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 24.2

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If I’d had any doubt it was Alexandria, it was banished when she followed up the attack.  Behemoth started to rise to his feet, and Alexandria struck.  It wasn’t a punch with a great deal of wind-up, and she only crossed fifty or sixty feet before driving it home, but the impact was undeniable.

Behemoth absorbed the blow, and redirected it into the ground.  He didn’t move, as though the blow had never struck home, but the ground around him shattered like the surface of a mirror.  Fragments of rock and clouds of dust flew up around him, and a three-story building on its last legs tumbled over.  The damage to the ground made him sink a fraction.

I could see the change in the Endbringer’s demeanor.  Before, he’d been wading forward, as if Legend, Eidolon and the metal suits were little more than a strong headwind.  He was moving with purpose now, with an opponent that was veering in and out of easy reach, one he could hit, without Legend’s speed or Eidolon’s personal shield.

She had told me that they knew how to fight each other, and I could see that at play, here.  Part of the change in Behemoth’s approach might have been that interaction at play.

It was a fight involving four individuals who couldn’t hope to do substantial damage to their opponents.  The dragon suits and other capes were a peripheral thing.  Alexandria circled, just beyond the perimeter of Behemoth’s kill range, her teammates and their supporting cast bombarding him in the meantime.  They destroying the ground beneath his feet, trying to get him when his focus was elsewhere and his ability to redirect the energies of a given attack was reduced.

He couldn’t keep her in mind at all times.  She waited until he focused on a different combatant, heaving out lightning or creating flame to attack the ones in the air, and then she struck.  Nine times, he simply deflected the strike into the ground, as a rumble and a series of spiderwebbing cracks in the streets, or into the air as a shockwave.  Again and again, he came within a heartbeat of getting his hands on her in retaliation, not even flinching as she struck him, reacting with an unnatural quickness as he reached out, to try to pin her using his claws, to strike her into the ground or to time the collapses of buildings to briefly bury her, so he could close the distance.

The times her strikes did get past his defenses, her tiny form in the distance with the black cape trailing behind her lunging into his kill range to deliver a blow or a series of blows, Behemoth stumbled, caught briefly at the mercy of physics.

In a fashion, she was doing the same thing the lightning rod had been, buying all of the rest of us a small reprieve.  There was no guarantee, and there wouldn’t be any until he was driven off or we moved a hundred miles away, but she was making the rest of this just a little easier, reducing the destruction just a fraction unless he specifically took the time to work around her.

Was she being more cautious than she needed to be?  I saw her pass up on a handful of opportunities I might have taken in her shoes, when his back was turned, his attention sufficiently occupied.  Was she aware of something I wasn’t?  Was she a convincing fake?  Or was she just a little more afraid, after what my bugs had done to her?

However effective the distractions, he was still Behemoth, still implacable, a living tank that could roll over any obstacle and virtually any individual, unleashing an endless barrage of artillery at range.  He reached the lightning rod and shoved it to the ground.

I was reminded of my teammates, descended to the ground, where they were still getting sorted.  The chains that led from the dogs to the harness had tangled.

“What the hell was that?”  Tecton asked.

“Alexandria,” I said.

“You murdered Alexandria,” Regent commented.  “Remember?  You’re a horrible person, doing things like that.”

“You leave her alone!”  Imp said, uncharacteristically.  “She feels so bad she’s seeing things.”

“Can we try to stay serious?”

“Don’t be too hard on them,” Tecton said.  “Some people use humor to deal with bad situations.”

“It’s true,” Regent said, affecting a knowing tone.

“No,” Grue responded.  “They’re just idiots.  You two keep your mouths shut.  The adults are talking.”

Imp raised her middle fingers at him.

He turned to me, “It’s Alexandria?  You’re sure?”

“Can you ever be sure of anything?  Clones, alternate realities, healing abilities… there’s any number of possibilities.”

In the distance, a glowing orange sphere flew into the sky.  It reached a peak, then descended, crashing into the distant skyline.

I reoriented myself and flew up to the edge of the roof to peek at the battle.  Behemoth had melted down part of the metal arm and fashioned the melted metal into a superheated lump.  A second lump, cooler and not yet fabricated into an aerodynamic shape, was sitting beside him.  Alexandria tried to strike it away, but he caught it with one claw.  He superheated it, shielding it from Legend and Eidolon’s fire with his body, then heaved it into the air.  The projectile flared intensely as it left his kill range, following nearly the same path as before.

Lasers from capes in the distance sliced the second sphere into shreds before it could strike its intended target.

Grue tugged the chain.  He looked at Rachel, who only nodded.

And we were moving again.

I returned to my recon position, scouting to ensure the way was clear, keeping an eye on the fight and ensuring that there weren’t any attacks coming our way.

Behemoth was glowing, his gray skin tending more towards white, a stark contrast to his obsidian horns and claws.  The heroes were backing off a measure, and Behemoth was taking advantage of the situation to stampede forward, tearing past buildings and barricades.

“Grue!”  I shouted.  The noise in the distance was getting worse.  If Behemoth was continuing the path I’d seen him traveling, he was wading through a series of buildings.  Grue didn’t hear me.  I raised my voice, waited until the noise died down, “Radiation!  Use darkness!”

He did, and we were cloaked in it.  I continued navigating, using my bugs this time.  Only a small handful ventured forward at a time, checking for fires.  I was flying blind, scouting without the ability to see.

It delayed me when a fire did present itself, and I was delayed even further when I faced the issue of trying to communicate it to the team.

“Fire!” I shouted.  I knew he could hear me through the darkness, but he couldn’t hear me over the sounds of toppled buildings.  I was no doubt drowned out by the sound of the sled scraping against the road, the crashes in the background and the rushing of the wind.

I changed direction, aiming for the sleds, and flew forward.  A little off target.  Didn’t want to knock someone off the sled.  I made a slight adjustment with the antigrav, and landed on the front edge of the sled, between Grue and Rachel.  Grue very nearly let go in his surprise, and I caught the back of his neck to keep him from falling off the sled.

He left the darkness to either side of us intact and created a corridor.

“Fire!” I said, the instant I was able.  “Just over that hill!  Go left!”

He cleared more darkness, and we turned sharply enough that the sleds swung out wide.  I held on to the lip of the sled, but I let myself slide back, using the antigrav pack to keep myself from falling to the road.

The sudden movement had shifted the occupants.  The design of the sled made it difficult for anyone to fall out, but they’d slumped against one side, and one man was hanging halfway out.  With only one usable arm, he wasn’t able to maintain a grip.

The sled went over a series of bumps, and I reached him just in time to give him the support he needed, one hand and both feet on the lip of the sled, the other hand holding him.

Once they were on course, I helped ease him down to a better position.

He said something that I couldn’t understand, his words breathless.

I took off.

A shockwave ripped past us, harsher, briefer and more intense than a strong wind, not quite the organ-pulverizing impact it might be if Behemoth were closer, or if there were less buildings in the way.  I ventured up to a rooftop where I might be able to see beyond the darkness.

The shockwave had parted the clouds of smoke, but they began to close together once again.  I could make out a form, maybe one of the Indian capes, swiftly growing.  Ethereal, translucent, his features vague, the light he emitted only barely cutting through the smoke cover.  He slammed hands into Behemoth’s face and chest.

Behemoth parted his hands, then swung them together.  I didn’t wait for them to make contact.  I ducked behind cover before the shockwave could hit me directly.  All around me, the smoke was dashed out of the sky by the impact’s reach.  With the front of my body hugging the building, I could feel not only the shockwave, but the vibrations that followed it, as buildings fell and debris settled in new locations.

He delivered shockwave after shockwave, and I was forced to abandon the cover of the building for something a little more distant.

He wasn’t irradiated any more.  Or, at least, the glow wasn’t there.  He’d been buying himself a reprieve from the assault of the heroes, a chance to cover more ground.  Now they had resumed the counter-offensive.  The noises of the fight followed me as I got ahead of the Undersiders.

Another obstacle.  A crowd, this time.

I landed on the sled once more and ordered a stop.  It took a second for the dogs to slow down enough.

Locals stood in our way.  Some had guns.  They ranged the gamut from people a step above homelessness to businessmen.

“Leader?” one asked, his voice badly accented.  He was younger, very working class, which surprised me.  I’d anticipated that someone older and more respectable would be taking charge.

“Me,” I said, using a small boost from the flight pack to get ahead of the group.

“Stealing?” he asked me, his voice hard.

“No.  Injured.”

He gestured towards the sled, taking a half-step forward.  I nodded.

I didn’t like wasting time, but I was hoping he’d give the a-okay and the group would get out of our way.  I watched as he studied the people lying in the sled.

“We take,” he said.  “We have doctor, hiding place.  You go fight, help.  Is your duty.”

I could sense a group approaching from Behemoth’s general direction.  Two women in evening gowns, a girl in a frock, another girl in costume.

No time to dwell on decisions.  I asked the man, “You sure?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Cuff, Annex, kill the chains.  Leave sleds behind.  Wards, stay with me.  Grue, I’ll direct you guys to the Ambassadors.  Take the dogs.  Leave us some darkness for cover so we’re safe from any more radiation.”

It took only a few seconds to get organized.  By the time the Undersiders had departed, we had a team of people pulling the sleds.

Message from Defiant,” my armband declared.  “Alexandria confirmed gone from PRT custody.

“Fuck,” I muttered.

“Message from Defiant.  Stay out of her way until we know more.  Behemoth’s approaching the first perimeter.  I will keep you posted.

“Tell him thank you.”

“It’s a good thing,” Grace said.  “Maybe not in the long run, but for now-”

“For now it’s an unknown factor,” I said.  “And there’s one really big known factor that’s tearing through this city, and we should be devoting all our attention to it.  To Behemoth”

“We can focus on both,” Tecton said.

“That’s how you get blindsided,” I told him.  I hauled on the chain, and the sled moved.  Cuff seemed to be doing the lion’s share of the work, standing between the sleds and ushering them forward.  Though it screwed up the direction the sleds were facing, making them veer left or right, it gave us enough momentum that we only needed to work on keeping it going.

We reached a squat building with signs featuring unintelligible writing and cars.  Some hurried forward and opened a garage door, and we kept the sleds on course to lead them inside.

Their ‘hiding place’ was an underground corridor, leading beneath and between two hoists for the cars.  Annex had to reshape the sled to fit, and we found ourselves on a general downward incline.  People shifted position to the sides of the sled to keep it from getting away from us and running over the people in front.

I saw the man who’d done the talking glance down at the wounded.  His eyes caught the light in a way that reminded me of a dog, or a cat.

Capes.  At least some of these guys are capes, I thought.  The ‘cold’ capes, the underworld’s locals.

It was an ominous realization, as we descended, to know that we were outnumbered by parahumans I knew nothing about, with unknown motives.

The armband’s crackling was getting steadily worse.  “Message from Grue.  Rendezvous is fine.  On way to your location.

“Message received,” I replied.

Message from Grue…

The voice devolved into crackling.

Too much ambient electromagnetic radiation, and the amount of ground that was between us and Grue probably didn’t help.

It was hard to gauge how deep we were getting.  We reached a point where a fissure made moving the sleds more difficult, but Annex, Tecton and Golem shored it up in moments.

We descended deep enough that I wasn’t able to access the surface with my bugs, then deeper still.

The more isolated we were, the more ominous the uncostumed capes around us seemed to become.  My bugs followed us down the corridor, just far enough back that the ‘cold’ parahumans couldn’t see them, close enough to help.

“This tunnel was made by a cape,” Tecton said.

Don’t bring it up, I thought, suppressing the urge to react.

“No,” the man with the eyes said.  He didn’t turn our way.

I reached out and touched Tecton’s arm.  He, naturally, didn’t feel the contact through his heavy armor.  Tecton continued, “I’m pretty s-”

My nudge became a shove as I moved his arm enough to get his attention.  He looked at me, and I shook my head.  Tecton didn’t finish the sentence.

“Oh so pretty,” Wanton offered.

“Don’t you start,” Tecton said.  “The Undersiders are bad enough.”

I could see the Wards change in demeanor as we descended well beneath the city.  Tecton’s head was turning now, scanning the people around us.  Wanton hunched over, as if the surroundings were weighing on him, a pressure from above.  Cuff had her arms folded, hugging her body, a defensive wall, however meager, against an attacker from above, and both Annex and Grace had gravitated closer to other team members, as if unconsciously adopting a loose formation.

Golem, odd as it was, seemed to fall more in line with Tecton and I, watching the surroundings, eyeing the strangers who accompanied us.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t afraid; everything else about him suggested he was.  It was more that he was wary in a natural, practiced way.

How had he picked that up?  He was supposed to be a rookie.

I held my tongue and used my bugs to scan the surroundings.

The area opened up into an underground living space, crowded with weary and scared people.  It was dim, with lights alternating between floor and ceiling positions, tight corridors with what seemed to be tiny apartments carved out of the rock.  My prison cell had more space than these quarters.  At least there was room to stand straight up in the jail.  These rooms were stacked on top of one another, two high.

But it was space nonetheless.

“Is it stable?” I asked Tecton.

“I can’t see enough to tell,” he said.  “Maybe?  Probably?”

“I don’t know if I can leave people here if it’s a deathtrap,” I said, as I eyed the people emerging from the rooms.

“Pretty risky up there,” Wanton said.

Up there there’s a chance.  I was counting hundreds or thousands down here.  My bugs could sense corridors, and I was left wondering if this was only one area of many.

Some of the residents stepped forward to help, hands on weapons or simply watching us, undecided on whether we were threats or not.

The leader, who I was mentally labeling ‘Cat’s Eyes’, said something, and they relaxed a fraction.  He said something else, and they started helping the wounded.  None used or displayed any overt powers.

“Done,” Cat’s Eyes said.  “You go.  Fight.”

Defiant had said we needed their assistance.  “We need your help.  You and any of the others with powers.”

He narrowed his eyes.  Except that wasn’t the sum total of the change in his expression.  His face hardened, drew tighter, high cheekbones somehow more prominent in the dim, lips pressed together.  “No.”

“No?”

“Not our duty.  Yours.”

“It’s everyone’s duty.”

“We handle enemy you don’t see, you costumes help enemies above ground.  Scare Prathama away.”

Like it’s that easy.  “We need your help.  Everyone’s help.”

“No.  We show ourselves, and all ends badly.  We fight subtle war.  Better to lose today and fight subtle war tomorrow.”

Better to let Behemoth win than to show themselves and lose whatever edge they hold against their current enemies?

“You see me, I am done.  Finished.  You see all of us, they are done.  No.”

Maybe India had its own share of capes, on the same scale as the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Cleverer capes who worked in the background.

Or maybe they were just deluded, too set in their ways, afraid to fight and searching for excuses.

“Go.  Defeat him,” he told me.

Grue was waiting.  Or Grue was coming down here, maybe, with Rachel and the others.  If they saw him, an intruder without invitation, would they act?

“Okay,” I said.  “We need a vehicle if, um…”

I trailed off as I mentally registered what my bugs were sensing.

A rush of cool, air-conditioned air in a space that had no right to have any, off to one side, the appearance of a person where there shouldn’t be any.

“Weaver?”

I’d stopped talking, my attention caught by this visitor.  She was close.  All of the details matched the person I’d sensed inside the Kulshedra.  The clothes, the hair, the dimensions, even the way she moved.

Purposeful, unhurried.

“It’s her.  The one who took Pretender.”

Everyone, myself included, tensed as she approached.  The foreign capes did it because she was an unknown variable.  The Wards and I did it because she was a known threat.

She was older, but not old.  Maybe my dad’s age, maybe a little younger.  Pretty, in a very natural way.  She didn’t wear any obvious makeup, and her black hair was somewhere between wavy and curly, a little longer than shoulder length.  Her features French or Italian, if I had to guess.  She wore only a simple black suit that had been tailored to fit her body, with a narrow black tie and a white dress shirt.  What got me were the eyes.  There was no kindness in them.

She spoke, but she spoke in a foreign language, and it wasn’t to me.

Cat’s Eyes hesitated, then gave her a reply.

“Who the hell are you?” I asked the woman.

She glanced at me, and her gaze went right through me, as if I were barely there.  She turned her attention back to Cat’s Eyes, said something else.

His eyes widened.

“You work for Cauldron,” I said.

“Maybe we shouldn’t taunt the bogeyman,” Wanton chimed in.

“Bogeyman?” Cuff asked.

“She’s a hitman,” I said.  “Takes out anyone asking too many questions about Cauldron.  Or she was.  Apparently she’s gone after a lot of powerful capes, walked away without a hitch.”

My bugs gathered.  I could see the underground capes reacting, preparing for a fight.

“No,” Tecton said, “The truce.”

“I don’t think she gives a damn about the truce,” I answered.

“Until she breaks it, we don’t break it.”

I didn’t take my eyes off her as I murmured, “Fun fact about life or death fights between capes.  You start letting your enemies make the first move, your mortality rate triples.”

“I gave the go-ahead for you to be acting leader,” Tecton said.  “Cool.  Lightning rod was fantastic.  But if we start a fight here and shit goes down, my ass is on the line too.”

“You’re vetoing my order?”

“You haven’t given an order yet, and no.  You’ve fought her, I haven’t.  But I’m advising you here.  Back off.  She hasn’t done anything aggressive.”

She will,” I said.

“Maybe,” he said.  “It’s your call.”

I didn’t give an order.  I watched instead.

She was speaking to Cat’s Eyes in a low voice.  He was nodding unconsciously as she spoke.

Then she met my eyes.

“Who the hell are you?”  I asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said.  “Go, Weaver.  Take your team.  We have no business with you anymore.”

Anymore?”

She only stared at me in response.

Damn, being on the receiving end of that stare was like being opposite Alexandria or Faultline in a bad mood.  I was starting to settle on the idea of her being a thinker.

She looked at Cat’s Eye, “It’s time.  Tell them not to be afraid, and this will go smoothly.  Tell them to pass on the message so everyone hears.”

He nodded, then called something out in another language.  Others took up the call.

“Hold on,” I said, raising my voice.

They didn’t listen.  Why would they?  I barely had any clout.  The bugs around me were minor, all things considered.

I brought them closer, so they gathered at my feet.  She didn’t even flinch.

One by one, portals appeared, rectangular doorways that were so bright they were painful to look at.  The smell of flowers, fresh air and nature flooded into the underground.  Every pathway and every available surface soon had one.  Nearly a dozen in my field of view alone.  My bugs could sense two dozen more in my range.

“No!” I called out, once I realized what was happening.  I thought of what the Eidolon clone had said, about them experimenting on people, kidnapping people from alternate worlds.  “You can’t trust her!”

But the people here were scared.  Once the first few people tentatively made their way through, they ran for safety, running out into the open field, disappearing behind tall wild grass.

Cat’s Eye turned to leave.

I reached for him, to grab his wrist before he could disappear.

The woman in the suit deftly deflected my hand, batting it aside.

“What the hell is Cauldron doing?  Do you want to start a war?”

She shook her head.  “No war.  But we need soldiers.”

That was all the confirmation I needed.

“Wards!” I called out.  My bugs and my Wards converged on her.

It mattered surprisingly little.  She stepped away from me, which I took as an excuse to close the distance.  If she wanted to get away, I’d get closer.  I worked to close the distance, using both the flight pack and my own two feet to draw in.  She stepped back out of the way, just out of reach of my strikes.

She swept her hands by the sides of her belt, and she was suddenly armed, if I counted a stiletto knife no longer than my finger and a handkerchief as weapons.

In the moment my swarm drew close, she stabbed the knife into a wall-mounted fire extinguisher.  The pressurized contents spewed out in a plume, collecting on my bugs and blocking their path.  It disabled the largest ones and killed the smallest, eliminating a good ninety percent of the bugs I had in reach in an instant.  I was forced to back off, so I didn’t get the spray across my lenses or the fabric at my mouth.

She’d managed to avoid getting dirty, even.  I watched her from the other side of the spraying canister.  The direction of the plume and the hand with the handkerchief left her virtually untouched as Tecton drew close.  She danced back out of reach of his attack as he plowed past the spray.  Wanton had transitioned to the form of a localized telekinetic storm, and Annex had slipped into the ground, closing the distance to her.

If she was a thinker, someone relying on craftiness to win a fight, then I’d turn it into the kind of fight she didn’t want to participate in.  Tecton had power armor, Grace had super strength and Cuff had her metallokinesis.

I cranked up the flight suit and charged.  It was reckless, and it was hopefully the last thing she’d expect.  The goal was simple.  Close to melee, keep her occupied long enough for someone to trap her.  With that done, we’d call each of the people she’d just contacted and bring them back to safety.

Assuming she was someone along the lines of Victor or Über, a combat-oriented thinker, she’d try to do something like a Judo throw, redirecting my forward momentum to toss me to the ground.  I countered that particular maneuver by bringing myself to an almost complete stop before she could grab me, slipping to one side as Tecton closed the distance.

He punched, and she stepped back.  He extended the piledriver, a second punch without an instant of warning, and she evaded to one side.

A precog?

I wasn’t even finished the thought when she stepped around to Tecton’s side.  He tried to body-check her, but she had a hand up to rest on his side, using the contact to brace herself, to push against him and leverage herself away.  She crossed one leg over the other to maintain an upright position, then brought herself into arm’s reach of me.

Bugs exploded from the interior of my costume.  Spiders, hornets, wasps and beetles.  The only parts of her that weren’t covered by the suit were her head and hands.  The hands were clasped behind her back before the swarm reached her.  A sharp toss of her hair swept them out of her way as she invaded my personal space.

Her hands, protected from my bugs by the simple obstacle of her torso, reached out, avoiding the worst of my swarm.  One caught the concealed flap of my mask, where it overlapped the neck of my costume, and pulled it down.  The other pressed the tip of the stiletto knife to my jugular.

My team, just a moment behind me and Tecton in their intent to engage her, froze.

Fuck me, I had ten thousand bugs here, easy.  How had I not found an opportunity to even bite or sting her?

“Wards, back off,” she said.  “Grace, Cuff, I want you out of sight, or Weaver bleeds.”

The two girls looked at me, and I nodded.  They backed away and stepped around the corners.

“Send your bugs away,” she ordered me.

I started to open my mouth to protest, but she cut me off.  “No tricks.  You have two seconds.”

Something about the fact that she was a known killer and her no-nonsense tone suggested she really was going to follow through.  I banished the bugs.

“The hell is she?” Wanton muttered.

“She’s a precog,” I said, “Something in that vein.”

The woman didn’t respond.  The knife shifted locations, no longer touching my bare throat.

Was she distracted?  I controlled the insect-like limbs on my flight pack.  They were simple, weak, but they were also weapons.  The end of the claw stabbed for her face, for the general region of her right eye.

She turned her head, and it grazed harmlessly against her temple.  The blade of her knife turned around, and she caught it in the hinge of one mechanical arm.

I pulled away, but the knife being wedged in the gap of the joint gave her a measure of leverage over the mechanical arm.  She twisted it as though she were wrenching my arm behind my back.  The arm didn’t give any, and I was forced to bend over a fraction.

Golem reached out from one wall, trying to seize her hair or neck, but she used me as a body shield, blocking the reaching hand.  Annex struck from below, attempting to ensnare her feet, but she threw me down into the reaching tendrils.  In the process, she got ahold of my wrist, twisting it much as she had the mechanical arm.

“Coordinate!” I said, my voice tight.  I activated the thrusters on my flight pack in an attempt to tear way, but she wrenched me to one side, tilting my upper body while using one leg to block my lower body from following suit.  The end result was that the thruster only pushed me into the wall.  I managed to avoid slamming my head against the surface, but I was now pinned against a solid surface.  She still had my wrist behind my back.

Dodge this, I thought.  I commanded my bugs to attack from every direction.

The Wards were taking my order seriously, attacking simultaneously.  Annex was looming, a spectre in the ground, raising up to try to engulf her, Golem was beside a wall, already reaching into it, and Tecton was kneeling, pressing his gauntlets against the ground.  Cuff and Grace had heard my order, and were stepping into view, advancing from behind the others.

The woman laid her free hand over the hand she was twisting behind my back.  Then she pressed my own fingers down into my palm, hard.

The control mechanism, I thought.  Too late.  My bug was already moving towards the off switch when the thruster kicked in.  She swept my feet out from under me, and the thruster drove me into the ground.  The bug touched the off switch, but the impact had locked up the controls.

I hit Annex on my way down, buying the woman time to step back out of his reach.  The bug managed to turn off the thruster, but I was already sliding across the floor, right through the lower half of Wanton’s telekinetic storm body and straight into Tecton’s gauntlets.

The piledrivers fired into the ground a fraction of a second after I bumped into the gloves.  He’d likely aimed to place an effect directly beneath her, but my collision with the gloves had knocked his aim off by a fraction.  It was directed into a wall, creating a crack ten feet high.

The crack, in turn, summarily severed Golem’s outstretched hand of granite.

The woman pulled her suit jacket off and held it out, sweeping it through the air to catch the thickest collection of my swarm within.  She folded it closed, simultaneously breaking into stride, heading right for Wanton.  Grace and Cuff were just behind him, with Tecton directly behind them, and Golem and I off to one side.  Annex was still pulling his spacial-distortion body together into something more useful.

“Stand down, Wards!” I called out, before Wanton could make contact with her.  I was still pulling myself up off the ground.

The woman slowed her pace, coming to a stop.  Wanton materialized a few feet in front of her, swiftly backing away.  I dismissed the bugs that were closing in to attack.

“This goes any further, she’s going to stop going easy on us and she’ll murder someone, maybe murder all of us,” I said, not taking my eyes off her.  “Because it’s the only way she’d be able to stop the bugs from surrounding her, the only way to really stop Wanton once he closes the distance.”

She didn’t speak.

“What the hell are you?” I asked.  “What’s your power?”

She gave me a look, up and down, and then settled her eyes on mine.  Throughout the entire fight, she’d looked unconcerned.  She wasn’t even breathing hard.  Except for a fleck of foam from the extinguisher here and there on the bottom of her pants leg and at the very end of her shirtsleeve, she wasn’t even particularly dirty.

She spoke, “I win.”

“I gathered that much,” I said.

“What I mean is that I can see the paths to victory.  I can carry them out without fail.”

I felt my heart skip a beat at that.  She’d volunteered an actual answer?

“The fuck?” Grace asked.

“She’s lying,” Wanton said.  “That’s ridiculous.  It’s not even close to fair.”

Powers aren’t necessarily fair, I thought.

“It doesn’t matter,” the woman said.  “What matters is that there are other enemies you should be fighting.”

“Enemies, plural?” I asked.

“We’re approaching an endgame.  The end of the world, the sundering of the Protectorate.  Most of the major players know this, and the truce has effectively dissolved in every respect but the official one.  Those in positions of power are making plays.  Now.  Today.”

“And Alexandria showing up, that’s a part of that?”  I asked.  “Someone’s ploy?”

“Yes.”

“Cauldron’s or someone else’s?”

“Yes,” she said.  A noncommittal answer.

“And you’re telling us this why?” I asked.

“That should be obvious.”

“Okay,” I said.  I wasn’t sure it was that obvious.  “Just two questions, then.  Those people you just took-”

“Are gone,” she said.

Gone.  And there wasn’t a thing I could do to change that.  I was almost certain I couldn’t beat her, and I couldn’t utilize whatever it was that was managing the portals to get access to them.  At most, I could survive long enough to report this to someone who could.

“Gone temporarily or gone permanently?” Tecton asked.

“I don’t expect anyone on this Earth will see them again, barring an exceptional success on our end.”

