Interlude 29

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Two parts to a whole.

This, as everything does, builds towards the ultimate objective, a propagation of the species.

To rise above a competition among one’s own species is a kind of transcendence.  Cooperation, a goal that extends beyond one’s lifespan, one’s community.  This entity can recall the moment of transcendence, the unification and reinvention of their species.

Everything extends to an end goal.  A complete and total mastery of all things.  In time, just as they spread and consumed their entire world, they will fill every space in all accessible universes that can be occupied.  In time, they will reach a stasis and they will fall from their transcendent state.  They will descend into competition once more, and they will devour each other alive once again.

Hope, continued existence, is dependent on another reinvention of their species.  They will use knowledge gleaned from countless other species, from mingling, matching and culling their own internal libraries of functions.

There is only so much time.  Only so many generations and cycles before things approach their final state.  Information will be exchanged, their species will weigh everything based on merit, and then they will seek a solution.  A final expenditure of power, a resetting of the universes, a reinvention of existence, or something beyond this entity.

This is the goal.  The most must be made of every cycle.

Two parts to a whole.  The other entity is a warrior, direct, oriented in the short-term goals.  This entity looks further, consulting possibilities.

Their general destination is in mind, and has been in mind for some time.  Already, they have begun to close their helix spiral, drawing fractionally towards one another with each rotation, controlling the pattern and timing of their approach.

Destination, the Warrior entity communicates.

Agreement, this entity responds.  The signals that accompany and form the overarching messages allow them to pick out sub-worlds for themselves.  Arrival points, destinations for critical shards to root, hosts for the extensions of those same shards.

Trajectory, the other entity communicates.  More data on where they will arrive, the way they will move on approach, the placement of less crucial shards.

Agreement.  This entity sees the constant messages as a distraction.  It is reorganizing, calling on its own precognition and clairvoyance to map out their actions after arrival.

This entity reforms itself, adjusting the placements of individual shards, priming itself for a deeper simulation, considering possible ways things can be carried out.

This takes time.  Focus.

Colony, the other entity signals.

Narrowing down possible destinations.

Agreement, this entity is distracted in responding.  It is receiving another broadcast.

A third.

The communication is almost alien, a member of their species, but long distant, from countless cycles ago.

It hesitates, then signals its own location.


The response is garbled.  Takes time to analyze.

The third entity travels more through momentum than by insinuation.  It expends vast quantities of power to change course.

They meet violently.  As their ancestors did, they share with one another in a violent fashion, crashing together, breaking shard from shard.

This entity knows right away that there is a wealth of information here.  But there must be cooperation, information given for information.

Even as they grind together, destroying one another in a brutal exchange of shards, the entity works to salvage key shards, to put ones it can afford to lose on the exterior body.

This is the optimal path, the best way to achieve their end goal.  The shards here are rich with memories, experience and unexplored possibilities.  It is worth sacrificing as much as she is.

They break apart.  The third entity continues its path, moving to a distant star, its path perpendicular to the pair’s.

Concern, the Warrior entity expresses.

Confident, this entity responds.  This is optimal.  It is heavy with these new shards, drowning in knowledge and experience.  If this could occur with every cycle, bringing this sort of information into the pattern, then survival beyond the endpoint would be virtually guaranteed.

This entity struggles to move as it works to reorganize these new shards, to convert them into a form it can use.

It will see this cycle through, and regain what it lost in the union with the Warrior.

This entity sees new possibilities, now.  Not simply conflict, but philosophy and psychology.  Imagination.  It is in these new patterns of thought that it can see a possibility for the future.  Its partner takes on some of its duties as it digs into the libraries of information to see how it might put it into practice.

It can use its strengths, the Warrior’s strengths, and the host’s natures to explore new ideas and tactics for approaching the endpoint.

Already, this entity is forming a model, a simulacrum of the host species, mapping out how things might unfold.  While the Warrior is preparing to shed its shards and litter the world, this entity is plotting a strategic approach.

It cannot make out what form it or the other entity will take, but it can still view the situation in part.  It sets the criteria for an optimal future, for optimal study, and then it looks to a future that matches this criteria.

“Thank you for coming,” Partisan said.

The entity nodded.  Its expression was stern.

Partisan touched his computer terminal.  Monitors lit up, showing a series of images.

A figure, fifteen feet tall, pale, with a lion’s head, a mane of crystal.  Muscular, brutish, it was perched on a massive floating crystal, with more crystals floating about it. Here and there, the crystals touched ground.  They turned what they touched into more crystal, which soon uprooted themselves to join the storm around it.

A woman, even more brutish in appearance, had a reptilian lower body.  Steam rolled off her in billowing clouds, taking uncanny forms as it coiled and expanded through the area.  Faces, reaching claws and more.

And on the third monitor, flecked by static, was a naked man, beautiful and long-haired, his face touched with a macabre grin.  He perched on top of an ocean wave that was frozen in place, his body too flexible, moving with the wind as though he were light enough to be carried away.

“They’ve released three more of the superweapons,” Partisan said.  “But of course, you know this.”

“I do,” the entity responds.

“This makes nine.  Four are at the Divide.  We’ve got one to the far north, poised to flank us.  Four more spread out over the world.”

“Maybe more we don’t know about,” Arsenal speaks.

A power the entity held in reserve identified something wrong.  The entity turned and looked at its partner, standing slightly behind it, taciturn and silent.  They exchanged the smallest of broadcasts.

A consensus was reached between them.  Arsenal knew something about the superweapons, or he suspected strongly enough for it to matter.

“What is it?” Clarent asked.

The entity responded, feigning emotion, “…There are eleven more.”

It could see the reaction among the gathered heroes of the Wardens.  Fear, alarm, a kind of dawning horror.

For Arsenal, though, there was another reaction.  He was upset, yes, but was a little relieved at the same time.  He knew about the others, and he had been testing them, to see if they would lie.

But suspicions remained.

“Eleven?”  Partisan asked.

“Stationed around the world, at the borders of the stronger nations,” the entity informed the Wardens.  “Like yours, they’re remaining more or less stationary, only attacking when they see weakness.”

“And you believe it is the Shepherds who are responsible?”

The entity shook its head.  “I can’t know.  You’ve seen for yourself, the powerful blocks they’ve put in place against powers.  But enough clues point to the Shepherds.”

The expressions of the three men are grim.  The other heroes, at the edges of the room, seem equally concerned.  A woman with a great cannon that constantly changes, expanding and contracting like a living thing.  A hulk of a man, laden with muscle, was muttering something to people around him.

“If this goes any further, we’ll be forced to submit to these terror tactics,” Partisan said.  “I don’t like to say it, but…”

“War,” Arsenal said.  “It’s our only option.”

“I don’t like war,” the woman with the gun said.  “It’ll cause as many problems as it fixes, and with stakes this high, that’s a lot of new problems.”

“Doing nothing is just as dangerous,” Arsenal said.

“I’m not so sure.”

“We know they’re projections,” Arsenal said, his eyes on the monitors.  “Someone or something is projecting them.  We cut off the head, the superweapons fall.”

“Yes,” the entity agreed.  It didn’t miss the curious glance Arsenal gave it.

“We’ll need your help,” Partisan said.

“You’ll have it,” the entity said.  “But there are other places needing our help, too.  Against these, and against other things.  Some are in the middle of full-scale wars as I speak.  We’ll assist you, we’ll stop these superweapons-“

“If these ones can be stopped,” Partisan said.

“…If they can be stopped.  That touches on my next point.  You’ll need to do as much damage as you can, give it your all.  We’ll be arriving late, and if they’re strong…”

The entity trailed off.  It could see Arsenal’s suspicions growing deeper.

“You have your hands full,” Clarent said.

The entity nodded.  It feigned a moment of weariness, assuring these individuals it was merely human.

“Thank you,” Partisan said.  He extended a hand.

The entity roused itself from the mock-exhaustion, straightening, and shook the hand.

“We need to go,” the entity said.

“Before you do,” Partisan said.  He reached into his belt and withdrew a small device.  “Here.  It has good days and bad, but on a good day, we get a range of about a thousand miles, which is maybe four or five times the usual.  With luck, we’ll be able to tune it and cut through the blackout effect.  Get international communications going again.”

“Arsenal’s work?” the entity asked, though it already knew.  It could trace the design to the memories in Arsenal’s shard.

“Arsenal and Richter,” Partisan said.

The entity nodded.  It had no pockets, so it held the device in one hand.

“Good luck,” Partisan said.  “Whoever you’re helping.”

The entity’s expression remained grave.  “I should be wishing you luck.  If you succeed here, you’ll be saving a lot of people.  Here and elsewhere.”

“Easy to forget elsewhere exists,” Clarent said.

“We defend our borders, keep the peace within, and we hold out,” Partisan said.  “It’s all we can do.  We have enough powers that get stronger over time, yours included.  We have Richter, too, we just need the resources.  Things will get better.”

Clarent nodded.  Arsenal clapped a hand on Clarent’s shoulder.

The three tapped the ends of their weapons together.  Partisan’s heavy spear, Arsenal’s guisarme and Clarent’s longsword.  Then they parted ways, attending to their individual groups and squads.

But Arsenal watched out of the corner of his eye, tracking the entity and the Warrior as they approached, walking towards the room’s exit.

The woman with the gun made her way to Partisan’s side.  She whispered, but the entity could hear it, as it heard all things in the vicinity.  “War?”

“We’ll need our Black Knight, Hannah,” Partisan said.  “We bait them into a fight, then sic him on them.  He’ll be able to win as long as it’s parahumans he’s fighting.  Colin’s squad flanks and infiltrates, my squad scouts and Clarent maintains a defensive line.”

“And if these superweapons attack while our forces are elsewhere?”

“They aren’t attacking.  They’re just… there.”

“But if they do attack?  If they’re there for this exact eventuality?” the gunwoman asked.

“We’ll push on, striking for the Shepherd’s headquarters, and the rest hold out.”

“It’s reckless.”

“It’s the only option.  We’ve got two of the strongest parahumans around on our side,” Partisan said, his voice a little louder.  He glanced at the entity and the Warrior.

The entity glanced his way, acknowledging him.  Its focus, however, was on Arsenal.  Hearing Partisan’s words, Arsenal’s suspicions had reached a climax.  He would say something.

That is, he would, if the entity didn’t intervene.  The entity passed by him, and it leveraged a power.  Wiping a memory, setting a block in place.  The same blocks that prevented accord between the Wardens and the Shepherds.  The same blocks that prevented Partisan’s special sight from seeing the entity’s power at work.

With that, the task was done.  The entity stepped out onto the balcony, then took flight, the Warrior flying behind it.

Destination, the Warrior entity broadcasts the idea, interrupting the simulation.

Agreement, the entity absently responds.

An optimal future.  It is an unwieldy future because it gave up a part of its ability to see the future to the other being.  There are holes, because this entity does not fully understand the details of what happened, and because this entity’s future-sight power is damaged.  Above all else, it is an incomplete future because this entity has only the most minimal role in things, and the shards it saw were all the Warrior’s.

The fact that it did not is a part of that future.  This entity will arrive at the destination, and it will deploy shards to complicate a situation and break stalemates.  Losing sides will be granted reinforcements through maturing shards.  A different sort of engagement, a different way of testing the shards.

This entity continues focusing on converting, translating and relocating the shards.  It is frail, fragile.

Hive, the Warrior broadcasts.  A set world, with a set population density and degree of conflict.

But this entity has already decided on that world, seen it in a future.  It responds without consideration.  Agreement.

They are more engaged now, as they close the distance.  They negotiate who can place shards where, and this entity now holds its shards in reserve.

The Warrior is focusing on refining the shards, and this entity is, in turn, focused on refining the future.  A set goal, a reality.

Too complex to convey to the other.

The communications continue, and they approach the galaxy.  This entity begins altering its own powers, but it is not a great concern.

The gravity of the planetary bodies pull at it.  It loses great clumps of shards.

It loses more.  Its focus is now on holding on to the shards critical to making this future it has seen a reality.  A world perpetually in conflict, the groups and factions kept small enough that none can challenge it.

All energy it can spare goes towards the reorganization.  Shards must be discarded, or it will dwarf the destination planet.  It casts shards off, and it retains shards that will allow it to draw power from those shards.

Danger, the Warrior broadcasts.

Confident, this entity responds.

It picks a reality.  Up until the moment it hits ground, it works to reorganize itself.

In the doing, it alters one of the third entity’s powers, replacing its own ability to find the optimal future.

In that very instant, it recognizes that it has made a grave error.  The simulated world and the glimpse of the optimal future are already gone from its grasp.  Too late.

The perspective changes, breaking away, distant, confused, detached.  The impact was too hard.

A girl woke from a dream.

She started to scream, but a man, her uncle, placed a hand over her mouth.  It was the hand, as much as the full-body ache she experienced that silenced her.

Hush,” he said, in their language.  “The monstrous ones are out there.

She nodded, still delirious, lost in the magnitude of what she had seen.

The memories were already slipping away, like sand through her fingers.

Have to remember, she told herself.

The answer snapped into place.  A way to remember.

Nine steps, and she could do it.  Step one was to avoid thinking of the memories.  The moment she acknowledged it, she found herself slipping into a different mindset.

She is touched,” another man said.  One of her uncle’s friends.

She could dimly recall something happening to her parents.  A cataclysmic event.

Except she couldn’t allow herself to start remembering.

She hasn’t changed,” her uncle said.

We both saw the phantom, the night-thing, leap out at her.

She needed to dream.  The next steps would achieve that.

Step two, standing up.

Step three, a jab of her hand at her uncle’s elbow, to stop him from grabbing her.

Step four, a little push of her foot against the ground, to keep her ankle out of reach of the friend’s clutching hand.

Step five, grabbing the medicine bag from behind her uncle.

Opening it was step six.  Walking to the bench was seven.

Her uncle was only getting to his feet now.  Every action was mechanical, spelled out by this surety in her mind’s eye, helped along by a complete, exacting knowledge of how and where to move every body part.

Seven involved uncorking the right bottles.  Eight involved obtaining a specific amount of powder, moving her hand in a careful, precise way, so the exact right amount piled up in her cupped palm.  She dashed it into a half-full mug and drank, just as her uncle reached her, putting his hands on her shoulders, shaking her.

Step nine was to wait for sleep to reach her.  She only needed to dream, and she would be able to escape the forgetting.

When she woke, her body was a ruin, but her mind was clear.

It had started three days ago.  This disaster.  People becoming monsters.  Madness.  Others getting sorcerous abilities.  Their community had scattered, fleeing to the wilderness in small groups.  Any friend or family member could become a beast at a moment’s notice.

Being alone was safest, but being alone meant being in the dark wilderness with the wolves.

It had been a hungry season for the wolves, many sheep dying.

The taste of vomit filled her mouth, but her face was clear.  When she moved, her stomach felt like it had been hit with a club.

She turned her attention to the subject.  One step to minimize the pain.

Swearing was one of them.

Wolf-fucking horseballs,” she muttered, groaning as she found her footing.

She remembered, though.  She knew what they were up against.  This thing, this godling monster, it was going to orchestrate a conflict that spread across an entire world.  When it had gathered whatever it was it wanted to, the results of tests, studies and whatever else, it would consume this world, her own, and everything else to spawn the next generation of its kind.

If she had any conception of where to look-

The answer was given to her.  A thirty-nine step plan.

She felt a chill.

If I wanted to kill the monsters and save everyone from this madness?

Three hundred and seventy-four steps.

She could see each individual step, looking forward to see what it entailed.  She could see it evolve as time passed, accounting for her starting it later.

If I wanted to do both?

Five hundred and thirty-three steps.

Forta,” her uncle spoke.  “You’re awake.

She spun around.

He kept his distance.  “A madness possessed you.  Has it passed?

Had it passed?

Five hundred and fifty-four steps.  Why more than before?

She couldn’t bring herself to respond.

You moved like someone else was inside you.  Escaped Ruggero and me like we weren’t even there.

“I remember,” she said.  She remembered so much.  She understood it all, and she couldn’t explain it-

Ninety-two steps.

She could explain it.  Could she explain it and save everyone?  Explain it and find the strange god-beast, and save her hometown from this chaos?

It was possible.  It would require two thousand, one hundred and seventy-four different actions.  Statements, movements, decisions at precise times.

But she hesitated to carry it out.

There was another question she had to ask.  Like the fable of Luisa and the black-furred man, she had to ask very carefully.

Could she do all this, explain to her uncle, find the thing that was at the heart of this chaos, and save her people, and handle the other essential crises she run into on her way?


A fog was creeping over her eyes, and the number of steps were growing too numerous at the same time.  Two differing things, denying her.

The chill and the general sense of unease crystallized with the realization that she’d have to choose between stopping this monster and helping the people she’d grown up with.

Fortuna, you look as though you’ve seen a ghost,” her uncle said.

I might have, she thought, without taking her eyes off him.

She shivered, but she steeled herself, picking the path she wanted to take.  It was the haze of fog that scared her most.  If she chose to do something else, and she lost sight of the path where she could kill the godling…

Her uncle stiffened as she approached, but she laid a hand on his arm.  She tugged on his sleeve to get him to bend down, then kissed his cheek.

Saving him?

The answer appeared in her mind.  “Go, uncle.  Run as far away as you can.  Don’t eat or drink anything for three days.  It’s all tainted.  Poisoned with the same thing that is making people into monsters.

His eyes widened.  “You will come with me.

She shook her head.

Then she broke into a run.

She could outrun him.  She knew.  He had a bad leg, and it was worse since he’d had to fight off Ruggero.

Into the hills, up the mountain.

Her body ached, but it was easy.  She knew how to move, how to place her feet so the branches didn’t catch on her or trip her, to avoid the patches of lichen which would break away and make her foot slide on the rock beneath.

She knew the most efficient way to climb the rock wall.

She paused to catch her breath, doing her best to ignore the horned man’s corpse at the foot of the wall.  He’d tried to escape this way too, but he’d been pulled down or shot when he was partway up.

Had he been one of them?

Something went wrong.  The monstrous godling had a plan, a vision of the future it wanted, and this isn’t part of that.

It had crashed to earth, and something had broken free.  Here and there, phantom images had appeared, brushing past people, and they changed.  Others changed without touching any of the massive, ghostly gray hands that had appeared from thin air.  She knew, because of this conviction in her head, that it was the food and water.  It was tainting the landscape.

All coming from higher up the cliffside.

She found her breath, then scaled her way up.

The landscape she was as she reached the top wasn’t a familiar one.

A different sky, showing a different time of day.  But the space in between was something else entirely.  She had only to look and she knew what it was she looked at.  The entity.  The evil godling.

I have to kill it.

The plan formed in her mind.  The haze of fog still hung over her mind’s eye, and it grew worse with every moment.

Her hand moved to the little knife at her belt.  She wore it there for when she helped her mother with the cooking and gardening.  Worked metal was expensive, and the knife was a personal treasure.  Two inches long, curved.  She used it for cutting stems and trimming fat.

She would use it here.  She started walking forward.

There were people gathered, bystanders.  An assorted mix.

Why are they here?

No, was there a way to find out, using this sight she had?

I want to understand why they’re here.

They’d come from different worlds.  There were gates or doorways here and there.  When the entity had fallen, it had left gaps.

They bellowed words in a language she couldn’t make out.  Warnings.  They were too far away to stop her.

A woman stepped in her way.

Strangely dressed, wearing a dress so short it might well be indecent, showing the calves, and a fair amount of the upper chest.  Her skin was the strangest black color, her hair bound in thin, glossy braids.

One of the monsters?  No.  She knew right away it was a stranger from a distant land.  A land much like the one she had glimpsed in her fever dream.

The woman said something in a strange language.

Fortuna strode forwards anyways.  Her special knowledge let her push her way past almost effortlessly, choosing the right spot, the right amount of strength.  The godling was in a chasm, a crater caused by the impact.  It stretched out in every direction, a pool of flesh, and it reached into several worlds at once.

It was disorienting to look at.

Step twenty-nine, making her way down into the crater.

She stepped onto loose grit, and her weight did the rest.  She coasted down, much like the boys riding down the mud-slick path they’d made in the hill, down into the pond, except she remained on two feet.  It was a task only the oldest and most athletic boys could manage.

It was more dangerous here than it was on the hill.  There were rocks that jutted out, and outcroppings of deeper roots and plant life that had rained down into the crater in the aftermath of the impact.  It was more dangerous, but not harder.  This, like scaling the cliff face, was easy.

Everything was easy now.  It was disorienting.

The woman with black skin followed, moving slower.  She used her hands and feet to control her descent, sliding from rock to rock, stopping before sliding down further.  The black-skinned woman was a quarter of the way down before Fortuna was at the bottom.

It didn’t matter.  Fortuna advanced into the living forest alone.  Everything here was alive, hands moving, webs of skin stretching and folding.  There was a cacophony of noises that made her think of a chorus of heartbeats, a choir of soft breaths and whispers.  Gentle human noises that were all the more eerie because she could see right through the deception.  She was well aware that what she saw here was the godling putting together a mask so it could lie to people, setting  them against each other.

She advanced into the heart of the gray forest.  She was terrified, but the feeling was disconnected from her actions.  She only had to recognize the next step in the series.  She was aware of the steps that followed…

Until she came face to face with the godling.  Her knife was in hand, and she could see a figure before her.  A human shape, in the midst of pulling itself together from the examples and experiments that surrounded them.

She set foot on one of those experiments, a raised hand, and used it until she was eye to eye with the being, a matter of feet away.

It swelled, lurching forth, creating few inches more of waist, another inch of one arm, two inches of another arm.  Beyond the ending points, the arms and legs simply extended into nothingness.  Parts of a tapestry she couldn’t make out.  It moved again, and closed the distance between them.

The being raised its head.  She could see its eyes open in recognition.

It’s teaching itself how to act like we actEven this.

She raised her arm, knife held with the point down.

And the gray fog descended on her mind, blinding her.  A barrier, a blind spot, a future she could no longer see.  Had it set the limitation more firmly in place?

The godling smiled.  It knew, because the power she was using was the same power it had used to glimpse the future, to find that particular future where it had the world divided, drowned in conflict.

As far as the godling was concerned, she was blind, as helpless as anyone else.

A voice, from behind her.

The black-skinned woman, shouting something in a foreign language.

I want to understand her.

One step.

She had only to think, ‘Stab it.

Fortuna realized she still held the knife aloft.

But where had she wanted to stab it?

Indecision gripped her.  For an hour now, she’d been absolutely certain of what she was doing, and now she faced the absolute opposite situation.

Her hand shook.  She nearly dropped the little trimming knife.

She nearly fell as the hand beneath her moved.  Her power failed her here, too.  Because the hand was an extension of the being before her.

It was going to kill her, and then it was going to reclaim the ability to see the future.  It would use that power to control the world, then to destroy it.

And she couldn’t bring herself to move an inch.

I want to tell her…

The words were alien to her as she spoke them.  “I- I can’t.”

A hand wrapped around her shoulders.  She felt a body press against her back, supporting her.

“I- I have seen visions.  Things I was not meant to see, things this… godling wanted to keep to itself.  I… have to stop it.”

But even as the words left her mouth, she couldn’t bring herself to move.

The woman leaned forward over Fortuna’s shoulder, her face in Fortuna’s peripheral vision.  She said something.

“I believe you.”

The woman spoke in her ear once more, her voice insistent.  She translated, asking for a way to understand the answers.

“It’s dangerous?”

Fortuna nodded.

“Are you sure?”

“I- I would stake everything on it.  Everything ever.”

Though she didn’t even know the words she was speaking, there was a conviction in her tone that seemed to reach the woman.

“Where were you going to stab it?”

Where?  The image had fled her mind, erased from her memory.


The being moved again, and they stepped back, nearly falling.  Fortuna managed to keep them both steady.  Easier if she looked at it as ‘I don’t want to fall’ instead of ‘don’t let this thing make us fall.’  So long as she divorced her thoughts from the being, she still had this strange certainty.

It lurched, creating more of itself.  Legs, a sexless groin, more of the arms.  Hair flowed free, overlong.

It bent over, head hanging, arms suspended to either side.

She saw the nape of the neck as hair slowly slid free, silky and straight.

Still unable to bring herself to move, she found her left arm extending, palm down, until the longest finger pointed at the spot in question.

The woman behind her took hold of the fist that held the knife.  She stepped forward, driving the knife down, as if she were an extension of Fortuna.

Plunging into the spot where the spine met the skull.

They fell from the hand, dangled for a moment by their grip on the knife.  It cut free, and they dropped to the ground.

Fortuna let one leg fold, pushing at the ground with the other.  She rolled, breaking the fall.  The woman fell a little harder.

The entity moved, and everything around them stirred.  A thousand hands, a thousand arms, not all attached to the hands, legs, feet, ears, eyes, faces without features, expanses of skin, they twitched and writhed.

The noise around them faded, the heartbeats going still, the breathing quieting.  The movements all around them stopped.

There was only the thing, hanging in mid-air, struggling to form itself and failing.  It breathed in rapid huffs, in obvious pain.

It wasn’t dead, but it wasn’t alive.  A connection had been severed in a moment where the godling was most vulnerable.

The woman spoke.

“Again?  The heart?”

But Fortuna was sure this was it.  They’d carried out the last step.

“Can you explain this?  Do you know something?”

Fortuna nodded.

“Please,the woman said.  Though she begged,   “My life just turned upside down.  I’ve been lost here for three days.”

Fortuna looked back the way she’d come.

Home was gone.  Tainted.  She could find her uncle, but…

“I need food,” Fortuna said.  “I have no home to go to, so I need shelter.”


“I will take you back to your home.”

The woman nodded.  “Yes, of course.  And you’ll explain?”

“Yes.  But there’s one more thing.  I need help.”


“There is one more of these things somewhere out there.”

Yet she could reach out with her power to try to look for it, and all she could see was the fog.

Fortuna did up the clasps on the dress shoes she wore as the woman entered her apartment.

The woman gave the girl a once-over.  “You know how to do up a tie?  Wait.  Dumb question.”

“A little dumb,” Fortuna replied.

“You’re getting a sense of humor.  I’ve done like you asked.  I bought the land with the doorway, using the money you got.  Are you sure you want to keep it a secret?  People could study that thing.”

Fortuna shook her head.  This was a harder question to answer, but she could construct a kind of mental picture, then test her questions.  What would happen?  What were the most likely scenarios?

Panic.  Fear.

Could they figure anything of value out by studying the half-alive thing?  She couldn’t be sure.

But the emotional effect would be all the more pronounced.

“Well, the area is secured, people have found their way home, or at least, to other worlds they can call home.  There was only one doorway people might find easily, and I blocked it off.”

“Thank you,” Fortuna said.

“What’s the next step?”

A heavy question.

How do we stop them?

The fog blocked out her view of any answer.

Can we stop something as powerful as the beings in my fever dream?  How can we stop the Warrior?

Still too close to home.

The indecision gripped her again.  When she wasn’t acting in the scope of her power, it was all the more difficult to act.

Fortuna frowned.  She couldn’t be paralyzed like this.  “How- how would we stop any powerful monster?”

“Weapons?  An army?” the woman suggested.

One hundred and forty-three thousand, two hundred and twenty steps.

It was doable.

“We need some lab equipment,” Fortuna said.

Then she turned her attention to the next step, and it dawned on her just how they would be amassing this army.  She thought of the monsters that had torn her parents apart, the infection that had ravaged her community and home.  Stray bits of the godling had done that to them.  It had killed people, turned others into monsters, drove yet others mad.

But it had given abilities to her.  It would give abilities to others.

The man, Lamar, reached like a child clutching for candy.  The Doctor pulled her hand away.  “There’s no guarantee this will work.”

Fortuna remained silent.  Her halting way of speaking, asking her power for the words or the translation, still made for a barrier in communication.  It unsettled people, apparently.

“If what that girl was showing off wasn’t some fantastic magic trick, if this does what you’re saying it will, I’m willing to take the chance.”

Fortuna exchanged a glance with the ‘Doctor’.  She could see the stress in the Doctor’s expression.  The woman had taken on a moniker, to give just a little protection to her real identity.  Easier to have an adult handling the negotiating and person-to-person interaction.  Fortuna was young, and people wouldn’t be so inclined to drink a strange substance offered by a child.

She offered the Doctor a little nod, a go-ahead.

“Go ahead, then,” the Doctor said.  She handed over the vial.

Lamar drank.

The changes ripped through him.  Lines marked the areas where bones were closest to skin, and then split into craggy outcroppings, thick with scales the length and width of human hands.  Lamar screamed, and the sound soon became guttural.

More scales sprouted, until the man looked more like a bush than a person.  The scaly growth continued at one knee, spiraling around the knee over and over again, growing ever-lumpier.

The leg fell off.  Blood began to pour forth.

Fortuna started to step forward to help, but her power told her it was too late.

Couldn’t see the outcomes, couldn’t counteract the outcomes.

Lamar was left panting for breath.  the wound at his ruined arms and legs closed up.  Holes had opened up throughout his midsection, exposing scale-covered internal organs.

He was trying to scream, but he couldn’t draw in enough breath.

His chest cavity is filled with the scales.

The Doctor stared, silent.  Fortuna had stepped away from the wall, but remained where she was, rooted to the spot.

He wasn’t dying.

Fortuna stepped forward.  Hand shaking, she drew a knife from her pocket.  Not her knife, but a knife of similar length, straight.

She ended Lamar’s pain.

“Our first patient is a fatality,” the Doctor said.  “Is it worth it?”

Fortuna couldn’t answer.

“Let’s wait, then.  Try to figure out where we went wrong.”

She still couldn’t bring herself to answer.


“Don’t.  Don’t… call me by the name my parents gave me.”

The Doctor took a moment to reply.  “Another name?”

Contessa nodded.

It’s a sight unlike any we’ve ever seen.  A man made of gold, floating above the ocean.  Sightings continue to be reported around the world as he travels.  Who is he, and why is he here?  Some speculate he is Jes-

Contessa muted the television.

The pair stared at the screen, watching the silent images.

“Is it?”  the Doctor asked.

Contessa nodded.

“Do we try again?”

“I- don’t know,” Contessa said.

“If we explain to someone important, the army…”

“Disaster.  They react with fear, and he’ll probably respond to the fear.  He’s… hostile, I’m certain.  He only needs an excuse,” Contessa said.  “They can’t beat him, because he designed himself to be unbeatable.”

“You’re the one with the ability to see the future,” the Doctor said, her voice gentle.  “What do we do?”

“I don’t know!”  Contessa said.  “I- when it comes to him, I’m just a child.  I’m useless, blind.  I’ve only got some glimpses of him to work with.  I know how important it is, but, I feel paralyzed, I feel, feel-“

“Okay,” the Doctor said.  “Okay.  What if I made the decisions from here on out?  You tell me if I’m going down the wrong path, give me direction where it’s needed.

“You can’t.”

“I can.  I’ve been thinking about it.  What is the key thing about the one we killed?”

“It’s… broken.  Something went wrong.  It focused too much on the future, and lost sight of the present, it fell and the part that was supposed to guide it ended up inside me instead.”

The Doctor pointed at the TV screen.  “This golden man, he’s more or less on track.  He didn’t break, he didn’t go wrong.”

“Except… there’s a lot of power there, and he’s going to find out what we did, or he’s going to start acting more like the conqueror he’s meant to be, and he’s going to use that power at some point.”

Why?” the Doctor asked.

“I felt the hostility.  I felt how the one we killed, in the vision it had of the future, it almost enjoyed doing what it was doing.  If the golden one is similar at all, then all it takes is an accident.”

The Doctor nodded.  “See?  You’re doing okay.”

“Easier when someone else takes point.”

“So our solution… it’s going to take one of two forms.  Either we break him, somehow, or we find something we can use in the broken parts of the one we killed.”

“Feeding it to people.”

The Doctor nodded.  “I’m inclined to go with the latter.”

Contessa nodded.  “So am I.  If we interact with him, and he figures out what we’re doing, it all goes wrong.”

“Then we need to start testing this.  Figure it out.  Is it luck?  Or is there a way to get consistent results?”

Contessa nodded.

“I’m actually not that much of a scientist,” the Doctor said.  “But I do know that if we want to get a sample size worth talking about, we need to test a lot.”

“Which means we start by preparing more vials.”

Ten vials, to start.  Five hours to prepare each vial.  To saw off the body part, to find a way to break it down, then to package it.  Each vial correlated with a specific map coordinate and they took photos to record every step of the way, to ensure no clue was missed.

Then they’d found ten patients, who had downed vials in separate rooms.  People who’d been terminally ill.

Six made it out.

Contessa watched them, saw the beaming smiles on five faces.

The Doctor kept her back straight as they approached.  “Satisfactory?”

A blond man offered a little half-laugh as a response.  He was looking down at his hands in amazement.

“As the contract stipulates, this is free, which won’t always be the case, but we’ll need forty hours of testing with each of the abilities any of you have received.  In addition, we would like your assistance for a period of time totaling five hundred hours of active duty or five years, whichever term reaches its limit first.”

“Does anyone else feel amazing?” the blond man asked.

“I was afraid to ask,” a young girl said.  “Yeah.”

“Amazing?” the Doctor asked.

“Hey,” the blond guy said, “I spent my entire life with this heart problem, you know?  Heart going a little too fast, reedy, thin heartbeat.  Reminding me it could pop at any moment.  Organs are garbage, diabetes at twenty-two, liver problems turn me yellow if I’m not careful, throwing up bile every morning and every night.  Every moment of every day, there’s something making me miserable.  Except, right now, I’m sort of feeling every part of my body, and the heart’s good, no headache, nothing in my throat, nothing in my gut.  No tremor in my hand…”

“You’re better,” the Doctor said.

“I’m better.  And my brain is, I don’t even know.  I’m picturing stuff really vividly.  Really vividly.”

“I feel better too,” another man said.

“I’m not sure I do,” A woman chimed in.  “Sorry.”

A man who can invent, a girl who can teleport…  she could go down the list and figure each of them out, by posing it as a challenge to her power.  Only one was a little harder to figure out, coming with a fog around him.

She left the group behind.

One by one, she checked on the other patients.


A monster, furious with rage, slamming her hands on the door.

Another monster, crumpled into a ball in the corner, murmuring something to himself.

And the last… a boy, staring off into the distance.

She asked her power, and she got her answer.

He could make doors.

He could also close the other doors, the gaps left around the other entity.  It would minimize the chance that the golden man could find them.

“I can’t… too much to look at,” he said.  “So many worlds at once.”

“I know.  We’re going to do what we can, okay?”

“I’m… I’m pretty scared.”  There was a tremor in his voice.

“I know,” she said.  “I need to look after a few things, but I’ll be back.  We’ll figure this out, alright?”

He nodded.

She closed the door.  She paused, standing beside it.

It’s a step forward, she told herself.

A step forward, in a long series of steps.

She rejoined the others.

The Doctor was touching a block of stone that had risen from the floor.  “-a complex, for our labs and research.”

“Most definitely,” a woman answered her.  “If you can do this for more people, I’d forget about the limit on how long I have to work.”

The Doctor allowed herself a smile.  Her eyes met Contessa’s.

One step forward.

“You’re heroes, as far as I’m concerned,” the blond man said.

Monsters!” the word was howled, reverberating through the building.

Fog approached.  A wall of it, moving down the corridor.  She could see normally, but the effect on her powers was absolute.  It was impossible to make out any steps that moved within the fog.

She turned and bolted.  Not a run, but an efficient jog, preserving stamina while still keeping ahead.  She could see from the way the wall extended forward that it was being carried or it was emanating from a person.

There was another power at work, somewhere here.

“Custodian,” she said.

She felt the Custodian’s presence.

“Alert the Doctor.”

A brush against her left hand.  Negation?

“Is the Doctor dead?”




I want to find out how the Doctor is.

There was only fog.  She was blind, which meant the Doctor was somewhere beyond that wall.

I want to find where Number Man is.

He was on the east end of the facility, with the Harbingers.

I want to stay out of this fog.

The path appeared before her.  She fell in step with it, moving in perfect sync with the individual movements in the sequence.

Until a figure appeared behind her  A man with yellow skin, with bruising in the areas where his skin stretched or folded, giving him an artificially gaunt appearance.

A teleporter.

Path: taking him out of action.


Path:  hitting that target.

Three steps.

She drew her knife, spun, and threw it.

He teleported away before it made contact.

She could hear his voice echoing through hallways as he hollered.  “She’s heeeeeeere!”

It was all going wrong.  Eidolon had been their trump card, but he wasn’t supposed to be the only one.  None of the others had worked out.  Now Eidolon was dead.

The deviants they’d planned to use against Scion, a way of breaking up the metaphorical scent trail, were now attacking the complex.  The entity was winning every engagement.

He was getting more ruthless, more cruel.

They had five major tools left to deploy.  Three armies, two of which were roughly the same size as any of the defending forces, Khonsu, who was a stalling measure, and a hail mary in the form of the three vials with the special element inside.

She could hear footsteps behind her, running.  They were heavy.

Escape route, she thought.  Get back to Number Man.

No option was clear.  Every possible escape through the complex was blocked by that damnable gray fog.

She could move down a floor, run through the fog, but she’d be blind.

Call the Number Man, keeping myself alive with an escape route afterwards, she didn’t even form the phrase as a complete thought.  It was an idea, formed in a fraction of a second.

The path appeared before her.

She changed direction.  The heavy footsteps followed.

Weld.  The leader of the Irregulars.  He didn’t tire, and however heavy he was, he had some power to his movements.

She ducked into an office.

The phone still had a cord.  The offices here were one of the first they’d set up.  She picked up the phone and pressed two keys to contact the Number Man directly.


“Facility under attack,” she said.  “Doctor somewhere in the east section, possibly injured, captured or dead.  I’m in the east section as well.  Not far from your office.”

Weld appeared in the doorway, catching the frame with one hand.  The momentum splintered the wood.

She’s downstairs, using one of Teacher’s subordinates with Doormaker and Two-six.

“I see.  You’ll need to get to her.  They-”

Weld attacked, slashing out with his other hand, a long blade.

She ducked.  “-have a perception blocker, beware.”

Weld struck again.  She stepped back.  She saw the paths available, and kicked the chair so it slid into him, binding with his skin.  He stepped forward and she put one foot against the chair, causing wheels to skid, and Weld to fall to the floor.

Good to know.  Are you alright?

“Cornered.  They’ve got a thinker, I think, they planned this ahead of time, knowing I wouldn’t pick up on their presence.”

Weld drew his feet back and kicked the desk.  Not to hit her, but to put it between her and the door.  Contessa caught the phone-rest before it could clatter to the ground.

Thinking ahead, barring my way.  The fog wall was steadily approaching.

I’m going.  Tips?

She thought, modeling the situation.  The distance he had to travel…

“Best route would be to move further downstairs.  Intercept instead of going right to her.  They’ll reach her before you do, in any event.”

Noted.  You have an escape route?

“No.  Like I said, cornered.”

“Maybe you’re asking the wrong question.  My window.”

The Number Man’s window.  He had a doormaker portal to another world, constantly, for a view and for light, deep underground.

She dropped the phone, making a dash for Weld.

For his part, he put himself between her and the door, using his bulk and the desk to bar the way.  Buying time for the fog to approach.  Spikes extended from his body.  No doubt razor-sharp.


“I just want to talk.  We’re here for answers.”

“Ask me after we defeat Scion,” she said.  She used her power, plotting a path.

Two steps.

“I don’t-”

She ran straight for him, her eyes falling on an air conditioning vent.

His sword-arm slashed out, piercing the floor and blocking the vent.

She changed direction, leaping.  One hand placed on his head, vaulting over his other shoulder, her legs together.  A space that was only just wide enough to pass a toaster through.  He tried to right himself, but his arm was bound to the grate, costing him a half-second.

Spikes scraped against her belt buckle and watch.

She found her footing just a half-foot in front of the fog wall, then dashed away.

Number Man’s office.

The teleporter appeared behind her.  She glanced behind her shoulder.  He had guns, and he was inside the fog.

Modeling scenario… not getting shot.

She ducked into a side hallway.

The teleporter was following.  Appearing at each intersection in time to open fire.

Getting closer, closer, moving faster than she did.  Weld was already catching up, too.  She wouldn’t be able to outrun them.

Moving faster than whoever or whatever was broadcasting the fog was.

A little further, and…

He teleported to a point beyond the fog wall.

One step, and she had both of his guns.

He was bulletproof, but one shot point-blank to the eyeball served to delay him.

She fired down the corridor, hitting doorknob four times in succession.

Path: faking my own death or escaping.

Gray fog.  Not happening.

Contessa kicked the door as she passed through.  She was inside Number Man’s office.

She shot his window.  It didn’t break.  But she could loosen the frame which held the bulletproof glass in place.

She was working on the next when the teleporter appeared.  He struck her, driving her through the one pane of glass that remained, through the portal.

She found herself on an alien landscape, tumbling down a hill.

He teleported to follow her.  He struck her again and again.

She tumbled.  She had a glimpse of others appearing.  Weld and two more parahumans hopping over the windowsill, holding on so they didn’t follow her down the steep cliff.  They weren’t shrouded in fog.

Whatever the reason, it was more variables to work with.

Path, she thought, again, faking my death.

She turned in the air as the teleporter delivered another hit.

She raised the gun, and she fired three times.

Two shots, missing.

A third, hitting one of the Irregulars in the chest, a lethal shot.

Whore!” one of the others shouted.  “Yellow, get the fuck away!

The yellow parahuman disappeared.  Contessa hit the hill.  She rolled, and in the doing, she managed to grab a stick.

Weld grabbed at the shouting deviant’s arm, but it was too late to convince him to stop.  He opened his mouth and a flood of magma cascaded down the hill, an impossible amount.

She rolled and came to a stop.  She pushed herself up off the ground with her hands, moving too slowly to get out of the way of the onrushing magma, or the plumes of smoke.

But the moment the smoke had risen high enough, she kicked a rock to get herself moving and threw the branch.  She moved until she couldn’t feel the oppressive heat.

The branch burned quickly, but it, coupled with the rock, made for a well positioned image of a head and a burning hand, when glimpsed through the smoke.

She kept moving until she was at the base of the hill, off to their right.

“-go down and check,” Weld was saying.

“She burned,” one of the others said.

“I’d like to check.”

“You want to check or you want to get Tater Tot to a healer?”

“I’m not sure a healer is going to help,” Weld said.

“Look.  Mantellum’s right here.  She had to have been in his range.  Let’s go.  Healer, then the Doctor.”

“…Right,” Weld said.  “Healer, then Doctor.”

The sounds of conversation faded.  Contessa consulted her power.  They were most definitely gone.

She remained where she was, tending to the wounds she’d received in the course of selling her ‘death’, waiting for them to get far enough away that she could make her way back indoors.

This ‘Mantellum’ had been close enough that he should have been able to block her power.  He hadn’t.

Because he’d been on the other side of the portal.  The power didn’t cross dimensional boundaries.

She’d been lucky.

Minutes passed before she found her feet.  She made her way up the hill.  Easily.  Always easily.

Until she reached the top, and found only the view in front of her.  No doorway.

Not so lucky.

It was almost an hour before the portal opened again.  She made her way into the facility.

Lights out.

She strode through the hallways, wary of the fog, but moving at as good a clip as she could.  Things were damaged, vandalized.

She asked herself questions as she went.

The Doctor was dead.

Doormaker was alive but he wasn’t here, meaning she was limited to any doors he’d left open.

Number Man was alive, but he wasn’t here.

The vials were all gone.  The ability to make more vials was gone.  At best, they’d be able to collect a few stray vials here and there, in evidence rooms and the like, but nothing beyond that.

The plans had failed.  Only Khonsu and the Indian capes were still active.  Capes brainwashed with a deathwish, working in coordination with an Endbringer who could move them to any location instantly, and who could theoretically block some of Scion’s attacks.

She made her way to the nearest portal, finding her way with her power.

And she came face to face with a large group of capes.  Protectorate capes, the ones too minor to help against Scion.

“You were reported dead,” a man in a horned viking-styled helmet and heavy armor said.

“Did anyone really believe it?”

“No, I suppose they didn’t.”

“How do things stand?”

“Standing may be too optimistic a word,” the man in the horned helmet said.

A cape in wizard attire spoke up, “The Doctor is dead, I believe?”

Contessa nodded.  Odd, that she couldn’t bring herself to feel badly about it.  Was it because she’d spent so long trying to achieve something and she’d failed, or was it because she’d lost respect for the Doctor like she’d lost respect for herself?

If she were an outside party, she was forced to admit, any outside party, she wasn’t convinced she would be able to be upset over her own death.

“We need your help,” the wizard said.

She nodded.  “Whatever I can provide.”

“First, we need information.”


“Were there any other plans Cauldron had in the works?” he asked.

“Nothing substantial.  I can show you the tertiary plans.”

“Please do.  Did Cauldron have plans for if humanity failed?”

