Scourge 19.5

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The Grue Echidna had created turned his attention to the rest of us.  His power massed around him and then flowed forth like a tidal wave of crude oil.  I was already atop Atlas, rising into the air.  I couldn’t avoid the fact that Scapegoat was in the truck, and if we were separated-

I flew after the wave of darkness, tracing its path as it met Scapegoat’s van and making my best guess at where it would wind up.

The darkness hit a wall, and the van materialized, solid once more.  More heroes were deposited two or three city blocks away from where they’d been standing.

My heart was pounding in my chest as I blinked a few times and double checked that I hadn’t gone blind.  If the Grue had cut off Scapegoat’s power, or if he’d delivered enough of an impact to disrupt it, it could have left me in worse shape than before.

I could see, and I could breathe.  Scapegoat was safe inside the containment van.

He’d scattered us.  Our tight battle lines were now spread out over city blocks, and people were having a surprising amount of trouble getting their bearings.  One of the team leaders managed to get his squad organized, pointing them in the right direction, before Echnidna’s Grue hit them again.

There was a limit to what I could do.

I gathered my bugs and started working out how to stop the Grue.

I had cords pre-prepared.  I spliced a number together into a hundred-foot long line, then had my bugs fly the cord out.

A minute later, my fastest flying bugs were winding the cord around the Grue’s neck, while others were biting and stinging.  He barely even noticed, beyond swatting at the insects wherever they landed.

I needed something to tie him to.  A telephone pole?  It wouldn’t stop him or even hamper him in what he was doing to disrupt our fighting lines.  If he could teleport himself, then it wouldn’t even hamper him at all in the long-term.

Legend, Eidolon and Alexandria moved into the fray, accompanied by a number of other flying heroes.  They were coordinated enough that they had to have planned it out in advance.  Alexandria went in first, circling around and then swooping down to strike Echidna across one back leg.  She stuck on contact.  Through a combination of her own strength and one of Legend’s lasers, she got free before Echidna could turn and envelop her.

Eidolon was making his move before Alexandria was even free.  He cast out a bubble that swelled as it moved through the air.  By the time it reached Echidna, it was twice as big around as she was, enough to reach from one sidewalk to the other.  The colors around her became muted, and her movements slowed to a tenth of the speed.

It was a time-distortion effect.  Legend took the opportunity to emit twenty individual laser beams.  They each flowed out as a steady, unfaltering stream, and turned in mid-air to punch into Echidna.  Each was meticulously placed to drive through the center of her body and avoid the places where her victims were being absorbed, or even cut her victims free.

One beam turned down and took a sharp right to strike the ground just to the teleporter-Grue’s right.  It slashed towards him and he used his darkness to teleport himself to safety, cutting the cord I’d created in the process.

I commanded my bugs to collect the thread and cart it to the destination he’d teleported to.  It was futile to try to tether a teleporter, I knew, but if I could find a way to trip up his abilities, tie his ankles together at a crucial moment… something, it might help.  Beyond that, I’d have to hope the venom brought him down.

Echidna tried to move to one side, but Legend’s beams followed unerringly, swelling in size and number.  Thirty, forty, fifty… each cutting their way through her flesh as though she were made of little more than snow.  Smoke or steam billowed around her as her flesh charred and boiled.  The lasers might have been affected by the time distortion, but that didn’t matter when the lasers were moving at the speed of light in the first place.

She feinted right, then lunged left, but Legend’s aim didn’t err in the slightest, and Eidolon’s slowing effect drifted after her.  Still, Echidna moved faster than Eidolon’s slowing effect did.  Slowly but surely, as pieces of her flesh were carved away and left to fall to the ground, she made progress toward the effect’s perimeter.

Alexandria flew low to the ground, striking and catching hold of a traffic light.  In one second she was a blur, the next she appeared to be moving as fast as a person did when they ran.  Charging into the effect’s area, Alexandria made a beeline for Echidna.

The swing was slow motion, but Echidna was too.  Alexandria struck her with the metal pole, and Echidna moved like she’d been hit full strength.  Her front claws were lifted off of the ground by the force of the blow, and she reared up, the canine faces contorting in pain and anger.

The lasers moved around Alexandria, passing within centimeters of her.  She didn’t even flinch as she lowered herself to the ground behind Echidna, used her hands and one knee to correct a bend in the pole, and then stabbed it into one spot on the back of Echidna’s leg where a hero was trying to get free.  Legend’s cutting lasers and the leverage of the pole pried him free.  Alexandria caught him before he hit the ground and threw him.

Other heroes saw and positioned themselves before he reached the edge of the effect.  He resumed normal speed and the heroes caught him.

Echidna’s Grue blanketed the area in darkness, and Legend opened fire on the area where the darkness had originated from; the ground floor of a nearby grocery store.  My bugs identified the Grue on the far side, and with a moment to get arranged, they connected the ends of cords.  A little shorter than a hundred feet, now.  If I tied it to a section of a nearby window, and he tried to run, it could maybe yank him off his feet, but that didn’t amount to much.

The Grue teleported Echidna to him, freeing her from Legend’s attack and the slow effect.  The darkness carpeted them and bought her a second to breathe and regenerate.

Had to remove the Grue from consideration.  I tried to visualize what would happen next, anticipate their next move.  Noelle would throw herself into the fray again.  Either he’d use his teleportation to do it or…

I tied the other end of the cord to a piece of bone plate that stood out on Echidna’s side.

Eidolon was pointing to the building that Echidna had materialized behind, pointed two fingers at it with a thumb extended in a gesture much like a gun.  Legend took the signal and opened fire, unleashing countless lasers into the ground floor of the building.

The Psycho-Grue took shelter, ducking to one side of a nearby dumpster.  At the same time, Echidna did just what I’d hoped for: she bolted.  The cord went taut, and the Grue was pulled off his feet by the suddenness and force of her movement.

I hadn’t tied it into a proper noose, but the cord was around his neck.  I’d read somewhere that nooses tended to kill because they broke the neck rather than by suffocation, provided they were tied right and there was enough of a drop.

This wasn’t a drop, but it was a tough cord around his neck, and the creature on the other end weighed no less than fifteen tons, maybe twice that.  She’d accelerated from zero to fifty in an instant, and he went limp almost immediately, dead or completely disabled in a heartbeat.  My bugs cut the cord and held it ready.

Echidna hadn’t used her power yet.  She’d absorbed enough capes, but something was holding her back.  I wondered if her regeneration drew on the same pool of flesh-generation that made the clones and she couldn’t make clones while healing the kind of heavy damage the Triumvirate was dishing out.  Maybe there was some other drawback.

The ‘shoulders’ of her lower body scraped and dragged against the sides of buildings as she stampeded through the back alleyways.  She kicked a dumpster and sent it careening as she ran, brushed against a fire escape with enough speed and force that it was ripped from the brick wall.

She was very nearly out of my power’s reach when Myrddin cut her off.  He waved his staff and a group of heroes materialized around him.  Tecton and Chevalier were among them.

The heroes around me were trying to get sorted into squads again.  I was aware of someone driving the van that held Scapegoat.  Taking him in the wrong direction.

I drew arrows with my bugs on the dashboard and prayed that whoever the cape was behind the wheel, they were aiming in the right direction.

Seeing how the heroes were struggling to get organized, suffering for the lack of armbands to help them navigate and get essential information, I decided in an instant that I needed to guide more than just the van.

I began drawing out arrows and letters.

I drew out an ‘E’ with an arrow pointing in Echidna’s direction, a hundred times in a hundred places.  Above Echidna, I set swarms of insects to flying in formation, tight circles and figure-eight loops, vertical or horizontal.  Letters and words formed.  Echidna, Myrddin, Chevalier.  Did the ‘e’ go after the ‘i’?  Couldn’t remember.  Was supposed to be ‘i before e, except after c’, but there were more exceptions to the rule than there were correct uses.

Shaking my head to stir myself awake, I tried to refocus, paying attention to the primary site of the fighting.

Echidna charged Myrddin and the heroes that accompanied him.  He used his staff to draw something into the air.  My bugs could feel a vibration, see the white blur of a light source.

The sign he’d drawn exploded outward, striking Echidna on her right side.  It was enough to alter her course, and her shoulder slammed into the corner of one building.  Her body dragged against the building’s face until that she had to stop and pull away.

Chevalier pointed his sword at her, fifteen feet long, and pulled a trigger.  A blast erupted down the center of the sword’s mass, and a cannonball caught one of Echidna’s monstrous heads between the eyes.  Through the composite vision of all my bugs, I could get a sense of the damage that had been done, the spray of gore.

I was too tired to be focusing on my bugs to this degree.  My awareness of my real self was faltering.  I was unconsciously updating the positions of the arrows to allow the heroes to home in on Echidna, but I also had to work to keep myself close to Scapegoat, and I wanted to make sure I knew where Bitch and the others were.  Atlas was following my unconscious commands, but that meant I was straying a dangerous distance from Scapegoat.  Had to be safe.

The arrows I’d drawn for each of the heroes were working, though.  Heroes were moving towards Echidna with purpose, now, and the van with Scapegoat inside was moving in the right direction.  I caught some squad captains giving orders.  A cape that could speak over distances was relaying information to Myrddin and Chevalier.

Tattletale was on the ground, but she didn’t advance toward the scene of the fighting.  She had gotten her hands on a cellphone, and was speaking steadily into it, relaying information. I only caught some of it – I couldn’t devote that much focus to her.  It was about Noelle.

Chevalier and Myrddin made an effective duo.  Chevalier’s power had made his armor virtually impervious, his cannonblade massive, each effectively many times as dense and/or many times as large as they should be, but he was still able to treat them as though they were the normal size.  He swung his sword as though it were barely there, and when he found an opportunity to strike out with a gauntleted fist, the effect was always far greater than the hit deserved.

Not so different from Fenja and Menja, only his gear was the focus, not himself, and he was a little more versatile.

Myrddin, for his part, coupled versatility with raw power to devastating effect.  He had a bag of tricks and switched from one to another without hesitation.  Echidna spewed a stream of bodies and gore, and Myrddin drew a dark sign into the air, suctioning the incoming matter into it.  I sensed Chevalier and Tecton slamming their weapons into the nearest surfaces to avoid being pulled in, catching hold of allies who weren’t so capable.  Then my own bugs were yanked toward the crevice and violently crushed against all of the other debris, leaving me momentarily blind in that area.  More of my bugs flowed in, giving me time to see Chevalier delivering a series of powerful sword strikes and cannon shots at Echidna, not letting up.  He paused, throwing himself into a side-alley as Noelle tried to stomp on him, and Myrddin released the matter he’d suctioned in as a condensed bullet of gore, dust, crushed bodies and dead bugs.

Perhaps the strongest thing about the partnership between the two heroes was how well it accommodated others.  Heroes with ranged powers were free to unload on Echidna while the other two fought, and heroes like Tecton could offer further support, destroying the ground beneath her feet.  She was big enough now that he couldn’t trap her, but he could make her stumble, or bring concrete from the nearby buildings raining down on top of her.

The Triumvirate flew straight over Echidna, and Legend opened with a laser beam I could see from three blocks away.  He killed some of the bugs I’d been using to draw words in the air in the process.  That was as much my fault as his.

Echidna was more or less trapped, forced to back away, but unable to fully turn around with the walls of the alley on either side of her.  Eidolon threw down another slowing bubble behind her, and Alexandria dropped to ground level to stand behind Echidna and stab the metal pole of the street light through the knee of one of Echidna’s back legs.

There was nothing for me to do beyond helping to organize the others.  I made sure to draw arrows and words high enough above the buildings that anyone approaching the scene would be able to tell that Alexandria and Chevalier had Echidna flanked.

Atlas carried me above the scene, a distance away from the Triumvirate, but still close enough to see into the alley.

Echidna was sustaining a beating, and there were only four directions she could go.  She could go up, which was the only route available to her that didn’t involve going through a solid surface, but that involved running face first into the laserbeam that Legend was firing straight down from above.  Going down involved tearing through pavement and whatever was below the road.  Even if there was a storm drain or some other underground space to enter, she was doubtlessly sustaining too much damage to take the time to get that far, and she was too big to fit, unless the area was cavernous.

That meant she was bound to head either left or right, through walls of brick or concrete.  I was careful in how I positioned my swarm, putting them on walls so I could tell if she knocked one down on her way through, while keeping the bugs out of her likely path.  Cloned bugs were the least of our problems, but I wasn’t about to contribute to her arsenal.

I’d drawn heroes closer to the scene of the fight with my directions.  Now I had to communicate the danger.

I spoke through my bugs, moving each closer to the capes.  The swarm was spread out, which made the resulting voice thin and reedy to the point that I wasn’t sure if it was audible over the noise of the fighting in the alleyways.

Incoming,” my swarm buzzed.

More than a few heroes jumped at that.

Look for my signal,” I said, “She’ll have to go through the walls to escape.”

Many of the squads were in or around the alleys but not actually participating in the fights.  With arrows and the movement of my swarm, I did my best to indicate the ways to the walls she might head for, and I drew exclamation marks on the faces of the buildings next to her.

