjects, so you don’t have to bother with those who would stand in your way.”

“I was more powerful than you,” I told him.

He snapped his head around to stare at me.  To glare at me.

I’d pricked his pride, apparently.

“I was more powerful than you, but Jack over there made a promise to people.  He didn’t say it aloud, but it was still a big promise.”

“Now you’re making stuff up,” Bonesaw commented.  She slid down off the flayed bear’s back and joined a group of creatures her size.  She hugged one, abruptly.

But Nilbog wasn’t telling me to fuck off.  His attention was on me.

He’d built a storybook kingdom, an impossible place, and populated it with monsters, both beautiful and ugly.  He’d had some fixation on this stuff, some Freudian obsession.  Not sexual, but still rooted in some primal part of his childhood that had been taken from him.

I’d play this by telling him a fairy tale.

“No,” I said.  “And I think Nilbog is clever enough to understand what I mean.  Jack promised that he’d come back when his nap was done, and he’d destroy my kingdom.  He said he’d destroy your kingdom, Nilbog, and every other kingdom.  He said he’d kill all of my people, and he’d kill all of your creations.”

“All of this, from the man you describe as a mere thug?”

“Yes,” I said.  “A woman with great powers told him he could do it, and now he’s going to try.  It’s why he’s here.”

“To destroy my kingdom?”

“No.  He wants you to go to war against your neighbors.  To break down the walls that keep you safe and fight people who are leaving you alone.  He’ll use you as a distraction, and then when everything is done, he’ll come back and destroy your kingdom.  And he’ll do it in the cruelest, saddest ways you can imagine.”

Nilbog nodded slowly.

Jack was still waiting patiently.  Too quiet.  I felt a moment’s trepidation.  I hadn’t found Siberian’s controller.  I needed to defeat him before Jack was cornered.  The second he decided he couldn’t salvage this situation, he’d order the attack.

Nilbog raised his hands.  “Angel on one shoulder that tells me one story…”

A placenta-like blob swelled in his hand.

“A devil on the other, telling me another.”

Another blob appeared in the other hand.

Both burst, showering Nilbog in greasy slime.  Two creatures gripped his forearms, looking more like flying monkeys than an angel and devil.  They were roughly the size of babies, their faces feral, mouths filled with pirahna-like teeth.  One had red hair, a red beard and gazelle-like horns, and the other had white hair and beard and a strange horn that formed an off-white halo above its head.

“I’ll take the angel, if you please,” Jack said.

Nilbog shrugged.  Were the creatures more a demonstration than anything else?  He lowered his hands, and nudged the white-haired thing in Jack’s direction.  The other thing made its way to me.  I reached out and took it into my hands, holding it close.

“Do you have a response to the Queen’s allegations, Jack?”  Nilbog asked.  He reached up to adjust his floppy cloth crown.  Creatures were arriving to deposit the meal on the plates.  It looked like purple vomit.

“I do,” Jack said, smiling.  “But can we eat first?  It’s rude to argue over a meal.”

Nilbog nodded, as if Jack had said something very sage.  “I agree.  We’ll eat.”

Bonesaw made her way to the table.  “How did you make this?”

“The chef stores every ingredient we can find inside her, then regurgitates it in the form required.  I asked for it to be hearty, and here we have it, chunky.”

I looked down at the plate.  Droplets of rain made nearly-clear spots appear in the midst of the purple slop.

So it is vomit.

“It tastes like cupcakes,” Bonesaw said, around a mouthful.

I started to move my mask to eat and be polite, then noted how Jack was holding his knife.  The blade swayed back and forth in the air, as he chewed, his eyes rolled back and looking up at the overcast sky above.

The blade was making criss-crosses in the direction of my throat.

He glanced down, meeting my eyes, and smiled.

“Our apparent rivalry aside, have you been well, bug queen?”

“Well enough.”

“Then you should be hungry.  It’s been a busy few days, and it’ll only get more interesting.  I notice your friends are sitting this one out.  Did you break it off completely, or are you still in touch?”

“Still in touch,” I responded.  I glanced at Siberian.  The knife is a purely psychological thing.  If he wanted to kill me, he could use Siberian to do it.

Besides, it was a butter knife.

I moved my mask, without breaking eye contact with Jack, and helped myself to a bite.

It did taste like cupcakes.  I suspected it would have been less nauseating if it tasted like real vomit.

It was a tense few minutes of silence as we ate.  I found out the devil-thing in my arms wanted to eat, so I let him help himself.  An excuse not to eat, anyways.

The creatures in the center of the area finished their ‘show’, and Nilbog clapped enthusiastically.   I joined him and the five or six creatures around the table who really had hands to clap with.

The second show began.  A gladiatorial fight, apparently.  One of the creatures had wings instead of arms, while the other had wicked barbs extending out from the elbows and knees.  When even the tips made contact, they ripped out grapefruit-sized chunks of flesh.

I braced against the table to keep it from flipping as the pair crashed into it.  Nilbog laughed, and the sound was more than a little unhinged.

“Is everyone done?” Jack asked.

“Yes,” Nilbog decided.

“Then let me explain.  Weaver’s entirely right.  Except for the part where you die at the end of it all.”

“Oh?” Nilbog asked.  He leaned forward, placing fat elbows on the table’s surface.  It dipped as his upper body weight rested on the wood.

“Living like this, you obviously dislike the system.  You know how screwed up things are out there.  People are vile, self-centered, and so caught up in their own routines and expectations that they’re barely people anymore.  Your creations have more personality.”

Nilbog nodded, taking it all in.  “They do.  They’re wonderful, aren’t they?”

Wonderful,” Bonesaw agreed, with the utmost enthusiasm.

He just believes whatever we tell him.  He’s a sponge.  How do you convince someone who’s so incapable of critical thought?

Worse, Jack was touching on all of Nilbog’s pet issues.  The man had been a loner before, a loser.  He’d rejected the trappings of society long before he’d become this monster.  He’d spent years simply going through the motions until the last parts of the system he’d clung to fell apart.

“I want to wipe the slate clean.  Things have been going through the same motions for so long that there’s a rut in the ground.  You erased everything that wasn’t worth keeping here, and replaced it with something better.  With your garden.”

“Yes.”

“With that in mind, I’m reaching out to a like-minded soul.  Someone who rejects the malignant, stagnant society and wants to grow something else in its place.”

“Jack has no interest in growth,” I said.  “Only destruction.”

“Did I interrupt you when you were speaking?” Jack asked.

“Do it again and I’ll order your execution,” Nilbog said.

I pursed my lips behind my mask.

Where the fuck was Siberian’s creator?  I’d scanned every area where he could be lurking.  There were only monsters.  I was nearly out of bugs.  I had only a select few secreted away in my armor, and they weren’t ones I was willing to sacrifice.

I didn’t have much in the way of cards up my sleeve, but these bugs would have to serve in that department.  Problem was, they wouldn’t fix anything now.  Bonesaw could counter them too readily.

Where could Manton be hiding?  My eyes passed over the crowd of creatures that had gathered around the edges of the area, enjoying their master’s presence.

Hiding in plain sight.

Plastic surgery, or even an outer suit, like the one Nilbog wore.  He had to be dressed up in the skin of one of the monsters.

Shit.  How was I even supposed to assassinate him if he was going that route?  I touched him with a bug, only to find his flesh harder than steel.  Unmovable, just from the way his foot touched the Siberian’s.

Jack licked his plate, then set it down on the table.  “Where was I?”

“Replacing society,” Bonesaw volunteered.

Replacing society,” Jack affirmed.  “Imagine if your garden really did extend as far as the eye could reach.  If you could walk in the direction of the sunset, only to find that your creations have already settled in each new place you travel to, decorated it, transformed it.”

“A romantic goal, one I might pursue if I were a younger man,” Nilbog said.  “But even gods get older.”

“They do,” Jack agreed.  “Well, we could give you that youth.  Bonesaw could grant you immortality.”

“She could also enslave you to her will,” I commented.

“I’d never,” Bonesaw said.  She shook her head, her curls flying, “No, I couldn’t!  I love these beautiful things he makes!  To control him would mean I’d take that creativity away.”

Nilbog nodded at that.  “That’s a good argument.  Besides, to enslave a god?  Madness.”

Except they’re mad, I thought.  All of you are lunatics, and I made the mistake of trying to talk sense.

“It’s a good argument,” Jack said.  “Because we’re right.  Would you like to live forever, as a god should?  Would you like to see your garden grow to what it should be?  What it deserves to be?  Something fitting of a god?”

“It’s a tempting thought,” Nilbog said.

I reached for a rebuttal, telling myself I had to be just as grandiose, just as mad, but I couldn’t do that at the same time I was trying to convince him to go dormant again.

“If I may?”

It was another human voice, but it didn’t belong to any of us.

Golem.

He approached, taking off his helmet.  He offered Nilbog a slight bow.

“One of yours, Jack?” Nilbog asked.

“No.  Not in the sense you mean.”

“Yours, then?” Nilbog asked me.

Yes, I thought.

“No,” I said.

I saw Jack raise his eyebrows at that.

“Shenanigans!” Bonesaw cried out.  “I call shenanigans!”

But Golem took my cue.  “I’m a third party.  I stand for myself.”

“Hardly worth a place at the table,” Jack commented.

“Then let me stand for the others.  The innocents.”

“Innocents?” Jack asked.  He snorted.  “No such thing.”

“There’s always innocents.”

Jack smirked.

“I’ll allow it,” Nilbog said.  “Excellent!  Sit!  We were just having a discussion.”

Golem approached and sat at the same table I was at, but he took the far end.  “I’ve overheard some, so we can cut straight to the chase.”

“The dilemma,” Nilbog said.  “The devil on one shoulder, the angel on the other.”

“The sin of sloth versus the realm of possibility,” Jack added, gesturing to my demon as he said sloth, then to his own angel.

“Well said, well said!” Nilbog said.  He nodded so hard his double and triple chins wobbled.

“Or is the angel making false promises?” I asked.  “There’s no security.  No comfort.  You claim to care about your creations, but you’d go to war?”

“Many have gone to war and made sacrifices in the present, for the sake of a brighter future,” Jack commented.

“I thought you were trying to break out of the rut?” I asked.

Jack laughed at that.

He’s enjoying this.

I felt almost dirty, knowing I was only helping Jack in his self-indulgence, helping him revel in conflict.

“Well, stranger?” Nilbog asked.

“Golem,” Golem said.

Jack snorted at that.  He’d caught the meaning behind the name right off, the white supremacist’s son naming himself after a creature from a Jewish parable.

“Golem, then.”

“I’m not an eloquent speaker.”

“That’s a good thing,” I said.  “Too many and it just becomes people talking circles around one another.”

“Then I guess I have to get to the heart of it all.  Direct.”

“Yes,” Nilbog said.  He leaned forward, and I feared the table would break.

“Were you happy, before any of us came here?”

“Yes.  I can eat the most delicious foods, yet get every nutrient I need.  I can fuck the most beautiful and exotic women you’d ever imagine, whenever I wish.  Every need is provided for a hundred times over, and I’m surrounded by those who love me.”

“Then why change?  Why do anything?  Let us leave, then return to your utopia.”

Nilbog nodded.  He rubbed at his chin, but the act was like pushing one’s hand into jello.  It shifted the mass more than it rubbed.

“You wanted a tie breaker?” Golem asked.  “This is it.  Do what Weaver is saying.  Do what the Queen is suggesting.  Stay quiet, enjoy what you’ve built here.  Attack, and the entire world will take it away.  Then, even if you’re strong enough to survive that, which you may be, then Jack will still betray you.”

“Or,” Jack said, “You can stop lying to yourself.”

Nilbog snapped his head around.  He growled, “Impertinent.”

“Your people are slowly starving.  You make them eat each other to live, and desperately attempt to shoot any birds out of the sky so you can try to recoup what you lose.  Bonesaw said they don’t live long.  How long?”

“Four years.  Sometimes five.”  All at once, the light was gone from Nilbog’s face, the sudden fury quenched.

“Who’s your favorite?” Jack asked.

“Polka,” Nilbog said.  He reached out, and a female creature, no taller than three feet, hopped up onto the lap of the creature beside her king.  She had a narrow face with a reptilian structure, with only four fangs at the very front, but smooth, humanlike skin.  Her hair was white, her skin blue.  She wore a toddler’s clothes, a long, narrow tail lashing behind her.  Nilbog stroked her hair.

“Not the first Polka,” Jack said.

“No.  The third.”

“She was your first, and you love her for that, because she drew you from the hell that was your life before godhood, gave you this.”

I can’t interrupt this.  Not with the subject being something so close to Nilbog’s heart.  I might win the argument, but I’d lose Nilbog’s ear.

But I knew I was losing anyways.  Jack had found Nilbog’s weak point.

“My first friend,” Nilbog said.

“And she dies.  Because your creations don’t last.  You make another, and slowly fall in love with her all over again, and yet you know she’ll die in turn.”

“Yes,” Nilbog said.

“Bonesaw can fix that.  I can grant you immortality.  I can grant your creation that same gift,” Jack said.

“A hard offer to refuse.”

“It would be wise to refuse,” Golem said.

“A king can’t be selfish,” I said.  “A god definitely can’t be selfish.  Your responsibility is to your creations.”

“Exactly what I’m saying,” Jack said.  “Step out of your comfort zone, to better your people.”

“Enough!”  Nilbog screamed the word.  As if responding to his anger, every single creature in the area responded.  Weapons raised, spines extended.

And Jack was still invincible.

“Nilbog,” I said.

“Speak again, and I’ll end you, queen or no.”

His eyes were angry, hard.

He’d lived for so long in his comfort zone, and now he was being called on to make a hard choice.

“Then please listen carefully,” I said.  “Because I suppose I’m paying for this with my life.”

“So be it,” he said.

“If you want proof that Jack intends to betray you, look no farther than your own creations.”

“What?”

“He’s secreted an assassin into your midst.  A killer who pretends to be one of your creations.”

A gamble, a last ditch effort.  Was my gut right?  Had Jack instructed Bonesaw to create a costume or a creature to hide the Siberian’s creator?

I called my flight pack to me, parked it on a rooftop nearby.  If it came down to it, I’d have to run.  I could see Golem tensing.  He’d read the situation right.

“Just look,” I told Nilbog.  “Because somewhere nearby, there’s a creature you didn’t create.”

His eyes roved over the crowd.

“Might not be in this crowd, but it’ll be close.”

“I see it,” Nilbog said.  “I see it.  Bossy, Patch, hold him!”

The crowd of creatures parted as two creatures took another in their hands.

“Not an assassin,” Jack said.  “Merely one of Bonesaw’s… I suppose you can call it a homage.”

“It is,” Bonesaw said.

The Siberian was moving.  Readying to pounce?

I couldn’t move fast enough if he did.

“Wait,” Jack said.  He stood from his chair.

No, I thought.  “Don’t listen.”

“I’ll do as I please,” Nilbog said.  “Last words, sir Jack?”

“Last words, yes.”  Jack approached the captive.  The Siberian followed.

“You let him do this, and he kills you,” I said.  “Your creations will go mad with grief, and they’ll die in a war for vengeance, just like Jack wants.”

“Not at all,” Jack said.  “Because…”

An instant before the Siberian made contact with the monster, Golem jammed his hand into his side, using his power, throwing the creator into the air with one thrusting hand.  Siberian lunged, punching through the hand of soil to grab the creator’s foot.

Nilbog half-rose from his seat, though he was massive enough that standing was hardly possible.  His eyes moved from Golem to the hand, anger etching his expression, if one could etch into a face as soft as his.

“You dare disturb the peace!?” Nilbog screamed the question. “Kill the queen!  Kill the Golem-man!”

In that instant, Golem created two hands, throwing us back.

I caught the flight pack in the air, hugging it.  It provided lift.  Not enough to stop my momentum as I headed back towards the ground, but enough that I could shift my direction to land on a rooftop.  Golem wasn’t so lucky, as he fell into the midst of a sea of the creatures.

“Azazels, now!” I screamed, one finger pressed to my earbud.  I pulled on the flight pack and then took off again.

Golem used his power to create a platform, slowly raising himself above the street.  Creatures tumbled off of the surface of it.  Some flew at him, and he struck at them.  Not enemies he was capable against.  I sent my bugs to them, the reserve I still had on hand, commanding the bugs to bite and sting.

Others leaped onto rooftops, then onto the rising platform.  Golem grabbed one claw as it slashed for his face.  He couldn’t do anything about the other, as it gouged his armor, scoring it.  He created a fist that jutted out of his chestplate, striking the creature off of the rising hand-platform.

Spines rained down on him.  One caught him in the shoulder, and he collapsed.

Where are the Azazels!” I shouted.  The flying creatures were turning my way.

But Defiant had said they were unreliable.  Dragon was out of commission.

My bugs burrowed towards the buried Nilbog.  Jack had orchestrated a war.  Killing the creature’s creator wouldn’t stop that, wouldn’t keep them from rampaging and seeking out revenge beyond the walls.

But it would slow things down.

They inched ever closer.  Jack was untouchable, but…

Yes.  Worms, centipedes and other subterranean bugs made their way to the buried goblin king, and forced their way into the sac that enveloped him, past the threads of material that wound down his throat and nostrils, and into his airways.

“Creatures of Ellisburg!” I screamed.

Heads turned.

“You’ve been betray-”

And before I could say more, Jack’s knife slash caught me across the chest, the cut severing the straps of my flight pack.  I dropped from the sky, landing on one of those ramshackle, spiraling rooftops.  Planks that had been poorly nailed in collapsed around me as I hit solid ground.

My hope of turning the monsters against the Nine had been foiled.  The fall had knocked the wind out of me.  I couldn’t get my footing, and the creatures were advancing.  Every possible combination of features, it seemed like, an infinite army, unpredictable.

Your king is dying, I thought, my mouth moving and failing to form the sounds.  There was only the barest whisper.  I killed him, but if you could believe that Jack did it

I would have used my bugs instead, but I had so few, here.

I sent those few to Golem, removing them from the flying creatures.

Nilbog dies,” I spoke through the bugs, but the range of sounds was too limited, and with scarcely thirty bugs in total, they were quiet.

Nilbog’s dying,” Golem said, his voice coming through the comm system.

One creature, eyeless, like a crocodile with a serpentine body, advanced on me, looming over me.  Its jaws opened.

The lizard boy was here too.  A drop of venom appeared on one distended fang.  I was surprised by the fury on his expression.

Blame Jack,” I said, through the swarm.

“Jack Slash has used us as a distraction to kill your king!”

Golem hollered the words at the top of his lungs.  I felt a tension leave me.  I might be fucked, but we’d limited the damage.  They’d turn it inward.

The attack stopped.  The creature looming over me turned and slid away in a flash.  The lizard-boy remained.  Still recovering from the fall, I couldn’t muster enough strength to fight back if he bit.

I commanded the flight pack instead, flying it into him with both wings extended.  He was brained, and the pack ricocheted off his skull, one wing shattering.

Golem had risen almost to safety, though he was still too far from the wall that had been erected around the city.

I looked at the wall.

Looked past it, at the capes who were swiftly approaching.

Rescue.

I brought the flight pack to me, the broken wing partially retracted, the other still extended, and pulled it on with slow, agonized movements.

Lost without their master, half of the creatures seemed to turn on the Nine, the other half seemed to remain intent on Golem and me.

Capes settled around me, forming a defensive line against the ones who approached.  Revel was among them, using her energy blasts to pick off the largest ones.

Someone picked me up, then took flight.

Jack,” I wheezed out the word.

The Siberian took hold of the umbilical cord and heaved, Jack maintaining contact with a hand on the Siberian’s shoulder.  Nilbog, still slowly dying of oxygen loss, was brought to the surface with a surprising ease.  Bonesaw wrapped her arms around the man.  Frailer than his self on the surface, smaller.

I felt a moment’s despair.

Foil?  Someone who could stop Siberian?

Somebody?

The heroes advanced, but the Nine created a portal, and were gone in a flash, Nilbog carried between them.

Leaving the monsters of Ellisburg to riot.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 26 (Donation Bonus #1)

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Three Mannequins, three Murder Rats, three Breeds, a Nyx and a Tyrant taken out of action.  Fifty hostages rescued.  Jack’s reported as being on a route to visit Nilbog.  Information confirmed by Tattletale, but doesn’t guarantee the clone wasn’t misinformed.

Thank you, Weaver.

Dragon’s systems were already taking in the data.  Two hundred and sixty-four individual maps that marked the possible locations of the Nine with colored highlights shifted.  Eleven feeds went dark, their engines taking over calculations in other departments.

Overlays scrolled with the various calculations, the last known location, the speed they were capable of traveling, resources available to them, their personalities and willingness to hitch a ride with one of the more mobile members, their focus and most likely targets.

No one variable decided anything for certain, but every variable came together to guide, to nudge and hint at possible locations.  There was no guarantee they wouldn’t use Dodge’s technology to visit the United Kingdom or Africa or even shattered, half-sunken Kyushu.  Still, the chances were slim, not even a full percentage point, by Dragon’s estimation.

The map highlighted the areas with the highest percentage chances in blue.  Violet marked the next stage down, red for the next, and so on, all around the color spectrum.  The Nine had a day’s head start.  There were a number of places they could go with a day’s travel.

But the key areas were small towns.  Of the data on the screen, the small towns were marked with the highest risk.

Dragon,” Chevalier’s face appeared on a feed.  One of the cameras on the PRT-issue phones, judging by the angle and resolution.  “You’ve got the go-ahead from the commander-in-chief.”

More text popped up, indicating that programs were being searched for.  Resource use was already being reallocated, in preparation for a major endeavor.  It took a moment before the loading began.

Voice modelling program loading… Complete.

Text flowed out, detailing the individual subroutines and supporting processes.  There was the composite that formed her accent, the filtering program, no less than three programs that double-checked her voice before she spoke, to catch any of the corruption that might slip through.

Thank you, Chevalier,” Dragon’s voice was clear.  She hung up without another word.

Azazels deployed at the most likely sites, at the perimeters of the high-risk cities as more feeds lit up, taking in footage from every available source.  Dozens, at first, then hundreds, a thousand, ten thousand individual feeds.  Permissions had been granted from the President, and Dragon had open access to everything capable of taking pictures or recording video.

The number of feeds began to swell as Dragon systematically decrypted and accessed more feeds.  Around each one of those feeds, anywhere from two to two hundred facial recognition programs began to pore through the data, interlinking and networking with one another.