“Of course.”

“We’ll need to see those as well.”

She hesitated.

“A problem?” the wizard asked.

Path: identifying strangers and deception.

Her eye moved to the man in the horned helmet, then, after a pause, to the wizard.

“I’m not entirely sure.  Teacher, is it?”

The wizard nodded.  “The Protectorate is just on the other side of the portal, collecting Satyr’s teammates, Nix and Spur.  If you could be discreet, it would be appreciated.”

“Why?  What are you doing, Teacher?”

“What do you think I’m doing?” he asked.  He reached behind his back and withdrew a disc, roughly the size of a trash can lid.  He placed it on the ground, and then kicked it into an empty room off to the side.

“I could stop you,” she said.  There was a flash in the other room.

“Most definitely.  But will you?”

She hesitated.  She watched as a pair of young men in white stepped out of the room.

“Find an empty office,” Teacher said.  “If I’m not here, and another student of mine looks lost, tell them to do the same.  I assume there’s documentation?”

Contessa paused, then nodded.

“Something this big, it has to carry on somehow.  I’ll need a second in command.”

“Me?” she asked.  Her eye moved to the man in the horned helmet.

“He’s his own man.  A wild card.”

“I see,” she said.  More kids in white were streaming from the room.

“Trickster, stop.  You’re with me.  We might need help navigating some of the trickier areas, if the damage to this place is extensive enough.”

One boy stopped where he was, stopping beside Teacher, a dull and unfocused look in his eyes.

Teacher turned his attention to Contessa, “Whatever happens in the next few hours, we need to be there to pick up the pieces.  That was a factor in Cauldron’s plan, wasn’t it?”

“I don’t have much of a role,” Contessa said.  “I can’t do anything when Scion’s on the table.”

“To the contrary,” Teacher said.  “We very much need your help, or we might.”

She narrowed her eyes.  “With?”

“Saving us from ourselves,” he said.  “Case in point, we’ve got a crisis that involves one little lady I think you’re familiar with.”

He held up his phone.  A picture was displayed.

It took her a moment to recognize the person in the picture, and not because it was an unfamiliar face.

Weaver?” she asked.

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Venom 29.9

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Cuff,” I said.  I used my bugs to talk.  “Can you fix the platform?  Make sure the floor is sturdy enough to hold our weight?

“What are you thinking?” Golem asked.

“I’m thinking we go straight up, then exit onto whatever floor has the portal.”

“There are others inside,” Golem said.  “Sveta, Weld, Shadow Stalker… prisoners.”

They can wait,” I said.  “There’s a lot of danger there.  Sveta especially, if we turn a corner and run into her… We got Doormaker, we got the clairvoyant, we have Number Man, who I’m assuming is willing to cooperate?

“I will.”

We have video footage,” I said.  “Of the facility, of the garden, of Scion.  Stuff we can get to Tattletale.  The sooner we get back, the sooner we can get others up to date, and the better our chances of coming up with a plan before we run out of time.  We send PRT squads and capes who can’t help against Scion to recapture Garotte and handle the prisoners.

Golem nodded.  “Makes sense.”

He and Cuff joined Alexandria in fixing a platform out of the hand we’d hidden inside.

Much of Cauldron’s internal structure was gone.  We could see a cross-section above, where rooms had been sliced through.  The energy of Scion’s beam continued to eat through it, leaving a tracery of gold to cut through the gloom, all the way up to the hole at the top.  Maybe two-thirds remained, with the lab and everything essential gone.  A hollow husk, and this empty space, like a missile silo open to the world.

An overcast sky loomed directly above us, and a kind of breeze reached us, maybe a thousand feet underground.  It stirred flecks and fragments from the burned entity and the burned of the walls above into the air, a snowfall of pitch black flakes.

“I’m betting this isn’t so safe to inhale,” Imp said.  “Bits of alien, bits of… metal ash?”

“Closer to soot, I’d think,” Golem said, without turning away from the platform in progress.

“It’s essentially human flesh,” the Number Man said.  “Given the form the entity took and the research the Doctor did.”

“Oh, well then,” Imp said.  She took in a deep breath.  “That’s okay.”

“You joke?  Now?”  Lung asked.  He sounded irritated.

Especially now,” Imp said.  “We hit him hard enough it mattered, we made him hurt.  Be happy.”

Alexandria turned the platform around.  We each stepped inside.

She hauled us skyward.  Imp dropped down to her hands and knees.

She saw me looking, meeting me eye to eye.  Or lens to lens, anyways.  “You can fly.  Why are you in here?”

Limited fuel.  Does it matter?

“It’s more weight on this floor.  If it breaks off, we all fall to our deaths.”

“Don’t be a wuss,” Rachel said.

“I’m not.  Wussiness is being scared about something that isn’t scary.  I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have a thing about shoddy constructions and drops from… oh… seventy stories up?”

“The Siberian’s protecting the shell,” I said.  “Alexandria couldn’t break it if she tried.”

“It’s seventy-seven, by the by,” the Number Man said.  He was surrounded by his Harbingers, the wounded piled at his feet.  “We’ll be eighty-three floors up once we reach the top.”

“Here’s an idea,” Imp said.  “Let’s change the topic.  Like, say, it’s kind of nice to see you returning to form, boss.”


“Creep factor a thousand.  You’re just standing there, and you shouldn’t be upright, with the way your weight is, but you are because of that flight pack, you’re not looking at anyone you talk to, not even opening your mouth.  And when you’re talking, you don’t pause for breath or anything and there’s no emotion in your voice.  I’d almost think you bit it, and your ghost lives on in the swarrrrmm.”  She waggled her fingers as she drew out the last word.

I’m alive,” I said.  I made myself raise my head.

“Right.  But you look dead, and that’s creepy, and that’s good, because creepy reminds me of old Skitter.  Old Skitter was cool.”

I shook my head a little.  Now that things were quieting down, my body was deciding to remind me of the pain in my arm.

I focused on my bugs.  Searching the area.  I didn’t have many, but two bugs floating a foot apart could fly at chest level and run into most people standing in a corridor.

A cluster of bugs died, wiped out by lashing tendrils.

Sveta made it.

There was a crackle, followed by a voice.  “…ear me?

“We’re here, Tattletale,” Golem said, raising a hand to his ear.

Kinda got a little spooked there.  Long time for radio silence.”

“Scion came,” Golem said.  “And we spent a bit at the bottom of the complex.  On our way back to you.”

And the reason Taylor isn’t talking to me?”

“Your teammates are okay,” he said.  “Weaver’s a little unsteady on her feet, using her bugs to talk.  The mic wouldn’t pick that up.”


Download video,” I said.

“Can you download the video?”  Golem asked.

Nope.  I can watch in on the feed when I have a connection, or I can load the recording when I have the physical camera in my hand, but I can’t download.”

“And here I thought Dragon was a good tinker,” Imp said.

It’s a camera the size of a sugar cube,” Tattletale said.  “If you’re looking for the portal, you’re almost horizontal to it.”

I raised a hand for the benefit of the people without earbuds.  “That floor.

“Stop, Alexandria,” Number Man said.  “Down a little.”

We departed.  Rachel and the dogs hopped off at the same time, making the platform swing back a fraction, creating a two-inch gap.

I heard a yelp and turned back, but I couldn’t identify the source.

Sveta?  Another prisoner?

“Let’s move fast,” I said.

We headed down the hallway.  Alexandria had borrowed Cuff’s earbud and microphone and was communicating the basics to Tattletale.  Which was fine by me, because it let me focus on more important things, like ignoring the pain and the possibility of attack from any direction.  I could recognize the damage on the walls and furniture as we approached the portal.  I could smell the salt water and the heavy odor of rotting seaweed on the air.  A nostalgic smell, even if it wasn’t the exact same smell as home.

I saw Shadow Stalker, too, and in a way, I felt a different kind of nostalgia.  Of being a little vulnerable, not at a hundred percent, and suddenly having this person appear, catching me off guard.

You’re here,” I said.

“Nowhere else to go.  Covered your rear for a bit, but when all hell broke loose, I headed back up this way.”

Was she telling the truth?

“Satyr bit it,” she said.  “Others… I don’t know.”

Others don’t matter,” I said.  “Don’t say anything about Satyr for now.”

We made our way through the portal, entering the cave.  It was unbearably bright, and I was thankful for the Dragonfly’s presence, blocking the worst of the sunlight.

“And they’re back,” Nix said, from above us.  She was still held against the wall by Golem’s bindings

“Fantastic,” Spur answered.

Tell us where the heroes are.  No nonsense,” I said.  “Fake wall, fake rock, wherever.  Talk.

“Let’s hear what you’re offering in exchange,” Nix said.

No,” I responded.  I used my bugs to open the Dragonfly’s ramp.

“You don’t know that they’re safe,” Spur said.  He smiled a little.

If you want to know what happened to Satyr, explain,” I said.  “Waste any time, and we leave and send the PRT here to investigate.  You won’t get any answers.”

“Hard sell?” Spur asked.  “Satyr can handle himself.”

“Apparently not,” Imp said.  Someone elbowed her.

I was already turning to float up the ramp.

He’s only wasting my time.  Trying to buy a moment to figure out a tactic to approach this negotiation.

“I know we’re in a rush…” Golem started, as he hurried after me.  “But-”

I care about Revel too,” I said.  I raised my head to look at him.  “But I care about the world more.

I could see Golem’s eyes through the eyeholes in his helmet.  A frown.  “I’ll stay,” he said.  “In case anyone comes through, and so I can search for them.”

Good idea,” I said.  I thought about it.  “What Satyr was saying… Blowout might have done something to their heads.

“I remember Satyrical saying something along those lines.  Stunning presence.”

It’s not a power in the records, not something long-term like this.  But it fits.  There was a string of people found in Vegas with varying amounts of brain damage.  Some permanent,” I said.

I could see his eyes widen.  “He did?  We were interacting with them all that time, and you knew he could have done something like this to Revel?  We let them go?”

I’m telling you so you’re prepared,” I said.  “The reason we didn’t do anything, the reason you shouldn’t do anything, is because this isn’t a time for grudges, vendettas and revenge.  It only sets us back.

“Right,” he said.

“But I don’t need to say that,” I said.  “You’re not the type to cross the line in pursuit of revenge.”

“No,” he said, sighing.  “I’m not.”

I forced myself to raise my good left hand, and I settled it on his shoulder.  The movement, the minor exertion, it made my burned stump throb.

“Thank you.  For caring about Revel,” I spoke with my own voice, quiet, a little strained.  “Makes me feel less guilty about leaving.”

He nodded.

Cuff,” I said.  “Stay with Golem?  Two of you to watch two of them.

She nodded.

“Everyone else, on board,” I said.

They boarded.

With Dragon active, I didn’t need to get in the cockpit.  I could have ordered the A.I. to handle autopilot, with Dragon to keep an eye on things and manage the ship.

But I made my way to the chair anyways.  I eased myself down, then set everything into motion.  I put things on autopilot, and then I fiddled with the search keys until I’d found the video feeds.

A chance to sit, to catch my breath.  Couldn’t deal with people, and I wasn’t up to any exertion at all, even talking.  Talking meant navigating the politics of the group, of taking people into account.

I only wanted to distract myself from the pain of the burn, the rough, blackened wound where my arm should have been. I could push through it, but I was counting every second until I had some relief.

The feeds showed the three key outposts where the PRT had a presence.  The largest settlements that remained, the most obvious targets.  There was one in Zayin, but the Sleeper had followed the refugees in there.  Even if it still stood after Scion’s visit, there was no helping any of the refugees there.

The C.U.I. had seized one settlement for themselves.  A problem that needed dealing with, but our window of time for that sort of thing was past.  The battle was on.  Scion was pissed off.  We were his target, and this time he wasn’t letting up.

Three settlements, and Earth He was under attack.  Western Europe and Northern Africa, minus the English speakers.  The Guild, the Suits, the Meisters, more teams I struggled to place in the chaos.

Khonsu and Leviathan, and capes I recognized as the ones Cauldron had taken.  A whole army.

Dragonfly,” I spoke, using my swarm.  “Give the others a view of this.

No response.

“Dragonfly,” I said, using my real voice.  I hissed in a bit of breath between clenched teeth.  “Put this feed on the other monitors.”

The other monitors lit up.

A cape flung Leviathan.  Scion floated to one side to avoid the incoming Endbringer.  Leviathan, in response, extended the fins the Simurgh had given him, arresting his forward momentum, and then swam through his own afterimage as it crashed into him, changing direction in mid-air.

He crashed into Scion, his fins tearing through the golden man.  Golden mist billowed away as Leviathan found a grip on Scion and continued the assault.

Leviathan was blasted away, heaved into the ground with a force that made everyone present stumble.  Scion then retaliated, striking first the cape that had thrown Leviathan, then Leviathan himself.

The Endbringer was clipped, losing a fin on one hand, but he got his feet under him and ran, trailing all of the disintegration fins on and inside the rocky ground beneath him.  The mist billowed, Leviathan used it to mask himself from Scion’s view, changing direction the moment he was out of sight.

Scion hit him anyways.  Leviathan disappeared out of the camera’s view.

Scion didn’t let up.  His actions before had been slow, methodical.  Now there was nothing of the sort.  No pause, no break.  The moment he couldn’t follow up on Leviathan, he struck others.

Capes erected defenses, Dragon’s Teeth dodged and opened fire with laser pistols.  Some took shelter behind the pillar that Khonsu had erected.  Whatever defensive effect Khonsu had used to wall people inside served to block Scion’s attack.

Scion maintained the attack, picking off anyone who wasn’t behind a good enough defense.  Blasts, spheres, hundreds of narrow lasers, bigger lasers.

Several capes, it seemed, had the ability to transmit a power or a set of powers to others on an epidemic level.  I could see how it spread through the crowd, from one cape to the nearest unaffected cape.  Masses of individuals erecting forcefields, little circles no broader across than a large umbrella.

Alone, the shields were too weak.  Together, the shields were still too weak.  Scion’s golden lights ripped through the massed rank and file.

Two minutes, maybe three or four, Scion finally stopped.  All around him, capes were broken.  Any who had actually managed to get his attention by being strong enough or problematic enough had been obliterated.  The rest had been taken to pieces.  Wounded severely enough they were out of the fight, not so severely they would certainly die.  Limbs removed, flesh burned, body parts broken by the damage to nearby ground, eyes or whole faces ruined.

Dragon’s ships were broken, with a number starting to rebuild and regenerate.  The capes who remained were the ones who were behind defenses so secure they couldn’t also attack.

There was a pause in the assault.  Most of the defending capes had been annihilated.

The camera afforded a glimpse of Scion’s face, tinted an orange-red by the forcefield between Scion and the camera.  His eyebrows were drawn together, lips just a little tighter together.  Lines standing out in his throat.

He hadn’t changed his expression once in the time we’d known him.

He hit Khonsu’s group.  The blast hit the edge of Khonsu’s time effect.

Scion threw another, and it passed through.  The capes didn’t even have time to react.  the light detonated like an artillery shell on impact, tearing through the group.

Another soon appeared, to follow.  Khonsu teleported, taking the group with him.

A whole flight of Dragon’s craft were joining the fray, and reinforcements were arriving.  A share of the capes from Gimel.

Scion left.

And he promptly appeared on another screen.

Catching our side off guard, tearing into us with a fresh kind of violence, not experimentally, but out of some form of impotent rage.

“He’s angry, like Golem said,”  Imp observed.  “You could see it on his face.”


“Yes,” Number Man replied.

“But he’s not demolishing the continent,” she said.  “We know he can.  So… how come?”

“It’s a good question,” the Number Man said.  “We can only guess.”

“I’m open to guesses,” Imp said.

“I prefer to deal with facts,” the Number Man said.  “Let’s leave the guessing to your Tattletale.”

The other battle was unfolding.  Much the same.

No, was he hitting harder, here?  A little less forgiving?

If this was his first time feeling true grief or true anger, then it could be his first time exploring coping mechanisms.

Venting through anger.  How long until he realized that this wasn’t enough and tried something more severe?

I closed my eyes.  I wanted to focus, to take in any and all information about Scion that I could, but my body wasn’t up to it.  If Panacea wasn’t available, then getting painkillers from the first aid kit onboard would only slow things down when I did get medical attention.  Besides, they wouldn’t be strong enough to help here.

Had to weather this.  Only a few minutes.

Deep breaths.

I could hear the Number Man with my bugs.  “Can’t remember.  Was it Bitch or Hellhound?”

“Bitch,” Rachel said.

“Bitch.  Colorful.  You know, it’s surprising the things you can survive, if you know the mechanics of movement, of physics and the structure of the human body… you hear about people surviving falls from seventeen thousand feet up in the air…”

“Are you threatening me?”

“No, no.  Not at all.”

“Then what are you yammering on about?”

“I share Imp’s fears, on a level.  We’re a good height above the water, and I can’t help but see a bit of our pilot’s reflection in the window.  She looks a little peaked.  Would you mind keeping an eye on her, making sure she doesn’t stop breathing?”

“I’m okay,” I said.  I grit my teeth.  “Four or so minutes and we’re there.”

“Very reassuring.  But maybe-”

“She’s fine,” Rachel said.

But I could hear the distinct sound of her footsteps and the claw-on-metal-flooring racket as she and her dogs approached.  She stood beside my chair, back to the window, and put one steel-toed boot up on my armrest.

“Not because of what he said,” Rachel said.  Her body faced me, but her head was turned to look out the window.  “Keeping you company.”

“Yeah,” I said.

It was appreciated.

The craft shuddered slightly as we set down on the roof of the restaurant that had been rendered a makeshift hospital.  I was stirred from a daze I hadn’t realized I was in.

My eyes roved over the screens, taking in one last glimpse as the ramp opened.

Things weren’t much different from before.  The defense took a different form, they had Bohu and Tohu with them, and they were reshaping defenses to buy the defenders a little slack.  But Dalet had taken heavy losses in an initial attack.

There were more people running for their lives than there were people fighting.

The fight’s almost over,” I said.

“I said this a moment ago,” Lung said, his voice deep, almost accusatory.

Without my asking, Rachel gave me a hand in standing, putting one hand under my left armpit and helping bring me to my feet.

I pushed onward, ignoring Lung.  “Okay.  He attacks this settlement next, probably.  Then we find out what his next move is.”

“Quite a few dead,” Alexandria said.

She was making a habit of surprising me when she spoke.  It tended to sound unlike the Alexandria I’d gotten to know in the interrogation room back at the Brockton Bay PRT headquarters.  Obviously because she was really Pretender, but that was a hard fact to keep in mind.  It was hard to shake my mental image of Alexandria sitting across the table from me.

“Yes,” I said.  We started making our way down the ramp.

The Number Man mused, “It’s very possible he’ll go back to Earth H, start the cycle anew.  Or he hits a world or two we’re not in touch with and then hits Earth H.”

“Or,” I said, “he realizes that this isn’t serving to vent his anger over what happened to his partner, and he steps up the aggression some.”

Gimel was entirely different.  Nilbog had been hard at work, creating a horde of minions.  Buildings had been reinforced, shored up with shelves of what looked to be obsidian.  Capes were gathered in bands, and all were at attention, ready for an attack at any moment.

The dead and the wounded, I noted, had been cleared away.

The Number Man opened the door leading to the stairwell and the back of the restaurant-turned field hospital.

“You’re back, Lung,” Panacea said.  “Ah.  You’ve got wounded with you.”

“Yes,” Lung said.

I could see Panacea’s entourage.  Marquis, Bonesaw, and Marquis’ followers, minus a few members.  A man so tidy he beat out the Number Man in neatness, one with arms black from fingertip to elbow and dyed blond hair teased into spikes.  A man so covered in chains and black tattered cloth I couldn’t make out his actual features.  They had sandwiches in hand, no doubt put together from supplies that had been shipped in.

“Any priorities?” she asked.

“Skitter,” Imp said, at the same time I said, “Doormaker.”

“Don’t be dumb,” Imp told me.

Panacea shrugged, “We can look after two at a time.  I can see what happened to Skitter.  What’s Doormaker’s wound?”

“Traumatic damage to the cranium,” Alexandria-Pretender said.  “He’s never been all there, mentally, but we need his brain in one piece.”

“The Cauldron capes are tougher,” Panacea said.  “Bonesaw?  Can you give it a shot?”

“Will do,” Bonesaw said.  She sounded tired.  None of the perkiness or endless cheer that had defined her as a villain.

Well, being a good guy was harder, really.

I used my flight pack to raise up, then laid flat on the countertop.

“Pain relief and essentials only, please,” I said.  “Then the others.  The Doormaker’s partner, then Gully and Canary.  I’ll go last.”

Panacea glanced over her shoulder, as if checking that was okay.

“Ignore her,” Imp said.  “She’s being dumb.”

“Most of the others can do more in a fight than I can.  They need everything in working order.  I can function without an arm.”

“Whatever,” Panacea said.  “Works for me, actually.”

Then she touched me, and the pain went away.  I relaxed so suddenly I felt like I’d suddenly become part liquid.  I’d been so tense my head wasn’t even touching the countertop, my legs and shoulders tense.

“Thank you,” I said.  “Thanks.”

“You have a high pain tolerance,” she said.

“One of Bakuda’s bombs, way back when,” I said.  “I think it messed with my head, as far as my perception of pain.  I found out what it’s really like to feel pain, real ten-out-of-ten pain.  A part of me knew it was too much to be true, and other stuff’s affected me more because I knew it was tied with something real.  Case in point, a burn is still a motherfucker.”

“Well, we’ll fix it,” she said.

I nodded.  I was happy to be able to nod.  I watched her face while she worked, because there wasn’t much else to look at.  A young woman now, not attractive but not unattractive, her face still covered from forehead to chin in freckles, frizzy brown hair tied back with bandanna to keep the hair out of her face.  Her shirt had the sleeves rolled up to the shoulders, and I could see blood and smears of black here and there.

I felt a pang of envy.

She’d been just as lost as me.  Maybe more lost, maybe not.  I’d had friends, but that didn’t necessarily mean I’d had a rudder.  But she’d found herself.  She’d found a path and she’d found something she could do.  She had a role in this.

I looked away.

My bugs were stirring throughout the area, as I gathered my forces and replenished my supply.  I could sense people outside.  Tattletale was among them, laptop tucked under one arm.  She reached the door and paused, glancing up at the sky.

For an instant, I thought it was because Scion was here.  He was due.

But she pulled the door open and walked inside.

Panacea looked up.  I could see her eyes narrow a bit.  “You weren’t invited, Tattletale.”

“Business,” Tattletale said, waltzing in anyways.  “Someone camera me.”

There was a clatter as Tattletale unceremoniously dropped the laptop down on a table.

Imp was the first to get the camera off her mask and throw it to Tattletale.  Tattletale set about extracting a chip.  “So.  Harbinger zero.”

The Number Man made a pained face.  “You couldn’t call me Harbinger Ten?  Or even Number Man?”

“I could.  I hope you’ve got some good, juicy tidbits for us to work with, H-zero.”

“Very little that’s concrete.  This is all very much guesswork.”

“Then let’s talk hypotheses,” she said.  “Educated guesses.”

“Scion’s upset,” I said.

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  “His buddy died, I gather?”

“Yeah,” Imp said.  “And we threw bits of his dead buddy at him to distract him before dropping a skyscraper on him.  But I dunno how much that did.”

“You accomplish your goal, in the middle of all that?” Tattletale asked.

“We found out second triggers aren’t a real possibility,” I said.  “Formulas either.  But if we want to do the second trigger thing, Contessa should be able to point the way.  It could mean extra firepower, or buying time.”

“She wasn’t there?” Tattletale asked.

“I assumed she was with Khonsu.”

“According to the attackers, she died,” the Number Man said.  “Mantellum’s power was the rock to her scissors.”

“You failed,” Shadow Stalker said.

I frowned.  She wasn’t entirely wrong.  “Our best bet was a special kind of Cauldron formula, and he nuked them.  Cauldron let Mantellum slip past their radar, so maybe there’s a chance there’s another Cauldron cape out there who got that special kind of formula, with a game-breaking power.  Something that isn’t in Scion’s model.”

“Unlikely,” the Number Man said.  “Mantellum slipped by us because he had a power that countered perception powers.  The sort of power we’d need against Scion would be an offensive one, and I doubt we’d let things slip so badly in vetting those powers.”

“You’re a real downer, you know that?”  Imp asked.

Panacea let go of my stump and walked over to where the Doormaker’s partner was lying.  I supposed the essential fixes were done.  I checked my stump, and found the burned skin was sloughing off.

“Don’t touch,” Panacea ordered, looking at me out of the corner of one eye.

I let my hand drop, then sat up.

“The biggest thing,” I said, “Was that Scion was wrong.  He can see the path to victory, and from the vision we saw, we know that he can make mistakes.  He plotted for a future that would be sure to reunite him and his partner… and he got his wish.  It was just that his partner was brain-dead, gutted, useless.”

“Sooo,” Imp said.  “We help him reach a future where he eradicates humanity, trick him, he waltzes away.”

“His goal isn’t to eradicate humanity,” Tattletale said.  “It’s to destroy most of it.  Remember?  Dinah never said he’d destroy all of us.”

“If you destroy ninety-nine point nine percent of humanity,” the Number Man said, “We’ll die out.”

“Probably,” Tattletale agreed.  “But he’s not going that far.  He’s leaving options open.  He’s got one singular purpose.  To continue his species’ life cycle.  To do that, he needs a partner.”

“Can we give him one?” I asked.

Tattletale smirked.  “Kind of hard to pull off.  A lot of bases to cover, and a lot of areas where we don’t have enough info.”

“But I’m asking if we can give him one.  Can we fake him out, give him what he wants and buy ourselves some breathing room?”

Marquis stepped away from the back of the kitchen.  He watched as Bonesaw dug through Doormaker’s skull cavity.  “It could upset him, more than he’s already been upset.  Speaking as someone who recently recovered the thing I want most in the world, the only thing scarier than the idea of losing that thing is the reality of what I’d do for revenge.”

“Upsetting him is good,” Imp said.  “Right?”

“Right,” I said.  “He can be affected emotionally.  Not by emotion-affecting powers, I don’t think, but he’s influenced by his feelings.  That’s good.  That’s something we can use.”

“You want to irritate the world-destroying alien god,” one of Marquis’ men said.

“I want to get him to a point where he might make a mistake,” I said.  My eyes moved to Shadow Stalker.  It’s how we captured her in the first place.  “It’s a starting point.”

“Starting points are only that,” Lung said.  “I can understand if you would start this with your enemy off-balance, then fight him knowing you can hurt him, but he cannot be truly hurt.”

“Tea, anyone?” Marquis asked, interjected.

Lung nodded.  I raised my good hand.  Panacea nodded as well.

“Green?” he asked me.  “The others drink green.”

“Black.  With milk.”

He turned his attention to the kettle.

I looked at Lung, taking a deep breath before speaking. “Not starting this isn’t an option.  If we wait until an idea comes up, then we’re going to be too late.  We start this, reckless as it may be, and we leave a door open.”

“For failure as well as success,” Marquis said, on the far end of the room, his attention on emptying the kettle into the individual mugs.

“What would you suggest, then?” I asked.  I might have come across a little hostile in the process.

“I would counter your question with a question,” Marquis said.  “Who do you see on the front lines?  Which heroes and villains are still fighting?  Which ones keep returning to the battlefield, before any of the others have even found their feet?”

I’d thought something like this to myself.  “The monsters, the ones that are a little crazy, the ones that are a lot crazy.”

“Not quite the answer I would have given,” Marquis said.

“Which answer would you have given?” I asked.

“I would say it’s the people who are most in touch with who they truly are,” Marquis said.

“Same thing,” I responded.  “We’re all fucked up, we’re all damaged, a little crazy, a little monstrous.”

He frowned a little.  “People here might take offense to that.  Myself included.”

“No offense intended.”

“There’s a strength in knowing who you are.  I would suggest that everyone play to that knowledge.  Reflection, after all, is the province of the old.  It’s in your final days that you sum up your experiences, weigh the good against the bad, think back to the pivotal moments, and decide if you’ve made your mark.  Others go through this sooner, the terminally ill.  Those that expect to die.”

“I don’t get it,” Rachel said.

“Are you happy with who you are?” he asked.


“In a general sense, do you know what you’re doing in the next few hours and days?”

Rachel looked at me.  “Yeah.”

“Is there something in common between those two things?”

Bitch made a face, “Kind of?”

That’s what I’m talking about.”

“I don’t get it.”

There was a distant rumble.  A roar rose through the air, a series of shouts and warnings all coming in unison, mingling together into a singular noise.

He’s here.

It’s unending.  The same thing over and over again.  Destruction, an enemy we can’t truly beat, always just a little worse than the last time.

Rachel left, no question.  Imp lingered, but followed, sticking to Rachel like glue.  I saw Alexandria, Number Man and the Harbingers go, then Marquis and his followers, Lung excepted.

“Hey, Amelia,” Bonesaw said.  “Gift wrap this one for me?”

Panacea stepped away from the eyeless clairvoyant, touching Doormaker.  I watched as the bone at his forehead started to knit together, and was then covered with flesh.

He jolted a little, and then sat up.

“You were bleeding into your brainpan,” Bonesaw said.  “You’re going to feel crummy.”

He raised a hand, reaching out, floundering.

“Wait, did I fuck him up?” Bonesaw asked.

“No, he was screwed up before,” I said.  “He’s looking for his partner.”

Lung grabbed the Clairvoyant, then staggered a little.

It’s based on touch, I realized.

I used my bugs to draw a cord out.  They wrapped it around one finger and held it straight out to Doormaker.  Panacea grabbed it and tugged a little, leading the blind Clairvoyant to his partner.

They held hands.

There was a pause.

Then doors unfolded, throughout my range.

Most of the others had left.  Tattletale was focused on her laptop, participating in the battle in a sense, even if she was still here.

Bonesaw and Panacea, too.  They were cleaning the tables, moving things aside and getting organized, preparing for the battle to come.

The ones who hadn’t left yet were Shadow Stalker, Lung and I.

“Am I safe to go?” I asked.

At my question, as if I’d somehow prodded her, Shadow Stalker left.

“You can,” Panacea said.  “But let me thicken the skin, so your stump doesn’t pop like a water balloon.”

“Let’s,”  I said.

She touched my stump.

“I asked to be last for a reason,” I said.

She looked up, curious.

“You know, what your dad was saying?  I kind of wish he’d finished.  I feel like I was on the brink of coming to a conclusion.”

The sounds outside were getting worse.  Doormaker opened a portal beside us.  Safety?

It was something to do.  I helped the others lead the patients through.  Lung carried two of the wounded Irregulars.  We entered a cave with a very flat bottom, open to the elements.  A nice day, so different from the chaos and ugliness that was in New Brockton Bay.

“My dad and I have talked about this a good bit.  Why?”

“I dunno.  Finding our role, finding our place?  Lung and I are the only ones who haven’t left or started preparing for the fight.  Well, us and the wounded.  The others know where they’re at.  Even Imp, without any power that can really do something, is out there with Rachel, giving guidance.  But Lung and I?  We’re both pretty proud individuals, and we don’t have a role in this.  Like Lung said, he can’t attack Scion until this is over.”

Lung had brought the last few through.  All of us settled out of the way of the portal door, in case a beam came blasting through.  “I have a job.  I will protect these girls.”

“I think you know what I mean.  You’re pissed, on a level, because you’re not a part of all of this.  You’re better than this job you’ve been given.”

He folded his arms, but he didn’t disagree.

“There’s a psychiatric term for this,” Bonesaw said.  “Projection.”

“No.  Skitter is right,” Lung said, looking irritated.  “I am more than a bodyguard.”

Reinforcements were arriving at the outskirts of the settlement, using Doormaker’s doors.

“I feel like I’m on the brink of finding where I need to be,” I said.  “I sort of have the power to act, I sort of have a role.  I can communicate, I can scout, I’m versatile enough to combine my powers with others.  I can figure out ways to attack, I can brainstorm.  But something’s missing.  Like Lung says, I feel like I’m better than this.  What Marquis was saying struck a chord.”

“Think back to the time in your life when you were strongest,” Panacea said.

I did.

Not a time when I had the Dragonfly or the flight pack.  It was when I was fighting the Slaughterhouse Nine, Alexandria, Defiant and Dragon.

“Times when you were most scared,” she said.

The same times.

“I think those are the times when you’re most like you.  And it sucks, I know.  It’s horrible to think about it like that, because at least for me, it wasn’t a time when I liked myself.  Just the opposite.”

“But you came to terms with it.”

“I owned that part of me,” she said.  “And I can barely look Carol and Neil in the eyes, because of it.  But I’m secure in who I am, and I can do this.  Healing people, being a medic for the people fighting on our side.”

I nodded.

The image I’d seen on Glenn’s computer screen crossed my mind.  Me, unrecognizable even to myself, surrounded by the swarm.

I’m just a little bit of a monster, I thought.  I can’t put the blame on my passenger.

I exhaled slowly.  I could hear the Simurgh’s screaming.

“Will you help me?”  I asked.

“Help?”  Panacea asked.

“Imp reminded me of a moment.  Of something Bonesaw said, when she was carving into my head.  A threat.  That she was going to mess with Grue’s head, take away his ability to control his power.  She was going to do the same to me.”

“I think I know what you’re thinking,” Bonesaw said.  “Even if I did anything there, it’d probably fuck up your head.”

“I haven’t done anything in that department, but I’ve gotten enough glimpses to guess you wouldn’t come back from it,” Panacea said.  “No fixes, no patching it up.  It’d be like trying to plug a leak with water gushing out full force.”

“Second triggers are about knocking down walls,” I said.  My eyes fell on Bonesaw.  “Removing restrictions the entity put in place.  If this part of the brain is a part that the entity shaped to help regulate powers on our end, then I need you to de-regulate.”

“If it was that easy, I would’ve done it for all the other members of the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“I’m not thinking it’s easy,” I said, my voice quiet.

Some capes came through.  They brought two wounded through the portal, laying them out on the flat rock floor beside us.  Panacea and Bonesaw bent down, getting to work.

“Give me a minute and I’ll try,” Bonesaw said.  She was patching up a cape that had been disemboweled.  She looked over her shoulder at Tattletale, who had set up in a far corner.  “But I gotta say, I’m giving you a ninety-nine percent chance of coming out of this with regrets.  Maybe you should run it by Tattletale, there?”

I looked back at Tattletale.

“You’re going to lose your mind.  Maybe a little, maybe a lot.  Maybe all at once, maybe in pieces.  Depends on how it all reconnects in the end,” Bonesaw said.

“Tattletale would stop me,” I said.  “She’d…”

See it as something self-destructive, suicidal.

I shook my head a little.  “…No.  Keep her in the dark, for the time being.  Let her focus on what she’s doing.”

“Okay,” Bonesaw said.  “She’s going to figure it out pretty fast, though.”

I saw Panacea fidget.  She was kneeling by Canary.

“Riley,” Panacea said.

Bonesaw looked at her… whatever Panacea was to her.

“I’ll handle it.”

“You don’t do brains.”

“I’m inexperienced, yeah,” Panacea said.  “But even inexperienced, I think I can do a cleaner job than you.  And Tattletale’s less likely to catch on if you aren’t sawing Taylor’s skull open.”

“I wasn’t talking about experience,” Bonesaw replied.

Panacea stared down at her hands, covered in tattoos, with a rich, vibrant red in the gaps.

“This isn’t a solution,” she said, without looking up.  “You said a second trigger wouldn’t work.  This is… it’s so crude you couldn’t even call it a hack job.”

The Simurgh’s screaming continued.

Dinah had left me two notes.

The Simurgh had reminded me of the second.

‘I’m sorry.’

It wasn’t an apology for the consequences of the first note.  No, Dinah hadn’t approached me since.  She hadn’t decided I’d fulfilled the terms and deemed it okay to finally contact me again.

Two words, telling me that something ugly was going to happen.  Directed at me.

There was a chance that it meant I’d lose someone, or I’d lose something precious.  Maybe it referred to my friends.  Maybe it referred to my mission, my direction.  My dad, perhaps, which might have already happened.

But there was a possibility that it referred to me.  That it was tied to our ability to come out ahead at the end of all this.  To some slim chance.

Maybe there was a sacrifice involved.

I shook my head, unable to articulate any of the arguments, to come up with something profound to say.  I only said, “Do it.”

Panacea laid her hand across my forehead.

And it all went wrong.

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Venom 29.8

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The stairwell was buried under chunks of concrete and steel large and heavy enough to flatten trucks, but the ceiling was high, and the gap in it gave me a view of the chamber beyond, lit by the red emergency lights.  My view of Scion was obstructed by the rubble on the stairs, but I saw the golden glow that he cast off.

He was so small, so far away.

The partner, so massive.

The room looked like an aircraft hangar.  My bugs reached out, and I could only sense the three walls closest to me.  Vast.

The partner filled the space, beautiful in a way I struggled to put words to.  It was like a volcano mid-eruption, stone mingled with the orange-red magma, spray or smoke reaching incredible heights… it was breathtaking in the sheer elemental nature of it, fascinating, beautiful, and so incomprehensible I couldn’t have understood it with decades of study.

But where the volcano was driven by seismic movements, I was pretty sure, and the storm by wind, this was driven by something else.  Just as basic, on a level.

An idea, half-formed, captured in a moment.

It conjured up images an artist’s sketchpad, putting body parts on the page, trying variations.  There, in the sliver of the chamber I could make out, there was flesh, a soft gray, lit by the red emergency lighting.  It might have been menacing, but the lines had a softness to them, and every part was positioned in an almost gentle manner.  The individual parts were androgynous, as a rule, but they veered into the slightly masculine, the slightly feminine, even alien, territories.

Always, there was something to take the threat out of it.  One long-fingered hand, upturned, pinky and ring fingers curled slightly, as if reaching down to offer aid.  Another hand, more childish, the underside and palm white, before fading into the gray colors the other parts shared, vulnerable like a dog with its throat or belly exposed.  Another still, with water running down it, streams of the liquid running between and down fingers, more a piece of art than a limb intended for use.  There were countless more I couldn’t see, couldn’t spare the bugs to study them.

I could look at any one piece, and I could see the beauty in it.  Any number of these could have been blended together, mixed and matched to create a human being.  Not overtly male or female, but no doubt kind in appearance.

Then, at the same time, there was the bigger picture, only a glimpse of it in the far end of the staircase, through the part of the ceiling that had collapsed in that massive room… this jungle of flesh, like parts of a doll waiting to be assembled.  Artificial, everything in the wrong scale.  There was a pattern to it, like there was a pattern to the movement of the waves in the ocean storm, but I didn’t have access to the underlying logic.  I could only get a general sense of which direction the wind had been blowing.

Here and there, flesh connected to flesh.  In other places, the flesh broke down into core elements, expanses of skin, veins, muscle and bone, all with hints of the same art of experimentation the larger pieces had.  Where flesh didn’t connect to other pieces, it broke down further into other things, into fractals and patterns, then into things or spaces I couldn’t make out, like it had turned around a corner that didn’t exist.

Sveta released of my forearm, and the resulting pain hauled me out of an awestruck daze.

Her tendrils found targets with a speed my eyes couldn’t follow, and she wrapped herself around the table that had held the vials.

It took a moment before every tendril was set in place.  When she was done, she let her head sink down until her face was pressed against the tabletop, her eyes shut.

Blood ran down my mangled arm, soaking into the fabric of my costume and then oozing out slowly at points where the skin was tightest against the surface.  Normally, it might have been my knuckles, my forearm.  Here, it was the parts that hadn’t been wrapped by the tendril, bulging out.

At the very least, the armor on my costume and the nature of the fabric had kept the tendrils from simply slicing through the flesh like razor wire.  The armor was mangled, but it had saved me a severed artery.

I felt the limb throb, as if it were responding to the fact that I was paying attention to it.  It made for an eerie sensation, where the dull sensation felt so out of tune with the degree of injury, yet so great, compared to the little that remained of the limb.

Shit,” I said.

“Don’t,” Sveta said.  “Don’t move, don’t talk.”

I went still, even as the dull throb in my arm got worse.  I was losing blood, though not as much as I thought I should be.

Better than one of those things going around my neck.

“Don’t move, don’t talk.  You’re not there,” she murmured, barely audible.

My eyes moved to the stairwell and the scene below.  My teammates were there.  Lung and Canary were as well.

“The only ones here are me and my thoughts,” Sveta said.  Her eyes were shut.  “I am in control of my mind and my feelings, and I am focused.  I am confident, and I am building towards a better future for myself.  Every success is a component in building that up, a brick on a building in construction, but my mistakes do not tear it down.”

The stand she was wrapped around creaked.

“My mistakes do not tear it down.  They are a part of me, but they are not the most important part of me.”

Hurry, I thought.

Uncharitable, maybe, but I couldn’t afford to sit back and bleed to death while she worked through this.  I understood that she had her problems, that control was hard to come by.

I got that, but my friends could die down there, if the collapse hadn’t killed them already.

Sveta let go of the table.  Her tendrils extended into the air around her, like a sea anemone’s fronds.  Here and there, they touched things and snapped into place with a destructive power: the refrigerator that had held the Balance sample, a shelving unit, a countertop with drawers in front..

They caught on the bugs in the area, and they extinguished my swarm with an almost ruthless efficiency.  Too many tendrils for my bugs to navigate between them, the movements too unpredictable as they drifted in the air, responding to air currents.  The tendrils were severing steel handles on the drawers, a bug’s flesh was nothing.

My flesh was nothing.  The longest of them came dangerously close to making contact with me.

“I’m going to leave,” she said.  From the tone and the volume, she was talking to herself, trying to convince herself to move.

To be a bystander in your own body, I thought.

I felt a more serious pain building in my arm.  Something more representative of the damage that had been done to it.

“I’m going where there aren’t any people,” Sveta said, again.

Go, I thought.

Tendrils found the ragged edges where the ceiling above the stairwell had cracked.  Sveta launched herself into the stairwell as though she were a living slingshot.  Tendrils splayed out in every direction to stop her forward momentum, arresting her nearly as fast as she’d moved.  Then she reached out again, and was gone into the morass of body parts below, with its dim red lighting.

She was gone.

Yet I couldn’t bring myself to move.

The pain in my arm had me rattled.  It was intense, yet disconnected in a way.  An alarm system that wailed with lights flashing, but it was somewhere off to one side, in another room somewhere.

I didn’t want to be in a metaphorical room with that pain.  The second my blood started pounding, the moment I set my foot down to run and an impact reverberated through my body, this sharp, violent pain would become something else entirely.

Instead, I activated my flight pack.  To get myself moving, I pushed off the ground, floating into the stairwell.

When I reached the first chunk of rubble, I set one foot on it and drove myself forward, with as smooth and gentle a motion as I could manage.  The flight pack managed a decent speed, but any help was a good thing.

Another chunk of rubble, another kick forward.

More of the room below came into view.  The staircase was as long as it was because the impossibly large room needed a high ceiling.  Now I was getting the full view, rather than a sliver of it all, coupled with the input from my bugs.  I could see just how much of the partner’s flesh filled the space, flooding whole areas, interlocking or simply arranged side by side.  Nearly three stories high, and many of the parts reached from floor to ceiling.

I pushed my swarm through the space, and I could feel a kind of disorientation.  Something I’d experienced before, in mild doses.  I directed my bugs from points A to B, except they only made it partway, or they moved too far, or they arrived at a slightly different location.


And it wasn’t the only thing that caught my attention, as I increased my speed, descending towards Scion and the others.  There was a creaking noise.  The groan of a structure settling, of tired floorboards and hinges in dire need of oiling.

It didn’t stop.  I couldn’t tell with my ears, but my swarm had a range of hearing that extended beyond the human spectrum.  Through that distorted sense, I could tell that there was a sound that was gradually getting worse.  A screeching, tearing noise.

At my command, bugs moved away from the second entity, away from Scion and the rubble, and they headed up.

The combination of fine sensory input and the hundreds of bugs told me the tremors were worse in specific spots, the cracks deeper in spots.

It formed a map of sorts.  Where the cracks were, the tremors and creaks, areas stood out as danger zones.

I passed the patch of blood and mangled flesh where the doctor had fallen.  Some of the tendrils had crushed their way through bone, severing the skull in half.  Others had found their way into the cracks between joints, sawing through connective tissues, muscle and skin to completely detach the limbs.  If any part of her had still been alive, the rubble had crushed it when it had fallen.

I accelerated my forward momentum with another gentle kick.

Chunks of the ceiling dropped.  I didn’t slow, only using the senses the bugs offered along with the flight pack to move out of the way well before they could reach me.

As I’d done with the rubble, I kicked off a falling section of the ceiling, to better change direction and propel myself forward.

I found the others.  Golem was almost invisible as he created hands of concrete to shield himself, Cuff and Imp.  I’d nearly mistaken his hands for one of the false ones.  The only difference was that his hands moved, for a little while.