It didn’t take her long to reach the limit of her patience.  She tried to advance on Chevalier, only to get driven back by Tecton, Myrddin and one or two ranged capes.  Backing up meant running into Alexandria, who was stabbing and swatting with the pole that had held the traffic light.

One claw ripped through brick and wood, and she plunged into the building to her left.  She was tall enough that she had to hunker down, and she was still shoving her way through the flooring that separated the first and second floors.  Her route put her on a path for where the fighting had originated, where the majority of the heroes were now waiting.

She could wade through brick and concrete and leave a building folding in on itself in her wake, but dealing with a mass of capes proved more difficult.  Forcefields blocked her movements, and a half-dozen heavy hitting capes like Grace were waiting to blindside her.

A heartbeat after the first wave assault passed by, Chronicler’s replicas of the melee assault group tore through Echidna a second time.

Echidna fell over, and was in a position to see Legend, Alexandria and Eidolon overhead.

Some capes had stayed in the fray, including types like Weld and Wanton, who couldn’t be absorbed and couldn’t be affected by the capes with ranged attacks.  They joined in with the Triumvirate’s attacks on the fallen foe.

She vomited, but it wasn’t the same as before.  Her vomit this time was thick with bodies, to the point that it didn’t spray.  The vomit tumbled from her four mouths as a sludge that met or exceeded her total body weight in sheer volume.  Worse, where it had maybe been ninety percent liquid and ten percent people, before, the numbers had inverted.

Legend raked a laser across the piling, writhing, reaching bodies, but Echidna was getting to her feet, throwing herself into the building behind her.  She’d done enough damage with the last maneuver, and her return trip brought a wall crashing down.  Powers of all kinds were brought to bear as the capes on the ground did what they could to save themselves and their teammates.

I could have stayed, helped with the wounded, but the van with Scapegoat was moving on, and I was worried about what might happen if Echidna managed to get away.  She was wounded, but regenerating, and bodies kept pouring forth from her mouth.  It would be best to leave the wounded and dying to the less mobile capes.  I was more useful in the fray, though that didn’t say much.

She was moving at a good pace.  Only the fastest were able to match her in speed, and few of those were also capable of slowing her down so the rest of us could catch up.

A trail of clones flowed in her wake.  All of them were capes, and even though they were unclothed and unarmored, some were taking more than a few hits to finish off.  Worse, at least one of the people she’d caught was a cape in much the same vein as Prism had been.  A self duplicator.  It amounted to scores of bodies, where one in twenty were capable of copying themselves, and maybe three or four in twenty were tough or borderline invulnerable.

I joined in with the other heroes who were fighting to kill or mop up the clones before the psychotic things could get organized.  They were lumped together as a tangle of limbs, heads and torsos, and each was tacky with the fluids of the vomit.  My swarm made contact, and began ruthlessly doing as much damage as I was capable of.

Myrddin caught up and hit her with one of his ‘spells’.  Echidna promptly disappeared in a clap of thunder, and Myrddin went very still, floating in the air.

From his controlled breathing and lack of celebration, I could only assume that Myrddin was concentrating.  Echidna wasn’t dead and gone, only held at bay for the time being.  I was willing to bet it was the same effect he’d used to carry Chevalier, Tecton and his other teammates into the fight in the alleyway.

In the meantime, the rest of us were left to dispatch the clones as quickly as possible.  They were frailer looking, with features missing.  There were clones without ears, clones without noses, clones with missing fingers.  Half finished, their skin was so thin as to be translucent, and most lacked hair or their hair was so sparse as to barely matter.  The skin of most broke and bled where my bugs bit, as though it were little more than wet paper.

If my swarm was made up of countless tiny surgeons, doing strategic damage, Rachel’s dogs were the opposite.  Bentley plowed through the ranks of the clones like a living bulldozer.  He wasn’t running full-bore, but he wasn’t slowing down at any point either.  The other dogs followed, each roughly the size of a pony, chained to Bentley’s harness.  The dogs fought among themselves in their struggles to attack and wound the clones, but I could see Rachel doing what she could to ensure that none of them were killing.

She’d done the same with Bastard.  It made sense, in a way, that she didn’t want them to get accustomed to killing before they were fully trained.

The clones weren’t wholly helpless, though, fragile as they might be.  They did have powers.  Through the bugs of my swarm that lingered on the combatants, I could track the fallen.  Two heroes down, injured or dying, another deceased.

We were outnumbered, and we couldn’t afford to lose one person for every twenty clones that fell.  Echidna had created at least a hundred clones in the course of her last getaway.  She would create a hundred more when she reappeared, if we didn’t find a solution.

Legend found a position to open fire from, and sent a barrage of lasers down toward the trail of bodies, while Alexandria followed the direct path that Echidna had taken, darting left and right to strike out and kill even the tougher capes in a single hit.

In the midst of the chaos, a speaker began blaring at the top of one containment van.  The same voice that had come from the armbands.

The following information has been disseminated, and remains unconfirmed.  Echidna is in a rage state.  The monster is in control, not the girl.  Seventeen capes are currently within her.  Her rate of regeneration and production of clones is derived from a central core within her lower body that produces an endless quantity of biological material.  A body part severed from the core will die.  Destroying the core in entirety will destroy her…”

Tattletale, I thought.  She’d passed on the info she’d gleaned.

Scapegoat was out of the van and shouting.  Weld was among the capes that came to his assistance.  He held a female clone in his iron grip, with one hand over her mouth.

Tecton and Wanton moved to help, and Scapegoat looked up at me, gesturing.

Pointing at the ground.

Would have been easier if he’d just said it.  I found a clear spot on a rooftop and landed.

The second I was settled, Scapegoat laid his hands on the clone Weld had caught.

As before, the sensations hit me.  Phantom sensations of every possible texture and experience rippling across my entire body.

This was why he’d told me to land.  He’d been worried I might lose control of my power, maybe losing control over Atlas and fall.

I just had to endure.  I could control my bugs to some extent, though flight wasn’t so possible.  One of the clones had broken away from the fighting, and my bugs were both attacking her and pointing the pursuing capes in the right directions.  She split off into four copies.  The heroes killed three of the four, only for the survivor to split off into a quartet once again.

If I’d been thinking about containment, I might have set triplines at each of the major intersections, cutting them if and when heroes passed through.  As it was, I couldn’t stop her retreat, and could only try to blind her, choke her and distract while they closed the distance with my direction.

But she was fragile, like most of her fellow clones.  Mandibles tore her paper-thin skin, and more bugs found her jugular.

Just like that, she died with blood spouting from her throat.  She created duplicates of herself, but they were created with the same injury.

The capes caught up to her.  One murmured, “Kudzu.”

“…s not her, Jouster,” another said.

Elsewhere, Regent was dispatching other clones.  He deftly tripped up the more mobile ones and closed the distance, then executed them with a quick stab of a knife.

The sensations kept hitting me.  It was a deeper sensation now.  Tastes, vision, hearing… everything under the sun, fragments of a million different sensations.  Picking through the noise was nearly impossible.  I had to find refuge in my swarm’s senses, disassociate from my body…

If I hadn’t been trying so hard, I might have missed it.  It was more subtle than the first time I’d heard it.  A keening noise that my own ears couldn’t hear.  Even many of the insects were unaware.

Using my swarm, every bug in the four block range, I buzzed out the alert.

Shatterbird!

Some capes reacted fast enough.  Helmets with visors were torn free, intact armbands and cell phones discarded.  Some erected forcefield barriers.  I was tearing off my mask, bundling it in the fabric that hung around my legs.

There were others too caught up in the fighting, yet others dependent on hardware with silicon chips that they couldn’t shirk so quickly.

It wasn’t as strong as her last big attack; there was less glass in the city to carry the effects.  Still, I could hear the resounding crash of everything glass in this half of the city breaking.  A tidal wave of destruction rolled past us, leaving countless injured in its wake.  The attack was weaker, but not necessarily weak.

Tecton had been left immobile, components of his suit destroyed.  The clone and Scapegoat were down, struck by the glass from the van’s windshield.  Chevalier had been caught by something, a fragment of glass that had penetrated a slit in his visor, and he was struggling to fight three clones and avoid hitting his teammates, all while partially blind.

I checked myself.  I could breathe, I wasn’t blind.  All despite Scapegoat’s disabled state.

Had he transferred the conditions to the clone?  Was I in the clear?

I wasn’t sure, and I wasn’t sure I could afford to take the risk and stray beyond that one-hundred and fifty foot range of his.

The direction the attack had come from…  Shatterbird had stayed behind, used her power from the base.  I’d assumed it was because Echidna had eaten her, but it was all too possible that they’d found another route.  Inducing temporary unconsciousness?  Or perhaps Echidna had eaten her and then spat her out right away, to induce enough weakness that Regent couldn’t use her.  I’d have to ask Regent for details, and that wasn’t an option.

No, there were bigger worries.  Battle lines had broken, and simply by virtue of being more numerous than we were, many clones were still standing.  It made only a small difference, but it was still an advantage for their side: the clones weren’t wearing or carrying anything glass.  An advantage of being naked.

The big heroes were trying to get organized.  Myrddin was still keeping Echidna out of the fight, the Triumvirate were exchanging quick words as they tried to figure out whether they should stay for when Echidna popped back into existence or help with the clones.  Legend shot as he talked, and Eidolon was casting out blue sparks that flew forth.

Clones were advancing on Scapegoat and Tecton.  Weld was there, but he wasn’t quite enough.

I stood on Atlas’ back as he descended to the road, shaking my mask to let the glass fall free before carefully pulling it back on.  Weld glanced at me and nodded as I appeared at his left, helping to form a defensive line.

Weld’s hands started to change into long blades, and with the reach they afforded him, he was able to defend more ground.

I stepped off Atlas and let him stand on his own, his scythelike forelimbs raised.  He wouldn’t be that good in a fight, but the clones were fragile, and two more weapons was better than nothing.  My knife and baton slid free of their respective slots in my compartment, and I whipped the baton out to its full length.  It offered me a little more reach, an excuse to take one more step away from Scapegoat’s body and the frozen Tecton.  In this fashion, Weld, Atlas and I formed something of a triangle.

Being on the ground, it added a kind of reality to the situation.  On a technical level, I was more aware of the bodies when I used my powers, more aware of the enemy numbers.  Here, though, I could see only the crowd.  Hero and clone were fighting, the ground was littered with the dying, the maimed and the dead.  There were countless people who needed help, people who I couldn’t personally reach.

My bugs could reach them.  I did what I could, trying to blind the right people, to injure and maim clones where I could ferret out vulnerabilities.  Most of the vulnerable clones were already out of the fight, leaving us with only the more troublesome ones.  The duplicators, the durable and the mobile.

I was fighting a duplicator.  Another Kudzu, like the one I’d killed earlier, unless there was another Asian duplicator with a Japanese-sounding name.  She was vulnerable, but she knew how to fight.  Better than I did.  My advantage was my weapons and my armor.  Hers was her relentlessness.

My baton crushed one skull like an overripe pumpkin, my knife caught another in the chest, pushing past bone like it was a willowy tree branch rather than anything more solid.  I kicked her in the chest to help pull my knife free, and suffered a painful kick to the side of my knee before I was able to retaliate.  I fell, tried to strike the offending Kudzu with my knife, but she caught my wrist.  A swing of my baton was caught as well.  I got my feet under her and thrust my head into hers as I returned to a standing position  Her face was softer than my mask was.

She fell, and the fourth Kudzu formed three new doubles before I could advance and attack her.  One kicked me hard enough that I had to lean against Tecton’s armor to get my balance.  My swarm had hurt the one Kudzu who’d stayed back, and the new doubles were feeling the same pain, but they were still fresh, weren’t tired or hurt from previous rounds.

Weld fought with an invincible man who was smoking, his hands hot enough that they were heating Weld’s flesh.  The man grappled him, and Weld’s attempts to strike him were having little effect.  The man dug his fingers into Weld’s chest, and white-hot metal dripped to the ground.  He was digging for organs.

I hated to spare bugs when I was fighting the Kudzu-clones, but I sent some Weld’s way.  They coated the man, and found some flesh they could damage.

“His back, Weld!” I shouted.  “His front half is tough, but everything that isn’t facing you is vulnerable!”

A Kudzu took advantage of my distraction to club me.  I retaliated by stabbing her, a nonfatal blow.

Weld pulled one arm free, reached behind the man, and started sawing into the back of his head.  Serrated edges formed on the blade, to allow for a better cut, Weld found something vital, and the man slumped to the ground.

He turned to help me with the Kudzu.

A scattering of Legend’s laser bolts tore through our surroundings, though he was blocks away.  Three of the Kudzu I was fighting were hit by Legend’s shots, and Weld lunged forward to stab the fourth.  The least hurt of them vibrated and split off into a fresh set of quadruplets.

Clones of clones, I thought.  I could only swear in my head.  My lungs weren’t suffering like they had been earlier, but I was short on breath nonetheless.

Overall, our side was winning, but we weren’t winning fast.  Nearly a third of us had fallen when Shatterbird hit, and more were losing in this chaos that followed.

Which made this the moment, fittingly, when Echidna popped back into existence.

Eidolon and Legend had been doing what they could from range, and now they were forced to deal with Echidna, leaving the rest of us to deal with the remaining clones.