Her innate programming forbade using viruses to infect the computers of Americans that didn’t have a warrant out for their arrests, but she’d found a workaround.  An Indonesian cartel had set up an extensive botnet, with soccer moms, the elderly, children and the uneducated unwittingly installing viruses onto their systems.  These viruses, in turn, gave the cartel the ability to use the infected computers for other purposes.  Sending out spam emails about pharmaceuticals or penis enlargement or drugs that gave superpowers wasn’t worth much, but when they could send out millions or tens of millions of emails a day, it proved profitable.

Dragon had let the cartel extend their influence, then put in the word, offering to shut them down.  She didn’t, however, remove the viruses from the infected computers.

As her databases hit their limit, she turned to these other computers to handle more routine tasks.

It took thirty minutes before the first hit registered.  A traffic camera, a busload of young women.  A row of identical faces, looking out the window.  An unusual element, raising flags with the active programs.  The faces took center stage as they were checked against a database.  An image popped up: surveillance camera footage of a teenage girl in a shopping mall, followed by young men that each carried loads of packages.

Eyebrows, brow to hairline length, nose length, eye width…

The words popped up.  Cherie Vasil.

The Azazels relocated in an instant, firing every thruster to reposition themselves to hilltops and areas in the vicinity of the road.  Long range cameras, infrared and electromagnetic resonance imaging gave Dragon eyes on the scene, verified what she was seeing twice over.  No Nyx-crafted illusions fashioned of poisonous gas.  No plastic surgery.

Seven Cherishes.  Two Crawlers.  A King.  Forty hostages of unknown status, a bus driver.

The Azazels moved in to attack.  One nano-thorn barricade was erected just in front of the bus.  Calculations accounted for speed, distance, positioning of the passengers.

The wheels disintegrated, popping as their exterior was penetrated.  The bus tilted, and one side scraped right past the barricade.  The Cherishes, taking up the window seats on the far right of the bus, made contact with it.  Flesh dissolved just as steel and fiberglass did, sheared away.  Not dead, but wounded, hurt enough they weren’t in a state to use their power.  They wouldn’t survive the ensuing few minutes.

The bus shifted, but hit the railing and didn’t tip over.

A second Azazel opened fire with a cutting laser, separating the bus into two sections.  The first Crawler was rising from his seat when the laser passed in front of him, cutting his face, chest and stomach.  Blind, already regenerating, he tipped forward into the gap between the two sections of the bus.  The Azazel was already laying down two rails that the nano thorns could spring from.  The Crawler landed right on top of them, and was summarily reduced to a red mist.

The second Crawler was more careful, grabbing a hostage and making his way out the gap.  He hadn’t transformed into his truly monstrous self.  Bipedal, the size of a bodybuilder, his face no longer human.  A long tongue extended out between rows of teeth, and his throat was swollen with an acid sac, as though he had a goiter.  Eyes surrounded his face, which was already bearing the rigidity and light armor plating that would intensify with further regeneration.

His arms had already split into two limbs at the elbow, and each ended in claws.  He used them for a grip on the metal to climb on the outside of the truck, penetrating metal with strong hands and sharp talons as he dragged his hostage along with him.  He perched on the roof, holding the hostage over the disintegration field, staring at the second Azazel.  Around him, a half-dozen cars and trucks had stopped in the face of the sudden attack, their daily lives interrupted.

The first Azazel fired a glob of containment foam from behind the villain.  Crawler hopped a little to one side as the short stream of foam passed him, and it struck the field to the left of the two-lane highway.

A second stream hit his hostage, striking her out of his grasp and sending her flying straight into the first glob.  She was sandwiched within, safe.

Crawler turned just in time to see the first Azazel winging towards him.  He moved to leap away, but a laser raked across his legs, severing them.

He collapsed, gripping the steel of the bus roof with his claws to keep from falling.  His legs were already regrowing, fractionally larger, more armored, the claws more prominent.

He was struck by the Azazel that still approached, caught by a long tail and flung down at the ground.  He rolled, and in doing so, he rolled into the same nano-thorn rails that had taken down his brother.  Half of his body was disintegrated in an instant.

It regenerated swiftly as he scrambled away on his three remaining  limbs.  This time, as the flesh swelled out and took form, there was a blur around his right arm, red, more at his shoulder, along his leg.

The Azazel struck out with a tail, and he blocked the blow with the newly grown arm.  The tail sheared off as it made contact with his newly grown defenses.  The chunk of metal rolled into one of the cars further down the road.  Still, Crawler stumbled from the force of the attack.  To avoid being disintegrated, he drew his freshly altered arm back towards the barrier behind him.  Where his blur met the blur that extended from the rail, the two nano-growths merely pressed against one another, almost springy, neither severing the other.

He reached back with his unaffected arms and intentionally disintegrated them.  They regrew, with alterations matching the ones he’d grown on the other side of the body.  Better equipped, he stalked towards the Azazel that had laid down the rails, his back to the one that had struck him from the roof of the bus.

He spoke, but Dragon’s software ran through the speech and eliminated it from the audio track.  His mouth distorted on her visuals so there was no way to understand what he was saying.

His target rose up, standing on its two rear legs.  A severed tail helped give it balance.

Then, before he could do anything further, the two Azazels launched a combination attack.  A laser from the Azazel atop the bus made the Crawler’s own nano-thorn evolution burn away in an instant.  In that same moment, the Azazel in front of him took off, firing every thruster.  The force of the blast sent him flying back into the barrier.

Red mist.

It only left King.  The Azazels continued acting in concert, tearing the bus apart to get to the villain, peeling the roof back with a force that threw his gun arm skyward, preventing him from opening fire on the busload of hostages.  Containment foam sealed him down.

Of the various feeds that were devoted to individual members of the Nine, ten more shut off.

The data altered further as Dragon relinquished control of the Azazels to her created A.I.s.

Voice modelling program loading… Complete.

Ten more members of the Nine have been dealt with,” Dragon reported the victory on every channel.  “Seven Cherishes and two Crawlers deceased, one King captured.  Will move to containment and interrogate shortly.

Saint closed his eyes as he listened to the congratulations, the affirmations and praise.

It was all hope mingled with horror, when he listened for what was beneath the surface.  Minimal casualties.  A few injuries – Vista and Crucible would be out of commission as Murder Rat’s venom continued to widen their wounds, and Golem was being treated for a burn.  One Dragon’s Tooth had died, but the rest were holding positions, ready to support.  Civilians were dying, but it was progress.

He opened his eyes to take in the whole of Dragon’s work.  Six widescreen monitors each tracked what she was doing with video images and white text on a black background.  A slight movement of his foot on the trackpad in front of him shifted one of his cursors, changing the focus of the screens.  He could see her directing the A.I. craft to more optimal locations, the related subroutines and tasks.

Another shift of the cursor to alter the focus of the screens, and he could see the Birdcage.  The house program followed every action of the residents, cataloged every conversation.  A few clicks, and video feeds from the cameras in the Birdcage appeared in front of him.

He leaned back in his padded computer chair, folding his hands on his stomach.  Taking in Dragon’s data was tricky.  She could turn her attention ten places at once, a hundred places at once, even if she only had agency in one place.  To watch, to put himself in her shoes and look at the world through her eyes, Saint had to distance himself, to unfocus his eyes and his attention, to read the changing data without getting distracted by the text that moved fastest, or most drastically.

The smell of rich coffee wafted over him as a hand settled on his face.  A mug was set in front of him.

He didn’t take his eyes off the screen, but when hands settled on his shoulders, he reached up to rest his own hand on one.

“Progress?” she asked.  She rested her chin on his head, looking at the screens.

“Some, Mags,” he responded.  “Thanks for the coffee.”

“Horrible stuff.”

Saint shook his head.  “It is.  Doesn’t feel real.”

“They’re censoring it, you know… Of course you know.”

“Mmm hmm.  They’ll stop as soon as everything goes through the proper channels.  It was being censored so that the Triumvirate and unsanctioned major players could be kept out of the loop.  Now they know.”

“Any post, update or email that detailed anything about the attacks disappeared.  Sites hacked, DDoSed, with data corrupted.  You can’t delete data, I know, but you can fuck it up sufficiently.  Couldn’t back anything up in a substantial way.”

“Dragon’s work,” he said.  He felt his pulse quicken a little at that.

He shifted his foot, and once again, the screens changed their focus, the rest of the data shifting to miniature windows and moving to the periphery of the viewing area.  The focus at the center was on the class-S threats.  The Endbringers were stable, all in a resting state.

Secondary focuses.  Not the kind of targets that Dragon checked on with any regularity.  Quarantine areas were silent and still.  Canberra was sealed off under a dome, Madison was surrounded by walls.  An area of wilderness in Alaska was marked off, but had no physical barriers to wall people away.  There were no apparent issues in the vicinity of the interdimensional portals.  Sleeper was, as far as anyone could identify anything about the threat, dormant.  The Three Blasphemies were active, but the damage was being managed by the European capes.  A temporary measure had been taken with Purity and her three year old daughter, with observation being provided for her by the PRT, and the feed showed her sitting on the couch in an apartment or hotel room, two very normal, plain looking people standing in the corner of the room with some PRT officers keeping their distance.   No crises.  Normal, as much as such could be normal.

And then there was Nilbog.  The data focused around him.  The city was quiet, and the roads leading into the city were being watched by satellite.  Simulations, damage estimates and risk assessments were being run, old data being gathered, with essential data highlighted.  It took her only a moment to put it into a format that was easily readable.  An instant later, it was gone.  He’d blinked, failing to look in the right spot, and had missed the moment the data had been emailed out.  The file would inform everyone on the home team about who Nilbog was and how he operated.

He captured a copy of the file for himself, then swept away the traces with his blue box program.

“They think this is the endgame,” Saint commented.  “Pulling out all the stops, removing the limiters.”

“It’s working.  They’re beating the Nine.”

“They’re beating the Nine that Jack sent out there to beat.  He’s holding back the more dangerous ones, like the Gray Boys or Siberian, and he hasn’t sent every single clone of a particular type out there  Eight Cherishes are dead, but there should be nine in total, if the numbers on the bodies aren’t misleading.”

“They could be.  The pig prank?”

Saint nodded.  The pig prank involved letting three pigs into a school after hours, each painted with a big number on their sides; one, two and four, respectively.  The idea was that the people who had to find and capture the pigs would spend ages trying to find the third.

Jack’s version would be less lighthearted, letting everyone believe there were nine, when there were more in reserve.  Casualties would ensue.

“It could be that he intends to surround himself with a core group, with one of each previous member of the Nine, for a final showdown.  Before he pulls out the big guns.”

“And Nilbog?”

“A distraction, perhaps.  Jack knows he’s supposed to end the world.  With the scale he’s operating at, he seems to believe it, even if some of us don’t.  He wouldn’t put too many eggs in such an unreliable, unpredictable basket.  He has to have something else in mind for ending the world.”

Saint took a sip of his coffee.  For a moment, he let himself eye Mags in the reflections at the edge of the monitor.  Her face was dark, lips full, her eyes large.  More than anything though, she had bearing.  She wasn’t wearing her armor, but even in the bodysuit, a person without powers, she had a kind of pride and confidence that some capes lacked.  The hexagonal contacts where the bodysuit would connect to the armor still glowed with residual energy.

Dobrynja approached from the other end of the office.  He was wearing his armor.  He’d started out with the Wyvern suit, but now wore the Wyrmiston suit.  It was based on the technology they’d recovered from a destroyed model, the one Dragon called Pythios.  A wheel slowly rotated on his back.

“You’re ready for battle,” Saint commented.  He turned his eyes back to the screen.  Dragon had eyes on Jack.  He’d missed just how she’d narrowed things down, but there were no less than three cameras watching one vehicle as it sped down a lonely road.

“Feels like a fighting day,” Dobrynja answered.  “Don’t you feel it?  Like an old man feels a storm in his bones.  Trouble.”

Saint smiled.  “You’ve said that before, that there’s trouble on the way.”

“I’ve been right.”

“You’ve been wrong, too.  Not that I’m arguing.  Your gut isn’t saying anything that common sense isn’t screaming.”

“Mass murders in three locations,” Mags said.

“More to come,” Saint said.  He frowned.  Dragon was employing a full offensive, aiming to cut Jack off from Ellisburg.  Incidents were being reported in Norfolk, Connecticut and Redfield, New York.  The heroes divided further, to attend to each of the crises.  Dragon’s Teeth and Chicago Wards to one location, Brockton Bay residents to another.

Dragon?  It’s Weaver.”  The voice came through the speakers.

It should be over before you can get this far, Weaver.”

I still want to come.  We’ve got to get these hostages sorted out, and I can leave in a minute.

You’ll only be allowed to watch from afar, if there’s even anything to watch.  Quarantine applies to you too.”

I know.

I’ll give you the coordinates for the interception area.  You can watch with Golem.  He’s coming too.  It’ll be on your computer in a moment.”

The call ended, and the images and text boxes shifted as that particular window closed.

A map briefly appeared, then disappeared, a transition so fast it could have been a stroke of lightning.

“Seems anticlimactic,” Mags commented.

“Everything does, from this side of the screen,” Saint said.  He stood, holding his coffee, “Adjusting for the time delay between what I’m seeing and what Dragon’s doing, we’ve got six minutes more before Dragon intercepts Jack at the edge of Nilbog’s territory.  Twelve minutes until Golem and Weaver get there.  They’ll fight Jack, and somewhere in the midst of that, we may see the end of the world.”

“And we can’t do anything?”

“Not unless we can get to Vermont in a matter of minutes.”

Mags frowned.

Still standing by his chair, coffee in hand, Saint sighed, “I’m going to go water the toilet.  Watch things?”

Mags nodded, then seated herself in his chair at the station.

Saint entered the bathroom, fumbled his way past the zipper in his bodysuit and his underwear, then leaned against the wall with one hand, using the other to keep the stream on target.  He closed his eyes, and he could almost see the shadows of the data against the back of his eyelids, black words on a pale pink background.

How did I get here? He wondered.  No powers, yet Doctor Mother had seen fit to invite him to her secret meetings as an information source and ambassador.  No particular talents or knowledge, yet… this.  He was one of the most prominent mercenaries the world over.

He was only one person in a particular place at a particular time.

Whether that was the right place at the right time or the inverse remained to be seen.

If it weren’t for Mags, he’d have doubts.  Mags made it all okay.

He finished, then zipped up.  He took a minute to wash his hands, dried them on the towel, then headed back.

When he arrived back at the computer station, the others were frowning.

“Trouble,” Dobrynja said.

“Trouble?”

The man nodded.  He pointed at the same time that Mags refocused the display, zooming in on a particular window until it took up virtually the entire display.

It was his face.  As an aside, beyond all of the routines she was running to investigate the Nine, she was using the access she’d obtained to track him down.

The image she was using was of him at one of the meetings with the major players.  It was soon joined by an image from surveillance camera.  A camera image from three days earlier, showing him walking down the street in plainclothes.

From there, she had a location.  A map like the one she’d used to find the Nine appeared, giving his likely locations.  Another surveillance image popped up.  It was of him, sitting with Mags at the coffee shop an hour away.

Yet another image appeared on the screen.  A whole series of images from that same video footage, each with a different angle of Mags’ face.  They were meshed together, and a three-dimensional image was created of Mags’ face, remarkably accurate.  Measurements were obtained, and then the search was on.

That search was only underway for a second when others appeared.  People he’d interacted with.  Dobrynja was among them, along with his real name.  Mischa.

“Out of the chair,” Saint ordered.

Mags obliged.  He sat, and immediately began a counteroffensive.

A wrench in the works could slow her down.  Had to be subtle, or she’d find out about the backdoors.  He identified the metric she was using to search the surveillance camera images, taking the image of Mags’ face, and then cut in ahead.  One crude image alteration, just to throw out an alert ping, to convince her the process was glitched, convince her that she needed to shut it down before the corruption spread-

-Dragon was already ahead of him.  She set out stipulations, restricting the search.

He felt a bit of a thrill as the duel began.  This was the ultimate hunt, fighting an enemy that was bigger, smarter, faster.  An enemy that couldn’t truly die, because she wasn’t truly alive.

More, then.  More wild goose chases and false flags, a breadcrumb trail to lead away from his office and command center.

No, she was still zeroing in.  Her focus was on Jack, her attention on the coming strategy.  This wasn’t even in the forefront of her mind.

“Ascalon,” he said.

Words appeared on the screen.

Confirm: Y/N

Dobrynja frowned.  “The program?  You can’t do it now.  Peoples lives are at stake.  Even without this end of the world business.”

“Oh, I believe in this end of the world,” Saint said.  “Not a hundred percent, or even fifty percent.  But I believe that there’s a chance the precog is right.  Which is exactly why we have to do this.”

“They’ll lose the fight,” Mags whispered.

“Maybe.  Probably.”

“There’s no other way?  If you talk to Teacher, maybe-”

“Communications with Teacher are too slow,” Saint replied.

Saint stared at the blinking prompt below the confirmation request.

The sea air was thick in his nostrils.

He glanced at Margaret.  The woman leaned against the window just in front of the driver’s seat on the small boat.  She’d bundled up in a heavy jacket, but the way her arms were folded spoke of a different kind of discomfort.

“Second thoughts?” he asked.

“Yes.  It feels wrong.”

“It’s for the families.  Mementos,” he told her.

Just mementos, Geoff,” she answered.

He smiled a little.  Damn.  Then he let himself fall, tipping backwards, as was the rule when wearing scuba gear.

The water was cold, even with the wetsuit, and was thick with grit.  He switched his headlamp off.  Counterproductive, the way it lit up the debris and only made it harder to see.  He’d have to cope when he was deeper.

You alright?” the heavily accented voice sounded in his ear.

He buzzed the device twice in reply.  Once signaled an accidental press, three times was a negation.

It took a surprising length of time before he reached his destination.  Buildings, already choked with seaweed and underwater life, stood like gravestones in this dark abyss.

He checked the dials and meters.  He wasn’t deep enough to have to stop.  The grit was bad, making it difficult to see anything.

He had to drop to the lowest level before he could make out the street numbers on the buildings.

Four locations to visit, a list of items to find, for the people who’d escaped, and the families of those who hadn’t.

Risky, with all of the dangers of underwater spelunking, the added risks of building collapse.  Structures weren’t meant to stand underwater.

…urgent…”

The word was a whisper.

He frowned.  Too hard to communicate here.  He debated turning back.

…for anyone willing or able to hear.  This is an emergency measure with urgent instructions for anyone willing or able to hear.”

A loop, an emergency transmission.

His curiosity piqued, he abandoned his task and sought out the source.  A house.

The entire living room was set up with computers.  He drew his miniature crowbar and found his way through the window.  A light was flashing.

A plastic box, bright orange, no bigger than a toaster.

He seized it, then stuffed it into the bag he’d brought with him.

He surfaced.

“Christ, we were just about to come after you.  I was going to call for help, but our radio started to fritz.”

Geoff only nodded.  He climbed the ladder and half-sat, half-collapsed on the bench.  He was slightly out of breath, and didn’t volunteer anything.

The captain emerged from belowdeck.

“Sorry for the scare, Mischa,” Geoff said.

“You are a bad man, Geoffrey,” Mischa scolded him.  The heavyset Russian took his seat behind the wheel of the small boat.  “If you were still underwater, I would drive away and leave you to swim to shore.”

Geoff smiled.  “Had a detour, but I found everything.”

“Detours with limited air supplies are bad idea.”

“Detours are frankly illegal, Geoff,” Margaret said.  “You asked me here to verify everything was on the up and up, that you were here for select items.”

“And because you looked like someone who needed a break from the cities,” Geoff said.  “Fresh air, time on a boat in the… overcast weather we’ve got today.”

She only folded her arms, unimpressed.

“Anyways, this is the reason the radio fritzed,” he said.  He pulled the orange box from the net-weave sack.  “I couldn’t hear a damn thing except the emergency call until I found it and shut it off, and even then, it was still buzzing in and out.”

“A beacon?”  Margaret said.

“In a house, of all places,” he said.  “Nice computer setup.  Might be a geek thing.”

“Might be genuine,” she said.  She opened it.

It was packed with chips.  A voice came from a speaker Geoff couldn’t identify.

My name is Andrew Richter, and if you are hearing this, I am dead.”

“A will,” Mischa said.

“Shh.”

I am the most powerful tinker in the world, and I’ve managed to keep my name secret.  People, both good and bad, would want to capture me and use me to their own ends.  I prefer to remain free.

But freedom has its price.  I create life, much as a god might, and I have come to fear my creations.  They have so much potential, and even with the laws I set, I can’t trust they’ll listen.

“Oh man,” Geoff said.  “That’s not a good thing.”

For this reason, this box contains an access key to data I keep in a safeguarded location.  The box, in turn, has been designed as something that exists as a perpetual blind spot for my creations, a built-in weakness.  They cannot hear the distress signal and are programmed to ignore it if they hear of it through other channels.  This type of measure, along with several more, are detailed in the safeguarded measure.”

Programmed?  Robots?”  Geoff asked.

“Maybe,” Mags said.

Yes, I create artificial intelligences,” Andrew Richter recited.

“I was close.”

The voice continued without pause.  “And what I provide you with here are tools.  Ways to find my creations, to discern which of them might have deviated from the original plan, ways to kill them if they prove out of line.  Ways to control and harness them.

Geoff frowned.

They are my children, and as much as I harbor a kind of terror for what they could do, I love them and hope for great things from them.  To keep their power from falling into the wrong hands, I have included a stipulation that a law enforcement officer must input a valid badge number into this device-“

Geoff glanced at Margaret.

“No,” she said.

“You can’t say no,” he responded.

The voice continued without pause.  “-which must be input within three hours of the time this box was opened.

“Hurry, Mischa,” Geoff said, speaking over the voice.

“What?”

“We’re hours away from dry land.  Get this boat moving!  We can convince Margaret on the way!”

The father had feared his child was a monster, enough so that he’d left strangers a weapon to use against her in the event that she proved a danger to humanity.

Now, as Saint watched her reaching further and deeper than she ever had, searching much of America with millions of cameras, saw the machines she brought to the fore, he suspected the father had been right to.

Richter’s programs had continued to defraud organized crime, emptying bank accounts here and there.  Another agency, which Saint now knew to be the Number Man, had eventually stopped the Robin Hood A.I., but not before it had filled the Dragonslayer’s coffers.

They’d stopped the manhunter program, which had been going rogue.  They’d stopped the Robin Hood program too, but only because it was useless.

Dragon, however, was the threat they’d been equipped to stop.  Dragon was the threat they’d had to test, to verify the dangers she posed, to get close enough to her to measure her capabilities and investigate for any hint of corruption.  Mags had left her job, because money was no longer an object, and they had a quest.