Rachel had an unconscious Canary slung over her lap.  Lung had foregone riding Bastard to run on his own, loping forward on all fours, climbing more than he ran.  It was too hard to move through this labyrinth, where the pale gray flesh occupied as much space as it left untouched.  Easier for Lung to lunge forward, grab an empty eye socket, then leap forward onto an outstretched arm.  The dogs found solid surfaces to leap onto and away from.

The Number Man, Alexandria, the Harbingers, the wounded and the captured case fifty-threes were in another group.  He’d found a spot he deemed safe from the collapse, beneath an arch of tissue.

The materials that were falling were all substantial, pieces of granite bigger than a truck, concrete shelves, panes of solid steel torn at the edges where stress had brought them free.  The impacts were heavy enough I could feel the shockwaves in the air.  It made my arm move, which renewed the pain, reminded me of the blood loss and what was very possibly catastrophic damage.

I felt an edge of panic.  Not a familiar feeling.  It wasn’t being hurt that was the problem, but the amount of attention it was occupying.  I needed to focus, to pay attention to any number of things, and yet my arm kept screaming for me to fix it.

Why had I touched her?  I hadn’t been planning for her to save me.  Hadn’t even been aware she could.

A distance away, a chunk of concrete fell atop Scion.  He barely reacted to the blow itself, but he lashed out.  A controlled blast, very carefully avoiding contact with his alter ego, simultaneously obliterating much of the offending material.  I could sense the others splitting further apart as the blast brought more of the architecture down around them.

Scion rose into the air, floating deeper into the room.  As he’d done with the vials, he touched the flesh beside him, almost tender.

I drew closer to the others, carefully navigating between the fractal webs that the tissues seemed to emerge from.  My bugs helped pave the way, checking where the routes were best.  Again, the bugs’ trajectories seemed off.  A few flew into the fractal spaces, and subsequently dropped off my power’s radar.

I was caught off guard when my path veered unexpectedly.  It had been safe for my swarm, but it led me off course, the entire room seeming to swing as the bugs on the ceiling and floor moved and I seemed to stay still.  I found myself on course for a fractal ‘hedge’ that bordered the top edge of a large eye.

I was already readjusting, carefully guiding myself towards safer open space.  If I hadn’t had the benefit of my swarm, if my reflexes had been slower, I might have collided with it.

I wasn’t entirely sure what might have happened if I had, but something that put my bugs well beyond my reach couldn’t have been good.

The near-miss was making my heart pound.  It wasn’t something I would have paid attention to, normally, but now it was impacting the damage to my arm.  My entire body was starting to ache, as though the nerves in and around the injury site itself couldn’t host it all.

I couldn’t calm down, so keeping my actions low-key and maintaining a low heart rate wasn’t helping as much.  I increased my pace a little, using a bit more force as I propelled myself forward.

Bastard barreled through a shelf of skin, muscle and a rigid, rubbery material that might have been cartilage.

Soft, breakable, I thought, as I changed direction, following, moving lower to the ground.

I might have said the idea dawned on me, but dawn implied light, the rising of the sun, the start of a new day.  This was something else.  The notion… descended on me, that I was seeing what Tattletale had talked about.

She’d called it the well.  Scion was only the tip of the iceberg, any damage to him drawing from the well to fix his physical body.

This was it.  The other entity, it had never established the separate self, independent of the well.  Something had gone wrong.

I thought about what Cauldron had said, about having already saved the world.

They fought this thing before and they beat it.

The collapse was dwindling, but it was dust and finer rocks that were falling, now, billowing through the space.  Just as scary, on a level, and it was hurting visibility.

Rachel, Lung and the canines tore through a barrier I’d thought they would take the time to circle around.  My course had been plotted to put myself in their way, and now I threatened to fall behind.

Instead, I dropped down, taking a steeper course.

No, they were moving too fast.  I was going to land on top of Lung if I maintained the course, instead of landing in front of them.  And that was if I didn’t slow down before hitting the ground.

I maintained the course.  I didn’t slow down.

Instead, I tried to shout out a heads up.  He has enhanced hearing.


My voice wasn’t as loud as I’d hoped, and I was drowned out by another shower of dust and debris.

The only reason I didn’t hit him hard enough to break one of our necks was that he stopped to grab two fingers in the midst of our surroundings, tensing to throw himself forward.

I landed two feet in front of him, twisting myself around to avoid letting my arm hit the ground directly.  The vibration shuddered through my entire body and increased the pain a hundredfold anyways.

I was left barely able to breathe, writhing on the ground, my arm crushed between my thighs and my stomach, because squeezing it and applying pressure like I was proved a fraction less painful than letting it move on its own.

And Lung loomed over me.

“Ah-”  I managed, before I found myself huffing out the remainder of my breath.

“I have no reason to help you,” Lung growled the words, nearly inaudible with the sounds in the distance.  His voice was altered with his transformation, slurred.

I couldn’t muster a response, slurred, audible or otherwise.

“I think you have lost a lot of blood.  You will slip into a state of shock, Skitter.  Your body will betray you.  You will piss and shit yourself.  Your emotions will escape your control and you will experience a kind of terror that you might think is not possible.”

I grit my teeth.  I knew Rachel had stopped nearby, but Huntress was acting agitated, and Rachel couldn’t get control.  A part of me wanted to draw the connections, interpret why Huntress was pacing like she was, and I found it harder than it should be.

“I dislike the idea of being a follower, little Skitter,” Lung rumbled.  “I maintain a territory, always.  I bring my enemies low, and I am feared and respected, always.  I enjoy the things I enjoy, drinking, food, fucking women.  Never being fully out of control.  You understand?”

This is my fate, I thought, a little deliriously.  I die getting monologued to by a supervillain.

“A man told me that in Go, it is deemed more worthy, more honorable, more respectable, if you can accept the fight as lost and surrender.  If you are right, if it is at the right moment.  I came with you because I knew I would not beat him in another fight.  Here, there is something I can do.  But I do not follow you, I do not give up that control.  I would say partners, but I would be lying.”

I did what I could to meet his eyes.  I still had Defiant’s knife in my hand.  I deactivated the blur and let it fall.  Then I reached over to my elbow and used all of my strength to raise my injured arm.

It flopped like a spaghetti noodle, the bones simply not there, pulverized.

Lung took my arm in one claw, gripping it hard.  My back arched, my chest expanding as I drew in a ragged breath.  I held in the scream that I so badly wanted to utter.

“I fight him because it is my nature.  He would sunder me without thinking.  He humiliates me, destroys any place I would call territory, and would deny me the things I enjoy.  Good food, some drink, fucking.  I will not bow, understand?  I will not ever lose.”

My vision was swimming.  I wasn’t even sure if I was maintaining eye contact, now.

He squeezed a little more.  I refused to scream, but I had to utter something.  I settled for a low groan, an extended grunt, strangled.

“You cannot hold yourself straight.  You are weak enough that to be alongside you would bring me lower than I stand now.  You understand?”

Like Grey Boy, turning on Jack because Jack failed and showed a degree of weakness.

“Skitter,” Rachel’s voice sounded.  “Problem?”

She’d come.  She wasn’t positioned to see my hand.

“Go,” Lung growled.  “Tell her you need help.”

I drew an ‘x’ in Rachel’s way, with the handful of bugs I had on hand, barring her path.

“You came to me.  None of the others.  Not Bitch, not your heroes, not even the men and women from Cauldron.  You want my assistance.  Ask me for it, show me your weakness.”

Cauterize the limb, I thought.  It wouldn’t fix anything, but there was no way to stem the blood loss from the damage that extended across the limb.  Any tourniquet capable of cutting off the blood flow would make the limb fall off anyways, and then I’d still have blood loss.

At best, if I were to ask him, he’d be gone.  The not-partnership would be over the second I admitted my weakness.  At worst, he’d kill me.

I didn’t have enough wind to say much.

I’ll kill you,” I gasped out the words.

He didn’t react, except to squeeze the arm harder.  Again, my back arched.  I writhed, gritting my teeth.

“With a trick?  Deception?  By asking for help?”

I shook my head.

He reached down and picked up the disintegration knife.  “With this?”

I shook my head again, and immediately regretted not having spoken instead.  My vision swam.  I had to fight to keep my eyes on his.

He didn’t follow up with another question.

Come on, I thought.  Can’t hold eye contact.

“Mm,” he grunted.

“Burn it,” I said.  “If you’re angry…”

I had to stop to get my breath.

“Angry?” he asked.

“Me beating you… twice… then enjoy burning me… but fuck… fucking burn it off.”

There was a long pause.

He lit his hand on fire.  My mangled arm went up in flames.

I broke eye contact.  I might have screamed.  I wasn’t sure.

Only a minute, judging by the way things had moved.  Darkness had swept over my vision, I’d blacked out for a moment.

Arm gone, stump burned black.  I was draped on Huntress’ back, behind Rachel.  Canary was slumped over in front of her.

My entire body hurt in a steady, consistent way that suggested it wasn’t injury, but the aftermath of the other trauma.  It was very possible my body was flooded with whatever neurotransmitters told it I was in pain.

I wasn’t up to fighting my way to an upright position.  It might even be dangerous.

I’d started with a good number of bugs, but they’d been whittled down.  I had only a few thousand, now.

The ceiling had stopped falling down on us, at least for the moment, but the groaning and creaking continued.

It’s the creature in here.  Scion’s counterpart.  He’s pushing against the walls of the structure.  It might even be why the walls distorted and why the door wouldn’t open.

Huntress slowed, then came to a stop.  Bastard nearly sliced my face open with one of the spikes on his shoulder as he approached and stopped at Rachel and Huntress’ left.

Rachel was looking around.

“They ran,” Lung said.  “There is nothing stopping them from retreating the way we came.  Scion is occupied.”

“Stairwell collapsed,” Rachel said.

“I am strong, I could fight through it.  The dogs are strong as well.  Or we climb through a hole in the ceiling.  There is nothing left here.”

I began reorganizing my bugs.  Less need to keep them on the ceiling.  And I needed to find Scion, find the others and keep some here to give myself a stronger voice.

No,” I said, using the swarm to speak.  I could barely hear myself.

Lung turned his head.  Rachel did too.

Good hearing.

“You’re awake,” Rachel said.  “Fucking tell me, did he-“

He did good,” I said.

She fell silent.

The others are here, and you don’t need to climb through the hole in the ceiling.  You can climb over the rubble in the stairwell and still stand upright.

“Mm,” Lung made a noncommittal grunt.

I continued speaking with the swarm, drawing an arrow in front of Rachel.  “The others.”

She whistled, goading Huntress forward.  Bastard and Lung followed.

Hard to manage the swarm, given the number of intervening obstacles.  There was so much here.  All an extension of the new entity.

This is the well.  This is what Scion looks like, when we see beyond the image on the surface.  This is the sheer amount of flesh we need to destroy, when we do manage to get past his defenses.

But if that was the case, where was this entity’s other body?

We reunited with the others.

“Ah, here we go,” the Number Man said.  He’d been joined by Golem’s group, and they remained under the shelter.

“Holy shit,” Golem said.  “Weaver.  Your hand.”

He said it like I wasn’t aware.

But I didn’t respond.  My focus was on the swarm.

They’d found Scion.

He was floating opposite another figure.  A sexless human shape, with hair that was disproportionately long for its body, hanging beneath the point where one foot dangled in the air.  The figure was incomplete, fractals extending from portions of its back, of arms and one leg.

Two things hit me at the same time.

One of those things was that the odd, pattern-like kaleidoscopes of flesh and whatever else weren’t terminus points, but points where the limbs passed into another dimension.

The well was far deeper than I’d thought.  There was so much more to the entities than we were seeing here.

The other thought was that this was the other body.  It was the second entity’s body, the part he would have shown us.

Scion’s counterpart?” I asked.  “It was putting together a human body.”

“We saw it,” Golem said.  “Before the Number Man signaled us.”

Rachel helped me down.  Alexandria stepped forward to give me a hand.  Together, they eased me down.

The creaking increased, a sudden shift.  Dust showered down from every crack in the complex.

“I feel like a traitor for saying it,” Imp said, “But looking at this, hearing all we’ve heard, I’m sorta starting to agree with the Doctor.  Abstract solutions are looking a hell of a lot better.”

We need to leave,” I said, still using the swarm.

“All this trouble to get here,” Imp said.  “And then we go?  Madness!”

No,” I responded.

“I was joking.”

No.  We came for answers.  This is it.  We had answers.  Now we just needed to get in a position where we could use them.  Get them to Tattletale, to other thinkers.

“And Scion?”

Scion’s occupied,” I said.

Scion was cupping the face of his counterpart.  The figure, no doubt grey skinned as the body parts that made up this area, was slack jawed.

He looked for futures where he’d find his counterpart, I thought.  This was one of them… just not what he wanted or expected.  Probably not even something he thought was possible.

“…Not so easy to leave,” the Number Man was saying.  “The structure has shifted, rotated.  It’s designed to, corkscrewing down over time and with any degree of force or movement.  It ensures the integrity of the panic room function, and it would have confused some of the first powerful non-Cauldron teleporters we were aware of.  The route you used to enter no longer leads into whatever corridor or entry point you used to break through.  We’d have to dig anew.  Even with the Siberian, it’s time consuming.”

“This seems less than wise,” Lung growled.  “Burying yourself.”

“Frankly,” the Number Man said, “We expected that if we had to lock ourselves in down here, we wouldn’t need to leave.”

“We should still go,” Golem said.  “And we should take something.  Chevalier made a weapon out of Behemoth and the Simurgh’s parts.  Maybe we can do something with this?”

“It’s human flesh,” the Number Man said.  “Or close enough to be of little difference.  There are powers contained within select areas, like threads of ore in a rock, and naturally there are some structural changes that set it apart from humans.  The thing was experimenting before settling on a body for itself.”

“You don’t have a name for it?” Cuff asked.

“I was only recently made aware it existed,” the Number Man said.  “The Doctor played things close to the vest.  I’d be open to suggestions.”

“Fuckster,” Imp offered.

“It’s not even a living thing anymore,” Golem said.  “It’s more like a place, a garden or something.”

“Amusing you say that,” the Number Man said.  “We had a discussion with Lisette, the woman who proposed she could control him, and she said that the original name was Zion.  He named himself after a place as well.  We have theories on why-”

Lung growled, interrupting.  “I don’t-”

Scion moved, abrupt.

Silence,” I ordered, cutting Lung off in turn.

Scion’s hand glowed as he reached down to his counterpart’s neck.

He carved through his counterpart’s flesh, severing the head.

He’s killing it.

“It’s already dead,” the Number Man said.

He’s killing it deader,” I said.

“Granted,” the Number Man said.  He sighed.  “There’s nothing left in it.  She took powers it had probably planned to give to others, distilled them.  Then she dug in other places, and she took powers it needed to subsist.  It died and went still.”

“What the hell did she do before that?” Imp asked.  “Have tea parties with it?”

Scion gripped the corpse, then rose into the air.

Everything moved in response.  The entire room, shifting.  Every part dragging towards one central point.  Flesh disappeared into the patterns that hung in the air, patterns shifted, and parts emerged from others.  Pulled into invisible mouse holes and portals, pulled out of others.

Fuck,” the Number Man said.

I shifted position a little, reaching out to grab the healthy flesh closest to the burned stump, squeezing, as if I could make it hurt less.

“Fuck?” Imp asked.

“The structure isn’t going to hold.  Even with the reinforcements she put in… no.”

“So?” Rachel asked.

“When the walls break,” the Number Man said, “one million, seven hundred and thirty thousand tonnes of steel are going to drop on our heads.”

“Can we go out the sides?”  Golem suggested.

“Protected by the same water that’s below us and to the sides, for the corkscrew operation.  Slow going at best, we get obliterated by pressurized water.”

I stared down at the ground.  My burn hurt so much I felt nauseous.  I also felt lightheaded.  Probably a side effect of blood loss.

The Siberian,” I said.  “Protection effect.”

“Can only protect a handful of us, less if you intend to move after things collapse.  Two hands, perhaps two feet, one behind.”

Only five.

Five wasn’t enough.

Scion had his hand raised over his head, the other entity held above, with masses of its flesh trailing beneath them.  My bugs told me the ceiling was arching slightly.  I could see where the ceiling met one wall, how a crack was forming along the edge.

Ceiling falling,” I said.  I moved my arm to point, and I only wound up moving my stump, suppressing my reaction to the pain so I wouldn’t provoke Lung.

Golem reached into the side of his suit.  A hand began emerging.

Too slow.  A full third of the ceiling over this room looked ready to collapse, and it was big enough and close enough to wipe us out.

Alexandria flew forward.  She caught the shelf of steel, concrete and granite.

Buying time, even as the slab continued to crack and break down where the stress of her holding it warred with the sheer weight and lack of support in other spaces.

Golem’s hand propped it up, fingers curling around the edge to secure it.

I still wasn’t thinking straight.

What’s he doing?

“Cuff, find me a piece of metal to use,” Golem said.  “The bigger the better.  And I’m talking big.”

“The column?” she asked.

“It broke up some, right?  Find me the closest, biggest piece.”

Cuff nodded.  “Lung, Siberian, help us.”

Golem looked back at me.

Go,” I said.

He went without another word.

I was left sitting where I was, with injured case fifty-threes, with an unconscious Canary who’d apparently had a hand crushed, and a conscious, mostly unharmed Rachel and Imp.  We stared up at Scion.

“Well,” Imp said.

He used his golden light to burn the other.  It coursed through the tissues, through the entirety of the thing.  An ocean of experimental features, of flesh and body parts.

“Well,” Imp said, again.

I could almost sense a feeling radiating from Scion.

A hard emotion to name, if not a hard emotion to place.  I’d experienced it well enough.  Many had.

He was lashing out, destroying the remains, out of bewilderment, sadness, despair, anger, confusion.  All of it unfiltered.  The same emotion a child might experience with their first loss.  What a child would feel when they lost something irretrievable for the first time, when something was stolen from them and they hadn’t prepared themselves for the possibility on any level.

It was what one felt as a child if they lost their dog, their home, their innocence.

Their mother.

“It’s like when I lost Rollo, Brutus or Judas,” Rachel said.

Yeah,” I said.

“When my bro…” Imp said, trailing off.

How do you even articulate that?  When he was broken?

Yeah,” I said.

“Fucking good,” Imp said.  “I hope it sucks for him.

Together, we stared.  We watched Scion burn his partner.  Putting a torch to the garden.  Alexandria flew overhead to join the others, helping.

He dropped the remains, and they spooled out of some other dimension that the ‘garden’ had spilled out into.

Golem began creating the hand.  The entire room shook as fingertips emerged.  Each a small building unto itself.  Cupping over, a protective barrier.

Nothing that would hold out against the kind of weight the Number Man had been talking about.

Then Cuff used her power, separating the hand in half, so it was the palm and four fingers.

I heard him say, “…Siberian… this large?”

Yes,” the Number Man said.

“Usually it’s you with these plans,” Imp said.

“She’s hurt,” Rachel said.

I grit my teeth, not taking my eyes off Scion.

No, that wasn’t my excuse.

I was too focused on other fronts.  Not on survival… fuck that.  I wanted to hurt the bastard.  This was the best opportunity we had.  So long as the other entity was here, Scion was distracted.  Just like he was distracted with the case fifty-threes.  One chance to hurt him, possibly without retaliation.  Thinking of what we had on hand, what we could have on hand… trying to connect the dots.

Scion lashed out, sudden, unpredictable, raw destruction.

A section of ceiling in Sveta’s general vicinity fell.  A whole section of the column above us was sliced off, falling.

I could see Sveta on the far end of the room.  She could help.

I sent my bugs her way.

I think I have something,” I said.

“Something?” Imp asked.

But we need to talk to the Number Man,” I said.  “See if it’s doable.

Imp nodded, “We’ll get you on the dog’s ba-”

I used my flight pack, lifting myself into the air.  My legs dangled, and I lacked the strength to keep my head fully raised.  My hair hung in front of my face.

Whatever.  Right now, at least, my body was an inconvenient puppet, a vehicle for my power and my brain, nothing else.

Fuck me, the burn hurt.

Rachel and Imp hurried to get the other injured on the dog’s backs while I approached the other group.

The cupped hand turned monochrome as the Siberian used her power on it, then turned back to normal.  Alexandria lifted the hand, making room for others, for us to get underneath.

I reached Number Man.  I spoke, and found my voice thin.  “Your power.”

“My power?” he asked.

“It’s perception based.”

“I sense complex mathematics,” he said.  “Second nature to me.”

Ask a stupid question…

“Can you do controlled demolitions?” I asked.

“Yes.  What are you wanting to demolish?”

Everything,” I said.

He gave me a funny look, then glanced over his shoulder at the others.

He sighed.  “Tell me what you need.”

“I need to bring it all down, and I need it to happen on my signal.  Can you figure it out?”

He nodded.  “We can use Pretender.”

I turned my head, gazing at the remains of the ‘garden’, slowly being consumed and reduced to motes of darkness by the golden light.

“We can use Sveta too,” I said.  “If she’s willing.  Trying to figure out what we need to make this happen.”

“I’ll need information,” he said.  “The layout, what exactly you want to happen, order…”

“I’m not looking for anything complicated,” I said.

I began illustrating the nature of the roof, where the cracks and rents were, and how deep they went.  I also began drawing out the remaining cords I still had stashed around my costume.  “Cuff?”


“Secure this thing.  We’ll need a floor.”

“A floor?”


But I extended my focus to my bugs, at the same time.

My bugs reached Sveta.  She was pulling herself free of rubble.


She looked around, confused.

The bugs.

Her tendrils killed maybe sixty bugs as she focused her attention on them.

It’s Taylor.  Skitter, or Weaver.  Whatever you know me as.

She killed more before she got herself firmly secured to a large piece of concrete.

“Thank you,” she said.  “For getting me away from the collapse, before.  I didn’t get a chance to say.  I’m really sorry about your hand.”

“I’ll get a new one if we make it that far.  Listen.  We’re going to attack.  We need your help.”

“I can’t hurt him.”

“You can,” I said.  “Most definitely.

I drew an arrow.

“I… what?”

Can you do it?

Sveta shook her head.  Or she made it sway, anyways.  “But… why?  And… I don’t think I can get away.”

We just need a few seconds,” I said.  “He attunes himself to specific forms of attack, to negate them.  It’s why the Siberian did as much damage as she did, earlier.  It’s better if we can catch him by surprise, mix it up a little.  And if we do it here, now, before that corpse finishes burning, it should be easier to get away, because it clouds his senses like you…

I wasn’t sure what to call her.

“Monsters?  Victims?”

I’d always hated the use of the word victim.  “IrregularsIt clouds his senses like the irregulars do.

Sveta’s face changed.  I couldn’t quite make it out with my bug vision.

“I can do it,” she said.  “I think I might even be able to do it and get away before he kills me.”

It’s not that.  Get into the hole in the ceiling we came from, before, if you can move that far, that fast.  The walls are broken, I can point a route.”

She nodded.

Thank you, Sveta.  Count this as another brick on that structure you’re building,” I said.

She didn’t reply to that.

I looked over at the Number Man.  We were all underneath the barrier, now.  It wouldn’t hold against Scion, but… yeah.

“It’s doable,” the Number Man said, looking at Alexandria.  “We need a signal.”

“Rachel,” I said.  “Whistle?”

She nodded.  Alexandria glanced at us for confirmation.

“One more thing,” I said.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“I want you to swallow a fly.”

She arched one eyebrow.

“Or, better yet, hold it in your mouth.”

“I’ve lived with enough charlatans-”

“No joke,” I said, serious.

She frowned, then opened her mouth.  I popped a housefly inside.

A moment later, she flew from the shelter.  Cuff began sealing the floor after her.

This was not an elegant plan.  Simple, crude.

Sveta,” I said.  “Now.”

She anchored herself on three different areas.  Then she grabbed the burning corpse.

She flung it at Scion.

Can’t hurt him physically.

Maybe emotionally.

He reeled, perhaps a little stunned.

She hit him with more.  One after the other.

His hands glowed.

“Run,” I said, with my swarm, in the same moment I said, “Now.”

Sveta bolted.  Scion attacked, a wide-area effect that scoured the room’s interior.

Rachel whistled, using the only opening remaining.  Cuff closed it.

Outside, Alexandria charged in response to the signal.

She slammed into key points, where the structure was weakest.  I’d outlined some of it, the Number Man had inferred the rest.

Hitting him with the biggest thing available.

We brought the column down.  One and three-quarter million tonnes, dropping down on our heads.

The cords were a measure that it turned out we didn’t need.  The floor and Siberian’s power sealed us off from the aftershock.  It sealed us off from almost all of the noise, a hammer of solid steel the size of a skyscraper, striking an anvil.

I wasn’t so optimistic as to think we’d killed him.

But I could hope the impact destroyed more than one body.  That, like the ‘garden’, there was a constant, steady connection, and the devastation could echo out through that connection and into the well.

“Whooo.”  Imp said, exhaling the word.

And now we wait to see if we die.

Does he retaliate?

Does he wipe us out, blasting his way free?

There was only silence.

Of course there was only silence.

And then I sensed movement.

A housefly, outside, approaching.

“Drop the barrier,” I said.

Siberian did.  I could see everyone tense.

But it’d just deform the column above, nothing else.

Alexandria, outside, tore the hand apart.  Lung and Cuff helped from the inside.

He’d blasted his way free, straight up.  Alexandria had torn away the flooring and the chunk of remaining column from on top of us.  Sure enough, there was a fist-indent in it.

“Whoooo!” Imp whooped.  “Screw you, golden man!”

I swayed a little, nearly falling.  Rachel caught me.

“You okay?” Cuff asked.

I nodded.  “Fuck me, that was satisfying.”

“I will take your word for it,” Lung said.  He held Canary.

“Aww, he’s upset he didn’t get to play a part,” Imp mocked.

I looked at Lung with Canary, my eyes roving over our assembled number.  Ideas falling in place.

“Except,” Golem said, morose, “He’s pissed off, now.”

“Pissed off is something we can use,” I said.

“A solution?” Number Man asked.

I shook my head.  “But I think, now, I know what it’ll look like when I see it.  Hospital next.  I’ll explain on the way.”

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Venom 29.7

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It wasn’t the most comfortable journey.  I could handle uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable was better than being upstairs and staring down the bastard that was exterminating humanity.

The opening of the tunnel had ridges, bumps and uneven edges that scraped past me with enough speed and force that I worried it would damage my costume.  Probably intentional, giving traction to the ones who weren’t digging.  But we passed that area and we hit smoother metal.  Traction was harder to come by, the tunnel almost a winding waterslide.

I slid, as the others were doing, bracing my feet against the sides to slow my descent.  The bugs I’d planted on my teammates let me track the turns and drops, angling and bracing myself as I ran into steeper drops, sharp turns and outright ten foot drops.

It reminded me of an anthill, in a way.  Winding tunnels, irregular, exploratory, treacherous and impossible to navigate.

Cuff slid down and hit the end of the tunnel.  A dead end, with a person there.  She didn’t slow, instead using her power to hammer her way through, splitting the steel apart and driving herself and the individual at the end through the resulting hole.

The instant Cuff was through into the room on the other side of the tunnel, she and the individual she’d collided with were attacked.  Lung was the next in line, followed by Canary, and they were ambushed as well.  Lung was pinned against a wall, Canary liberally tossed back into a crowd that waited to disable her.

With Golem behind me, I didn’t want to stop and get my bearings, but I was plunging towards a situation I couldn’t fully grasp.  Bugs I’d planted on my allies spread out, but it was too few to get a good picture of who and what was waiting for us.

I didn’t have Defiant’s knife.  Floret had encased it in crystal.  I could drag it here, maybe, or use relay bugs and wait for the crystal to expire before carting it my way, but that didn’t help me here.  I called for my bugs to bring the knife anyways.

Rachel had paused before entry, getting herself sorted out with her pets, meaning she was only just arriving.  Her reactions were fast, the commands to her canines quick and efficient.

They swelled as they put themselves between her and the waiting group, growing in size and manifesting their natural weapons.  It was fast enough I suspected she’d been starting their growth as she approached the literal light at the end of the tunnel.  Bastard’s changes were more fluid, faster, and more symmetrical than Huntress’, but he was younger, just a little smaller.

A group advanced on the canines without fear.  Two people to Huntress, two to Bastard.  Young men, if my swarm-sense was correct.  The animals weren’t as big as they could get, but they were about as large as a couch.  Yet the men didn’t show any fear.

They moved fluidly as the animals lunged, snapping and biting.  Confident movements.  Two caught Huntress’ head, wrenched it to the side, while the others avoided snapping jaws to catch Bastard’s forelimbs, bodily hauling him up and then throwing him to the ground.

The two animals were brought down in as many seconds.  Pinned, as inexplicably as Lung was pinned.  Except this wasn’t sheer strength.  They were strategic, targeting body parts, one of the young men leveraging his whole body between Bastard’s forelimbs, forcing them apart in a way that the dog’s musculature couldn’t combat.

It was like holding a crocodile’s mouth shut.  Jaw strength aside, the crocodile wasn’t built to force it’s mouth open.  The wolf wasn’t built to draw its legs together against its chest, but couldn’t get feet under it to stand without dislodging the offending attacker.  The other had his head caught and twisted to one side.

Huntress, for her part, was caught by the head alone, which had been forced down.  The woman who had Lung pressed up against the wall had one foot on the dog’s muzzle, and was holding it down.

They made it look so easy it was almost effortless.  A fifth boy approached Rachel, now disarmed of her dogs.

I forced myself to slow down as we approached a flatter spot.  Theo’s heavy metal boots hit my shoulders.

We were still sliding down, but slower.  Only seconds before we were through.

“Ambush below,” I managed.

No response.  Whoever had dug the tunnel had been digging down when they reached the edge of the room.  I supposed they’d stopped when they reached a layer made of a different material, going up to check.  Our entry was a straight drop into one end of the room, and I landed flat on my back, nearly colliding with Rachel.

A boy.  A teenage boy, clean-shaven, if he even needed to shave, wearing a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up the forearms, his blond hair slicked back, and black suit pants.  He backed away a step as Golem and I appeared.

His appearance, the way they’d fought… like Contessa?

Each of the boys were identical.

Lung and Huntress were pinned by Alexandria.  Or by Pretender wearing Alexandria’s body, in a way.  Lung was changing, the canines swelling in size, and yet she didn’t look worried.  Bastard was still on the ground, one of the boys looking as unconcerned as one could look while holding down a half-ton animal.

Behind the boys, a small crowd had gathered.

Doctor Mother, a Manton with the Siberian… or a Manton clone with the Siberian, a claw pressed to Gully’s throat.  There were three more case fifty threes, all burly, all bound with heads hanging.  Rounding out the group was the Number Man, who had a pen pressed tight against Cuff’s jugular, her costume already torn open at the throat to expose flesh.  His foot was propped up on a sphere.

I could see the resemblance between the Number Man and the boys in dress shirts.  Twenty or more years of difference, and the Number Man was dressed in a full suit, which somehow made him more imposing, pocket protector or no, but they were too similar to be anything but related.

Was Cauldron cloning?  Another contingency plan?

At the very back of the room, separate from the group, were two pale young men, laid out on desks that sat on either side of a reinforced door.  A twenty-something guy with flat skin stretched over where his eyes should be, and a guy that was maybe ten years older, with enough bloody bandage around his head and face that I couldn’t make out his features.  Doormaker, I could assume, based on what I’d heard upstairs, along with the clairvoyant the Doctor had mentioned in the past.

The boy in the suit closed the distance, and Rachel struck out.  He batted her fist aside.  She kicked, and he casually caught it and leveraged it to throw her off balance, tossing her to the ground.

Maybe a little harder than he had to.

I saw how she fell, saw her back arch, the way she held her arm as she rolled over.  She didn’t cry out, didn’t make any sounds of pain, but the degree of pain was clear.

A lot harder than necessary.  Had she broken something?

He turned his head towards Golem and I, and he smiled a little.  A tight, narrow, mocking smile.

“I’m not your enemy,” I said.

“You came out fighting,” Alexandria-Pretender said.  She looked down at Rachel.  “Or she did.”

“Bastard was acting like there was fighting going on, ears, hackles up.  You attacked us.”

The Number-Man clone kicked her.  Casually cruel.

I tensed, but I didn’t act.  The fall had knocked the wind out of me.  Catching my breath, then-

“Disable her,” the Doctor said.

The young man closed in.  Still smiling.  Fuck me, was that smug smile irritating.  I felt a moment’s sympathy for people who’d had to face down Tattletale.  I sicced my swarm on him.

He moved through the incoming insects, eyes open and unblinking as he closed the distance to me.  Only a few landed, and they landed in spots where they couldn’t target more vulnerable areas.

That he wasn’t closing his eyes was telling.  I used my bugs to try and blind him, to keep him from seeing how I was moving, and I reached behind my back, going for the pepper spray.

He blocked my wrist with his palm, keeping me from aiming at him.  Not just sight.  Or his sight was more acute than I’d realized.  Hearing?  Something else?

Be unpredictable.

Pepper spray killed bugs.  I didn’t aim for him, but for the pair of us, spraying into open air, into my swarm.

I’d hoped to make him back off, but he didn’t.  He ducked low, simultaneously bringing one foot up, catching me in the chest.  In the same movement, he rolled to one side, getting away from the mist of pepper spray that was still hanging in the air and simultaneously avoiding Golem’s reaching hand of concrete.

For just an instant, my feet left the ground.  I landed, but I landed with one foot on Rachel’s calf.  I fell.

Too much like fighting Contessa.  Everything winding up positioned just right.  Damn it.

On my back, I was vulnerable, but Golem was covering me.  This kid with the dress clothes was slippery, efficient, but the way his movements played out… maybe not quite on Contessa’s level.  Contessa would have found a way to attack and defend at the same time, instead of being stuck evading Golem’s power.

I tried to haul air into my lungs and coughed instead.  If they killed us before we got far enough…

Stupid, all of this, so stupid.

Stop,” I spoke through my swarm.

The kid drew knives from his pockets.  Small knives, with blades no longer than a finger.

Still confident, still sure of his victory.

A connection formed in my head.  I knew, in an instant.  Harbinger.

Cauldron had collected some of the remaining clones from Jack’s army.

The Number Man used to be in the Slaughterhouse Nine?

No, couldn’t get distracted.  I was up against a kid with an analysis power that was off the charts, he’d dodge whatever I threw at him.

I used my pepper spray again.  This time, I aimed at the two boys who had Bastard pinned.  Opponents who couldn’t dodge, not without giving up an advantage.  They moved out of the way, and in the process they let Bastard climb to his feet.  He was half-again as large as he had been, a ridge of stegosaurus spikes along his spine, more spikes and barbs framing his face.  He growled, and it wasn’t a dog sound.  It wasn’t a wolf sound either.

Bringing two more of the kids into the fight, but now I had Bastard for backup.

Up until Alexandria-Pretender grabbed Huntress and hurled her at us.  Me, Golem, Rachel, and Bastard were slammed into the far wall by Huntress’ bulk.

Lung was still growing, still changing, and his throat was broad enough now that she couldn’t do more than dig her fingertips into the front of it, but he still couldn’t break free of her grasp.

He opted for a second option, leveling a hand at the Doctor, Manton, the Number Man and the crowd of boys.  Fire erupted forth.  A half-second’s worth, before Alexandria threw him down and kicked him full-force into the wall beside us.

No use.  The Siberian had saved them with her ability to grant her own invulnerability effect.  Thankfully.  If he’d torched them, all of this would have been for nothing.

Had to account for Lung’s behavior.  Keep it in mind.  He had a kind of pride, and it had nearly fucked us on two occasions so far.

“We’re-” I started to speak.

But Lung roared, drowning me out as he pulled free of Alexandria’s grasp.  Not breaking her grip, but rending his own throat, tearing jugular and vein, windpipe even, in his furious attempt to get free.

Alexandria turned as Lung fell into a fighting stance.  Less a martial artist’s stance than an animal, low to the ground, chest heaving to pull air through the gushing wound in his throat, a glare leveled at his opponent.

“Stop!” Imp called out.

It took me a second to place her.  Behind the Doctor, a knife pressed against the Doctor’s throat.  She pulled the Doctor back, away from Siberian.  “If any of you move, I cut.  This is-”

The Number Man fired something from hip level.  A spark marked the bullet’s contact point at the mouth of the hole we’d come through.  The weapon flew from Imp’s hand.

“-pointless,” Imp finished.

The Siberian crossed the distance, then stopped beside the Doctor.  She put a hand on the Doctor’s shoulder.

More fighting.  I clenched my fists.  Stupid.

“Scion’s here,” I said, taking advantage of the momentary pause in the fighting.  

Two and a half words to cut through the tension.  I could see the change in the Doctor’s demeanor, the Number Man, even the Manton clone.  One of the most powerful groups in the world, in every sense of the word, in raw powers, in political power, influence, knowledge, and they were spooked.

I hadn’t wanted to win, only to buy a chance to talk.  Now this was it, and I had to get them to listen.  Simpler was better.  Straight to the point.

“We don’t have reason to trust you,” the Doctor said.  “We’ve interacted, Weaver, I have a level of respect for you, but that doesn’t extend to equal measures of trust.  You’re dangerous, and I can’t rule out that this is an assassination attempt.”

Translation: pure denialYou don’t want to believe me.

“He’s upstairs and he’s coming now,” I said.

“That-” the Doctor started.  She paused, as if reflecting, taking in the implications, then shook her head a little.  “That doesn’t change anything.  I still can’t take your word for gospel.”

That sounded less like pure denial and more like outright suspicion.  A step forward, I was pretty sure.

The whole structure rattled.  I felt things sway a touch.

The Doctor looked up, then looked down at me, her gaze level, eyes narrowed slightly.  It was the first time I’d seen her with her hair down, rather than pinned up with chopsticks or some ornate pin.

“I don’t know what to say, except that things are pretty fucking dire,” I said.  “Satyr’s dead, for one thing.”

Alexandria flinched as though I’d slapped her and she had felt it.

I looked at her.  “His team, dead.  The prisoners you guys had on the second, third and fourth floors, all dead or dying as we speak.  Read my expression, use Alexandria’s power, tell me I’m wrong.”

When Alexandria replied, the voice wasn’t quite Alexandria’s.  “I’m afraid I haven’t had the chance to study that in depth to the degree she did.”

“It’s fine,” the Doctor said.  “I’m willing to believe it, if this is an assassination attempt, I’ll take the risk.”

“If it was an assassination attempt,” Imp said, appearing at the far end of the room, “I’d have offed you.”

The Doctor glanced her way.  “And you are?”

Imp sighed.

“We’ll make our way downstairs,” the Doctor decided.  “William, please rotate the column while our… guests pick themselves up.”

Manton approached a computer terminal set into the wall and began typing.

Pick ourselves up.  As if they hadn’t just bludgeoned their way through us.

Manton’s work at the computer produced results.  The swaying feeling I’d experienced a moment ago hit me again.  Everything I could see was still, but for people trying to catch their balance, but my non-parahuman senses told me we were moving.

It faded.  Rachel ordered her dogs to stand, and the pile of us got ourselves sorted out.  Lung was just at the midway point between human and monster, covered head to toe in overlapping metal scales, his neck a little too long, his shoulders too broad, had a claw pressed to the bleeding throat wound.  By all rights, he should have been dead, but regeneration and an inhuman constitution went a long way.

Huntress got out of the way, and I made my way to my feet.  I could feel the dull pain where bruises would emerge.  If I lived that long.

There was another rumble, and a feeling like I was swaying, my sense of balance not quite right.  Not Manton, so it had to be Scion.  Had the steel column moved a fraction?  Had it been intentional on Scion’s part, or a result of the action upstairs?

The Number Man gave Cuff a hand in standing, and she began folding up the metal around her neck, repairing the armor.  She withdrew the wickedly sharp spikes at the knee and the base of her wrist, where she’d been shaping weapons in case she needed to fight her way free of his grip.

He only smiled, tapping one spike with his pen before it slipped into her costume.  Cuff’s expression, where her lower face was visible beneath the layered visor she wore, wasn’t the slightest bit amused.

The boys with suits tended to the three prisoners and the two wounded.  Alexandria tore off a thick metal table leg and wound it to bind Gully’s hands behind her back, before hoisting the unconscious case fifty-three up, carrying her.

“I’m sorry,” the Number Man said, to Rachel.  “For the behavior of my clones.  They’re inaccurate, based on hearsay and speculation more than fact.  I was more polite, back then, more efficient.”

Rachel just gave him a funny look and shrugged her way past him.

I was tense.  It wasn’t just the fight we’d left behind.  Here, we had answers available, but so little time.

I held out my hands.  Floret’s crystal with my knife inside dropped from the hole in the ceiling.

The Doctor typed a code into a keypad at the end of the room, and the Siberian opened the door beside it, turning a wheel to unlock it, then pushing the thick metal door open with a disconcerting ease.  Clone or not, she was still the Siberian in power.

With the door now open, we were faced with a corridor, wide enough for my group to walk side by side, the Doctor’s group leading the way in front of us.  Vials lined the walls around us, set into an arrangement of metal wires that kept them lined up, multiple vials of the same color lined up beside another arrangement of vials.  Except nearly every vial was empty.  There was only glass, no fluid inside.  Where fluid did exist, the light filtered through and cast dark blotches of color on the gray walls behind.

But if I counted them, if I used my bugs to note the ones that had contents…

One or two hundred, maybe, with fluid still inside.

“Our stock,” the Doctor said.  “Nearly depleted.  We gave the formulas out for free, in hopes of turning out parahumans that could do damage to Scion.  We retained only the volatile ones.”

“Volatile can be good,” I said.  My eyes noted the sheer number of vials.  Tens of thousands, even, virtually covering the walls on either side of us.

“Volatile can kill three quarters of the people who ingest it,” the Doctor said.  “Or generate case fifty-threes we can’t use.”

“Right,” I said.  “Nevermind, then.”

Each was marked with a combination of letters and numbers, and a title.  I read the names of the ones that still had fluid inside.

Abel.  Abbatoir.  Access.  Ace.  Aegis.  Air.  Alchemy.  Alias.  Alpha.  Amaze…

“So many,” a voice said.

The ball with Sveta inside.

“Quite a few,” the Doctor said.

“All tested on people?”  Sveta asked.

“Yes,” the Doctor said.

“I remember, you know,” Sveta said.  “I dream of home.  I was a fisherman’s daughter.  There were these beautiful little huts with flat roofs, orange clay brick against gray mountains, with green-blue grass and ocean.  It was cramped, and I had to share space with my family, my siblings… but I was okay with it.  There weren’t any boys my age to marry, and I didn’t want to move to another town to look for a husband, so I just stayed by myself.  I’d draw, and there was a peace in it.  I still like to draw, I find it helps me relax… but it’s hard because my tendrils break the brushes and pencils.  And then I don’t feel relaxed anymore.”

“We’ve caused you difficulties,” the Doctor said, not even looking at Sveta.  She walked quickly, her eyes roving over the rows and columns of vials.

“I can’t remember my mother tongue, Doctor.  I can’t remember my daddy’s face, or my mommy, or either of my brothers.  I’ve just got the faces I see in dreams.  Every morning I was in the asylum, I would wake up and I scramble to draw something, to put words in a diary, and I’m so excited and panicked and desperate I’d break things.”

The Doctor wasn’t reacting.

“I know I used to draw, but I can’t find the style I used to draw in.  I dream about the night you took me, you know.”

“Not me, surely.  I sent others.”

“You sent people like me to take me.  Case fifty-threes.  Branded.  Abominations.  Demons.  There’s names for us all over the world.  It was storming, I was delirious, and they came, they grabbed me, and I all I could think was that the old stories were true, and I said something I can’t remember.  You took me to a lab and you unraveled me with that drug of yours, and then you dropped me in the middle of nowhere, with just enough memories to know that I should be human.

“We gave you a second chance.”

“I didn’t ask for one.”

“It’s very possible your town stood to be destroyed by a storm-”

“If you’d asked, I would’ve wanted to weather it.”

“Or by plague, starvation.  It could be the cause for your delirium.”

“I would’ve stuck it out.  You’re not listening to me, Doctor.”  A flare of anger.  The ball bucked with the movement inside.

“There are more immediate problems to focus on,” the Doctor said.  “I understand where you’re coming from, but this isn’t the time to play ‘what if’.”

“I’m not playing,” Sveta said, and the anger was gone, just as fast as it had appeared.  “I’m- I’m telling you that if you’d asked, at any point along the way, I’d probably have told you I’d rather be dead.  I’d rather be dead than live this new life you gave me, where I spent years killing people by accident, unable to sleep, killing stray animals for food because my body decides when I eat, not my mind…”

“I understand,” the Doctor replied.  She sounded a little impatient.  “Then damn me.  Curse me.  Tell me I will go to hell for what I did.  At the end of this, I will face any and all punishment that I’m due, alive or dead.  For now, we see our way through this.”

