Scarab 25.6

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Khonsu allowed himself to be struck by Alexandria, using the impact to float back at a higher speed.  The act gave him the positioning he needed to draw his spheres closer to the Jaguars’ contingent.

A lack of coordination, a simple error, and ten capes were caught, to be killed in moments.  Moments they experienced as weeks, months and years.  Some had brought food and water.  I almost pitied those capes.

Moord Nag appeared, riding her shadow’s skull like a surfer might ride a wave, except there wasn’t any joy in the act.  Her arms remained still at her sides, her head not fully erect, eyes almost looking down, as if she watched the skull with one eye and Khonsu only merited her peripheral vision.

She didn’t wear armor.  Her top was a simple t-shirt with the sleeves removed and bottom half cut off.  There was a faded image of a rock band on the front, her bra straps showing through the gaping armholes.  Her dress was ankle length, frayed a little at the edges.  Her feet were bare, her hair in braids and tied back behind her neck.

The skull dipped close to the ground, and the warlord stepped off as though she was getting off an escalator.  The shadow’s head had taken on the appearance of a serpent’s skull, complete with fangs, and the body was a column behind it, stirring around Moord Nag without touching her.

It lunged, and fragments flew off Khonsu’s shoulder as the  shadow made contact, rubbed against him.  It was as though the shadow’s body were a series of circular saws, a rasp.

Khonsu’s field made contact with the shadow’s body, catching the middle of its body.  Moord Nag didn’t even flinch as her serpent was trisected, the middle section dragged away.

The serpent was winding around Khonsu now, maximizing the surface area that was making contact.  Khonsu elected to ignore it, floating forward to put himself in reach of more of the defending capes.

Califa de Perro used his massive spear to sweep a squadron out of the way before striking the ground, using the impact to throw himself back out of the way.  He landed and straightened.  He was shirtless, and had no doubt oiled his skin, though dust had collected on it, turning him a gray-bronze.  He had bracers with fur tufts near the elbows, and a dog mask that covered the upper half of his face, extending a distance forward.  The only other affectation he wore that made his outfit resemble a costume was the mount at his waist, too large to be a belt buckle, with a molded dog’s face jutting a rather generous handspan in front of him.  He smiled, his teeth white and perfect, as the capes he’d batted aside climbed to their feet.

Apparently deeming that the circles weren’t working in this situation, Khonsu banished all three.  Moord Nag’s shadow was freed, and rejoined the remainder of the mass.  Khonsu’s forward advance was momentarily paused by the impact.  He created the circles anew, placing them in spots where people at the epicenter couldn’t move fast enough to escape.

That was the moment I advanced.

Weaver, how the fuck did you get to South America?”  It was Tecton.  “The Director is flipping out.”

“Someone gave me a ride.  Chevalier will explain later.”

You completely dropped off the radar for half an hour.  We were convinced someone had come after you to take revenge for the work we’ve been doing cleaning up.

“Not revenge.  It doesn’t matter.  I-” I stopped short as a fresh circle appeared.  The placement, the timing… Legend had been caught.

Weaver?

Legend became a blur within the field.  Then, in a matter of two or three seconds, the entire space filled with a red light.  It slowly became white.  Khonsu’s power apparently affected all of the space above the bubble, reaching into the stratosphere.  It was like a pillar of light.

Eidolon created a forcefield, much like the one he’d fashioned to contain Phir Sē’s time bomb, only this one was open on one side, a ‘u’ shape with the opening facing Khonsu.

Khonsu seemed to notice, because he moved the column.  It intersected Eidolon’s forcefield, and Khonsu’s power won out.  The forcefield collapsed.  This wouldn’t be an effect Eidolon could contain.

I’m in the middle of something, Tecton.  I’m wearing the same camera I had at the last fight, so ask for access to the feed, or get over here.  We think we’ve got a way to pin him in place.”

Right.”

Eidolon was shouting something I couldn’t make out.  Alexandria joined the fray, fighting to keep Khonsu in place, pummeling the Endbringer, dodging the columns that closed in on her.

It was impossible to say exactly how he did it, but Eidolon managed to catch the light before it could turn the battlefield into a smoking ruin.  It condensed into a ball, swinging around past Eidolon as if he were a planet and it was in orbit, and then flew into Khonsu and Alexandria with a slingshot turn.

It wasn’t a long, steady stream like the one in New Delhi had been.  It was a white bullet sliding out in a heartbeat, cutting past Khonsu, Alexandria and a good mile of landscape, before driving into the ocean at the horizon’s edge.  Steam billowed out explosively.

Eidolon crossed the battlefield in a flash, weaving to the left of one of the two remaining columns of altered time, the right of the next, and erected a wall to keep the steam from frying the flesh from our bones.

It couldn’t have been precognition that let him move that fast.  Enhanced reflexes?  Something else entirely?

And he’d been saying his power had been getting weaker.

Alexandria had been stripped of much of her costume, but she fought on without a trace of modesty.  Legend, too, seemed unfazed, unaffected by however many years he’d spent in Khonsu’s trap.

And Khonsu, for his part, hadn’t suffered nearly as much as Behemoth had.  Five or six layers had been stripped away, and what was left was glimmering with a light that danced around the outside of his body.

The hue and intensity of it matched the light at the edges of his time fields.  It slowly faded.

I reached the battlefield proper, but lingered near the back, beyond the reach of the time fields.  This wasn’t a scenario where I’d be on the offensive.  At best, I was a helping hand.  My bugs spread out over the area, and I was able to track the movements of the time fields, the combatants.  I started drawing out the spools of silk I had on my costume, extending them between me and the various combatants, using the arms on my flight suit to manipulate them and ensure that neither I nor my threads got tangled up.

Spider silk extended between me and the various capes around me.  These guys were South American.  Three out of four would be in league with the various criminal factions and cartels.  One in four were ‘heroes’.  I couldn’t tell the difference between them.  The cues and details in their costumes weren’t ones I was familiar with.  The choices in color, style, attitude and more were too similar.  A cultural gap I couldn’t wrap my head around, in any event.

Things were confused further by the fact that, by many accounts, the villains running or serving within the cartels were the ones sponsored by the government.  The ‘heroes’, in turn, were rogue agents.

Califa de Perro, King of Dogs, howled and joined the fight, ready to capitalize on the success.  In the same instant, I sensed my bugs being eliminated.  Not dying, per se, but being eradicated from existence.  The ones who’d been following after the column had been caught inside.

It hadn’t changed direction.  It had stopped, in preparation for a change in direction.  I didn’t even have to look to see Khonsu’s target.  I caught an earring of the King of Dogs with my silk, tugged.

He stopped, yelping as he looked in my direction.

“Run!” my voice was no doubt lost in the cacophony.  I tugged again.

He used his spear to move.  A second later, the time field veered into the space he’d just occupied.

It was moving faster.  A third circle appeared, and the movement had accelerated.

Sensing that Khonsu was about to beat a retreat, the Thanda made their move.  A piece of rubble descended from the heavens, striking Khonsu with a force that knocked half of the defending capes off their feet, myself included.

Another of the Thanda used their power to anchor themselves to the rotating circles.  They floated through the air, equidistant to the circle, effectively untouchable, waiting, watching.

When they reached a certain point in the rotation, they caught a small hill so it could join them, anchored to them as they were anchored to the circle.  It swung into Khonsu like a wrecking ball.

The falling star, such as it was, had broken through more of the exterior.  Not a lot, but some.  As the dust cleared, I could see glimmers of light, dancing through the space beneath the injury.

It was the moment I realized that the motherfucker was reinforced.  He had forcefields set between layers, so he couldn’t be wiped out in a matter of good hits like Behemoth had been.  It was eerily reminiscent of Glory Girl.

Still, he was feeling the hurt.  Moord Nag’s shadow ripped into the site of the injury, widening it, danced back as Khonsu swung one arm at the skull, clipping and shattering one antler, and then lunged again, driving itself into another injured area.

It caught Khonsu off-balance, and he landed on his back on the ground.  The shadow flowed over him, the skull butting him in the face to knock him down once again as he tried to rise.  It simultaneously extended out, reaching across the battlefield to push Moord Nag back out of the way of a swiftly approaching Khonsu-field.  She stumbled a little as she was deposited a hundred feet back, but she didn’t really react.  The shadow had more personality than she did, here.

Khonsu had apparently had enough, because he extended his hands out to either side, lying with his back to the ground.

The Thanda member who was rotating around the Endbringer reached out, and each and every one of the defending capes was swept up in his power, drifting counter-clockwise around the Endbringer.  My feet lifted off the ground as he rose, and all of us rose with him.

The Endbringer teleported, and thanks to the Thanda, we were collectively teleported with it.  My bugs, Moord Nag’s shadow, and several tinker-made mechanical soldiers were left behind, as we found ourselves on a beach riddled with stones the size of my fist.  Silos bigger than most apartment buildings loomed just over the hill.

The fight resumed in heartbeats, capes closing the distance to fight the instant the Thanda deposited them on the ground.

My phone rang. I felt only alarm for a brief second, my blood running cold.

I sighed and struck a key on the keyboard.  The window with the video footage of the Khonsu fight closed down.

I let the phone ring twice more before I made myself check the screen.  Tecton.

I wouldn’t pick up for most others, I thought.  Hell, I’d have left the phone off if I didn’t fear that there’d be a critical call.  I’d seen most of it anyways.  I answered the phone.

Weaver, where the fuck did you go?

I smiled a little to myself.  It was an eerie, amusing parallel to what he had said in the video, except he was a little more frayed, a little more weary with me.

“You know where I’m going,” I said.  “So do the bosses.”

We haven’t even- you’re going to screw this up for yourself.  Why now?

“It’s fine, Tecton,” I said.

It’s not fine, it’s…

“They don’t have to like it.  I don’t think it matters if they don’t.”

He seemed to be lost for words at that.

I didn’t push the offensive.  I’d been working on that in the therapy sessions, not treating social interactions like fights.  Calm, patient, I dragged my finger down the side of the screen.  The text scrolled down.

Canberra, Feb 24th, 2011 // Simurgh
Notes:  Scion no-show.  Legend/Eidolon victory.
Target/Consequence: See file Polisher Treatise.  See file Lord Walston and file King’s Men.

Brockton Bay, May 15th, 2011 // Leviathan
Notes:  Scion victory.
Target/Consequence: Noelle?  See file EchidnaNo contact made.

New Delhi, July 26th, 2011 // Behemoth
Notes: Scion Victory, ENDBRINGER KILL.
Target/consequence: See file Phir.

Flight BA178, November 25th, 2011 // SimurghNotes: Loss?  Plane destroyed, Eidolon/Pretender drive off Endbringer.  Marks start of guerilla tactics from Simurgh and Leviathan.
Target/Consequence: Incognito Chinese Union-Imperial heir.  See files:
America/CUI conflict 2012 A
UK/CUI Conflict 2012 A
America/CUI conflict 2012 B
Yàngbǎn

Indiscriminate, January 20th, 2012 // Khonsu
Notes: First appearance.  Scion/Moord Nag victory.  List of all one hundred and sixty three targets and casualty numbers here.

Lüderitz, April 2nd, 2012 // Leviathan
Notes:  Loss?  Driven away by Eidolon.  Secondary targets Swakopmund, Gamba, Port-Gentil and Sulima.
Target/Consquence: Moord Nag.  Guerilla tactics continue, losses in notable but not devastating numbers, but his target survives.

Manchester, June 5th, 2012 // Simurgh
Notes: Defeat, no kill.
Target/consequence: still unknown.  Tie to Lord Walston?

Tecton interrupted my scrolling, finally speaking.  “I kind of hoped we’d gotten to the point where we were okay, that you’d trust me.

“I trust you,” I said.  “But-”

But,” he said, echoing me as he cut me off.  “Take a second and think about what you say next.  Grace asked me to call because, I’d like to think, I’m a pretty calm, laid back guy.  All things considered, anyways.  But I’m on the verge of being pissed at you, and saying the wrong thing now will push this from me being angry in terms of something professional to me being pissed because of something personal.”

“I-”

Think for a second before you talk, Taylor.  You start talking right away and you’ll find your way to a really good argument, and I’ll concede this argument, this discussion, but it won’t get us any closer to a resolution.”

“Right,” I said.  “Thinking.”

I’ll be on the line.

I mulled over his words.  I was anxious on a number of levels.  Terrified might be the better word.  I stood on a precipice, and the meeting I was running the risk of missing was only part of it.  I continued scrolling down as I thought, as if the individual entries could give structure to my thoughts.

Rio de Janeiro, August 15th, 2012 // Leviathan
Notes: Guerilla strike, mind games.  Travels from site to strike Cape Town and Perth after faking retreats.
Target/Consequence: no target apparent.

I stopped at the entry that followed.  I clicked it.  The one for Bucharest.

The video box opened up, but it was dark, the camera covered by my hair at the outset. There was only audio.

Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.”  It was Grace.

Are you hurt?”  Tecton’s voice.

Golem is.  Shit.

The image wobbled as the camera mounted on my mask did, and the me on the camera moved the hair aside, allowing the camera to record the video.  The streets were empty, old stately buildings loomed close on all sides, my bugs crawling along the face of each of them.

There was a beep.  The camera was mounted on the right side of my face, the armband on my left wrist, so the glimpse was fleeting.  A yellow screen.

“Heads up!” the me behind the camera called out.

For what!?” it was Annex responding, breathless.  “Oh!  Oh shit!

It was only a second later that it became clear just why Annex was swearing.  The city shifted.  Roads narrowed, doors splintered and were virtually spat out of the frames as the door frames themselves narrowed.

The image on the camera veered.  I’d seen the shift coming, and the bugs on the faces of the buildings let me know that the attack was coming a fraction of a second in advance.  As buildings on either side of me lunged closer together by a scale of five or six feet each, spikes sprung from the elaborate architecture, from gargoyle’s mouths at either side of a short flight of stairs, from the sign that bore a store’s name, a blade rising from a manhole cover… ten or twelve spikes, for me alone, each fifteen or twenty feet long.  They criss-crossed, came from every direction.

The camera had gone very still.  Then, slowly, it moved again, examining the surroundings.  Blades and prongs surrounded me, poised ready to prick and gouge like the thorns of a rosebush, all around me.  My fingers rose to the camera’s view, wet with blood.

I’d only dodged as much as I had by virtue of the ability to sense where the bugs that clung to the blades were moving, and enough luck to be able to move into a space that escaped the various thrusts.  The blood had been from a glancing blow, along the underside of my right breast.  I traced it now, as I sat in front of the monitor, feeling the spot over where the scar would be.  The fucking things were sharp enough to pierce my armor and silk both.

I could remember my outrage at that fact, the stupid, silly comment that had run through my mind, that I’d refused to say in fear that this video would somehow leak as well.

Can’t believe the blade hit such a small target.

Everyone okay?” I asked, on the screen.

I listened to the various replies of confirmation.  I followed by relating how the armor I’d made them wasn’t sure protection.

Then the camera’s view shifted as I freed myself of the spikes I’d so narrowly avoided –mostly avoided-.  I took two steps forward, and then threw myself to the ground as a figure sprung from the wall, a woman, moving so fast she could barely be glimpsed.  The camera veered again as I rolled on the ground, avoiding two blades that plunged from the underside of her ‘body’ to the ground, punching into the earth.

She had carried forward, uncaring that I’d dodged, slamming into another wall, and she had left a piece of herself in her wake.  Or a piece of what she’d made herself out of, anyways.  She’d become the city, and this small fraction of herself had been formed out of the light gray brick that formed the building to my right.  She’d left the pillar behind, three feet across, barring my path.

My head whipped around as I followed her progress.  One more of the rushing figures appeared a block down, two more behind me, simultaneous.  A pillar, then a short wall and another pillar, respectively.

Heroes, be advised,” Dragons A.I.’s voice came over the armband, “The Endbringer Bohu appears to follow a strict pattern.  The city is condensed in twenty-four minute intervals, followed almost immediately by the miniature Endbringers producing barriers, walls, pillars, blocking apertures and more.  The next phase, occurring gradually over the next ten minutes, will produce deadfalls, pitfalls and a smoothing of terrain features.  Following that, we should expect more complex mechanical traps to appear, after which point the cycle will start anew.  Be advised that she attacks with the spikes as she enters each phase.  Disparities in reports suggest that she is feinting in some cases, feigning an inability to do so.

Good news,” Annex said, over our comm system.  “She can’t affect what I’m affecting.  Bad news is I wasn’t entirely submerged.  I’m bleeding pretty badly.

We’ll get to you,” Grace promised.

I shut my eyes for a moment.  Empty promise, I thought.

There was a distant sound of something massive crumbling.  I now knew it was Tecton, tearing through the area.  I’d be using bugs to direct him to trapped citizens.  I was avoiding the terrain features, he was simply plowing his way through them, doing maximum damage.

The image veered as I approached an archway the Endbringer had created.  I paused before entering, circumvented it by going over, avoiding the traps I’d noted with my smallest bugs.

I could see her.  Bohu.  She was a tower, spearing into the sky, gaunt and stretched thin to the point where her head was five times longer than it was wide.  Her body widened as it reached towards the ground, reached into it, extending roots and melding into the landscape.  Her narrow eyes were like beacons, cutting through a cloud cover that was virtually racing towards the horizon in the gale-force winds.  Her hair, in tendrils as thick around as my arm, shifted only slightly, heavy as stone, despite everything.  She dwarfed the other Endbringers in scale, one thousand three hundred feet tall, and her body extended into the city.  I couldn’t even guess at the radius she controlled.

Beside her was her sister, Tohu, who would have been almost imperceptible if it weren’t for the glow around her.  Tohu, with three faces.  Legend’s white and blue mask, Eidolon’s glowing shroud, and Kazikli Bey’s red helmet, each twisted to be feminine, framed by the long hair that wove and wound together to form her body.  It condensed into cords and ribbons, and the ribbons and cords, in turn, condensed into her chest and lower body, two torsos made with overlapping versions of the hairstuff, small breasted, with only one pair of legs at the lower half.  The colors were extensions of the costumes she was copying, predominantly white here, but with streaks of crimson, green and sky blue highlighting the ridges and edges.

Her four hands were long-fingered, claw-tipped extremities in shapes that served as mockeries of the people she was mimicking.  Two of Eidolon’s hands with the blue-green glow around them were holding a forcefield up to protect her sister, while a white-gloved one focused on using Legend’s lasers to target capes who thought flying up and out of the city was a good idea.  Not that it was easy to fly in winds like this.  Not the sorts of winds that an aerokinetic like Kazikli Bey could make, capable of slicing someone with air compressed into razorlike ribbons.  A hand in a red gauntlet was gesturing, redirecting the wind to blow down, across, and in crosswise currents that formed brief-lived whirlwinds.

The me in the video made a small sound as she took the brunt of that cutting wind, hopped down from the arch, entering the city once more.  It was just now starting her third phase, the pitfalls and deadfalls, eliminating cover, cleaning up rubble, and slowly, painfully crushing anyone who had been trapped in either of the previous two phases.  If crushing wasn’t possible, she would apparently settle for suffocation.

I closed down the video.  There wasn’t anything more to hear in the exchange between the Wards, and it wasn’t a good memory.

Another counter to Scion.  All too often, he was late to arrive, and once Tohu had chosen three faces and Bohu had claimed the battlefield, well, the fight was more or less over.

I could hear,” Tecton said.  “You were watching one of the Endbringer videos.

“Yeah,” I said.

Thoughts?

“We’ve been through a lot,” I said.  “I owe you a lot.”

And we owe you in turn.  We’re a team, Taylor.  You have to recognize that.  You know that.  We’ve been together far, far longer than you were with the Undersiders.

I sighed and scrolled down.

Bucharest, October 10th, 2012 // Tohu Bohu
Notes: First appearance.  Loss.  Tohu selects Legend, Eidolon, Kazikli Bey.  Target/Consequence: see file Kazikli Bey.

Paris, December 19th, 2012 // Simurgh
Notes: Victory by Scion.
Target/Consequence: see file The Woman in Blue.  See file United Capes.

Indiscriminate, February 5th, 2013 // Khonsu
Notes:  Victory by Eidolon/The Guild.  List of the twenty-nine targets here.

Los Angeles, May 17th, 2013 // Tohu Bohu
Notes: Victory by Eidolon/The Guild.  Tohu selects Alexandria, Phir Sē, Lung.  Target/Consequence: unknown.

We’d participated in more than half of those fights.  My eyes fell on the clock in the top right hand corner of the screen.

8:04am, June 19th, 2013

Listen,” Tecton said.  “I’m not demanding anything here.  I just need a straight answer, so I know what to tell the others.  If you say you’re not going to be here, that’s- I’ll understand.  Except not really, but I’ll…

He trailed off.

“You’ll accept it,” I said.

I’m going to lie and say yes,” Tecton answered me.

I looked at the list of recent Endbringer fights, flicking my finger on the screen’s edge to scroll up, then down.

“I’ll be there at two,” I told him.

You will?”  He almost sounded surprised.

“We’ve been through too much, and you’re right.  I can’t throw it all away.”

I’m glad.

“See you in a couple of hours,” I said.

See you, Taylor.  Have a happy birthday.

“Thank you,” I said, hanging up.

Eighteen, I thought.  I stood and stretched, swaying a little as the craft changed course.  A two-fingered swipe on the screen showed the craft’s course and our ETA.  Another two-fingered swipe returned me to my desktop.

C/D: Endbringer
28:18:44:34

C/D: End of the World
-16:21:56:50

Sixteen days late.  The only person more freaked out than me was Golem.

I’d revised the countdown clock to assume that Jack Slash would appear on the date he’d set with Golem.  June fourth was the deadline he’d given, for Theo to find him, to kill him, or the madman would kill a thousand people in some spectacular fashion, ending with Aster and Theo himself.

No appearance, no mass murders.

June twelfth was the date the Slaughterhouse Nine had left Brockton Bay.  The day that was supposed to start the two year countdown.

It wasn’t supposed to be precise, but watching the clock tick with each second beyond the supposed deadline, knowing that something could be happening in a place I wasn’t aware of, the mere thought made my heartbeat quicken, an ugly feeling rise in my gut.

Dinah had confirmed to the PRT that things were still in motion, that it was imminent, but the idea was swiftly losing traction.

I’d heard people joke about it.  PRT employees who had likened Dinah to the evangelical preachers who promised an endtime, then scrabbled to make up excuses when the date in question passed.

My bugs could sense the insects within the city as the craft descended.  Sand billowed in dramatic clouds the Dragonfly settled on the beach.

It wasn’t my ship, but the name was a joke, due to the degree Dragon had been sending me this way and that.  Defiant was busy now, so it was mostly her doing the chaperoning, when the Protectorate couldn’t oblige.

The ramp finished descending, and I stepped down onto the beach, feeling the sand shift beneath the soft soles of my costumed feet.  I could have flown or floated, but then I wouldn’t have felt like I was truly here.

I ascended a set of wooden stairs to rise from the beach to the street proper, joining the scattered residents who lived here.  Men and women on their way to work, starting their day, children on their way to school, many in their Immaculata school uniforms.

I walked, taking it in.  The smells, the feel, even the subtleties in pace and general atmosphere, they were familiar, comfortable.

Not good, but they were things I associated with home.

It was an unfamiliar area, but I had studied the satellite maps.  I no longer wore my tracking device, but the PRT no doubt knew exactly where I was, for just that reason.  If they couldn’t monitor the Dragonfly’s location, they would have found it on my computer.

I could see additions in the distance, the white tower that speared into the sky, the blocky, windowless structure that contained the scar.  It wasn’t visible, but I knew I could make my way to the crater and see how they’d drawn up a border around it, done construction work underground to contain the contents and keep the water from eating away at the city infrastructure.  I’d read up some on changes in Brockton Bay, had heard more from my dad in our regular visits.

Here, the area was marked with graffiti, always in the same variants, no two pieces alike.  Devils, castles, angels, hearts.  I suspected the arrangements and combinations meant something.  The buildings here were new, quaint, the layout intuitive.

And in the midst of it, they’d wedged in space for an addition.  It made for a break in the flow of the footpaths.  It forced an abrupt turn, a hesitation as you tried to work out the way to your destination.  Accord had drawn out the city plans, and the Undersiders had altered it to make room for this.  For a marking.

It fit, somehow, the way it broke the rhythm, the way it didn’t really jibe.

The fact, I thought with a slight smile, that it irritated.

Two masks, resting against one another, one almost resting inside the other.  One laughing, the other not frowning, but the expression blank.  They were cast in bronze, set on a broad pedestal, four feet high.

I approached, my eyes falling on the objects that had been placed on the pedestal.  Wedding rings, a weather-beaten gold that didn’t match the bronze.  Twenty, thirty.  I might have obtained an exact count, but I didn’t want to dirty it with my bugs.

I turned, looking around, and saw how the buildings surrounding the edifice were marked with graffiti.  Castles and landscapes with blue sky above.

“I thought I’d see you first, Regent,” I said.  “A kind of apology, for not coming sooner.  For not being there at the funeral, if there was one.”

The empty eyeholes of the solemn mask stared down at me.

“I’ve thought about a lot of things in the time I’ve been gone.  Framing stuff, stepping back to consider just how fucked up it was that I was spending time with you, condoning what you’d done.  You took over small-time gang lords, I know.  Took over Imp, even.  So why did I let it happen?”

The wind blew my hair across my face.  I noticed that there were people staring, looking at me from the other side of the street.  Whatever.  It didn’t matter anymore.

“Then I think about how you went out, and I think… you know, it doesn’t balance out.  One selfless deed, after all the shit you did?  No.  But that’s your cross to bear, not mine.  I don’t believe in an afterlife or anything like that, but, well, I guess that’s the mark you left.  When we die, all that’s left are the memories, the place we take in people’s hearts.”

I reached out to touch one of the wedding rings.  It was partially melted into the surface of the edifice.  I imagined someone could strike it free with a hammer.

Not that I would do that.

“Sounds so corny when I say that, but it’s how I have to frame this, you know?  You lived the life you did, with a lot of bad, a little bit of horrific, and some good, and now you’re gone, and people will remember different parts of that.  And I think that would sound arrogant, except, well, we’re pretty similar on that score, aren’t we?  It’s where we sort of had common ground, that I didn’t have with any of the others.  We’ve been monstrous.”

I let my finger trace the edge of the wedding ring.

“I’ve hurt people for touching those.”  The voice sounded just behind me, in my ear.  I jumped, despite the promises to myself that I wouldn’t.

Then again, she wasn’t someone you could anticipate.

“Imp,” I said.

I turned around to look at her.

She’d been attractive in that dangerous too-much-for-her-age way before, and to judge by her body alone, she’d grown fully into it.  She was statuesque, wearing the same costume I’d given her two years ago, when she’d been shorter.  A quick glance suggested she’d cut off portions to adjust, wearing high boots and elbow length gloves to cover the gap, and wore a cowl to cover the gaps in the shoulders and neck.  It might have looked terrible, but it fit.  Her mask was the same as it had been, gray, noseless, long, disappearing into the folds of the cowl as the fabric sat around the lower half of her face, with only hints of teeth at the sides marking the mouth.  The eyes were angled, with black lenses, curved horns arching over her straightened black hair.

“Tattletale said you’d be back today.”

“I figured she’d know,” I said.

“Was it worth it?  Leaving?”

I hesitated.  “Yes.”

I hesitated, I thought.

“I told the others.  They’re on their way.”

“Okay,” I answered.  Fast response.

No.  Too fast.  I reached out with bugs, and I sensed the crowd, the way they were standing.

Here and there, there were people who shouldn’t have been paying attention to the scene.  A young girl inside one of the buildings with the graffiti-mural on the exterior, holding a baby.  A boy was standing a little too far away to see, but he didn’t approach to get a better view.

There were a small handful of others.

I looked at the rings on the memorial.  “Heartbreaker’s.”

“He collected them.  I uncollected them.”

“I’d heard he died.”

Imp nodded slowly.  “Said I would.  I told you I’d kill his dad for him.”

An admission.  I felt a kind of disappointment mingled with relief.  Not a set of feelings I wanted to explore.  I suspected the sense of relief would disappear under any kind of scrutiny.

“People keep prying them loose, but there’s usually someone nearby to keep an eye out and get a photo or description.  I track them down and bring the rings back.  Once every few months, anyways.  Kind of a pain.”

“It’s how he would want to be remembered, I think,” I said.

“Yeah.”

No snark, no humor?  I wondered how much of that had been a reflection of her friendship and almost-romance with Regent.

“And you recruited the kids,” I said.  I used my bugs to track the bystanders, my eyes to note more who fit the criteria.  Boys and girls, some narrow in physique, most with black curls, others with that pretty set of features that had marked Regent and Cherish.  Some were fit on all counts, others mingled two of the qualities and skipped a third.  Heartbreaker’s offspring, unmistakably.

“I recruited some.  They needed a place to go, and it’s kind of nice, having them around,” Imp said.  “They’re good enough at fending for themselves.  One or two, you get the feeling they’re almost like him.  In a good way.”

“I’m glad,” I replied.  Glad on more counts than I’m willing to say.

Then, as I realized that any number of those kids might have taken after their father in the powers department, I was struck by the thought that they might know that, that they might report that relief I was experiencing back to their de-facto leader.

If that was the case, they would also report the way I felt ill at ease, just a little creeped out, as I eyed Imp’s followers.

Imp was eyeing me.  I cocked my head a little, the best expression I could give without taking off my mask, hoping it conveyed curiosity.

“I like you better than her,” Imp said.

Like me better than who?  I wondered.  Than Lisa?  Rachel?  I didn’t get a chance to ask.  I was distracted as I sensed an approach and turned to look.

“Bitch is here,” Imp said, noting the turn of my head and the figure at the end of the street, ignoring traffic as her dogs made their way to us.

Rachel, I thought.

“She’s been going to the fights, helping out here when we send for her.  I haven’t been going to the fights, so I dunno how much you’ve seen her there.  She’s been checking in on me, wandering around here with her dogs and scaring the everloving shit out of people until I come to say hi, then she leaves for another few weeks.  I’ve probably seen her the most.”

“I’ve barely seen her at all,” I said.  Even with the Endbringer attacks.

The dogs weren’t running, and it took me a moment to realize why.  There was one dog that was larger than the rest, with half of a bison’s skull strapped over the left side of its face, the horn arching out to one side.  Armor and bones had been strapped on elsewhere.  It didn’t seem like something Rachel would have done, dressing up her dog.  One of her underlings?

It’s Angelica, I realized.  The dog lumbered forward, moving at a good clip, but certainly not the speed the dogs were capable of when they went all-out.  Rachel was controlling the speed of the other dogs to allow the wounded animal to keep up.

She was riding Bastard, I recognized.  It was different from the others, symmetrical, the alterations flowing into each other better.  Two other dogs accompanied her.  Bentley wasn’t among them.

The onlooking crowd, Imp’s underlings included, sort of hurried on their way as the dogs approached Regent’s monument.  Rachel hopped down as they reached our side of the street.

Rachel was taller, I noted, browned by sun, the jacket I’d given her tied around her waist, a t-shirt and jeans, with calloused feet instead of shoes or boots.  Her auburn hair, it seemed, hadn’t been cut in the two years since I’d seen her.  Here and there, hair twisted up and out of the veritable mane of hair, no doubt where tangled bits had been cut away.  Only a sliver of her face and one eye were really visible through the hair, a heavy brow, an eye that seemed lighter in contrast to the darkened skin.

And damn, I thought, she’d put on muscle.  I’d gained some, working out every day, but even with her frame and her natural inclination towards fitness, I suspected she must have been working hard, all day, every day.  Maybe not quite what a man might have accomplished, but close.

“Rachel,” I said.  I was overly conscious of how we’d parted, of the way I’d left the group and the awkward conversation during the New Delhi fight.  “Listen-”

She wrapped me in a hug, her arms folding around me.

I was so caught off guard that I didn’t know how to respond.  I put my arms around her in return.

She smelled like wet dog and sweat, and like pine needles and fresh air.  It was enough that I knew the new environment had been good to her.

“They told me to,” she said, breaking the hug.

They wouldn’t be the Undersiders, I gathered.  Her people, then.

“You didn’t have to, but it’s… it was a nice welcome,” I said.

“Didn’t know what to say, so they told me to just do.  I wasn’t sure what to do, so I asked and they told me to hug you if I wanted to hug you and hit you if I wanted to hit you.  Yeah.”

I’m guessing she only just decided, I thought.  I’d been gambling by wearing my Weaver costume, but then, I hadn’t expected them to converge on me like this.  I would have changed before seeing Rachel.

“It’s good?” I asked.  “Over there?”

“They’re building, it’s annoying to get in and out.  But its good.  Tattletale made us bathrooms.  We’ve been building the cabins around them.”

“Bathrooms are good,” I responded.

She nodded agreement, as if I hadn’t just said something awkward and lame.

“I remember you complaining about the lack in your letter,” I added.

“Yeah,” she said.

Wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, to carry on a conversation with her.

“Others are checkpointing in,” Imp said.  “Just to give you a heads up.”

“Checkpointing?”

“Teleporting, kinda.  Limited.  Um.  We’ve only got a second, but you should know in advance that they’re married.”

“Who?”

But Imp didn’t respond.

Foil and Parian appeared in a nearby building, the same building the girl with the baby was watching from.  Two others had arrived with them.

Them?  I wondered, mildly surprised.  Then again, it made sense.

They approached, holding hands, and a bear managed to form itself from the roll of cloth Parian had bound to her back, without anyone, the stuffed creature included, really breaking stride.  They’d barely changed, but for a little more height.  Foil carried the crossbow that the PRT was apparently maintaining for her, and Parian had donned less dark colors, though the hair remained black.

The two capes with them each wore red gloves as part of their costume.  I knew who they were from the stuff on the forums.  The Red Hands.  The alliance had gone through, apparently.

“So.  You draw me over to the dark side, and then you flip,” Parian commented.

“I hope it’s working out,” I said.

She shrugged.  “It isn’t not working out.”

“We’re fine,” Foil said.  “I suppose I should thank you.  If you hadn’t left, I don’t think I could’ve come.”

“You may be the only person to thank me for leaving,” I said.

“Don’t be so sure,” Imp added.

“Huh?”

“Nevermind.”

Tattletale arrived next.  Grue appeared at the location with more Red Hands as she stepped outside.  Where the others had been modest, approaching with a kind of leisure, she almost skipped for the last leg of the approach.  She hugged me briefly, then kissed me on the cheeks.  The mandibles, really, where the armor framed my jaw.  Whatever.

Of everyone, I was least surprised at the changes with her.  Her hair had been cut shorter, and she wore a mask that covered the entire upper half of her face, coming to a point at the nose.  Her shoulders, elbows and knees had small shoulderpads on them, and there was a definition to the horizontal and vertical lines of black that marked her lavender costume.  She wore a laser pistol at her hip, which bounced against her leg as she ran.  PRT issue.  Extremely illegal to own.

“Jerk!” she said, after she’d kissed me on the cheeks, “You’ve barely responded to my fan mail!”

“It’s kind of hard to reply to it without drawing attention,” I said.  “You don’t know how much I wanted the details on what’s being going on here.”

“Jerk,” she said, but she smiled.  “But I should warn you-”

She didn’t get a chance to finish before I saw.

Grue approached.  Of everyone, he was the least changed.  Physically, anyways.

But the Red Hands walked in formation around him, and one, a young woman, walked in step with him, close enough that their arms touched.  They could have held hands and it would have been just as blatant.

I’d faced Endbringers, the Slaughterhouse Nine, I’d taken down who knew how many bad guys… and I had no idea how to face this.

He’d moved on, and I was glad he’d moved on.  He maybe needed someone to lean on, to give him emotional support, and maybe she was that.  I told myself that, I tried to believe it, but I was jealous and hurt and bewildered and…

And I bit back the emotion, approaching, ready to hug.

When he extended a hand for me to shake, I had to fight twice as hard to suppress any reaction to the hurt.  I could tell myself that he’d at least done it before I’d raised my arms to hug him, but… yeah.

I took his hand and shook it.  Then, on impulse, I pulled on it, drawing him forward and down a little, and put my other arm around his shoulders.  Half of a hug, half a shake.

“Happy birthday,” he said, after I stepped back.

The others echoed him.  Welcomes and happy birthdays.  He’d remembered, but… that choice of words.

I eyed the young woman.  She was a rogue, in the dashing villain sense, wearing a mask around the eyes, and old-fashioned clothes with lace around her ample cleavage.  Her jacket and slacks were festooned with belts, bearing utility pouches and knives.  The glove that wasn’t red had a knife attached to each fingertip, a brace around it to keep everything in place.

She met my own gaze with one of her own, a narrow, hard look.

“Oh.  Skit- Taylor, meet Cozen.  Second in command to the Red Hand.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.  They don’t really match.

“Pleasure’s mine,” she said.  “I’m meeting a legend, after all.”

Awkwardness followed.

And in the midst of that, Imp’s statements finally caught up with me.

I like you better than her.

Don’t be so sure, Imp had said.  Well, Cozen would be happy I’d left.

Then, with a realization like a dash of cold water to the face, I remembered.

They’re married.

“Taylor,” Tattletale said, rescuing me before I could say something dumb.  She hooked her arm around mine and led me around and away.  “Much to talk about.”

“The end of the world,” I said.  “Endbringers.  Finding Jack, or the designer-”

Safe topics, somehow more reassuring than this.

“I don’t know,” she said.  “Everyone’s playing it safe, keeping things quiet.”

“What do we do?”

“What was the plan?” she asked.  “When you came?”

“I’ve got six hours before I need to be in New York.  They’re swearing me into the Protectorate.”

“Congratulations,” Grue said.  He sounded genuine.

“I should be saying that to you,” I said, glancing at him and Cozen.

“Oh.  Thank you,” he answered, in his characteristic eerie voice.  I couldn’t read his tone, and felt a little grateful that at least one of us was spared sounding awkward.

“Six hours,” Tattletale said.  Another rescue.

“I was going to visit everyone in turn to catch up, visit my mom, then see my dad.”

“Well, we’re all here.  We can go somewhere together,” Tattletale said.  “There’re stories to tell, I’m sure.”

“I’m sure,” I said.  I almost wished my original plan had gone ahead, that I could have a really short visit with Grue, a longer sit with Rachel and her dogs, then a long discussion with Tattletale about what was going on, before I headed off to see my mom’s grave and my dad.

“Come on.  We’ll walk, see the sights,” Tattletale said.  “figure out what to do for breakfast or brunch.”

“Okay,” I said.  I glanced at the others.  Would they be down, or would they back out?  Parian and Foil weren’t close to me, but they were sticking around.  Cozen wasn’t making an excuse and leaving, and neither was Grue.  I could see him exchanging murmured words with her.

I must have looked a little too long at him, because Imp fell in step beside me.

I glanced at her.

“I was just fucking with you,” she whispered.  “I thought you probably deserved it.”

My stomach did a flip flop at that.  Anger, relief, bewilderment, more anger.  Still more anger.

“Man, the way your bugs reacted.  Hilarious.  You act like you’re all stoic, but then I just have to look over there and over there and I see bees and butterflies circling around like eagles ready to dive for the kill.”

I opened my mouth to say something, but she cut me off.

“She is pregnant,” Imp said.

My mouth shut.

“Kidding.  This is fun.  Come on, butterflies, I see you over there.  Do your worst, I know you want to kill me.”

I considered jabbing her with my taser, and the thought was vivid enough that I imagined it buzzing at my hip.

Except it wasn’t my taser.  It was my phone.

As it had so often this past month, I felt my heart leap into my throat, that pang of alarm.  A very different kind of alarm than Imp had been provoking from me.  More real, more stark.

I drew the phone from my belt, then stared down at the text that was displayed.  A message from Defiant.

“Endbringer?” Rachel asked.  Something in my body language must have tipped her off.

I shook my head, but I said, “Yes.  Sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“An endbringer with a lowercase ‘e’,” I said.  “It looks like Jack may have made his challenge to Theo.  It’s starting.”

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Scarab 25.4

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Touché, PRT. 

You got me.

Touché.

You’re attempting to reach Glenn Chambers, co-president of Faceti.  For our mutual convenience, please categorize your message.  Press one to contact my personal assistant, who can get your message to me in text asap.  Press two if you got my number from my business card.  Press four if you are an employee.  Press five if this is a personal call.  Press nine if the call is of utmost urgency, to put yourself on the line immediately if I’m on the phone, or set off an alarm if I’m not.

I seriously debated pressing nine.  I felt like this was a nine.

I hit one instead.

This is James, receiving a call for Mr. Chambers.

“It’s Weaver, I… I don’t know who else to call.”

I wasn’t coherent, which was unusual, considering how I could normally keep myself together in a crisis.

Oh, Weaver!  He’s actually talking to someone about you right now.  I got his attention.  He’ll be with you in a second.

“I’m not sure I have a second,” I said.  There was no response.  He wasn’t on the line.

“Oh man,” Golem said.  “I’m… oh fuck.”

Quite possibly the only person who was as concerned as I was.

Glenn here.  You should have called earlier.”

“I didn’t get a chance,” I said.  I would have explained, but time was precious here.

I imagine you didn’t.  Well, there’s good news and bad news.  You’ve already run into the bad news.  Here’s the good.  This?  It’s my plan they’re using.”

I could believe it.  I didn’t respond.

Their timing is off.  I would have done this differently if I were your enemy.  It’s too much of a gamble as it stands.

“They planned this, have been setting it up for a while.  I expected interference with the missions, being supplanted with the Protectorate squad, not this.  I just need to know-”

There was a fanfare, musical, light and jazzy.  By the time it faded, a crowd I couldn’t see had started applauding.

It’s starting,” Tecton said.  He was a pillar of confidence here.

Glenn was talking, but I couldn’t hear over Tecton and the crowd.  I stepped away, my free hand raised to block out the noise.

…nds like the show just started.  They have to have leverage against you if they’re pulling this.  Your probation?

“They’re threatening to declare a breach if I don’t play along.”

Play along.  I heard what you did, announcing what the PRT was doing to the entire building.  Word got around, in certain channels.  Do not do that again.  Don’t call your bosses out and let people know that you don’t want to be here.  They’ll be ready for it, and you’ll hurt worse than they do.”

“Okay,” I said.

Did they prep you?

“No.   I got off a six-hour graveyard patrol with Gauss and returned to the base to hear about this.  They even put our new Protectorate member on the comms to keep me out of the loop, then fed me just enough information I had to listen without telling me enough.  I’ve never even seen this show, and I barely had time to get my costume brushed off and my hair in order.  They tidied it up some here, but-”

Glenn cut me off.  “Okay.  It’s not the end of the world, but I don’t think this show will help you.  These shows almost always result in a ratings dip over timeIt boosts your appeal but hits you on respectability.  It’s only worth it if there’s merchandise or media to sell, which there isn’t.  They’re tanking you.  Still, this is minor in the grand scheme of things.

Being in front of millions of people was minor.  It wasn’t that I hadn’t had appearances before, but most had been without my knowledge.  The unveiling of ‘Weaver’ was a good example of how tongue-tied I was liable to get.

“What do I do?  How do I approach this?”

I’d tell you to just be yourself, but that’s a terrible idea.  Be yourself as you normally are with the Wards.  Be the teenager, the friend.  Play up the fact that you’re a group, that there’s camaraderie.  Build a relationship with the audience by sharing things they probably don’t know.  Nothing sensitive.

I wondered if the dildo prank that the Wards had initiated me with would qualify as sensitive.

More than that, I wondered if I even had enough of a bond with the others, something I could draw on.

Be engaging.  It’s more important to keep the conversation moving than it is to say what you want to say.

“Wards!”  A woman called out.  “All together.  Hurry up now.  You’re on in two minutes.”

Like a kindergarten teacher herding students around.

“Two minutes,” I said.  “I should go.”

Good luck.  This is a day the strategist needs to take a vacation, understand?  Or delegate a task to it.  They’re putting you out there because they think you’ll either take a hit to your reputation or you’ll try to be clever and self destruct.  You stand to lose more than they do, and this isn’t live, meaning they can pull anything they don’t want on the air.

“I get it,” I said.  “They aren’t just giving me enough rope to hang myself with, they’ve put me in a rope factory.”

Exactly.

“Thank you, Glenn.”

I joined the others, my heart was pounding with enough force that the thumps rocked my entire body.  Tecton was closest to the stage, followed by Grace and Wanton.  The core team members, the veterans.  Veterans in one sense.  Wanton didn’t have half the field experience I did, even with our sustained campaign against the local villains, starting to help out in Detroit and trying to deal with that one jerkass in Milwaukee who we hadn’t yet managed to pin down.  Tecton and Grace were a little more seasoned, but not by a lot.

The stage manager was checking the microphones everybody wore.  She paused by me, and ensured it was plugged in, and that the connection was unbroken.  I was essentially wearing the same costume I had in the winter, but had skipped the extra layer beneath.  I suddenly felt intensely conscious of every wrinkle and all of the grit that had gathered up around my ankles and feet as I’d patrolled.

The costumes the others wore were immaculate.  Wanton had styled his hair to be messy in a good way, and was draped in flowing, dark blue clothing with lighter armor situated across his chest, his waist, his boots and along the length of his arms.  I suspected that the cloth afforded him more protection than the thin plates of metal, but it served to mask his artificial arm.

Grace’s costume was light, in contrast to the dark of Wanton’s.  Her new costume was white cloth, almost a martial artist’s outfit, but designed to offer more coverage.  Reinforced pads were situated at every striking point, complete with studs to offer more traction and focused impacts.  There wasn’t a single hair out of place beneath her combination headband, hairband and mask.  She had glossy, wavy locks I was a little jealous of, and a trace of lipstick.

I wish I’d considered some make up.  Not that I wore a lot, or that I’d had the time.  I had only what they’d given me in the studio, and they hadn’t gone overboard, on the assumption that I’d keep my mask on.  No, if anything it forced me to keep it on.  Heavy eyeshadow to make it easier to see my eyes behind the blue lenses.

Cuff seemed to be in the same department as Grace.  She’d done herself up, with a more ornate braid to her hair, and had altered her costume a fraction, to allow for more decorative tailoring at the ends of each panel and the nose of her visor.  Slivers of skin were visible between some slats of armor at the upper arms and collarbone.  Of everyone here, she seemed the most excited.  She couldn’t sit still, but she was smiling, and it was a genuine expression.

That left Annex and Golem.  Golem was uncomfortable, and I couldn’t blame him.  Like me, he had details he’d want to hide.  His family, his background, the fact that he was in foster care.  His costume, too, was a work in progress.  It was a resource for him, and maximizing that resource often set him back in the appearance department.  Annex, by contrast, had settled into a ‘look’.  It was plain, intentionally so.  The white cloak was form-fitting, with ribs to keep the fabric straight and close to his body so it was easier and quicker to absorb.

“Grace,” Tecton said.  “No swearing.”

Wanton snickered a little.

Tecton pitched his voice lower.  “Golem?  You’ve got to stop calling adults sir while you’re in costume.  You do it as a civilian, dead giveaway.  Hasn’t mattered up until now, but this is the test.”

“I probably won’t say much,” Golem said.  “I’m so nervous I feel like I need to puke.”

“No puking,” Wanton said.

“No puking is a good idea,” I agreed.

“Weaver…” Tecton said.  He gave me a look, with only his eyes visible behind his helmet.  “…I don’t even know.  But I’ve kind of gone the extra mile for you, and you’ve done a lot in return, but-”

The stage manager stooped down a little to talk to us, even though both Tecton and I were both taller than her.  “Alrighty, guys!  You’re on in five, four…”

“I still owe you one.  I’ll be good,” I told Tecton, just under my breath.

“One!”

The jazzy fanfare played.  As if that wasn’t cue enough, the stage manager gave us a little prod, literally pushing Tecton forward.

It was surprising how small the studio was, both the stage with its slate gray floor and fake cityscape behind it and the studio audience.  Tecton led the way to the half-circle of a table with the three hosts on the far side.  The largest chair closest to the hosts was undoubtedly his, shipped here by the PRT so he could sit down in his armor without crashing to the floor.

We sat down.  Tecton, Grace, Wanton, me, Annex, Cuff and Golem, in that order.  The music died as we took our seats, opposite the three hosts.  An adult man, African-American by the looks of it, a woman with peroxide blond hair and a girl who could have been her daughter, a brunette who bordered on overweight, with a winning smile and an overly generous chest.

“Welcome back to Mornings with O, J and Koffi,” the woman said.  “School’s out for the day and we’ve got the Chicago Wards here for breakfast.  Good morning, guys.”

We voiced our replies.  Wanton gave me a look, smiling, and I made myself smile as well.

The young girl gave a small wave, “So nice to meet you.  We had the team here before, but you guys have definitely changed things up since.  Campanile was the team leader then.”

“Campanile graduated to the Protectorate a little while ago,” Tecton said.  “He said to say hi.”

“You were there too, weren’t you?” Koffi, the man, said.

“In my old costume,” Tecton said.  “Which I’d prefer we didn’t talk about.”

There were chuckles from the hosts at his comment, and the audience echoed them.  It was oddly surreal.  I intended no offense to Tecton in thinking it, but the comment just wasn’t that amusing.