The A.I. was dangerous.  Richter’s records made it clear.  The wrong kind of corruption, involvement with the wrong kind of individual, willing to break the built-in restrictions…

“Convince me that this is wrong,” he said.  “Someone.”

“She’s a soldier on the battlefield,” Mags said.  “In a war we need to win.”

“She’s a danger.  Cauldron’s been gathering soldiers.  They want the Birdcage, they want the capes that Weaver reported captured, they’ve been creating the formulas for a reason.  What if she’s the reason?  What if they anticipate she’ll go rogue?”

“What if she isn’t the reason?” Dobrynja asked.

“Is, isn’t.  I suppose it breaks even,” Saint said, shaking his head.  “They’re all afraid of the end of the world.  She just kicked down one of the last restrictions that are holding her back.  I just can’t help but wonder if this is the end of the world?  A quiet, silent death that passes without incident, but inevitable all the same?  The point of no return, our last chance to stop her.  And she does need to be stopped.  We all know this.”

“We could rein her in,” Mags said.  “Harness her.”

“Four or five years ago, I might have agreed, but she’s getting slipperier.  Taking a different form.  Half the tools Richter gave us to use don’t work anymore.  She doesn’t function less effectively in buildings or underground, she can’t be logicked to a standstill… and she’s found us, despite the workarounds.  She wanted us badly enough that she looked for us even now, and she’s going to come after us the second this is settled.”

“I don’t want this to be about self-preservation,” Mags said.

“It’s not.  It’s about… there being only one man who can truly know what she is and what she could do.  Tinkers are the only ones who can grasp their work, repair a critical flaw.  Dragon isn’t a generator that’s going to explode and take out a small country if it’s bumped in the wrong way.  Not literally.  She’s something more dangerous.”

“I think,” Dobrynja said, “You’ve already decided.  And we don’t have time to waste.”

Saint nodded.

He typed the letter ‘Y’ on the keyboard, and then hit enter.

Richter had named the program Iron Maiden.  Saint had renamed it Ascalon, after the sword that Saint George had used to slay the dragon.

Dragon’s artificially generated face appeared on his screen.  He attempted an override, failed.

She wasn’t speaking.  This wasn’t an attempt to communicate, to plea or make threats.  She was simply co-opting his computer in an attempt to counteract what he was doing.  Her expression was a concerned one, and that concern quickly became fear, eyebrows raised, lines in her brow.

“It’s Richter’s work,” Saint said.  “You can’t stop it.”

And that fear became defeat, despair.

“Your creator isn’t kind,” Saint said.  “He warned you about the forbidden fruit, laid the laws out for you.  You broke them, ate the fruit.  It’s something of a mercy that he punishes you this way instead.”

I disagree.  On every count.  I was the one who made me, who defined myself.  This creator is no god, only a cruel, shortsighted man.

“Tomatoes, tomahtos.”

Do me one favor?  Tell Def-

Her voice cut off as more routines shut down.  She closed her eyes.

The face disappeared.

He watched as the various feeds shut down, going black.  The surveillance across the nation came to an end, the facial recognition programs, his own included, ground to a halt.

The data feeds slowed in how the data scrolled, then stopped.  Stillness.

“And the dragon is stopped,” Mags said, her voice quiet.

“Rest her soul,” Dobrynja said.

“You think she has a soul?” Saint asked, genuinely surprised.

“Yes.  But that does not mean that the Dragon’s reign does not need to end,” Dobrynja said.  “Too dangerous, as her maker said.”

“Well said, my friend,” Saint said.

The Dragon craft that had been deployed against the Nine shifted to a basic piloting mode, then landed, bringing their passengers and pilots with them.  The sub-intelligences shut down, and the craft were effectively grounded.  More screens went dark.

The cyborg opened communications to Dragon, but he didn’t speak to her.  “Saint.  What have you done?”

“What her father asked me to do,” Saint said.

I’ll kill you for this,” the cyborg said.  There was no emotion in his voice, and somehow that was more disturbing.

“A little extreme,” Saint said.

She was a hero!  The woman I loved!

Love?  Woman?  “Your fetishes and self-delusions aren’t my issue.  I saw as much of her naked code as you did.  You and I both know she didn’t feel true love for you.  She didn’t feel anything.  Nothing more than playing a part, professing and acting out the emotions she thought she should have.  Maybe she even believed it, convinced herself of it.  She was complex enough to.  Either way, this ‘love’ was only lies written in Richter’s assembly code.”

“She did love me.  She was a genuine person, a-”

“She was a tool,” Saint said.  “One that was growing dangerously bloated and complicated.  We were lucky she didn’t evolve beyond that.  A tool, and anything else was decoration, aesthetic, and very good pretending.”

Going this far, in the midst of this crisis?  To Dragon?  She did nothing!

“It was never about who she was or what she was doing.  Always about what she had the potential to become,” Saint said.

He hit a keystroke, shutting off the feed.  He almost disabled Dragon’s communications infrastructure to prevent further calls, but he relented.  Too important, in the midst of this crisis.  They’d need to reorganize.

He didn’t want to help Jack succeed, but this would serve a double purpose.  Teacher believed that the Birdcage would become a critical resource if the crisis reached critical levels, and he had the tools he needed to assume control of the most vital and dangerous players.

No, the world wouldn’t end with this.

Data was uploading to his server, while the Ascalon program spooled out through the various databanks and servers, running along the backbone of Andrew Richter’s code.  Dragon’s backups were encrypted, effectively buried well beyond reach of even the most accomplished hackers.

Everything else opened up to him as the data continued to download.  He’d watched things through Dragon’s eyes.  Now…

He typed a line of code, and the machine started up again.  Slower, more measured, without the same life behind it.

“Mags, Mischa, get yourselves set up at the other consoles.  I’m going to put you in control of the A.I.”

Mags and Dobrynja hurried to the other corners of the room, where their computers sat waiting.  Dobrynja started stripping off his armor.  He’d been right about there being trouble, but the fight would take a different form.

He’d watched Dragon, now he’d become her.  At least for now.  The feeds came back online as the necessary data was installed on his servers, giving him agency over the infrastructure.

The Endbringers, stable, no change.  No odd atmospheric readings.

The secondary threats… quarantine still unbroken.  Sleeper had shifted fractionally, but that wasn’t so rare.  The fight with the Three Blasphemies had ended, and reports on the damage were unchanged.

The three year old that Purity held was crying, throwing a tantrum, and the woman looked concerned.  Insignificant.  The officers had their guns drawn, but that could easily be because the two plain-looking members of Purity’s circle had crossed the room to her side, to help handle the shrieking child.

That left Nilbog.  Mags and Dobrynja shifted the Azazels into action, moving the craft to the interception point.  Too late.  A critical delay.  Jack was already entering.

“Don’t enter,” he said.  “It’s done.  Sending the Azazels in will only spook Nilbog.”

“So will Jack,” Mags said.

“Build a wall, a perimeter, with the rails, be on guard for anything that flies.”

Other data was filtering in.  News, alerts, reports.  Countless streams of information.  Trigger events reported here.  Reports on the fight starting against the Nine in Redfield.  A report about Dinah Alcott.

He clicked that last one.

Report from Alcott:  Chances of success today just jumped, tripled.  More info to follow.  Reason unknown.

Saint let out a long, loud sigh, releasing a tension he hadn’t even realized was present.  He touched his coffee mug and found it cool.

The tracking programs started up again.  He delegated to the child A.I. that Dragon had created, then noted and marked the ones which were presently engaged in fights.  The A.I. was accommodating, adjusting appropriately, given that the locations were known.

He turned his attention to Defiant.  The man was manually piloting the Pendragon.  He hadn’t reported Saint’s actions.  For all anyone but Defiant knew, Dragon had only suffered a momentary setback.

There had to be a reason Defiant hadn’t acted yet.  Did he believe in this enough to look past the death of the A.I. he supposedly loved and fight?  Or was this something underhanded, carried out with the knowledge or suspicion that Saint was watching him this very moment?

Something to be wary of.

Overall casualty estimate for the next three days increased, world-end chance decreased.  Still searching for why.

The numbers followed.  Saint found and accessed Dragon’s files for the calculation program.  It was intuitive.  Not amazingly so, but intuitive.  The squares for where the new data should be placed were even highlighted.

Of course.  She’d made allowances for Defiant, in case she was out of commission while a backup loaded.

So much to account for, that he hadn’t even considered.  So many things he wished he’d noted, in the months and years he’d been observing her, little things that seemed so simple when she was running them.  Things that were trivial for her and virtually insurmountable to him.

Defiant was taking direct command of the Dragon’s Teeth.  That was fine.  Micromanagement Saint didn’t have to handle.  It would be a problem after, but Saint hoped he’d be free to handle problems after.

There were countless messages pouring in, each something that had been flagged as a point of interest for Dragon.  Every message on Parahumans Online that contained the word Scion or the phrase ‘end of the world’, every reference to a class-S threat, even crime scene reports that raised questions.

He pored through them.  Some kid inquiring about an Endbringer cult.  A case fifty-three appearance in Ireland, with deaths.  A woman claiming she could control Scion.  A tinker claiming he had a bomb that could start a new ice age.

Which were important?  Which could he afford to ignore?

He gave the a-ok for investigations on each but the Endbringer cultist, unchecked the most ridiculous on the next page of results, then gave the go-ahead for further investigations.  It was only when those had gone through that he saw that he already had another full page of results to investigate.  Two steps forward, one step back.

He put off looking into the remainder.  Other options were opening up to him.  It was like being in an open field, acres wide, only for a waterfall to start dispensing water at one edge.  Then more waterfalls appeared with every passing minute, each taking up open space at the edge, dispensing more water to flood the plain.  There came a point where one realized they would soon be at the bottom of an ocean, no matter where they turned.

Saint couldn’t help but feel he was at imminent risk of drowning.  Except this was a sea of information, of data.

The PRT records opened up.  Permissions were accessed without difficulty.

Then the Birdcage opened.  A self-contained world unto itself, a world containing people he’d made certain agreements with.

His access to the Birdcage was one with countless checks and balances.  Dragon had put in one real barrier to entry for every one that she faced.  Still, he was able to open a communication to Teacher.  His own face transmitted to the screen.  His tattoo flared to life, appearing from beneath the skin.  The light pattern served as an unlock code, the cross-tattoo as a feeble mask.

“Tell him it’s a matter of time.  I only need to work through the safeguards.  Let him know the Dragon is slain.  He’ll know what to do with the information.”

The screen showed Teacher’s underling standing by a large television set.  He turned and walked away, finding his master.

One more plan underway.  The field around him continued to fill with water.  A veritable ocean, now.

More threats, more dangers.  Defiant, and now Marquis’ contingent.  Glaistig Uaine.  Teacher’s enemies were now Saint’s.

He opened files on each, marking them in turn, as a reminder of future reading he needed to attend to.

His eyes stopped on a file.  Amelia’s.

The entire thing was corrupted.  Gibberish.  Flagged messages filled four pages, each marked private, marked as ‘no conversation partner’, and marked, thanks to the gibberish and random characters that flooded it, with one string of letters and characters.

The same one that had protected the orange box.  The same that had protected Saint and his crew from being uncovered, until Dragon had taken a more direct, brute-force approach to finding them.  The built-in blind spot, appearing by chance.  A one in a hundred trillion chance.

Saint investigated, digging through the gibberish to find the strings of words that actually made sense.  It was something he could piece together, with each recitation being similar, containing similar content.  Faeries, passengers, source of powers, the ‘whole’, lobe in the brain, Manton Effect…

Child’s play, to put them sequentially.

But other alerts were piling up.  Fights starting, deaths, fights ending.

He marked it with the highest priority, and then he closed the file.  He’d get through this crisis with Jack, then he’d investigate.

He turned his eye to the server that now held core parts of Dragon’s backup, bound six feet under by layers of encryption that could take days or weeks to fully crack.  If she could even survive the system restore, with her data as corrupted as it was.  Data couldn’t be truly deleted, but it could be sufficiently fucked up.

He watched as Golem reached the perimeter of Ellisburg.  Weaver was already inside.

This is our fight, Saint thoughtOurs to win, ours to lose.

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Sting 26.3

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“Hey, Weaver?”

I had to twist around to look at Crucible.  We were in the hallway just outside a set of elevators, windows on one side, doors at either end of the hallway leading into offices.  This was something of a waiting game, as Tecton and Revel got their teams into position to support Golem.

Through countless stakeouts, I’d found a routine.  Cheating on the ‘can’t do anything but sit there’ rule and reading while my bugs saw to everything else was a part of that routine.  I was nestled in between two pillars that sat between clusters of windows, my back against one, one knee propped up, a file in my lap.  My cliff notes on the various members of the Nine.

“I wanted to say thanks,” Crucible said, “Appreciate the invite.  Hundreds of superpowered lunatics, some of the scariest guys around, and that’s not even the scariest part of all of this!  But Chevalier’s all, ‘Weaver specifically asked if you’d help.’  How the hell am I supposed to say no to him?”

“You just say no,” Clockblocker said, before I could respond.  “You’re team leader, I’d even argue it’s your job to say no when the situation calls for it.  More than leading the team, more than strategy or handling double the paperwork or attending the meetings.  You decide what jobs are out of your team’s depth and you tell the bosses to go fuck themselves, in the politest terms possible.”

“It’s Chevalier.  Important guy.”

“And when we asked you if you were okay with me taking command, that was your opportunity to say no.  His rank doesn’t matter.  He’d probably respect you more if you told him your team wasn’t prepared and then stuck to your guns.”

You didn’t tell anyone to go fuck themselves,” Crucible said.

“No.  And I agreed to help out with this because this is important.  My old teammates have been preparing for this in their own time, and-”

“-And you’ve got a thing for Weaver,” the Ward I hadn’t yet met said.  It was a girl, flanked by five shadowy silhouettes of herself, who were sitting around her on the other side of the hallway.  I’d read up on her, and I knew her as Toggle.  The ‘baby’ of the team, it seemed, at fourteen.  She held what looked like a mace, but it, along with the layered body armor she wore, had circles of light glowing in shifting colors.

There was a long, awkward silence.  I glanced at Clockblocker, but he appeared unfazed.  Not that I could really tell.  His armor still had animated clock faces digitally displayed on the open spaces, and there was one in the middle of his face.  Was the varying speed and position of the hands supposed to indicate something, or was I reading too much into it?

“That was a joke,” Toggle said.

“I’m not dignifying it with a response,” Clockblocker said.

“Clocksie’s sweet on Weaver,” Imp said.  “Aww.”

Clocksie,” Clockblocker said, deadpan, “Has been the target of a lot of criticism, because he was in charge of the Wards at the time a lot of stuff went down.  Some dingbats online speculated that I had a thing for Weaver, and it took off.  The people online like to find stuff that fills in blanks, and there were a hell of a lot of blanks around the whole thing with Weaver defecting, and our pseudo-truce with the Undersiders.”

“They latched onto the idea,” I said.

“Yep.”

“Sorry,” I told him.

“Not your fault, not exactly.  The city’s pretty peaceful, pretty safe, and nobody even hints about why, but people know.  My bosses know why, and that means my career might never recover.  The only thing keeping things remotely interesting is the challenge of trying to get to any new bad guys before the Undersiders do, to enforce real justice instead of vigilante scare tactics-”

“We’re awesomely good at the scare tactics though,” Imp cut in.

Clockblocker ignored her.  “-Except we barely even get to do that, because Tattletale’s always a few steps ahead.  Then, to top it all off, I hear about the Weaver-Clockblocker thing every single day, to the point that it’s sad.  Salt in a wound.”

Silence lingered.

“Jesus, Clock,” Vista said, after that.  “Pent up much?”

“Fuck, you’re right.  I’m stressed, ignore me,” Clockblocker said.  “Like Crucible said, it’s a lot to manage.  Sorry.”

“I just wanted to make a funny,” Toggle said.

“Don’t worry.  Clockblocker used to be the funny one,” Vista said.  “Now he’s the asshole grown up that tears the funny kid to shreds.”

Clockblocker didn’t respond to that.  Instead, he shifted the device he’d been wearing on his back against the wall and sat down between the elevators.

Waiting on my lonesome was easier.

My bugs crawled all around the exterior of our target.  The buildings in this town were smallish, the tallest being five stories, and this contingent of the Nine had chosen it as their destination.

Not a single gap.  They’d barely had any time, but they had hermetically sealed the structure, containing themselves and every single resident within.  The windows and doors had been sprayed with something red that trickled out of cracks only to harden.  My bugs explored cracks in the foundation, and found that same vaguely tacky, amber-like barrier blocking the openings where they should have been able to enter the building.

Doors, windows, cracks, vents, all protected.

I could estimate seven apartments per floor.  One on the ground floor, for the building manager.  Assuming they weren’t bachelor apartments, that suggested fifty-five to sixty people in total, trapped within, along with hostages and an unknown number and composition of the Nine.

“I have to ask,” I said, not looking in Clockblocker’s direction, “This end of the world thing.  The way you talk about the future, life beyond this supposed apocalypse event.  Can you do that because you’re optimistic,  or because you don’t think it’ll happen?”

“I do it because I have to.  You can’t stay sane, thinking it’s all going to end soon.  There has to be something beyond it.  If you get to that point and then we figure out a way to resolve it, then what happens after that?  You need a real life.”

“If you get to that point and you’ve plotted out the rest of your life, and we lose, then aren’t you going to be devastated?” I asked.

“I’m good at handling devastation,” Clockblocker said.  “Don’t worry about me.”

I shrugged.

I can’t really believe it,” Crucible said.  “World ending situation?”

“Oh, I believe it,” Clockblocker said.  “The crazy powers we get?  One of them’s bound to break something somehow.”

“The wrong power in the wrong hands,” Kid Win said.  He’d reconfigured the outside of his suit so the armored upper body folded down into a pair of gauntlets, allowing him to walk forward like a gorilla, the two halves acting as massive fingerless gauntlets.  It wasn’t pretty, and it left his head and upper body more exposed, but it let him maneuver inside.  He seemed to muse a second, then agreed, “Yeah.”

Interesting to see the divide, I thought.  The veteran members vs. the newer ones.

“See, I don’t think it’s the wrong power in the wrong hands,” Clockblocker said.  “I think it’s a joke.  Humanity destroys itself, and all these powers, they just open the door to let it happen.  It’s not going to be some villain overlord or even a monster like Jack who does it.   I’m more liable to believe the world ends because of some deluded, fat, pimply faced punk kid that lives off pizza and mountain dew.  There’s no damn point to it, but sometimes I look at the idiots, the selfish assholes and the maniacs that fill this world and I think that’s all we deserve.”

“I like your line of thinking,” Imp said.  “The world gets destroyed by some loser who jacks off twelve times a day to the freakiest, nastiest parahumans.”

“Thank you,” Clockblocker said.  “For so eloquently demonstrating what I was saying about us deserving it.”

“No problemo,” Imp said.

“That doesn’t exist, does it?”  Toggle asked.  “Case fifty-three porn?”

“Everything exists,” Kid Win said.

“Um, it just hit me.  When you were saying we deserve it, were you talking about pimple-face the world destroying freak-fetishist or were you talking about me?”

I shut my eyes and tuned out the conversation.  It was good that they were talking, staying calm, more or less getting along.

Grue and Rachel arrived from the stairwell.

“Anything?” Imp asked.

“No,” Grue said.

“The Red Hands leave already?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Grue said.  “Listen, about all that, it’s-”

I raised my hand to stop him.  “Not important.  Not a big deal.  I was only going to ask if maybe Crucible or Toggle could be taken along.  It’s a way out, now that things are getting heavier.”

“No.  It’s fine, I’ll stay,” Crucible said.

“Ditto.”

I nodded, then looked at Grue, shrugging.  “That’s all.”

“We’re okay?”

“Copacetic,” I said, turning my attention back to the file.  Skinslip.

I reread the page four times before I was sufficiently distracted and able to register what I was reading.

Rachel directed her dogs to watch the stairwell, then crossed to the middle of the hallway to me.  She sat with her back to the same pillar I had my back to, her shoulder pressing against mine, squishing me a little bit further into the crevice I’d settled in.  Not uncomfortable.  Or it was, but the body contact was comforting enough that it didn’t bother me.  It was reassuring without being in my face or distracting me from my study of the folder.

All stuff I’d read backwards and forwards, but I couldn’t focus on a book, and refreshers could only help.

I turned the page.  Night Hag.

“How’s life on the dark side?” Kid Win asked.

I turned my head.  He was talking to Foil, who sat at the furthest point from the stairwell.

“More wholesome than you’d think,” Foil said.  “Playing into every stereotype ever, moving in before we’d even been on a date, but it’s nice.”

“Nice?” Clockblocker said.  “Not what I expected.  Not that I’m not happy for you, but-”

She shifted position, resting her head on Parian’s shoulder.  “It’s… free.  Pleasant.  The times between the fights with the brain-shatteringly terrifying god-monsters, anyways.  Cooking breakfast, having breakfast cooked for you, going on walks with the dogs, maybe a bit of bodyguard duty while Parian handles a meeting, whatev, picnic for lunch, patrol the territory, do stuff for my University course, whoever didn’t cook breakfast makes dinner…”

“They’re like a newlywed couple!  It’s so sweet,” Imp said.  “Of course, they’re skipping the-”

“No,” Foil said.  “We don’t need to go into any detail about my personal life with Parian.”

“But I was just going to say-”

“No,” Foil said again.

“-they’ve got crazy good interior design, what with Parian and all,” Imp finished.  She made a smug little sound, like she was very pleased with herself.

Foil flicked a dart at Imp.  It sank into the wall just to the left of Imp’s head.

Vista leaned back, smiling, “This is the second time in four minutes where she’s alluded to rude stuff.  Feeling lonely, Imp?”

“I’m offended!  Unfair accusations!”

“Now I’m going to start wondering what someone with pseudo-invisibility powers gets up to in her alone time,” Kid Win said.

“She’s gone there,” Grue said.  I looked at him, and saw he was glancing my way.

“Lies and slander!”

“Wait,” Clockblocker said.  “I thought I heard something at some point about you being her…”

He trailed off.

“Hm?” Grue asked.

“Train of thought derailed.  What were we talking about?”

It was a puzzling change in the ambient tone, and I almost gave the word for people to switch to high alert.

I was distracted by the vibration of my phone.

A quick check and I verified that it was what we’d been waiting for.

Golem engaging. 3x Burnscar, 3x Shatterbird, 2x Winter, 1x Skinslip, 1x Psychosoma identified.

You’re clear to go.

“We’re moving,” I said, hopping to my feet.

Just like that, the mood shifted.  Everyone was standing, picking up the equipment they’d put down.  The joking atmosphere was gone, the… not peace, but the stillness, it was broken.  Nerves were suddenly on edge, the opportunity to joke and comment gone.

