Speck 30.2

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We were broken, routed.

When had it happened?  When had we reached that critical juncture?  Had one specific act or moment marked the point where the rank and file capes had stopped fighting and started merely trying to survive?

Morale was failing, and had failed long ago.  A good fifth of our fighting force here was made up of Nilbog’s creatures and Dragon’s suits, which self-repaired and kludged together with the remains of other damaged suits to return to the field again and again.  That was with the reinforcements that were coming through Doormaker’s portals.

Chevalier and Ingenue, the other Birdcage leaders and other teams were trying to gather into a defending force.  Issue was, there wasn’t really a way to defend.  Scion held the keys to all things power related, and any attack that didn’t penetrate a particular defense needed only to be tweaked, adjusted with a moment’s thought.  Following that, it passed through forcefields, armor and time distortions like they weren’t even there.

The same was true in terms of our ability to attack.  I had a sense of Scion’s scale, because I’d seen his partner, and I’d gotten a glimpse of the sheer mass of the partner from how much had flowed through into our world as Scion had moved it.  I could assume they were roughly equivalent in size, and that meant we were trying to tear through landmass of raw matter, and we were doing it a few handfuls at a time.

I could look at how durable the partner entity’s flesh had been when Rachel and Lung had been tearing through it, extrapolate to the attacks we’d seen here.  We weren’t doing nearly enough, especially if he was compartmentalizing the damage and keeping himself from losing more than a certain amount at a time.

To top it all off, anything we found that worked only worked for a short time.  Either the user died, or Scion adapted his defenses to become immune to it.

I knew this.  A good number of us knew some of it, especially the ones who’d attended the meetings with the major players.

But for a large number of people on the battlefield, this wasn’t all common knowledge.

For the others on the ground, this was a man with golden skin who didn’t seem to be bothered in the slightest by the vast majority of what we were throwing at him.  At best, he seemed annoyed, by effects as massive as the ones String Theory and Gavel had dished out.  At best, we gave him pause for a moment.  He was toying with us in a way that made it clear he was holding back, yet it didn’t take away from the horror of his actions.

It was impacting morale, instilling a kind of hopelessness, and that hopelessness was a big part of why things were falling apart before my eyes.

I saw him generate a beam so thin I couldn’t make out anything but the glow around it, tracing it through a group.  It cut into throats, arms, legs and chests.  The wounded capes fell, all together.

Blood welled out from the cuts the beam had made in their flesh.  The damage wasn’t lethal, not yet, but it was bad enough that death was likely.  Even inevitable.  I saw a trace of golden light on the skin around the wound.  The damage was spreading.  It wasn’t the sort of injury a medic would be able to handle.

Sixteen capes in all, left to feel their hot blood flow free, their lives seeping away.  Not everyone Scion had targeted was in such bad shape.  One had dodged, pulling a teammate out of the way.  Another three or four had survived the attack by toughness alone, with armor and powers protecting them.

Scion moved, advancing on them.  One sphere of golden light, turning one of these hyper-tough capes into ash.  And then he was in their midst, hitting them with physical blows, tearing them to pieces, each hit harder, faster and more gruesome than the last.  A sweep of his arm and a cape with stone armor was torn in two.

Two or three seconds and he’d taken nineteen capes out of action, wounding several more.  But the real effect was on others, on capes who were now giving up, trying to get away from this slaughter.

He advanced on the two who remained, and it was Chevalier who got in the way, slamming his cannonblade down, twenty feet long and eight feet high, a physical barrier in Scion’s way.

Scion raised one glowing hand, not even slowing as he advanced towards his intended targets.  The sword, to Scion, was little more than tissue paper.

Which made it all the more surprising, to him and to me both, when he stopped, his hand touching the barrier and failing to tear through it.

Chevalier drew the sword back, then cleaved Scion.  The sword passed through the golden man’s shoulder, ribcage, and out his waist, cutting into the earth.

Bisected.

Chevalier remained where he was, hands on the handle of the weapon, making eye contact with Scion.  Ingenue was only a short distance behind him, looking more like she was dressed up to go to a club than to be on a battlefield, with a little leather jacket and a dress with the slit up one side,  her hair draped over half of her face.

Just the same as we’d seen with the Siberian.  The damage was there, but Scion was holding himself together.

Scion withdrew himself from the sword.  Chevalier slashed again, slamming Scion into the earth, then used a sweep of the sword to vault himself back.

Scion’s a ghost, it’s a mask.

And whatever Tattletale says about him being human at his core, human on the surface or whatever else, he’s a natural disaster, not an individual.

A force of nature.  Impossible to control or prevent.  The words crossed my mind, and they were my words, but they weren’t my thoughts.

Reminding me of the bad old days, Passenger?  I thought to myself.  My bugs continued to gather around me.  A familiar and comfortable presence, considering everything that was happening.

I’m not giving up!  My voice, sounding so far away, even in my own head, so young.

Damn straight.

Chevalier blocked Scion’s beam with his sword, then moved the blade, pulling the trigger.  The cannonball hit Scion, and knocked the golden man back.

Capes were taking the opportunity to flee.

I knew what I had to do, here.  Even with a myopic, skewed perspective.  I could guess what the ultimate price was going to be.

Maybe a good part of myself was a monster.  Maybe a part of me was still that girl who had very nearly gone on a rampage in her school, still that girl who would have been an angry, frustrated, aimless c-list villain, a footnote in a footnote in the grand scheme of things, forgotten by nearly everyone once the media frenzy had died down.

The hell am I supposed to do!?  The memory was so clear I could almost hear my own voice.  Had that anger ever really gone away?

The world didn’t fucking make sense.  People didn’t make sense.  I’d been railing against it from the beginning.

I dropped to the ground, cutting one of the boosters to the flight pack.  I didn’t position my legs right, and I folded, landing on my knees and hands instead of on both feet.

I felt a spark of fear, then another.  Capes stopped in their tracks, and the ones behind them crashed into them, driving them forward, some toppling onto a disc a tinker was riding.  Seven people, now inside my range.

I could get a sense of their powers.

The disc the cape was riding was a tinker device, hovering over the ground with a constant stream of air that sent dust billowing in low rolling clouds around the edges.  A woman rode the platform, garbed in a green, flowing kimono-style dress, surrounded by some sort of tinker-derived cyborg bonsai trees on raised sections of varying height.

I began to find my feet, using both my hands and the flight pack to get myself upright.

I could feel the tree-girl’s fear, the fact that she was cornered.  It was echoed across each of the seven who’d stumbled into my power’s radius, and it invoked memories.  Different memories for each of them.  For her, it called Leviathan to mind.  Me running, being struck from behind.  There was one case that reminded me of being with my dad in the room, wracked with shame and helplessness, a complete and total lack of direction.  Another that, inexplicably, brought up the scene with Dragon and Defiant in the Arcadia High cafeteria.  A sense of injustice, mingled with surrender.

For another, for two others, it brought up Mannequin, but they were different scenes.  Being in the empty factory with the innocents at the edges, a building rage, and being there when he’d attacked my territory the second time, after we’d saved Amy.

In both of those cases, it was the same kind of rage I’d just been thinking about.  To these two, I was the freak of nature standing in their way.

I was broken, and I’d bitten off more input than I could chew.  The passenger was tapping into the experiences it had shared with me, because that was the only way it could convey the signals I was getting from them.

Which wasn’t what I needed.  It was the wrong inputs.  What I needed was to decipher their powers.  The tinker with the trees… I could sense things about her that weren’t tapping into memories I understood.  Something mental that I couldn’t relate to, out of my reach.

I ordered them to turn.  When they moved, they lurched.  Unfamiliar proportions, different degrees of athleticism.  Like my adjustment to my new arm and legs.

Could I get used to moving them like I’d gotten used to the new limbs?

Laughter disturbed me from my thoughts.

“Human shields?”  A man asked, almost unintelligible with his coarse accent.  “I love it!  I was ganna shoot the bloody idjits in the backs, you’re ‘lowed to do that, ‘miright?  But some cunt might get the wrong idea.”

When I turned my head, all but one my minions turned their heads as well.  My fault.  I’d wanted the extra sensory input, and I’d instinctually tried to take it in with a share of my ‘swarm’.

It was Acidbath.  One of the Birdcage’s cell block leaders.  He had the stylings of a rock musician or punk rocker who’d spent a little too much time doing drugs and not enough time playing his instrument.  Worn around the edges, a little too full of himself.  He’d been a bit player in the real world, caught up in his vices, yet had managed to take over and rule a cell block for three years after being sent to the Birdcage.

He was still smirking, laughing a little, as he looked between me and Scion’s ongoing fight with Chevalier.  He danced a little from foot to foot, tensing just a bit every time Scion moved.  Not out of fear.

“This is better,” he said.  “They wanna run and leave us assholes to do the fighting, you can say otherwise.  Pin ’em up and let Scion knock ’em down.”

No.  They aren’t meat shields.

But I couldn’t tell Acidbath that.  I couldn’t answer him because I couldn’t communicate.

It galled me that he thought I’d use them as cannon fodder.  Not least because he was right.  Partially right, but that didn’t make it much better.

I’d compared myself to some pretty horrible individuals in the past, but Acidbath was something else.  He was low, barely above dirt.  He’d scalded his own brother with acid, and had gone after girlfriends and girls who had rejected him.  The attacks hadn’t been lethal, but had melted flesh and the fat or muscular tissues beneath.  I’d seen the pictures of the aftermath when I’d browsed his files, after the scar tissue had formed.

I couldn’t think of worse ways to hurt someone, and he’d done it in impulsive acts of retaliation.

If I was going to be a monster, I’d at least try to be smart about it, constructive.  To have a plan.

I set my new minions into action.  I couldn’t get too caught up in the details.  Their powers were a part of them like the venom was a part of a spider or centipede, or web a part of the spiders I controlled.  I had to take it in without getting caught up in analyzing it, trusting the passenger to handle the essential details on autopilot.

As my new minions rejoined the battle, I felt the tinker tap into that power that had previously been out of reach.  I got a glimpse of how she operated, the world she saw; a distorted world much like I’d seen when I tried to look through my bug’s eyes.  The trees were primed and loaded like guns.  Tinker-herbalism, only it wasn’t very medicinal at all.

I set her aside.  The others… my passenger was better at controlling most of them.

A cape in a black flowing costume who had powers I couldn’t decipher.  I set him aside as well.

The others were easier to use, and I wasn’t sure how much of it was because of their powers’ similarities to my own.  Focusing on them resulted in a deluge of fragmented memories, memories of me using my power in different ways.

Two shaker-classification capes provided the majority of the offensive power.  If I let them be, if I let things move on autopilot in their own way, then they used their power well enough.  A telekinetic with an emphasis on small objects, with a storm of ball bearings and small stones from the road, and a cape that could create superheated shafts of energy, anchoring them between two objects.  The memories were of my bugs attacking as a coordinated whole, of the threads I’d extended as tripwires and my attack on Echidna.

Not that I was so graceful or effective in using their abilities.

There was a woman, and focusing on her resulted in a deluge of fragmented memories, but these were memories of using my bugs to observe.  A secondary power?  Trying to tap into her other power resulted in thoughts of Atlas, the void in his midsection, of my relay bugs.  Something incomplete?  A kind of frustration.  With my eyes, I could see her fingertips glowing blue.

I moved her hand, and I saw a line drawn in the air.

Something incomplete.  I moved her hand in a circle, and I closed the line.

There was a small pop as the space we’d enclosed disappeared.  My bugs could feel the air moving at the destination point.

A teleporter with a somewhat irritating limitation.

The other two looked like members of the Birdcage.  Very possibly Acidbath’s underlings, though he hadn’t identified with them.  Brutish, mean looking.  One was armored in what looked to be fragmented pieces of pottery and glass, with flesh webbing between fragments, while the other was covered head to toe in biker tattoos, oddly doughy looking, with a power that was being channeled just under his skin.  Focused air.

Alexandria joined the fight, relieving Chevalier, who was on his heels, his blade in rough shape.  A third cape I didn’t know joined the fight.

Scion shook off the pair, and then struck Chevalier hard enough to send him crashing into the crowd opposite us.

Then he wheeled around.  His eyes passed over Acidbath.

Acidbath, still dancing from foot to foot, leaped, and he changed into a living tidal wave of clear liquid, isolated, with roughly five times his mass.  He materialized into regular human form when he was a little behind and to one side of Scion, and then lashed out, slinging punches that ended with his hands becoming liquid projectiles.  They splashed against Scion, and I could see smoke rise, even though there wasn’t any visible damage.

If Scion had been planning to attack us, the cape with Alexandria managed to get his attention.  Another flying bruiser type.  An ‘Alexandria package’ cape fighting alongside Alexandria herself.

Or Pretender, whoever.

The fear that was emanating from my minions was paralyzing me, I realized.  I shook it off and stepped up the attack.  The one with the shards and the one with the soft looking body charged to either side, and moved right out of my power’s range.

I hoped they would take this as a nudge, a push to get back into the thick of things.  Both these capes and the ones around us.  We weren’t many, but we were a little closer to Scion than most, and we were steadfast.  Capes who were backing away on either side of us were keeping their eyes on Scion, where they might otherwise have routed completely.

The guy that was made up of fragments took the nudge from me for what it was, giving me a hard look over one shoulder before he joined Alexandria and the other cape in attacking Scion.  He was a shapeshifter, maybe one like Mush, from the Brockton Bay Merchants.  My assessment of his power suggested he was tougher than he looked.

The other one, with the air swirling beneath his skin, simply left my range and ran.  He found a spot with more capes and slowed down, dropping into a crouch, like he might run at the first opportunity.

Scion threw the Alexandria-package cape I couldn’t name into the ceramic shard guy, and he managed to break the cape’s fall, falling to pieces in the process.  He began picking himself up, gathering more pieces of glass from nearby rubble to make himself bigger than before.

Acidbath stepped up the attack, slinging acid every time the path was clear,

I didn’t want to lose my stride, getting caught up in observation.  I focused on my minions.  The tinker with the disc had her plants loaded down with drugs.  I focused our attention on different things, and I got more fragmented memories in response.  A glimpse of me, paralyzed, with Bonesaw about to operate on me.

Poison?  Paralytic?

Being inside the building Coil had set on fire.

Incendiary?  Blinding?

The hospital bed-

I was acting even as the knowledge came to me.  I pushed her to use that one, and the passenger took over.  It was better at understanding the abstracts.  I could follow what it was doing, grasp the basics of it.  Her body and the seat beneath her was another plant, focused on producing, concentrating and storing gases in a combination that served as breathable air, the same gas that was keeping her disc aloft.

Her hand moved, the raised platforms shifted, and one tree was lowered to a point just in front of her.

The gas blew what looked like a vast cloud of purple pollen out onto the battlefield.  It settled on the wounded capes, and only the wounded capes.

Coagulants, I thought.  Painkillers.

I watched the others carefully, making sure that my minions weren’t inadvertently putting others in the line of fire.  I started circling our group with our teleporter, drawing out a line as she jogged in a tight loop.  The two shakers, the telekinetic and the guy who made lasers, they had matching costumes.  Had they combined their techniques?  I formed lasers between the airborne ball bearings.  Needle thin, they still cut into Scion.

The damage of one with the flexibility of the other.  No doubt a technique they’d used on their own.

Scion turned his head, looking at us.  His hands glowed.

The teleporter lunged forward, completing the loop, leaving out only the brute with the weird skin, the fragment-shapeshifter and the girl with the disc.  I gave one last command to make the disc-botanist tinker start running.

Our group was collectively teleported away.  I could feel the strength drain out of the teleporter to the point that she fell to the ground.  Scion’s attention was elsewhere.  He hadn’t gone after any of the ones we’d left behind.  We’d managed to avoid his attentions.

I turned my attention to the one cape I hadn’t yet figured out.