“The updated costumes look good,” Koffi said.

“We can thank Weaver for that.  Any cloth you see is spider silk,” Tecton said.

“Spider silk, wow!”  This from the blonde woman.

“Cuff and I sort of missed out on that front,” Tecton added.

“I don’t know whether to be amazed or freaked out,” the younger woman said.

“We had a giant Japanese crab on the show just a month ago, I think.  Jo had to leave the stage,” Koffi said.  “I think she’s a little nervous with Weaver here.”

“That was so embarrassing,” the young woman said.  I made a mental note of her being ‘Jo’.  “And you’re never going to let me live it down.”

More laughter.

Oh hell, I thought.  It was all so fake.  Fake responses, fake conversation.  The personalities, the way they were over-talking, it was like they’d taken everything that irritated me and condensed it into this, and situated it all in front of countless viewers so I couldn’t even respond the way I wanted to.

“I don’t dislike you, Weaver,” Jo said.  “It’s bugs I don’t like.  I’m not nervous.”

“Thank you.  Good,” I said.  Then, in an attempt to recover the clumsy sentence, I added, “I’m glad.”

The blonde, who was ‘O’ by the process of elimination, said, “There’s been a fair bit of attention directed at your team.  The leaked video thrust you all into the spotlight.  Then you dropped off the radar.”

“Recuperating,” Tecton said.  “We’re teenagers.  We go to school and play video games and being a cape is only part of it.”

“Except for Weaver,” Wanton said.

Both Tecton and I shot him a look, and then I remembered that there were eyes on me.  There was a reaction from the audience.  Light laughter.

“What do you mean?” Jo asked.

How could I even explain that I was working towards stopping or mitigating the degree of the world ending, when I wasn’t allowed to mention the fact?  Or that we were systematically targeting the most problematic villains, when I didn’t want anyone to see the show and hear the battle plan outlined for them?

“Wanton has been poking fun at Weaver about how she doesn’t go out or maintain any hobbies,” Tecton explained.  “Which isn’t entirely fair.  My apologies to Weaver bringing this up, but it’s not a secret that she’s on house arrest.  She’s on probation, and so she’s limited in what she can do.”

Koffi seized on the topic.  “You had a pretty colorful life as a villain, Weaver.  We’ve seen the cell phone video of you in the cafeteria of your high school, opposite Dragon and Defiant.”

I felt simultaneously glad that the conversation was moving and horrified that I was the subject.  I blamed Wanton.

Still, I said, “Clockblocker too.  I wasn’t actually attending school, though.  It was a couple of unlucky circumstances that put me there, and… yeah.  At that point in time, I’d wanted to focus on taking care of my part of the city.”

“That’s interesting, isn’t it?” O asked.  “You were a criminal overlord.  How were you even qualified for that?”

“It wasn’t like that,” I said.  I was more nervous now, half-convinced I was damning myself further with every sentence.  I’d inevitably come off too harsh and ‘dark’ for the civilians who were watching and too soft for any villains who happened to see.  Damn it.  “Taking the territory and being a villain were independent things.  Related, but different.  It was after Leviathan attacked, food, water, shelter and safety were hard to come by.  It was a way to help.  If I’d been a solo hero then, I’d have done much the same thing.  I’d have been gentler, but yeah.”

With less money to spend, I thought.  I’d avoided mentioning I was an undercover, aspiring hero when I’d started out.  That had never worked out for me, and only complicated things.

“And Alexandria?  I think everyone’s curious about your thoughts there.  You were shocked, in the video, when she made a reappearance.”

I shook my head.  “It’s not her.  I’m… I’m not happy, obviously, to see her up there.  It’s an ugly reminder of what happened.  But to have another person fighting Endbringers?  I’m okay with that part of it.”

“A long, bumpy road, and it’s brought you here,” O said.

“With the Chicago Wards,” I said, in a vain hope to turn the conversation away from me.

She took my cue.  “New costumes, a new group.  Behemoth is defeated and it looks like the Endbringers might have reverted to the schedule they had pre-2002.  An attack every four to five months.”

“Yes,” Tecton said.  “Everything’s new.  There’re a lot of changes going on.”

“Are you excited?” Jo asked.

Oh man, was I ever starting to dislike her.

“I’m really excited,” Tecton said.

The response caught me off guard.  Was he lying for the sake of appearances or was it honest?  How could someone be excited when the end of the world was nigh?  Did he not believe it was coming?

Whatever the answer was, I felt oddly disappointed in him.

Cuff shifted in her seat, and metal scraped against the metal of the chair’s footrest with a high-pitched noise.  She whispered, “Sorry.

O leaned forward.  “It’s fine.  Let’s hear from some of the others.  Wanton, your thoughts?  Are the changes good?”

“The changes are good.  I give Weaver a hard time, but she really kept us alive.”

“She did, by the looks of what happened in that video,” O said.

Bringing the conversation back to me.  Again.

“Grace?” she asked.  “Thoughts on your team member?”

“If you told me way back on the first time we met that I’d come to respect her, I’d have been surprised.”

Jo looked at me.  “Does that bother you?”

“No.  I respected and liked the Chicago Wards right off the bat, but I don’t blame them if there was any suspicion,” I said.

“Pretty generous.”

“If anything, I was pretty amazed by how they all pulled together in New Delhi.  Three of them were new, two hadn’t even been in a real fight before, and they went up against Behemoth?”

Cuff was perched on the edge of her seat, doing her best not to move and make things squeak again.  She had the ability to liquefy the metal touching her skin, which would have eliminated the problem, but the act would have ruined the look of it.  Part of that stiffness was anticipation, like a child who hadn’t done their homework, sitting at their desk and dreading the moment where the teacher called on them.  A stark contrast to her excitement earlier.  Had the screech knocked her off cloud nine?

“Cuff,” Koffi said.  “What do you think?  We saw the video, and you were pretty scared at the start, there.”

“Terrified.”

“You got injured?  We didn’t get to hear how.”

“A burn,” Cuff said, smiling a little.  “I recuperated in a few days.”

A lie.  She still hadn’t fully recuperated today, eight months after the fact.  She might never.

“I love to ask this question,” Jo said.  “What’s it like, being a superhero?”

She loved that question?

“It feels weird to think of myself as a hero,” Cuff said.  “I’m… I don’t think I’ll ever be one of the big heroes.  I’m not a cape at heart.  Fighting isn’t in my personality, and I got powers like this.”

“Cuff is a girly-girl,” Wanton commented.  “Her bunk at the Wards headquarters has pink sheets and rainbows and there’s a unicorn picture on the-”

Cuff leaned around me to mock-punch him.  “I’m not that bad!”

“You’re bad, though.”

Tecton raised a hand to cover Wanton’s mouth.  “I’m thrilled to have her on the team.  She hasn’t disappointed me yet.”

Cuff smiled at him.  “Thank you.

I wasn’t sure I’d have been able to say the same about Cuff, but my standards might have been higher.  She’d always done the job, but there was a reticence to her that wasn’t going away.  Three months ago, in our first real conflict outside of fighting Behemoth, she’d needed a push to carry out an offensive.  Four days ago, in Milwaukee, she’d needed that same coaxing.

Cuff was competent.  She had her strengths, and was stellar in some narrow cases.  At the same time, I still worried if a moment’s hesitation on her part would get one of us hurt somewhere down the road.

She was talking, happy to be in the limelight, stage fright forgotten.  “I was saying what it’s like being a hero.  It’s overwhelming.  It’s something that eats into every part of your life even if you want to limit it to four hours a day, four times a week.  If you don’t train and exercise then you fall behind.  If you don’t read the briefings on the bad guys, then you look stupid when you do run into them and have to ask someone.”

“I certainly hope you’re not getting into serious fights,” Koffi said.

“Um,” Cuff said.  Stage fright back in full force.  She’d touched on something that would get her a slap on the hand from the PRT, and now she didn’t have her footing.

I was trying to think of a way to rescue her when Tecton said, “Fights happen.  We’re actively trying to avoid direct confrontation, but we patrol and we practice our abilities so we can handle ourselves in the real crisis situations.  Many of our members patrol with other capes so they can get experience while having someone to rely on in case of an emergency.”

All true, but he was omitting the fact that we were actively seeking out indirect confrontation.  It was an admirable spot of double-speak, simultaneously reinforcing the atmosphere we were hoping to establish.  Heroes are safe.  Everything is under control.

“I kind of like those times,” Annex said.  “You get to hang out with the local powerhouses, hear what they have to say, learn from them.  I had a brief stay in a few other teams, but the one thing I really like about Chicago is that everyone is okay with me asking questions, and I have a lot.”

“Who’s your favorite cape to hang out with?” Jo asked.

“Shuffle.  Our powers work well together, if we’re careful not to let them interfere.”

“And Golem?  I can almost guess.  When Campanile appeared in the evening news, he had some promising words to say about the Protectorate’s newest member.  When we asked him who the most promising new recruit in the Wards was, he named you.”

“Ah,” Golem said.  “Yeah.”

“Do you think you can live up to that?”

“I hope I can,” Golem said.

The conversation was faltering.  I thought of what Glenn had said.  Showing some of the bonds between team members.  If I had one with anyone, it was with Golem.  The running, the shared perspective on the end of the world, the fact that we were both Brockton Bay natives…

“Everything Tecton has been saying about Cuff is true for Golem,” I said.  “If he’s getting praise from the heroes, he deserves it.  He’s a classic hero at heart.”

“A classic hero?” Koffi asked.

“He’s like Tecton.  Grace and Annex are too, to a lesser degree.  He’s genuinely good-natured and kind.  When everything starts falling apart, he’s still there, naturally courageous.”

“I like how I’m omitted from that list,” Wanton said.  “Only person who hasn’t been praised so far.”

I think you’re awesome,” Jo said, smiling.  The audience cooed.

“Golem’s steadfast,” I said.  “He’s working out, he’s studying hard for both regular school and cape stuff.  And with all of that going on, he’s still generous enough to help me out with my stuff.  Like Tecton said, I’m limited in where I can go and when, and Golem helps with that.”

The running, primarily, but not wholly that.  He’d walked with me to the mall once or twice.  I didn’t want to share details, though, in case people decided to try to find us while we were out, with Golem not in costume.

“Do relationships develop in this environment?” O asked.  “Anything besides friendship?”

“If you’re talking about Weaver and me, then no,” Golem said.  “We’re friends.”

“Friends,” I asserted.

“You had a thing going on with Grue,” Wanton chimed in.

“And this is the third time you’ve turned the conversation awkwardly back to me,” I retorted.

He gave me a sheepish grin.

“A tender moment on the battlefield,” O said.  “I think a lot of people were surprised.”

It was a personal moment, I thought.  If I harbored any ill will towards Glenn, it was for that.  He’d deleted sound or video where it gave up identifying details, like the nature of Cuff’s injury.  He hadn’t erased the scene with the woman in the suit, but the reception hadn’t held up that deep underground, so there was no need.  He’d also been kind enough to erase the scene where Imp had promised to get revenge on Heartbreaker.  The villain hadn’t been notified of her plan.

But all of the bonding, the closeness, leaving interactions with Rachel open for hundreds of millions of people to speculate on?  That was scummy.

Necessary on a level, but still scummy.

I hadn’t replied to his statement.  I almost wanted to let the silence linger awkwardly, just to nettle them and drive home that it wasn’t their business.

Jo didn’t give me the chance.  “You talked about Tecton and Golem as naturally heroic people.  What about you?”

Man, her questions irritated me.  Asking questions where they already knew the answer or where the answer was so immaterial…  Who watched this kind of garbage?

Why was I being forced to support it by my presence?

“I was a villain for three months,” I said.  “Maybe I’d like to think I was a little bit heroic as a villain, and I’m a little bit villainous as a hero.  But I’m working on that last part.”

“Hold on, hold on.  You think you were heroic, before you switched sides?” Koffi asked.  “By all accounts, you killed Alexandria and a law enforcement official.  You were quoted as talking to schoolchildren about the huge quantities of money you earned from criminal activities.”

Was he just sitting back, waiting for an opening?

Grace stepped up to my defense.  “She said a little.  She fought the Slaughterhouse Nine.  She helped the people in her district.”

“That actually sounds impressive,” Jo said.  “If that’s a little, then I wonder what being a little bit of a villain nowadays is like.”

She tittered along with the audience’s reaction.

“No response?” Koffi asked.

They were ganging up on me.  I wished I knew who these guys were, what their normal style was, so I could roll with it.

“I’ll let my actions speak for themselves,” I said.

Tecton was quick to speak, backing me up.  “I think that’s the best way to go about it.  It’s untreaded ground, in a way, to have a notorious ex-villain on the team.  Whatever happens, people are going to wonder where she stands, if I’ve been corrupted by association, or if this is all some elaborate scheme.  But we can work on it.  She can keep doing good work, and hopefully a few months or years down the road, I’ll still be able to say that Weaver’s a good person at heart and she’s done a lot for the good of the city and the world, you know?  Some people won’t be convinced no matter what she does, but time and reliability should let Weaver prove her worth.”

“Makes sense,” O said.  “We’re rapidly approaching another ad break.  I don’t suppose we could get any of you to step up to the plate?  A demonstration of powers?  A neat trick?”

I almost volunteered, but then decided against it.  I didn’t want to spend more time in the spotlight.

Annex stood from his chair.

“One of the new members!  Excellent!”  Jo said.  “We’ve got a crash test dummy, a beat up car…”

“I can do something with the car.  Maybe we could remodel the exterior?” Annex asked.  “Maybe the audience could name a car?  What should we make?”

Jo hopped out of her seat, arm raised like a kid in class.  She was short.  I mentally re-evaluated my estimation of her age to put her closer to her late teens than her early twenties.

A series of beeps, not even a half-second apart, interrupted all of us.  Our phones?

I was still drawing my cell from my belt when I saw a commotion backstage.  People who’d been standing still were running now, talking into headphones.

My cell phone screen was surrounded by a thick yellow border.  A text was displayed in the middle.

Stand by.

Disturbance recorded.

Possible Class S threat.

The others had identical messages on their screens.

There were murmurs among the audience members as someone from backstage stepped up to talk to Koffi and O.

“It can’t be,” Cuff said, her voice quiet.

“We got texts just like this for the incident where we met Weaver,” Tecton said.  “It could be a similar situation.”

The lighting changed.  Tecton stood from his seat, and I joined the others in following suit.

A studio employee advanced to the front of the stage.  When he spoke, the microphone headset he wore carried the sound, “A possible emergency has come up elsewhere in the world.  If this blows over in the next few minutes, we’ll edit out anything problematic and resume the show.  For now, remain calm while we prepare for an emergency broadcast from the news team upstairs.  There is no danger here.”

My phone buzzed.  I checked it to see another text.

Chicago Wards are to remain at current location.

Transportation en route.  Will deploy to studio B parking lot for quick pickup.

A little more ominous than the ‘maybe’ the studio employee had given us.

Panel by panel, the backdrop of the ‘Mornings with O, J and Koffi’ set transformed, images flickering to show a composite of a grainy, long-distance shot of a city.  It had been taken with a cell phone, and the resolution didn’t translate well with the size of the ‘screen’.  There were tall buildings, neon signs glowing in the late evening.  Somewhere in Asia.

“Japan,” Wanton said.

The camera was shaking, and the view on the screen reacted in kind.

Dust rose in clouds, billowing, until they obscured the camera’s view.

The audience was reacting.  Moans, cries of alarm and despair.  They knew what was going on.

“Please be the Simurgh,” Cuff said, her voice small.  Grace put an arm around Cuff’s shoulders.

That may be the first time in history anyone’s thought that.

She’s right, too.  Even the Simurgh would be better than this.

The timing, the fact that it was happening so soon after Behemoth had died… it was all wrong.

Behemoth had come from deep underground.  Leviathan had emerged from the ocean.  The Simurgh had approached from the far side of the moon and descended to hover just above the tallest building in Lausanne.

The fourth, it seemed, was appearing in plain sight.

The dust took forever to clear.  But for a few mutters here and there, small animal sounds of despair from the audience and studio employees who were watching, the studio had plunged into quiet horror.

It stood somewhere between Leviathan and Behemoth in height, if I ballparked by the number of stories in the adjacent buildings.  I waited patiently for the view to clear, revealing more details.  Clues, as if there was a solution to what we faced here.

I pegged him as a he before I saw too much else.  He was broad, a Buddha in physique, if more feral in appearance.  He was as black as night, with something white or silver giving definition around the edges of his various features.  He didn’t wear clothes, but he had features somewhere between leaves and fins, with elaborate designs at the edges, curling away from elbows, his wrist, his fingers and around his legs. It made his fingers and toes into claws, and left dangerous looking blades elsewhere.  His face was a permanent snarl, frozen in place, his teeth silvery white behind the ebon lips.  Tendrils like the whiskers of a catfish marked the corners of his mouth.

All across the exterior of his body, there were gaps, like the gills of a fish, and that brilliant white or silver glimmered from beneath, a stark contrast to the absolute black that marked the rest of him.  It made me think of a tiger.  And at the center of it all, quite literally, there was a perfect sphere of that same material, a marble or a crystal ball, his body perched on the upper half and his legs attached to the lower half.

Arms extended out to either side, he took a step, almost waddled.  He floated as though he were walking on the moon.

“He’s not a fighter,” I murmured.

“No,” Tecton agreed.

“What is he?” Grace asked.

People were fleeing, still in close proximity to the site, evacuating tall buildings.  The Endbringer stopped and extended a hand.  His arms weren’t long enough to reach around his girth, but his upper body rotated on the sphere that formed his midsection, giving him the freedom of movement needed.

The camera shook as he used his power, and an unseen cameraman had to catch it before it fell.  A faint glowing line appeared on the ground, a perfect circle.   The light gradually intensified, reaching higher, and the space within the circle seemed to darken in equal measure.

It moved, the circle roaming, the glowing lines adjusting to scale obstacles and account for higher ground and dips in the terrain.

When it intersected a building, the effect became clear.  Barely visible with the camera’s range, they were nonetheless a blur, moving within the circle’s perimeter.

“They’re trapped,” Golem said.  “He’s manipulating time in there and they’re trapped.”

Golem was right.  How many days were they experiencing in there, with only the food they had on hand?  Was water reaching them?  There didn’t seem to be power.

“Oh god,” Cuff said.  “Why isn’t anyone stopping him?”

“There’s no heroes on scene,” Tecton said.  “Japan doesn’t have many dedicated heroes anymore.”

It took six or seven seconds for the blurring of their movements to slow.  In another second, it stopped altogether.

He left his power where it was.  The glass on the building’s exterior cracked.  Cracks ran along and through the other material, in the street and at the edges of the structure.  It leaned, then toppled, and the destruction was contained inside the effect.

Wanton spoke, almost hesitant.  “Is that- doesn’t that remind anyone of-”

“Yes,” Grace said.  “The barrier, the time manipulation.  It’s similar.”

Similar to what we did.

All in all, the Endbringer was there for a minute.  The effect moved on, and it left a ruined husk of a building behind.  Though there was no sun shining, the stone and terrain had been sun bleached, worn by elements, eroded.

The Endbringer extended his hands out to either side, and two more glowing circles appeared.  Like the first circle had, they flared with light.  Like the first, they moved, drifting counterclockwise around him.  It was a slow, lazy rotation, slower than a moving car but faster than someone could hope to run.

He advanced with floating steps, and the circles maintained a perfect, steady distance away from him and from each other, orbiting him like the shadows cast by three invisible moons.  Here and there, people and cars were caught inside.  He wasn’t a full city block down the street before one circle had a crowd trapped within, half-filling the base of it, another circle perhaps a quarter of the way full.

He moved through a less populated area, and he left trails of skeletons in his wake, in odd fractal patterns that followed the circles’ movements.

He chose what entered and he chose what left.  An attack form that couldn’t be defended against, only avoided.

“Movers will be important,” I said.  “Maybe shakers too, if we can find a way to stop him or his circles from progressing.  His threat level depends on how fast and how much he can move those time-stop areas.”

There was no reply from the others.

I glanced at Cuff, and I saw that she was hugging Grace.  She was silent, but tears were running down her face.  Grace was more resolute, but her eyes were wet.

The timing, it was wrong.

Strategy, figuring out a battle plan, it was crucial here.  The first attacks were often some of the worst for cape casualties, if not necessarily the overall damage done.  Too many lives would be lost in finding out his general capabilities.

But it didn’t matter.

I reached out and took Cuff’s hand, holding it.  A glance in the other direction showed me Golem.  I took his hand too.

This was the key thing in this moment.  Not the future, what came next.  Support, morale and being a team in the now.

Silent, we watched as the heroes engaged.  Eidolon and Legend joined the Japanese heroes in fighting the unnamed Endbringer, keeping a safe distance.

One circle disappeared, and the Endbringer reached out.  Defending capes were too slow to escape the perimeter before the effect took hold, a new third circle forming.  Eidolon tried hitting the effect with three different powers, but it didn’t break.

No, no, no…” Cuff whispered.

In a minute, the capes were dead.

Our phones beeped, and I felt a moment’s despair.  We’d have to fight this thing.

Ship is outside if you want it, Chicago Wards.  Attendence not mandatory.

Temp. codename is Khonsu.

“I’m…” Cuff said, staring down at the phone.  “I’m staying.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You’re going?” she asked.

I nodded.

She nodded back, swallowed hard, before she turned her eyes back to the screen.  In that moment, the Endbringer, Khonsu, reversed the direction the circles were drifting, extending the distance they were orbiting around him in the same movement.

Capes who’d been trying to time their advance to close the distance to Khonsu were caught.  Four trapped and doomed to die a slow death, a fifth caught between a building and the orb’s perimeter as the circle continued its rotation.  When the circle had left the building behind, there was only a bloody smear where the fifth cape had been.  Skeletons for the rest.

Now he stood still, weathering attacks with the same durability the other Endbringers had.  Damage to his flesh exposed silver, and damage to the belly or other silver parts showed ebon black.  The onionlike layers Tattletale had described, plain to see.

I tore my eyes from the screen, marching towards the emergency doors.

So much was wrong with this.

It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right.  Fucked on so many levels.

A woman was sobbing in the hallway as we passed.  A group of twenty-somethings in dress shirts sprinted down the hallway, carrying bags.

The dragon-craft was waiting for us outside, ramp doors open.

Odd, to see the sky so bright, when the battlefield was shrouded in night.

We stepped inside, entering the center of the craft.  I found a seat by a monitor, with a laptop ready and waiting for use, login screen displayed.  The monitor was showing the battlefield, roving over the dead, the buildings that had collapsed under the weight of years.  Oddly, the cameraman wasn’t focusing on Khonsu or the defending heroes.  A few heroes were fleeing, but most weren’t in view.

“We’re ready,” Tecton called out.  “Ship?”

The craft hadn’t taken off.

My growing sense of dread was confirmed as the image on the monitors changed.

Even with those circles being as devastating as they are, it wasn’t enough.  There wasn’t the same broad scale, the promise of lingering devastation.

No.  There was something more to Khonsu.

The monitors showed him in a different city.  A caption on the bottom of the screen showed the words ‘Cape Verde’.

He’d teleported halfway around the planet.

All of the problems with getting to Endbringer fights on time, with mobilizing and dealing with the fact that half of our best teleporters and movers had been slain in past battles… he was capitalizing on that weakness.

My phone vibrated to alert me to a new text.  I didn’t need to read it to guess what it said.  I read it anyways.

Stand by.

“No,” I whispered to myself.

The heroes were engaging, now.  Legend and Eidolon had caught up.  Khonsu had situated himself near some kind of military installation, and they’d wasted no time in readying for a fight.  Missiles and shells exploded around him.  The columns of frozen time that rotated around him caught many, and they exploded within the delineated structures.

For long minutes, he fought.  I watched, my eyes fixed on the screen, to see his behavior, to look for the cue.

He waded into and through the arranged military squadrons with their parahuman supplementary forces.  He was as tough as Behemoth or Leviathan.  No attack delivered more than scratches or nicks.

Five minutes, six, as he leisurely tore through the forces he’d caught off guard.  Eidolon ducked between two of the pillars of altered time and delivered a punch that sent the Endbringer tumbling.  The orbiting columns were pulled behind Khonsu as he moved, and Eidolon came only a hair from being caught.

Alexandria and other capes joined the attack.  Too few.  Everyone else retreated.

Khonsu didn’t pursue.  He remained where he was, arms extended out to either side, palms down.

Then he disappeared in a massive, tightly contained explosion.  Trucks and sections of fence were thrown into the air by the movement.

Long seconds passed.  Then my phone vibrated.  Another text.

Cannot deploy until we have a way to pin him down.

Stand by until further notice.

I struck the laptop that sat in front of me.  One hinge holding it in place snapped.  I shoved it hard, and it fell to the floor of the craft.

“Fuck!” I shouted.  “Fuck it!”

I kicked the fallen laptop, and it went skidding across the floor, down the ramp and into the parking lot.  My foot stung with the impacts.

The other Wards were gathered, sitting or standing around the craft that was taking us nowhere.  There was no way to approach if he’d teleport by the time we arrived.  We’d never catch up to him.  The others were as quiet and still as I’d been violent, haunted, scared.

Nobody talked.  Nobody volunteered ideas, because we didn’t have any.

I wasn’t sure any of us knew how to fight this one.  Nobody in the Chicago Wards did.  Nobody elsewhere.  Speaking, commenting on the situation, it would only remind us of what we were facing.

Above all else, I wasn’t sure I wanted to think about the detail we hadn’t spoken aloud.  The thing, above everything else, that made this so fucked up.  In the nine years that we’d been fighting Behemoth, Leviathan and Simurgh, they’d never attacked this close together.

Even if we found a way to beat this Khonsu, to mount a defense and stop him from picking us apart, settlement by settlement, darker possibilities loomed.

Two attacks, two months apart.  Had their schedule changed?  Would the next attack come in a mere two months, or would it be more unpredictable than that?

No, I thought, with a dawning horror.  No, it was worse than that.  The Endbringer’s schedule of attack had always depended on the number of Endbringers in the rotation.

If they were keeping to their usual rules, it promised a fifth, waiting in the wings.

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Scarab 25.3

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Wind stirred the snow that had piled up at the rooftop’s edge.  As it entered the space over the Chicago street, city lights caught the flurry and made it almost luminescent, whirling clouds in intense, intricate patterns.

I was, in other words, bored beyond comprehension.

Stakeouts?  Not nearly as interesting as they were in the movies.  Not even as interesting as they were in the TV shows where nothing happened and the cops complained about how dull things were.

No, this was a special kind of boring, where I was told to limit how much I moved, because of the half-a-percent chance that the targets in the building on the other side of the street might look out a window, and the ensuing one-in-a-thousand chance that they might actually be able to see me perched on the rooftop, surrounded by snow in my dark gray and white costume.

A boring, even, where I wasn’t allowed to read or listen to music.

Weaver,” the voice came through my earbud.

“Talk to me.  Please.”

Grace complied.  “Police chief and the Mayor are talking to Revel and the Director.  Thought you’d want an update.”

“You could give me minute by minute updates on golf and I’d love you forever.”

Hyperbole.  That’s not like you.

“It’s been a while,” I muttered.  I shifted position to bring my feet up onto my ‘bug box’.  The case was insulated, but there was some heat loss, so it included a heater that turned on periodically to maintain a consistent internal temperature.  At the same time, I was wearing a PRT issue winter-weather costume beneath a doublethick silk ‘Weaver’ costume, complete with a hood, shawl and something of a skirt.  It took time for my fingers and toes to get cold, so things more or less evened out with the heater.

Well, this is your five minute check-in.  Again.”  I could hear the noise of a show or something on in the background.

“Thank you, Grace.  Situation unchanged.  Target’s grabbing a late dinner.  There’s seven others working under him.  Nothing special in their chatter.  There’s plainclothes capes in there, but they’re not using names.”

You’re sure they’re capes?”

“He warned them when they stepped inside that he’d act the second they used powers, so… yeah.”

Gotcha.  I’ll be in touch in another five min.”

“These five minute check-ins make it so much worse,” I groused.  “It’s like, if it weren’t for those, I could let time slip by, but no.  I get measured reminders of how long I’ve been here.”

This was your idea.”

“Dumb idea,” I commented.

You were the one who wanted to do the stakeout, even,” she reminded me.

“Kind of thought I’d get to read,” I said.

That, and it had been a way to finally get some time to myself.  We had run it by the Director, and I’d known right off the bat that he was itching to shut me down.  Orders from above, no doubt.  A way to get credit with the guys upstairs.

Still, I’d explained how my bugs would let me track the target’s movements.  Our boss had okayed the job, with certain restrictions.  The surveillance had to be airtight, with the check-ins, a mandate that any breaks had to fall between check-ins, and the restrictions on entertaining myself or drawing attention.  At the same time, he’d said with a smile, the PRT rulebook said a Ward couldn’t be forced to undertake or carry out a mission.  If I wanted to walk away, I could.  If I got too cold I had to.

He wanted me to quit.  To exercise a measure of control over me, so he’d have something to leverage against me at a later date.

Six hours in, I’d left for three bathroom breaks, each between four and a half and five minutes in duration, and had relocated three times, as our target went out to lunch and then returned to check on the business.  Wanton and Annex had both come to keep me company, until the Director had found something else for them to do.

Then Revel had come on shift, and I had an ally who wasn’t just ready to go to bat for me, but able to.  She was working reduced hours after her head injury, deferring more tasks to Shuffle, but she was still the boss.  She’d read the logs from the check-ins, called me to verify facts on the drugs and guns I’d noted moving through the apartment, and then reached out to the Director.

That had been two hours ago.  Somewhere in the midst of her battle with the Director, she’d reached out to the police chief and mayor.  She would be trying to sell them on our plan.

Or, it was easily possible, they were sold and they were trying to get the ducks in a row and favors pulled to make our plan a reality.

And with all the excitement that was no doubt happening over there, I was sitting here, a little cold, wishing I’d saved a little something from the lunch I’d packed into my plastic Alexandria lunchbox.

The lunchbox was a memento, really, an impulse I’d justified in the moment by telling me it fit with my general camouflage, that it was ironic.  I hadn’t counted on how long I’d be left to stare at it, while my bugs tracked the target going about his day.  It made for a long time spent ruminating on past events, debating just how the bureaucrats could sabotage me, intentionally or otherwise.

For several dangerous minutes, I’d seriously considered going back to the Undersiders if this mission got derailed.  I’d stopped myself before I got too far into that line of thinking, knowing it was a trap that would lead to me compromising, giving up in a way.  Playing into the Directors’ hands.

No, I wouldn’t go back.  I missed them; scarcely an hour went by where I didn’t wonder how they were getting by, but I wasn’t allowed to contact them.  I wanted to know how Imp had changed in response to Regent’s passing, if Grue was getting enough support, or if Rachel was managing in the cold on the other side of the Brockton Bay portal.  Was Tattletale using her power too much, still?  How was Sierra managing as a corporate magnate and front-man for a villainous organization?

Hell, how was the Boardwalk getting on?

They were questions I couldn’t ask or answer without raising red flags with the people who were watching me for the slightest excuse.  I’d cheated and sent letters, written by my bugs, delivered to a mail box while I was hundreds of feet away, and I’d received ‘fan letters’ with coded messages from Tattletale.  It wasn’t enough, didn’t have the details I craved.

Five minute check-in,” Grace said, interrupting my train of thought.

“Situation unchanged,” I replied.

Stuff’s happening over here.  Revel is right beside me.  She’ll fill you in.

I perked up a little at that.

Weaver.  Revel here.  I’ve talked it over with everyone that matters and too many people that don’t, and they’re saying it’s okay.  Tecton and the rest of the Wards, minus Grace and Wanton, will be mobilizing shortly.”

We’re good to go?”

Shortly.  PRT trucks are already en route and will be standing by, when they’re not actively transporting your teammates.  Campanile, Brazier, Shuffle and Gauss will be a short distance away, but they won’t engage unless this goes belly-up.  This is your show.  You and the Wards.  Quite a few people hoping you guys can pull this off.  A handful hoping you fail.”

Like the Directors.  “Got it.  Do me a favor and fill me in on everyone else’s status and locations until they’re within a twelve-hundred feet of me.  Coordination is going to be key here.”

Grace will handle it.

Not a hundred percent necessary, but it would keep me sane.  I suspected the remaining minutes of waiting would be as bad as the first three hours had been.

We’re controlling traffic,” Grace said.  I could hear others speaking in the background.  “Flow through the area should slow and eventually stop.

“Good to know,” I said.  My eyes roved over the face of the building opposite me, while my bugs tracked our quarry.

Where do you want your team?”  Revel asked.

My team?

“Keep them in the vehicles,” I answered.  “I’ll let them know where to set up when things are underway.”

I stood up from my perch, making sure that our target and his employees weren’t watching out the windows before I stretched.  I was alternately cool and toasty warm, where different body parts had been closer to the vent, and my costume layers thicker.  Not cold, though.  Not so much that I’d be affected.

Snow slid off the top of my hood as I bent down, lifting the insulated box with my bugs inside and setting it on the roof’s edge.  It was essentially a thermos, but as lightweight as the materials were in the case and the heating system, the bugs I’d packed inside made it heavy.

I worried it would be an issue in my plan.  With roughly eight hours by myself to think, I’d considered various ways this could go.  Tactics our enemies could employ, things that could trip us up, ways our supervisors could derail the plan, but this forty pound box was something that rested entirely on my shoulders.

We’re close to the perimeter,” Tecton reported, his voice buzzing in my ear.

I pressed a finger to my earbud, “I’m going to get us started.  Sound off from all corners, please.”

Roger from HQ,” Grace said.

“Roger-roger from the field team,” Tecton said.  “Just reached perimeter.  Sending Annex and Cuff your way.  Golem and I will be working.”

I stepped over to the rooftop’s edge.  The streets had gone quiet.  The unsteady evening traffic that had a way of continuing in the dead of night had stopped, leaving the area more or less isolated.   I’d spent the better part of the day organizing bugs in the surrounding buildings, and I now moved them into position.  Swarms formed into large ‘x’ marks on major exits, elevators and stairwells.  In higher traffic spots where people were more likely to move, I drew out words with the swarm.

‘Cape fight in progress.’

I suspected this was a not-insignificant part of how Revel had managed to get the police chief and mayor on board with the plan, despite any protests or manipulations from the Director.  The chance of bystanders getting caught up in this was minimal.  As minimal as it was possible to get in the midst of a larger city, anyways.

I activated my flight pack and crossed the street, simultaneously making my way down to the ground.  Not so hard, with the extra weight that made up my burden.

The doorway that led into the lobby of the apartment building required a keycard or a number punched into a resident’s phone upstairs.  Not so difficult, after a day’s surveillance.  My bugs were already prepared to knock a phone off the hook in an older woman’s apartment, a moment after I’d found her name on the board and dialed the number.  Much as I’d done in Tagg’s office, I had my bugs punch the buttons.

The door buzzed.  I walked backwards into it, carrying the insulated box, then dropped the box in the base of the lobby, opening the little door.

The bugs flowed out of the box and disappeared into the air vents.  Slowly, they made their way up to the apartment of a local supervillain.  A black market storehouse first, an apartment second, really.  The only reason it seemed he slept here was convenience.  The old adage of not shitting where one ate fell apart when ninety percent of the day was spent eating.

I knew how easy it was to fall into that trap.  I thought of the Boardwalk and felt a trace of nostalgia.

The apartment was one of many detours in an extended distribution chain that saw guns and drugs making their way to the Folk, one of the rare criminal organizations that predated capes and still functioned in more or less the same fashion today.  Topsy and his underlings were guarantors, middlemen who made it possible for diehard enemies to do business.  If a fight erupted, he and his minions would deal with the situation quickly, promptly and efficiently.

It was a simple job, and it was one he’d done for nearly a decade.  In the process, he’d apparently grown exceedingly rich, and he had recently started to become more ambitious.  Campanile and Shuffle had interfered with a deal, and Topsy had hired some mercenaries to seek out retaliation.  If the escalation of the situation wasn’t bad enough, the mercenaries had crossed lines, and Topsy had been relocated to the heroes’ shit list as a consequence.  He was an acceptable target.

The only thing that would make Campanile and Shuffle happier than us fucking up and giving them an excuse to step in would be a perfectly executed operation and a humiliating loss for Topsy.  I’d do my best to oblige on that front.

Finding the way through the building’s ventilation system was a question of mapping the system.  Once I knew the way, the bugs abandoned the map and made their way into the apartment.

I could have gone on the offensive right away, but this wasn’t a conventional attack.  Every step of this had to be considered, measured, and plotted.

Minutes passed as I followed Topsy’s movements through the apartment.  One by one, I collected his underling’s phones, as they put them down.  A girl in the group said she needed to make a call, couldn’t find her phone, and borrowed one from someone else.  The second she put it down and turned her back, cockroaches swept it into the space between the table and the wall, and then proceeded to nudge it well out of reach, beneath furniture.

Topsy’s phone was the only one left, and he wouldn’t put it down long enough for me to claim it.  I focused on the front hall instead, bugs collecting around jackets, boots and the winterized costume pieces, complete with warm coverings.

I could sense Annex and Cuff through the bugs that were warm and safe in the folds of their costumes.  They trudged through the two inches of snow that had accumulated on the plowed sidewalks.  Cuff seemed oddly more comfortable compared to Annex, who clutched his cloak around his shoulders.

“Annex, Cuff, I’m half a block up and to your right,” I said, one finger on my earpiece.  “Look for me in the lobby.”

“Got it,” Annex reported.

Back to the preparations.  The goal here wasn’t to defeat Topsy, but to break him.  Part of the goal, anyways.

Silk lines tangled zippers and bound laces.  Gloves, both the ones for costumes and the ones for regular winter wear, were knotted with more silk, or they became home to wasps, cockroaches and millipedes.

Bugs too large or too small to be crushed found their way into boots.  Cockroaches bit and chewed at the finer straps that held the inner lining of jackets against the exterior.  The bugs I’d laced with capsaicin were relatively few in number due to the fact that it would kill the bugs next to them in the box, but I didn’t need a lot of the stuff.  I transferred some to scarves and balaclavas by rubbing their bodies against the fabrics.

Annex knocked on the glass door, then melded into it and passed through before I could approach to open the door.  He rubbed at his upper arms as he opened the door for Cuff.

“You okay?” I asked.

Annex only nodded.

There.  I snapped my head up to look in the direction of the upstairs apartment, as though I could see through the walls.  Topsy had put his phone down on the kitchen counter to grab a beer, setting the thing to speaker mode while he looked for a bottle opener.

Bugs from the front hallway of the apartment flowed into the kitchen and swept the phone into the half-full sink.  Topsy didn’t notice right away.

“Creepy when you do that,” Cuff said.

“Hm?”

“Zoning out.”

“I’ve disabled their communications,” I said.  “Let’s go.”

I moved the empty box to a corner of the lobby, hidden in plain sight, then led the way out of the building, with Cuff and Tecton following me into the adjacent alleyway.

Topsy was swearing as he nearly dropped his beer in his haste to rush to the sink and push his sleeves up to dig for the smartphone in the mess of dishes and scummy water.  I could taste how much old food was in the water.  It wasn’t a sense that translated well, but I could detect a thin, strong scent permeating the kitchen, one a select few of my bugs were attracted to.

“Tecton, Grace,” I said, “Annex and Cuff are here, we’re standing aside while I engage.  I’m not forcing this.  Longer it takes them to catch on, the better the psychological effect.”

“Roger you,” Grace answered.

It was all about thinking a step ahead.  I sent bugs into the room with the money and drugs and set them to destroying the plastic bags and eating through the paper bands of money.  Wasps and other hostile bugs nestled in the gun cases and around handles.  I didn’t have many bugs to spare, so I used the others from the building that I hadn’t deployed to make warning signs for the residents.

All in all, I managed about five or six minutes of quiet, steady destruction before one of the underlings walked in and saw what was happening.  I rewarded him by flying two capsaicin-laced insects into his eyes.

“They’re sounding the alarm,” I said.  The thug was hollering, and Topsy was shouting something about calling for the reinforcements, directing some swear words at the fact that nobody apparently had a working phone on hand.

That swearing swiftly became a stream of curses aimed at ‘that fucking bug bitch’.

“Annex, inside,” I said.

“Good,” Annex said.  “Because I just stepped outside, and now I’m going back in.  It’s a pain to move through walls this cold.  Sucks the heat out of me.”

“Warm up inside,” I said.  “Take your time, but try to move upstairs.  Keep your head poked out so you can hear me.  I’ll let you know what route they take.”

“Right,” he said, reaching into the wall.  “Fuck, that’s cold.”

Then he was gone.

My swarm continued to plague Topsy and his people.  I slowly escalated the intensity of the attack, until Topsy gave the order to retreat.

“Get what you can and get the fuck out,” Topsy ordered, “Yeah, you too.  I’m paying you, aren’t I?  Go find the bitch.”

Not so cheery for a guy with a playful name like ‘Topsy’.  Then again, I’d caught him at the end of his work day.  By contrast, I’d woken up, donned my costume and started my stakeout.  Eight hours, starting at four, watching and following as Topsy and his men conducted their business.  He was more tired than I was, and he was both a little drunk and a little high.

It meant he was a little more likely to freak out when their outdoor clothing turned out to be festooned with stinging, biting insects, falling to pieces or too entangled in silk to use.

“Bitch!  That bitch!” the girl in the group cussed.

They knew who I was, apparently.  Fame had its disadvantages.

“Get downstairs, carry everything.  I’ll bring the rest.  We’ll take the trucks,” Topsy said.

I smiled a little, “Cuff, garage entrance.  Spike strip.”

“On it,” she said, disappearing out the front door.

Once the majority of his underlings were out of the apartment, Topsy leveraged his power, reorienting gravity to shift the boxes and piles of stuff.  They hit the wall, slid down the hallway, and finally tumbled through the open front door of the apartment in a heap.  With money bands cut and bags chewed open, much of the merchandise in Topsy’s stock was scattered to the wind.  My bugs could sense the clouds of powder filling the air.  Evidence, if nothing else.

He wasn’t screaming, now, which I found odd.  Now that his underlings had gone ahead, he’d settled into a grim and quiet attitude.  He turned to the sole remaining underling.  “Anything?”

“Too far to see,” the man said.

“Keep looking as we head down.”

Topsy was tricky.  Part of the reason for the surveillance had been to identify the other parahumans in his group.  He hired mercenaries, paying well, and there was no sure way to tell who he had with him, short of seeing them in costume.  Trouble was, his people were defaulting to heavier clothing over their costumes, due to the cold weather. Identities were doubly hard to discern, and Topsy wasn’t one to blab over the phone about who was working for him.

“Annex,” I said, touching my earpiece, “They’re heading for the stairwell.  Do what you can, but let them keep moving forward.”

Got it.”

I sent bugs ahead of the group to check the way.  Annex flowed up the stairs to intercept them.  Some steps became slopes instead, others had the supports removed, so the stairs collapsed underfoot.  Each of Topsy’s underlings fell at some point, their burdens thrown from their arms or crushed beneath them.  An unlucky or clumsy few fell more than once.

“Annex,” I said.  No use.  He was inside the stair’s surface.  An unfortunate side effect of his power was the fact that his senses were limited while he was inside an object.  He was blind, deaf, and his ability to feel was limited by the material he occupied.  He could sense heat as much as the object could hold heat, could sense vibrations as much as the material could receive them.

“Annex,” I tried again.

I’m here.

“Back off.  They’re catching up to you, and Topsy’s on his way down with an avalanche of stuff.”

Right.

I could see Cuff returning.  She saw my hand at my ear and didn’t speak, giving me a thumbs up instead.

Annex spoke, his voice low, “Okay.  I’ll take a detour, fix the damage I did to the stairs, then rendezvous.

Very calm.  Assured.  It wasn’t even something we’d plotted out beforehand, but there was no urgency here, no panic or distress.

Not on our end, anyways.

Topsy’s crew reached the first floor of the basement, which included the parking garage.  Topsy followed right after with the piles of goods, abused by their rough tumble down a dozen flights of stairs.  The packages of powder virtually floated in the air, with Topsy batting them in the direction of his people.

“Everything with red tape is highest priority,” Topsy said.  “Load it into the trucks first.  We can take a loss on the rest, pay the fucks back and claim intervention of bug bitch.”

“Two trips,” the man I took to be Topsy’s lieutenant said.  “Bug girl can see what her bugs see.  She’ll be on our heels.”

I’m not even fifteen paces away, I thought.  I’d worried they would exit at the ground floor, but it was safe.  I made my way inside to grab my insulated box.  Heavy.

The lieutenant continued, “Mockshow, open the garage doors.  Get some cold air in here.”

“I’m already freezing,” the girl of the group said.  “We left our jackets up there.”

“Don’t fucking care.  Bit of cold will deal with these bugs faster than it hurts us.  Move.”

Mock obeyed, while the others loaded up the trucks.

“Be advised,” I reported, my hand to my ear, “They’re attempting retreat in vehicles.  Original plan may hit a snag.  Topsy’s got a newbie supervillain working for him.  Mockshow.  If I’m remembering right, she’s a master-slash-shaker six.”

Roger,” Tecton said.

Hold on,” Grace said.

Mockshow touched the garage door, and the mechanisms shifted to life.  Cold air flooded into the garage.  I was forced to pull my bugs back, drawing them into the stairwell and through the vents to the box I held.  Only the bugs nestled in the villains’ clothing remained.

I could barely hear as the lieutenant spoke to Mockshow, “See?”

Bosses are advising we try plan as detailed,” Grace said.  “If it fails, orders are to abort.

And there was our first bit of interference.  The Director didn’t want us to succeed.  Topsy wasn’t a likable guy, was dangerous in his own way, even, but he was a known quantity.  Manageable.

Fuck that, I thought.  I didn’t sit in the snow for eight hours, bored to tears, to have this  mission end at the first excuse.

I didn’t say it aloud.  I focused on what our targets were doing.

The trucks had apparently been loaded up, because the villains were gathering into three vehicles.  They peeled out with a squeal both I and my bugs could hear.

No less than ten seconds later, they ran over the chain that Cuff had laid in the snow just past the garage door.  She’d reshaped it so spikes jutted out, I knew.  I could hear the tires pop, and pieced together the scene from the movements of the people and boxes within the trucks.  The second truck had made it halfway across the spike strip losing its front tires, but the collision of the third truck ramming it from behind drove its rear wheels over the strip.

Two of three trucks disabled.

I stayed where I was, letting the last of my bugs finish gathering in the insulated box, then carried it outside to Cuff.

“Spiked chain worked,” I commented, my voice a murmur.

Cuff pumped a fist.

I touched my earpiece.  “Two cars disabled and a third trapped behind.  They-”

“Watch,” Topsy said, as he climbed out of the truck.

Not a statement.  A name.  I felt my heart sink a touch.  Of all the motherfucking people he could have hired-

“What?” his lieutenant asked.

“They’ve got to be close.  Take a second, look for them.  Mockshow?  Get us moving.”

It didn’t take Watch two seconds to turn and face the alley where Cuff and I were hiding.

It’s Watch,” I whispered, “They’re on to us.  Go.

Cuff nodded and reached for her left ear.  I seized her wrist to stop her.

She gave me a funny look.  “Mission’s a bust.”

“Mission is on,” I hissed the words.  “Go.”

I lifted the box, as Watch and Topsy made their way up the snow-covered ramp to us, underlings following them.  An adjustment of gravity removed the issues the slope posed.  Watch was saying something I couldn’t make out over the rush of wind.  Something about our location.  We didn’t have long.

Watch was a package deal like Grace or Circus.  A lot of powers, flexible.  His specific powers weren’t on record, but it was fairly well known that he was capable of short bursts of intense, short-ranged clairvoyance.  He could see people’s biology, ignore the issues of light, darkness or intervening objects, and he had a limited super speed coupled with what had been dubbed ‘phantom hands’.  The ability to reach through people like Shadow Stalker might, targeting particular aspects of people’s body to shred arteries or tear through nerves with his fingers and fingernails.

He was a monster who left his victims dead if they were lucky, quadriplegic if they weren’t.  Maybe that was ableist, but I didn’t fancy being left to rely on the care of others for the rest of my natural life, suffering what was, by all accounts, an indescribably painful case of phantom limb.

It said a lot about Topsy and the direction he was taking his enterprise, that he’d hire this bastard.

I nearly dropped the box, slick as it was with the snow that had melted while it sat in the lobby.  Cuff helped me catch it.  A moment’s delay, but enough time for Topsy, Watch and the others to crest the top of the ramp that led from the basement level to the street.

As we ducked behind cover, taking our steps into the alley, the snow that had accumulated on the ground began to fall in reverse, in thick, wet clumps.  I felt the same kind of lift that accompanied a use of my flight pack, and both Cuff and I were lifted off the ground as well.

The weightlessness ceased, and we fell.  Only we fell up.

My flight pack kicked to life, and the wings unfolded so I could use the propulsion.  I reached for Cuff with one free hand, nearly grabbing one of her braids, but found her wrist instead, felt her hand clasp my wrist in return.  Snow and ice pummeled us as it broke free of the sidewalk and flew skyward.