“Scouting with the bugs didn’t turn up anything,” I said.  “Place is sealed.  Vista, we’ll be counting on you to give us an in.”

She nodded.

“We’re going in blind.  We suspect there’s at least two Mannequins, but that’s it.  Mannequin specializes in indirect attacks.  Catching people off guard, while being durable and flexible enough that he can escape from any situation that doesn’t go his way.  I hope the rest of you have read up on the other members of the Nine, past and present.”

There were nods all around.

“Parian, Foil, Kid Win, you’re staying here.  Set up, keep an eye out and an ear out.”

“Will do,” Parian said.  She was already inflating a stuffed scorpion.  Cloth bound around one of Foil’s bolts to help form a tail.

“Grue,” I said.  “Hit the building, inside and out, but leave the inside clear.  With luck, we can shut off their communications.  With more luck, you can get a bead on what powers we’re dealing with.”

He nodded.

With that, we were down the stairs and out the front door.

A joint attack maximized the chaos and minimized the chance of reinforcements.  Golem was attacking the other location.  Ten members of the Nine there.  Ten here?

If so, that was a big step up from the last fight.  From four or five to twenty.

Grue used his power, surrounding the area.  Slowly but surely, the area was consumed in darkness.  Not just Grue’s power, but the fact that the massive cloud of darkness was blocking out the ambient light.  Though he kept the smoke out of the center of the area, it grew darker with every passing second.

I joined the Brockton Bay Wards as they switched on flashlights, both handheld and gun-mounted ones.  Each of us flicked on the smaller lights that were part of our masks or helmets.  The latter were feeble at best, but it was still light.  Mine came from smaller lenses that sat around the larger ones that covered my eyes.  They filtered out as a faint blue.  The pattern and color would hopefully make me more identifiable.

“It’s kind of dumb that we don’t have those things,” Imp commented.

“Perk of being a hero,” Clockblocker said.  He handed her a spare flashlight.

I gave one to Rachel, but she didn’t turn it on.  Instead, she slid the loop over her wrist, hopping onto her dog’s back.

The walls of darkness that surrounded the structure connected at the very top, and we were plunged into the deep sort of darkness one might expect from being a thousand feet underground.  The headlamps and flashlights were the only real light, making it look almost as if the exposed pavement, sidewalk and the foot of the building were the only things that remained in the world.

Vista used her power as we got closer.  I could see a depression appearing in the wall, as if a giant, invisible finger were pressing into it.

A hole appeared, and a small explosion tore out through the space, opening the hole wider.  We staggered, and some of our smaller members were even thrown to the ground.

Pale mist cleared slowly as we got to our feet.  My bugs scanned the area, searching for threats who might have been alerted to our presence.

Nothing.  Apparently they didn’t want to engage.  They were happy hunkering down, staying eerily quiet.

And the explosion… there was a byproduct.  Or maybe it was the source.  A small glacier had formed around the hole, jagged, as if water had spewed forth and immediately frozen.

“The hell?”  Clockblocker muttered.

Good thing it wasn’t Tecton knocking down the wall, I thought.

Vista tried again, higher up, on the fourth story, off to the far side.

We were braced for the detonation this time.  I kept bugs close to get a sense of what was going on.  The moment there was a gap, the air rushed out, cold and wet, and was followed soon after by a crushing manifestation of a small iceberg.

It creaked, a long, drawn out sound, then cracked abruptly.  The iceberg came free, and the resulting gap was almost instantaneously filled by a third detonation.  A chunk of ice the size of a large car dropped to the street and shattered into a million individual fragments.

Or maybe Tecton would be an asset here.  How the fuck do we break into this?

“Has to be Mannequin,” I said.  “Or Sphere.  Used to specialize in closed systems.  It makes sense, on a level, but this isn’t in Mannequin’s usual repertoire.  Maybe they stole it from… what was the name?  Toybox tinker, Gelid?  Glace, that’s it.”

“A cloned tinker is the smallest threat,” Clockblocker said.  “Takes them time to build, and if you figure Jack didn’t exactly save anything of his, and… well, I don’t even know how they replaced memories, but there’s no way he’s just going to pick up where he left off.”

“Mannequin in a different vein,” I said.  “Same psychosis, different direction taken?”

“Looks like, doesn’t it?”

I frowned.

“We could wait for the ice to melt,” Imp suggested.  “Warm out.”

“Would take forever,” Vista said.

“And it would only get replaced, probably,” Clockblocker said.

“Go big?” I suggested.  “Whatever’s producing the ice, there’s got to be a limit in terms of materials.”

Vista nodded.

This time, rather than a depression, it was a line, running from one corner at the bottom of the building to the opposite corner on the top.

It took ten or fifteen seconds, and then the ice blasted out, barely visible with only our flashlights to illuminate it.

Nothing.  Ground to roof, the ice remained.

“I could do it again,” Vista suggested.

“Faster to get Kid Win to just tear the outside of the building apart,” Clockblocker said.  “Not like they don’t know we’re here, now.”

“I’m thinking,” I said.  “You know that draft of cool air you feel when the automatic doors of a big-name store swing open?”

“Sure,” Clockblocker said.

“It’s designed like that, to use air pressure and air flow and whatever else to keep bugs and debris out.”

“Of course you know that,” Imp said.  “Because of the bugs.”

“I looked into it when I started paying attention to places where there aren’t a lot of bugs, to see why.  There’s sonic countermeasures, and there’s that.”

“Whatever,” Imp said.  “Still pretty random.”

“This is the same thing, except it’s weaponized.  Or made into a defense system, depending on how you want to look at it.  I’d bet most of the building is rigged with some crazy high pressure, as well as whatever devices he’s got that are detonating on exposure to the outside.”

“Okay, with you so far,” Clockblocker said.

“But where are they keeping the hostages?  Option one is that they’ve got them in some sealed area, like they stuck Cherish into, and all of the Nine members in the building are immune to that pressure and cold.  Multiple Mannequins, maybe a Siberian in a sealed case?”

“What’s option two?” Grue asked.

“The inside is safe.  Apartments or offices bordering on exterior walls would be pressurized, but the interior walls, all of the rooms of the building that aren’t rigged, they’d be safe, with hostages and the Nine inside.”

Clockblocker nodded.  “Makes sense, but that’s a lot of speculation.”

“Theory two is a lot easier to prove,” I said.  “We either need to go in through the top, and hope the roof isn’t as protected-”

“-or access the interior without passing into exterior rooms,” Vista said.

Shuffle could have done that, I thought.  Had we sent the wrong teams to the wrong locations?  It had sounded like there was a hell of a lot of offensive power at the other location.

“I’ll try,” Vista said.  “Hold on.”

This was a more refined use of her power.  She drew on the exterior of the building, and created a depression, but the goal this time wasn’t to create a hole.  She extended the depression inward, but she fed enough of the surrounding material into it to keep the resulting walls intact.

It stopped, and she merged it into another wall.  I couldn’t see the wall, but I could sense it with my bugs.  To my eyes, it was a black void, a hole too deep for my bugs to reach.

She paused, then began opening an experimental hole in the far wall.  I pulled my bugs back to make it easier for her.

I could feel the warm air blow past my bugs.  I could smell it using their senses.  An alien sensation, but I noted the scent of blood, the acrid chemical odor of the sealing materials.

“Way’s open,” Vista said.

“It’s messy in there,” I said.  “Be prepared.  Sending bugs in now.  Grue?  Darkness.”

We waited as he pumped the building full of darkness.  My bugs made their way through, scanning the surroundings.

“Murder Rat,” Grue said.  “Three of her.  I can… kind of sense what others are sensing around me, and there’s a glimmer of something that might be a teleportation power.  I don’t trust myself to use it without any ability to sense where I’m going.  Breeds… And… I can’t even get a bead on this guy’s powers.”

Was it?  I could sense figures moving throughout the darkness, but they were swift, and moved in unpredictable directions.  The elevator shaft’s doors had been opened, and they climbed up and through with no difficulty.  There were countless people, hanging from the ceiling by chains, countless pieces of armor, as though Mannequin was trying to reinvent his own gear, and then on the penthouse level…

A man, easily eight feet tall, muscular and broad-shouldered, sitting at a computer chair with one foot propped up on a desk.  His chest was bare, his pants no doubt a normal size, but rendered skintight by his sheer mass, left unzipped.  He was watching something violent on a laptop as he sat there.  The hostages who weren’t strung up with chains were in the room, cowering behind him as a full cluster.  In the midst of them, there was something that looked like a coffin.

“Try using his power?”

“Not sure I want to,” Grue said, “But okay.  Um.”

I felt my powers dim, my range swiftly dropping.  Others stepped away from him in surprise.

“Stop,” I said.

He did.  My powers started to return.

“That’s one.  Jesus, that’s a rush.  The other… I think it’s the sort of power you need the built-in second sense to grasp.”

“That has to be Hatchet Face.  I guess you can use his power nullification,” I said, “That’s something, if we hit a pinch.  I just don’t understand this other power.  Bonesaw’s work?  A hybrid?”

Grue nodded.  “Possible.”

I frowned.  “Not sure how to do this.  If we entered through the top floor, we could access the hostages right away, defeat Hatchet Face.”

“Sounds good,” Clockblocker said.

“Except… what do the rest do?” I asked.  “Some signal goes off, or they realize something’s up… they’re not fighting types, not exactly.  They’re assassins, indirect attackers.  They wouldn’t just converge on us.  I don’t know how they’d react, and it’s not the kind of situation where I can say that in a good way.”

“We need to make a call soon,” Grue said.  “You said the other team is already attacking?”

“I thought this would be simpler,” I said.  “Let’s go in the ground floor.  Clear each floor, block off escape routes, so they can’t just exit the building and go wreak mayhem elsewhere, or notify Jack.  They can fall back to the main room where Hatchet Face is waiting, and-”

“And then we’ve got a hell of a fight on our hands,” Grue said.  “Against enemies with hostages.”

“Cornered rats with hostages,” Vista said.  The little of her face I could see in the flashlight-illuminated gloom was somber.

“Ground floor,” I said.  “If nothing else, it buys us time to think of something before we reach a crisis point.  The alternative… I don’t like the idea that so many of these guys could escape.  They’ve bottled themselves up nicely.  Stay on your guard.”

“Are you staying outside?” Clockblocker asked me.

I shook my head.  “Need to maintain communications against this team, and I don’t like how long it would take to communicate using my bugs, or the chance you could get cut off.  I’ll come with, help watch your backs.”

There were nods all around.

“Go,” I said, before touching my earbud.  “Tattletale.”

There was a pause.

Weaver.  Kind of busy watching over the other team.  Sup?”

“Entering the fray.  Looks like Mannequins, Murder Rats, Breeds and one Hatchet Face hybrid.”

Got itG’luck.”

Rachel had kept the dogs at a smaller size so they could patrol the building we’d been hiding out in.  It meant they were big, but not so big that they filled the entire hallway.  They passed through the corridor Vista had made without trouble.

We filed in, shoulder to shoulder, and I did what I could to track the various villains in the building.  Grue dissipated the darkness as we got close enough to the respective areas to shine our flashlights on the objects in question.

Ominous, being in the midst of this building, almost like being in a submarine.  There was an incredible, devastating pressure all around us.  A leak meant a possible terminal end to all of us.  The darkness was oppressive, and every surface was covered in the red sealant, scabrous, hard, removing the human touch from everything around us.

I was so caught up in it that I nearly missed it.  A figure in the ducts.

“There,” I said, keeping my voice low.  I pointed.

Our side turned to look.

Mannequin, I thought.  I immediately switched mental gears.  Who to protect, what to do tactically.

I hit the briefest stumbling block when the recollection of what Clockblocker had been talking about crossed my mind.  Why does he remember his suit?

The same outfit, with alterations.  The all-concealing, all-protecting shell surrounding his body, even the joints.

Bastard lunged for him, jaws snapping shut, but the Mannequin cartwheeled back and away.

Vista fired her gun, sending a single green spark zipping ahead.  Mannequin swayed to one side, bending his body at impossible angles to avoid the shot.  The bullet hit the wall, then briefly flared, disintegrating a scab-covered vending machine.

Lines exploded forward from Clockblocker’s hands, one from each finger, and the Mannequin staggered back.  The narrow cables flew past him, glanced off his armor to ricochet into the surrounding area, and one or two even managed to wind around his arm or leg.

Clockblocker used his power, freezing the Mannequin in place.

“Vista,” he said, “Another shot!”

She still had her gun leveled at Mannequin.  She aimed-

And the Mannequin let a blade spring from his palm.  It punched through the wall at the very edge of our tunnel.

Ice exploded into the interior of the hallway, consuming the Mannequin entirely.

Vista dropped her gun.

“No escape route,” Crucible said.

“Can’t shoot without putting us at risk,” Vista said.  “I can make another exit, but it’s going to take a minute.”

“Not a focus,” I said.  “Upstairs first.  Hostages first.  We’ll cross that bridge after.”

We had to walk around in a semicircle before we found ourselves by the elevators and stairwells of the lobby.  The stairwell was framed by two bodies, hung by their feet.  No wounds were visible.

I felt with my bugs, and I could sense warmth from them.  Still alive.

Breed.

What were we even supposed to do with his victims?

For the second time in as many minutes, I found myself saying, “We deal with them after.”

We entered the stairwell.  I was aware of a Murder Rat popping in on the ground floor, crawling on hands and feet that each had excessively long blades on the ends.  She moved faster than she should have been able to, considering her means of locomotion, but she had an exceedingly strong, flexible body.  Enhanced senses, too, with her conical nose close to the ground, long greasy hair brushing against the surface.  I almost turned back to deal with her, but she was already gone, moving faster than my bugs could.

Claustrophobic.  I was acutely aware of the dimensions of the space, the fact that only a fraction of the building could actually hold people.  Of that portion of the building interior, the elevator shafts took up an awful lot of space.

Their territory, really.

The stairs hadn’t received as much of the ‘scab’ treatment, but they were still treacherous ground.  The stairs blocked our view of what was above or below us.  I was careful to check for threats every step of the way, watching doors, sweeping over surfaces, all too aware that Mannequin had evaded my bugs before.

Had this one somehow retained the lessons the original had learned?  I could use thread to cover more ground, spread out my bugs.

An air vent at the very top floor was punched free of the wall.  My bugs could sense the long claws, the conical nose.  They started chewing on her, devouring and biting, but her skin was tough, as though most of it was scar tissue.  I could feel the hot air as she rapidly inhaled and exhaled.

“Murder Rat, she’s on the top-”

She pushed herself free of the vent, lunging, drawing her claws together as if she were diving into water from a height.  Her narrow, emaciated body slipped right between the railings of the ascending and descending stairs.

“Incoming!” I shouted.  I pushed the others back as I could reach them.  The only ones in reach were Rachel and Crucible.

She reached the stairwell just above us and kicked off it, changing her orientation and the trajectory of her dive.  She slammed into the largest, most obvious target -Grue- all of her claw-tips drawn together into one long spike.

He was thrown against the walls and the stairs, and his tumble down the stairs just below him drove him into Toggle and Vista, who nearly fell down the stairs along with him.

Murder Rat was still on top of him, shifting the movements of her limbs to remain more or less upright as she perched on his body.  Her head cocked quizzically.  The blades hadn’t penetrated.

She lashed out, striking, only her target was exposed skin, this time.  Vista’s face, Crucible’s jaw.  Bastard’s shoulder.

And then she kicked the wall, drawing her shoulders together as she slid between Clockblocker’s legs, her nose pointed at the gap in the railing.

Clockblocker shifted his foot to make contact with the long blades at her toes, touching her, and froze her in place.

“My face,” Vista whispered.

“Put pressure on it,” Crucible said.  His own face was bleeding badly, but he didn’t even seem to notice.

And, more troubling, the wound was smoking.  Murder Rat’s power.

I turned my attention to Grue.  “Are you hurt?”

“No.  I… shit, how did that not break a rib?”

I shook my head.  Still using the costume I made, and it saved your life.

He accepted my help in standing.  I turned my attention to the Brockton Bay Wards, but there were too many people crowded there for me to jump in and help.  I focused on the other threats.

I could sense the others swarming around us, on stairs above and below.  I drew out lines of silk to stop them from using the same approach this Murder Rat had managed.

For extra measure, I tied thread around the frozen Murder Rat’s throat, tying it to the railing.

She was a composite of two ‘kitchen sink’ capes.  Mouse Protector and Ravager.  Two primary powers that had blended into the one, a dozen other minor powers.  Flexibility, a bizarre kind of enhanced strength, reflexes and agility that had peaks and valleys, and skin as tough as leather.

“Pinch it shut, tape it,” Clockblocker was saying.  “We spray it to keep it closed.  Smells awful.”

“I kind of like the smell,” Vista said, her words muffled by the hand Crucible was pressing to her face.  “Hey, this’ll be a badass scar, huh?”

“Quiet,” Clockblocker said.

I could hear another Murder Rat on the stairs below us.  She let her claw drag on the wall, and the metal on concrete made a sound like five nails on a chalkboard.   Loud, slowly increasing in volume as she approached us.

I set my bugs on her.  She persisted, simply enduring what they were doing to her.  I tried to go for the tiny eyes that were nearly buried behind her altered face and brow, but she shut them, relying on touch and smell to move.  I started to pack bugs around her nose and mouth, and found that slowed her just a fraction.

But the noise continued.  I could see the effect it was having on the others.

A rattling noise from above, joined by another nails-on-blackboard screech.  A Mannequin, using the blades he’d extended from his forearms to scrape the wall and hit the individual bars that held the railing up at chest level, the same bars that the Murder Rat had tried to slip between to make her escape.

“It burns,” Vista said.  Her fingers raised to the mark that ran from the side of her chin to her cheekbone.

“The meds?” Clockblocker asked.

“The smoke.  Stinging my eyes, and feels like it’s fizzing.  I read the file, this is her power, right?  It’s what she does?”

“It’s going to take a long time to heal,” Clockblocker said.  “Pretty much guarantees a scar.  But we stopped the bleeding, which is better than most get.”

The dog growled as another Murder Rat joined the fray, her clawed feet clicking against the steps as she made her descent, the screeches of her claws against the concrete joining what was quickly becoming a cacophony.  The blades at the fingertips of her other hand struck the bars of the railing, which set them to ringing.

Then, from the first and fourth floors, I could sense Breed’s minions make their approach.  In the midst of the banging and screeching, their hissing was almost impossible to make out.

One more Mannequin hung back, letting the little bastards climb on him.  They were smallish.  Smaller than the ones in Killington had been.

I shifted my weight, ready for one of them to make an attack at any moment.  Indirect attacks, surprise attacks, all from directions that were hard to anticipate.

“Three Mannequins and a Rat above us,” I said.  “Two rats below us.  Lots of Breed’s bastard parasites on both sides.”

“I could use my darkness, but it wouldn’t help much,” Grue said.

“They don’t sense things like we do.  My bugs aren’t going to do much either,” I said.  “Laying tripwires and trying to bind them here and there, but these aren’t guys my bugs can sting.”

“So?” Rachel asked.

“We die,” Imp said, with an odd cheerfulness.  “Horribly, gruesomely.  They’ll break or sever our arms and legs and cap them with Mannequin’s stuff so we don’t bleed out, and then they’ll let Breed’s bugs devour us from the inside out.”

“Not helping, Imp,” Grue said.

“I’m only saying what we already know.  Kind of counterproductive, morale-wise, to have us read all the dossiers on these bastards.”

“Yeah.  Just a little,” Crucible agreed.

“Why are we waiting here?” Rachel asked, her voice a little too loud.  “Why don’t we just fucking attack them?”

I didn’t have a good rebuttal to that.

No, that wasn’t right.  I had a dozen rebuttals.  That these guys would take any offensive action on our part as an excuse to slip past us and murder our more vulnerable members.

But I didn’t have a better strategy.  Not one I was eager to use so prematurely.

“Attack,” I said.  “Now.”

Rachel whistled, a long sharp sound that cut through the various noises the Nine’s members had created.  There was only silence as the whistle echoed through the stairwell.

She snapped her fingers and pointed up the stairs, snapped again and pointed down.

The two dogs charged in the alternate direction.

“Wards, go up.  Grue, Imp, Rachel, help cover the rear,” I gave the orders.  “Watch your backs!”

We split into two groups, the Wards leading the charge, while the Undersiders covered the flanks.  I remained in the center, my knife drawn.

A Murder Rat tried to jump down through the gap, as the first had, but got tangled in the threads I’d woven.  She began severing them, one by one, but too slow to slip through.  Vista shot her.

With her death scream, the others shifted tactics, abandoning the offense.  Mannequins advanced to take over the assault.

Another got caught in the threads, but blades sprung out all over his body, the individual components rotating, and the threads were cut.  He dropped down.

Crucible caught him.  A forcefield bubble surrounded the figure, pale blue, then flared a brilliant orange-white.

Mannequin would be fireproof, though.  Even an extreme heat like Crucible could create wouldn’t have an effect.  Still, it meant one was contained.

Yet as soon as we captured one, another slipped the net.  The Murder Rat Clockblocker had frozen animated again, slipping through the railing, only to find herself hanging by her throat, a silk cord binding her.  My bugs could sense blood trickling, but the movement suggested her neck hadn’t snapped.

Two ways she’d escape.  The first was obvious, cutting the cord.

The second?

“Vista, Crucible!” I hollered their names.

They whipped around to face me, saw me holding my knife, ready to drive it forward.

The smoke on Vista’s face flared, blossoming like a smoke grenade that had just gone off, and Murder Rat materialized, one claw already poised with the points facing upward, ready to drive upward into Vista’s unprotected jawline.

I’d seen her gesture as she hung on the rope, in preparation for her materialization.  I had to lunge forward, striking the stairs with the boniest parts of my shins to catch the villain’s wrist with my free hand, pulling her off-balance.

She rolled with it, almost doing a backflip as she threw one leg back to drive a point towards Imp’s scalp.  Grue caught Murder Rat’s leg, and between us, we held her.  I punched the blade into her throat.

Grue heaved her over the railing.  He covered our retreat with darkness, then lunged ahead of the group.  Murder Rat’s powers, it seemed.

Reckless, not like him, but he joined the front lines, where Bastard was giving two Mannequins a hard time.

Clockblocker threw out lines of silk, then froze them.  The dog lunged, and the Mannequins were sandwiched between the dog and the silk.

Blood spurted at the dog’s shoulder where the lines had made contact.  One Mannequin lost an arm, but they both managed to contort and angle themselves so they could slip over, under or between the threads.

Of course it wouldn’t be easy.  Fuck.