A voice interrupted me.  “Queen Administrator.  I almost didn’t recognize you.”

Glaistig Uaine.  I didn’t respond.  My focus was on the young man.  Some kind of trump power, responding to a few glimmers here and there.

I turned her way.  She was dressed in a complicated dress of green-black ribbons, complete with a hood.  She looks so young.

I pointed at the cape I was trying to figure out and raised my stump-arm in a shrug.

“If you want to get a full understanding of your new capabilities, you must figure that out on your own,” she said.  “Practice, and it will soon be second nature.”

I turned my attention to the cape.  My focus, again, was interrupted by her voice.

“I will warn you, do not attempt to usurp me.  If I catch you trying, I will fight you.  I am careful to tend to my flock, and would not have anyone but me handle them.”

I nodded.

“Good.  Peace is preferable,” she said.  We watched Scion unload on another group.

They can’t stop him with brute strength.  They know it.  Yet they keep coming.  Is it just for the sake of going out with a fight?  The hope of finding some trump card?

I’d stopped capes from running, but the idea wasn’t to stop retreat.  Retreat was sensible.  I didn’t want things to devolve into a panicked stampede to get away.

“It seems we’re losing, Administrator,” Glaistig Uaine said, as if echoing my thoughts.

I shook my head a little.

“I would offer him solace, if I knew how.  He is in a dangerous state, and I find myself worried for the first time.”

I glanced at her.

“Yes, very worried.  Had things gone like they were before, I would be bothered, but not overly upset.  We would die, the faerie would slumber and they would wait.  With luck, with a great deal of luck, he would find another partner, or another partner would find him, and things would be set for the great play to start anew, on a fresh stage.”

Scion had stopped with the beams and the blasts.  He was throwing punches again, hurling himself into the thickest parts of the crowd.  Nilbog’s creations were taking the brunt of the attack.

“But the faerie are creatures of whimsy, aren’t they?  Easily influenced by the masks they wear.  It’s the whole point of them, isn’t it, Administrator?  It’s why they are, yes?”

I nodded a little.  I could almost see it.

She nodded a little herself, as if satisfied by my response.  “He’s fallen prey to the worst kind of whimsy, a destructive wroth.  He is heartbroken and hopeless, he has lost more than you or I could ever imagine, and he may well leave this stage so ruined that things cannot be salvaged, unless we’re fortunate enough to get a…”

She trailed off, grasping for a word.

Understudy?

“Fortuitous arrival,” she said.  She smiled a little.  “Not very likely.  They litter breadcrumbs in their wake, not to be followed, but so their kin don’t waste time and effort traveling the same paths.  For another to arrive here, they would need to avoid touching a single crumb, like you or me swimming the length of a river without touching a wave.”

Black Kaze had entered the battlefield, backed up by Dragon’s Teeth.  She disappeared, and then reappeared behind Scion, katana drawn.  A moment passed, and Scion reacted as though he’d been punched dead center in the chest.

Not a big reaction, but it was a reaction.

Black Kaze alternated attacks with Acidbath, very proper, measured in her movements, compared to Acidbath’s flailing, reckless, hurried scramble to keep out of Scion’s line of sight.  Acidbath moved with surprising quickness, faster than a typical car might.  A peculiarity of his breaker power.

Glaistig Uaine offered a small laugh.  “I cling to a sliver of hope, and I know I’m fooling myself.  There really isn’t much of a time window.  A few thousand years is such a short time, you know.”

I continued to pay attention while I focused on the more mysterious cape in my range, the one who I hadn’t deciphered.

The connections of his powers to something that was there but not quite there… his power hinged on some outside qualifier or factor that wasn’t being met on this battlefield.  It was concentrated most on the wounded…

It snapped into place.  His power worked with people who were sleeping.  The people his power sort of worked on were unconscious.

I used the teleporter to draw a circle around him.  A moment later, he was gone, set in the midst of the biggest cluster of wounded.

“Ah, you understood.  Good.”

Only a moment later, Scion attacked, striking the ground.  We were distant enough that I could see the circle of golden light expanding around them, a ring that ripped through the ground, demolishing it.

Nilbog’s creations, the defending forces and Dragon’s suits were all toppled as the ground settled.  Buildings collapsed.

A wounded Leviathan emerged from the water, approaching Scion with an almost lazy slowness.  Capes practically fought one another to get their footing and get out of the way.  Some were too rough in their hurry to get by Nilbog’s creations, only to get attacked by the things in retaliation.

I clenched my one fist.

“Would you accompany me?  We would be the queen of the living and queen of the fallen.  No swords in our hands, but warlords nonetheless.  Yes?  I will give you hints, if you desire them, and help you manage your soldiers.  One last hurrah, a great war to end it all, like the best myths have.”

I shook my head slowly.

“No?  A shame.  Fear?  A lack of soldiers?”

I shook my head, still.

“No, you are not afraid, queen, or you are afraid, but this is a fear that drives you forward.  You have something you intend to do.”

I nodded.

“Then I will be here when you return, and we can have that great battle, fighting to drive him back into slumber.”

I gathered my swarm around me and the teleporter, and I had her draw another circle.

Glaistig Uaine reached out, seizing the woman’s wrist.  The teleporter’s alarm mingled with my own.

But she wasn’t attacking, and she wasn’t taking the teleporter’s powers, extinguishing her life in the process.

“A warning,” Glaistig Uaine said.

I gave her my full attention.

“You sought power, and you lost a portion of yourself in the doing.  Always the case, but it’s… pronounced, in a case like yours.  Yes?”

“Hng,” I mumbled.

“You will need a tether, an anchor.  It can be an idea, a physical thing, a place, a person, a goal.  Right now, it will not seem so important, but it will.  When all is said and done, you will either be dead, and this thing will be a comfort to you in your last moments, or you will be powerful, and it will be all you have left.  Decide what you will hold on to.”

I’ve already decided what that is, I thought.  Since a long time ago.

“Choose very carefully,” she said.  “Take it from someone who knows.”

Then she moved the teleporter’s hand, closing the circuit.

The teleporter and I arrived at our destination at the same moment Leviathan crashed into Scion.  Water mingled with the ruined landscape, seeping into cracks, making life just a bit harder for the capes in the center of the disaster area.

I felt memories stir.  The moment I’d announced myself as Weaver and heard the howling.

You really have to make this unnecessarily hard, don’t you?  I thought.  Reminding me that I’m abandoning them.

Yes, Rachel and Imp were probably there.  So were the capes I’d controlled and urged back into the fray.  Maybe they had turned to run at the first opportunity.  Maybe they had been given a chance to reconsider, and were still fighting.

Maybe I’d killed them, by denying them the chance to run.

But I told myself I wasn’t abandoning them.

I had a mission, and this was a mission that would take me back to them, after a fashion.  I might never rejoin the group, I was fully aware of what I was getting myself into, but this was for their sake, not despite them.

That detour was a part of the mission, killing multiple birds with one stone.  Helping to stop the rout, trying to do a little something to keep the fight going, so the capes on the ground could buy time.  Learning about my new ability, testing my ability to accommodate unfamiliar abilities.

It hadn’t been planned, so much, but I’d also had a reminder of something that had slipped my mind.

Glaistig Uaine was one of my most dangerous enemies at this point.

Now I was in dire need of information.  Getting that information was a surprising obstacle, considering my inability to communicate.  I couldn’t ask, couldn’t whip out my phone and type something into the search bar and wait for it to dig records out of the archives.

To these ends, I’d moved us to the edge of the settlement, where six armored suits were deployed and waiting to be sent into the fray.  The Pendragon was one.  Dragon’s Teeth were scattered throughout the area, many holding what looked like rocket launchers with glass bulbs at the front.

The teleporter was exhausted from using her ability, and leaned on me as we made our way forwards.

D.T. officers stepped forward to bar my way.

Alarm, surprise.  I was momentarily dazed by images of a number of surprise attacks and explosions.  My power had reached them, and they stepped aside at my command.

I moved as confidently and as quickly towards the Pendragon as I could manage, trying not to show fear or uncertainty.  Harder than it sounded, given my limping, uneven gait, and the way my head slumped forwards.  D.T. officers beyond my range took notice and moved to flank me.

I reached the back of the Pendragon and I slammed my hand on the metal door.  I did it again.  My best attempt at a knock.  I tried my best to stand straight, folding my hand behind me.

Not quite loud enough.  The armor was too thick.  Still, the fact that I’d knocked was a point in my book, as far as the officers were concerned.  They were hanging back.

“Defiant isn’t replying,” one of the officers said.

“Try Dragon,” another spoke.  “She always answers calls.”

“Ladies!”  One called out.  “State your identities for the record!”

You know who I am, I thought.

“We know your face, we’ve met, but we can’t take anything for granted here!  Stranger and Master protocols are in effect!”

Oh.

Were the protocols in effect because of me?

Or was it a problem that stemmed from the half-dozen incidents in the last two years, where people had tried to capitalize on Endbringer attacks and other crises, attempting assassinations on key figures?

I couldn’t argue it, in any event.  I couldn’t defend myself, either.

“Both of you!  We’ll need your names, and we need at least one good password!”

Right.  Lovely.

Couldn’t use the teleporter without getting shot.  They’d see the line…

Unless they couldn’t.  Seeing myself through the teleporter’s eyes, I was a little surprised at the sheer number of bugs I’d accumulated.

She moved her hands to me, and she drew the line through the middle of the swarm.

Could she teleport where she couldn’t see?

I focused our attention on the interior of the Pendragon.

She closed the circuit, and we were inside.

My bugs could sense the soldiers reacting.

“Weaver?”  Dragon asked.  “I was just about to step outside.”

I stepped away from the teleporter.  My eyes roved over the ship’s interior.  Less elbow room than in the Dragonfly.

“Tattletale filled me in, asked me to pass on the details,” Dragon said.  “A lot of people are worried, here, on quite a few different levels.”

I couldn’t respond, and I knew how tight time was, so I met her eyes, nodded a little, and then gestured towards the nearest laptop.

“Yes,” Dragon said.  “Of course.”

I gave her a little salute.  I didn’t know a better way of expressing thanks.  If I’d known sign language, would I have lost it with my ability to speak and write?

“Tattletale was saying you were unfocused.  I’m not getting that sense.  You’re up to something.”

The laptop booted.  I froze.

Oh.  Damn.

I realized what I was looking at, and I felt my heart plummet.

When my mom had died, I’d sort of turned to books as a way of remembering her, a way of being with her in the present day, reminding myself of the nights she would read aloud to me, then the nights we’d read together, and beyond that, times when we’d all be in the living room, my dad with his computer half the time, a book the other half.  My mom and I always had our novels.  Sometimes we had shared, sometimes not.

When the bullying had started, books had been an escape.  I’d be exhausted at the end of the day, feeling a low that counterbalanced the higher adrenaline and stress of the time spent in school.  Curling up with something to read had been a refuge.

Maybe that had lapsed when I’d become a cape.  The costumed stuff had become an escape of sorts.  But I’d gotten back into it in prison, and on some of the stakeouts.  I’d taught myself braille, so I could read with my bugs, and take in more.

I would have settled for being a little crazy.  I would have settled for some physical impairment, for a power that was so out of control that I couldn’t have real human contact again.

The words were gibberish.  I couldn’t read.  It had been something I’d turned to in my lowest moments, a little crutch, a coping mechanism, and it had been denied to me.

It hit me harder than the loss of my voice, stupid as it was.  My hand shook, hovering over the display.

I watched as the words disappeared, replaced by images.  A composite picture of locations, a composite picture of faces, a composite picture of icons that no doubt included details on powers.  There were others I could scroll down to see.

My eyes watered a little.  I couldn’t look at Dragon, but I raised my hand in another salute.  Not nearly as good a thank-you as I wanted to be able to give.

My fingers touched the display.  Faces.

There were sub-menus.  All visual.  I clicked the frowny-face with the black background, then the little map for a world map… America.  I clicked the map icon again for a national map… Washington.

I found Teacher’s portrait near the top of the results list.  One of Washington’s most notorious capes.  Right.  I clicked it.

Dragon’s hand settled on the top of my head.  She ran it over my hair, using one finger to hook a strand and move it out of my face.  She did the same for another strand.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

I opened his file, and I clicked through the tabs until I saw a map.

I tapped my phone against the screen.

There was a rumble outside, followed by a thrum, and movement beyond this craft.  Dragon had deployed at least two of the other suits.

“I need some communication here, Weaver,” Dragon said.

Dumbly, I tapped the phone against the screen once again, not making eye contact.

“Please,” she said, but she made it sound like an order.

What do you want?  I thought.  Pantomime?  Do you want me to draw Teacher and the rest with my bugs and enact a play?

I didn’t do either.  I reached up and pulled off my mask.  I met Dragon’s eyes.

I could see myself through the teleporter’s vision.  Strands of my hair had fallen across my face as I’d removed the mask.  My lips were pressed together – I forced myself to relax them, only to find them resuming the position when I turned my attention elsewhere.  My body was all odd angles, my expression… I didn’t even know how to judge my own expression.  I didn’t know my own face that well, all things considered.  It was only something I saw from time to time in the mirror, getting ready for the day.

Intense?  Focused?  Determined?

Fatalistic?  More crazy than less?

I held her gaze.

Again, I tapped the phone against the computer screen.

It chirped.  The data had been loaded onto it.

“If it was Skitter that asked me, I would have said no,” Dragon said.

I nodded.

“If I was convinced it was Weaver in there more than anything else, I’d feel a lot better about this.  Tell me, am I going to regret giving you this?” she asked.

I couldn’t answer.  Not even with a nod or a shake of the head.  I touched the screen again, going back a bit.  Region… Chinese Union-Imperial.

C.U.I.

She knew what I was looking at.  “I’m thinking of how we brought the Endbringers in, bullying people into helping, or at least getting them to stop hurting.  Is this going to be a repeat?  Strongarming them?  Using your power?”

I shook my head.

My phone chirped again.

Others.  More targets.  The Birdcage.

Another chirp.

The rest I’d find on my own, provided all went according to plan.

I turned to the teleporter, then bowed low.  It wasn’t because of her culture – she looked European – it was because a bow would have to serve as an apology, as much as a salute would have to serve as acknowledgement and thanks.

I met Dragon’s eyes.

“I wish you could explain,” she said.

I’m glad I can’t, I thought.  I turned to leave.

Glaistig Uaine was one hurdle I’d have to cross.  Dragon was another.

If everything went to plan, they were the biggest threats to me.  Scion excepted, of course.

I left the teleporter behind, making my way outside.  I turned on the flight pack.

My bugs sensed the teleporter making her exit, drawing a circle around herself and then promptly disappearing.  The Pendragon took off a moment later.

I approached my target.  The Simurgh was flying over a set of hills that would have been the Towers district of Brockton Bay, had we been on Earth Bet.  She was building something.

The fighting was ongoing, with Leviathan more hurt than alive.  Capes were fighting to get to safety rather than trying to hurt Scion.

Scion hit Leviathan, and the last buildings in the settlement toppled.

I turned away.  I wasn’t one for prayer, but I wasn’t really one for hope, either.

At the same time, though, everything hinged on their ability to hold out.  Scion might leave soon, moving on to another target, but I wasn’t so sure these guys would be able to hold out against one more attack.

I passed beside the Simurgh as I flew.  Checking.

No control.

I plummeted.

The Simurgh, for the time being, came part and parcel with Tattletale.  When she wasn’t fighting, she was a distance away from my teammate and friend.

I touched ground, then flew through the doorway at an upward angle, moving over the defensive line Marquis had set at the doorway.

I found myself back in Tattletale’s company.  Marquis and Lung were close, but not so close they were in my range.  Panacea and Bonesaw, for their parts, were tending to the wounded.  The two girls froze as they fell inside my range.

Too many patients, on top of Panacea and Bonesaw.