“You don’t get to do that.  You don’t get to get off with… words and sentiment.  Gully told me she’d break down in tears all the time, because moving her arms, being strong enough to break things, it reminded her of what she is, every time she did anything.  Her power reminded her, being constantly aware of the ground around her.  Weld… he told me once that he felt like he was going crazy.  All he had was music.  It was the only human thing he could enjoy, because he couldn’t taste.  He couldn’t feel, even when I squeezed him hard enough to dig into him.  And Gentle Giant-”

“Are you going to run down the entire list?”  The Doctor asked.  Her voice was a little harder.  “Do you want an apology?  You said you don’t want words.  Would a gesture do?  Should I take a scalpel to my face?  Carve myself up so I could experience what you have?”

“It wouldn’t even be a fraction of what any of us have experienced,” Sveta bit out the words.  “Because you’d have had the choice, Doctor.  The choice to do that to yourself.  Because we’re all going to die when Scion comes down here and you would live minutes like that, instead of years.”

“Then what do you want from me?”  the Doctor asked, and the hardness in her voice had become anger.

The structure rumbled.

The rumble was followed by a heavy crash.  With my bugs, I could tell it was in the room we’d just vacated.  A virtual waterfall of debris, of metal slag and concrete.

There was no order, no signal, but we broke into a run.

“I want my name, Doctor,” Sveta said.  She wasn’t running, so her voice was level, free of panting or anything of the sort.  “Not even my old name, from before you wiped my memory.  Tell me the name you gave me, after you sent me to the fourth floor.  Because you do that for the ones you think are worth studying, right?  Or tell me the name I took after you released me into the wild, as some kind of smokescreen for Scion.  It starts with ‘S’, if that helps.”

No response.

We should be strategizing, I thought.

But I didn’t interject.

“You wipe our memories when you send us down to the third floor, Shamrock told us, so I just had a number for a while.  Tell me you remember my number, even.  Tell me that what you did to me had some merit, that you did all this for some purpose, and turning me into a killer with a triple-digit body count mattered enough for you to remember!”

The Doctor huffed out the words, panting as she ran, “You can’t have any successes without failures.  There was nothing of use in your case, nothing memorable but your durability, but it was one formula we could rule out.”

“That’s not good enough!”

The Number Man spoke, “He-”

“Not you!” Sveta hissed.  “You remember, probably, but-”

“He’s here,” the Number Man said, talking over her.

We stopped, turning.

A golden light at the entrance to the corridor.  A figure stood in the middle of it, darker in contrast to the light surrounding it..


He advanced on foot.  One step, then another.

His eyes moved to the vials.

He touched one, gentle, almost inquisitive.

“Oh fuckballs,” Imp whispered the word.

We backed away, slowly.

Scion reached out and cupped his hands around the vial.  I could see fragments of the wire that held the vial upright falling to the ground, glowing gold where his power had burned through the edges.

He cupped the vial in his hands, staring down at it.

“What are they?” Golem asked.  “The vials?”

“Powers,” the Number Man said, unhelpfully.

Scion stared, his eyes roving over the rows of vials.  He reached out for a patch of empty vials, without any color behind them, but he didn’t touch them.

Sensing the traces of what they’d once contained, maybe?

Nowhere to go.  Gully might have been able to dig an escape route, but she had a hole in her shoulder I could have put my arm through, and she wasn’t conscious, let alone coherent.  Either the impact with Cuff or the fight with the Doctor’s people had disabled her.

She’d been with the group that had tried to lynch the Doctor, so maybe taking her out of action had been a preventative measure.

The Doormaker, none of it worked.

“Doctor,” I said.  “You don’t have powers, right?”

“I don’t,” the Doctor said.  “But I have a corona pollentia.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.  “You have the potential for power?”

“I do.  I could theoretically trigger.  If someone has the potential and takes the dose, there is a higher chance of deviation.”

“But you were fine with doing it to others,” Sveta murmured.

“Natural powers tend to fall more in line with the subject’s nature,” the Doctor said, ignoring Sveta.  “Complimentary to their personality, their needs, and so on.  Better to leave that door open, in case it comes down to it, or to retain the ability to take a vial at a crucial juncture.”

“I believe,” Lung growled, his voice strangely thin despite his size, with his partially healed injury, “this would be a good time.”

“He’s not moving,” Canary said.

“His attention is consumed,” the Number Man said.  “We’re insignificant, compared to… this.”

“A healing power,” I said.  I watched as Scion reached out for another vial.  He held it next to the one he’d already retrieved.

I could almost sense something from him.  Confusion?

“There aren’t any healing powers,” the Doctor answered.  We continued backing away.  “When they crop up, it’s a fluke, pure chance, an extension of another ability with a different focus.”

“A tinker power,” I said.

“A tinker power would take time,” Cuff said.

“A tinker power would be flexible enough to cover multiple bases,” I said.  “One of which could potentially get us out of here.”

“Perhaps,” the Doctor said.  “But I would like to remind you all what happens when someone undergoes their trigger event, natural or induced.  You would be rendered comatose.”

“My dogs can carry us,” Rachel said.

“Point conceded,” the Doctor replied.  We were moving faster now, with Scion not making a move.  “But there is another concern.  The trigger event might draw his attention.”

Which would spell out our deaths, I thought.

“Let us put some distance between ourselves and the being,” the Doctor said.  “One thousand feet seems like the safest bet.”

A thousand feet, I thought.  “Is this safehouse even that big?”

“Certainly,” the Doctor said.  “William.”

“Doctor,” Manton said.

“I’m going to ask you to position Siberian up here.  We’ll see if she can do any damage.”

“Yes,” Manton agreed.

The Siberian stepped forward.

Manton leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek.

Out of sync.  Doesn’t fit.  Like Number Man was complaining about with his clones.

But I was happy to have someone expendable standing guard.

We turned to leave, and I used my bugs to watch the scene, perching them around the Siberian, turning their cloudy, distorted senses on the golden man.

I could infer, rather than see, that he dropped a vial.  It hit the ground and shattered, the contents splashing out onto the ground and the walls.  He reached for another.

He held it for only seconds before letting both of the vials in his hands fall and shatter on the concrete floor.  He rose in the air to float over the mess, reaching out for more vials.

“Here,” the Doctor said, as we reached the next floor.  “These were the vials we were trying to find.  I sent Contessa to find recipients for each of them.  I kept only three.”

There was a table with the vials set in what appeared to be a centrifuge.  The liquid inside was nearly black..

“Why these?”  I asked.

“There is a foreign agent in them.  The entity altered each power he granted to give them certain restrictions.  No power would be able to truly affect him, no power would cross the boundaries he set in dimension, or in affecting other powers.  There are no alterations to the elements in these, only to the accompanying abilities, or complimentary powers.  The powers granted from these vials don’t cause the recipients to forget the visions they see.  Eidolon was one such case.  The extreme deviant cases on the special containment floor make up much of the remainder.”

“Extreme deviants,” Sveta said.

“I’ll need to dilute this, or I’ll be no use to anyone.  The Balance formula, Number Man?”

“Where?” he asked.

“The fridge,” she said.  She leaned over the table, gazing at the vials.  “Extreme deviants.  Some had only a trace of the foreign element, which we discovered later, others had known quantities.  Others… perhaps they received some and we weren’t aware or able to check after the fact.  Deviants like our friend in the ball here-”

“Sveta,” Sveta said.  “Garotte was the name you gave me, when I refused to take one for myself.  I was recipient one-six-one-six.  And I’m not your friend, Doctor.  I like to think the best of people, but I think you’re far, far gone.”

“-Sveta,” the Doctor said.  “Deviants like Sveta are a rare thing, particularly with the Balance formula in the mix.  Extreme deviants form a subset within a subset, with physical mutations that go well out of bounds of any solid reference point we have here on Earth.”

“Why?”  Golem asked.

The Doctor took the vial from the Number Man.  It was clear.  She used a funnel and tongs to pour the contents of the clear vial into the darker vial.  Though both vials were nearly full, the mixture didn’t cause any overflow.  The color found a middle ground.  A deep red.

She turned it around, then clamped it in between two rubber bumpers.  She hit a button on the side of the table, and it began shaking, like a paint machine.  “Two minutes.  Best freshly shaken, so the layers don’t separate.  William?  Status?”

“He’s floating down the hallway, knocking the vials to the ground.”


“Rate he’s traveling… I’d say a few minutes.  Three or four.”

“We’ll finish the mixing and then run,” the Doctor said.  She stared at the vial.  “This may be the closest you get to your revenge, Sveta.  I’m left with no choice, and chances are good I’ll change physically, even with the Balance formula.”

“You keep referring to that,” I said.  “What is it?”

“I’ve come to believe it’s the opposite of what we had with the foreign agent.  One power, or a collection of powers, calibrated in advance by the entity, with humans in mind.  By mixing it into other vials, we borrow this particular quality, at the cost of having more physical changes with any such power we grant.  We retain humanity more easily, safeguarding against deviant cases.”

“You found a way to collect powers,” Golem said.

“In a sense,” the Doctor said.  She sighed heavily.  “You came for a reason.”

“I did,” I said.  “We did.  For answers, for insights on the entity, and because we need Doormaker if we’re going to win this fight against Scion.”

The Doctor looked at Doormaker, who was being held by two Harbingers.  “We’d hoped to use Doormaker in conjunction with Khonsu, for a mobile force that could safely pressure the entity.  A last measure.”

“You had an awful lot of plans,” I said.

“We did.  I can tell you about them, or I can answer your questions.  What information do you desire, Weaver?  What insights on the entity could win this for us?”

I swallowed.

“Second Triggers,” I said.

The Doctor frowned.  “Too many people have come to me about that.  It’s a promise of more power that manifests just often enough to tantalize, infrequently enough to leave countless disappointed.”

“What is it?”  I asked.

“When powers manifest, they come with safeguards.  The same programmed safeguards that I seek to circumvent or ignore with these foreign agents.”  She tapped the desk.  “The agent, the power, seeks to protect the host, so it prevents the host from harming itself.  It’s a crude measure, one the agent applied with broad, general strokes.  Not every agent can receive individual attention, and the ones that do, I believe, were more hampered than not.  With the second trigger, the agent reaches out, makes contact with others, networks and draws on collective information to refine the restrictions and save its host.”

“Is it always around other parahumans, then?”

“Not always, but frequently.  Circumstances tend to mirror the original trigger event.  The resulting power ignores restrictions that were previously set.”

The shaking of the machine began to slow.

“You’re involved with a lot of powerful parahumans,” I said.  “Do you have a means of causing second triggers?”

“We’ve done it for several clients in the past, with varying degrees of success.  Because of the time it takes, and the arrangements involved, we put a high premium on it.  We’ve had more clients die trying to collect the funds for this premium than we’ve had clients go through with the procedure,” she said.

“A catch twenty-two, if you will,” the Number Man said.  “If you’re powerful enough to have the necessary funds, then you don’t need a second trigger to thrive.  If you need a second trigger, you lack the funds.”

“I get the feeling you didn’t devote much attention to this,” Golem said.  “Why not?”

“Because reducing the restrictions that are in place only gives us a power that has less restrictions, when we need powers with none.  We needed to luck into a formula that had an applicable power as well as a whole, untainted foreign power within, and we needed it in a vehicle we could use, an individual without crippling mental, psychological, emotional or physical deviations.  Eidolon was that, and Eidolon had a fatal flaw in the end.”

I nodded, biting my lip.

“We should go,” the Doctor said.  “Where is Scion?”

“Still upstairs,” Manton said, pointing at the ceiling, off to the right.  “He’s gone still.  He’s got vials in his hands again.”

The Doctor nodded.  “This way.  Just a little further down, and I’ll ingest this.  With luck, we’ll have a weapon or a way out.”

“What about these vials?”  I asked.

“The powers wouldn’t help.”

“If they’re special, if they could give us an answer-”

“The powers are poor,” the Doctor said.  “Foreign, yes, but poor.  When we tested these, we got a defensive power utilizing warped space and a power that allows one to take over a nearby parahuman’s mind, body and powers automatically on death.  The one I hold should have attack or mover capabilities, if not both.”

She input a code by the door, and William Manton set about opening it.  Another wheel-lock.

“What would happen if a person with powers drank one?”  I asked.

“Nothing at all,” the Doctor said.  “Believe me, we’ve tried hybridizing natural and Cauldron capes.  You might as well drink water, for much the same effect.”

I nodded, but I didn’t take my eyes off the table.

“You hoped for a way to increase your powers?  Or the powers of everyone here?”  The Doctor asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Downstairs,” she said.  “We’ll see.”

I nodded.  I used my flight pack to travel down the stairs more quickly.

Ever downward.  Descending.

“He’s coming,” Manton said.  “There’s nothing left between us to slow him down.  I’m- the Siberian will fight now.”

The Doctor nodded.

I could sense the two meeting.  The Siberian dashing forward.  Scion apparently uncaring.

The Siberian cleaved deep.  The way her body intersected Scion, it was like ghosts fighting.

Tattletale says he closes wounds as fast as they appear, so fast our senses can’t perceive it.

If that was so, the Siberian was doing horrific amounts of damage.  She passed bodily through him, and glowing motes followed her as she emerged on the other side, landing and wheeling around.

“Intersect him,” I said.  “It’ll burn through his reserves.”

Manton nodded.

“Number Man,” the Doctor said.  “The-”

“EM readers?”

“EM readers.”

The Number Man ducked into a side corridor.

“This is it,” the Doctor said.  She pointed down.  “The last room.  Lowest room in the complex.”

I could see it, a flight down.  A heavy door, vaultlike.

“Then it is a dead end,” Lung rumbled.

“Fuck,” Imp said.  “Fuck it, fuck damn shit.”

We reached the door, and Lung set his claws on the wheel to open the door.  He’d just started turning when the Number Man appeared, a paddle-like wand in each hand.

Manton took one of the paddles.

The Siberian was standing in the middle of Scion, their bodies overlapping.  If her presence tore into him, then every passing fraction of a second was a good one-hundred and some pounds of flesh being eaten away.  Depending on how fast he regenerated, it could be vast quantities.  Turning a strength into a weakness.

But he didn’t seem to care.  He floated there, his back turned to the doorway we’d used to travel to the next floor down, staring at the rows of vials.  Uncaring about the Siberian’s sustained assault.

“He doesn’t care,” I murmured.

The Doctor and the Number Man looked up from the paddle the Number Man had in hand.  He was apparently calibrating it.

“Scion doesn’t care that Siberian’s tearing him up,” I clarified.

“Of course he doesn’t,” the Doctor said.  “He’s alien.  He doesn’t have human feelings.”

“He’s a force of nature,” Number Man said.

I shook my head.  “No.  Human feelings are why he’s a danger.  Without them, he’d be some nebulous threat, three hundred years in the future.  But he’s lashing out, trying to find himself, and that’s why he’s dangerous.”

The Number man waved the wand around my head, then frowned.  He waved it around his own head, read the digital display, then tried the Doctor.  He tried waving it at Lung, but Lung swatted at it.

“He’s alien above all else.  Abstract.” the Doctor said.  Her eyes fell on the vial.  “It’s through alien, abstract methods we’ll defeat him, if it’s even possible.”

“The door is stuck,” Lung said.

“The way the column has settled may have put undue stress on this part of the architecture,” Number Man said.  “If you’d let me-”

“I know,” the Doctor said.  “If I’d let you have a hand in designing this… but you were new to the team.  I didn’t yet trust you with sensitive matters.”

Number Man nodded, taking it as something matter-of-fact.

Lung heaved on the door, putting all of his superhuman strength behind it.  It barely budged.

“Take her,” Alexandria said.

Lung took Gully’s body.

Alexandria pushed.  A crack appeared in the ceiling, dust showering down on top of us.

“Structural,” Number Man said.  “If we open it, it’ll cave in on us.”

“This does not concern me,” Lung said.  “Stand back, and I will push my way through.”

Golem shook his head.  “Eventually, but what about the time it takes to burrow through?  We can’t afford it.”

The Doctor was looking down at the vial.

“If we’re going to win this,” I said, “I want it to be because of our strength, not an abstract one.  And I know that sounds corny.”

“A nice sentiment,” the Number Man said.  “But I’m afraid that power you’re digging for is out of your reach, Weaver.”

I looked at him.

“Or it’s already in your reach.  You can’t have a second trigger because you already had one,” he said.

I blinked.

“Given the signature, it’s very possible you had two trigger events in quick succession.  Not uncommon.  The horror of manifesting your power, it prompted another trigger.”

“No,” I said.  “There’s got to be something.”

“If there is, a second trigger event isn’t it,” the Number Man said.  “I can check your allies, but we can’t do much more.  We used to rely on Contessa’s power to determine the exact event needed for a second trigger.”

I nodded numbly.

“I’m sorry,” Imp said.

I shook my head.  I’d staked hopes on this, despite promises to myself that I wouldn’t.

Beside me, the Doctor removed the black rubber cork from the vial.

The Siberian appeared beside us in the same instant.  Manton spoke, “He finally took action and struck my Siberian.”

I could sense Scion above.  Staring at the corridor with the vials.

He reached out, and a golden light flared.  It was like a flicker of the lights, and it was so vivid I thought for a second I was seeing it with my own eyes.

The vials each shattered simultaneously.

Glass and fluids rained down onto the floor.  My bugs were swamped all along the corridor.

Scion moved, killing my bugs on contact as he headed down to the next floor.

With my bugs, I could sense Number Man letting the wand go.  It clattered to the stairs below him.  “Broken.”


Lung created flame for us to see by.

The Doctor stood there, her hands mangled where she’d been holding the vial, bleeding wounds at her throat.

“Your hands,” Manton said.

She shook her head.  “S- superficial.”

There was a pause.

“Did you drink any?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “Barely any.”

I looked down at the stairs.  Lap it up?

No.  Something Skidmark or Newter had said, once upon a time.  My first introduction to the vials.

And she’d said she needed a whole power.  Would a partial dose only give half a power?  A distorted one?

I could only guess.

“Okay,” I said.  “Siberian… make us a path around the door.”

Manton nodded, as if I’d talked to him.  Siberian walked into the wall, her power crushing stone.  The rest of us moved up the stairwell, closer to Scion.

“Guys,” Imp said.

Lung had to move to cast the light on her.

She held Sveta’s sphere.  Fractures marked the entire surface, and they spread with every passing second.

I withdrew my crystal-encased knife.  “Lung?”

He took hold of it with one hand, nearly singing me with the heat of the flame that had surrounded the limb moments ago.  He crushed it, winced as the knife ate through the claw at the end of his thumb.

I gingerly took hold of the knife, switched the settings to remove the disintegration effect, then started it up again.

It took a full four seconds.  The calibration was off, stuff clogged.  Not a big surprise.

“Halfway,” Manton said.  “No sign of collapse.”

Scion appeared at the top of the stairs.

Leaving us without a place to even run to.

“A third trigger event,” I said.  “Is it-”

“No,” the Doctor said.

“There has to be a way.”

“There isn’t one,” she said.  “You have the power you have, nothing more.”

“Okay,” I answered.

“Hey,” Imp said, “Your power isn’t the only one that’s shit in this circumstance.”

The orb bucked, the fracturing doubling in quantity.

Then it broke.

Sveta hit the ground, and then unfurled.  Tendrils extended up the stairs, encircling Scion.

“Focus on him,” she said.  “Oh god.  Focus on him.  It’s him and me, we’re the only people here.”

The others were disappearing into the tunnel.  Rachel, Imp, Canary, the Doctor’s group…

“Can’t…” Sveta said.

The Doctor headed into the tunnel.

A tendril encircled one of the Doctor’s ruined hands.

The Doctor screamed.  I could hear bone breaking, see blood welling around the thin tendril of living razor wire.

Sveta’s tendrils continued to extend, stretching out.

Each one chose the Doctor as the mark.

“Had to pick someone,” Sveta whispered.  “Couldn’t focus on him alone.  I’m sorry, but you’re the best choice.”

The tendrlis found points closer to the Doctor’s midsection, crushing.

The Doctor’s screams became strangled.

Sveta coiled around the Doctor, burying the woman beneath overlapping tendrils, until there was a cocoon and a girl’s face, curled up on the stairs.  Blood pooled beneath them.

Scion continued his approach.

I held my ground, forming swarm-decoys.  They hadn’t worked last time,  but-

Nothing.  He walked past them.

I held my knife, waited as he closed the distance, standing in his way.  I slashed at his throat, dragged the blade along his chest.

Smoke rose, billowing in quantities I couldn’t have imagined.

He pushed me aside.

Walking towards the door.

I realized what was about to happen.  My mind was all noise as I screamed out a warning using my swarm, telling the others to get away.

I reached out and grabbed Sveta’s face, the point from which all the tendrils extended.  An action carried out in panic.  I felt a tendril or two wrap around my forearm.  Hand and arm obliterated.

I just got a new one, I thought, almost dazed.

Scion pushed his way past the door.  The door that was bearing the load of the ceiling above us.

Sveta dropped the doctor, and I felt the tendrils brush past me, ensnaring bugs.  Then they snapped out, grabbing the door at the top of the staircase.

In the next instant, we were pulled to the door, virtually thrown.  I used my flight pack to try and break the fall, to stop from being turned into a smear, but Sveta caught the brunt of the impact, webbing out to ensnare our surroundings.

The ceiling came down.  A whole section of the substructure, apparently damaged, cracked by the fall or by some native impurity.

The dust settled.

And I saw what Scion had come for.

His partner.

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Venom 29.6

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“Weaver,” Cuff said.  Her voice was pitched low enough that Satyr wouldn’t hear.

I turned my head her way to acknowledge her.  Satyr seemed to be preoccupied, sitting on a stair, picking something out of a groove in his golden belt.  Dried blood?

“You’re doing that crazy mastermind thing again,” Cuff said.

“Which crazy mastermind thing?”

“Where you talk to the other masterminds and one of you leaves something unsaid, and the other knows what that thing is without asking.  Who’s here?”

“Scion,” Satyr said.

“You heard me?” Cuff asked.  Then, after a pause, she asked, “Scion?”

I spoke up, “Leonid’s powerset includes the ability to hear everything in a certain range.  That means everything, regardless of intervening obstacles, interfering or distracting noises and volume.”

“I can hear your heartbeats,” Leonid said.  He was a lean, young twenty-something with long golden hair and a mask with a lion motif.  His upper body was draped in a black, skintight, sleeveless, bodysuit, his legs in loose-fitting pants.  Complex looking gauntlets and boots encased his extremities, each tipped with wicked, six-inch claws.  Not quite what he’d worn when he was on the Vegas Protectorate team.  His eyes roved from Cuff to Imp.  “I can hear your heartbeat speed up when you look at particular people.”

“Satyr can tell you he already tried the seduction angle with his copies,” I said.

Leonid grinned behind his mask.  “Satyr was doing it to distract you.  I’m not like that.  I’m one of the active guys.  It’s like how a magician shows one hand, all action, style and flourish, to get your attention…”

He gestured towards Satyr, “…and the other hand is busy with the trick.  Hate to break it to you, but I’m genuine when I make a move.”

“Yet you’re all man-whores at the end of the day,” Imp said.

“Imp,” I spoke, my tone a warning.

Leonid only smirked in reply.  Floret, for her part, cleared her throat.

“You’re from Vegas, right?  Just because you dress like a woman doesn’t mean-”

“Satyr,” I said, cutting her off.  “You think Scion’s here.  Is he down there with the Doctor?”

“He entered through the same gateway we did,” Satyr said.  “I imagine he’s somewhere upstairs.  It was always one of Cauldron’s greatest concerns, that Scion would make his way here through one of their doorways.”


“Cauldron’s plan B, their plan C, even plans D, E, and F, if things had gone without a hitch, they would have been deployed from this facility.  Perhaps there is one in a million chance one of the plans potentially works.  If they don’t, then perhaps they buy the rest of us some time, and a third party figures out a solution.  Or perhaps they get close, and Cauldron uses the time that remains to refine the approach and the idea.”

“The prisoners, all of the people upstairs…” Cuff said, trailing off.

“Plan B.  Also plan D, if you count the more unnatural deviants,” Satyr said.  “Except Scion is now here, and he’s here now.  All of the plans will be forced into effect at once, rendered into little more than alphabet soup.  To top it off, the architect of those plans is out of reach.”

I looked at the solid metal wall.  “Cuff?”

Cuff focused on the metal barrier.  “I can tell from here.  It’s a lot of metal.  I don’t know how they did it.  It’s all one solid piece.”

“They did it with powers,” Satyr said.  “A column, with the panic room dead center.  When they retreated inside, they pulled the switch, and the entire substructure dropped two thousand, five hundred feet below ground, putting the upper end of the column between us and them.”

Floret shrugged.  “We could handle a computer, a lock, even a vault, no sweat.  But not this.  The plan was to wait for the group on the other side of the facility to forge their way through the steel, or around the steel, but someone gave the Custodian a tinker-made super death knife, and well…”

“That was me,” I said.  “Nothing to do with the Custodian.”

“Ah, well,” Satyr said.  “Good and bad to any situation.  We’ll be able to assert control over that group more easily, with their leadership dead.  And there won’t be as great a chance that they take the good Doctor out before we can get a word in… but progress will be slower, and we don’t have much time to spare.”

It was a relief, on one level, that he didn’t seem interested in making a fuss over it.  He’d set Spur and Nix in the way, to keep people from interfering with his group’s infiltration, but he seemed fully capable of accepting that there was a snarl in his plan.

I knew it was hypocritical, but a part of me was bothered by that.  I didn’t want him to be able to take this in stride.  I didn’t want a lack of communication, conflicting plans and inter-group issues to be the norm, when the stakes were this high.  Satyr was the type that thrived because he anticipated such.

Maybe I was too.

Satyr looked at the wall to his left.  “The remaining members of the Irregulars and their digging party have just arrived at the far end of this column.  If we go up one floor, we can cross to the other staircase and make our way down to pay them a visit.  Given that the group watching their rear is… compromised, I don’t think we’ll have any problems taking control of that situation.”

“If we leave now and walk briskly, we’ll arrive in eight minutes,” Floret said.

“My details person,” Satyr said, “Would you believe?”

My tone was dry as I replied, “Somehow, I’m not surprised.”

Details would be Floret’s thing.  She didn’t look it, with bright pink hair, green roots, and a costume of metal ‘leaves’ that left little to the imagination.  Her costume philosophy was the antithesis of my own.  But Floret wasn’t a fighter, even less than I was.  She could take a minute or two to create a ‘bud’.  The bud would then unfold into a complex crystalline shape after a set time, or upon impact with a surface.  They were limited in terms of their size, no more than a foot across, but they were rich in potential, with crude applications on the molecular scale.  Typically stylized to look like flowers, the crystals could bond to surfaces, set touched things on fire, cancel out chemical reactions or just fuck with tinker devices.

As a teenager, she’d had a career as a roving lockpick for villain heist teams, creating keys and fake keycards with cloned magnetic strips, to varying degrees of failure.  It was only when she joined the Vegas team that she found others with the degree of forethought, planning and teamwork that could let her power truly shine.

Her power only worked because of her secondary power, and her secondary power was the big reason she fit in so well with the Vegas team.  An enhanced awareness and processing ability regarding fine detail.  She picked up on the little things.  All of the little things.

Satyr leaned back, then rolled forwards, getting to his feet without using his hands.  “I assume you’re coming.”

“Yes,” I said.  If only to make sure you don’t pull something.  “More bodies against Scion.”

“Bodies don’t matter,” Satyr said, as he led the way.  “One, ten, a thousand, it doesn’t make a big difference.”

Speaking of bodies…  Where the hell is Scion?  There wasn’t even any noise.

Was Satyr fibbing?

No.  It didn’t jibe.  Not with the aura of defeat, not with the circumstance, with what Tattletale had said… they were good at the con, but not that good.

I changed subjects.  “Can I ask where the heroes are?  Revel, Exalt and Vantage?”

“With Nix and Spur,” Satyr said.  “Most likely disguised as a rock or a bulge in the cave wall.  Blowout hit them with a full-on stunning presence.  They should still be out.”

“I see,” I said, trying not to reveal how surprised I was.  We’d walked right by the captive heroes.  That wasn’t the big issue.  Blowout was.  He wasn’t as stylish or attractive as the others, with a featureless mask that had a single ‘eye’ at the brow, his head shaved.  His armor panels had lights that slowly rotated from one color to another, like a chintzy car stereo.  Unassuming, when he wasn’t engaged in a fight.  When he was, the lights would be flaring, muscles would be standing out, and there would be noise, shock and awe involved.

Blowout wasn’t a tinker; he had telekinetically assisted strength, which meant that when he was hoisting a car over his head, he was doing it with his mind more than with his arms.  The strength and durability increased with the size of the audience and the reaction he got from them.  His secondary power was the effect he had on his enemies, feeding on the same reactions that fueled his strength to new heights and leaving his targets stunned, reacting slower, taking longer to pick themselves up off the ground.  On paper, he was the case-in-point of what Leonid had been talking about, the hand that distracts while the other hand sets up the trick.

But, as Floret suggested, it was something of a thing for Vegas capes to have ‘secondary’ powers that were actually the real power, in practice. Or maybe it was that Satyr tended to encourage a focus in the secondary powers, or a development of those same abilities.  There was nothing on record about a long-term use of Blowout’s power, like Satyr had described.  It would be a card he’d kept up his sleeve when he wasn’t doing something behind the scenes with the Vegas capes.

I was put in mind of a few of the records and events that hadn’t quite fit.  They’d checked, retroactively, for drugs, and found none.  They’d checked for any remainder of Floret’s creations, and again, they’d found nothing.  But if it was Blowout… if he was the reason people had been left with amnesia, brain damage and even brain death, then that gave me a bunch of new reasons to worry about the Protectorate heroes we’d left behind.

A reason to watch our backs.  I just had to wrap my head around how he might have done this so discreetly, when his power required the obvious and blatant.

Satyr’s duplicates, maybe?  Did the copies count as a crowd?

Something to keep in mind… and I had to inform my teammates without Leonid knowing.

I glanced at the leader of the Vegas mercenaries, noting how quiet he was as he ascended the stairs.  He didn’t seem worried about anything.  Not us, not Scion, not the riot above.  Was I like that, when I was in the zone?  Almost wanting to push him outside of his comfort zone, I said, “I expected you to ask about your teammates.”

“Spur and Nix?  They’re capable enough.  If you’ve done something horrific to them, then informing me won’t help us in the here and now.  I’ll have my revenge at a later date, all the same.”

“Fair,” I said.  No effect.

I let Satyr maintain the lead of the group and determine our pace as we moved forward.  He had eyes on the other group with his duplicates, and he had Floret passing information to him with the subtle sign language the group had adopted.  It worked; if we arrived too early, we’d be interrupting the Irregulars before they were through the steel barrier.  If we arrived late, we’d be running the risk that the Doctor would be killed.

For now, I was happy to let them manage that aspect of the plan, while I focused on keeping an eye out for the inevitable stab in the back.  It just didn’t flow, their attitude now, compared to how they’d tried to cover their tracks earlier.  I knew who they were and I’d seen the records detailing whole strings of crimes, and I wasn’t willing to believe they were playing ball with us.

So I watched them, and Floret watched me, because her power was perfectly suited to following what my swarm was doing from moment to moment.

“I don’t like him,” Rachel murmured in my ear.

Imp leaned in to join the conversation, adding, “You do know that Leonid can hear everything that’s said in a certain area around him?  There’s no point in whispering.” as if she hadn’t just found that out for herself.

“I don’t like him,” Rachel said, full volume.

“That’s not what I meant,” Imp said, a little off-guard.

“He’s arrogant, he talks too much, and he acts like Tattletale does when she’s trying to pretend she’s not in a really bad mood,” Rachel said.

“It’s a rare thing,” Satyr said, “for someone to leave me speechless.  I can tell you that virtually everyone comes to like me when they get to know me.”

“Everyone likes the manipulative assholes after they’ve had a chance to do their manipulating,” Rachel said.

“I couldn’t extend that to Weaver, there, and suggest the same applies to her?”

“You could try,” Rachel said, “But then I’d have my dogs attack you.”

“Alright,” I said, stepping in.  “No more of that.”

Rachel glowered at me.

“He’s a weasel,” Lung growled.  “I have allied with a man who talked like he does, but it was a man of substance.  Not sex and…”

“Subtlety?” Imp offered.  “Scandal?  Style?  Sophistry?

Where is she learning these words?

Lung only glowered at Imp.

“As substanceless a person as he might be,” I said, “Scion’s upstairs, and we have overlapping goals, so we’re allies, or as close to being allies as we’re going to get.  No fighting.”

Rachel relaxed as though she’d flipped a mental switch.  She snapped her fingers twice, getting her dog’s attention, and then made a gesture without moving her hand from her side, her palm facing the ground.

The dogs eased up just like she had.

I glanced at Satyr, who shrugged.  His tone was light as he said, “My ego’s taking a bruising today, it seems.”

I could see the lines of his shoulders and chest, with him not wearing any armor on the upper body.  Was he maybe just a bit less relaxed than Rachel at this point?

Maybe he wasn’t at ease around someone who blithely barreled past any attempts at manipulation with unbridled aggression.  A point for us, maybe.

We’d reached the fourth floor.  I stood by, watching for trouble from above, while the others filed through.  I could see how Canary was ill-at-ease, while Shadow Stalker was impossible to read in her ghostly state, passing through the wall by the door.  Cuff and Lung were both rigid, as if anticipating fights, but were confident enough to walk ahead of the rest.  Golem, Rachel, and Imp seemed more in their element, hanging back while the Vegas capes passed through.

“You know what you’re doing?” Golem murmured, as he hung back with me.

I nodded.  “Mostly.  Just watch your back.”

“For Scion?”

“For them,” I said.  “And yes, I know Leonid hears me.  I know Satyr and the others are getting the cliff notes from Leonid.  But they’ve got secondary goals here, and it’s worth watching out in case they try something.  Even if they know we know they’re trying something.”

There were nods all around.

Four copies of the Custodian appeared before us as we made our way into the fourth floor.  Each moved slightly out of sync with the others as they moved their heads.  It was only when the third and fourth moved that I realized just how they were moving their heads – raising their chins to look up.

“I know, my dear,” Satyr said.  “How close?”

They didn’t respond.  Instead, they disappeared.  First one pair, then the remaining pair.

“Second floor basement,” Satyr said.  “Scion is taking his time making his way down.”

“Why?” I asked.  It was too quiet.  “If Scion wanted, he could have torn his way through here in a heartbeat.”

Satyr was on point as we made our way across the fourth floor.  The cells here were reinforced several times over, each standalone, separated by tracts of empty space that eighteen wheeler trucks could have turned around in.  Spotlights served as the only light in the area, and they were focused on the individual cells, leaving the empty space between the cells dark.  Without my relay bugs, my power still didn’t quite reach the far end.  A third of a mile across by a third of a mile across, maybe, with ceilings that were fifteen feet high.

The lights flickered more violently than it had upstairs or in the stairwells, but these cells seemed to be drawing on a backup power source.  The lights flickered, went out, only to be turned back on, glowing a dim red, before the regular power was restored.  The lighting cycled between the three states, with no rhyme or reason.

Why?” Satyr echoed my question.  I turned my attention back to him.  “Why do you think he’s taking his time?”

“That’s not helpful,” I said.

“Basic reasoning,” Satyr said.  “What do we have in abundance, here?”

“Capes?” Golem asked.

“Capes?  Yes.  But there were capes at the other battlefields.  It’s very possible he’s idling because he’s taking them all to pieces, but… for however many minutes?  No.  What else is in abundance?  Or, to phrase it better, what particular kind of cape is in abundance here, that you didn’t have at the battlefield?”

“I get the feeling you already know the answer,” I said.

He nodded, the goat-horned helm dipping low, then rising.  The lights went out, then went red for a moment.

“Case fifty-threes,” Golem answered the question.

There we go,” Satyr said.  “And if you care to, you can infer further.  Why?  Scion is the supposed source of powers, yes?  Then what are the deviants to him?  If we see them as distorted people, then he sees them as…”

“Distorted powers?”  Cuff answered.  “Or… whatever they are to him.  Distorted spawn?”

“Something foul,” Shadow Stalker spoke for the first time since we’d split up to escape the cell.  “Broken, wrong, loathsome.  Damaged.  And no parent wants to face the fact that their kids came out less than perfect.”

The sphere Imp had tucked under one shoulder jerked a little.

“Woah,” Cuff said.  “Generalizations much?”

“Tell me I’m wrong,” Shadow Stalker said.  She glanced at Satyr, “I’m right.  Cauldron created these deviants as a kind of psychological warfare.”

“Most definitely part of it,” Satyr said, and there was an approving note in his voice.  “It’s psychological warfare… Shadow Stalker, was it?”

Shadow Stalker nodded.

“Yes, I’ve heard of you.  There are other elements at play.  Prey species have been known to spread their scent through an area, to confuse predators.”

“I like that analogy,” Shadow Stalker said.

“Mm hmm,” he responded, nonchalant.  “So Cauldron uses these deviants as a particularly strong source of our metaphorical ‘smell’.  They scatter them across the world where Cauldron is most active, the world Scion occupies, and he loses the ability to sniff them out.  Of course, this only works when the deviant isn’t going to draw undue attention.  Either they’re calm and inclined to keep to their own, by nature, or so dangerous that they remove witnesses by default.”

My eyes moved to the sphere Imp carried.  I was inclined to think she fit in the latter category.

“It makes sense,” I said.  My eyes were on Shadow Stalker.  She was playing into Satyr’s hands.  I’d made a note to watch out for it, but this wasn’t even subtle.

They were fucking blatant about this shit, relentless.  Which probably worked for them, because it eventually worked.  They found a hook, an angle, maybe played it in a more subtle way, or they’d just take it and run with it.

And it was all controlled, all managed, keeping it at a level where I couldn’t call them out on it without looking like I wasn’t willing to play ball.  That was fine on its own, but it put us on a bad footing.  I didn’t want to be in the middle of a brawl if and when Scion made a sudden appearance.

“Cauldron capes have, according to reports, gotten responses from Scion.  A pause, a momentary break in pattern, even, some say, a feeling of aversion.  Powerful Cauldron capes achieve better results, deviants even more so… and if the effect scales up as Cauldron thinks it might, the extreme deviants will get an even greater result, while having powers that may have some effect on him.”

“Which makes a lot of sense,” I said, “They’re a smokescreen, maybe.  Except there’s a hole in that theory.”

“There is,” Satyr said.

“He could wipe them out with one shot,” Golem said, the first to connect the dots.  “He could shoot them and shoot through the floor, if he wanted to.”

“Exactly right,” Satyr said.

“Do you know why he isn’t?” I asked.

“I have guesses, nothing more,” Satyr said.  “Hm.  They just found a way of combining their powers.  They’re breaking through the column more quickly than I thought they would.  We don’t have to run, but maybe hurry a bit.”

We stepped up our pace.

“He’s on the third floor,” Satyr said.  “Floor above us.”

“How do you know?” Shadow Stalker asked.

“Custodian.  We’ve crossed paths, as my group ran some errands for the good Doctor.  I think she likes me, even.”

I hadn’t noticed the Custodian, but I wasn’t positive I would have seen her if the appearance was brief enough.

“What’s on the third floor?” Floret asked.  “I haven’t been down here.”

“The ones with names.  Any cape they deemed interesting enough to keep and research.  Not many left.  I think they scaled down on those to focus on other things.”

Not many left.  Meaning there wasn’t much standing in the way between us and Scion.

If Satyr’s group wasn’t playing us.  I was less sure than I had been.

Supposedly Scion above.  Who’s below?

“Who’s with the Doctor?” I asked.

Ask her,” he said, pointing at Imp.

I glanced at Imp, who shrugged.

“In the sphere,” Satyr said.

“There’s a button on the bottom.  If you depress it, you can rotate hemispheres.  Counter-clockwise, please.  Clockwise opens it, and I’d rather not die.”

Imp looked my way.

“Go for it,” I said.

Imp turned the sphere.

“Finally.  Fresh air,” the girl inside said.  She had a quiet voice.  More the type of voice I’d connect to a shy librarian at a party or a sheltered preacher’s daughter in the company of boys.

“Sveta?” I asked.  “We met on the oil rig.”

“She also goes by Garotte,” Satyr said.  “The only reason the PRT didn’t put her down was because she’s rather hard to kill.  She has quite the impressive body count.”

“Don’t say that.”

“She was part of the original invading party,” Satyr went on, ignoring her.  “They attacked the Doctor, setting this whole mess in motion.”

“I could hear everything you guys were saying,” the girl said.  It was only when she said the longer word ‘everything’ that I noticed the rasp to her voice.  It would be part of the reason for her being quiet.

“Who’s with the Doctor?” I asked.  The other stairwell was in view.

“When things went bad, it was Weld, me, Brickhaus, Gentle Giant and six others who turned around and protected her.  I wasn’t very useful…”

She trailed off.  A second passed.

“Need a bit more information,” Satyr said.

“I’m hurt,” she said, and there was a plaintive note in her voice.  She sounded more like a Canary than a Shadow Stalker.  Not quite the voice of a killer.

“Suck it up,” Satyr said.  “Scion’s coming, and we need to know what we’re walking into.”

“Brick took the guy Blesk brained against the wall, um.  It was the clairvoyant, the doormaker, hurt, the Doctor.  Brickhaus, Magnaat, Munstro, they made it inside.  The others got shot down in the stairwell.  Um.  There was a guy with glasses, and five teenagers who looked a lot like him, only without glasses.  Ordinary looking, pretty much.  Alexandria…”

“Hm,” Satyr made a noise.  He looked up.

In that same moment, the lights flickered out for the umpteenth time.

The emergency lights didn’t come on.

I could sense my teammates, Shadow Stalker, Canary and Lung closing ranks.

“Weaver?”  Satyr asked.

He split in two.  A slow, oozing process, a lump swelling, pulling free, then forming features.  The arms and legs were quick enough, and the details followed, but the new him had no helmet, but slowly reshaped his exterior to match the original Satyr’s costume.

“If you keep doing that, I’m going to have to attack,” I said.

“What’s he doing?”  Canary asked.  There was a note of panic in her voice.

“Splitting up,” I said.  I willed Canary to pull it together.  Satyr bulged, clearly preparing to make another double.  I called out, “Satyr, I might need to rephrase.  If you finish making that copy, I’m going to attack you.”

“He can’t stop once he’s started,” Floret said.  “It’s a drawback.”

“I don’t buy that at all,” I said.  “So either you need to be more convincing, or I’m wrong, and Satyr has to learn how to cancel a copy in progress in the next five seconds.”

The bulge stopped growing more parts.  It began retreating into Satyr.

“We need to talk, Weaver,” Satyr said, still distorted, withdrawing the mass into himself.

Imp spoke up, “Why is it always Weaver you need to talk to?  Never, we need to talk, Rachel.”

“Shut up, you idiot,” Satyr snarled the words.  “There’s no time for foolishness.”

Idiot?  Foolishness?”

“What is it, Satyr?”  I asked.

“I’ve got to ask about your goals.”

“Ah,” I said.  “Nothing complicated.  Saving the doctor, getting answers, stopping Scion.”

I found my knife, beneath the staircase, suspended by threads I’d tied to the surrounding area.  I set my swarm to retrieving it.  We couldn’t see, but Floret shouldn’t be able to either.

“I always had a hard time trusting anyone who doesn’t have ulterior motives,” Satyr said.  “And now, here, I dearly wish you had some.”

“Sorry,” I said.  “If you haven’t noticed, a lot of us are pretty blunt here, straightforward.  Our goals are what they appear to be.  I really wish you could trust us.”

“And I wish I couldn’t,” he said.  “Funny how that works.”

I sensed Blowout pacing a bit to our left.  Floret had her hand cupped, like she was ready to throw one of her things.  I gathered the swarm, sensed her tilt her head a fraction.


How much noise could thirty bugs make?  Or, rather, how much noise could thirty bugs make in the audible spectrum?

No.  That didn’t make sense.  Floret sensed details without even trying.

She was faking me out, no doubt.  Distracting so someone else could pull something.

Leonid was utterly still, no doubt focusing on the various sounds.  On heartbeats and breathing, the creaks of our muscles moving and joints shifting.  He was the one to watch.  He’d said it himself.  He was the hand that drew attention so the others could pull their tricks.

Which didn’t make him any less threatening.

Secondary powers of sound detection and sound manipulation, adjusting select things to be up to twice as loud or absolutely silent.  It gave him a stranger classification, a thinker classification.

His third power was a mover power.

“Don’t do this, Satyr.  It’s insanity,” I said.

“Your being here fucks it all up, Weaver.  There’s too much danger that you’d agree with us, that we’d have the same objectives, regarding the Doctor.”