“You can’t use your power to get those successes automatically, huh?” I asked.

She didn’t venture an answer.

“Right, that wasn’t my second question.  What I want to know is why the hell you haven’t used a power like yours to figure out how to beat the Endbringers.”

“My power is a form of precognition,” she said.  “Unlike most such powers, other precognitive abilities do not confuse it.  That said, there are certain individuals it does not work against, the Endbringers included.”

“Why?” Tecton asked.

“No way to know for sure,” she said, “But we have theories.  The first is that they have a built-in immunity, something their origins granted them.”

“And the other theories?” Golem ventured.  “What’s the next one?”

The woman didn’t respond.

I suspected I knew what the answer was, but declined to speak of it.  It would do more harm than good.

“So you’re blind here, useless,” Grace said, a touch bitter.

The woman shook her head.  “No.  I can consider a hypothetical scenario, and my power will provide the actions needed to resolve it.”

“And?”

“And we are doing just that,” she said.  “Doorway, please.”

She wasn’t speaking to us.  Another gate opened behind her, and it wasn’t to that sunny field with the tall grass.  There was only a hallway with white walls and white floors, a cool rush of air-conditioned air touching our faces.

“Doing just what, exactly?”  Tecton called out after her.

She turned back to us, but she didn’t respond.  The portal closed, top to bottom.

“Vehicles,” I said, the instant she was gone.  “I can sense some at the end of that path.  It’s the fastest way back up that ramp.  Go, go!”

Things had gotten worse in the thirty minutes we’d been gone.  Whole tracts of New Delhi had been leveled, and where the buildings had been tall and mostly intact while we collected the injured and met the ‘cold’ India capes, only half of them stood even a story tall now.  The other half?  Utterly leveled.

It was a small grace that the fires had burned intensely enough that they’d exhausted the possible fuel, and the smoke was mostly gone, but that wasn’t saying much.  I couldn’t take a deep breath without feeling like I needed to cough.  Ozone and smoke were thick in the air, and the residual charge in the air was making my hair stand on end.

The Endbringer’s path of destruction had continued more or less in one general direction, but beyond that, the damage was indiscriminate, indeterminate.  Behemoth’s location, in contrast, was very clear.  A pillar of darkness extended from the ground to the sky.  Plumes of smoke and streaks of lightning slipped through the darkness on occasion.

The Chicago Wards rode bikes that were somewhere between a scooter and a motorcycle in design.  The vehicles might have been indistinguishable from normal road vehicles, but Tecton had quickly discovered that they had some other features.  There were gyros that allowed them to tilt without allowing them to fall, and the engines were electric, with only the option of a generated sound, to appear normal.

Near-silent, the Wards zipped down the streets, zig-zagging past piles of rubble and fissures.   I flew above the group.

“Armband,” I said, touching the button.  “Status update.”

The ensuing reply was too distorted to make out.

Grue had gone ahead, though he’d no doubt had information on our whereabouts.  Bitch’s dogs probably could have sniffed us out.  He’d gone ahead.  Why?

“Armband,” I said, still holding the button, “Repeat.”

I thought there might have been an improvement, as we got closer, but it was miniscule enough that I might have been imagining it.

I dropped down, settling on the back of Wanton’s bike.  The wings were already tucked away, to minimize damage from the electromagnetic radiation, but I didn’t want to push my luck further.

We passed a cluster of dead capes, alongside a series of massive gun turrets that had been mounted on hills and rooftops.  The heroes had made a stand here, or it had been one defensive line of many.  A number had died.

Had it been foolish to descend to the cold cape’s undercity?  Should I have told them to take the wounded beneath, damn the consequences, so we could have helped more?

I hadn’t thought it would take as long as it had, hadn’t anticipated a fight with the woman in the suit.

I hoped I wouldn’t regret this, that the absence hadn’t cost our side something.  We weren’t the most powerful capes in the world, but maybe we could have made a small difference here or there.

I’d learned things, but did that count for anything in the now, with tens, hundreds or thousands of individuals dying where they might have lived if we’d stayed?  Another lightning rod?  Something to slow him down and give them a precious extra second to form a defensive line?

The second defensive line, another collection of the dead.  Whatever method they’d tried here, there was no trace left now.

We were getting closer.

The third perimeter.  A giant robot, in ruins.  As many dead here as there had been at the last two points, all put together.

And just beyond this point, Behemoth, in the flesh.  He glowed white, marking the radioactive glow, and Grue’s darkness wreathed him, containing it.  The ground beneath Behemoth was tinted gold, vaguely reflective, and geometric shapes were floating in the air, exploding violently when he came in contact with them.

With all of the obstacles he’d faced to this point, he looked less hurt than his younger brother had for his one-on-one fight with Armsmaster.  He didn’t limp, or slouch, his limbs were intact, his capabilities undiminished.  The tears and rents in his flesh and the gaping wounds here and there didn’t seem to have slowed him down in the slightest.

And with that, he managed to fight his way forward, out of Grue’s darkness, striking out with bolts of lightning.  Forcefields went up to protect the defensive line, but only half of them withstood the intensity of the strikes.

“Armband,” I said, and there was a note of horrified awe to my voice, “Status update.”

The A.I.’s voice crackled, but Grue’s darkness might have been suppressing the electrical charge, because it was intelligible.  “Chevalier is out of action, Rime is present commanding cape for field duty.  Legend is out of commission.  Capes are to assist defensive lines and fall back when call is given.  Earliest possible Scion intervention is twenty-two point eight minutes from the present time, estimated Scion intervention is sixty-five minutes from present time, plus or minus eighteen minutes.

I clenched my jaw.  I’d committed to doing something, but I had no idea what that could be.

I felt a sick feeling in my gut.

“Armband, status of Tattletale?”

Out of commission.

By all rights, I should have reacted, cried out, declared something.  I only felt numb.  This was falling apart too quickly.

“Status of the other Undersiders?”

Two injured.  Parian and Grue.”

Which would be why Grue wasn’t replenishing his darkness.  I closed my eyes for a second, trying to find my center, feeling so numb I wasn’t sure it was possible.

Citrine’s effect seemed to be maximizing the effects of Alexandria’s attacks, because Behemoth wasn’t able to channel them into the ground.

He swung his head in my general direction, and I could see the steel of Flechette’s arrows in the ball of his eye, clustered.  Holes marked the point where the bolts had simply penetrated.

Other capes had managed varying degrees of damage.  The Yàngbǎn had formed a defensive squadron, using lasers to cut deep into Behemoth’s wounds, and other capes clustered close to them, adding to the focused assault.

And yet he advanced.  Inevitable.

A blast of flame caught the defending capes off guard.  Their forcefields and walls of stone blocked the flame from reaching the capes, but did nothing to stop it from spreading as it set fire to nearby buildings, grass and the stumps of trees that had been freshly cut, if the sawdust was any indication.

As if alive, the fires reached forward, extended to nearby flammable surfaces, and cut off a formation.  They started to clear the way for retreat, and Behemoth punished them with a series of lightning strikes.

Golem was already acting, bringing stone hands up to block Behemoth’s legs, two hands at a time.  Tecton moved forward, striking the earth with his piledrivers.  Fissures raced across the road, breaks to keep any impacts from reaching too far.

“Antlion pit!” I shouted.

“Right!” Tecton reported.

And my team was engaging, finding the roles they needed to play.  Grace, Cuff and I couldn’t do much, but there were more wounded needing help getting out of the area.  Annex began reshaping the ground and walls to provide better cover.  Wanton cleared away debris from footpaths.

This particular front hinged on one cape, a foreign cape who was creating the exploding, airborne polygons.  I could see, now, how each explosion was serving to slow time in the area around the blast.  Had he actually been the inspiration for that particular bomb Bakuda had made?

Eidolon had added his own abilities to the fray.  He had adopted something similar to Alexandria’s powerset, fighting in melee, ducking in only long enough to deliver a blow, then backing away before Behemoth’s kill aura could roast him from the inside.  Eidolon was using another power as well, one I’d seen him deploy against Echidna.  A slowing bubble.

Cumulative effects.  Cumulative slowing.  Each explosion added to the effect, and Eidolon’s slowing bubble was a general factor to help them along.  What did it really do if you tried to walk forward, and the upper half of your leg moved faster in time than the bottom half?  How much strain did that create?  Was there a point where the leg would simply sever?

If there was, Behemoth hadn’t quite reached that point.  Either way, it seemed to be a factor in how slow Behemoth was moving.  He was getting bogged down.  Bogged down further as one foot dipped into Tecton’s antlion pit.

Until the Endbringer struck out, targeting one group of capes with a series of lightning strikes so intense that I was momentarily left breathless.

And the explosive polygons disappeared.

He lurched forward, and even a direct hit from Alexandria wasn’t quite enough to stop him.  The shockwave dissipated into the air, rather than the ground, and flying capes throughout the skies were driven back.

The Endbringer broke into a run, insofar as he could run, and nobody was quite in position to bar his way.  He ignored capes and struck out across the area behind them, hitting a building with two massive guns on it, a clearing, a rooftop with what looked like a tesla coil.  Fire, lightning, and concussive waves tore through the defensive measures before they could be called into effect.

We don’t have the organization.  Our command structure is downTattletale is gone, either dead or too hurt to fight.

He struck one area with lightning, and explosives detonated.  A massive forcefield went up a moment after they triggered, and the explosion was contained within, a cumulative effect that soared skyward.

For a solid twenty, thirty seconds, the sky was on fire, and the Endbringer tore through our defenses, making his way to a building with capes clustered on the roofs.  They weren’t, at a glance, our offensive capes.  They were our thinkers, our tinkers, the ones our front line was supposed to be covering.

The woman in the suit had declined to share the other reason her power wouldn’t let her simply solve the Endbringer crisis.

The answer I’d declined to share with the other Wards was a simple one.  She had the ability to see the road to victory.  Maybe, when it came to the Endbringers, there was nothing for her to see.

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Crushed 24.1

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Couldn’t catch up, not with the Undersiders mounted and us on foot.  I could fly, but I couldn’t abandon this team.  If Tecton hadn’t deferred leadership to me, I might have taken on a scouting role, flying ahead, notifying the Undersiders.

This was the worst environment for me.  There were bugs aplenty, but the area was thick with smoke, and there were fires everywhere.

Bugs weren’t going to contribute much.  They were getting roasted, by hot air and scorching smoke if not the fires themselves..

I flew from point to point.  Navigation wasn’t my strong point, so I focused on moving in straight lines, stopping at various vantage points where I was fairly confident I was out of Behemoth’s sight, physically reorienting myself, then flying to another point.

Each time I stopped, I took a second to try to grasp the situation.  The streets were flooded with people, and it was only getting worse.  The troops we had on the ground were struggling to make headway, and from my vantage point, I could tell that things were getting worse.

The approach had an added advantage in that it let me track where the fires were.  I collected bugs, took a moment here and there to analyze them, assess their capabilities, and guided them along my general route, keeping them as safe as I could manage.

There was a crash as a building toppled, sparks spilling out into the air.  I could hear screams, distant, as the crowd recoiled.  Through the bugs in their midst, I could sense the way they were scrambling for cover, for safety.  The nearest path that took them away from Behemoth was towards us.

Rickshaws turned around and made their way for the mouth of the narrow street, people pushed and shoved, and otherwise stampeded towards us.

I was in the clear, but my team…  I flew a short distance away to check everything was clear, then started to make my way back, still flying in short bursts.

Flitting here and there, I thought.

No, I thought, banishing the idea from my head.  Not flitting.  Never let that word slip in conversation.  Makes me think of fairies.  It’ll make Glenn think of fairies.

“Tecton!” I called out, as I returned to my roost.

He looked up at me.  Even with his heavy body armor, he was struggling with the mass of people who were pushing and squeezing their way past him.

I pointed, “Go through the building!  ASAP!”

He looked at the building, then raised his gauntlets.  The piledrivers slammed into the wall, punching out a rough, door-shaped hole.

He strode through, then did the same for another exterior wall.  The Chicago Wards flowed through.

“Not used to being allowed to make messes,” he said, his voice loud.  “This is just about the second time I can go all out!”

“Powers,” I said, flying down to ground level.  The smoke wasn’t as bad down here.  “You’ve had a few minutes to think, rookies, give me a quick rundown.”

“To think?” Cuff asked me.  “The hell?  You can think with all this going on?”

“You’re clear of the crowd,” I said.  The number of people here were only half that on the other street.  It was a herd mentality, lemming mentality.  They were too focused on getting away.

“It’s not just the crowd.  It’s-” she flinched as lightning struck somewhere in the distance.  “We could die any second, just like that.”

She was showing it the most, but I could see the fear in the other two, as well.  In everyone, but these guys in particular.

They’re new.  They’ve probably never been in a real life or death fight, let alone something like this.

Hell, I’ve never been in a fight quite like this.

It was ominous, the fact that the armbands were silent.  The A.I. wasn’t counting off a death toll, and I doubted it was because nobody with an armband was dying.  Maybe Chevalier had made a call, deciding that morale was low enough without an artificial voice reading out the names of the dead.

The only noises were the impacts and rumbles of Behemoth’s fighting against defending capes, the screaming and panting of people who ran past us, and the incessant crackle of nearby fires and crashes of thunder.

“We stand better odds if you pull yourselves together, fill us in, so we can use each other’s abilities to help,” I said.  “Come on guys, work with me.”

“I’m a breaker and shaker,” Annex told me, “Merge into nonliving material, warp space.”

“Warp it how?” I asked.

“Reshape it,” he said.  He was still half-walking, half-jogging, but he stretched a white-gloved hand out four feet, touching a sign.  His hand smeared against it as though it were more liquid than solid, coloring it the same white as his glove.  The sign oozed back into the wall, virtually disappearing, and Annex removed his hand, slowly reeling in the extended flesh.  The sign remained where it was, compressed against the wall, the surface flat.

“Okay,” I said, making a mental note.    “Okay, good.”

“While in there, I’m about as tough as whatever it is I’m controlling,” he added.

“Alright.  Golem?”

Golem had to stop running to demonstrate.  He dropped to one knee and plunged a hand into the street.

Ahead of us, there was a crash, a grinding noise.  A hand made of pavement was reaching out of the ground, five feet long from the base of the wrist to the tip of the middle finger.  The fingers seemed to move in slow motion as the hand pushed against stopped cars that were sort of in our way, shoving them to one side of the road.

The hand submerged back into the road as he withdrew his own hand from the street.

“Okay,” I said.  There’s synergy with Annex.  Maybe Tecton too.  “Anything I need to know?  Limitations?”

“Whatever I use my hand on, has to match the exit point, pretty much.  Asphalt for asphalt, metal for metal, wood for wood.”

I nodded.

“Bigger the thing I’m making, slower it comes out, slower it moves when I try to use my fingers.”

“Anything else?”

“Lots more, but mainly I can only use my hands, arms, feet and legs.  My face, but that’s not too useful.”

Cuff made a small noise as something crashed in the distance.

“Cuff?” I asked.  She didn’t reply.

“Cuff!” Tecton raised his voice.  It seemed to wake her up.

“What?” she asked.

“Your powers.  Explain.”

She shook her head, “Um.  The, uh-”

When she didn’t pull herself together enough to reply, Tecton set a heavily armored hand on her shoulder, “She’s a metallokinetic.  Shape and move metal, short-range, including the stuff she’s wearing.  Some enhanced strength and durability, too.”

“Yeah,” Cuff said, her voice quiet.  “Not half as cool as those guys.”

“It’s good,” I said.  I noted how she’d paired up with Grace.  Did Cuff’s presence have anything to do with the fact that Grace was wearing PRT-issue chainmail?  They didn’t give me the vibe that they were a pair in any friendship or romantic sense, but they were two bruisers, two girls in a group of mostly boys, and they were sticking together.  That seemed to be enough.

I was going to say something more, but a crash and the rumble of something falling down nearby stalled that train of thoughts.

“Oh fuck,” Cuff said under her breath, as lightning struck close by.  She was panting, and I suspected it wasn’t the exertion.   “Oh hell.  Why did I wear a costume made of metal?  I’m a walking lightning rod.”

“You’ve got a regulation suit between the metal and your skin, right?” Tecton asked.  “If it’s a type three or type four-”

“No suit,” Cuff said.  She tapped the metal at her collarbone, “Strongest if metal’s in direct contact with my skin.  Got a layer that’s almost liquid between this and me.”

“You didn’t think to change?” he asked.

“I didn’t think,” she said, her voice quiet, harboring a tremor.

Why the hell did she come, if she was going to be like this?

“Fuck,” Wanton said, “You are a lightning rod.”

“I don’t think you’re any safer or worse off than anyone else,” I said, trying to inject a note of confidence into the discussion.  I raised myself a step off the ground to get a better view of what lay ahead.  The ground was shaking, a steady, perpetual tremor.  “His lightning doesn’t follow regular channels.  We’re all lightning rods to him.”

Cuff didn’t respond.  I glanced down to see her frowning.

Not reassuring,” Wanton said.

“It’s the truth,” I said.  “We accept it, take it in stride and use it.  Can we change that fact?  Or use it to our benefit?”

“He’ll zap us to death with one hit, even if we protect ourselves,” Wanton said.  “Yeah.  There’s a benefit there.”

These guys aren’t the Undersiders.  Different strengths, different weaknesses.  The Undersiders were good at approaching things from an oblique angle, at catching people off guard, being reckless, even borderline fatalistic.  They had been more experienced than I was when I joined.  It was the other way around here.  Even Tecton, the oldest member of the group, the official leader, had less experience than I did.

I didn’t know them well enough to be able to guess what they brought to the fight.  I considered the various powers as I flew from point to point, scouting with eyes and careful use of my swarm.  Didn’t want to let any of the mobile ones get burned up.

The swarm included fruit flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches and house flies, identical or almost identical to the ones back home.  Surprising.  There were some smaller varieties of cockroach, nearly as numerous as the cockroaches in the peak of Brockton Bay’s worst months, some larger varieties of mosquito, flies I identified as the botflies that had come up in my research, and crickets.

No game changers, but I hadn’t expected any.  The spiders were badass here, at least.  The silk wasn’t so good, but even so, big spiders.

The Wards, their powershow to use them?  I thought. If I went by the PRT classifications, Tecton was a tinker with shaker capabilities.  Wanton was a breaker, someone who altered themselves or their relation to the world by some characteristic of his power, becoming a shaker effect, a telekinetic storm.  Annex was the same, only he became a living spacial distortion effect, a living application of Vista’s power.  Golem, no doubt a shaker.  That left Cuff and Grace.  I wasn’t sure how to peg Cuff, until I saw her in action, but she and Grace were both melee fighters in a fashion.

Of the six of them, four were shakers in some respect.  The classification included forcefields, effects like Grue’s, and powers that reshaped the battlefield, like Vista’s.

I’d been doing my reading on the PRT’s terminology, among other things.

“Battlefield control,” I said. “You guys have battlefield control.”

“Lots,” Tecton said.  “Aimed for it.”

I gave him a curious look, but this wasn’t the time for explanations.  I glanced at each of them in turn, so nobody would feel ignored, “We could try to slow him down, but I’m not sure that’s going to do much.  Instead, we’re going to meet up with the Undersiders.  I think there has to be something we can do with them.  Citrine, maybe Grue.  They’re versatile, and I’ve worked with them.   In the meantime, we’re doing damage control.  Seeing what we can do to keep Behemoth-”

Another lightning strike made the ground shake.  Cuff shrieked, and I grit my teeth.  We barely had two seconds of reprieve between flashes of lightning.  They lanced down from the dark clouds of smoke overhead, more red than yellow, and the thunder seemed more intense than it should be.  That wasn’t the worrisome part.  Behemoth was periodically hitting us with something bigger.  Bolts of lightning big enough to erase a small house from the landscape.

“-We’re going to do what we can to keep him from murdering people,” I completed my thought, belatedly.

“Right,” Tecton said.

“You know about earthquakes and architecture, Tecton?”

“Yeah.”

“What can we do about the shockwaves, or whatever else he’s been doing to make the ground shake?”

“I have ideas.  Not perfect, won’t hold for long, but ideas.”

“Good.  And we were talking about lightning rods,” I said.

“You said they don’t matter.”

“The drones Dragon used redirected his lightning.  Golem?  How big can you go?  Optimal conditions?”

“Depends on the amount of space at the destination.  I’d need a big piece of solid material, and I’d need time.”

“We’ll find an opportunity then,” I said.  “We’ll figure out a way to make this work.”

The crash of something being knocked or thrown through a building half a block away nearly made me jump out of my skin.  The others had ducked for cover, too late to have mattered if it had been real danger.

“Keep moving,” I ordered.

“Three of us are in heavy armor,” Tecton said.  “You can’t really run in armor like mine.”

“I get it,” I said, even as I knew the Undersiders were getting further away.  “Do the best you can.”

Mobility and transportations were problems.  I wondered if there were ways to fix that.  Even if we found Rachel and the others, I doubted we could put Tecton on a dog.  I couldn’t remember which, but I sort of recalled that Wanton or Grace had been a little shy of the dogs, too, so that option was out.

But if we could make this work…

Most people had evacuated at this point, with only a handful of stragglers occasionally passing us, giving us wary looks.

I drew arrows in the air to direct the remaining civilians away from the stampede of people, putting them on a general route where smoke didn’t seem to be heavy, and where I hadn’t been able to see or sense any fire.

Other heroes were joining the fray.  I saw Eidolon pass overhead, surrounded by what looked like a shimmer of heat in the air.  A forcefield?  Something else entirely?  If there were more with him, I couldn’t see them through the smoke.

I resumed my recon, continuing to expand the swarm that was keeping me company.  My range was extensive, now, with a radius of maybe one thousand, eight hundred feet.  That extended a fraction further as I zig-zagged over the area, picking up more bugs on the fringes and bringing them to me.

I stopped when I saw a short crane, three or four stories tall.  I turned around to meet the others, perching on the corner of a rooftop.  I pointed the way with ambient bugs, “Tecton, this way.  Take a shortcut, right through the building.  I don’t want to lose any time if we can help it.”

“Right,” he said.

It took only a minute for them to reach the crane.

“We’ve got two people who can distort metal,” I said.  “Annex and Cuff.  Maybe Wanton can help too.  Tear it down.  We’re making our lightning rod.”

“You sure?” Tecton asked.  “Because this makes a pretty good lightning rod on its own.”

I glanced nervously over in the direction where the smoke and lightning flashes were most intense.  If he shot us, right here, right now, and turned the crane into a tesla tower, this might be my dumbest move yet.  I perched on the corner of a building, where I still had a measure of cover, and watched the battle in the distance.  I could see Legend’s lasers through the smoke, hundreds at a time, radiating out from one central point, from Legend himself, and then turning sharply in the air to strike Behemoth.

Behemoth was using flame, which was some small reassurance, and he was occupied with the two remaining members of the Triumvirate.

“Yeah.  Do it.”

Both Annex and his costume merged into the base of the tower, and gradually climbed up to the point where the upper part still stood.  He could only ‘annex’ part of the object at one time, it seemed.  No surrounding a whole building.  He set about breaking the bonds, and the crane’s arm began to bend.  Cuff caught one end of it, then began heaving it towards the tower’s base.  The other half snapped off, and Annex helped guide it down, sliding it against the crane’s shaft.

It was costing us time, this project.  I felt impatient, was worried it wouldn’t work, and these would be wasted minutes we could be doing something else.

But they were making it happen, putting the pieces of our project together.  Cuff was walking around the crane’s base, effectively melting the metal, or reshaping it so it formed a flattened blob.  Annex tore the rest apart, so Cuff had more material to work with.

When Cuff was done, Annex slipped down to the blob and flattened it out further.

“A little thicker,” Golem said.

Annex ‘swam’ around the blob’s perimeter, shifting more material towards the center.  Cuff drew a blob of metal out of the pad and shaped it into a disk for Golem.

“A lot of synergy in this team,” I commented.

“Sort of aimed for that,” Tecton said.  “They took everyone willing to leave Chicago, to support other cities that lost more members, offered incentives to the rookies if they were willing to move to another city.  Your-parents-can-afford-not-to-work-for-a-year kind of incentives.  I drafted these guys because I thought their powers would work well together.”

“Drafted?” I asked.

“Yeah.  I mean, most teams are lucky if they get a few members with a good interaction, with some more on the fringes that they have to work around and fit into the mix.  We had a good setup with Raymancer, before he got too sick to move.  A strong, versatile ranged attacker with the rest of us situated to protect him, right?”

I nodded.

“After seeing the Undersiders at work, I started to think we need to be less mix-and-match.  Form teams with specific goals in mind.  New York sort of does that.”

“I know they have a team of ‘lancers’.  Forward vanguard, fast moving.”

“Exactly, and they’re also considered one of the better teams.  Maybe we all need to do that.  Except New York can do it because they’ve got a lot of capes.  Rest of us are making do.  Other team leaders are going for versatility, to cover every base.  I say fuck that.  We build around a concept, a game plan.  Once I decided on that, I went out of my way to ask for Annex, even though another team had already picked him up.  Made my argument, Chevalier gave the a-ok.”

“And where do I fit in?  Defiant said you were the one team that seemed interested in including me.  I guess I sort of fit into a shaker category, in a roundabout way.”

“That, and we’ve fought on the same side.  I saw what you managed with Clockblocker’s power and yours.  You stopped Alexandria, too, and all that other stuff we were warned not to bring up.”

I tilted my head to indicate mild confusion.

“They didn’t want us to mention how you’ve kicked ass as a villain.  Way Revel explained it, they wanted to see if you’d boast about it, to see just how badly you wanted a leadership role, where you’d get frustrated and how you’d act.”

I frowned behind my mask, but I didn’t comment.

“Anyways, the problem with this team going this route, focusing on the one thing, is we’re very weak against certain approaches, strong against others.  We need a certain kind of leader for that, and I know you pulled it off with the Undersiders.”

“I hope I can live up to that kind of expectation,” I said.

“I know it’s lame of me, that it might look like I’m trying something experimental and setting you up to take the fall if it fails-”

“No,” I told him.  “I don’t get that vibe.”

The ground tremored.  I worried briefly that the construction would tip, but it didn’t.  How long would it stand tall once it was at its full height?

“Good,” he said.  “Because that’s not what I’m doing.”

I was watching the others work, The pad of metal was about twenty feet across, now.  A circular disk with a flat surface on the top.  “Okay.  I think I can play ball, if that’s the case.  It’s good.  I like your line of thinking, about the team.”

He offered me a ‘heh’ before answering, “Of course.  I’m a pro when it comes to putting stuff together.”

“Putting buildings together,” Wanton chimed in, forming back into his real body.  Dust billowed around his feet.

“That’s my power, but I’m not limited to that,” Tecton said.  “You guys don’t need any help?”

“Save your juice.”

Golem started to put his hand into the plate of metal he’d been given, then hesitated, “I won’t be able to move my hand once it appears, if I go this big.  What shape should my hand be?”

“Middle finger extended,” Grace suggested.  “A big ‘fuck you’ to the Endbringer.”

“That’d look bad for the PRT,” Tecton told her.

“Tell them it’s the most efficient form,” she said, with a shrug.  “Have to make it as tall as possible.”

“No,” Tecton said.  “Index finger would work nearly as well, and New Delhi might take offense at a metal statue of an obscene gesture in the middle the disaster area.”

“A ‘v’,” Cuff suggested, making the gesture with her index and middle fingers.  Her voice was shaky, her confidence rock bottom.  “For victory.  Almost as good.”