Legend started using a massive laser to tear into the piles of clones that spilled forth from her mouths.

One Kudzu-clone shouted.  “Cover me!  I got this!”

Roughly a quarter of the remaining clones broke away from their individual engagements, including the Kudzu I was fighting.

Fuck me, they’re cooperating.

Our side did what they could to stop them, but these clones were still in the fight because they were hard to kill.  My bugs attacked the Kudzu, and I gave chase to stab one, then another in the back, before my hurt knee gave out and I fell to a kneeling position.  Bitch and her dogs threw themselves into the ranks of the clones, tearing and rending, but it wasn’t enough.

Chevalier wasn’t far from me.  His cannonblade detonated, painfully loud in my ear, and four or five clones died with each shot.  Legend’s lasers tore into their ranks, and Eidolon threw down a slowing field to stall for time.

It was too little, too late.  They were making a beeline for Echidna, for Legend, Alexandria, Eidolon and Myrddin.

The Kudzu who’d shouted got close to Echidna, and a tongue circled her throat.  She was reeled in, and stopped herself at Echidna’s mouth, bracing herself in position.

Chevalier took aim and shot.  A miss.

Miss Militia’s rifle shot was on target, punching through the front of the Kudzu’s throat.

But the Kudzu’s death wasn’t instantaneous, and she had time for one last gesture.  Echidna vibrated, and then split off into four copies.

Four copies of Noelle.

My breath caught in my throat in the moment I processed the reality of what had just happened.  I managed to huff out a small shuddering breath.

They were withering and dying like Kudzu’s obsolete clones were, slowly but surely, right off the bat, but there were still four of them.

This was Echidna’s greatest weapon.  Ballistic had talked about her sense for tactics, but that was Noelle, really.  This was Echidna, and she was too gone for much of that.

No, the variations that naturally occurred in powers laid out a range of capes.  Virtually every power was offensive, just about every power had some use.  That was the norm, the standard.

But exceptions existed.  They were the Bonesaws, the Crawlers, the Echidnas, the Legends, Alexandrias, Eidolons and Dragons of the world.  By sheer fortune, they’d stumbled onto powers that set them head and shoulders above everyone else.  Having the right variant, being in the right situation to use that power.

If one in a hundred capes met that kind of standard where they were just that much more versatile or powerful, then Echidna could make a hundred capes, and chances were good that one of those would be exceptional in that way.

An Echidna-double turned and charged straight for us, stampeding through the clones to get to the troops on the ground.  Forcefields went up, Chevalier unloaded cannon blasts to stall her advance, and we all did our best to retreat.  I took to the air with Atlas.

The other two Echidnas, including the original, started fighting the big name heroes.  Tongues lashed out, and Legend severed them with cutting lasers.  The clones vomited geysers, spitting out no clones with the fluid, and Alexandria bore the brunt of the blow.

Eidolon was creating blue sparks that floated around him, but when Alexandria began to lose in her struggles to keep the vomit from reaching her comrades, he switched to using a slowing field instead.  He cast it down around two of the Echidnas.  The one he didn’t catch vomited, and he threw up a small forcefield to ward off the attack.

A narrow tongue was hidden in the midst of the vomit, a concealed attack.  Prehensile, it snaked out and caught him by one arm.

Eidolon was pulled in, and clipped the forcefield he’d raised with enough force that he was momentarily stunned.  The forcefield and slowing fields disappeared, and Alexandria was caught off guard by the sudden increase in her opponent’s speed.  

Caught against its back, she started to tear herself free with the help of one of Legend’s cutting lasers.  A spray of vomit forced Legend to abandon his efforts to save his teammates and retreat for his own safety.  He cleaned up the clones that the original Echidna was still producing.

A second later, one of the Echidna-doubles leaped on top of the other, sandwiching Alexandria between her and the other Echidna-double.

The real Echidna closed her mouths, and the vomiting stopped.  She stepped on the tongue that had a hold on Eidolon, then stepped on the caught Eidolon.

Legend did what he could, but even with the three Echidna-doubles looking more like the walking dead than anything else, he couldn’t do enough lasting damage to any of the brutes.  Miss Militia and Chevalier contributed some ranged fire, as did the heroes on my side of the battlefield, but the Echidna-doubles used their bodies to block the worst of the incoming fire.

Echidna bit deep into her double, tore at flesh until she found the morsel caught between their bodies.  Alexandria.  I could see the muscles in her throat working as she swallowed.

Each of her doubles made a final reckless charge before falling to pieces.

A hush of sorts descended on everyone present.

Two of our best, caught.

Echidna reared back a little, then spat, as though she were coughing out a morsel of food she’d been choking on.

An Alexandria.  Had to be, with that long black hair.  The woman stood, and I could see how she was missing an eye.  She brushed her hair to one side, so it covered half her face, and I could hear a murmur.

“Director Costa-Brown,” someone in the crowd murmured.

The Head of the PRT and Alexandria were one and the same.

I couldn’t bring myself to care.  I wasn’t sure if it was just that I was in shock, that I was more focused on the fight that was looking a hell of a lot less winnable, or a simple lack of surprise that the PRT would have been so corrupt and imbalanced as to have a major balancing factor missing from their ranks.

Miss Militia took aim with her rifle and shot.  The bullet sparked as it clipped Alexandria’s forehead.

Alexandria shook her head.

Another cough, another spit.

Eidolon.  I couldn’t tell if he was unattractive by nature or if it was just mild deformations.  He looked so small, so below average.

He found his feet.  Miss Militia shot him twice, and he fell back against Echidna’s leg.

He flickered, and the wound was smaller, another flicker, and the wound almost disappeared.  Each flicker was stronger than the last in how it reversed the damage.  He staggered to his feet again.

“Go!” Chevalier screamed, breaking the frozen silence.  “Before he’s at full strength!”

We charged.  There was no other choice.  If we didn’t win noweveryone lost.

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Scourge 19.1

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The school’s bell tolled, oddly deep, with an echo that continued, unending.  I couldn’t see it through the cloudy haze that consumed my vision, but I felt as though the lockers were straining against their hinges in keeping with the rhythm.  The same went for the floor tiles, and the hundreds of footfalls of the students milling around me.  A pounding rhythm.

I couldn’t keep my footing.  I was blind, still, but that wasn’t the source of the problem.  It seemed vaguely familiar, the way every impact seemed designed to hit me where it hurt, to knock me off-balance and leave me in a state where I was spending too much time reeling and staggering to push back or find safety.

Someone tall shoved past me, and his bag caught on my nose.  It tore at the skin between the nostrils, and I could feel warm blood fountaining from the wound.  I staggered, bending over with my hands to my face, and someone walked straight into me, as though they didn’t know I was there.  My head hit a locker and I fell.  Someone stepped on my hand as their vague shape walked by, and I could hear something break, could feel it break.  The pain dashed all rational thought from my mind.

I screamed, brought my hand to my chest, cradling it.  I was tougher than that, wasn’t I?  I wasn’t made of glass, to have bone fracture or-

“You’re so pathetic, Taylor,” Emma intoned.

No.  Not now.  Not like this.

I could hear Madison tittering.  Sophia was silent, and her presence was all the more ominous for it.  I’d done something reprehensible to her.  I couldn’t recall what it was, but I knew she was here for retaliation.

They struck me, and I fell.  Emma and Madison took turns kicking me, and every effort I made to defend myself fell short.  It wasn’t just that I didn’t know how to fight, or that I was blind.  It was somehow worse, as though every effort I made were being actively punished.

I’d reach out with my good hand to grab one of them and pull them off their feet, and my elbow would get stepped on, forcing it to bend the wrong way.  I tried to push myself to a standing position, only for someone to kick me in the back, slamming my chest and face into the tile, hard.

I tried to speak and a kick caught me in the throat.

And all around me, there was the steady rhythm of footsteps and the bell’s echo.

The point was clear.  I was supposed to give up.  I really should have given up.

If I wasn’t able to do something on my own, maybe a weapon?  Some tool?  My thoughts were confused and disordered, but I searched through them, as if I could remember if I’d stashed some tool or weapon on my person.

No, something else, I was supposed to have another weapon, though my instinct told me it wasn’t anywhere I could reach, and that was normal.  I searched for it-

The scene was visible through a thousand times a thousand eyes, the colors strangely muted in favor of texture, the images blurring except where they moved, when they became oddly sharp.

Tattletale managed to leap back from the metal walkway as Noelle lunged and caught on the fixture.  As Noelle fell, her claws scraping gouges into the concrete walls, the walkway was pulled free.  Tattletale had put herself in one of the rooms that extended off the walkway.  Coil’s room.  There was a doorway to nowhere between herself and Noelle, surrounded by concrete walls that were two or three feet thick at their narrowest point.

Most of the construction of this place had taken place after Coil had found out about Noelle.  He’d known there was the possibility that she would go rogue.

Tattletale stepped up to the doorway, drew her gun, and fired, gunning down a Grue that had been vomited out.  Blood spattered and he went limp.

-and I couldn’t find anything.  I was unarmed here.

One kick caught me in between the eyebrows, and my head exploded with pain.

That spooked me.  I had to protect my head.  If I suffered another concussion…

That was the breaking point.  My brain was more important than whatever else I was trying to protect.  Anything else was fixable.  I stopped fighting back, tucking battered legs against my bruised upper body, drawing my hands around my head.

Immediately, the assault stopped being an attempt to break me and destroy my every effort to stand up for myself.  It became something more tolerable, with periodic kicks and stomps instead.  The accompanying shame and humiliation was almost nostalgic.  Horrible, but familiar.

Then Sophia stepped close, and I felt something sliding beneath my hands and arms, settling around my neck.  A noose.  She used it to lift me, choking, off the ground.

Madison opened the locker, and the rancid smell of it wafted around me.  I would have gagged if I could breathe.

Sophia shoved me inside, planting one foot between my shoulder blades as she hauled back on the rope.  My unbroken fingers scrabbled for purchase, found only trash and cotton that tore when I tried to grab it.  Bugs bit at my flesh and there was nothing I could do to stop them.

Bugs?  There was something I thought I should know, something-

The bugs observed as Tattletale pulled the pin from a grenade.  She waited while it sat in her hand.  It was dangerous and reckless to ‘cook’ a grenade like they did in the movies, but then again, this was Tattletale.  It fit with her nature, and if anyone knew how long the fuse really was, it was her.  She tossed it down to where Noelle lurked below.

The grenade detonated just before it made contact, billowing with smoke and radiating enough heat to kill the bugs that were finding their way into the underground base.  Other bugs could see the shifting radiance of the flames.

Tattletale shouted, “Rachel!  Now!”

-that eluded me, like the water that escaped the ever-thirsty Tantalus.

As I scrabbled for purchase, the contents of the locker shifted, falling and collapsing against me, pressing tight against my body, smelling like old blood and rancid flesh.

My heart skipped a few beats and I felt as though my blood was turning to sludge in my veins, slowing down.  My thoughts dissolved into a slush of memories, speeding through my life in choppy, fragmented, distorted images.  I felt momentarily disembodied, as though the line between myself and my surroundings, my mind and my feelings were all blended in together.

When it pulled back, I could finally breathe.  I let out a deep, shuddering breath.  I could breathe.  I could think again.

I heard the sound of blades rasping against one another, the ringing of steel building with each repetition of the sound.  I blinked, and the blind haze lifted as though I’d only had tears in my eyes.

Mannequin stood in the center of the room.  He had four arms, each ending in three-foot blades, and was sharpening each weapon against the others without pause.

Around him, the factory.  Machinery churned, pumps and pistons and levers moved, and furnaces glowed to cast long shadows, casting Mannequin in a crimson light.  The people from my territory were there too, along with Sierra, Charlotte, Lisa, Brian, Rachel, my dad, and my teachers.  Each of them fought to hide in the shadows and the corners, but there wasn’t enough room.

I carefully assessed the tools I had at my disposal.  My gun, my knife, my baton.  In a more general sense, there were my bugs.  I called for them-

Tattletale jerked toward the doorway, stopped as one arm stretched behind her with a clink.  She’d handcuffed herself to a length of chain, fastening that chain to a rubber-sheathed cluster of wires at the far end of the room.  Tattletale’s free hand gripped her gun, pointed it at something narrow… The bugs who were touching the object in question were being absorbed, dying.  It was one of Noelle’s tongues, wrapped around Tattletale’s waist.

The gunshot went off, severing the tongue, and the chain went slack.  Tattletale dropped to her knees, pressing her gun hand to her shoulder.

The three largest dogs attacked.  Bitch sent three, and the result was predictable.  Noelle absorbed them as they made contact, though each dog was nearly a third of her own size.  Her flesh stretched thin around the mass of each dog, then stretched thinner as they started to swell in size.

Noelle’s flesh crept over them faster than they grew.  The growth ceased the instant the flesh finished enveloping them, and their struggles slowed.  It took long seconds for them to stop struggling, but each dog eventually went limp.

Tattletale and Rachel watched as two figures stepped out from behind Noelle.  Regent and a Skitter.  Me.