It also, I noted, helped to obscure us.  Some gunshots sounded, though we were safe around the corner.

With the flight pack, I managed to steer us towards the fire escape, throwing the box down -or up- and seizing a handhold.  I found a grip and started to swing Cuff towards the railing when gravity shifted again.  Cuff jerked, and I found myself half-folded over the railing, trying to keep her from falling through the open mouth of the alley and into Topsy and Watch’s sights.

Her legs dangled towards the street we’d just left, and I couldn’t muster the upper body strength to lift her.  Worse, her grip was too tenuous for her to risk letting go to climb up my arms and shoulders and reach safety.  Her right arm still wasn’t as strong as it should be.

The arms of my flight pack reached out to try and grip Cuff, but the angles of our bodies didn’t offer anything substantial to grab.  Her braids?  No.  Nothing on her costume either.

The chain looped around her back?  Yes.

“Chain,” I gasped the word in the moment her gauntlet slid from my grip.  The insectile arm at the side of my flight suit snagged the chain and passed it to my hand in a sudden, jerky motion.  She caught the lower half of the loop and jolted to a stop, her lower body dangling out in sight of Topsy and his men.

They opened fire, and Cuff shrieked in alarm.

Not quite so calm, leisurely and confident, now.  Damn it.

Still, we managed to reel her in, her climbing, me hauling the chain in, inch by agonizing inch.  The men with the guns rounded the corner, still shooting, as they kept out of the way of Topsy’s power.  I had to duck low to take some cover behind the insulated metal box and the metal slats of the fire escape.  More bullets ricocheted off of Cuff’s armor.

She found the railing, and I gripped her armor to help pull her over.

Getting reports of shots fired,” Grace said.  “Bosses are worried.”

Fuck the bosses.  “All good,” I responded, injecting calm into my voice.  “We weren’t in danger.  They’re ticked and shooting indiscriminately.”

“Roger,” Grace said.  “Be safe.”

“Not in danger?” Cuff practically snarled the question at me.  It was out of character for her, but that was excusable considering she’d just been shot at.

“You’re bulletproof.  I’m bulletproof, even.  Between the new Darwin’s bark spider silk costumes, and your armor, you were safe.”

As if punctuating my statement, a gun went off below, making the railing sing with the impact.

“Annex,” I said, communicating using the earpiece.  “I can sense your location.  Climb two stories and give me an exit on the north face of the building.”

Which way is north?

“Your left.”

Gotcha.

“The way you worded that…” Cuff said.

“You’re not coming with,” I told her.

Gravity shifted again.  Our backs slammed against the side of the building, the two of us grunting in unison.  My metal box scraped against the metal of the fire escape to land beside me.  We were now more or less lying down on the building’s face.

Watch and Topsy’s men were making their way along the side of the building, walking on it.

I pulled off my flight pack and handed it to Cuff.

“I don’t know how to fly this,” she said.

I’ll fly it,” I told her.  I noted the hole Annex was making.  “Go over the top of the building to the roof.  Fall.  It’ll take you out of range of Topsy’s power, you’ll be returned to a normal orientation.  Drop again, off the other side of the building, sneak around and stop Mockshow.  If she gets the group moving, we won’t be able to intercept and carry out the plan.”

“We’re supposed to report if we run into trouble, cancel the mission.  This is a lot of trouble.”

“Trust me,” I told her.  “Please.  Go fast, before Watch catches up.”

She nodded, and I gave her a boost with the flight pack to move her along as I dropped into Annex’s hole.  I made it ten feet into the hallway before getting out of range of Topsy’s power and skidding to a halt on the carpeted floor.

Cuff sprinted for the ledge that was the rooftop.  She fell only three or so feet before gravity reasserted itself, driving her into the snow and gravel.

I noted Mock, but I couldn’t see much of what she was doing.  Her power, though, put her in the same general category as Rachel.  She empowered minions.  They even fit into the same general weight class as Rachel’s dogs.  The difference, though, was that they were inanimate.  Loose, telekinetically animated servants, typically with the size, clout and general strategy of a grown rhino.  Charge things, hit them hard, repeat.

I had no doubt she’d be working on the truck.  Maybe multiple trucks.  Bugs were still inside the vehicles, and I could sense things shifting and lurching as she reconfigured it into a more or less mobile form.

Watch was suffering with both the winter weather and his lack of proper footwear.  He was fast, but the terrain was slowing him.  Ice and snow had been thrown against the side of the building by Topsy’s power, and every other step threatened to send Watch tumbling.  His super speed wouldn’t help him much when he had to plot his movements like this, but it still made him incredibly dangerous if he did get one of us in reach.

He crested the top of the building as Cuff reached the other side of the roof and jumped down.

Propulsion and antigravity together weren’t enough to slow her fall.  A miscalculation.  She was too heavy, with her armor.

I promised myself I’d owe her one and slowed her the only way I could – I used the flight pack to push her against the side of the building, using friction and drag to slow the fall.

She hit the alley on the far side of the building at a speed that was probably too fast to be comfortable, not so fast she was gravely hurt.  I used the propulsion in the flight pack’s wings to help speed her along as she stumbled, jogged, then sprinted towards the front of the apartment building.

Cuff rounded the corner just as Mockshow led her quadruped truck-minion outside.  I folded the wings in just as she made contact.

Cuff could use her short range metallokinesis to manipulate her armor, effectively granting herself increased strength.  She could, it seemed, also use it to impact the metal she was hitting.  She wasn’t moving that fast, but everything my limited senses could tell me suggested she delivered a hit like a freight train striking a car that had stalled on the tracks.

“No!  Fuck no, fuck damn!” Mockshow shouted.

Cuff threw out a chain with an audible clatter, then caught the end, moving like she was winding it around the villain.  She reconsidered as Topsy and his minions reacted to the noise of the collision and came after her.  She was nearly at the far end of the street when Topsy used his power.  He reoriented gravity, and she veered to one side, striking the wall beside the alleyway rather than disappearing inside.  The tilt continued, and she turned away, moving with the tilt.

He leveraged his power further, only this time, it was his namesake topsy-turvy ‘up is down’ variant.  It was his most offensive power, the ability to hurl large numbers of people or objects into the city’s skyline, then revoke his power to let them fall.

Cuff, to her credit, was ready.  I could sense her catching ahold of the building’s face, using the cover of the rising snow around her to climb up and disappear into the alley.

Status, Weaver?” Grace’s voice came over the channel.

“All kosher,” I replied, managing to sound calm.  I walked to the far end of the hall and turned a corner, until I stood by a window with a view of the villains.  “Waiting to see which way they go, so sit tight, Golem and Tecton.”

Fuck,” Topsy was saying, as he approached the wreckage.  Mockshow was using her power to animate the chain and help herself out of it.

“What the hell was that?” Mockshow asked.

“Wards.  … this, it’s a trap,” Watch said.  He’d made his way back down the side of the building, where Topsy’s power had oriented gravity at a right angle.  He was calm as he spoke, “They shut down this … area, and they’re making …cal strikes to disable us.  Even the fact that …show here doesn’t have a … and I’m wearing sneakers instead of boots, they wanted that.  They want us unprepared, angry, even cold.”

“I’m paying you to get me out of this kind of situation,” Topsy said.  “Do your job.  How do we handle this?”

“They want us pissed enough to fight,” Watch said.  “Don’t.  Also… yeah.  Bug bitch tagged us.  Here.”

He reached for Mockshow, and she slapped his hand away.  He caught her wrist, simultaneously capturing her arm and blocking the path of the cockroach I’d hidden in between her sweatshirt and her jacket.  He plucked it out.

“Ew!  Ew, ew!”

With a systematic, accurate and patient series of movements, Watch began catching and killing every single one of my bugs.  Slowly but surely, I was being rendered blind and deaf.  It would make tracking a great deal harder.

“Cuff,” I communicated over the earbud, “Let me have the flight pack.”

Dutifully, she unhitched the harness and let me pilot the thing back in my general direction.  Annex and I made our way outdoors, back to the fire escape, as Watch killed the last bugs.

“Ew, ew, ew,” Mockshow moaned, with each bug that was revealed.

“… … think we should fight?” Topsy asked.  “… …ing kids.  … money, my rep…”

“Could fight,” Watch said.  “…ther plan.  Let me kill these last few, then I’ll …”

Over the ensuing four or five seconds, he killed the bugs I’d planted on him despite my best effort to retreat them to inconvenient and inaccessible areas.

My flight pack returned to me, and I strapped it on, before flying to the roof for a better vantage point.

“Going to be hard to track,” I reported.  I could see them running.  “Watch killed my tracking bugs.  They’re heading north, along Addison. roughly four hundred feet away from my location.”

It was Revel’s voice, not Grace’s, that came over the channel.  “Watch?”

“With Topsy and Mockshow and five underlings with guns and no apparent powers.  They’re on foot, trucks are disabled.  Can I get a roger?”

Roger,” Tecton said, “Moving to intercept with Golem.

Belay that,” Revel cut in.  “I’m not throwing my Wards to the wolves like this.  Abort.  Protectorate moves in.

“You let them face Behemoth,” I said.

Different story.”

“We’re safe,” I said, taking flight to keep my eyes on the villains.  “There’ more danger if you derail the plan.  They won’t even see us.”

Watch sees everything,” Revel answered.  “Everything within range of conventional eyesight, from every angle.

“Revel,” I said.  “We won’t get close to him.  Promise.  I’ve been on the team for six months, I’ve shown you guys I can play nice, play safe, avoid making trouble.  But you guys brought me on board to be the shot caller in the field, with Tecton as the leader.  Let me do what I’m supposed to do and call the shots.  It’ll be a win for the good guys, I promise.”

There was a long pause.  I’m up against Revel and the Director, now.  My advocate had switched stances.

I took flight again to maintain a good distance.  I wasn’t sure, but I thought maybe Watch had briefly turned my way.

He knew I was following, but he didn’t seem to mind.  He had a plan.  Maybe more than one.

They wasted no time in putting it into action.  Topsy used his power over a wide area, reversing gravity’s effect.  Snow began to fly in the air, and was soon joined by a pair of cars.  They reached the top of Topsy’s effect, caught between the two gravities, and began to rotate aimlessly in the weightless middle-ground between normal gravity and the area Topsy had altered.

Then he shifted gravity’s direction again.  An attack, such as it was.  The snow and cars fell in my direction.  Were flung, for lack of a better term.  I flew for cover, ungainly as I raised the insulated box as a shield, snow and ice slamming into the buildings around me, pinging off of the metal.  I managed to duck out of sight.  The cars, for their part, were only thrown into the street a block away.

It wasn’t an attack he’d aimed, but a scattershot approach, meant to scare, to allow the possibility that he’d get lucky.

And it had given them the chance to try and slip away.  A few minutes, while I recouped and tried to get my sights on them in the midst of the stirring snow and limited visibility.

Okay,” Revel said.  “Only because we can’t move the Protectorate heroes there fast enough.  You are not to engage.”

“Roger,” I reported, my relief mixed with a frustration that the go-ahead had come so late.

Their attempt to occupy me and break away might have worked, if it weren’t for Golem and Tecton.  The villains had come to a complete stop as they reached the barrier.  A row of asphalt and concrete hands, the gaps filled by Tecton’s power.  The wall was as tall as the buildings on either side of it, spanning the breadth of the street.

Topsy began to use his power, moving snow at the far left of the wall, no doubt intending to scale the structure, move over the wall.  Watch stopped him.

They turned to run instead, moving parallel with the wall.

Watch, I guessed, had seen Tecton, Golem, and the two PRT trucks on the other side of the wall, ready to spray the villains with containment foam.

By the time Topsy and his crew reached the next street over, the PRT van had pulled to a stop.  Golem was outside the vehicle, creating another barrier.  The implication was clear.  Every escape route would be cut off.

This was a battle of attrition, a patient fight, with civilians kept out of reach.  We’d let them get tired, frustrated, cold, and we’d break their spirits.

The goal here wasn’t just to win.  It was to win so irrevocably that we took the fight out of them altogether, left them without any hope that they could win the next time.

Topsy hit Golem and the truck with flipped gravity.  Both moved, but neither lifted off the ground.  Even before he started raising the wall, Golem would have used his power to hold his feet against the ground, to grab the truck’s axle.  Tecton would be waiting inside, ready to leap out and break the hands if necessary.

The villains could have continued.  In their shoes, I might have.  It made sense, to force Tecton and Golem to stop and start until an opening presented itself.

Except they were cold, tired, and being countered at every turn was starting to take a psychological toll.

They might have split up, scattered, but they didn’t.  Again, they suspected a counterplan.  Which we did have.  Golem and Tecton could have tripped up the most problematic combatants while the rest of us picked off the weakest members one by one.  I didn’t have bugs, but I could fly, and I had coiled lassos of silk cord that I could use in a pinch, along with a taser that I could use if I wanted to end things sooner than later.  A good attack from above, I could manage.  If they went inside, I could unload the bugs I had in my insulated box.

They had a different plan in mind.  They reversed direction and headed straight for a restaurant with a sign showing a gold dragon against a red background.

“Grace,” I said.  “Wei shu wu?  Does typing it into the computer turn up anything?”

A cover business for a group with affiliations to the Folk,” Revel volunteered.

“We safe to harass them, or-”

No.  They have people with powers, and that’s beyond the scope of this manhunt.

“Can you find the number at the building?  A restaurant, Wei shu wu.”

“Weaver,” Revel said, her tone a warning.

“Please,” I said, as the villains disappeared inside.

Revel only sighed.

A moment later, the phone rang, and I could hear a voice.

Wei shu wu dining.  Would you like delivery?  We can also arrange reservations if needed.

“We would, if it’s no trouble,” I said, hoping I was connected.  “Eight criminals just entered your restaurant on Addison.  They’re cold, bedraggled, a little desperate.  It’s an ugly situation, and I’m sorry for the trouble that’s found its way to your doorstep.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

Playing dumb?

“It was trouble they started,” I said.  “They crossed lines, and now that we’re coming after them, they’ve come running to your place for shelter.”

“We can hardly offer anyone shelter.”

“I know,” I said.  “But call your boss, if you need to.  Let them know that the heroes aren’t going to start a fight, but the villains inside the building need to leave and get taken into custody.  If this goes any further, we’re not going to press you, but it’s going to draw attention.  People will wonder why the bad guys are hiding there.”

Weaver,” it was a man’s voice this time, over the comms.  “You don’t have the authority to make promises or offers.

We can’t make them leave,” the man from the restaurant said, his voice a whisper.  “We don’t have ability to make threats.”

Because you’re hapless restaurant owners or because your gang doesn’t have the clout there to go head to head with Topsy?

“Don’t hang up the phone,” I said, “Use your cell phones, talk to anyone you can think of that might help.  Bosses, franchise owners, whoever.  Fill them in.  Let them know that the guests in your store include men called Topsy and Watch.  If they ask who I am, you tell them I’m a superhero called Weaver.”

“From the video?”

“From the video,” I said.

His tone changed, as if he’d shifted mental gears, at that.  He sounded vaguely plaintive.  “You’re talking as if my boss is an important man, but-”

“You’re just a restaurant employee,” I said.  “I understand.  Call whoever.  We’ll figure this out together.”

There was a muffled sound, as if he was covering the phone’s mouthpiece with his hand.

You’re talking as if you’re on the same side,” the man said.  The Director, I was pretty sure.

Weaver,” Revel chimed in, sounding annoyed.

“Mute me so he doesn’t hear?” I asked.

“Already done,” Revel said.  “This isn’t the way we should do this.”

I bit my lip.  I wanted to retort, to argue, but I knew there were too many listening ears.

This is exactly what we should be doing.

“They’re people,” I said.  “They’re bad guys, maybe, but they’re all people.  Topsy and Watch and Mockshow want the same things we do, to be safe, warm, dry and well rested, and we’re taking that away from them.  And the people who work with this restaurant?  They don’t want to deal with people like Topsy and Watch.  All we have to do to resolve this is make it easier to deal with us than to deal with the other villains.”

We shouldn’t be dealing with them, period,” the Director said.

“We-” I started to reply, then I stopped.

Topsy, Watch and Mockshow had stepped from the building.

“They just decided to leave,” the restaurant employee said.  His voice shook a little.

I could see the body language of the three villains and their henchmen.  Topsy kicked the window at the outside of the restaurant, and a crack appeared in it.  He shouted something I couldn’t make out from my vantage point.

I’m sure they did, I thought.  But I only said.  “Thank you for cooperating.”

“Thank you for talking me through this,” the man said.

With that, he hung up.

Something had gone on that I hadn’t overheard.  An exchange of words, a message from the Folk?

It didn’t matter right now.  I watched as the villains made their way down the street, then broke into a store to find shelter from the cold.

It was over.  I could read it in their body language.  As much as the Director had wanted to wear me down, to have me sit in the cold with nothing to occupy myself with but the five minute check-ins, we’d achieved the same thing against the villains, and we’d been successful in doing it.  This was only residual stubbornness.

My arms were stiff with the weight of my bug box.  I was glad to set down on the roof and deploy the bugs, flooding the building and driving the villains out into the elements.  They had winter clothing they’d stolen, but it wasn’t enough to restore the warmth they’d already lost.

By the time they found more shelter, Annex and Cuff had met up with a PRT van and been delivered to the scene.  Annex approached from behind, slithering close, and then used his power to open up a closed storefront, allowing cold to pour into the building’s interior.

This time, when the villains emerged, they did so with arms raised in surrender.

“We did it,” I muttered.

Be wary of Watch,” Revel said.  “Containment foam him first, then move him to a truck.  Good job, Wards.

I watched Mockshow on the monitors.  She was young.  Well, young was relative.  She was fourteen or so, and now that she had her costume with her, she wore a hard mask sporting a stylized smiley-face, a headband with screws sticking out like antennae.  She’d lost the outdoor clothing and had donned her mask, as if it were a shield between her and us.

I glanced over at our superiors.  Revel was in a discussion with the Director, the Mayor and the police chief.

Mockshow’s eyes widened as she saw the bugs filtering into the interrogation room.  The tables and chairs had been removed to deny her anything solid enough to use her power on, so she had nothing to hide behind as they began forming into a mass.

“Aw hell no,” she said, as she backed into a corner.  “No, no, no, no…”

They gathered into a rough humanoid shape.  My shape.  A swarm-clone.

“No!” she shouted, as if her refusal to accept it could banish the thing from existence.

Let’s chat,” I communicated through the swarm.  “Off the record.

“Screw you!  Driving me out into the cold, fucking with us without a fair fight?  Go die in a fire!”

I’ve been in a lot of fights,” I commented, “Rare to have one that’s actually fair.  Most are pretty brutally one sided.

“Do you not hear me?  Screw yourself!”

The swarm advanced a little, and she shrunk back.

Paradigm is changing, Mockshow.  I want to make that clear, so you know what people are talking about when they offer you deals.  People aren’t going to be inclined to play nice.”

Nice?”

The three strike rule, cowboys and indians, counting coup…

“You’re cracked.  The fuck are you talking about?”

It doesn’t matter.  Things are shifting.  People are relaxing when they shouldn’t be, because Behemoth died, and-

“Pat yourself on the back more, why don’t you?  I saw that video.”

Everyone did, I thought.

I couldn’t let her get me off topic.  “I’m going to tell you what I would’ve wanted to hear if I found myself in your shoes, at this point in time.

“Oh, so generous.”

There’s two groups of people.  There’s the people who’re preparing for the end of the world, who are on pins and needles waiting to see just what hits us next, how the dynamic’s going to change.  I’m in that group, understand?  In my book, in our book, anyone who isn’t keeping the peace and isn’t helping doesn’t deserve any mercy.  They’re detriments.  You’re dangerously close to falling into that category.”

“Whatever.”

And the other group?  They’re the people who’ve finally found a glimmer of hope, and they’re relaxing, thinking maybe we can take out the remaining Endbringers, maybe the world can go back to normal.

She snorted.

Yeah.  Exactly,” I said.  I glanced at the others.  The Director wasn’t participating in the conversation anymore.  He was staring at a monitor, but his reaction didn’t suggest he was watching me interact with Mock.

Either way, I had to wrap it up.  “But those guys?  They aren’t on your side either.  Once upon a time, they’d be the same people who’d push for people like you to go free.  Because maybe you’d help somewhere down the road.  Now?  They have no reason to give you that slack.  You’ve got no help here, and I think you’ll be surprised at how hard they come after you.”

“I didn’t do shit.  I’ve barely had my powers a month.”

“You signed up with Topsy.  With Watch.  This is as much about them as it is about you. Making Topsy uncomfortable, denying him a resource they’d just acquired.  Stripping away his conveniences, leaving him wondering if you’ll plea out.”

“Fuck that.  I’m good.  Not saying a word.”

“Probably,” I said.  “But take it from someone who’s been there.  You don’t want to go down this road.  The heroes will come after you hard, the villains will never trust you.  Honestly?  I don’t care if you stay a villain or become a hero.  But it’s not worth it to be a villain and stick with guys like Topsy.  The gains aren’t worth what it costs you.”

“I turn traitor and walk away, I’m fucked.”

“Join the Wards,” I suggested.

I experienced a momentary flashback to my first night out in costume, talking to Armsmaster.

Holy shit, have I become him?  Pursuing my agenda, offering the options I know she won’t take, steering her towards my self-serving goal?

It chilled me, bothered me far, far more than Mockshow’s snort of derision.

“Or go be a scumbag, but be a scumbag who helps save the world,” I said.

She rolled her eyes.

“Us or them, Mockshow,” I told her.  “Saving the world or getting in the way.  If you’re helping, we pull our punches, the charges don’t stick, whatever.  You get in the way, well, every night can be like tonight was.”

She scowled.

“That’s all.”

“Fucking rich.  You’re just pushing me to go join your old team.”

“I’m suggesting that you consider your options.  Pay fucking attention to where you’re going.  I wish I had.  That’s all.  If you want to contact me, that door will be left open.  I’ll pull strings to make sure of it.”

“I gotcha,” she said.  Her shoulders slumped a little, as if in defeat.  She glanced up at me, and I could see a glimmer of vulnerability in her expression.  “Weaver?”

“What?”

“Can I ask you something personal?”

“Yes.  Of course.”

She opened her mouth, then closed it.  She stuck her hands in her pockets, then glanced at the windows, which were partially obscured with half-closed blinds.

Finally, she spoke.  “Would you please, please go fuck yourself?  Upside-down and backwards?”

I sighed, dissipating the swarm.

I felt my hair stand on end as the Director approached.  I’d always felt a little caught off guard by him.  He looked more like a classic politician than the generals and soldiers I was used to associating with the PRT, with dimples, styled sandy hair and a tidy suit.  His demeanor, body language, everything, it was warm.  That warmth didn’t reach his eyes.  Not when he’d looked at me.  Especially not right now.

He’d seen the swarm-clone in the interrogation room.  I knew it.

For long seconds, we stared at each other.  I’d thought he would say something, but he didn’t.

“Thanks,” I said, “For playing ball.”

“I didn’t.”

“You could have made that harder.”

“Making it harder would have done more harm than good,” he said.  “I’ve still got two teams to run, a specialized police force to organize.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Mockshow.  Was she receptive?”

I shook my head, but I said, “Maybe.  Maybe something will sink in.”

“Teenagers have a way of being bullheaded,” the Director said.  “Villains too.  Teenaged villains?  Well.”

His eyes didn’t move one iota away from me as he said it.  It left no question about how he’d compartmentalized me in his head.

“I suppose you’re right,” I said.

“Having Topsy off the streets is going to be a feather in a few caps, I think,” he said.  “It’s messy to credit you.”

“I really don’t care,” I said.  “I just want to make some steps forward in this mess.  Prepare for the worst.”

He studied me in a very slow, careful way, as though taking everything in.  Assessing the target.

“I could raise an issue with you being in that interrogation room.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “It’d look obvious, that you were coming after me.  I didn’t say anything really problematic.  But it’s an option.”

“You withheld details.”

“It’s kind of crazy out there, in the midst of a fight.  You lose track of stuff.”

“I know,” he said.  “I used to be a soldier.”

That caught me off guard.  He didn’t look like he’d ever been in a fight, let alone a war.  He was so young, too.

“You haven’t been a cape for long,” he said.

“A year.”

“A year.  But you’ve been through a lot.  I’d hope you were better about minding those details.”

A slap in the face, not calling me out on the fib, but turning it against me.

He seemed content with that for the moment.  He didn’t press the offensive.  I didn’t either.

“We both got what we wanted tonight,” I said.  “It’s a win, isn’t it?”

He didn’t reply, glancing at the Mayor.  The man seemed happy as he talked to Revel and the police chief.  Not giddy, but happy.

“Is this going to let up?” I asked.  “Or are we going to be fighting each other constantly?”

The Director glanced at me.  “You want this to stop?”

“It’s a waste of energy.  There can’t be compromise?”

He didn’t even have to think about it.  He shook his head, briefly pursing his lips.  “No compromise.”

I clenched my fist.  Damn him.

“A balance,” he said.  “Maybe a balance.”

“What’s the difference?”

“I think,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “That a compromise would be disastrous.  You’re not going to be confined.  You showed that in the interrogation room in Brockton Bay, when you murdered Director James Tagg and Alexandria.  You’re not going to be confined by law.  I haven’t seen a single case where you’ve followed the rules that were outlined for you.  Boundaries don’t work, in any sense.  If we reached a compromise, worked out some kind of a deal, you’d find a way around it, extending your influence.”

“That’s not fair,” I said.

“It’s reality.  It’s a horrible waste of energy, a tragedy, really, but I’m forced to dedicate time to reining you in, controlling you, keeping you in check.  If that results in nights like tonight, we have a balance.  Hardly a compromise, but we’ll manage.”

“I suppose we’ll have to,” I said.

“I’d tell you to avoid leaking the fact that you played a major role in tonight’s events, but we both know you wouldn’t listen,” he said.  “I’d threaten punishment, but you’d do what you wanted and even enjoy it, feeling vindicated.  So we’ll go another route.  If you don’t play ball and let us share this narrative the way we need to, I punish the other Chicago Wards.  Inconvenient shifts, extra volunteer work, more paperwork.”

“I told you, taking credit isn’t a concern for me.  I’ve got other priorities.”

“Good,” he said.  He flashed me a smile.  White capped teeth.  “Good.  Then this is ideal.  We may not have a compromise, but a consensus?  It’ll do.”

“It’ll do,” I said.

“Just do me a favor?  Try not to murder me like you did the other three Directors.”  He winked.

It was a jibe, a verbal thrust, delivered with humor and offhandedness, but it struck home, stirred ugly feelings.

He turned to rejoin the others.  The Mayor looked at me, and Revel waved me over.  I knew the Director wouldn’t want me to, so I walked over with confidence, my head held high.

Eight hours?” the Mayor asked.  “Sitting in the cold?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Is that even legal?”

The Director stepped in, “It wasn’t on the clock.  For all intents and purposes, she wanted to take the day off, have some time by herself.  We had the tracking device monitored by GPS, so we knew she wasn’t going anywhere she shouldn’t.  Being the workaholic she is, she wanted to get intel while she had her alone time.”

I didn’t argue the point.  He wasn’t wrong.  That was how it was going down in the paperwork.  Part of the deal we’d arranged to get this off the ground.

The mayor smiled.  “Well, good to see our most controversial member is doing her part.   You should smile more.  Can we get a smile out of you?”

I smiled a little.

“Better, better!  You do bide your time, then make a big splash, don’t you, Ms. Weaver?”

He was managing to sound a little condescending, which was at odds with the events he was alluding to.  How did one make me sound so diminutive when making vague reference to the death of an Endbringer, to the murder of Alexandria and the takeover of a city?

I didn’t mention it.  I had my pride, but it wasn’t something worth fighting over.  I wanted to pick my battles, and any moment now-

“Hopefully we’ll see more of the same from you in the future,” the Mayor said.

The Director started to speak, deflecting, but I cut in.  “Actually-“

Eyes fell on me.

Picking my battles.  If the Director wanted this to be a war, if he thought I needed to be tempered by an opposing force, then I was game.

I glanced at the Mayor.  “Tecton went over it with me, we’ve got more plans like we had for tonight.  If you guys are willing.”

“Willing?  I can’t imagine why not!” the Mayor said.  He smiled at Director Hearthrow, who smiled back.

The moment the Mayor wasn’t looking, the Director shot me a glance, a dangerous, warning look.

I told you, I thought.  My priorities are elsewhere.

“How soon?” the police chief asked.  Her stare was hard, judgmental, but there was curiosity in her tone.

“The sooner the better,” I said.  “Before they catch on about what we’re doing and adjust.  I think I know where a few possible major players are situated.  I’ve spent the past few months looking for them.  I gathered the intel in my spare time, on my morning runs and patrols.  Just like Director Hearthrow was saying.  I’m a bit of a workaholic.”

“Like, two weeks?” she asked.

“Give me a day to recuperate, maybe two days if the other Wards need it, I’d be down for another.  We could potentially hit seven or eight major targets in the next two weeks, if you wanted.  Each of them would be major targets, villains who aren’t playing along, who are more trouble than they’re worth.”

The Director shook his head.  “I think that may be extreme.  The resources expended, funding-“

“Funding can be conjured up for a project like this,” the Mayor said.  “Imagine the impact.  Can we do this with the Protectorate team as well?  Switch off with the minors?”

“It’s a good idea,” Revel commented.  “Weaver’s capable of handling her own in high pressure situations, but the other team members might not be.  They have school, family, other concerns.”

“I agree,” I chimed in.  “Makes sense.  We could have the bad guys reeling.”

“We can’t set our hopes too high,” the Director warned.  He gave me another dirty look.

The Mayor chuckled.  “No.  Of course not.  But the impact.  And to do it with so little risk?  They barely interacted with the villains, by all accounts.  It would be insane to pass up the opportunity.”

“Insane,” Revel said, her tone flat.  I couldn’t read her feelings on this.  I hoped I hadn’t provoked her as much as I had the Director.

“If you’re willing to allow me to suggest some targets,” the police chief said, “I think I could adjust shifts, ensure we have enough squad members to limit or stop traffic inside potential sites of conflict.”

It was consent, in the form of a negotiation.  The mayor and police chief were interested, Revel was probably on board.  The Director would be forced to play along.

It was done.  I was all set to hit the ground running, like Glenn had recommended.  Big moves.  Actions with momentum.  Here on out, I’d have to keep moving so they couldn’t get me.

And hopefully, in the midst of this, we’d be able to organize things for our potential end of the world scenario.  Eliminate the obstacles, big and small, train up the rank and file troops.

If anyone thought I was cleaning up Chicago, they were wrong.  Like the Director had said, I’d take as much rein as they gave me, use all of the leverage and momentum I could get my hands on.  Topsy was a small fry in the grand scheme of things.  A test run.  I wanted to hit big targets in other cities.  To get as many Mockshows into the interrogation rooms as possible, to play the odds and increase the chances that we could get those people on the fence and make sure they were positioned appropriately.

The clock was ticking.

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Scarab 25.2

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“Sorry… I’m… so…”

He didn’t finish the sentence.

I could sense him slowing, using the bugs I’d planted on his costume.  I stopped and waited for him.

“It’s fine, Theo.  You’re doing me a favor.”

“Doesn’t feel like it,” he said.  He bent down, hands on his knees.

I waited for him to get his breath.

“I might throw up,” he added.

I backed away a step.  “Just getting the chance to run, it’s cool.  Not many others are willing to meet me at seven to run, much less six weeks in a row.  Grace is athletic, but she got sick of it fast.”

He mumbled something I couldn’t make out.

“What?”

“I’m not athletic.”

“You’re getting better.  We just got a whole two blocks.  That’s not bad.  About as good as I was when I started.”

“Not fair to you, make you suffer for how much I suck.”

“It’s fine.  It’s nice to get outside.  Kind of a pain to have to get someone to come with if I want to go outside for no particular reason.  If I don’t get the exercise here, I can use the treadmill back at the headquarters.  Don’t feel obligated, if you’re not enjoying this.”

“I don’t.  I’m… it’s good.  I want to get fit.”

“Well, in that case, don’t worry about it.  We’re both benefitting,” I said.

He made it another few steps before he was hunched over again, still breathing hard.

I felt a pang of sympathy, suppressing a smile at the same time.  “Come on.  We’ll walk one block, then try running another, walk the rest of the way.”

He was still panting for breath as he obliged.

I found myself missing Brockton Bay.  It wasn’t the most beautiful city, or the most active.  Or the most anything.  There were already things going on around the portal, but it wasn’t a city with a lot going for it, and it hadn’t been even before the intense series of events had laid waste to the shoreline, set a water-filled crater in the northwest corner of the downtown area and left an entire swathe of the city so fucked up with random, horrifically dangerous effects that it had to be walled off.

Maybe I wouldn’t have felt the same way if I hadn’t grown up there, but I liked the balance in Brockton Bay.  The way there was everything I could want, as far as malls, shopping centers, theaters.  It was a big enough city.  Yet there was just as much room to wake up early in the day, when others weren’t out, and have Brockton Bay to myself.

Chicago wasn’t like that.  It was busy, and it was busy in a way that got in my way.  People were already up if I got up at six in the morning to go run.  Some were still up from the previous night, having spent the entire evening at clubs or whatever else.  Everything was taken to an extreme, it seemed, in drama, opinions and ideas.  It made it a little harder to sympathize with Chicago’s equivalents to the people I’d been helping in Brockton Bay.  A little harder to sympathize with anyone, really.

I was feeling cramped.  I wasn’t a social person at my core, and being here, like this, never allowed to be out and on my own, it rankled.  I liked time on my own, with the internet or a good book, even a bad book, to get my mind settled down, my thoughts in order.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like people, that I didn’t like company, but too much was too much, and I had no elbow room here.

Whether they knew it or not, the PRT directors had found a fitting way to punish me.  Hopefully it wouldn’t go any further than this.  I’d done as they asked, I was staying under the radar, and though I didn’t plan to stay there, I didn’t think they had any reason to make my life more difficult.  I had my suspicions that my phone and computer were tapped, so I was careful about what I browsed and how I communicated.

With luck, they would forget about me until I was active again.  With more luck, I wouldn’t have to worry about them much longer.  The Director from Toronto, the guy I hadn’t been able to place, had already quit.  Wilkins and West were still active, but the woman at the end of the table was under scrutiny.

There was stuff going on behind the scenes, and speculation was rampant on the Parahumans Online site.  Satyrical’s name had come up.  As far as  could tell, the Vegas capes had gone rogue, and they were apparently targeting the more corrupt elements of the PRT.

I wasn’t a hundred percent sure how to feel about that, but I wasn’t complaining if someone was taking down my enemies for me, especially if it was in a more or less safe, legitimate way.

“Hey,” Theo said.

I turned to look at him.

“When you were dealing with the Slaughterhouse Nine back in Brockton Bay, you fought Jack Slash, right?”

“Yeah.  Kind of.”

“Kind of?”

“He doesn’t really fight, unless he’s got his people around him and the fight’s unfair.  Mostly, I was chasing him around, trying not to get killed in the process.”

He frowned.

“Worried?” I asked.  “You’ll have help.”

“So will he,” Theo pointed out.

“True.”

“I’m… I’m not good at this.  Everything Kaiser was, I’m not.”

“That’s not a bad thing.  He was an asshole.  You aren’t.”

Theo managed a weak smile.  It was hard to identify just how he would react in regards to things.  Backed against a wall, faced with a serious threat, he showed courage.  I’d seen him on patrol, and for all his worries, he did follow through.  He had against Behemoth, in what was almost his first time out in costume.  Talking about his family, though, I couldn’t pin down just what he’d say or do.

The feeble smile, was that genuine?  Had I hurt him, left him in a position where he wanted to defend his family but couldn’t because of what they were?

“I don’t fit the typical cape mold,” Theo said.

I resisted the urge to tell him I didn’t either, but I didn’t.  I remembered a tidbit of advice I’d heard Tecton giving, and listened instead.  “You’re feeling nervous.  Anyone would.”

“The running, I don’t feel the difference,” he said.

“Slow gains, but they’re there.”

“The training helps,” he said.  “The training feels concrete, like I’m getting significantly better.”

“You want to train when we get back?”

“I don’t have long before I have to patrol.  A short one?”

“Sure.  Come on.  Run one more block, throw up if you have to, then we walk back.”

He made a sound partway between a gurgle and a groan, but he followed me as I took off.

Running at first, then walking, we took a different route coming back than we’d taken on our way out.  The trees by the lake were aflame with autumnal colors, and I could see a handful of college students and older folk gathered, enjoying the serenity of the lake, the perfect temperature.  Tranquil.

That was something I could get behind.  I would have loved to sit by the lake, given the opportunity.  The trouble was, I never got the chance.  I was leashed to other people’s schedules, my excursions had to be in another person’s company, and nobody had really seemed keen on the idea of going out solely to go and sit at the lakeside.

As penance went, it was pretty light, but the overall effect of this restriction was wearing on me in a way that the jail cell hadn’t.

We reached the PRT headquarters, one of two in Chicago. It was squat, broad, and not terribly pretty, but it sported a statue on the roof that had been paid for by an old member, Stardust.

Once inside, we made our way up to the top floor, where the Wards’ rooms and the ‘hub’, as the others called it.  It was a label that made me think of prison, and that, in turn, pushed me to think of it more as a common area or a lounge.

“Gym?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Theo said.  “Let me get my stuff on.  I’ll meet you there.”

I tapped into the supply of bugs that were stored in my workshop, withdrawing an assortment of flies, beetles and cockroaches, depositing the ones that I’d collected during the ‘run’.  It wasn’t many, but I didn’t need much.  Enough or three or four swarm clones.

I stopped by the kitchen to collect some silverware, then made my way down one floor to where the gym was.

Golem arrived a minute after I got there, decked out in his costume.  It had changed from its first iteration, complete with a layer of spider silk and heavy armor over top of it.  He wore a mask with a neutral, almost solemn face, and fan-like decorations at his waist and shoulders, the spaces stretching between the slats painted white, a darker metal composing the frame and edges.

The image consultant was having fits, no doubt, but the first and most important goal was for Golem to be effective.  We were getting there.  Image would come later.

“Hey,” Kirk greeted us, stepping out as Golem arrived.  He wore a t-shirt and yoga pants, and was glistening with sweat.  His head was shaved, and his skin was a striking jet black.  “You guys sparring?”

“Training,” I said.  “Not sparring, really.”

“Can I watch?”

I looked at Golem, “Are you okay with it?.”

“I’m the one embarrassing myself, you mean.”

“I think you’re past the point where you’re embarrassing yourself,” I said.

“You can watch if you want, Annex.  Wouldn’t mind helping clean up,” Golem said. “I can’t promise it’ll be anything special.”

“Not a prob,” Kirk responded.  “Kind of curious to see where you’re at.”

We made our way inside.

The area was divided, with workout machines taking up one half, and an open area for sparring and dance and whatever else on the other half.  Floor panels, varying in the depth and degree of padding offered, were neatly stacked in one corner.

We moved to the open area, but we didn’t set up any padding for the floor.  My bugs flowed through vents and from the hallway outside, and they filled the room, covering every surface.

The bugs congealed into a human figure, and Golem took action.  His fingertips ran along the white ‘fans’ at his waist, then he jabbed one hand inside.  A hand of concrete lunged out of the floor to dissipate the swarm.

A little slow, but not bad.

Another part of the swarm congealed into a rough decoy, and Golem clutched it in a fist of concrete.  Faster this time.  The bugs seeped out through the gaps in the fingers as the hand retreated into the floor’s surface.

Each panel of the fan was a different material.  Concrete, steel, granite, wood.  Common materials were in easy reach.  Less common ones were a gesture away.  Two at once, this time.  Two figures to strike.  Golem caught one with his right hand, but I moved the other as he reached for it with his left.  He wasn’t quick enough to catch it, and the angle was poor.

I drew a butter knife from the pocket of my shorts, raised it above my head.

Golem was watching for it.  He dug his fingertips into the topside of one panel, his thumb into the underside.  Identical digits sprouted from the knife, forming half of a fist that had closed around the edge.  The knife became a club, one with no cutting edge.

I threw the weapon aside and turned my attention towards creating more decoys.

I feinted, now, misleading him about where my clones were moving.  He struggled but managed to deliver the hits.  Dragonflies and faster insects formed a more mobile body, and I avoided the strikes, right up until he started creating hands that sprouted forth from limbs that were already sticking out of the ground: branching barriers to limit movement.  I tried to simulate the general effect of the obstacles, and Golem took the opportunity to deliver a finishing blow, crushing another swarm-decoy..

“Hit them harder now,” I said.  Running, I tried to raise expectations for myself.  Here, I did much the same for Golem.

The movements became more violent.  A hand cupped around one swarm and then pulled it against the ground, melding back into the surface.  Bugs were squished against the spacial distortion field, and my swarm’s numbers were severely reduced.

Another was squashed against the wall, but the surfaces were different materials, and the hand couldn’t simply sink back in.  This time, there was an audible thud, eliciting a heavy rattling from the exercise machines on the other side of the gym.

I drew my swarm together into a rough shape, not a person, but something larger, a touch bigger than Crawler, smaller than Echidna, bipedal.

He hit it, and I reformed it.

“Hit it harder,” I said.

He hit it again, drawing two hands together as if he were squeezing it.  There was no substance to the monster’s body, though.  I judged that he wasn’t doing enough damage and simply reformed it.  The monster advanced on him.

I stepped a little closer, raising my voice.  “Come on, Theo!  Hit harder!”

Golem dropped a foot as one leg slipped into the concrete floor.  A facsimile of his boot rose out of the floor, complete with cleats.  The speed and force of it would have been enough to lift one of Rachel’s dogs, so I obliged by moving the ‘body’ of the swarm monster, raising it.

As the foot continued to rise, Golem’s leg disappearing up to the knee in the floor, he pushed one hand into the fan, causing a limb to drop from the ceiling right above the rising spiked platform that was Golem’s boot.  My creation was sandwiched between the two, and the collision had enough of an impact to make Kirk and I stumble.  I had to turn my head to keep the dust from getting in my eyes.

“Is that-” Golem started.

Before he finished the sentence, I had a second butter knife drawn, the tip pressed to his throat.

“Keep your eye on the threats,” I said.

“Not very fair,” Kirk commented.  “Playing dirty.”

“No,” Golem said.  His voice wavered, which was odd, considering I wasn’t doing anything that was actually threatening.  Something else had shaken him.  Had he taken the lesson to heart?  “I’s good.  That’s the kind of lesson I need to know.  It’s why I’m training.”

“Jack’s going to throw some scary motherfuckers at you,” I said.  “But he’ll be looking for an opening.  Always, always watch your back.  Don’t forget to watch your friend’s backs too.  You probably won’t die if you do, but you might wish you were dead, when you see what Jack and his gang do to them.”

Golem withdrew his arm from the panel, but his leg was harder to free from the ground.  By the time he was standing straight, the leg that stuck out of the floor had become more or less permanent.  In another area, fingertips stuck out of the floor.  There were also the branching ‘trees’ of hands that had formed barriers.  Without us even asking, Kirk stepped forward, his body liquefying as he flowed into the surface, smoothing it all out as though we’d never been there.

When he was done, he emerged to survey his work.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Interesting to watch.  Figuring out ways to apply his power?”

“Pretty much.  Tricks for his repertoire, building some familiarity with using his abilities, attacking to recognize threats and attack without hesitation when needed.”

“You really buy that Jack’s going to wake up from some cryogenic sleep just to fight some kid who didn’t even have powers when they last met?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Believe it or not, with what I know of Jack, it makes perfect sense.”

“Huh.”

“You’re on board, right?” I asked.  “With the plan?”

Kirk nodded.  “Seems a little crazy, but doesn’t hurt, given the stakes.”

“End of the world,” Golem said.

“End of the world,” I agreed.  “We’ll get as many on board as we can.  Either we avert it, or we soften the blow.”

“Assuming we can figure out what it is,” Golem said.

“Yeah,” I said. “You said you had patrol soon?”

“Eight twenty.  Then school after that.  I’ll see you this afternoon?”

“Yeah,” I answered.  I made my way to the common area and took the first unoccupied spot at the computer.  Grace was there, but she wore a school uniform, and had homework spread around her.

“Don’t say a word,” she told me, clearly annoyed.

“Wasn’t going to,” I responded.

I logged in, and was greeted by the customized desktop.

C/D: Endbringer
-3:21:45:90

C/D: End of World
593:19:27:50

The first counted upward, the other counted down.

Three days had passed since the estimated arrival of either the Simurgh or Leviathan.  Behemoth had been early, but whatever factor pushed that to occur wasn’t at play here.

It made sense that they wouldn’t maintain the schedule they had been.  Since the Simurgh had arrived, roughly three and a half months had passed between each attack.
These coming days and weeks would speak volumes.  Were the Endbringers going to alter their tactics?  Would the schedule continue at its accelerated pace, with Behemoth appearing in seven to ten months?

Something else altogether?

My eyes fell on the second clock.  The countdown.

593:19:25:23

“No joke?” I asked, the second the elevator doors were open.  Cuff was waiting on the other side.

“She’s here,” Cuff said.  “Not here, here, but she’s showed up.”

I was in full costume, my flight pack on, an insulated box for my bugs tucked under one arm. my phone in hand.  I was chilled to the core of my body, my lenses fogging up from the adjustment from outdoor temperature to indoor temperature.

I didn’t need to ask who.  I knew well enough.  It was a question that had been lurking on everyone’s minds.  Which one, where?

I pulled off my mask as I followed her to the common area, and reached out to accept the glasses my bugs were already fetching to me, putting them on.  The same images played on each of the screens.

The Simurgh, her silhouette barely visible in the midst of the clouds.

“What city?” I asked.

“Not a city,” Tecton said.

Sure enough, the camera angle changed.  Water.  Coastal?

No.  Too much water.

Ocean.  She was attacking the ocean?

It clicked when I saw the text at the bottom of the screen for one news report.  BA178 under siege.

Of all of the sensitive locations in the world, the Simurgh had chosen a passenger airplane.

“Are we-” I started to ask.

“Can’t,” Tecton said.  “No solid ground, and none of us fly.”

“I fly,” I said, but I could already guess the follow-up answer.

“Vehicles and tinker equipment aren’t going to cut it.  Too easy for her to interfere with,” Tecton said.

“Order came down from the top.  Natural fliers only,” Wanton added.

“We’re too late to join in anyways,” Grace said.  “I can’t imagine this’ll be a long, drawn-out, knock down fight.  We got almost no warning.  It’s like she dropped straight down from where she was and picked a fight with the closest target.”

I thought of Armstrong’s insistence that we capitalize on our victory, mass in numbers to allow for another decisive victory, instead of showing up in smaller groups, with inevitable attrition.

All this waiting, all of the restlessness, watching the countdown clock tick well beyond the estimated date, and we couldn’t even fight.  I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

I watched on the screen as Legend, Alexandria and Eidolon engaged the Simurgh.  She avoided the worst of their attacks, primarily through the only cover available – the airplane.

Half of the screens were showing the same video footage, though they were different channels, different organizations.  The other half were showing information.  The flight route, the people in the plane.

If anything here was special, the only one who knew would be the Simurgh.

My teammates didn’t talk much as we watched the fight progress.  In one instant, it seemed, the dynamic changed.  The heroes began trying to attack the plane, and the Simurgh started trying to defend it.

For eleven minutes, she managed, using her telekinesis to move the craft, her wings and body to block it from being damaged.

A fire started on the body of the ship as Eidolon tore into the Simurgh with a reality warping power of some kind, complete with lightning, fire, distorted light, and ice.  The Simurgh cast the craft aside in the following instant, letting it flip, burn and tumble before hitting the water and virtually disintegrating.

That done, the Simurgh ascended, rising into the clouds.  A few capes tried to follow, but Scion wasn’t among them.

“How long was the fight?” I asked.

“Not long enough for Scion to show,” was all Wanton said.

“Forty minutes?” Tecton asked.  “About forty minutes.”

I’d spent more than half that time hurrying back to headquarters, hoping I wasn’t missing my ride.  Now this.  It was a farce.

“Now we wait,” Grace said, “And if we’re lucky, we find out what she just did.”

That was it.

It was almost a letdown, more than a relief.  I couldn’t say she’d been softballing us, because it was the Simurgh.  For all I knew, this was the most devastating attack yet.  We wouldn’t know until later on.

Virtually no casualties, the planeload of people excepted.  Nobody was reporting anything about heroes dying, but it had been clear enough from the footage that this hadn’t been a serious loss.  Barely forty capes had been out there, and I hadn’t seen any die.

Yet I felt irrationally upset, if anything.

I turned and walked away.  I let the strap of the incubation box slip from my shoulder to the crook of my elbow, caught it with my hand, and then transferred it over to the arms of my flight pack.  It meant I didn’t have to stop or bend down to set the incubation box at the base of the stairs.  I didn’t go up to my room or my workshop, though.  I made my way downstairs, instead.

I was grateful to see that Mrs. Yamada hadn’t left yet.  Her things were packed, but she’d settled into the office, and was reading a small book.  A television was on in the corner, muted, showing what was happening with the Simurgh.

“Taylor.”

“Do you have a minute?”

“Of course.”