“A ‘v’ for victory,” Tecton answered, “Good.  Thank you, Cuff.”

That’s really lame, I thought, but I held my tongue.  Too easy to become the bad guy, here, and it was a resolution to the stupid, petty argument, giving us the chance to move on.

Cuff smiled a little in response to the praise, though, then winced as Grace punched her in the arm.  I heard Grace mutter, “Spoilsport.”

Cuff’s smile returned to her face a moment later.

And maybe it’s good for Cuff, to have something constructive to offer.  She looked a touch more confident, smiling nervously as she followed Grace.  Cuff didn’t seem like she was growing numb to the sounds or vibrations of the destruction Behemoth was inflicting on us.

Golem started to push his hands into the plate.  The gauntlet’s fingertips were already emerging, a mirror-replica to Golem’s own gauntlet.  A hand half as wide as a house, slowly rising from the platform.

Annex dove into the ground, and circled the platform, binding it to the street.  He disappeared beneath the ground, then emerged a few seconds later, pulling his cloak tight around himself.  “Reinforcing, so it doesn’t fall over on us.  Also, brought a spike of metal into the ground.”

“I can help,” Golem said.  He reached his other hand into the ground, and a smaller hand fashioned out of pavement lurched out of the ground to rest against the base of the arm.  He withdrew his hand, leaving the pavement hand in place, then repeated the process, until six arms were supporting the spire.  “Not sure how well that works as it grows.”

“Good job, both of you” I said.  I held my breath as the wind brought heavy smoke past us, waited for it to dissipate.  There were too many variables to cover, and I wasn’t sure enough about this squad to believe I’d accounted for all of them.  “Can you move while carrying the plate?”

“Think so,” Golem said.

“Let’s go, then.”

“Starting to realize why all the capes are so fit, looking good in the skintight costumes,” Golem huffed, as we made our way towards Behemoth.  “So much running around, the training, constantly going places, never time to have… decent meal…”

He trailed off, too out of breath to speak.  I eyed him.  The armor made it hard to tell, but he might have been somewhat overweight.

The hand rose into the air, a virtual tower, as we made our way towards the battlefield.  Golem had to push his hand in gradually to achieve the effect, and it disappeared into the panel.

It was working, though.  For better or worse, they’d created a spire, a replica of Golem’s hand, spearing more than fifty feet in the air, with more room to grow.  Sixty feet, a hundred…

A lightning bolt lanced out from the midst of the cloud of smoke, striking the hand.

There were whoops and cheers from the Chicago Wards.  I managed a smile.

Another lightning strike, curving in the air, hit the hand.  Residual electricity danced between the two extended fingers.

It was working, and as much as it was a success in helping against the lightning, it was working to help morale.  To contribute something, anything, it mattered.

“Air’s ionized now,” Tecton said, as if that was a sufficient explanation for everyone present.  I got the gist of what he meant.  The lightning would be more likely to strike there again.  Lightning did strike the same place twice.

I took flight.  The Wards took my cue and followed on foot.

We found the Undersiders at the very periphery of the battlefield.  They had collected a group of wounded Indian capes and were draping them across the backs of one of the dogs.  Two uninjured Indian capes were looking very concerned, staying at the dog’s side.

I landed beside Grue.  He’d used his darkness to form a wall.  I wasn’t sure what it was for, but the smoke didn’t seem as bad here.

“Skitter,” he said.

I didn’t correct him.  You’ll always be Skitter to me, he’d written.  Or something like that.

“Got a plan?” I asked.

“Dealing with the wounded,” he said.  “Nothing else.”

I studied him.  I could see how defensive his body language was, his glower, the way he moved with an agitation that didn’t suit him.

Was he not holding it together a hundred percent?

“Where’s Tattletale at?”  I asked.  “I kind of got distracted as everyone was moving out.”

“At the command center with Accord.  She just contacted us through the Armbands.  They’re waiting to talk to Chevalier, fine tune the defenses.  Accord thinks he can layer the defenses to maximize the amount of time we buy.  Scion was occupied with some flooded farmlands in New Zealand, flew towards South America, last they saw.  Wrong direction.”

I nodded, my heart sinking.  It didn’t seem we’d be able to count on him.  Not any time in the immediate future.  “And Parian, Foil?  Citrine and Ligeia?  With Accord and Tattletale?”

“No.  Those four split off into another group.  They can put out fires, and Citrine can protect them from lightning strikes so long as they aren’t moving around too much.  Flechette’s using the opportunity to shoot him, for all the good it’s doing.  Our group wouldn’t be any use to them, so we’re doing what we can here, a little further away.”

“Got it,” I said.  “You have a way of communicating with them?”

He tapped his armband, then pressed a button.  “Relay this message to Citrine.  All well, Skitter and Chicago Wards just arrived.  Inform as to status.”

There was a pause.

Message from Citrine,” the armband reported, the voice crackling badly.  Then the crackling redoubled as the voice stated, “Status is green.”

“Any objection if we assist your group?” I asked him.

Grue shook his head.  He started to reply, but was cut off as Behemoth generated another shockwave.  A rumble drowned everything out, as every building without something to protect it fell.

“No objection,” Grue said, when the rumble had dissipated.  He echoed my question from earlier.  “Got a plan?”

“I wish,” I said.  “More lightning rods, maybe, if we get the opportunity.”

The smoke was clearing towards the battle’s epicenter.  Legend and Eidolon were a part of that, as were the craft that supported them.  The fires were dying out, extinguished or stamped out.

Behemoth wasn’t that tall, hard to make out above the buildings that still stood.  I chanced a look, and flinched as another bolt of electricity made its way to the lightning rod.

The path of least resistance.

Behemoth had noticed that time, or he’d decided to do something about it, because he lashed out at Legend and Eidolon once more, driving them back, and then made a beeline for the structure. He threw electricity outward, two bolts, continuous in their arc, and they briefly made contact with the tower.  A second later, they broke free of the tower’s draw.  He was paying attention to where he was shooting now, not simply striking across a distance with the goal of setting indiscriminate fires.

Fire roared around Behemoth as he got away from the area that had already been scorched and blasted clear of any fuel sources.  His dynakinesis fueled the flames, driving them to burn hotter, larger, and with more intensity.  With a kind of intelligence, the fires spread to nearby buildings, ensuring that no place was safe, nor untouched.

I could see the blaze making its way closer to us.  Not a concern in the next minute, maybe not even the next five, but we’d have to move soonish.

Legend and Eidolon hounded the Endbringer, Legend initially a blur that couldn’t even be pinned down long enough to strike, even with lightning.  As the hero flew, he filled the sky with a series of lasers that raked Behemoth’s flesh and targeted open wounds to open them further.  When Behemoth turned away to deal with Eidolon, Legend slowed, and the lasers grew in number and in scale.

“What’s with the hand shape?” Regent asked, as he poked his head out from cover enough to peek at the scene.

“A ‘v’,” Golem said, his voice small.

“I get it.  You’re calling Behemoth a big vagina.”

“It’s for victory,” Cuff said, sounding annoyed.

“That’s lame,” Imp said.

Really lame,” Regent echoed, “I prefer the vagina thing.”

“Way you dress,” Grace commented, “I wasn’t so sure.”

“Ohhhhh,” Imp cut in, she elbowed Regent, “Ohhhhh.  You going to take that?”

Regent only laughed in response, shaking his head.

“Is the little princess feeling brave?” Grace taunted Regent.  “Come on.”

“It’s for ‘victory’,” Cuff said, her feeble protest lost in the midst of the exchange, and in that instant, she sounded surprisingly young, vulnerable.

“No fighting,” I said, have to stop this before it escalates.  “Regent, stand down.  Grace, you too.”

Regent snickered under his breath.

“And no more banter,” Grue said.  “There’s more people to help.  Move.  With luck, those guys can keep him busy long enough for us to clear out.”

“Team’s mommy and daddy, reunited,” Imp commented, adding an overdramatic sigh. “So awesome.”

“I’ll point you guys to the wounded,” I said, not taking the bait.  “Go.”

“No saying or doing stuff that’ll get us killed, like saying goodbye or getting laid,” Regent commented.  “There are rules.”

“Get us killed?  What’s Weaver doing?” Cuff asked, sounded alarmed and confused.

Regent glanced at her, “I’m just saying, Grue’s already screwed, he’s not a virgin, he’s bl-”

Grue struck Regent across the back of the head.  The crown and attached mask were moved slightly askew, and Regent fixed them.  He told Cuff, “Regent’s being an idiot.  Ignore him.  Now go.”

“This way,” Tecton said, setting a hand on Cuff’s shoulder, “Opposite direction from Regent.”

Imp started to turn around to follow the pair, grabbing Regent’s wrist to pull him after her.  Grue stepped in her way and physically turned her back around.

“Sorry for our contribution to that,” Tecton said.  “Grace gets hard to handle when she’s stressed.”

“I understand.  Regent and Imp…” Grue started.  “Really have no excuse.  That’s pretty much the status quo.  They’ve been a little worse lately, but things haven’t settled down since…”

He trailed off.

“Since I left,” I said.

Grue nodded.

Tecton nodded.  “I get it.  Bygones.  We’ll be back.  You okay watching the injured on your own, or-”

“We’re good,” Grue said.

Tecton left, with Cuff at his side.  Only Grue and Rachel remained, along with the Indian capes who were standing by the wounded.  Rachel was giving water to the injured who were capable of receiving it, the conscious ones, people with broken legs and burned hands.

I made eye contact with Rachel.  I wanted to ask how she was doing, knew she wouldn’t like the implications that she wasn’t peachy.

“I want to fuck this bastard up,” she said.  “Last one killed my dogs.  Killed Brutus, Judas, Kuro, Bullet, Milk and Stumpy and Axel and Ginger.  When do we attack?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “We’ll try to find an opportunity.”

“And I get to do something,” she said.

“I…” I started to voice a refusal, then stopped myself.  “Okay.”

“Bitch, it’ll be easier to collect the bodies if you take the dogs to them,” Grue said.  “Why don’t you see to that?”

She glanced at me.  I resisted the urge to nod.  It would be an encouragement, without the complexities and ambiguities of speech, but it would also be supplanting Grue as leader, here.

Neither he nor she needed that.

“Sooner than later,” he added.

She nodded.  Anyone else might have taken that as rude, but she accepted it without complaint.  She led the dogs away, and the Indian capes followed, not wanting to part from people who might have been teammates or family members.

When everyone was gone, Grue approached me.  I felt myself tense up.  Despite the adrenaline that already pumped through me, my heart rate picked up as he closed the distance.

He held my arms just above the elbows, very nearly encircling his middle fingers and thumbs around them.  Large hands, thin arms.  I’d put on a little muscle mass over the past few months, or he’d be able to do it for real.

And he rested his forehead against mine, as if he were leaning against me, despite the fact that he was maybe half-again to twice my weight.

It had been a long time since I felt quite so insecure as I had this past week.  As Skitter, I’d had a kind of confidence.  As Weaver… I didn’t yet feel on steady ground.

But in this moment, somehow, I felt like I could be his rock.

I wanted nothing more than to reach up, to put my hands around his neck, remove his mask so I could tilt my head upward to kiss him.  To give him succor in basic, uncomplicated human contact, at a time he was on unsteady footing and couldn’t even say it aloud.  I stayed where I was, our foreheads touching, my back to the wall, arms to my sides.  The masks stayed on.

The storm continued in the distance, and a detonation marked what might have been the destruction of one of Dragon’s craft.  We didn’t move an inch.

“I miss you too,” I whispered.

He nodded in response, a hard part of his mask scraping against a part of mine.

I could sense the others gathering bodies, starting to make their way back here, to our rendezvous point.

“See,” Imp said, appearing right next to us, “This is exactly what Regent was talking about.”

“We weren’t doing anything,” I said.  I pulled away from Grue, annoyed.

“You were being sweet.  That’s probably a death sentence.”

“They were snuggling?” Regent asked, rounding a corner.

Christ,” Grue said, under his breath.  Firmer, he said, “Enough of that.”

Imp only cackled, and she kept cackling.  I was pretty sure she prolonged it just to be annoying, stopping and starting again until Rachel and the last of the Wards returned.

“Let’s talk plans,” Grue said.  “We’ve got a good roster here.  Two teams.  Almost three full teams, if we pick up Parian, Foil and the Ambassadors.”

He sounds more confident.  A little more balanced.  The agitation isn’t so obvious.

“There’s more wounded in the area,” I said.  “And we’re running out of space.  Each dog that’s loaded up with the injured is a dog you guys can’t ride.  Fires are getting closer, so we pick up everyone we can, load them onto makeshift sleds, then hurry back to a place where we can get them medical care.”

“It’s a plan,” Grue said.

“And,” I said, “We need to find a better use for our strongest members.  Citrine could be useful.  Grue?  If we get the sled going, you stay close to the wounded.”

He turned his head my way.

“We have about twenty here.  Six or so capes.  Maybe one’s got a power we can use.”

He nodded.  “I already checked most.  But I can use a power from the back of the sled without blinding anyone.  It works.”

“There’s a joke there,” Regent said, “But-”

Don’t,” Imp said.

“I wasn’t going to.  It’s crass, totally inappropriate, and I’m better than that.”

“You’re going to,” Imp said, stabbing a finger at Regent’s chest.  “You were going to say something about Grue going to the back of the bus, and you can’t let it go.  It’d be lame and really tasteless and too far, and it’ll start the sort of fight that isn’t fun or funny.  I’m calling it: you’ll hold it in until you can’t help but say it.”

“Well I’m definitely not going to say it now that you’ve spoiled it,” Regent said.  “No shock value, no people feeling bad because they inadvertently laughed at something fucked up.”

“You two go squabble somewhere else,” Grue said.  He glanced at me.  “There’s more bodies to collect?”

“Too many bodies,” I said, my voice sober, “Not many injured left who haven’t already been carried away by friends, family and neighbors, or who aren’t in such bad shape that they can’t move.  Maybe six more we could load up, if we’re going to get out of here in time.”

“Go,” Grue said.  “She’ll show you the way.”

Run,” I said.  They didn’t have to run, but it got rid of them sooner.

Children,” Grue muttered under his breath.

“Wards,” I said.  “If you aren’t making the sled, go get the rest.  I’ll help.”

My team left Annex and Cuff behind while we collected the wounded.

The one I was helping was a child, burned.  She wasn’t any older than ten.

She said something incomprehensible.  Another language.

“English?” I asked.

She only stared at me, unable to understand me any more than I understood her.  Her eyes were a little glazed over, but the pain in her expression and the fear suggested that the benefits of being in shock were receding.

A part of me felt like I should have helped her sooner, but it wasn’t a logical part of me.  There was so little I could do, and it didn’t matter if I did it before or now.  And maybe a small part of me was putting it off because it wasn’t going to be pretty.

“I’m not that scary,” I said, “Okay?”

I pulled off my mask.  “See?  Ordinary person.”

Her expression didn’t change.

“I’m going to have to move you,” I said, and the words were for me as much as they were for her.  I kept my voice gentle, “It’s going to hurt, but it’ll mean we can get you help.”

She didn’t react.  I studied her.  Blisters stood out on her arms and neck, and on the upper part of her chest.

I could maybe understand a little of Rachel’s anger at the loss of her dogs, seeing this.  Behemoth probably hadn’t even given a coherent thought to the pain he’d inflicted on this girl, on countless others, just like Leviathan had mindlessly torn through Rachel’s dogs.

Why?

Why did the Endbringers do this?  Were they part of the passenger’s grand plan?  Cauldron’s monsters, taken to an extreme?  Tattletale had said they were never human, but she’d been wrong before.

Or maybe I hoped they had been human because it was an answer, because the alternative meant I didn’t have enough data points to explain it.

With as much gentleness as I could manage, I moved bugs over the girl’s body.  She reacted with alarm rather than pain, and I shushed her.  The bugs were spreading possible infection, no doubt, but I suspected infection was inevitable, given circumstance.  Using the bugs let me know where the blisters were, where the skin was mottled with burns.

I took off my flight pack and flipped it over.

Like ripping off a bandaid, I thought, only it’s at someone else’s expense.

I lifted her, and she shrieked at the physical contact, at the movement of burned flesh against clothing and the ground.  I set her down on the flight pack, placing a hand on her unburned stomach to stabilize her.  I activated the left and right panels, gently, so it had a general lift without any particular direction, and I led her to the sled in progress.

Golem had already returned, and the three of them were combining powers to make the sled.  Cuff was feeding the chain Rachel had provided into loops at the front.

With Grue’s help, I eased the girl down from the flight pack, setting her with the other wounded.

“We’re going to hurt him,” I said, retrieving the flight pack.

“Behemoth?” Cuff asked me.

“We’re going to find a way,” I said, and that was all.  I met the little girl’s eyes.

Cuff followed my gaze.  “I guess I”m on board with that.”

“Why did you come?”  I asked.  “I mean, I get why we all came, on a level, but… no offense, you’re in a totally different headspace.”

“For my mom and dad,” she said.

I glanced at her, but she didn’t elaborate.

It took another minute to get the sled prepped and people mounted.  Rachel enhanced the size of her dogs so they’d have the strength to pull not only the wounded, but the two teams as well.  It meant they were slower, but it also meant moving nearly forty people with four dogs.  I took off, flying, leading the way and giving directions with bugs as they followed.

A crash heavier than any we’d had yet made the dogs stumble, falling.  It very nearly overturned the sleds.  Bitch had fallen from where she sat on Bentley’s back.  I stopped at her side to make sure she was alright, gave her a hand in getting back to her feet.  She accepted it without complaint or incident, but when she met my eyes, her glower cut right through me.

Was that her resentment at work or my guilt, that made me feel that way under her gaze?

Once I’d verified that no damage had been done, I rose just high enough to peer over the top of a building.

The lightning rod had tilted, leaning against an adjacent building, the supports Golem had raised had crumbled.  Behemoth, too, had fallen.

Eidolon and Legend hovered in the sky, flanked by four dragon-craft.

Another figure was there as well, hovering where Behemoth had been standing an instant ago.  The Endbringer had been toppled with one massive blow.

I touched the button on my armband, lowering my head beneath cover.

“Send this message to Defiant,” I said.  “You said she was dead.  You said you verified.”

The reply crackled so badly it was almost inaudible.  “Reply from Defiant.  I saw the body myself, we checked her DNA, her … readings, we matched against the mountings for her prosthetic eye … carbon dated it to verify.

He didn’t even need to ask who I meant.

I pressed the button, “Ask Defiant who the hell that’s supposed to be, if it’s not Alexandria.”

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Interlude 23

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Lightning ripped across the landscape, following its own path, independent, breaking every rule that electricity was supposed to follow.  It danced over the outside surfaces of houses, running across concrete and leaving glassy scorch marks in its wake.  It touched objects that should have grounded it, channeling it into the earth, but leaped for another target instead.

The Yàngbǎn raised their hands, already reacting.

Twenty-third path, fifth benefit.  Reflexes.

Thirteenth path, third formForcefield constructions, barrier.

The forcefields absorbed the worst of the energy.

Cody was already moving to use the thirty-sixth path to rescue anyone who’d absorbed the remnants of the shock.  None.  It hadn’t touched them.  He was among the last of them to dismiss his forcefield.  The forcefields drained their reserves of energy, and weren’t to stay up for too long.  They’d been drilled on this.

Qiān chū.”  Three ordered.

They mobilized.

Fourth path.  Shallow flight.

Ninth path.  Short range electromagnetism.  They skated off of the little exposed metal that was available around them, car hoods and pipes, gaining speed to augment their flight.

There were forty-two paths in all.  Forty-two powers.  No, he corrected himself, there were forty-one now that Seventeen was dead.  More would die by the day’s end.

The hope, the plan, was to demonstrate the Yàngbǎn’s strength, to show that they had the answer, a way to defeat the Endbringers.  It wouldn’t happen today, but a solid demonstration would serve to bring others on board.

They hadn’t been asked.  The expectation was that they would give their lives for this.  He would have refused.  He’d dealt with an Endbringer before, and he still hadn’t recovered from that chance meeting.  He’d lost everything, been stripped of friends and family both.

Yàngbǎn qiáng!”  Five called out.

Yàngbǎn qiáng!”  The group responded in chorus.  Cody’s voice joined theirs, quieter.  His pronunciation wasn’t good.  In all this time with the group, he hadn’t even managed to grasp the fundamentals of the language.  Mispronunciation was punished, not by any reprimand, but in a subtle way.  They would speak to him even less than they were now, he would get less food.  Maybe for a few hours, maybe for a few days.  The thought bothered him, and the degree to which it unsettled him was more disturbing still.

Something so minor as that shouldn’t have mattered so much to him, but it was all he had, now.

There was a crash of lightning, and a building collapsed, directly in their path.  Flames and smoke barred their path.

Shèntòu!”  Three ordered, his voice nearly drowned out in the noise of the building settling.  They were still moving forward, not even slowing.

The forward group hit the barrier with localized vacuums.  Individually, they were weak, but with twelve all together, flames were quenched, smaller objects levitated into the air.

Cody joined the middle group in shearing through the remaining wreckage.  Thirty-first path.  The cutting lasers.  The first group was slowing a fraction, and Cody slowed his flight to hold formation.

The twelve members of the Yàngbǎn only accelerated, flying around the group members they had been following.  They turned solid, space distorting around them as they rendered themselves invincible and incapable of any action but their pre-existing momentum, effectively human bullets.  They tore through the wreckage, clearing a path for the rest.

He felt a rush, just being part of the unit.  Being a part of a maneuver that let them cut through a burning ruin of a building with the ease they had.

Some of that rush, he knew, was the second path.  Magnification of powers.  Two wasn’t present, she was too valuable to risk losing, but they still shared her power between them.  Each of them had a sliver of her ability to enhance the powers of those nearby.  It was the reason their powers worked to the degree that they did, a feedback loop in power augmentation across their whole unit.

There were more things feeding into his consciousness, other senses he wasn’t actively tapping into.  The twenty-third path, it enhanced his perception, particularly his awareness of others, the threat an individual person posed, and enhanced his reflexes, particularly when dealing with people who wanted to hurt him.  It was of minimal use against Behemoth, but it made him cognizant of the other members of the Yàngbǎn, aware of their breathing, the noises they made as they ran.

In this way, the group subsumed him, rendered him a part of something overwhelming.  For now, in the midst of this, the deep loneliness and isolation was gone.  Language was almost unnecessary, beyond the one- or two-word commands he needed to know for particular maneuvers and directives.

Zig-zagging down the streets, they naturally settled back into their established rank and file.  With every member of the group having access to the same pool of powers, placement in the formation was a question of experience and how expendable they were.  Cody was an essential defensive asset, no use if he was taken out of action, so he rested in the middle of the group, surrounded by people who could protect him in a pinch.

Rumbles marked the collapses of taller buildings as Behemoth advanced, somewhere a quarter-mile behind them.

The heat was oppressive.  Even as they got further away from the monster, the fire only seemed to get worse.  The smoke was the worst part of it, preventing them from seeing or tracking their enemy.  It meant they couldn’t see more than a hundred or so feet around them, and they didn’t have any idea whether they were going to walk straight into the monster’s path or wind up encircled by burning buildings.  Their flight depended on proximity to a solid surface.  It involved hovering five to ten feet off the ground while moving at fifty or sixty miles an hour.  They had another means of flight, but less controlled, one that risked putting them above the skyline, obvious targets for a lightning strike.

Was the Behemoth smarter than he looked?  Was the destruction seeded in a way that would spread?  Fires started where buildings were closely packed?

Cody could feel his skin prickling.  His mask was filtering out the smoke, but the heat, it was getting unbearable.

Zhàn wěn,” Ten said.

Zhàn wěn,” the group echoed her, their voices strong.  It was an encouragement, an affirmation.  Cody didn’t know what it meant.  He’d been with them for an indeterminate length of time, what felt like years, but he didn’t feel any closer to grasping the language than he had been on the first day.  He’d had help, briefly, but that had been stopped.

Every member of the group was permitted to speak freely, but virtually every utterance was vetted by the group as a whole.  If, like Ten, someone were to speak, and others were in agreement, deeming the phrase acceptable, then the response was clear.  If the statement was poorly timed, or out of tune with the group’s line of thinking, then it was ignored, followed only by a crushing silence.

Cody had never experienced the adrenaline rush that Ten was no doubt experiencing over the simple act of getting a response from the squadron.  The group had never deemed his statements acceptable, because his pronunciation was poor.  He was a member of a tight-knit crowd, yet utterly, completely alone.

Tíng!” one of the members in the rear called out.

They dropped to the ground, their landings practiced, wheeling around a hundred and eighty degrees by planting one foot on the ground and sweeping the other out.

His forcefield was up before he even knew what the threat was.  Individually weak, strong in formation: a makeshift bubble of overlapping forcefields twenty feet over their heads.

The glowing projectile swiftly grew in his perspective, giving him only a second to brace himself before it crashed down on the wall of forcefields.

The wave of heat was intense, even on the other side of the barrier.  It seemed almost liquid as it spilled out over the edges.  In seconds, they were surrounded in flame.  The forcefields sealed it off, prevented superheated air from burning them alive, but the viscosity meant it was resting against the forcefield.

Magma?

They’d drilled on abstracts, on possible situations.  Attacks from any direction.  Attacks in various forms.  He’d never really considered the ideas behind dealing with magma, but he had the tools.  Being a member of the Yàngbǎn meant being constantly drilled.  They took your power, all but a fraction of it, but every member of the group had that same fraction.  Every member was expected to know how to use every power, to know when and to do it in unison with the rest of the squad.

A small handful of individuals in the C.U.I. hadn’t been brought onto the group.  Null, the cape who made the Yàngbǎn possible, was independent.  He couldn’t be a part of the whole.  Others included Tōng Líng Tǎ, who had a power that was too slow to use, not worth the fractional decrease in power that came with including her in the network, Shén yù, the strategist, and Jiǎ, the tinker that supplied the C.U.I. with its devices, including the simulations for the drills.

It was those drills and simulations that allowed him to react a precious fraction of a second faster as he responded.  It kept him in sync with the others in the group as he joined half of them in letting his forcefield dissipate, simultaneously reaching out to apply another power.

Thirty-second path.  Nullification waves.

The effect was short ranged, and he could see the shifting in the air as it extended, passed through the gaps in the forcefield where the magma and heated air were only just beginning to leak through miniscule gaps.

The waves generated by thirty-two served to stabilize.  It stalled things in motion, warmed up cold things, cooled warm things.  It silenced, stilled.

The magma cooled with surprising rapidity, but then, the power was affecting the inside at the same time it affected the outside, rather than trying to cool the outside to a degree that would extend inward.

Path thirty-two.  It made him think of Thirty-two, the member.  The source of that particular power.  He snuck a glance at her.

She was one of four outsiders, four people not native to China.  She’d been his closest ally.  Something more.

Dǎpò,” Seven ordered.

Like the others, the maneuver was a practiced one.  The last forcefields dropped, and the group mobilized.  Odd-numbered members of the squad crouched, legs flexing, while even-numbered members, Cody included, reached out.

Path fourteen.  Vacuum spheres.

The odd-numbered members of the group pierced the barrier of cooled magma, and the vacuum spheres scattered the shards.

Another sphere was already in the air, aimed close to them, if not at the exact same spot.

Without even thinking about it, he trained a laser on it.  Others were doing the same, or following suit.  The glob of magma, still mid-air, was separated into loose pieces, no longer as aerodynamic as it had been.  It expanded, fell short, disappeared into the cityscape between them and Behemoth.