Regent whipped his head up in Tattletale’s direction, and she dropped her gun.  As her good hand snapped up to her throat, gripping it, it became apparent that dropping the gun had been quite intentional.  If she’d been holding it-

The perspective of the scene shifted abruptly as the Skitter bid every bug in the area, Noelle’s included, to turn toward Rachel.

Rachel clenched her fists.

-and barely any responded.  A hundred?  If that?  The heat of the furnaces killed many of the ones who were trying to approach.  It left me with a mere thirty-nine bugs.  I might as well have been unarmed.

Mannequin extended one arm with the blade outstretched, pointing at the crowd.  His ‘eyes’ were on me as he did so, moving the blade slowly.  Pointing at faces that were familiar, but who I couldn’t name.

Pointing at my dad.

And there was nothing I could do to save him.  Not saving him wasn’t an option, either.  I drew my gun, fired.

Only one bullet in the chamber.  There was a sound as it hit Mannequin, but he barely reacted as he turned toward my father.

I drew my knife and baton, charging.

Futile.  He ignored me completely, raising one hand and then stabbing down.  I couldn’t even look at what was happening.  Refused to look.

I struck Mannequin, aiming for the joints, the small of his back, his hips and knees.  Nothing worked.

Without even looking, Mannequin reached over to one side and thrust one blade at me.  His weapon penetrated my armor like it was Armsmaster’s special halberd.

I screamed, but it was more rage than pain.  I howled like I might against a hurricane, a storm that was destroying everything I loved, that I was helpless to fight.  I battered him, struck him with my weapons, gave everything I had and more, to no avail.

He folded his arms around me in a bear hug, squeezed, crushed.

More of him folded around me, pulling tight against my head, my throat, arms, chest and legs.

My life flashed before my eyes, every event, every memory and recalled feeling distilled into a single point.

When the crushing sensation passed, I was left standing, disoriented, in the middle of a flooded ruin.

The momentary relief faded swiftly.

All around me, desolation.  Blasted buildings, bodies, flooded streets.  Graffiti covered the walls around me, the letter-number combination ‘s9’ repeated in endless permutations and styles.

I flinched as an explosion took the top off a building two blocks away.  Blue flames roared on the upper floors.

I couldn’t breathe.  My skin prickled, burned, just on contact with the air.  I felt nauseous, disoriented.

Radiation?  Plague?

A fleet of cockroaches scurried over one of the nearby ruins, like cattle stampeding away.

They were fleeing from something.  Multiple somethings.

I took cover.

Where are you?”

The voice might have been sing-song if it weren’t for the filter that reduced it to a mechanical hiss.

“Where are you?” another voice echoed the first.  Younger, female.  A girl’s giggle followed.

“Hush, Bonesaw,” Jack’s voice reached me, like a sibilant whisper in my ear.  The water that flooded the streets served as a surface for the sound to bounce off of, letting it carry throughout the area.

My costume was more tatters than actual fabric.  It wasn’t like there were spiders anymore.  Only cockroaches, and fewer than I might hope.  The water that flooded the streets wasn’t so kind to them.

“What game shall we play today?” Bonesaw asked.  “Did you make anything?  Please tell me you made something.”

I did,” Bakuda responded.  “I borrowed from your work for this one.”

They were close.  Nine of them.  I couldn’t run without making noise.

The cockroaches, then.  I reached for them-

“Regent,” Noelle gasped out the word.  She was far bigger than she had been before.  “Come.”

Regent hesitated, gave her a sidelong glance.

“Come!” she roared.

He reluctantly obeyed.  She raised one massive limb, slammed it into the wall where the walkway had once been attached.  The mutant Regent clambered up her arm to the doorway.

That would be the doorway that leads to the corridor with the cells.

The same cells where Shatterbird was in sound proof containment.

Tattletale had descended to the ground floor and was backing up as two Skitters and a Grue approached, with Bentley advancing to her side.  Rachel was prone, lying at the point where the wall met the floor, with Bastard on the ground and pressed up against her, as if he were using his bulk to keep the worst of the bugs from reaching her.  Her other dogs were smaller.  Big, but much smaller than they could be.

“You take fliers, I take ground?” one Skitter asked the other.

“Mm-hmm,” the other Skitter grunted her reply.

“Have to share, be smart about this one.  Grue, hang back.  She might try pulling something,” Skitter One ordered.  “Harder to make a counter-plan against bugs.”

“Me?  Pull something?” Tattletale asked.  She was cradling one arm, and covered in vomit.  Judging by the body parts that surrounded her, Bentley had taken apart the clones that Noelle had vomited at her.

“Yeah, you,” Skitter One said.  “You’re the type, aren’t you?  Awfully fond of keeping secrets for someone who calls themselves Tattletale.  Keeping secrets from me, even at the best of times.  Even though you knew what I’d gone through.”

“I’ve been pretty open,” Tattletale said.  She retreated a step, and Bentley advanced.  The swarm stirred around the two Skitters and the Grue.

“You haven’t mentioned your trigger event, have you?  Perfectly happy to dig through other people’s sordid pasts, but you won’t get into your own darkest moment.”

“Really not that interesting,” Tattletale said.

Skitter One’s voice was thick with restrained emotion.  “It’s still a betrayal, staying silent.  How can we have a partnership, a friendship, without equity?”

“Maybe.  I think you’re exaggerating.  Does the other Skitter have any input?  Awfully quiet.”

Skitter Two made a growling sound that might have sent a small dog running for cover.  “I’m the quiet type.”

“That you are,” Tattletale said.

“No commentary?  No manipulations?” Skitter One asked.  “Nothing nasty to say, to throw us off-balance?”

“You’re already off-balance enough.  Besides, I don’t think anything I had to say would get through.  How can I target your weak points when you’re nothing but?”

“That so?” Skitter One asked.  “Doesn’t happen often, does it?  You’re not as cocky, now.  Do you feel scared?”

“Just a bit,” Tattletale said.  She’d backed up enough that she’d reached the wall.  The mangled staircase stretched out beside her, almost entirely torn free of the wall.

“Why don’t we turn the tables, then?  Let’s see how I do, trying to fuck with your head,” Skitter One suggested.

“I’ll pass.  Bentley, attack!”

The dog hesitated, hearing the command from an unfamiliar person, but he did obey.  Skitter Two ran towards him, surrounding herself with crawling bugs.  At the last second, she took a sharp left, sending a mass of bugs flowing to the right.

Bentley managed to follow her, struck her with his front paws, and shattered her legs.  Skitter One’s flying swarm flew over him, and began binding him with threads of silk.  It was too little, a distraction at best.

Tattletale fired her gun, and Skitter One went down.  The bullet didn’t make for an instant kill, and the bugs continued doing their work.  Tattletale thrashed as the bugs started to cluster on her, took aim again-

And the Grue swept darkness over Skitter One.  She disintegrated, reappeared as the darkness sloshed against the far wall.

Teleporting things via his darkness.  As divergences from the base powerset went, it was pretty extreme.

“Heroes are on their way!” Skitter One shouted to Noelle, one hand pressed to the flowing chest wound.

I could sense them, observing with the same bugs that Skitter One was using.  Tattletale had left each of the doors unlocked as she’d made her way into the base, and Miss Militia was leading a squadron of Protectorate members and her Wards through the series of rooms and tunnels.

More bugs sought Rachel out, and she kicked her legs at the gap where they were flowing in beneath the left side of Bastard’s stomach.

Shatterbird appeared in the doorway at the end of the tunnel.  She was holding the Regent-clone by the throat.  She pushed him forward and let his limp body fall.  It landed in the heaping mass of Noelle’s flesh.

Shatterbird panted, her face was beaded with sweat, and it wasn’t related to the scene she was looking at, not the underground base filled with flesh and bodies.  Her hand shook as she pushed her hair out of her face.  Emotion?

Miss Militia chose that moment to open the door.  She, like Shatterbird, stared at the scene, but she was distracted as she was forced to grab the door frame to avoid stepping out onto the ruined walkway.

Tattletale’s voice was muffled by the bugs that were crawling on her face.  To actually open her mouth, in the face of all that, I wasn’t sure I could have done it.  I knew better than she did what the result might be, but… yeah.

But she did it.  Tattletale opened her mouth and shouted, “Shut the door!”

Miss Militia moved to obey.  Too late.

Shatterbird screamed, using her power of her own free will for the first time since we’d captured her.

-and the cockroaches obeyed.  They formed a rough human shape, then another.  Swarm-clones, as close as I could get to making them, without a concealing costume for my real self.

And the Nine didn’t fall for it.  Bakuda turned my way, and I belatedly remembered the heat-tracking goggles.  She could follow me by my body heat.

I ran, and I knew it was futile.

Night caught up to me first.  It would have been a simple matter for her to kill me right then, but she had different aims.  Her claw cut at the back of my legs, and I fell, crippled.  My fear pushed the pain into a distant second place on my priority list.

In a matter of moments, I was surrounded.  Night at one side of me, Crawler on the other.  Jack, Bonesaw, Siberian, Bakuda, Shatterbird, Burnscar and Panacea.

It was Weld who seized my wrists.

“Run,” I tried to warn him, but the words didn’t reach him.  Fluid bubbled out of my lips, and it came out as a mumble.  The radiation?  Plague?  Had Bonesaw or Panacea done something to me without my knowledge?

He said something I couldn’t make out.  It sounded like I was underwater.

Then he pulled.

He wasn’t gentle about it.  He threw me over one of his shoulders with enough force that bile rose in my throat and the sharper parts of his shoulders poked at my stomach.  I tried to move my hand to raise my mask, so I wouldn’t choke if I threw up, but my arm didn’t respond.

My head swam, and half of my attempts to breathe were met with only chokes and wet coughs.

Was this another delusion?  A dream?  Could I afford to treat it as though it was?

I was still blind, but my power was waking up.  I could feel the bugs in the area, and I was getting a greater picture of the surroundings as my range slowly extended.

Shatterbird was still perched in that doorway-turned window.  Noelle was beneath her, and I had only the bug-sight to view her with.  Her already grotesque form was distorted further by the three dogs she’d absorbed into herself.

Instinctively, I tried to move my bugs to get a better sense of the current situation.  They didn’t budge.

Instead, I felt the pull of the other two Skitters, wresting control of my bugs from me as though they were taking a toy from a baby, ordering those bugs to hurt my teammates and allies.

Rachel and Tattletale were down, and Imp was crouched beside Tattletale.  Imp had pulled up the spider-silk hood that I’d worked into her scarf, covering the back of her head, and cinched it tight.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was leaving her almost totally protected.

Almost.  Bugs had reached her scalp, and there were spiders working thread around her legs.  I wasn’t sure if she was aware of the latter.

The Wards and Protectorate in the upstairs hallway- some were hurt.  The fallen and the wounded were numerous enough that the heroes had lost any momentum they’d had.  Their focus was in the hallway, now, in saving their teammates.  Maybe they’d deemed the situation unsalvageable.

I exerted a greater effort, trying to reduce the impact the swarm was having on everyone present, but there was nothing.  My doppelgangers had a complete and total override, and the pair definitely noticed my attempts.  They turned my way.

What would I be doing in their shoes?  They couldn’t hurt Weld, but they could hurt me.

Or they’d find another avenue for attack.

“Weld,” Skitter One spoke up.  Her voice was quiet.  “Surprised you’re here.  Did Imp help you get close?”

Do I really sound like that?  I wondered.  And Imp?

Weld wasn’t replying.

Really surprised you’re with her,” Skitter One said.  She had one hand pressed to a chest wound.

Weld glanced over his other shoulder at her.  The other Skitter was a distance away, with shattered legs.

“Did she tell you?” Skitter One said, “She set someone on fire.  Maimed a minor, slicing his forehead open.  She cut off Bakuda’s toes, carved out a helpless man’s eyes.  I can keep going.”

“I don’t care,” Weld said.  He wasn’t moving.  Why?  He was waist deep in Noelle’s belly, holding me…  it dawned on me that he couldn’t throw me to some point clear of Noelle without giving me to the Skitter.

“You should care.  I could tell you about the critically injured man she left to bleed out and die.  She stood by and let people get attacked by Mannequin so she could buy herself time to think of a plan to make a counterattack.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but I couldn’t draw in enough breath to manage more than a hoarse whisper, and Weld wouldn’t have heard me.

“I don’t care,” Weld said.  “I know she’s done bad things.  After this is over, we’ll find her, beat her and take her into custody.”

“You don’t care?” Skitter One asked.  “She murdered your boss.  Shot Thomas Calvert in cold blood, not that long ago.”

Weld froze.  Or he went more still than usual.

“Whoopsie,” Imp said.  She’d appeared behind Skitter One.  A slash of her knife ended Skitter One’s contributions to the discussion.  “Sorry to interrupt.”

I couldn’t say whether Skitter One’s feedback had done anything to change his behavior, but Weld wasn’t gentle when he grabbed me and flung me overhand.  My legs tore free of Noelle, where her flesh had closed firmly around my legs, and I was sent flying.

Unable to move to protect myself or react to the landing, I sprawled where I landed, fifteen or so feet from Noelle.

Weld turned back to Noelle.  His left hand changed to become a blade, and he used it to hack and slash his way through Noelle’s side.  His other hand dug and scraped for purchase as he deliberately and intentionally submerged himself.