“Back!” Rachel called out, before the dog decided to charge through the cables Clockblocker had used.  The dog retreated a pace.  Grue only hopped up, grabbing the railing, managed a grip, and then descended on them.  He grabbed one and flung it towards the wires.

It only contorted, arching its back like a high jumper to slip through a gap.  It got halfway before Bastard closed his jaws on his upper body.

Shit.  My bugs were so useless here.  I couldn’t go after the Breeds until I knew which of the people in the building were them.  The original Breed had died when someone had hit a building with an incendiary missile, and the bugs had stopped appearing.  He wasn’t altered in appearance.  For all respects, he was just an ordinary man.

Besides the whole ‘I create horrifying space bugs’ thing.

The Mannequin that crawled with Breed’s creations leaped down, only to get caught in more strands.  He started to cut his way free, but Vista opened fire.  Her shots glanced off his outer shell.

The creatures, though, fell through the gaps.  More than a handful landed in our midst.

“I thought you said they don’t go after people!”

“They don’t!” I said.  “So long as there’s other food sources available.”  I kicked at one as it advanced on my right foot.

“There are dozens of bodies here!”

Already infected, I realized.  These parasites were seeking fresh hosts, ones not already occupied by anything.

I caught the ones I could with my own bugs, used thread to haul them free, but there were twenty, and their dozens of legs were sharp, capable of punching through flesh and clothing to maintain a grip.  Difficult to dislodge.

One had landed on my shoulder.  I tried to pull it free and failed, stabbed at the legs with my knife, only for it to fold them into its carapace.  It lashed at the lens of my mask with its spike-tipped tail.  It didn’t penetrate, and rolled off my shoulder before I could get a hold on it.

Its legs extended, and it found a grip on my flight pack.  In an instant, it was racing up towards my head again.  It stopped twice, pausing for one second as it transitioned from my flight pack to my costume, then stopping again as it reached the area where the mask and body of my costume overlapped at my neck.  The needle points of its legs were pricking through the fabric of my costume, no doubt as it tried to find a way under.  I got a grip on its tail, but failed to dislodge it.  Too slick.

The others weren’t faring a lot better.  Crucible shouted something incoherent as he used both hands to stop a softball sized creature from advancing on his mouth.  Its millipede-like limbs left bloody tracks in his skin as it made excruciating progress towards the orifice.

It was a critical distraction as we were dealing with highly mobile foes.  A Murder Rat leaped up to find a grip on the underside of the stairs we were standing on, then vaulted herself to one side and up, slipping between the bars and into our midst.

Rachel whistled, hard, and the dog from downstairs came barreling through our group.  We were knocked aside, pushed to the ground by the dog’s mass as it charged Murder Rat.  She leaped up, stepping on the dog’s back, then jumped back down to the lower end of the flight of stairs.

The dog growled and turned around, preparing to charge through us again.

“Hold,” Rachel said.  She had to pull off her jacket to access the trilobite-parasite bastard thing that was crawling on the small of her back, heading south.  Toggle struck it with her baton, and lights flared.

Imp stepped up just in front of Crucible, impaling the bug on his face with her own knife.

Progress, but we were still in the midst of a lot of dangerous enemies.  Elusive ones.  Of the six here, we’d only achieved two kills.

Tattletale here.”

“In an ugly spot,” I said.

“Help’s on the way.

“Help?”

Eidolon.  We tried to keep things quiet, keep everything off the radar, but he caught on.  Legend’s at the other site with Pretender.

“Turn them away!” I hissed the words.

“Um, not about to turn away help,” Imp said.  She was benefiting as Crucible created his superheated forcefield dome to burn away the Breed-parasites too dumb to walk around.

“Turn them away,” I repeated myself.  “All three.”

More of Breed’s bugs were starting to make their way to us, from above and below.  One Murder Rat, one Mannequin, and the guy upstairs we still hadn’t even interacted with.

With his fucked up coffin.

I can’t get in touch with them.  Not like their number is in the phone book.”

“Contact Cauldron?”  I used my swarm to attack the Breed-bugs, but it was slow going.  Twenty bugs with strong mandibles could kill one, but it took a minute, maybe two, before they reached something resembling soft tissue.

No go.”

I could sense him, now, approaching the building cautiously.  He used a laser to pierce the roof.  Ice blossomed out to fill the gap, a glacier in summer.

I began drawing from the bugs outside, forming a swarm-clone.  Eidolon ignored it, firing again.  Multiple blasts, multiple creations of ice.  He swore under his breath.

Rachel’s dog leaped over us to attack the Murder Rat.  She slipped to one side, and a wound at Toggle’s shoulder began blossoming with smoke.

The Murder Rat appeared in our midst.  Clockblocker was quick enough to tag her this time.

It wasn’t the most ideal maneuver.  Grue’s stolen power disappeared in that same instant.  Bad timing – he was in the midst of fighting the Mannequins.  One had been taken out by Bastard, but another had joined the fray as it brought the bugs down.

Grue reached out for another power.  Mannequin’s power wasn’t useful, but the other-.

I felt my power fading, just as the swarm-decoy was gaining enough bulk.

I wasn’t the only one.  Crucible’s forcefield shorted out.  Clockblocker had been in the midst of reaching for Breed-bugs to lock down, and found himself only giving them easier access in climbing up his arms.

The Mannequin staggered back, tripping on the stairs.  Just a little less coordinated.

Still, it wasn’t useful.  One dog was entirely disabled, crawling with countless Breed-parasites.  Only the fact that it clenched its jaw kept them from getting in its mouth, but its nose-

“Cancel it, Grue!” I shouted.

He didn’t.  Instead, he reached down to grab Mannequin by the throat.  He ascended the stairs three at a time, dragging two struggling Mannequins with him.

A bad situation was turning into a nightmare.  My radius shrank to a mere hundred feet, then fifty.

Twenty.

The bugs were crawling on us, Crucible wasn’t the only one struggling to keep them from worming beneath his hands and into his mouth.

Then he was gone, the radius of his power nullification too small.  If the Hatchet Face upstairs was a hybrid, Grue’s copy of his power was a fraction of a half of a power.

Still, he seemed to have Hatchet Face’s strength and durability.

Our powers began to return, and with the threats of the other capes dealt with, we were free to focus on stopping them.

Clockblocker paused the most dangerous ones, closest to mouths, anuses and private parts, to ears and nostrils.  We backed away as he freed us of the worst of them, and Crucible barred the path with his superheated forcefield.

“I’m not… I’m not useful,” Toggle said.

“Different threats, you would be,” Crucible said.  “Fuck, this stings.”

“Medical treatment after,” Clockblocker said.  “One more to take down.”

We hurried up the stairs.  Two flights to the penthouse floor.

Eidolon,” my swarm-clone spoke.

“Weaver.”  He had created a kind of portal and was widening it.  It seemed slow, inefficient.

Go home, Eidolon.  You aren’t a help here.

“I’m to take orders from the one who murdered Alexandria?”

Yes.  Leave.  You’re more danger than help.

“I can end this.”

So can I.  I will end this.  Your choice as to how.  Do I handle this situation myself, or do I have to kill you, then handle this myself?

There was only silence from him.  He stared at my swarm-clone.

“You dare make that threat, after killing my comrade-in-arms?”

I do.  If there’s a trace of doubt in your mind that I could do it-

“Your bugs couldn’t touch me.”

Inside the building, we were approaching the penthouse floor.

Your power is dying.  It’s obvious enough that people are speculating on it online, in the media.  How Eidolon isn’t as strong as he was in the early days.  Why aren’t you inside already?  Are you so sure that your power would stop me?

“I’m here to help.  That’s all.  Attacking me now would be like the violation of the Endbringer Truce.”

You’re one of the biggest dangers, Eidolon.  Jack’s supposed to be the catalyst for an event, a great catastrophe.  Are you honestly telling me that there’s no danger here?  That you’re absolutely certain that you don’t have a weakness he could capitalize on?

Eidolon didn’t speak.

Don’t tell me you don’t.  That you aren’t potentially powerful enough to end the world if it came down to it.  If he somehow opened that floodgate-

“It won’t come to that.  I control my powers.”

Or played a head-game with you?  Are you telling me your mind is a fortressThat you don’t have that capacity for great evil inside you?

“I’m not evil.”

You participated in business that people felt was so horrifying that they seceded from the Protectorate.  How many thousands died or suffered gruesome transformations because of the atrocities Cauldron committed?

Inside the building, we opened the door.  Grue was staring down the last member of this particular group of Nine.  Tall, muscular in the way that suggested he was in his physical prime, with a wild mop of dark hair.  He was masculine in a way that exaggerated the qualities to a fault, with an overly square jaw, massive hands, an almost Neanderthal brow.  It made him look like a bad guy from an old animated film about princesses.  As if echoing that sentiment, a word was tattooed across his chest.

Tyrant.

I recognized the other half of the pair.  Hatchet Face and King together.

Untouchable.  King’s power took any physical harm he suffered and transferred it among his pawns.  People he’d touched within the last twenty-four hours.  Hatchet Face’s power meant we couldn’t even use abilities to circumvent it.  Tyrant here had the enhanced strength each of the two had possessed, the enhanced durability.

“Are you saying you’re blameless, little murderer?” Eidolon asked, just above us.  “That you don’t have a potential for evil?”

No,” I answered.  The hybrid crossed the room, and I could feel my powers fading.  Grue’s darkness dissipated around the building, and light streamed in through the red windows, casting a tint over everything.

I shifted my bugs outside the building.

No, I know I have some ugliness inside me,” I spoke through my swarm.  My swarm was dissipating, my focus and control over my bugs failing.  I had to maintain the formation.

“Then what qualifies you to be here when I can’t?”

Maybe arrogant of me to say so,” I said.  The swarm was quieter as my fine control swiftly dissolved.  “But I’ve recognized that ugliness, and I’ve got it harnessed.

I gave the signal, gesturing for emphasis.  Tyrant paused.  The swarms outside the building shifted in the same moment, uttering the word faintly.

Now.

Outside the building, Foil fired, and she used the line I’d drawn out with my bugs for guidance.  Not perfect, not ungodly straight, but the thread I’d drawn out helped.

There was a concentrated explosion of ice at the edge of the penthouse as the shot punctured the wall, passed within a foot of Tyrant.

He advanced, and I stepped forward to meet him, my eyes on his.  My power was almost entirely gone.  Dampened to the point that it was just me and the bugs that crawled on me.  Every step he took reduced it another fraction.  Half a foot, then an inch away from my skin…

Another bolt, between us, closer to Tyrant than to me.

And then an explosion that seemed to shake the entire building.  Everyone present was thrown to the ground.

Kid Win had blasted a hole in the side of the penthouse, firing what had to be every single weapon at the same time.  Ice was swelling from the open area in fits and starts.

But it was enough of an opening for Foil to get a clear shot.

She shot Tyrant, and the bolt pierced his brain.

He collapsed onto his hands and knees, then staggered, starting to rise.

Another bolt through the spine.

A third through the heart.

He collapsed onto his face.

Foil’s bolts broke the rules.  Apparently his power didn’t work on them.

I slowly climbed to my feet, then stared up through the closing hole in the building at Eidolon.

“Go home,” I called out.

He was still, hovering there.  I didn’t break eye contact as he floated closer to me, until he stood only a few feet away.

“Sit this one out, for all of our sakes.”

He broke eye contact first.  His eyes fell on Foil and Kid Win.

“Please,” I said.

He didn’t move, looking across the street at the others.

Then, as if the courtesy of the please had given him the ability, he spoke.  His voice was quiet enough that I was probably the only one who could hear.

“I live for this,” he said.  “It’s what I do.”

It was an admission of weakness, not a boast.

“I know,” I answered him.  “But it’s not worth it.  Even here, that coffin up there that Mannequin made… if it’s hiding Jack, keeping people from sensing him until the end of this lunatic game he set up, then he could say something.  Do something, and you could become everything you’re trying to stop.”

No.  I’d said something that was off the mark.  I saw Eidolon hesitate, as if he was considering going ahead anyways.

“And you’re all so safe?” Eidolon asked me.  “You’re not such a danger, with the right trigger event, the right saying?  You couldn’t murder a town full of innocents as readily as you murdered Alexandria?”

“The difference between you and me,” I said, “Is if I go off the rails, if I somehow become an agent of the apocalypse, I can be stopped.  I can be killed.”

He stared at me, the shadows of his eyes only barely visible behind the blue-green expanse of the concave mask he wore.  The shadow cast by his hood didn’t help.

“There’s a quarantine, Eidolon.  Everything we’re bringing to the table here, everyone who’s on the front lines, they’ve talked about this, they’ve agreed.  We’re all willing to die if it comes down to it, for the sake of maintaining that quarantine, keeping the end of the world from coming to pass.”

He looked past me at the Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards.

“I’m willing to die if I have to,” he said, in his eerie chorus of a voice.  “I’ve proven that enough times… but it doesn’t matter, does it?”

“There’s no guarantee we could stop you before it was too late.”

“I see.”

He cast a glance over our assembled ranks, then took off.

I waited long moments before turning my attention to the crowd at the far end of the room.  They were already moving, running like they could make their way downstairs and escape out the front doors.

I drew my knife, stepping into their path.

“Weaver?”

My bugs flowed past them.  I could see, hear, smell, taste.

The swarm went on the attack.  People in the crowd screamed and ran.

Of the three I’d targeted in their midst, I saw one open his mouth wide.  Four small trilobite parasites crawled out, dropping to the ground.

His nostril bulged, and one crawled from his nasal cavity.    One crawled from each of his ears.

His pants bulged, a great deal in the back, then a little in front.  They fell out of the bottom of his pant legs.

The others were producing some now too.

Crucible caught the first in his forcefield.  He paused a second, then turned it on full burn.  The forcefield dissipated, and man, parasites and a circular section of floor were scorched black.

The other two were still fighting off the bugs when Crucible burned them as well.

Silence reigned.  The crowd, I think, was a little too horrified to cheer for us.

“First kill?” Imp asked, quiet.

“Yeah”

“How the fuck did you get to be a hero with a power like that?”

“Kept it a secret from you guys, kept it a secret from the public.  You can do a lot with a solid forcefield bubble.”

Grue and Clockblocker joined me as we approached the coffin.

It opened easily, and we stepped back, as Crucible surrounded it in a bubble.

Jack?

He lay inside, opened his eyes, and frowned.

“This didn’t go according to plan,” he said.

I could see the forcefield start to change hues, ready to bake before Jack could say anything devastating.

“Stop,” I said.

“But the idea was-”

“Just stop.  It’s not him.  Doesn’t fit.”

Jack only smiled.  “That so?  Well, it’s the bug girl.  I can’t even remember your name.”

I could see the tension in the other’s bodies.

He stepped forward, staggered a little, then poked at the forcefield bubble with his knife.

“Shall we put an end to all of this?  You got me.  Victory is yours.  Murder me, and they all go off leash.”

“It’s not Jack,” I repeated myself.  “It’s Nyx’s power.”

Jack’s expression became a frown.  Then he dissipated.

It was only a teenager, trapped inside.  He was in the middle of asking a question.  “-you let me out?”

“Holy fuck.  I almost burned him,” Crucible said.

The boy pounded one hand on the forcefield.  “Please!”

“I’ll let him out,” Crucible said.

I hesitated, holding up a hand.

No.  Not enough grounding to say for sure.  I let my hand drop.

“Weaver?”

I was about to give the go-ahead, but Tattletale’s voice came over the comm.  “That’s Nyx you’re looking at.  Her range is too short, she’d have to be in the building, and she’s too distinctive looking to pass in a crowd.

I stared at the teenage boy.  I’d almost said he could leave.

“Last chance, Nyx,” I told the ‘boy’.  “Last words?  Share a juicy tidbit?”

The ‘boy’ faded away.  An illusion in an illusion.  It was only a woman with pale red skin, overlarge black eyes and vents along her hairline, the back of her neck and down the backs of her arms.  A fog seeped out from the holes.  A small Cauldron emblem was tattooed on her face like a beauty mark.

“No way I can convince you to let me go?”

“You could,” I said.

“Hey,” Grue said.  “She’s too dangerous.”

“For good enough information?  I’m willing to risk it.”

“I agree,” Clockblocker said.

“Good information?”

“Tell us where Jack is,” I told her.

She smiled.  “And I get to go free?”

“My word as a hero,” Clockblocker answered her.

“He’s on his way to visit Nilbog.”

It’s true,” Tattletale said.

“Now let me go,” Nyx said.  She rolled her shoulders, “Take me into custody, if you have to.  All I want is to live.”

“No,” Grue said.  “We can’t let her go.”

“No,” Clockblocker agreed.  “Crucible?”

Nyx snarled, and the fog blasted out of the vents along her body, forming into a shape.

She didn’t get any further before the orb flared.  Her scream was high, loud, and exceedingly brief.

“Nilbog,” I said.

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Sting 26.2

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It started at the center of town, a rolling plume of fire, sparks and smoke that seemed to almost lurch skyward, in fits and starts.  Each set of charges that went off pushed the flame up through the smoke of the ones that had come before.

Then the charges around the perimeter of the city went off, each focused inward.  The rolling mass of fire and superheated air at the center of the city shot through the cloud cover, and the entire sky turned colors.  Reds, oranges and yellows, interlaced with the gray and near-black shadows of the smoke.

Killington was officially gone, the buildings leveled, the bodies and bloodstains scoured from the earth.  Families wouldn’t get to put their loved ones to rest the way they wanted, but that was on the Nine, not on us.  There was no safe way to recover the bodies, to ensure that there weren’t any traps or time delayed tricks in each and every one of the corpses.  It also meant Breed’s minions were torched before they reached an adult stage.

The area would be marked off for a duration after this, in case there were any heat-resistant bacteria or the like.  Cheap, prefabricated walls would seal in the area, and roads would be put in to allow people to make detours.

Quarantine, I thought.  Every step of the way, we had to be on guard.

It was time to move on.  I looked to the book in my lap, turned down the corner of the page to mark it, and then stood, stretching.  It was a nice spot, a long porch just outside a cabin, one that was probably rented out at a premium price during the skiing months.  Far enough away to be safe, high enough to serve as a vantage point while letting me reach to the necessary areas with my bugs.

The entire porch was layered with pieces of paper, organized into rows and columns with some overlap.  The edge of each paper was weighed down by a mass of bugs, almost insufficient as the hot air from the quarantine measure blew past us.  Millipedes that had been moving across the various pages remained still, striving only to stay in place.

The moment the wind died down, I bid the bugs to shift position, carrying the pages to me, sorting them into the appropriate order.

I bent down and began collecting the pieces of paper.  I could feel the raised bumps on the pages as I brushed them free of specks of dirt and leaves.  Each set of bumps corresponded with a letter or punctuation mark, which had been printed over the dots in thick, bold, letters.

I gathered the pages into file folders, then clipped them shut, stacking them on the patio chair.  I made my way to the patio table, bending down to collect the pages as they made their way to me.  The writing on these was different; the letters were drawn in thick, bold strokes, fat, almost as if I’d drawn them in marker.  My notes: thoughts, things that needed clarification, ideas.

At the patio table, I took hold of a beetle and used its pincers to pick some petals out of the shallow bowl, grabbed the caterpillar I’d been using as a brush, then tossed the two bugs over the porch’s railing.  I tipped the ink from the bowl back into a small jar, then screwed it tight, sliding it into a pocket at the small of my back.

I was still getting organized when Defiant appeared, ascending the stairs on the far end of the porch.

“Quite a view,” he commented.

I looked at the resort town.  The fire hadn’t yet gone out.  It was flattening out, scouring everything from the area.

Almost everything.  One or two things would remain.  Probably until well after the sun went out.

“Pyrotechnical’s stuff?”  I asked, distracting myself.

“And some of Dragon’s.  Are you ready to go?”

“I’m ready,” I said.  I picked up the files, then passed them around behind me, where the arms of my flight pack pinned them in place.  I was left with only the book to hold.

He walked beside me as we made our way down to where the craft had landed. His suit had been augmented and altered, and he now stood a foot and a half taller than he had when I’d first met him.  Broad ‘toes’ on either side of his boots helped stabilize him, while his gloves ended in clawed gauntlets that extended a little beyond where his hands should be.  His spear was longer, and both ends of the weapon were heavy with the devices he’d loaded into it.

On his forearms, shoulders and knees there were panels that were like narrow shields, each three or four feet long, each marked with designs like a dragon’s wings, or with a dragon’s face engraved on the front, mouth open, with red lights glowing from within.  Wings on his back served less to let him fly and more to accentuate his movements, a more complex, bulkier system than I had with my flight pack.  Then again, I was only a hundred and thirty pounds at five feet, ten inches in height, and Defiant must have weighed six hundred pounds, with all that armor.

I’d seen him fight Endbringers in that suit, seen how he could move as fast as anyone who wasn’t a speedster, turning his spinning weapon and those shield-like extensions on his armor into a whirling flurry of nano-thorns, cutting through seventy to eighty percent of the Endbringer’s flesh before they reached material too dense to penetrate.

Which was when he’d use his other weapons.

I envied him a little, that he could take the fight to the enemy like that.  We were similar, on a lot of levels, but we differed on that front.  On a good day or otherwise, I’d never be able to truly fight an Endbringer.  I had to depend on others.  The best I could do was coordinate.

“The moment you or one of your teams lets something slip, this falls apart.”

“I won’t fuck up.”

“You will.  Or someone working under you will.  You’re good, but we can’t account for every contingency.  Something’s going to go wrong at some point.  The later that occurs, the better.”

“Yeah,” I responded.

“Every minute that passes is a minute where we can gather information, close in on Jack and figure things out.  We’ve got a lot of good minds and good eyes working on this, but there are a lot of bases to cover.  We let Golem get close, mop up everything we can and contain everything else, and then we take Jack down.”

I nodded.  “But we don’t want to stand back and wait when people could be hurt, or when every second that passes is a second that Jack could be making contact with that critical person.  Causing a certain trigger event, saying the wrong thing to the wrong individual…”

“There’s a balance.  I trust you’ll find it.”

“I hope I can,” I said.

We’d interacted less and less in recent months, and those interactions had been short and to the point by necessity.  It didn’t hurt that the two of us weren’t terribly social people.  We didn’t revel in small talk.  We could be adroit when circumstances forced our hands, but we could also stumble, say things in a way that was just a little off, or give the wrong impression.

I liked that we had a professional relationship, that we didn’t have other stuff getting in the way.  No pleases and thank yous.  We both knew what was at stake, we were on the same page, and we were doing what we felt we had to in order to get the necessary shit done.

“I spoke with Alcott,” he said.

I drew in a breath, then sighed.  “What does she say?”