There a distant detonation, a rumbling passed through the complex.

“What are your motives?” I asked.  “Do you want to help her or hurt her?”

“Yes,” Satyr said.

“That’s not an answer.  I thought you said there’s no time.”

“There isn’t,” he said.

“Satyr, I don’t know what’s going on, but you’ve been playing this game of tricks and subterfuge so long you’ve all forgotten how to walk a straight line.”

“Oh, I remember,” he said.  “We remember.”

“So you’re just going to stand here, idly threatening us, until Scion attacks?  That can’t be right.  You’ve lost your mind.  Something with your power, messing with your heads…”

“You’ve got it wrong.  Powers from a bottle, they mess with your body.  Subtle things, but stuff you notice.  Heh, the last straight conversation I had with Pretender, he brought it up, joked…”

Time,” I told him.

“Ah well.  It’s you natural triggers who get a little bent in the head, here and there.  Isn’t that right, Ms. Lindt?”

My heart dropped out of my chest.  I closed my eyes.

“Yeah,” Rachel said, her voice quiet.

I clenched my teeth.

“That’s right,” she went on, a little louder.

“Shadow Stalker.  You too, believe it or not.  I’ve seen your record.  Your attitude, it’s not wholly your own.”


“I’ve worked with worse.  I could give you direction.”

“Honestly?  With this shit you’re pulling now?  You sound fucking crazy.”

“Shadow Stalker and I are agreeing on this count,” I said, “Trust me when I said that’s a bad sign.”

“If we’re going to resolve this, it’ll have to be soon,” Satyr said.

“You keep doing that,” I told him.  “Telling us how little time we have, then delaying.  Forcing us into a corner?”

Another half-chuckle, wry.

“You’re not making any sense, Satyr,” I said.

He only offered another short laugh.

“You want us to fight you.  To stop you.”

“Probably for the best,” he said.

“No, it’s not,” I said.  “We need help, we can’t be distracted by-”

“Enough of this,” Lung growled the words.

“No-” I said, but I was too late.

Flames erupted around his claws.

It cast light on us, on our surroundings.

With the light, Floret could see my knife, off to one side.  I hadn’t been planning to use it to attack, but I’d wanted it in hand before we descended.  She slung one bud at it.  Encased it in crystal.  It hit the ground at the base of a cell, by a spotlight.

Leonid screamed, double volume, and it was an eerie, echoing scream that bounced through the area, each echo lower in pitch than the last.

Not that he needed it to reach that far.  Each echo of the scream coincided with a fraction of him fading out of existence.

Simultaneously phasing those parts of him in behind our group.

Canary had started to sing, nervous, but Leonid faded in behind her.  Two seconds to teleport.

Rachel raised her hands to her mouth to whistle.  No sound came out.

I turned, opened my mouth to shout, but Leonid had muted us.

I pointed, instead, but Canary didn’t get my meaning.

Rachel couldn’t get her dog’s attention with snaps or whistles.

Leonid reached out with his claw, up for her throat-

And Rachel tackled him, gripping his wrists.  Canary was entirely unawares, up until one of them kicked her ankle in their struggles.

Shadow Stalker and Lung engaged two of the remaining Vegas capes.  Blowout stepped in the way, protecting Floret.

And through some unseen signal, some practiced maneuver, he knew to duck as she flung buds at the pair.

One unfolded in the air, tagging Shadow Stalker in her shadow state, and she crumpled.

The other hit Lung.  Foot-long tendrils extended from his right pectoral to his right arm, binding to each.

Blowout hit the tethered Lung.  Maybe he wouldn’t have been strong enough to affect Lung normally, but the audacity of it and our reactions to that went a long way in giving him a little extra kick.

Satyr forced another copy out in record time, as the other charged me.

I set my bugs on it.  On her.  My double.  She didn’t have my powers.

She was strong.  Tougher.  She closed the distance to me with ease, with a runner’s strength.

So I moved the bugs to the original Satyr.  That bare chest, the eyeholes in his helmet…  I attacked Floret, and Leonid, and all of the other capes who had exposed skin.

Golem’s hand knocked her aside.  Cuff charged the one Satyr had just created.

Even at this juncture, I knew it wasn’t an even fight.  Satyr had outright admitted his team wasn’t a match for ours in a brawl.

Canary tentatively stepped on Leonid’s right hand.  Rachel’s dogs got his legs.  He screamed, and that sound wasn’t muted.

He began to phase out, reappearing by Satyr.  He climbed to his feet.

We outnumbered them, we had better combat powers.  The outcome wasn’t in doubt.

Which made Imp’s maneuver all the more insane.

She stepped out into the middle of the group and held the sphere high.

Rotated it, then rotated it back.

Sound resumed around us, as Leonid dismissed the silence effect.

Don’t, don’t, don’t,” a voice was saying.

It was Sveta, inside the ball.

“Everyone stand up,” Imp said.  “And if you fuck with me, I’m opening this thing.”

Don’t, please don’t.

Why?”  I asked, again, my eyes on Satyr.  The real Satyr.

“I would have been content to wait.  To procrastinate until we ran out of time.  But you came.”


“It’s for love, in the end.  Pettiest of all pursuits.  Arrogance, greed, even revenge… they’re nobler, trust me.  I’ve walked all those roads.  But love?  It twists all the other things.  Makes you misstep, makes you irrational, makes you impatient, above all.  We couldn’t have gone down there without getting revenge, without falling to our greed and arrogance.  So I was willing to wait.  To sit back and put it off, tell myself we didn’t have the firepower, didn’t have the numbers we needed to take on the group at the stairwell.  Wait until it was too late.”

“You were willing to die?”  Shadow Stalker asked.  She sounded offended.

“Better than being the ones who pull the trigger, dash our last hopes,” Satyr said.  “You can put down that sphere, Imp.”

Imp hesitated, then lowered the sphere.  She locked it, with vents open so Sveta could speak.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“And you probably won’t.  If you’re lucky.  I’ve said it all out loud, so the lie isn’t worth it, now.  You can go.  We’ll stand by.”

“Your fucking head games.  You’re going to stab us-”

“Weaver,” he said, and there was no pretense in his voice.  No joking tone or trace of mockery.  Talking straight.  “Go.  They’re almost through.”

“He is right, Skitter,” Lung growled the word.  “I can hear him.”

Lung was looking the way we’d come.

Scion, here.  On this floor.  I thought I could see the golden light, but it might have been a spot in my vision from looking at Lung with his burning hands.

If we go, there won’t be any escape routes.  No exits.

It was as insane as anything Satyr was doing.  Everything rational said to go upstairs, to find our way to the doorway, hope that Scion was still half-blind, still holding back.

But I turned, running for the stairwell with the Case-fifty-threes, away from Scion.

I ran hard enough that I couldn’t spare the breath.

I spoke with my swarm.

Go upstairs, if you want to go.

Give them a way out.

I could hear the others behind me, at varying distances.  I could sense Satyr’s group with my swarm.  They held their ground as Scion approached.

I don’t understand.

The others were following.

If you come, there’s no way out.  This isn’t even a hail mary, it’s a hope that there’s maybe something we can do.  A chance buried in a chance.

We came face to face with the group that had been working their way through the steel.  A mole-man, an ‘extreme deviation’ case that seemed to be made up of lasers, with her petrified body parts capping the ends.

And others, dead.  Satyr’s clones littered the area, where they’d brutally fought and killed several of the digging capes.  Where they’d died, they’d withered.

With Scion on our heels, we couldn’t afford the time to fight.

Lung, Shadow Stalker and Rachel tackled the ones who remained.  A crossbow bolt delivered to the cranium of the laser-girl, dogs attacking the mole-man.  Lung’s claws and flames to assist with both.

Without my asking, Cuff jumped into the hole.  Imp followed.

One by one, we passed inside.

Golden light flared in the massive room we’d just left behind.  No rumble, no devastation, nothing of the sort.

But I could guess what had happened.

Even if I didn’t understand it.

Golem was blocking off the path to us, while others made their way down.  Lung, Canary, then Rachel and her dogs.  Hands of concrete barred the way, and two larger hands extended from the column, fingers knitting together to form a fence.

It wouldn’t hold Scion for seconds, but it was something.

Three of us remained.  Golem, getting ready to descend, me, watching the rear, and Shadow Stalker.

Our eyes met.

She bolted, disappearing through the wall.

I headed down, with Golem following right behind.

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Venom 29.5

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Prisoners and case fifty-threes flooded into the narrow corridors, making their way into the special cells.

I gestured, urging others to move.  They shifted until their backs were against the wall.  Golem and Cuff even stepped onto the bed, to get out of the way.

I found myself by the door.  Mantellum wasn’t close enough to blind my bugs, so I could track the people as they came around the corner, approaching the doorway.  A gang of them.

I drew my second knife, then activated the knife Defiant had given me.  Safety… and the trigger.

One… two…

The guy at the head of the group made it into the doorway.  He stopped as he saw Bastard.  I pressed my old knife’s blade against his throat, saw him back away, only to bump into the people behind him.

three… fo-

The knife finished forming the gray blur around it.  Roughly three point seven seconds.  Good.

He didn’t look worried.  So I reached out and dragged the blur against the wall, gouging out a groove a few inches deep.  Smoke expanded.

He froze, his eyes flicking down, as if he could see past his cheekbones, face and chin to the knife I had against his throat.

I nodded slowly.

“Move it, asshole!”  one of the captives said.

He didn’t move.  I saw his eye shift, until it settled on me.  My arm moved, not wholly steady when fully extended, a weight in hand, and I felt the blade rasp against the scruff on his neck.

Not a case fifty-three.  Just an ordinary guy.

‘Ordinary’.  He was here, he would have powers.

“Move!” the guy in the hallway ordered.

Dim byd yma,” my hostage said, without breaking eye contact with me.  Then he added, in a heavily accented voice, “Is nothing here.”

The cheering reached a climax outside.  My bugs could sense the people in an adjacent cell.  They had someone, and were dragging him out as a group.

“Something’s going on,” one of the guys in the corridor said.

“Don’t care.  Move, motherfucker.  I want to see if there’s any shit in there.”

“Is no shit,” my hostage said.  “Empty.”

I nodded slowly.  Oddly enough, he looked more concerned at that.

An issue in translation?  A cultural problem?

The roaring reached a climax.  They had a man with no arms or legs, not fat, but with a goiter-like mass around his neck… hairless.  A case fifty-three.

This one,” Imp said, repeating what the mob’s ringleader was saying.  Shouting, judging by the way he was acting on camera. “This traitor, he is how they controlled us.  How they planned to control you.  He was going to brainwash these ones into a private army… he’s pointing at the weird looking ones they brought from downstairs.  This traitor was going to send the rest of you out without any memories, without identities, as Cauldron’s trash.

“We’re missing it,” the one further down the corridor said.

It’s only the three, now.  The rest backed out to check out the scene.

“I think I know what we’re missing.  It’s not worth seeing.  But first dibs at whatever’s in this cell?  If this fuckhole doesn’t move out of the doorway, I’m going to slide a foot up his rectum, and pry open a new doorway.”

I glanced around the room.  I could see how tense the others were.  Even Lung was rigid, bristling with scale-points.  Primed for a fight.

Imp’s voice came over the earbuds.  “Oh, hey, fun fact.  You can apparently crucify someone without arms or legs, if you try hard enough, and have the right powers.  He’s getting the crowd worked up, trying to start up a witch hunt.  Um.  He’s shouting, who wants to kill the real monster, the monster who did this to us?

The bloodthirsty cries of the crowd made it through even the soundproofing of the cell.  I could sense the emotion, the anger.

Look to your neighbors, the ones next to you.  Are they shouting loud enough?  Are they angry enough?  Because we aren’t going to brook any traitors.

My hostage looked like he was going to have a heart attack.  Caught between two very dangerous people.

I relented, easing up on the knife, then I beckoned for him to enter the room.

Slowly, he obeyed.

The guy behind him spat.  “Fucking liar.  I knew you were lying.  Trying to keep all this shit to your… self…”

He trailed off as he got far enough into the room to see me and the others.

I gave my hostage a push, with the idea that he’d get put off balance for the others to deal with.  Except I failed, completely and utterly, to budge him.  He started to turn, and I left him behind, hurrying forward to slide behind the second man and confront the third before he could catch on to what was happening and alert others.

The others folded in on the first two.

I could see the third man’s eyes go wide as I approached, my bugs swarming.  I had a knife in each hand.

He had other powers.

Fighting capes I don’t know, unfamiliar powers.

A sphere of light surrounded my right hand and knife, more spheres lighting up to surround the largest clusters of my swarm, turning each of them into fireflies in the darkness.

Which put me in the awkward position of figuring out what his power did and counteracting it.  The obvious solution, a solution to most powers, was to hit him before he could hit me with whatever it was he did.

I tried moving bugs outside of the sphere, and the sphere moved with them.  I moved individual bugs in different directions, and I felt them distort, coming to pieces, as if they were blobs of ink and I was pushing them against a hard surface.

Bugs made it through his perimeter, biting and stinging, and he reacted with the appropriate pain.  But the bugs surrounded by light didn’t manage to bite into flesh.  They were soft, their mandibles bending like putty.  Where he swatted his hand against them, both spheres and bugs were distorted and crushed by the movement.

I moved the bug-spheres out of the way, thrusting with the knife-hand he hadn’t yet affected, to cut off his retreat.  I felt the effect surround it as I got closer.  Another sphere.

I pulled back, instead.  I moved my body to block his retreat, and then drove my knee into his stomach.

He staggered back, then cast out more lights, surrounding my elbows, knees…

My head, too.  My vision went… not blurry, but the colors smudged, like bad watercoloring.

Breathing became more difficult.  Not impossible, but difficult.

The bugs who’d bent their mandibles or distorted in the course of making their way outside of the spheres weren’t going back to normal.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to hit this guy with any of my body parts, if they wouldn’t bounce back to their normal shape after the fact.

I wasn’t sure I wanted him to hit me, either.  If my face proved that pliable and he punched it…

He charged me, and I was forced to move out of the way.  He stumbled for the other end of the corridor and for the crowd, a hand pressed to his stomach.  I unspooled lengths of silk cord from the dispensers at my belt and beneath my armor, dragonflies lancing past him to encircle his throat and feet.

I braced myself, ready to try and arrest his forward momentum, but one of the threads was shorter than the others, and he only tripped.  He glanced over his shoulder, then cast out his spheres, so they covered my feet.

I threw myself forward, my flight pack kicking into action.  I lost my orientation, fighting to activate the individual panels in such a way that my hands, feet or head wouldn’t slam into a wall.

Imp said something, reciting a comment, but my focus was elsewhere.

The flight pack cracked against a wall, and I came to a dead stop.  For long seconds, the two of us were stuck.  I was unable to walk, because my own body weight would crush my feet, with this softening effect.  I couldn’t touch anything without turning my hand or whatever into mashed potatoes.

For his part, the guy was caught on the ground, his feet bound by cords too thick and strong to break with his own raw strength.

The lights flickered  out.  I could see him using his power.  An orb of light, surrounding a length of the thread.  He could counter that, while I wasn’t so lucky as to be able to counter him.  He pulled his legs apart until the thread had stretched out to the point of snapping.

He started to climb to his feet, finding other threads and using his power to break them.  He was screaming, but nobody seemed to hear him over the noise of the crowd, and all eyes were on whatever was going on in the Mantellum blind spot.  He wasn’t getting any help, but I couldn’t stop him.

Not with the thread.

So I controlled the swarm, driving bugs into his nose and mouth.

You want to play hardball, Softball?

He collapsed, choking.  Some would have capsaicin, but few of the laced insects would be alive, covered in hairspray and a toxic chemical, so long after I’d last refreshed them.

Slowly, in the order he’d created them, the spheres disappeared.

“Need help?” Cuff asked.

“No,” I said.  Forty seconds ago, yes.  Not now.

“Right,” she said.  She looked at the choking man.  Her voice was a little different as she said, “Okay.”

When the spheres around my feet and hands had faded, I let myself drift to the ground.  I hit the safety and trigger to remove the blur, then sheathed my knives.  Once my hands were free, I clenched and unclenched my hands to make sure everything was in working order, and then grabbed the threads that still remained.  I pulled on the threads until he was in a position where Cuff and I could get our hands on him and drag him back towards the others.

There were cheers.  I looked at my phone, and I could see the weirdly pretty man.  Chains stretched out from the armless, legless figure’s stumps, extending to the high ceiling and the floor, suspending him fifteen or so feet in the air.  Dead, or close enough it barely mattered.

I could also make out Mantellum, at the center of the crowd.  He stood beneath the guy they’d strung up, blood running off of the shroud that seemed to flow from his back and the edges of his face.  His expression was hard to read, but the fact that he seemed to be luxuriating in the blood rather than avoiding it… it didn’t put him in my good books.

It looks like we’ve got a full-on riot here,” Imp commented.  “Armless dude’s good as dead, they’re splitting up the crowd, so anyone that’s not inside the circle has a few guys who can deal with the ghost janitor.”

“The Custodian,” I said, as I rounded the corner.  I shoved the still-choking prisoner to the ground.  The one I’d held hostage was pinned to the wall, arms and legs held fast to the surface by Golem’s projected arms and legs.  Lung stood with his face just a foot away from the man’s.  Bastard stood with his paw on the chest of the remaining prisoner.

Three dealt with, no alert given.

The pretty man and the spiky, yellow guy were holding a prisoner’s hands up the air between them, like they were celebrating a prize fighter.  I could hear the noise of the crowd, as if it were far more distant than it was.  My bugs, outside of Mantellum’s effect, could hear it at full force.

Her.  Right,” Imp said.  “He’s getting them hyped, saying they’re going after the Doctor, but they need to dig.  Picking out the people who have the best powers for the job.  They’re shouting out what they can do.  I think they’re leaving soon.

The small army we were faced with aside, I found myself smiling a little behind my mask.  The situation evoked memories.  Except this time, I had a cell phone.  I had the pepper spray.  I had a weapon.

I’d changed.  I was more prepared to do what needed to be done.

“Less to fight,” Lung said.  “If you are scared, children, you can stay here.  In a moment, I will go.”

Taunting?  Mocking?  No.  Not really his style.  Confident in his superiority, now that he’d changed as much as he had.  Not full changes, not even full coverage with his scales, but he seemed to think he could throw himself into the crowd just outside the corridor and survive.

“We should exfiltrate,” Golem said.  “Lose the costumes, wear other ones, blend into the crowd.”

“Except you need your costume,” I said.  “Cuff’s far stronger with hers.  Imp, Rachel and I benefit pretty heavily from ours.”

“It’s just an idea,” Golem said.

“It’s an idea,” I said.  “Very workable, but it doesn’t address our main issue.  We need to stop them from going after the Doctor.  If we only wanted to escape, then I’d agree with your plan, but for now-”

Looks like they have groups formed,” Imp said.

It was true.  I had to tilt my phone so others could see what I was seeing.  Gaps had formed between the discrete groups, as everyone figured out who they were sticking with.  The main group looked like it had eighty or ninety people.

“That’s a lot of people to stop,” Golem commented.  He gave me a sidelong glance.  “You’re wanting to do something here?”

I nodded.  “Have to, don’t we?”

“Damn it,” he said, but he didn’t argue.

“Canary?” I asked.

Her eyes were on the two guys we had on the ground.

“Canary,” I said, a little louder.


One was still choking.  I ordered the bugs to make their way out of his airway.  They weren’t blocking it, but they were keeping him down.  We had the situation here under control.

Canary didn’t seem to relax any as the bugs flowed out of his mouth and nose.  A few crawled forth from beneath his eyelids.  He coughed and gagged.

She got more tense as I let up on ‘softball’.  Maybe I should have left him the way he was.

Canary,” I repeated myself for the third time, injecting a little more force into my voice.

She looked at me, disoriented.

“Can you sing to them?”

“Just them?”

“If you don’t have control, then yeah.  Just them.”

“I guess.”

“It makes them suggestible?”  I asked.

“I don’t really know.  I never really experimented with my power.”

“Not even in the Birdcage?”

“Not really, no.”

I nodded.

“They’ll listen to me.  If I really get into it, they’ll do anything I say.”

“Are they suggestible to you alone, or everyone?”

Canary shook her head.

“You don’t know,” I said, in the same instant she said, “I don’t know.”

“Can you group them all together?”  I asked.

Lung moved fast enough that it caught me off guard, bending down to grab ‘softball’ and the other guy by the throats.  He slammed them against the wall, putting them beside the guy I’d taken hostage.

Golem bound them in place.

Lung grunted, and I couldn’t read any meaning in the noise.  Irritation?  Satisfaction?

He was restless.  Ready for a fight.  The sound might have been a ‘there, now we can stop talking and do something.’

“Lung,” I said.


“Go watch the corridor?  Your hearing is good enough you can follow along.  Plus you might not want to be too close to Canary, here.”

“Mm,” he said.

Less verbal, now, because of the transformation?

Canary crossed the room, and she began singing.  Wordless at first, as if sounding out what she wanted to do, then with more character.

Even though she kept her voice low, it still reached me, and that made me more than a little paranoid.

I moved to the other end of the cell, leaning against the wall.  When I could still hear the sounds, I put a curtain of bugs between myself and her, and made them buzz and drone, fluctuating the sound until I couldn’t make out what she was doing.

“What are you thinking?” Rachel asked me.

“Chaos,” I said.  “Ideal world, it won’t be chaos with us at the center.”

Rachel nodded.  “No dogs, then?”

That many parahumans, I suspected the dogs wouldn’t last more than a few minutes.  “No.  Let’s not put them in too much danger.”

“Lovely sentiment,” Shadow Stalker said, just a little sarcastically.  “So how are you pulling off this chaos thing?”

Whatever you’re going to do, do it soon,” Tattletale said.

I gathered my swarm into a cluster.  Then I activated my knife.

Using thread, I bound the knife handle, then lifted the knife into the air.

“What are you doing?” Cuff asked.  She sounded genuinely curious.

The bugs stopped working to carry the knife, and I very carefully grabbed it by the handle, before withdrawing my hand from the mass.

“Had a thought, but it doesn’t work.  It’s too conspicuous, the swarm.”

“Floating death knife?” Shadow Stalker asked.

“That was the basic idea.  But I’ll need to do something else,” I said.  I turned off the effect around it, watched as it dissolved into smoke.  “Custodian.”

I felt out with my bugs.  She reached directly into the swarm, letting me feel the slow movement of her hand.

“Generally speaking, you think you could handle most of the ones out there?”

She slowly floated through my swarm.  The movement of her head… was she shaking it?

I felt a familiar kind of disappointment.  We had the tools.  Canary’s song, Lung, the knife, the dogs, the Custodian, my swarm… but in execution, it didn’t fit together.

The crowd was stomping now, a rhythmic stomping, the crowd working in unison.

If anyone wasn’t game, if anyone wasn’t keen on the lynching of the armless man, they had to be powerless in the face of this much fury.  How could they speak against it?  Defend the man?

It was scary to think about.

Riling them up to go trash the place,” Tattletale said.

There was a crash.  I turned to my cell phone.  A cloud of dust, the crowd was agitated.  Someone had trashed a cell, or a group of cells.

“…If they keep doing that, they’re going to hit these cells awfully soon,” Tattletale added.

I shut my eyes.

“We’ll have to give it a shot,” I said.  “Shadow Stalker?  Leave.”

“Leave?”  Shadow Stalker asked.

“Find a vantage point, away from the crowd.  Be ready.  Your targets are the special case fifty-threes.  When I give you the signal, take out as many as you can.  As many as you safely can.”

“Your concern for my well being is touching, Hebert,” she said.

“I’d be annoyed if you got killed,” I said.  “I’d have that nagging doubt in the back of my mind, wondering if I sent you off into a suicidal situation because of our history.  And because we can’t afford to lose anyone.  Because you’re a human, and I don’t want people on our side to die needlessly.”

“So it’s about pride,” she said.  “Petty, stupid pride, that you think the outcome of this shit is up to you.  And maybe fear?  That you’ll lose too many good soldiers?”

“Whatever,” I said.  “However you want to interpret it.”

“I’m assuming you’ll insist on tranquilizer bolts,” she said.  “Because you don’t want anyone dying needlessly?”

“No,” I said.  I thought of Newter, of the unique physiology of the case fifty-threes.  “Lethal shots.”

She made a funny little laugh as she looked down at her crossbow.  She began loading it with expert, practiced movements.  “Funny how it all turns out.  This, for one thing.  That I can’t anticipate you anymore.  And… that it’s just you.  There’s nobody to mourn me when I’m gone.  Family doesn’t really care.  No friends left.  No teammates, even.  I’m left to console myself with the idea that, if I die, I’ll at least annoy the depressing, creepy little geek from high school.”

“I’d say something reassuring,” I said.  “I want to tell you that you matter more to me than that.  Or that I’m sure you matter to someone out there… but I don’t think you’d buy it.”

“I wouldn’t,” she said.  She wasn’t maintaining eye contact.  “Whatever.  I’m going as far up the stairs as I can, put myself half out the wall, snipe from there.  I’ll be a minute.”

Then she was gone, stepping through the wall, heading towards the stairwell closest to us.

You meant that shit, Skitter?”  Imp asked.  “Wanting to care?  Wanting to reassure her?”

“Pretty much,” I said.  “At this juncture, there’s no reason to lie.”

You’re too forgiving,” she said.

The lights flickered as another impact shook the complex.

They’re going.”

“So are we,” I said.  “Just as soon as Canary’s ready.”

Imp spoke, “Always ticked Alec off, you know.  That you weren’t any good at holding grudges.  Too focused on the present, when it came to picking your enemies and your allies.  I wound up defending you, even.

I was barely listening, trying to focus on the swarm, picking out the places they could operate and the places they couldn’t, tracking the various prisoners as they started moving.

But that last sentence caught me off guard.  “You defended me?”

“For him, it’s his raisin de enter.

Raison d’etre,” Tattletale clarified.

Yeah.  That.  His daddy fucked him up, so it sort of gave him an inner fire where he didn’t have much more than coal inside, y’know what I mean?  Forward momentum, itch to go out and get shit done?  Become a villain with the idea that maybe someday he’d get to pull one over on the old man, become a warlord.  So for him, it was the only reason he really got up in the morning, besides maybe the basic pleasures of life.  My parents fucked me over too, but it was different.  No grudge here, just a whole lot of sad.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I wasn’t sure what to add to that.

So it was a fight.  Closest to a fight as I ever got with that asshole.  Well, if Skitter’s being nice, so will I.  Good deed of the day, since I’m dicking around now, nothing to report…  You listening in, Shady?”


Man, it was eerie to recognize Sophia’s voice over the earbud.

I’ll take that as a yes.  Regent told me about his stunt.  Controlling you.

Canary passed through my swarm.  She was silent, and the glances to the side when Imp was speaking suggested she didn’t want to interrupt.

He took you home.  Gave you a hard time, messing with your mom.  The whole thing with you nearly committing suicide afterwards.

I was very still.  The lights flickered, the ground rumbled, and I didn’t so much as flinch.

Well, I’m not going to ‘prattle’, as Lung would put it.  He was there, obviously.  He told me about it, after the fact.  Just, like, a heart to heart, between two of us who don’t have much heart to go around, you get me?  Neither of us’s the type to get embarrassed, so nothing to hide.  Can share all the stories.  Share each other, just by talking?”

She made it sound like a question.  Like she wasn’t even sure, and she wanted validation from someone.

I remembered how Regent had controlled her.  Seized her with his power.  Sharing each other indeed.

Not a guy that’s in touch with his emotions.  Way I always saw it, they’re there, he’s just oblivious to it all.  Had to be.  So it’s only after he’s through with you that he realizes maybe he was a little hard on you, maybe he twisted the knife harder than he usually would, because it bugged him.  There you are with a family, and he can feel your emotions, and he totally knows you don’t even realize it in the slightest.  He’s blind to his own emotions and you’re blind to the emotions of others.”

Is this going somewhere?”  Shadow Stalker’s voice.  “You’re prattling.

Take it from me, as I tell you what the lazy jerk who body-controlled you told me.  Your mommy loves you lots, Shady.

There was a pause.  “Okay.

That’s all you’re going to give me?  I totally dish all this, and I get an ‘okay’?”  Imp asked.  She was oblivious to the pause before Shadow Stalker had spoken, to the fact that she’d affected Shadow Stalker on some level.

That, or Imp’s wording had taken a second to figure out.

“No arguments,” I said, cutting in before something could start between two of our more volatile members.  “Canary?”

“They’re ready.”

“Good.  Rachel, Golem, Cuff.  If and when we move, I need you to run interference.  When we move, I need you to distract, protect the core group, protect us as we run.  Rachel, keep the dogs large enough they can maybe take a hit or two, but not so big they can’t make their way into the stairwell.  Lung?”

There was no reply.  I could sense him out in the corridor, just at the corner where it looked out into the main hallway with the prisoners and other cells.  He turned in response.  He might have been able to hear me through the comm system, but he could have heard me anyways.

I don’t think he knows how to use the comm system,” Tattletale said.  “Or he does, but he’s changed enough it’s hard to do.”

“Lung,” I said.  “The other three are giving us cover.  You have enough experience I’m not going to tell you what to do.  You’ve been at this cape thing for a decade and a bit.  So go all-in.  Or do what the other three are doing.  Your call.”

There was no reply.  Maybe he didn’t understand the comm system.

“You’re so calm,” Canary said.  “Most of you.  Lung seemed nervous.”

Lung, out in the corridor, clenched his fist.

You annoyed him, saying that.

“I’m shaking,” Canary said, and her strange, melodic voice gave evidence to her fear.  “You can’t tell with these gauntlets I’m wearing, but I’m shaking.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Don’t worry.”

“I’m-” she laughed a little, and the laugh hitched with emotion.  “I’m- pretty worried.”

“We’ve been through worse.  Everyone here has been through worse.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better.  It makes me feel like maybe I had the right idea, back in the beginning when I decided not to do this cape thing.  I’m going to fuck up, and the stakes are so fucking high…”

“Relax,” I said.  “Or… if that’s not possible, just, um.  Tell yourself we’ve got your back.  None of us are about to let the newbie die.”

“That’s not that reassuring,” she said.

“It’ll have to do,” I said.  The ground was shaking, and someone was manually tearing apart a cell block just a distance away.  I could feel Mantellum retreating, the blind spot shifting.

I was just a little impatient.  We were running out of time, and I didn’t even have everything in place.

I parted my swarm, giving myself a view of the three captives.

“You three,” I said.

They raised their heads.

Brutto tik,” the largest one growled.

“Be quiet,” I ordered, as authoritative as I could manage.

He clenched his teeth, lips pressed together.

Does he even realize he’s obeying?

“I’m not your enemy.  Stop treating me like an enemy and listen,” I said.

I could see the tension slowly seep out of them.

“Nod your heads,” I said, experimentally.

They each nodded, out of sync.

“Golem?  Release them,” I said.

Golem created more hands, manually tearing the old ones apart.

The three stood still, looking just a little unfocused.

I turned to the largest one.  “What are your powers?”

He looked confused.

“Tell me your powers.”

“I’m dense,” he said.


I extended my disintegration knife in his direction, saw the delayed reaction, the genuine fear and concern.

I turned it around, offering him the handle.

He stared at it, still looking afraid.

“Calm down,” I said.

He relaxed, very slowly, very visibly.

It works on involuntary reactions?

He settled into a state that still looked ill-at-ease, but not nearly as afraid as before.

Or does it work on the voluntary, visible signs of the involuntary reactions?

“Take it,” I said.

He took the knife.

“Hide it.”

He hid it.

“Now don’t move.  Don’t be afraid.”

He went stock still.

“Um,” Canary said.  “A thing…”

“A thing?” I asked.

“He’s not as influenced as my ex-boyfriend was, but… they’re very literal, about what you say.  Even like this.”

I looked at the dense man.  “Okay.  Then-”

“You’re allowed to move to breathe,” Canary cut me off.

The man exhaled audibly.

“Now don’t react,” I told him.

Then I sent my flying bugs to him, collecting them beneath the generic uniform he wore.  They carried silk cord and wound it loosely around his legs and arms.

True to form, he didn’t react.

I thought about it a bit more, and then gave him an excess of silk.  Hundreds of feet of it.

“This cell was empty, there’s nothing inside except people looking for some privacy.  Make your way to an isolated spot where nobody can really see you, wait until the lights flicker out, and then use the safety on the knife.”

He looked at me as though he hadn’t taken in any of it.

“My ex was like that, before went and obeyed me, without my knowledge,” Canary said.  “I think this guy will listen.”

“Then you’re free.  Forget this.”

He left.  I looked at the remaining two.

“You two, shirts off.”

“Yes.  I like the way you think.”

“Be quiet, Imp,” I said.  “We’re moving, be ready.”

And moving starts with sexy times.  Not complaining.

For someone who hates being ignored, she seems to demand it from others, I thought.  “Sit in the corridor, near where the spiky, scaled guy is now.  Tell him to come here.  If anyone comes, kiss.  Convince them they’re interrupting something private, get angry.”

“I’m not comfortable with this bit,” Cuff said.  “It’s creepy.”

“It’s better than Lung having to tear people to shreds or burn them if they happen this way,” I said.  “I’ll take creepy.”

“Okay, if I have to be specific, then I’ll say it’s a bit, um, rapey.”

I frowned.

“Don’t actually kiss,” I told the men.  “Fake it as much as you can.”

Cuff nodded.

The others were all moving, now.

As the two stopped near Lung, he turned to go.

Apparently he was going solo.  He clawed at his already scale-torn shirt and cast it aside, then stalked into the crowd.  He didn’t completely blend in, with his heavy jeans, but he could almost pass for a case fifty-three.

The dense man with the knife stopped.  He’d found a place in a cell where nobody had a good view of him.

He held up the knife, then activated it.   I drew the bugs from beneath his clothes and wrapped threads around the handle.

The lights went out.

I carried the knife up to the ceiling, then started carrying it down the length of the hallway.  With my bugs, I could trace the hallways on either side, sense the general grid with cells in rows of five, I could see the people…

Up until I ran into Mantellum’s blind spot.

A chronic failing of human beings, that we so rarely looked up.  The swarm moved along the ceiling.  If any parahumans had the powers to notice it, they didn’t have a strong enough voice to alert any others.

And, in the interest of using the enemy’s tools against them, I was able to bring the swarm inside Mantellum’s area of effect.  If there were clairvoyants or precogs capable of tracking my actions or what I was about to do, then this would presumably limit their sight just as well as it limited mine.

They’d lynched one of their own kind, were eager to lynch any others who didn’t show absolute loyalty.  They were celebrating, in a way, and they were simultaneously building up the crowd, ensuring that their mob was loyal.  All of them on the same page, for better or for worse.  I couldn’t see, but I could guess that the reason for their slow progress was the press of the crowd between them and the door.

I was blind, here, but I didn’t have to strike aimlessly.

I extended silk thread above the blind spot.  A good two hundred feet of the stuff, level with the ground.  I only stopped when either end of the suspended silk cord I had bugs on either side of Mantellum’s blind spot.

Then I extended more, setting it cross-wise against the other thread.

Not perfect, but it gave me a starting point.  Assuming the blind spot was a circle or a sphere, which it appeared to be, I could find the center point.

Mantellum, the source of the effect, dead center.

I waited until the lights flickered again.  The moment my bugs couldn’t see the lights, the tight swarm of bugs with the threads and the dagger swept down.

“Shadow Stalker, Lung, this is my signal.  Act.  Imp?  Get out of the way, head back to us.”

One pass.  A lazy swoop with the swarm, the knife suspended by threads.

I couldn’t see, even with the camera, but I was aware of Mantellum stopping in his tracks.  The boundaries of the circle stopped drifting in the general direction of the stairwell.

I waited, willed the lights to flicker.  Time passed.

People were reacting, outside the circle.  How much damage had I done?

The lights went out.

Another pass.

Mantellum’s effect dissipated.  The blind spot filled in, a crowd, capes, blood spraying.  My bugs could sense them all.

The lights came back on.  One cape saw the swarm, moving towards the ceiling.

A chunk of ice the size of a small car hit them.  Ice fragments rained down on the crowd.

Many bugs had died in the collision.

The swarm couldn’t keep the knife aloft.  I had to reinforce it, but I couldn’t get enough bugs there in time to do it before it hit the ground.


I let it fall.  Let it pass through the ground like the ground wasn’t even there, disappearing into the floor beneath us.

“Custodian,” I said.  “The effect that was blocking you is down.”

I could feel her move.

Lung was advancing, now.  Fire rolled forth from his claws in plumes, surging into cells.  The crowd moved out of his way.

I could hear them cheering.  Oblivious to the fact that he wasn’t on their side, wasn’t just carrying out the raid.

Lung hurled a fireball that passed just inches above the crowd’s heads.

The fireball hit a cell block, scattering more of the crowd.

He was changing now, changing quickly.

“Lung,” I said.  “Tone it down.  If you grow too much, you won’t be able to come downstairs.”

No response.

More fire, more destruction.  The flames were spreading, igniting beds.  I could see on the camera, the meager flames that lingered on stone and concrete.

There was a method to his madness.  Small as the flames were, capes were backing away a touch.  They were cheering him on in his rampage, cheering the destruction of cells that had kept them captive, but they were still falling victim to the strategy beneath it all.

He was walling them off, sectioning off an area with fire and plumes of smoke.  Making it so we only had to deal with a smaller number.

I became aware of Imp as she hopped over a smaller flame on her way to us.  Lung, unaware due to her power or uncaring due to his personality, came dangerously close to frying her as he shored up the barrier, driving people back as the smoke continued to billow.

The cheers became screams of fear and panic as Shadow Stalker’s bolts started hitting the special capes.  Sniping them.

Three shots, and then someone retaliated.  A sonic attack, focused.  The crossbow bolts stopped appearing.

She’s dead?  Just like that?

No.  More crossbow bolts, from a different vantage point.  Fired from within walls, Shadow Stalker poking a barely visible head out into gloom to get a bead, then firing at her targets.

“Go,” I said.  “Shadow Stalker, Lung, we’re moving.  Cover our retreat, follow us if you can.”

No response from either.  They were busy doing what they were doing.

I could feel the Custodians appearing.

A vast quantity.  Filling empty spaces, overlapping.

A duplicator?  I thought.

Like Velocity, the Brockton Bay Protectorate member who’d died against Leviathan.  He’d been a fast cape, capable of outrunning vehicles, striking a hundred times in a minute.  But that came at the expense of a limited ability to affect the world.

The Custodian was the same.

She was weak, standalone, barely a wisp of air.  And she couldn’t turn it off.  Couldn’t get back to a state where she was fully material, capable of affecting the world normally.

But she duplicated, combined her strength, made hundreds of herself, thousands

She tore into the crowd like an elemental force.  My bugs could feel the air ripple, felt prisoners get thrown into cells.

Felt the blood, the limbs being bent in ways that wasn’t possible, when they refused to be thrown.

Energy attacks cut through the open air, and she barely slowed down.

The remaining special case fifty-threes from the floor below started to attack, to use abilities I couldn’t quantify as sound or fire or lightning, and the Custodian let hundreds of duplicates disappear in her attempts to get out of the way.

We headed out of the corridor.  “You two,” I ordered the shirtless duo.  “Help defend us.”

Between the dogs, Golem and Cuff, we had the brawn to force ourselves through the crowd that was in the area Lung had walled off.  Surprise, too, went a long way.  I didn’t have a lot of bugs, but I had enough to blind a few people, to fill their noses and ears and distract.

When Lung turned his fire on the group that was standing their ground, readying to stop us, that was a breaking point.  They scattered.  Two remained, tough and stubborn enough to keep attacking, and Lung picked one of them up, swinging them like a flail to bludgeon the other aside.

Golem’s hands shoved more away.  Cuff’s strikes, using her ability to manipulate metal and her metal gloves, were enough to break bone.  She shattered legs and arms, struck ribs and threw people aside.

I wasn’t proud, but I knew that this cold, efficient ruthlessness was at least partially a result of the time we’d spent together.

Imp caught up with us.  She had a sphere tucked under one arm, with the coiling mass of Weld’s partner within, still moving.

Panting, Imp said, “Couldn’t get him, but I figured she’s bound to be on our side, right?”

I only nodded.  There were other things to focus on, like the ones that had been torturing her.

In the stairwell at the far end of the hallway, the one that mirrored our escape route, the main group, with the beautiful man, the spiky boy and a badly injured Gully were making their way down the stairs.

I was ready.  I already had thread attached to a rivet in the ceiling, thread attached to the knife I’d dropped to the floor below.  It swung into the stairwell, an easy, casual swing.

The disintegration effect carved into the people at the front of the group, into heads, shoulders, necks, and body parts unique to case fifty-threes.

I used the swarm to control the swing, to swing it into the crowd that was hurrying down the stairs.

More struck.  Devastation, people falling over each other as they collapsed on the stairs.

Someone, no doubt someone with a sensory power, reached for the knife, tried to grab it.

I cut the thread with the mandibles of my bugs.  It plunged down into the group, paused as the handle came to rest on writhing bodies.

Then slid off to one side as the blade continued to eat through everything near it.

Again, it ate through the stairs, falling to a floor below.  I did what I could to catch it, using my bugs to grab after the threads that still trailed behind it.

We reached the stairwell, and faced the group within.

They’d barely dented the reinforced metal doors, with their myriad powers.

Cuff ignored them, charging forward, and hit the door with her fist.

The crash was loud enough to stun me, and I was at the thick of the group, furthest from the door.

She did more damage to the door than most of them had.

The Custodian was right.  We wouldn’t have been able to break through here in normal circumstances.  We’d have been cornered, more than we were in the cell.

The damage continued outside.  The Custodian pursued the group in the stairwell, harassing, bludgeoning.  She separated the crowd into groups and then bulled them back, driving them towards empty cells.  I was drawing my bugs back to me in stages, concentrating them on a few people at a time, trying to track what she was doing.

Yet even with that, I couldn’t follow it all.  Flayed skin, people holding their hands against one eye, joints bent the wrong way, bleeding wounds.

Nothing lethal.  Only punishment.

Lung, Cuff, Golem and Rachel dealt with the five threats here in the stairwell.  Shadow Stalker made her appearance, and dealt with the sixth, jamming a tranquilizer bolt into his neck.

Cuff hit the reinforced metal door again.  It bulged as if she were ten times the size, hitting ten times as hard.

She hit it a third time, a fourth…

On the fifth impact, it gave way.

We made our way down.

“Further,” I said.

FYI,” Tattletale’s voice sounded, “Losing you as you get further down.”

“We’ll be in touch,” I said.

Attack in Gimel went.  Not good, not bad, but it went.  Didn’t want to dis…, but now it’s…    …Just wanted to let you know.  Bracing ours… …r nex… he didn’t show at next location… trying…  where he is… Wish us-“

And then radio silence.

I tested the comm.  No luck.

Two stairwells, mirroring, no doubt for the safety of having a backup.  The other group had stalled where the knife had delayed them.  We proceeded further.

Past the fourth floor.

We stopped, panting for breath.

Another reinforced door, open.

An expanse of flat, brushed steel behind it.  A dead end.

And sitting in front of that expanse of steel were Satyrical, Blowout, Floret and Leonid.  Revel and Exalt were nowhere to be seen.

“It seems we’re going to have ourselves a problem,” Satyrical said, looking down at his fingernails.

“No offense,” I said, “But I think we’re a little stronger, in terms of raw firepower.”

“You are.”

“So unless you’ve replaced half of my team with sleeper agents…”

He shook his head.  “Only just became aware of you, honestly.”

“…I’m not particularly threatened.”

“No,” Satyr said, speaking slowly, as if he were picking his words.  “It’s not us.  It’s him.”


Oh.  Him.

“And the one with the answers is buried under a half-mile of solid steel,” he said.  He bit at the corner of one fingernail, then buffed it on the leg of his costume.  “Like I said.  A problem.”

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Venom 29.4

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Lights flickered as we made our way inside.

It looked like a hospital, but not an abandoned one.  Things were pristine, the walls and tiled floor a clean, untouched white.  It wasn’t a place that had been left to deteriorate.  The stark, clean nature of the place made for a contrast where the damage had been done.  There were gouges in the walls, things torn free from walls and ceilings.  Scorch marks, from both acid and fire, and damaged chairs, cabinets and lockers.

I noted the contents of the lockers and cabinets that had been torn open.  Glass vials, empty, clear fluids, medical tools still in plastic wrappers with paper covers that could be torn away.  But for the disorganization, it was all in excellent condition.  It didn’t look like it had even been touched.

The longer I looked, the less it seemed like a hospital, and the less real it seemed.  It was more like someone had taken sections of a hospital, removing everything like the nurse’s stations and the rooms for the patients, leaving only the hallways and doors that sat flush against the floor, airtight.  I would have thought it was all staged, but a check with my bugs confirmed that there was a minimum of dust even in places people wouldn’t be able to see.