My bugs found their way to the others.  I did what I could with my bugs to drive Shatterbird away from the doorway and put her out of reach of Noelle’s tongue.  Once she’d started staggering back, I set about finding and destroying the bug clones who were attacking people and ignoring my powers.

The door where the Wards and Protectorate had been lurking opened.  Miss Militia tested her weight on the staircase, then leaped down to ground level.

She trained a gun on Imp as she noticed the girl crouching over Skitter Two, the taciturn Skitter with the broken legs.  Imp executed the girl, glanced at Miss Militia and shrugged.

I tried to speak, coughed.  I pulled my bugs away from Rachel and Tattletale.

Miss Militia stared at Noelle, her eyes adjusting to the poor lighting.

“You fed her!?” Miss Militia asked.

“Rachel,” Tattletale said, “Come on!”

There was a clapping or slapping noise, and Bastard lurched to his feet.  Rachel stood, and the other three dogs spread out around her.

“You fed Echidna?” Miss Militia asked, disbelieving.

Echidna?  Right.  They’d coined a name for her, then.

“And we’ll feed her more,” Tattletale said.  “Rachel!  All of the spare dogs!  Try not to get in Weld’s way!”

The dogs began to grow, flesh splitting, bone spurs growing, and muscles swelling to greater size.

Rachel hesitated.

“Do it!” Tattletale shouted.

Rachel gave the orders, shouting, “All of you, hold!  Malcolm, go left!”

She slapped one dog on the shoulder, and he bolted.

“Coco, go right!  Twinkie, go right!”

The other two dogs gave chase, stampeding past me as they ran along the right side of the room.

“Hurt!”  Rachel gave the order.

The dogs attacked the closet target – Noelle.  They got stuck in her like she was tar.

But, I realized, that the converse was also true.  Noelle was absorbing them, but she was unable to move so freely as long as this much extra mass was stuck to her.  It was like the way we’d fought Weld, sticking metal to him.

The problem would be when she spat out the dogs.

I tried to move, but I felt like I had fifty pound weights strapped each of my arms and legs.  My face burned hot, and my vision swam.

It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar feeling.  I felt sick.

With that thought, it dawned on me.  Noelle absorbed living things, and that apparently extended to bacteria.  Where others had bacteria in their digestive systems to help them digest food, Noelle, Echidna, had no need for such.  When she absorbed the ambient bacteria and molds from her surroundings, she was storing them, weaponizing them like she did with rats and insects.  They were used to debilitate her victims, render them unable to fight back while her clones got the upper hand.

It meant I was sick, and I’d have to hope that whatever the illness was, it would be short-lived.

Shatterbird was still thrashing, trying to do something with her glass and failing because she couldn’t breathe or see.  Echidna couldn’t move, as her legs were caught on the dogs.  The other clones had been executed by Imp, as far as I knew.

The sticking point was Weld.  Tattletale had apparently figured out that he was immune to Echidna’s absorption ability, but he wouldn’t be immune to her basic shapeshifting ability.  She didn’t have a lot of control over her form, or she surely would have chosen something without that number of legs, without the three mutant dog heads, but she did have the ability to shift her flesh around, and Weld was limited in how fast he could cut that flesh away.

Rachel had moved to my side.  She put her arms under my shoulders and my knees and lifted me, grunting.

I twisted around to cough and gag.  I managed to move one arm to my face, but didn’t have the strength in my fingers to move the fabric at my neck.

Rachel found it instead, pulling it up and halfway up my face.  I coughed up lumps of stuff that tasted the way raw meat smelled.

“Careful!” Tattletale said.  “Incoming!  Dogs!”

Noelle had apparently moved one of her heads around, because she managed to spray a stream of vomit our way.

There was a pause as her body heaved, my bugs could sense the movement as one of the bulkier dogs was repositioned inside her monstrous lower body, and then she puked up one of the dogs, along with a handful of humans.

It wasn’t large, wasn’t mutant.  Well, it was a mutant, but it wasn’t one of Rachel’s mutants.

“Bentley,” Rachel ordered.  “Kill.”

The bulldog lunged and seized the smaller dog in its jaws in a matter of seconds, crushed it in a heartbeat.

“Yeah,” Rachel said, her voice low enough that only I heard it.  “Feels wrong.”

“Why?” Miss Militia asked.  “Why was it small?”

“When we were hanging out with Panacea during the Slaughterhouse Nine fiasco, she put her hand on Sirius,” Tattletale said.  “And she said that the tissues die as they get pushed out from the center.  They’re more like super zombie dogs, really, with a juicy, living center.”

“And Echidna doesn’t copy dead things,” Miss Militia said.

Tattletale nodded.  “We got lucky.  I was worried it would only be a little smaller.”

Weld was fighting to emerge.  He had his hands on Grue and one of the dogs.  He hurled them out, and Miss Militia caught the dog.  Imp and Tattletale hurried to drag Grue away.

“Did you bring all the stuff I asked for?” Tattletale asked.

“Yes.  It won’t be enough.”

“So long as you’ve got some, it’ll help.  Just need to buy time,” Tattletale said.

Echidna’s bulk shifted.  I couldn’t see it with my own eyes, but with the blurry vision the bugs offered, I could track how she was getting her legs under her.  I could see that there weren’t any distinct bulges anymore.  She was breaking down the mutant flesh she’d stripped away from Rachel’s dogs and she was making it her own.  Six dogs… if my estimates about them being roughly a third her mass were right, she could be three times as big as she’d been before.

“She’ll be stronger,” Miss Militia said, putting the dog down.  “If this doesn’t work, we just gave her a power boost for nothing.”

“We’re saving the people she took,” Tattletale said, “And we’re buying time.  It’s not nothing.”

Echidna heaved herself up to her feet.  She vomited forth a geyser of fluids and flying clones.  Our ranks were scattered, knocked over and pushed away from Echidna by the force and quantity of the fluids.

It was stronger than before.  Whatever the source she was drawing from was, she’d reinforced it with the mass she’d gained from eating the dogs.  No less than fifteen clones littered the floor, and there were another twelve or so dogs and rats in their mass.

Miss Militia didn’t even stand before opening fire.  Twin assault rifles tore into the ranks of the clones as she emptied both clips, reforged the guns with her power, and then unloaded two more clips.  Several clones were avoiding the bullets more by sheer chance than any effort on their part.  One Grace-clone managed to shield the bullets, moving her hands to block the incoming fire.  One stray shot clipped her shoulder, but she was holding out.

Echidna spat up another wave, and I hurried to get my flying bugs out of the way.  I still couldn’t move, but I held my breath.  The wave hit us on two fronts, an initial crush of fluid and bodies, and the bodies from the first wave that had been shoved up against us.  As the fluid receded, my bugs moved back down to the ground to track how many clones she’d created.  It made for a pile of bodies, with snarling dogs and clones struggling for footing as they reached for us.

Bentley and Bastard provided our side with the muscle we needed to shove the worst of the enemy numbers away, bulldozing them with snouts and shoving them aside with the sides of their large bodies.  Miss Militia followed up by sweeping the area with a flamethrower.  She stopped, waiting for the smoke to clear, and Tattletale shouted, “Again!  Weld’s still inside!”

Another wave of flame washed over the clones.  They were Regents, Tectons and Graces, as well as various dogs, and none were able to withstand the heat.  Each and every one of them burned.

But this much heat and smoke, even with this space being as large as it was, it wasn’t an assault we could sustain.

Echidna opened her mouth for a third spray, then stopped.  One by one, bodies were dropping from her gut.

“No!”  Noelle screamed, from her vantage point on top of the monstrous form.

Weld forced another dog free, and Echidna moved one leg to step on it.

Grace and Tecton fell, and Weld dropped after them.  He turned the blade of one hand into a scythe, then chopped a segment of Echidna’s foot free.  With one motion of the scythe, he sent Tecton, Regent and some of the dogs skidding our way, sliding them on the vomit-slick floor like a hockey player might with a puck on ice.

Echidna deliberately dropped, belly-flopping onto Weld, Grace and the dismembered foot that had stepped on the sixth dog.

Miss Militia was already drawing together a rocket launcher.  She fired a shot at the general location where Weld was.  He forced his way free of the resulting wound a moment later, the dog tucked under one arm, Grace under the other.

Echidna swiped at him, but he hurled the others forward to safety a second before it connected.  He was slammed into the wall, but he didn’t even reel from the blow.  He made a dash for us.

“Retreat!” Miss Militia gave the order.

The staircase shook precariously as we made our ascent, one group at a time.  One of the capes had frozen the staircase of the metal walkway to the wall to stabilize it.  They started getting organized to hand each of us and the dogs up to the door, but Rachel barreled past, carrying me and two dogs, with Bastard and Bentley following behind.

As we reached the doorway, dogs were handed to the able-bodied.  Others were helping the wounded.  Clockblocker had fallen, and Kid Win was being moved with a makeshift stretcher formed of one of the chain-link doors that had been in the hallway.  There was a lot of blood.

It was Shatterbird’s power, I realized.  I’d barely registered the event.  Shatterbird was still in the hallway on the other side of the underground complex.  Standing away from the main fighting, perhaps, or waiting for an opportunity.  She’d found the locker where Regent kept her costume, was using her power to put it on while simultaneously fighting off the bugs that were still biting her.

Echidna reared back, apparently gearing up to vomit, and Miss Militia fired a rocket launcher straight into the monster’s open mouth.

It barely seemed to slow Echidna down.  Vomit spilled around her, crawling with vermin and bugs.

The monster was moving slower, now.  The entire structure shook as she advanced on us, sections of the walkway crumpling and screeching where her bulk scraped against it.

But the door was just that – a door.  Three feet wide and six feet tall.  The tunnels the trucks had used were too small for her mass, even if one ignored the fact that they’d been strategically collapsed.

The entire area shook with the impact of her furious struggles.  She was trying to tear her way free.  The violence only ramped up as we made our escape, to the point that I was worried the building above us would come down on top of our heads as we headed outside.

The warm, fresh air was chill against the damp fabric of my costume as we escaped from beneath the building.  I could sense other heroes and trucks stationed nearby, no doubt surrounding the area.

The second we’d reached the perimeter, Tattletale collapsed to the ground, propping herself up with her back to a wall.  Grue and Regent were placed next to us.

We were covered in blood and vomit, half of us so weak we could barely move.  It didn’t convey the best image.

“Vista wasn’t inside Echidna,” Weld said.  “If she’s still in the building-”

“Triumph, phone her,” Miss Militia ordered.

“Yes’m,” Triumph replied.

Miss Militia turned to Tattletale.  She gestured at the nearby vehicles.  “You said you wanted containment foam.”

“I did,” Tattletale said.

“You think she’ll fight free?”

“Almost definitely,” Tattletale said.  “She had a Grue with her.  One with teleportation powers.  He disappeared partway through the fight, lurking somewhere out of sight.  Being pragmatic about the situation.  So unless someone can testify to having killed the guy, we can expect her to pop up in a matter of minutes.”

“Minutes,” Miss Militia said.

“No reply from Vista,” Triumph reported.

“Keep trying.”

“She gets free in a few minutes, and we’ll use the containment foam then?” Assault asked.  I jumped a little at the realization it was him.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “We’ll use it as soon as the dust settles.”

“Dust?”  Assault asked.

She withdrew her cell phone, raised her voice, “If any of you have force fields, put them up now!”

Tattletale started punching something into the keypad.  Miss Militia grabbed her wrist, prying the cellphone from her hand.  “Stop.”

“It’s our only option.”

What’s our only option?”

Buying time,” Tattletale said.  She wrenched her hand free, but Miss Militia still had the phone.

“How?”

“You could punch the last two digits, one and four, into that keypad, see for yourself,” Tattletale said.  “Or you could give me the phone, let me do it, and then if Vista’s in there, your conscience is… less muddy, if not exactly clear.”

Miss Militia turned her face toward the phone, stared at the building that loomed over Coil’s not-so-secret base.

“Shatterbird-” I started to speak, had to catch my breath, “She’s in there too.  She was talking to Noelle.  To Echidna.  Last I saw.  They might be deciding to work together.”

“I won’t have a clear conscience, no matter what I do,” Miss Militia said.  “But I might as well own up to it.”

Miss Militia touched the phone twice.  Long, quiet seconds reigned.

“Didn’t think you had it in you,” Tattletale commented.

There was a rumble.  My bugs couldn’t reach far enough to see, but they could see the blur.  A cloud, at the top floor of the building.

Another cloud expanded out from the top of the building, one floor down from the first.

The explosions continued, escalating, ripping through the building in stages.  I couldn’t even breathe as I experienced the resulting aftershock, the vibrations as the building folded in on itself, plummeting down to the construction area.

“What-” Assault started.

There was another explosion, muffled, and my bugs were in range for the explosion that followed.  Plumes of earth rose in a rough circle around the building, and then the ground sank.  The entire underground base, folding in on itself.  Even with the debris of the fallen building on top of it, the area seemed to form a loose depression.

Fitting for the criminal mastermind, I thought.

“Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiit,” Regent said, his voice reedy.

“He didn’t use it on us?” I asked Tattletale.  “Coil?”

She was staring at what must have been a massive cloud of dust.