Marquis and Tattletale froze as well, but it wasn’t the same kind of freezing.  It was tension.

“No,” Marquis said.

I ignored him.

“My daughter-”

Panacea stood up.  Bonesaw followed soon after.  They marched in Marquis’ direction.

They passed out of my range.  Marquis draped an arm around his daughter’s shoulders, hugging her closer.  Bonesaw wheeled on me, and there was a fury in her eyes.

It left only the wounded in my vicinity, along with a handful of others.  Members of the backline, the infrastructure elements in Gimel.

“Taylor-” Tattletale said.

I ignored her too.

“I’m sort of getting what you’re doing.  I don’t get why, but I think I get what you’re about to do.  Don’t.”

I closed my eyes, concentrating.  I needed to figure this out before I made any moves, or I’d be putting myself in danger.  Problem was… there was so much.

“Taylor, if you go ahead with this, and people start to catch on, you become public enemy number two.”

“Catch on?” Marquis asked.

Tattletale didn’t answer him.

I was pretty sure I had it.

With my power, I seized control of Doormaker and the Clairvoyant.  The pair stood, holding hands.

A heartbeat later, a cage of bone erupted from the ground.  Bindings wound around my legs.

He laid a trap under the surface of the ground, I thought.

Some of the more mobile injured were backing away from me and my two hostages.  The remainder were still in my range.

Bone coffins encased each of them, sealing them to the ground, out of sight.

I paused, doing my best to get a sense of them.  I could get the gist of their abilities, focus to try and piece together the details.  There were a few capes who could have broken free, a few who were probably capable of slipping out one way or another.

But I didn’t need to go that far.

I exerted Doormaker’s power, and he opened a portal behind Marquis.  The other side of that portal was just behind me.

Memories hit me.  Being chained to the interrogation chamber, opposite Director Tagg.

Tempered confidence, even now?

The memories were distorted, moving just a little too quickly towards the end of that particular scenario.  Except I was looking an awful lot like the person on the receiving end of the abrupt, painful and unexpected murdering.

Marquis’ lieutenants approached.  Cinderhands, Spruce, one other I couldn’t name, in dark clothes and chains.  Lung was circling around, getting ready to fling a fireball.

I used Marquis’ power to block their paths with spiked barriers of bone.  When Lung, Spruce and Cinderhands all tore through the barriers, with claw, some sort of disintegration power and flame, respectively, I used Doormaker’s power again.  This time, the portals I opened were only about a foot by a foot across.  Four at once.

“Taylor,” Tattletale said.  “You’re putting me in a pretty shitty spot, here.”

I checked my phone, tabbing through the pages that had been loaded onto it.  There was a blip marking Teacher’s location.

More were gathering around me.  I made more doors.  One or two dodged out of the way.  I managed to catch them, anyways.

“I’m not getting enough details here to paint a picture.  I trust the hell out of you, but I’m not sure this is you, Taylor.”

I pocketed my phone, then reached into my belt.  I hesitated for an instant, then pressed my hand to my chest for long seconds.  I knew I didn’t have time to spare, but…  no.  I didn’t have time to spare.

I opened a portal twenty feet above Tattletale, then opened my hand.  The little tube of pepper spray dropped through the portal.  Tattletale caught it.

“You couldn’t have made it easy?”  Tattletale asked, looking down at it.  “Because standing by while you do this… that’s fucking hard.  It’s honestly easier if I’m on their side and I’m helping them stop you.  If I can blame the fuck-up job Panacea did to your head.”

I didn’t have a response to that.  I used Marquis’ power to withdraw the bone cage and free my own legs.

I opened a doorway and passed through.

Dragon might be my enemy the moment she got filled in on what I was doing, but she was someone I cared about.  Teacher had fucked with her.

This next bit was going to be easier.

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Interlude 29

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Two parts to a whole.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Destination, the Warrior entity communicates.

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

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

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

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

This takes time.  Focus.

Colony, the other entity signals.

Narrowing down possible destinations.

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

A third.

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

It hesitates, then signals its own location.

ExchangeMeet.

The response is garbled.  Takes time to analyze.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concern, the Warrior entity expresses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you for coming,” Partisan said.

The entity nodded.  Its expression was stern.

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

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

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

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

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

“I do,” the entity responds.

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Clarent asked.

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

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

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

But suspicions remained.

“Eleven?”  Partisan asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not so sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have your hands full,” Clarent said.

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

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

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

“We need to go,” the entity said.

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

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

“Arsenal and Richter,” Partisan said.

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

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

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

“Easy to forget elsewhere exists,” Clarent said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s reckless.”

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

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

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

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

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

Agreement, the entity absently responds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too complex to convey to the other.

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

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

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

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

Danger, the Warrior broadcasts.

Confident, this entity responds.

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

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

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

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

A girl woke from a dream.

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

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

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

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

Have to remember, she told herself.

The answer snapped into place.  A way to remember.

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

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

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

Except she couldn’t allow herself to start remembering.

She hasn’t changed,” her uncle said.

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

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

Step two, standing up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swearing was one of them.

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

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

If she had any conception of where to look-

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

She felt a chill.

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

Three hundred and seventy-four steps.

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

If I wanted to do both?

Five hundred and thirty-three steps.

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

She spun around.

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

Had it passed?

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

She couldn’t bring herself to respond.

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

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

Ninety-two steps.

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

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

But she hesitated to carry it out.

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saving him?

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

His eyes widened.  “You will come with me.

She shook her head.

Then she broke into a run.

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

Into the hills, up the mountain.

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

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

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

Had he been one of them?

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

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

All coming from higher up the cliffside.

She found her breath, then scaled her way up.

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

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

I have to kill it.

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

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

She would use it here.  She started walking forward.

There were people gathered, bystanders.  An assorted mix.

Why are they here?

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

I want to understand why they’re here.

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

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

A woman stepped in her way.

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

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

The woman said something in a strange language.

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

It was disorienting to look at.

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

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

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

Everything was easy now.  It was disorienting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A voice, from behind her.

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

I want to understand her.

One step.

She had only to think, ‘Stab it.

Fortuna realized she still held the knife aloft.

But where had she wanted to stab it?

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

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

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

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

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

I want to tell her…

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

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

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

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

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

“I believe you.”

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

“It’s dangerous?”

Fortuna nodded.

“Are you sure?”

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

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

“Where were you going to stab it?”

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

“Where?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plunging into the spot where the spine met the skull.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woman spoke.

“Again?  The heart?”

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

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

Fortuna nodded.

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

Fortuna looked back the way she’d come.

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

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

“I-“

“I will take you back to your home.”

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

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

“Help?”

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

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

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

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

“A little dumb,” Fortuna replied.

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

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

Panic.  Fear.

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

But the emotional effect would be all the more pronounced.

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

“Thank you,” Fortuna said.

“What’s the next step?”

A heavy question.

How do we stop them?

The fog blocked out her view of any answer.

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

Still too close to home.

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

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

“Weapons?  An army?” the woman suggested.

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

It was doable.

“We need some lab equipment,” Fortuna said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lamar drank.

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

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

The leg fell off.  Blood began to pour forth.

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

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

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

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

His chest cavity is filled with the scales.

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

He wasn’t dying.

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

She ended Lamar’s pain.

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

Fortuna couldn’t answer.

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

She still couldn’t bring herself to answer.

“Fortuna?”

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

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

Contessa nodded.

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

Contessa muted the television.

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

“Is it?”  the Doctor asked.

Contessa nodded.

“Do we try again?”

“I- don’t know,” Contessa said.

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

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

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

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

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

“You can’t.”

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

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

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

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

Why?” the Doctor asked.

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

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

“Easier when someone else takes point.”

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

“Feeding it to people.”

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

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

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

Contessa nodded.

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

“Which means we start by preparing more vials.”

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

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

Six made it out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Amazing?” the Doctor asked.

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

“You’re better,” the Doctor said.

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

“I feel better too,” another man said.

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

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

She left the group behind.

One by one, she checked on the other patients.

Dead.

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

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

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

She asked her power, and she got her answer.

He could make doors.

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded.

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

It’s a step forward, she told herself.

A step forward, in a long series of steps.

She rejoined the others.

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

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

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

One step forward.

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

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

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

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

There was another power at work, somewhere here.

“Custodian,” she said.

She felt the Custodian’s presence.

“Alert the Doctor.”

A brush against her left hand.  Negation?

“Is the Doctor dead?”

Negation.

“Hurt?”

Negation.

I want to find out how the Doctor is.

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

I want to find where Number Man is.

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

I want to stay out of this fog.

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

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

A teleporter.

Path: taking him out of action.

Fog.

Path:  hitting that target.

Three steps.

She drew her knife, spun, and threw it.

He teleported away before it made contact.

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

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

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

He was getting more ruthless, more cruel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The path appeared before her.

She changed direction.  The heavy footsteps followed.

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

She ducked into an office.

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

Yes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good to know.  Are you alright?

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

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

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

I’m going.  Tips?

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

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

Noted.  You have an escape route?

“No.  Like I said, cornered.”

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

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

She dropped the phone, making a dash for Weld.

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

Cute.

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

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

Two steps.

“I don’t-”

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

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

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

Spikes scraped against her belt buckle and watch.

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

Number Man’s office.

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

Modeling scenario… not getting shot.

She ducked into a side hallway.

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

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

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

A little further, and…

He teleported to a point beyond the fog wall.

One step, and she had both of his guns.

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

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

Path: faking my own death or escaping.

Gray fog.  Not happening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Path, she thought, again, faking my death.

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

She raised the gun, and she fired three times.

Two shots, missing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She burned,” one of the others said.

“I’d like to check.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She’d been lucky.

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

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

Not so lucky.

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

Lights out.

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

She asked herself questions as she went.

The Doctor was dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did anyone really believe it?”

“No, I suppose they didn’t.”

“How do things stand?”

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

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

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

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

“We need your help,” the wizard said.

She nodded.  “Whatever I can provide.”

“First, we need information.”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“Of course.”

“We’ll need to see those as well.”

She hesitated.

“A problem?” the wizard asked.

Path: identifying strangers and deception.

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

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

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

“Why?  What are you doing, Teacher?”

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

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

“Most definitely.  But will you?”

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

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

Contessa paused, then nodded.

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

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

“He’s his own man.  A wild card.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She narrowed her eyes.  “With?”

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

He held up his phone.  A picture was displayed.

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

Weaver?” she asked.

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Extinction 27.1

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The news came through the earbuds, and it was like a shockwave rippled through our assembled ranks.  Some of the strongest of us dropped to their knees, staggered, or planted their feet further apart as though they were bracing against a physical impact.

The one Azazel that was still in the area landed atop one of Bohu’s buildings, nearly falling as a section slid off to drop to the empty street below.  It found its footing and roosted there.

The pilot couldn’t fly, and the A.I. wasn’t willing or able to take over.

The other capes were talking, shouting, asking questions, sometimes to nobody in particular.  With the blood churning in my ears, I couldn’t make out the words.  I’d used my bugs to find Hookwolf’s core, but they’d been decimated twice over in the process, and I wasn’t interested in trying to use them to figure out what was being said.

I could guess.

I raised my arms, then found myself unsure what to do with them.  Hug them against my body?  Hit something?  Reach out to someone?

I let my hands drop to my sides.

I opened my mouth to speak, to shout, to cry out, swear at the overcast sky above us.

Then I shut it.

There were no words.  Anything I could do or say felt insignificant in the grand scheme of it all.  I could have used every bug in the city to utter something, something meaningful or crude, and it still would have felt petty.

I looked at the others.  Clockblocker was with Kid Win and Vista, Crucible and Toggle were nearby, on the back of a PRT van, bandaged.  They were looking over their shoulders at the screen mounted on the wall of the van.  Footage, covering ruined landscapes, and what had used to be the United Kingdom.

Parian and Foil were hugging.  Odd, to see Foil hunched over, leaning on Parian for support, her forehead resting at the corner of Parian’s neck and shoulder.  The crossbow had fallen to the ground, forgotten.

I wanted something like that.  To have a team close, to hold someone.  I hadn’t had something like that in a good while.

Chevalier was a distance away, his cannonblade plunged into the ground so he didn’t need to hold it, a phone to his ear.  He was talking, giving orders, and demanding information.

Revel was stock still, not far from him.  I watched as she stepped back, leaning against a wall, then let herself slide down until she was sitting on the street.  She placed her head in her hands.

I’d never known her to show any weakness.  She’d always been on the ball, always the leader.  I knew how much concussions sucked, and I’d seen her carry on and contribute to the Behemoth fight when she was reeling from one.

It hit me harder than I might have expected, to see that.

Tecton was standing a distance away, almost frozen, his eyes on the screen of his armband.  Golem did the same, but he wasn’t still.  He paced, looking around for guidance and finding none, then turned back to the screen, watching.

Glancing at the images from a distance, I could see the figure, the speck visible on the long range camera, surrounded by a golden nimbus.

I wasn’t close enough to make out details.  Only staccato flares of golden-white light.  On the third, the screens fizzled, showing only brief gray static, then darkness.

Another target hit.  He’d taken his time on that one, measured the attacks.

I took out my earbud before the report could come in.  Not my focus right now.

Instead, I reached for my phone.  I dialed the Dragonfly.

Would the A.I. be able to cope?  Saint had apparently pulled something.

If there was any hint he fucked us here, he’d pay for it.

The phone responded with a message.  An ETA.

My eyes turned to Rachel.  She was more agitated than Golem, her attention on her dogs.  She used a knife to cut away the excess flesh and retrieve the animals from the placenta-like sacs within their bodies, and the actions were aggressive, vicious, savage.  Her expression was neutral, but I could see the way the muscles shifted in her back, beneath the sleeveless t-shirt she wore, the tension, the way she was hunched over.

The attitude fit the Bitch I’d been introduced to, way back when I’d first joined the Undersiders, not the Rachel I’d come to know, who’d found a kind of peace.

Angry, defensive, bewildered.  Scared of a world she didn’t comprehend.  Aggressiveness was the default, the go-to route when there weren’t any answers.

It dawned on me.  I sympathized.  Given a chance, given something to do in that same vein, hacking through dead meat with a knife for some defined purpose, I might have acted exactly the same way.

She flinched as I approached, as if I were invading her personal space.  When she turned and glanced at me out of the corner of one eye, glowering, the tension faded.

I drew my own knife and started helping.  Bugs flowed into the gap and gave me a sense of where the sac was.  I was able to cut without risking cutting the dog inside.  It helped that my knife was sharp.

We were both sweating by the time we finished.  Rachel had already been sweating from more physical exertion, and her hair was stuck to her shoulders at the ends.  The German Shepherd got free, walked a polite distance away and then shook herself dry.

I looked at my phone, my gray gloves crimson with the dog’s blood.  There were incoming messages.  Updates on the damage, the disaster, and on Scion’s current location.

I ignored them, looking for the Dragonfly’s status.

Minutes away.  It had already been headed into the area by default, tracking me by my GPS, ready to maintain a constant distance until I was prepared to call for it.

That was fine.  I started walking down the length of the street, my back to the others, to the Azazels and the heroes.  Rachel fell into step just a bit behind me, her dogs and Bastard accompanying us.

Parian and Foil were still hugging.  I paused as we passed them, tried to think of how to word the invitation.

Parian’s eyes weren’t visible, hidden behind the lenses on the white porcelain mask she wore.  I hadn’t thought she was looking at me, but she shook her head a little.

Good.  Easier.  I left them behind.

The Dragonfly started to land in an open area, an intersection of two streets.  Moments later, the ground began to crumble.  The craft shifted position, coming perilously close to striking a building as it avoided falling into the hole that had appeared in the street.  A trap.

Rachel boarded the craft.  As I waited for the dogs and Bastard to join us, I looked into the pit.  As deep as a six or seven story building was tall.