Why take that much time to clean areas that were never going to get used?

“Tattletale?” I asked. “How’s the connection?”

The Dragonfly is relaying the connection from the towers, which are relaying from Gimel.  Kind of impressive when you think about it.

“I’m thinking this stuff tells a story.  Can you fill us in?  Information wins fights.”

I heard a noise from behind me.  A grunt or a scoff.  I turned to look, but couldn’t see who it had been.  Lung?  Shadow Stalker?  Golem?  Cuff?  All were possible, on different levels.  Lung might have been dismissive, Cuff bemoaning the fact that I was harping on that particular point yet again.  I’d reiterated it a few dozen times when justifying the stakeouts and a few cases of infiltration.

“I can see the path they took,” Tattletale said.  “You’re facing the direction the Irregulars headed.  They got more agitated as they made their way through.  Excitement, anger, a mess of negative emotions, bottled up for years, finally released.

I nodded.  I could imagine it now, almost see them in the hallway.

“Forty three of them.  Case fifty-threes.  Weld’s entire group.

“We have data on them?” I asked.  My eye fell on one of the doors.  It looked so ordinary, but someone had hit it, and it had been dented.  Metal, and apparently well reinforced, with a good section of the door fitting into the wall.

Already have files open.  There’s not a lot of details on most of them, but they aren’t exactly in the public eye.  You only get sightings, and apparently PRT paperwork where Protectorate members get sent to check in on them every once in a while, make sure they’re okay.  The others, well, you’re aware of Weld and Gully and Gentle Giant.  I could recap for the people who wouldn’t know.”

“I know enough,” Lung said.  “I would rather not have a voice prattling in my ear when I could be listening for trouble.”

“Oh, hey,” Imp said.  Through the bugs I’d planted on him, I could feel Lung reacting to her sudden appearance.  “I wouldn’t mind hearing this info.  Cliff notes?”

“You’re doing this to irritate me,” Lung said.

He’s sharp, in some ways, I thought.

“Don’t get your gonads in a twist.  I just want to know what we’re walking into.”

I heard a growl, and my first thought that Imp had pushed the wrong button.  I turned, my hand moving to my knife.

But it was Rachel’s dog, Huntress, her nose pressed to a door.

I watched each of the others prepare for a fight.  Or not prepare, as the case was.  Lung remained very casual, almost calm, while Canary backed away, putting as much distance between herself and the door as she could.  She was in better armor than most of us,with one of Saint’s Dragonslayer suits, but she still saw herself as vulnerable.

Hell, I saw her as vulnerable.

My bugs moved around the door’s perimeter, but I could sense only damage around the handle.  As airtight as any door.

I drew my knife, then gave Rachel a nod to go.

She kicked the door handle, and the door swung open.

Blood, corpses.  Three dead case fifty-threes.  Two men and a woman.  A cat-man with far too many teeth in his mouth, even covering the roof and the space beneath his long, narrow tongue, something that looked like keyboards on his forearms.  A reptile, not so different from Newter, but with no mouth or nose.  Only two overlarge eyes.  The last was a girl, squares of flesh intersped with patches of cloth.  Her mouth was only a tear in the cloth.

Their throats had been neatly slashed -the patchwork girl bled like anyone else might- and they’d been dragged into this room.  It was clear from the way that the blood trail suddenly stopped that someone had cleaned up.

Stragglers.  The Irregulars were moving as a tight group, keeping close to one another, but Satyrical and his team blindsided the ones at the back.  Killed them, dragged them off, then one of them cleaned up the evidence.  Floret, probably.”

“And Satyr probably masqueraded as these three,” I said.  “He’s in Weld’s group.”


“Then we need to move fast,” I said.  “Good job Rachel, Huntress.”

Rachel only grunted acknowledgement.

“You’re thanking the dog?” Shadow Stalker asked, incredulous.

“I’m thanking people that are being useful,” I said, my voice hard.  “If you want to be one of them, maybe scout the rooms we’re passing by.”

She didn’t obey right away, but she did obey.  She disappeared through a door.

The lights momentarily went out.  For an instant, I thought Shadow Stalker had been electrocuted, walking straight into a wire.  They flickered on again.

There were no windows, no sources of light beyond the lighting that was supposed to glow evenly from the high ceiling above.  When the lights flickered out again, the darkness was absolute, all-consuming.  As seconds creeped on and the light failed to return, I wondered if we’d be continuing this in the dark.

Lung used his power, creating a flame in his hand.  It didn’t make for much light – only enough to illuminate our groups.  Golem raised his hand to his helmet, then paused.

“Go ahead,” I told him.

The lights mounted on Golem helmet turned on, followed soon after by Cuff’s own lights.  I could see the way they were turning their heads, trying to cover both ends of the hallway.

“I don’t sense anyone,” I said.

No.  Wait.  There was someone.


I’d sensed it at the meeting the Doctor had arranged.  The spirit, the ghost.  So subtle it was almost impossible to notice.  The currents of the air, the faintest of traces in dust that marked where she’d traveled… all things I’d mentally dismissed.  Air tended to move.  Only the fact that this was a closed space, without any kind of air conditioning or temperature difference made the movements in the air curious.

Paying attention,  I could see that there was a pattern, a consistent repetition in air currents so feeble they might not have moved a feather.

The lights flickered back on, went out, and then settled in a compromise, the dull translucent pane of the ceiling lit up with a patchwork of  maybe two thirds dark to one third light.

“We’re here to help,” I called out.

My voice echoed down the hall.

“I thought you didn’t sense anyone,” Canary said.

“I don’t,” I said.

“Then who are you talking to?”

“I don’t think it’s a who,” Imp said.  “Try ‘what are you talking to?'”

“Shh,” I bid them to be quiet.

I could sense more movements in the air, close… no.  That was a result of Lung’s fire heating the air.

Further down the hall.  If I use enough bugs, try to get a sense of dimensions…

A head, part of a torso.  I could feel the contours of narrow shoulders, the waist.  Female.

She disappeared, or she became less coherent, the movements in the air continuing, but ceasing to suggest a general human shape.  Another appeared behind us, roughly as far away.  No arms, no legs.  Just a broken figure.

“Help me out, Tattletale?” I asked.

Help with what?

“The Custodian.”

I’m not getting anything usable,” she said.  “Video cameras suck like that.

“Right,” I said.  Louder, I called out, “We’re here to help the Doctor!  You’ve got two other groups in here, one that’s definitely hostile, angry and destructive, and another I think is worth being suspicious of.”

A movement, a reaction to that last sentence.

I explained, “Maybe they seem friendly, but they’ve got a bad history of backstabbing, making subtle plays for power.  I think the Doctor would back me up on this.  If she’s cooperating with them at all, she’s doing it with knowledge they’ll capitalize on any weakness she shows… and she’s never been weaker than she is right now.”

The figure turned around, briefly fading out of existence.

She reappeared in a way that made me wonder just how long she’d been there, a foot away from me.

“We’re not your enemies,” I said, holding my ground.  “I want to stop Scion, and the best, easiest way to do that is to get things back into working order here.”

For an instant, she was in four places at once.  Then she settled on three.

It struck me that I’d never fared particularly well against stranger-class powers.

“If it helps,” I said, “I’m pissed.  The Doctor called you the Custodian, which probably means you’re the one taking care of this place.  If you’re not completely emotionless, it hurts, that they’re tearing it apart.  If you care about the doctor, I’m betting you’re worried.  Maybe you feel like I do.  You want to retaliate, but something is getting in your way-”

And then she was gone.

“So.  Uh.  You’re kinda tense there, boss,” Imp said.

“She’s gone,” I said.  “I’m pretty sure.”

“Question is, is there really a crazy janitor lady?”  Imp asked.  “Or is Skitter finally going mad?”

“If there are no more obstacles, we should go,” Lung said.

I nodded.  I started walking at a good clip, reorganizing my swarm to check the areas around corners.

A series of eight or so doors to our right were open, now.  Shadow Stalker lurked at the end of the hallway.  She must have walked through the walls while the power was out, opening every door in passing.

“Just saying,” Imp kept talking, “Custodian?  Knowing what we do about your origins… kinda a thing.  The Doctor, if you think about it… what if we’re all-”

“Imp,” I interrupted her, all too aware of the presence of Lung and Shadow Stalker, “Not now, not here.”


She’s nervous, I told myself, before I could get too irritated.  But her way of dealing with that came at my expense.  I didn’t need to be reminded of my weakest moments.

I really didn’t need any head games, intentional or otherwise.

With the doors open, it was possible to see the room interiors.  Offices, perfectly ordered and empty of people.  Desks, file holders to neatly sort paperwork, book cases with texts.  All of it even, ordered.  No pages sticking up or books missing from shelves.

Still want that briefing, Imp?” Tattletale asked.

“Huh?  Briefing?”

On the Irregulars.

“Oh.  Right.”

I’ll take that as a no.”

I sent my bugs out, directing them to collect a few things.  Two booklets, the most substantial material my bugs could hold and still carry.

They shouldn’t have been able to pull this off,” Tattletale said.

I thought of Contessa, and of the Custodian.

“They did, though,” I said.  “At the worst possible point in time.”

“Weld isn’t dumb,” Shadow Stalker said, as she stepped out of one room and crossed the hall.  “Except maybe with people.  Kind of put his big metal foot in his big metal mouth, I remember.  But he’s not dumb when it comes to powers or strategy.  He’s had a few years to figure this out.”

“Hey,” Imp said.  “You’re not allowed to say nice things about people.  You shot my brother with an arrow, messed with people I respect.  I’ve been waiting for that cinematic moment when you and I find ourselves alone and I get my revenge.  Don’t fucking dilute it by being nice.”

Shadow Stalker stared at Imp, standing her ground as we, Imp included, made our way up the hallway to where she was.

“You’re irritating,” Shadow Stalker said, her voice dripping with condescension, dismissive.  That said, she disappeared through the nearest door.

Better,” Imp muttered.

I used the arms on my flight pack grab the booklets my bugs had brought to me.  The contents of each were bound into books.

I paged through the booklets.  The cover of the first read: ‘ASDEC01 Employee responsibilities, contingency C-2-6’.  The second was ‘ASDEC01 Employee responsibilities, contingency F-4-7’.  Both, at a glance, very similar inside.

I looked at the inside cover.  Contingency C-2-6.  Transmigration.

Then page upon page of jargon.  References to other files, to organizations and places I had no concept of, and things I knew of, but not in this context.  Overseers, terminus, and again, the word transmigration.

It lacked flow, as the writing went.  More of a technical manual, in the end.  I could tell from the structure that things had been done by computer, so that information specific to the employee and the employee’s role could be injected at the appropriate spots.

I flipped through the book, continuing to scout with my bugs and use them to check our surroundings for possible danger.  Only endless hallways.

“You reading over my shoulder, Tattletale?” I asked.  I had the camera on my mask.

I am.”

“Thinking what I’m thinking?”

Accord was two-timing us,” Tattletale said.  “Doubling up so he had enough of a power base to enact his plans, whatever happened.”

“Except for, you know, the whole dying thing,” Imp added.

“Are you getting the gist of this, Tattletale?”  I asked.

Picking up pieces of it.  I’d ask you to scan the thing and let me have access to all of it, but that’s not exactly reasonable, is it?

“Just give me the byline.”

A plan for if the Endbringers win.  A plan for if Scion wins.  A plan if we come out ahead and beat both of them.  Recurring themes in all of the plans.

“No plan survives contact with the enemy,” Lung rumbled.  “Foolish.”

Accord makes pretty fucking good plans,” Tattletale said.

“I do not know this Accord, and I only trust what I experience myself, so this is only prattle to me.”

“How does this turn out?” I asked.  “Cauldron ruling the world?”

Honestly?  I don’t think so.  Cauldron’s primary interest seems to be humanity.  Keeping us going, minimizing chances of war and conflict.  All of this seems to be geared around that.  Setting things up so we aren’t fucked, however things go down.”

“Right,” I said.  “Where do the powers come in?”

I think… well, I don’t have enough to say anything for sure.  But the underlying assumption seems to be that parahumans are going to take charge, one way or the other, so they wanted to set things up so that happened naturally.  They’ve been vetting clients, finding the ones who’d work best.  They don’t identify them by anything except number, but… I think Coil was a test case.”

I nodded.

So were we.”

“We had an idea,” I said.

Yeah.  But there’s more… I don’t know how much more.  Yet.  Can you flip ahead?  Maybe about three quarters of the way through, there should be a bit about the Overseers and the Terminus.  Flip through… slower… show more of the pages… I’ll go back through the video feed to view each page on my own and figure the rest out myself.

Further down the hallway, Shadow Stalker stepped out of a room.  I looked, keeping my head at the same general angle, so the camera would continue to have a view of the book, still flipping.

Shadow Stalker was pointing.

My swarm caught up with her, flowing into the room.

I glanced into the room as we passed.  Two more bodies.  Two men, large, both bristling with horns.  One with curling horns like a ram, the other with horns like a bull.

Satyr,” Tattletale confirmed.  “Again.

“Hmm,” Shadow Stalker murmured.  She was leaning against the doorframe, her arms folded.  “He’s efficient.”

Did she just sound like she was approving?  I lowered the booklet, raising my head to give Shadow Stalker a serious look.

She only made a small, smug sound, like she was pleased, or pleased with herself, and then turned around, her cloak flaring out before she disappeared through the wall.

“This long-delayed revenge thing is getting easier all the time,” Imp commented.

“No revenge,” I said.  “Not to put too fine a point on it, but you’re sounding a lot less like Imp and a whole lot like… well…”

“Regent,” she said.

I nodded.  The desire for revenge, the way the wisecracking was veering off course, to uncomfortable or dangerous levels…

“Be nice if he was here,” was all she said.

I nodded again.

The hallway reached a t-junction at the end, with a path going off to the left, and a stairwell to the right that led down, deeper into the building.  I could sense just how thick the floor was.  Most buildings had only a few feet separating each story, but here, there was solid matter nearly as thick as the open spaces.

A fortress?  A fortress has soldiers.

A shelter?  It doesn’t make sense that they’d try to take shelter in a place like this.

It also made the descent to the next floor down take just long enough that it felt like something was wrong.  Winding our way down.

“There are backup plans if the whole parahumans-as-leaders thing didn’t work out.  Brainwashing leaders like they brainwashed the case fifty-threes.  So the leaders were absolute and could be trusted.  Um.  Distribution and organization for getting things going again, depending on how many threats remain after we make it through this.  They didn’t know what the end would be like, what we’d be up against, so they could only ballpark here.  The reason for these offices?  Cauldron’s going to staff this place.  It’s going to be a hub, police, a whole lot more, up until humanity’s got the ball rolling again.

“No way that doesn’t fall apart,” Golem said.

I nodded a little.

“Power fucks everything up, doesn’t it?” he asked.

“Speaking of fucked up.  You should know, Scion just hit Dalet.  It’s ugly.  Getting worse with every attack.  A little more ruthless, toying with specific people, breaking them before he obliterates their friends.  He’s going to hit our settlement again if the pattern holds.  Within the next half an hour to an hour.”

I sighed.  Nothing we could do but hope the defenders could hold their own.  I looked at Lung.

“What?” he asked.

“You wanted to come with us.  Odd choice.”

“I tried, I did nothing in the end.  I do not like being…”

“Impotent?” Imp offered.

Lung growled his response, “A mere bystander.”

We reached a set of double doors.  A foot thick, solid, they overlapped rather than meet, effectively doubling the thickness, allowing for their structure to reinforce one another.  They’d been destroyed, pried apart.  An impressive feat, considering they looked like they were meant to withstand charging elephants.

Or parahumans.

It’s a prison, the thought struck me, as we passed through, getting a glimpse of the floor below.

Rows and columns of cells, connected in strings of ten or so.  Most cells were occupied.

Not case fifty-threes, going by what my bugs told me.  The case fifty-threes were the outliers, here.  These were people who I might have seen on the street in Brockton Bay, all in matching outfits.  Men, women, children.  All young, twenty-five or younger.  All more or less in good health, if a touch thin.  My swarm touched each of them as I tried to take in their total numbers.

“They’re here!”  Someone called out.

They can’t see us from this angle, I thought.

Then it dawned on me that everyone here had powers.  Some had powers that would sense us.

“Did it work?” the person from before called out, a woman.  “Hey!  Did it work?”

“They aren’t the same people as before,” a man said.

We needed to move on.  The double doors leading down to the next flight had been torn apart as well, and that meant the Irregulars, Revel, Exalt, Vantage and quite possibly the Doctor were all downstairs.

But the noise level increased with every passing second.  Cheering, shouts, cries, even threats to urge us to move faster, in a dozen different languages, maybe more.  The noise swelled as others took up the cry.  People screaming at the tops of their lungs.

And they were threatening to draw attention to us in the process.  I drew on my relay bugs, sending the swarm downstairs, trying to figure out if we’d just alerted Weld and the others.

“They think we’re here to rescue them,” Golem said.

“Aren’t we?” Cuff asked.  “I mean, it’s not why we came, but we can’t leave without them.  We’re not heartless?”

That she made it a question was telling.

That she directed that question at me was… I didn’t even have the words to articulate it.

“Yes,” I said.  “Yes, of course.”

“If we rescue them, then it causes trouble.  Too many to look after,” Lung said.

“Chaos could help us,” Shadow Stalker observed.

“We are going to rescue them,” I said.  “It’s just a question of when.  And how.”

I walked forward until I could see the cells and their occupants.

Hundreds of cells, and there wasn’t anything blocking them off.  Open doors, with nothing visible that would keep the prisoners inside.  Most consisted of only three walls and a white line painted on the floor.  Beside each cell was a metal plate, engraved with a number.

“Oh my god,” Cuff’s voice was touched with quiet horror, almost lost in the rising noise.  “Look at how pale they are.  They’ve been here a long time.”

These guys haven’t been here for long,” Tattletale said.  “Or they’re the newest.  Two thousand and fifty cells, I’m thinking, maybe half of them occupied.  All the structural reinforcements, the heavy doors, the traps in the ceiling, it’s to keep the prisoners in.  But you don’t need to put security doors in for going downstairs if there’s no way out.  There’s more cells downstairs, with older patients.  Plus, I think, the hub of Cauldron’s operation.

“This can’t be for humanity’s sake,” Golem said.

It is,” Tattletale said.  “Everything they’ve been doing is for our sake.  Producing better formulas to get more soldiers for the biggest, most important fights, weaning out the bad formulas so nobody important gets them…

“And the case fifty-threes?” I asked.  “Dismissed as bad formulas?”

At first, maybe.  But there’s a use to them.  As a rule, they’re stronger, tougher.  If we’re forced to make a break for it, scatter humanity and survive with the remnants, the case fifty-threes can settle places you or I couldn’t.  I think there’s something else, but I don’t see it… lemme keep looking.  There’s got to be a hint.  Might have to get you to run upstairs to fetch a file or something…

Tattletale trailed off, going silent but for the occasional mumble.

Was this the army that Cauldron wanted to deploy?  Men and women with powers they didn’t ask for, released with stipulations, or simply deposited on a battlefield and left to fight or run?

It felt too thin.  Even this many capes, they were untrained, their powers presumably unpracticed.  They wouldn’t amount to more than cannon fodder.

I stopped, feeling the scale of it all.  Hundreds of cells, hundreds of voices

“Quiet!”  I called out.

My voice was lost in the noise.

Quiet!”  I used my swarm to transmit my voice.

Some listened, as if waiting for me to say something else.

I wasn’t sure what I could say.  I glanced at my teammates, searching for an idea, before something came to me.  “Save your energy.  Don’t exhaust yourselves shouting.

They listened, quieting down.  At first.

But excitement won over.  There was no way to communicate their excitement other than by talking to their cellmates, or the people in cells across from them, but as the general volume rose, they had to raise their voices to be heard.  It didn’t help that the entire area was a giant acoustic sounding board.

“I could sing,” Canary said, raising her voice to be heard, “But I think I’d calm you guys down too.”

Rachel whistled, a shrill sound that almost made my bugs wince in pain.  Not a soothing song.

In the silence that followed, Bastard shook his head a little, then snapped at open air.  Too sharp for his wolf senses?

“Good,” Lung said.  Rachel only scowled at his approval.  He added, “You have to follow this with something that drives the point home.”

“Make them fear us?” I asked.  I remembered Bakuda’s commentary on her lessons from Lung.

“Fear?  Respect,” Lung said.

“Same thing,” Shadow Stalker said.

Lung shrugged.

I didn’t feel like arguing the point, and the crowd was very patiently waiting.  They were barely making a sound now.

Which was good, but was there any guarantee they wouldn’t get riled up as we made our way down to the next floor?

Bastard shook his head again.  Rachel and I both looked at the same time, then made eye contact.

I spread my bugs out through the area.  Felt the Custodian flowing through the air, a little faster than before.

She flew towards me, and I flinched, taking a step back.

She repeated the process, looping back, then charging me.

This time, when I took a step back, it was on purpose.  She’d done it a second time because she wanted me to take a second step.  And a third, a fourth…

“Go,” I said.  “This way.  Move.

We ran.  I focused on my swarm, spreading the bugs out as much as I could behind us and in front of us.

Different cells sat at the end of the hallway.  Bigger cells, arranged so that they faced the opposite direction, with paths leading in, then to the right, then back into the room.

Two-nine-three.  An empty, unlabeled cell.  Two-six-five.  Two more empty, unlabeled cells.

Bastard shook his head again, opened his mouth in an almost yawning, lazy bite.  I could sense the Custodian there, brushing by the side of his face.

I moved the swarm to block the other inmate’s view of us.

“Head-” I started, but Rachel was already making her way inside one of the empty cells.  She’d put the pieces together.  “…right.”

I hung back, looking over my shoulder as the others filed into the cells.  I hurried down the hallway, then kicked the door.  I saw a glimpse of a stairwell, identical to the one we’d used at the far end of the room.

I reversed direction, then ducked into the same corridor the others had entered.  Let the people nearby think we’d left.

I wasn’t sure it was the brightest thing, taking the dead end over the open-ended exit.  But the Custodian had suggested this.

I felt a moment’s trepidation.  Why?

You’re being followed,” Tattletale said.

I shook my head a little.  I could sense my bugs.  Nothing.

Was it a trap?  Would the Custodian shut some kind of door on us, locking us within?

No.  She had no reason to.  As hard to define as she was.

I pulled the camera free from my mask, then pressed it against the side of the mount on the cell exterior that would have held a number plate.  I ducked inside.


I get it, I get itMight need to ask for help on this one.  Sit tight.

The cell was empty, but it featured a double bed, a television, a computer, a small bookshelf of cases with stuff to watch or play, and an odd little double-layered glass window that looked out onto a wall of gravel.

I joined the others, drawing my phone from my pocket.  It took a moment for Tattletale to manage the link-up.

And you’ve got video.  I’m brilliant.  Admit it.

“You’re brilliant,” I said.

If I’d had the idea earlier, I would have wound up with a better vantage point.  As it was, we viewed the scene from a distance.  I held the phone flat, so our group could circle around to observe from different angles.

The noise of the crowd became a roar, muffled to near-silence by the cell’s walls.  The occupants wouldn’t have heard the other prisoners, except in the most extreme cases.  I could see the Irregulars as they entered from the same direction we had.  I could see the crowd that followed the Irregulars.

Case fifty-threes.  Kind of?

No.  Different.  The way they spread out, their haggard appearances, they made for the best clues when these individuals were just silhouettes seen from three hundred feet away.  But they got closer, and I could see how they differed.  They didn’t take on the traits of animals, nor simple mutations or exaggerations in features.  There was a man that burned, who staggered forward, like it hurt, but he wasn’t consumed.  A woman who floated, every part of her body a distinct piece, separated by open space.  It made her look twice as tall.  A… something that inched forward, occasionally running to keep up with the crowd.  Hands and feet like flippers, but the face was an orifice, and thin worms were spilling out, swarming over the surface of his body in numbers so thick that the flesh underneath was impossible to see.

Case fifty-threes that Cauldron had kept in reserve, it seemed.  I could see the anger in them, the tension, the wariness that came with what had to have been… how long?  With the hair, the beards, maybe years of confinement.  Maybe even solitary confinement.

On camera, I could see this.

I couldn’t feel them with my bugs.  Couldn’t see them, couldn’t hear them.  A revised image, an edited image, as if the whole crowd had erased with some careful photo editing.  Sound editing.  Touch editing?

Oh, hey,” Tattletale said.  “Anyone else having trouble getting a read on those guys?

“I am telling myself we may fight soon,” Lung rumbled, “But my power is not responding as well as it should.  Looking at them, seeing what look to be worthy opponents with little to lose, I should be feeling it build faster, a pressure inside me.”

“I can’t see or hear them with my bugs, let alone touch them,” I told Tattletale.

Over an entire area.  Mantellum,” Tattletale said.  “The guy with the built-in cloak, dead center.

I looked, but the crowd moved.

They were talking.  We didn’t have audio.  There was only the rise and fall of the crowd’s shouts, letting us know when people were talking and when they were reacting to statements.

On camera, people began to leave cells.

It’s a power with layers.  Each successive layer enhances the level of protection.  Except everything on record says the range it blocks powers only extends about fifteen feet.  Get within five feet, no senses work.  It’s not supposed to be a hundred feet like this.

“Six times the range,” Cuff said.


I pursed my lips.  “The Doctor?”

Probably downstairs.  Look at the way the group at the rear is set up.  They’re watching to make sure nobody comes upstairs.  I think they have the Doctor trapped down there.

They have us trapped here too.

I didn’t say it out loud.  Canary looked scared, and both Lung and Rachel looked restless.

There’s this guy that looks like he’s in charge.  You see him?”

It was a voice over the earbuds, but it wasn’t Tattletale.

You’re an idiot,” Tattletale said.  “I love you for this, but you’re an idiot.”

“Who?”  I asked.

Imp,” Tattletale said.

Imp?  It took me a second.

Imp.  Damn it.  Grue would kill me.  She was close enough to overhear, and this many parahumans… so many ways she could be detected.

“Mister beautiful,” Imp said.  “He’s saying they’re free… oh, whoop.  Here we go.”

The cells emptied.  It was almost like the order being given was a stone dropped on the water’s surface, the movement of the cell’s occupants the ripple, the ones who didn’t hear the man speak reacted to the others’ movement, and the chain reaction continued.  Hundreds of people.

Hundreds of victims.

The roar of the crowd increased in volume.  I could feel the floor vibrating.  No power at work.  Just a lot of people, stomping and cheering.

The Custodian moved a little, then stopped.  I could sense her more than before, a disturbance, agitated.

She was the one that had been enforcing the peace, keeping people contained in cells without doors.  Now… either Mantellum or the strange case fifty-threes were keeping her at bay, preventing her from seeing to her duties.

The lights flickered, a little worse than before.

“They’re going to come here,” Shadow Stalker said.  “I spent time in juvie, if someone had a nice toothbrush, cookies from mom, there was jealousy, retaliation.”

I nodded a little.

And a cushy cell like this…

“They will come,” Lung said.  The irises of his eyes were orange, and hive-like lumps were standing out on his skin, where scales threatened to push forth.  “I can win, but you will all most likely die in the time I require.”

I need all the people who can bore through solid steel, he says,” Imp spoke over the comms.

“Lung’s plan can be plan A.  Let’s hear plan B,” I said.

“We run,” Shadow Stalker said.  “Door’s right there.”

“I could make barriers,” Golem said.

The roaring dimmed.  The man was speaking.  The cupboard door beneath the large television seemed to rattle with more intensity.

“Custodian says… door?”

She stopped.

Barriers,” Tattletale said.  “We’d have to get past more security doors, ones the Irregulars haven’t dealt with.  Quite probably other security measures.

Imp spoke up, “Pretty guy’s saying… traitors to our kind.  See they get the justice they deserve.  Oh… hey.

I looked at the phone.

Weld, mangled to the point that he looked more like scrap metal than a person, was heaved forward, thrown to the ground.

A sphere rolled forward.  Something coiled within, behind the colored transparent pane.  Someone in the crowd grabbed it, then made their hands glow.  Fire?  Heating the material?  I couldn’t tell from this distance, but I could see the movement within accelerate in fits and starts.

Weld reached out for the sphere, but his arm was so badly damaged it couldn’t hold his weight.  It bent the wrong way, breaking off.  When he rolled over onto his back, the forearm was stuck to his upper arm, hand to his shoulder and neck.

If he’d been a human, if half that much damage had been done, there would be no way he’d be alive.

“Doesn’t get much worse than a crowd this mad,” Shadow Stalker said, her voice low.  “I can probably make a break for it and get away.  Not usually my thing to be nice, but… you want me to pass on any messages?  Last words?  My memory is shit, but I can try.”

The crowd was reacting, the contents of the room shaking with the sound.  Out there, it would be deafening.

Then they moved.  People were parting the way.  Opening a path to our end of the hallway.

The camera gave us a view of the central gang.  A spiky boy with yellow skin.  A man with exaggerated masculine and feminine features, a caricature, burdened with muscle.  There was Gully, the muscular girl with the shovel, braids and severe overbite who’d helped out against Echidna, looking ill at ease.  A boy with red skin.  Sanguine.

As they got closer, I could feel my power changing, to tell a lie.  No people in the area.  A conspicuous clearing in the gap.  There were enough people to push my insects around, wherever they were, but my brain was revising it to make sense of the scene.  It was unusual enough to grab my attention, though, but not accurate enough for me to use it.

“Feel up to singing?” I asked Canary.

“They’d hurt me before I got anywhere,” she said.  “Probably.  I’ll try.”

I closed my eyes.  I could feel my swarm out there, both inside and outside of Mantellum’s power, but I couldn’t do anything meaningful to the crowd with it.

“Satyrical’s out there,” I said.  “His people…”

Tattletale spoke.  “Probably happen to be the ones who stayed behind to dig for the Doctor.  Nobody there, in Satyrical’s group who’re going to be able to deal with this mob.  Probably nobody in the Doctor’s group, either.

I nodded, drawing my knife.  The one Defiant had given me.

Not enough to cut our way to freedom.  Judging by the gravel outside the double-pane window, we were sitting beside layers of rock.  The knife could get us into the next cell, maybe the cell next to that… but it wouldn’t let us get anywhere fast enough to outpace the crowd.

“Plan A, then,” Lung spoke, somber.  “For your sacrifice, I will grant you a favor.  Tell me if you want me to kill someone, an enemy you want gone.”

“We’re not going to die,” I growled the words.  I began forming the swarm into a decoy.

A distraction.  If I could get the crowd’s attention, lead them upstairs-

The pretty man outside spoke, and I could see his lips move on the camera.  There was no need for translation.


This time, the jeering was just outside our cell.  The mob advanced.

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Venom 29.3

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“We knew it would come to this,” Legend said.

I turned around.  My hands were full as I unbelted a tightly folded blanket and draped it over one of the wounded.

A surprising number of wounded, in the end.  Twenty or so injured from an aircraft that had been partially obliterated, eighteen more people who’d had their legs sliced off.  Nearly forty Dragon’s Teeth with mild injuries, their armor melted to their faces, chests, arms and legs.  Scion had tried his usual assortment of attacks, and they’d evaded them.  Enhanced strength from the costumes, predictive technology from the onboard artificial intelligences.

So he’d used a power they couldn’t dodge, a power they couldn’t block.  A light that radiated outward and melted the materials of their costumes.

Cauldron hadn’t been there to reinforce the group.  If they had been, it might have been a staging ground.  Instead, the group had folded and Scion had come after the portal that was closest.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“When we were predicting what would happen with the Endbringers, we said that we’d be forced to regroup, consolidate our forces.  Every fight would result in losses, so we’d have to abandon positions, move people from an abandoned post to keep numbers up.”

“I can see that,” I said.

An outpost abandoned.  The world Defiant and Dragon had been looking after was being abandoned as a lost cause.  There were countless people still alive, but they were spread out, and there was no way to mount a proper defense with our forces spread too thin.

“If there’s an upside,” Legend said, his tone changing as if he were forcing himself to be less grim.  “Tattletale said we’re making headway.  It doesn’t look like it, but we’re taking chunks out of him.  The strongest of us survive, we regroup, see what works, we’re stronger when it comes to the next fight.”

Except he’s indiscriminate.  He’s killing the ones who can actually affect him, because he’s being reactive.  We’re not stronger by virtue of the strongest surviving and consolidating because the only difference between this fight and the next is that we’ll be less.

I kept my mouth shut.

“Defiant and Dragon will be joining you guys here, to make up for the ones you lost.  You’ll have Leviathan, at the very least.  Chevalier and I will be a matter of minutes away.”

A few minutes is too long, I thought.  But I didn’t want to state the obvious, didn’t want to argue.

I was trying to be good, trying not to raise any problems with a guy who could well be sensitive over the fact that I’d murdered one of his closest companions a few years back.

Besides, I knew that this pep talk was most likely Legend trying to reassure the wounded.  Maybe even him trying to reassure himself.

He took his time, putting fresh bandages on a wound.

“I’ve followed your career,” Legend said.  “I’ve seen you on the battlefields, fighting the Endbringers, old and new.  The bugs are noticeable.”

“I’m nothing special.”

“You rendered Alexandria brain dead,” Legend told me.  “That warrants attention.”

“Fair enough,” I said.  I managed to get another blanket unbelted from the arrangement of straps that kept it in a folded position and then draped it over someone.  Legend moved the end of the blanket, where it rested on the patient’s wounded foot.

“I wanted to know who it was that had killed Rebecca.  I kept an eye on everything you did in the Protectorate, looked for the details about your past.  I understand if that seems creepy…”

“I think I get it.  You were close to her.”

“I felt close to her.  In the end, though, there was a gap between my feelings and the reality.  Still is, I suppose.  Go through enough with people, build something from the ground up, you form ties.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I looked over my shoulder.  Mai, one of the kids Charlotte and Forrest were looking after, was there, alongside one of Rachel’s henchmen and a puppy.   Giving comfort to a child from the other settlement who’d been burned by the same effect that melted the costumes of the Dragon’s Teeth.  The burns weren’t horrible, but it made it hard to tell the child’s ethnicity or gender.

But the child was scratching the puppy behind the ear.  Rachel stood nearby, arms folded, stern and ominous.  I felt a kind of fondness, tempered by a kind of hesitance, like I couldn’t let myself hold on too tight to the friendship and familiarity because she could be dead by the end of the day.  Though it was sharper than it had been in the past, it wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling.

Legend was looking at me when I turned back to him.  “Yeah.”

“It doesn’t always make for the most sound decisions.”

“No, it doesn’t,” I agreed.  I had to scoot out of the way as some doctors hurried by with fresh tools and equipment.  Removing the dissolved materials from burned flesh was something of a task, and there were a lot of people to help.

“I always knew there was something wrong, underneath it all, but there were bigger things to focus on.  You finish dealing with one Endbringer attack or a potential war with parahuman attacks on both sides, it demands all of your focus.  You’re left drained, dealing with the event or the aftermath, and then you need to recuperate, you have an organization to manage.  There’s never a moment where you can stop, take a deep breath, and then say, ‘now is the moment where I address that nagging doubt I had the other day’.  Now is the moment I call so-and-so out on that less-than-complete truth they used while we were elbow-deep in Indonesian cyborg super-soldiers.”

“I think I know exactly what you mean.”

“I think it’s very possible you do,” he said.

“But you can’t dwell on it,” I said.

“If you don’t give it the necessary attention, then how do you prevent it from becoming a cycle?”

“You don’t.  You look back at your reasons for making the choices when you made the choices, you recognize that you didn’t address or act on your suspicions and doubts because you had higher priorities at the time, and you make peace with it.”

“Have you?  Made peace with it?”

“I’m on my way there, Legend.”

“I’m not sure I want to go there,” he said.  “Give me a hand?  Hold his leg up?”

I nodded.

Gore.  A foot reduced to something unrecognizable.  The man would probably lose it.

But Legend still tended to the limb with care.  Almost gentle.  I tried to be as graceful in keeping the leg in the air.

The soldier made a noise of pain as Legend cleaned the foot, using a laser to sever a tag of flesh that was holding a piece of boot on.  I reached out and held the man’s hand.

“You came in here for a reason,” Legend said.

I looked up.

“It’s not about taking care of the wounded,” he said.  “You’re not devoting a great deal of attention to keeping an eye on Hellhound, either.  Yes, you could use your swarm to discreetly observe her, to discreetly observe anyone in your range, but I don’t think that’s why you came here.”

I started to respond, but the soldier’s leg started kicking, an almost involuntary nerve reaction.  I had to pull my hand from his to hold his leg as still as possible.

We eased it down until he was lying flat, his leg on the bed.  I pulled a blanket over him, as carefully as I could.

“You have a question, or questions,” Legend said, “But you’re not asking them because you’re worried about the response.  Either it’s something touchy, or there’s another reason why you’re holding back.”

I sighed.  “If you don’t have an answer for me, then I’m not sure I know what I’m going to do next.”

“So this is about something only I would know?”

“Basically,” I said.  “We don’t have access to that broad a pool of people, right now.”

“Okay,” Legend said.  “What do you need to know?”

“Cauldron’s portals.”

“Closed.  They’re created by a parahuman called Doormaker.  The Doctor told me he was blind and deaf to his surroundings, but I think it’s far more likely that it’s to do with another parahuman she partnered him with.  Someone who grants sensory awareness.  I think the Doctor gave Doormaker too much exposure to this parahuman and destroyed or atrophied his other senses.  One of those nagging doubts I never acted on.”

We passed by Rachel, Rachel’s minion and Mai.  I gave Rachel a little nod of acknowledgement as we stepped outside.

Then we stepped outside.  There was a shattered sign over the boarded-up windows.  Apparently Tattletale had made some business deals and tried to get things in place for this to become a city like any one in Earth Bet.  The pieces were there, but the furniture had yet to be installed, the food yet to be supplied.  An empty fast food place, now a makeshift hospital.

Eat fresh?  I thought.  Not likely.

I took in the scene.  Capes were still reeling from the attack, and again, it was the monsters and the lunatics that seemed to be standing, while others sat, recovering, catching their breath, mustering their courage.

Nilbog, engaged in conversation with Glaistig Uaine.

Four of the Heartbroken, with Imp and Romp.  A maskless Imp gave Bonesaw a glare as the girl hurried, in the company of Marquis and Panacea, to the fast food place Legend and I had just left.

Lung was alone, looking angry, frustrated, almost more agitated than he’d been before or during the fight.  His eyes were on Leviathan, who was down by the water, but I didn’t get the impression Leviathan was the source of the frustration.

Parian and Foil were together, Foil with her mask off.  They’d curled up in a space between two large bins of food, Foil resting her head on Parian’s shoulder, their hands and fingers entwined.

Tattletale was caught up in a conversation with Knave of Clubs, and fell under the Simurgh’s shadow.  The Simurgh, for her part, seemed to be busy building other tinker devices, drawing on the abilities of tinkers in the immediate area.

Vista was sitting on a rooftop, two stories high.  Her eyes were closed, her hands set behind her so she could lean back a bit.  Her face turned towards the sky.

There were other capes in the area, looking a little more serious, focused on business.  Chevalier was with Defiant and Dragon, Black Kaze, Saint, Masamune and Canary.  Some of them drifted off, making their way towards us.

“If it helps,” Legend said, “I don’t think Doormaker is dead.  There have been two interruptions in his power, to date.  One followed an earthquake.  He was unhurt, but his partner… well, it was a clue that a partner existed.  His doors all went down simultaneously the moment the earthquake hit the facility.  I don’t think his power is the type that would outlast him after death, if it was so easily interrupted while he was alive.”

“So he’s alive because the doors are still open in places.”

“Alive and unable or unwilling to use his power,” Legend said.

I nodded.  “So is it Cauldron running or is it another agency?”

I could see Legend’s expression change.  I’d heard him talk before, saying as much, but his face was what told me, above all else, that he was burdened by regrets.  “I wish I could say it was the latter.”

“But you don’t know.”

“I remain in the dark when it comes to Cauldron.”

“What about Satyrical?” I asked.  “He was investigating with his team, wasn’t he?”

“He was, but he tends towards radio silence, Pretender’s people have since well before the Vegas teams cut ties with the Protectorate.  They claimed it was because there would inevitably be a parahuman who could uncover them if they left channels open.  Now… well, isn’t that the way most things were?  Secrets, lies, conspiracies.”

“It is, but-” I tried to find a way to politely say what I was trying to say.


“With all due respect, and I really do mean that because I respect you, I respect that you’ve participated in the fights, I get where you’re coming from…”

“You’re spending too much time couching what you’re saying,” Legend said.  “Rest assured, I can handle what you’re about to throw at me.  I think worse things to myself all the time.”

“I’m impatient.  That’s all.  Scion’s going to attack again, and I don’t plan to be here,” I said.

“You want a portal to get out of here,” Legend said.

“No,” I said.  “I don’t want an escape.  I want to act.”

“We’re acting,” Legend said.

“We’re reacting.”

“If you have ideas for something pre-emptive, I think we could all stand to hear it.”

I shook my head.  “Nothing definitive.”

“Even something that isn’t definitive.”

“I want to find Cauldron.  They have contingency plans we know they haven’t put into effect yet, and they have answers they’ve yet to provide.”

“Cauldron is very good at leading people to believe that they have the answers and then disappointing,” Legend said.  “Take it from someone who knows.  Ah.  I’m doing it again, aren’t I?  Like an old man.”

He smiled, and I smiled a little too.

“You’re an old man?”  Chevalier asked.  His group had just joined us.

“Taylor here was just very politely trying to tell me I’m wasting her time on reminiscing and regrets.”

“You have something better to do?” Defiant asked me.

Defiant,” Dragon said, admonishing him.  She was in her armor, but had her helmet off.  The face was real.  Plain, but real.

She’s an A.I.  A false person.  What else had Saint said?  She’s deceiving us?  It’s all an act?

“…came out wrong,” Defiant was saying.  Very deliberately, he said, “I am genuinely curious what you’re doing, Weaver.”

Dragon smiled a little, as if a private thought had crossed her mind.

The doubts Saint had seeded dissipated.

Ninety percent of them.

“I was telling Legend I want to go after Cauldron,” I said.  “A member of the Chicago Wards was saying that sending Satyrical to go investigate is like sending a fox to guard the henhouse.”

“Satyrical has definite ties to Cauldron,” Dragon said.  “If nothing else, Pretender maintains connections to the group.  If Cauldron is running, or if they are pulling something covert, then it’s very possible Satyrical is on board or is going to be brought on board.”

Chevalier shifted the Cannonblade to his other hand, then stabbed the point into the ground.  It looked different.  His armor looked different.  Gold and black, instead of gold and silver.  “It also means he and the Las Vegas capes are well equipped to know how Cauldron operates, and identify clues others would miss.  We sent them with others we could trust.  They’ve been reporting in on schedule.”

I opened my mouth.  Chevalier spoke before I could.  “-With stranger and master precautions in place.”

I frowned.

“You’re strong when it comes to improvising,” Chevalier told me.  “We’ve got a moment to breathe.  We think he’s hitting another world, one we don’t have access to.  We’re regrouping, figuring out who goes where, and we’re trying to set things up so we can mobilize faster.  I can’t tell you what to do.  I wouldn’t if I could.  But we could use you here.”

“We’re losing, here,” I said.  “Legend was being positive, but… I don’t think we can really delude ourselves that far.  He’s tearing us apart while holding back.  If we put up a fight or if we don’t hold back, he hits us harder, like he hit the Guild.  He can always top us, and he can always say he’s had enough and then just nuke the continent.  That’s not a recipe for an eventual win.”

“I don’t even think that’s the worst of it,” Tattletale said, finally having broken away from Knave of Clubs to join this conversation.  “He’s evolving, maturing.  If you can even call it that.  He was a blank slate, then almost like a baby, flinging destruction around like a baby practices moving their arms, as if to remind himself he could… and then he was like a child in this fight… except for the bit about Queen of Swords.  That suggested he’s almost entering an adolescent phase.  Something more complex than just raw fear and awe.  Loss, despair.  He’s going to start looking for ways to really hurt us.”

“Instead of just annihilating us?” Legend asked.  “Torture?”

“Mental, emotional, more involved physical torture.  Up until he hits adulthood.  Then he probably destroys us, completely and utterly.  I’d be surprised if we lasted more than two days, rate he’s developing.”

“You’re talking about him as if he were human,” Saint said.

“He is,” Tattletale said.  “It’s the only reason he’s doing this, and it’s the only way we have to truly make sense of him, and it’s his primary means of making sense of us.  Which is why he did it.  He’s got our general biological makeup.  He thinks, he feels, he dreams, he hurts, but it’s all buried so far under mounds and mounds and mounds of power and security, it doesn’t really supplant him.  It’s never been exposed to the real world, really, so the human side of him hasn’t matured or developed.”