She stood and crossed the room to close the door.  I hadn’t realized I’d left it open.

“It was about the best we could hope for, going by what we know now,” I said, “And I feel worse about it than I did about New Delhi.”

“You’ve been preparing for this, anticipating it, for some time.  Mentally, you were preparing yourself for more losses, steeling yourself.  That takes a lot out of you, and you were robbed of a chance to do something.”

My phone buzzed.  I glanced at the screen.  My dad.  I sent him a message letting him know I was fine.

“Sorry,” I said, putting the phone away.  “It was my dad.”

“Don’t be sorry.  It’s a good sign if you’re reaching out to your dad, or vice-versa.”

“It’s bad manners,” I said.  “But okay.  Back to what we were saying before.  I’m almost feeling… disarmed?”

“Disarmed.  Good word.”

“I’ve been sort of enjoying the peace, the fact that the Protectorate are dealing with the meanest bastards around, the Folk, the Royals, the Condemned.  But I was telling myself it came down to the Endbringer fight.  That I’d participate, I’d wake up, fight.”

“Isn’t it better if you don’t have to?”

“No,” I said.  I stared down at my gloved hands.  “No.  Not at all.”

“You came from a bad place, and, like we’ve talked about, you reinvented yourself.  Maybe a lot of your identity is rooted in your concept of yourself as a warrior.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “But whether it’s true or not, it doesn’t change how I feel.”

“I expect a lot of people around the world feel the same way.  It’s very possible she calculated things to achieve this effect.”

I nodded.

“What do you think would be a best case scenario, Taylor?  If everything went the way you were hoping it would, deep down inside, what would happen?”

“New Delhi would happen,” I said.  Except without the severe losses.  We’d lose people, some place would get damaged, but we’d kill another Endbringer.”

“Is that realistic, do you think?”

“No,” I said.  “I know it isn’t realistic.  We went decades without killing one, and it’s stupid to imagine we could kill two in a row.”

“What’s a more reasonable expectation?”

“That she’d show up, and we’d fight, and we’d drive her off without too many casualties.”

“In either of these scenarios, do you envision yourself playing a role?  Maybe as big a role as you played in New Delhi?”

“I’m… Sort of?”

She didn’t seize on anything there, nor did she ask a follow-up question.  I took the opportunity to reflect on it.

“Yeah,” I eventually said.  “Maybe not as big a role.  Again, that’s unrealistic.  But I want to help.”

“If the Simurgh wanted to deliver a hit to morale, this would be a way to do it,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “After New Delhi, a lot of capes were hoping to make a difference, to be heroes.  Her choice of venue, the short battle, the narrow focus, it denied everyone the chance.  Not just you.”

“I need to be stronger,” I said.  “I’m supposed to be one of the people that’s around for this prophesied end of the world.  Except I’m not getting chances here.”

“Can you talk to your superiors?  To Revel?”

“I’ve hinted at it, that I could stand to sidekick around on patrols.  Nobody’s taken the deal.  Not with me.  They took Golem, but the adult capes like him, because he’s polite to a fault, works his ass off, and his power is good.  I’m good, but I wind up being a partner more than a sidekick.”

“You’ve been training with Golem.”

“Yeah.”

“You’re due some of the credit for his forward strides, I’m sure.”

“I’m not-” I started, then I made myself stop.  Too much emotion in my voice.  Calmer, I said, “I’m not looking for reassurance, or for compliments.  I’m just…”

I struggled for a way to end the sentence.

“Let’s use the ‘I feel because’ line.  Frame your emotions better.”

I drew in a deep breath, then sighed.  “I feel spooked, because something’s coming and it’s going to be ugly, and I’m not prepared.  I feel less prepared with every day where nothing happens.”

“I imagine your teammates feel spooked too.  You’ve mentioned what they’re going through.  Golem is likely going to be baited out by Jack Slash at some point in the future.  Cuff has limited dexterity with her right hand, to the point that she’s having to relearn to write and type.  I’m not discussing anything confidential, to be clear; only what you’ve mentioned to me in our previous sessions.”

I nodded.

“Golem has your support, I know.  They all do, in some respect.  In terms of what Cuff is going through, I know your team is dividing the workload in helping her with paperwork.  That says a lot.”

“Supporting each other.”

“It sounds trite, but I think there’s a truth in it.  You have legitimate fears about what comes down the road.  But keep in mind that you’re not alone in this.  Maybe you’ve hit a ceiling for the time being, in your own growth and development.  But you can still progress, if you’re helping your teammates, assisting them in conquering their demons and improving their abilities.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It doesn’t feel like enough.”

“It may not be, but it’s constructive.  Perhaps you’ll feel less disarmed if you focus on the tools and, so to speak, the weapons at your disposal.”

“Maybe,” I answered her.  “But I hate feeling helpless.”

“Part of the reason you feel that way is because you’re waiting for opportunities to come to you.  You waited for the Endbringer, so you could flex your talents in unimaginably high stress environments.  It’s good, I think, that you waited, that you had a moment to breathe.  I think you should strive to retain that peace, because it may help you enter a better headspace.”

It was similar advice to the parting words Glenn had left me with, but they opposed on one front.  Mrs. Yamada would have been happier in general if I maintained this indefinitely.  Glenn would be wanting to see me acting.

It was time to act, whatever Mrs. Yamada said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“You feel a little better?”

“Not really,” I admitted.  “I’m not even sure I understand all my feelings.  But I feel like I’ve got more of a plan, now.  I appreciate it.”

“It’s what I’m here for.  Or at least, I’m here for one more hour, and then I fly back to Boston.  I’ll be around next Friday, after I finish another circuit.”

“Cool,” I said.  “I’m glad you were here today.”

“I am too,” she answered.

When I stood from my chair, she did too.  She stepped forward and gave me a hug.

I wasn’t sure how normal that was, but I’d remarked once on how few hugs I got, and how some hugs I’d given or received in the past had been meaningful moments for me, and she’d asked if I wanted one from her.

Somewhere along the line, t had become something of a habit, as we ended our sessions.  I gave her a little smile as we parted.

I made my way back to the common area, and seated myself at the computer.  The others were still following what was happening on the larger monitors.  The defending heroes had frozen the plane’s half-submerged wreckage and they were preparing quarantine measures.

Whatever the reason for this particular attack, I doubted it would be clear anytime soon.

Instead, I seated myself at the computer, and logged myself in.  The timers ticked away.

Once I’d updated the timer for the recent attack, it read:

C/D: Endbringer
149:22:59:59

C/D: End of World
579:07:14:53

Inching down steadily.

Mrs. Yamada had been right, I mused, as I found the files on the local kingpins and warlords.  I was doing myself a disservice by waiting for opportunity to come to me.  If I was going to do as Glenn had suggested, and make a calculated play, I needed to act, rather than hope for another chance like we’d had in New Delhi.

Looking at the others, I wondered if it was best to manipulate them or get them on board.  Manipulation was almost kinder, because it absolved them of guilt.  Simply making sure we were in the right place at the right time, luring a local power into a fight, with  a plan already in mind…

No.

Chevalier’s Protectorate, ups and downs aside, was more about honesty.  I wanted to tap into Skitter’s strengths, her ruthlessness, but I also wanted to be a hero.  That was at the core of what I had achieved in New Delhi.

“Tecton,” I called out, as my eyes fell on a portrait of a supervillain with a mask of an upside-down face.  An established power, located at the city’s edge for nearly ten years.

Too established?  I didn’t want to set another ABB fiasco in motion.  There were advantages to being open.  The ability to ask questions, get feedback.

“What is it?” he asked.

“There’s something I want to talk to you about.”

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Scarab 25.1

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“This is exactly what I was talking about.  She’s a dangerous influence.”

“She’s a sixteen year old girl with strong opinions, Wilkins,” Armstrong answered.  “Nothing more.  She holds onto those opinions and her core worldview, and vulnerable people get caught up in her momentum.  Cult leaders will do the same thing, only it’s purposeful in their case.  Get people tired, get people worn out, scared and hungry, and then give them someone with presence to give them support.”

“You’re saying she’s an accidental cult leader?”

“She’s in a position where it’s very easy to sway others.  A lot of the parahumans out there fit the criteria I’m talking about,” Armstrong said.  He glanced at Glenn, who looked distinctly unhappy.  “So, apparently, does our staff.”

“I think you’re off target,” I said.  “You’re talking about Foil, I get it, and Parian, and now the Chicago Wards and Glenn.  But all of the decisions they made were when I wasn’t anywhere near them.  Unless you’re implying I have some sort of mind control.”

“No,” Armstrong told me.  He didn’t fit his name; he looked more like my dad than anyone, though he had a peculiarly prominent jaw and a forehead that made it look like he was perpetually glaring.  “It doesn’t matter if they’re near you.  The message and the idea stays with them even after they leave your presence.”

“Tecton just wanted someone to call the shots, to replace Raymancer,” I said.  He was defending me, but it wasn’t helping.

“We saw the video,” Director Wilkins said.  “We know what he said.  I think it’s best if you stop talking.”

I bit my lip and turned my eyes to the table.

“Well,” Glenn said.  “What’s done is done.  Can I suggest that perhaps, because it’s been a long day, we should retire?  All of us will still be here in the morning.”

“It sounds like a good idea,” Armstrong said.  One or two heads around the table nodded.

“We’re going to handle this tonight,” Wilkins said.

“While the girl’s so tired she could fall asleep sitting up,” Glenn observed.  “Or is it that you want to resolve this while Chevalier is in the hospital?”

“Chevalier doesn’t matter,” Wilkins said.  “This is PRT business.”

“I agree.  His input would be appreciated, if he was in a state to give it, but it’s ultimately not his decision,” the Washington director said.  He reminded me of Piggot, but he wasn’t fat.    Heavy, but not fat like she’d been.  It was more the way he held himself, his tone and approach.  His graying hair was cropped close, and he had a combination of paler skin and dark circles under his eyes that made me think of a corpse.  Director West.

“We lose nothing by waiting,” Glenn said, calm, unflappable.  I’d seen that confidence before, in people who’d had nothing to lose.  I’d had that confidence before.

“We lose time.  If we’re going to respond to the press and the public, we need to act sooner than later.”

“My concern…” a woman said, drawing out the thought, “Is that her actions go against the spirit of the PRT and the groups under the PRT’s umbrella.  Conspiring with a known terrorist, betraying the truce, even, for a subtle advantage in dealing with that terrorist, returning to her old team against all terms of her probation, rejecting orders, and taking reckless risks with PRT personnel, getting two injured.  A longstanding goal of the PRT has been to reassure the public, and this only paints heroes as something dangerous.”

I already didn’t like her.  I wasn’t even sure what city she was from.

“That doesn’t even include the fact that this leak shows capes going all out.  When the joy at the victory wears off, people are going to look at the footage and wonder if they’re in danger,” West said.

We won, I thought.  We beat him, and you’re quibbling over details.

Why were they doing this?  Why were they so intent on railroading me?  Screwing me over?

These guys, or some of them, were the old guard.  Defenders of the status quo.  Tagg would have fit into this little cadre.

Maybe that was part of the reason.

“-Birdcage.”

The word hung in the air.

I snapped to attention, fully awake in an instant.  I had to take a second to look at the faces of the people around the table before I realized who’d said it.  Armstrong, the man who’d been my advocate an instant ago.

“A little extreme,” West said.

“The next few fights are going to be crucial.  Every time the Endbringers come, there are major losses.  We lose good capes.  Others step in, but they don’t have the experience or the organization, so we lose more.  New Delhi was very nearly the culmination of that.”

“We won New Delhi.”

We lost.  Scion won,” Armstrong responded.  “Participation will be up for the next fight.  Let’s use that.  We bolster the numbers further, by tapping the Birdcage.  There are powerful capes in there, and some are cooperative.”

Oh.  They aren’t talking about me.

“And if they start wreaking havoc afterward?  Or turn on us?”

“We can be select about it.  Dragon’s willing to give us a searchable database of all of the conversation and behavior records within the Birdcage.”

I raised my head at that.  “Dragon’s alive?”

“She got in contact with us a short while ago.”

I nodded.  I felt a little dazed, confused.  Too much in a short time.  I was reaching the point where I wasn’t sure I’d be able to take it all in.

“It’s not worth it,” West said.

“A moderate risk for a chance to save hundreds, thousands, even millions of lives,” Armstrong said.

“How many lives do we lose because of the monsters we set free?”  West retorted.  “Those criminals were put there for a reason.”

“At first,” Armstrong said.  “But the rationale for indefinite detention has been getting weaker, and the number of capes going in has been increasing.  I-”

“It’s not going to happen, Armstrong,” West cut him off.

Armstrong deflated a little, settling back in his chair.

“The media is already reaching out to us to ask for interviews with Weaver,” one of the other Directors said.  “They love her or hate her, but this won’t die down anytime soon.”

“Primacy effect,” West said, frowning.  “That video is going to be the first thing people will think about when they think about people in the field during an Endbringer attack.”

“So we drown it,” the woman from before said.  “Release the footage we held back, footage with a more favorable effect on us.  Weaver gets lost in the shuffle, and we quietly address the unbecoming conduct.”

We won, you bastards.  I clenched my fists beneath the table.

“Address how?”

“It’s a violation of her probationary membership.  She’s off the team for the time being, if not permanently.  She fulfills the remainder of her sentence, then remains in our custody as a consult.  ”

I noticed that my bugs were acting of their own volition, treating this as a crisis scenario.  They were massing, and they were winding silk threads around the PRT uniforms that guarded the room, around the containment foam sprayers and guns that they held.

I’d missed the Undersiders, hated that I wasn’t there with them as they said goodbye to Regent.  Part of the reason I’d become a hero had been to reconnect with my dad, but the gap seemed too wide.  I’d killed, and he’d seen me kill.  He was afraid of me.

It would be easy to disable the PRT uniforms, attack the directors and simply make my way to Brockton Bay.  I could patch things up with Grue, help Rachel, ensure that Imp didn’t go to a dark place.

But it wouldn’t get me anywhere.

He wanted to play hardball?  I’d play hard in return.  I turned my attention to my swarm for a moment.

“I think you’re underestimating how badly the public would react if Weaver was punished,” Glenn said.

“We’re facing a lose-lose situation, Mr. Chambers,” Chief Director West said.  “We cut our losses, take a hit in PR, but we can continue operating as we need to.  So long as it’s quiet, she goes to prison and doesn’t go out on another big excursion, I don’t think anyone’s about to make a big deal of it.”

…make a big deal of it.  I turned the words around in my head.  Manipulating the media, manipulating the local capes.  Damn.  I’d had high hopes for Chevalier’s new Protectorate, but it didn’t seem to extend to the PRT.

“We can deflect,” the woman from before said.  “Raise another issue, change the focus of the public.”

“Not so easy,” Glenn said.  “It’s been done too often in the past.  They’re watching for it, even anticipating it.”

“But the majority won’t be,” she responded.  She turned to Director West.  “The alert, educated minority will complain, but they won’t achieve anything meaningful.  They never do.”

“I’m inclined to agree,” Director West said.  “It’s not pretty, but it’ll suffice.”

Why?” I asked.  “You can’t deny I helped.  I didn’t deliver a serious blow, but I helped to coordinate, I had ideas, I used them.”

“There’s other smart capes out there,” a man said.  He didn’t give me the impression of a PRT director.  Another staff member?

“I did a lot of good, and you’re railroading me.  Is it because you’re losing control of things and I make an easy target?  Because you’re afraid of me?”

“Because you’re consistently unpredictable.  Unreliable.  We set rules and you break them,” West told me.

“Rules don’t generally apply during an Endbringer attack,” I said.  “The only thing that matters is taking the motherfucker down.  We did.”

“I’m inclined to agree,” Armstrong said.  “This is going a step too far.  She did well.”

A few heads nodded around the table, but they didn’t have the majority, and they didn’t have the clout that Chief Director West did.  Glenn had spoken of a fifty-fifty split in the reactions, and he was more or less on target.  But the power held by the people who were standing up for me was nothing compared to the clout the others had.

“This is beyond the Endbringer attack.  It’s overall conduct,” the woman at the far end of the table said.

“When? Can you name incidents?  Beyond the Endbringer attack?”  I challenged her.

“Spiders in the less traveled areas of the prison,” West told me.

Spiders in the prison.  Shit.

I felt myself deflate a little, but I managed to keep my face straight.  “If there are any, they’re eggs that recently hatched.”

“And the costume?  A weave of silk cloth hidden out of sight.”

Damn.

“That predated my discussion with the Warden,” I lied.  “I got rid of the spiders, moved on.”

“You could have reported it.”

“That an abandoned time-killing project was stuck in behind some pipes?  Why?”

“Because this happens.  There’s no reason to believe you.”

I clenched my fists.

“You’re dangerous, Taylor Hebert.  Unpredictable.  You’re deceptive, clever enough to come up with tricks, but not clever enough to stick to the straight and narrow from the beginning.  Armstrong said it himself.  You’re good at manipulating people.”

…Manipulating people, I thought.  Not as good as I wanted to be.

Armstrong spoke up, “You’re twisting my words, West.  I said she was well situated for interacting with vulnerable people, and stalwart enough in her own worldview that others can get swept up in her flow.”

“Regardless.  Ms. Hebert was right about one thing.  It’s late.  It’s been an emotionally exhausting day.”

“Physically exhausting too,” I said, not taking my eyes off the Chief Director.  “You know, running around, fighting Behemoth while you guys sit in your-”

Glenn shifted one leg under the table, pressing it against mine.  A nudge, not overt.

I stopped.

My power crackled at the edge of my attention.  My bugs were moving again, without any direct instructions from me.  I reined them in, and then distributed them through the building.  Was there someone I could contact?  Something I could communicate to the right person, to change what was happening here?

West ignored my comment, turning his attention to Glenn.  “Mr. Chambers, you’re relieved of duty.  You likely knew this already.”

“I understand,” Glenn said.

“We’ll discuss on our own whether we need to press charges.”

…Press charges.  Bastards.

“Okay,” Glenn said.

West met my eyes.  “Taylor Hebert, you violated the terms of your probation.  You’ll return to Gardener tonight, and you’ll carry out the rest of your sentence.  Your test run with the Wards teams is over.  Offer rescinded.  Provided you do not talk to the media, we stop there.  We’ll talk to you when you turn eighteen, to see about plans for the future.”

“This is a mistake,” Glenn said.  “Chevalier had a number of plans, and you’re unraveling them.”

“Naturally, Mr. Chambers.  We’re aware of the thrust of those plans.  Recruiting villains.  A darker, edgier Protectorate.  Provided he keeps to the rules, we’re willing to let that be.  But with the administration, the underlying framework that makes his teams possible, we have to maintain a balance, keep the public and the President happy.  He won’t have our assistance.”

…He won’t have our assistance, I thought.

I heard the words, and my bugs spoke them.  Every bug, within the building, repeated him, verbatim.  The good, the bad, the details that damned me.  It wasn’t a question of finding the right person, or saying the right thing.  It was everyone, saying everything.

In that manner, my bugs repeated it to staff members, to the Chicago Wards, and to the Protectorate members who’d accompanied their Directors here.  It was too late for reporters to be around, but I didn’t deny the possibility.

Tens of thousands of bugs speaking words at a sound barely above a whisper, louder in places where more people congregated.

Dispatch and Exalt were the first to make their way to our floor.  They entered the room without knocking.

I met Dispatch’s eyes.  Not the rescuer I’d hoped for.  We’d worked together, but he’d disliked me from the outset.

“Dispatch?”  West asked.

Dispatch didn’t reply right away.  He glared, and it wasn’t at me.  It was at the Director.

“We’ve been listening,” Exalt said.

Listening?”

“You’ve been bugged,” Dispatch said.  “Only the bugs are the ones outside.  They’ve been talking.  Reciting.”

I could see Chief Director West’s eyes narrow as he looked at me.  He would be replaying the conversation in his head, trying to figure out if he had said anything damning.

“No guarantee she’s telling the truth,” West said.

“Provided he keeps to the rules, we’re willing to let that be,” Dispatch said.  “Spiders in the back areas of the prison.”

“Yes,” Director Armstrong said.  “That’s accurate.  I can’t speak to particulars or the little details, though.”

“I repeated everything verbatim,” I confirmed.

“The goings-on of this meeting are confidential,” Director West said.

“Nobody told me that,” I answered.  “It doesn’t matter.  I violated my probation anyways, apparently.”

“Anything goes against Endbringers,” Tecton said, from the hallway.  He’d just arrived with Grace and Annex beside him.  “We wouldn’t have done half as well if it wasn’t for her.”

“Tell that to Kismet,” one of West’s flunkies commented.  “Or Particulate.  You don’t really want her on your team.  Not when she’s going to stab you in the back for a better margin of victory.”

“I do,” Tecton said.  “All of us do.  We watched the video together.  We talked about it.  Kismet made a mistake.  As far as Particulate, we looked him up.  He’s reckless, dangerous.  Not the best way she could have handled it, but it worked.”

West didn’t take his eyes off me.  “Even if we ignored everything else, this kind of behavior, it’s-”

“It’s exactly what Chevalier wanted,” I said.  My eyes dropped to the table.  I didn’t meet his gaze, didn’t try to engage the visitors.  “Open, honest.  Exposing the rot at the center.”

“You’re saying you’re not rotten,” the woman at the end of the table said, almost mocking.

“Maybe I am,” I told her.  “I’m not all good, not all bad.  I’m just… getting by.  Doing what I can, not holding back against enemies who don’t deserve it.  And under Chevalier’s system, Glenn’s system, I guess I’m revealing all of that stuff we usually keep hidden, and it’s up to others to make the call whether they can roll with it or not.  Up to the public, my potential teammates.”

“Honestly,” Tecton said, “If you’re going to lock her up after all this, you can consider me done.  You’re going to undermine Chevalier, when what he’s doing worked?  I’m gone.”

Here and there, there were murmurs of agreement.

There was a very long pause.

“Weaver,” Director West said.

I met his eyes again.  I could see the hate.

“You’ll make your way to Chicago at the end of the week, and provided everything goes well, you will be a member of the team.  If you’re wise, you won’t take interviews, and you won’t take any action that draws attention to you.”

I drew in a deep breath, then nodded.

“You’ll wear a tracking device at all times, and any time you leave the defined area within the Chicago headquarters, you’ll have an escort, a longstanding member of the team in your company at all times.”

“Okay,” I said.

“See to it that you follow these rules.  You’ve got the backing of the heroes here, maybe you’ve got the public’s favor, but we will remove you if you give us an excuse.”

“I understand,” I said, suddenly very weary.

Beside me, Glenn stood from his chair.  I took his cue.

The PRT uniforms stepped out of the doorway, where they’d been barring the small crowd access.  We made our exit, joining the Wards and PRT staff members.

“Weaver,” the Chief Director called out.

I turned around.

“You didn’t make any allies in this room today.”

“I think you were my enemies before we even met,” I said.  “You’d never have given me the chance to be your ally.”

“You’re wrong.”

I shrugged, then turned to walk away.

Tecton gave me a nod as I approached.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Not a problem,” he said.  “You kept us alive, I figure we owe you one.”

“I don’t think you owe me much, but I’m not complaining,” I said.

“We should go.  We were in the middle of something.  See you soon, I hope?”

“Yeah,” I answered.

When they’d broken away, it was Glenn and I, together.

“That was foolish,” Glenn commented.

“They wouldn’t have given us any slack.  Nothing we could have said or done would have changed the outcome, unless we attacked from a different angle.”

“There’s a habit some people have,” Glenn said, “Where they divide people into enemies and allies.  It’s in your records, as a matter of fact, your propensity to define people as enemies and act without mercy, while being gentle and kind to your friends.  The Chief Director is another person who is very similar.  Pairings you two together, you could have been great allies or great enemies, but there’s not much middle ground.  It’s a shame you have a powerful enemy, now.”

“I still don’t see how we would have been friends.”

“I don’t think you would have been.  But humiliating an enemy is a dangerous thing.  Doing it again would be terminal.  You’ll need to be clever about your approach from here on out, so you aren’t threatening them to the same degree.”

“I’m too tired to strategize any more, Glenn.”

Think.  What’s motivating the Directors?  First thought that comes to your mind.”

“Fear.”

“Of?” he asked, without a heartbeat of hesitation.

“Me?”

He shook his head.  “More specific.  If they don’t act now, what happens in the long run?”

“They can’t control me.”

“People would recognize it, that the PRT didn’t have the ability to control all of its heroes.  Some would act on it.  It would be devastating, damaging on a fundamental level.”

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” I asked.  “Your ‘harbinger’?”

“It is.  Can you guess what I’m going to suggest, now?”

“You want me to make a move.  Powerful enough to shake them, break the status quo, not powerful or blatant enough to break my probation or give them an excuse to drop the book on me.”

“You’ll be with the Wards by the week’s end, if someone doesn’t trip you up.  Do you think you can manage it?  A big success?”

“Maybe,” I said.

“The moment you drop out of the public eye, you become vulnerable.  You’ve got a reprieve, but when you do act, you’re going to need to act big.  And you can’t stop once that’s happened.  Once you act, you’ll be giving them an opening, and you have to keep moving after that.  Understand?”

“Yeah.”

“Keep the ramifications and the scale of your actions in mind at all times.  Use that strategic brain of yours.  Above all, be patient.”

“Now hearing case two-seven-two-four, Weaver.”

I stood.  “I’m here.”

“For the matter of committee record, would you affirm that your full name and identity are a matter of public record, and that the committee is free to use it?”

“I will.”

“Will you state your name for the record?”

“Taylor Hebert.”

“Your date of birth?”

“June nineteenth, 1995.”

“You are a minor.”

“Yes.”

“Will you testify that you were not coerced into this arrangement?”

“I’m here of my own free will.”

“You were not offered any bribes or incentives that are not already a matter of record?”

“To the best of my knowledge, it’s all been aboveboard.”

“As a minor, we ask that you have a guardian or respected professional to help guide you through the process, and to help verify what you’re testifying.”

Before I could speak, I heard someone’s chair scraping against the floor somewhere behind me.  Standing up.  “Her father.”

I felt my heart leap.  I hadn’t seen him when I’d peeked through the crowd behind me, but I hadn’t been using my bugs either.  No use disturbing anyone.  I kept my eyes fixed in front of me.

“Would you please approach?”

I could hear him walk, but didn’t turn to look.  Fuck, I was still hurt, still angry, even in the moment I was filled with relief.  He came to stand next to me, and my hand found his.  I squeezed, hard, and he squeezed back.

He was here now, at least.  Not while I was in prison, not when I’d started my forays into the Wards.  But he was here now.

“Your name?”

“Danny Hebert.”

“State again for the committee record, your relation to her?”

“I’m her father.”

“You’re aware of her standing in regards to the law?”

“I am.”

“And you’ve read the documents detailing her probationary status within the Wards?  Document two-seven-two-four-A?”

“I have.”

“You’ve read the statement and accompanying paperwork provided by Taylor Hebert, AKA ‘Weaver’, document two-seven-two-four-B?”

“I have.”

“Do you hereby attest that all statements disclosed in the latter document are the truth, to the best of your knowledge?”

“Yes.”

I watched as the committee members paged through the documents in front of them.

My heart was pounding, and it wasn’t just my dad’s impromptu arrival.  This was it.  The moment my future hinged on.

I’d made enemies in the upper echelons of the PRT.  The question was whether they’d pull a maneuver, do something sneaky to undermine me or screw up the case to leave me stranded without anyplace to go but jail.

“I believe each of us have reviewed the files?” the man at the center of the table finally spoke, looking to the others for confirmation.  “Case two-seven-two-four has met the requirements for probationary admittance to the Wards.  She is to follow the stipulations as outlined in document two-seven-two-four-A.  Failure to comply will result in a return to medium security detention for a span of one and a half years or until such a time as she turns eighteen, whichever is longer.  Further, failing to meet the terms for probation will result in a forfeiture of any earnings or rights granted her by the PRT, which will be held in trust until such a time as she reaches the age of majority.  Do you understand these terms?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Yes,” my dad said.

“With that, you are now a probationary member of the Wards, until such a time as you turn eighteen or violate the terms of your probationary membership.  Congratulations, Taylor Hebert.”

There were cheers from the sidelines.  Tecton and his group were among them.

“Next case,” the committee members said.

My dad and I retreated into the aisle.  We made eye contact for what felt like the first time in an age.

“Thank you for coming.”

“I wasn’t necessary.  You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have someone else lined up.”

“It matters, dad.  More than you know.  Thank you.”

“Is this fixable?  Us?”

I frowned.

“What?” he asked.  He opened the door so we could step out of the committee room and into the hallways of the PRT office.

“I’ve kind of come to hate that word.  ‘Fix’,” I said.

“You don’t think-“

“I don’t,” I interrupted him.  “We can’t fix ‘us’, society can’t be fixed.  It’s impossible.”

He frowned.  “I don’t think it is.”

“Things change.  Destroy them, rebuild them, you’re just causing change.  Can’t we… isn’t it okay if we don’t try to go back to the way things were?”

“You don’t want to be a family?” he asked.

“I do.  But… we tried to go back, after the city started to rebuild.  It didn’t feel right.  It was nice, but we were playing roles, and there was more stuff unsaid than said.  Lies, unasked questions.  Kind of unhappy at the root of it, you know?”

“I know.”

We found an empty bench and sat down.  I could see the Chicago Wards stepping out into the hallway, but they kept their distance.  Revel made her way out the door a few seconds later, and started talking to them as a group, at the opposite end of the hall.

“You’re so far away,” he said.  “Doing things I can’t even imagine, facing serious danger, even on a more mundane level, the way you’re going to be living at the headquarters.  It’s a fourteen hour drive.”

“Can’t we visit, though?”  I asked.  “Send emails every day, videochat?

“We can.  I’ll come see you at the headquarters before I leave for home, see how you’re getting by.  Maybe, if you need me to, I can pick up some essentials.  Things you wouldn’t want to ask them for, or things they wouldn’t know your preferences on.”

I wondered momentarily if my dad even know what my preferences were, nowadays.  I didn’t voice those thoughts.  At the same time, I meant what I said as I told him, “That sounds amazing.  Yes. Please.”

He smiled, but the expression faltered as he glanced a little to one side.  “I think your team wants to talk to you.”

I nodded.  “Talk to you in a bit?”

“Tomorrow,” he said.

“Tomorrow,” I replied, standing from the bench.  The Wards had turned to face me.

When I approached Revel and Tecton and the others, I cast a glance back.  My dad was still sitting on the bench.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was a step forward.  It had to count for something.

“This space was for vehicles, but Stardust graduated three years ago, died a year after joining the Protectorate.  We’ve been using it for storing paperwork, and your moving in was a good excuse to get some things sorted out.  Your workshop.”

I nodded, doing my best to maintain eye contact.  Campanile was about eight feet tall.  I’d been given a complete physical and fitness test right off the bat, and I was five feet and nine inches tall.

The height difference put my eye level just a couple of feet above Campanile’s hip level.  He wore a skintight suit, and there was little left to the imagination.  I thought I might have seen a ridge or a vein, in that split-second I’d glanced down to make sure my eyes weren’t fooling me.

If I were more well adjusted, I would have been embarrassed, even offended.  Instead, I almost wanted to laugh.  Neither would have done well in terms of first impressions.

Focus on your bugs, I told myself.  Look interested.

“Talk to Tecton before you grab anything from the build room.  That’s where we keep all the panels, portable walls and furniture for customizing our spaces.  Tools and everything would be down there too, but it’s easiest to let Tecton keep it all in his workshop.  He’s our only tinker, and it’s not any harder to ask him for something than it is to go all the way to the basement.”

“Got it.”

“You’re distributing this stuff to other groups, right?  The silk?”

“After I’m done outfitting my team, and you guys, our Protectorate.”

I’ll give Campanile thicker fabric below the waist, maybe, I thought.

“Well, there’s a budget, so negotiate with Tecton on that front.  We all use the account, but the rest of us usually just dip into it to replace broken pads or lenses, stuff like that.  Tecton pays for materials, which is usually enough to empty the budget, but he makes and maintains knick-knacks and tools that he rents out to other groups.  Earns a bit of money to make up for taking an unfair share.”

“Got it.  I can do the same?  Selling the silk?”

“Yeah.  Might be easier, since your stuff can be mass-produced.”

I stared out at the workshop, glad for the excuse to look away.  Did he know how tightly the costume was clinging to him below the waist?

“It’s good,” I commented on the workshop.  Better than the one in my old lair.

“Your bedroom isn’t with the others at the hub, since there’s not a lot of privacy there, and people are always coming and going.  It’s more a place to kick back and nap if you’ve had a long patrol, keep some books and magazines, maybe some games.  You do have a nook, though.”

I nodded.  Maintain eye contact.

“You’re just down the hall.  Here.”

I checked out the bedroom.  It was better than my cell, but plain.  The fact that I could come and go when I pleased was a plus, even if I was confined to the building when I didn’t have an escort.

“I can buy stuff to make it my own, right?”

“Yeah.  But you should know that they’ve got cleaners to do the PRT supplied laundry, sheets pillows, towels, the generic skintight suits.  You’ll have to do your own laundry, and that includes any sheets you buy or whatever.”

“Got it,” I said.  I very nearly glanced down to make sure the protrusion in his skintight outfit was still there, stopped myself.  Even in my peripheral vision, it stood out.  Seriously, that thing’s as long as my forearm.

“Computer’s here.  PRT issue laptop.  Take some time, remove the crap.  If you don’t know how, or if you’re not sure what’s dead weight on the system, ask Tecton.  Username is your codename, password to start with is your birthday.  Month-day-year, followed by your middle name.  Once you type that in, it’ll set everything up automatically and prompt you for a new password.”

“Okay.”

“You’ve got a small bathroom just down here,” he pointed down a short hallway, “No shower, sorry.  There’s one in the main area, not a lot of privacy, but you’ll figure out the patrol schedules, and figure out when you can go shower without a chance of being bothered, if you’re shy.”

Shy.  I very nearly cracked a smile at that.  He was the one who should be bashful, but he just radiated confidence, instead.

“I’ll manage.”

“Let’s see… there’s the phone and earpiece, they’ll get that to you soon.  Identification, the same.  Can you think of anything you need?”

“A few million Darwin’s bark spiders,” I said.  “I could do with even just a hundred, but it’d mean a slow start.”

He didn’t even flinch.  “We can probably arrange it.”

“Black widows would work too.  Easier to find, but not nearly as good.  Maybe just need an escort so I can go out for walks.”

“We could arrange that.  I’m going out in an hour, meeting some kids at the hospital.  If you don’t mind the detour, we could swing by a park or something.”

I tried not to imagine him in the pediatric’s wing of a hospital.  You’d need to change.  Or wrap something around your waist.

I didn’t voice my thoughts.

“The hub is right down here, bottom of the stairs.  Command center, nook-slash-temporary bedrooms, spare costumes, televisions and everything else.”

Tecton, Wanton and Annex were at the bottom of the stairs.  Grace, Golem and Cuff were sitting at the computer bank against the one wall, but they were watching.  Grace had a wicked smile on her face.

I realized why.  The bastards.  They were pulling the same trick Campanile had, stuffing something in the front of their costumes.  Tecton, for his part, wore a mechanical suit, so he’d simply bulked out the crotch portion of his armor with additional armor plating.  Obvious, not even trying to hide what they were doing.  Wanton gave me a cheeky smile as I made eye contact with him.

For my part, I managed to keep my expression straight.

Over the course of seconds, Annex seemed to get more and more uncomfortable.  I made eye contact and maintained it as he squirmed.

“She’s not reacting, and I’m feeling really, really dumb,” he said.

“Aw, Annex, c’mon,” Wanton groaned.  “She would’ve cracked up.”

Grace was laughing, now.  Cuff, by contrast, wasn’t moving her eyes from the computer screen.  She was probably the ideal target for this kind of prank.

“Don’t sue me for sexual harassment,” Annex told me.

I smiled a little.  “I’m not going to sue.  I’ve been around people who did worse.”

“It seemed funnier when we were talking about it before,” Tecton said.  “It’s… kind of awkward, right now.”

“It is funny,” I said, smiling, “You guys did get me, I was so busy trying not to stare at Campanile that I barely heard what he was saying about the tour.”

There were a few chuckles.

“I was thinking it was a bad idea,” Golem said, “With your background, that you might not like being picked on.  They gave me one, but I thought it was a bad idea to test you.”

“It was a terrible idea,” Tecton said.  “Juvenile.  But sometimes you need a cheap laugh.”

“They’re embarrassing themselves worse than they’re embarrassing me,” I told Golem.  “I’m okay with it.  I’m glad to have an initiation into the group.  Could have been far worse.”

“Alright guys, joke’s over,” Tecton said.  He unclasped and removed the metal codpiece from his armor.  “She’s right.  We’re just embarrassing ourselves now.  Get rid of the damn things.  And I don’t want to see them lying around anywhere.”

“I could keep it this way,” Wanton joked.

“No you couldn’t,” Tecton said.  “You’ll forget about it, switch to your other form without absorbing it and wind up bashing someone unconscious with a foot-long silicon club.”

I glanced over my shoulder at Campanile, and saw him standing by the trashcan, no longer endowed.  He didn’t look quite so ludicrous now.  Freakishly tall, yes.  Not freakishly long, so to speak.

“Sorry,” he said.

I shrugged.  “I figure I’ve got blackmail material now.  Just need to get my hands on the security camera footage.”

He smiled and shook his head.  “Welcome.  Be good.”

“I don’t think these guys are setting the bar that high on the ‘good’ scale,” I told him.

He clapped one hand on my shoulder, then turned around to go up the stairs, leaving.

Annex had fled, but Wanton was taking his time in leaving, with Tecton giving him the occasional push to get him to walk faster.  Over by the computer bank, Grace and Golem were wrestling with something.

“Do it,” I heard her.

“No way, no way,” Golem responded

“Do it.  Just a little.”

She said something else I didn’t make out.  It didn’t go much further before Golem gave in.

Wanton doubled over mid-stride, falling to the ground.  Once he realized what had happened, he started thrashing in his effort to get the offending object out of his pants.  I had to avert my gaze before he inadvertently flashed me.

“Geez, guys,” Tecton groaned, “Too far.”

Golem rushed over, apologizing, while Wanton cursed at him, throwing the lump of plastic at his teammate.  Grace had fallen out of her chair laughing, and Cuff had done the opposite, putting her unburned arm on the desk and burying her face in the crook of it.

In the midst of the chaos, I made my way over to the computer bank and leaned over the keyboard, typing in the username and password I’d been given.  The desktop was up and running in heartbeats.  Access to nice computers was apparently a perk of being a hero.

I dug around for the files on the local powers, and began studying.  I tried, anyways.  Grace’s continued laughter was so infectious and unashamed I couldn’t help but join in.

My new home, for better or worse.

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Interlude 24 (Donation Bonus #1)

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“Well bandaged.  They did a good job,” the doctor had to raise her voice to be heard over the helicopter’s rotors.  She was older, blond to the point that it was hard to distinguish if her hair was still blond or graying, her expression creased in concern.

Wanton nodded mutely.

“What happened?” the doctor asked him.

“Falling debris,” Tecton offered, from the other side of the helicopter.

The doctor nodded.  “We’ll leave it as it is.  The pain’s okay?”

“Meds help,” Wanton said.  “Feel like I’m almost dreaming.  And I’m going to wake up, and none of this will have happened.”

“It happened,” Tecton said.

“Why isn’t everyone cheering and hollering anymore?”

“Really fucking tired,” Grace said.  She was beside Cuff, who’d been stripped of her armor from the waist up, with only a thin covering of near-liquid metal on her upper body for modesty’s sake.  A nurse was attending to her arm.

“Really tired,” Golem said.  “Oh my god.  My entire body hurts, and I didn’t even take a direct hit.”

“The roars and shockwaves might have done internal damage,” the doctor said.  “You’ll each need a CT scan and MRI.  Let me know if there’s any acute pain.”

“I think it’s more that I’ve never exercised this much in my life,” Golem said.

“You’ll hurt worse tomorrow,” Grace commented.

“Damn.”

The doctor, for her part, turned her attention to Wanton.  “We’ll need to double-check for bone fragments when we get back to the hospital.  You’ll need surgery.  Chances are good this was a rush job.”

“I… my arm,” Wanton said, lamely.

“I’m sorry,” the doctor responded.

“No, it’s like… I should feel worse, but I don’t.  Maybe it’s the drugs, but I feel this rush, like I’ve never been so glad to be alive.  I’m pumped.”

“You may be in shock,” the doctor observed.

“We’re all in shock,” Tecton said.

There were murmurs of agreement across the helicopter.

“Is anyone else a little freaked out?” Cuff asked.

“Freaked out?” the doctor asked.

Cuff shook her head, not responding.  Her attention had shifted to her arm, as the doctor bound it.

Tecton ventured a reply instead.  “I think I understand what Cuff means.  It’s hard to believe he’s gone.  It’s like, you’re five years old, and Leviathan appears for the first time, and your parents have to explain that a bunch of people died, and it’s because of these monsters and yet nobody has figured out why.”

“Yeah,” Cuff said.  “What happens next?  Leviathan or the Simurgh?  We kill them?  Stop them from blowing up or doing their version of blowing up?  I can’t really imagine that we’d beat them, give our all and hope that Scion shows up and fights like that again, kill them, and then have everything be okay.”

“You just got powers, barely a month ago, and you’re already this grim?” Wanton asked.

“I’ve been dealing with the aftermath of the Endbringer attacks for a while,” Cuff said.  Her eyes were on the floor, and an expression of pain crossed her face as the doctor cut away a tag of burned skin on her shoulder.  The scar was like a snowflake carved into the skin’s surface, angry and red.  Her arm seemed to tremble involuntarily.

“It’s okay to worry,” Tecton said.  He gestured towards Weaver.  “Weaver said as much.  They’ve got a nasty habit of escalating, in the fights themselves and in the grand scheme of things.  Behemoth got too predictable, so Leviathan started to show up.  We started to coordinate defenses, get the world on board to deal with them, Simurgh comes.”

“And now we killed one, so how do they escalate from there?” Grace asked.

“It’s a concern,” Tecton said, “And it’s one that people all around the world are going to be discussing.  Rely on them.  Don’t take the full weight of the world onto your shoulders.  We fought, you guys made a good show of it,” Tecton said.

“I could’ve done more,” Cuff said.

“You’re new.  Inexperienced, and I don’t mean that in a bad way.  As far as jumping in with both feet first, you guys managed it.  You, Golem, Annex, you stood up there, shoulder to shoulder with veteran heroes, and you fought, even though you’re rookies.  You have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, okay?”

Cuff didn’t reply.

“Okay?” Tecton asked.

“When my family got killed in Hawaii, I made promises to myself.  It’s why I came.  I don’t feel like I did enough, to fulfill my own end of those promises.”

“There’s always next time,” Tecton said.

“You say that like it’s a good thing,” Wanton said.

“Yeah.  Shit,” Grace muttered.  “It’s not quite over yet, right?”

“Right,” Tecton said.  “But there’s time before the next one.  Let people in the know handle the worrying.  We did everything we could.  Now we recuperate.  We celebrate, because was deserve to.  We take the time to heal.”

In response to the glances cast his way, Wanton waved his stump around.  “Going to take getting used to.  Getting dressed, eating…”

He moved the stump in the direction of his lap, jerked it up and down.

Cuff looked and squeaked in embarrassment before averting her eyes.

“…writing,” Wanton finished, a goofy smile on his face.

“Your handwriting must be awful,” Golem said.

There were chuckles here and there from among the group.  Even the nurse tending to Cuff smiled.

“We did good,” Tecton said.  “And some people will recognize that.  Others are gonna see all the bad that happened in New Delhi and point fingers.  Be ready in case you fall under the crosshairs.”

There were nods from the rest of the Chicago Wards.

Tecton glanced at Weaver, then back to his team.  “What do you think?”

“You have to ask?” Grace asked.

“You weren’t keen at the idea at first,” Tecton replied.

“I’m still not, not a hundred percent.  But whatever little doubts I have, it’s kind of a no-brainer.”

“Yep,” Wanton said.

“Golem?”  Tecton asked.  “Have you even talked to her about it?”

“I’m a little scared to,” the boy said.  “I mean…”

He glanced at the doctor.

“Everything here is confidential,” Tecton said.

“Well, given my past, the people I was with before I came here, I’m worried there’s hard feelings.  They were in the same city.  I don’t know what exactly happened.  What if one of them did something to Weaver or her friends?  Is she the type to hold a grudge?”

“Going by what apparently happened in Brockton Bay,” Wanton said, “Not so much.  If she has a reason to hold a grudge, you don’t tend to live very long.”

Golem frowned.

“You’re not being helpful, Wanton.  Or fair to Weaver,” Tecton said.

“I’m suffering, Tec,” Wanton said, making the words into an exaggerated groan.

Tecton shook his head, turning to Golem.  “Tell her.  Explain your circumstances, let her know you’re from the same city, that you don’t share your family’s ideology.”

“The name should say as much,” Golem said.

Tecton nodded.  He drew in a deep breath, then exhaled.  The adrenaline was burning off, and with it, a deep exhaustion was settling in.

He looked at Weaver, where she sat at the far end of the bench.  Her old teammate had insisted on coming with her, along with a small cluster of dogs.  They’d fallen asleep within two minutes of takeoff.  Weaver had been first, her head leaning against her friend’s shoulder.  Her friend had been next to drift off, a dog in her lap, others lying underneath the bench.

“We’ll talk to the bosses,” Tecton said.  “See about taking Weaver onto the team.”

How was this supposed to work?

“Door me,” Pretender said.

A light sliced across the floor of the alleyway, three feet across.  When it had reached its full length, it began thickening, raising up until the portal was a full four by seven feet.  There was a long white hallway on the other side.

Carefully, he stepped through, with legs that weren’t his own.

“Pretender.”

He stopped, then turned around.  “Satyr.”

“You don’t have to go with them,” Satyrical said.

“I think today proved I do.”

“And everything we were working on?  Everything we were working towards?”

“I talked to some powerful people.  People behind the scenes we’ve barely heard of,” Pretender replied.  “What we were working on in Vegas doesn’t even compare.  Small potatoes.”

“Doesn’t feel like small potatoes.  What’s so important that you’d run off?”

Pretender frowned, an expression hidden by the helmet he wore.

“You can talk to me.  You know I can keep secrets.  Or are you talking about the Endbringers?  I think today showed they can deal with Endbringers on their own,” Satyr said.

“It’s bigger things.  Bigger than Endbringers,” Pretender answered.  “End of the world.”

Satyrical sighed.  “Of course it is.”

“I’ll help you with the little things, when I have the time.  We have resources, and maybe we can use you guys.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Satyr said.  He approached Pretender, extending a hand.

Pretender shook, gingerly, unsure of the full extent of Alexandria’s enhanced strength.

Satyr held on to the hand, caressing it.  “They say you should marry your best friend, and now that you’re a woman…”

Pretender chuckled a little before withdrawing his hand from Satyr’s.  “That line again?  I don’t think that’s what they meant.”

“She’s yours for keeps?”

“Brain dead.  Her body’s peculiar.  Doesn’t really age.  Hair doesn’t grow, nails don’t grow.  Wounds don’t really heal or get worse.  She used cosmetics to look older, to throw people off.  Only the brain was left pliable, adaptable.  Even then, most of it was hardened, protected, those duties offloaded to her agent.”

Satyr studied Pretender’s new body without shame.  His eyes rested on Pretender’s forehead.  “I see.  And with that plasticity, the brain was left more vulnerable.”

“Only a little.  Enough to be an Achilles heel.  She’s a case fifty-three, I suppose.  All of us may be.”

“All Cauldron capes?”

Pretender nodded.  “To some degree or another.”

Satyr seemed to take that into consideration, rubbing his chin.  When he spoke, though, he spoke of something else.  “What you did… you knew that they’d figured you out, and that I was next in line, that I’d get questioned too.  You killed her for my sake, to buy me time.”

“Are you mad?”

Satyr shook his head.  “We’ve killed before.  Selfishly, selflessly.  Only difference is you got caught.”

“Well, I got away.”

“In a fashion, yes.  You got away,” Satyr said.  “You’ve even reached a higher position in life.”

“Wearing someone else’s skin, living their life,” Pretender replied.

“Yes, well, that was always going to be your fate, wasn’t it?”

Pretender chuckled.  “I’ve missed you, buddy.”

“Likewise, you freak of nature,” Satyr responded.

“Just because we’re doing different things now, it doesn’t mean goodbye.”

“Good.”

“We stay in touch,” Pretender said.  “I’m sure my new group can use you, and you can draw on our resources, I’m sure.  Our goals are more or less aligned.  Only difference is scale.”

“Well then.  Good luck with saving the world.”

“And good luck with saving civilization from itself,” Pretender answered.  He looked skyward for a moment.  “Close the door.”

The portal closed.