“He tried, sort of,” she said.  “His computer was rigged to blow everything up if someone tampered too much.  I found the stuff when I went looking for his files, as I moved in.  Scared the pants off me when I realized that it was already in motion.”

“Before that?”  I asked.  “When we were waiting for the meeting?”

“Couldn’t afford to let ‘Echidna’ loose,” she said.  “And I think I would’ve known.  Can’t say for sure.”

It took minutes for everything to finish settling.

“Containment foam on the wreckage!”  Miss Militia shouted.  “I want cape escorts for each truck and equipped PRT member, do not engage if you see her!”

She was rattling off more orders.  I couldn’t focus enough to follow it all.

“She’s not dead,” Tattletale said, “But we bought an hour, at least.  Maybe a few.  With luck, they’ll upgrade this to a class-S.  We’ll get reinforcements… which we’ll need.”

“She’s stronger,” Grue said.  He didn’t sound good.  “You fed her.”

“Had to.  Or she would have escaped before the explosion.”

“But she’s stronger,” Grue repeated himself.

Tattletale nodded.

“Do you have a plan?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “Not really.  Ideas.”

“I have a few too,” I said.  “Not good ones, though.”

“I’ll take bad ideas,” she said.  She sighed wistfully, “Fuck.  I really wanted an evil mastermind headquarters of my own.  It’ll be years before I can build one for myself,” Tattletale groused.

“So impatient,” Regent clucked his tongue.

Tattletale pushed herself to her feet.  “The next part’s going to be three times as bad.  I’m going to go see if we can scrounge up some healing.”

I brought my legs up to my chest and folded my arms on my knees, resting my head on them.  The visions I’d seen were swiftly fading into memory, but the ideas behind them lingered.  For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to fight, to step up and save others.  A large part of me wanted to say it was up to the heroes, to take the unsure thing over doing it myself and knowing I’d done everything I could.

I turned to Grue.  “You okay?”

He didn’t respond.

“Grue?” I asked.

Nothing.

I used my bugs to search for someone who might be able to give medical attention.  Everyone was milling around, active, busy.

Us Undersiders aside, there were only two people nearby who weren’t active, trying to contain and prepare for a potential second attack.  Weld and Miss Militia.

They were talking, and they were looking at me.

Thomas Calvert.  My clone had informed them.  And they’d seen our faces.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 18

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“Scout it,” Noelle gave the order.  “Recuperate while we wait.”

Marissa sent a hawk flying through the dense foliage.  Noelle could feel that dull thrum of adrenaline, feel as though time had slowed down, her perceptions and reaction times cranked up to the maximum as she assessed every skeleton and bog zombie between her team and the hawk’s ultimate destination – a clearing with a withered crone standing idle in the center.

Everything was a clue, the placement the enemy had chosen for each unit crucial, because it would force them to maneuver one way or another.  Was that treasure chest placed at the back of the swamp-dungeon because the enemy Overlord had wanted to put it as far out of reach as possible or was it because he wanted to bait them into a trap on that side of the room?

It would be impossible to guess from that one clue alone, but the position of the monsters, lighter on that end of the room-

“Stay to the right,” she ordered.

There were reports of assent from the others.

Like being aware one was dreaming without actually disturbing the dream, it was a rare thing to be in the zone and to be aware she was in the zone.  She knew she was right.

“Cody, go ranged.”

Cody’s Highwayman sheathed his rapier and drew twin pistols from his belt.

“Luke, wind magic, wind spirits.  Dimplecheeks doesn’t usually use casters as an overlord, but he’ll stick to old habits.  He’ll have teleportation.  Mars, circle around, poke at her from range.  Go!”

They charged into the clearing.  The hag, Dimplecheeks, summoned two Über demons as they breached the threshold, then teleported to the far end of the room.  Luke’s shaman was already setting down wind spirits who were spewing forth miniature tornadoes, casting out gusts of wind that would accelerate his team and slow down or push their enemies.

“Enemy team just turned around,” Jess reported.  “They’re backtracking for the portal.  They’re going to invade en-masse.”

“Fuck,” Noelle said. Her mind was racing, covering a dozen factors at once – positioning her Challenger to best benefit her allies in the fight, avoiding the hag’s spells, calculating the damage her team was doing, keeping track of her items, and those of her team.  “How many rooms?”

“They were one room past portal, they’ll be entering around now.”

Ten seconds at best.  “We can’t kill her before they show.”

“Want me to send troops?”  Jess asked.

“No.  Fortify your dungeon.  If they take us out, you hold them off.”

“You know my boss monster isn’t that strong.  They’re only three rooms from fighting it.”

Hold them off,” Noelle said.

Sure enough, the enemy appeared at the entryway of the boss room.  Her team was hurt from the fight with the hag, and the enemy team hadn’t ventured far enough in to burn all of their resources.

Dying was inevitable.  That didn’t mean that their efforts were futile.  She had to slow them down-  She challenged the enemy’s Chronomancer to a one-on-one duel, consequently shrugged off the vast majority of the damage the remainder of the enemy inflicted, and charged to close the distance to strike the mage down in three blows.

She challenged the hag the second her target was down, landed two good hits, dropping their target to a third of her total health.

Then Cody fell, with Luke falling shortly after.

Noelle managed to use her own body to absorb the worst of the enemy attacks while Marissa ‘kited’ across the area’s perimeter, maintaining a consistent distance as she fired arrows at them.

Caught between the approaching enemy and a cloud of poison fog the hag had cast, Mars chose to rush through the latter.  Her health dropped to zero and she collapsed.

“Fuck!  Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Cody was shouting.  He kicked something.

It was as though Cody’s tantrum were happening in a very distant place.  Noelle’s focus was entirely on slowing the enemy down.  She challenged the enemy’s barbarian, because he did the lowest damage and everyone she didn’t challenge would do less damage to her.  She took a swig of the potion she still had in her inventory from the start of the game.  It wouldn’t restore even five percent of her health, but there was a dim possibility that it would force the enemy to land just one more attack.  Take a half second, or invest a few magic points into an ability to catch her.  Magic points they couldn’t use to take Jess on.

The three remaining enemy heroes bum-rushed her, cutting off her fighting retreat and forcing her into one location.  The hag landed a toxin-bomb on her, and her health disappeared in an instant.  The screen turned to shades of crimson and black, and a timer appeared in the dead center.

Forty five seconds to respawn.  The enemy players were surrounded in flares of light.  Level ups.  It would make up for the expense of passing through the portal.  It had been a good maneuver, perfectly timed, so they could disengage from Jess’ own forces and backtrack through her dungeon.

“Fuck!” Cody shouted.

Cody would take thirty seconds to respawn.  Thirty to forty-five seconds before they spawned at the checkpoint…

No, the enemy’s bandit was backtracking through the dungeon.  Hacking away at the checkpoint flag.

Now twenty to thirty-five seconds before they spawned at the dungeon entrance.

She watched the clock count down, bought new items, continued to watch the clock.

Cody respawned.

“Go!” she shouted.

Luke appeared soon after.  So did the enemy Chronomancer, in Jess’ checkpoint room.  The enemy was on the second to last room, dispatching goblin grenadiers and goblin gunners, fighting their way past the trenches Jess had laid down.

They defeated the last of the monsters.  The blood gate was satisfied and opened, giving them free rein to fight Jess’ end boss, an ogre king.

The boss Dimplecheeks had put in the checkpoint room, halfway through his dungeon, was just as tough and more dangerous.

Mars and Noelle respawned, and they charged through the dungeon.

Jess had half her health remaining, the hag had one-third, but there were four enemies in Jess’ boss room and Cody hadn’t even reached the hag.

By the time Cody and Luke were in the hag’s room, it was thirty-twenty five in the enemy’s favor.  The ogre king was tough, but slow, easy to hit.  The enemy delivered damage steadily, while Luke and Cody were forced to adapt as the more fragile hag teleported to inconvenient spots, costing them precious seconds each time.

Noelle and Mars joined the fray.

When the fighting stopped and the screen went dark, Noelle wasn’t entirely sure if they’d won or lost.

Letters in gold script flashed across the screen.  ‘Victory!’

The others were out of their chairs, cheering.  She joined them.  They hugged.  She turned, saw Krouse perched on the desk in the center of the room beside Chris and Oliver.  He was smiling.

Noelle hugged him, and for once she was able to forget all her doubts and insecurities, all her issues, the way even physical contact would leave her with a pit in her stomach.  She hugged him tight, and it was good.  It felt right.

“We’re going to nationals!” Cody whooped.

“That was you,” Krouse whispered to her.  “You made the difference.  You won.”

Her breath was too hot as it passed through her lips.  The exertion, this body mass, it made her feel feverish.  Worse than feverish.  She felt like she had when she’d been camping as a child, standing too close to the fire, seeing how long she could endure it.

Only it was all over, inside her.  A prickling, almost unbearable heat.

I know why you showed me that, she thought. She looked at Trickster; he adjusted his hat, swapped Sundancer with one of the flying capes.  The sun fizzled out as she landed.  One threat out of commission.  Ballistic and the other cape he’d arrived with were down as well.

She tried to read Trickster’s body language.  Back straight, walking with confidence.  He’d hesitated when she’d asked for his help.  Now there wasn’t a trace of doubt.

She’d admired that about him, had been jealous of it.  The confidence.  The sense of pride.

But the memory that had flashed across her consciousness, almost more vivid than reality, the emotions very real as she recalled them, it hadn’t served the intended purpose.

You can’t convince me that way, she thought.  This victory and that one don’t even compare.

There wasn’t a reply, of course.

“Bitch!  Run!” Regent hollered. “Go to Tattletale!”

Only his head, shoulders and one arm were free of Noelle’s grip.  She tugged and pulled him in faster.  He put his free arm inside her flesh, found something more or less solid and managed to push back enough to avoid having his head pulled in.

Trickster and Noelle wheeled around.  Bitch, the girl with the dogs, was the last Undersider here.  Trickster couldn’t find an angle to swap the girl with anyone else.  The boy in the armor would be too large, and Trickster’s field of vision didn’t allow for him to get his eyes on her and someone more appropriate.

Noelle tagged several of the bodies in her internal stomachs, felt flesh constrict tight against them, felt the pre-prepared nuggets of flesh in her gullet forming into close replicas in an instant.  Timing was crucial; if she spat them out too soon, they’d be malformed, missing limbs or features.  Too late, and there was extra material.

She retched, sending them flying in the direction of the girl with the dogs.  Bodies for Trickster to use.

But the boy with the armor was already moving.  He slammed one hand into the ground, and a cloud of debris and dust masked him and Bitch.

She couldn’t wholly control the vomit, lost one of the powered ones.  Not one of the Undersiders, she was relieved to note.  It had been the big one, who’d been with the tinker.  He’d called himself Über.  She didn’t try to reclaim him.  He was more or less useless.  The loss still pained her.  Better to have him than one of the unpowered ones.

Her vomit caught Genesis, who was presently a charging bull with a jellyfish-like tentacles trailing behind her.  The vomit blinded Genesis, and Noelle struck her hard enough to kill.  The body collapsed and started disintegrating.

“Hey,” Regent said.  “Monster girl.”

Noelle snarled as she glanced down at the boy who was stuck inside one of her legs.  Only his face was left to be consumed.  Her voice was hoarse with emotion as she asked, “What?”

“When you make my clone, do you think you could give him a goatee?”

Noelle didn’t dignify the question with a response.  She flexed and drew Regent completely within her body.  She’d hurt him later.  For now, she needed him to help her escape so she could hunt down his friends.

She ran.  The simple act of moving flooded her body with endorphins and adrenaline.  It felt good, made her feel strong.  That was another avenue of attack, as her body tried to work its manipulations on her mind.  The hunger, the heightened emotions, rewarding her with pleasant memories and good feelings when she operated in sync with it.

It was a matter of weeks, days or hours before she lost enough ground that she was the one trying to manipulate her body into doing what she wanted, with it calling all the shots.  If the process continued, she would eventually be subsumed entirely, unable to do anything but observe, and maybe not even that.

The pavement had been cracked like a sheet of glass, and the footing was unsteady, but the mass of her body was crushing fragments underfoot, and she had four good legs, with five more for further support.  Falling wasn’t a concern.

Noelle passed through the cloud of dust that the one in armor had sent flying into the air.  She saw the armored tinker punching the ground once more, leaped to clear the ground that suddenly plunged into a pit in front of her.  She picked out a selection from those within her and, with her rightmost head, sent a stream of bodies at him.  He punched the ground with his other hand, and pavement tilted upward in a makeshift barrier, blocking the worst of the stream and flying bodies.

The ones who did land in his vicinity were on him in moments.  One was the little space-warper, another was a copy of the firebreathing acrobat with the rich smell, and three were copies of the unpowered people she’d absorbed.  They mobbed the armored tinker.

She hadn’t included the Undersiders in that stream.  Until they were more fully absorbed, there was a good chance that she’d spit them out if she tried to copy them.  Using any one person too frequently carried the same risks, and she suspected that it would be more difficult now that she was so full.

The girl in silver armor, with white flowing clothes was dashing toward her from the other side, not any slower for the shattered ground underfoot.  Noelle picked out unpowered individuals she could afford to lose, closed her muscles tight around them, and spat out the partially formed nuggets along with a mess of the internal fluids.