I turned away, boarding the Dragonfly.  I plotted a course, then took manual control of the craft.

The A.I. was better at flying than I was, but flying meant I didn’t have to think.  Didn’t have to worry about what I was about to find out.

Rachel didn’t seat herself at the bench along the wall, or even at the chair behind mine.  She sat down beside me, on the floor of the Dragonfly, her back against the side of my seat, the side of my leg, staring out the narrow side window.  It was physical contact, reassurance, seeking that same reassurance from me.  Her dogs settled on either side of her, Bastard resting his head on her lap.

We had the whole country to cross.  Every few minutes brought more visuals, more reminders of what had occurred.  Highways grew choked with cars.  Countless vehicles had stopped at the sides of roads, at the edges of fields and at the fringes of small towns.

Innumerable people running, seeking escape.  Except there wasn’t anyplace good to escape to.

No.  That wasn’t true.  There was.

But the degree of the damage done was becoming clear.  Before we even reached the East coast, I could see the damage done to the landscape.  Smoke was only just settling around the cracks and fissures, fallen bridges and ruined highways.  People were making concerted attempts to move, to leave, but every step of the way brought more difficulties, more forced detours.  Some had abandoned cars altogether, wading or swimming across rivers to make their way.

Every step of the trip revealed more devastation, successively more vehicles choking roads and highways, forging paths around impassable roads.  More and more people were forging ahead on foot, in crowds, because walking was faster than travel by car.

More helicopters, marked with red crosses, had taken to the skies.  Travel by ambulance wasn’t doable.

This was one place.  One moment’s attack.  The display in the cockpit was showing more locations hit.  Libya, Russia, France, Sweden, Iran, Russia again, China…

Time passed.  Forty-five minutes from the point in time I started paying attention to the clock, searching for a yardstick to try to track the scale of what I was seeing on the surface.  How much worse did things get in five more minutes of traveling?  In ten?  It all seemed to get exponentially worse as the Dragonfly took flight.  It wasn’t just that we were getting closer to the point where the attack had hit.  Enough time had passed that people could react, now, realizing just how severe this was.  All of the power of Behemoth, mobility almost on par with Khonsu.

The psychological toll of a Simurgh attack.

These were the people with a strategy.  Doing just what I’d be doing if I were one of the unpowered.  The world was doomed, so they sought to flee to another world.  Problem was, there were tens of millions of them, and the escape routes were scarce at best.

The best known escape route: Brockton Bay.

I felt my heart sink as we approached the coast.  Mountains I’d grown up with weren’t there.  I let the autopilot take over as we got closer, approaching an airspace choked by rescue aircraft.

I didn’t trust my own hands.

It had collapsed.  The blast had only struck the northern edge of Brockton Bay, then changed orientation, striking through the bay itself to slice through the very foundation the city sat on.  Everything had been dropped a solid thirty or forty feet.  Tall buildings had collapsed and only the squatter, sturdier structures and those fortunate enough to come to rest against other buildings were still mostly erect.

Folding and collapsing, the entire city had been shattered, no section of the ground more than twenty-five feet across remained fully intact.  The landscape rose and fell like waves, petrified and left frozen in time.

The portal tower had fallen, but the portal remained there, oddly bright, too high to reach on foot.  Work crews were struggling to erect something beneath, so the civilians could finish their journeys.  The new arrivals were alternately joining in with the construction and making their way inside by way of rope ladders.

Elsewhere, there were capes and rescue crews trying to contain the fallout around the scar.  A structure had been raised to seal it off, but the collapse of the city had released the contents.  A lot of containment foam was being deployed to slow the spread of a pale patch of earth, and there was one spot of fire that didn’t seem to be going out.

But the most eye-catching thing was a thin, scintillating forcefield that was holding off the water.  It was taller than any building that had stood in the city, an artificial dam.  Every few minutes, it flickered for a tenth of a second, and water would flood through to seep into the gaps and fissures.  In time, I suspected, the water would cover everything in the area but the tallest buildings and the hills.  Arcadia High might stick around.  Maybe.

I recognized the rainbow hues.  It was the same force field that had been intended to protect the Protectorate headquarters.  Leviathan had torn the structure apart at the roots, and the tidal wave had knocked it into the city proper.  In the time since I’d left, they’d repurposed the fallen structure and the forcefield setup.

Not, apparently, to try to block Scion’s attack.  No.  This was more to stop the water, to break that initial wave, so it wouldn’t simply sweep the ruins out to sea.

I could only hope they’d done similar things elsewhere, to minimize the damage.

We circled the city twice before I gave the go-ahead for the A.I. to start descending.

My second sense extended through the area as we approached the ground, extending out to the bugs that were scattered throughout the ruined, shattered city.  I immediately set them to work, searching, scanning, investigating.

I changed the course, dictating a final, slow, sweep of the city.

Not everyone had made it.  Stupid to think they might.

My dad’s house was gone, collapsed.  Nobody inside.

Winslow High, gone.

The mall, the library, Fugly Bob’s, the boat graveyard, my old hideout, gone.

My old territory, unrecognizable.  The Boardwalk was underwater now.

It didn’t even take him seconds to do.

Too many dead, not enough who were merely wounded and unable to walk.  Humans were so fragile in the end.  I stopped the Dragonfly and stepped out to seek out the first wounded.  My bugs signaled rescue teams to get their attention.

The wounded here could have been my dad’s coworkers.  People he went out to drinks with.  They could have been Charlotte’s underlings.

So easy, in the midst of it all, to lose track of the fact that these were people.  People with families, friends, with dreams, lives and goals.

Golem had said something like that, hadn’t he?

How many people had simply been erased in the wake of something this random, so instantaneous?  So inexplicable?  I still wasn’t sure what had happened.  Tattletale was supposed to fill people in, but she hadn’t gotten in contact with me.

Or had she?  I’d taken my earbud out.  I looked to my phone, looked for transmissions.

A burst of messages, following just after takeoff.  From the Chicago Protectorate, people who might have been my teammates if I’d ever been inaugurated.  More messages, from Chevalier and the Brockton Bay teams.

I didn’t read them all.  My eyes on the phone, I pointed the search and rescue to the next batch of wounded.  I knew it was cold, but the corpses would have to wait.  There were living people to find.

There were no shortage of corpses.  The number of living people, by contrast, well… we’d see what happened in the next twenty-four hours.

The number of messages declined about thirty minutes after takeoff, then stopped altogether.  Everyone who might have wanted to talk to me had found other things that needed doing.  Other priorities, personal or professional.

Which was exactly why I was here.  I’d just arrived at that conclusion earlier than they had.  I put my phone away.

My mouth was pressed into a firm line as I helped the rescue workers.

We lifted a corner of a second floor’s floor, making room for someone get under and start retrieving a pair of women.  Rachel whistled and pointed, and her German Shepherd seized the floor in its jaws.

The rescue workers seemed to hesitate with the dog’s presence, so I took the lead, crawling inside on my stomach.  I used my hands with the arms on my flight pack to move enough debris that we could slide the second woman out.

There were more.  Almost without thinking about it, I let myself slide back into the mindset I’d held for the past two years.  Sublimating what I wanted to do in favor of doing what needed to be done.

Minutes ran into one another as we worked.  I could see Rachel growing progressively more short-tempered, slower to give the orders, hanging back, rushing with the jobs.

That ended when we rescued a child that had a puppy wrapped in her arms.  She clutched the limp animal like it was a security blanket, not crying, not speaking.  She only stared at the ground, coughing hoarsely whenever she had to move.  Her parents had been on either side of her, and neither had made it.

The paramedics fit her with an oxygen mask, but they failed to pry the animal from her arms.

I looked at Rachel, but she only shook her head.

Rachel’s power healed animals, but this one was gone.

From the moment we left that girl to be loaded onto a stretcher and carried off to firmer ground, Rachel moved a little more quickly, a little more decisively.

We finished with one site where the ground had collapsed and people had fallen into a depression, and then moved on to the next area.  Some heroes were working alongside the authorities to try to rescue people from a building that had partially tipped over.

Clockblocker was there, along with Vista.  I joined my powers to theirs in finding people and opening the way.  Frozen time was used on panels, which were subsequently layered, so that one could offer support if another stopped working prematurely.  Vista reinforced areas, then opened doorways, as I designated rooms where people were trapped within.

A golden light streaked across the sky in the wake of Scion’s flight, just along the horizon.  A thinner beam being directed from Scion to the ground as he passed.

The aftershock of his passing took time to reach us.  Steam started to billow, but the forcefield absorbed it.

The shuddering of the ground was more problematic.  The entire city rumbled in response to the distant attack, a blow that was no doubt slicing deep into the earth’s crust, forcing everything to resettle.

The building we were working on was among those things that resettled.  I watched as the building started to slide where it was resting against the building beside it, slowly descending, building speed.

My flight pack kicked in, and I flew through a window.  I could feel the glass scrape against my scalp and the fabric of my costume.

I found one person, a twenty-something guy, took hold of their wrist, and pulled them behind me, running and using my flight pack at the same time.

Tearing him through the window meant slashing him against the shattered glass, and the weight wasn’t something I could manage with my flight pack.  The building fell down around the people on the ground as I fell too far, too fast.

The wing on my flight pack was still broken.  Couldn’t trust the propulsion.

I let him fall into a tree instead, from a solid two stories above, and then focused the rest of my energy into pulling out of the plunge.

The building was still crumbling as I landed a distance away.  The rumble brought other, smaller structures down.  I stood and watched as it continued its course.

There’d been seven more people to rescue inside.  The other buildings in the area that had been caught up in the domino effect had contained three more.  That was just in my range.  How many more were dying as he continued towards the mainland, cutting deep into the plate of land that the landmass was perched on?

He hadn’t even been near us.  Closer to New York or Philadelphia than anything.  More lives taken, purely collateral.

When the dust settled, I moved in to help the people who had been on the ground.  Vista and Clockblocker had protected most, between a dome and a shelf of land to provide shelter.  Rachel, for her part, had helped others run in time, snatching them up with her dogs, but I counted three more dead, one dying.

Seeing them like that, bleeding, still warm, it caught me off guard.  A kind of anxiety rose in the pit of my stomach, like an impulse to do something coupled with the frustration of knowing that everything I could manage to come up with was futile, hopeless.  I either couldn’t do anything or I couldn’t think of what to do.  It put me in mind of being back at high school, before I had my powers.  Of being a child, powerless and unable to act.

I saw the image of Parian holding Foil in my mind’s eye, and it was joined by an almost sick feeling of mingled relief and fear.  I knew exactly what I wanted and I was terrified to seek it out.

I could feel that same impatience Rachel had expressed earlier, but I couldn’t turn my back on this.  I got the guy out of the tree and found him okay, but for a broken arm.  He didn’t thank me, but I let myself chalk that up to him being in shock.  I almost stumbled over to the latest injured and I attended to the wounded until the medics pulled themselves together, got organized and relieved me.

Then I backed away, flexing my hands, feeling how stiff they were, battered by my attempts at moving things, at pushing things aside.  My gloves, too, were stiff, crusted with dried blood, layered with dirt and fresh blood.

I looked at Rachel, and saw her gazing at the portal.

I didn’t really have a home anymore.  Knowing my old house was leveled, that the cemetery where my mother had been laid to rest was gone, and that I’d never really come back here to hang out with the Undersiders… it hurt in a way that was very different from a knife wound, being shot or being burned.  A crushing feeling, more like.  But it was tough for reasons beyond the fact that I considered it home.  I’d relinquished Brockton Bay, and my concern right now was more to do with the residents than the place itself.

I didn’t have a home in Chicago.  Not in the jails, either.

But Rachel had forged a home for herself, and it had been in arm’s reach since we’d arrived.

Bastard and the dogs seemed to know I’d decided before I said or did anything.  Rachel and I fell in step behind them.

Rachel mounted Bastard before we got to the portal.  The efforts to erect a proper support beneath the portal had been set back by Scion’s strafing run, which left the portal hanging in the sky.  Train tracks extended out from the portal in every direction, twisted and broken where collapsing ground had pulled other sections away.

There had been a tower erected around the portal, but it had collapsed into shambles as the ground dropped.  Now they were using the pieces to form the general structure for a tower of ramps that would lead up to the portal.

Bastard picked up speed as he approached the tower, then set his claws on one of the ramps.  The tower wavered perilously as Bastard leaped up to a higher point, coming to a rest on the very top of the dilapidated structure.  It didn’t look like there were nearly enough reinforcements, and I could see everyone present tense as they saw the mutated wolf’s weight come to rest.

That tension redoubled as the wolf flexed its muscles, hunching down, and then leaped, more up than across, to get to the portal itself.  A few planks of wood broke in that sudden, powerful movement, and one rail of the train track fell free as the wolf scrabbled for a grip on the ground beneath the portal.

When she was gone, the people beneath simply resumed work, heads down, dirty, defeated.

I took flight, entering the portal for the first time.

Earth Gimel.

The tower that contained the portal had a counterpart in Gimel, a matching tower, tall and riddled with train tracks, like a train station designed by Escher, tall rather than squat, with wide doorways for the trains to exit, and complicated reinforcements for the aboveground tracks, positioned so as not to interfere with the tracks below.

I flew out through one of those gates, catching up with Rachel.

Trains extended in every direction from the portal, on tracks that extended out into the middle of nowhere, into pristine forest and mountains.  They were long, almost absurdly long.

Then again, the whole idea had been to have instant evacuation.  Rather than have people make their way to trains, they’d had eight trains that simply spanned the length of Brockton Bay, so any given individual had to find the nearest train car and make their way down the aisle to an empty seat.

Around the tower, a small, odd settlement had sprung up.  All of the sensibility of the city, but contained to a small area.  Tall buildings, wide streets, and a look that matched up with a city proper rather than a smaller town.  It was as though someone had cut and pasted the big city into the middle of this landscape.

On any other day, it would have been energizing, the fresh air, the sunny day, the green and the blue water of the bay, subtly different from the shape of the bay I knew.  But today wasn’t that day.

People at benches were clipping the corners off of refugee’s drivers licenses and trading them for food rations and tents.  Everything was prepped, set up in advance, and people were being orderly, even though the lines were so lengthy it looked like it might be hours before they got what they wanted.

Those that already had their kits were setting up or settling into spaces they’d designated for themselves.  Some clustered close to the settlement, while others spaced out, where they’d have more elbow room.  The tents were identical, dotting the area.  The kits, apparently, included signs, and these same signs listed family names and details.

John and Jane Roe.  1 Diabetic.

Hurles family. 
Two infants.

Jason Ao.  Looking for Sharon Ao my wife.  A crude picture was drawn beside the message.

I scanned the signs, looking for names I might recognize.  I headed in the direction Rachel had gone, but I moved carefully, making a mental note of everything I saw.

It was an extension of what I’d seen back in Los Angeles.  People trying to cope against something where coping was a pipe dream.  There were some breaking down in tears, people getting angry, those who had withdrawn into themselves.

In each expression, there was something that echoed my own feelings.  A part of me wanted to hide from that, but another part of me knew I couldn’t.

It wouldn’t do any good, but I made a mental note of faces, of the pain, the loss.  People who’d been removed from their homes and had all hopes for the future dashed.  If I ever had the opportunity to get revenge, to get back at Scion for doing this, I wanted to remember these faces, find just a little more strength, make it hurt that much more.

But I wasn’t one for simply wanting to help, paying lip service and promising vengeance felt hollow.  Instead, as a token gesture, something that might not even be noticed, I gathered up every mosquito in range and proceeded to murder them with other bugs.  I kept the biting flies.

I wrapped the bugs around me.  Fuck PR.  The faint weight of the insects was reassuring, like a blanket.  A barrier against the world, like Tecton’s armor or Rachel’s intimidating nature.

A sign caught my eye.  I stopped, looking over the people in the small campsite.