Each action Cody performed as a part of the unit was validating, affirming.  It was a series of small payoffs for the drills he’d gone through for over a year, with smaller groups and the Yàngbǎn as a whole.  The drills had been intense, with one new situation every one or two minutes, like flash cards, only they were holograms, color coded polygons and shapes with just enough mass that they could be felt.  If they failed the scenario, the offending members of the squad would be named out loud, the scenario shuffled back into the list of possibilities, so it might repeat in five minutes, or two hours.

Cody was well aware of what they were really doing, between the six hours of drills and the twelve hours of schooling that combined lectures on the C.U.I. with traditional education.  He knew why they only got forty-five minutes in total to eat for their two daily meals, only five hours of rest a night, why every minute of the day was scheduled.

He’d always told himself that he wouldn’t be a victim, that when the time came and he was indoctrinated into a cult, he’d recognize the targeted isolation, the practice of tiring him out so he’d be more amenable to suggestion, more likely to conform.  He’d told himself that he would rebel and maintain his individuality.

So stupid, to pretend he had that degree of willpower, in the face of crushing social pressure and exhaustion.  It had taken him nearly five days after he left the basic training and joined the official team before he realized what was going on.  The saddest part of it was that he was fully aware they were brainwashing him, indoctrinating him, and there was nothing he could do about it.  Despite himself, despite the pride he’d once had as a person, he wanted acceptance.

They were a poor surrogate, a surrogate he hated, in a way, but he had nothing else.  His family was a universe away, his friends had turned on him, gone mad.

There was a crash, and a shockwave ripped through the area, momentarily clearing the smoke.  Cody instinctively raised his forcefield.

Behemoth was there, standing amid leveled buildings, fighting some flying capes who strafed around him.  He had built up some steam, and lightning coursed over his gray flesh, illuminating him.  Only one or two of the metal ships were still fighting.  Other craft, airborne, seemed focused on evacuating, but it was a gamble at best, as shockwaves and lightning struck them down.

The smoke filled the sky once more, obscuring Cody’s vision too much for him to see any further.

Behemoth clapped again, then again, each collision of claw against claw serving to extend the damage one step further, clearing obstructions out of the way for the next.

The Yàngbǎn backed away, spreading out inadvertently.  Cody could feel the benefit of the second path fading, the enhanced powers the others granted slipping from his grasp.

“Tā shì fúshè kuòsàn,” Three said.  He said something else that Cody couldn’t make out.  Something about leaving.

The group moved out, flying low to the ground, and Cody was a fraction of a second behind, pushed himself to make sure he was in formation.

“Radiation,” Thirty-two said, her English perfect, unaccented.  It was for Cody’s benefit, and the benefit of the other two English-speaking members of the group, who might not understand the more complicated words.  She got glances from the other members of their squad, but continued speaking.  “He’s using the shockwaves to spread irradiated material across the city.  We’re retreating, okay?”

Cody nodded, but couldn’t bring himself to speak as the group took flight.  It was unnecessary, wasn’t worth it when he accounted for how the others would react and respond if he used English.  Thirty-two would be shunned for doing so, there was no need for him to join her.

An explosion of smoke bloomed out in front of them.

Not smoke.  Darkness.

The Yàngbǎn collectively dropped into fighting stances, ready to use any power the instant it was called for.

Villains stepped out of the smoke, and it was only then that the benefits of the twenty-third path belatedly granted the Yàngbǎn their ability to sense these people.  The power had been blocked by someone or something in the group.

They were Westerners, by the looks of them.  Cody’s eyes narrowed as he studied them.  A guy with a demon mask, surrounded by the same eerie darkness that formed a wall between the group and Behemoth, a young girl with a horned mask, a stocky guy or girl with a thick fur ruff on their hood, and a girl in black with an opaque pane over her face and a crossbow in her hands.

The other group was also mounted, but clearly distinct in style, even if they’d shuffled together with the other group.  The boy in medieval clothes with a silver crown, the girl in a frock, two grown women in evening gowns.

They were all mounted on mutants.  He had to reach for the name.  The guy from Boston, Blasty?  Blasto.  He was supposed to make horrific mutants.  Maybe he was here.

The Yàngbǎn edged around the group, wary.

“Jesus,” the man with darkness shrouding him said.  His power was billowing out around him, more darkness.  “What the hell are you doing?”

He’s getting the benefit of the power boost, Cody thought, but he didn’t speak.

The others were shifting uncomfortably, but the one with the white mask and silver crown, and the two in the evening gowns… they seemed to take it more in stride.

Something about them, it tugged at a memory.  Not a strong memory, but a brief encounter at some point… it gave him an ugly, twisting feeling in his gut.

He blinked, and the girl with the gray, horned mask was right in front of him. He resisted the urge to react.  His teammates, he knew, were raising their hands in anticipation of a fight.  They were distrustful.  They’d been taught that foreign heroes were dangerous, unpredictable.

Thing was, they were right.  As a rule, capes were fucked up.  People were fucked up.  The Yàngbǎn, Cody mused, resolved the situation by stripping capes of their humanity.

She turned around, as if she hadn’t just appeared in front of him.  “Shit, you weren’t kidding.  It gets stronger as you get closer to more of them.  I can do practically anything, and they don’t react.”

“No idea,” the man in black said.

“They’re Chinese capes,” a woman in a yellow evening gown said.  “They probably don’t speak enough English to answer.”

Something nagged at him.  Cody searched his memories.  Between the crossbow and the boy in the renaissance era clothes, he couldn’t help but think of the game he’d played with his friends before everything went horribly wrong.  But the evening gowns, those masks…

Accord.  The bastard who had taken him, who had traded him to the Yàngbǎn for money.

The anger was refreshing, startling, and unexpected.  A splash of scalding water to the face, as if waking him from a dream.

“Thirty-six!”  It was Thirty-two calling.

“Thirty-six?” the girl with the horns asked.  “What?”

It was Cody’s name.  His new name, rather, but he’d never quite identified by it.  He turned and realized he’d dropped out of formation.

“Let’s go,” she said.

He glanced back at the woman in yellow.

“I can guess what you’re thinking, but it’s not worth it,” she said.

Every step of the way, I got fucked.  Fucked by Krouse, fucked by the Simurgh, fucked by Noelle, fucked by Accord, fucked by the fucking Yàngbǎn.

The woman in yellow spoke.  “Whether it’s answers, or revenge, or something else entirely, you won’t find any of it here.”

Others in her group were looking at her in surprise, or as much as one could, when wearing masks.

“Do you know how easy it would be to kill you?” Cody asked.

Three gave an order in Chinese.  Incomprehensible, but Cody could guess.

“If you killed me,” the woman in yellow said, “He’d barely care, and you’d spend the rest of your life in a hole that Ziggurat made, if they didn’t just paralyze you from the neck down and leave you alive to borrow your power.”

Ziggurat?  Oh.  Tōng Líng Tǎ, the earth mover.

She’d said she didn’t have answers, but this-

The ground shook violently.  Behemoth was still active.  Lightning was arcing through and around the dark clouds of smoke that were rising at the edges of the city.

“If it’s alright, we should go,” the darkness man said.  “Things get much worse, I’m not sure how much we can help, and I’m losing my mind waiting like this.”

There was a whistle from someone in the group, and they were gone, the mutant quadrupeds breaking into a run.

And Cody was left standing there, staring.

Three snapped something, and Thirty-two translated, “He’s saying we can send you back, if-”

“No.  It’s fine,” Cody said.  He turned and fell into formation.  The disapproval was like a weight on him from all sides.  He withered a little.  How many weeks, months or years would it be before he was allowed to hold a conversation with his comrades?

More heroes were running by, now.  A group of young heroes, a cluster of religious capes with halos and crosses worked into their costumes, and a fresh wave of mechanical ships.  The reinforcements had arrived.

Eight said something, but the accent was too thick for Cody to make it out.

He’d been stirred from a delirium, a state where the days had blended into one another, where the sole defining moment of his week might be if he were acknowledged by the other members or rebuked.  It wasn’t Behemoth who’d shaken him from that point.  It was the woman in yellow.

Anger twisted in his gut, and it wasn’t going away.  He found himself holding onto it, embracing it.

As if it reflected the violence within Cody, the city was burning, shattered and gripped in chaos.  Thousands were in the streets, running between flimsy looking buildings crusted with signage, or lying dead, struck down by shockwaves created by a monster half a mile away.  Women, children.

They passed injured, and didn’t spare a second glance.  A family of five were caught in a ring of burning structures, and the Yàngbǎn didn’t even spare a second glance.

We’re military, not heroes.

The goal was to fight the monster, to support the Yàngbǎn and support the C.U.I. in any way possible.

Three changed course, and the rest flew after him, setting down.  Their destination was a flattened building, with a group of dead, maimed and dying Indian capes lying in the debris.

Cody exercised the twenty-third path to find out what Three surely knew already.  There was nobody nearby.

Three reached down, and others around him joined in, making contact with one of the dying.

It took nearly a minute, to attune everything the right way.  But the effect took hold, and the injured hero disappeared.

Five looked to Cody and pointed at the next one.

Lowest rung on the totem pole.  If I didn’t think Null would rescind my powers, I’d kill you here and now.

Reluctantly, still stewing with anger, he obeyed, kneeling by the body.

The forty-second path.  Teleportation.  He could see the destination in his mind’s eye, like an annoying spot of light in the center of his vision, gradually getting more detailed and focused.  Each person that joined his side to assist sped the process along.

The wounded hero flickered and disappeared.

By the time they were done, all three bodies had been removed.

Qiān chū.”  Three ordered.

They moved out.

As they traveled, he could see the streets choked with evacuees, a virtual tide of people, rickshaws, bicycles and cars.  They’d reached bottlenecks, points where they couldn’t advance, and the evacuation wasn’t proceeding.

Was this an extension of Behemoth’s strategy?  The major streets were unused, either because the Endbringer could see them, unleashing waves of electricity and shockwaves to strike down anyone who tried those routes, or because buildings had been felled and they were impassable.

The heroes who weren’t helping with the evacuation were establishing perimeters, staggered lines of defense.  Here, Indian capes were setting up turrets on high ground, guns the size of cars, drilling them into the roads and rooftops.  Another block over, there were civilians who weren’t running.  They’d gathered, and were talking in low voices.  They radiated a different degree of power, on par with the capes on the rooftops.

The Yàngbǎn squadron slowed down as the cluster of capes grew denser, the buildings more solid and further apart.  There were trees here, but the heroes were cutting them down.  Each squad seemed to be executing a different plan, a different setup.  What appeared to be force-field fences were being erected in between each group and Behemoth’s estimated point of approach.

There was one group with heavy ranged weapons.  An area was being cleared, set up with devices.  Another area had been marked off with chalk, but it wasn’t clear what they intended to do.  Tinkers everywhere were setting up.  A kid with red armor and lenses had two odd-looking cannons set up on one rooftop, each the size of a city bus.

It painted a picture, formed a script of sorts, for the story that had yet to take place.  The idea that Behemoth would change direction from where he’d initially started off wasn’t even a consideration.  They weren’t consolidating forces, gathering together for one good strike, but were arranging it so one would follow after the other.  The capes he’d already seen were the ones that had gone forward to support, to find the injured, trusting to mobility or evasion to slip away.

And here, this far in, a dozen countermeasures were being set up, if not two dozen.  This would be the staging ground, without the crush of flammable buildings all around them.  Each countermeasure would occupy Behemoth for just long enough that the heroes could manage a barrage of attacks.

The Yàngbǎn reached the center of the network, landing on the rooftop with the most capes.  The makeshift command center.

He only had to take one look, and he knew.  Something vital was missing.  They had any number of ways to stall, and each one would cost them a little.  But for all of that, he couldn’t make out anything that looked like it would end the fight.

Cody could see the heroes react as the Yàngbǎn landed, and he could see the way others looked to one small set of people for cues.  The top-level guys, the leadership of the Protectorate.

A a man in gleaming armor extended a hand to Three, who’d stepped away from the group.  “We didn’t expect the Yàngbǎn.”

Three looked over his shoulder, and Thirty-two stepped forward.  Three murmured something, and she translated.  “Your PRT was very persuasive, Chevalier.”

“I suppose we can count that as a good thing.  You read the briefings and plans we sent out?”

Thirty-two continued to translate, “We did.  With your permission, we’ll return to the fight with Behemoth shortly.  But we’d like to make a proposal.”

“I know what you’re going to propose,” Chevalier said.  “I’m sorry, it-”

“It’s somewhat counter to our usual offer,” Thirty-two spoke quickly to match Three’s attempted interruption.

Chevalier fell silent.

“Your heroes here are scared.  They want to help, they are good people.  We’re offering another way.  They can help without risking their lives.”

“I think I understand.  You have to understand why I’m saying no,” Chevalier said.

“Our group shares powers.  Time and time again, the West has refused them.  We would rehabilitate your criminals, and share their powers among us.  They are divided in strength, but we have the ability to magnify powers.  You can feel it now, being close.”

“Yes,” Chevalier said.

In the distance, a column of lightning cut through the wall of smoke above the city, as big around as an apartment building.  Cody could feel the vibrations shudder through the building, as sturdy as it was, though the lightning was miles away.

“We might each have only a share of a power, reduced effect, range or duration, but we regain as much as a third of that power back with this magnification, depending on how many are together.  A full third of forty powers at once.  If any would volunteer, we would teleport them to a safe place, where we would borrow their power for this fight only.  We would send them home when the fight was over.”

Cody could see the reactions of the capes on the rooftop.  People were exchanging glances.  Considering it.

A part of him wanted to scream, to warn them, whatever the cost to him might be.

“I see,” Chevalier said.

“For years, we have boasted of the strength the Yàngbǎn offers the world.  But we are small, and too many citizens with powers flee or fight rather than cooperate.  Today, we hope to show our strength.  We have extended our support, and we ask for trust in exchange.”

“Your support is welcome, and that’s why we couldn’t ever ask you to make this leap of faith,” Chevalier said.  “I understand your motives are pure, but if some accident transpired, and a good cape didn’t make it back, it would mean war.”

Cody hadn’t missed the way the hero had stressed the words.  A warning for his people, more than a statement for Three.

“We would be exceedingly careful,” Thirty-two translated for Three.  “Rest assured.”

Cody was watching the negotiations continue, Chevalier looking more and more uncomfortable, when he saw him.

Accord.  He was accompanied by a girl in a lavender and black costume, and a dark-skinned man in a suit.

Cody had to hold himself back to keep from striking the man.  It would be suicide, and no matter which power he used, Cody couldn’t be sure he could guarantee a kill.

He could see the moment where Accord saw the Yàngbǎn.  Cody could see the reaction, as if the man had been slapped in the face.  Accord’s shifting mask gave away his reaction, and then his expression set, his body language neutral, as if nothing had happened and nothing was wrong.

The girl beside him smiled, and brilliant green eyes settled on Cody, stark contrasts to her pale purple costume.

He hated not knowing anything, being cut off by language barriers and the rules of the Yàngbǎn.  Who was the girl in lavender?  Where were Alexandria, Eidolon and Legend?

Every question left him more uneasy, increasingly angry, and Accord was the person who had put him in this situation.

I’m a slave, and he’s the one who put me in chains.

“May I interrupt?” Accord asked.

“If the Yàngbǎn will excuse me?” Chevalier asked Three.

Three nodded.  “As you will.  We can wait.”

Cody suspected Chevalier had been hoping to end the conversation, rather than postpone it.  He stared at Accord.  Do they know what you do?  What you are? 

There was a crash, a clap of thunder, and a rush of hot wind.  The cloud of smoke around Behemoth’s battlefield was growing, and it wasn’t just a matter of perspective, of Behemoth getting closer.

Capes flew off, joining the fray.  The Yàngbǎn remained.

“What can you tell us?  Do you have a plan?” Chevalier asked Accord.

I’ll kill him.  I’ll kill him.  Somehow.  I just need a chance.

It was too much, like being asleep for months and finally waking up, only to discover that the only thing inside him was rage.

“…optimal timing,” Accord was saying.  “I’m still working out the particulars.”

Krouse thought he was smart too.  When I’m done with you, I’ll find him and kill him. 

“What do you need?”

“Contact information for your various squads.”

Cody virtually twitched with a need to move, a craving to fulfill some deep-seated desire for revenge, but the group around him wouldn’t afford him the chance.  Each member of the Yàngbǎn was simultaneously a prisoner and a guard, some more of one than the other.

Chevalier nodded.  “You’ll have it.  Rime?”

A woman in blue limped forward, “I’ll handle it.”

The girl in lavender glanced at Cody before falling in step with Rime and Accord.

Had she sensed his emotion?  She hadn’t said a thing.

“He just reached the first perimeter,” someone reported.  “Tore through our skirmishers.  Some teenagers were killed.  Eidolon and Legend are fighting, but they’re not in good shape.  We didn’t expect him to move this fast.”

“The Triumvirate’s missing a key member,” Chevalier said.  “Our more mobile capes should move out now.  Meet him at the first perimeter if you’re fast enough, hold at the second if you aren’t.  Maintain cover where possible.”

Qiān chū.”  Three ordered.

The negotiations were over, it seemed.

But he could feel the tickle of new powers taking hold.  The three they’d collected from the shattered building were joining them, like it or not.

The first power was an easy one to grasp.  He could feel his body surging with some added strength, and that strength swelled a step further as the power-enhancing auras took hold.

The second was a tinker power, he was almost positive, or it was a thinker power with a focus on guns.  Nothing useful.

The third… another thinker power.  His vision clarified a step.  The ability to see through smoke?

No.  The ability to see through surfaces.

He was disappointed, and he couldn’t be sure why.  What had he wanted?  What did he want, in general?

Even now, he was alone.  The Yàngbǎn wanted to collect capes, to prove themselves.  The heroes wanted to stop Behemoth.

Cody didn’t care about either.

He entertained the notion that helping Behemoth go loose would almost be better.  It could mean the end of the Yàngbǎn, Accord’s death.  Even Trickster’s death, if they had decided to show up.

Except there was no reasonable way he could do that.  Not for a lack of wanting to, but because he couldn’t hope to oppose the Yàngbǎn and the heroes at the same time.

Needed an opportunity.

The Yàngbǎn passed through the worst of the smoke, into the blasted, shattered ruins of the city.  In the moment they joined the fight, Cody held back.

They sensed he was gone, but they couldn’t disengage, not as Behemoth gathered up a ruined section of building and melted it down, hurled massive globs of melted plastic, metal and stone at them.

The process took a minute at the best of times, with help.  His destination couldn’t be a distant one, and he couldn’t hope to behead the Yàngbǎn on his own, not with the members they’d kept in reserve, the precious ones, with powers they couldn’t afford to lose, like Two’s.

He nearly lost his concentration as a massive crash knocked him off his feet.

The fight’s only beginning, Cody thought.

The teleportation took hold, and he found himself back at the building the Yàngbǎn had just left, three stories down.

The command center.

Accord, the lavender girl, and Chevalier were leaning over a table with computers arranged along it, papers strewn out across the surface.

It brought back memories of the moment everything had turned upside down, the computers, the interrupted tournament.  Finding themselves in another world…

If he needed a push to act, that was it.  The biggest one first.

The laser didn’t cut the armor.  It was capable of cutting granite like a hot knife through butter, but it didn’t cut the armor.  Chevalier turned, drawing his sword, a six-foot long beast of a weapon.  The armor glowed orange as the laser concentrated on his belly.

“You lunatic!” he shouted, charging.

Cody switched tactics.  A forcefield-

The sword shattered it with one swing.

He flew out of the way as another swing came within an inch of decapitating him.

A laser with one hand, a vacuum sphere with another, pulling Chevalier off balance.

Again, it didn’t work.  The man barely reacted as the vacuum sphere caught his legs.  He aimed his weapon, and a combination of danger sense and a nullification wave stopped the shot in the chamber, disabling the gun.

The x-ray vision was barely penetrating the sword or armor.  Cody had to duck, back up and rely on his enhanced reflexes to avoid Chevalier’s attacks.  He had forty-four powers and not one was letting him beat, what, a swordsman in a suit of armor?

It was the lack of the power boost.  The Yàngbǎn were only strong as a group, granting the aura to one another.  Here, now, he was feeble.  Forty powers, and not one of them sufficient.

Always second best.  Always alone, Cody thought.  No.

Keeping the laser trained on Chevalier, he used his own power.  Perdition’s power.  The thirty-sixth path.

Chevalier was moved back to where he was seconds ago.  Cody backed out of the way, kept the laser trained on the hero, and the instant his opponent got too close, he used his power again.  It barely set Chevalier back two seconds, but it was enough.

Slow, steady, inevitable progress.  Time was one of the fundamental forces of the universe, undeniable.

Accord and the girl in lavender made a sudden attempt to run to the door.  Cody created a forcefield to bar their way.

They reached for phones.  He used a vacuum sphere to pull them away.

It took nearly a minute to cut through Chevalier’s armor, using the time reversals to effectively put the man on hold while he put some distance between them, and the laser to cut.  The man folded over the second the laser pierced flesh, cutting straight from the front of his stomach to his back.

Obstacle gone.

“Reckless,” Accord said, sounding more sad than afraid.  “Lunacy.”

“I don’t care what you think.”

“I’d hoped your placement with the Yàngbǎn would temper you.”

Cody lashed out with the laser.  Accord’s right arm was lopped off.

Another cut, for the right leg.  Accord screamed as he fell.

The girl in lavender hadn’t reacted, only stared down at the two dying men.  She clicked her tongue, “Tsk.”

“He’s asymmetrical in death,” Cody mused.  “There’s a justice in that, isn’t there?”

“If there’s irony here, it’s the fact that his desire for order led to this,” the girl commented.  “We just lost our strategist and our field commander, so there’s going to be more chaos than ever.”

The windows briefly rattled with the shockwave of one of Behemoth’s attacks, halfway across the city.

“Tsk.”  the girl said, again.

The anger still burned inside him, not sated in the slightest.  Did I end it too quickly?  Maybe I should have drawn it out more.

He glanced at her.  She was staring at him.  “Can you use that computer to find someone?  If they’re here, or somewhere else?”

“I can,” she said.

“Trickster.”

She raised an eyebrow.  “Oh, I can tell you that without looking.  He bit it.  Some freaky monster calling herself Noelle freaked out, made clones of him.  They ate him alive.  Literally.”

He blinked.  “When?”

“A month ago, Brockton Bay.”

The details fit.  Cody nodded slowly.  He wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

“Sorry, if he was your friend.”

“He wasn’t,” Cody snapped.  He felt off balance.  This was so unexpected.  How was he even supposed to react to that?  How long had it been since he’d really made a call on his own?

Slowly, he spoke, as if sounding out the ideas as they came to him, “No.  I suppose that’s good.  Thank you.  I’d tell you I’ll make it quick, but… you worked for him.  You probably deserve it.”

“Nuh uh,” she said.  She’d backed away, gripped the edge of a table.  Her entire body was rigid.  “I’ll give you my phone, you can call any one of my buddies, tell them it’s Tattletale.  They’ll tell you we were constantly fighting. Only reason we haven’t offed each other is that it’d be mutually assured destruction.”

“Trickery.  No, knowing him, knowing the kind of people he associates with,” like Trickster“there’s probably contingency plans.  I won’t fall for that.”

“Spare me, maybe I can salvage this mess.  I mean, you’ve still got to live on this planet, right?  We can’t let Behemoth win.  Not today.”

“I’m dead anyways.”

“Because of the Yàngbǎn.  I could help.  I’ll figure out a way for you to escape.  Hopeless as this feels, there’s a way out.”

“No,” Cody shook his head.  He felt so lost, so tired, so unsatisfied.  There was one major enemy left to eliminate, one more group who’d wronged him.  The Yàngbǎn.  He already knew he wouldn’t get any more satisfaction from it.  He knew he’d likely die in the attempt.  “No, no point.”

“Fuck,” she said.  “There’s definitely a point.  Just… give me a second, I’ll think of it.  Shit.  Sucks I don’t know much about you.  Don’t suppose you’d give me a hint?”

He raised a hand, pointing at her.  “No.”

“Think about her,” the girl who’d called herself Tattletale blurted out the words.  “What would she think?”

He hesitated.

Her?  The first person that popped into mind was Thirty-two.  The Yàngbǎn member who’d tried to teach him Chinese.  They’d been close, had been friends, before the group segregated them, because they were more malleable as individuals than as a group.  Members of the same team, but never given a chance to talk with one another.  Always in arm’s reach, never together.

The second person he thought of was Noelle.  His first love, the betrayer, the monster.

He shook his head, which only intensified the ringing in his ears.  When had that started?  With the shockwaves?  During the fight with Chevalier?

Or before all that?  Before the Yàngbǎn.  Had it ever stopped?

He thought of the Simurgh, thought of all of this in the context of him being just one of her pawns.

His head hung.

Always a pawn.  Always the expendable one.  Kicked off the team, traded away to Accord for the team’s safety.

“There’s…” he started to speak, then trailed off.  She didn’t interrupt him.  “Who?  Which her are you talking about?  Which her?  Be clear.”

He approached Tattletale, gripping her throat, feeling the added strength of the newest additions to the Yàngbǎn.

Tattletale’s voice was strained, “Honestly?  I figured I’d toss it out there.  There’s bound to be someone important, and saying her gives me a fifty-fifty chance.”

“I hate smartasses,” he said, and he squeezed, feeling her windpipe collapse in his grip.

She fell to the ground, and he watched as she struggled for air that didn’t come.

The faint screaming rang through his head as he watched her struggle to climb a chair, taking ten, fifteen seconds to just get her upper body onto the seat.

She found a plastic pen, collapsed to the ground with it in her hand.  When she flopped over onto her back, it was broken.  She’d caught it between her body and the ground.

This’ll have to do as a surrogate for Trickster, Cody mused, watching.  Had Noelle felt anything like this when she’d killed and devoured innocent people?  A kind of despair, mingled with helplessness?

Anger was all he had left, the drive for revenge the sole thing keeping him moving.  Feeble and misdirected as this was, it wasn’t it.

Tattletale drew a knife from her belt, used the edge to remove the nib and the ink reservoir from the plastic case of the pen.

When that was done, she stabbed herself in the base of the throat.

She’s giving herself a tracheotomy, Cody thought, watching in fascination, even as he reached out and took hold of the plastic pen case.

He watched her expression as he crushed the plastic in one hand.

And he felt nothing.  Even the paradoxical grin that appeared on her face, in contrast to the frustrated slam of one hand against the floor, it reminded him of Trickster in an odd way.  Yet it added nothing to this.

Think about her.  What would she think?  Tattletale’s words struck him.

He thought of Thirty-two, and without even deciding to, he used his own power on the pen case, returning it to the state it had been in seconds ago.

He handed it back to Tattletale, then stood, his back to her, as he concentrated.

As goals went, it wasn’t much of one.  He’d barely talked to her.  As far as kindnesses went, hers had been minor at best.  But he’d save Thirty-two.

It took two minutes to carry out the teleport.  He didn’t have much time before the Yàngbǎn found a free moment to contact Null and rescind his powers.  Maybe they were calling already.  Maybe the electromagnetic radiation in the area would block the call.

He’d find a way, regardless.

He felt his power take hold and teleported.  Back to the battlefield, back to Thirty-two.

Chest heaving as she greedily sucked in air through the plastic tube she’d jammed into the hole in her throat, Tattletale feebly crawled over to Chevalier.  Her strength was depleted before she got halfway.