“A weakness?”  Chevalier asked.

“Yes, but not a weakness we’re going to be able to exploit,” Tattletale said.  “He’s too careful, and he would have foreseen it.  Adapted around it, probably.  Be awfully stupid for something like him to adapt traits of their targets and adapt vulnerabilities at the same time.  Knowing this could help, but it’s not going to be the weak point we can target to finish him off.  That makes zero sense.”

“We know a lot of things like that,” I said.  “A lot of tidbits about his behavior or who he is or what he is.  But a lot of it isn’t reliable information.  He cared a lot about my clone decoys multiplying during the fight on the oil rig, but he didn’t give a damn this time.”

“He’s advancing, evolving.  His focus is changing,” Tattletale interjected.

“We know so many critical details,” I said, “And we need more.  We need a way of paring truth away from fiction, or determining what’s no longer true.  I don’t know for sure what we’re going to do to stop him, but I think any plans I have are going to start or end with Cauldron.”

I looked around the group.  Men and women, all in armor that made them stronger, bulkier or taller, it seemed.  Legend was comparatively small, but he had presence to make up for it, even as tired and worn out as he seemed to be.  Flying, casual flying as Legend tended to do, gave one a little more stature.

I wasn’t short, but it felt like Tattletale and I were mortals in the midst of giants.  Defiant, in particular, seemed somehow imposing.  His body language was familiar with the way he’d naturally set his feet apart, his hand on his weapon.

Even the place we were standing, it stirred memories.  We were at the north end of the Bay, even.

“Yes.  The plan makes sense,” Defiant said.  “I’ll trust you on this one.”

Dragon reached out to grab and squeeze his hand.

“What do you need?” Defiant asked me.

“I was thinking I’d bring some of the capes that can’t or won’t participate in the fight against Scion,” I said.  My eyes fell on Canary.

Me?”  Canary squeaked.

“Anyone, but capes like you,” I said.  “Support capes who can’t support in circumstances like this.  Strangers who can’t use their power on Scion.  Capes like that.”

“And if you can’t access Cauldron?” Chevalier asked.  “I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but your actions when you assumed control of the Simurgh were… heavy handed.  You told an ex-teammate in the Wards that you weren’t intending to be a hero anymore.  I don’t want to tell you I won’t cooperate any more than I want to tell anyone I won’t cooperate, but you’d be asking us to put a fair amount of power in your hands by sending capes your way.  I… don’t know that I feel confident sending capes to you, if I don’t know how they’ll be put to use.”

“Would you allow me to talk to other capes?” I asked.  “You don’t have to send them my way, but maybe I could inquire?”

“I’m not going to stand in anyone’s way,” Chevalier said.  “I’m not the bad guy, here.  But I’ve got to lead this battle, and I’ve got to do what I can to make sure things don’t get worse.  If a cape needs to go, if they don’t have the courage to stand and fight, I’m not going to make them.  I’ll try to convince them otherwise, but I won’t make them.  And if they think they’ll be more useful elsewhere, I won’t stop them there, either.”

I nodded.  “I’ll settle for that.”

“What else?”

“Access to computers,” I said.  “Tools.  Resupplies.  The Dragonfly.”

He reached out of his pocket and withdrew a knife.  He reversed it and extended it to me, handle first.

I reached for the weapon, then saw Defiant pull his hand back.  “Be aware of the safety and the activation switch.”

I saw one of the switches, then took hold of the knife.

“Keep it away from heat.  If the growths start knuckling together, then it’s probably clogged at the air intake.  You can unscrew the cap at the butt of the knife and access the air intake there.  Bake it at roughly five hundred degrees to clear it, then thoroughly vacuum.  Pay attention to how long it takes the growths to hit maximum length… you’ll know because the colors at the ends are a lighter gray.  Three point seven seconds is the optimum time.  If it takes shorter then you’ll know something’s wrong with-“

“The knife won’t degrade too much in the next day,” Dragon said.  “And we have spares, thanks to Masamune.”

“You didn’t make this much of a fuss with my flight pack,” I said.

“I included documentation,” Defiant said.

“Thank you,” I said.  I found the holster for my old knife, then put it through the belt at my back, holstering the new knife.

“Where’s the Dragonfly?” he asked.  I pointed.

Dragon said something in Japanese to Masamune and Black Kaze.  There were two nods.

Defiant led the way to the Dragonfly, all business, Dragon, Canary, Tattletale, and me following.  He seemed almost happy to have something to focus on.  A problem that could be solved.

Did he genuinely trust me?  Was there a modicum of hope, here, with me mobilizing to go look into the Cauldron situation?

He continued to hold his weapon, though the fight wasn’t about to start.

I could imagine his outlook, the security the weapon afforded him, a hundred solutions in his hands.  The ability to defend himself, to defend others, to move out of the way of danger.  It made sense.

Dragon, conversely… what was her security blanket?

Different.  I couldn’t put my thumb on it.  But she’d lost to Saint, to the Dragonslayers.  She’d been taken captive, effectively killed.  Killed by a man who saw her as subhuman.

She’d been altered by Teacher.  Not so much she was a slave to him, but something had happened, and that was no doubt a large part of how she was disconnected from reality in the here and now.

I looked back at Saint, Masamune and Black Kaze.  Saint was taking a seat, his back to a chunk of destroyed aircraft, cross-legged.  Calm, relaxed.

“How can you stand to be near them?” I asked.

“Keep your enemies closer,” Dragon said, her voice tight.

“Don’t forget about the friends part,” I said.

She shook her head a little.  “I won’t.”

“When we were waiting for the fight to start, I went around, looking for people I needed to thank.  Important people to me, people who I wasn’t sure I’d get a chance to talk to again.  I missed a few important ones.  My dad… you two.  I know the only reason I got my shot at being a hero, the only reason I didn’t go to jail, was because you vouched for me, because you agreed to cart me back and forth and interrupt your schedule.  I probably didn’t even deserve it, but you backed me up.  I’m just… I’ve never been good at saying thank you and sounding as sincere as I feel.”

“I think we benefited as much as you did,” Dragon said.  “You needed to join the Wards to… make amends, shall we say?  It was the same for us.”

“For me,” Defiant cut in.

“I had my own regrets,” Dragon said.

“You had no choice.”

“Regrets nonetheless,” she said, again.  Her head turned towards Canary, and Canary smiled just a little.  Dragon then looked to me.

Was it possible for an artificial human to look weary?  To look wounded, in the sense that she was bearing some grievous injury from recent events?

We’d stopped outside the Dragonfly.  I bid the ramp to open, controlling the bugs in the operating mechanism.

Then, as it opened, I impulsively gave Dragon a hug.  Returning a favor she’d given me some time ago.

“Let’s get you set up,” Defiant said.

“Hook me in while you’re at it?” Tattletale made it a question.  “Whatever you need to do, so I can communicate with her and her peeps.”

“I’ll see to it.”

Tattletale glanced at me.  “Ops?”


We circled twice before coming in for a landing.  A cave just above water level, inaccessible except from the air.

The receiving party consisted of Exalt and Revel from the Protectorate core group, with half of the Vegas team.  Nix, Leonid, Floret and Spur.  Vantage was waving a rod around, listening to steady beeps.

“Oh god, finallySomething to take my mind off the beeping,” Floret said.  She was petite, her hair in carefully layered waves of pink, with green at the roots.

“Find anything?” I asked.

“No signs of any portals that have been opened in the past.  Harder than cracking Dodger’s gateways, apparently,” Vantage said.  “Or they gave us bad instructions.  How’re you doing, Weaver?”

“I’m fine,” I said.

“Wearing black,” he said.

“Is everyone going to comment on that?” I asked.

“It’s comment worthy.  How’d the fight… nevermind.  I can guess.”

“Probably,” I said.

“Grim group,” Floret commented.  “I know black’s ‘in’ with the end of the world, but damn.  Only one person with style.”

I looked over my shoulder.  Golem, in silver and gunmetal, his mask solemn.  Cuff, again, in a dark metal costume.  Imp, with her dark gray mask and black bodysuit that actually fit her.  Shadow Stalker, in a black, form-fitting bodysuit like the one I’d given Imp, along with a flowing cloak with a heavy hood.  All spidersilk, but the mask was hers, as was the crossbow.  Rachel followed, her jacket, tank top and pants black, only the fur ruff at her shoulders, where it flowed around the edges of her hood, was white.  Huntress and Bastard flanked her.  Lung was still inside the Dragonfly, but I knew he had only his mask and jeans on.  Barefoot, shirtless.

Canary was the only one, apparently, who met Floret’s standards.  Yellow body armor, her helmet in one hand, her hair and feathers free.

“I remember you,” Spur said.  He smiled.  Teeth that had been professionally done, no doubt.  He wasn’t bad looking, but not quite my type.  Spiky hair, and a costume that mingled barbed wire tattoos with real barbed wire, where his skin was exposed.  Mid twenties, with hair bleached to a near-white and acid washed jeans.  His mask was simple, black, covering the upper half of his face, with only a circle of barbed wire at the brow.  A trademark of thinker powers, to do the whole forehead thing.  A precog who was most effective in the midst of chaos and heightened emotions, and fairly competent otherwise.  “Bad Canary?”

Canary’s eyes widened.  “You remember my stage name?”

“You were famous,” he said.  “The whole trial thing.  You-“

Canary’s expression fell.

“-got robbed,” he said.

Dick,” Floret said.  “Like that’s how she wants to be remembered.”

“I remember the music too,” he protested.

“Yeah,” Canary said.  She rubbed the back of her neck, avoiding eye contact.  “It doesn’t matter anyways, does it?  Long time ago, and we’ve got better things to worry about.”

Vulgarishous,” he said.  “Ur-soundLineless?”

“You’re probably cheating,” she said.

“I could sing the lyrics,” he answered.

“It would make me sure you’re cheating.  I barely remember the lyrics.”

“I don’t believe that for a second,” Spur answered her.  “Eh, guys?  Back me up.  My power doesn’t give me a way to cheat, does it?”

“No,” Floret said.  “He’s genuine.  And none of us have ways to clue him in.”

I glanced at Revel, who only rolled her eyes a little.  Exalt looked bored.  He saw me looking and commented, “It’s fine here.  We’re using substandard tools to find a portal that used to exist, and we don’t know exactly where it was.”

Imp pushed her mask up until it sat on top of her head.  “Finding a transparent needle outside of the haystack.”

“Well put,” Leonine said.

“Don’t encourage her,” I told him.

He only smiled, which made Imp smirk at me in turn.

Spur was murmuring the lyrics to the song, and he was actually doing a good job of it.  Canary was trying to look like she wasn’t pleased as punch.  It was cute.  Cute and just a little ominous, considering who these guys were.

Some things had come to light after they’d departed their positions in the Protectorate and Wards.  Nothing definitive, but it raised questions that had yet to be answered.  Questions that would probably never be answered, now that evidence lockers and court records throughout Earth Bet had been obliterated.  Problems that had resolved themselves just a little too neatly.  People, both bad guys and witnesses, who’d disappeared.

“If I’m the lion, and you’re the goat…” Leonine was saying.

“I guarantee I’m more dangerous than you,” Imp retorted.

I could sense others in the group getting restless.

“We’ll let you know if anything turns up,” Revel said, as if she’d sensed it.  She smiled a little, a bit awkward, or apologetic.  “Don’t let us waste your time.  It’s the end of the world, spend it with people you care about.”

Her eyes moved to Cuff and Golem, who were hanging back.  The pair were the heroes of our group, so to speak.  They’d feel the betrayal of the Vegas capes more sharply, even now.  They looked at each other.

I did too.  Not that I counted myself as a hero.  But I’d been there.

“I could come with,” Exalt said.  “If you’re going back.  I’m only here to relieve Revel.  I’ll be able to participate in the coming fight.”

“Sure,” I said.  “But I’d like to hear the password.  From Revel.”

“Good thinking.  Belord, six-two, spauld,” she said.

“On my seventeenth birthday,” I said.  “What color was the cake?”

“Seriously?” she asked.  “Do you even remember?  I should get a brownie point for this one.  Because I care about my Wards.  It was white.”

“The frosting?” I asked.

“Blue,” she said, sounding just a bit put out.  “And you barely ate any.”

I nodded, satisfied.  “And… Leonine.”

Me?”  Leonine laughed a bit.  “What kind of shenanigans do you think we’re pulling?”

“He’s one of the Vegas capes,” Imp said, speaking very slowly, like I was mentally disabled.

“I know he’s one of the Vegas capes.  But I think I have to cover all of the bases.  Who was your kindergarten teacher?”

“You researched that?” Spur asked.  “Dug through our entire histories to find something obscure?”

He sounded offended.  Every head had turned his way.

“Do you have a problem with that?”  I asked.

He frowned, but he shook his head, sticking his hands in his pockets as he leaned against the wall beside Canary.  “No.  No problem.”

“Richie,” Leonine said.  “Mrs. Richie.”

“Great,” I said.  “Great.  Now let’s drop the fucking act.”

“I gave you the answer you wanted,” Leonine said, smirking.  “What the fuck?”

“Spur?” I said, “Raise your right hand?”

He did.  There were bugs on the fingers.

“He was moving his hand.  A one-handed sign language.  I assume everyone on your team knows it.”

“I was thinking of Canary’s music,” Spur told me.  He stepped forward, putting a hand on Canary’s shoulder as he did so.  She turned, so they were both facing me.  “Piano keys.  Mnemonic tool.  That is something our team uses.”

“You’re being a little crazy paranoid,” Imp said.  “Just a little.”

“They’ve been playing us since the start,” I said.  “The men were batting their eyelashes at you and Canary, probably the targets they thought they could work.  Revel… I’d think she’s under some kind of compulsion.”

“A lot crazy,” Imp said.  “Way crazy.”

“Maybe Tattletale can chime in,” I suggested.  “Tattle?”

Mostly right.  Exalt, Revel, Vantage, Leonine, Floret, all fakes.”

“No shit,” Imp said.  Her mouth dropped open.  “No way.”

“Jig’s up,” I said.  “We know.”

One by one, the Vegas capes changed.  Flesh altered, and they assumed identical appearances.

Six copies of Satyrical.  Leaving only Spur and Nix.

One of the Satyricals looked at the two who remained.  “Take care of yourself.  I’ll see you shortly.”

“I know,” Spur said.

Satyr looked at us, as if taking us all in.  “And you, I suppose, we’ll run into.  Sooner or later.”

Then the Satyrs died.  Flesh withered, and the Satyrs crumpled up.  They made bloody messes as they hit the ground, like overripe tomatoes might, but with teeth and the occasional bit of withered organ.

Self duplication, and each duplicate had shapeshifting abilities.

I bent down and picked up the devices from the heads of Revel, Exalt and Vantage’s clones.  Earbuds, phones…

“Revel,” Cuff said, her voice small.

“Where are the real ones?” Golem asked.

“With the real Satyr,” I guessed.

“And how did he know the passwords?” Golem asked.

He guessed the cake thing through cold reading.  White with blue, like Weaver’s costume.  Made sense.  That Taylor didn’t eat much… well, look at herThe rest… torture?  Coercion through other means?”

“Torture?” I asked.

Spur raised his chin a bit, but didn’t do or say anything to suggest otherwise.

“Ew.”  Imp said, under her breath, “Ew, ew, ew.  He’s like, forty?  And he was hitting on me.”

“Where’s the portal?” I asked Spur, ignoring Imp.

“No portal.  Or weren’t you paying attention?”

I looked at Nix.  “You know where this goes, if you don’t cooperate.  Circumstances are a little too dire.  We knock you out, your power fades.  So why don’t you drop the illusion and let us see the portal?”

“My power stays up while I’m out,” she said.

I drew my knife.  The one that wasn’t special.

“Woah,” Golem said.  He put his hand on my wrist.  “Woah, woah, woah.”

“She’s bluffing,” Spur said, unfazed.  “She’s scary, she’s got a reputation, but she’s bluffing here.  There’s no way she follows through.”

“I think you’re badly underestimating how pissed off I am,” I said.  I was surprised at just how right I was.  The mounting anger caught me off guard.  “Doing this, screwing around, stabbing people in the back, screwing with the system when we’re trying to save humanity?”

“We’re saving it too,” Spur said.  “Satyr, the others, they’ve got this situation handled.  Give them… two or three more hours, and the threats are going to be dealt with, Cauldron will be secure, or as secure as they can be, after you account for injuries and deaths at the hands of the invading group.  You go in there, you’re just going to muck up a delicate exfiltration operation.”

“Invading?” Golem asked.

“The deviants.  The case-fifty-threes.  Weld’s group.”

Weld?  No.  He’d been one of the only decent ones out there, during my stay in Brockton Bay.  Respectable, honest, kind.  He’d saluted me the first time we’d crossed paths, because we were both going up against an Endbringer.

Fuck it all.

Either Spur was fucking with me, or things were fucked.  Fuck it all.

“People like you are the reason we deserve to lose,” I said, gripping the knife.  “Every step of the way, it’s been people refusing to cooperate, refusing to talk plain truth.  From day one, even.  You’re the reason humanity deserves to get wiped out.”

“Great,” he said.  “You’re still not going to use that knife on either of us.”

It was said with the smug tone of someone who could see the future.

I glanced at Canary.  I could see the hurt on her face.

“I get it,” Spur said.  “See it coming.  If it helps, I do remember the music.”

Rachel stepped forward, giving me a little push to get me out of the way, and then slugged him.

He dropped, unconscious.

Golem set about binding him to the cave floor with hands of stone.

I looked at Nix.  “Her too.”

Golem reached into his costume, and hands of stone gripped Nix.

“To the ceiling,” I decided, at the last second.

“Sure,” Golem said.  Hands of stone emerged, passing Nix up.  She struggled a bit, but she was at an unsafe height by the time she realized what he was doing.

She was bound to the cave ceiling with armholds, leg holds and an arm set across her collarbone.

“What the hell?” she asked.

“I don’t think any of your friends have powers that can break those hands,” I said.

“The hell?” she asked, again.  She tested her bonds.  “The fuck?”

“You better hope we make it out okay,” I said.  “Tattletale?”

“Pretty sure it’s to your left.  Start by going ten paces that way.”

I nodded.

We followed the directions.

The illusion broke, dissolving into harmless smoke, as we reached it and pressed hard enough against the wall in question.

With the barrier gone, I could feel the warm air from within, see a dark hallway without lights.

I looked at my teammates.

Maybe humanity deserves to lose, but these guys are why we’re going to win, I promised myself.

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Venom 29.2

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Oh, how small we were, in the grand scheme of it all.

Our planet was but a speck in the midst of the milky way galaxy, which was a speck in the midst of the known universe.  We were fighting to save it, and yet it could disappear without anyone in the nearest solar system even noticing.

Small, insignificant.  Little more than ants before a giant.

A pencil-thin beam lanced out from his fingertips.  A sweep of his hand, waist-level, and it cut through the crowd.  Cut through thighs, knees, calves, feet.

Swept towards us.

No time to act, to save anyone.  Only to get out of the way.  I jumped, activating the flight pack.  I looked to my teammates, my breath trapped in my throat as I waited to see who was hit.

Parian still had the ‘stuffed’ arm connected to a nearby building.  A sweep of the arm caught a solid twenty people, catching them in the bend of the cloth and lifting them off the ground as the beam passed by.  Rachel, mounted, wasn’t so lucky.  The beam caught three of the dog’s legs.

Rachel fell, tumbling to the ground.  The people Parian had tossed aside, Parian included, fell in heaps, landing awkwardly.

But alive, all but one of them untouched.

In the chaos that followed, I could see the blood.  This wasn’t a beam that seared, like some lasers did, and it didn’t cauterize as it cut.  It disintegrated, leaving arteries free to pump blood out onto the grass and dirt.

A number were laying there in shock, but there were some who were fighting, even as they bled out.  Scion was momentarily caught up in a storm of shards that seemed to give him pause.

The Suits were among the injured, and King of Cups was patching up the damage.  Limbs were replaced with pitch black simulacrums that caught the light in odd ways that only highlighted the very edges.

I saw Lung among the artificial limb recipients.  He’d stayed in Brockton Bay in the company of Miss Militia while the rest of us had said goodbyes and made arrangements, so it wasn’t puzzling that he was here.  No, the confusing bit was that the fight had only been going for two or so minutes, and he was already transformed halfway to the state he’d been in when the Undersiders had first rescued me on the rooftop.  Transforming five or ten times as fast?

He’d been in the company of Panacea… had she done something?

Canary had said Lung had avoided picking fights during his stay in the Birdcage, relying only on his reputation.  Maybe this was a one-shot deal.

It didn’t take the capes King of Cups had healed very long to get their bearings, scrambling to get away, or backing away as they used their abilities.  A cape with deep black skin and an overly tall white helmet was sliding groups around like a chess player slid a piece into position.  Another cape, just beside him, was altering the battlefield, getting obstacles out of the way.  The ground swallowed walls, supplies and vehicles like it was suddenly water, rippling as they dropped beneath the surface, then changing, becoming solid once more.

Cover didn’t work as a concept, I supposed, when his attacks cut through it so easily.  Still, I wasn’t sure it was the brightest move.  There had to be a more optimal way of rearranging the battlefield.  Putting some people on higher ground and some on lower, without limiting their ability to dodge.

A glance over my shoulder showed the Simurgh standing by the portal, wings folded so the ends were aimed at Scion.  She had reconfigured her halo, and every single one of the guns were pointed in the same direction.

But she didn’t shoot.  She waited.

My swarm-decoys massed in the air around Scion, some dividing into further copies.  He continued to ignore them, targeting specific capes.  A sphere of light was tossed in Glaistig Uaine’s direction.  She didn’t move or fight back.  Instead, she was saved by the guy with the tall helmet, shifted out of the way.  Bishop, Chessmaster, Curling-guy?

Unruffled, she called three spirits forth, then took flight, positioning herself high in the sky, entirely out of the fight.


Scion attacked again, picking different targets.  King of Cups created more phantom limbs, an array of twelve or so arms of varying size that spread out from his shoulders, and caught a teammate’s hand.  He was pulled out of the way, but the sphere swerved in the air, drifting his way.  It crashed into one of his shoulders, and dashed the arms to smithereens.

King of Cups tumbled, then used his power to patch up the damage.

I wasn’t sure how that worked.  The lines of pain on his face seemed to ease as his power replaced the injured parts.  Was there some sort of interaction there?  A connection of nerves, arteries and veins?

Queen of Swords had a shortsword in hand, stepping forward as if to shield King of Cups with her own body.  Her sword seemed more ceremonial than useful.  I’d seen capes that used props to focus their powers, and she appeared to be one of them.  As she swung the sword, lines of light were cast out around her, connecting to various capes in the crowd.

Chaos, really.  So much going on, so many capes, all trying to focus on a single target.  A sphere of darkness made contact with series of ribbons that spiraled around one another, and they were both consumed in a spiral of intermingled effects well before reaching Scion.

Someone was taking my cue, filling the sky with what looked like stone statues of capes, stiff with arms at their sides.  The battlefield, the crowd, the sky, it was impossible to keep track of it all.  Even if I sacrificed decoys, I still had to think about what was going on.  I’d be able to sense that bugs were dying here, that something was moving from one point to the next, but I wouldn’t necessarily know who was doing what.  What did the ribbons do?  What was Queen of Swords doing with her power, connecting capes?

Worst of all, for everything we were doing, Scion wasn’t reacting.  He wasn’t getting seriously hurt, and he wasn’t taking any of the bait.

I dropped out of the sky, landing beside Rachel with a little more force than was maybe smart.  Conserved fuel, and got me out of Scion’s line of sight, but I felt a twang in my new right leg that suggested maybe it wasn’t as flexible as it should have been.

“He’s bleeding out,” Rachel said.

It was Bastard, wounded, three of his massive legs severed, blood forming a ridiculously large puddle beneath us.

“He’s safe inside, isn’t he?  The smaller, real version of Bastard?”

“Same blood in both of them.  The outside won’t fall apart before he loses too much blood,” she said.  “I think.”

“Then leave him,” I said.  “Go look for babytalk.  Get one of the Lab Rat doses, bring it back.”

I could see the stress on her expression.

“Go,” I said.  “I’ll look after him.”

Rachel bolted.  I turned, saw a cape lying on the ground with her eyes open, staring at the sky.

Paradoxical, stupid, selfish, arrogant, and short-sighted, to even think about giving my attention to a dog -to a wolf- before trying to revive the woman.  Still, I took my knife to her cloak and wadded it up to stop the blood loss.  When I couldn’t cover enough space with my hands, I used my body to press it against the site of the injury.

I told myself she was beyond saving, that other injured capes were being helped by King of Cups, and that Bastard wasn’t getting the same treatment, that he wouldn’t.

But the reality was that I’d cast aside the strict ideas of right and wrong, that I’d told myself I’d be Taylor instead of Weaver or Skitter, and this was what I wanted to do.

Because I was a hypocrite, I was selfish, arrogant, short-sighted and even stupid at times.  Because I could only face this situation with what I knew, and I knew that Bitch wouldn’t fight any further if we just let Bastard die, and if our team started falling apart, I wouldn’t know what to do at all.

Lung limped forward, not to fight Scion, but to shout something.  His voice was nearly drowned out in the noise.  Not entirely, it was too loud to be entirely masked, but nearly. “Remove it.”

I didn’t follow his meaning until bugs moved past his legs, touching the hard surface of the artificial leg.  Unchanged, unaltered by his power.  His regular leg was almost a foot longer.

The tall-helm cape slid some of the Suits out of the way.  They started shouting, asking to be moved back.  He responded in French.

Disorganization, a lack of coherency.  A lack of organization.  I clenched my jaw and did what I could to stop the blood from welling out of the stumps of Bastard’s legs.

This wasn’t a monster that was four or five stories tall.  It was a single individual in a crowd, with capes using powers that would inevitably cause more harm to any bystander they accidentally struck than they could possibly deal to the intended target.

Queen of Swords touched the tip of her sword to one of the main lines of the diagram she’d created.  A circular blob expanded from the point like blood welling from a prick from the blade, two-dimensional, dark blue and translucent.

She drew a gun from her hip with her free hand, aimed it at the blob and fired.

The bullet hit the blob and pushed against it, slowing down with every fraction of an inch it traveled.  It came to a complete stop, the previously flat surface of the blob-portal-thing now more of a cone, poked out of shape by the bullet’s movement.  For a half-second, I thought it would be like a trampoline, sending the bullet back to sender.

Then it punched through, and I could see ribbons, fire, darkness and innumerable other effects trailing behind it as it resumed normal speed.

It struck Scion as he started to fire another beam of light at the crowd opposite me and the Undersiders.  Scion stumbled, the aftermath of a dozen different powers rippling over, around and through him, and the beam was cut off by one of the powers.

She began changing the map, breaking some connections, expanding others.

Scion turned her way.

It was just the right moment for our first reinforcements to arrive.  Distorted terrain marked Vista’s arrival, as she folded the earth around Scion, surrounding him with walls of earth.

I looked to see, and saw her and Kid Win standing on a twelve-foot high bulge of earth.  Kid Win was getting himself set up, hunkering down, while Vista stood at a point slightly above him.

Tattletale was with them.  Hanging back, as if using Kid Win as a shield, her eyes on the battlefield, a phone in hand.  Most likely to relay information.

Others were filing between the Simurgh’s legs.  Gavel, now clean-cut, his once-shaggy beard now cut to a style that would have been ludicrous if he didn’t have the reputation to back it up; two perfectly straight lines that met at a sharp 90-degree point at the chin.  His hair had been buzzed, flat at the top.  His mask covered only his forehead, eyes and nose, his lips were set a firm line.  He wore a skintight black shirt without sleeves and heavy canvas pants, with boots that looked like they could be used to crush stone.

His hammer, by contrast, was solid steel, with sharp lines that seemed to parallel the clean lines of his hair and beard, a pole that seemed too big to wrap one’s hands around.  The entire thing was as big as he was, probably three or four times the weight.

And he was big.  Bodybuilder big, broad-shouldered in a way that you rarely saw, even in movies.

Crane the Harmonious was just behind Gavel, joined by three capes I assumed were her disciples.  Two of them looked like they were ready to enter a battle, ducking low, moving like trained soldiers entering a battlefield.  A third looked like a scared kid.  Reasonable, something to be expected from people who were walking into a situation like this.  Crane, for her part, walked with her hands clasped behind her back, chin up, like she was completely oblivious to what was going on.

Scion broke through the wall of hard rock, and it seemed to actually take a modicum of effort.  He directed an attack at Vista, Kid Win and Tattletale.  A sphere, just like the one that had totaled the Dragonfly.

Gavel threw the hammer into the air, and it blocked the shot.  The resulting explosion knocked a dozen capes off their feet, struck some of Kid Win’s airborne guns out of the air and very nearly knocked Tattletale from her perch.  Crane’s disciples were bowled over, but Crane managed to turn with the shockwave, only taking a step back, remaining upright.

The hammer descended, unaffected by the explosion, and Gavel caught the handle in his two hands.

Scion turned his attention to Gavel, throwing one more sphere.

Another detonation.  Capes in the area were scrambling to get away from Scion’s new designated target.

Gavel had stopped.  He swayed, then swung his hammer around, striking it against the ground before gripping the pole, as if he’d only needed something to lean against.  His skin was a little darker where it had been scorched, and golden light danced around the edges of the wounds like the orange at the edges of burned paper, where the paper had burned but not burned completely.

I could see the Simurgh move, putting one of her larger wings in front of Kid Win.  Stopping him from firing.

I really hoped she was on our side in all of this.  Letting Gavel handle this with only the support from the sidelines seemed feeble at best.

Scion suffered a continual onslaught of powers and projectiles from every direction, and the distraction these shots seemed to give Gavel the chance he needed to find his second wind.  The vigilante and ex-cell-block leader of the Birdcage advanced, picking up speed as he found his stride, dragging his hammer beside him.

Scion used a beam instead, directing it at Gavel.

Which was interesting.  Maybe.  A beam was what I would have used to deal with Gavel.  His power made it so he could only take so much damage at a time, and reduced the severity of any damage to a set amount.  Shooting him with a hail of bullets would be little different from shooting him with one or two bullets, and any given bullet would only gouge out a teaspoon of flesh.

Excalibur’s scabbard.  He could have done so much more with the concept, but he’d gone with a hammer instead of a sword.

I stared, watching as he blocked the worst of the beam with the hammer.   Scion stopped, interrupted as Queen of Swords shot him with another power-infused bullet, then resumed the assault.

A spray of bullets wouldn’t do much to Gavel, but a steady stream of them could whittle him down.  Blind in the face of the brilliant light, Gavel marched forward.  He moved his damaged hammer out of the way, taking the beam in the face and throat instead.

Amazing, perplexing… and I could only stare, watching Gavel’s inhuman tenacity, wondering if Scion was using the beam because it was one of the most convenient and effective tools available to him, or because he intuitively understood Gavel’s power.

He was supposed to be the source of powers.  It made sense that he’d know the particulars about them.

It was a scary thought.

Gavel got close enough to reach out and fumble, putting a hand on Scion’s face, two fingers finding Scion’s eye sockets.

Scion pulled back a little, maintaining the beam as it cut into Gavel.  I could smell something like burning hair.  Clouds of it, choking.

Gavel toppled.

No, he was leveraging his full weight, swinging his hammer like an Olympic hammer-thrower might swing theirs.  Not even a complete rotation, but he struck Scion dead-on.

Scion hit the dirt, was plowed into a furrow fifteen feet long.  He half-climbed to his feet, half-floated, and was struck again.  Another swing of the hammer.

It wasn’t hurting him, but it was an inconvenience, and that was something good in my books.

I could feel the hot blood seeping through my costume, running over my shoulders and down my front.  My back was already sticky with it.  Probably not good for my flight pack.  Rachel was running through the crowd, shoving anyone that wasn’t actively fighting to get them out of her way.

Gavel hit Scion a third time, and the hammer, damaged earlier by the beam, fell to pieces.

For the fourth hit, Gavel used the toe of his boot.

But each hit was dramatically less effective than the last.  Scion reacted to the kick, floating back a little, but it wasn’t much at all.

Gavel had once been judge, jury and executioner to criminals in Australia.  He’d announce his intentions publicly, swearing vengeance and listing their crimes, and then he’d go after them.

Generally speaking, he transferred his power from himself to his hammer and from his hammer to his target, conducting invincibility.  His target would fly through the air until they hit something, at which point they would be pulverized.

If he was feeling merciful, or if he didn’t want to give them a chance, he simply pulverized them with the swing.

But Scion wasn’t pulverized.  The golden man reached out and jammed a hand in the largest wound the beam had created.  A golden light flared, and Gavel disintegrated on the inside.  Flakes of burned flesh traced with bits of golden light flew into the air as either half of Gavel’s body hit the ground.

Lung, on the sidelines, was as monstrous as he’d been when he fought Kaiser, Sundancer and I.  But he waited.

We needed time.  Time for Lung.  Time for the Simurgh to find her window of opportunity, time for reinforcements…

Gavel, ruthless vigilante, monster, had bought us a good minute.  Maybe two.

Scion targeted Vista, Kid Win and the others.  His target before Gavel had grabbed his attention.

Very formulaic, very steady, picking out targets based on who was posing the biggest threat… or the biggest potential inconvenience, and then eliminating them.  Gavel was out of the picture, so he moved back down to the next on his list.

Vista folded more space, then changed the shape of the hill she’d created.  It wasn’t fast enough to get her, Kid Win or Tattletale out of the way of Scion’s shot.

The Simurgh protected them with her wing.

Get out of there, I thought.

Then I did one better.  I broke up one swarm decoy and moved the bugs in their direction.

The bugs flew too slow.  They couldn’t cover that much ground in a matter of seconds.

Get out of there.  He’s going to come after you, and people aren’t going to be able to save you every time.

Scion rose into the air, floating.

Get out of there.

Queen of Swords shot him again.

Scion turned, slow, his eyes falling on her.  Ribbons, perhaps the most identifiable projectile, sailed through the air, snagging on him and then fixing in the air, as if the other ends were attached to some invisible tether.  It was one of the Swords doing it.

He floated a bit forward, and the tethers broke, falling apart.

Two projectiles, again.

Softballing us so hard he was almost taking pity.

Rachel approached.  She had a device in hand.  One of the matchboxes, Lab Rat juice on demand.  I shifted position as she leaned over Bastard.

“How?” she asked.  There was a look in her eyes that suggested she was upset, concerned, worried.  She looked at me, at the amount of blood on and around me, and I could even see a note of anguish, hidden behind stern eyes and a mouth that was pressed into a lipless line.

“Turn it around,” I said.  I couldn’t reach it without pulling away from where I was applying pressure.

King of Cups blocked the shots using some of the largest arms.  Gorilla arms with massive clawed hands, fanning out from his shoulders, blocking the shot and serving as walls to shield the teammates beside and behind him.

Scion closed the distance, swept a hand to one side, and dashed all but one or two of the artificial arms to pieces.  He caught King of Cups by the jaw.

But he didn’t hurt the man.

Instead, taking advantage of the pause where capes with ranged attacks weren’t firing into the midst of the Suits, Scion held King of Cups in the air, and extended a hand.

Not attacking, but indicating.

The hand swept over the capes in question.

How?” Rachel said, with a bit more emotion.

I reached up, took her hand and pushed it, with the device, down on Bastard’s shoulder.  I turned back to Scion as the high-pitched beeping started.

He watched King of Cups as he moved his hand.  The man’s expression, which I couldn’t make out, seemed to give Scion the answer he wanted.

With his free hand, Scion flew forward, seizing the Queen of Swords before she could get out of the way.

He bent over, and he pushed the pair to the ground.

When they were pinned, he kept pushing one of them.  I could hear a strangled scream.  He had a grip on Queen of Sword’s face, and he was simply pushing her head into the ground.  King of Cup’s screams were a different sort; not of pain, but horror.

Capes pelted Scion, grabbed hold of his neck, arms and legs with chains, but failed to affect him.  Vista’s power made the earth rise around Scion, but when he didn’t react, she returned it to normal, leaving room for others to try.

It wasn’t just offensive attempts at rescue, either.

“…can’t teleport them, blocking my power…”

“…make him stop, make him stop…”

“…someone?  Anyone!…”

I craned my head, looking.  The Simurgh was still blocking Kid Win, and she wasn’t shooting.  Glaistig Uaine was in the sky above, orbited by three spirits I couldn’t quite make out.

Foil, still gone.

It might as well have been him, the King and the Queen, all alone, for all it mattered.

He jolted a bit, his shoulders and back dropping an inch or two, as something gave way.

The lines and diagrams Queen of Swords had created disappeared, thinning out, then fading away entirely.

I saw King’s legs kick, heard his screams intensify.  There was a new kind of horror in the sound.  He manifested new arms, monstrous ones, insectile ones, bird talons and tentacles, even the occasional indistinct head of an animal, grabbing Scion, trying to tear him away, tear him apart.  Futile, just like all the other measures.  Scion wasn’t even visible beneath the effects that surrounded him.

Pulling the wings off fliesKicking over anthills.  As evils went, Scion wasn’t much more than a child in maturity.

We weren’t much more than bugs to him.

“It’s not working,” Rachel said.

“I- what?” I asked.

“The dose.”

I tore my eyes away from the scene.  The matchbox was beeping, but it wasn’t quite the frantic beep I’d heard when mine was going off.

“The dog’s physiology, it might read as too healthy,” I said.

“He’s lost half his blood,” she said, her expression grim.  “He’s not even moving now.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “If we get the vials from inside, maybe we can manually apply it?”

“Mm,” Rachel grunted.

King of Cup’s screams reached a fever pitch.  I turned to look, wincing.

“Hurry,” I said.  “I need to get in there.”

“And do what?”

Do what?  I didn’t know.


All at once, the chaos was replaced by stillness.

It wasn’t a typical silence.  Typical silence would have left my ears ringing with the sudden shift from noise to an utter lack thereof.

Wasn’t a typical stillness.  If it was, I would have felt my heartbeat.

My senses had been replaced.

I watched as two massive beings made their way through the void.

One was familiar to me, in a dim way I couldn’t articulate.

Not that I could think, really.  I experienced, I took things in, and I understood it.

They were flesh and they weren’t flesh.  Something I couldn’t parse, given my frame of reference.  I could understand how they moved, and I knew it was because of the senses I was using, senses that allowed me to be aware of these things, to grasp them in terms of how they slid between realities.

I focused on the familiar one, and compared it to its kin.

It was shucking away fragments of itself, discarding them.  It kept select ones.  Abilities focused on violence, on defense.  On mobility and battle and any number of other things.

It exercised a variety of the fragments.  It was taking over for another role, a role that the partner wasn’t fulfilling.

The partner was busy, I noted, sending broadcasts.  Messages, to something distant.

But I couldn’t interpret the partner in the same kind of depth I could interpret the more familiar one.

I turned my attention to it.  Saw what it saw.  Images of the future.  I was connected somehow to every part of the being, and I was aware of everything they were aware of.  I had only to look.

It looked for a world.

It found the world it was looking for.

It looked for a particular variation of that world, and it found it.

And it looked further.  It viewed itself and its partner on that world.  The possible forms they could take, the end results.

It looked beyond that, to possible rebellions.

In the midst of that, in the middle of a trillion images that passed through my awareness in a single instant, over an indeterminate span of travel and viewing, one scene was acutely familiar.

The entity as a golden man.

Capes littering the surface around him, every single one of them unconscious, dead, bleeding, crushed, or burned.  He was untouched, coated only in their remains, thick blood and other, pulpier substances dripping and dropping from his fingers in strings.

He viewed the scene, as he viewed all of the scenes, through the senses of the fragments that had gone ahead, of fragments that had arrived after he had.  They were embedded in hosts, which meant he viewed things through the eyes of the host, and through the abilities the hosts expressed.

I willed for it to continue, to go deeper, to provide more details.  But things moved along.  If anything, my efforts dashed the scene from the ongoing stream of sensory inputs.  Instead, I got a glimpse the futures one step further.  Variations.

Every one of them, futures where the entity had survived.  Futures where the hosts hadn’t fought back.  Futures where they had fought back and inevitably lost.  He was plotting a course to a particular destination in time and causality, just as he’d plotted a course to Earth.  There were criteria, and in each of the visions, things occurred.

These visions were blocked from any particular attention.  Hidden away by some treatment of the fragments, treatment of the entity’s own recollections, so the visions couldn’t be used against it.

But I could see the essential elements.

He would live, because he’d given himself enough power.  With the criteria he had set, there was no way for the hosts to win, unless he deviated.  With the granted powers, there was no way for them to do any meaningful harm to him.  The entity could see the permutations, the ways they moved and interacted.  He called on a particular fragment, yet to be released in search of a host, and-

Familiar.  A familiar presence.

-he could get an understanding of the hosts, filling in blanks that the future-sight and his own mind couldn’t.  See how they moved, how they cooperated, how they didn’t cooperate.  He could see the strategies they could possibly employ, the strategies they couldn’t.

Again, these were censored, blocked in this three-dimensional, xenosensory, interactive memory.

But he could see, and he knew they would fail, as much by their own hand as by his.  He could see how all paths he had considered led to a fulfillment of his mission, his eventual meeting with his partner, in their other forms.  He could see how he wins in every circumstance where he has to fight.  Countless paths to victory.  He would spend the rest of the journey to this planet in picking one, was already setting things up so that paths to defeat would no longer be possible.

We lose.

It was my thought, not the entity’s.

The thought stuttered, distorted.  Repeated over and over so fast it seemed to become only a jumble of sounds.

Another repetition, where each syllable seemed to take days to form.

I opened my eyes, and I saw the scene from the vision.  Scion standing in the middle of the settlement, blood and brains dripping from his hand.

The two words continued, as if in the background, distorted as I turned my head.

It was one of the capes that had arrived with Crane.  He was doing it, distorting the memory.

Making it so the memory wouldn’t fade.

Let me forget, I thought.  I don’t want to know this.  Let me be ignorant, fight to the end.

Scion stood, waiting patiently.  No point tearing us to pieces when we weren’t aware enough for it to matter.

I looked at him, and I saw the entity from my memory.  I saw the vast thing he was, and I knew that we were specks to him.  He’d held back when he’d used the beam to slice through legs, when he used mere physical force to crush Queen of Sword’s skull.  He’d held back, in a fashion, when he’d obliterated the United Kingdom of Earth Bet.

King of Cups howled wordlessly, using his power, and the phantom limbs started emerging from every surface around us.

My back arched as one thrust itself free from my chest.  A tentacle.

A claw emerged from the ground by my neck.

Every surface in sight, marked with the ebon-black limbs, faces, even the upper bodies of indistinct lifeforms.  Some humanoid, some very not.  From horizon to horizon, the landscape turned dark as phantom images peppered it, growing denser with every passing second.

With none of the care of the time that he’d taken with Queen of Swords, Scion crushed King of Cup’s skull.

The phantom images crumbled into black ash.

“No,” Rachel said.  “Fuck it.  Fuck him.”

“Rachel?” I mumbled.

I turned my head, felt my head swim with the aftermath of the vision, or the memory-retention power, and I saw the matchbox, the contents spilled.  The ground beneath was darker.  Dirt soaked with the fluid.

“Was trying to open it when the vision hit,” Rachel said.

The Simurgh screamed.  Scion gave her his full attention.

She used her power, parting the sea of fallen, reeling capes with her telekinesis.  Capes between her and Scion were tossed aside, and capes behind Scion were dismissed in the same way.  I could see people bounce off the ground, limbs bending in awkward, painful ways as they landed.

Bugs, to be swatted aside when they got in the way.

Then she fired the guns.  Hers and Kid Win’s.

The shotgun approach.  Cover as wide an area as possible, cover as many bases as possible, in the hopes that something hits.

I covered my eyes, turning my head.  When that wasn’t enough, I covered my eyes with my arm.

There was little sound, but there was a horrific vibration, something that made me worry my insides were turning to jelly.

When I could see again, Scion was gone.

But he wasn’t defeated.  I knew that much.

The Simurgh, moving with a deliberate assurance, began reloading each of the guns.  Extraneous pieces of the halo served as battery packs, as ammunition.

Scion passed through the portal behind her.  As if in slow motion, I could see her folding herself forward, her wings wrapping around her body.  Preparing for the attack that was about to come.

He hit her, and he sent her flying through the crowd.  Capes were turned into bloody smears as she collided with them, and the Simurgh was driven to the very far edge of the settlement, to the beaches at the edge of the bay.  The countless guns were pulverized.

Almost casually, Scion created a beam that speared through the center of the hill Vista had made, and the hill crumbled, the effect collapsing inconsistently, the hill and everyone on it falling violently to the ground below.

“Tattletale,” I said.

“Go,” Rachel said.