Barnes.

No further details, no requests.  I almost hadn’t recognized them.

Alan, Emma’s dad, had lost weight since I’d seen him last.  He’d noticed me, and looked up, staring, his eyes red.  His wife sat in a lawn chair beside him, while Emma’s older sister sat on a blanket at her mother’s feet, her mother resting one hand on her head.

Zoe’s -Emma’s mom’s- eyes were wet.  Emma’s sister looked equally upset.

Emma wasn’t in sight.  I could guess what they were crying about.

Alan was staring at me now, and there was an inexplicable accusation in the look.  His wife took his hand and held it, but he didn’t move his eyes a fraction.

When Anne, Emma’s sister, looked up at me, there was a glimmer of the same.  A hint of blame.

Emma hadn’t made it.  How?  Why?  Why could they all leave while Emma wouldn’t be able to?  I might have thought Emma had been somewhere out of reach, but that didn’t fit.  There would be no certainty she was dead.  They’d be putting her name on a sign and hoping she turned up?

And why would they blame me?  For failing to stop this from happening?

Fuck that.

I turned and walked away.

Once I was out of their immediate vicinity, I took a few running steps and let my flight pack lift me up.  Better than zig-zagging between the campsites.

I floated over a sea of people with their heads down, their expressions alternately emotional and rigidly stoic in defeat.  Hundreds or thousands of tents surrounded the area, and string fences no higher than one’s calf bounded off each of the sites.

Rachel had made her way outside the city limits, past even the tents that were set a five or six minute walk from any of the others.  I followed her over the hill, to another small set of buildings.  Cabins set on what had been Captain’s Hill in Earth Bet.  I knew they were Rachel’s because of the dogs that were scattered around the premises, a small crowd milling around Bastard and the other mutant canines.

The largest cabin had three large bison skulls placed over the cabin door.  Bastard and the other dogs had been tied up outside like horses, left to shrink, with a trough of water to drink from.

I landed, and I was struck by the realization that my flight pack might not be so easy to recharge, now.  I still had the spare, fully charged, but Defiant might have his hands full, and the infrastructure or resources might not be available.

It was a minor thing.  Inconsequential, in terms of everything that was going on.  It wasn’t like the flight pack was going to matter a bit against Scion.  But it was one more reminder of what was truly happening.

I stopped and turned to look over the landscape.  I turned my head right until the small settlement and the sea of tents wasn’t quite visible, then turned it to the left to do the same.  Focusing on the nature, the untouched wilderness.

Is this what Brockton Bay will look like, if we can’t win this fight?  How many years does it take for the last building to collapse, for dirt and grass to drown away any and all signs we were ever there?

It was a daunting thought, a heavy thought that joined countless others.

The dogs barked as I approached on foot.  I kept calm and waited.

I recognized the girl with the funny colored eyes and darker skin from Rachel’s hideout.  I’d met her on my last week in Brockton Bay.  With her presence alone, the animals collectively quieted.  A single dog barked one last time, with two others reflexively following with barks of their own, but that ended it.  The girl held the door open from me, and the dogs didn’t protest as I made my way inside.

Rachel was sitting on a couch with dogs arranged around her.  Angelica was afforded a bit of favoritism, and received a touch of extra attention from her master.  She, in turn, was extending a gentleness to Rachel that went beyond Angelica’s poor health and the glacial movements that accompanied chronic pain.  Rachel looked defensive, her eyes cast down at the ground.  Something more severe than the whole Scion business.

Charlotte, Forrest, and Sierra were present too, keeping their distance, keeping silent as we met again for the first time in over a year and a half, not moving from where they stood.

The kids gathered at the far end of the room, silently occupying themselves with a mass of puppies.  I recognized Mason and Kathy, and didn’t recognize Ephraim at first glance.  Jessie was conspicuously absent, but nobody seemed to be reacting to that gap.  She’d left on her own, maybe.  Found family.

Aidan sat off on his own, a pigeon sitting on his knee.  He opened and closed his hands, and the bird hopped from the one knee to the other, then back again.  Something had happened there, but it wasn’t a focus.  Not right now.

Tattletale sat in her computer chair, but the computer screens were dark, the computers themselves unlit, quiet and still.

I didn’t like the emotion I saw on her face any more than I liked what I saw with the others.

Pity.  Sympathy.

It wouldn’t be Grue.  No.  That didn’t fit.  He’d been flying back, and he hadn’t been so far away that he’d be in the path of danger.

Not Imp either.  Parian and Foil had been fine the last time I’d seen.

No.

Tattletale was best situated to focus on Brockton Bay.  Who had made it.  Who hadn’t.  And there was only one Brockton Bay resident who truly mattered, that hadn’t been accounted for.

I felt a lump in my throat growing with every heartbeat, expanding every time I tried to swallow and failed.

Without waiting for a response, for any words of pity, or even verification, I turned and pushed my way out the door, taking flight.

I flew.  Up over the bay, away from the city, away from this alien Earth.  I blinded myself with my own swarm, drowned everything out with their drone, their buzz, their roar.

All of this time, the sacrifices, the loss of security.

The loss of me.

To do what?  To stop this?

It had happened despite our attempts to the contrary.

To reconnect with my dad?

We had reconnected.  I’d come clean about who and what I was.  We’d built up a relationship that was new, accounting for the fact that we were changed people.  Now, as I continued to fly, to put distance between myself and everything, I wasn’t sure it had been worth it.

The wind blew my hair, and I let my swarm move away, revealing the open ocean all around me.  There was only the wind and the sound of the water to hear.  The smell of salt water I’d come to miss.

My dad was gone, and I couldn’t bring myself to go back and get verification.  I couldn’t handle it if there wasn’t verification.

I was cognizant of the fuel gauge, of the dwindling power of the flight pack.  I knew I’d have to go back.  I knew there was stuff to do.

But I’d spent the last age trying to build towards something, to prepare for the pivotal moment.  I’d played my role, helped stop Hookwolf.  I’d communicated with Foil to urge her to play possum, tracking where the enemy was and what they could see.  It had led to us taking down Gray Boy and Siberian, trapping Jack.

And now the death toll was climbing.  Scion continued his rampage, and I hadn’t even had the guts to own up to the failure.

I couldn’t bring myself to go back and do something minor.  It was arrogant, proud, but I couldn’t bring myself to do search and rescue while the population was steadily scoured from the planet, the major cities wiped out like a human child might kick down anthills.

There was nothing in the worlds that I wanted more than a hug and I couldn’t bring myself to ask for one.  My dad and Rachel were the only ones I could trust to offer one without further questions, without platitude or commentary, and I couldn’t get to Rachel without going through the others.  My dad was even farther from my reach.

The mask I’d erected to see things through to this point was cracking and I couldn’t bear to show anyone my face.

The fuel gauge ticked down.  I noted it reaching a critical point, where reaching land before I ran out might be difficult, if not impossible.

The sky was darkening.  No clouds, no city lights.  A cloud passed over sunset and the moon overhead, and it was startling just how dark things became.

A fluorescent glare cut through the darkness.  My hair and my swarm stirred.  I could feel the breeze from behind me.

I didn’t turn around.

“Your call,” Tattletale said, her voice quiet.  “I’d like you to have my back, but I understand if-”

I shook my head, my hair flying out to either side.  I turned around and floated over to the doorway that hung in the air.

I set foot on solid ground, and felt weirdly heavy when I did.  It took me a moment to find my balance.

Tattletale caught me as the door closed beside us.  Then she wrapped her arms around me in a hug.  Odd, that she was shorter than me.  When did that happen?  I could remember her giving me a one-armed hug once, a long time ago.  She’d been just a little taller than me then.  Just the right height for a hug.  Now we were like Foil and Parian.  I was taller, receiving comfort from someone shorter than me.

I’d underestimated her.  She didn’t ask any questions or offer any sympathy.

“They’re all here,” she said.  “Ready?”

I hesitated, then spoke.  My voice was rough.  “Ready.”

We didn’t budge.  She didn’t break the hug.

Fuck it all,” I muttered.  My voice was still weird with emotion.  Maybe I’d keep my mouth shut at this meeting.

“Fuck it,” she agreed.

That said, we broke apart, took a second to breathe, and then made our way into the meeting room.

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Interlude 26a

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there was Weaver.

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

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

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

Weaver was a hard person to deal with.

Taylor, not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Didn’t matter.  Here they stood.

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

Aster would still be dead.

The ugly decisions would have been made.

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

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

It grated.

“None of those invisible fucks,” she said.

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

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

Then, for some bizarre reason, Bitch approached him.

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

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

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

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

I don’t want to talk about Weaver.

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

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

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

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

She hadn’t taken his hint.

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

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

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

Go away.  I don’t want to hit you.

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

“Stay, Huntress,” she ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All gather,” Chevalier ordered.

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

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

He donned his mask.

Golem now, Golem thought.

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

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

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

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

Chevalier reacted to that, flinching.

His city, Golem thought.

“And the last group headed to Los Angeles.”

“Jack’s group?” Golem asked.

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

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

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

Chevalier nodded slowly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s my city,” Hoyden said.

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

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

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

Golem closed his eyes.

There she is.  Weaver.

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

“Shit,” Foil said.

Hoyden had gone stiff, bristling for an argument.

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

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

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

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

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

Defiant hesitated.

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

“Okay,” Defiant said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Area’s empty,” Weaver said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Parian?” Weaver asked.

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

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

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

Stop.”

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

Golem, tell them to stop.  Now.”

“Stop,” he said.

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

Thirty one,” she said.

“Thirty one?”

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

The numbers clued him in, belatedly.

Dinah Alcott.

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

He stopped short.

“Golem?”  Hoyden asked.

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

Can you think in abstracts?”

“Abstracts.”

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

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

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

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

Blue, Tecton.  Retreat.”

“Back up,” he said.

Collectively, they retreated several steps.

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

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

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

“Color,” Golem whispered.

Blue.”

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

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

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

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

She’s not supposed to miss.

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

They turned to run, belatedly.

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

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

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

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

Like whirling dervishes, they closed the distance.

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

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

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

Climbing faster than the hand was rising.

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

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

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

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

He’s okay,” Dinah said.  “Blue!”

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

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

No use.

One more landed on the heel of the hand.

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

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

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

His good eye, Golem realized.

Nobody had figured out Harbinger’s power, before Harbinger disappeared off the face of the planet.  It was an ugly reality that such questions weren’t always answered.  The best guess suggested a hyperawareness of space and the movements of their own bodies.

But being able to figure out that Chevalier was half-blind, being able to blind his good eye?

One stepped close, holding a ball-peen hammer in each hand.  He closed on Golem, invading his personal space, until their noses were touching.

Golem tried to wrap the Harbinger in a bear-hug, felt only the faint drag of cloth against the metal of his gauntlets, empty air.  His intended target had ducked low.

He drove a knee forward.  Tight, contained movements, give them as little to work with as possible.

No contact.  Of course.

He was rewarded with a swat of the hammer against his mask, shattering one lens.  He’d thought he was out of reach, but the boy held only the very end of the hammer between index and middle finger.  He tossed the hammer in the air, letting it spin head over end.

Golem struck at the flying hammer, but another strike of the hammer caught his arm.  His fingertips fell short, and the handle of the weapon rolled over the back of his hand.  The Harbinger caught it, then thrust it forward in the same motion, driving the top of the hammer against Golem’s nose.

“Don’t kill him,” another Harbinger said.

“I know,” was the reply.

They didn’t even sound winded.

None of the others were doing demonstrably better.  The remaining D.T. officer was holding his own, but the others were being slowly, systematically beaten.

He’s dragging it out.  They’re making this into a game.

No use letting this go on.

He retreated, only to find one Harbinger sticking a foot out, planting a foot on the small of his back.  He was pushed forward, then promptly struck in the abdomen.

Rather than try to defend himself, he tucked his chin to his collar-bone, let himself fall, and thrust his hands into the armor panels for pavement.

Double-thrust, one hand extending from the other, pushing Chevalier off the hand.

Another motion, simultaneous, to bring a hand of stone out of the wall behind Chevalier.  It emerged slower, but it formed a shelf, and Chevalier landed on that ledge.

The Harbingers could dodge, but his teammates were valid targets.

Another thrust, this time for himself.

Selfish, maybe, but he couldn’t save anyone if they were interfering with him.

One struck at his leg as he launched himself off the hand.  It altered his trajectory, put him on a course where there wasn’t anything nearby to catch himself with.

Two hands, into brick.  One connected to the other.  While they were new, he could move them.  Trouble with having them against the side of his body was that he couldn’t get a full range of movement like he could get with his arms.  No matter.  He caught himself by the mask, then pulled himself closer to the building.

Another hand, another shelf.

Hoyden exploded, but the Harbingers didn’t get hurt.  They spun, spreading the damage around like a person might roll to absorb a fall, ducking and sidestepping to put themselves at the periphery of the effect.

Scion’s closing in,” Dinah said.  “Blue, Golem.  It’s still blue.  I can’t use my power too many times today, but your numbers are getting worse and the answer keeps turning up blue.  Retreat, go right, go solo or go back.

Someone needs to intercept Scion,” Weaver said, over the comm system. “We can’t have him get involved.

You go,” Chevalier said.

Golem searched the sky, then spotted Weaver at the fringe of the battle, surrounded by a cloud of bugs.

She took off.

Golem grit his teeth.  More immediate things to focus on.  He tried to launch Tecton to freedom, but the Harbingers intercepted him, driving Tecton out of the way in the same instant the hand appeared.

The D.T. soldier managed to deliver a glancing blow.  Golem couldn’t tell if it was intentional or not, because the hit was followed by the D.T. soldier being caught with a length of cloth wound around one wrist.

Tecton stepped in, drawing attention and striking out with his gauntlets, one damaged and one intact.  It bought the D.T. soldier some room.

Golem took the opportunity to launch the soldier to safety.

There were others on the ground, approaching.

One of these bastards could probably take us apart.  Eight of them, we can’t hurt them, we’re losing time, burning resources.

Tecton glanced at Hoyden.  A communication seemed to pass between them.

They struck the palm of the hand, and the entire thing shattered.

Hoyden, Tecton and five of the Harbingers descended with a shower of rubble.

Hoyden and Tecton broke their fall with uses of their respective powers.  Hoyden hit the ground to generate an explosion.  Tecton punched the earth with his piledriver in the instant he reached solid ground.

The Harbingers didn’t have that ability.  A five-story drop.  People had died or been seriously hurt after a three-story drop.

Nobody told them that.  In the midst of the thin cloud of dust and the chunks of debris, the Harbingers moved without wincing or giving any sign of pain, their black-clothed forms rising from the ground like spectres.

“Talk to me, Dinah,” Golem said.

Situation’s getting worse.  Numbers are getting worse, across the board.  I’m not asking any specific questions, but I can sense it, just… the big picture.  It’s not working.

There’s an answer here, and we can’t see it.

“Blue… Backwards, go right, retreat, solo?  What’s that last one?”

Abstracts.  Nothing specific.  It’s only as meaningful as it helps you come to the right decision.

He stared at Hoyden and Tecton, surrounded by the eight Harbingers.

“If I leave… how does that change the numbers?”

Success.”

“Chances for Tecton and the others?”

Better than they were.

This was hell, Golem mused.  This was the nightmare that had driven Weaver from her home city, drove her to surrender.

The right path, but god damn, did it look ugly.

He bit his lip, then formed another pair of connected hands to launch himself skyward.  He reached the apex of his flight, then created a shelf to land on.  He did it again, and this time the shelf he created was just at the edge of the roof.  He stepped over onto the rooftop, then broke into a run.

“Saving Tecton, red or blue.”

Golem, we didn’t get a chance to go over this earlier, but you need to know… I can’t ask that many questions.  I’ve been saving my power for the last big confrontation.  Tattletale said this is the time to act.  I used my power twice to answer big questions earlier today.  Another three to figure out who I needed to talk to, and that told me-

“I’m the best partner for you?”