Connecting to “agChat.ParahumansOnline016.par:6667” (Attempt 1 of 55)
Resolving Host Name
Connecting…
Connected.
Using identityIblis”, nick “Iblis”
Welcome to Parahumans Online Chatroom #116, ‘The Holdout’.  Rules Here.  Behave.
  Obey the @s.
Ryus: shorthand for seismic activity.  earthquakes.
Kriketz: any word on deaths yet
Divide: No word on deaths.  This is Behemoth.  It’s normal to see a radio silence like this.  Divide: They can’t report deaths because the armbands get knocked out.
Spiritskin:  Hi Iblis!
IblisWord is first capes are returning home.
Aloha:  !
Loyal: Who?  Who?  Names!
Deimos: how is new delhi?
@Deadman@:  I’m in contact with main channel, can pass on details if you can verify.
@Deadman@:  PM me.
Iblis: Loyal – Not sure.
Iblis: Deimos – City hit bad.
Iblis: Deadman – Not sure how to verify.  Only have texts on phone.  Sending PM.
Poit: they made it
BadSamurai:  how bad?
Ultracut:  Poit nobodys saying they amde it
Poit: they stopped him or they wouldn’t be leaving
Deimos: Nooooooo! new delhi hit bad?
Aloha:  X(
Iblis:  Texts I’m getting from cape-wife friend are saying Scion finished Behemoth off.
Iblis: Absolute annihilation.
QwertyD: Troll
Groupies: no fucking way
Aloha: O_o
Deimos is now known as Absolute Annihiliation
@Deadman@: Verify now or ban.
Absolute Annihilation: fuck yea Scion!
Arcee: Omg wat?
Iblis: sending PM with texts.

Colin shifted his weight restlessly, watching the screens.

There was a process, he knew.  He’d been filled in on the details, forewarned.  That didn’t make this any easier.

Too many years he’d spent alone.  Too many years, he’d had nothing to care about.  Nothing and nobody to hold precious.  A dad who worked two jobs, a mother who traveled.  They’d divorced, and virtually nothing had changed in the grand scheme of things.  They’d looked after him, but they hadn’t been there.  They had been occupied with other things, with dreams and aspirations that had never included him.

Colin knew he had been the weird child.  Had never made friends, had convinced himself he didn’t want or need them.  He was efficient in how solitary he was.

He’d even prided himself on it, for a time, that there was nothing to hold him back.  That he could, should the mood strike him, pick up and leave at any time.  He’d modeled his life around it, had led a spare existence, devoid of the little touches of home, of roots.  He’d saved money so he had the ability to travel, to get a new place in a new city if the mood struck.  It had even been an asset when he had joined the Protectorate, the ability to relocate, take any open position.

It was only now, a full fifteen years later, that he started to wonder what he’d missed out on.  Did most people know how to handle this sort of thing?  The absence of someone they cared about?  Did they have an easier time handling the moments when they weren’t sure if they’d ever see those people again, or was it harder?

He’d altered Dragon’s code.  It wasn’t a tidy thing.  Tinker work rarely was.  There were too many factors to consider, and a tinker who didn’t specialize in a particular area would never be able to plumb the depths.  Too many things connected to other things, and the full extent of the connections was impossible to fathom in entirety.

At best, he could study each alteration as much as was possible, act in ways that could minimize the damage.

Every adjustment, even on the smallest levels, threatened to damage a dozen, a hundred other areas.

And now he would find out if Dragon’s backup would restore properly.

Error: Temporal Modelling Node 08 has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge.

Error: Horospectral Analysis Node 1119 has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge…
Successful Load: Circadian Checkmatch Node ER089.  Require 2/3 more stable child routines for acceptable bridge.
Error: Metrological Chronostic Node Q1118 has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge…

Error: Stimuli Tracking Node FQ has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge.

Successful Load: Orientation Patch Node FQ02903.  Require 3/3 stable child routines for acceptable bridge.
Error: Parietal Space Node FQ161178 has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge…
Error: Recognition Demesnes Node FQ299639 has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge…

He pulled off his helmet, setting it on the bench beneath the monitor.  He rubbed one hand across his head.  He’d taken to shaving it close, in part for the efficiency of it, in part because the surgeries to replace his eye and the implants he’d set into recesses in his skull had required incisions in his scalp.  Dragon had handled that.

His fingers traced the faint, almost imperceptible scars that ran neatly across the sides and top of his head.  Marks she’d left him.

More errors appeared on the screen.  The estimated time of a successful backup clicked upwards with each one.  Two hours.  Three hours.  Six hours.

At the same time, in Colin’s head, the odds of a successful load were going down.  Twenty-five percent.  Twenty three.  Fifteen.

There were other backups.  He suspected the ones that had been uploaded after his tampering would run into the same issues.  The same errors.

The ones before?  Before he’d altered anything?  It would be a different Dragon than the one he’d come to know.  She would watch the video feeds, listen to the tapes, even experience some of those things for herself, where the system had taken it all online.  But she wouldn’t be the same Dragon he knew.  The organic A.I. architecture would develop in different ways, with different nuances.  So many things connected to so many other things with each new experience, and the connections would occur in a different fashion.

No, he realized.  Even worse.  He would have to head her off before she got access to the data.  If he had to load that backup, he would be loading her as she was before he freed her of the PRT’s shackles.  She would be obligated to fight him.  He’d managed a sneak attack the first time.  The second?  She’d see what he did, force him to try another means.

And he’d have to be more ruthless, knowing he was doing harm to her, injuring her to her core.

He couldn’t bear to watch further.  It was too soon to try another backup, both in terms of the system’s ability to handle the task and his own ability.  But sitting here, watching the list of errors grow, it was angering him, and it was an anger without a focus.

Touching two fingers to his lips, Colin moved those fingers to the monitor’s frame, pressing them there.  The gesture was sentimental enough it felt unlike him, somehow false.  Doing nothing would feel wrong too.

That was his current state, stranded inside his own head, in the midst of his own feelings.

Uncharted territory, in a way.

He pulled on his helmet and stepped outside, and hopped up onto the nose of the Tiamat II.

New Delhi loomed before him.  Ruined, damaged, impossible to recover.  The sun was only now setting, and the sky was red, mingling with the traces of clouds that still remained in the sky.

He wanted to contact Chevalier, to know that his friend was okay, that the Protectorate was okay.  He didn’t trust himself to stay calm, to keep from saying something about Dragon, from venting, being emotional.

Chevalier would understand, he suspected.  But Colin’s masculinity would take a hit, and it would only cause more trouble than it fixed.

Staring out at the city, and the crowds of people in hazmat suits who were moving in for relief, for search and rescue, he frowned.  He and Dragon had had some intense discussions on the subject of what it was to be a ‘man’.  To be human, to be masculine, feminine.

Dragon had been pissed when he’d suggested she was the feminine ideal.  That, in the eternal crisis that any woman faced between being the virgin, the madonna, and being sensual, sexual, she was both.

He wished he understood why she’d been so angry.

To be a man, though, it wasn’t much easier.  The standard society set was just as high.  To be a provider, a rock, to be sensitive, yet to avoid being emotional.

For long minutes, he stared out over the city, watching the sun dip beneath the horizon, the smoke and dust making the distant star’s light hazier, fuzzier.

“Tiamat II,” he said.  “Alert me when the system is finished the backup process, one way or another.”

Yes, Defiant.”

Uncomfortably similar to Dragon’s voice.  He felt an ache in his chest.

He hopped down from the nose of the craft, then used his spear to help himself down from the craggy edge of terrain that had been raised up from the earth in the chaos.  He strode forward, towards the city proper, calibrating his helmet to help identify any warm bodies.

“Annex?  Kirk?”

Kirk sat up from the hospital bed.

“You can stay where you are,” the doctor said, not looking up from the clipboard.

“I’m okay,” Kirk said.

“Your test results are taking some time, I’m sorry.  We can expect a two or three-hour wait.  Half an hour for the MRI, forty-five minutes for the CT scan.”

“At least it’s something to do,” Kirk replied.

“You’d be surprised at how quickly it gets boring,” the doctor answered.

Kirk winced.  “Okay.  Can I maybe use a phone in the meantime?  Call my parents?  They’ll be wondering.”

“They’ve already been informed,” the man answered.  “They’ll be here shortly.  There’s paperwork they’ll have to sign, because a few of your teammates are also walking around without any protection for their identities, but I don’t imagine that’ll take long.”

“Maybe I can call my friends?  They’ll be wondering how I’m doing.”

“They know about your life in costume?”

“They were there when I got my powers.  I just want to call someone, anyone I know, to occupy my thoughts, to talk.”

“There’s a phone at the nurse’s station, center of the floor.  Ask and they’ll punch in the number to dial out.”

“Okay,” Kirk said, smiling.  He gripped the side of his hospital gown to bind it shut.

“I…” the doctor started, he stopped and frowned.

Kirk had halted in his tracks, shifting his weight to keep his bare feet from making too much contact with the cold floor.

Odd, in a way, that he had to.  But his power tended to be all or nothing.

“I shouldn’t tell you this, and I’m not naming names, but the first test results have come in, for some of the others who were at your side in New Delhi.  Here, and in other cities.  The tests for radiation are coming back negative.”

Kirk blinked.

“No promises it’ll be the same for you, but…”

“A bit of hope?” Kirk asked.

“With luck.”

“Thank you,” Kirk said, smiling for the first time.  “Thank you.”

“I should be the one saying that to you,” the doctor said.  “Just… don’t be too disappointed if the answer isn’t what you wanted, okay?”

“Deal,” Kirk answered.

…further reports are coming in from multiple sources.  The Endbringer Behemoth has been reported as being slain in New Delhi!”

“Yes, Lizbeth.  Video footage is always scarce when dealing with the Endbringers, but verification has been consistent from multiple sources.  It seems the footage seen earlier of the great shaft of light was an attack from an unknown party, debilitating the Endbringer.  Defending forces held the injured monster off until Scion could arrive, delivering a finishing blow.”

“Earlier in the year, for those of you who don’t remember, Chevalier boasted of a new Protectorate, clear of the sabotage and interference from its own leaders.  Today may serve as a testament to that boast.”

“All around the world, people seem to be celebrating, but it’s a markedly cautious celebration.  Early polls on the UKCC web site suggest that a full eighteen percent of people who voted are waiting for more information or verification before celebrating the heroes’ victory, and ten percent of people don’t intend to celebrate at all.”

“Not at all?”

“No, Lizbeth.  In the comments thread of the poll, a common trend seems to be the feeling that he isn’t or can’t be dead, that the heroes were mistaken, or that this might even provoke a response from the remaining Endbringers.”

“Amazing.  We’re just now getting more information…”

“Dad?”

“Taylor!  Oh my god.  You’re alive.”

“I wasn’t sure if you wanted me-”

“Are you hurt?”

“I’m okay.  I just got the tests back, and there’s no sign of ambient radiation or any of that.”

“I’m glad.”

“Me too.  I wasn’t sure if you wanted me to call.  You haven’t replied to my messages, about being there if and when they invite me to the Wards.  And you were there for court, but you didn’t talk to me.”

“I am glad you called.  About my not-”

“We killed him.”  The words were blurted out.

There was silence on the line.

“Behemoth is dead.”

Silence, still.

“We killed him,” the words were a repeat of earlier.  As if that summed it up.  “I think it’s already on the news.”

“I know.  I saw, but I didn’t quite believe it.  I’m dumbfounded.  Amazed.  I’m so proud of you.  Wow.”

“I wanted to tell you before you heard from others, but there’s so much goddamn bureaucracy going on, and they wouldn’t give me a phone in the hospital room.”

“Were you- did you help?  Were you a part of that?”

“Yes.  Of course.”

“I’m just… I’m trying to wrap my head around it.  Wow.”

There was a silence on the other end, this time.

“Taylor?”

“I’ve had a lot of time to think, to wonder why you didn’t come.  Why you haven’t visited me.  You’re afraid of me.”

“Taylor, that’s not-”

“It’s true, isn’t it?  And all of the doubts I had before dialing the phone and calling you, they were right, this makes it worse.  I have a rap sheet that’s like, eighty pages thick, and I killed a man, and then I killed Director Tagg and Alexandria.  She is dead, by the way.  If you see her on the news, it’s just a cape that stole her body.  Her corpse.  And now you hear about me fighting Behemoth and it makes it worse.  I can’t even talk about what I did without digging the knife in deeper.”

“Taylor, no.  It’s not fear.  I saw some of your friends, not long ago.  I wanted to talk to your employee, Charlotte, and the others came.  And I saw this whole other life, this side of you I couldn’t recognize at all.  Little things that I recognized, yes, and then big things that I could barely fathom.  I’ve never been able to handle loss well, with Annette, and now feeling like I maybe lost you…  I just… I want to adjust, to get my head around this, and then I can visit and things will be like they were.”

“Things aren’t going to be like they were, dad.  I don’t want them to be.  I’m trying to put as much distance between the person I was then and the person I am now as I can.  I’m sucking pretty hard at it, but I’m trying.  Except maybe today, I found a middle ground.  And it worked, in a way that makes me proud and terrified and amazed and confused and apparently I’m in trouble for something I did.  I’m in trouble because I was wearing a camera and they saw the footage and I was walking that middle ground between the person I was and the person they want me to be, and I did a lot of borderline sketchy shit just to get by and they don’t understand.”

There was a note of emotion in the last word, a break in the rant.

“Taylor…”

One word, and then silence.

The voice was calmer this time, more measured.  “I’m sorry.  I’m really tired.  I’m going in soon.  To talk to them.  They’ve made it clear they aren’t happy.  Except I think they’re a little bit afraid of me too.  Afraid of me like my own dad is.”

“That’s not fair.”

Deny it.”

There was a pause.

“I’m not afraid, Taylor.  If there’s any fear, my love for you outweighs it by far, understand?”

But the phone was already steadily buzzing with a dial tone.  The pause was enough.

♦  Topic:  Footage
In:  Boards ►
World News ► Main
Bagrat
(Original Poster)
Posted on July 26th, 2011:

Link here.

Mirrors here, here and here.

Came directly to me.  Cuts in and out, but that’s to be expected.

More info later.  Better to watch and see for yourself than get it here.

(Showing page 39 of 39)

►  Thatdude
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
@ Bystander
I don’t know, but holy shit was that intense.  I wish there was more at the end.

►  Mane Magenta
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
When Scion uses his power it disturbs electronics.  Its why when he flies you can’t track him unless its with your eyes.
Omg.  I’m only halfway through.  This is almost a feature length film.

►  Dawgsmiles (Veteran poster)
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
anyone else have to look up some of the people in there?  i almost thought one or two weren’t villains

►  Saskatchew
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
It’s kind of terrifying, isn’t it?  There’s only like twenty in my province but you think maybe **one** can do something like we saw partway through and its like wow holy shit I could run into them in the street at any time

►  Feychick
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
holy fuck holy fuck holy fuck
(56 minutes in).

►  Ne
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
@49:00 When she’s talking to the guy in blue.  Who is that?  Not in the wiki.  How do you even SPELL that?  She turns on her friend?  What happens to that guy?  Did he die?  Did she get him killed?

►  Forgotten Creator
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
@ Dawgsmiles – I had to look up one or two.  There was a short doc about some of them a bit ago after Alexandria died.  You can find it here.

Logs
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
Let’s see:

  • Note the link back to this thread just earlier today.  (Kid has Weaver show up for Wards event at park.)  Paraphrasing hearsay: ‘I had everything, I gave it up’.  You can see how much she cares about them.
  • Is the Echidna thing tied to the mysterious info-blackout in Brockton Bay re: time portal created?
  • Wondering about Tecton.  Liking his talk about powers and building teams, but he defects leadership to known ex-villain who knows little to nothing about his team?
  • Anyone else wondering why they went with the ‘V’ hand sign?  That’s a rude gesture in New Delhi, 99% sure.  Americans.
  • Intimate moment b/w Weaver and Grue.  Anyone else feel like a pervert watching this?  Can’t see anything, but I think they’re kissing.  If I thought this was staged I stopped when this happened.
  • Regent/girl with gray mask (forget name) funny as hell.  Hoping they all make it out okay.
  • Have to stop at 12 minute mark.  Burned girl.  Too real.

General Prancer
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
anyone else really interested in learning more about Weaver?
edit:  @Logs: don’t get too attached to anyone.

Noveltry
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
This cuts out at the most frustrating times.

End of Page.   1, 2, 3, 4, 538, 39

Glenn reached across his keyboard to refresh his email, then hit the key on his keyboard to shut down the machine.  While the screen went through the motions, Glenn walked around the desk to kneel on the floor.  The computer itself was set into a recess in the floor, and he worked at unplugging and unscrewing each wire in turn.

A butterfly flew across his field of vision, and he jumped despite himself.

“Weaver,” he said, turning around.

“Glenn,” she said.  She wasn’t in costume, but her glower was intense enough that she might as well have been in her full garb as Skitter, complete with shawl, skirt and the carpet of insects crawling on her.

“Recuperating?”

“Not as much as I’d like,” she said.  Her voice was hard.  “I’m not having the best day, on a lot of levels.”

“Still waiting for the tribunal to convene?”  Glenn asked.  “It’s been hours now.”

“The secretary’s supposed to call me.  They gave me one of the superhero phones so I could call my dad, told me to hold onto it.  I’d take it as a good sign, except there’s a video circulating online.  My video.  Well past the point where anyone could hope to control access to it.  Mirrors, bitsharing, hardcopies…”

“I see.  Upsetting.”

“Yeah.  Just a little,” she said.  The tone was light, but her expression remained the same.  “Packing up?”

“Yes,” Glenn said.  He tried to lift the desktop, found more wires attached at the bottom, and set it down to unplug them.

“I expect I’ll be fired.  They’ll make me clean out my office, so I figured I would get a headstart.  I don’t keep anything permanent that isn’t on my personal computer, so this box is all I need.”

She didn’t respond.

He tried to lift it again, only to find more wires connected on the front.

“No need to worry.  If you’re here to inflict some bug-induced torture on me, you can save yourself a lot of effort by leaving me to my own devices with this damned box.  I promise you, I’ll figure out something worse to do to myself.”

Butterflies circled her as she stalked forward.  Glenn backed away a step before he realized what she was doing.  She wasn’t even a third of his weight, and the only insects she seemed to have on hand were butterflies, but he felt a touch intimidated nonetheless.

Were the butterflies supposed to be ironic?  A gesture?

She knelt down beside the computer, fiddled around and disconnected the remaining wires, then lifted the box up to the floor beside the recess.

“Thank you.  I’m good with computers, with software, but laughably bad with the technology.”

Why, Glenn?  It was private.  It was supposed to be for therapy.”

“Wasn’t my choice to parcel it out.  Dragon was killed, by all accounts, and Director Wilkins made the call to hand it out, for your pending conduct review.”

“And you made the call to release it online.”

“I suppose Tattletale informed you.  Do you know how frustrating it is to be a mere human being among powers like you and your friend?”

“I dunno,” she said.  “I figure you can relieve your stress by uploading their personal videos to the internet.”

Glenn sighed.  “You’re tired.  You’re not being rational.”

“Oh, yeah.  That’s totally the way to talk to a girl.”

Glenn stepped forwards, resisted the urge to flinch as the butterflies briefly invaded his personal space.  He met her eyes, waited for her to look away, then snapped, right in front of her.

Her eyes locked onto his, and she looked even more irritated.

“Stop,” he said.  “Look me in the eyes.  I want to talk to Weaver the strategist, not Taylor.”

She didn’t move a muscle, but he wondered if the butterflies changed course.  She remained silent, glowering.

“I know you’re tired.  Today took a lot out of you,” Glenn said.  “But think.  What purpose does it serve to upload the video?”

“It’s the best footage you have of the event.  The best way to sell the win, the PRT’s involvement.”

“Think bigger.”

“That’s pretty damn big.”

Bigger, Weaver.  Come on.  Do you think I got to where I am by thinking one dimensionally?  What else, why?  I’m getting fired.  I knew I’d get fired.  Would I do it just for that?”

“Probably, if there wasn’t another way.”

“With an ego like mine?”

“Honestly, your ego can’t be that big if you wear those clothes.”

Despite himself, he was a little stung.  He’d cultivated his image to demand attention.  Even his weight was calculated, to make it clear he was not one of them, that he was someone with power, presence.  His clothes were admittedly awful.  They were intended to be awful.  But they didn’t diminish his sense of pride in the least.

It was a shame he was undoubtedly going to lose his job.  It would be nice to discuss the idea of image from two very different perspectives.

“I’m not your adversary, Weaver.”

“No.  I can’t help but feel you’re an albatross around my neck.  I keep hearing that you’ve done stuff to help, but I keep experiencing this… this.”

“I’m your ally, Weaver.  You think I don’t recognize the issues in the PRT?  The corruption that’s still at the core?  The need for change?  There has to be some sacrifice, and there has to be someone to step forward, a harbinger for that change.  Chevalier may be the hero of the day, he can lay the groundwork for change, but he can’t be that harbinger.  He’s too entrenched.”

“You want me to be the harbinger.”

“It’ll be hard, but I think you’ll manage with that.  Putting this video online, it’s going to achieve a lot of things.  I think, seeing you in the thick of it, it’s going to change people’s opinion of you.  There’ll be controversy, some will hate you.  But others?  This will be their first view of what it’s truly like on the battlefield.  They’ll have to like you, to sympathize.  But the rule of three says you won’t be forgotten about.”

“Rule of three?”

“Three times, you’ve been forced into the public eye.  As the leader of Brockton Bay, as the newly christened Weaver, slayer of Alexandria, and here, in the video.”

“I was just thinking about something like that, in a totally different way.  Twice now, I’ve betrayed my teammates.  At first, when they found out I was an aspiring hero, an undercover operative.  Then I became Weaver.  This’ll be the third.  I had the camera, stuff was said and done, private stuff talked about, and they won’t like it.  They didn’t ask to be in the spotlight any more than I did.”

“Some of it will endear you to the public,” Glenn said.

“Being worshipped as a god wouldn’t be worth hurting them again,” Weaver retorted.  Her voice was hard again.  “Grue believes that image and reputation are a kind of protection.  Being seen as soft, when he’s dealing with people in the criminal underworld?  It could get him killed.”

“They’ll forgive you that setback, I’m sure.  They’ll understand you didn’t choose to do it.”

“Rachel’s not the understanding type.  I’ve fought an uphill battle to get her trust, and if she feels hurt by this, or if she registers that others are hurt, and that I’m the culprit in any way-”

“With luck, public opinion and an insight into the bond you have with the team will make it easier to interact with your old team.  You’ll have more chances to fix any damage.”

Weaver shook her head, staring down at the ground.

“It’s an honest look into what the heroes do, Weaver.  What you capes face every day.  Why there’s so much gray in the moral palette.  With this, Chevalier’s new Protectorate won’t be something that exists in name only.”

“You could have asked.”

“You would have said no.  And there was no time.  We needed to make it absolutely clear just what you and the rest of the heroes did on the field, so Scion couldn’t overshadow you.  We needed to do it right away.  Cement the idea into the public mind so it was the first concrete piece of information they got.”

She stared at the ground.  The lines in her face were deep with exhaustion.  The butterflies had landed on her shoulders and arms.

He let the idea sit.  Better to let her speak next.

She did.  “Chevalier is laying the groundwork, I’m the harbinger… and you’re the sacrifice, then?”

He met her eyes.  “They won’t be as upset with you as they are right this moment.  I’ll draw the initial heat.  By the time they’re done with me, my career and any possible job in a related field will be ashes in the wind.  For you, well, it’ll tip the scales.  If you’re halfway into the ‘deserves a medal’ camp and halfway into the ‘needs to be punished’ camp, this will help.”

“I could have done some things better, but was I that bad?”

“Consorting with villains you were supposed to avoid, putting Wards on the line to help them, dealing with Phir Sē without contacting any superiors.  You ignored the rules regarding image, took gambles-”

“I had to.  All of that.  I was told that rules are relaxed on the field.  You can’t seriously expect me to use butterflies against Behemoth.”

“Of course not,” Glenn responded.  “Do you think I’m stupid?  I know this.  But there’s a lot of people paying attention to this.  Many people who will be in that room won’t know these things, won’t fully understand.  Some won’t even watch the video before they pass judgement on what occurred in it.  Never underestimate the stupidity of people.”

Weaver made a sound, halfway to a sigh, halfway to a laugh.

Glenn smiled a little.  “The video burns one bridge.  No more butterflies.  Though they won’t hurt, because it makes it a hell of a lot harder for any common criminals to complain about an excess use of power, but I’m digressing…”

Weaver’s phone beeped.  A moment later, Glenn’s vibrated.  He checked it.

Convening to discuss Weaver’s conduct in room F.  Please attend.

He closed the message window.

“Thank you,” Weaver said.  “I think.  I’m supposed to go now.”

“Me too.  Join me?”  Glenn asked.

Weaver nodded.  Her collection of butterflies led the way out of the office.

Glenn spoke without looking at her.  “I don’t expect you to like me.  Never really did.  One of the first and biggest problems you ran into was with your image.  It’s a problem even now, I suspect.  It will continue to be a problem, especially now that you’re in the limelight.”

“Uh huh.”

Glenn reached into his vest pocket and withdrew a case.  He opened it, removed a business card, and handed it over.

“My number.  In case you need advice.  Well, use my cell.  My work number probably won’t be mine for much longer.”

Weaver stared down at the card.  She didn’t need to look up as she walked, as the butterflies checked her path for her.  Other bugs had joined them.

“Just do me a favor,” Glenn said.

Weaver glanced at him.

“Make friends with whoever they hire to replace me.  Listen to them.  You’re allowed to hate them too, but hear them out.  Can’t hurt.”

She nodded.  She looked down at the card again, then looked up at him.  “Can I call this in now?  It’s about my dad.”

Defiant?

Defiant couldn’t move, as he held a heavy concrete slab out of the way for emergency crews.  He used the cursor embedded in his eye to select the ‘answer’ command, and shut the vents around his mouth.

“Tiamat II, hold off on any reports for now.” Can’t take it, not right this moment.

It’s me.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 24

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Hero ushered him into the headquarters.  “This is the last one.  I’d like you all to meet Chevalier.”

There was a chorus of replies.  Mumbled greetings with one exceedingly enthusiastic response from a girl in the crowd.  It was almost mocking.

Chevalier ventured inside, a touch hesitant.  Not afraid.  He’d told himself he’d never be afraid again.  No.  But this was unfamiliar territory.  The others were difficult to read.  Nine youths.

His eyes roved over the group.  Five girls, four boys.  His addition made it an even split.  Intentional?

The costumes ran the gamut from professional to homemade.  They varied in the degree of color, in seriousness, in combat readiness.  There was a boy, also, who had a professional looking costume, black and green.  It was a costume that had no doubt cost money, with leather and a utility belt, a leaf emblem over his heart.  Around him, Chevalier could see a vague nimbus, as though he could see only the brightest and darkest parts of some landscape that the boy stood within.  It was a subtle thing, an image that Chevalier could make out in the same way his perspective on something might alter if he had only his left eye closed, as opposed to his right.

A girl beside the boy with the leaf costume wore a less expensive looking costume, but she’d apparently gravitated towards him, a hopeful lackey or a romantic interest.  In the same way that the forest seemed to hang in the periphery of the boy, an older woman loomed just behind the girl.  She was kindly in appearance, like a next door neighbor, with hands burned black from fingertip to elbow.  The old woman was moving her lips as though she were talking, but the image was silent.

He started to turn his head, but the image changed.  The effect ran over the girl’s skin, as though she were standing right in front of a glacier, the light refracting off of it.

No, the black hands on the older woman… a result of fire?  Magma.

The girl caught him looking at her and frowned a little.  He averted his gaze.  She likely thought he was staring for other reasons.

At the far end of the scale, opposite the two professional, serious looking young heroes, there was a girl with a shield and sword.  Her helmet sat on the table beside her, a homemade piece of equipment with ridiculous mouse ears at the sides.  It wasn’t a great helmet either; it didn’t offer enough peripheral vision, was more decorative than protective.  She stood off to one side, but two others had gathered near her.  She was grinning, the one who’d stood out from the rest with her over the top welcome.

And the images, the glimmers, they showed the mouse-ears girl laughing.  For her companions, there was a strange writing system patterned on one boy’s skin, and the other boy swirled with a smoke that wasn’t there.

The images weren’t an unfamiliar thing, but this was the first time he’d been confronted with so many in one place.  It was distracting, unnerving.

What were they supposed to be, the glimmers?

The remaining two members of the group were a boy, a clear vigilante of the night in appearance, with a costume that was black from head to toe, and a girl dressed in urban camouflage.  Chevalier’s attention fell on the girl; her white and gray jacket was short enough that it didn’t reach the small of her back, a blue tank top with a shield emblem on the front.  Her scarf, a complimenting shade of blue, was wrapped around her lower face, bearing the same emblem.  She sat in a chair, elbows on her knees, toying with a knife.

Odd as it was, she was more grim than the boy who was trying to look dark and disturbing.

“Take a seat,” Hero said.  He laid a gentle hand on Chevalier’s shoulder.

Such a minor thing, but it felt somehow critical.  What clique did he identify with?  What direction would he take?

He glanced over the rest of the group, at the images that had changed, and his eyes fell on the one with the knife.

In that instant, the knife disappeared, and there was a flare.  The images were suddenly distinct, glaring, an image appearing in a flash, so brief he might have missed it.  A cluster of children, blood, their faces stark with fear and in one case, pain.

It faded as quickly as it had appeared, and the girl held a gun, now.

She’d caught him looking.  Meeting his eyes, she changed it again.

The image that flickered was of her, holding a gun with a silencer on the end, pointing it.  Her expression was one of desperation.

She’d changed the gun for a machete, apparently unaware.

He made his way across the room, and seated himself in the chair beside her.  She didn’t even glance his way, her attention on the weapon as she ran her thumb alongside the flat of the blade.

“Army girl doesn’t even speak english, you know,” the boy in the nice costume said.

“She speaks some,” Hero said.  “It’s fine.”

“I’m just saying,” the boy said.

“I think we all know what you’re saying,” Hero answered.  “You’ve made arguments about what you want the team to be, your desire to be taken seriously.”

Chevalier watched the exchange carefully.  His eyes fell on the figure behind Hero, and he tried to focus his attention on it.  It moved with glacial slowness, a four-legged creature with legs so long that the ‘window’ around Hero didn’t even show its main body.  Finger-like appendages at the base of each leg carved diagrams and ideas into the ‘soil’ beneath as it walked.

“We’ve got the serious part down,” the girl with the mouse ears said.  She drew her sword, thrusting it into the air, “Huzzah!”

“So bogus,” was the mumbled response.  “As if her group has the majority.”

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” Hero said.  “A lot of you have been through a lot, and some of you have only just stopped.  Stopped running, stopped fighting, stopped dealing with a long series of crises.”

Hero’s eyes briefly fell on Chevalier.  Chevalier lowered his eyes to the floor.

“The important thing to remember,” Hero said, “is that you’ve got time.  You have time to figure out who you want to become, time to figure out what this team will become, time to breathe.  To be kids again.”

Hero paused, glancing over the room.  He sighed.  “And you have zero interest in that, I’m sure.  You’re in a hurry to grow up, to be heroes.”

“You’d better believe it, boss,” the mouse girl said.

“Just be careful,” Legend said, as he strode into the room.  He was accompanied by Eidolon and Alexandria.  “This is about training, not thrusting you into the midst of trouble.”

“That comes later,” the mouse girl said.

“If you decide you want it,” Legend answered.

The sheer presence of the heroes here was changing the energy of the room.  The listless teenagers had perked up.  They were paying more attention, more alert.

It was no longer one more act in a long sequence of hoops and events.  This was the main capes of the Protectorate, all here in one place, for them.

“Well,” Hero said, clapping his hands together.  “I’m not good at the formalities.  Being in charge isn’t my thing, as much as those three like forcing the job on me.  So what do you say?  Let’s crack open the soda bottles, cut the cake and celebrate our inaugural Wards team.”

The mouse girl’s team cheered and whooped.  Nobody else really joined in with even half of the enthusiasm, but there was more of a response than there might have been before the rest of the Protectorate had showed up.  Chevalier even allowed himself a cheer, joining in with the clapping.

It was exciting.  Exciting and a little scary.  Like stepping out over a chasm.

As the others made their way to the table, Chevalier stood from his chair, then glanced down at the army girl.  “You want cake?”

She raised her head.  “Yes.”

“What do you want to drink?  I think there’s cola, ginger ale, sprite…”

“The brown drink,” she said.

“Coke, then.”

He left her sitting in the chair, paying far too much attention to her weapon, and grabbed two paper plates.

“I’m curious why you sat next to Hannah,” Hero commented, as he served himself some cake.

Chevalier glanced at the girl with the weapons.  He felt uncomfortable, “People are making it a bigger deal than it is.  It was just me sitting down.  I didn’t put much thought into it.”

“Maybe,” Hero said.  He laid a hand on Chevalier’s shoulder.  “But it’s good that you did.  She could use a friend.  Might make a world of difference, in the long run.”

Chevalier shrugged, stepping up to the tray and placing a slice of cake on each plate.

“We’re all ignoring the obvious reason,” the girl with the mouse ears said, getting in Chevalier’s way as she reached for a plastic fork.  “He thinks she’s hot.  He wants the poontang.

Hero cleared his throat in a very deliberate way.

“Don’t be juvenile,” the leaf-boy told her, from the front of the line.

Chevalier shifted awkwardly.  The girl with the mouse ears was in his way, and he couldn’t move down the table to get a drink.  She wouldn’t budge until this was resolved.

“I got the vibe she and I are similar,” Chevalier said.  It was honest.  The images he’d seen, of the girl…

And it was apparently the wrong thing to say, because mouse-ears was only more insistent, now.  She smiled, cooing the word, “Similar?”

“You didn’t figure it out yet?  Chevalier’s the vigilante that went after the Snatchers,” the leaf-boy said.

Hero turned around, and his voice was a little hard, “Reed.  That’s not your story to share.”

“It’s okay,” Chevalier said.  “They’d find out eventually.”

Mouse-girl looked confused.  “The Snatchers?  Are they supervillains?”

“No,” Chevalier said.  He used the distraction to push past her and get to the area where the two-liter bottles of soda were lined up.  He poured the drinks for himself and Hannah.  “They were ordinary people.  Bad people, but ordinary.  Except maybe the leader.”

“Maybe?”  Mouse girl asked.

“I didn’t give him a chance to show me.”

Her eyes widened.

Chevalier felt strangely calm as he spoke, “Not like that.  Alexandria caught up with me at the very end.  When I was trying to decide what I’d do with him.  She told me she’d stand by and let me kill the guy, if I really had to, but I’d go to jail afterwards.  That, or I could come with her.  Come here.”

Hero frowned, glancing at Alexandria, who had gathered at one corner of the room with Eidolon and Legend.  They were looking at the kids, talking, smiling.  “I’m glad you made the right choice.”

Chevalier shrugged.  I’m not sure I did.

He was still angry.  Still hurt.  His little brother’s absence was still a void in his life.

“Maybe now you can stop asking questions,” Reed told the mouse girl.

“Never!”

Reed sighed.

“Everyone has their baggage,” Hero said.  “Sometimes it’s in the past, sometimes it’s in the present, other times it’s fears for the future.  But this is a fresh start, understand?  I’m pretty mellow, believe it or not, but I’m going to be upset if I hear that anyone’s holding any of that stuff against a teammate, or if you’re letting it hold you back.  Understand?  This is a second chance for everyone.  You’re here to support one another.”

There were silent nods from Chevalier, Reed and the mouse girl.

“Good.  Now go.  Eat cake, drink soda, be merry.  And when the party is done and us adults are gone, with you kids left to your own devices, check the empty room, the one that isn’t assigned to any of you.  I stocked you guys with video games and movies.”

“No way,” Reed said, smiling genuinely for what might have been the first time.

“Yes way,” Hero said, returning the smile.  “But we’re not going to tell the higher-ups, are we?  It’s a bit of a secret, and you don’t betray that secret by letting yourself slack on the training or the schoolwork, right?”

Reed’s smile dropped a little in intensity, but he nodded.

“Go on,” Hero said, still smiling,  “And don’t get me in trouble.”

Reed hurried back to his chair, as if getting there sooner meant the party would end earlier, speeding up his access to the treasure trove Hero had hinted at.

Wordless, Chevalier managed the drinks and two plates as he carried them over to Hannah.  He gave her a plate and a cup, and she smiled without thanking him.

“A toast,” Alexandria said, stepping forward.  “To the first Wards team of America.”

“To second chances,” Hero said.

“A brighter future,” Eidolon added.

“And to making good memories,” Legend finished.

“Memories,” Hannah said, under her breath, nearly inaudible as the room clapped and cheered.  She was looking down at the machete that she’d placed across her lap, the paper plate with the cake balanced on the flat of the blade.

Chevalier didn’t respond.  His eyes were on the phantom images, barely visible.

The screen displayed the list.  Chevalier scrolled down, his expression grim.

Marun Field, December 13th, 1992.  Behemoth.
São Paulo, July 6th, 1993.  Behemoth.
New York, March 26th, 1994.  Behemoth.
Jakarta, November 1st, 1994.  Behemoth.
Moscow, June 18th, 1995.  Behemoth.
Johannesburg, January 3rd, 1996.  Behemoth.
Oslo, June 9th, 1996.  Leviathan.
Cologne, November 6th, 1996.  Behemoth.
Busan, April 23rd, 1997.  Leviathan.
Buenos Aires, September 30th, 1997.  Behemoth.
Sydney, January 18th, 1998.  Leviathan.
Jinzhou, July 3rd, 1998.  Behemoth.
Madrid, December 25th, 1998.  Leviathan.
Ankara, July 21st, 1999.  Behemoth.
Kyushu, November 2nd, 1999.  Leviathan.
Lyon, April 10th, 2000.  Behemoth.
Naples, September 16th, 2000.  Leviathan.
Vanderhoof, February 25th, 2001.  Behemoth.
Hyderabad, July 6th, 2001.  Leviathan.
Lagos, December 6th, 2001.  Behemoth.
Shanghai, April 23rd, 2002.  Leviathan.
Bogotá, August 20th, 2002.  Behemoth.
Lausanne, December 30th, 2002.  Simurgh.
Seattle, April 1st, 2003.  Leviathan.
London, August 12th, 2003.  Simurgh.
Lyon, October 3rd, 2003.  Behemoth.

“Stop,” Chevalier ordered.  The artificial intelligence halted the scrolling.  The scroll bar wasn’t even at the halfway mark.

Brighter future indeed.

He rubbed at his eyes, suddenly feeling very weary.  Nothing worked out like it was supposed to.  The Wards were supposed to be a safe haven for teenaged capes, buying them time to prepare themselves, to train and figure out what they needed to figure out.  Somewhere along the line, some Wards had joined the fight.  Locals, defending their homes, naturally.

As the ranks of adult capes were whittled down, more had attended the fights, as if unconsciously acknowledging the need, or as if they were under a subtle pressure to do so.  Just like that, the ideals and ideas that had helped form the original Wards team had eroded away.

He swept a hand in front of him, and the ship read the gesture, a new image appearing on the monitor.  The two screens on either side showed Behemoth’s attack on the city.  He hadn’t ventured far from where he’d emerged.

Chevalier only glanced at the screens from moment to moment, his focus more on the infrastructure, the resources at his disposal.

San Diego, absent.  They’d lost too many members, abandoned by those who’d lost faith in the Protectorate, with the remnants cannibalized to support other teams in need.  San Diego was more or less stable, so there’d been little pressure to resupply them with new members.

Except that Spire, San Diego’s team leader, hadn’t felt confident walking into the fight.  There’d been the human element, the fears, the concerns.  He’d had cold feet at the last second, decided not to come.  An integral part of their defense, gone, forcing them to adapt.

There were so many elements like that.  Little things.  He’d heard so many complain about how the Protectorate handled the attacks.  How they were disorganized, inefficient.

Maybe he’d shared in that sentiment, to a degree.  That had changed when he’d participated in his first fight, when he’d seen just what it meant to be in the fray, against an enemy that couldn’t truly be stopped.  But still, he’d harbored doubts.

Then he’d taken command of a team, and he’d seen the process of trial and error, as they learned their opponents’ capabilities, saw how Leviathan or the Simurgh could keep tricks up their sleeves for years, before using them at a critical moment.  Even now, they didn’t fully understand the Simurgh’s power, how long it might take someone to recover, if recovery was even possible.

And now he led the attack.

He drew in a deep breath, then exhaled.

Focus on the presentHe’d lose it if he dwelled on the pressures, on the fact that every attack to date was another added pressure, a set of losses to avenge, a step towards mankind’s fall.

Vegas was absent too.  They’d turned traitor, walked away.  Satyrical had turned down the offer for a ride to the battle, claiming they’d make their own way.  It was disconcerting, to think they had access to transportation in that vein.  Teleporters?  A craft that could and would carry people halfway around the world fast enough?  Disconcerting to think they had access to resources like that so soon after defecting.

But not surprising.

Brockton Bay, in large part, was sitting this one out.  Hannah wasn’t a true asset against Behemoth.  Besides, the truce was in worse shape than it had been even in the beginning, and the portal too important.

He allowed himself a moment to think of Hannah.  They’d dated briefly, then separated.  It had been a high school romance, and they’d both been too busy to really pursue things.  What had been one or two dates a week became maybes, then had ceased to happen at all.  He’d graduated to the Protectorate, changed cities, and they hadn’t said a word on the subject.

Chevalier had seen her grow, though.  That was what he kept in mind to assuage his disappointment over the way things had gone.  She’d come into her own, confident, intelligent.

In a way, he was glad she wasn’t coming.

He turned around to face Rime and Exalt.  He could see the shadows, as he now thought of them.  Rime’s younger self accompanied her, sitting on the bench beside her, arms folded around her knees, face hidden.  The real Rime was sitting on the bench, a fold-out table in front of her, a laptop open.

And Exalt?  His ‘shadow’ was barely visible, impossible to make out.  When it came to the fore, though, Chevalier knew it would look much as Hannah’s power did in its transitions.  Phantom images.

He’d raised the subject of the images with others.  When his proximity to Eidolon had started to give him migraines, he’d confessed about the images.  He’d feared a kind of schizophrenia, but Eidolon had reassured him otherwise.

It was a piece of the puzzle, but that puzzle was still far from complete.  Until they had more to work with, it was merely data.  Glimmers of memories and dreams, the conclusion had been, after long discussions with Eidolon and the parahuman researchers.  An effect of the thinker power required to manage his own ability, tied to trigger events in some fashion.

Except now he was wondering if he’d been misled.  Eidolon was a traitor, one working for a group that clearly had some deeper understanding of powers.  Maybe it had been in Cauldron’s interests for Eidolon to lie about this.

“Record numbers.  Lots of capes are coming,” he said.  Rime and Exalt both looked up.

“But…” Exalt said.  He seemed to reconsider before finishing his sentence.

“But we’re disorganized,” Chevalier finished it for him.  “People we should be able to count on are gone.  Plans we had are falling apart because those people aren’t there.

Exalt nodded.

“PRT wants us to play this up,” Chevalier said, “I’m supposed to involve you guys in leadership aspect of things.  If you’re willing, I’m not going to dwell on it.”

Exalt arched an eyebrow.

“You’re team leaders.  You’ve got the experience, at least to a degree.  But I don’t want to dwell on peripheral stuff.  We’re focused on the fight?  All right?”

Rime and Exalt nodded.

“I’ll lob a few of you some softball questions, then we get right to it.”

“Right,” Rime said.

The ship altered course, Chevalier felt his heart drop.  Silkroad’s power wasn’t giving them any forward momentum anymore.  They were close.  Landing in a minute.

“You ready for this?  Being leader for the first time?”  Exalt asked.

“No.  Not for one this important.  Everyone who’s paying attention knows this is a crucial one.  Maybe even the point of no return.  We lose this, we lose New Delhi, and there’s no going back.  We’ll never get to the point where we can consistently beat those motherfuckers, never recoup what we’ve lost.  I screw up here, and the world will know.”

“They can’t blame you,” Rime said.

“They damn well can,” Chevalier retorted.

She frowned.

The ship descended, four legs absorbing the impact of the landing almost flawlessly.

He turned to the swords, set into the floor of the craft.  There were two.

In truth, there were three.  The largest was thirty feet long, running from the ramp at the back to the cabin at the front, almost entirely set into the floor.  There was no decoration on it.  Only mass, sturdy craftsmanship, and the mechanisms necessary for the cannon that was set inside the handle and blade.

It would have been too heavy for the ship to carry, except he’d already used his power, drawing it together with a second blade, an aluminum blade a mere four feet long.  Lightweight.

His ability to see the ‘shadows’ about people was an extension of this power.  He could see the general makeup of the two weapons, the phantom images, the underlying physics, in lines and shapes and patterns.

It was about perspectives.  Relationships.  He’d drawn them into one blade, with the appearance of the larger, the properties of the smaller.

The third blade was decorative, with a ceramic blade, gold and silver embellishments and inlays in the blade.  The thing was ten feet long from end to end, and again, it had the cannon set within.   Combining the first blade with this one proved more difficult.  He granted the weapon the appearance of this blade, gave it the cutting edge, but retained the lightweight mass and the durability of the largest weapon.

Fine balances.  He adjusted it, tuning its size for convenience’s sake.  The heft remained the same, as did the effective weight as it extended to the rest of the world.

His armor was the same, only it was too large to bring on the craft.  A veritable mountain of construction grade steel, as light as aluminum, with the decoration of a third set.  It had required some concentration, to maintain the balances he’d set, but he was confident he could fight outside of the kill aura’s range.

He glanced at Rime and Exalt, then nodded.

The ramp opened, and the three of them emerged.  There were heavy thuds and the sound of metal striking metal as the other ships landed, forming a ring, with the doors and ramps pointing inward.  A fortification to guard the arriving heroes.

The Protectorate and Wards teams were gathering, with a degree of organization.  His new Protectorate had gathered into the general positions they held at the conference table.  Rime to his left, Exalt to his right, their teams behind them.

And he couldn’t help but notice the gaps.  San Diego, Vegas, Brockton Bay.  Three of the more prominent teams in the United States.

Defiant, Dragon and Weaver were among the last to arrive.  They joined the unofficial capes who’d filled the void that should have been occupied by the San Diego capes.

“The ships have all arrived,” Chevalier said, breaking the silence, starting his speech.

It was only after the Yàngbǎn were out of sight that Chevalier could breathe a sigh of relief.

“You know your roles,” he said, to the capes who remained  He searched the rooftop, and found who he was looking for.  “Mr. Keene, walk with me.”

The dark-skinned man nodded assent, falling in stride.  He wore a neat suit with a PRT pin, official identification on a lanyard around his neck.  Morgan Keene was the PRT’s liaison and ambassador to unofficial teams across the world.  Chevalier could see the glimmer of a power there, suppressed but there.

The fact that the man was a parahuman employee of the PRT wasn’t so unusual.  The fact that it was a well-kept secret was.  The power was out of sync, however, which was stranger still.  Since Chevalier had chanced to make Morgan Keene’s acquaintance, years ago, the man’s shadow had changed.  The core elements were the same, but the appearance of it had changed enough that he’d wondered if the man had managed a second trigger event.  He would have assumed so, except there was no intensity to corroborate the idea.

It left him suspicious, but it wasn’t a suspicion he could act on.  In an ideal world, Chevalier hoped to replace Mr. Keene.  In reality, the situation was too chaotic, and Morgan Keene too entrenched in things.

“You’re upset about the Yàngbǎn.”

“I don’t like surprises.”

“I sent you a number of emails, three voice messages.”

“Can we trust them?”

“No.  But they’re still an asset.  Alexandria wanted them on board.  When you installed your new administration, they said to keep going.”

Chevalier sighed.

“Our thinkers are on board to advise with the concentrated defense.  I’ve coordinated the foreign capes, Arbiter’s handling some of the translations.”

“Okay.  And our… less legitimate thinkers?”

“Accord and Tattletale.”

“Yes.”

“Rime set them up with access to the PRT databases.  Connection is slow but remains strong.”

Chevalier nodded.  “I’ll talk to them.”

“Of course,” Mr. Keene answered.

Chevalier made his way to the downstairs room.  He paused at the entrance.

Tattletale’s ‘shadow’ peered around with a dozen eyes all at once, each set different in design, in appearance and apparent function.  A mosaic.  Accord’s was a glimmer of an old computer, the edge of a desk that wasn’t there.

It wasn’t as meaningful as it had appeared to be at first.  They were only figments of ideas that had been codified and collected in times of stress.  Ideas imprinted on a malleable surface during trigger events, or moments when trigger events had been on the verge of occurring.  As an individual’s power waxed and waned, the images grew more distinct, shifted between the images personal to the cape in question, and the stranger, dream-like aspects that seemed to relate to the powers.

“Accord.  Tattletale.  Do you have something constructive to offer?”

“Yep,” Tattletale said.

“Your defensive lines are a disaster waiting to happen,” Accord said.

“Straight to the point,” Tattletale commented.

“A disaster?” Chevalier asked.

“I’m wondering if you’ve done this on purpose,” Accord stated.  His eye moved critically over Chevalier.  “You’re going to fight the Endbringer in a melee.”

“Yes,” Chevalier said.

“And you’ve picked the new Protectorate team with the idea that they would support you.  The core team is all ranged.”