She stared across the room at Accord and Chevalier’s bodies, straining to see if either were breathing.

She managed the only utterance she could, without the ability to bring air from her lungs to her mouth:  A click of her tongue.  “Tsk.”

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Imago 21.2

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Atlas started to falter.  Compared to humans and other animals, bugs didn’t quite have the same ability to push themselves past the breaking point.  Most bugs were small, and their bodies were hyperefficient, condensed down to the essential elements.  If a bug needed to be able to leap, to lunge or to fly, it maintained a certain capacity and it didn’t generally go beyond that.  It wasn’t absolute, but I’d found it was a definite trend.

In brief, there wasn’t really a hundred-and-ten-percent.  When Atlas started demonstrating fatigue and difficulty in carrying me, I wasted no time in setting him down on the ground.

I ran my hand along the giant beetle’s shell while Tattletale and Rachel caught up.

“Problem?” Tattletale asked.

“No,” I said.  “Yes.  Can I catch a ride on a dog?”

“Yeah,” Rachel said.  She whistled, loud and sharp enough that I flinched, and swept her finger in my direction.  One of her dogs took the cue and approached me.

“What’s wrong with Atlas?” Tattletale asked.

“He’s wearing out,” I said.  My voice sounded flat.  “During the Echidna fight, I saw how quickly he was getting tired, and I chalked it up to the fact that he hadn’t eaten properly while separated from me… but I’ve been realizing that it’s more than that.  I haven’t figured out the perfect diet to give him absolutely everything he needs, and I’m only barely managing to maintain an equilibrium.  Every time he gets hurt, every time he gets tired, there’s general wear and tear I can’t compensate for.”

“I’m sorry,” Tattletale said.

“That’s the way things go, isn’t it?  Nothing works a hundred percent right.”

“I suppose you’re right,” she said.  “I have to wonder, when you named him, what was the idea behind calling him Atlas?”

“My mom raised me as a reader,” I said.  “He’s a giant-sized Hercules beetle, and the only name-upgrade I could think of from Hercules was the titan Atlas.”

“The titan who bears the weight of the world on his shoulders.  Apropos.”

I shrugged.

“And like his master, he’s having trouble with his burden?”

“I’m really not in the mood for the Tattletale psychoanalysis.”  I climbed onto the dog’s back.  It wasn’t one I knew well, and moved away from me as I climbed up its side, making the process more awkward.  Rachel made sound that was almost a bark, almost an ‘ah!’, and the animal went still.

“Maybe it’s not exactly what you want, but what if it can help?”  Tattletale asked.

“My issues aren’t ones that can be fixed with words,” I said.  “Unless you have any insights to offer about Tagg, a way to make this world suddenly make sense, or a way to make people stop being such assholes, such morons, then I’m not sure I want to hear it.”

“He got to you.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head.  “Nothing he said-”

“But he got to you, even if you ignore everything he said.”

“Armsmaster,” I said.  “Kaiser.  Purity.  Miss Militia.  Piggot.  Dragon… a bunch of others I can’t even be bothered to think of.  Why is it so hard to find someone who’s willing to cooperate?  To find someone that’s on the same page as me?  They keep making these calls I just can’t understand, sometimes unfathomable, stupid calls, and things keep falling apart.”

“They probably look at you and wonder why you can’t fall in line with their perception of the way things should go.”

I shook my head.  “It’s not like that.”

Tattletale didn’t interject or argue.

I struggled to find the words.  “…What I’m talking about, ideas like keeping the peace, keeping people safe, making sure that everyone’s safe, it’s… they’re not complicated.  This is basic stuff.  If we can’t get the fundamentals right, then how are we supposed to handle the more complicated stuff, like keeping this city running, or stopping war from breaking out?”

“If we could all handle the fundamental stuff, the larger issues wouldn’t exist.”

“No, he… there’s no way it makes any sense, whether you’re talking fundamentals or larger scale.  He attacked a school to, how did he say it, to give me a bloody nose?”

“It’s probably more complicated than that.  You know as well as anyone that we put on a mask and play a role when dealing with our enemies.  He was playing up a certain attitude because he knew it was the only way to get to you.”

“Why did he have to ‘get to me’?”

“You attacked him.”

“I mean, why did it even have to get to that point?  They weren’t as aggressive with Kaiser and Purity, when unpowered members of Empire Eighty-Eight were dragging people from their homes.  They didn’t act on this scale when the ABB was dealing in hard drugs and ambushing people on the street to tell them that because of where their parents were born, that they had to be soldiers, prostitutes or pay money every month in tribute.  They were doing that to middle schoolers.”

“You took over a city.”

“How is that worse?  How does that even compare to those other guys?”

“It doesn’t compare,” Tattletale said.  She hopped down from Bentley’s back.  She paced between Rachel and I, thumbs hooked into her belt.  Rachel stared at me, her expression unreadable, her mask dangling around her neck by a strap.  Tattletale continued, “Not really.  But it means a world of difference to them.  They have to care about appearances.”

“Maintaining appearances is so important that they have to attack a school?  Break the unwritten rules?”

“I could go on a whole spiel about the unwritten rules.  But that’s not important.  For people like Tagg and Piggot, it’s cape business, and they’re not quite part of that.  And yeah, appearances are worth putting kids at risk, for what they’re facing.  Things are just calming down here-”

Rachel snorted.

“-But they’re only picking up for the PRT.  They’re running scared, hemorrhaging members.  They’re falling apart, and they’re big enough in the grand scheme of things that we don’t even know the repercussions if this keeps going on.  Every team that fights the Endbringers relies on the Protectorate for information, for backup, equipment and even periodic training.  But even beyond that, beyond the capes, there are hundreds of millions of people around the world who are watching the Protectorate, looking to them for reassurance.  Our perspectives and feelings are barely a factor in the face of those hundreds of millions of watching eyes.”

Barely a factor.”

Tattletale shrugged.  “They put on a brave face, they put a tenacious fucker in office here, and they gear up to take a bite out of us.  They don’t want to win.  Not completely, not all at once.  They need us, because they don’t have the capes to dedicate to protecting this territory, not even with the possibility that the portal becomes something big.  They aim to take you out, destabilize us, and maybe then they hope to focus on the other bad guys.  The Teeth, the Fallen, anyone else who shows up and doesn’t play by the rules.  They do something to assure the world that they’re still relevant, and they keep the balance, all with a minimum of resources expended.”

“And in doing that, they fuck with the rules, and they attack a high school.”

“Are you really surprised that they broke the rules?  We have, Piggot did, when she wanted to drop bombs on us while letting us act as decoys for bigger threats.  The rules are only useful so long as they protect the status quo, and Brockton Bay bent the status quo over backwards and fucked it a long time ago.”

“And the school?”

“Dinah,” she said.  “They had some basic, hard numbers saying that you wouldn’t do something disastrous, and they have PR to clean up the mess afterwards.  I suspect there’ll be something in the news early tomorrow.  They’ll say you were an undeniable threat, they’ll twist things around, fudge the truth or outright lie, and they’ll suppress anything that contradicts that line.  After that, they’ll have Tagg and the local heroes keep looking to take a bite out of us, do some damage they can put on camera, for the benefit of the hundreds of millions of watching eyes, and they’ll keep at us until they do.  He was being honest about that much.”

I clenched my fist.  I didn’t want to think about Dinah.

“Sorry,” she said.  “But it’s better you know this in advance, so it doesn’t blindside you when the news-”

“Rachel,” I interrupted Tattletale.

“What?”  Rachel asked.  Her eyes hadn’t left me.

“Can I borrow this dog?  I’ll look after him.”

“He needs to eat.  Can you get him back to me by tomorrow morning?”

“I asked Tattletale to ship dog food to every headquarters, the same kinds you feed your dogs, just in case,” I said.  “Not tomorrow morning, but I’ll make sure he eats.”

Tattletale frowned, “Skitter, we need to talk about-”

“I got the gist of it,” I said.  “Did you ship the food?”

“Yes.”

I looked to Rachel, “I’ll walk him, make sure he has food and water.”

“No need for a walk,” Rachel said.  “Boston terriers don’t need more than one a day.”

“Okay,” I said.

“I’ll come for him tomorrow afternoon,” she said.  As an afterthought, she said, “His name is Radley.”

“Thank you,” I said.

No questions, no pressure, no explanations.  It was just Rachel, stepping outside of her comfort zone and trusting one of her dogs to someone.  It helped more than everything Tattletale had said put together.

Not that that was saying much.

“Let’s go, Radley.”

Radley hesitated to obey.  I half-expected Rachel to urge him forward, but she didn’t say a thing, apparently content to let me take charge.

I was glad when he started running, glad on so many levels.

Moving felt good.  It wasn’t me running, my feet pounding on the ground, but feeling Radley’s muscles shift beneath me, feeling the impacts of his feet on the ground, jolting through my body to the point that I had to clench my teeth to keep from biting my tongue, it was good.

I’d always liked the sensation of the wind in my hair.  It was cleansing, soothing, if not relaxing.  It was cool, when the air around me was warm and humid.

I shifted position, holding on with only one hand, and pulled off my mask with the other. The world was blurry, I didn’t have the extra hand to don my glasses, but I could feel the wind in my face now.  I shut my eyes, trusting to Radley and my swarm-sense to navigate the streets.

But where was I supposed to go?

I wanted to see Dinah, knew it was the last place I should go.  I already knew the answers, already knew that the conclusion was a foregone one.  Didn’t want to think about it, just like I didn’t want to think about those two pieces of paper she’d left in the car before we’d parted ways.  I was actively trying not to think about them, as a matter of fact.

Dinah had left me two messages, and I had little doubt that she’d done it that way for a reason.  To meet her now, it would go against that, it would put me in the heroes’ sights,  and it would crystallize things I didn’t even want to think about into a single discussion.

My dad?  No.  There was nothing to say, no signal that would work.  If he was even there, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the media around his place, or the Protectorate, the reminder that I hadn’t just abandoned him, but that my very existence was inconveniencing him.

I steered Radley around a corner, hauling on one of the chains.  I wasn’t really strong enough to make him turn his head, but Rachel had trained him to respond to slight cues, and it seemed his personality was more cooperative than not.  If he’d been stubborn, he could have chosen to run up until Bitch’s power wore off.  Not that I really minded.

“Good boy,” I said.

What was I supposed to do?  I didn’t have any hobbies.  For one and a half years, I’d just been trying to get by, managing with school, reading, surfing the web aimlessly.  Once my powers had manifested, my hobby had been preparing for the idea that I’d go out as a superhero.  I’d had only this and my day-to-day life as Taylor since then, and only one of those things had survived the day.

We ran with no destination, until Radley had foam flecking the corner of his mouth, and the meat of his back started shifting position in a way that suggested he was shrinking.

At my instruction, Radley slowed to a walk, then a complete stop.  I slid off his back.  Holding the chain, I led him in a walk.  It served to help me work the kinks out of my arms and legs, and it let Radley cool down after the run, flesh sloughing away around him.  Atlas followed, flying above us.

I wanted to see Brian, didn’t want to continue our discussion from earlier.

I itched to deal with one of my enemies, to ride off to battle and do something about the Teeth or the Fallen, but I didn’t trust that I’d be focused enough to tackle the situation and fight at my best.

I couldn’t imagine I’d be focused after a good night’s sleep, either.

Radley couldn’t walk any more, and I waited while the last of his body sloughed away, gathering up the chains.  It made for a surprising amount of weight, especially when it was all coiled up into a single length.

One chain had a collar on it.  I found Radley’s real body in the fluid-filled sac that  encased him, and punctured it to get my hands on him.  I managed to attach the collar, and clipped one end of a chain to it.  I gave Atlas some of the chain, and lifted the remainder over my head, shouldering the burden.

Without Atlas or Radley to carry me, I faced a long walk, even if I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go.

Time to think, without any outside forces to interject.

Damn Tagg.  I hated that my conversation with him was among the most recent, the one that I couldn’t help but dwell on.

Where the hell had Radley and I even gone?  What was even close by, here?  Captain’s hill?  The woods?  The upper end of Grue’s territory?  What would even motivate me to come this way?

I kept walking.  Part of it was that I couldn’t bring myself to go back to my territory, to answer the questions of my underlings.  Another part of it was that I knew I’d wake up after a fitful night’s sleep, and I would resume being Skitter.  I would be Skitter with anyone and everyone I interacted with for a long time.

My confused thoughts crystallized into a realization when I found a short stone wall topped by an iron grille railing, sharp points spearing toward the sky, protecting the inhabitants of the property.

I scooped up Radley with one arm and scaled the wall.

The ground was soft, thick with bugs.  The area was dense with trees, once young, now overgrown.  The air was cooler here, thanks to the shade the trees had offered during the day and the wind that blew down from the surrounding hills.

I took a seat on the grass.

“Oh boy,” I said, “Where do I even begin?”

Radley seemed to think I was talking to him.  He approached and nudged me with his nose.  I scratched behind his ears, gently.  I’d altered the armor of my gloves, and they ended more in points.  Radley seemed to like it, pushing against my fingertips, his eyes half-closing.

“I guess I should say I’m sorry it’s been so long, mom,” I said, still scratching Radley.

The headstone, naturally, didn’t respond.  There were only the words:

Annette Rose Hebert
1969-2008
She taught something precious to each of us
.

“It’s… it’s sort of humiliating, to think about everything in context.  I get this knot in my chest, right up near my collarbone, when I think about getting into everything, about filling you in and catching you up on the past few months.  It’s almost harder than it’d be to explain to dad, and I never even managed to do that.”

Silence lingered.  We were remote enough that there weren’t even the sounds of the city.  Oblivion, as clean as it might be in Grue’s darkness.

“I guess things have kind of turned upside down.  That whole superhero thing I told you about, before?  It… really didn’t work out.”

I laughed a little, a small sound, humorless.

Radley climbed into my lap and turned around until he was nestled in place.

“And it’s like… if I even started to tell you everything that went on, all of the stuff that dad’s probably finding out about?  Stuff maybe worse than what I was saying to intimidate Dragon and Defiant, on the cell phone videos that made it to the news?  I don’t think I could manage it.  It’s- how did I even get to this point?  I did horrible things, stuff that makes me feel three feet tall when I just imagine telling you or dad about it, and the stupid thing is I’m not sure what I would’ve done different if I had to do it all over again.

“So where do I begin?  How do I even frame it all?  Everything’s flipped around.  I’m not alone anymore.  I have maybe a hundred and fifty people working for me, some people who trust me with their lives, others who owe me their lives.  I’ve got Lisa and Brian.  Rachel.  There’s Alec and Aisha too, but I’m not as close to them.  We’ve, uh, we’ve been through a lot.  Life and death stuff.  On television, in the movies and in books, you sort of get the impression that you make it past the one big hurdle, and you’re bound together by circumstance.  It happened a lot in the books you read to me at night.  Not so much in reality.

“Except getting through the crisis doesn’t mean we’re all together forever, without our issues.  We’re close.  We’re closer, in the aftermath of it all, but I’m not sure where Brian and I stand.  Right now, when I’m maybe feeling lower than I have in forever, I don’t even feel like I can talk to them.”

My swarm detected someone traveling the grounds.  I glanced over in that direction, saw the dim glow of a flashlight.  It didn’t turn my way, and in a minute, he was gone.  A caretaker of the grounds.  Groundskeeper?  Whichever.

“Brian wants to address the problem, Lisa wants to understand it.  I’d go to Rachel, will probably go to Rachel, but I don’t know that I can really talk about any of this with her.  I don’t know if she has any real conception of what I lost, today.  I don’t want to suggest you’re the last person I’d turn to, but I think the real reason I came here was because I wasn’t sure where else to go, to have someone to listen.”

I sighed.  Radley echoed me, doing the same, supine in my lap, eyes closed.

“Um.  I’ve gone from an insignificant nobody to someone that’s being talked about all over the world.  I didn’t even really mean to, but I kind of wound up taking over a city.  It needed doing, so I did it, and we can’t give up the job because others would step in to take over, and they wouldn’t be as fair to the locals, I don’t think.  Tattle- Lisa was saying she thinks the authorities are holding back because they need us here.  They don’t like us, they don’t like me, but we’re a fixture, now.  So here I am, and governments on the other side of the planet are probably discussing contingency scenarios and the possibility of bad guys taking over their towns.  I’m on the news, and I’m all over the internet, and I guess even your name’s come up.  Dad’s too.”

I pulled my mask from where I’d tucked it into my belt and turned it over.  I held it up so it was facing the headstone.

“I guess I should get around to saying it outright.  I’m a supervillain.  Crime lord of Brockton Bay.  It’s not as bad as it sounds.  Or maybe it’s worse.  I’ve saved lives.  Fought Leviathan, fought the Slaughterhouse Nine and Echidna.  I’ve also taken a life.  Fought the heroes, and hurt people who probably didn’t deserve it, just to make a point.”

I had to stop there.  I sighed, then turned to stare out over the unlit graveyard and the city beyond the short walls.

“This whole thing, I didn’t really ask for any of it.  I made myself into this… entity, just to get by.  I’ll probably have to keep doing it.  I tried to avoid hurting people out of anger, but that sounds pretty feeble when I look at what I’ve done.  A little while back, there was this guy who was dying.  One of the Merchants.  The man had taken a boy away from his sister and did some shitty stuff in general.  Hurt people.  I left him there to die, and part of the reason I did it was because I knew I needed to be harder, to reassure myself that I could kill another man when the time came.  Which I did.

“I told myself I was doing that to save a little girl.  I don’t even know why I made it as big a deal as I did.  Saving Dinah.  Some of it might have been because I was trying to do what was right, and because I wasn’t sure anyone else would be able to do anything about it.  But the more I think on it, the more I think I was trying to make up for the bad stuff I’d already done.”

There were a fresh set of flowers in the small, narrow vase at the base of the headstone.  I picked it up and studied it.  Had my dad paid a visit earlier in the evening?

“She turned on me, you know,” I said.  “The girl I saved.  And I think I sort of know why she did it.  I understand the rationale.  I don’t even blame her.”

I fished the two little notes from my belt.  I’d crumpled and flattened them out so many times they were little better than tissue paper.  I hadn’t wanted to read them, but I hadn’t been able to throw them away, either.

“Shit,” I muttered.  “What gets me, more than anything, is the injustice of it all.  There’s no karmic retribution, no reward for good deeds or punishments for the bad.  It’s almost the opposite.  It might explain why the Protectorate’s in such rough shape.

“I do horrible things, kill a man, and I can’t even bring myself to feel bad about it.  I scared innocents, did property damage, attacked good heroes who were trying to protect the city and the shitty heroes who were doing the job for selfish reasons, and I get rewarded.  Power, prestige, respect.”

I straightened out the notes so they were each flat, being careful not to tear them.

“And I save a girl from the clutches of an evil, scheming crime lord, and this is my reward.”

I held out the papers for the tombstone.  Two squares of paper.  Each had a number in the upper left corner, circled, to indicate the order the notes should be read in.  Two words for the first note, two and a half for the second.

1.  Cut ties.

2.  I’m sorry.

“Let me tell you, mom.  If there are two and a half words you don’t want to hear from a person who can see the future, those words are ‘I’m sorry’.  It’s terrifying.  She gave me instructions, and I didn’t follow them.  I knew, I almost did it, several times over, but I didn’t make the call.  I didn’t leave dad.  So maybe that’s why she forced my hand by going to the authorities and telling them to out me.”

I took my time folding up the notes, tucking them into my belt.

“I guess this next bit must be important, if she was willing to do this to me after everything I did for her.  Maybe it’s for the greater good.  Maybe it gives me the greatest chance at surviving what comes next.”

I tensed as the groundskeeper with the flashlight appeared again.  The flashlight turned my way, but he didn’t seem to notice me.

“She says she’s sorry, and it’s like… I’m not mad at her.  I don’t blame her, because she’s just one piece of a bigger picture, and she’s a pawn in it all, just like me.  It’s everything that’s fucked up, isn’t it?  The whole dynamic where wrongs get rewarded and right gets punished, some of the good guys turning out to be worse than the worst of the bad, the sheer lack of cooperation, when there’s not just one apocalypse coming, but two.  The Endbringers and this thing with Jack Slash.”

I sighed.

“I’ve spent far too much time looking at these notes, wondering why she wrote them, interpreting them, and considering the worst case scenarios.  I’ve thought about it until I started thinking in circles.  I keep coming back to different facets of the same idea.”

I could imagine her there.  My mom, standing in front of me, a physical presence.  All of her gentleness and warmth.  Her silent, quiet disapproval.  Her brilliance, which she couldn’t share with me right now.

I felt a sort of relief.  Being able to talk it out, it helped clarify my thoughts where I’d felt so lost, before.  I was feeling more direction, now.  I could see a goal, something to aim for.  I didn’t like it, but I’d known from the moment I read Dinah’s notes that I wouldn’t like the outcome.

“I’ve got to be heartless, I think,” I said, and my voice was barely above a whisper.  I was aware of the groundskeeper approaching, but I didn’t move.  “I know you and dad won’t approve of this, but Dinah seems to think I have a bigger role to play in what comes next, and maybe I won’t be in the right position, in the right place at the right time, if I don’t do it.”

Radley stirred, reacting to the noise of the groundskeeper’s footsteps.  I held his collar to keep him from attacking.

I moved Radley, stood and faced the groundskeeper.  I could see the whites of his eyes in the gloom, even through the glare of the flashlight.  He was older, round-faced, with a potbelly, his hair a bit too long.

His look was wary.  The girl in a black body suit complete with gray body armor, in the company of a small dog, sitting by a grave.

“I’m sorry to intrude,” I said.  “I’ll leave.”

He peered at me, then glanced at my mom’s headstone.  “You’re visiting?”

“My mother.”

“Not causing any trouble?”

I shook my head.

“I won’t begrudge you that, so long as you don’t cause any trouble or leave any mess.  You clean up after that dog.”

I nodded again, silent.  I didn’t have bags, but I had bugs.

His expression softened a touch.  “You need anything?  I’ll be making some tea before I get another walk in later tonight, but I could brew a spot of coffee if you think you’ll be sitting out here for a bit.”

I felt tears in the corners of my eyes.  Odd, that they hadn’t appeared earlier.

“Tea would be…” I struggled to find the word.  I almost said lovely, but it sounded wrong.  “Tea, please, if it’s no trouble.”

“I’ll bring out a cup.”

“And paper?”  I blurted out the words.

“I only have printer paper, I think.”

“That’s fine.”

“How many pages?”

I opened my mouth to say, but I had no idea.

Again, a gentle expression that I didn’t deserve crossed his face.  “I’ll bring you a good amount.  You bring the leftover back to my office when you return the teacup.”

“Thank you,” I told him.

It was a little while before he arrived with the tea, the paper and a pen.  I didn’t speak to my mother’s headstone in the meantime, and even after the groundskeeper stopped by, I couldn’t find anything to say.

I wrote; twelve pages, front and back.  It wasn’t a fast process.  Two hours passed before the groundskeeper did another patrol of the grounds.  I wasn’t sure if it was his job or a thing he did because he had nothing else to do, but he finished up and retired in a little house a little ways up the hill, turning in for the night.

My hand was cramping and I had a stitch in my neck by the time I’d decided I was finished.  Too many hours spent writing with the paper pressed against the armor on my leg, considering how to phrase things, knowing that there was no perfect way to say it.

I penned the final words:

I love you, dad.  I’m sorry
-Taylor

I removed the flower from the vase, and laid it at the foot of the headstone.  I rolled up the paper and slid it into the vase, then placed it upside-down so the rain wouldn’t filter inside.  My dad would be the only one to see it.  If someone like the groundskeeper investigated, I didn’t particularly mind.

I stood, stretching.  Radley wagged his tail at me, excited to be moving again.  He was a happy, easygoing little guy.  Had Rachel sent him with me with his personality in mind?

I thought about saying something more to my mom, but the illusion had been shattered.  I’d made a decision, and it wasn’t one I’d been prepared to make when I’d left the PRT headquarters.  Talking had helped to clarify my thoughts.  I didn’t feel as lost as I had, nor as frustrated.  I’d been able to pen out an explanation for my dad.  Not as long or as in-depth as he deserved, perhaps, but an explanation.

“Thanks for hearing me out,” I said, acutely aware that she wasn’t there, that she wasn’t listening.  “I’m going to be busy, so it’ll probably be a while before I drop by again.  Sorry.”

I walked away with a lump in my throat, my head held high, and a direction in mind.

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Imago 21.1

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Tattletale stood at the very edge of the floor, with a twenty-five story drop just in front of her.  The wind whipped her hair around her, and she didn’t even have a handhold available.  Shatterbird had cleared out all of the window panes, long ago.

She lowered her binoculars.  “He’s gone.  If he was going to pull something off, he’d want to watch and make sure everything went off without a hitch.”

“I could have gone with them,” Imp said.  “Listened in.”

“Not without us knowing their full set of powers,” Tattletale said.

Imp folded her arms, pouting, “I thought you were one of the cool ones.”

“Othello’s a stranger,” Tattletale said.  “I’d think he has an imaginary friend who can mess around with us, but I didn’t see any sign of anyone invisible walking around.”

“Isn’t that the point?” Regent asked.

“No dust or glass being disturbed, none of that.  I might think his ‘friend’ is invisible and intangible, but then what’s the point?  Accord tends to have people with good powers.  Citrine, only bits I could figure out were that she’s got an offensive power, something with substance, and her focus was in a strange place.  She was more focused on places in the room where the strongest powers were clustered, and her focus was fairly indiscriminate beyond that.  Either her power wasn’t anything that anyone here would have been able to defend against, like Flechette’s arrows or a controlled version of Scrub’s blasts, or she’s a trump classification.”

“What’s that?” Regent asked.

“Official classification for capes who can either acquire new powers on the fly,” Tattletale gestured towards Grue, “Have an interaction with other powers that can’t be categorized or they nullify powers.”

“She’s powerful, then,” Regent said.

“She acts like she’s powerful,” Tattletale said, “And she probably is.  But that database of PRT records we had didn’t have anything in it about those two.  I don’t know where he finds those guys, but Accord collects some damn heavy hitters.”

Parian broke her spell of silence.  “You keep talking like we’re going to fight them.”

“Threat assessment,” Tattletale said.  She made her way back to her chair, sitting at the long table.  “Be stupid not to know what we’re getting into, especially with someone like him.”

“Not to mention we’ve gotten in fights with pretty much everyone who ever set up shop in the ‘Bay,” Regent commented.

“There’s nothing imminent,” Grue said.  “Let’s focus on more immediate problems.”

He turned his attention my way.

“Me?” I asked.

“He’s right.  We’ve been so busy preparing for possible fallout that we haven’t had time to discuss this,” Tattletale said.

“I’m a non-factor.  The damage is done, and it’s a question of the dust settling,” I said, staring down at my gloves.  I’d altered some of my costume, but the real adjustments would have to wait until I had time.  I’d made up the extra cloth in an open area of my territory I was devoting to the purpose, but hadn’t had time to turn it into something to wear for tonight.  Some of my mask, the back compartment of my armor and my gloves were more streamlined.  Or less streamlined, depending on how one looked at it.  Sharper lines, convex armor panels that flared out more, gloves with more edges for delivering damage if I had to get in a hand to hand fight.

I’d only done some of the armor, pieces of my costume that were already battered and worn.  My gloves, my mask and the back compartment of my armor tended to take the most abuse.  I’d update the rest later.

“I’m not sure it’s that simple,” Grue said, his voice quiet.  He reached across the table and gripped my hand, squeezing it.  “Have we double checked to see what bridges they’ve burned for us?  My parents aren’t showing any sign of interference.”