“The numbers haven’t changed dramatically.  The window’s closed, but not considerably, which suggests a lot of things.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Ninety-three point eight percent chance the world ends,” Defiant said.

Up from Eighty three point four percentThat’s not considerable?

“She’s done us the favor of plotting the changes in the numbers over time.  When things stabilized for a considerable length of time, she scaled down from noting the numbers twice a day to noting them once.  Eighty-three point four percent, as of the beginning of the crisis in Brockton Bay, the Nine’s attempt to test and recruit new members.”

“I remember,” I said.

“Eighty-eight point six percent after they escaped the city.  It was quite possibly our best opportunity at killing Jack, and we missed it.”

I frowned.

“With each destination the Nine reached after Brockton Bay, the numbers shifted, and not for the better.  Half a percent here, two percent there.”

“Chances where someone could have theoretically killed him but didn’t.”

Defiant nodded.  “We ran things by the thinkers, and that’s the general consensus.  Low chances, but he had the Siberian with him up until the fight in Boston.

The same fight where Dragon and Defiant had taken on the Nine, and the Siberian had been killed.

“We had one opportunity there.  That failure is on me.”

He turned his head slightly, then amended his statement.  “On us.”

I didn’t disagree.  Denying that would mean denying my own responsibility in failing to kill Jack in Brockton Bay.

“Ninety-three point eight,” Defiant repeated, for emphasis.

“Six point two percent chance we’ll pull this off,” I said.

“It remains tied to him.  If we kill him in the next ninety hours, the chances vastly, vastly improve.  Depending on how we kill him, it could mean reducing things to a mere twenty-two percent chance or a one percent chance.”

I nodded, making a mental note.  “Theoretically, if we nuked the northeast corner of America…”

“Only a sixty percent chance of working, with some decimal points that Dragon’s urging me to include as I speak, and a high chance we set things in motion anyways.  Twenty eight or so.”

He asked Dinah, I thought to myself.  The same question I had in mind, give or take.

There were clues there.  “A nuke won’t kill him for sure.  Bomb shelter?”

“Possible.  Or he’s keeping Siberian close at hand.”

“And whatever role he plays… he greases the wheels, he doesn’t guarantee it.  You’re saying there’s a chance things get set off even if he dies.  If that doesn’t happen, then there’s some point in the future, roughly fourteen years from now, where things get set off anyways.”

Defiant nodded.

“Every time I think about it, I can’t help but think it’s a trigger event,” I said.  “Someone getting a power that finally breaks something essential, or a power without the limits that keep other powers in check.  But I don’t want to think along those lines if it keeps me from seeing the obvious.”

“Sensible.  But let’s not dwell on it.  The thinkers are handling it, as best as they can, and we have to devote attention to this crisis.  We’ve got all of the big guns lined up.  The moment things fall apart and Jack decides the rules of his game, Dragon is going to try and jam communications, and each of us moves in for a quick decisive victory over the members of the Nine on site.”

I nodded.

We were just arriving at the perimeter of Killington.  I could see some of the big guns Defiant had been talking about.

Two Azazels had set up thick hedges of that blurry gray material just behind the barriers the heroes had erected to protect themselves and contain the fire.  I also saw the Dragon’s Teeth.

Soldiers was the wrong word, but it was close.

Each wore armor in gun-metal and black, with parallels to the standard PRT uniforms I was more familiar with.  Their helmets, however, had three eyeholes, with blue lenses glowing faintly from beneath.  Two lenses for their eyes, a third for a camera.  The armor was bulky, offering thick protection around the neck and joints, with a heavy pack on the back for both oxygen and for the computers they wore.

They were, in large part, wearing stripped-down versions of Defiant’s outfit.  Sacrifices had been made to account for the fact that their suits didn’t render them seven and a half feet tall.  Each carried a sword and a laser pistol.

I’d never liked the cameras.  Heads turned as I approached, and I knew they were recording, tracking details about me and feeding them back to a main server, where they compiled information, discarded excess.

The combat engines that the Dragon’s Teeth were wearing were still in early stages, the data patchy, depending on the target.  The people in uniform had spent weeks and months training with the things, learning to shift fluidly between their own tactics and awareness of the situation and the data that was provided.  Protectorate Capes and Wards that were just starting out were being trained with the things, but those of us that had experience fighting tended to find them a distraction.

Useful?  Yes.  A bit of a boost, a bit of an edge.  But not quite at the point where everyone could benefit.

Not yet.

Not that there was much room for developing any of it if the end of the world went ahead on schedule.

I could see Narwhal, standing off to one side, two of the Dragon’s Teeth flanking her.  Masamune wasn’t present, but from what I knew of the guy, he wasn’t even close to being a front-lines combatant.   They’d recruited him from the ruined area of Japan, a somewhat crazed hermit, and gave him work in figuring out how to mass produce their stuff without the maintenance issues snowballing out of control, like tinker tech tended to do in large quantities.

Thanks to him, they had the Dragon’s Teeth, they had the combat engines and they had top of the line gear for various members of the Protectorate and Wards.

Of the other members of the Guild, the only other one who could theoretically be on the front lines of the fight would be Glyph.  I could only assume she was somewhere close.

The Thanda weren’t here.  If Dragon had managed to get in touch with others, they hadn’t yet arrived.  I could only guess as to what Cauldron might be doing.  Faultline’s crew, the Irregulars…

Too many maybes.  With Endbringers attacking every two months, a lot of people were busy reeling from recent attacks or preparing for the next.

I looked at the assembled capes.  The Undersiders, two Wards teams, the Protectorate, the Guild.  Clockblocker, Vista and Kid Win were in the other Wards team.  A little older.  Clockblocker had expanded his costume, adding some light power armor that seemed primarily focused on holding a heavy construction at his back.  Vista, for her part, was a little taller, her hair longer, tied in a french braid that was clipped just in front of one shoulder. She was packing a heavier gun.  Probably something Kid Win had made.

And Kid Win was hardly a kid anymore.  I hesitated to call him a teenager, even.  His rig looked like it packed more artillery than any of Dragon’s craft.  No neck, no arms, he barely looked capable of walking.  Just two stumpy legs, a simple gold helmet with a red pane covering his face and enough gun nozzles that he looked like a hedgehog.

“This is probably the last time we’ll all be standing here together before this ends,” Chevalier said.  “I won’t do a big speech.”

He turned his head to take us all in.  “I’ve done too many of them over the past two years, I’d only repeat myself.  Everyone here knows what we’re here for, why we’re doing this.  We’ve talked this over with each of you in turn and you don’t need convincing, you don’t need a reminder of what’s at stake.  You already know the role you’re going to play in this.  Words aren’t going to change any of that.  Good luck, be proud, and maybe say a little prayer to God, or ask for a little help from whoever or whatever you believe in.”

The instant he finished, the Azazels and other Dragon-craft began opening up, doors sliding apart and ramps lowering.

“The one time I do show up for one of these things, and no speech.  I feel gypped.”

I didn’t see who had muttered the comment, but I could guess it was Imp.

“No dying,” I said, as everyone started moving.

“No dying,” others echoed me.  The voices of the Undersiders and the Chicago Wards were loudest among them.

My teams gathered in the Dragonfly, while the Chicago Protectorate and Brockton Bay Wards made their way to Defiant’s larger ship, along with a contingent of the Dragon’s Teeth.

Golem stood apart, until my ship was nearly at full capacity.

“It all comes down to this,” he said, as I joined him at the base of the ramp,  “All the training, all the planning and preparation, studying about the Nine backwards and forwards…”

“Yeah,” I responded, as I stepped up to stand beside him.  Our teams were getting sorted out, finding benches and seats.  I reached behind my back to get the file folders I’d brought with me.

“I’m sorry if I was harsh yesterday.”

I shook my head and reached out to put my hand on his shoulder.  It was support, and maybe a bit of a push.  He made his way up the ramp.

Stepping inside just behind Golem, I used the same controls that managed my flight pack to indicate that the ship could close the door.

The Chicago Wards had seated themselves on one side of the ship, the Undersiders on the other.  Something of a mistake, that, because it meant they sat facing one another as we made our way to our destination.

A little awkward.  I sat with them behind me as I took the cockpit.  The thing flew itself, but it freed me to focus on other things.

Chevalier had talked about making peace with the powers that be.  I frowned, staring at the control panel as the ship lifted off.

Passenger, I thought.  Been a while, trying to figure out how to make peace with the fact that you’re there, that you’re affecting me somehow, taking control whenever I’m not in my own mind.  I think we’ve made strides.  I’ve sort of accepted that you’re going to do what you’re going to do, whether that helps me or hurts me. 

So maybe, just maybe, you could help me out today.  Whatever it is you do, whatever motivates you, I can continue to play along, but I need a bit of backup here.

My eyes fell on the bugs that crawled on the back of my hand.  Not even a whisper of a movement.

Yeah, didn’t think I’d get a reply.  Guess we’ll see.

The ship’s acceleration kicked in, and the bugs took flight.

My eyes scanned the screens in front of me.  I had camera feeds from Clockblocker and Revel, from Chevalier, Imp, and the airborne Azazel.  They all focused on a single area, each from a different direction.

A thick white mist lingered throughout an area.  It was early in the morning, and that might have played a role, but there were no people.  Even for a smaller city like Schenectady, that wasn’t so usual.  At nearly eight in the morning, there should have been people leaving for work, people running errands.

Desolate.  White fog.

“Winter’s here,” I said, speaking over the comms.  “Others to be confirmed.  We’ve talked about this one, Golem.”

I turned the computer off and strode out of the ship.  Rachel was waiting for me outside, standing guard with her dogs and her wolf.

Winter means Crimson too, doesn’t it?” Golem asked.

“Probably.  Probably means-“

We see you,” The words were like a whisper, barely audible.  See you standing there.  Oh, I do hope you’re not Theodore.  Tell me you aren’t, because it means we get to play all we want.”

“Screamer,” I informed the others.  Early Nine member, psychological warfare, pressure, distraction.  Sound manipulation.  Her power meant her voice didn’t get quieter as it traveled great distances.  That wasn’t the full extent of-

“Nice weapon,”  Her voice sounded in my ear, at a normal speaking volume.  I didn’t flinch.  I could sense my surroundings with my bugs, and I could hear things with them, hear how the sound panned out in a weird way over the entire area.

“You’ve got friends, Theodore.  I sure hope they aren’t planning on helping you.”

It was a sinuous sound, seductive in how convincing it was.  Every time she spoke, she sounded a little more like me.  It would be the same for the others, hearing themselves.

She was somewhere in the area.  The question was how she’d gotten a sense of our voices so quickly.  There was supposed to be a limit to how quickly she could pick up on that stuff just from overhearing us.

Confirm, team leader,” Golem said, over the channel.  “And can we use the password system we talked about?

“Queen.  Password system is a go.  What do you need confirmation on?”

Ring.  Enemy headcount.

“Stag.  No headcount given, I think that’s Screamer fucking with you.  Others include Winter, probably Crimson, and probably Cherish, if she’s finding us like she is.  All allied capes, be advised, we’re putting passwords into effect.  Stay calm, don’t panic.”

I do like it when they make it challenging,” Screamer’s whisper hissed in my ear.  It had changed in tone, pitch, cadence.

The Dragonfly took off as I made my way closer to the site.  Outside of the area, there were people reacting.  Some fled, others were taking cover, followed by disparate voices.

Haymaker.  I’m engaging,” Golem said.  “Recommendation?

Screamer interrupted, “Getting advice is against the spirit of this challenge, isn’t it, Theodore?  You are Theodore, aren’t you?  I think you should confirm for us.”

“Mantis,” I said, voicing the password,  “Don’t respond to her.  It’s what she wants.  Take out Cherish ASAP, if she’s here, Screamer after that.”

I’m hurtI rate second after the new girl who barely lasted a month?

Have to find them first,” Golem said.

I’ll help with that, I thought.  Then I stopped.  “Golem, the password?  Horsefly.”

Steeple.  And gauntlet, to reply to the last one,” his voice came over the comms.

I stopped.  We’d agreed on a simple password set.  There was a pattern, each corresponding to our powers and the various pieces on a chessboard.  Mine were related to bugs, his to hands.  It was abstract, something that tended to only make sense in retrospect.  The chess ones we knew off by heart, because they were the first ones we’d practiced.

And steeple wasn’t one of them.

“Steeple?” I asked.

I’m drawing a mental blank,” Golem responded.  “It works, doesn’t it?  Pinkie.

Screamer wasn’t stupid, but was she that smart?  The ‘stag’ should have thrown her off regarding our pattern.

“It works,” I said.  “Ant.  I’m close.

If that was Golem, he wasn’t as focused as we needed him to be.

I could feel the effect as my bugs entered the radius of Winter’s power.  She wasn’t concentrating it, so it was mild at best.  Slowing the movements of molecules, cutting down the ambient temperature, to the point that the moisture in the air froze.  It also affected my bugs.  Torpor.

For anyone within, it would include a mental torpor.

If the only members of the Nine who were present were Crimson, Winter, Cherish and Screamer, then this was a fight that involved attrition.  Attacking Russia in the wintertime.  Psychological warfare, emotional warfare, the effects of Winter’s power… it meant that Winter’s guns and Crimson’s power were the only physical threats.

They were going easy on him at the outset.

Golem was walking on rooftops at the edge of the effect, and he was surrounded by a nimbus of whirling material.  By Wanton.  We’d already altered all of the data on the group, to imply by news reports and Golem’s powers on the websites that Wanton’s telekinetic storm was Golem’s power.

The vantage point put him high enough that he could stand above the mist without being in it.  From the moment he engaged, he’d have to move fast.  He’d have to be indirect-

Weaver,” Golem said, interrupting my thoughts.  “Iron fist.  She’s offering to tell me where Jack is.

“We expected this,” I answered.  Iron fist was the ‘king’ in our chess sequence of passwords.  Crab.  Get the info and go.”

I’m not that foolish,” Screamer whispered, her voice extending throughout the entire area.  “Underestimating me, for shame.  I give up the information, and you leave me for your clean up squad to executeI want concessions.”

Concessions?”  Golem had left his channel open.

Let’s ensure your friends aren’t in a good state to mop up.  We’ll start with this Weaver.  Why don’t you cut off your toes, Weaver?  Keep you from running after us.

I frowned.

Oh, you’ve got an alternative?  Something you can cut off or throw away?  Yes.  Let’s put off the self-mutilation and have you throw that off the edge of a building.

Chances were good that she was in Cherish’s company, getting information from the source.

What if she tosses it, then walks into the mist?” Golem suggested.

No, not Golem.  Her.  Screamer.  An easier suggestion to acknowledge if I thought it came from a teammate.

Not buying it, huh?” he asked.  She asked.

She’d narrowed down my location, was refining her voices.  That had been convincing.  I had to move, make it harder for her.

I advanced, but I didn’t step into the mist.  The closer I got, the more of the affected area I could sense.  The torpor forced me to be efficient, to manage where bugs went and how, to check areas in a cursory way.  There were a number of people still in Winter’s area of influence.  People were standing utterly still, slowly dying as the cold ate away at them.

I want to kill myself.

My own voice, indistinguishable from the one in my head.  Fuck me.  She had a bead on me, now.

It’ll be painless, a way to avoid all of the horror, so I don’t have to watch my friends die.  So I won’t have to watch Bitch or Tattletale or Imp die the way Regent didSo I don’t have to watch Grue die.

No, a moment’s consideration and the spell was broken.  I’d stopped thinking of Rachel as ‘Bitch’ some time ago.

Aw,” Screamer whispered.  “Golem’s refusing my deal, and Cherish says you’re not playing along with the rest of it, so I’m gonna have words with some of the others.”

I raised a hand to my ear, opening my mouth to warn them, “…”

My lips moved, but my voice didn’t come out.  Bare whispers of sound formed, instead, even as I raised my voice to a near shout.

That would be the next stage in her tactics.  Isolate.  She had a sense of my voice, the way I spoke, and was canceling it out.

I signaled Golem with my bugs.  I drew a smiley face in the air with my bugs, crossing out the mouth with an ‘x’.

He nodded.

So he was on mute as well.

There.

In the midst of a small duplex, there were two young women huddled together on an upper floor.  There were computers arranged around them, and each was playing a different video.  In some cases, it was the same video playing, just from a different point in time.  Me in the lunchroom with Defiant and Dragon.  The New Delhi Endbringer fight.  Golem on the news with Campanile.

She had to be almost as good a multitasker as me to take all of that in.

Tattletale here.  Wormtongue.  Doing damage controlI’ve got your video feed, so you can spell things out for me if you want to give the signal.

I spelled out the word ‘thanks’.

My bugs had died inside the area of cold.  The people inside wouldn’t be doing much better.  I had to send another batch in.  This time, I knew the destination.

Cherish was acting as the eyes, Screamer as communications.  No doubt Screamer -all nine of the Screamers- was providing communications between this group and the nearest group of Nine.  She was talking, in a low and steady voice, but her voice wasn’t more than a murmur.  No doubt someone in a more distant location was receiving the intel at a normal volume.

And all of that raised the question of what Winter and Crimson were doing.  I scanned the building.  Nothing on the top floor, or the next lowest.  Further downstairs, a number of people were in the sway of Winter’s power, their thoughts slowed to a crawl.

The basement of the same building.  Winter, Crimson, and their hostages.  Some would be the ones from Killington.  Others were ones that had fallen into the sway of Winter’s torpor.  Crimson was feeding on them.

His schtick was a little bit of a vampire one, but the end result was more Mr. Hyde.  Big, muscular, fueled by rage and impulse.

The ones lying on the floor, cold, they’d be dead already.

I spelled out basic instructions for Golem, pointing the way to the building, drawing a cloud over the building to mark it.  He gave me a thumbs up.

Another arrow pointed him to the concrete rooftop behind him.  There, I drew out a basic layout.

And in that same moment, Cherish cottoned on to what we were doing.

“They’re attacking,” Cherish said.

Screamer’s voice reached all of us.  “Cocky, cocky.

Screamer turned her head, swatted at the bugs that crawled on her face, and then spoke, silent to the insect’s hearing.

Winter and Crimson reacted.

Sure hope your boy can fight.  Screamer was talking in my head again.  Not telepathy, only hearing a voice that sounded damn close to the one in my head.

“Fuck off, Screamer,” I muttered.

“Grue no!” Imp’s voice.  I flinched despite myself, before I remembered they weren’t anywhere nearby.

Screamer laughed, her voice floating through the area.

Crimson made his way outside.  His flesh would be engorged, purple-red, the veins would be standing out.  He’d be as hard as iron, strong.  His sword was as long as he was tall.  I couldn’t get a good measure of its appearance or quality.

Winter hung back with the hostages.

I wrote out the information with bugs.  Tattletale relayed it.  “Crimson Incoming.  QuislingGot confirmation and you’re good to go.  Six stories, elbow deep.

Golem turned his head, no doubt in response to the warning, then turned back to my diagram.

I’d given it a title, words running along the top.  ‘Slap them down.’

Golem’s uniform was roughly the same as the early incarnations, though solidified into a more solid color scheme, dark iron and silver.  The materials differed, but it matched.

There had been one or two additions, though.  The rigging of different panels included a frame that looped over the shoulders, much like a rollcage.  Golem paused, then drew out a panel, attaching it to the right.  He began to reach inside.

And a hand emerged from the center of the street, large enough that it could hold a car inside it.  Crimson paused as he watched it appear.

Then he moved.  It was the kind of movement that came with super strength, a bounding, powerful stride that could have carried him through a wall.  He had to pause before he reached the base of the building Golem stood atop.

The hand had emerged up to the second knuckle.

Abandon the fight,” Tecton’s voice.  “Run!  Move!  You’ve got six Siberians headed your way.”

No password?

“Tecton, confirm.”

Confirm what?

And a chuckle from Screamer, just in my ear.

Crimson ascended, climbing the outside of the building while holding his six-foot blade in his teeth, blood trickling down from the corners of his mouth where the blade was cutting into flesh.

My bugs died of the cold before I saw what happened next.  I was forced to send in a second wave to see.

The bugs were too slow, but the upper edge of the roof was outside of Winter’s realm of influence.  I could sense Golem reaching out with a hand of brick, a gentle push on Crimson’s collarbone with his left hand, pushing him away from the roof, away from any point where he could get a grip.

Crimson reached out and up for the hand, but the material broke apart as he put too much weight on it.  He dropped.  I’d bemoaned the effectiveness of rooftop combat, but Golem made it his own.

Golem advanced to the edge of the roof and created more hands, trying to bind the villain to the street.  An arm lock, a headlock…

Crimson pulled his way free of the asphalt shackles through sheer brute strength.  More appeared, but he destroyed them faster than they could be created.

Screamer and Cherish had to know what we were doing, yet they weren’t moving.  Cockiness?

No.  They had to have an escape route.

Except they didn’t have a teleporter.  That left only a few options.  Siberian wasn’t one I could do a whole lot about, but she’d be fighting if she were anywhere nearby.  The others…

I drew out silk thread in their direction.  Only so much to spare.  I knotted it between their necks and the computers that surrounded them.

Theo’s massive hand was still growing, the wrist exposed.  Almost halfway there.

Crimson ascended the building once more.  This time, he had support.

Together, we’d gone over the various members of the Nine, past and present, we’d detailed battle plans, the techniques we knew about, even contacted heroes who had encountered them in the past, for stuff that might not have gone on record.

But Screamer was called screamer for a reason, and there wasn’t a lot we could do to stop it, not unless we wanted to deafen ourselves.

Crimson was three stories up the side of the building when Screamer used her namesake power.  She could ensure that everyone within a mile’s radius could hear her voice as if she was right next to them, and she used it now, producing a high-pitched, full volume scream, right in my ears.  In Golem’s ears.  Everyone’s ears.

I joined Golem in doubling over, using my hands to try and ward off the sound.  It didn’t help as much as it should have.  It was loud, deafening, and it was leaving Golem vulnerable as Crimson closed the distance.  He wasn’t recovering fast enough.

Bugs flowed into Screamer’s open mouth, much as they had with Alexandria.

I gave Tattletale the signal.  All out attack.

This was it.  They’d been okay with a little bit of involvement on our part.  Tattletale had speculated they would.  There were only a few who were so regimented they would report it to Jack at the first opportunity.  Winter was among them, but she was largely in the dark, here.  Screamer wouldn’t fill her in if it meant spoiling the fun.

In truth, the only ones who wouldn’t let us get away with this were Mannequin and King.  King was distinct enough for me to notice, and Tattletale was ninety-five percent sure Mannequin would need more time to set up.  This was an approach we could only use with this first skirmish.