“Yes,” Chevalier said.

“Ego?” Tattletale asked.

Chevalier shook his head, then thought for a moment.  “Perhaps.”

“Well, ego’s a part of the job.  Question is, can you live up to it?”

“I can try.  But more than anything, I’m not going to put people on the front line if I’m not willing to go there myself.”

“Foolish,” Accord said.  “Everyone has their place in the grand scheme of things.  You do yourself and everyone else a disservice if you try to put yourself where you don’t belong.”

Chevalier shook his head, but he didn’t reply.  There would be no convincing this one.

Accord continued, “There are only two ways you could make this plan work.  The first would be using a sword long enough to reach past his Manton effect bypass, the second is to somehow within that range and survive.”

“Accounted for,” Chevalier said, a touch irritated.  He didn’t need this.  Not now.

“Usher,” Tattletale supplied.

“Ah.  I see,” Accord said.  “And if Usher were to be struck down by a chance lightning bolt?”

“We have fallback plans.”

Accord shook his head.  “I’ll develop better.”

Chevalier grit his teeth.

“I’m watching him fight,” Tattletale said, “And something’s off.  I’ve been watching old videos of the Endbringer fights, looking over maps, and it doesn’t fit together.”

“What doesn’t?”

Her finger tapped hard on the map she’d printed out.  “Location, pacing.  They’re toying with us.  Acting.”

“You’re crediting them with more intelligence than they have.”

“Are you telling me that because you really think they’re dumb, or because you don’t want to-“

Chevalier could sense the attacker by the movement of the shadows.  He whirled around, only to find himself face to face with a cloud of the ‘shadows’.

The Yàngbǎn, one of them.

An assassin?

He couldn’t even make out the figure, behind the layers of images.  Glimpses of twenty, thirty, forty trigger events.

Defying the truce, here?  Now?

He felt his anger stirring.  He adjusted the balances of his blade, maintaining the reach, the appearance, but he altered its interaction with the rest of the world, maintaining its lightweight feel as far as he was concerned, changing it in other respects.

“You lunatic!”

He had his sword out in a flash, swung.  A forcefield appeared, but the weapon breezed through it as if it weren’t even there.

It was, in all respects except appearance, and the ease with which he moved it, a weapon that weighed upwards of fifty tons, as durable as the heaviest weapon.  The cutting edge of the ceramic blade.

His opponent slipped out of the way, and images flared with life as he drew on a power to fly.

Chevalier couldn’t make him out in the midst of the shadows.  Did the Yàngbǎn know this would trip him up, slow him down?

It didn’t matter.  The attacker didn’t have offensive strength.  Two more attacks failed to penetrate Chevalier’s armor.  He advanced, swung, thrusted, and his opponent stepped back, narrowly dodging.

Chevalier pulled the trigger, but a power flared and the shot jammed in the chamber.

Can’t afford to expend resources on this.  Have to prepare for the fight.

He followed up with more swings.  Each missed by a hair.  His opponent was scared, frantic.

And suddenly his opponent was a distance away.  The images, the movement of the clouds outside, telltale signs of being stopped in time.

He advanced, felt another attack fail to penetrate his defenses.  Again, time stopped, his opponent used the window of opportunity to back away.

In between the following two pauses, he could see Accord and Tattletale change places, moving to the door, now barred with a forcefield.

They’d have to hold their own.  Chevalier assessed his opponent, as best as he could, through the storm of hellish images.  Each of them was fractured, broken.  Nothing to be gleaned from them.

But the opponent was sloppy.  Letting him get dangerously close between resets.  It was a question of letting him make a mistake, occupying his attention, so the thinkers would be safe.  A chess game, moving the knight to keep the king in checkmate.  There was only so much space in the room, and he could position himself to force the Yàngbǎn member to move further, to have less time to act, leaving more room for a mistake.

“No,” he could hear Accord murmuring, the word barely above a whisper.  He chanced a glance at the pair.  Tattletale had a hand on her holster, and Accord had stopped her.

He didn’t get a chance to see anything further.  He felt the strength go out of his lower body, a slow but incredible pain tearing through his midsection.

The laser.  How?

He had only a moment to adjust the balances in his power, so the blade and armor wouldn’t crash through the floor and tear down half of the building.

I missed the fight, he realized, as he woke in a hospital bed.

The ground rumbled violently.  He looked up to see Tattletale in the corner of the room, half of her attention on what was happening outside the window, the other half on a phone.

“He’s here?”

She turned to him, tapped her throat.  He could see the tube in her throat.

He sighed.

She approached the bedside, attention on the phone.  She held it out for him to read.

A notepad executable read:

hes here.  defenses crumbled in a minute.  rime dead.  melted off more than half his outer body and he still fighting.  last stand to protect hosp’l for evac and he cutting them down

Chevalier shut his eyes.  We lost.

Tattletale was already typing again.  Her expression was grim as she focused on the phone.

He tried to sit up, and found himself unable.  It was a pain concentrated in one area, but it was so immense that made his entire body react.  His ears buzzed, his vision wavered, and every muscle clenched, as he lay there, trying to ride it out.

She showed him the phone as he lay there, panting.

he still at full strength.  shouldn’t be.  he’s an onion, inner rings progressively tougher.  next 15% way tougher than rest combined.

“I know this,” he gasped out the words.  He moved the sheet to examine himself.  His breastplate had been removed, and his stomach had fresh incisions on it, with sutures holding them closed.

How long had he been out?

She showed him her phone again.

they stapled your gut up.  if outer body is like this then why does he have it?  useless.

He reached up to swat the phone away, felt a pull on his stomach and winced instead.  He knocked it out of the way with his other hand.  Still painful, but easier.

She drew it out of his reach, started typing again.

He turned himself over in the bed, nearly retching at the intensity of the pain, but he found himself on his side.  Even at the weight of aluminum, the armor on his legs and hands was heavy enough to help weigh him down, hold him in position.

She offered him a hand as he swung his legs down, trying to use the momentum to sit up.  He nearly fell, but she caught him, dropping the phone onto the bed in her haste to help him stay sitting upright.

His chest heaved, and he growled out each breath.  The growling helped, on a primal level, but that wasn’t saying much.  Just sitting upright was bad enough that he thought he might pass out.

“My breastplate.”

She handed him the phone, then crossed the room to where a bundle of belongings were gathered on a chair.  They’d cut off the layer of mesh that sat beneath the armor, and the cloth that sat against his skin.  She discarded each of those and simply brought him the armor.

It had held its form.  Good.  He glanced at the phone.

outer body is cosmetc only.  why?  because he supposed to scare us.  behemoth was fashioned.  unnatural life.

She brought the front portion of the armor, resting it on the corner of the bed.  She tapped the phone.

“I read it,” he growled.  “Help me put it on.”

She tapped the phone again.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said.  “It won’t change the outcome of this fight.”

She nodded agreement, then lifted the armor, bringing it to his chest.

There was a crash outside, a chorus of screams.  Chevalier grit his teeth.

“Back piece,” he said.  She gave him a pointed look.

“Please,” he added, growling the word.

She turned on her heel, crossing the room to pick up the armor, slowly, almost leisurely, as she typed on the phone with one hand.  She held the armor in the other as she made her way back, then took several damnable seconds typing out the message before putting the phone down.

“We don’t have time for your typing,” he said.

She only gave him a level, silent stare, as she moved the rear portion of the armor into place.  He reached for the clasps, but moving his left arm was too painful, pulling on the muscles of his stomach.  He used his right for what he could, then waited for her to finish.

Indian doctors rushed down the hall, pushing beds on wheels, four in a row.

He conceded to pick up the phone and read what she’d typed.

they regen slower as damage is further from center.  simurgh core not in human body.  decoy.  prob in join of biggest wing instead.  Is why body fragile n slow to heal.

His eyes widened.  “We destroy the center, we destroy him?”

She gave him a look as if he’d just asked if the sky was green, incredulous.  She shook her head.

“Why the hell not?”

She just shook her head.

“I don’t know why the hell not. Where’s his center?”

She pointed with two fingers, at her collarbone.  The base of the throat, between the shoulders.  Quite possibly the deepest set part of his body.

“Help me stand.”

The entire building rumbled.  For a moment, he thought the entire point would be rendered moot as the structure collapsed.

It took three tries to get him to his feet, with him holding a shelf on the wall with his right hand, her leveraging her entire body’s strength with her shoulder under his armpit.  He stumbled forward, catching himself on the shelf, and heaved for breath, feeling the strength threaten to leave his legs with every deep inhalation and exhalation.

But he couldn’t.  Couldn’t allow himself to.

Tattletale was pulling on a blue latex glove.  He watched her as she reached out and placed a hand on the space beside the incisions, where the burn had been patched up.

“What are you doing?”

She reached for the phone.

no tear inside u.

“I could’ve told you that.”

She shrugged, her eyes on the screen, thumbs typing on the onscreen keyboard.  She raised the phone.

can try.  prob wont work.  dense enough 2 fuck wit time n space there.

“Right,” he said.  “My Cannonblade?”

She sighed, making her way to the end of the room.  She collected his Cannonblade from the floor by the chair.  He’d made it as light as it could go in every respect, before he’d passed out.  Even so, moving his left arm to try to hold it made him seize up in agony.

For now, he was a one-armed fighter.  He gripped the handle in his right hand, then exerted his power.  He could see it grow heavier, even as the weight remained effectively the same in his hand.

He rested it against one shoulder, then managed a limping step forward.  He very nearly fell.

Another step.

He focused on his power, as a way to distract himself, planting one foot in front of the other, the armor squeaking in one point where a knee joint had bent as he’d fallen after fighting the Yàngbǎn assassin.  It was easier to keep moving than to stop and start again, so he moved forward with an almost machinelike rhythm, limping.

He’d never forgive himself if they lost this fight and he didn’t even fight.

Stairs.  He had to make his way down.  One mistake, a faltering step, and he’d collapse.  He’d probably be unable to stand, if it didn’t tear his stomach apart.

He made his way down, the stitches pulling against the fresh incisions with every step.

The building shuddered.  His mind a fog of pain, he reached out for the railing for stability, only to remember he was holding his sword.  It plowed through railing as if it were a meticulous sandcastle, raining pieces on the ground below.

He swayed, and for the briefest moment, he considered that it might be easier to fall.  Easier than making it down the next ten steps.  If there was a ten percent chance his stomach stayed intact, a twenty percent chance someone could help him stand…

But he took another step down, and somewhere in the midst of planting his foot, he found his balance.

Everywhere, doctors were struggling to evacuate.  Some capes were working to help, even injured ones trying to pull things together.  Still fifty or sixty capes to evacuate.

And the bodies… people who had died because he’d failed them.  Because he hadn’t been able to defeat the assassin, to take his role at the front of the battle lines, where he could bait Behemoth into the various traps they’d laid.

He had to suppress the guilt.  There would be time for blame, self-directed or otherwise, later.  He’d bury the mental pain like he was with the physical.

This is how Behemoth fights.  Indomitable.  Never slowing.  Always progressing forward, Chevalier thought.

He could remember who he’d once been.  So long ago.  Well before he’d had his first of twenty fights against the Endbringers.  Before meeting Hannah and the rest of the original Wards.

They’d been in a car crash, in the middle of a vacation.  Strangers had stepped in, crowding the car to help his little brother out, while his parents were reeling, moaning in pain.  They’d tried to get him out too, but he’d been pinned, the car handle had been scraped away in the collision, the interior handle protected by the child locks.  They’d left, and for hours, as the emergency services arrived and the rescue continued, he’d wondered why.  He’d triggered, caught in the wreckage, but had been too insensate to do anything about it, to even realize the full gravity of what had happened in the midst of the chaos.

It was only later that he found out they were serial kidnappers.  The crash that had broken his mother’s leg in three places had been orchestrated.  So had the collection of his little brother.

Three years later, when he heard about the group again, he put together a makeshift club and armor and set about hunting them down.  He appeared in the news in the midst of tracking down the individual members, and again and again, they had described him as relentless, to the point that it had very nearly became his codename.  Revenge had been all he had left.

Then, just as he was now, he’d been fueled by anger, by pain.  He could barely see, as black spots blotted his vision.  Revenge, again, was his only option, only it was the end point, rather than the beginning.

I told myself I’d never let myself be afraid again, he thought.

His left hand was nearly useless, so he hit the double doors at the front of the temple with his sword instead.  Wood splintered as the doors parted.  He trudged forward, ignoring the doors as they swung shut, bouncing off his armor.

Record numbers show up, and this is all that’s left?

Barely fifty heroes still stood their ground.  The back lines were sheltered by giant hands of stone, Hellhound’s mutant dogs collecting the wounded, carrying them around the side of the building.  Eidolon and Alexandria wrestled with the Endbringer, fighting in close quarters against the monster.

Alexandria?

He shook his head, nearly losing his balance as he continued his forward march.  He could barely see straight, and it wasn’t helped by the phantom images that riddled the mass of capes.  Images he had called glimmers when he was a youth, that he called shadows now that he was an adult.

But Behemoth… the Endbringer was little more than a skeleton with extensive padding.  He’d never seen this much damage delivered.

Chevalier focused his power on his blade, making it as large as he could.  He continued marching forward.  There was no indication Usher was okay.  Rime was dead, and he had little idea about the state of the supporting forces who’d been intended to help him attack, who’d trained to assist him.

He extended his blade towards Behemoth, using it to gauge the distance for the kill aura.  Defending capes cleared out of his way as he walked forward, between two of the stone hands.  The shadow of his sword was warning enough.

One of Behemoth’s legs seemed less developed than the other, the toes missing, the bones less pronounced, the flesh thinner.  He reached the perimeter and slammed the weapon down into the earth with his one usable arm.

His steam nearly spent, he collapsed over the handle of the weapon, his hand still gripping the handle, and he pulled the trigger.

The size of the weapon and the effect of the firing pin seemed to help with the jammed mechanism.  That, or the transition to being closer to his largest blade had shifted something in a fractional way.  The shot blasted Behemoth in the calf of his weaker leg, and the Endbringer fell.

Again, he pulled the trigger, over and over.  Three, four, five shots.

He stopped before he spent the sixth.

He’d dealt damage, but it was precious little.  Flesh had torn at the leg, not quite as dense as it should be, by all reports.  Had the regeneration not finished rebuilding the complete structures?

Rendered effectively one-legged again, Behemoth crawled forward on three limbs.  Alexandria struck him from above, driving him face first into the ground.

Why was she here?  She was supposed to be functionally dead.

Chevalier could feel a sensation crawling through his body, an energy.  It didn’t invigorate, not on its own, but he could feel a kind of relief.

Usher was alive, and Usher’s power coursed through him.  With luck, he’d be immune to Behemoth’s power, or at least partially immune.  Nobody had received the benefit of Usher’s ability and been brave enough to venture into Behemoth’s kill range.

Chevalier pulled his sword from the ground, swayed, and very fell over.

Defiant caught him.

Old friend, Chevalier thought, though he didn’t have the breath to speak.

Anyone else might have spoken up, told him he didn’t have to do this, that it was madness.

Defiant was silent, supporting Chevalier, helping him right himself.  Defiant understood this much.  The need, the drive.

Chevalier took his first step with Defiant’s help.  The second was only partially supported.  The third was on his own.

He closed into the kill area, and he could feel the heat touch him.  It heated the armor, but didn’t reach him.  Usher’s power at work.  He tried to inhale, and found no air.  Choking, he forced his mouth shut.

Holding his breath, Chevalier brought the sword down on Behemoth’s shoulder, a blow from above much like Alexandria had delivered, followed by another.

His aim wasn’t good, the blows off target.  If his form were better, he’d be landing each strike in the same place, time after time.  Not so, with the blade this big, the margin for error so great.

With that in mind, Chevalier shrunk his sword as he closed the distance, shut his eyes as lightning crackled around the Endbringer.  With the scale smaller, the effective edge was that much sharper.  The blade bit just a fraction deeper each time.

He couldn’t stop walking without falling, couldn’t stop swinging the weapon in the same rote motion without risking that he’d never be able to raise it again, however light it might be.

His goal was the spot Tattletale had mentioned.  The core.

Behemoth swiped at him, but he was already shifting the balance of his armor, moving to block the blow with the flat of the blade.  The sound of the impact was deafening, and it wasn’t something Usher’s power protected against.  But Usher’s power was finnicky at best.  Unreliable.

At the very least, it was holding up here.

He found a measure of strength, then swung the cannonblade, driving it for the deepest part of the wound.

Behemoth lurched, changing position, and the painstakingly created notch in his shoulder shifted well out of Chevalier’s reach.  He let up on the intense heat, turned to radiation instead.  Heroes scrambled to retreat from the ominous glow.

Bastard, Chevalier swore.  He released a sound somewhere between a moan and a groan, exhaling the last of the air in his lungs, greedily sucking in air.

Something flew past him, shearing straight through Behemoth’s chest.  A wheel of metal, thin, with two bars sticking out of the center.  It cut through the Endbringer like he wasn’t even there.

Dazed, lungs fit to burst as he held his breath, barely coherent, Chevalier turned.  He saw Tecton with his piledrivers extended, Weaver just behind him, along with two of the new Wards: the white supremacist’s child they’d picked up in Boston and a boy in a white cloak.  They stood all the way at the back lines of the battlefield, by the temple, along with a character he didn’t recognize.  A girl in black.

His eyes settled on Weaver, surrounded by the nimbus of her power, which glowed with an intensity that surpassed any and all of her teammates.  When she stepped forward, it was like she was pushing against a curtain, only it was a membrane, a network of individual cells, each with tendrils extending out, so thin he couldn’t make them out, except by the highlights that seemed to rush down them as she gave conscious direction to her bugs.

Second chances, Chevalier thought back to his inauguration to the Wards.  He’d harbored doubts about taking her on board, but memories of that day had been a factor.  He’d needed a second chance.  So had Hannah.

Colin, even, though it came much later.

It was a good feeling, to see that coming into play.  He knew she wasn’t all the way there, but she’d taken a step forward.

It was a better feeling to watch as Behemoth’s shoulder shifted, attached by a mere hair.  The weapon had cut through his ribs, torn through the space where his heart should be.

That’ll do.

Alexandria hit him, and the arm came free.  Behemoth lurched, planting his one remaining hand on the ground, and came just short of collapsing on top of Chevalier.  He was only a few feet away, glowing with the radiation.

I’m dead, Chevalier thought, without a trace of the despair he’d imagined he would feel.

He tried to move, to raise his blade, only to find his armor refusing to cooperate.  It had melted, the joints and joins flowing into one another.  His sword wasn’t much better.  The ceramic properties he’d applied to the edge were heat-resistant, but the remainder of the weapon were growing more nebulous in shape, the hottest parts of the metal flowing down to obscure the edge.

He concentrated, and found his power beyond his reach.  Too tired, his stamina gone.

Trapped in a hot wreck of metal, an explosive death just a short distance away.  It had been his starting point, and it had been the end.

It would be the optimal time for a second trigger event, the thought passed through his thoughts.

Of course, the joke went that you couldn’t get a trigger event by trying to have one, so even thinking about a second trigger event was enough to banish any possibility.

Not so funny, in this moment.

His power worked best with similar things.  Differences made it slower.  It was why he had the same firing mechanism at the core of each of the three weapons he used for his Cannonblade.

Now, as the battle raged around him, he was nearly blind with the visor of his helmet melting, at his utter limit in terms of stamina and pain tolerance.  Behemoth delivered a shockwave, and Usher’s power protected him, his boots welded to the ground kept him from falling over.

He reached for his power, grasping at his armor, and he didn’t reach for anything familiar or similar.  He reached for anything, everything.  The ground, the soil, air.

Somewhere in the midst of that desperate struggle, he found his armor coming apart.  He wasn’t even willing it, not even forming any coherent idea of what he was doing, but his power operated of its own accord.

Free of the armor, he could move his weapon.  It was slag, barely a sword anymore, but the core still had some density to it.

He made it grow.

He made the sword grow, from ten to twenty feet in length.  It was more by the growth than by any action on Chevalier’s part that it extended into the wound.  The weapon penetrated into the scar Weaver’s crew had created, as close to the core as Chevalier could get it.

He made it grow to its greatest possible length, a full thirty feet, his head turned skyward to the monster that glowed silver and black.

Space and time distortion were supposed to protect it?  He’d fight fire with fire.

Flesh parted as the blade grew inside the wound.  He put his finger on the trigger, ready to fire.

Before he could, the sword’s tip touched the core, and everything went wrong.

His power abruptly ceased to take effect, and the blades came apart, in its three individual pieces.  They slid from the wound, falling down around him.

Behemoth lurched forward, and his wounded leg struck Chevalier, knocking him to the ground.  He could feel the gunshot break of multiple ribs shattering.

Supine on the ground, unable to breathe, but for tiny pants, Chevalier stared at the sky, unwilling to look directly at the ensuing scene, even if he could have managed to turn his head.

There was a horrible crash as a sweep of one claw shattered the stone hands.  Glowing silver, he loomed over the defending capes, scorched and electrocuted those who’d fallen within his instant-kill range.  One of Hellhound’s mutant dogs, Dragon.  Others he couldn’t make out in the midst of the clouds of dust.  Rendered to ash and melted armor in heartbeats.

They were the lucky ones, Chevalier thought.  The radiation was generally observed to be concentrated, limited to a certain range, manipulated to strike only those within a hundred feet or so of Behemoth, to saturate the landscape and render it uninhabitable.  These capes were close enough.  Their deaths would be slow, painful.

A failure.  Hopefully the ones in the temple had been evacuated, and the capes at the rear of the battle line free to retreat.

The ground rumbled violently, churning and smoking.  Behemoth was burrowing.

The fight was over.

Chevalier stared up at the shifting smoke of the sky above, struggling to breathe, not entirely sure why he was bothering.  Maybe he wouldn’t die of the radiation, thanks to Usher’s power.

Long moments passed as the rumbling of the earth faded in intensity.  The air was still filled with the screams and shouts of the various capes and doctors fighting to save the wounded, the dull roars of distant helicopters, carrying the evacuated capes away.

Chevalier watched as the worst of the smoke cleared, and he imagined he might have seen the glowing blur of the sun through the clouds.

Not the sun.  It was a figure.  Scion.

He would have laughed if he could.

Too late.

You showed up too late.

Scion lowered himself to nearly ground level.  His golden hair moved in the wind as he gazed over the battlefield.  His white bodysuit was smudged here or there on the sleeves, but otherwise seemed so pristine that it seemed to glow in the gloom.

No, part of that glow was real.  The faint light touched Chevalier, and he could feel his breathing ease.  It was reaching out to everyone present.

A consolation prize?  A bit of healing?  Maybe a helping hand against the radiation, for the others?

He managed a soft laugh.  The glow was making the pain easier to handle.  He could almost breathe, now.

He closed his eyes, and he felt a tear roll down from the corner of his eye.  He suspected he wouldn’t have been able to tear up without the healing.

Not sufficient to fix the broken bones, or the damage to his stomach, perhaps.  He opened his eyes to look at Scion, to ask a question.

But Scion was gone.

A noise rose up from those who remained in the crowd.  Gasps, cheers, shouts of surprise.

Chevalier forced himself to move, stared at the spear of golden light that had risen from the earth, just on the horizon.  Scion.

He held Behemoth in his grip, released the Endbringer to fall two or three hundred feet to the ground, struck his falling foe with a beam of golden light, as if to shove Behemoth into the ground.

Behemoth’s lightning crackled between them, catching Scion, but the hero didn’t even seem to flinch.  He hit Behemoth again, and this time the beam of energy didn’t stop.  With virtually every structure leveled, there was nothing to hide their view but the lingering smoke and dust, and even that wasn’t thick enough to hide the light.

The aftershock of it traveled across the city, quelling dust storms, blowing past the assembled heroes like a strong gust, faintly warm.  Even though the ray didn’t reach quite that high, the clouds of smoke and dust parted visibly above Scion.

Chevalier watched, staring, belatedly thought to count how many seconds had passed.

One, two, three, four

Behemoth generated a shockwave, but it was muted by the light, suppressed.

…eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve…

Behemoth’s silhouette thrashed as he tried to move out from beneath the shaft of light, but Scion only reoriented the beam, keeping it fixed on his target.

sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one

The light ceased.  Behemoth was gone.  A plume of dust rose from the earth, at the very limits of their vision.

Scion plunged beneath the ground, heedless of the intervening terrain.

Again, Scion rose from a point beneath the shattered surface of the city.

Again, he held Behemoth in his hands.  Thinner than a skeleton, the Endbringer was little more than a stick figure from Chevalier’s vantage point.

Only this time, with a flare of golden light to accompany the movement, he tore the Endbringer in two.  The legs came free of the pelvis as two individual pieces, and Scion obliterated them with a pulse of the golden light.  The air that reached the crowd of wounded heroes was cool, this time.

In Chevalier’s peripheral vision, people were emerging from within the temple.  Chevalier didn’t spare them a direct glance.  If he was seeing what he thought he was seeing, then he wouldn’t take his eyes off the scene for anything.

Behemoth slammed his claw into the glowing hero, and the shockwave tore him free of Scion’s grip.  Scion followed him with a glowing sphere of light, and Behemoth redirected his fall, generating an explosion in mid-air, hurling himself towards the assembled crowd.

Eidolon stopped him with a violet forcefield that spread across the sky, a solid obstacle to arrest Behemoth’s momentum, stopping him dead in his tracks and leaving him suspended a hundred feet up in the air.  His one intact claw clutched the edge.

Scion followed up with another shaft of light, and the forcefield shattered in an instant.  Behemoth was slammed into the road, three streets down from the gathered heroes outside the temple.

The Endbringer glowed, and the swelling light was too intense to look at.

Just seeing it, there was no question of what he was doing.  A final act of spite.  Turning himself into a bomb.

A stream of darkness poured from one of the helicopters, filling the street Behemoth lay in.  For an instant, the Endbringer was almost entirely obscured.

Scion fired one more beam, and the darkness was obliterated, swept away.

The silhouette of the Endbringer flickered, then disintegrated.  There was no detonation, no destruction to the landscape.  Only the cleansing light.

The beam dissipated, but its effects hung in the air, canceling out noise, stilling the air.

Slowly, the crowd took up a cheer, a cry of victory from everyone with the breath to spare.

As noise returned to the landscape, the stilling effects of Scion’s light fading, Chevalier closed his eyes, listening.  With the noise of the helicopters and distant fires mingling with the shouts and hollers of joy from the defending capes, he imagined he could hear the whole world cheering alongside them.

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Crushed 24.5

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The damage Behemoth was wreaking in New Delhi was, I thought, a microcosm of what was happening all over the world.  Three or four attacks a year, since the Simurgh had appeared.

The fight with Leviathan in Brockton Bay had been a good day.  We’d lost people, we’d lost good capes, but we’d more or less bounced back, made it three-quarters of the way back to where we needed to be, in a matter of months.  There had been ugliness, infighting, a hell of a lot of doubt, but we’d started to make our way back to where we should be.  It had been the lowest number of casualties we’d had in an Endbringer attack in years, not counting a few of the Simurgh attacks.  A good day.

This?  This isn’t a good day. 

Behemoth roared.

This is the other end of the scale.

For nearly twenty years, we’d endured intermittent Endbringer attacks, and the end result was, globally, what was happening here in a matter of hours.  We were divided, scared, fighting among one another, and our defenses were being eroded.  We were being forced into pockets of defense, instead of a united one where we all stood together.  Those pockets, in turn, were at risk of being wiped out with a series of decisive blows.

Yes, we had our good moments.  Doing as much damage to him as we just had, that was a good moment.  But we had bad ones too, and the end result was always the same.

The bastard –the bastards, plural– kept coming.

Phir Sē’s light had cleared smoke and dust from the sky, though it had been almost entirely directed upward, with concentric rings still marking the skyline.  Smoke was free to rise, and Behemoth was in plain sight.  He was moving on three limbs, planting hands on the ruined, half-toppled and flame-scorched buildings to stay more upright.

His body, though, was a mix of high contrasts.  His flesh, what little was visible through the black ichor that dripped from his frame, glowed a silver-white.  The remaining material of his claws, teeth and horns remained black.

Tecton had pulled ahead of the group, and turned abruptly, skidding to a stop.  Cuff’s body was folded over the back of the bike, limp.  The Yàngbǎn had two more bodies with them, as well.  I’d taken my flight pack back from Imp, and was airborne as he raised a gauntlet to get my attention.  I descended to meet him, and we were soon joined by Dispatch, and Exalt, who carried an unconscious Revel.

“Where to?” Tecton asked.  His voice was hoarse.  He was recovering, it seemed.

“If we’re sticking with the regular plan,” Dispatch said, “We should gather with other capes, form another defensive line.  I think we should hold to the plan.  Working together with a less than ideal plan is best, until we can come up with something better.”

I glanced over my shoulder at Behemoth’s barely visible profile.  How far away was safe, if he was emitting that kind of radiation?

Far, far away, I answered my own unspoken question.

“Weaver?” Tecton asked me.

I ventured, “There’s a temple, not far from here.  Tattletale’s there, medical facilities.  Direction he’s moving, he’s headed in that general direction.  We protect them, hold position, see if we can’t figure out a way to keep him away from Phir Sē.  It fits with Dispatch’s idea of sticking to the plan.”

“Why don’t we press the offensive?”  Grace asked.  She still sat astride her bike.

“Believe me, I really want to press the offensive,” I said, “But I don’t want to get close to him while he’s glowing like that.  That would be a pretty good reason unto itself.”

“He won’t be using the radiation forever,” Tecton observed.

“There’s another key reason,” I said.  “Our guys are scared, maybe a little desperate.  It’s not a good mindset for fighting.”

The heroes turned to look at the others, who had apparently taken our stopping as an excuse to tend to other business.  Golem had stopped to raise some hands, more lightning rods between us and the Endbringer, and others were flanking him.  The Yàngbǎn were looking after their injured.

“Desperate,” Exalt said, gazing at the rank and file troops.

I wanted to join the others, to get involved and help, offer what little medical care I could, and the mental and emotional support I knew they needed, but we needed a greater direction, a mission.  I turned my attention back to Exalt.  “Regent was desperate, maybe, and he died.  I’m scared that our side would take risks or put themselves in danger if we ordered them back into the fight.  This is getting uglier by the minute, and we’re prone to doing stupid shit if we’re backed into a corner, or if we feel like we need to end this fast so our friends can get the medical help they need.  Let’s get the medical help, catch our breath.”

“There’re more capes joining the fight now,” Grace said.  I wasn’t sure if that was a rejection of my plan or an agreement.  I followed her gaze to see a torrent of flames making its way in Behemoth’s general direction.  A cape was hurling fireballs with some sort of space-warping effect tied to them, so they swelled dramatically in size with each second they were airborne.

I assumed it would be to Behemoth’s advantage, to have access to that kind of flame, but he wasn’t deflecting them.  The fire exploded through the area around him, and I could see him lose his grip on a building as he reeled from the impact, slumped down to a place below the distant skyline of damaged and half-collapsed buildings.  Orange light lit up the area around him, marking the areas that had been set on fire.

The fireball hurler, barely visible as a speck against a backdrop of black-brown smoke, stopped abruptly.

“Why’d he stop?” I wondered aloud.

“The radiation?”  Grace offered.

“The radiation was there before he went on the offensive,” I said.  “I don’t see Behemoth retaliating, but the cape stopped lobbing fireballs.”

My bugs noted Eidolon’s descent.  I turned around to see him depositing Rachel on the ground.  She shrugged out of his grip without so much as a ‘thanks’.

“He went underground,” Eidolon informed us.

“He ran?  It’s over?”

“No,” Eidolon said.  He didn’t elaborate as he watched Rachel back away and whistle to call her dogs.  The opaque pane of his mask was heavily shrouded beneath the heavy hood he wore, a dim blue-green glow emanating from within.  He was burned, his costume scorched and shredded in places, but the body armor beneath had more or less held.  Shaped to give the illusion that he had more muscle than he did, it seemed.  I could see blood running along the cracks at one panel of armor, where he’d apparently sustained a heavy blow.  He was mortal, after all.  Eidolon could bleed.

Fitting, that he layered disguises behind disguises.  Regent had done the same thing, to a lesser degree, had worn armor behind the deceptively light and delicate shirts he’d worn, had padding beneath his masks to cushion any blows, had hid a taser in his scepter.

I felt a pang of guilt, a swelling lump in my throat.  I’d never really gotten to know Regent, not to the extent that I’d gotten to know the others.  He hadn’t really revealed much about himself, either.  I’d reminisced before about the intimacy of friendships, about the sharing of vulnerabilities, allowing others to be close, exposing oneself to possible harm.  I’d done it with Emma, back in the day, and I’d suffered for it.  I’d allowed myself to form a kind of intimacy with the Undersiders, and it might well have been a reason we’d survived this far.  Regent hadn’t established that kind of intimacy with us.

Except maybe for Imp.

He’d hidden so much.  I’d only glimpsed the seriously disordered personality that lurked beneath the outer image of the lazy, disaffected teenager, had only seen traces of that part of him that just didn’t care that he could enslave a person’s body and leave their mind as little more than a helpless observer.  And beneath that aspect of himself, he’d had something else, something that had driven him to distract Behemoth so Imp might live.

My eyes fell on Eidolon.  Was there a similarity to Regent?  Lies, deception, a false face behind a false face behind a false face?

What was at the core?

Eidolon turned away from his observations of Behemoth, and he briefly met my eyes.

I felt intimidated, despite myself, but I didn’t look away.

“Alexandria,” I said, “How is she-”

And he took off, not even waiting for me to finish.

“-still alive?” I finished.

“I don’t like him,” Rachel commented.

“Nobody does,” Dispatch said.  Rachel seemed to accept that with a measure of satisfaction.

“And why won’t this motherfucker die?” Rachel asked, looking towards Behemoth.

“He’s been fighting us for twenty years and he hasn’t died yet,” I said.

“So?”

“So… he’s tough,” I said.  It was hard to answer a question so… what was the word?  Innocent?  Guileless?

“We’re tough.  Let’s fuck him up.”

“I was arguing for that,” Grace said.

Oh great.  They’re of like mind.

“But,” Tecton cut in, turning his head her way, “Skitter had a good reason as to why we shouldn’t.  We need to recover, recuperate.  Other heroes are picking up the slack, applying some pressure.  Or they were until he burrowed,”

Rachel snorted.  “We do the chain thing again, cut him in half at the middle instead.  Or cut off his head.”

“Honestly?” I spoke up, “I’m not sure he’d die if we cut off his head.  And correct me if I’m wrong, but he could go after the people that carry the chain.  Even if it’s someone like Eidolon, he could overheat and melt the part they’re holding on to.”

“You’re really a buzzkill,” Grace said.

I didn’t deny it.  “There’s one more reason we should go, though.  He’s going to-”

Retaliate.

Behemoth rose from beneath the ground a distance away.  In a heartbeat, things shifted from a near-quiet to chaos.  He was still glowing, and his claws crackled with electricity as he struck quickly, violently, and indiscriminately.

Three capes taken down, struck out of the sky by the bolts of electricity.  Even if they’d survived that much, the kill aura and the radiation would end them.

He turned, facing us, but the Wards were already moving, their wheels squealing on the pavement before they peeled away.

It’s the Endbringer’s pattern.  We hurt them or stall them enough, they change tactics, hit us back.

“Go!” I shouted.

Rachel moved, climbing astride her dog in an instant.  She whistled for her other dogs, directing them to Imp, Parian, Foil and Citrine.

Golem’s hands absorbed some of the lightning that crackled around us.  Not one stream, but a storm, with Behemoth at the eye of it.

And he was standing.  He didn’t necessarily have a full leg, but he had the ability to stand upright, now.

And Rachel, as I saw her making her way to the Undersiders, looked determined.

Was it weird that she seemed more comfortable in the here and now than she had before the fight started?  It wasn’t that she didn’t look scared, I could see the way her entire body was rigid, her hands clenched, white knuckled.  But she had a role here, she fit into a dynamic.

We took off, moving behind cover, running, as Behemoth crashed through a line of buildings.  Heroes from even half a mile away were lobbing attacks, and the stray shots that missed the Endbringer crashed down around us, tearing through buildings, turning stone to liquid, igniting nonflammable materials, one doing little damage but detonating so violently with the impact that my mounted teammates were nearly thrown free.

Behemoth roared, and I could see the Wards and Undersiders suffering.  A dog shook its head in an attempt to shake off the noise, and lost its sense of direction.  It crashed into a bike and sprawled.  Parian, Foil and Grace were dismounted.  Grace landed on her feet and physically ran, reaching for Tecton’s outstretched gauntlet.  He extended a piledriver to give her something to hold onto.

Few bugs had managed to keep up, much less the ones with wires, but I brought a curtain between us and Behemoth.  I was past the point where I wanted to conserve them.  If it was lightning, I could only hope that Golem’s makeshift lightning rods and my wires would protect us.

But it was flame.  It sheared through my swarm, and it splashed down around Parian, Foil and the dog.

The Endbringer had more aim than I’d expected.  He wasn’t blind, despite the fact that his eye socket was empty.  But he wasn’t entirely on target otherwise.  Was he relying on another sense?

The Yàngbǎn intercepted the attack, raising forcefields.  Parian did something with her thread, slapping the dog’s hindquarters, and it bolted.  They were carried off, tied to its side, a flame still burning on Parian’s sleeve and the hem of her dress.

Someone, an Indian cape capable of getting inside Behemoth’s kill aura, closed the distance, and Behemoth was momentarily distracted by orange cords that bound his head, lashing him to the cape.  With that, the others had a chance to escape.

“Regroup!” I called out, as I descended to the midst of the Undersiders and Wards.  “I’ll point the way!”

The sound of the fighting stopped with a crash.  Where was the motherfucker?  I rose higher to check, but saw neither Behemoth nor the cape who’d been binding him.  He’d burrowed.

It was quiet, all of a sudden, if not quite silent.  The defending capes were spreading out, and were hovering in place or holding positions, rather than bombarding the landscape.  The lightning and fire had stopped, and no shockwaves ripped through the city.  The rumbling was intermittent, mild when it wasn’t almost imperceptible.  The ringing in my ears was louder than the ambient noise.

This was his new tactic, burrowing, surfacing.  But where was the retaliation?  Their whole damn pattern centered around repaying us twice over for any abuse we inflicted on them.

The armband crackled, and I jumped, despite myself.  The first message didn’t come through the static, but the second was clearer.  “Be advised, seismic activity suggests the Endbringer is still local.  Regroup and form defensive lines.

I did a little mental math, then pressed the button on my armband.  “Armband, note that Behemoth may have a likely target, roughly eight to fifteen miles north-northwest of India Gate.”

At least, that was my best guess, judging by the flight speeds Defiant had noted for my flight pack and the time it had taken me to travel.

Every armband in earshot repeated my message.

“Keep going!” I called out.  “Keep moving!”

Surely he couldn’t keep up with us while moving underground.  I didn’t want to underestimate his intelligence, but was he even capable of holding a grudge?

What was Behemoth really doing?

The travel was uneventful, uninterrupted and eerily quiet, as we made our way to our next destination.  Three times, we stopped to pick up wounded, fashioning another quick sled for the dogs to accommodate all of them.

We reached the temple and delivered the sled to the temple doors.  The Chicago Wards stopped to park their bikes off to one side.  I waited for the Yàngbǎn to gather, extending my range, before I reached out to Phir Sē.

He’s underground.  He may be coming for you,”  I informed him, speaking through my swarm.

“I assumed,” Phir Sē responded.  “Thank you.”

You need to leave, soon.”

“I have a way out.  I’ll leave when trouble begins.  Could you rid me of the bugs?  When you leave them, they fly about me, and I cannot afford distractions.”

I hesitated, then removed the bugs, shifting them to nearby rooms and corridors.  I left only a pocket of them to communicate with.  “Be safe.

“You as well, Weaver.  Thank you, for the cooperation.”

Have you gained a bit of faith?

“Faith gained in this, perhaps, faith lost in another.”

I know what you mean.

“Good bye.  If we both live, perhaps we talk again, in a less dangerous time.”

Good bye,” I responded.

I drove the remainder of my swarm from his chamber.  It once again became a blind spot, an emptiness in my power’s range.

“You okay?” Tecton asked, as he caught up with me.  He held Cuff in his heavy armored hands, as though she were a small child.

“Saying goodbye to a self-professed madman.  Is she okay?”

“She’s breathing, but I can tell she’s hurting.”

I nodded, glancing over my shoulder as the others caught up.  Bitch brought her dogs.

We entered the front door, and I saw the amassed capes within.  Innumerable teams, looking after their wounded, lacking in direction.  The temple interior had no benches, and bedding had been laid out flat on the ground, capes set down in rows.  Medical teams were scrambling to take care of them, and capes with first aid experience were hurrying to help.  Dispatch already had his costume jacket off, his sleeves rolled up, and his hands dirty, taking care of a cape in power armor.  Parian was sitting on a mattress, tearing at her sleeve to show the burn, with Foil and Citrine beside her.

I couldn’t help but notice that more than half of the capes were covered in white sheets.  That wasn’t counting the innumerable capes left lying dead in the streets, like we’d done with Regent.  Behemoth killed more easily than he wounded.

Clockblocker had fallen.  I looked for him in the crowd of injured.  I didn’t see him.  Then again, I had my suspicions already.  This only helped justify them.

Too many others I needed to track, to watch for.  But I couldn’t use my bugs, and the dust and smoke had desaturated the colors.  Blood, in other places, marred the colors further.

“Miss,” a local man in white said, in an accented voice, “You cannot bring these animals.”

He was talking to Rachel, who glowered in response.

“Leave the dogs outside,” I said.

“I’m not leaving my fucking dogs,” she said, her voice hard.

Damn itMy eyes roved over the crowd, but I couldn’t see Grue or Tattletale.  I didn’t want to use my bugs, not in a sterile environment.  It was left to me to rein her in some.

“You can come and look for Grue and Tattletale with me, or you can stay outside with the dogs.”

She scowled, and for a second, I thought she’d stride out of the doors.  Instead, she pointed, barking out orders, “Out!  Go guard!”

The dogs filed out of the double doors of the temple.  I could see the man relax visibly.

Don’t let Grue be dead.  Don’t let Grue be dead, I thought.  Tattletale was okay, she was okay the last time I saw her.

“My friends, they were stable,” I told the man in white.  I saw Tecton crossing the room to lay Cuff out on one of the thin mattresses, turned my attention back to the man.  “They were here since a little while ago.  Where are they?”

“Stable?  They were better?”

“Mostly better.”

“Up,” he said, pointing at the nearest stairwell.

I used my flight pack without thinking, to give myself extra speed as I headed to the stairs.  Rachel was just behind me, her boots thudding on the floor.

There were more wounded above, recuperating in a long, narrow room with beds on one side.  In a grim twist, like a reminder of how close they’d come to dying, the opposite side of the room had more mattresses on the floor, more bodies.

How many dead, all in all?  Fifteen in this room alone, placed side by side, their shoulders touching.

“Skitter,” Grue said, as I approached. Tattletale stood at his bedside, her phone in hand.  There were no curtains here.  No privacy.  This was all improvised, care facilities hashed together with what the locals had on hand.  He still wore his helmet, but he had his jacket off.  He noted the arrival of the others.  “Imp.  Bitch.”

“It’s Weaver now,” I corrected him.

“You’ll-”

“I know,” I said.  I looked at his arm.  The burned flesh had angry blisters.  “You okay?”

A hand pushed at me, moving me out of the way.  Imp.  She approached her brother’s bedside.

“Hey kid,” he said.  Beside him, I could see Tattletale’s reaction.  She was silent, silenced by the damage to her throat, but she communicated well enough, that she’d drawn the full conclusion from our presence.  Her eyes closed, her head lowered.  There was no smile on her face, as she heaved out a whistling sigh through the plastic tube taped to her throat-wound.

“Regent’s dead,” Imp said.

I could see Grue go still.

As if reminding us of the culprit, there was a distant rumble.  It grew steadily in intensity, then stopped abruptly.  As far as I could tell, with bugs spread out over the area within two thousand feet or so, the Endbringer wasn’t moving any closer to us.

“I should have been there,” Grue said.

“Yeah, well, you weren’t,” Imp retorted.

I put a hand on her shoulder.  She tried to knock it away, and I dug my fingers in as I refused to cooperate.  It must have hurt; my old costume’s fingertips had clawed points.  She didn’t say anything on the subject.

“No, Grue,” I told him.  “You want to feel bad?  That’s allowed, but I forbid you from taking the actual blame for this.”

“You can’t do that,” he said.  His voice was hard.  “I’m team leader, not you.  I’m supposed to pick up the slack, remember?  I’m supposed to manage these guys.  So don’t turn around and decide shit like this, when you leftI dropped the ball.  I didn’t move fast enough, I got hurt, and because of that, I wasn’t there to help, to lead.”

“You’re not allowed to take the blame, because if you start, then I’ve got to own up to it too,” I said.  “I-”

My breath hitched.  It caught me off guard.  I had to stop and take a deep breath.

Staying calm, composed, with my words carefully measured out, I said, “-I was there, and there was nothing I could do.  And if you’re saying you could have done better, I’ve got to think I could have too.  So I’ll match you one for one on any guilt trips.”

He sighed, heavy.  “Fuck.”

“Fuck,” Imp echoed him.

“Fuck,” Rachel followed, from the entrance to the room, as if we were toasting Regent in our own messed up way.  Tattletale was nodding.

Fuck,” I agreed.

“Christ,” Grue said.  “What do you even say to that?  How… how do you even pay your respects to a guy like him?”

“He was a jerk, and worse,” I said.  I saw Imp bristle, but held on to her shoulder, “And he died for Imp’s sake.”

Grue looked startled at that, as much as one could look startled with an all-consuming costume like the one he wore.  Tattletale, beside him, was unfazed.  She frowned a little.

“Christ,” he said, again.

“So maybe we respect him by respecting that.”

There was no response to that for a few seconds.

“Yeah,” Imp said, her voice small.  “I’m going to fucking kill his dad for him.”

“That’s not what I meant,” I said.  “I meant we should remember the best part of him.”

“That part of him would’ve killed his dad too,” Imp said.

I sighed.  I wouldn’t win here.

I changed the subject, seeing how quiet Grue was.  “You should know, Grue, we got ours back.  We hurt him.  Behemoth.”

Grue raised his head, meeting my eyes with the empty black eye sockets of his mask.

“The others will explain,” I said.  I let my hand fall from Imp’s shoulder.  “You wouldn’t believe how much I want to be an Undersider again, right this moment… fuck me, I want to remember the guy, to reminisce.  But this isn’t over, and I’ve got another team to help look after.”

“We’ll-”  Grue started.  He stopped as some doctors came barreling in, wheeling in beds with unconscious capes.

“Out!” one of them shouted at us.  “No more visiting, there isn’t room!”

“Asshole!” Imp snarled, jumping out of the way as someone moved the bed beside Grue’s, nearly sandwiching her between the two.

Go,” Grue ordered her.  “Go irritate someone who isn’t loaded with painkillers.”

“A way of remembering Regent?” she asked, as if she were trying to be funny, but there was a break to her voice as she altered the pitch to make it a question.

“Exactly,” he said.

“Fuck it,” she said, under her breath.  “Fuck it, fuck it.”

We left the room, with only Grue and Tattletale staying.  The three of us made our way down the stairs, Rachel just to my right.

I glanced over my shoulder at Imp.  Her head was lowered a fraction, her arms folded.  Her gaze was on the rows and columns of injured and dead capes in the main hall.

We hadn’t brought Regent’s body.  We’d left it lying in the streets, too busy trying to stay alive to collect it.  Was that what she was thinking about?

There was a rumble, with a shaking that affected the whole structure.  Something distant, beyond my power’s range.  A heavy crash.  Somewhere in a northwesterly direction.

Phir Sē, I thought.  Had that been his complex?

At the entrance to the temple, heroes were gathering.  Our last stand.  I could see the Chicago wards at one corner.  Tecton was talking to Wanton, who was on crutches.  Wanton’s right arm ended in a stump at the elbow, bandaged with crimson on the end.

Bad luck, I thought.

I joined Tecton, only to realize that Rachel had accompanied me.  I supposed she didn’t have anywhere else to go.

Imp didn’t either.  Another glance showed her lagging behind the group, clearly lost in thought.

I lowered my voice “Rachel, maybe you can do me a favor?”

“Hm?”

I ordered my thoughts, then voiced them, “Grue and Tattletale are too injured to help out.  I’m focused on other stuff, and Parian and Foil are looking after each other.  Can you keep an eye on Imp?”

Rachel made a face.  “I thought you wanted me to do something.”

“This is key,” I said.  “She needs someone to be there, right now.  That’s all.”

“I don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to do.  What if she gets…?”

Rachel trailed off.  Emotional?

“Support her,” Tecton cut in.  I suppressed the urge to wince.  He went on, “She’s your teammate, right?”

“How the fuck do I support someone?” she asked.  “Stupid.  Not my thing.”

“You-” I started, but Tecton was already talking, his voice deeper, his conviction stronger.  Grace was listening in as well, now.

Empathize,” he said.

Rachel glowered at him, unimpressed.