Right now, yes.  Listen.  Twenty-six questions left.  We haven’t even found Jack.  I can’t figure it out.

He stood on the rooftop, then extended his arms out to either side.

She couldn’t read his mind, so it was only identifying options.  Everything to the left of his nose was blue, everything to the right was red.

“Red or blue.  Now.”

Blue.  Twenty-five.

“Jack’s to my left,” he said.  He turned ninety degrees.  “Again.”

“Blue.  I’m-  My power’s getting fuzzier.”

Scion.

He looked up at the sky.  Weaver with her swarm was there, forming a great wall across the sky, as if to draw attention to herself.  Scion was approaching, a ray of golden light streaking across the overcast sky above.

Scion shut down precog abilities.

He felt something knot in his stomach, an ugly feeling, ominous.

“Let’s get as much use out of it as possible.  Saving Tecton and the others… Red or blue!”

“Red.  Twenty-three.”

He hesitated.  “It’s not me going back?”

“No.  I don’t think so.  I just asked and it said no.”

Break it down.  Attack, left for blue.  Group, forward for red.  “Again.”

“Golem, we can’t waste questions like this.  We-“

“Please.”

“Red.”

Group or forward, he thought, assigning colors to each option.  “Again.”

“Blue.  Somewhere between eighty and ninety percent chance.  I- I’m going blind here, Golem.”

Group.

Group, but not returning to join the others?

He went with his gut.

“Tattletale, are you listening?”

Yes.”

“Reinforcements.  Call in the big guns.”

“With Jack close?  That’s against the quarantine.”

“Dinah, does it improve our chances, everyone’s chances, as far as this end of the world scenario?”

Yes.  A lot,” she sounded genuinely surprised.  “Twenty.”

Cauldron’s refusing aid,” Tattletale said.  “They said it’s because Scion’s presence is blocking their clairvoyant.  They’re lying.

High above, Scion reached a stop, hovering in front of Weaver, who hung in the air in turn, using her flight pack.

Golem tore his eyes away from the scene.  He glanced down at the street, where Bitch, Parian and Foil were reinforcing Tecton and Hoyden, backing them up as the Harbingers approached.  One Harbinger threw something, and a dog dropped like its heart had stopped.

He shook his head.  He could watch forever, but they were better served by having him elsewhere.

The sooner he got Jack, the better.

“Jack is southwest of my location,” he reported.  “Heading off solo on precog advisement.”

He bolted, running.  His power bridged gaps between buildings.  He set his foot down on the corner of one rooftop, then vaulted himself over a trap that he sensed just a foot in front of him.  His landing jarred it into motion, provoking a deadfall, a slice of building that toppled and dropped onto the narrow street below.

Another hand broke a row of spikes that lined the edge of another rooftop.

Once, he’d been fat.  Once, he’d been out of shape.  Two years and a mission had given him the chance to remedy that.  He wasn’t conventionally fit, still had a bit of stockiness to him, but the fat was gone.  He had muscle.  Running with Weaver had made this doable.

Twenty more precog answers.

“Numbers if I stay on the rooftops?”

Twenty to thirty percent chance of injury or being taken out of action.

“If I’m on the ground?”

Fifty-something.  Eighteen questions left.

Her numbers were getting less accurate, the picture of the situation cloudier.

Too many powerful individuals in the area, too many chances of disaster, too many unknowns.

He set foot on one rooftop that had changed less than most, and the lightning flash was a staggered one, as his feet first touched gravel, then the material of the rooftop beneath that gravel.

The next rooftop wasn’t made of either material.  It wasn’t made of brick or concrete.

He created two hands, chaining them together, and extended the hand into the building.

It detonated into a massive cloud of smoke.

He launched himself away to avoid it, but it wasn’t enough.  The smoke flowed towards him like a wall, too vast to avoid.

Too vast to avoid so long as he remained on the rooftop.  He shoved himself off, created more hands to form a series of ledges that might serve as a staircase.

The smoke still loomed.

He got as close to the ground as he could, then launched himself to safety.

Golem was panting as he rested on the ground.  Psychosoma’s monsters emerged from the smoke, one using the same ledges he’d created to descend, the other crawling on the outside of the building.  Homeless, to look at them, twisted into monstrous shapes.  False shapes.  He could deal enough damage and break the effect, and they’d be human again, unhurt.

Simpler than it sounded.  If he broke the effect for one, the other would tear the freed victim apart.

Golem rose to his feet, backing away as swiftly as he could.  He was out of reach of the smoke, but these things, they were a distraction, a speed bump.

He waited, dropping into a fighting stance as they approached.  They broke into runs, charging him blindly, two figures so thin they didn’t look real, their fingers and feet twisted into claws as long as his forearm.

They plummeted into a pit in the middle of the road.

Golem rose from the fighting stance, then hurried on.  His footsteps continued to mark the surfaces around him, making it clear where there were more of Nyx’s illusions, more traps left over from the Tohu-Bohu attack.

His other enemies wouldn’t be so gullible.

“Left or right?” he asked.  He had a mental map of the surroundings.

Left.  Somewhere around a ninety percent chance Jack’s in that direction.”

Each question narrowed down the possibilities.  From fifty percent of the area to twenty-five percent, then twelve and a half percent… now six percent.  It was a small enough slice that he didn’t need to wonder as much.  If he kept on this course, he could find his target.

Right route,” Dinah said.  “It’s… it’s really fuzzy, but I still feel like the bloody, ugly ends aren’t so close.

“A good feeling,” Theo said.

In a numbery way.

A numbery way.

“Status,” he said.  “Not a question.  Just… I need to know what’s going on.”

The others are… okay,” Dinah replied.  “Defiant just arrived in Houston with a giant robot that only has one arm and one leg, and we’ve got…”

Dinah’s voice continued, but he didn’t hear it.

Golem slowed to a walk as he saw his new surroundings.  The tombstones of Bohu’s area were still here, but they were scarred.

A thousand times a thousand cuts.

“Theodore,” Jack said.

Jack emerged, and he wasn’t holding a knife.  He held a sword, nearly four feet long.  A claymore.  His shirt was unbuttoned, showing a body without a trace of fat.  His beard had been meticulously trimmed, but that had easily been a day ago.  His neck had scruff on it.  Strands of dark hair fell across eyes with lines in the corner as he stared at Golem.

Golem had gotten this far.

Now what?

Jack let the blade’s point swing idly at calf-level, pointed off to one side.  Cuts gouged the road’s surface.  Theo let his fingers trace the panels on his armor.  Steel, iron, aluminum, woods, stone…

His second sense marked various items in the surrounding area that were made of the same substance, even marked the trap off to his left, but it didn’t touch any part of the sword.

“All on your lonesome,” Jack said.

“Yes,” Theo answered, sounding braver than he felt.

His finger touched other panels.  Brick, asphalt, concrete, porcelain…

The sword remained out of his power’s reach.  He’d put so much stock in being able to disarm Jack.

With each contact, he felt the accompanying flashes, tried to put together a mental picture of his surroundings.

Two false building faces, just a little ahead of him.  They had to be Nyx-made.  If he advanced, she’d break the illusion, and he’d be surrounded in the noxious smoke.  At best, he’d pass out.  At worst, he’d pass out and wake up to permanent brain damage and organ failure.  Or being in the clutches of the Nine.

Jack let the sword swing, and Golem tensed.  The blade didn’t come anywhere close to pointing at him, but Jack’s power cut shallow gouges into the surrounding brick, stone and pavement.

“Alone,” Jack said, again.

Because of you, Golem thought.

He clenched his fist.

Tears were forming in his eyes.  Ridiculous.  Wasn’t supposed to be what happened in this kind of situation.

Jack, in turn, smiled slowly.  “Quiet.  I was thinking that after all this time, we could have some witty banter.  You can scream your fury at me, curse me for killing your loved ones.  Then you do your best to tear me apart.”

“No.”

“Oh!” Jack smiled wider.  “Show mercy, then?  Walk away from the fight and show you’re the better man, rather than descending to my level?  I’ve been waiting for someone to pull that ever since I saw it happen in a movie.”

“This isn’t a movie.”

“No.  It’s very, very real, Theodore,” Jack said.  He paced a little, letting the sword drag on the ground.  The blade was white, Golem noted.  White, exceptionally sharp.

Mannequin-made?

Or was this Jack an illusion?  Nyx could imitate voices.  She could create the gouges in the walls by way of the illusory smoke.

Golem paced a little too, mirroring Jack’s movements.

“Well, I’m not sure what you expect, then, Theodore.  The fat little boy promised me he’d become the kind of hero that would put down monsters like me.  I gave you two years, and you’ve made it at least partway.  Did you change your mind on the killing part?”

“No.  I will kill you.”

“So tough!  So brave!  All of this from the-”

Stop talking, Jack.  You’re not that clever, not as sharp as you like to think.  You talked to me about keystones?  Bullshit.  You’re a sad, pathetic killer with delusions of grandeur.”

Jack’s smile dropped from his face.  He held the Claymore with one hand, the blade’s point touching the ground, and spread his arms.  His unbuttoned shirt parted, showing the whole of his bare shirt and stomach.  Showing himself to be vulnerable, exposed.

“Then do your worst, Theodore.  Because if you don’t, I will.”

Dinah,” he whispered.

With you.  Gray boy isn’t near.  Nyx and Hookwolf are.  Fifteen questions.  I had to use one to help the others.

He nodded slowly.

I don’t like the illusory building faces.  Too much poisonous smoke was needed to make that sort of thing, it had to be multiple Nyxes working in concert.  They’d be close, probably.

Which said nothing of the other threats that loomed behind the fog.  Psychosoma’s creations?

Golem reached up to his gloves, then tore off the protectors on his knuckles.  They fell to the ground.  Beneath were spikes.

“Nice touch,” Jack said.

Golem spread his arms.  “What do you-”

Red.”

Mid-sentence, still talking, he let his arms fall, driving them into panels at his side.

Jack hopped back out of reach of the hands, seizing his sword.  He drew it back.

Blue.”

Golem created another hand.  Not to catch Jack, but to catch the blade.

It had backfired, if anything.  The hand caught the tip of the blade, but the sword slid free of the grip and flew around with more force.  Golem leaped back, letting himself fall, and let his feet slide into the pavement.  Two boots rose from the ground, shielding him as the slash caught the surface.

Weaver’s lessons.  Catching the enemy off guard by any means necessary, rolling with the punches, or rolling with the effects of the enemy’s attack.

Had to use Dinah’s ability, divide everything into two equally viable actions, so he wasn’t caught off guard.

Still prone, still shielded and out of sight, he reached into the ground with both hands.

Two hands, flattened, jabbed for Jack’s leg, stabbing at ankle and calf.  Jack backed away again before they made contact, slashed again.

This time, the slash caught a section of Golem’s armor that was sticking out of cover.  The cut made a mark nearly a foot deep in the ground, but it served only to split the pauldron in half.  A section of metal fell to the ground.

He created two connected hands of pavement, then whipped them to throw the section of pauldron at Jack.  The trajectory suggested it would fly a little to Jack’s left.

Golem jabbed one hand into the ground, and a flattened hand stabbed out from the spinning piece of metal, extending as the projectile flew.

Jack ducked, but Golem was already thrusting his other hand into the earth.  It jutted from the hand he’d created, doubling the length in short order.  More of a crude boomerang in shape than a chunk of metal.

It only clipped Jack, just barely.

“Clever boy,” Jack said.  “You-”

“Stop talking, Jack,” Golem responded.

For Aster, for Kayden, even for the others…

He thrust his hands into the ground, repeatedly, and they stabbed at the underside of Jack’s feet.  He leaped back out of reach and swung his sword the instant he touched ground.

The action cut through the remainder of the shield Golem had raised, but it also kept Jack in one place.  He caught the underside of Jack’s foot.  Jack stumbled as he pulled himself free of Golem’s grip.

He reached out to stab out with two interconnected hands, the same technique he used to launch himself.

But Jack evaded it, slid out of the way, almost as if he knew the strike was coming.

Golem moved to get into a position to strike again, and realized in the moment that it would take too long.

He was crouched, still, his hands remained buried, and Jack was already drawing his sword back.  He couldn’t mount a defense in time.

He braced himself.  With luck, his armor could take it.

The attack didn’t come.

No.  Jack laughed, instead.  His icy blue eyes were fixed at a point beyond Golem.

Golem chanced a look over his shoulder.

He saw a figure dropping out of the sky, trailed by what looked like a comet’s trail of black shapes.  Weaver.  Her course changed as she flew away, using the Bohu-warped buildings for cover.

And where she’d been, just moments ago, a dull gray light hung in the sky.

Scion.  Trapped in Gray Boy’s time-well.

Jack’s laugh rang through the area.

The figure inside moved, but only barely.  The well trapped powers within.  Kayden’s lasers wouldn’t exit the area.  Crusader’s duplicates wouldn’t be able to wander beyond the well’s limits.

And Scion didn’t appear to be any different.

“I’m sorry, my boy,” Jack said.

Golem whipped his head around.  Jack had backed up a short distance.

Jack chuckled, as if he still found something funny about the situation.  “Ah well.  I’m disappointed.  I’m not sensing it, your killer instinct.”

“I’m prepared to finish you,” Golem said.

“You’re prepared?  Maybe.  But not practiced.  No.  I don’t see this going anywhere interesting.  It’s about the ripples.  You remember our conversation?”

Theo nodded slowly.  The ripples from a butterfly’s wing.  The effects that extend out from any event. 

“You?  This?  It’s nothing.  What ripples extend from this?  You’re weak.  That?” Jack pointed at Scion, trapped in the sky.

Golem chanced another look.  Nothing had changed.  Scion remained fixed in place.

That interests me.”

He climbed to his feet, eyes on Jack’s weapon.

Jack reached into his belt, then drew a knife.

Golem tensed.  Faster than the sword, if not quite so capable of chewing through his armor.

But Jack didn’t attack him.  He struck at the building faces.

The surfaces dissolved into rolling clouds of smoke.  Golem vaulted himself back twice in quick succession to escape it, then continued to back away for good measure.

“You’ve failed to amuse me.  A shame your sister’s been shot, and there’s nothing interesting to do with the hostages,” Jack called out, his voice ringing along the length of the street.  With no details or features on the outsides of the buildings Bohu had altered, the voice carried in an odd way.

A shadow emerged.  Jack, riding atop a massive six-legged beast.

As Jack approached, he became more visible, and the nature of the beast became clear.  He stood on Hookwolf’s back, between the creature’s shoulders.

Other shadows appeared in the mist, and they, in turn, clarified as they approached.  Crawlers.  Mannequins.  Crimsons.  Others.

Done in by my dad’s lieutenant, Golem thought.  No way he was walking away from this.

“I suppose we’ll kill you,” Jack said.  “And you’ll just have to take me on my word when I say I’ll find something suitably horrific to do as punishment for your failing our little game.”

Theo raised a hand as a shield even before Jack used his power in conjunction with Hookwolf’s.  A hand of pavement, struck by a thousand slashes in a matter of a second, whittled to nothing.  Then he had only armor, and that, too, started to come apart.

The cuts that followed parted flesh.

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Sting 26.6

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The large box sat in between the benches and seats at the back of the Pendragon, beside a heavy device with an ornate looking gyroscope on the top.  I could feel the bugs within.  I instinctively knew what they were, how they operated, and could even pinpoint exact bugs in the swarm, among dozens of their kind.

I focused on them.  It was almost meditative.  I’d taken to focusing more on the conscious uses of my power, so I’d be more aware when I was making unconscious use of it.  There was nothing I could do about the fact that my passenger apparently had a hand in how my bugs were controlled, but I was trying to train myself to recognize it when it happened.