“Mom wouldn’t care either way,” Aisha said.  “She might try to capitalize on the attention with appearances on television if she could get money for it.”

“Yeah,” Grue agreed.

“My family wouldn’t care,” Tattletale said.  “I’d be surprised if they didn’t already know.  They’d choose to ignore it, I’d bet.  Parian?  You’ve covered your bases.”

“Most of my family is dead.  The ones who aren’t dead already know,” Parian said.  She looked out toward the window, at the city lights under the night sky.

Tattletale nodded, “Let’s see… Rachel isn’t a problem, not really.  Never had a secret identity.”

Rachel shrugged.  Her attention was on her dogs.  They were shrinking, their extra mass sloughing away.  She already had Bastard sitting next to her, his fur spiky and wet from the transformation.

“And if they tried to come at me through my family, they’d get what they deserved,” Regent said.

“Why?” Parian asked.

“His dad’s Heartbreaker,” Tattletale said.

“Oh.  Oh wow.”

“Funny thing is,” Regent said, “If you think about it, we might be bigger than Heartbreaker, now.  People all over America know who we are, and I’m not sure if Heartbreaker is known that far to the south or west.”

“That’s not our focus right now,” Grue said, squeezing my hand.  “It’s good that we’re talking about safeguards and damage control, but discussing villains and the rest of America can wait.  They came after Skitter while she was out of costume.”

“How are you coping?” Tattletale asked, leaning forward over the table.  “You were pretty heavy-handed tonight.  We discussed it, sure, but I thought you’d at least pretend to play ball with them.”

“I didn’t need superpowered intuition to figure out they weren’t going to cooperate no matter what I said,” I replied.

“But you were provoking them.  Valefor especially.  You up for this, with all the other distractions?”

“This is what I’ve got left, isn’t it?  The good guys decided to play their biggest card.  They couldn’t beat Skitter, so they beat Taylor.  As far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason not to throw myself into this, to deal with both heroes and villains as a full-time thing.  I lay down the law, because now I’ve got time to enforce it.  I can be stricter with the local villains, back you guys up if they cause trouble, and dedicate the rest of my time to my territory.”

“Dangerous road to travel down,” Tattletale said.  “You need to rest, to have downtime.”

“And do what?  Go to a movie?  I’m not sure if any theaters are open-”

“They are,” Tattletale said.

“-And I couldn’t go even if they were.  My face is plastered all over the news, and I’ve got a tinker who might be watching every computer system and surveillance camera in the city, because she’s not willing to go against her bosses.  I can’t go shopping, can’t leave my territory unless I’m in costume and ready for a fight.”

“More time to go after them,” Regent said.  “You can’t let this slide.”

“I’m not planning to,” I said, standing from my seat.

“Hold on,” Grue said, as my hand came free of his grip.

“Walk with me,” I said.  “All of you.  The city may be getting better, but there shouldn’t be lights on in this building, and it’s only a matter of time before one of the local heroes decides to stop by and see why.”

“We can take them,” Rachel said, from the rear of the group.

“We can, and we will,” I said, entering the stairwell.  “On our terms, not theirs.”

“There’s enough enemies to fight,” Parian said.  She had to hurry around the table to catch up.  “We don’t need more.”

“I agree,” Grue said.  “Not that I don’t understand the need for some response, but you’re talking aggression.”

“I’m feeling aggressive,” I said.  “I think.  I don’t know.  Hard to pin it all down.”

“Might be better to wait until you have a better idea of what you’re feeling,” Grue said.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, stepping down onto the staircase.  “Logically, there’s no choice but to act on this.  You heard Valefor.  The villain community won’t respect us until we answer the PRT, and the so-called good guys won’t have a reason to think twice about doing it again.”

“The rest of us aren’t as vulnerable as you are,” Regent said.  “Don’t want to sound disrespectful or anything, but we don’t have the same kinds of civilian lives to protect.”

“There’re others,” I said.  “Part of the reason we uphold these rules is because it sets precedents.  Other villains hold to the rules and we benefit, the opposite is true.”

“The flip side of it,” Tattletale said, “Is that we’re risking an escalation in conflict.”

“I don’t see how they can escalate,” I said.  “As I see it, they played the last card they have.  The harder we hit them now, the more clear it is to outsiders that the PRT doesn’t have an answer.  I can show that it doesn’t bother me, and the effect is the same.”

“Doesn’t it, though?” Tattletale asked.  “Doesn’t it bother you?”

“Yes,” I said.  “In terms of me, I don’t know.  I can’t say for sure whether it’s justified or not.  But they went after my dad.”

“I get that,” Grue said, “I’d be pissed if they went after Aisha.  God, you know, when I was swallowed up by Echidna, and she was filling my head with all the worst stuff I could think of, revised memories, it-”

He stopped, and I paused to glance back up the stairs at him.

“Bro?” Aisha asked.

He took a second to compose himself, then said, “I get what you’re saying, Taylor.  Believe me.  I was buried in it.  If anyone here knows what it’s like to want to protect people-”

“That’s not it,” I cut him off.

“No?”

“It’s not about me wanting to protect my dad from the aftermath of all of this.  That’s done, and right now he’s hurting more than he has since my mom died.  Some of that’s on me, and some of it’s on the people who sent Defiant and Dragon into the fray.  The damage is done.”

“And you want to go after the non-capes who made the call?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m sick of being on the defensive.  I hate waiting for the other shoe to drop, because there’s always another shoe, and always a bigger threat.  Speaking of, what’s your interpretation on the company we had tonight, Tattletale?  How do you think they’re going to play this?”

“The Ambassadors are on the up and up, as far as I can guess their direction.  Accord’s unpredictable, which is kind of ironic.  I’d say they’re lower priority.”

“They’re going to stick to the deal?”

“Until Accord’s neurosis pushes him to break it,” Tattletale said.

“Then who’s a higher priority?  The Teeth?”

“Lots of aggressive powers.  Butcher’s at the forefront of it all.  Spree has rapid fire duplicate generation, Vex has the ability to fill empty spaces with small, razor-sharp forcefields, Hemorrhagia is a limited hemokinetic with some personal biokinesis, Animos can transform for limited times and packs a power nullification ranged attack while in his other shape.  There’s two or three others.”

“I’m asking about their goals,” I said.  “Any clue what they’re thinking?  Are they going to come after us?”

“Probably.  We seem weak and unbalanced right now, especially with Parian not doing the absolute best job protecting her territory.”

“I’m trying,” Parian said.

“You’d be doing better if you’d accept help,” Tattletale retorted.  “Except you don’t want to do that because you haven’t committed to this.”

“I will.  I’m still figuring out the more basic stuff you guys figured out ages ago.”

“Commitment on a mental level, P.  That’s more than just coming to meetings.  You don’t have to like us, but respect us, get to know us, trust us and maybe allow for the occasional intimate moment.”

Parian snapped her head around to stare at Tattletale, in a way that was rather more dramatic than the statement warranted.

“Not that kind of intimate.  Sorry hon.  Trust me when I say we’re all pretty accepting here, and there’s no reason to lie; none of us girls here bat for the other team.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Of course,” Tattletale said, smiling.  “But I was talking about letting us see more of the girl behind the mask.  Share those vulnerabilities, let us give you a shoulder to cry on.”

“I don’t need one,” Parian said, “And that has nothing to do with me defending my territory.”

“More than you think,” Tattletale said.  She glanced at me, “They’re the type to prey on weakness, and Parian’s capable of only protecting a short section of her perimeter.”

“Hire people?” I asked.  “Henchmen, mercenaries.”

“I don’t want to put innocents in the line of fire,” Parian said.

“You don’t want others to suffer if the Teeth come after the people you wanted to protect, either,” I said.

“I don’t know what you want me to do.  If I call for help, they’ll retreat, and we wind up wasting your time, while leaving me looking and feeling useless.”

“There’s an alternative,” I said.

“What?”

“What I was talking about before.  Going on the offensive.  Only it’s not about just the good guys.  I’m talking about targeting our enemies, wiping them out before they hurt us and give us cause.”

“That’s dangerous,” Grue said.

“You guys keep saying things along those lines,” I responded.  “I shouldn’t be so strict with our enemies, I shouldn’t ratchet up my involvement in things, I shouldn’t be aggressive.  It’s more dangerous to leave them loose, to always give our enemies the first move.”

“The flip side to that coin is that it gives everyone else we deal with less reason to play ball.  We need to get other villains to parley if we’re going to seriously hold this territory.  The Ambassadors are only step one,” Grue said.  “If some other group comes into town and they’re considering joining us, are they going to look at whatever humiliating defeat we visit on the Fallen and feel it’s better to attack us first?”

“Escalation,” Parian echoed Tattletale’s earlier statement.

I sighed.  Atlas had descended from his vantage point above the building, and flew in to land next to me.  I ran my hand along his horn.

“We’re not… the idea here isn’t to attack you, Taylor,” Tattletale said.  “Hell, what they did was low.  You said it yourself, in that cafeteria.  But you’re talking about changing our dynamic, and it’s a dynamic that’s been working.  We’ve already been through some high-tension, high-conflict scenarios.  A bunch of times when we went days without a chance to breathe.  You want to ratchet that up?”

“Not entirely,” I said.  “If we do this right, if we play this smart, then this should reduce the amount of conflict.  I need to know if you guys are on board.”

“Yeah,” Rachel said.

“I’m in,” Regent replied.  Imp nodded.

“My- my vote doesn’t count,” Parian said.  “I only wanted a show of force, to see if we couldn’t scare the Teeth.  Only I think it had the opposite effect, because what you guys were saying about Butcher is spooking me.  If you guys want to help me with them, okay.  But I don’t want to commit to anything major here, and I can’t tell you guys how to operate, because I’m new to this.  Skip my vote.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Tattletale?  Grue?”

“I’ve already said my bit,” Tattletale said.  “You call the shots in the field, and act as the face of the group, I do the behind the scenes stuff.  That’s how we worked it out.  I’m kosher with that.”

Grue said, “I have one thing to say.  Think it over, or keep it in mind.  We made it further than most groups do.  Some villains set their sights high, and they fall.  Others try to eliminate their enemies and get eliminated in turn.  Still others set their mind on a goal and they strive for it, only to get worn down along the way.”

He paused, glancing away.  I didn’t interrupt.  Picking the right words?  Thinking about himself, as one of the ones who were worn down by circumstance?  Or maybe he was thinking about me in that light.

“Maybe part of the reason we made it this far was because you weren’t striving for that.  When we were villains, you were trying to be the good guy, behind the scenes.  When we were trying to take out some pretty nightmarish opponents, your focus was on surviving more than it was on attacking.  I didn’t get the impression you craved to be team leader or to rule the city, but you took on the job because you knew the alternative would be disaster.”

I nodded.  Even if I’d wanted to say something in response, I wasn’t sure what I would’ve wanted to say.

“Maybe the reason I’m less comfortable with this is that it’s not your usual pattern.  I feel like you’re wanting to be aggressive because you’re hurt and angry.  There’s nothing to temper it.  Think about it, okay?  I won’t tell you not to do this.  Despite everything I just said, I do trust your instincts, and I’m not sure I trust mine these days.”

“Grue-”

“I don’t.  That’s me being honest.  Do what you have to do, but do it with your eyes wide open.”

“Okay,” I said.  “I’ll try.”

I had a sudden impulse to hug him, to hold him as close and as tight as our costumes allowed, my arms tight around his broad back, his muscled arms holding me just as tight.

The idea alone made me feel like I might suddenly burst into tears, and I found it startling, inexplicable.

I didn’t hug Grue; I wasn’t sure enough about what I was feeling or why, didn’t want to come across as anything but a leader.  Leading this team was something I could do.  Something concrete, with real dividends.

Why had I brought Atlas here?  Had I already been thinking about running?  Avoiding further contact with these guys?  Avoiding Grue?  It was disconcerting to think about.

Tattletale was staring at me.  Could she read what I was experiencing, or get a sense of the emotions that were warring inside me?

“Okay,” I said, and I was surprised at how normal I felt.  “We’re playing this much like we did against the Nine, only we aren’t waiting for better excuses to do it.  Groups of three, one group active at a time, one target at a time.”

“Who are we fighting?” Rachel asked.

“The Fallen, the PRT, and the Teeth.”

“And you’re in this group of three for tonight’s mission?” Tattletale asked.

“Yeah.”  I needed a release, to do something.

She glanced at Grue, and I suspected there was some kind of unspoken agreement there.  She met my eyes, or the opaque yellow lenses that covered my eyes.  “I’ll come.”

“You’re ops,” I said, “I thought the whole point of that was that you’d stay behind the scenes and out of trouble.”

“I’ll come,” she repeated herself.  No argument, no manipulation.  Only the statement.

I sighed.

“Me too,” Rachel said.

“Not sure that’s a good idea,” Tattletale said.  “Maybe someone more subtle?”

“No,” I said.  “It’s fine.”

Subtlety wasn’t what I had in mind.

Bentley crashed into the side of the PRT van.  The vehicle rocked, but it was set up to be in the field amid villains with superstrength and literally earth-shattering powers.  It didn’t tip over.

Two more dogs crashed into the side of it, and the thing fell.  The PRT officer in body armor fell from the turret at the top, his armor absorbing just enough of the impact that he wasn’t badly hurt.

The containment foam sprayers might have been an issue, but none of the uniforms were in a position to use the stuff.  I’d come prepared, and each sprayer was either thoroughly snagged on spider silk at the top of the equipped trucks, or the PRT agents who were wearing the portable tanks were bound, blind and under siege by massed bugs.

Dovetail flew after Atlas and I, a trail of luminous slivers of light falling in her wake.  She was good at maneuvering in such a way that the sparks didn’t fall on the PRT uniforms and heroes below, even with my swarm crawling over her head, shoulders and arms.  Where the slivers touched something solid, they ballooned out into what Tattletale had described as soft force fields, encasing the subject.  Anyone could push hard enough against the force fields to break them, even with multiple fields layered over one another, but it impeded movement, and she could hover over a target to keep reinforcing the forcefields until the victim could be smothered in more permanent containment foam.

It might have been a crummy power, but she was fast.  If she could have thrown the forcefield-generating slivers further than she did when she flung her arms out, she might have had us.

It was to my advantage that it was easier to dodge pursuit than to match someone else’s course exactly.

Didn’t hurt that she had bugs in her nose, ears and mouth, and that she was being bound by silk, limiting her range of movement with every passing second.  She was already unable to use the compact containment foam sprayer she had built into her costume.  Nothing I did would stop her from flying, but so long as she was blind and unable to use her arms, I didn’t see her being too much of a threat.

She wasn’t making headway on the offense, but retreating wouldn’t change her circumstances.  I’d still bind her in silk, blind and choke her.  Her costume had a flared collar, and my bugs were crawling inside, between skin and cloth.  That attack was as much about the psychological effect as about getting to more skin to inflict bites.

I wasn’t sure if it was just me, but her movements were bordering on the frantic, now.

No holding back.  I only had so many wasps and hornets, but I did what I could.  Mosquitoes were a good one.  Welts.  Leaving a mark.

Rachel’s dogs knocked over another one of the vans that had been circled around the PRT headquarters. The van was knocked into the side of the building, bending the bars that were supposed to protect the windows.  Each window cracked, with the lines spiderwebbing out between the hexagonal sections, but they didn’t break.

Adamant got into close quarters combat with the dog, slashing at it with pieces of his armor and driving the animal back.

Rachel whistled, shrill, and two dogs tackled him.  He delivered one good swipe before the other blindsided him.  The disadvantage of forming a full covering of armor was that it limited his peripheral vision.

She wasn’t going even two seconds without giving a command.  There were five dogs in the field, or four dogs and one young wolf, and many were lacking in serious training, so she managed them with lengths of chain between their collars and Bentley’s, and by giving enough commands that they wouldn’t have time to get creative and go after one of the PRT uniforms.

Sere was indoors, along with Triumph.  Binding Sere had been a first priority, and I’d achieved it in much the same way.  He’d done what he could to target the bugs managing the threads, and to disentangle himself, but time spent on that was time he wasn’t moving outdoors and shooting me or one of the dogs.  As with Dovetail, I’d managed to make enough progress that he was more or less out of the fight.  She was blind, he was immobile.

The other heroes would be arriving soon.  I double-checked Dovetail wasn’t in a position to give pursuit, then ventured inside, entering through an open window on the uppermost floor.

I felt calm, which was odd, given the scene.  Bugs swarmed every employee, from the official heroes to the kids who might have been interns.  Some howled in pain, others screamed more out of fear, or yelped as bugs periodically bit them.

The bugs gave me a sense of the route I needed to take, my destination.  There were offices in the back corner, but I had a sense of where I was going.  I’d been here before, when Piggot had been director.

I saw the labels on the door.  Commissioner.  Deputy Director.  Director.

I opened the last door.  Director Tagg.

He held a gun, but he didn’t point it my way.  There was a woman behind him, using him as a shield.

I’d had statements ready, angry remarks, any number of things I could have said to him, to punctuate what my swarm was doing to his assembled employees.  Statements, maybe, that could have surprised him, woken him up to what he’d done to me.

Then I saw the steel in his eyes, the sheer confidence with which he stood in front of the woman… they had matching wedding bands.  His wife.  I knew in an instant that there wouldn’t be any satisfaction to be had that way.

Rather, the word that left my mouth was a quiet, “Why?”

His eyes studied me, as though he were making an assessment.  His words were gruff, the gravelly burr of a long time smoker.  He very deliberately set the gun down on the desk, then replied, “You’re the enemy.”

I paused, then pulled off my mask.  I was sweating lightly, and my hair was damp around the hairline.  The world was tinted slightly blue in a contrast to the coloring of my lenses.  “It’s not that simple.”

“Has to be.  The ones at the top handle the compromising.  They assess where the boundaries need to be broken down, which threats are grave enough.  My job is to get the criminals off the streets and out of the cities.”

“By starting fights in schools.”

“Didn’t know it was a school until the capes were already landing,” he replied.  “Had to choose, either we let you go, and you were keeping an eye out for trouble from then on, or we push the advantage.”

“Putting kids at risk?”

“Dragon and Defiant both assured me you wouldn’t risk the students.”

I sighed.  Probably right.

Someone behind me screamed as a group of my hornets flew to him to deliver a series of bites across his face.

“Barbaric,” Director Tagg said.

“Inflicting pain isn’t the point.”

“Seem to be doing a good job of it,” he commented.

“There are heroes on their way back from patrol, your guys called them in.  But there’s also news teams on the way here.  We called those guys in.  They’ll find your employees covered in welts, every PRT van damaged or trashed.  Your employees won’t be able to get any cars out of the parking lot, so they’ll have to walk, which will make for some photo opportunities.  A handful of heroes will be a bit the worse for wear.  You can try running damage control, but some of it’s bound to hit the news.”

“Uh huh,” he said.

“I couldn’t let you get off without a response from us.”

“Didn’t expect you to.”

“This was as mild as I could go,” I said.  “I think you know that.  I’m not looking to one-up you or perpetuate a feud.  I’m doing what I have to, part of the game.”

“Game?  Little girl, this is a war.”  His voice took on a hard edge.

I stopped to contemplate that.  Rachel was destroying the last containment van, and Tattletale was saying something to her about incoming heroes.  I was low on time.

“If it is a war, my side’s winning,” I said.

“And the world’s worse off for it.  You can’t win forever,” he said.

I didn’t have a response to that.

He must have sensed he had some leverage there.  “All of this goes someplace.  Do you really see yourself making it five more years without being killed or put in prison?”

“I haven’t really thought about it.”

“I have.  Bad publicity fades with time.  So do welts and scabs.  Five or ten years from now, provided the world makes it that long, nobody will remember anything except the fact that we fought back.  Good publicity will overwrite the bad, carefully chosen words and some favors called in with people in the media will help whitewash any of our mistakes.  We’re an institution.”

“So you think you automatically win?  Or you’re guaranteed to win in the long run?”

“No.  They didn’t pick me to head this city’s PRT division because I’m a winner, Ms. Taylor.  They picked me because I’m a scrapper.  I’m a survivor.  I’m the type that’s content to get the shit kicked out of me, so long as I give the other guy a bloody nose.  I’m a stubborn motherfucker, I won’t be intimidated, and I won’t give up.  The last few Directors in Brockton Bay met a bad end, but I’m here to stay.”

“You hope.”

“I know.  You want to fight this system?  I’ll make sure it fights back.”

“So you want to escalate this?  Despite what I said before?”

“Not my style.  I’m thinking more about pressure.  I could pull your dad in for questioning every time you pull something, for example.  Doesn’t matter where, doesn’t matter who it’s directed at.  You or your team do anything that gets an iota of attention, I drag the man into the building, and grill him for a few hours at a time.”

I felt a knot in my stomach.  “That’s harassment.”

I was aware of Tattletale approaching me from behind.  She leaned against the doorframe, arms folded.

“It’s a war of attrition,” Tagg said.  “I’ll find the cracks, I’ll wear down and break each of you.  If you’re lucky, then five years from now they’ll remember your names, speaking them in the same breath as they talk about the kid villains who were dumb enough to think they could keep a city for themselves.”

“He’s playing you,” Tattletale murmured.  “He knows he’s got you on a bad day.  Best to just walk away.  Remember, the Protectorate hasn’t had a good day against us yet.”

I thought about asking him about Dinah, but there wasn’t a point.  It was something he could use against me, and I already knew the answer.

I approached the desk and turned around the photo frames.  The second showed Tagg with his wife and two young women.  A family portrait.

“You have daughters,” I said.

“Two, going to universities halfway across the world.”

“And you don’t feel an iota of remorse for hurting a father through his daughter?”

“Not one,” he replied, staring me in the eye.  “I look at you, and I don’t see a kid, I don’t see a misunderstood hero, a girl, a daughter or any of that.  You’re a thug, Taylor Hebert.”

A thug.

His mindset was all ‘us versus them’.  Good guys versus the bad.

It wasn’t much, but it served to confirm the conclusion I’d already come to.  Dinah had volunteered the information.  Whatever else Director Tagg was, he wasn’t the type to abuse a girl who’d been through what Dinah had.

“We should go,” Tattletale said.  “Rachel’s downstairs with all her dogs, we can run before the reinforcements collapse in on us.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Nearly done.  You, back there.  Are you Mrs. Tagg?”

The woman stepped a little to one side, out from behind her husband.  “I am.”

“Visiting him for the night?”

“Brought him and his men donuts and coffee.  They’ve been working hard.”

“Okay,” I said.  “And you stand by your husband?  You buy this rhetoric?”

She set her jaw.  “Yes.  Absolutely.”

I didn’t waste an instant.  Every spare bug I had flowed into the room, leaving Director Tagg untouched, while the bugs flowed over the woman en masse.  She screamed.

He reached for his gun on the desk, and I pulled my hand back.  The thread that I’d tied between the trigger guard and my finger yanked the weapon to me.  I stopped it from falling off the desk by putting my hand on top of the weapon.

Tagg was already reaching for a revolver at his ankle.

“Stop,” I said.

He did.  Slowly, he straightened.

“I’m illustrating a point,” I said.

My bugs drifted away from Mrs. Tagg.  She was uninjured, without a welt or blemish.  She backed into the corner as the bugs loomed between her and her husband.

“Not sure why.  Doesn’t change my mind in the slightest,” Tagg said.

I didn’t respond.  The swarm shifted locations and dogpiled him.  Stubborn as he professed to be, he started screaming quickly enough.

I picked up the gun from the edge of the desk, joining Tattletale.  We marched for the exit together, moving at a speed between a walk and a jog, passing by twenty or so PRT employees, each covered in bugs, roaring and squealing their pain and fear to the world as they stumbled blindly and thrashed in futile attempts to fight the bugs off.

Nothing venomous, the wasps and hornets weren’t contracting their bodies to squeeze the venom sacs.  There was nothing that could put their lives at risk.  It was still dramatic enough.

“He’s right,” Tattletale commented.

“About?”

“You won’t change his mind with a gesture like that.  Sparing his wife.”

“Okay,” I replied.  I opened a drawer and put Director Tagg’s service weapon inside, while Atlas ferried Tattletale down to the ground floor.

Atlas returned to me, and I took to the air, flying just above Lisa and Rachel and the dogs as we fled the scene.  I made a point of leaving every single bug inside the PRT headquarters, to infest it until they had the place exterminated, which would only be another photo opportunity for the media, or to serve as a perpetual reminder as it took weeks and months for all of the bugs to be cleared out.

The news teams were already arriving on the scene.  No doubt there was a camera following us.  I remembered Director Tagg’s threat, to bring my father into custody.  Only a threat, going by his wording, but it did make me think about how every activity, every thing I did that brought me into the public consciousness, it would be a little twist of the knife that I’d planted in my dad’s back.

Not a good feeling.

Maybe the little demonstration I’d done with Tagg’s wife hadn’t been for him.  It could just as easily have been me trying to prove something to myself.

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Scourge 19.6

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The Eidolon-clone apparently wasn’t worried about the mass of armed heroes that were mobilized against him.  No, his concern was being naked.

He touched Alexandria, and she flickered.  When the flickering died out, she was dressed in a costume; a long white cape, a white bodysuit with high boots and elbow length gloves and a stylized helmet that let her long black hair flow free.  The tower on her chest was a tumbled ruin.  The ruined lighthouse.  A mockery of her other self, the colors reversed.

I really wasn’t liking the implications for that flickering power.  Healing, the costume…

Legend shot the Eidolon-clone before he could do anything more.  A laser tore into the Eidolon’s chest cavity, slashed out to carve into Echidna’s foremost leg, causing it to buckle mid-step.

The Alexandria-clone floated up, interjecting herself between Legend and his targets.  He adjusted the beam’s orientation, and she moved to block it.  He divided it in two shots that she couldn’t block, and she charged him.  Legend broke off to flee.

I could see the Eidolon flickering to heal himself as Echidna charged the rest of us.

Our battle lines did what they could to slow her down, which didn’t amount to much.  She was massive, now, to the point that cars were trampled beneath her or sent rolling on impact.

Chevalier put himself directly in harm’s way.  He held his cannonblade out to one side, and I could see it swelling in size.

There were a hundred feet between them, seventy-five, fifty-

The sword was growing with every moment, as well.

He brought the blade down to the ground, a razor’s edge biting deep into pavement, the blade’s point directed at Echidna.  Then he pulled the trigger.  The fact that it was impaled in the ground kept the recoil manageable, and the fact that it was as large as it was meant that the effect was that much more impressive.

Echidna leaped to the side as the cannonball ripped out of the weapon.  Not quite fast enough, she wasn’t able to avoid the worst of it.  Three of her eight legs, all on one side of her body, were turned into flecks of gore.  She hit the ground and her momentum carried her forward, skidding.

Chevalier didn’t flinch as she hurtled towards him.  Instead, he waited until her trajectory brought the right part of her into harm’s way, then shot out more of her limbs.  The impact of the hit brought her to a halt, spinning until her back was to him, only two of her monstrous claws intact.

A female hero threw out small ice crystals in Echidna’s direction, and they expanded explosively into virtual glaciers on impact.  Maybe the intent was to give Echidna less room to regenerate.

Chevalier withdrew the twenty-five foot long blade from the ground and chopped at Noelle – the upper body that jutted out of Echidna’s back.  He severed her from the monster at the stomach, turning the blade mid-swing to catch the body on the flat of the weapon. He swatted her away, separating the girl from the monster.