He tried again, earnest, “Okay, here’s a cheat I learned in a leadership seminar.  It’s called active listening.  Someone says something, a complaint, or a criticism, or they’re excited about something that happened to them.  For a lot of us, our instinct is to offer a solution, or expand on an idea, to fix or offer something.  The key is to think about how they’re feeling, be receptive to that, and parrot it back to them.  They just got a new car, and they’re happy about it?  A simple ‘that’s excellent’ or ‘you must be so proud’ works.  It leaves room for them to keep talking, to know you’re listening.  For your teammate who just lost someone she obviously cared about, just recognizing that she’s upset and she’s right to feel upset, that’s enough.”

I opened my mouth to say something, but I couldn’t even begin to sum up how useless this advice was to Rachel in particular.

“That’s retarded,” Rachel told Tecton.

“It works.  And I know Grace is going to say something to me about it, about it being fake or false, but the thing is, you do that, and you start to do it because it’s genuine, because you care about their feelings, or because-”

I cut him off.  “Tecton.”

He fell silent, turning my way.

“We don’t have time to get into anything complicated,” I said.

“It’s retarded anyways,” Rachel added.

I turned to her.  “Rachel, did you ever have a dog with a deep attachment to another person or dog?  Someone they lost, before they found their way to a shelter, or to you?  Where they were still dealing, after the fact?”

She gave me a one-shouldered shrug.

“How would you treat that dog?”  I asked.

“Dunno, depends on the dog.”

“Basically, though?  You’d just be there, right?  Do that for Imp.  Stay close, make sure she doesn’t run off, as much as that’s even possible with her, and give her the benefit of your company without intruding into her space.  Make sure she has all of the basics, both in the near future and in the next few days.”

“Okay,” Rachel said, frowning a little.

“I know it’s not the easiest thing, but she’s a teammate, all right?  It’s what we do for our team.”

“Right.”

“And just like a dog that’s had a recent bad experience might snap, bark or growl, you need to understand that she might do the same.  Only it’ll probably take a different form.  She’ll swear a lot.  She’ll probably try to get a rise out of you, try to provoke you or someone else.  That’s how Imp growls.”

Rachel didn’t even offer me a monosyllabic response at that.  She frowned instead.

“Trust your instincts, Rachel.  You’re smarter than you think, and your gut responses, the decisions you make on the fly, they’re good ones.  Turning around and using the chain for a second cut, back there?  That was good.”

Anyone else might have accepted the praise with a smile, but her frown only deepened.

“How was your advice better than mine?” Tecton asked.  He sounded a touch offended.

“Customized to the individual,” Grace said.  “Don’t be a sore loser.”

“I’m not sore.  I’m just usually pretty good at this, and I got called retarded.”

“The advice was called retarded,” I said.  “Don’t worry about it.  I’ll explain another day, if we make it through this.  How’s Cuff?”

“Skin’s badly burned, but the burn didn’t go much further than that.  She’ll have the most amazing scars, too.  No serious internal or mental damage, as far as we can tell, but her muscles convulsed so badly they broke a bone.”

I winced.

“She’ll make it to tomorrow, provided this doesn’t turn ugly,” Tecton said.

I nodded.  I sensed a rumble.  I couldn’t tell how distant the attack was.

Where the hell was the bastard?  I was a little caught off guard by how quiet things had gone.  He was giving us a chance to regroup?  Or was he letting us gather, so he could take us all out at once?

“Don’t suppose you can sense seismic activity?” I asked.

“Not with my suit.  My computers got toasted.  I’m running purely off the basics, and my intuitive understanding.  Stuff I reinforced, so I wouldn’t get trapped in my suit like I did with Shatterbird.”

I nodded.

“Generally, though?”

“He’s taking his time.”

If he was massing his strength for one good retaliatory hit, how would he do it?

Volcanos?  Earthquake?

“Let’s go,” I said.

“Go?”

“I’ve got a bad feeling,” I said.  I turned to look for Rachel, saw her a distance away, her arms folded as she stood beside Imp.  They were looking at the sea of injured capes.  “Rachel!”

I saw her attention snap to me.

“Go!  Get your dogs!”  I said.  I turned to the Chicago Wards, “Wards!  Bikes!”

“You’re serious,” Tecton said.

“Everything I know about Endbringers, about basic parahuman psychology, it demands retaliation.  What’s he done so far?  Saturated an area in radiation?  Thrown a few lightning bolts around?”

“You’re expecting worse.”

“I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Go.  Spread out.  We might need to respond to an attack on another location, with no time to spare.”

Tecton nodded.  He turned to his Wards, “Go!”

I pushed my way through the gathered crowd.  I could see Defiant, with Dragon beside him.

“Weaver,” he said.  “Dragon says that was you, with the blast.”

I shook my head.  “I helped coordinate, nothing more.”

“You hurt him.”

We hurt him.  And he’s burrowed.  He’s looking for a target, and I can’t think of a better place for him to hit than this.”

“We’d be able to put up a fight.  We have defensive lines.”

“Probably,” I agreed.  “But my guys are moving out anyways.  We’ve never done this much damage to him, and yet he’s sticking around.  What I’m wondering is, why?”

Defiant glanced at Dragon, then spoke.  “He’s-”

The ground shuddered.  Again, as before, the rumbling intensified.

This time, it didn’t stop.  It got worse with every passing second.

“Reinforce!”  A cape hollered.  Someone else took up the call in an Indian language.  Hindi?  Punjabi?

I could see Annex flowing into the entryway, soaring through the wall’s surface to the ceiling.  Golem created his hands, protecting the rows and columns of injured capes.

There was a press as the bodies flowed out the door.  I used my flight pack to fly over their heads, but even then, I bumped shoulders with others who could fly.  I wanted to help, but there was little I could do inside.

Eidolon and Alexandria had arrived at the building.  Eidolon touched the exterior wall, and an emerald green glow started to surround the structure.

The rumbling reached the point where capes were unable to keep their balance.  I raised off the ground, but the movement of the air in response to the shuddering was enough to make me sway.

Tattletale.  Grue.  Parian.

Behemoth emerged with a plume of gray-brown smoke, and the landscape shattered.  It was Tecton’s natural power, taken to an extreme.  Fissures lanced out in every direction and disappeared into each horizon.  Secondary fissures crossed between each of the major ones, like the threads of a spider’s web.

As far as the eye could see in every direction, terrain shifted.  Hillsides abruptly tilted, standing structures fell like collapsing houses of cards.

A full quarter of the temple collapsed.  The bugs I’d kept to the edges of the room could sense it as a small share of the capes who were in the entry hall were caught beneath the falling rubble.  The ones furthest towards the back.  Eidolon’s protective effect kept the remainder intact.

Behemoth emerged from the smoke.  He was more robust than he had been, but that wasn’t saying much.  Seventy percent burned away, perhaps.  The regeneration had slowed, but it was still functioning to a degree.  He’d recuperated, built his strength, and he’d used the time to, what?  Burrow through strategic areas?  Had the distant rumbles been controlled detonations or collapses at key areas?

The temple was the one building that stood.  Everywhere else, there was devastation.

How many refugees had just died, with this?  How many had stayed within their homes, rather than try to evacuate?

I felt hollow inside, just standing there, stunned, trying to take it all in.  The area around us was still settling, sections of land tilting and sliding like sinking battleships sliding into the water.

How many of us were left?  Seventy?  Eighty?  How many of them were hurt, exhausted, their resources spent?  Could we even coordinate, with so many of us speaking different languages?

“Last stand!” a male cape I didn’t know hollered the words, his voice ragged with fear and emotion.

Behemoth, three or four hundred feet away, responded to the shout with a lightning strike.  Our capes were too slow to erect barriers, and the protection insufficient.  Capes died.  For the first time, I averted my eyes.  I didn’t want to know how bad the casualties were.  Our numbers were too thin.

I saw our Protectorate, what remained of it, stepping forward to form our defensive line.  Our last defensive line.  The major ones, the ones I’d been introduced to, too many had died, or were injured.  These were unfamiliar faces.  The ones who were second in command, if that.

Eidolon landed to one side.  The Triumvirate had often posed in that classic ‘v’ formation, with Legend in front, Alexandria to his left, Eidolon to the right, the lesser members in the wings, Eidolon was now apart from the rest of the group.  His cape didn’t billow, his posture was slightly slumped.  He was tired, on his last legs.

There were murmurs as Alexandria advanced from within the temple.  Unlike so many of us, she didn’t flinch as Behemoth struck out with lightning, the barriers holding this time.  Golem had raised lightning rods on either side of the road, fingers splayed as if he could gesture for Behemoth to stop.

Alexandria found her way to the end of the crowd opposite Eidolon, to our far left.  Satyrical and the other Vegas capes followed her.  Only a small fraction of them remained.  Others had apparently been injured or killed in battle.

Alexandria glanced over our ranks, and her eyes moved right past me, not even recognizing me.  For the briefest instant, I met her eyes behind that steel helmet of hers, and I saw that one had a pink iris.

That answered my question, I supposed.  Pretender couldn’t take over a corpse, but there was no reason for him to take over Alexandria if she was alive and well.  Cauldron had collected Pretender, and they had him controlling her because she was no longer of any use to them on her own.

Our side was busy getting sorted into groups, spreading out so he couldn’t hurt too many of us at once.  We were finding our formations, as our toughest capes absorbed and redirected the lightning he was throwing in an almost experimental manner.  He changed tacks, throwing flame, and a team composed entirely of pyrokinetics caught and redirected it with a concerted effort.  I backed away, and found Tecton at my back, with the remaining Chicago Wards.  Bitch stood just off to one side, her dogs ready.

One structure among several hundred thousand still stood, and our adversary was wounded, though undiminished.  Our ranks had been thinned in the most violent ways possible, through fire and lightning and a roar that could render organs to mush.  We weren’t stronger than we’d been at the start of all of this.  I couldn’t even say that the weak had been thinned out, or that we’d been united through hardship or loss.  Behemoth had picked off some of the strongest of us, and the trust between our factions was thin at best, with some eyeing the Yàngbǎn, others watching Satyrical’s contingent.  We were just less.

“Hold the line,” Exalt called out.  Other capes translated for him, echoing his words with only a few seconds of delay, in four or five different languages.  “We defend until the ones inside can be evacuated, and then we leave.  There’s nothing left to protect here.”

A thin heroism, but that was heroic, wasn’t it?  Protecting the wounded, defending the ones who’d put everything on the line to stop this monster.

If this was all a kind of microcosm for the world at large, that small heroism had to count for something.  I wanted it to so badly I ached for it.

Behemoth roared, and the last engagement opened.

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Crushed 24.4

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Particulate said something, and the amount of invective in his tone was enough to make it clear, even if I couldn’t understand the language.

Phir Sē said something in response, his voice calm, almost as though he were talking to a child, then took another drink of his water.  His eyes didn’t leave the screens.

Behemoth had nearly reached India Gate.  The defense continued to be staggered.  One to four parahumans working together to slow him, to impede his progress and buy time for the others to wear him down.  When they failed, the measures circumvented or the capes in question killed, he advanced, the heroes retreated as best as they were able, and they enacted the next counteroffensive.

But each time they fought, he did damage.  Capes perished, tinker devices were turned into lumps of hot metal.  Each time the capes mounted a defense, the defense was weaker.

“Something is wrong,” Phir Sē said.

“Chevalier was attacked,” I answered.  “They were planning a coordinated defense, I think, but someone beheaded our group at the worst possible time.”

“I see.”

“I’m not going to ask any questions about how you guys operate, but it’s obvious you’re organized.”

“Careful,” Phir Sē told me.  He didn’t even look at me.  The defensive line was using Clockblocker, now.  They’d erected a loose grid of wires, almost invisible, but for the flashing lights set at regular intervals.  Alexandria and Eidolon were trying to hammer the Endbringer into the barricade.

“You’ve got secrets to protect.  Fine.  Cool.  I’m not going to pry.  But maybe we’ve walked similar paths.  We had similar practices, probably.”

He cast me a momentary glance over his shoulder, meeting my eyes for a second before he turned back to the screens.  An acknowledgement, without accepting or denying my point.

“My old team wasn’t nearly as effective as you guys seem to be.  But we operated in secret, we understood some key elements.  The need for information, having to know when to go on the offense, being unpredictable against enemies who are already expecting you to try and catch them off guard.”

“Talk slower, please,” Phir Sē told me.  “My English is not strong, and I am very tired.”

He looked like he might drop any minute, like he’d barely eaten, hadn’t slept…

“How long has it been since you slept?”  I asked.

“Three days.  We thought an Endbringer would attack soon, so I prepared, to be ready when the time came.  Too early, I had to stop, restart.  This time, he came, but I am weary.  The talking, is good.  Distracting without being dangerous.  Continue, please.”

What happens if he nods off?  I wondered, looking at the ‘time bomb’.  The same thing he’d stated would happen if he were killed or knocked out?

“Okay,” I answered.  I took a second to compose my thoughts.  “You mentioned how you have to be hard, heavy handed if you’re going to succeed in a situation where your enemies are as scary as the people you and I have gone up against.”

“Yes.  Heavy handed.  Like the judge’s hammer…”

“Gavel,” I supplied.

“The gavel.  Harsh justice.  Crush the enemies who cannot be converted to your side or convinced to do otherwise.”

“Yes,” I said.  I thought for a second, then made my argument.  “And you know the power of having all of the information.  The power of having a group that can communicate that information.  Communication is key, and a group that doesn’t even need to communicate because they function so well together is better yet.”

“You had this.”

With the Undersiders.  “We were close.  And losing that, it’s scary.  Maybe the least fun part about being a hero.  But you understand?  You agree, about information and communication?”

He didn’t respond, as he watched the screen.  Is he going to nod off right here?

On the monitors, a successful hit on Eidolon’s part struck Behemoth into the grid of wires.  It had taken time for the Endbringer to approach the wires, set safely outside of his kill range, and some were already coming free of Clockblocker’s power.  Still, they sank deep, cutting a diamond-shaped pattern into his hide, shoulder to heel.  Alexandria charged, trying to drive it home, and Behemoth struck out with one claw, a swipe.

He must have captured all of her forward momentum and motive impact and redirected it at her, because he didn’t move an inch in response to the hit, and she crashed into the ground at a shallow diagonal angle.  Her body carved a trench a few hundred feet long, judging by the cloud of dust that rose in her wake.

Behemoth lurched forward, and the grid of wires cut him again on their way out.  Chunks of flesh were carved free.

The Endbringer clapped his hands together, and forcefields went down, defenses and defending capes falling in response to the impact.

Clockblocker’s grid of wires dropped out of the sky, blinking white lights falling like sparks from a large firework.  I suspected that I knew what it meant.

Shit.  I hoped he was okay.  Clockblocker wasn’t a bad guy, as heroes went.

“I agree,” Phir Sē told me, belatedly.  “And I think I see what you are going to say.”

“Let’s communicate with them.  With everyone.  Half the screwed up crap I’ve seen, it’s been because we’re fighting between ourselves.  The best achievements, the truly heroic stuff I’ve seen?  It’s been when we worked together.  So let’s maximize our chances.”

“You have been doing this how long?  A year?”

“Months.”

“I have been doing this for ten years.  I admire you for retaining your…” he trailed off.

“Idealism?”

“Not a word I’m familiar with, Weaver.  Faith?”

“Faith works.”

“I have none left, after ten years.  No faith.  We are a wretched, petty species, and we have been given power to destroy ourselves with.”

“Ironic, given what you’re trying to do here.  You’re going to kill people, kill bystanders, on a gamble.”

Phir Sē peered at me.  “What chances would you give this gamble?”

“One in three?”

His stare was cold as he met my eyes.  “One in three.  That is… perhaps unfair.  No matter.  If I’m wrong, we lose this city.  If I’m right, we kill Behemoth.  I would take those odds, Weaver.  I would take them, I would watch this city be wiped from the earth, knowing that people I am fond of would die.  I live in a civilian guise most days, waiting until I have a task from those more powerful than I.  I would perhaps be killing the butcher I talk to every day when I walk to the store for food.  I would kill the widow who lives next door to me, her child, if they have not evacuated.  I have mentioned my daughter, much like you in her abundance of faith in people.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call myself an idealist to that extent,” I said.  I paused.  “Phir Sē-”

We’d started talking at the same time.  He talked over me, half of his attention on the screens.  “I will take this gamble and perhaps kill those people in the process.  I will kill those people who can make me smile and feel more human than I am, I will grieve their deaths, and then I will take that gamble again.  Because one city, however grand, is worth that chance.”

I thought of doing that, of rolling the dice like that, with my father, with the people in my territory.  “Easier to say than do.”

“I have done it, Weaver,” Phir Sē told me.  “My wife, my sons, years ago.  A similar problem on a smaller scale.  I can walk through minutes, I could have walked back to save them, but I let them die because it meant a monster would remain gone.  What merit is a gamble, a sacrifice, if you stake things that matter nothing to you?”

I stared at him.  He was young, no older than thirty-five, but the lines of his face, the slumped posture, the slowness with which he moved… they spoke of a horrendous exhaustion.

I didn’t have a response for Phir Sē’s question.  He smiled a little, and turned back to the screens.

Behemoth was roaring, a sound that didn’t reach us underground.  With the monitors on mute, it didn’t translate there either.  Still, the images vibrated, the flickering intensified, and the defenses the heroes had established were crumbling.  India Gate was damaged, an incidental casualty of the fight more than a target.

My bugs sensed motion to my left.  I glanced at Particulate, and saw him holding his scanner behind his back.

It was pointed at Phir Sē’s ‘time bomb’.

His other hand was drawing a slender gun from a pocket in his combination lab coat and jacket, a gun like something from retro science fiction, with no barrel.  There was only a small extension on the end, much like a satellite dish.

Another disintegration gun?

He saw me looking, glanced at Phir Sē, who had his back turned, then looked back at me.  His eyes flicked over in Phir Sē’s direction, his intention clear.

He had a solution in mind.  A way to disable the explosion and stop Phir Sē.

I had only an instant to decide, before the teleporter intervened, or Phir Sē noticed what was going on.

I met Particulate’s eyes and nodded once, curt.

The scanner disappeared into a pocket, and he drew something like a grenade from within his flowing coat.  Then he drew the gun on Phir Sē.  I felt the tug of the thread in my hand, attached to the gun.

Without thinking, I hauled on it, pulling it off-target.  The gun hit one screen, two feet to Phir Sē’s right, at stomach level.  It exploded into a swirling cloud of black dust.

Phir Sē whirled around.  He barked out a word I couldn’t understand.

“No!” I called out.

Phir Sē made a gesture with his hand, just as the teleporter flickered into existence.  The man didn’t intersect Particulate, but appeared behind him, deftly disarming him of the grenade and pistol before flickering back out of existence.  He took Particulate with him.

“Don’t kill him,” I said.

“You would feel… blameful?” Phir Sē asked.

Blameful?  “Guilty,” I corrected him, before I realized what I was doing.

I could see the small smile on Phir Sē’s face, disappointed and proud and a condemnation at the same time.  “I watch you.  In reflection of screen.  You set him up, to put yourself in my good will.”

Had I?  Not wholly consciously.  I’d set up the string, but how much of that was intentional?  Was it habit, now, to have a measure on hand when dealing with any weapon?

I focused on the swarm, focused on the cords and threads that traced the room.  One in the doorway, one at each of Phir Sē’s feet, just waiting for me to finish the deal and bind him.  Others extended between us, spiders poised to cut the threads or tie them, as the situation demanded.

The passenger, or was it me, being wary?

“I guess I did,” I said.  I made the spiders cut the threads between us.

He shook a finger at me, “I was not born yesterday.  This silliness could have gotten you killed.  Would have, if I did not feel need for outsider to challenge my ideas.”

“I guess…” I said, searching for the phrase, “A gamble’s not meaningful if you’re not staking something important, right?”

He smiled a little, and there was a slight twinkle in his eye, “Your life?”

“I suppose,” I said.  My heart was still pounding, my mouth dry, and it wasn’t just the Phir Sē thing, or the teleporter.  The passenger.

“You think.  So we know where you stand, now.  You are crafty, dangerous.  Underhanded.  You turn on an ally and use him as a pawn to express something to me.”

“He wasn’t quite an ally,” I said.  “He helped us get inside this underground base.  But he was reckless.  Breaking into this chamber in the first place, preparing to attack you.  A chaotic element.”

“I do not know this ‘chaotic’ word, but I get your meaning, I think.  There was no communication,” Phir Sē said.  He smiled as though we shared a private joke.

“I’m doing what I have to, to ensure we all come out of this ahead.  Just like you, but I didn’t get the ability to manipulate time, or to create this sort of ‘time bomb’.  I work on a smaller scale.”

“I get the joke,” Phir Sē told me.  “It is joke?  Small?”

“Sort of,” I said, and I smiled a little in return, behind my mask.  This guy was borderline unhinged, too much power in too unstable a package, and I almost liked him.

“What is it you wish to express to me, Weaver, that you would sacrifice a pawn and risk your own life?”

I wasn’t sure I had a response to that.  I tried anyways.  “You want to hit Behemoth with your time bomb?  Okay, let’s do it.”

“Oh?  You protested only minutes ago.”

“I’m not about to change your mind, I’m not about to stop you.  So let’s make it happen.  We’ll let the defending heroes know what’s up, set up something-”

“Slower.  Speak slower.”

“Let me go.  We work together with the heroes.”

“The heroes will die in minutes.  Before you arrive.”

I glanced at the screen.  How bad was it?  It was so hard to get a sense of how many heroes still stood.  An ugly feeling gripped my chest.

“We’ll try.  Let me try.  I can give you a signal.  You strike then.”

“You are asking me to have faith.”

Let me go, Phir Sē,” I told him.  “You said you have to stake something that matters on a gamble.  Stake your doubt.”

“I do not understand this,” he said, suddenly sounding weary.  “My English-”

“It’s not your English; what I’m saying doesn’t make a lot of sense,” I said.  I had to resist the urge to rush and hurry through the explanation.  “But your doubt, your lack of faith, it’s something safe.  No disappointments, no fear things won’t work out.    Risk that.  Risk losing that.  I did, when I became a hero.”

“Not such a hero,” he said.  “Bargain with the madman, turn on an ally.”

“I’m realizing I’m a pretty lousy hero,” I agreed.  “But I’m trying.  I made a leap of faith.  I’m asking you to as well.”

He smiled a little, then reached forward and took my hand.  He raised it, simultaneously bending over, and kissed the back of it.

“One more,” he said.

“One more?”

“To wager on a gamble.  A pleasant conversation I might look forward to.  Gone, when you die.”

Die?

He spoke a word, and I tensed.  I tried to pull my hand back, but he held on, my fingers wrenching painfully as I tried to get away.

The teleporter appeared just behind me.  His manifestation was followed by a gentle brush of air, as oxygen was displaced from the area his body now occupied.  I could feel my heart skip a beat, the air catching in my throat.

No pain.  A second passed as I made an assessment, realized that he hadn’t impaled me with one of his limbs.  Only surprise, and that vague sense of a killer instinct.

The man’s hands settled on me.

“Fifteen minutes, Weaver,” Phir Sē told me, releasing my hand.  “Fifteen minutes, or if the heroes cannot put up fight any longer, whichever is first.”

And I was gone, out of the basement, planted in the midst of the battlefield.  Phir Sē wasn’t even in my range.  I’d made the call to work with him, and now it was set in stone. There would be no going back to change his mind, to stop him.  He’d strike, guaranteed.

Even with the filter of my mask, the smell of ozone and the heated air burned the edges of my nostrils.  Acrid smoke was so thick in the air that I could taste it, breathing in through my nose.

And Behemoth loomed in front of me, far too close for comfort, his silhouette shrouded in the smoke around him.

I turned and activated the antigrav panels, running to help get up to speed before it could help me lift off.  

The ground abruptly tilted under my feet, a steep shelf of street and underlying rock rising in front of me, blocking my path.  I managed to grab the uppermost edge with my hands, hauling myself forward enough that the flight pack could take over.

No bugs.  I’d left them behind in Phir Sē’s lair.  If I’d thought about it, I might have asked for time to collect them.  At the same time, I couldn’t have spared the minutes.

Two or three thousand bugs, the only silk I had were the cords that were still attached to me, the ones I’d stretched between Phir Sē and myself and then cut.  I had my taser, laughably petty in the face of Behemoth, a small canister of pepper spray, and the flight pack.

Long odds, even at the best of it.  I pressed the button on my armband, spoke into it, and got only silence in response.

My bugs moved throughout the battlefield, and I marked every cape I came across.  Shelter was scarce, and hard to make out in the smoke.  Each flash of lightning marked an unfortunate cape who’d found themselves too far from cover and in Behemoth’s sights.

In the midst of it all, I could speak and I couldn’t make myself out.  It was almost like being in Grue’s darkness, before his second trigger event.  Couldn’t see.  Couldn’t hear.  My movements, even, were harder to judge.  I felt like there was a pressure, here, as if the smoke had substance, and even Behemoth’s existence, somewhere nearby, was weighing on me.  Was I tired, or was everything heavier?  Or, it struck me, maybe the oxygen content in the air was lower.

I wasn’t sure about the ramifications of that.

So few bugs to draw on.  Five to ten touched a single cape, allowed me to check if they were anyone I recognized, then all but one would leave.  One bug per cape, the rest scouting.

Ligeia was the first I recognized.  The conch shell mask, one of Accord’s people.  Citrine would be close by…

Or not.  I swore under my breath, touched ground to reorient myself, then hurried around a corner.

She was creating a massive portal, widening it with every passing moment.  It made me wonder if there was a reason there were so few recordings of the Endbringer attacks, if the PRT hid this sort of thing.  They’d hidden the particulars of the Echidna attack, and one of the reasons Alexandria had argued, a reason I had argued in favor of that, was because it wouldn’t go over well with the public to know just how much devastation a single parahuman could be capable of.

Her portal was perhaps twenty feet across, circular, and cold water gushed out, as if forced by an incredible pressure.

It was the sort of defensive measure that you employed when there weren’t any frontline combatants left.  A desperate, violent one, like Sundancer’s sun.  My bugs found her ear, and I communicated as clearly as I could, “Run.”

She didn’t hear.  Doggedly, she stood her ground, drenching Behemoth, widening the portal’s radius.  So hard to tell just how much, without losing bugs to the spray.  Twenty five feet?  Thirty?

Run,” I tried again.  I muttered, “Run, Ligeia.”

He erupted with lightning, and I could momentarily see his silhouette in the distance, the light cutting through the thick clouds of smoke and dust.  I could see the tendrils of lightning as though through a strobe light, holding positions as they followed the flow of the water, then changing to other targets, finding solid conductors to latch onto.  The entire geyser was lit up.

She changed tacks, and the portal began sucking.  The lightning disappeared, and Behemoth stumbled forwards towards the opening, the water now reversing direction.

Eidolon appeared like a spear from the heavens, striking him between the shoulderblades.  Behemoth nearly crashed through.  His claw settled on the portal’s edge, as though it had a physical mass to it, slipped through.  The lightning wasn’t traveling far, now, and the image of it was soon lost in the smoke.

The portal closed, and Behemoth managed to claw his way back, simultaneously fending off Eidolon, the lighting growing stronger with every passing second.

He lurched, and dropped several feet, the ground shaking.  The light show marked the geyser spraying up around his leg, apparently having sunken into a portal.

Close it, I thought.  Sever it.

But she didn’t.  Not an option, it seemed.

Move, Taylor.  Deal with your own jobs first.  How long did I have?  Fifteen minutes?  Thirteen?  Twelve?  So hard to keep track of time right now.

My underlings.  Wanton, he was nearby.  Larger.  He carried stretchers with the wounded, which moved around the very periphery of his range, where they rotated slower, and other objects closer to his core.  An armband, a dismembered arm with scorch marks at the base.

His or someone else’s?

Once I caught up to him, I found the others a distance away.  Tecton had fashioned something crude to attach to his armor, a shelf on his back that would hold injured capes.  He rode his three-wheeled bike forward, stopped to slam his piledrivers into the ground to erect a wall of stone, punched through an obstruction, made more forward progress, and then created another wall.  A staggered retreat.  Grace, Cuff and Golem followed, each with wounded behind them on their vehicles.

Annex?  I couldn’t find him with my bugs.  He was either swimming alongside them, helping to clear the way, or he was injured.

I was on my way to catch up to them when Ligeia was struck down.  A chance lightning bolt had struck her, just like that.  Behemoth surged to his feet.  Lightning traced the arc of the water that still geysered up, less impressive with every passing second.

Even killing her hadn’t forced the portal closed.  Damn.

I came to a stop at Tecton’s side.

“Sorry,” I panted.  My voice sounded so rough-edged.  So hard to breathe.

“Tecton can’t talk,” Cuff said.  Her voice was oddly level, in contrast to how she’d acted early in the fight.

“What happened?”

“Clipped by another cape,” she said.  Still with no emotion, no affect.

“Doesn’t matter,” Grace cut in.  “Where the fuck were you?”

Tecton’s hand moved, settling on her shoulder.  Grace backhanded it away.

“I found what Behemoth wants,” I told her.  “Where’s Rime?”

“Dead,” Golem said.  He carried a small child, and was falling behind,

“Who’s next in command?”

“Prism, but she’s injured,” Grace said.

“I need to communicate with someone in charge, and we don’t have time,” I said.  “Dragon?  Defiant?”

“Metal suits are all toast,” Grace said.  “No clue about Defiant.”

“Revel?  Your boss?”  I asked.  Then I corrected myself.  “Our boss?”

“Saw her two minutes ago.  No word on chain of command.  She said we should run, take anyone we can help.  Scion’s dropped off the radar, but last we heard, he was heading north.  Not east, not west.  He has to be trying to avoid this fight,” Grace almost snarled the words.

“It’s not hopeless,” I said.  “We’ve got a shot, here.  Behemoth’s target is a weapon.  Kind of.”

“A weapon?” Golem asked.

“A bomb.  Maybe big enough that it makes an atom bomb look like a hand grenade.  Something that’s supposed to take down Endbringers.”

“No shit?”  Grace asked.  I could see a trace of hope in her expression.

“An energy weapon,” I clarified.

I saw that hope become confusion.  “But that’s-”

“It’s something that could go really right or really wrong,” I said.  I saw the confusion become a momentary despair.  “Which is exactly why we need to get in touch with someone that matters.  Where are the heroes?  Where was Revel?”

Golem pointed.  “That way.”

“Citrine?  Woman in yellow dress.”

“Yellow bodysuit now,” Golem said.  “She stripped out of the dress when he pushed past the command center.”

Fuck me.  Now that he mentioned that, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d sensed her with my bugs and dismissed her as a stranger.

“I think I know where she went,” I said.  Same direction Revel went.  I was already lifting off the ground.  “Go, drop off injured, then come back if you can.”

“Revel told us to scram,” Grace said.

“I’m telling you that we need to distract that motherfucker for five seconds,” I said.  “Where’s Annex?”

“Here,” Annex said, from behind me.

I turned to look as he stepped out of a building.

“You’re with me,” I told him.  He didn’t have any wounded with him.

“I need to ride something,” he said, “Not fast enough.”

“Define ‘something’,” I told him.

“Something heavy enough to hold my entire body mass.”

Could I hold an entire other person?  No.  I could hold a child, but that’d be a stretch.

“Climb inside my costume,” I told him.  “The flight pack too.”

He gave me a bewildered look.  “You realize I’d be right against-”

“Move!”  I barked.  How long did I have?  Not enough time.  Modesty was not an issue.

He flowed into my costume, and I could feel him against my skin, his body strangely cold and smooth.  A lump of him stuck out over one shoulder.  His head, not quite normal, not quite his specter form, had formed itself in my shoulderpad.

And we were too heavy for the antigravity.

I’d have to gamble, make compromises, take risks.  I looked to the others, “Reach deep inside, find your second wind.  Find your third wind, if you can.  Rendezvous with me over there if you can make it in eight or ten minutes.”

Then I deployed my wings, activated the propulsion system alongside the antigrav.  It was slow to lift off, but it was faster than running. 

If I got shocked, or if the electromagnetic radiation got any worse, this could cut out on me any second, but I needed to move.  I needed assets, even if I didn’t know for sure what I’d do with them.

The Chicago Wards peeled away behind me, abandoning the defensive walls and careful retreat in favor of speed.

We found the defensive lines in a minute, if that.

The Undersiders were there, fighting.  Three stuffed goats and the dogs provided an added barricade for them to hide behind, while Foil was firing her needles.  Regent held her quiver, handing her bolts to fire, while Imp lurked on the far side of the street, her back to the wall.  Citrine was peering between two dogs, erecting a field of golden light near the Endbringer.

Grue wasn’t with them.

“Gah!”  Regent cried out, as I landed, folding the wings back into place.  “Jesus fuck!”

Right, I had two heads.  “Out, Annex.”

Annex flowed out of my costume and straight into the ground.  Within seconds, he was shoring up the wall, drawing in debris and using it to rebuild and reinforce.

“Where’s Grue?” I asked.

“Hospital.  Burns,” Imp said.

I nodded.  “Bad?”

“More mentally than physically.”

Ah.

I could only hope he’d bounce back.  To business. “Revel.  American cape with sort of an Asian-themed costume, lantern.  Where is she?”

“Zapped,” Regent said.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

My disbelief was tempered by a measure of alarm.  I was limited in time, and that was bad enough, but if Phir Sē decided our defending forces weren’t sufficient to put up a fight, he could strike sooner.  If I couldn’t find someone capable of leading the defense, if we were little more than scattered remnants, why would Phir Sē wait?

“Revel absorbs energy, kind of,” I said.  “She might be okay.”

“She got hit by lightning,” Regent told me.  “Kind of lethal.”

Rachel snorted.

I glanced at the dogs.  She didn’t seem to mind that they were somewhat exposed, huddled against the ruined wall the Undersiders were using for cover.  One of the dogs seemed to be reacting badly to the lightning strikes, and was huffing out deep, very un-doglike noises each time one struck nearby.

“Listen,” I said.  I flinched as lightning touched nearby.  He was focusing more on a quantity of bolts than on the really heavy hits.  Cleaning up the remanants of our defenses.  “Revel.  Where did she fall?  Or you could point me to anyone else that might be in charge?”

Parian pointed, almost absently.  I couldn’t tell if she was dismissing me or if her focus was taken up by the stuffed goats.  One took a lightning bolt, and she was patching it up and reinflating it within a second.

I took off.  Again, I tried my armband.  Static.  Better than nothing, but not ideal.

I passed over the contingent of Yàngbǎn.  Just getting near them, I could feel my powers swelling, my range growing, a crackling at the periphery of my attention.

And then it was gone.  I was leaving them behind.

Eerie.  Uncomfortable, even, with the recent reminder of how my powers were feeling vaguely out of my control.  A boost in range wasn’t worth any surprises on that front.  Bugs were almost useless here, more bugs wouldn’t make a difference.

Revel was in Dispatch’s company, alongside a cape in white, with a starburst worked into his helmet, radiating from the eyeholes and the gap for his mouth.  She was lying down, using a piece of rubble for cover.  She stirred as the ground rumbled, marking Behemoth’s rapid footsteps.  Not a run.  It felt off, saying something like him was running.  But a lope, like how a gorilla might move, that fit.

“She conscious?”  I asked, as I landed.

“She is,” Revel answered for herself.  She seemed to have to work to focus on me.  “Weaver?”

“I found what Behemoth is after.  Who can I talk to?”

Dispatch stepped out of the way, so the man in white with the starburst helm was free to act.

“Me,” the man in white said.  “I’m Exalt.  Interim leader.”

“The Texas Protectorate leader.”

“Houston Protectorate, yes.”

“A local cape has gathered up a whole mess of energy.  Enough to wipe India off the map.  He’s planning to hit Behemoth with it, in two or three minutes.”

“It won’t work,” Exalt said.

“I know it won’t work.  But he’s going to try, no matter what we do, and we need to distract the Endbringer long enough to give it a chance.”

He exchanged glances with the others.

Hurry, I thought.  I was panting, my mouth thick with the taste of ozone.  Even with my lenses, my eyes were watering from the peripheral smoke.

“Go,” Revel said.  “Expend it.”

Expend?

“It’s too soon,” Exalt said, “And we don’t have all the informat-”

“No time!  Decide now!”

I saw him hesitate.

Swearing under my breath, I turned on my heel and flew away.

I was burning bridges, but that was a hell of a lot better than everyone here dying.  How long did I have?  I couldn’t even begin to guess.  Two minutes?  Eight?

Big difference between the two.

Fuck it.  A waste of time.  I’d burned precious minutes finding them, and they’d been too slow to help.  I wasn’t sure I could work with the Protectorate, with the Wards.  Not if they failed us like this at this crucial juncture.

Assets.  Didn’t have enough resources here.  We needed to pull something decent, something that could…

I had no fucking idea.  How were we supposed to keep Behemoth sufficiently still and distracted, controlling a detonation that had the potential to level a continent?

The Chicago Wards were arriving, minus Wanton.  I signaled them with bugs to fine-tune the direction they were traveling, putting them en-route to the Undersiders.

And behind me, as if they were feeling guilty, Exalt and Dispatch were giving chase, rapidly catching up.  Dispatch moved in bursts of speed intersped with moments where he ran at a normal pace, Exalt flew with Revel in his arms.

I found the Yàngbǎn and approached.  They were reacting even before I’d landed, turning, hands raised to attack.  There were twenty of them, or close to.

“English?” I asked the Yàngbǎn.

They were silent, almost cold in response.

They were nationalist capes.  I was a foreigner, maybe an enemy by default.

“English, please.  This is it, the deciding moment.  Your help, it’s… it’s essential.”

No response.

Exalt, Revel and Dispatch were slowing as they approached me.  I drew an arrow in the air with the few bugs I had left and pointed them to the Undersiders.  They ignored the instruction, setting down just behind me.

“Weaver,” Exalt said.  His voice was grim.  “They aren’t allies.

“We need all the help we can get,” I said.

“The Yàngbǎn pulled an assassination attempt on Chevalier,” Exalt told me.

My eyes widened.

“A traitor among us,” a young man spoke, his voice badly accented.  Another snapped something at him, and he responded in Chinese.

None of the heroes replied.  I couldn’t bring myself to speak, couldn’t think of a single thing to say that would be remotely diplomatic, in the midst of this.

“We do need all the help we can get,” Exalt said, not taking his eyes off the group.  “You want to make amends?”

The English-speaking one translated for the others.  I fidgeted nervously.  How many minutes, now?  Why hadn’t I asked for more time?

Shì de!” one cried out.

“Shì de!” the group called out in unison.

“That’s a yes,” Exalt said.  He was already turning, taking flight.

Twenty Yàngbǎn members.  Exalt.  A dazed Revel.  Dispatch.  The Chicago Wards.  The Undersiders.  Citrine.  Me.

The sum total of our defensive line.

And Behemoth was getting too close.  A hundred and fifty feet?  A hundred and twenty? He was swiftly approaching the hundred-foot mark we’d been warned about, where he could close the distance with a single leap.

There were so few heroes capable of holding him back.  He was covering ground at twice or thrice the speed he had been earlier, and the Undersiders didn’t have the means to know.  They were on the ground, blinded by the ambient smoke and the dust of the hundreds of buildings that had fallen across the city.

Run,” my bugs communicated.  But nobody responded, nobody reacted.  Too much ambient noise.

Run, they spelled out words, shaping letters with their bodies.  Too much smoke.

I bit them, stung them, and that spurred them into motion.  Maybe too late.

He wasn’t even a full city block away from them.  Only a few half-destroyed buildings stood between him and the Undersiders.  They were still sorting themselves out, getting mounted on the dogs for a retreat, but it was too little.

Behemoth leaped.  Not the monumental leap he’d used early in the fight, but a leap nonetheless.  He landed in the midst of a building, knocking much of it over, and the impact was enough to bounce Citrine off one dog, to knock Tecton over.

The Endbringer had closed half the distance.  A mere twenty feet separated them from his kill aura, if that.

I landed beside Citrine, helping her up, using my legs and the antigrav to try and help her  onto the dog’s back.  She kicked her heels the second she was seated, shouted an order I couldn’t make out.

The dog, scared, growled and held its ground against Behemoth.

“Rachel!” I screamed the word.  “Call him!”

She whistled, sharp, and it seemed to break the spell.  The dog lurched around and ran, nearly knocking me to the ground.

The Yàngbǎn were landing in the Undersiders’ midst, joining the fray.  I could feel my power swell, my range increasing by one block, two…

I could sense the underground complex, where Phir Sē was.  He swatted absently at the bugs that had been left behind, uncontrolled in my absence.

Wait,” I communicated to him.  “Almost.”

Either we’d manage this in the next few minutes, or we’d be dead and it wouldn’t matter.

I called the bugs, leaving only enough to speak to Phir Sē.

The Yàngbǎn opened fire with lasers, and erected forcefields to ward against the lightning bolts.  Golem’s hands rose, faster with the Yàngbǎn’s help, but too slow to make a substantial difference.  Tecton’s walls, similarly, couldn’t rise high enough to block Behemoth’s line of sight.  The power boost would increase his tinker abilities, but it wouldn’t empower the results of his technology.

Citrine’s power intensified in the depth of the yellow-gold light, in size.  Grace shimmered, Cuff was better armored, Annex covering more ground.

Why couldn’t the Yàngbǎn have helped like this sooner?  From the very start of the fight?  Damn people.  Damn them all, for their idiocy and selfishness and their small-mindedness.

This wasn’t enough.

Behemoth reached out, and lightning plowed through our ranks, left to right.  The Yàngbǎn forcefields fell in the lightning’s wake, and Tecton was struck from his bike.  Cuff was too far back, unprotected, dropped in an instant.  I ducked low, covering my head, as it crashed against a quadruple-layer of forcefields the Yàngbǎn had provided.  One of them was knocked prone as the last forcefield shattered.

A stray Yàngbǎn member, too far to the right, was knocked to the ground.  She started to struggle to her feet, then collapsed a second later.

Revel flew to the injured Wards, but didn’t have the strength to stand.  Instead, she raised her lantern, ready for the next strike.

The Yàngbǎn hadn’t even raised their forcefields again when he hit us with lightning once more.

Revel absorbed the initial impact, sucking it into her lantern.

I wasn’t close enough to benefit.  I saw the lightning twist in the air as Behemoth swept his hand out to one side, striking another two Yàngbǎn members, just out of the lantern’s reach.

Dispatch appeared next to me and other Yàngbǎn members, and in an instant, everything went still, quiet.  My ears roared with a high pitched whine.  My breath sounded too noisy, my heart beat so fast I couldn’t even see straight.

Like Clockblocker’s power extended a temporal protection, almost impossible to break, Dispatch’s power seemed to do the same, even if he was effectively achieving the opposite, accelerating us with the outside world moving at a snail’s pace.

The effect ended just as Behemoth moved on to other targets.  Another Yàngbǎn member was struck down.

And, inexplicably, he continued his lightning strike, carrying over to the far end of the street.

There was a yelp, and I could see Imp, all at once, sheltered by a wall that was shrinking in size with every second the blast continued.  She held the Yàngbǎn member who’d strayed too far away from our main group in her arms.

He’d seen her.  Sensed her.  And now, behind a wall no more than three feet high, she had nowhere to run.

I pushed past Yàngbǎn members, unstrapping my flight pack, tearing at the parts that fed down to my gloves, to get it off.  If I could get it to her…

I couldn’t.  I stopped, the pack in my hands.  The lightning would break the thing before it could carry her away.

If Grue’s alive, he won’t be able to forgive us for letting her die.

Citrine drew a yellow glow around Imp, and the lightning fizzled as it passed the perimeter.

The Endbringer switched to fire, and it passed through.  It seemed to halve in intensity, but that was enough.  I could hear Imp scream in alarm and fear.

He advanced a step, and the fresh angle afforded her even less cover.  His kill aura… if he simply ran forward a few steps, he’d murder us all in seconds.

But Golem’s hands held his legs.  One had sunk deep into a pit, hands of pavement gripping the knee, melting at the close contact, even as others rose to reinforce.  The other leg was raised, but held in much the same fashion.

Imp screamed again as he directed another wave of flame her way.  It was a scream of pain this time.

Foil shot him, but he didn’t turn away from Imp and the Yàngbǎn member.  Instead, one hand stretched out, casting flame towards her.  The cloth goats blocked it, and were promptly set aflame.  He maintained two columns of flame from his hands, one directed at Imp, one at Foil and Parian.

Revel launched a mess of spheres at his chest, and the surviving Yàngbǎn followed up with lasers.  Behemoth simply maintained the assault, almost uncaring as the lasers and disintegration spheres ate into his torso.  Negligible damage, in the grand scheme of things.

“Fuck it,” Regent said, his voice almost inaudible.  He was looking at Imp.

“Regent,” I said.  When he rose to his feet, I raised my voice, “Regent!”

“Hey Shitcrumb!”  Regent hollered, backing away from cover.  “Easy-”

Behemoth dropped the flame attack.  I could see Yàngbǎn members raising forcefields as he reached out, casting a bolt of lightning in Regent’s direction.  The forcefields did nothing, not even softening the blow in any measurable way.

Regent was snuffed out, dead.

A small sound escaped my mouth.

But there was no time to react.  Reeling, grieving, it would cost us.  He’d done what he did for a reason.  The antigrav on the flight pack kicked in, I waited until it started to drag me, then let it go.  It skidded across the gap, across the road, to Imp.  She caught it, and I controlled the motion of it to drag her away.

Retreat!” I called out, and my voice was strangely ragged.  “Citrine, cover!  We need forcefields too!”

And Exalt.  We needed whatever power he could bring to the fore.

Eidolon landed between us and Behemoth.

He said something I couldn’t make out, then raised his hands.

A forcefield, taller than Behemoth, separated us.  For seconds, Behemoth was muted.  He swiped his claws at the forcefield, fell short.  He couldn’t advance, with the way Tecton and Golem had him held with one leg buried up to the knee, couldn’t reach far enough to touch the forcefield.

One claw dashed a hand of asphalt to pieces.  Golem started to raise another to replace it, but Behemoth torched it, turning it to a liquid or a glass.  Something flat, shiny.

We pulled ourselves together.  I changed Imp’s direction, brought her to us.  She let go, and the thing careened dangerously, striking the ground a little too hard.

She crouched by Regent, touched his throat.

She shouted something.  A string of swear words, insults aimed at Regent.

Come on!” I screamed the words at her.  It took me a second to get the flight pack going again.  I steered it, like a fish on dry land, towards her, as Rachel hauled me up onto a dog’s back.

“Weaver,” Phir Sē said, almost half a mile away, still in the room with the monitors, “If he advances any closer to me, I won’t have any option but to strike.

Wait,” my bugs communicated.

Reluctantly, Imp reached for the flight pack, hugged it to her chest.  Not the best option, given the options I had for controlling it.  Still, it was a way to get her moving towards us.

Some heroes were pelting Behemoth from another direction.  So little, in terms of effect, but it was a distraction.

We needed to regroup.  Needed to form some kind of plan, however haphazard.

Fuck it.  Foil had the facemask… who else?  Citrine and Foil… the back of the head of the dog they rode.  Dispatch wore a helmet… but I could use bugs to draw an arrow on the ground.  That left Annex, where the hell was he?  My bugs couldn’t sense him.

My eyes could.  In the midst of the smoke, I saw the bike Tecton rode was lighter than the rest.  Annex was inside it.

I pointed them in the same direction I’d sent the others.

We converged on the same point.

“Dispatch!” I called out.  “Huddle!”

He reached the midst of our group, and his power surrounded us.

Silence, stillness.  The buzz of my power at the periphery of my consciousness was a fraction of what it might otherwise be, limited to the bugs that crawled in the recesses of my costume.  There was only the press of bodies, two dogs and all of the rest of us in an area smaller than my jail cell.

I tried to speak, and emotion caught my voice.  It threw me, as if it didn’t match how I felt, didn’t match the composure I felt like I had.

Nobody cut in, nobody used the silence to venture an opinion.

When I did speak, I did it with care, shaping each word, speaking slowly, so I wouldn’t embarrass myself again.  “How long?”

“This?” Dispatch asked.  His voice was low, grim.  “This many people?  Those dogs?  Four minutes.  Maybe two, if we’re all breathing this hard.  Once we run out of air, I gotta cut it out.”

I nodded.

Think, think.

“Sorry about your pal,” Tecton said.

I shook my head.  A denial?  He was important to me, but… what, then?  Was I wanting to focus on the situation?

“Not now,” I said, sounding angrier than I meant to.  “Need a plan.”

“A plan?” Dispatch asked.  “We run.  We pray.”

“Last I heard, Scion was nowhere near,” Foil said.  “Nobody to pray to.”

“Not funny,” Dispatch said.  “This isn’t the time to fuck around on the subject of God.”

I shook my head again.  Plans.  Options.  I had an idea, half-formed in my head, and I couldn’t bring it to the fore.  Some missing element.

“Rachel.  You wanted revenge on that motherfucker?”

“Yeah,” she said, “Leviathan killed my dogs.”

“Behemoth killed your friend,” Tecton added.

“And Leviathan killed my dogs,” Rachel said.  “They both pay.”