The girl ducked low, landing on a fragment of road, using her forward momentum to skid toward Noelle as though she were snowboarding.  There was an explosion of debris as she kicked off the ground, and the girl soared toward Noelle, twisting in the air to land a kick with that same foot.

It felt like getting hit by a cannon.  Noelle’s stride broke and she had to plant one foot to the side to keep from falling over.

She’d lost ground, and Bitch was swiftly increasing the distance between them.

Noelle hesitated, then decided to let the girl go for the time being.  Better to defend herself, establish a better position.  While stationary, she could spit up an Undersider, swallow them back up again.  She’d read up on them, had talked to Trickster about them.  She had a good sense of what they were capable of.

But which one?  She had three.  Regent might work against this girl in white, but his influence would be too minor in the big picture.  His smell was weakest of the three.

Not that it was really a smell… but she was peculiarly aware of the people with powers, active or otherwise.  Each had a texture and a tone and a flavor, something she felt like she could come to understand.  She might have said it was taste, might have compared it to when she’d tried wine that one time and tried to see what the wine aficionados looked for when they sampled a vintage.  Except the word ‘smell’ worked better, because smell and taste were really very similar and smell worked over distances.

There was a difference in Skitter, Grue’s and Eidolon’s smells, along with a handful of the other visiting capes.  A smell that set them apart from the other parahumans in the same way that the other parahumans were set apart from the people who could have powers but didn’t.  An intensity.

She wished she’d spent more time researching the powers.  She hadn’t been able to bring herself to, had wanted only to distract herself from the thoughts of what was happening to her.

Which one to use?  Skitter was more dangerous in a general sense, but she wouldn’t stop the girl in white now.  That left Grue.

She didn’t spit, but simply contracted and let the body spill forth.  Sure enough, the real Grue tumbled out, prostrate, unable to move.  A tongue snaked out of her center-mouth and caught him before he could try to escape.  She’d swallowed him by the time her Grue was on its feet.

Noelle only had a glimpse of her Grue’s real form before he started cloaking himself in darkness.  He was muscular, broad-shouldered, his long hair slicked to his head by the fluids of the vomit.  Angry red ulcers studded his dark skin at set intervals.

He cast a glance over his shoulder at her as the darkness crept up over his shoulders and the back of his head.  His eyes were black from corner to corner, his teeth too large, misshapen much like his fingernails were, tangled together to the point that he couldn’t open his mouth.  It forced him into a perpetual grimace with his teeth bared.

He turned his back to her as the darkness covered his face, squared his shoulders.  The body language was clear.  He was protecting her.

He’s one of the useful ones, then.  Her copies of the little space warper had been like that.  Naturally inclined toward teamwork, disciplined.  The other three were more likely to run off.  They were still useful, but they did things in their own way.

Spheres of darkness appeared in her Grue’s hands.  One after the other, he hurled them at the girl in white.  The first missed, and the second seemed like it might do the same, until it arced in the air to strike her from the side.

The darkness was more like gum than smoke, and she struggled.  Noelle’s Grue closed the distance, moving over the surface of the road much as the girl in white had.

Then Noelle saw why and how.  A thread of darkness, barely thicker than a finger, extended from the sticky darkness to her Grue.  That would be how he’d moved the projectile in the air, and how he was absorbing her power.

The boy in armor created a fissure that spat debris into the air as it parted, aiming to separate the Grue and the girl in white.  By intent or accident, he cut the thread of darkness in the process.  Noelle’s Grue stopped, turned to face the tinker and created more spheres in his hands.

Those two were occupied.  Noelle turned to see Trickster dealing with the flying heroes.  Two were on the ground, prone.  That would be the result of Trickster baiting them into shooting one another.  The remaining hero had a weapon in hand but wasn’t shooting.

Eidolon was there too. His smell was interesting.  Complicated, but somehow off.  If he was using any particular method of attack on Trickster, then Noelle couldn’t see it.

Trickster disappeared from the skirmish with the flying heroes, putting one of her creations in his place.

She sniffed him out.  He was in the midst of the one batch of bodies that had piled up against the tinker’s makeshift wall.  They were turning on him, grabbing for his arms and legs.  He teleported to keep them from getting any serious leverage, but the escape was slow.

“Leave him!” she ordered, and her voice came out with surprising volume.

They didn’t listen.  They struck him, gripped his costume and dragged him to the ground.

Trickster shouted in alarm as he was submerged in the mass of clones.

Noelle advanced on her creations in as threatening a manner as she could, the ground shaking with her advance.  They noticed and backed away.

Trickster, for his part, didn’t even flinch as she closed the distance between the two of them, stepping within a few feet of him.

It would be all too easy to just snap her tongue at him.  Catch him, swallow him.

She held off.  Instead, she faced Eidolon and the other flying cape.

Trickster adjusted his hat and did the same.  The two of them against the world.

“It’s not you, it’s me,” she said.

Krouse folded his arms.  ”You can’t blame me at least a little?”

“No,” Noelle said, shaking her head.  If I could only explain, I would…  She could feel her throat seize up.  Worrying that her voice might crack if she spoke at the normal volume, she lowered her voice to a hush as she said, “You’ve been great.”

He spread his arms, “I don’t get it.  I thought we were doing fine.”

Doing fine?  How many hours had she spent lying awake in bed, agonizing over this relationship?  Hating herself?

She’d relapsed because of it, and recovering was proving to be a long, hard road.

“We aren’t!” Noelle said, “This is… it’s not working.”

“I’m okay with it.  I enjoy spending time with you, and I didn’t get any impression you were having that bad of a time, either.”

“But we don’t- we aren’t-”  She stared down at her feet.  ”We’re stalled.  It isn’t fair to you.”

That’s what you’re worried about?”

Only part of it.

“Don’t dismiss my concerns,” she said, and the anger in her own words surprised her.

“No’, it’s fine.  It’s cool.  I get that there’s stuff you’ve got going on that you don’t want to tell me about,” Krouse said.

Her breath caught in her throat at that.  Had Marissa told him?  Or had he figured it out?  It wasn’t like she hadn’t left signs.

He continued without a pause, “…I can be a bit of a jerk sometimes, but I’m not an idiot. And I’m not going to twist your arm to get you to share, either.  That’s your stuff, and I figure you’ll tell me in time.  Or you won’t.”

“It’s not fair to you.”  Noelle knew she was repeating herself, but it was the only argument she could make.  All of the others would involve discussing other topics, her issues.

And she couldn’t bring herself to do that.  Marissa knew, would keep quiet because she got it.  Marissa knew, wouldn’t bring it up, would back her up when needed.

Noelle loved Krouse, but she knew he wasn’t so graceful.  It would become something jarring, intruding on their everyday interactions.

“I’m not saying things have to be equitable or balanced or fair or any of that.  So who cares if things aren’t fair?”  Krouse asked.

“Don’t do that!”

She could see his expression change to bewilderment at her reaction.  He spread his arms, as if he were asking a question without opening his mouth.  I’m being irrational… but that’s the disease at work.

It took her a long time to find the words.

“Someone said, a little while ago,” Noelle spoke without looking at Krouse, “That I can’t really forge a good relationship with others until I have a good relationship with myself.

“You don’t?”  He asked.  I think you’re fantastic, if that counts for anything.”

The words stung, nettled her, as if they personified his lack of understanding.  She said as much, “You don’t know me.”

“I’ve been getting to know you some.  And I have yet to see anything that’s going to scare me away.”

She couldn’t keep going down this road, couldn’t have an argument, or she’d let something slip.  She stared at her feet.  ”…I don’t think we should date.”

“Okay.  If you think that’s for the best.  But I just need you to do one thing.  Look me in the eye as you tell me that.”

Noelle glanced up at him, then looked back down.  She tried to find the words, but both brain and mouth failed her.

“Because,” he went on, “I think you’ve seemed happier than I’ve ever seen you since we started going out.  Marissa said so, too.”

It’s… it’s a bad time for me, she thought, as if voicing the words in her head would let her utter them out loud.  The wrong moment.  Any earlier or later in my recovery…

He continued, “If you really feel like us dating is making things worse in the long run, then I’m perfectly okay with breaking it off.  I can leave the club if that makes things easier on your end.  It was your thing before it was mine, and you’ve got enough on your plate with being team captain.”

“I don’t want you to leave the club,” she said, meaning it.

“Okay,” he said.  He paused very deliberately.  She didn’t take the invitation to speak.

He sighed, ”Listen, I get the feeling today is a bad day.  Don’t know why it is, but it is.  And that happens.  Fine.  But I’m not willing to end this if it’s because the stars aligned wrong.  So I’m asking you to tell me that you’re worse off because we’re together.  Not asking for an explanation, just-”

Can’t do this.  Can’t break it off.  Not when he’s being this good about it.  Not when it’s making the both of us this miserable. 

“Never mind,” she said, abrupt.  I’ll find another way.

“Never mind?”

“I’m- just never mind.  Can we forget this conversation happened?”

“Sure,” he said.

Her feelings were a chaotic storm.  Relief, quiet joy, fear, misery, self loathing, panic…

I’m not well, she thought.

”Want me to walk you home?”  His voice was gentle.

She nodded mutely, unable to find the words to speak.  A simple five word confession would simultaneously explain everything and spoil the tone of their relationship.  She knew it, knew she was being irrational, that her recent relapse was making her that way, was making her nasty and emotional and unpredictable.

How could he not notice?  The way she picked at her food, the way Marissa got on her case about eating?  The countless other clues?  Yes, she’d been in recovery for much of the time they’d known each other, but… hadn’t he been paying attention?

She simultaneously loved and hated him, in that moment.  He was the best thing in the world for her, and the worst thing in the world for her, both at the same time.

And it wasn’t fair to him, putting that on his shoulders.

She was fighting with Eidolon.  The realization startled her.  She’d been adrift in vivid memories, and she’d lost time.

She sniffed, for lack of a better word, and found Skitter prone on the ground.  Her tongue snatched the girl up, and she swallowed the girl anew.  The taste and smell were right.  Good.

That spooked her.  Her body wasn’t making good decisions when it was on autopilot.  Or, at least, it wasn’t making decisions she’d accept.  Almost losing an Undersider?  No.

She double checked.  Skitter, Grue, Regent and the little space warper were safely ensconced inside her, each tucked away in neat little wombs, unconscious and helpless and safe from the ongoing fighting.

Why did you show me that?  Why was that so important?

There was no reply.  Never a reply.

Eidolon reached out with one hand, and she instinctively rushed out of the way.

The gravity effect hit her, and she could feel her flesh tearing, feel the extremities ripping: her ears, nose, lips and all the little pieces of her monstrous lower half.  At her shoulders, the top of her head, the flesh above her spine on her lower half, the flesh was pulled down and away until it started to rip.

Eidolon fell out of the air, hitting the ground hard.

Noelle turned her head, saw Regent.  Her Regent.  He was only half-formed, one arm missing, the features of his face more like a fetus than a teenage boy.

She smiled.  Maybe her other half had made some good decisions.

Her flesh was already knitting back together, everything shuffling into their proper places or shifting around to fill in gaps.  The fluid that welled from a bottomless source in her monstrous lower half bubbled up and coursed through her veins to supply the needed materials.

The girl in white hit her again, striking the joint of one outstretched limb.  Noelle swiped at the girl in mid-air with her other forelimb, came within inches of making contact.

The ground underfoot shattered.  Noelle leaped before the tinker could repeat the effect and sink her into another sand trap.

There was another explosion from beneath her.  She leaped to avoid the worst of that one.  She vomited in the direction of the tinker, but he was anticipating the attack.  He provoked an eruption of rock shards and dust midway between them.  The bulk of the flying bodies and fluids were knocked off course by the plume of debris.  With a third strike he raised a barrier around himself.  Two of the three bodies that hadn’t been stopped by the debris were caught on the shards of pavement.  One suffered a broken back, the other hit the edge of a fragment with enough force that his stomach was ripped open.

The third flew over the barrier.  The tinker caught it with a punch, and the piledriver in his gauntlet extended twice in an instant, punching two neat holes through the upper body.

He didn’t even wait for the body to hit the ground before striking and creating another fissure that extended beneath the barrier and beneath her.  She leaped out of the way before it opened wide enough to catch her or one of her feet.

It was bad timing.  She had been distracted by the recent vision.  Eidolon hit her square-on with another gravity attack.  Her flesh was savaged and split, she was almost immobilized under the force of it.  If the tinker used his power now-

Trickster broke Eidolon’s contact with the gravity field by teleporting him.  The hero reacted in an instant, releasing a half-dozen blue sparks from each hand.  They grew until they were each three feet across, crackling with electricity, moving at a walking pace as they slowly homed in on Trickster.

He had to teleport to avoid the closest one.  Only some of the orbs followed him to his new destination, the others remaining where they were.

Noelle opened fire on the tinker, two streams of vomit, each directed to one side of him.

She considered vomiting on the electric orbs, then thought twice about it.

Trickster teleported again, trying to maintain distance, but Eidolon had created more of the sparks, and the things were spreading out evenly across the battlefield, moving closer to Trickster if he got within ten paces of them.