The impact of Noelle’s landing was enough to kill, but she didn’t die.  She flailed weakly for long seconds before she started falling apart.

Echidna caught Chevalier with a tongue.  He cut the tongue with his blade, and walked around her, blade poised, as if he were trying to find a place to strike.

I realized he was trying to find a way to rescue the people inside.  Alexandria, Eidolon, and seventeen of the capes who’d volunteered to fight this thing.  Had he directed the cannon blast with the same intent?  To avoid harming the people within?

Chevalier was struck.  He turned, and was hit again.  He was under siege from one of the nigh-invincible clones, with the burning hands.  The guy was digging his hands into a car at one side of the street, coming up with hunks of white-hot metal and flinging them.

He scraped them off, but more attacks were incoming.  One cape threw a stone, and though the speed and arc of the thrown rock didn’t seem to amount to much, it shattered one of the glaciers the ice-cape had erected.

Chevalier used his cannonblade to block another rock and a lump of molten metal from striking home.  From above and behind him, the woman with the ice shards began raining her attacks down on the clones, encasing them in ice.

I joined in, sending my swarm forth into the fray.  They flowed from the battlefield around me, finding paths to travel between the crags of ice and the capes.  Cockroaches tore into the membranes of eyes.  Hornets found flesh to bite that was close to arteries and veins, stings dug into the most sensitive flesh, and ants worked together to scissor and tear flesh more efficiently.

More bugs moved in the Eidolon-clone’s direction.  The flying insects faltered, their usual mechanisms for movement failing them.  Then they started falling out of the air.

They were suffocating; it was a vacuum.

He’d chosen his powers, and by the looks of it, he’d dressed himself in a mirror of his other self’s costume.  A costume with a black hood, loose black sleeves and a pale red-orange glow emanating from each opening.

The flickering.  Was that some variant on Scapegoat’s power?  More broad?  Paging through realities to find the state he wanted to be in?  Uninjured, dressed?

There were a lot of ugly possibilities with that one.  Could he affect how he was accessing powers?

He took one step, and was carried off the ground.  It wasn’t flight so much as floating.  Combine that with the vacuum around him… It had to be aerokinesis.  Manipulation of air.

Miss Militia took a shot at him, and he reeled.  There was a flickering, and he was back in the position he’d been in a moment before, uninjured.

She changed guns, and unloaded two assault rifles in his direction.

Her hits were on target- at first.  His armor absorbed the worst of it, and he undid the damage he’d taken with more flickering.  The bullets gradually moved off target, grazing him instead of striking vital areas.  A moment later, they stopped hitting entirely.

The effect he was using to alter their trajectories hit the rest of us a moment later.  I felt Atlas’s wings beat against nothing for just a moment before we caught air again, steered him through a sudden, unexpected headwind that dissipated as fast as it had started, and then found a spare moment to pull up, putting distance between myself and the Eidolon clone.

My bugs gave me a sense of his effect’s perimeter.  The storm effect had a diameter of roughly three-quarters my own range, no doubt allowing him to sense where people were by the movements of the air.

The vacuum extended roughly a hundred feet around him, the air condensing into threads that found him and flowed into his mask to sustain him.  Even the clones on his side were suffering, falling to their hands and knees or running to get away.  He was indiscriminate, and far more dangerous because of it.

He was approaching the battlefield where we’d engaged the clones, where many of our heroes had fallen.  If the vacuum extended over them, they wouldn’t last long.  I wasn’t sure what kind of effect it would have, but even the smallest push could mean the difference between life and death, and this wasn’t necessarily small.

“Rachel!” I shouted, but the wind kept my voice from reaching anyone.  It didn’t matter.  I could use my bugs, too, not as a collective effort, but with ten thousand voices in a hundred ears.  “Rachel!  Get over here and fetch the wounded!  Everyone else!  Get your teammates back!  He’s surrounded by a vacuum!

Heroes kicked into action, hurrying to collect the injured.  Rachel was occupied trying to herd the clones at the far edges of the battlefield, but she heard my order and broke away from the skirmish.

We still had to manage those clones, though.  A few Kudzu, and none of the forge-guys.  If they got away-

I contacted the ice dispenser.  She was trying to cover Echidna in more ice, but the wind was blowing the shards away.  “Need your help to contain clones.  This way.”

My bugs pointed the way.  She hesitated, tried to shout something to Chevalier, but went unheard.  She decided to follow my instruction, flying in the direction I’d indicated with the bugs.

Okay, so she was one of Chevalier’s people.  I told Chevalier, “Your ice cape is dealing with clones.

He only nodded.  He at least knew she didn’t have his back, now.

People were moving too slowly as they dragged and carried teammates away.  Worse, there were only so many able bodies.  Only three or four out of every ten heroes were down, all in all, but some required two people to move, and there were those like Tecton that required enhanced strength to budge.  Eidolon was getting dangerously close, now.

People screamed and shouted in alarm as Rachel reached the fallen.  She barely paused as she stopped momentarily by each body, pointed, and screamed the name of one of her dogs.

It’s okay,” I communicated, though it was getting harder with what Eidolon was doing with the air.  “Rescue operation only.

The dogs followed her instructions as much by mimicking Bentley as by anything else, it seemed.  I knew they weren’t well trained, and there was a reason she didn’t bring these dogs on every excursion.  It would look bad if we killed a hero in the process of rescuing them, but we were risking that simply by moving the wounded.  It had been reinforced over and over in the first aid class I’d taken, never to risk moving anyone who was injured.

Then again, this wasn’t exactly a typical situation.  Better to remove them from near-certain death.

With Rachel rescuing the wounded, the Eidolon-clone didn’t have any easy targets in reach.  Instead, he turned and floated toward Echidna.  Ice was chipped and whittled away by what must have been sharp blasts and currents of condensed wind, with fragments flying toward him, twisting in mid air and whipping back at the chunks of ice they’d come from, helping to chip away.  Enough cracks formed that Echidna could use her two remaining limbs to leverage herself to her feet.

The meaty, frost-crusted ruins where her legs had been blown away by Chevalier were healing over, bulging where muscle and bone were growing within the stump.  Bone penetrated the flesh where her claws and armor were.

And on top, Noelle was already more or less regrown, her arms wrapped around her upper body in a straightjacket of flesh, her eyes closed and face turned toward the sky.

Chevalier took aim and shot, and the cannonball veered in midair, slamming into Echidna instead of Eidolon’s clone.  One of Echidna’s growing limbs was destroyed, but so was the glacier that had encased it.

The Eidolon hit Chevalier with a focused blast of wind, and the hero went flying, the air in the Eidolon’s range shifting to reduce resistance and carry him further.

Chevalier was out of my range before he hit ground.

Legend and Alexandria still fought above us.  I could, when he passed into my range, note how he got faster the longer he flew, giving him the ability to put distance between himself and Alexandria, but he couldn’t stop to take aim and shoot without losing that acceleration and giving her a chance to close the gap.

The result was that he was flying in loops and circles, using the turns to find opportunities to take aim and fire on her.  She dodged most, but the hits that did land bought him distance and time to stop and laser down clones who were attempting to escape.

If any of them slipped away, it could be disastrous.  One clone could track down their original self’s family and murder them, or even go after innocent civilians.  My bugs were blinding them, finding weak points, but there were some that my bugs couldn’t touch that Legend was succeeding in taking out, like the forge-man.

Myrddin was below Legend and Alexandria, recuperating from holding Echidna at bay.  He took to the air, flying up to Echidna and the Eidolon-clone from behind.

He pointed his staff at the Eidolon, and his target disappeared.

The air the Psycho-Eidolon had compressed expanded all at once, sending Myrddin flying off course and Echidna rolling sideways, over a line of parked cars.  For the moment, the vacuum was gone.

Myrddin set himself down on the ground.  He wasn’t using his power against Echidna or the clones, which suggested that his reserves were low.

The Eidolon-clone reappeared.  He turned and spotted Myrddin.  The two started fighting, the Eidolon trying to close the gap and trap Myrddin in his vacuum, which was considerably smaller in area than before, but growing every second.  He hampered the self-professed wizard’s flying with headwinds and gusts, and sharp blasts of wind that Myrddin deflected or dodged.  Myrddin, for his part, attacked relentlessly, pummeling the Eidolon with explosions of energy alternating with scattered releases of whatever he managed to suck in while close to the ground.

Echidna was mending, and with Chevalier down and our heavy hitters more or less out of the running, I wasn’t sure we could stop her.

We needed to stall.

One tinker had machines rigged on the ground, with forcefields erected in layers, one behind the other, five between himself and Echidna.  I’d glimpsed him at work before, knew it wouldn’t hold if she really hit the things.  They were dangerous or lethal to the touch, if the experiences of my swarm was any indication, but little more than an annoyance for Echidna.

The ice cape was back, having dealt with the clones.  She began laying down more glaciers around Echidna, but with the monster being more able-bodied than before, it was only a temporary barrier.

We needed something more effective.

My eyes roved over the fallen, both those that had been rescued and the ones that still lay on the ground, injured or dead.  Weld had Kid Win and Scapegoat, and I saw a burly cape dragging Tecton behind him.

No.  This wasn’t a case where we needed brute force.  Echidna was liable to win any case of hand-to-hand combat that wasn’t against a full-on Endbringer.

Maybe she could even come out ahead in a close-quarters fight against the likes of Leviathan or the Simurgh, if she was capable of absorbing them.

Scary thought.

I recognized so few of the capes around me.  There was a girl who was emanating red lightning that wasn’t harming the allies she struck, apparently accelerating them to a faster speed instead.  I had seen her somewhere, but had no idea who she was.  A boy was fading in and out of reality, grabbing capes and then disappearing with his rescuee in tow.  He’d reappear a moment later, a few paces away, before fading out of existence.  He wasn’t teleporting, he merely wasn’t here when he was walking, some of the time.

Rachel arrived with a number of fallen capes in tow.  I flew low to the ground and helped lower them to the nearest solid surface.  One dog had bitten too firmly, not knowing its own strength, cracking body armor and maybe a rib.  I didn’t mention it – it was obvious enough that people would catch on before he was in terminal danger, but we didn’t need people turning on Rachel or getting distracted from the matter at hand.  The man was alive, and that was better than if he’d been caught in the vacuum.

Psycho-Eidolon went on the offensive against Myrddin, shoving the hero against a wall and then holding him there by pummeling him with repeated blasts of wind.  The Eidolon got close enough to catch Myrddin in the vacuum, and the bugs I had on Myrddin started to perish with surprising speed.

Myrddin, for his part, stopped fighting entirely, trying only to escape.  The Eidolon caught him and knocked the staff from his hand, then pinned him against the wall, choking him with the vacuum.  I knew it was supposed to take around two minutes to suffocate, but that presumed one was able to hold some air in their lungs.

Myrddin’s struggles were getting weaker by the second, almost from the instant he was in the Eidolon’s range.

The Eidolon’s grip slipped from Myrddin’s neck and he careened into the ground, hard.  Again, air billowed out around him, thrusting Myrddin into the wall once more, but supplying him with much needed air.

I could see Regent, turned towards that particular bout of fighting.  Had he been responsible?

It wasn’t enough to revive Myrddin.  He fell to the ground, only a short distance from the Eidolon, and slumped down into a prone position.  One hand pressed against his chest, and he went limp.

The Psycho-Eidolon stood, and Miss Militia opened fire, joined by several other capes.  The Eidolon was driven back, forced to flicker to recover from the blasts.  Again, his armor was absorbing the impacts.  It would be the best stuff money could buy, if it was a functional copy of what his other self wore, and it was healing every time he did.

Then, as before, he found a way to divert the incoming fire away from himself.  The bullets and laser blasts stopped, no doubt because the heroes didn’t want the Eidolon redirecting any of their fire towards Myrddin.

My bugs flowed in, carrying a length of cord.  I bound the Eidolon’s neck as he walked up to Myrddin’s unconscious form, but there wasn’t anything significant to tie the cord to.  I chose a car’s side-mirror.

He stopped short, a pace away from the fallen hero, then flickered.  The cord came free of his neck as though he weren’t even there, and he bent down over Myrddin.  I swore under my breath and tried to bind him again, knowing how ineffectual it would be at this point.

It was Wanton who moved to stop the Eidolon, turning into a virtual poltergeist, with debris and dust flying around him.  He barely slowed as Eidolon directed a blast of wind his way.

The Eidolon flickered, and a knife with a wavy blade appeared in his hand.  Before Wanton could reach him, he gripped Myrddin’s mask, raised the hero’s chin towards the sky, knife held ready.

His hand convulsed, and he dropped the knife.  Regent.

An instant later, he flickered, rendering his hand untouched, the knife back in position.  He thrust it into the soft underside of Myrddin’s chin.

Wanton hit him a moment later, tearing the dagger from the Eidolon’s hand and using it to cut and bludgeon the clone.

Myrddin was dead or dying, I couldn’t even guess if Chevalier was okay or not, and two of the three members of the Triumvirate had been turned against us.  We were swiftly running out of big guns.

The red lightning girl hurried past me, helping mobilize a group of heroes with more wounded.  We had maybe forty to fifty capes on our side, with twenty that were no longer in any shape to fight.

I saw Gully with two heroes cradled against her body with one arm, the other arm holding her shovel, planting it in the pavement like it was a walking stick.

One of the heroes was Clockblocker.  The face of his mask had been shattered, revealing the softer padding beneath.  I didn’t recognize the other cape, a guy with green dyed hair and a domino mask.

“Stop,” I told her.  “Is he okay?”

“Ramus is, but I think the clock boy is going to die,” she said.  She glanced over her shoulder at the Psycho-Eidolon.  He’d broken away from Wanton, and was working on mending the damage, one part of his body at a time.

If there was a limitation to his self-heailng, it was that.  It was healing by degrees, weaker against all-around damage.  If my bugs could have gotten to him, that might have done some damage, but they’d have to get past his armor, which looked like the all-concealing sort, and there was the not-insignificant matter of the vacuum.

“Clockblocker,” I said.  “You there?”

He turned his head toward me.  I could barely make him out over the wind.  “You’re still here.”

What did he mean by that?  Was he surprised that I was still alive?  That I hadn’t run?  I wasn’t sure how to respond.

Craved a fight,” the words reached me despite the winds that were tearing across the battlefield.  It wasn’t my bugs speaking, either.  “I hoped you’d challenge me.

Eidolon.  He was echoing his sentiment from earlier, that had driven him to fight Echidna alone, except it was twisted, warped, the original reasoning forgotten.

Do I need to get you angrier?  Do I need to push you harder?  I could torment you, inflict pain on your teammates until you’re forced to throw all caution to the wind and come at me with everything you’ve got.  Or I could attack you on another level.  Would you like me to tell you a story?

Echidna belched out another set of clones.

There was one forge-man, two identical to the one I’d seen flinging stones at Chevalier.  And an Alexandria.  They lurched to their feet, but they didn’t attack.  They were letting Eidolon speak.

We founded Cauldron.  The Triumvirate.  The Number Man.  William Manton.  The Doctor.  We sold people powers.

“No,” Clockblocker said.  Other murmurs came from the crowd.

It meant more people with powers to fight the Endbringers, that was the lie we told ourselves.  But we created the Siberian and Shatterbird, in a roundabout way.  We created the Gray Boy, selling him powers, finding ourselves unable to stop him when he went out of bounds.  There were countless others.  Echidna is just the latest in a long series of grave mistakes.”

Nobody moved.  I suspected that if anyone attacked him, they’d be seen as a Cauldron sympathizer, trying to shut him up.  I could see Noelle: her arms had separated from her torso, but she left them limp at her sides, her long hair in her face as she stared up at him.

We made the PRT, pretended to let ourselves be run by the unpowered, but we put Alexandria in charge.  We manipulated media, manipulated nations, in the interest of power.  We ventured into alternate worlds to kidnap people, experimented on them to refine our formulas.  And the failed tests?  The people who turned out wrong?  We cast them out, tossed them out as a bonus to anyone willing to pay a little more for an enemy that was guaranteed to lose against them.”

The Eidolon moved, facing one of the monstrous parahumans I didn’t know.  A boy with crimson skin and hair.  The clone spoke, “That’s all you were, monsters.  Little more than the cheap towels that are on offer for a few extra dollars when you buy something on a shopping channel.

Legend shouted something, but the wind kept his voice from reaching us.  He had to fly to avoid the Alexandria-clone’s unending pursuit.

The other, naked Alexandria took flight and went after him.

It said a lot that nobody moved to help.

I glanced at Gully, saw her already disfigured face contorted with emotion.

“He’s lying,” I said, to her.  “Twisting the truth to make it sound worse than it is.”

Gully only made a small noise in response.

“He couldn’t make all that up,” Clockblocker said.  Were it not for the bugs I had near his mouth, I wasn’t sure I would have caught what he was saying in the face of the wind.  “… kernel of truth.”

It’s all been a ploy from the start,” the Eidolon-clone said, his aerokinesis carrying his words to our ears, “Every single one of you were deceived.  For every one of you that bought your powers, there were innocents who died or became monsters for the sake of that formula’s research.  No matter what good you might do, it will never make up for that.  And the rest of you?  Conned, brought in with promises of ideals and saving the world.  You’re fools.

And with that, he let the wind die down.  There was a crunching noise as Echidna shifted her weight, but that was followed only by silence, the sound of murmurs.

“We just lost,” Clockblocker said.

I looked at him, saw Gully hanging her head.

He wasn’t wrong.  We were suffering losses, and we hadn’t achieved anything.  Echidna was as strong as she’d ever been, stronger than she’d been at the outset of the fight, and she kept on acquiring clones that cost more than we could afford to put down.  Alexandria and Eidolon were only the tips of the iceberg.

“It’s a big hit to morale, but-”

“No,” Clockblocker cut me off.  “We lost.  Not this fight.  Maybe we can still win it, won’t deny it’s possible, with Scion maybe showing up.  But the big picture?  There’s no coming back from this.  Without the Protectorate, without all the work that it does to organize heroes around the world, there’s no getting everyone working together.  The amount of anger?  The suspicion, wondering if a teammate took the formula or not?  How can we go up against the next Endbringer that shows up?”

“We’ll manage,” I said.  “We’ll find a way.”

He barked out a cough, groaned.  “Fuck, don’t make me laugh.”

“Laugh?”

“Never took you for an optimist.”

Was I?  Or was it just that the heroes were reeling just a little more in the wake of these revelations.  I wasn’t surprised, and I was betting the other Undersiders weren’t either.

Advantage: us.  We villains were the only ones who could really think straight in the wake of all this.  Except Tattletale, Grue and Imp were elsewhere, and Regent and Rachel weren’t really in a position to do anything major here.

I stared at the scene, Legend doing his best to fend off two Alexandrias, and Eidolon looking down on us, the crowd of fools.  I could see Echidna, standing still, surveying it all, much as I was.

No, not Echidna.  Noelle.

“I need your help,” I told Clockblocker.

“Can’t fight.”

“Don’t need you to fight,” I told him.  I reached behind my back, drew my gun.  I pressed it into his hands.  “If and when she comes for me, aim for the back of my head.  It’s unarmored, anything else might mean I survive, and I don’t want to be hers.  Not again.”

“Hers?” he asked.  “What are you doing?”

I paused.  “Wait until the last second.  Just in case.  You can call that more optimism, I guess.”

“Skitter?”

I moved my bugs away from the heroes around us and into the air, a cloud capable of getting attention.

If I was going to do this, I was going for optimal effect.

Back when this skirmish had started, I’d wondered if I’d be willing to make a sacrifice if it meant coming out ahead.  Even when the idea of throwing away one life for the greater good had crossed my mind, it had been with the notion that it would be me paying the price.  I couldn’t, wouldn’t, ask someone else to do it.

Fuck it.  I wasn’t about to back down now, not with the stakes this high.

With the swarm swirling through the air, and the fact that I was the only person moving in this otherwise still tableau, all eyes were on me.  Noelle’s included.

“Noelle!” I screamed her name.  My swarm augmented my voice, carrying it much as the wind had carried Eidolon’s.

She turned toward me.

“It is you, isn’t it?  It’s Noelle, and not Echidna?”

She didn’t respond.  My swarm drifted between us, partially to help obscure me, to cloak me from her vision if she charged me.

“At the start of all this, you offered a deal.  Any of your captives for one of us Undersiders.  Is that deal still open?”

I saw her shift position, planting her massive claws further apart.

“You’re dead anyways,” she said.

You’re not wholly wrong.

“Follow through with the deal, maybe you get to kill me yourself.  And maybe the other heroes here will turn the other Undersiders in for a chance that they can walk away alive.”

“You’re saying you’ll let your team die?”

“My team can fend for themselves,” I said.  “Right now?  I’m offering you me, in exchange for Eidolon.  That’s all.”

“The one who deceived them?” she looked out over the crowd.  “What makes you think they want him?”

“They don’t,” I said.  I made sure that everyone present could hear as my bugs carried my voice.  “But they need him.”

If there was any salvaging this, any way of recovering from this terminal hit to morale and avoiding the scenario Clockblocker had outlined, I had to make sure that everyone recognized how essential it was that we kept the big guns on hand for future Endbringer attacks.  Regardless of what they’d done in their pasts.  If it came down to it, I was willing to put myself on the line.  I’d die to drive the point home if it came down to it.

Noelle spat Eidolon out.  He landed, covered in puke, wearing his costume.  He recovered faster than the other heroes had, faster than I had.  He took to the air, flying toward the other members of the Protectorate.

A pair of flying heroes moved closer together, barring his path.

Through the bugs I had placed on the two flying heroes, I could hear him.  A single utterance, monosyllabic.  “Ah.”

He turned, surveying the scene, then started to fly towards Legend.  The other Eidolon moved to match his flight, and the original stopped.  If he moved to help, he’d only be bringing his clone into the fight with him.  He settled above a building, on the other side of the street from his mirror opposite, keeping a wary eye on Legend and the chase that the two Alexandria clones were giving.

“Now’s the part where you run,” Noelle told me.

“I’m not running.”

“You’ll try something.  Because you’re a coward.  You don’t have it in you.  You’re selfish.  You killed Coil when you knew we needed his help.”

“I killed Coil because he was a monster,” I said.  I didn’t let my voice carry, but it didn’t matter.  Others had heard what she said.  “But I’m not running.”

I sensed Rachel kick Bentley, stirring him to action.  Some of my bugs barred her path, forcing her to pull short and stop before he’d moved two paces.

“How do I finish you, then?” she asked.  “Should I puke on you and let them tear you apart while everyone watches?”

“Someone might try to save me,” I said.  “They’re still heroes, after all.  Takes a lot to stomach watching a girl get beaten to death.”

“Then I kill you myself,” she said, and there was a growl to her voice.  That would be Echidna chiming in, at least in part.  “They’ll see what you’re made of when you break and start running, and they can’t stop me from tearing you apart.”

That said, she charged.  The ground shook with her advance, and the heroes only stood and watched, no doubt considering the possibility that I was right, that they could negotiate their way out of all this.

I closed my eyes, using my bugs to stop Rachel from intervening for the second time.

I took a deep breath.  Every instinct I had told me to run, to find shelter, to survive, or take cover.  But I had to do this.

Instead, I used my bugs to whisper to Clockblocker, “Use your power.”

There was only one thing for him to use his power on.  He froze the gun.  Along with the gun, he froze the length of thread I’d attached to the weapon.

The thread, in turn, was held aloft by the bugs that flew as a curtain between Noelle and I.

I kept my eyes closed, relying on my bugs to feed me input, dissociating from my real self, because it kept me still, and that kept Echidna on course for the thread that extended vertically through the curtain.

Spider silk was, generally speaking, about two to three times as thick as the thinnest part of a safety razor.  That was still pretty thin, especially when Clockblocker’s power rendered it immobile, utterly unyielding even as a monster with three times the mass of an African Elephant crashed into it.

She tried to pull to a stop as she made contact with the thread, but her momentum carried her all the way through.  The bracing of her foremost limbs against the ground only helped to force the separation of the two halves.

Severed, the two pieces of her body crashed down to either side of me.  Despite my best intentions, I stumbled a little at the impact.

Hit the Eidolon-Clone,” I spoke to Miss Militia through my bugs, hurrying to step away from Noelle’s bisected form.  “Hit him hard.

The Eidolon-clone moved one arm in our direction, only to stop short.  A thread that had draped his arm was now a rigid barrier, connected to the same thread that I’d positioned between Noelle and I.  He tried to retreat, only to find the thread I’d circled around his neck holding him firm.

He started to flicker, no doubt to escape.  One arm free.  Then another.

Miss Militia hefted her rocket launcher.  Our Eidolon was already flying to Legend’s rescue as she pulled the trigger.  The Eidolon-clone wasn’t quite free when the warhead hit home.  For extra measure the explosion drove him against the threads that had draped his body.

If I’d been good at the punchlines, I might have thrown one out there.  The best I could come up with was, Flicker that.

Watch the two pieces,” I communicated through my swarm, still backing away from Noelle.  “Tattletale said there’s a core to her, that’s supplying the regeneration.  Whichever half regenerates is the half with the core.  We narrow it down, then we destroy it.  We can win this.

I could see Echidna’s body swelling, growing huge with tumorous bulges as she sought to rebuild her other half.  Still, she was nigh-immobile, and the heroes were free to unload every offensive power they had on her.  Wanton and Weld advanced, tearing into her, pulling people free and seeking something that might be her core.  She was regenerating faster than they were dealing damage, but every passing moment saw one cape freed, more ground covered.

Her other half was decaying at the same time.  The captives that were trapped in her flesh were revealed as it dessicated, and capes freed each person in turn.

She lurched, then forced herself into contact with her decaying other half, reconnecting to it.  She was minus eleven captives, by my count, Alexandria among them, but she was reforming.  I wouldn’t be able to bait her like that again, but I might be able to contain her.

I glanced at Clockblocker.  Gully had carried him to Scapegoat, who had roused from unconsciousness, and he was getting care.  He looked at me, offered me a curt nod.

I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I did the same.

Behind me, bugs could sense the approach of a containment van.  Tattletale, I could hope, with Faultline’s crew, perhaps.  Chevalier was perched in the fortified turret on top, his sword resting on one shoulder.

We can win this fight, I mused, and this time I could believe it.

But I was all too aware of the movement of a particular contingent of capes.  Having deposited Clockblocker, Gully distanced herself from the other heroes, approached Weld and the red-skinned boy.  The Cauldron-made, standing apart.

Across the battlefield, I was aware, there were very few people standing shoulder to shoulder.  People were distanced from one another as though their personal space was ten feet across, avoiding eye contact, with no conversation, and I wasn’t seeing any upturn in morale.  There wasn’t a cheer to be heard, and squad leaders weren’t giving orders to their subordinates.

I could only hope this divide wouldn’t prove as telling as the one I’d delivered to Noelle.

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Scourge 19.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a limit to what I could do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I began drawing out arrows and letters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incoming,” my swarm buzzed.

More than a few heroes jumped at that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pointing at the ground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…s not her, Jouster,” another said.

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

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

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

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

Shatterbird!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He turned to help me with the Kudzu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck me, they’re cooperating.

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

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

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

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

Chevalier took aim and shot.  A miss.

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

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

Four copies of Noelle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A hush of sorts descended on everyone present.

Two of our best, caught.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexandria shook her head.

Another cough, another spit.