Rachel was focusing on her dogs in much the same way I was focused on my bugs.  Her hands ran over their bodies, fingers combing through their fur, tracing the lines in their athletic little bodies.  Bastard submitted to the touching without complaint or reaction.

I could sympathize with Rachel some, now.  We’d gathered our strike force together from among the people who I was familiar with and the people who were intact enough to fight, but my relationship to each of these people was iffy at best.  Focusing on our minions was easier.

Chevalier sat in a seat that put his back to Defiant’s chair, so they faced in opposite directions.  He was talking in a low voice that didn’t cut through the drone of the Pendragon’s engine.  Defiant responded without taking his eyes off the controls.

Revel leaned back her head back and resting against the vibrating outer hull of the Pendragon, eyes closed, lantern in her lap.  She looked almost meditative, to the point that I didn’t want to disturb her.

Tecton and Hoyden were talking in low voices.  Both were Protectorate members, now.  Tecton had passed the reins to Grace, and Hoyden was now the little fish in the big pond.  I didn’t want to interject.

Parian and Foil were holding hands, sitting with their arms pressed together, heads leaning to either side so that Foil’s temple sat against the top of Parian’s head.  Even now, it was hard to think of them as Undersiders.  Lots of mixed feelings in the background there.  I’d turned Parian onto this path, and in the doing, I’d done the same for Foil.  For Flechette.

There was a crash, and the Pendragon shifted, almost veering into a dive.  Defiant corrected the course.  “Passing over the wall!  One clinging to the top of the ship!”

Revel stirred.  “Do you want me to fly out?  I can escort us in.”

“No.  The Pendragon is built to take a beating.  We’re more secure with the ramp closed and everything sealed off.  Hold tight.  This is going to get worse before it gets better.”

There was another crash.  I debated sending my bugs outside, then rethought it.  No use, for much the same reason sending Revel out wasn’t going to change things.

Rachel looked exceedingly uncomfortable, and the dogs were reading her body language and getting anxious as a consequence.

I winced at the sound of tearing metal, followed by a sudden shift in the ship’s direction.  Something had been torn free.  Defiant corrected course again, compensating.

I wanted to say something to Rachel, to calm her or the dogs down, or simply to reach out and connect in the same way that the others in the craft were finding solidarity.  The problem was, I wasn’t sure what to say.  We’d separated, had walked different paths, and I’d betrayed her on a level.  I’d led her to believe she had a friend in me, and then I’d walked away.

She met my eyes, scratched Bastard at the top of his head, then asked, “What?”

“You’re okay?”

“Yup,” she said.  She didn’t look okay.  She stroked two different dogs, but I almost felt like the gesture was more for her sake than for the dogs.

“Not right now.  Just… in general?  Are you okay in general?  Living on the other world?”

“Yup,” she said.

I sighed, turning my attention back to the box.

“I’m hoping my dogs are okay,” she said, staring down at the metal floor.  “Been a while since I’ve been away from them like this.”

“You have people, right?  People you…” I let the sentence hang as I tried to recall whether trained was something appropriate for people and not dogs.  “People you trained, to look after your dogs.”

“Yeah,” Rachel said.

“Setting down!” Defiant called out.

There was another tearing sound, like nails on a blackboard scaled up to a volume that made it resonate in my bones.  Maybe the worst sound I’d ever heard.

Just that thought brought back recollections.  The dull, faint sound of an old doctor’s body hitting the ground, after Mannequin cut her throat.  My dad’s voice, crying my name, sounding very distant despite the fact that he was right next to me, in the moments before I killed Alexandria and Director Tagg.  The non-sounds Brian had made as he’d opened his mouth, noises so quiet they weren’t even whispers, as he hung in the refrigerator, post-Bonesaw, pre-second trigger event.

No, there were worse sounds than the screech of metal tearing.  Sounds I’d barely registered at the time, but nonetheless sounds that haunted me.

“Tattletale sent us some old guy to teach us how to butcher the bison,” Rachel said.  “None of the others are any good at it, and it’s harder without the dogs there to help haul it off the ground by its back legs.”

The Pendragon set down.

“Taking off will be harder than landing was,” Defiant said.  He didn’t flinch as a creature pounced on the glass of the ship’s windshield.

A heartbeat later, something hit the outside of the craft.  Something big.  The thing on top that was tearing at the metal struck again, no doubt peeling away at an armor panel.

“-And I’m thinking they’re probably getting hungry.  Fucking up good meat, not carving out the fatty bits.  Or they aren’t getting all the blood out.  You have to cut deep to bleed the motherfuckers.”

Distracted by the landing, some of the junior heroes were paying attention to Rachel now.

“What the hell is she talking about?” Hoyden asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said.  Then I glanced at Rachel.  “Either of you.  Rachel, they’re going to manage fine.”

“They’re going to manage,” she said.

Defiant was already out of his seat.  He had approached the device he’d placed next to my box and managed to get it going just as Rachel finished speaking.

Every monitor in the Pendragon’s cabin flared to life.  Countdown timers appeared, white numbers on a black background, with fainter, smaller timers above and below.  I knew they would be the minimum and maximum times.  The one in the middle was only an estimate.

The craft was struck again, and a dent in the outer walls nearly knocked Tecton from his seat.  Everyone reached for something to hold on to, as the Pendragon nearly tipped over onto its side.  The dogs barked at the disturbance.

“There are forcefield generators,” Defiant said.  “But they take time to recharge.  We’ll hold out for as long as we can before using it, waiting until they are more numerous, and our options are limited.”

“Four minutes,” Tecton observed, looking at the monitors.

“We- I think so,” Defiant said.  “Plus or minus one minute and thirty seconds.  The forcefield generator is housed in the underside of the craft, to provide stronger defense from below.  It’ll last after the walls come down.”

“Defensive positions,” Chevalier said.

“Protecting the decoder is a priority,” Defiant said.

We stood from our seats, backing towards the center of the craft, the decoder and my box of bugs at our center.  I reached back and opened the box, letting the bugs flow out.

Without my even asking, Defiant opened the ramp at the back a fraction.  Like a flower blossoming, slowly at first, then with increasing speed, I could feel my awareness expanding.  I could feel the outside of the ship, the creatures that were gathering in ever-increasing numbers.  Every shape and size imaginable.

Three were making good headway against us.  I could identify the same creature, I was pretty sure, that had been pummeling the wall at the outer perimeter of Ellisburg.  It was a quadruped, and it moved with a surprising slowness as it paced away from us.  Strands of fur longer than I was tall hung off it, and its head was one armored plate with eyeholes, the edges flaring out and away from its head at the sides and back, allowing its long, pointed ears to freely move behind the plate.  It lowered its head in the direction of the craft and tested the ground with one scuff of a spike-studded hoof against the pavement.

I set bugs to attacking its eyes, driving them into ear canals in hopes of distorting its sense of direction.  It aborted the charge to shake its head violently.

“Possible incoming right in front of you, Tecton.  Any second now.”

“Right,” he said.  He held his ground.

“Might be worth moving,” I said.

He looked back at me.  “Aren’t we supposed to defend the decoder?”

“Switch,” Chevalier said, with no elaboration.  Tecton hurried to take up Chevalier’s position towards the nose of the craft, while Chevalier lowered his cannonblade in the direction of the bulge on the wall.

There were two more creatures that were gouging the hull.  One used oversized claws to pry at metal plates.  Another was drooling acid onto the roof.

I could sense the round-headed bald girl from earlier as well, one creature that moved with a startling speed as it scratched at the outer edges of the craft, one way, then the other, so the gouges in the metal formed hatch marks.  Burrowing, almost.  Burrowing very slowly.

Something howled, and it was loud.

The creations were piling around the craft, with a number gathering on the window over the cockpit.  Tecton tensed.

“The window is stronger than the metal,” Defiant said.  “Don’t panic.”

“It isn’t as flexible,” Tecton said.  “One good hit like the one that dented the wall there and it won’t hold up.”

“It’s designed to take rocket launcher hits head on,” Defiant said.

“That doesn’t mean it’s designed to take them from an angle,” Tecton retorted.  “My power gives me a sense of structural integrity.  I’m saying I’m worried.”

“Fine,” Defiant said.  He watched the ramp, not moving an inch.  “Be worried.”

The charger was incapacitated, its eyes devoured, eardrums perforated, with bugs crawling through the middle ear fluids that were pouring down its ear canals..  I diverted bugs to the thing that was clawing the armor plates off of the outer edges.

An instant later, the charger lunged forward.

No sense of direction, no ability to see, not even any balance, beyond what its four legs offered.

But it was big, and its target was big as well.

“Heads up!” I shouted.

It slammed into the side of the Pendragon, closer to the back than the location of the first hit.  The metal tore where two sections joined together, and a monitor fell to the floor, shattering.

Creatures began crawling through the gap.  Defiant moved his spear to the opening, then activated the gray blur.  He held it there, allowing them to die and be wounded on contact.

Golem used his power, raising a hand of metal to cover the opening.

Defiant lowered his spear and canceled out the blur.

The disintegration effect might have been worth keeping on hand, but I could understand if he was concerned about another impact knocking someone into the spearhead.

Creatures had hopped onto the charger’s back, and were helping guide it, babbling and screeching, tugging on its fur.  It followed their directions, retreating.

I directed my bugs to attack, stinging and biting each of them on the same general side.  They reacted, tugging and pulling away, and the charger changed direction.  Only his flank glanced the back of the craft, and he trampled through a crowd of the little bastards who’d congregated on and around the ramp.

The round-headed girl sat there, half-crushed, and then began to swell.

“Heads up!  Your left, Defiant!” I shouted.

She detonated, and gunk spattered the ramp.  I felt bugs die on contact.

The ramp began to melt like candle wax.

I moved bugs to the fray while Hoyden and Defiant advanced on the ramp.

The creatures came in as a singular mass.  Dozens at once, practically crawling over one another.  A spine glanced off of Defiant’s armor and came within inches of striking the decoder.  Foil swatted it out of the air.

Parian’s first doll joined Rachel’s dogs in reinforcing the space behind Hoyden and Defiant.  Hoyden kicked and punched at the creatures, and small explosions tore through their ranks.  One punch, two or three creatures dead.  One landed on her, claws extended, and then promptly flew away as another detonation of flame and smoke flared from the point of contact.  She was barely scratched.

If those claws were poisonous, though…

Still, she made for a competent front line, beside Defiant with his disintegrating spear.  Every movement of the spear was as precise as Hoyden’s explosions were erratic.  The blur effect cut through the enemy like butter, and in the rare occasions where the target did slip away or dodge the attack, Defiant followed up with jolts of electricity and darts.

The charger steered around and began to pick up speed.

“Chev, incoming!”

I tried to distract the charger again, targeting the riders, but it didn’t work.  This time, they pulled in different directions, or simply dropped off.  It continued on course.

It struck only two or three feet to the left of the first point of damage, and opened up the side.  The thing with claws on the roof, squinting against the steady damage my bugs were doing, hopped over and began to pry the gap open wider.

I moved a swarm over the gap, trying to hide the entryway, but it did little good.  Both Parian and Rachel shifted position to defend the opening.  Golem began trying to patch it up.

“Careful!” Defiant warned, glancing over one shoulder.  “Too much extra weight and we won’t be able to take off!  Containment foam instead!”

The perils of physics-defying powers.  Golem and Rachel both broke the laws of conservation of mass, and now we risked paying for that.  The Dragon’s Teeth stepped forward to take over.

I could see the charger turning around.  One creature was on its back, a heavily armored thing that had hard, multifaceted eyes like an insect.  My own bugs couldn’t damage the orbs.  It cheered in a high voice, urging the charger on, with some English words peppered in the midst of its gibbering.

One more minute to go.  If we were lucky, it could open any second.  If we were unlucky, it would take two and a half minutes.

Two crawled in through the crack in the side, clinging to the ceiling as they made their way in through the cloud of bugs.  I pointed, and Foil slashed at them with her rapier.  Tecton squashed another with his piledriver.

Over where another of the creatures had been trying to burrow into the side, a creature pushed it aside and spat.  The effect was the same as the exploding bubble-head girl from earlier, if less dramatic.  Looking at the exterior wall, I could see the hatch-marks appearing in the side as though they’d been drawn in marker, pale against the dark metal.  They spread, the effect broadening, until the hatch marks were drawn out in white and the surrounding area was paler.

Something punched through, then reached in blindly to scratch and claw.  Golem’s reaching hand broke the claw.

More spots were appearing, though.  Dents, gouges, acid…  I attacked the creatures that were doing the most damage, as far as I could identify them, but there were more waiting to take their places.

“Nilbog’s creatures!”  I spoke, raising my voice.  I spoke through my bugs outside.  “We mean no harm!  We will bring you back your king!”

Nothing but cries of rage and hate in response.  No use.

Thirty seconds, now.

The holes in the exterior opened enough for the creatures to start pushing through.  The acid burned them where they made contact, but that same contact opened the holes wide enough for others to follow.

The charger lunged, charging again.  There was really only one rider it was listening to, but that pilot was a tough one to hurt.

The thing screamed one word in English, twice in quick succession, its voice high,

“Jump!  Jump!”

The charger leaped.  The result wasn’t graceful, nor was it particularly on target.  What it did do was allow the charger to get one foot up on the side of the Pendragon, its upper body partially on the roof.  It kicked and struggled in its attempts to move forward, and found one leg caught in the tear it had made on its last charge.

It placed the foot on top of the hands Golem had raised to block the gap, and sheer weight tore them down.  It slumped, falling, and then brought the end of its nose inside the ship, dragging it against the tear in fits of thrusting, struggling to free both it and its leg, succeeding only in doing more damage.  Reinforced shafts and beams held against the damage, but could see how each wiggle was bending the thick bars.

“I thought you said this thing was tough!”  Foil shouted.

“It is,” Defiant said.

“Forcefield might be a good idea!”  I called out.

Defiant didn’t respond.  Hoyden had made her way down the ramp and was dishing out the hurt close-range.  She was keeping the melee threats on their heels with a constant, aggressive offense, while her secondary powers rendered her resistant to the damage that came from a distance.  Defiant was left to defend the opening himself.

I drew my knife and my handgun and advanced until I was just behind and to the left of DefiantHe shifted position a fraction, allowing for the extra assistance.

Who knew we’d get to this point, Armsmaster?  I thought.

Fighting side by side.  I used my knife to impale one creature in the neck, then kicked it back down the half-ruined ramp.

Two of the countdown clocks had hit zero.  The one clock remained.  The high end of Defiant’s estimation on the decoder’s progress.

“One minute,” I said.

“Maybe,” Defiant said.

Maybe?”

“We took the time this past year to find Dodge’s old exit points, talking to ex-customers of the-” he stopped, grunting as he swept the spear at one persistent spine-spitter, “-Toybox group.  Used it to get readings, test the decoder.  But this portal has different metrics, updated technology.  More recent tech.”

“It’s not a guarantee?”  Hoyden shouted the words, as explosions continued to rip out around her, tearing through the assembled creatures.  They were keeping a healthy distance, now, which meant her very presence was keeping a whole area clear of the blighters.

Nothing’s a guarantee, I thought.

“I never guarantee anything,” Defiant grunted, echoing my thoughts.  “Except for a select few promises I make to people I love and people I hate.”

Rachel’s dogs were tearing into the goblins as they made their way through the gap beneath the charger that had wedged into the gap, each dog biting their mouths down once or twice in quick succession before flinging the things away just so they could have their mouths free to bite others.  Their paws swept out to club and claw at the creatures.  Tecton and Foil guarded the space between dogs, striking out to catch the ones which slipped between the dog’s legs.

I plunged my knife down to stab one of the softer looking targets, then danced back to avoid the spatter of acid that flowed from the wound.