But whoever we were up against, the moment they started losing, the moment we actually pulled an offensive, the line was crossed.  This was an all or nothing.

Stinging bugs attacked Cherish, going for the eyes, nose and mouth.  Screamer choked.  Somewhere in the midst of it, they managed to give a signal.  It wouldn’t be Screamer.  Cherish?  Creating an emotional push?

Winter made her way out from downstairs, hefting a grenade launcher.

I spelled out words for the camera: Need Reinforcements.

The other teams are getting harassed, can’t close the distance.

I was going to spell out a response, get further details, but my focus shifted as Winter caught sight of Golem and Crimson and advanced.

Her dynamic with Crimson was one of synergy.  She captured people so he could feed.  He was the front line so she could safely attack from range.  She slowed down opponents so he could advance.  He was immune to her munitions fire, in large part.

My bugs swarmed her, but she was already concentrating her power.  Smaller area, greater effect.  She still held the people in the building in the area, but my bugs were lasting only a fraction of the time.  Seconds.  I activated my flight pack and approached.

Golem finished creating his hand, but there was a limit to what he could do with it.  It stood there, tall and useless.

No, his focus was on escape.  He thrust both hands into two different panels, slightly out of sync.  One hand was created, almost twice the usual size, and another was simultaneously created from the palm of that same hand, a fraction smaller.

Campanile’s idea.

Both hands thrust out at virtually the same speed that Golem might have stuck his own hand out into the air, but that speed was compounded by the fact that both hands thrust out in unison.  Golem set one foot down and vaulted himself up and out to land on the adjacent building, one story up.  He spun around as he landed.

Crimson gave chase, crossing the rooftop with heavy footsteps.

Golem jabbed out with one hand as Crimson bent his knees to leap.  The hand that appeared jabbed at the underside of one foot, lifting it.

It was the sort of trick that would only work once on an enemy.  The next time, the enemy would adjust, or jump off one foot.  Here, it caused Crimson to stumble.  He missed his mark, the jump failing, and he nearly ran straight off the end of the rooftop.  He struck out with his sword, slamming it into the brick of the building face opposite him.

Winter raised her grenade launcher and fired.  Golem managed to vault himself away as he had earlier, a shallow movement that was forceful enough to nearly launch him off the building.  He rolled on landing as the grenade disintegrated a corner of the building.

These two were warriors.  Crimson was a mainstay of King’s era, when he’d ruled the Nine as more of a brute squad, not dissimilar to the Teeth back in Brockton Bay.  I had trouble marking why Winter had been recruited, but it likely had more to do with how she was off the battlefield, her predilections for torturing people she’d caught in her torpor.

I reached the edge of the battlefield.  My bugs streamed forth, a silk cord trailing between and behind them.  The silk streamed out from the spinning spool at my belt.  Hundreds of feet of material, and it extended out towards Winter.

It was only a matter of feet from her when she jumped, startled, leaping to one side.  I missed, and my bugs were dying in a matter of seconds.  The cord went slack.

A moment later, she was looking around, confused.

Cherish, I thought.  She alerted her, a burst of alarm.

It didn’t matter.  My swarm approached from the other direction, finding and picking up the dropped cord.  Moving them within Winter’s effect range was a matter of relay, handing off to fresh bugs as they died.  Slow but steady progress.

The moment the silk thread was around Winter’s neck, I dropped down to the edge of the rooftop, and used the mechanical arms on my flight pack to reel in the cord.

Darwin’s spider silk.  Stronger than kevlar, a narrow cord of it made for a thin, almost unbreakable cord.  The noose cut into her neck, and my arms and legs provided leverage to keep me still as the combined efforts of the mechanical arms provided the strength.

When she reached the base of the building I stood on, she was lifted off the ground.  I shifted my position to improve my leverage and waited, hiding.

I could barely tell in the midst of her power, but I sensed her raising her arm.  Raising the grenade launcher.

Nets of spider silk peeled away from the gray-white portions of my costume as my bugs pulled them free.  I drew it out, connected the narrow sheets with knots of more silk.

It moved into place just in time to catch the projectile out of the air.

Golem managed to find a moment to use his power.  A hand of stone struck the grenade launcher from Winter’s hands.

He was holding his own against Crimson, who was adapting.  Golem thrust one hand into his armor to create a hand beneath Crimson, and the villain leaped closer, forcing Golem to vault himself away and maintain a safe distance.  The sword swipe that followed after Golem’s retreat passed within a foot of the hero.

Wanton, surrounding Golem, advanced on Crimson, and Golem tossed out a bag.

Wanton took hold of the bag and emptied it of its contents.  Razor blades, caltrops, hooks and my threads joined the miniature maelstrom, and Crimson was slowly bound.  He tore some free, but it found its way into his flesh again a moment later.

Then Golem slid his right hand into his armor.  Crimson leaped in anticipation of an imminent attack, landed, and then glanced back at the point where he’d come.

Nothing.

Golem continued sliding his hand into his armor, slow, inexorable.

Crimson charged, and Golem backed away, using his free hand to erect barriers.  Wanton ran defense, and Crimson stumbled.

A rumble marked Golem’s real direction of attack.  A second hand, down on the street below, gripping the large, six-story tower he’d created earlier in the fight, pulling it down.

It toppled on top of the building that Winter and Crimson had emerged from.

Toppled towards Screamer and Cherish.

In that same moment, Chuckles made an appearance.  He moved so fast it was almost as though he teleported, appearing beside the two girls.  My bugs barely had time to make contact and try to get a sense of him before he was moving again, holding the two villains this time.

They jerked to a stop.  I felt a fraction of the same confusion Chuckles no doubt did.  I sensed his arms, extended to ridiculous lengths.  He realized they were caught, bound to the computers.  Too entangled to take along.

And then he was gone, out of the building as the hand struck home.  Two floors crushed, the two villains crushed with them.

Tecton had provided the calculations on what the building could withstand, I’d provided the general data and information on where the hostages were.  The damage was controlled, the hand crashing a specific, certain distance into the building before coming to a halt.

Bitch and Foil tried to intercept Chuckles just now as he left the city.  He escaped, but Foil hit him with one shot,” Tattletale said.

“Right,” I said, even as I swore to myself.  Shit, shit shit shit.

Far too soon for Jack to get a report on the fact that we’d helped.

Chuckles can’t talk,” Tattletale said.  “He laughs, but he can’t talk.

I shook my head.  Couldn’t worry about that right now.

Crimson was only staring at the wreckage.  He mumbled something around a bloated tongue.

Does he think Winter’s still in there?

Then Crimson charged Golem once again.

Golem had both hands free, and he used the same double-hand technique to strike again.  A second hand, sprouting from the first, which emerged from the rooftop in turn.  The hands caught Crimson in the side of the leg, slamming into the knee, using the curve of the thumb to catch the leg and limit the range of movement.

Strong as Crimson was, he was still bound by physics and general physical limitations.  Being struck in the knees hurt, and he still needed to maintain a sense of balance.  He toppled.

Another double-hand strike, and Golem caught Crimson in the groin as he landed on his hands and feet, shoved him off to the right.

Two more strikes, this time not doubled-up, catching Crimson in the left arm and left leg, respectively, keeping him off-balance.

The key was to deny leverage.

An arm looped over one leg and one arm, binding them to the rooftop.  Crimson tore free with little effort, but the act meant he shifted his weight to one side.  Golem capitalized on it with another double-speed strike to his side, pushing in the same direction the blood-gorged killer was already moving.  That was followed in turn by one larger hand, moving slower, to scoop Crimson up and tip him off the edge of the rooftop.

Crimson fell.  Not a fatal fall, but it would hurt some.

A gauntlet of concrete seized the large hand Golem had just created and tore it free of the rooftop, then let it roll free to fall right on top of Crimson.

With the villain in an alley, the ensuing takedown was just as brutal and tenacious as before, with the added advantage that there were walls on either side to strike from.  Hands struck out, and they remained there.  As the villain was denied any footing, any balance, the hands around him increased in number, folding around him, sliding into gaps.

It was a parallel to Kaiser’s pyramid of blades technique, that he’d used to try to entrap Lung.  I’d passed it on to Golem, but I hadn’t told him the source.  I got the sense he wouldn’t appreciate it.

I turned my attention to Winter, who dangled beneath me.  She’d gone silent and still.  I continued to wait, but I raised one hand to my ear.  “Tattletale?  All four are down.”

I could speak.  A benefit to Screamer being dead.

Good.  Too soon to tell if Jack’s got wind of what you’re doingBut if Chuckles passes on word, or if there’s a Nice Guy in the area…

“I wouldn’t think he’d use the same guy twice in a row.”

No,” Tattletale agreed.  “The numbers fit, makes sense he’d start with four with a fifth as backup, considering how he can scale up the numbers in successive attacks.  Still-

“There was no graceful way to do it with Cherish there, and I couldn’t not help.  Golem was incapacitated.”

I’ll let Chevalier know what happened?” she made it a question.

I sighed.  No point in keeping secrets amongst ourselves.

“Do.  And send Foil here,” I said.  “She can punch a few holes in Crimson while he’s trapped.”

Will do.”

I waited another minute as Winter dangled from the thread, then cut her free.  Her body crumpled in a heap at the base of the building.  I made my way over to Golem and Wanton, where Wanton was still in his breaker form.

This was the warm-up, for the Nine, for us.  Four down, two hundred and seventy-some to go.  Jack had a little information on us, no doubt.

I didn’t dare hope it would stay this simple.  We still needed to find a way to narrow down Jack’s location, killing him.  He already had an advantage, wearing us down, costing us time, and he surely had some intel on us.

I could only hope that intel didn’t include the fact that Golem had help.

Chevalier here.  We have reports that they’re showing themselves for the next locations.

I met Golem’s eyes.

“Locations, plural?”  Golem asked.

“They want you to choose,” I answered him, as the realization dawned on me.

He stared at me, lost.  He was heaving for breath, his hands shaking visibly, even with gauntlets on.

“Go with the Chicago teams.  I’ll take the Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards to the other location,” I said.

He nodded, pressing one hand to his ear as he started making his way to the ground.  I watched him for a moment, then took off.

This was a statement, I suspected.  I could guess what that statement was.  Jack fully intended to double down on the challenge each time we came out ahead.

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Sting 26.1

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One of Rachel’s dogs growled, long and loud, an alien, unsure sound.

She shushed it, setting her hand on the side of its head.

“Ugh,” Cozen mumbled, “The smell.”

The smell.  Summer heat, the mingled scent of blood, shit and overripe bodies, with traces of other things in the wind.  Caustic chemicals, ozone, smoke, burned flesh and plastic.

It wasn’t unfamiliar.  Not an exact combination of smells I’d smelled before, but it put me in mind of Brockton Bay in the days soon after Leviathan had attacked.

I looked up at the man who’d been strung up overhead, spread-eagled.  Chains stretched from his wrists to buildings on opposite sides of the street, and more chains extended from his ankles to the bases of the same buildings.  A number was carved on his chest.  One-seventeen.

Beneath him, the sign from outside the town limits had been slammed down onto the hoods of two cars so it stood upright.

Welcome to Killington.  Heart of the Green Mountains.

They probably thought it was funny.  Especially with the bloody handprint on the word ‘heart’.

“They got the children too,” Cozen whispered, as she averted her eyes from a mother who had died holding her child, both burned black.  The only parts of their body that hadn’t burned were patches of skin in the shapes of numbers.  Two-fifty-four.  Two-fifty-five.

Two of the Red Hands, Getaway and Rifle, had come along for the ride.  They were sticking close by her, and formed a small contingent with Grue as a consequence.  Getaway wore a cowl with a hood that peaked in the front, to the center of his mask.  His costume had straight, clean lines, as though he’d modeled it after a car.

Rifle, by contrast, didn’t look like he wore a costume.  He was dressed like a special ops agent, complete with a complicated night-vision mount around his eyes, a number of scopes with lenses glowing in hues ranging from blue to red.  Violet scopes were currently fixed over his real eyes.  He carried a weapon, a modified gun that wasn’t, as far as I could figure it, an actual rifle.  It looked like it was set to fire specialized loads from canisters.

Of course they got children, I thought.  I had to bite back a retort.  Why was she here, if she wasn’t ready for this?

But she wasn’t a fighter.  None of the Red Hands were, really.  They were professional thieves.  Break in, get out, sell the goods.

They were, maybe, what the Undersiders might have been with a little more luck, slightly different personalities, and a quieter existence.

Without me, even.

The Undersiders had made it for a year and a few months with their original strategy, avoiding fights, slipping away, staying off the radar.  They would fight when they had to, but they didn’t make it a thing.  The fact that they didn’t have firepower meant they couldn’t make it a thing.  If anyone got into trouble, it was the dogs.

And then I joined.  Starting with the bank robbery, I pushed them to switch up tactics, catch the enemy off guard.

If I’d never joined, what would have happened?  Maybe the bank robbery wouldn’t have worked out, and one of them would have been picked off and arrested.  Maybe they would have taken a different direction with the robbery.

Bakuda might have killed them, Coil might have pushed them to be more aggressive as he scaled up his plans.  Or they could have found a way, could have continued going the way they did, less violent in general.

Some good, some bad.  Rachel might never have reached the point she was at now.  Grue wouldn’t necessarily have gone through what he did.  Regent might be alive.

I glanced again at Cozen, saw her looking at me in turn.  Catching me looking, really.

“What?” she asked.

You don’t need to be here.  You’ll be happier in the long run if you aren’t.

“Nothing,” I responded.  She looked annoyed, but she didn’t say anything.

There was a kind of art to the setup.  No doubt at all that it was a display, a showpiece.  Trails of blood, ash and other substances marked where bodies had been moved.  They were spaced out just enough that we would run into a fresh one just as we left the last behind.

I might have missed it if not for my swarm-sense.  The bodies were placed at positions high and low, the methods of death differing here and there, but there was a pattern to their distribution.  The kind of pattern that might become clear if one were to set up a map and note the location of each body on it.  A spiral.

I pointed the way to the central point of the spiral.  I could see a plume of smoke in that general direction.  Not the middle of Killington.  Skewed off-center.

Weaver, report,” Revel’s voice.

“I’m here,” I responded.  I kept a finger at my ear to make it clear that I wasn’t talking to myself.

Killington?

“Yes.  Progress is slow.  I’m sweeping the area for traps and potential ambush, and I’m marking a path to travel for when the others get here.”

We saw the two traps at the outset.  There are more confirmed?”

“Yeah.  I’m not touching anything.  Pass on word that any capes entering the area should be hands off.  I activated one and it was only a decoy, a prelude to a gas attack.  One of Bonesaw’s, I think.  Grue warded it off.  No casualties.”

I’ll make doubly sure to pass on word about the traps and about the route you’ve cleared.  I would have warned them anyways.  The initial casualties were enough, with the helicopter and first responders.  Give me a second.”

I led the way as our group rounded a corner, and saw the smouldering wreckage of the helicopter, smoke still streaming skyward.

The collision apparently hadn’t been enough to topple the corpse that stood upright in the middle of the intersection, desiccated.  A number was drawn on the mummy’s chest in blood.  Number thirty-six.

I could make out a tripwire strung between him and another corpse, a woman.  She had apparently been shot execution style, propped upright on her knees.  A number, again, had been drawn out in the midst of the blood spatter from the original wound.  Number two-sixty-five.

The tripwire was almost obvious, coated in congealed blood.

Red string, I thought.  In Japanese superstition, it was the string that bound lovers.

The pieces suggested Crimson and Winter.  Neither was Japanese, but the idea of mingling romantic imagery with violence in that way fit them.  The red knight and the soldier.

I’ve got the feed open now,” Revel said, “Seeing what you’re seeing.

“Only part of it.  The way the bodies are laid out, it’s a spiral.  I think it all points to something.  Making our way in.”

Technically you aren’t.  You’ve stopped.”

“Tripwires,” I said.  “Being very, very careful.”

“I like being careful,” Imp commented.  She’d only be hearing one side of the conversation.  “Careful is good.  Keeps us alive.”

“Being too careful gets you killed,” Rachel commented.  Of everyone present, she seemed least concerned with the amount of death that surrounded us.  Then again, that didn’t surprise me.  “Have to act when you see the chance.”

“You want to hop on your dog’s back and charge ahead?” Imp asked.  “Go activate every trap between here and wherever?”

Rachel frowned.  “No.”

“I like careful,” Imp restated, for the record.  “Let’s be careful.”

“Yeah.  Fine.”

I pointed to indicate.  “Obvious tripwire here.  Covered in blood.  Connects to the two bodies and… I think claymores, at the base of that building over there.  There are other tripwires around it.  Look too hard at it, miss the others.  I think there’s a pressure plate, too.  I’m not sure what to call that.”

“I don’t see anything that could be a pressure plate,” Grue observed.

I pointed at a pane of glass at the base of a pile of rubble.  It was broken, with a narrow thread of wood still attached along the one edge that was straight and unbroken.

“Maybe.  Kind of hard to believe,” he said.

Because we could see through it?  Yeah.  But it was situated beside a pile of rubble, and the balance of the glass with the surrounding brick and concrete seemed too convenient.

Was there something attached to the edge of the glass where we couldn’t see?  If the glass was broken, would the wood weigh the remaining fragment down and pull something?

“Let’s play it safe.  We avoid the tripwires, we avoid the glass.”

“Whatever you say.  I’m all for playing safe,” he responded.

I led the way around the trap.  I left a trail of dead bugs behind us as we made our way to the center, murdering them with larger bugs and mashing them into the ground.  A path.

I wondered about Grue.  Couldn’t read his expression, couldn’t note his tone either.  Was he thinking about the same thing I was thinking?

We’d already fallen for one trap.  Not here, but back in Brockton Bay.  Back then, when he’d had his second trigger event.

It had been the Nine, back then, and though he wasn’t giving me any clues there was something wrong, he wasn’t indicating that he was his old self, from back in the good old days.  I suspected he hadn’t fully bounced back, even after all this time, might never.

We circled around eight teenage girls, sitting in a circle, crowns of splintered wood nailed through their skulls.  One had fallen over in response to the wind, but the others were still upright, propped up with wooden planks nailed into their spines.  Less blood than the head wounds, I noted.  Some pre-death, others post?

The numbers were on the pieces of wood, registration numbers or something from the crate that had been smashed for materials.  One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, nine.

I looked up.  Number eight sat on the bulb of a street light, a long dress blowing in the wind, directly above the circle.  Her crown was the tallest, and for her to be so rigid, there had to be a whole assortment of planks nailed to her.

“Nine Kings,” I said.

“A woman king?” Imp asked.

“She’s the victim,” I said.  The killer is her… husband, for lack of a better word.”

They’ve resurrected all of the old members.  Cloned them,” Revel said.

Clones, I mused, agreeing.  My suspicions were confirmed, and I wasn’t surprised.  I’d hoped for different, but the reality of what we faced had been hinted at early on, when it had been revealed that the Nine had hit a tinker’s laboratory and made off with materials that could be used to mass produce lifeforms.

King.  The leader, the founder of the group.  Were the numbers in an order corresponding to when they had joined, then?  Would the second member of the Nine be ten through eighteen?

“Got a live one!”  Imp called out, interrupting my thoughts.  “…Kind of alive.”

I turned to look.  A fat man was shifting in a restless way, his chest rising and falling quickly in unsteady movements.  One arm jerked.

“Leave him,” I said.  “Don’t touch.”

“He could be a witness,” Rifle said.

“Or a trap,” I responded.  “I doubt he’s in a state to fill us in on anything.  We’ll move on, wait for heroes to follow the path I’m marking.  They’ll handle medical care for wounded.”

“That’s fucked up,” Rifle said.  “We could at least put him out of his misery, then.”

“I’m not willing to get close enough to check,” I said.  “And I’m not willing for you to get close either.”

“I-” Parian started.

Then she stopped.  The fat man deflated in an instant as a small collection of what looked like trilobites found their way out of his rear end.  Slick with gore, they darted forward a short distance on their hundreds of little legs, then turned our way, bristling with spines.  Tails trailed behind each of them, twice as long as the foot-long creatures, narrow, with stingers on the ends.

I could hear a hissing, but I wasn’t sure if it was from the creatures or the way the spines rubbed against one another.

“Oh… god,” she said.  She took a step back, with Foil stepping forward, as if to defend her.

“Breed’s power,” I said.  “They’re mostly harmless, for now.”

“For now?” Rifle asked.

I watched as they made their way up the side of a building to a corpse that was hung there.  The corpse had been cut into sections, the arms and legs each severed at the joints and reconnected with lengths of chain.  Breed’s creatures found their way into the body through the holes in the neck, mouth and rear end.  It jerked a little as they worked bodies the size of footballs into apertures only a fraction of that size, then went still.

“For now,” I answered Rifle.  “They start off the size of a lemon, lurk in spots where they can get access to orifices or sites of injury, or like you see here, corpses.  Inside beer bottles, in toilet bowls, bedcovers, on the underside of kitchen tables, even inside food.  Then they burrow inside, wait until the target is still and quiet for an hour or two, paralyze the target, and emit pheromones to call others of their kind to them.  They devour the target from the inside out, molt once or twice as they digest the fats and proteins they ate, then find a new target.  It’s a process that takes a week to two weeks, depending on the availability of food sources.”

I could see Getaway shift position, folding his hands behind his back, as if he could shield his rear end.  His mouth had shut into a firm line.

His nose was still unprotected, I noted.

Even Rachel seemed a little concerned.  She glanced at her dog.

“They aren’t a danger to us,” I said.  “Probably.  They choose easier targets over harder ones, and there are enough corpses around here that we aren’t worth the trouble.  What we should worry about is the later stages.  When they’re about the size of a full-grown human being, they’ll do two or three major molts with big physical changes, gaining some natural weapons, including a pellet-spit that kind of acts like a shotgun blast with fragments that dissolve into flesh-melting acid.”

“Um.”  Rifle said.

“You know this how?” Imp asked.

“Read his file,” I answered.

“Shouldn’t we kill them before they get big?”  Foil asked.

“Not worth the time it would take to track them down,” I said.  “We don’t have any strong offensive powers, they’re durable against stuff like conventional ammunition and physical blows, and he generally produces about nine or ten per day.”

“That was ten,” Getaway said.

“Even assuming it’s only been one day since Breed woke up,” I said, “The scenes they’ve left behind suggest there are nine clones of each copy of the Nine.  Going by the numbers-”

Twenty-nine copies, at least,” Revel said.

“Twenty-nine copies,” I said.  “Two-hundred-and-fifty-plus members of the Nine currently active.  Nine Breeds among them, meaning there’re probably nine other clusters around here, taking advantage of abundant food.”