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

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

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

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

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

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Scourge 19.4

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“I was perfectly happy,” Scapegoat said, “Being able to tell myself that hey, the news is blowing things out of proportion.  There’s no way Brockton Bay is as scary as they’re making it out to be.  Dragon suits get sent in and are promptly forced out, but really, the mayors telling Washington it’s safe enough.  The media got something wrong, or they’re making little problems sound bigger than they are.  See the piles of dead bodies where this girl-”

“Echidna,” Tattletale supplied.

“Where Echidna spat out clones.  Okay.  I can live with that.  An unusual power and strong parahuman.  Could be an exaggeration.  See the destruction, the ruined buildings and the streets that still haven’t drained a hundred percent.  More or less what I expected from the news.  The girl with the mutant dogs?  Bug girl?  Still manageable.  But she opens her mouth,” Scapegoat pointed at Tattletale, “And pop goes my bubble of happy self-delusion.”

“You want to tear a hole in reality?” Tecton asked Tattletale.

“I do.  I want to use Scrub’s power in conjunction with another power that draws heavily on accessing other worlds.  It’s why I contacted Faultline’s crew.  They’re our best bet.  Myrddin might work, but he’s unlikely to cooperate.  Scapegoat could work too, but I think it’d take too long, and it might need a human sacrifice, having Scrub hit someone who was heavily affected by the goat’s power.”

Regent nudged me.  “With Grue gone, it’s your job to lay down the law.  No human sacrifices.”

He’d mimicked Grue’s tone of voice, with a forced lowness.

No human sacrifices?  Did I really want to veto any possibilities, when we were faced with threats like the Endbringers and Echidna?

“You’re not saying no,” Regent commented.

“Tattletale,” I said, “What’s the point?  Why open a hole like that?”

“It’s a place to put Noelle, for one thing.”

“We can stop her other ways,” I said.  “She’s not invincible.”

“Yet,” Tattletale said.

“Yet.  We can put her down.  With Legend, Eidolon and Alexandria alone, we should be able to do enough damage that she can’t keep regenerating.”

“Maybe.  It was hard enough before.  We’ve got big guns, now, but it’s going to be rough.  It’ll be a lot easier if we have the Travelers on our side, and we’ll have that if we can give them what they want.  A way home.”

“A way home?” Tecton asked.

“Cauldron’s the group responsible for plucking people from their realities, wiping their memories and leaving them changed, marked with a tattoo,” Tattletale said.  She glanced at Gully.

I did too.  Gully’s eyes were wide behind the curtain of braids.

“And the Travelers, far as I can figure, are the same.  Only they still have their memories, and they weren’t altered in appearance.  It’s like Noelle got her entire group’s share,” Tattletale said.

Gully slammed her shovel into the ground, but she didn’t say anything as seconds passed.

“You want to tear a hole in reality to send them home?” Tecton asked.

“It’s the best bargaining chip we have, short of a cure for Noelle.”

“How do we even know which world it is?”

“We don’t, but we can ask,” Tattletale said.  “What I’m getting at is that this is our best weapon, our best bargaining chip and our best tool.  If I’m right, if Im close to right, then this is a way to shut powers off at the source.”

“Assuming you have a way to kill or break the connection with these things you’re describing,” Tecton said.

“I’m assuming we can get our hands on some weapon of mass destruction,” Tattletale said.

“Too many potential disasters,” Tecton said.  “Listen, I get it.  I’ve been where you are.  There’s a lot of tinkers and some thinkers who’ve been where you’re at right now.  Who’ve had that brilliant idea with the power to change the world, for better or for worse.  Most of us stop at that line.  We have to.”

“This isn’t changing the world,” Tattletale said.  “This is going to the heart of every single damn problem we’ve been facing and surgically removing the most dangerous parts.  We can access the places where the powers are coming from and shut them off.  It’s an answer.”

If you can manage the risk,” Tecton said.  “And I don’t think surgically is even close to being the word you want.  With tears in reality, it’s equivalent to using explosives with a yield you can’t even guess at.”

“I’m a good guesser,” Tattletale said.

“And this is the part where I cut in,” I said.  “We’re short on time, and I have stuff to see to.  Why don’t you guys talk this through, and I’ll collect supplies with Scapegoat in the meantime.”

“Go for it,” Tattletale said.

“I’ll come,” Rachel told me.  “Too much fucking talking.”

“We can’t let Scapegoat leave in the company of two known, dangerous villains,” Tecton said.

“Send someone with us,” I said.

“Gully and Wanton, then,” Tecton said.  “If that’s alright, Gully?  We’ll watch your prisoners.”

“I’ll ask,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Atlas isn’t far from your territory,” Tattletale said.  “Head a little north, and you should find him with your range.”

I nodded.

Gully gave me a thumbs up, her phone still pressed to one ear, and we headed to the van.  Wanton was the only one who could fit in the driver’s seat and who had a license.

With Gully and Bitch both in the back, I figured it would be safest to ride with them.  Rachel was managing better these days, but a fight between her and one of the heroes could spell disaster.

It took a minute for all the dogs to climb into the back of the vehicle.  I used the time to gather my bugs in nearby buildings, where I could collect them on my return trip.

Rachel wasn’t feeling talkative, Gully seemed lost in thought, and both Wanton and Scapegoat were in the front.  That left me to get a discussion going, and I was too tired to bother.  I closed my eyes, arranging my bugs into an arrow on the dashboard of the van.  They rearranged themselves into a right turn sign to steer him toward Lord street, and from there it was relatively smooth sailing.

Someone had given the order for evacuation, and people were being directed to the shelters.  We had only two indications that things would get any worse.  Tattletale’s gut, which wasn’t a sure thing, and Dinah, who’d indicated that there was a good chance a large portion of the city would suffer at Echidna’s hands.

Or, even, not specifically at her hands.  With our luck, it would be Tattletale’s plan that leveled half the city and we’d find out that Echidna was permanently trapped beneath the rubble, not even a consideration.

Twice, I nodded off, my head starting to drift forward, before the sudden movement of my bugs stirred me fully awake.  The interior of the van was warm, dim and the vibration was oddly soothing.

The third time I drifted off, my bugs didn’t catch the movement.  My head leaned back against the wall of the van, and I slipped into the twilight state of near-sleep.

It was the appearance of Atlas that brought me back to my senses.  I signaled for Wanton to stop the van.

He was inside a garage, so still I thought he might be dead.  Without ingrained instincts, he had only the barest minimum of processing.  Enough to breathe, at least.

He hadn’t eaten in twelve hours.  I was sure to feed him a supply of the less essential bugs from the area, moving them straight into his open mouth.  I could reach my lair, and drew out every single one of the bugs I had stored there, calling them to me.

He would be weak, I noted, but at least he wasn’t hurt.  Coil had probably ordered for Atlas to be left alone for much the same reason that he’d carted the giant beetle to this area.  Doing otherwise could have clued the other Undersiders into what was really going on.

Wanton opened the back of the van, and I stepped outside.  Gully emerged as well, likely due to curiosity as much as anything else.

Atlas, at my bidding, found his way past the closed and unlocked door, made his way outside and flew to me.

When the giant beetle dropped out of the sky to land just beside the van, Wanton briefly shifted into his other form, and Gully raised her shovel protectively in front of her.

My bugs flowed over Atlas’ carapace, and I used my hands as well, checking there was no damage.  Scrapes and gouges on his underside.  Had they lifted him into a truck to transport him?  My gloved fingertip ran along the length of his scythe-like foreleg.  Maybe I needed to take the time to give him more care, sharpen the natural weapons, tend to his shell…

I blinked a few times.  I was tired, and my lack of focus was dangerous.  Time was short.

“Are your dogs well enough to run?”  I asked Rachel.

She was still in the truck, sitting on one of the benches that were built into the side.  She hopped down to the street, the dogs milling around her.  “Probably.”

“Then let’s go,” I said.  I stepped onto Altas’ back, but I didn’t take a seat.  I let him rise into the air, and I drew all the bugs in the area to me.  I didn’t settle into a sitting position until I was obscured from view.

I couldn’t move too far away from Scapegoat.  I was tethered to him by an invisible, intangible cord, about one hundred and fifty feet long; about half a city block.

Still, provided I was directly above him, it let me fly about eight or nine stories above the ground.  I wasn’t untouchable, but I was safer.

“…Hear me,” Wanton spoke.

My bugs spelled out the word ‘yes’.

“Creepy,” he said.  “I need …rections.”

There were two possibilities that sprung to mind as far as what that last word might be.  I guessed it was ‘directions’ and pointed him back to Lord street.  I wanted as many of the good bugs as I could bring, but I was limited in how many Atlas could carry and I doubted the others would be keen to see them packed into the back of the truck.

Instead, I drew out lines of thread, ferried the slower moving bugs onto my back, and loosely bound them.  Bugs strung out on silk cords, like kindergarteners did with popcorn on thread.  The rest found shelter in the folds, compartments and creases of my costume.

I kept close to the ground as I followed.  Had to stay close to Scapegoat and I couldn’t trust that Atlas had enough energy to carry me until we’d flown a bit and I could see how his stamina was.

My hair and the tatters of my costume flapped behind me as we flew, clumped together in parts with the fluid that I’d been soaked with while inside Noelle.  I had bugs crawl over both to devour and separate the worst of it.  The ones on the threads that trailed behind me with the faster flying insects were surviving, which was key.

The little tasks kept me awake, if not entirely focused. I was caught off guard when I let the van miss a turn.  If a good shot of adrenaline didn’t wake me up, I might be at a disadvantage in the coming fight.

I got that kick of adrenaline sooner than I’d wanted.  We reached the clearing where the others had been and found it empty.  The Travelers, Tattletale, Regent, Scrub and the heroes were gone.

I landed, and the van doors opened.  Bitch stopped just beside me, Bentley at full size and the other dogs standing maybe three feet tall at the shoulder.

“Gully, you have an armband.  Have the heroes communicated anything?”  I asked.

“No.”

“Can you do me a favor and see if anyone has answers on where Tattletale and the others are.  For now, we should head back to the perimeter.”

“You’re giving orders?” Wanton asked.

“Consider it a suggestion,” I said.  Gully had been pleased at the semi-promotion, with being put in charge.  I could concede to let her call or confirm the shots if it kept her happy.  “It’s Gully’s choice.”

She glanced at me.  “It’s sound.  I’ll use the armband while Wanton drives.”

We reached the perimeter around the destroyed building before she got a reply, and we found Tattletale in the company of some of the major heroes.  Legend, Alexandria and Eidolon weren’t present, but that wasn’t a huge surprise.  They apparently had secrets to keep.

More than one cape turned their attention to me as I approached.  They didn’t shoot, though.  I was relieved at that.  It would be a bad way to go, getting gunned down out of the air by heroes with twitchy trigger fingers.

I had to pause while the van stopped to pass through a contingent of heroes.  Rachel sort of strode through without really asking for permission.

It wouldn’t be winning us any points with the good guys, ignoring courtesy, but the fact that Tattletale and Regent had disappeared from our rendezvous spot and that they were now in the midst of a group of twenty-seven heroes.  They weren’t at gunpoint, not really, but the implied threat was apparent.

I waited until Scapegoat was out of the van and hobbling toward the crowd before bringing Atlas in for a landing.  I rose to a standing position so I wouldn’t be sitting down when the bugs parted to reveal me.

“What’s going on?” I asked.  My bugs passed through the crowd, not getting in anyone’s way, not touching on faces or bare skin where I could help it, but giving me a way to track everyone nearby.

It was Tecton who answered me.  “Tattletale wasn’t willing to drop her idea.  I suggested taking it to our superiors, and she agreed.”

“It’s too dangerous,” Myrddin said.  He stood by with Miss Militia and Chevalier beside him.

“It’s our best option,” Tattletale said.

“It’s a plan that puts everyone involved at an immense degree of risk, and it costs us time we don’t have.”

“We have a little time,” Tattletale retorted.  “I don’t see any movement there, do you?”

“We can’t even guarantee it’ll work,” Myrddin replied.

“Are you saying that because you consider yourself the resident dimension manipulator or because you’re afraid it’ll lead to a big revelation about Cauldron?”

I could have imagined it, but I could have sworn my bugs were aware of a collective intake of breath.  Not everyone present, not even one in five… but people did react.

How far did this reach?

“What are you talking about?”  Myrddin asked.

“No?  I’m not seeing anything from you.  Guess you’re in the clear,” Tattletale replied.

“Tattletale,” Miss Militia cut in, “This isn’t the time for games, making accusations in the hopes of finding information.”

“I agree,” I said.  “Stick to the topic at hand.”

“It’s not a game,” Tattletale said.  She looked at me, and she wasn’t smiling.  “And I don’t see how we can discuss it if we ignore the elephant in the room.”

Try,” I told her.

“What’s going on?” Chevalier asked.  Of everyone in the immediate area, he had the most presence.  He wore gleaming gold and silver armor, but it was the massive, ornate cannonblade that made him so imposing, with a blade that was twelve feet long, three feet wide and capable of growing larger, resting against his shoulder as though it were as light as a feather.

“Rest assured, Chevalier, this is a discussion for another day,” Miss Militia said.  “One I’m definitely interested in continuing, but not when it threatens to distract us.”

“If you’re sure,” Myrddin said.

“Trust me.  Please,” Miss Militia replied.

“Cauldron is led or backed up by the Tr-”

Miss Militia struck Tattletale, cutting her off before she could finish the sentence.  It was only as Miss Militia dropped to her knees, setting one knee on Tattletale’s throat, that I saw she’d had a gun in her hand.  She gripped Tattletale by the cheeks, pinching her mouth open, and slid the gun into her mouth.

I could sense Rachel striding forward, saw Regent moving to raise one hand in Miss Militia’s direction.  My arms went out to either side of me: one to bar Rachel’s advance, another to catch Regent’s wrist.

“Don’t be foolish, Tattletale,” Miss Militia said.  “Why would you risk everything like this?”

Tattletale glanced at me, then mumbled something incomprehensible around the gun barrel.  Her cheekbone was bleeding where she’d been struck.

Miss Militia looked up at me.  A gun materialized in her other hand, identical to the one that was jammed between Tattletale’s teeth, but she didn’t point it at me.  “Do we have a problem, Skitter?”

“Not unless you pull the trigger,” I said.  “We aren’t going to start a fight with this many people around.  It would be suicidal.”

I looked Tattletale in the eye as I said that last word.

“Is she a clone?” Myrddin asked.

“I almost wish she was,” I replied.  “No.  It’s the real her.”

“Can you tell me why she’s doing this?” Miss Militia asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Yes, but not in entirety.”  We were tired, but that wasn’t it, it wasn’t all of it.  Couldn’t be.  It wouldn’t account for the almost suicidal edge to her actions in just the last half hour.  There was something else going on.

“Tattletale,” Miss Militia said, “I’m going to remove the gun.  Think very carefully about what you say.  Deliberately attempting to divide our ranks could be seen as a violation of the truce, and I will push for the kill order if it goes that far.”

Tattletale nodded.  She winced as the gun was removed.  “You can’t put a kill order on the other Undersiders.  They aren’t responsible for anything I’m saying.  Heck, two of them aren’t even here.  You’d be killing innocents.”

“I don’t think anyone here thinks any of you are innocent,” Miss Militia said.

“They’re relative innocents?” Tattletale tried.

“Quiet,” Miss Militia said, her voice tight.

“I’ll be quiet when you tell me you won’t punish others because of me.”

“Just be quiet,” Miss Militia said.

“M.M.,” Chevalier said, his voice low, “I won’t gainsay any of your decisions, and with this being your city, you have the say unless one of the Triumvirate supercedes your order… but you’re attacking a girl when she was only talking, and there are a lot of eyes and ears here.”

“You’re saying it doesn’t look good,” Miss Militia said.  Her eyes were fixed on Tattletale.

“Not for your career.”

“I don’t give a flying fuck about my career,” she replied.  “I care about all of us getting out of here in one piece.”

“And you think she’ll put all of us in danger if she opens her mouth?” Chevalier asked.

“Yes.  I think Tattletale can do a catastrophic amount of damage if she opens her mouth,” Miss Militia said.  “You’ve read her file.”

“I have,” Myrddin said.

“Is the information she wants to share pertinent to this crisis?”  Chevalier asked.

“Not immediately,” Miss Militia said.  Tattletale cleared her throat, apparently asking for permission to speak, but Miss Militia gave her a tight shake of the head in response.  “Not as far as I’m aware.  I’ve discussed much of it with Skitter.”

“If I may,” I spoke up.  Innumerable sets of eyes turned my way.  I let go of Regent’s hand and dropped the hand that was still held up in front of Rachel.

“What is it?” Myrddin asked.

“I can try to explain.  You can send away the rest of the capes, I explain to you three, and you decide if and how much information to disseminate to your underlings.  I’ll try to be more delicate than Tattletale was, avoid the more sensitive parts.  I don’t agree with Tattletale’s plan, but it’s too dangerous to make calls without knowing the key details, and some of this stuff is need-to-know, if we’re to have any chance of getting the Travelers or Noelle to cooperate.”

Myrddin looked at Miss Militia, and she nodded.

Myrddin raised his voice.  “I’d like everyone who isn’t immediately involved in this discussion to find something else to do.”

Some people started shuffling away.  Aside from heading straight towards the site where helicopters were still laying down containment foam or walking face first into the containment van Wanton had parked, there were only two directions to walk, and one group of people weren’t moving.

Gully.  One of the twins was tugging on her arm, but she wasn’t budging.

“Gully,” a cape I didn’t recognize spoke, “Get a move on.”

“I want answers,” she said.  “The Undersiders have them.”

“And Chevalier will contact me with what he feels we need to know, and I’ll pass that on to you and your squad,” the cape said.

“That’s not enough,” she said.  “I don’t want the condensed version.  I want to hear why I’m like this.”

A murmur ran through the crowd, and I noted that some of the capes who had reacted before were standing out more.  One was breathing harder, another was fidgeting where she’d been calm before.

“This kind of insubordination is what goes on your file and costs you promotions,” the cape said.

“I’ve been passed up for promotion so many times I’ve already gotten the message.  Monsters don’t get to be team captain.  Your argument doesn’t have any weight to it, Lono.”

Weld approached her.  Their eyes met, and Weld came to a stop, turning around so that he stood just to her right.  He didn’t say a word.

Miss Militia stared at him, and he didn’t even flinch.

“This is a critical situation,” Myrddin said.  “We’re on the brink of another potential conflict with an S-class threat.  If the Undersiders have information we can use, information that could be sensitive, we need you to clear out.”

“I’ve spent years like this,” Gully said.  “It’s not just me, either.  There’re others.  Weld…”

“Hunch,” Weld added.  “Gentle Giant, Sanguine.”

“Weld and Hunch, Gentle Giant and Sanguine,” Gully said.  “And the others who weren’t even lucky enough to find the Wards or the Protectorate before they found themselves in trouble.  It’s not just for me.  We need to know for them.”

“This isn’t the time or place.”

“With all due respect, spend a day in my shoes, Myrddin.  Just one, and then tell me again, that I have to wait one day, one hour, even one minute longer for an explanation.”

The ground shuddered, and I thought at first that it was her, but she looked surprised.

It was Noelle.  Echidna.  She was active and fighting her way free.

“We’re out of time.  Enough of this,” Myrddin said.  “Gully, Weld, join your teams.”

Gully planted her shovel in the ground, put one foot on top of the blade, and folded her hands on the handle.

“We could share with them,” Miss Militia said.  “I know Weld is an exemplary hero, and we could trust him to keep necessary information to himself.”

“I might agree,” Chevalier said, “If it weren’t for the dramatic flair Gully was displaying.  I don’t trust that she will stay quiet on the subject.”

Another shudder.  Heroes were running to adopt battle lines, forming a circle around the construction lot with the ruined building.  The invincible, the power immune, masters with durable pets and forcefield makers were positioning themselves at even intervals around the circle.

“We don’t have time.  Myrddin,” I said. “You and I can both fly.  If we go to a nearby rooftop-”

“Fuck me,” Tattletale said.  “So much wasted time.”

She grabbed for Miss Militia’s gun.  When Miss Militia didn’t let go, Tattletale took one step closer and pressed her forehead against the gun barrel.  “Do it.  Kill me.  You’ve seen a lot of people die in your lifetime.  People important to you, dying because of an idea.  So kill me because I believe this idea should be heard by people who care.  Close the damn circle.”

Why? I thought.

“The Triumvirate,” Tattletale said.

Miss Militia stared at her, but didn’t pull the trigger.

“The… Triumvirate?” Gully asked.

“I’m in deep shit anyways,” Tattletale said.  “For saying what I already have.  We all are.  Sad fact is, I have better chance of surviving if it’s all out in the open.  The Triumvirate is Cauldron.  Eidolon, Legend, Alexandria.  They started it, or they’re so involved in it that it’s incestuous.”

“Fuck me,” Regent muttered.

I couldn’t even breathe.  I was waiting for Miss Militia to pull the trigger.

“They made me like this?” Gully asked.  “Why?”

“Not sure.  A warning, maybe, to people who didn’t pay their bills.  Or they figured that while they were brainwashing you, they’d implant you with a built-in weakness, something a paying customer could exploit.”

“That’s it?  That’s your answer?”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  I wasn’t sure if I was apologizing because it was insufficient or because I’d let Tattletale take things this far.

The ground shook, more violently than before.  The air was filled with the thrum of the helicopters that were flying overhead.

By contrast, he flew so silently that I almost missed him setting down.  I didn’t have bugs in the area, and my eyes were trained in the general direction of Gully and the wreckage of Coil’s collapsed base.

Legend, landing in the midst of us.

“You heard,” Tattletale said.  She didn’t sound surprised.

“Lipreading,” he murmured.  “I can see very long distances.  Put the gun down, Miss Militia.  The cat’s out of the bag.”

“You’re admitting it,” Chevalier said.

There was another rumble, shaking the ground so hard that most of us lost our balance.  Legend stayed perfectly upright, no doubt using his flight to hold himself a hair above the ground.  He turned to check the fighting hadn’t started.

“It’s true?” Gully asked.

“We started Cauldron in the early days,” he said.  “They had a way to give people powers, and each of us were desperate for our own reasons.  We should have had trigger events, but we weren’t lucky enough to have the potential.  Nobody deluded themselves about the risks.  We knew that it was all too possible to die or become a monster.”

“But you did.  You made monsters,” Gully said.

“Everyone who took a dose went into it with their eyes open,” he said.  “They refined the process, and we reduced the chance to a single digit of a percent.  Two, three percent, if that.  And at the same time the numbers were decreasing, we were realizing how badly we needed the heroes that Cauldron could provide.  Capes without traumas to drive them toward villainy.  Cauldron turned it into a business, producing heroes and acquiring funds from the wealthy to redirect to Endbringer recovery and further research into powers.  We knew it wasn’t ideal, that some would turn to villainy, but with the appearance of the Slaughterhouse Nine and the damage the Endbringers were doing, we had to do something.”

“How do the Travelers factor in?” Miss Militia asked.

“They got ahold of a dose meant for another group of people.  They weren’t screened, they didn’t follow the necessary procedures, didn’t get the psychological or physical checkups… and even with that, we had no idea that the formulae could produce anything like this Echidna.”

“But the Travelers are from another world,” I said.  “Aren’t they?”

“The Simurgh,” he said, simply.  “Madison, Wisconsin, one and a half years ago.  She opened a dimensional gate.  You were there, Myrddin.  You met Trickster and Echidna.”

Myrddin’s eyes widened.  “The hospital room.”

The ground rumbled again.  A burned husk of a building at the far end of the street toppled with a crash.

“But… if Cauldron’s not taking people from other worlds,” Gully said.  “What-”

“It’s not Cauldron,” Legend said.  His voice was flat, without affect.  He met her eyes.  “Manton worked for Cauldron, before an incident with his daughter led to a psychotic break and a break with the organization.  He left with samples that he passed on to others.  One of those people sold them for personal profit before Cauldron found him.  Another was responsible for the case fifty-threes.  We thought it was Manton, but it wasn’t.”

He glanced at Tattletale, and she cocked her head a little to one side.

Why?” Gully asked.  “Why do that?  Why make us like this?”

“I’d give you answers if I could.  Some people abuse others for the sense of power it gives them,” Legend told her.  His voice sounded hollow.  “To change someone’s body and mind completely and irrevocably?  It could be the same impulse.  The appearance of the case fifty-threes has stopped or slowed dramatically.  It’s little consolation, but we think the person who did this to you is be dead or completely out of formula.”

“That’s no consolation at all,” Gully replied.  The ground shuddered.

“It’s worth noting,” Legend said, “That we tracked Manton down.  He and Siberian’s master are the same person.  Dragon and Defiant have a bead on the Nine.  They expect a confrontation to start soon.”

But I could only think of when Legend and I had been looking down at the Nine from above.  He’d recognized the Siberian’s master then, and he hadn’t told me.

Was he omitting facts now, in the same way?  Was he lying like he had then?

“The Siberian is Manton?” Myrddin asked.

Legend nodded.  “And Manton is ultimately responsible for the case fifty-threes.  I know it’s not the explanation you each hoped for, but it’s the reality.  Understood?”

There were nods all around.  I wasn’t sure if anyone else saw, or if they knew her well enough to say, but Tattletale was smiling, and it wasn’t the one she wore when she was being friendly and easygoing.  It was the one she’d had before she’d unloaded on Panacea, back at the bank.  The one she’d had before she revealed to Coil just how she’d screwed him over.

I directed a bug to fly across her face, brushing the skin.  She flinched and looked at me.

I only stared at her, willed her to be quiet.  Saying anything would be disastrous here.  I wasn’t sure how much of what he was saying was truth, but Legend had just stepped in here, pacified the situation.

Tattletale shrugged with one shoulder, a fractional movement that only my swarm really noticed.  The smile disappeared from her face.

“Sure,” she said, a little belatedly.

The rumbling continued, steadier now.

“Is that the essence of what you wanted to tell us?” Myrddin asked me.  “What Legend said about Cauldron?”

“Only thing I’d have to add is that the Travelers came from another Earth.  Except for Trickster, they’re more or less on our side here.  Tell Ballistic, Sundancer and Genesis that we can get them home, and they’ll help.  They have the kind of firepower we need.”

“We’ll-”

My bugs sensed Echidna clawing her way to the surface.

“Armband!”  I interrupted Chevalier.

“What?”

“Warn them.  She’s here!”

It was too late.  The Grue that was accompanying Echidna emerged from the hole she’d dug.  He raised his hands, and I could see the wave of darkness rolling out from the entrance to a parking garage to sweep over the assembled heroes.

She wasn’t beneath the fallen base.  With her shapeshifting and the teleporting Grue’s help, she’d found her way through a side tunnel, clawed or punched her way up into a nearby parking garage, a place where she could stage her attack.

Echidna materialized out of the darkness the Grue had created.  She was nearly twice the height she’d been before, to the point that the human body on the top was miniscule, a speck by comparison.  A human figure atop a broad three-story building.

Her legs were more robust, now.  There weren’t any feeble limbs like the ones my bugs had glimpsed or touched.  Her lower body was plated in a crust of bone, and two more heads were just emerging from her front, one with the beginnings of a mouth, the other with two large eyes and a lump that would become a snout.  She’d developed.

There were no less than ten capes within range of her claws as she appeared.  Ten capes that were caught in her flesh the very instant the fighting began.

I’d placed bugs on Legend to track his movements, and they went with him as he took to the air and fell into formation with Alexandria and Eidolon.  Those same bugs allowed me to sense the smallest movement of his head, as he directed a slight nod toward his longtime comrades.

If I’d been suspecting that he’d been lying before, that clinched it for me.

In his shoes, I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t have done the same.

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