It threatened to hamper her own movements too, Noelle noted.

Eidolon raised a hand in Trickster’s direction, and Trickster was quick to teleport away.  The gravity slam hit one of Noelle’s creations instead.  Trickster wound up within two paces of one orb, and had to scramble back before it touched him.

Noelle looked at him, remembered the scene from the most recent memory.  In this moment, with so many other people to be angry at, so many others to hate, she didn’t feel that bottomless resentment for Trickster that she’d experienced ever since the transformations started.

It wasn’t you, she thought.  I keep saying it was your fault.  It wasn’t.

She was already moving towards him as the thought came to her.

I blamed you for giving me the elixir.  The potion.  Whatever you call it.  But it was me.  I heard you guys talking about how the people who drank the stuff were supposed to get tested for psychiatric issues.  I didn’t tell you the Simurgh showed me visions of my worst days, of my relapses, my lowest points.  That she drove me into a state where I was reluctant to take the full dose, eager for a compromise.

She started running.

I knew all this, and if I’d only had the courage to say it, maybe this all would have gone a different way.

Oh, the irony, that this was what she’d become.

She crashed into the first of the lightning orbs.  She felt the current surge inside her, settle in her bones, latent.

A heartbeat later, every single orb that Eidolon had cast out flashed with visible arcs of electricity, striking her.  The energy ripped through her, stripping flesh from around the bone of her arm, her ribs, her spine, and the larger bones of her lower body.  The electricity surged to the ground and out the top of her head, stabbing toward the sky in a visible lightning strike.

Noelle staggered, touched one hand to her face, where her flesh had been distorted by the strike, separated from bone so it hung down, large patches of hair at the crown of her head burned away. The ends of her fingers where she’d touched the orb were blasted away, revealing bone.

She could feel it growing back, flesh knitting together.

Even this wasn’t enough to kill her.

She touched another, and it was worse, drawing on the residual energy from the first contact.

The third was worse still.

She’d complained of the sheer heat of this body before, but this… it was heat and pain on an inhuman level.  Transcendant.  Were she regular Noelle, Noelle without the powers, without the monstrous lower half and warped brain, even a tenth of this would knock her out, stop her heart from the sheer intensity of it.

On contact with the fourth orb, her frontmost legs collapsed under her, with everything within a half-foot of the major bones being rendered to little more than ash.  There was nothing to connect flesh to bone, and she toppled.

She roared, and for perhaps the second time in the past hour, both she and her monstrous half were in agreement.  With her other legs, she pushed herself forward, and extended one of her long tongues for the orb closest to Trickster.  To Krouse.  She screamed in pain and fury as it ripped through her, and another bolt stabbed toward the sky.

Too much damage, too fast.  She wasn’t healing fast enough.

A series of lightning strikes nearby marked the deaths of some of her clones.

Eidolon was there, too, at the end of the street.  The glow beneath his hood and sleeves was almost blue in the reflected luminescence of the twenty or thirty orbs that hovered around him.  A further twenty or thirty orbs were spread out over their immediate surroundings.

The others… the tinker had created short walls of stone to shield himself and the girl in white.  The rest of the battlefield consisted of bodies and other fallen.

Eidolon spoke into his wrist.  Noelle realized that there were other capes nearby when they each came to a stop, resting on rooftops and behind cover a few blocks away.

Short of Eidolon, there was nobody for Trickster to swap himself with.  And given that Eidolon had so many orbs in his immediate vicinity… no, Trickster swapping himself for Eidolon wasn’t an option.

Her other half hated him, and she was realizing just how much her monstrous body had been influencing her without her knowledge, now that her emotions were all pointed at this one individual, this one target.  It left her feelings towards everyone else at an almost normal level.  Her feelings for Krouse, her hatred of the Undersiders, her anger at Coil, each had been twisted, magnified, warped.

“If he does another gravity attack, I’m kind of dead,” Trickster said.

“He won’t,” Noelle rasped,  “He’d knock those orbs out of the air, and he’s counting on them to destroy me.  They probably will.”

As some of her tendons and ligaments knit together, she got two legs under her and positioned herself as close to Trickster as she could without touching him, shielding him from the orbs that were approaching at a crawling pace.

“I’m sorry,” Trickster said.

Noelle couldn’t bring herself to reply.  She wanted to say she was sorry too, that his apology was unnecessary, but a kind of indignant rage was rising deep within her, threatening to overwhelm her.  All of it was directed at Eidolon.

And in the midst of that rage, she felt a killing instinct she hadn’t experienced before.  Even coming this far, she’d never wanted to kill.  She’d wanted the Undersiders dead, yes, she’d tried to kill people, but a part of her had always held back from wanting to kill, from wishing to carry out the act of murder herself.

To execute this man who sought to end her existence.

It wasn’t her desire, not really.  It was her body’s.

“You want to kill?” she asked.  “You really think you can fight your way through this?”

“What?” Trickster asked.  “What are you talking about?”

Not talking to you, she thought.  “I have two conditions.  Don’t harm Trickster, and make it a nice memory this time.”

Then she let her defenses down.  Her other self took over, and it wasn’t her memory that she experienced.

Some of the others departed early.  Others were readied to depart soon after arrival.  Still others, this one included, were to wait.

They were one, they were all.  A collective, a single entity, a trillion times a trillion entities.  Each with a function in the whole, each with a role in the cycles, each with an individual identity.

As one, they traveled.  The distance was immeasurable, the passage of time impossible to convey.  There was no standard, for there were realms they had traveled where time and space operated on different levels.

For all, their own kind was the only standard, the only thing that remained relatively static through the cycles.  When they met their own kind they shared with each other.  When a new cycle was carried out, everything of the parent was borne by their spawn.

And the collective moved toward their destination.  They operated as a whole to decipher it, to pick apart the permutations, see the futures and the possibilities.

But for this one entity, which existed as part of the whole, there was a target within that destination.  When it came time for this one to depart, it would seek out a particular individual, and it would bond with that individual.  This one would fragment itself if others met the criteria; if there was time and opportunity enough then it would move to better candidates, younger or more able ones with a greater ability to affect the cycle.  This one would wait until the time was right, and then it would activate, come into the identity and role that had been ingrained into its being.

All to serve this cycle.

With the help of the collective, this one could see its objective.  A single living being.  This one encoded that being, the time and place in its very makeup.  It would be ready.

Noelle’s eyes went wide.

It wasn’t me.

Whatever her body was, the intelligence and purpose that lurked inside her other half, whatever these powers were.  It had all gone to the wrong person.

Gone to the wrong person, askew from the beginning, then twisted further by her own psychological issues, messed up by the fact that she’d only taken half a dose.

The realization and the confusion that came with the vision were compounded as she stared at her surroundings.

Her minions surrounded her: two copies of Trickster; a skinny girl with long dark hair, covering herself with her arms and a carpeting of rodents, Skitter;  a Grue; a Regent; two blondes who would be copies of the girl in white; four of the civilians, and one she didn’t recognize as any of the civilians she’d absorbed.  The tinker.  Eight of them in all.

Her flesh was knitting together.  Wounds as bad as the ones before, and worse ones.  Eidolon had apparently wanted to spare her captives, because the electricity had only affected her, her flesh as it surrounded her bones.  He had selected that power with their safety in mind.

And there he was, in front of her.  Eidolon, on his knees, covered in bile and blood.

“Why?” he asked, in an eerie, distorted voice.

You want to know why I did this?  Where would I start?  Why would I even tell you, when you tried to kill me, kill Trickster?

She was breathing too hard to respond, even with her nearly bottomless stamina.

“Why isn’t it working?”  He asked.

“I…” she had to stop for breath, “I don’t care.  Whatever it is.”

“I was supposed to get stronger, and there’s nothing.  Nothing at all to reach for.”

She turned, saw Trickster on his hands and knees, covered in the fluids of her vomit.

You weren’t supposed to hurt him.

You were supposed to give me a nice vision, for that matter, she thought.

“Why?” Eidolon asked.

“I don’t care,” she said, again.  She took a deep breath before speaking again, though there was little point, when it was this entire body that was so drained.  “I… it’s your choice.  We continue this fight, and my creatures run, they do whatever damage they can, and it’s weeks before you find every last one… or you let me go.”

Eidolon struggled to his feet.  “Let you go?”

“Three Undersiders down.  Three to go.  Then I give myself up.  Deal stands.”

“What’s to say you keep that promise?”

“Nothing.  But you don’t have another choice, do you?”

Eidolon didn’t respond.

“I’ll even let you call in reinforcements,” she offered.

“Your knight in shining armor took it,” Eidolon spoke.  “The wristband I use for communications.”

Noelle turned to Trickster, and he extended one hand, holding out one of the wristband displays.  Noelle took it.

Her Skitter was watching, looking concerned.

“Don’t fucking look at me,” Noelle spat the words at her minion.

Her Skitter turned her eyes to the ground.

“Trickster said you thrived on this kind of impossible fight.  Prove it.  Or die horribly.  I don’t care.”

Her Skitter looked up and smiled, lopsided.  Half the girl’s face was paralyzed, Noelle realized.  She wondered if the real Skitter had spaces between each of her teeth like that, or the gnarled twist of a nose.

Noelle turned back to Eidolon, waited for his decision.

“Okay,” he intoned.  She gave him a curt nod.

Tentatively, Eidolon slid the armband into place and pressed a button.  “Requesting reinforcements to my location.  In bad shape, need to mop up some clones.”

Her Regent said something she couldn’t make out.  He talked as though his tongue was too large for his mouth.  He had more muscle than fit on his frame, stretching his skin almost comically tight.  It was easy to believe the problem extended to the inside of his mouth.

“And they let me pass uncontested,” she said.

He spoke into the armband again.  “Do not engage target Echidna.”

Understood,”  a woman’s voice came from the armband.

“Echidna?” Noelle asked.

“One of the PRT members coined it,” Eidolon said.  He was eyeing her minions warily.  “Said he had a three year old girl called Noelle, didn’t want to associate her with something like you.”

“What was his last name?”

Eidolon gave her a wary look.  “Meinhardt.”

“Okay,” Noelle said.

Then she turned to run, leaving Trickster behind.

Her nose led her to the remaining Undersiders.

Back home, insofar as she had one.  The same place where she’d been kept contained for weeks.  Coil’s headquarters.

Surfacing from her dream, she’d temporarily supplanted the killer instinct that was demanding Eidolon’s head.  Now that she was closer, her thoughts were afire with thoughts of revenge, and that killer instinct was welling up again.  The idea that she’d maybe had the chance to get back to normal, that her friends had maybe been close to going home, and the Undersiders had taken all that away, it made her want to scream.  To inflict punishments worse than death on them.

Her vision from before lingered.  The entity.  The thing that was taking her over, that had made her a monster, it had an identity, now.  She wouldn’t say it had a face, but it was no longer a vague malevolent force, now.

Part of her felt sympathetic for it, because this thing that shared her body had been wronged by some nebulous circumstance.  In that, at least, they were kindred.

Another part of her was just bewildered.  The memory it had shared with her was so vast, it changed everything, had left her feeling like her problems here were so small, so miniscule.  Even this, this fight, her revenge, in a way it felt artificial, false.

It’s not my world, she thought.  It’s almost like a game.  Killing characters in some false, barbaric setting.

If she felt like she was more in sync with it, now, did that mean she’d lost ground in her perpetual war with the entity, her other half?  So much ground lost, so fast, in the heat of this battle?

She shook her head.  Focus.

The tunnels that Coil had used to move his trucks in and out of the base had been collapsed, and it had been recent.  She could smell the smoke from the explosives.  She spat out a Vista, then another, and another, until she had one that could give her a way in, shrinking the rubble and expanding the corridor.

In her restlessness, unable to shake the idea that her sanity was slipping away moment by moment, she pushed her way through the last length of the rubble, absorbing it into herself and spitting it out behind her, moving through it as though she were a thick fluid; even her bones dissolved when needed.  The only thing that slowed her down were the capes she’d stored within herself.  Each of the three Undersiders, the tinker, and the girl in white.  She used her strength to wedge gaps sufficient to squeeze the individual organs through.

She brute-forced her way through the last few feet of the barrier, and paced her way into the interior, the ground shaking with her footfalls.  The vault door was still open, crumpled, and the entire interior was lit only by red emergency lights.

Tattletale was on the metal walkway, hands gripping the railing.  Bitch was on the ground, with no less than seven dogs around her, each of varying size.

Noelle could smell the Protectorate and Wards members moving towards her location.  She was put in mind of the memory her entity had granted her only a little while ago, of the night her team had passed the qualifiers for nationals.  She’d passed the point of no return, and now the enemy forces were collapsing in on her.

She smiled a little.  She would almost thank Tattletale for this, if she wasn’t so eager to rend the girl limb from limb, to wipe the smile from her face and hear her screams.  All that aside, Noelle hadn’t felt more like herself in a long time, and she had these circumstances to thank.

The difference between this scenario and that one, really, was that the reinforcements were minutes away.  This fight wouldn’t last that long.

“Well then,” Tattletale grinned.  Her tightening grip on the railing betrayed the emotion she was trying to hide.  “Come on.  Do your worst.”

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