“They both pay,” I agreed.  “What the hell’s Exalt’s power?”

“Aerokinesis and telekinesis,” Dispatch answered me.  “But he spends a charge, takes a day or days to build it up again.”

Which explained why he hadn’t helped.  Fuck.

“Eidolon’s power… he chooses what powers he gets?”

“He gets the powers he needs,” Dispatch said.  “He can be receptive to new ones, hold tighter to ones he wants to keep, but that’s it.”

I nodded.  He was at the mercy of his passenger, it seemed.

I glanced to my right.  “Foil.  Can you use your power on just the tip of an arrow?”

“Yeah.  But why would you want me to?  Fucks up the trajectory.”

“Just thinking,” I said.

“You have a plan,” Rachel said.  There was a measure of smugness in her voice.  No, I was reading her wrong.  Satisfaction?

“Maybe, yeah,” I said.  I glanced at the space outside the bubble.  The people were moving at a glacial pace, heads turned our way.  Eidolon flew in the sky above.  “We need to hurt Behemoth, and hurt him badly enough that he gets distracted.  Then I signal Phir Sē, and hopefully we aren’t vaporized in the wake of all that.”

“Explain,” Dispatch said.

“Each of us has a role to play,” I said.  “Timing’s essential.  So’s luck…”

The bubble burst, and we moved into action.  Behemoth had barely advanced from his position.  The others were still running.  We’d earned ourselves two minutes to think, to plan and discuss.

I’d gathered countless bugs through my journey across the city.  I’d briefly lost track of them when I was teleported away from Phir Sē, but they were still there.  Relatively few had died, even from the start, their lives thrown away to test the boundaries of fires or gushing water, or shielding people from the roar.

A lot of bugs, held in reserve.

“Golem!”  I called out.  “Metal hands.  Doesn’t matter how big.  Find a way.”

He glanced at me, still jogging away from the Endbringer.  Still, he managed to find a shop with a metal shutter at the doorway.  He plunged his hand inside it, and hands appeared in various places across the street.  A large one from a rickshaw, another from a car’s engine block, small ones from the metal grilles covering windows.

Half of my bugs gathered.  Another half began chewing through power lines.  The transformers here were nightmares, tangled messes, and had an abundance of wires.

Each of the others was carrying out their tasks, their roles.  Rachel had a chain stretched between two dogs, and was attaching the chain from one dog’s harness to it to extend the thing further.  Annex stretched it further, extending it so each link was nearly two feet long, thin.  Citrine was tinting the area between us and Behemoth.

Dispatch called to Eidolon, and the ex-Triumvirate member descended.  Dispatch contained them.

Eidolon needed time, and he needed to hear the details of our plan.  Dispatch would give him both.

In the distance, Behemoth pushed his way through the forcefield, shattering it.  We had a minute, if that.

I waited impatiently as the others tended to the chain.

Dispatch’s effect ended.  He and Eidolon relocated to the other end of the street, Dispatch took a second to catch his breath, and then he used his power on Eidolon again.

Come on, come on, I thought.  This could go awry with one lucky shot from Behemoth.

“Yangban!” I shouted, no doubt mispronouncing the title.  “Forcefields!  Protect the teams!”

Lightning crashed against the forcefields only moments after they went up.  Some diverted to the metal hands.

And my swarm started to arrive.  Millions of insects, bearing power lines that they were still stripping of insulation, hauling the wire itself, bearing the ones who bore the wire in turn, or hauling on silk that was attached to the wire.

I’d hoped to drape it over the hands, to wrap it around.  I was forced to attach it to the base of the hands instead.  Too heavy to move otherwise.  Conductive hands, conductive wire.

“Go!” Foil shouted.

The dogs moved.  Bitch rode one, hollered commands to get them to stay apart.  The chain stretched taut between them, long, thin.

I saw Dispatch’s effect end.  Eidolon took flight, following.

“This’ll work?” Imp asked.  Her voice sounded more hollow than Grue’s did when he used his power.  I jumped a little to hear her suddenly speaking beside me.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Because if this is revenge for Regent, it has to work.”

“It’s for him if it works,” I said.

“Mm,” Imp said.  “I’ll kill you if it doesn’t, then.”

“We’re all screwed if it doesn’t,” I said.

“Mm,” she said, and she didn’t say anything else. 

The Endbringer lashed out with a mess of lightning.  It caught one dog before it disappeared behind cover.  The dog slowed, but it recovered and found its pace, redoubled its efforts to catch up, as Rachel continued to shout commands to keep the chain taut.

Behemoth used fire, instead, targeting Rachel, and Citrine’s power dampened the effects.  That was her role in this.

It was just a question of whether it would run out prematurely, if the dogs would get far enough.

He clapped, and a shockwave tore through the area.  Rachel was already directing the dogs; they moved so there was cover, buildings between them and Behemoth.  The chain, imbued by Foil’s ability to shear through anything, cut through the buildings as though there was nothing there.

And just like that, they made it.  The dogs passed Behemoth, a hundred and twenty feet of chain maintained between them, and the chain cut through him as easily as Foil’s arbalest bolts had.

Too low.  There was just a little slack, and they weren’t high enough off the ground.  The chain cut through the soles of his feet, through the lower part of one ankle.  Insignificant.  He didn’t even fall over.

Then I heard Rachel through my swarm.  A shout.  “Back!”

The dogs stopped, one doing so so abruptly that Rachel was nearly thrown to the ground.  Nearly touched the chain, losing a limb.

The Endbringer moved his hands in anticipation of a clap, and Exalt used his power.  Blades of wind, a hundred strikes in a moment, a thrust of telekinetically controlled air from across the city, rushing past Behemoth, making the Endbringer stumble.  The clap arrested.

Rachel held on as the wind hit her, held on as each dog turned a hundred and eighty degrees.  They passed Behemoth a second time, only this time, Rachel shouted another command.  One of the first I’d heard her give.  I knew now that it was the command for ‘up’.

Her dog leaped up to the highest point on a ruined building, and the chain caught Behemoth at the knee this time.

They got halfway before Foil’s power wore off.  The dog tumbled in midair, Rachel thrown, flipping head over heels.

Behemoth crashed to the ground, one leg a stump.

Eidolon caught Rachel with one arm, and extended the other towards Behemoth.

Now,” my bugs told Phir Sē, as the field surrounded the Endbringer, a forcefield, extending into the Earth, surrounding Behemoth on all sides, a cylinder.

Phir Sē’s portal opened beneath Behemoth’s feet, aimed upward, and a plume of light speared into the sky, consuming Behemoth, covering him.

Eidolon’s power held.  He’d had the situation explained, had been given time to let his power build up to full strength, and his passenger had supplied something with a durability on par with Clockblocker’s ability.  Inviolable.

“That’ll do,” Imp said, quiet.  The light continued to flow upward, a narrow column no more than fifty feet across, billowing out only slightly as it reached the top of Eidolon’s barrier, parting smoke and clouds in a circular ring, revealing the intensely blue sky above.  The entire sky seemed to brighten as the light dissipated beyond our atmosphere.

Phir Sē’s light faded, and the barrier collapsed.

Dust continued to fill the area, plumes of it.

Behemoth lurched forward.

Not quite Behemoth, but a skeleton, something like a skeleton.  Emaciated, a black-red frame dripping with ichor, it had all of the key features, the basic underlying structure with the horns and the gaping mouth, the claws and the way the shoulders were broad enough to host his bulky frame, but a good eighty percent of him had been torn away, shredded.  A skeleton covered in a veneer of meat.

Go,” I whispered, feeling a quiet despair.  “Go home.  Go underground.  Leave.  We hurt you as badly as we’ve ever hurt you bastards.  That’s enough.”

He reached out, and lightning reached across the landscape, striking Golem’s metal hands, into the grounding wires I’d rigged.  The hands melted with the intensity of the strikes.

Behemoth wasn’t any weaker than he had been.  Not in terms of what he could dish out. As much as he was wounded, he was healing.  Even from where we stood, I could see him healing, flesh expanding, swelling, regenerating.

The Endbringer lurched forward on three intact limbs, starting to glow with that radioactive light of his.  He was ignoring or ignorant to Eidolon’s escape, as the ‘hero’ carried Rachel away, the dogs following on the ground.

He was continuing to make his way towards Phir Sē, who had formed another portal, was gathering power for a second strike.

“Retreat,” I said, only to realize I wasn’t loud enough for anyone but Imp to hear.  I raised my voice for the others.  “Go!  Retreat and regroup!”

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Crushed 24.3

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Eidolon and Alexandria had settled into something of a rhythm.  Though his powerset was similar to Alexandria’s on the surface, the eerie noises and the dimming of the light around the areas his punches landed suggested he was transmuting the kinetic energy of his punches into something else altogether.  Between Eidolon’s strikes and Alexandria’s, Behemoth couldn’t quite adapt to the point where he was redirecting every strike, let alone the barrage of ranged attacks that the other capes in the area were directing his way.

The Endbringer staggered under the onslaught, but he was slowly adapting.  They’d managed to pin him for a minute, even costing him some ground by driving him back once or twice, but each successive minute saw him rolling with the punches more, advancing further when he found a second or two of mild reprieve.

His target: the command center.  Our flying capes weren’t working fast enough to clear the entire rooftop, and every shaker we had -every cape capable of putting up a forcefield or creating a portal, raising a barrier- was busy trying to slow down the brute.  The Chicago Wards, or most of the Chicago Wards were among them.

I tensed, but I couldn’t move without exposing myself to one of the lances of electricity that were crashing down around us.  The capes on the rooftop were protected by an arrangement of tinker-made forcefields, it seemed, but those wouldn’t hold.  Fuck, hanging around on rooftops was dumb.  I’d learned my lesson on my first night out on costume, had avoided being put in that position since, excepting the fundraiser, where we’d been on the attack, and the time Defiant and Dragon had dragged me up to one, just a bit ago.

The guys up there were tinkers and thinkers.  They were our communications, supporting roles, strategists and healers.  A few of them were long-ranged capes.  Not really people who could hop or fly down five stories to the ground and walk away unscathed.  Not without help.

I waited and watched as Behemoth engaged the other capes, tracking what powers he was using and when.  He was presently staggering forward when he could, otherwise holding his ground, deflecting and redirecting attacks.  When he was free to do so, he reached out with his claws, and lightning lanced out to tear through the assembled capes.

Golem, to his credit, was going all out.  Hands of stone and metal rose from the ground to shield defending capes and balk Behemoth’s progress.  I could make out Hoyden, leader or second in command of the Austin Wards.  She wasn’t on the front lines, but was defending the mid-line capes.  It made sense with how her power worked, as her defensive powers provided more cover from attacks at greater ranges.  She threw herself in the way of lightning bolts and stood between Behemoth and the wounded.  When lightning struck her, detonations ripped out from the point of impact, seeming almost to short out the currents.

“Come on, come on,” I muttered.

I could see Tecton creating fissures in the ground, no doubt intended to reduce the reach and effects of Behemoth’s stomps.  Annex was creating bridges so heroes wouldn’t fall into the gaps.

Dispatch, vice-captain of the Houston Protectorate team, zipped over to a group of wounded with accelerated speed, only to seem to pause, as though he and his immediate surroundings were only video footage.  Color and space distorted violently in an irregular area around him as he hung there, just an inch over the ground, one hand at his belt and another reaching for someone with intense burns.

A half-second later, the effect dissipated, and they were all moving.  Dispatch was carrying one of the most wounded, gloves off and the sleeves of his costume pulled up, dried blood up to his elbows.  Others were bandaged and sutured.  His name, I knew, came from his ability to pick out targets in a fight, closing the distance to them and catching them in his temporal distortion effect.  He’d have minutes or hours, however long it took the air within the effect to run out, to end the fight with his super strength, durability and the close confines of the bubble.  To any observers, it appeared as though he’d won the fight in a heartbeat.  Apparently the idea extended to medical care.

Revel, leader of the Chicago Protectorate and official overseer of Tecton’s Ward team, was stepping up to the plate.  Floating up to it, whatever.  She rose into the air, and caught one full current of lightning inside her lantern.  The sheer force of the blast knocked her back, and she struck a wall, pressed against it with her lantern held in front of her.

She began releasing spheres of light from the lantern, each larger than a human head, slow-moving but numerous.  Their trajectories were unpredictable, some striking friendlies, others carrying forward towards Behemoth.  Where they struck friendlies, they only exploded in brilliant showers of sparks.  When they touched Behemoth, they sheared right into him, cutting two or three feet deep before flickering out.

When she saw it was working, she only intensified the assault, spending the charge she’d accumulated to create fifty more orbs, before hurrying forward to intercept another stream of lightning that was flowing from Behemoth’s claw-tip.  It was impossible to actually get in front before the lightning appeared, to save the lives that Behemoth was taking with the initial moments the lightning appeared, but she was stopping the lightning from flickering to the fourth, fifth or sixth target.

That was what I was waiting for.  My limited experience with Endbringers had taught me one thing.  When someone actually found a way to respond, to cancel out the attacks or to deliver a measure of real damage, they changed tactics.

Some capes were already responding.  Captains and leaders were giving orders, and various barriers were being reinforced or thrown back up.  Some were trying to give the warning, but their voices disappeared in the midst of the chaos around us.

“Take cover!” I hollered, and my swarm carried my voice.

It was only two or three seconds later, as the second wave of spheres drifted to Behemoth and began to cut into his torso and groin area, that he responded.  His ‘mouth’ opened, the craggy spikes of obsidian ‘teeth’ parting.

And he roared.  A sound that was slow at first, growing steadily more powerful.

Sound was a bitch of a thing.  It could be muffled, but blocking it entirely?  We didn’t have Grue.

I fled, cranking my antigrav to ‘high’ and risking unfolding my wings to use the propulsion systems as I made my way to for cover, putting as many buildings between Behemoth and I as I could.

My swarm responded to my call, assisting the capes who weren’t fleeing fast enough.  They rose as a singular mass, a wall of tens of thousands, and absorbed the worst of the scream.  I wasn’t sure it was enough.  Even with some distance and a dozen buildings between Behemoth and I, I had no defenses as it reached a crescendo.  My sense of balance went out the window, my very bones hurt.

Closer to Behemoth, capes were bleeding from their ears, vomiting, passing out.  Organs and brains would be reduced to jelly as he continued.  My bugs weren’t doing much to muffle the noise or soften the damage, if they were helping at all.

But my focus was on the rooftop.  I’d been waiting until he stopped using his lightning.  There was nothing saying he wouldn’t use it now.  He could use multiple attack forms at the same time.  Still, he was more focused on picking off the defending capes, the ones who were suppressing the noise.  Was Citrine among them?  I could see the golden glow of her power in the distance.

Director Tagg had given me an effective ranking of two for every single power classification.  Ostensibly, it had been because he hadn’t wanted to underestimate me.  Was there a note of truth to that, though?  I wasn’t sure about the ‘brute’ or ‘mover’ classifications, but did my power over bugs afford me a versatility that let me cover the bases on other fronts?

They still hadn’t completely evacuated the roof.  The people who might have helped them down were disabled or otherwise occupied.  Getting them down was key, here.  The flying capes were more focused on assisting the capes near the front lines, helping the ones who could deal damage escape Behemoth’s implacable advance and avoid the kill aura that accompanied him.

The roaring made it impossible to hear.  Even seeing was difficult, as my vision distorted and lost focus.  I very nearly tipped over, until I turned to my swarm sense.  Not perfect.  Even they were suffering, scattered and dying, at close range to the roar.  But it gave me an orientation, a plane to compare the tilt and angle of my body with.

I looped to one side to intercept some of my bugs, collecting the strands of silk they’d woven in one hand, then made my way around to the back of the building the heroes were clustered on.  Flying capes were settled on the ground, pausing to recuperate from the roar.  I took a second, myself, to get my bearings.  My back against the concrete, I could feel the building shuddering in response to the roar.  But at least there was a small degree of reprieve, here.

When I’d caught my breath and reassured myself my insides hadn’t been vibrated to pieces, I flew to the rooftop.  My bugs swept over the crowd.  No Tattletale that I could see.  No Accord, either, for that matter.

Two capes approached me, not quite Caucasian but lighter-skinned than the Indian capes.  One had a costume with a spiral to it, the other wore armor with tiny faces that looked like baby’s heads.  Was he a villain?  They were rattling off something in French or Spanish as they reached out to take my hands.  Their eyes were wide with fear and alarm.

“I can’t carry you!” I shouted, raising my voice to be heard over the perpetual roar.  “My flight pack isn’t strong enough!”

They clutched at me, and one even pushed at another cape who’d gotten too close.

A little too much.  Too intense, here, too forceful.  I just want to find Tattletale.  I’ll find a way to help you once I’ve done that.

“Back off!” I said, raising my voice.

The guy with the faces on his armor shouted so forcefully that spit flew from his mouth, as he pointed to the ground beyond the building.  He approached me, trying to hug himself tight to my body.  I pushed him away and backed up, trusting the antigrav to hold me aloft.

One of the capes on the rooftop approached me, pushing her way through the crowd.  She wore a golden mask with a woman’s face, the mouth parted a fraction, with a black bodysuit.  It was softened a touch by the loose black cloth that draped down from her golden shoulderpads and breastplate.  The black didn’t look so dramatic as it might have, mottled a brown-gray by the loose dust that had accumulated on it.

“Weaver,” she said, her voice melodic.

“Arbiter,” I responded.  One of Rime’s underlings.  The one with the social danger sense, forcefield and sonic beam.  I supposed her forcefield wasn’t quite large enough or versatile enough to offer a bridge down to the ground.  “I’ve got other stuff I need to pay attention to.  Don’t suppose you speak French?  Or Spanish?”

“Portuguese,” she said.  “And no, but give me a moment.”

She turned to the capes, but a heavy crash interrupted her before she could speak.

A building had fallen, toppling, and Behemoth hadn’t done anything to precipitate it.  Nothing except the roaring.

Was that enough?  Was this building coming apart beneath us?

Where the hell was Tattletale?  My bugs flowed into cracks in the building, checking rooms only to find them empty.

“Hurry!” I said.  I turned my attention to my swarm.  They extended out beneath me, forming into neat lines.  My bugs were slow to move through the structure.  I had to use the cracks that already existed in the walls, ducts and vents that just happened to be open.

“Speak to me,” Arbiter said to the Portuguese capes.

The one with the spiral costume chattered out something I couldn’t even guess at.  Arbiter nodded.  In very broken Portuguese, she asked a question.  The spiral man looked at the one with him, gesturing.

In less broken Portuguese, she spoke again.

That prompted another burst of explanation, or what I took to be exclamation.  They sounded desperate, afraid.

When she responded, she spoke just as quickly and flawlessly as the two native speakers.  She’d picked up the language in a matter of three exchanges.

I bit my tongue as the roar abruptly intensified, jarring me enough that my jaw was slammed shut.  It wasn’t that he was roaring louder; one of the capes who’d been keeping the worst of the noise at bay had fallen.

Focus.  My bugs extended lines of silk to the ground, while others held it aloft and kept it more or less straight, allowing the lengths to be carefully measured, the amount of slack controlled.

“Weaver!” Arbiter said, raising her voice so I could hear her.

I turned around.

“I don’t quite understand, there’s a gap in translation, but he says he’s pregnant with his dead teammates,” she said.  Her voice cut through the noise, “They’re asking for him to be rescued next.”

Pregnant with dead teammates?

Suddenly the little faces on his armor seemed twice as creepy.  I really hoped that was a tragically bad translation.  Parahumans could be so fucked up sometimes.

“He gets rescued with everyone else,” I said.  “There’s no way to prioritize.”

“Right,” Arbiter said.

I secured the lines of silk on the roof’s edge and on the ground.  I then pulled off a shoulderpad and retrieved the strip of silk that had held it in place.  I folded it over the cord and stepped over the edge, letting myself slide down the length of the cord.  Both ends were tied, and the slack was enough that it should ease people to the ground.  I was okay with doing the test run, as my flight pack could handle the fall.

It didn’t break.  Good.  Better than nothing.  I flew back to the rooftop, and I could feel the roar rattling me as I made my way up past the more solid cover.

“Should be fairly safe,” I said, “Silk cord got warm, from what my bugs are feeling, but I’ve got six arranged.  One person at a time, delay by about… twenty seconds, at least, between trips, so the heat and friction doesn’t wear through the silk.  It’s not the strongest thread I’ve ever made.”

Arbiter glanced over the roof’s edge.  I followed her gaze.  The silk was barely even visible.

“You’re sure they’ll hold?”

“No,” I said.  I glanced over at Behemoth, “But I’m less sure this building’ll be standing in five minutes.  If a cape falls and dies, I’ll take the blame.  Better than having everyone up here die.”

“You’re not convincing me,” she said, but she said something to the cape with the spirals on his costume.  With gestures and careful explanation, she got him to step up to the front, pulling his glove free of his fingers, using the excess fabric to slide down the silk line.

My bugs checked it after he’d passed.  Warm, but not so much that I was worried it’d split.

“Go!  Go!”  Arbiter said, grabbing the attention of the capes who’d been standing back and watching.

In seconds, we had capes sliding down the lines.  Arbiter was careful to keep them from overloading or applying too much friction too fast to the makeshift ziplines.

Behemoth had stopped his endless roaring.  He was using fire, now.  There was none of the uncanny precision the lightning had, but the fire moved with intelligence, spread easily, burned hotter than it should have, and it was virtually impossible to stop all of it.  It slipped between force fields, between the fingers of Golem’s stone hands, and it ignited any fabric and wood it touched, set grass alight.

I had to pull back my bugs.  I’d managed to keep the vast majority from dying, some fires and casualties from the roaring excepted, but this wasn’t a place where they’d help.

Six more capes made their way down the line.  Arbiter used her forcefield to block some more agitated capes from making their way down before it was time.  She spoke in one of the local languages to the group.

“Thank you,” I told her.  “For helping keep this sane.  If it comes down to it, and the cords don’t hold, I’ll lend you my flight pack.  I can control it remotely.”

“Give it to someone else before you give it to me,” she said, without looking at me.

“Right,” I answered.  “Listen, I’m-”

A cape gripped the cord for his turn, only to turn out to be far heavier than he looked.  Arbiter placed a forcefield under him, but it didn’t do much more than slow his descent as he crashed through it.

Five cords remained, and there were too many capes here.

Fuck,” I said.

“He’s okay,” Arbiter observed.

But the others seemed more reticient now.

“What the hell is going on downstairs?  Are stairs too difficult?”

Arbiter shook her head.  “Government building, it’s set up to lock down in a crisis, which it did.  A rogue cape turned on the people inside, so the metal doors closed to protect others.  We’ve been reeling since.  Command structure’s down, our battle lines collapsed-”

“You’re talking about Chevalier.”

“Yes.”

“Then where’s Tattletale?”

“I don’t know who that is.”

“Teenage girl, dirty blond, costume of black and light purple.  She would’ve been with a short man wearing a suit.”

“I saw them.  They went downstairs with Chevalier.”

I could feel my heart in my throat.  “Where are they now?”

“With other wounded.  We’re relaying them a half-mile that way,” Arbiter pointed.  “Far enough away that Behemoth won’t be endangering them anytime soon.”

Behemoth generated a shockwave, and one forcefield at the front of the roof flickered and died.  A tinker moved forward to try to restart it, and was struck down by a bolt of lightning before she could.

A wave of capes mustered the courage and slid down.  There were only eleven of us on the rooftop now, myself and Arbiter included.

I checked the lines, then cut one that was too frayed.  Four left.

“Four lines left,” I reported, before someone reached for one that wasn’t there.  My thoughts, though, were on Tattletale.  Injured or dead.

“Go,” Arbiter said.  “To your friend, your teammate, your partner, whatever she is to you, she’s important.”

I shook my head.  “You need me.  I can use my bugs to check the lines are okay.”

“There won’t be any major difference if you’re here or not.  Three more trips-”

A flying cape touched the rooftop only long enough to take hold of one of the people on top, then took off again.

“Maybe two trips, and we’re clear.  I’ll go last.  Go.

Another shockwave knocked out another forcefield panel.  A tinker was working on the generator, best as she could while hunkering down behind the sole remaining panel.  She said something frantic.  I couldn’t understand her, whatever her language, but I could guess.  It wasn’t her tech.

I hesitated, wanting to take the offer to escape.  Then I shook my head.  “I’ll stay.  Tattletale’s important to me, but so is doing what I can here.  I can check the lines in a way nobody else here can.”

Arbiter only nodded, her eyes on the ongoing fight.

I drew up decoy-swarms, placing them across the rooftop, and stepped off the rooftop, hovering and using the building for cover.  Arbiter raised her forcefield to fill some of the gap in the tinker-created field, crouching in the crowd of swarm-people.  Others followed suit.  I covered them as much as I could without obscuring their vision.

Seconds passed before Arbiter gave the go-ahead.  Capes evacuated the rooftop.

Behemoth’s lightning strike flashed through our ranks, right over Arbiter’s squatter forcefield, through two decoys and striking a cape.

The crash of thunder seemed almost delayed, synced more to the cape going limp than the flash itself.  The body struck the roofop, dead before it touched ground.

Had the decoys spared two people from being hit, or was it chance that the bolt had made contact with them?  Fuck.  Having more information would be key, here.

Behemoth was continuing to suffer blows.  His progress had all but stalled, but he wasn’t changing tactics.  Why?

Did he have a strategy?  The Simurgh was supposed to be the tactician, Leviathan had the brute cunning.  Was Behemoth harboring a certain degree of intelligence?

I didn’t like that idea, but I couldn’t think of a good way to explain just why he was willing to stand there and take abuse.

Flying capes evacuated two more.  Arbiter gave the go-ahead for more to use the ziplines.

That left only the two of us here, and I had cover, at the least.

Lightning lanced past us, burning much of its initial charge on the forcefield.  It danced through the ranks of my decoy bugs.  Arbiter was left untouched.

“Damn,” she muttered.  “Damn, damn, damn.”

“Fuck waiting for heat to dissipate, just use the zipline,” I said.  “Hurry.  Second one, it’s least worn, coolest.”

She half-crawled, half-ran to me.  I handed her the strap that I’d used for the test run, and she looped it over the line.

I followed her to the ground, my hand on the armor at her collar.  I probably didn’t have the lift to keep her from falling, but I might have been able to soften the blow.

Not that it mattered.  The zipline remained intact, and she touched ground with a grunt.

I found Rime, casting wave after wave of crystals at Behemoth.  He was using shockwaves and fire to prematurely detonate or push away Revel’s spheres, and Rime’s attacks were suffering from a similar angle.

Rime was second in command, wasn’t she?  Or was it Prism?

Rime would be more receptive to listening, either way.  I used my bugs to speak to her.  “Command center evacuated.  Can relax front line if you need to.”

She didn’t respond to me, but I could make out her orders as she shouted the words, “Fall back!  Stagger the retreat!”

I exhaled slowly.

“You’ve done your duty.  Go to your friend.  Figure out what’s going on,” Arbiter said.

I nodded and took off.

Through my bugs, I spoke to Tecton, “Back shortly.

He mumbled something I couldn’t make out.  It might have been ‘okay’.

As I got more distance, I felt safe to withdraw the wings again.  I picked up in speed, putting Behemoth and the fighting behind me.

I found a temple with wounded inside.  The exterior was opulent, the interior doubly so.  Now it was a triage area.  There were more burns here, crushed limbs, people coughing violently.  It wasn’t damage suffered from direct confrontation with Behemoth.  It was secondary damage, taken from the fires and smoke of burning buildings.

And inside one curtained area, there were the wounded capes.  I approached, folding the wings away and moving forward with antigrav and the occasional touch of foot against ground to propel myself forward further.

I stopped by Tattletale’s bedside.  I’d found her within instants of the temple falling in my range.  Her lips moved as she recognized me, but no sound came out.  My eyes moved to the tube sticking out of her throat.

“You really gotta stop doing this,” I said.

She only grinned.  She reached over to the bedside table and retrieved a pen and notepad.  Her grin fell from her face as she wrote something, then tore the page free, handing it to me.

he’s going easy on us.  all Endbringers are.  but Behemoth holding back, even from moment he arrive.  taking more hits than he should.

“We already knew that they’re holding back for some reason,” I said.  “The way they space out attacks, they could accelerate the timetable or coordinate their strikes if they wanted to fuck us over.”

Another note:

they want to lose I think.  set themselves up to fail.  but not fail so bad they risk dying.  levi was after something, noelle I think.  but why didn’t he show up closer to downtown?

“I don’t know,” I said.  I felt a little chilled at the idea that this was the Endbringers pulling their punches.

big b wants something.  not at india gate.  somewhere past it.  why not come up right underneath it?

“I don’t know,” I repeated myself.  “It doesn’t matter.”

matters.  looked at past attacks.  pattern.  small pattern.  behe attacks nuclear reactor, appears some distance away.  attacks birdcage, appears in rockies, no sign he was close or beneath cage.  pattern says he wouldn’t emerge this close if he just wanted to attack india gate.  He attacking something north of it.

“Just tell me, is there anything I can do?”

I was trying to find his target.  accord was trying to find way to stop him, coordinate counteroffense.  accord dead, I useless.  get me computer?  maybe I can help still.  Ppl here not helping.  scared of me.

Accord was dead?  What did that spell for the Undersider-Ambassador alliance?

No.  I couldn’t let myself get distracted.  There were more immediate concerns.

“Computers are probably down,” I said.  “I think there’s too much electromagnetic energy, no cell towers, no radio, no internet.  Armbands aren’t working, and I’d expect them to be the last thing to stop working.”

She spent an inordinate amount of time writing the next message.

I shifted my weight from one foot to the other while I waited for her to finish, then accepted the note and read it.

FUCK

Each letter had been traced over several times, and the entire thing had been underlined twice.

I glanced at her, and she was scowling, already writing the next message.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said.  “You’re a distance away from the fighting, maybe a phone works.”

But she was already handing me the next piece of paper.

you go.  find it.  find his objective.

“There’s other capes better for that than me.”

get help then.  but you can use swarm.  search.  we win this by denying him his target.

I frowned, but I didn’t refuse her.  I started to leave, then hesitated, turning back to her.  I opened my mouth to speak, then saw the note.

go already.  I ok.  I get healer another day.  not worried.

And I was gone, flying over the heads of the wounded as I made my way to the front door.

The availability of healing made for an interesting, if ugly, dynamic.  Capes like Tattletale, capes like me could be reckless, we’d get our faces slashed open, our backs broken, our throats severed, blinded and burned, and we’d get mended back to a near-pristine condition.  Tattletale still had faint scars at the corners of her mouth, regenerated by Brian after his second trigger event, but she’d mended almost to full.  I’d had injuries of a much more life-altering scale undone by Panacea and Scapegoat.

If we died, we were dead, no question, unless I gave consideration to Alexandria’s apparent resurrection.  But an injury, no matter how grave?  That was something that could be remedied, it lent a feeling of invulnerability, an image of invulnerability.  So we continued being reckless, and we would continue to be reckless until something finally killed us off.

Was there a way to break that pattern?  Could I afford to?  My ability to throw myself headlong into a dangerous situation was part of the reason for my success.

I looped back towards the main confrontation, finding the thinkers I’d helped off the rooftop.  Some were moving to assist allies, others were fleeing.  One pocket, at a glance, seemed to be trying to form a second command center.

I moved towards the cluster of them.

Two Indian capes, one Caucasian.

“English?” I asked.

“Yes,” the Caucasian said.  “Just me.”

“Trying to enlist help.  Names and powers?”

“Kismet, balance thinker,” the Caucasian said.  He wore a white robe with a hard, faceless mask that had only slits for the eyes.

“And the other two?”

“As far as I can tell, Fathom and Particulate.  Best translations I can give.  My Punjabi isn’t strong.”

“Their powers?” I asked, with a restrained patience.

“Displaces people or things to another dimension, filled with water, brings them back.  Particulate’s a dust tinker.”

What the fuck is a dust tinker?  Or a balance thinker, for that matter?

“Okay, I’m going to find others,” I said.

“Wait, what’s the project?”

“A mission.  Finding whatever it is that Behemoth wants.”

“We’ve got others on that already.”

“Nobody’s reported back,” I said, “Or at least, nobody’s formed a defensive line or put safeguards in place.”

“You’re sure he’s after something?  They’ve attacked cities just to kill people before, and this is a dense population center.”

“He’s after something,” I said. “He’s got a direction, and a friend told me he’s targeting a point beyond where the heroes are searching.”

“We’ll help look,” he said. He rattled off a few lines of Punjabi to the capes in his company.  One of them, Particulate, I took it, removed what looked like a fat smart phone from one pocket.  He peered at it.  Some sort of scanning instrument.

“Hey, either of you have a phone?”  I asked.

Kismet nodded, then handed me the phone.

“Can I keep it?”  I asked.  “I can get it back to you later, probably.”

He made an exasperated noise.  “I thought you wanted to make a call, not keep it.”

“It’d be for a good cause,” I promised.

He sighed, “Take it, then.”

I wound silk around it and then had bugs carry it off in Tattletale’s direction.

“You think it’s a cache of nuclear weapons, or what?”  Kismet asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Go look, towards India Gate.  I’m going to round up others.”

“On it,” he said, before speaking another line of Punjabi.  “And kid?”

I hesitated in mid-air.

“Thanks, for the escape route from that rooftop.”

I didn’t respond, taking off.  Rude, maybe, but taking the time to respond was stupid, when there was this much going on.  Making me wait while he thanked me was similarly dumb.

I waited until the phone reached Tattletale’s hands, then drew closer to the fighting, and the capes who were closer to the battlefront.  When Rime was in my power’s reach, I contacted her.

Tattletale thinks she has a lead on Behemoth’s objective.  Mobilizing thinkers to find it.

I was nearly drowned out by the chaos of the fighting.  Behemoth was standing partially inside a building, and it was blazing, pieces of it falling down with every heavy impact the heroes delivered.

“Say again,” she said.

I repeated myself, speaking the words aloud under my breath, to gauge the proper way to form the sounds with my swarm.

“Good,” she said.  And that was all.  She was fighting again, trying to freeze the building so Behemoth was encased.

I found two more thinkers and gave them directions.  We’d search the area beyond the Rajpath.

Behemoth generated a shockwave, and I could sense the heroes reacting to it.  The only cover here was cover heroes like Golem were creating, and the concussive shock traveled through the air, knocking capes off their feet or out of the air.

I grit my teeth and pressed my back to a building as it rolled past me, fell over at the impact.

The Endbringer strode forward, using the momentary break in the attack to cover more ground.  Unfortunate capes who’d been pushing their luck were left trying to run for cover, only to be caught within his kill aura.

Rachel rescued one or two, though the heroes might have debated the nature of the rescue.  Her dogs seized people in their mouths, running, dropping them at a safe distance, before moving in to retrieve more people.  Some of the rescued individuals were left slowly climbing to their feet, no doubt bruised from the dog’s teeth and dripping with drool.

One dog, a person in its mouth, was struck by a bolt of lightning.  It fell, sprawling, then slowly climbed to its feet.  I could tell with my bugs, that the person in its mouth was no longer alive.  Still, it dutifully carried the body to safety and deposited it on the ground, before limping back towards the battle.

I belatedly remembered to pay attention to my team.  Tecton was busy erecting barriers, raising the earth in shelves with his piledrivers. Annex was reinforcing everything, fixing other people’s work, providing loose cover for ranged heroes to hide behind, and delaying collapses.  Powerful.

Grace, using her strength to carry the wounded.  Wanton was venturing into more dangerous ground with the safety of his telekinetic body, returning to human form to help the wounded and trapped, then retreating with the same form, moving on to the next person.  Cuff was helping a tinker.

Golem was forming barriers, limiting the movements of Behemoth’s legs, and shoring up the building the Endbringer was wading through.

The constructions weren’t doing enough.  We needed to change tactics now that this wasn’t working, sort of like the Endbringers did.  If not constructions, then maybe destructions.

Tecton, pits.  Have Annex cover them,” I ordered.  “Think controlled collapses.

I couldn’t make out his response.  I hoped that didn’t mean he couldn’t make out my statements.

You’re in charge until I get back.  I have other orders,” I added.

I returned to collecting thinkers and other stray capes, taking only a minute before heading for our destination.

There were heroes and PRT officials at India Gate, and lined up across the Rajpath.  A handful of thinkers and tinkers were here.  Not ones I’d sent, but official ones, directed to scan and search for whatever Behemoth might be after.

Search north,” I communicated, sending moths and butterflies to pass on the message.  I didn’t wait to see if they’d listen.  I kept moving.

I zig-zagged across the landscape, scanning every surface with my bugs, as the fighting continued in the distance.  Behemoth wasn’t quite visible from this vantage point, but the cloud of smoke and the lightning suggested it wouldn’t be long.

How many capes had he killed?  How many more would die?

I crossed paths with Particulate, who had apparently been filled in by Kismet.  He handed me one of the scanning devices, and I took off.

Damn tinkers.  Their stuff was making life so complicated, now.  Too many things to keep track of.  Antigrav, propulsion, sensing things with my bugs, paying attention to what I was sensing with my bugs, coordinating people, with sectors for them to cover, and now tracking the stuff with the scanner.

Not that it was impossible.  I was managing everything but the bugspeak without a problem.

The scanner showed me only gibberish at first, with sixteen bars divided into eight individual pieces, each of which could be any number of colors.  Each rose and fell as I moved and as I turned the scanner.  Moving past Particulate, I noted that the rise and fall of the bars was linked to my relation to his scanner.

We were triangulating.  Or did we not have a third?  Kismet was somewhere out of my range, at present, as was Fathom, so I couldn’t be sure.

The bars rose as I pointed in Behemoth’s direction, a mix of blues, greens, yellows and reds.  Was it tracking energy?

I turned away, and found another bump, almost all white, the rest yellow.  Nothing tracked in any significant quantity at Behemoth’s location.

It was something.  I circled around until the bars reached a peak, every single one of them topping the charts.

Nothing.  I used my power, but I couldn’t find anything more complex than a desktop computer.

Then it adjusted.  The bars each dropped until they were only four or five high.

Was Particulate doing something on his end?

It dawned on me, as I tried to narrow down our target, that this was big.  Something that topped the basic readings just by being within a mile of it.

And I found it.  My bugs could sense an underground chamber.  Concrete walls, impenetrable to earthworms, and no obvious entrance.  I looped back to communicate to the others.  The English-speakers, anyways.

Then, as the faster and the closer thinkers caught up with me, I approached the site.

Particulate and Kismet joined me.

This underground chamber was different from the one I’d seen closer to Behemoth.  There was no ramp leading up, nothing to suggest an elevator.

“Not sure how to get through,” I said.

“Smart of them,” Kismet said.

“I know, but it doesn’t help us.”

Kismet said something to Particulate, and the tinker drew a gun from a holster with an excess of care.

Then he fired.  There was no beam, no projectile.  There was only a corridor, three feet across, carved into the earth, and plumes of dust.

We backed away, Kismet coughing as he caught some of it.  Particulate, a tinker with a narrow, overlong bald head, said something in his language, almost musical, humorous.  He glanced at me, his eyes covered by goggles, his mouth covered by a fabric that hugged every wrinkle of his lower face, as though it were a micron thick, and smiled.  I could see the contours of his teeth and gums behind the strange fabric.

“Battery,” Kismet said, stopping to cough, “is dead.  Three shots.  Tried two on Behemoth, didn’t work.  He likes that it was useful.”

“Damn,” I said.  If they had worked…

I didn’t waste any more time.  I handed them a length of cord, then disappeared down the hole.  My feet skidded on the smooth, almost glassy surface, but my flight pack gave me some lift.

Now that I was lower, I was free to feel out the surroundings, and mentally map out the entire complex.  It took time, but the others were slow to descend to the lower corridor.

Was there a whole undercity beneath New Delhi?  Some kind of subterranean realm of corridors and rooms, large and small?  Did the good and bad ‘cold’ capes accidentally dig into each other’s corridors at any point?  Collapse sections of each other’s undercity?

Geez, it wasn’t like the city wasn’t large enough already.

I was drawing a mental picture as my bugs spread out.  There were people here, but they weren’t doing anything special.  Sleeping, cooking, fucking, smoking some sort of pipes… no.

And in the midst of it, as Particulate adjusted his tracking device to further narrow the sensitivity, we closed in on a void.  A part of the underground chamber my bugs couldn’t touch.

Particulate said something, arching his eyebrows as he looked down at the scanner.

“A lot of energy,” Kismet translated.

“How much is a lot?” I asked.

Particulate spoke without Kismet translating for him.

“More than Behemoth has given off during his entire stay in New Delhi,” Kismet said.

I stared at the little scanner and the white bars.  “There’s no way in, as far as I can tell.”

“There wasn’t a way into this base either,” Kismet said.  “Maybe they have a way to enter and leave.”

“Okay,” I said.  “We know where Behemoth’s target is, even if we don’t know what it is.  Let’s retreat, communicate with-”

But Particulate was already moving, tampering with the gun that had created the corridor.

“Stop him!” I said.

Kismet reached over, but Particulate was already tossing the gun to the point where the floor met the wall.

It started flashing rapidly, increasingly bright, and Particulate bolted.  It was almost comical, as though he’d been taught to run by a textbook.  His hands were out flat at his sides, his arms and legs bent at rigid right angles as he sprinted away, almost robotic in the movements.  He shouted something in Punjabi.

Almost comical.  When you saw a bomb disposal team running, as the joke went, you ran to keep up.  The same applied to any tinker and a device that flashed like that.  Kismet and I ran after him.

The gun exploded, silently, without fire or light or electricity.  There was only a roughly spherical opening carved into the area.  It was wide enough to lead into the tunnel above and below us, and had sheared through the five or six feet of solid earth that separated each floor.  At the far end, I could see where it had cut into a corner of the previously inaccessible room.

We approached, and I could see a cape inside, or a parahuman, if ‘cape’ applied.  He was disheveled, with dark circles under his eyes, his skin pale, his beard and hair bedraggled.  His clothing, by contrast, was opulent, clean: a rich indigo robe, a sapphire set in a gold chain, a gold chain for a belt, and a golden sash.

And above him, the energy.  There were two golden discs, and something almost alive seemed to crackle between them.

“It’s Phir Sē,” Kismet said, backing away.

“The glowing thing in the air or the person?”  I asked.

“The person.”

“Who’s Phir See?”  I asked.

Sē.  He’s one of the reasons the American girl’s PRT can exist,” Kismet said.  “When they talk about disbanding it, the PRT only reminds them that monsters like this lurk elsewhere.”

The man slowly turned to face us.  He wasn’t an old man, but he moved like one.

“Monsters?”  I asked.  “I’ve fought monsters.  Just tell me what kind of monster he is.”

“The kind that is too smart for all of our good,” Kismet said.  He’d frozen the moment the man set eyes on him.

Phir Sē spoke, “That is compliment?  Yes?”

“Yes,” Kismet said.

“Then I thank you.  Girl?  I recognize you from American television.”

“I go by Weaver, now.”

“I do remember.  You had much power.  You turned it down.”

“It wasn’t for me,” I said.

“You are more comfortable where you are now?” he asked.

“Now as in here, in this fight, or as a hero?”

“Either.  Both,” he stated.

“Honestly?  No on both counts.  I’m still figuring it out.”

He inclined his head.  “This is to be respected.  Making hard choice.  The challenge of the young adult.  To find identity.”

“Thank you,” I said, still wary.  Everything about Kismet’s reaction was telling me this guy was to be feared, so I had to step carefully.  “Can I ask what that thing is?”

“A weapon,” he said.  “A… how do you Americans say it?  Time bomb?  Only this is joke.”

“He makes portals,” Kismet said.  “Using them, he can send things back in time.  Something goes in portal B, comes out of portal A a few minutes earlier.  Or the other way around.”

“Or, as I discover, I make loop,” Phir Sē said.  “Weaponize.  Simple light, captured in one moment, redoubled many times over.  I move gate, and that light will pour forth and clean.”

I could remember what Particulate had said.  More energy than Behemoth had created since arriving in this city.  Only this would be directed at a single target.

“Clean isn’t the word you want,” I said. “Scour?”

“Scour,” Phir Sē said, he inclined his head again.  “I thank you.”

“Behemoth wants his hands on it,” I said.  “On that energy.”

“I want this on Behemoth.  Do great harm.  Even kill.”

“Shit,” Kismet said.  He backed away a step.  “This is-”

“Stay,” Phir Sē said.  His voice was quiet, but it was clear he expected to be heeded.

Kismet glanced up at the glow, then turned to run.

He wasn’t even turned all the way around when there was a flicker.  A man appeared just in front of Kismet.  A teleporter.

And his forearm extended through Kismet’s chest.

Then he flickered, like a bad lightbulb, and he was gone, leaving only a gaping hole where the arm had been.  Kismet collapsed, dead.

A teleporter who can bypass the Manton effect.

“Stay,” Phir Sē told us, again.  He hadn’t even flinched, but the space between his bushy eyebrows furrowed as he stared down at Kismet.

My heart thudded in my throat as I glanced down at the body.

Particulate said something, spitting the word.

Phir Sē said something in Punjabi, then turned to me, “Is rude, to speak in language you cannot understand.  He call me evil, so I not speak to him further.  But you understand, do you not?  You know what form this war take?  The danger we all face, from monsters like that, from others?”

“I don’t think many top the Endbringers,” I said.

“Maybe not so.  Maybe.  But you have tried being cold.  Killing the enemy, yes?  Because ruthless is only way to win this war.”

“I met some people.  I think they were your adversaries,” I said.  “Glowing eyes?  Reflective?  Like mirrors?”

“Yes.  Enemy.  They petty evils that walk this city.  Organize crime.  Slave, prostitute, murder, mercenary.  My side, we root out corrupt.  Ruthless.  Government prefer them to us.  Paint us as evil, pay them to carry on.  But you know what this is like, yes?”

“More or less,” I said, not breaking eye contact.  “And those guys, they’re ruthless in the same way you described, I guess?”

“More, less,” he said, as if he were trying on the phrase, “Yes.”

“You want to hit Behemoth with this… time bomb,” I said.  “But… I think that’s what he wants.  He’s holding back.  My thinker friend, she said so.  He’s taking more hits than he should, and I’m just now realizing he might be doing it because he wants to be ready for when you hit him with this.  He’ll push it out into the ground, or into the air.”

“Yes.  This is likely,” Phir Sē said.  “This is what he may want.  I hoped for the Second or Third.  This will have to do.”

“They’ve tried this stuff before,” I said.  “Nukes, gigantic railguns, tricks with teleportation and portals.  It doesn’t work.  You won’t do anything except get a lot of people killed as collateral damage.”

“We time this.  Strategic,” Phir Sē said, calm, as if he were talking to a panicked animal.  “Come.  Step in.”

Right, I thought.  Approach the temporal bomb.

But I did.  No use ticking off the guy with the murder-teleporter on call.  Particulate followed me as I navigated the way to the room’s interior.

There were television screens all across the wall.  Five showed the ongoing destruction from distant cameras.  Two showed grainy camera footage.  The last showed what looked to be an Indian soap opera.

“Thirsty,” Phir Sē commented.

The teleporter flickered into existence, then disappeared.  Phir Sē had a bottle of water in his hands that he hadn’t held before.  He turned our way, bushy eyebrows raised as a faint smile touched his face.  “Might I offer you anything?”

I shook my head.  My stomach was a knot, my heart was pounding.

Particulate said something, but Phir Sē ignored him.

“We watch the First,” Phir Sē said.  “He let his guard down, I strike.”

“I’ve seen an Endbringer fool another brilliant man who thought he had a surefire way to win,” I said.  “They’re cleverer than we think.  What if Behemoth fools you?”

“Then New Delhi pay for my mistake,” Phir Sē answered me.  “I have daughter there.  She join bright heroes, popular ones.  She pay for my mistake, if she still lives.  I live, down here, spend life mourning.”

He looked genuinely upset at the idea.

“You want to win?” I asked.  “You take that thing, aim it for the sky.  Deplete it, so Behemoth’s entire goal for coming here is gone.”

“Is a chance,” Phir Sē told me.  “To strike them harder than anything yet.  You tell me, is that not worth it?”

“Worth risking this city?  Your daughter?  The lives of the heroes here?”

“Yes.  Is worth.”

“No,” I retorted.

He looked at me, and I could read the unhappiness in his expression.  Not a condemnation or even him being upset with me.  Disappointment in general.

The woman in the suit told me there were people with their own agendas.  Monsters.  This is one of them, and he thinks we’re kindred spirits.

“I tell you because you are ruthless, Weaver.  Do not stop me,” he said.  “I die, focus waver, time bomb explode.  Aimless, no direction.”

“Indiscriminate,” I supplied a better word.

“Indiscriminate,” Phir Sē echoed me.  “India gone.  You die, even down here.

I raised my head, staring up at the two golden discs and the current that seemed to run between them.  I would have thought it would be brighter.

“Hero fall.  We wait,” he said.  “When fight cannot be won, I strike.”

I tensed as I watched the fighting on the screens.  They flickered intermittently in a delayed reaction to Behemoth’s lightning strikes.

“Very soon,” he said, his eyes fixed on the monitor.  “You stay.”

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