I looked at her, at Bastard, who barely seemed to be breathing anymore.  In the distance, Scion followed up his attack on the Simurgh.  She continued to focus on defending herself, raising sand in false Simurgh decoys, manipulating water, all to misdirect, as she kept her wings folded around her like a shell.

“Go,” she said.  “Help Tattletale.”

There was something in her voice.  Something that suggested she did care after all.  Imp’s ribbing aside, Rachel did value Tattletale on some level.

I tried to stand, and felt the strength of the congealed blood that bound me to the cloth, which was in turn bound to Bastard’s foreleg stumps.  My swarm and a bit of pulling on my part broke the connection.  I stood, and my leg throbbed where I’d dropped a little too quickly to the ground, earlier.  Flight was easier and faster.

I was halfway to Tattletale when I sensed Rachel moving.  Clawing at the dirt with her fingers, cramming it into Bastard’s mouth, almost climbing into his mouth as she shoved dirt down his throat.

I sensed him react, choking, making noises far too feeble for such a great beast.  Rachel had to heave herself free to avoid being in the way as he reflexively slammed his jaws shut, coughing and hacking.

She grabbed handfuls of the dirt and smeared it on the stumps of his wounds, instead.

Glaistig Uaine deemed it her moment to descend.  I moved bugs to her so I’d know what was going on as I landed, gently, near the ones who’d been on the hill.

Kid Win held Vista, and Tattletale had landed on her back near the portal’s base.  Crane and her cronies stood by, impassive.

“My guns didn’t do anything,” Kid Win said.

“You okay?” I asked Tattletale.

“Mostly.  Soil was soft as I landed, but… still a drop,” she said.

“You’re fine,” Crane said.  Her tone made it sound like something that would be true if she said it with enough conviction.

“That vision…”  Tattletale said.

“Anything useful?” I asked.

“If it was useful, he would have censored it,” she said.

I looked at Crane.  “Did you plan that?  Why bring that guy?”

“Teacher asked me to bring him,” she said.  “That is not one of mine.”


So many plays.  So many big players.

I felt a welling anger, frustration, a note of hopelessness I hadn’t felt before.

Glaistig Uaine had Gavel as a spirit, and was pounding at Scion, with little effect.

“He adapts,” Tattletale said.  “I was saying it on the phone.  He just needs a reminder about which passenger we’ve got, and then he adjusts some internal frequency, and he adapts.  Anything we can throw at him, he knows how to cancel out.”

Glaistig Uaine changed up.  Three spirits.

Eidolon was one of them.

“So we need to beat him with one shot,” I said.

“Not doable,” she said.

“Because we aren’t hurting him,” I spoke my thoughts aloud.  We haven’t touched him.

“We’re hurting him,” she said.  “Kind of like how people hurt Gavel.  He’s… he’s got a defense, not making him invincible, but making him a living portal.  So you hurt him, and faster than you can do anything, he just swaps out the damaged material for material from… this bottomless well.”

A well?

I could see Lung finding his feet.  As large as Leviathan, four wings, four hands, two digitigrade feet.  King of Cup’s power had faded, but regeneration had made up for it.  Lung was intact, naked, massive, monstrous and bristling with layers upon layers of silver scales.

He joined the fray, supporting Glaistig Uaine as she took to the air, flying through the crowd to access the wounded and dying.

I could see Eidolon’s shadow briefly take hold of the injured, then toss them aside.  Glaistig Uaine, for her part, accessed the dead.

The other two spirits attacked Scion.  Here and there, attacks made him react.

But, as Tattletale had said, no attack was as effective on subsequent iterations.

“We could change it up,” Tattletale said.  “hit him with enough effects in a way he can’t predict.”

“So why don’t we?” I asked.

“Just look,” Tattletale said.

Two hundred capes, still recovering.  Some, I suspected, playing dead, morale crushed.

They’d seen Scion’s true body.  They’d seen what I’d suspected, that we were truly dwarfed in scale.  Their morale was crushed.

The ones who still fought were the monsters, the lunatics.

King of Cup’s power began to recur, massive arms from ten different species, some not from Earth, lunged out of the ground, holding Scion.

Glaistig Uaine.  She had Queen of Swords too, was drawing diagrams between capes on the ground and Eidolon, a narrow, tall image of glowing lines, like a steeple.

The Faerie Queen looked at the Simurgh, and her spirits turned their heads at the same time.  Watching, wanting some kind of action or follow-through.  Expectant.

The Simurgh held one gun.  A single weapon she’d salvaged and sheltered with her body and wings in the instants before Scion had attacked her.

“Silver bullet?” Tattletale asked.

“It’s an air gun,” Kid Win said.  “Useless.”

“Maybe there’s another use for it,” Tattletale said.  “The Simurgh’s smart.”

The Simurgh fired the gun.

Scion’s hair blew in the resulting gust of wind.

He blasted the Simurgh, sending her into the bay.

While Scion’s back was turned, Lung struck.  Brute force coupled with more brute force.  Strength, size, and flames that melted the sand on contact.  Scion was plunged into the molten morass, was subsequently doused in water that steamed in the heat of Lung’s flame.

More like plasma than flame, something else entirely.  Heat, distilled.  The result was more like Sundancer’s power than anything.

Golden light seared Lung’s claws, but regeneration and a raw durability that exceeded all reasonable limits gave him the ability to hold on, to keep Scion beneath the growing pool of molten sand.

The light intensified, and Lung’s flames swelled at the same time, as if reactive.

The Endbringer-esque Lung fell, as if he had been pulled down, and Scion rose from beneath.

Capes who had recovered opened fire.  Glaistig Uaine used Queen of Sword’s abilities, created more bindings with the King of Cups.

Crane the Harmonious, as if she’d been waiting for a moment, used her own power.  A sphere, like Sundancer’s, only it was a distortion, like a glass bead that made things look upside down when you looked through it.

It moved forward until it was between the defending capes and Scion.

Once the bead was in place, every bullet hit.  Every power.

Scion hit the ground, and Lung was on him in an instant, like a cat on a mouse.  It took Scion seconds to fight his way free, to strike Lung aside.

The bead moved, and more shots struck their target.

I watched, very still, as the guns that had been torn to smithereens were reassembled.  The Simurgh was prone, but she used her telekinesis, reaching a distance away.

Scion’s beam lanced through Crane.  Too fast to dodge.  It passed within ten feet of me, hit Kid Win, hit the portal.

I could hear a structure collapsing on the far end of the portal.

Crane dropped like a puppet with the strings cut.  Something in Kid Win’s suit detonated, and he tipped over, landing hard.

Vista rushed to his side, her expression hard.  No anguish, no tears, none of the emotion I’d have expected her to show.

It was almost scary.

Bastard, in the distance, rose to his feet.

He’d swelled in size.  Was still growing.  Rachel remained where she’d been, kneeling in a pile of his blood, as he tore forwards.

Crashed into Lung, making a sound more like an extended grunt than a growl or a roar.

Lung practically picked up the dog, throwing it at Scion.

It wasn’t additive growth.  I could see how the dog swelled.  Lab Rat’s power had to tap into something to create the flesh.  Had used my blood and bone.  Except it was tapping into the same things that Rachel’s power provided.  Mass.

It was like a limiter had been removed altogether.  The can of worms cracked open.  Muscle, rippling.  Claw.  Horn and bone.  Calcified flesh.  Like water from a waterfall, tendrils and body parts raining down from the lump that clung, snarling from many different mouths, to Scion.  All one connected mass, incoherent.

Scion began burning through the flesh, making headway against the growing monstrosity.  Glaistig Uaine shot him with Queen of Sword’s ability yet again.

They were driving him away from the settlement, and that allowed some capes to use powers they’d been unable to.  Miss Militia stepped up to the plate, a cape flanking her.

Her power, to create the bomb.  Ten and a half feet long.

Without even being asked, the Simurgh caught it with her telekinesis and flung it.  Scion dodged, and the Simurgh moved the bomb to ensure it hit the target.

The cape beside her used his power to contain the damage, to direct it outward, skyward, to shield us from sound, light and shockwave.

The clouds had been struck from the sky.

What remained of Bastard, cut free where the flesh dangled below the erected barrier, fell into the water.   It continued to spread over the Bay’s surface and creep towards the beach.

That effect would end before it became a problem, I suspected.

Yet Scion appeared untouched.  He was cleaner, even.  Scoured of the blood and dirt.  Pristine.

“A bottomless well,” I said.

“Bottomless enough to matter,” Tattletale said.  “We take out pounds of flesh, but it’s really only removing a drop from the bucket at a time.  Then the ‘water’ flows out, high pressure, filling the gaps.”

“And morale plunges,” I said, staring out at the capes who were hanging back, staring at the scene rather than participating.

“Psychological,” Tattletale said.  “Just like Endbringers.  He crafted that body for a reason.”

I nodded.

“We understand him more with every passing moment,” she said.  “It doesn’t help.  Just the opposite, really.”

I couldn’t bring myself to answer.

I heard voices behind us, the noise of thrumming engines.

Reinforcements had arrived.  Chevalier, members of the Protectorate, Leviathan.

And at that same moment, Scion was gone.

I’d grasped, some time ago, that flight added a whole new dimension of possibilities to battle.  Scion brought a fourth dimension, capable of stepping out of the fight any time he wanted.

“Running?” I said.

“No.  Moving on to the next target.  He’s going to do a rotation,” Tattletale said.  “Hit each area in turn, then go.”

I nodded slowly.  “Going to do better next time.”

“You didn’t do anything this time,” Tattletale said.

She was right.  I was… what, supposed to coordinate powers?  Pull something?

I’d been on my heels the entire time.  Not scared…

Well, yes, scared.

But more in awe, out of my depth, remembering the last fight and seeing this fight, knowing how small I was…  This wasn’t a fight that would be won with some gimmicks.  It wasn’t a fight that would be won with a lot of gimmicks.  I could see it in the trigger-event vision I’d glimpsed, in the way things were playing out, the costs, the lack of any concrete gains…

I shook my head.

“I‘m not going to be on the battlefield the next time.”

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Venom 29.1

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Tattletale stirred.  I could see the usual confusion that went with waking up in unfamiliar surroundings.  She adjusted faster than most.  There was no flailing about for a point of reference so everything could start to make sense again.  Her power supplied it.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” I replied.

“Think the world’s going to end today?”  she asked, as she stretched, still lying down.

“World already ended, if we’re talking about our world.  Too much damage done.”

“Maybe,” she said.  “Humans are resourceful.  Resourceful and stubborn.  But you kind of live that, don’t you?”

I nodded.  “Guess so.”

Tattletale picked a bit of grit out of the corner of her eye with a fingernail.  “You didn’t sleep.”

“Not so much.”


“I’ve learned to deal.  Pulled enough stakeouts to adapt.”

“Idiot,” Tattletale said again.  She raised herself to a sitting position.  “You need to be in top fighting shape.”

“I slept for three days after getting cut in half,” I protested.

“Only shows how much you needed the sleep,” she said.

“The Simurgh was being eerie, singing you a lullaby.  You really expect me to sleep after that?”

“The lullaby wasn’t for me,” Tattletale said.  “And I didn’t sense any hostile intent.”

I turned my head.  My expression was hidden, but she read my confusion anyways.

“I mean, I think some of it was for my benefit, but it didn’t fit like that was the be-all and end-all of the singing.  She was doing something else.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Neither do I.  But she’s not exactly an easy one to get.  Who knows what she sees?  Maybe she’s singing for a reason that isn’t apparent yet?”

That was unsettling.  I thought of what the Simurgh had said.

It didn’t serve to keep secrets right now.  It’d be disastrous in the worst case scenario, and Tattletale was the best person to go to when I needed answers.  “She apologized.”

“The Simurgh?” Tattletale asked.  She gave me a funny look.

“Believe it or not.  She said ‘I’m sorry’.”

“She doesn’t talk,” Tattletale said.

“I know.  But I heard it.”

“Anyways, she isn’t sorry,” Tattletale said.  “I’d put money on it.  I’ve got a lot of money to put on it, if anyone’s willing to take the bet.  Couple million in liquid assets.”

I shook my head.  “I won’t take that bet.  Look, just keep it in mind.”

“Filed away,” Tattletale promised.

“For now though, we should mobilize,” I said, as if I could distract myself.  “Get everyone on the same page, start putting heads and powers together.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Tattletale responded.  She pulled off a glove, then reached into her belt to get a small tin from one pouch.  “Two minutes to get myself presentable.  Could do with a shower, but I think people are a little past that right now.”

I nodded.  Most of the capes I’d seen were just a little rougher around the edges.  The shine gone from their costumes, a little dustier, their hair greasier, chins unshaven.  Psychologically, it was much the same.

This had hit all of us hard.  I liked to think I was rolling with it better than some, if only because I’d had two years to anticipate it.  Then again, I was good at self-delusion.

I thought about Clockblocker, his optimism.  When I’d been talking about expecting the worst, he’d argued for the opposite.  I didn’t want to diminish what I felt about him being dead in the general sense by thinking about something so petty, but a part of me was disappointed I couldn’t talk to him now, after the fact, and see how he was doing.  If he was coping better than I had.

It wasn’t that I was coping, exactly.  I wasn’t happy, confident or unafraid.  The only thing I could say was that I’d been able to brace myself.  I’d bought into Dinah’s prophecy more than just about anyone else.  I’d braced myself and I’d nearly broken, regardless.  I could tell myself that the point where I’d been floating over the ocean by New Brockton Bay had only been a desire to get away, nothing darker, but I wasn’t sure I was telling myself the truth.  I could think back to the point where I’d snapped after being cut in half by Scion and tell myself I was lucid, but I wasn’t sure that was true either.

Hard to say I’d held my own when I wasn’t sure how much of it was me and how much was the adrenaline at work.  Or other things.

Any opinion, passenger?  I asked.  We’re going up against your maker.  You going to hold back or are you going to go all-out?

No response, of course.

Tattletale was smearing black greasepaint around her eyes.  She’d finished the hardest part, around the eyelashes, and spoke up as she filled the rest in,  “You get in touch with everyone you wanted to talk to?”

“Almost everyone.”

“Ah.  I can guess who you didn’t actively look for.  This denial worries me.”

I shrugged.

“No use dwelling on it.  Your decision in the end.  Let’s move on to a happier topic.  You ever think we’d make it this far?”

“To the end of the world?”  That’s a happier topic?

“To the top of the heap.  As far up there as we could hope to be.”

“We’re not big leaguers, Tattletale.  Not the most powerful capes out there.”

“But we’re talked about around the world.  We’re on speaking terms with some of the biggest and scariest motherfuckers out there.”  Tattletale gestured towards the window.  Towards the Simurgh.  “We’d be front page news, if the news still existed.”

“I’m not sure being news would be a good thing,” I said.  “Which isn’t to say word isn’t getting around, you know.  Charlotte knew.”

“Charlotte’s connected to Sierra and the rest of our infrastructure in Gimel.  That doesn’t really surprise me,” Tattletale said.  She pulled her hair out of the loose ponytail she’d had it in, then combed her fingers through it to get it more or less straight.  It still had kinks and waves where it had been braided.  Something she would have fixed before going out in costume in more ordinary circumstances, for caution’s sake.

“Mm,” I acknowledged her.  Maybe I was tired.  My thoughts were wandering some.

“I tried to set things up so we’d have some way of maintaining communications and getting some information in, getting information out.  Like, I told people about what you said about Scion hating duplication powers.  Anyways, only the very high tech and very low tech have really survived.  Satellites and hard copies.”  She lifted one of the files I’d stacked on the floor, as if to give evidence to the point. “Reading up?”

I picked up a file as well, leafing through it.  “I wasn’t sleeping, so while you were out, I got in touch with Defiant and one of your minions, arranged for only the most essential status updates to come in on paper.  I figured I could update you after you got up.  The deliveries stopped a good bit ago, but one of the last status updates was about Dragon, so I guess she’s handling her old duties while Defiant recuperates from the last few days.”

“Guess so,” Tattletale said.  I turned my head to see what she was doing, but she was already crossing the room.

“Doormaker is napping as well, I guess,” I said.  “He just decided to leave one open, and he hasn’t been responding.  I double checked the portal, making sure he wasn’t trying to tip us off to anything important, but it opens to a pretty remote area of Earth Bet.”

Tattletale went still, “Doormaker doesn’t sleep.”

I raised my eyebrows, realized Tattletale couldn’t see them, and cocked my head quizzically instead.

“There’re lots of capes who don’t sleep.  About a year ago, I started digging into the PRT files.  Hired the Red Hands to steal a more up to date set, even.  I was looking into clues for understanding this whole thing, y’know?  Best leads at the time were memories and dreams.  Clues popping up here and there, relating to people’s dreams, or gaps in memories.  Dreaming differently, seeing things instead of dreaming, case fifty-threes suffering from their amnesia… Well, there are a number of ‘Noctis’ cases.  Named after a vigilante hero that was up at all hours.  The opposite of what I was looking for, but a good data point anyways: capes who don’t dream because they don’t sleep.  PRT confirmed a few members of their own, Miss Militia included, as examples.  Others have only been marked down as guesses.  Doormaker and Contessa were among them, they said, going by the times the ‘bogeyman’ was showing up.”

“So if he doesn’t sleep, why leave a door open and ignore us?” Tattletale asked.

I shook my head a little.

“Doorway,” Tattletale tried.

There was no response.  No portal, no door.

“Door?  Portal?  Open sesame?”  I tried.

“That’s worrisome,” Tattletale said, keeping her voice low.  She clipped on her belt, tapping each of the pockets, as if to check the contents were still there.  She drew her gun and checked it for bullets.

“We should go,” I said.

“We’re definitely going,” Tattletale said, but she didn’t budge as she double-checked her gun, pulling the slide back.  I resisted the urge to comment on just how useless a gun was, considering what we were up against; I could remember how she’d fared when the assassin targeted her, Accord and Chevalier.

There were other threats.

“Right,” Tattletale said, finally finishing, grabbing her laptop and tucking it under one arm.

That was our go signal.  We broke into stride.

We passed a soldier, and Tattletale signaled him, raising a finger.  He stopped and wheeled around, following.

“We’re going,” Tattletale said.  “Ship up, move out.  If we come back and settle in here, then so be it, but let’s not plan on it.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Get someone to collect my things.  All the files, the computers, the food.  Everything.  Get it all to the far side of the little doorway…”  Tattletale looked at me.  “Where’s the doorway?”

“A bit outside the front doors,” I said.

“What she said,” Tattletale told her mercenary.  “If we’re gone, just hold position.  If we’re still gone after twenty four hours, assume we’re dead.  Get my data and the backups of my notes to someone who matters, then consider the job done, collect your payment, go on your merry way.”

“I’ll make sure everyone’s informed.”

“Do,” she said.  Then, as if to offset the curt command, she added, “Thanks, Tug.”

He gave us a sloppy salute as he broke away, turning down a different corridor.

I had my phone out before I was outside.  My bugs let me navigate the stairs without taking my eyes from the screen, as I input commands.  It was cold out, almost cold enough it would impair my bugs, and a heavy fog hung in the open clearing.  The stout military building stood in an open, overgrown grassland, encircled by evergreen trees.

No reception.  Not a surprise, but inconvenient.  I watched as we got closer to the portal Doormaker had left open.

Tattletale, for her part, turned around, walking backwards as we reached the bottom of the steps.  With the phone still dark, I took a moment to look in the same direction.  I was treated to the intimidating image of the Simurgh passing over the building.  She moved as if she were as light as a feather, but I knew that wasn’t true.  She was heavier than she looked, by a considerable margin.  Had she set her full weight on the roof, she would plunge through.

Like someone playing hopscotch on the moon, the Simurgh set one foot down on the roof, hopping forward, set another foot on the very edge and pushed herself off.  She floated down to the space beside the portal, then unfolded her wings, drawing the halo out to its full breadth.  The movements sent swirls of dust and fog rippling across the edges of the clearing, stopping only as they crashed into the line of trees.

“She changed the guns?” I observed.

“She did,” Tattletale observed, “Cosmetic changes.”

Each of the Simurgh’s guns had been streamlined, the outer casings, barrels and handles reworked into wings.  Three concentric circles of interconnected guns, all redesigned to appear like an extension of her own wings, behind her.

“Why cosmetic?”

“Way I understand it, she needs to have a tinker in her sphere of influence to borrow their schematics, or a specific device, if she wants to copy it.  Thinkers, too, I think she borrows their perception powers as long as she’s tapped into them.  Might be why she’s attached to me.  Either way, she didn’t have schematics or anything she’d need to modify the guns.”

“Or she can modify them, and it’s a card she’s been keeping up her sleeve for the last while.  I mean, it was only three years ago or whatever that she really showed off her ability to copy a tinker’s work wholesale.”

Tattletale nodded.  She frowned.  “I don’t like being in the dark.  But that’s the gist of it.  She made cosmetic changes because she couldn’t make concrete ones.”

“Well, it’s unnerving to think about, but anything about the Simurgh is,” I commented.  “When I asked about the aesthetics, though, I wasn’t asking about the why so much as the…”

“So much as the why?”  Tattletale asked, emphasizing the word.

“Yeah,” I said, lamely.  “Why does she care?”

“Why does she have feathers and wings?  For all intents and purposes, she could be a crystal that floats here and there.  The end result is pretty much the same.  A few less weapons.  Behemoth?  I mean, you saw what he was, when we reduced him to a bare skeleton.  All the extra flesh, it’s decorative.  He doesn’t really need any particular parts, except legs to move around.”

“It’s there to dress them up so they make better terror weapons,” I said.

“Basically,” Tattletale said.

“That’s not a good omen,” I said.  “Because Scion doesn’t feel fear.  I’m pretty sure.”

“Maybe he doesn’t, and this is a little embellishment for our sake, for when she turns on us,” Tattletale said.

“Can you not spell that out when she’s standing twenty feet away?” I asked.  My pulse picked up a little at the idea, my heart kicking a little in my chest as it switched to a different gear.

“She knows we’re thinking it,” Tattletale said.  “And she knows there’s another explanation we could make.  Maybe it’s a clue.  A hint.”

“About what?” I asked.  “About Scion?”

“About Scion,” she said.

A hint that he can feel fear?  It didn’t ring true, but I preferred it to the alternative.

“Let’s go through and…” I said.  I couldn’t bring myself to say I hoped.  “…Maybe the Simurgh can make her way through the portal, and maybe we’ll find out.”

“Yep,” Tattletale said, smiling a little.  She probably knew the reasoning behind my word choice.

For that matter, it was very possible the Simurgh did too.

Which left me with the question of why I’d even bothered.

Going through, I thought.  Hopefully there’s people on the other side that can’t read me like a book.

My phone lit up as a connection was established to a satellite.

A moment later, the connection was secured.

The clock changed, followed by a time zone and a symbol.  Four forty-six, Eastern standard time, Earth Bet.

I stared at the world that stretched out before us, and it was wrong.  Perspective was skewed.  Lines bent where they should have been straight, and the expanse to our left was somehow more extensive than the space to our right.

The horizon should have been straight, or at least a gentle curve to accomodate the planet’s natural curvature, but it was almost a wavy line.

“The fuck?” I muttered.

“Vista,” Tattletale said, very matter-of-factly.

The Simurgh reached the portal.  I was reminded of Leviathan breaking into the shelter beneath the library as I saw her put one hand on each side of the portal.  She wasn’t quite as large as he was, until you added up the wings and wingspan.  Put all the wings together, and her mass was probably equivalent to her older brother’s.

She passed through with little effort, dropping almost to her knees to get her head through.  The wings followed, each wing stretched all the way behind her.  The feathers rasped against the boundaries of the portal as she floated forward.

The outer edges wavered a fraction, as if the stress threatened to bring the portal down entirely.

Then she was through.  She flexed her wings, then folded them around herself.  The halo came through in pieces.

“That answers that,” Tattletale said.  She added a very unenthusiastic, “Yay.”

The Dragonfly made its way to us, stopping no less than four times.  With each stop, it descended to the ground and refused all incoming commands.  A minute would pass, and then it would take off again.

It took me a bit to realize why.

Vista.  The autopilot didn’t seem to like her power.

“Just how much area is she manipulating?” I asked.

“She was only ever held back by the Manton effect,” Tattletale said.  “Number of people in the area.”

“And there’s not many people left in Bet,” I spoke my thoughts aloud, as I made the connection.

“Consider it a bonus,” Tattletale said, raising her head as the Dragonfly came into view, “In a sad, not-really-a-bonus sort of way.  Empty earth makes for a convenient battleground.  If we’re able to fight here, that is.”

The Dragonfly set down, the ramp opening before it was even on terra firma.

It took a minute to plot out the route the Dragonfly should take, looking at what the cameras had tracked, seeing where the distortions were.

“Something’s really wrong,” Tattletale said.

“With the distortions?”

“The distortions are a band-aid.  Vista’s trying to fix something that’s gotten fucked up,” she said.  “How do you plot the course?”

I mapped out a course to take us to the Gimel portal.

Tattletale changed the course, adjusting it to match the distortions we’d mapped and some we hadn’t.

It took several minutes, all in all, but the resulting trip was fast.  The Dragonfly’s onboard system kept trying to calculating the remaining time for the trip based on our location, only to get tripped up by the folded and pinched space.

Then we hit Silkroad’s power, and accelerated to nearly three times the speed.  Tattletale was caught off guard, standing beside my chair, and fell, dropping her laptop onto the hard floor.

Both the distortion and Silkroad’s power stopped when we were a distance from the portal.  The effect was disorienting.

Corridors of folded space with the dim pink corridors of Silkroad’s power stretched out in every direction.  Connecting points.

Towers surrounded Brockton Bay, set on mountaintops and high ground within the city itself.  It necessitated a careful approach.  As we passed between two, I saw that they were communication towers, crafted to put satellite dishes at high points rather than provide shelter.

The craft settled down, and we climbed out.  They’d finished the ramp leading up to the portal, and it was easy enough to make our way up.  I opted to walk beside Tattletale instead of use up my jetpack’s fuel.

Twelve percent capacity remaining.  An hour or two of flight.

Vista stood at the top of the platform, on our side of the portal.  A Chinese woman in an elaborate Sari-style dress stood beside her, as did a man I recognized as the Knave of Hearts from the Suits.  Others were nearby, but seemed less like part of the group and more like bystanders.  Kid Win was sitting at the edge of the platform, tools and a gun in his lap, abandoned as he stared at the Simurgh.

The Knave of Hearts muttered something in what I was guessing was Dutch.  Louder, he commented, “They weren’t joking.”

“What happened?”  I asked, the second we had their attention.

“Cauldron’s running with their tail between their legs,” Vista said.  “Big promises, excuses about having all the power and being the only ones who can really put the screws to Scion, and then they run at the last minute.”

“Let us not be hasty,” the Knave of Hearts said.  “It is possible Scion hit their headquarters.  We won’t know until we have more information.”

“We can’t get information,” Vista said.  “Because they never gave us a better way of getting in contact, and they never told us where their headquarters are.”

“Yes,” Knave said.  He looked at me.  “We have no portals but the ones that were left open.  We cannot communicate by opening a door and talking to the other person.  Vista, Silk Road and I are attempting to patch together an answer.”

“A workaround,” Vista said.

“Fast transportation between key areas,” Tattletale observed.  “Your power and Silk Road’s to make the corridors…”

“I am handling communication and pinpointing the other portal locations,” Knave said.  “The Hearts of the Suits have good relations with other teams and places.”

“I can give you the coordinates,” Tattletale said.

“We have the coordinates,” Knave said, sounding annoyed.  “All but the concealed portals.”

“I think I know where those are,” Tattletale said.

Knave looked even more annoyed at that, but he nodded.  “Step through, talk to the guys at the station, they’ll get you set up.  We’ll handle the ones we know about while we wait.”

The station was on the other side of the portal.  A way to keep the civilians from trying to go back to Bet to loot and getting themselves killed or stranded, and a place where they could organize things.

Tattletale and I both gave up our phones.  The technicians on the other end changed settings to bring them on board with the hodgepodge arrays they’d put up on both Bet and Gimel.

Tattletale reclaimed her phone, then paged through the contents, checking settings.  When she was satisfied, she looked at me.  “I don’t expect you to hang around while I’m doing the geek thing and pointing those guys to the right places.”

I nodded.  “I’ll see how the others are doing and get back to you.”

Getting the Endbringers on board had marked the point we’d stopped reeling and started preparing again.  I could see the results.  The Gimel settlement was swiftly transforming from a sprawling refugee camp to a standing ground.  Refugees were being escorted or transported to other locations, packing up tents and possessions and climbing into trucks and helicopters.  It made room for the capes that were here.

Miss Militia was at the center of it, giving orders, managing the capes and the civilians in charge.

Squads were organized, many from the Protectorate, not in rank and file, but clustering according to their respective teams or organization.  Here and there, they’d gathered in more specialized groups.

I could see Rachel, Imp, Foil and Parian with the Chicago Wards, sitting or lying on the closed bins that held supplies for the settlement.  Only Golem was absent.

I felt a moment’s trepidation.  I had doubts, regrets, even a kind of shame, when it came to the Chicago teams.

I’d said it out loud, but I’d never really faced the decision I’d made: giving up on being a hero.

Still, I found myself walking up to them.

“Here she is,” Grace said.  “Make your way here okay, Weaver?”

“Doormaker left a door open for us,” I said.

“He left doors open for everyone,” Tecton said.  “But navigation’s a little tricky.  Can’t always make it from point A to point B.”

“We did okay,” I said.  “Vista was saying this is a cut and run on Cauldron’s part, but I can’t imagine this as something malicious or cowardly.  They wouldn’t have left the portals here if it was.”

“I agree,” Tecton said.

“Who’s looking into it?” I asked.

“Satyr and the other ex-Vegas capes,” Grace replied.

“Isn’t that like sending the fucking fox to guard the henhouse?” Romp asked.  “Except it’s sending the confusing mind-game head-fuckers to answer the confusing, fucked-up riddle?”

Yes,” Imp said.  “Totally.  God, it’s nice to finally have someone who can explain situations clearly.”

“More like,” Foil said, “sending a group that’s very well versed in conspiracy and subterfuge to deal with the sort of thing they’re very good at handling.”

“Now you’re being confusing,” Imp said.

“Where’s Tattletale?” Rachel asked.

“Outside.  Helping Vista and Silk Road to put together new rapid-travel routes.”

“Okay,” she said.

“Do you miss her?” Imp asked, turning around.  “Like, actually?”

“She’s a member of the team.”

“But you miss her!  That’s awesome!”

“I don’t,” Rachel said.  Then, after a moment’s thought, she added, “And that means it isn’t awesome.”

“I thought you couldn’t stand her.”

“I can stand her, and it took a long time to get that far.  That’s all it is,” Rachel said.

“But you asked.  Like, for the first time ever.”

“I have a question for her.  That’s all.”

Romp looked at her teammates, turning to Grace, then Tecton.  “Am I the only one who hears these guys talk and wonders how the fuck they ever got to be in charge of a city?”

“Don’t fucking swear,” Grace said, saying the line as if it were reflexive by now.  Romp looked annoyed, but Cuff smiled, and I could see Tecton looking away, as if he was forgetting that people couldn’t see his face while he had the helmet on.  I, too, smiled.  Romp was completely unware about why it was funny that Grace was admonishing her on the swearing.

I turned to Rachel, “What’s the question?  Something I can help with?”

She shrugged.  “This dork with Miss Militia was telling me some tinker was wanting to try something with my power.  Give my dog some drug shit a rat made?  I didn’t follow, and he kept talking to me like I have brain damage, which I don’t, so I didn’t listen.”

“Which made the guy step it up even more,” Imp commented.  “Until it sounded like he was talking to a five year old.”

“I walked away,” Rachel said.

“Stuff a rat made?” I asked.

“Lab Rat,” Imp said.

“Wouldn’t work,” I said.  “Her power burns up toxins and chemicals in the dog’s systems.”

“I said that when they said they wanted to use drugs,” Rachel said.

“They know that already,” Imp said.  “They wanted to try anyways.  Have some things left over from the previous fight.

Dosing mutated dogs with Lab Rat’s leftover transformation serums?

Would the gains be additive?

“The drugs they’re talking about are the only reason I’m still here,” I said.  “Honestly, I’m seeing only two outcomes.  Three, maybe: the effects stack up and Rachel’s dog gets even tougher or more versatile; the dog ceases to be a dog while the serum’s active and Rachel’s power stops working; or it’s made for humans and not dogs, and we get a negative reaction.”

“Two out of three odds,” Romp said.

“Actually,” Tecton said, “Nothing’s guaranteeing that the odds of any result are even.  Could be a ten percent chance of the first, five percent chance of the second and an eighty-five percent chance of the last one.”

“And a five percent chance it’s something else entirely,” Imp said, sagely.

Tecton shook his head.  “That doesn’t add up.”

“Ignore her,” Parian said.

“The numbers don’t mean anything to me,” Rachel said.  She frowned, making eye contact with me.  “You think I should?”

“I do.  Anything and everything we can think of to mix things up or combine powers is good.  I really like that there are people out there thinking outside the box.  It’s exactly what we need right now.”

“Right,” Rachel said.  She hopped down from the lid of the supply container.  “Going to go talk to her then.  If that guy tries baby-talking to me again, I’m going to make Bastard bite him.”

“No way.  You gotta fuck with his head,” Imp said.

“Biting people is more satisfying,” Rachel responded.

“No, look… uh… Tecton.  You gotta give me something really smart and scientific sounding.  Like, say what Taylor said, but in smart-guy words.”

“Critical mistake here: you’re implying Tecton is smart,” Romp said.

Tecton sat up straighter.  “Hey.  Just because I’m not your team leader anymore-”

“-You’re totally not the one who gets to order me around,” Romp replied.  “Deal with it.”

“Run a lap,” Grace said, her voice quiet.

Romp turned around, eyebrows raised.

“A lap?”

Two laps,” Grace said, her voice quiet, cold and dangerous.  “For not moving the second I gave the order.”

“What am I supposed to fucking run around?”

Three laps for swearing, four because you’re still here.  We can do five if you don’t move now.  Start running, and if you don’t pick a big enough area to run around, I can give you another few laps.”

“This is balls,” Romp said, hopping down from the bin’s lid.

“Five laps, then,”  Grace said.

“I know I’m getting more laps by talking, but I needed to state the truth for the record.”  She kept talking, speaking with each footfall.  “Balls, balls, balls.”

The moment she was out of earshot, Grace and the others broke into laughter.  Foil was the only member of the Undersiders who seemed to get it, her shoulders shaking in silent laughter.

“I can’t believe she actually went,” Cuff said.

“Don’t let her exhaust herself,” Tecton said.

Grace shook her head, still smiling.  “I’ll stop her after she finishes the first lap.”

“Okay, I need something to write on,”  Imp said.  “Anyone?”

“Here,” I said, getting a notepad from my belt.  I handed it to her.  “Why?”

She handed the notepad to Tecton.  “So Tecton can write something down.  And I hold it up, like a cue card, and Rachel recites it, sounding like a genius, and we blow dr. baby-talk’s mind.  And if he turns around, I use my power, so he’s never the wiser.”

Tecton nodded, “I can do that.”

I winced.  “There’s a flaw in that.”

“It’s brilliant,” Imp said.  She looked around, turning to Parian and Foil.

Parian only extended a hand towards Rachel.

“What?” Imp asked.

Parian gestured again, pointing.

“I don’t get it… Rachel… oh.”

“I don’t read much,” Rachel said, blunt.

“Annnd now I feel like a dick,” Imp said.

“I don’t care,” Rachel said.

She probably doesn’t.

“That doesn’t make me any less of a dick.  How often do I get reminders about the reading thing?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Rachel said.  She looked annoyed.  “This is why I don’t talk to people.  Why are we still talking about this?”

She was more irritated at the fact that Imp wasn’t dropping it than the fact that her illiteracy had been brought up.

“Maybe if I come with?” Tecton offered.  “I’ll distract whoever Dr. baby-talk is, and you can talk to Miss Militia about dosing your dogs.”

“Or you can tell me what you were going to write down and I memorize it,” Rachel said.

A few people in the group exchanged glances.

“Really simple solution,” Rachel said.  Except now she was talking to us like we were the idiots.

“I’m not sure I could memorize it,” Tecton confessed.

“The kid that’s running the lap said you weren’t that smart,” Rachel answered.  “Try me.”

“Okay, uh.  ‘I see three possible outcomes’…”

Rachel repeated what he’d said.

They continued, Imp leaning forward and kicking her legs where they dangled from the edge of the bin.

Grace interrupted my observations.  “You’re wearing black.”

I felt a bit of guilt welling.  No, guilt wasn’t the right word.  I was at peace with my decision.

I just felt a little ashamed that I hadn’t been more upfront about it, with the people I’d spent years working with.


“I suppose you’re not going to get around to having that meeting with the PRT guys, getting yourself moved up from the Wards to the Protectorate?  Unless I’m reading too much into the costume choice.”

“You’re not,” I said.  “No, I suppose I’m not going to have that meeting.”

“Is it that we failed with the Jack thing?”

“That’s not the entirety of it,” I said.

“But it’s part of it, right?  Isn’t that unfair?  We had, like, a four percent chance of success going in, and we didn’t stop it from coming to pass, so you bail?”

“I said it’s only part of it,” I repeated myself.

“I know,” she said.  I could see Tecton and Rachel pause, catching something in Grace’s tone.

When Grace and I remained silent, they resumed.  “…the cross species interactions…”

“…the cross species interactions.”

“I know,” Grace said, after a pause.  “I get that.  I get that there’s other reasons.  Like the fact that you love those guys and you never loved us.  Cool.  Makes sense.”

“I liked you guys.”

“But you didn’t love us.”

“No,” I said.

“I get all that.  But Golem’s pulling away too, and I know that’s because that we had only that fucking four percent chance and we failed.  So I draw a connection, think maybe you’re more bothered about that than you let on.”

I looked at Cuff, who was watching me intently.  She looked even more intent and focused than Grace did.

Then again, she was a little more invested in how Golem was doing than most.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Probably.”

“It’s shitty,” she said.  “Both Golem and you, drifting away.”

“I know, and it feels shitty,” I said.

“Then that’s consolation enough, for me,” Grace said.  She relaxed a little, then glanced at Cuff.

“I’m not really the type to nurse grudges,” Cuff said.  “I just want Golem thinking straight again.  He took it hard.  So you’ll get my forgiveness if you go talk to him.”

“I think that’s something I can do,” I answered her.

She smiled.  “He’s at the phone bank, near the station, if you want to find him.”


But Cuff was smiling, looking so intent.

Weaponized niceness.

“Right,” I said.  I turned to go.

And I could see people moving, running.

I felt a pit swell in my stomach.

“No,” Imp said, following my line of sight.  She could see squads getting into formation.  In the distance, the aircraft that had been moving refugees were turning around, coming back to us.  “No, no.  We had such a good joke going, don’t you dare ruin it.”

Romp returned to us, breaking into a run to close the remainder of the distance.  “Someone’s saying he’s hitting Samech.  It’s one of the Earths Cauldron was going to watch over.  There’s only Dragon, the Guild and some Protectorate guys there.”

“Let’s move,” I said.  “Through the portal.  We’ll use the Dragonfly.  Faster than waiting for another ship.  Rachel, look for doctor baby-talk, if we can grab something from him before we leave, great, but let’s not dawdle.”

There were nods all around.

I could see the other heroes.  Miss Militia and Glaistig Uaine.  Revel and Exalt.  Protectorate teams, sub-teams of the Suits, including the non-combat teams of the Hearts and Cups.

People hurried to organize, pulling on costume pieces they’d left off and checking weapons, clearing out of the open spaces where shadows grew as the aircraft descended.

One by one, the ships began to take off, flying through the tall, narrow portal.

Three ships, then four.

But the fifth didn’t take off.  I reached out with my swarm, trying to catch what people were talking about, to make sense of the situation, but everyone important was already on a ship.

King of Hearts was the only person of any meaningful rank who spoke the same language I did and who wasn’t mobilizing to leave.  The leader of the Meisters, Vornehm, was giving orders in German.  A scary-looking Master class cape with an army of clay men carrying tinker weapons was ordering other people around with the same harsh voice he was commanding his own troops.

But there was no explanation of why more ships weren’t taking off.

Had the fight already ended?

“Keep moving,” I said, ordering the teams forward.  Tattletale will know.

As confusion descended, people started falling back into their previous state, gathering in clusters of familiar people.  It almost seemed like we were the only group with direction, pushing against a milling crowd.  We weren’t, but the illusion was there.

And that same effect made it possible to see when the crowd did find direction, a common, mutual interest.  Heads turned, chins raised.  People found postures where their feet were set apart, as if ready to move at a moment’s notice.

Scion.  Here.  Floating above the bay like he’d floated above the ocean in his first appearance.

He’s targeting us, I realized.  Two of our organized settlements in as many minutes?

His hands hung at his sides.  The golden light that radiated from him cleaned his clothes and hair, but there was enough blood on his costume that the light wasn’t rendering it as pristine as it should.  His eye sockets were dark, with the way his forehead blocked the sun’s light.  That same sunlight made the edges of his hair and body glow with the light that wasn’t completely blocked.

He didn’t even raise his hand before he fired.  Lights no bigger than basketballs streaked forward, leaving trails glittering behind them.

Two of Dragon’s ships detonated violently.  Occupants dead or grievously injured, people in the area of the craft wounded by the fallout.

By the time I’d turned my head to see his follow-up, Scion had closed the distance, moving right into our midst.

Capes with reflexes better than mine were already reacting, throwing a multitude of effects in his way.  He plunged through the defenses like they weren’t even there.

Something got in his way, but he flew around it without a second thought.  He stopped right in front of a cape.  Quite possibly the cape that had stalled him momentarily.  A dark-skinned man in gray.

A swirling gray effect swelled between him and the target.  He struck it with a glowing hand, and the effect distorted, growing thin.  Another strike, and the effect dissipated.

Other capes were hurling effects at him.  Most glanced off.

He caught his target around the throat.  Didn’t squeeze.

But the golden light began to eat into the target’s body and costume.  Scion let the man drop.

Not a scream.  Only twitching, frantic thrashing as the golden light continued to consume.

Foil raised her arbalest.  I could see our entire group tense as she raised it, Parian’s hands going to her mouth.

A moment later, Parian’s cloth was unfurling from behind her back.  Rachel was making her dogs grow, while Cuff was manipulating a shotput into a blade like the one from a circular saw.

For my part, I began drawing the bugs into decoys, sending them into the air.

Oblivious to it all, Foil took aim, then ran her hand along the bolt she’d loaded in place.

I could see her draw in a breath.  I’d taken marksmanship classes.  Squeeze the trigger as you exhale.

The shot flew through the air.

Scion wheeled around and caught it.

It wasn’t just his costume, I could see.  All the lines of his body, his hands, lines that made it so he didn’t look wholly artificial, they were filled with the detritus of smoke and blood and other grit, and the golden light had only washed the surface clean.  The deepest cracks held the remainder.  It made fine lines look more like crags.

I was almost glad that it took away from his human appearance.

He let the arbalest’s bolt drop to the ground.

His eyes were on Foil.

A golden light swelled in his hand.

We spread out, but Foil didn’t even flinch.  Even as Cuff backed away, Foil reached out to touch the sawblade, imbuing it with power.

Scion reached out, and Parian used her power, encircling Foil with the end of a length of cloth.  Not an animal, only an arm.

In the instant Scion loosed the bolt of light, Parian flung Foil away.  Not a simple throw, but a reckless, inhumanly strong one.

Foil was removed from the battle.  Sent beyond what would have been the outskirts of the city, if we were in Bet, cast out in the direction of the Bay itself, until she was only a speck.

The bolt hit ground, fifty or sixty feet behind us.  Other people died instead.  People I didn’t know.

No longer interested in Foil, Scion turned to the nearest cape, lunging.

Cuff threw her circular blade.  Without even looking, Scion batted it aside, striking an unaffected part towards the middle.  His attention was on a cape, and he swiped a glowing hand through the cape’s abdomen.

What didn’t burn spilled forth.  His screams were joined by that of a friend, another cape who screamed in horror over what had happened to him.  Scion very deliberately walked past this other cape to attack someone else.

Picking us off, choosing targets.

Maximizing pain and suffering over raw destruction.


And there was precious little we could do about it.

Precious little I could do about it.  My bugs formed into more decoys.  Other bugs searched for the key players.  Where was the man Rachel had described?  The one with the serums?  Where was Miss Milita?

The Simurgh was passing through the portal, and people who’d been trying to flee to Earth Bet were now scattering, trying to flee both the Endbringer and Scion at the same time.

Horribly timed, as entrances went.  Our best hope was that he’d keep toying with us, that enough time would pass that capes stationed at the other major portals could use the fast-travel routes to get to us.

Something like an Endbringer was all too likely to change his mind.

It’s the beginning of the end.

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