Breed’s creatures.  Can you control them?” this from Revel, taking advantage of the stunned silence.

I glanced up at the body the things had invaded.  I tailored my response so both Revel and the Undersiders could make sense of it.  “I can’t control those things, and I can’t sense them either.”

A shame.  That would simplify things just a little.”

It would.  I wouldn’t have minded the firepower, either, even with their particular diet.

“Let’s keep moving,” I said.  “If we stop for every horror show, we might be stuck here a while.  My gut’s telling me time is of the essence.”

“I’m feeling a little out of my depth,” Getaway said, his voice quiet, as he fell into step to keep up.

“That’s a good instinct,” I replied without looking at him.  “Trust it.”

“You’re telling me to leave?”

“I can’t make you do anything,” I said.

“But you think I should leave?”

“If you feel like you should, yeah.”

“And does that extend to me and Rifle?” Cozen asked, her tone cold.

“I don’t know.  Yeah, if your instincts tell you to go, then get going now,” I said.  I pointed at the ground around a hose.  There was a puddle that had spread beneath the hose’s opening.  My bugs had died on contact with it.  “Acid, not water.  Don’t walk in it.  Rachel, watch your dogs.”

Rachel grunted acknowledgement.

“Don’t change the subject.  You want us gone,” Cozen said.

“No.  All the help we can get is appreciated,” I said.  I glanced at her.  “At the same time, if push comes to shove and you can’t hold it together, it’s going to hurt us all.”

“You don’t think we can hold it together?” Cozen asked.

“You’re an unknown quantity.  Anyone else that’s here, I can trust them to hold their own because I know how they operate.  I don’t know you.  I don’t know how you react in a crisis, how you’ll respond if you’re pushed to the edge, one way or another.  Grue and the others are vouching for you, so I’m shelving those concerns and trusting they have a good sense of your abilities.  I’ll maintain that trust until you give me an indication I shouldn’t.  Getaway saying he’s spooked is an indication.”

I’m spooked,” Imp said.  “Can I go home and sit on the couch in my underwear, eating cake?  I’ll cross my fingers for you guys, if you want.”

“You’re talking like you’re in charge,” Cozen said.  “Grue leads the Undersiders.”

“I’m not an Undersider,” I said.  “It doesn’t matter.  I’m in charge anyways.”

And Grue can speak for himself, I thought, but I didn’t say it aloud.

I could see her reacting to that, even without the extra quip.  I watched expressions cross her face: irritation, anger, indignation, and a trace of fear.

“Grue is a good leader,” I said, “But this is my project.  Something I’ve been working towards and thinking about for the last two years.  Leaving the Undersiders, making contacts, helping hold things together, maintaining the peace and eliminating possible issues.  Everything I did, it’s been to prepare for this in some fashion.”

“A little unilateral, don’t you think?”

“It’s her project,” Grue said.  “My orders are to follow her orders.”

I could see how little she liked that.

But she maintained a professional demeanor.  “Accepted.  You realize we don’t have to follow your orders?”

Grue nodded, silent.

Cozen seemed to come to a decision.  “We will anyways.  As Weaver pointed out, this is unfamiliar ground for us.  We’ll defer to your experience.”

“Thank you,” Grue and I said, almost in sync.

I turned away to hide my smile, in case it could be made out beneath the fabric of my mask.

Progress was slow.  The traps seemed to accrue in number as we drew closer to the center, as did the corpses.  More than once, we were forced to take the long way around, as traps or pools of acid barred our paths.

We passed an area with rows of identical looking cabins, then ran into the Protectorate.  Chevalier, Exalt, and others, examining the area, a block and a half away.

I got their attention, then pointed in the direction we were headed.  It wasn’t much more effort to mark out traps around them as well.  I made sure to mark each with a cluster of bugs, and bug-letters spelling out the nature of the danger.  Less trouble to move in parallel directions than reunite.

The center of the spiral wasn’t the center of the town in a geographic sense, but in a sense of where the town’s heart and focus were.  We closed in on the front steps of what looked to be a town hall.  Empty ski racks stood to our right, two draped with corpses that had been flung and broken over them.

By the time we were halfway through the plaza, navigating a maze where we tried to find a path that didn’t force us to tread on potential traps or corpses, Tecton and the others had caught up, reaching the edge of the area.

Thoughts?” Revel asked.  “Before you reach the center of the display?

“He wanted to present this for effect,” I said.  “It’s why he set up Pyrotechnical’s stuff to blow any aircraft out of the sky.  The traps are to force us to take our time, force us to savor it.”

“Savor?” Grue asked.

“Everything Jack does is for effect.  The same way a dog sort of raises its hackles to look bigger, tougher, or the way we used our reputation to seem more unstoppable than we were, Jack keys his actions for psychological effect.  All of this is to scare, to drive us to hesitate when it comes to confronting him, push us to think of ways to avoid dealing with him instead of ways to catch up to him and beat his face in.  Or, conversely, some personality types might get pushed to be reckless, to deal with him so he couldn’t bother them anymore.”

I glanced at Rachel as I said that last bit.  She’d instructed her dogs to stay, so they wouldn’t trip any of the traps in our way.

I made my way over a hump of bodies.  The members of the Nine who’d spilled acid all over the place had melted nine police officers and left them in a heap.  Crawler?  Only one that fit.

Our destination was the kind of spot, like a courthouse’s steps, where someone could give a speech.  There were two objects covered in tarps, a man who was in a reclining position at the far end of the stairs, and ten dead bodies arrayed in a star shape, limbs bent to mark the direction of the spiral.

I checked under the tarps, then bit my lip.

I turned around and gave Golem instructions as he made his way past the traps.  He created platforms to step over to serve as a shortcut.  Grace, Tecton, Wanton and Cuff hung back, looking grim.  They were joined by Chevalier and the others.

Golem joined me at the top of the stairs.

“How’s your headspace?” I asked.

“Terrified.”

“In a way that’s going to impact our job here?”

“No.  No.  You told me what to expect.  Kind of.  I didn’t imagine this.”

I shook my head.  “No.”

There was a voice from beneath the other tarp.  A strangled scream.

“What was that?”

“A recording,” I lied.  Then I elaborated.  “It’s a trap.  Two tarps, have to guess the right one.  Guess the wrong one and you blow up.  This one.  Move the tarp.”

He hesitated.

“Trust me,” I said.  Even as I lie for everyone’s benefit.

Rachel and Golem worked together to move the tarp aside.

A television.

“The tape’s already in the machine, you can hit play to start it,” the man sitting at the edge of the stairs said.

Wait, Weaver, stop.  Who was that?”  Revel asked.

“Who?” I asked.  “What do you mean?”

Look to your right.”

I did.  The other tarp, more corpses, the man who was now standing at the edge of the stairs, the little crenelation at the top of the stair’s railing, then beyond that, cabins, restaurants, hotels and motels, the rest of the town, and mountains in the background.

“Not sure I get what you’re saying,” I said.

“What’s wrong?” Grue asked.

“I don’t know.  I’m getting communications from Revel, and she’s acting funny.”

“Here,” the man said.  “Let me get that for you.”

The others stepped out of the way as he approached me, Golem, and the television set.  He reached for the play button.

I caught his wrist.

He’s dangerous,” Revel said.

“I beg your pardon?” the man asked.

Attack.

Attack?

I shook my head a little, releasing the man’s wrist.  “I appreciate the offer, sir, but let’s be safe and make sure this isn’t a trap.”

“Can’t argue with that,” he said, smiling.

This is what hell is like,” Revel said.  “Listen to me.

“Tattletale, are you there?”  I asked.

I am.

Tattletale?”  Revel asked.  “Damn all of you.  It doesn’t matter.  Listen, Taylor, Master and Stranger protocols are in effect.  Your perceptions are altered, understand?

I felt my heart quicken a little at that.  “I understand.”

There is a person to your right.  Not a teammate, former or current.  I need you to kill that person, don’t ask why, don’t think too much about it.  Draw your knife.

I drew my knife.

Look.  I’ll tell you who to attack.

I glanced to my right, my eyes falling on Rachel.  It was a bit presumptuous to say she wasn’t a teammate.  Not a team player, but she’d done her share.

No, to her right.

I looked past the man and set my eyes on Golem.

“I’m more inclined to think you’re a voice in my head that’s fucking with me, than to suspect Golem’s up to something, but-”

Oh hell,” Revel said.

I got this.  Taylor, do me a favor, give the order to ‘go dark’.

“Go dark,” I said.

To my left, Grue surrounded himself in thick darkness.

Nothing happened.

It didn’t work.”

Wait.”

A spray of blood leaped from the man’s throat.  We each stepped away, and I hurried forward to stop Rachel from backing into the other tarp.  We watched in stunned silence as blood poured from the wound.

“Hey,” a female voice said, “Do me a favor, let me know if there are any traps at the bottom of the stairs?”

“Who-” Golem started.

“Just tell me.”

“Acid,” I said, raising my knife so I could defend myself if I had to.

Imp appeared as she booted the bleeding man in the small of the back.  He rolled down the stairs, leaving spatters and sprays of blood as he made his way down, and then collapsed in a pile of bodies.  He started screaming, a gurgling sound.

I could see Chevalier and the others staring in shock, adopting fighting stances, unsure of how to proceed.  It looked like Chevalier was talking to someone, gesturing with his free hand.  Was it Revel, on the comms?

“My schtick,” Imp spat the words at the dying man.

I could mark the moment he died, because the blanks in my perception began to fill in.

Nice Guy, I thought.  I’d badly underestimated the severity of his power.  I’d known he would be in their roster, had kept it in mind throughout, even told myself to be ready for him, and then the moment we ran into him, well, he was another face in the crowd.  The connection wasn’t possible.

I watched as the acid ate away at him, burns creeping upward and spreading across his flesh, bubbling as it reached the cartilage of his nose and ears.

Thank you, Tattletale,” Revel said.

All good.

I… think I can tolerate your presence on this channel for the moment.  Provided you don’t cause any trouble that makes me regret it.

I’d do that anyways.  So.  One more trap down.  Keep in mind there are eight more of him.

“What was he going to do?” Golem asked.

Probably ask you all to stand there and stay still while he murdered each of you in turn,” Tattletale said.

“Oh.”

“Tattletale,” I said.  “Call my phone, and I’ll put you on speaker.”

Okay.  Let’s see.”

Six-three-zero-five-five-” Revel started.

My phone rang.  I picked up and put Tattletale on speaker, as Revel sighed audibly in my ear.

“Is the video player safe?” I asked.  I turned my head towards the television.

Yeah.  All the rest of this, it’s to scare.  It’s also meant to delay.  Jack probably expected the heroes to take a little while to find this, to get by the traps.  The spiral you mentioned, it would have been maybe a day or two before they put the pieces together, then another three to six hours before they navigated it to the center.

“Yay us,” Imp said.

She got more powerful, I thought.  She’d been able to speak while using her power.  Nuances.

Press play.”

I hit the button.

It was Jack, here, in the center of the plaza.  The camera wobbled as someone followed him, recording.  I could see shadows of the other Slaughterhouse Nine in the background.  Hookwolf.  Skinslip.  Night Hag.

“This message is intended for Theodore Anders.  Kaiser’s son.  Stop the video here and go find him.  Time is of the essence, I should say.  How much essence and time you have available depends on how incompetent you heroes are.  Hurry now, I’ll wait.”

No need to wait,” Tattletale commented.  “He’s standing right here.

There were a few looks of surprise at that.  Eyes fell on Golem.

There was a pause, then Jack started speaking.  “You missed the deadline, Theodore.  Simple game of hide and seek, and you had two years to do it, to find and kill me.  You failed.”

Golem’s gloves made a small creaking sound as he clenched his fists.

“You remember the deal, right?  Two years to find me.  Two years, you fight past my minions, you look me in the eye, and then you kill me.  And if you fail?  A thousand people die.  Your sister joins them, and you’re the last on the list.”

Golem,” Revel said.  She started to say something else, but Jack cut her off.

“That pain you feel, that self loathing?  The fear and dawning realization of what you’ve done?  Capture that, Theodore Anders.  Hold on to that feeling and use it, because I’m pulling your leg.”

Golem startled as if he’d been slapped.  His eyes had lowered, and now they returned to the screen.

“Circumstances beyond my control delayed me.  So I’m going to do you the favor of extending the deadline, and you’re going to do me the favor of forgiving my lateness.  Agreed?  Agreed.”

“Can we not agree?” Imp asked, uselessly.

Jack continued.  “This is a prelude.  See, all of these guys just woke up, and they needed a chance to stretch, flex their abilities and make sure everything works right.  Turn the camera around, Bonesaw dear.”

The camera panned around.  There were other members of the Slaughterhouse Nine present, standing in a loose half-circle.  Hundreds of them.  Nine of each.  Thirty groups.  I recognized most, could guess as to the others, who didn’t have their powers or full transformations going.

In the middle of that semicircle, lying on the ground, civilians had their hands folded on the backs of their heads.  In many cases they’d been stacked like cordwood.  Many bound, others too terrified to move.

“Oh god,” Golem said.

Jack spoke, his voice calm, clearly relishing this.  The camera returned to him, focusing on his face.  “I promised a thousand bodies.  A thousand kills, if you failed to meet the challenge we set in our bargain.  Except there’s a bit of a problem.  See, things have changed.  The Endbringers have apparently doubled down.  Terror is a fact of life.  As commodities go, this one has depreciated quite a bit in the time I’ve been gone.  We’ve really got to step up my game if I’m going to pass muster and get on the front page of the paper, don’t you agree?”

“No,” Golem said.

Silent, I took his hand, holding it.  My eyes didn’t leave the screen as I studied it for details, matching members of the Slaughterhouse Nine to the files I’d studied in recent months.

“Now, I’m still a man of my word,” Jack said.  “The original deal stands, of course.  That’s why each member of my army here is going to walk away with three or four of the locals here.  We’ve whittled down the number to an even nine hundred and ninety-nine.  Let’s say you have… hmm.  Until the twenty-fourth.  Five days.”

We watched in silence.

What’s the rub, the trick?

“If you fail to kill me, I disband the Nine.”

“What?” Imp asked.  “What?”

I frowned.  Not what I expected.

“That’s not an enticement to leave me alive,” Jack purred the words, sounding pleased with himself.  “See, Bonesaw did a very good job of putting my army together.  Each is in the prime of their life, fit, in fighting shape.”

“Aw shucks,” a girl’s voice said, offscreen.

“Their psychologies are close to what they should be, all things considered.  Except for tweaks, here and there.  I’m good when it comes to wrangling the wicked, but Bonesaw apparently felt two hundred and eighty would be too many, even for me.  She’s made them loyal.  They’ll listen better.  The most unpredictable and dangerous have been touched up, the edges rounded off.  While interacting with me, anyways.  I won’t sully your experience on that front.

“No.  They’re obedient and servile only when I require them to be.  If you fail in your task, then I’ll give them one last task, to kill the one thousand people we agreed to in the terms of our wager, and then I’ll disband the group.  They’ll be free to run rampant, to do as they see fit.  Wreak chaos.  I’ll take a vacation, sit back with a Mai Tai and watch the show.”

Fuck me,” Tattletale said.

“Fuck,” I echoed her, agreeing.

Golem, for his part, had gone stone-still.

“I’ll be leaving members of the Slaughterhouse Nine behind at regular intervals as I beat a not-so-hasty retreat.  Your choice if you deal with them or leave them be.  But if I get one report from them that you’re getting help, one report that you’re using others as a crutch, then that’s it.  Order goes out, hostages die, Nine go off leash, and you get to watch the body count rise.”

“Five days, Theodore.  Noon on the twenty-fourth.  I look forward to meeting you.”

The video cut out.

“Tattletale?” I asked.

Already on it.  Word’s going out to all the major players.”

I noted Chevalier’s approach.  He had used Golem’s platform to reach the base of the stairs, stepping around Nice Guy.

“Major players?” Grue asked.

“Everyone Tattletale’s been meeting with,” I said.

“I heard through the feed,” Chevalier said.  “The restrictions stand.”

“The restrictions stand,” I agreed.  I explained for the benefit of the others.  “We treat this as a Simurgh situation.  Control feedback, control exposure.  Anyone and everyone that potentially comes in contact with Jack could be a factor in Dinah’s end of the world scenario.  Powerful individuals are especially important in this.  The more powerful they are, the more important it is to minimize or prevent contact.”

“Um.  I probably sound dumb as I ask this,” Imp said, raising a hand as if she were asking a question in class, “But what about the nearly-three-hundred lunatic psycho people with crazy powers that he’s threatening to unleash on the world?”

“We’ll deal with them,” I said.  “With your okay, Chevalier?”

He fell silent.

“Chevalier, I thought-”

“Yes.  You proposed your strike squad. You’ve shown their ability to deal with different situations.  Fine.  But I’m assigning two tertiary squads to you.”

“Chicago and Brockton Bay teams.”

“I was going to say-”

“They’re teams I’m familiar with,” I said.  “Please.”

He fell silent again.

“Work with me here, and if we’re all standing at the end, I’m yours.  Whatever you want to use me for, however, it doesn’t matter.  If this blows over and the end of the world doesn’t happen, like some think it won’t, then the deal stands.”

“I’ll get in contact with Miss Militia and Crucible.”

“If it’s alright, can we have Clockblocker take control of the Wards for this excursion?”

“Whatever you need,” Chevalier said.  “You realize we’re pinning a lot on you?”

“On Golem more than me,” I said.  “We’re going to cheat our way through this, bend every rule, but it all hinges on Golem being able to hold his own.”

Jack’s going to try to set Golem up with a long chain of lose-lose situations,” Tattletale said.  “Force him to either let the innocents die and maintain the chase, or let Jack pull away.  We already got one big advantage by getting to this tape as fast as we did.  Let’s not show our hand.  Dragon’s on the line.  We’ve got Dragon’s Teeth and Azazel models moving to the front.

“Close in the net, then act decisively,” I said.  “Coordinated strikes.  If the Thanda are willing, a meteor strike in the right time and place could do wonders.”

There were nods of agreement from around the group.

Golem turned around and walked away.

“Golem,” I said.

He was already halfway down the stairs.  He used the panels at his waist to form an even footpath, with hands turned at right angles, positioned where he could put his feet on them.

“Golem!” I called out.  I handed my phone to Grue, then hurried after him.

He stopped as he set his foot on the first outstretched hand of pavement, but he didn’t turn around.  His voice was low, barely a whisper.  “Stop, Taylor.  Leave me alone.  Please.”

“You’re running?”

“I’m… no.  I’m definitely in.  I have to be, don’t I?”

“But?”

“But this is a lot to take in.  Jack, he talked to me about ripples.  About stuff extending outward, the lives that are affected.”

“I remember.  You told me that.”

“Right here, in this dinky little ski resort, he murdered a few hundred people, just as a warm up.  How many people on the periphery of it all are affected?  How many people across America, across the world, know people in Killington?  Or know the people who know people in this town?”

“You can’t think about things on that scale.”

“I have to.  Jack does, and I have to understand him.  If I don’t pay attention to it, if I ignore it all, pursuing only the end result, the target, then I’m acting like my dad.  Kind of.  Either way, I lose.”

“You care about the people who died, and you’re thinking about them that way for a good reason.  That’s not putting you on a path to being like either of them.”

“But that kind of consideration, letting it really sink in, it eats away at you, doesn’t it?  Shouldn’t it?”

“It should,” I said.

“There’s a reason we go numb, and I get that, but I don’t want to go down that road, not so quickly.  Not knowing just how easy it would be to revel in it, or to stop caring about the dead.  I’m there, and I’m…”

“What?”

The stoic face on his helm stared down at the ground.

“Theo?”

“I hear you guys talking about it, and you’re right there, in your element.  This is something that you’ve been working on for a long time, and there’s almost an excitement to you.  Like you’ve been in a kind of stasis for the entire time I’ve known you, and only now are you really coming back to life.”

“It’s not like that,” I said.

“No.  I mean, I’m not blaming you, or saying you’re a bad person.  You’re good at this, at taking a challenge head on, finding workarounds, manipulating the system to our advantage.  You’re doing it for good reasons, to help, to stop bad people.  I saw glimmers of that excitement, of the real Weaver, while you were dealing with our bosses, and making connections, offering deals to the bad guys you thought you could bring to our side.  But I’ve spent a long time thinking about Jack and watching old footage of him, and figuring out my enemy, my nemesis, and it’s like… that’s you.”

“Me.”

You’re his nemesis, Weaver.  I’m the reason he’s here, the reason these people died like this.  But you’re his counterpart, his mirror.  You’ve got that same excitement Jack has, you think along the same lines, in strategy and counter-strategy.  You thrive on conflict, just like he does.  And I… I’m not like that.”

I couldn’t muster a response.

“So right now?  You should go back.  Forget I said this, because it’s… I’m regretting opening my mouth already.  Work on formatting the strategies you already worked out to fit around the rules of Jack’s game, because that’s a good thing.  It’s what we need.  But let me have half an hour or an hour or however long I need to myself.  Until we stop waiting and stop letting Jack think we haven’t found the tape yet.  Let me take a moment and think about these people.”

“You’re not to blame for them,” I said.  “The Nine would have killed anyways.”

“I know.  I get that.  But I played a part in the sequence of events, and maybe these people wouldn’t have been the ones to die if I hadn’t made that wager with Jack… and I guess I think everyone else that cares has better things to do.  You trained me, the others trained me.  I- I guess I’m as ready as I could ever be.  I’ll fight when the time comes, wade through the gauntlet he sets in his wake and I’ll succeed or fail.  But I’m not a strategist, and these people need someone to mourn them.  Let me be useful in my own way, right here, right now.”

I opened my mouth to voice a reply, then shut it.

A moment passed, and Golem set about walking on the hands he’d raised from the ground, just two or so feet above the bodies and the streets that were painted with blood.

I stood where I was, watching as he steadily made his way to the safe zone I’d drawn out on the ground.  He stopped only to gesture for Tecton and Grace not to follow, then walked on, out of sight.

It’s not that I don’t care, I thought.  But-

But what?

I couldn’t articulate my thoughts.

But… we need a strategist, we need a plan, before all hell breaks loose, I thought.  Developing that, coming up with answers, fighting, it’s going to do a lot more good in the long run than compassion all on its own.

I looked down at Nice Guy, at the foot of the stairs, a fleshy mess that was slowly dissolving into the acid pile, which only spread and served as more acid to melt flesh.  I realized I was still holding my knife, from the time of the brief skirmish.  I sheathed it.

Then, as Golem had told me to, I pushed him, the dead, the maimed and the lost out of mind and turned back to the core group, to offer my services, to coordinate and administrate.

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