“I’m getting buried!” Hoyden shrieked.  She’d been targeted by some critters that were dissolving into a slurry as they burned, with tendrils extending out to draw in the wounded and dead.

They’re reincarnating, feeding on themselves to make more.

“Stop using your power!” Defiant ordered.

“I can’t!  They’ll kill me!”

I glanced over my shoulder at the clock, then whipped my head back around as a creature pounced, trying to wrap itself around my head.  I shot it, feeling a flare of relief that I hadn’t just been killed, mingled with a regret over the loss of the bullet.

“How is it not done yet!?” I shouted.  “Zero on the clock!”

Defiant didn’t respond.

“Defiant!  Do we take off!?”

The charger, still caught in the gap, found the leverage to strain against one of the reinforcing girders that maintained the craft’s structure.  It began to slide down, and Golem raised a stainless steel hand to keep it from stomping on the decoder.

The hand wouldn’t be strong enough.  If that thing shifted its weight any more-

“Defiant!” Tecton shouted.  “What are our priorities!?  Can we take off?”

“No,” Defiant responded.  “We stay.  Wait, cross our fingers.”

I glanced back to see Golem and Tecton exchanging a glance.  The creature struggled again, sudden, and the beams shifted further.  One more struggle like that, and the little hand wouldn’t hold it up.

A big hand, though, might cement our fate, take away our maneuverability.

“Saint,” Defiant said.

I glanced back at him.

“Don’t fuck us on this.  We need those Azazels.  We need an escape route.”

Saint?

The fact that Dragon was debilitated was another trick, an extremely ill-advised play against the heroes, capitalizing on our distraction with something greater.

“I’m going to fucking kill Saint,” I said.

“If we survive this fucking-,” Tecton said.  He grunted and fell on his armored rear end as a dog jerked to one side, accidentally body-checking him.

“Not a suicide mission,” Defiant said, carrying out only one half of a conversation we weren’t entirely privy to.  “Back us up, now.”

A pause.

Defiant spoke, and his tone of voice had changed.  He wasn’t talking to Saint.

“Toronto, Ontario.  Canada.  Yonge Street.  Just behind a place called Greenway.  I’ve commissioned a thinker-investigator calling himself Gleer to track them down.  If only some of us make it, do me a favor, and remember that Saint is the one who fucked with one of our biggest truces yet.  Saint took down Dragon, and he just left us to die.  The Azazels are apparently better deployed elsewhere.”

The charger bucked, and Golem created a large hand, not to catch the descending foot, but to divert its direction.  It crushed my empty bug box.

This much weight on the craft, the loss of so many external components… we wouldn’t be able to fly.

The roof came partially off.  More streamed in through the resulting gap, dropping down into the middle of the cabin.

Revel unleashed her lantern.  Spheres of light and flame flew out in every direction, burning through the ranks of the smaller creatures, zig-zagging to maximize contact between them.  The charger died, going limp.

A moment’s reprieve.

Defiant used a grappling hook from his glove to try to catch Hoyden, only for it to fly off in another blast of flame.

He tried again, but this time, he whipped the chain, so the length of it wound around her, then yanked her inside.  He signaled, and the forcefield went on.  In seconds, we cleared the few that had survived from the Pendragon’s cabin.

Creatures died as they made contact with the field.

Defiant dropped his spear, turning to the device that Dodge had set up.  Data appeared on the monitor.

“Give me a connect to Alcott,” he said.

Tattletale’s voice sounded through my earbud.  “You sure?  You know-”

“Time is of the essence.  Now.”

Righty-o.”

The rest of us exchanged glances.  Rachel was tending to her dogs, Parian was binding wounds with spare cloth and creating more constructs, and Golem was patching up the damage.  Not fixing anything, but barricading.

She’s on the line.

“Top half of the list, success?”

Zero,” Tattletale said.

“Last quarter?”

Yes.”

Defiant typed on the keyboard.  “That’s it.  Narrowing down possibilities.  Thank you.”

We waited, looking through the spaces where the barricades hadn’t yet gone up, at the creatures that waited.  Hoyden submitted to some bandaging on Parian’s part.

I watched the forcefield flicker.  It seemed to coincide with what Defiant was typing on the keyboard.  A strike of the enter key, and it flickered and went out.

“I’m taking it down early,” Defiant said.  “We need the power.”

Barely a minute.

The creatures approached hesitantly, then broke into a run.  I could see the dogs tense.

“Back up,” Defiant said.  “Now.  Huddle!”

We did, swiftly retreating until we were clustered around the center of the cabin, shoulder to shoulder, our backs to the device. My bugs filled the gaps.  The creatures, in turn, gibbered, squealed, screeched and roared.  They howled and stomped and drummed fists on chests.

Impacts made Golem’s hands bend, and I could hear a dozen points where they were grabbing at the plates of metal and straining to bend and peel them.  That horrible sound, in innumerable places around the craft.

And then silence.  Darkness.  Air rushed around us, equalizing throughout a vast, empty space.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire, I thought.

We broke the huddle, our headlights and flashlights going on.  Rachel’s dogs could be seen in the darkness, their eyes glowing red and orange in the reflected light.

“It seems we have company,” Jack said.

I could see the others startle.

“No, I’m not standing next to you.  Borrowing Screamer’s power to broadcast, to have a little chat.”

No.  Couldn’t afford to listen to him.  If any of us were problematic, or if it was someone listening in, anything he said could be the catalyst for the end of the world.

Problem was, Screamer was a bitch to shut down.  Ear plugs wouldn’t be any guarantee.  If she was forced to, she would use the vibrations of people’s bones to transmit words.

Jack continued, “I confess, I do like this part.  The chatting.  It’s safe to keep my distance, but it’s boring, really.  You challenge somebody, pit mind against mind, but how much do you truly get to know them?”

“Move,” I said.  “Fan out, find Screamer as soon as possible.”

My bugs flowed out in advance of the group.

“This, the conversation, it’s what turns a mindless killing spree into something more, an art.  Bonesaw is fond of telling me that true art speaks for itself, but really, there needs to be a relationship between the artist and audience, if only because there’s a lot of idiots out there.  Some people need it spelled out for them.  Hi Theodore.”

Golem clenched his fists.

The area was vast and empty.  Every surface was granite, rough but not so much so that it would be painful to walk on with bare feet.  The wiring was crude, small floodlamps strung out in strings, like oversized, colorless, exceptionally boring Christmas lights.  Wires had been stapled against the walls, fixing them in straight lines, but the excess draped loose at the bases of those same walls.

The lights were bright, but they only covered two-thirds of the area.  The spaces between those same lights were dark to the point of being almost pitch black, the afterimages in my vision making it look like things were moving in the shadow.

“Gray Boy is retrieving your sister this very moment, Theodore.”

Golem stopped in his tracks.

“Yes,” Jack said.  No elaboration.  Answering a question that hadn’t been asked.

“Can’t communicate with our people while we’re here,” Defiant said.

“Keep moving,” Chevalier gave the order.

Jack spoke, his voice smooth.  Or Screamer spoke, mimicking what he was saying, quite possibly in the exact tone and cadence.  “We got video.  I thought about having it be silent, in black and white, but Gray Boy wanted color.”

My scout-bugs found no signs of life.  Only bizarre constructions.  Crystal pillars with more wires stringing to them?  Where was Jack?  We passed through a room with what looked like a dentist’s chair.  Tools and pieces of the mechanical scalpel-spiders littered the room.

Bonesaw’s operating room.

“I like to think this is a win-win situation for me,” Jack said.  “Wait until you hear.  We’ll get the video up in a moment.  Play it on the speakers, maybe, or show it on the computers, if you can find one soon.  Does this break you, or does it give you that burning fury that drives you to go the extra mile and try to kill me?”

We entered the main area, and I stared.

“Oh god,” Foil said.

There was a crunching sound as Chevalier let his sword drop, the metal biting into the floor.

The crystalline pillars were vats.  Cloning vats.  Each marked with a name of one of the Nine.

They were full.  Babies floated within each.

“Cherish says you found the clones.  Yes.  We’re doing another batch.  Didn’t take much time to prepare, and it was bound to be either a nice follow-up or a good surprise for you if you happened to catch up to us here.  You know I’m close.  Do you take the time to eliminate each of these things, or do you come after me and leave them behind?”

“We can have someone stay behind, clean up,” Chevalier said.

“I wouldn’t say that, Chevalier,” Jack responded, his voice carrying through the vast chamber with two or three hundred vats spaced evenly throughout.  “See, we mixed things up a little.  There’s a specialized cleanup area that can kill the Crawler clones.  We gave them their powers right off the bat.  Mixed them in with the others.  You’ll have to be fairly discerning, and devote manpower to the task.”

I thought about using my power, but there weren’t any bugs native to this area.  I was limited to the ones that I’d brought with me.  Not enough to cart two or three hundred children off to some special device.

“A distraction,” Defiant said.  “There’s another option.  A bomb.  If we track down the device Dodge used to create and maintain this dimension, we can collapse it.”

“How fast?” Chevalier asked.

“Fast,” Defiant answered.

“Poor sportsmanship,”  Jack rebuked them.  “Let’s try a different distraction then.”

A computer monitor on the desk flickered to life.

“I’m excited,” Jack said.  “Gray Boy is working on getting the video up.  Funny thing.  The real Gray Boy wouldn’t be able to do this, but we gave this one the memories of a real child.  Came with the necessary skills.  I’m almost disappointed.  People are so much more interesting when they’re flawed, aren’t they?  Oh, here we go.  I haven’t even seen this.  Let’s see…”

The video started playing.  The camera wiggled and wobbled as Gray Boy ascended a staircase.

He came face to face with PRT officers.

“Best not to watch,” Revel said, her voice gentle.  “It’s not worth it.”

Golem didn’t take his eyes off the screen.  Revel approached him, putting one hand on his shoulder.

Others turned to keep scouting the area.

I joined them.  This place was massive, but my power had range.  I needed to find Jack, and that was a bigger priority than seeing the scene as it played out.  Rachel walked between the rows and columns of glass vats with me.  Her dogs trailed behind, their spikes and spurs occasionally tapping or dragging against the glass of the vats.

There we go,” Gray Boy said, his voice high, as he spoke in the video.  I could barely make it out with my own ears, but I had my bugs to help.  It didn’t hurt that the ones who’d remained behind were utterly silent as they watched.

I’d already seen, in a sense.  I’d figured out what was behind the tarp back in Killington.  Gray Boy’s victim.  The only one, as far as I was aware, who was still alive.

But Gray Boy didn’t kill.

Let’s adjust… there,” Gray Boy said.

Please… don’t… please… let…

The voice was halting, cut short at steady, regular intervals.

Me… go… please… oh… god…

Shhhh,” Gray Boy’s voice was a hush, but it carried through the speakers that were planted throughout the area.

I… don’t…

I said be quiet,” Gray Boy said.  “I’ll do you a favor, even.  I can make this painless.  I just need you to talk to me.  Tell me a story.

A… story…?

I’m sure you can come up with something good.  Let’s start with your partner.

There was a scream.  I tensed.

The scream didn’t stop.  It continued, a steady, constant loop, the beginning the same, the ending varying.

What… story?”

The scream changed, intensifying.  It continued looping, just a little louder, a little less usual.

Don’t be a baby,” Gray Boy said.  “That’s only a pocket knife I cut you with.

Trucks… vampir… dragons… what… do… you… want…

Think about it,” Gray Boy said.  “When I come back, I want to hear it.  If it isn’t a good one, I’m going to light a match.  They say a burn hurts more than any other kind of pain, inch for inch.  Look, see!  I’ve got a whole matchbox here.  A whole matchbox just for you two, and all the time in the world.

The man’s oddly rhythmic screaming continued, dropping in volume.  It was barely audible as a door shut.

I forced myself to keep walking, exploring with my bugs.  Tunnels, side-rooms, many occupied with old devices, things belonging to the Toybox residents that had apparently claimed spaces in here for themselves.

“Can your dogs pick up a scent?” I asked.

Rachel shook her head.  “Wrong breeds.  They’re not trained in tracking people.”

I swore under my breath.

“Kayden.”

Golem’s voice, from far away.

Gray Boy had found Theo’s family.

Move your hand,” Gray Boy said.  “You know it won’t work.  I’m too hard to kill.

A pause.

I’m going to give you a choice.  You can put the little girl down and let me have her, and then I’ll use my power on you only, or I can use my power on you both.”

There was no reply.

Don’t be silly,” Gray Boy warned.  His tone was flat, almost without affect.  “Give me the girl.  I promise I won’t do anything to her.  Can’t say the same for any of the others, but you and I both know that nothing they can do even compares to what happens when I use my power.

A sound.  A whimper.

I’ll even let you choose.  What kind of hell do you want to go to?  I can use fire, or knives, or I can hit you with something heavy.  I like that little statue over there.  There’s cold, probably.

A sound, a bang, a crash, echoed over the speakers.

I continued pacing down the row of vats.  I reached the end, then traversed an open, empty space before reaching the start of a complicated, almost labyrinthine tunnel network.  My bugs struggled to trace the contours of the space and find their way to the next area.

When they did, they found it was an even bigger space than the one Rachel and I were in.  A giant robot stood in the center, half-complete.

A toddler started shrieking, her wail audible over a hundred speakers throughout the complex, each just a fraction out of sync with the others, given the speed of the signal traveling as compared to the speed of the ensuing sounds.

Not bright,” Gray Boy said.  “And the baby’s crying.  No wonder, with you trying to throw her out the window.

There was only silence in response.

I thought you’d use your laser instead.  Do you think your baby can fly?  Here.  I’ll make the loop longer so you can talk.

I… had… to… try…

Maybe.  But now I have to punish you.  I could hurt you, like I do with most people.  Hurt you while you’re looping through the same action, so you feel that pain over and over and over and over again.  The only thing that doesn’t change is your brain.  That keeps going.  The pain is always fresh, it never gets easier to deal with, but I’m told there’s a certain point where you crack, and you go around the bend.  Takes a few days for most.  Then you get to a point where you work through your issues.  You don’t want to, but you do, because the only thing you have to occupy yourself with is the pain and your own thoughts… so you get mostly better, and then you crack up again, and you get better, and that becomes a loop of its own…

Fuck… you…

Until well after the sun goes out, they think,” Gray Boy said.  “Speed of thought, can’t turn it off unless I’m using it on myself, and I don’t think anyone’s immune.

Bastar… d…

But I do that to everyone I use my power on.  Like a snap of my fingers, just like that, anyone around me is caught in a loop.  What kind of special punishment could I give you, murdermommy?

There was no reply.  The child continued to cry.

Who’s this one?  The woman?” Gray Boy asked.  “No answer?  How about… now.”

There was a pause.

Most scream when you stab them.  Oh well.  Maybe this one?

I changed direction, walking along the wall to get a sense of the greater complex.  There was no way to check the area at the foot of the giant robot without navigating the labyrinth.  My range wasn’t that long.

Nope.  And… this one!”

A scream.

There we go.

Crusader…

I’ve decided, murdermommy.  I won’t do anything to you for now.  I’ll let you wonder what the others did to your little girl.  Then, maybe, if she’s still alive, I’ll bring her back to you and I’ll use my power on her while you watch.  Maybe a week from now, maybe a month, maybe years.  Decades, even.  A hundred years?  They have cryogenics and brain scans and cloning vats and more!  We could show up a thousand years from now, just to say hi to you.

No…

You lose track of time, like that.  Standing there.  But maybe if you keep yourself sane, you’ll be able to offer advice so it won’t be so unbearable, so you can converse and tell stories and keep each other happy.  Maybe, if you keep it together enough, you can convince me to let her go.  I’ll give you a… one in twenty chance.

No…

Tell her to listen to me.  To obey me.  You know what happens if she doesn’t.  Convince her.

Aster… do… what… he… says…

Good.  You hear that, Aster?  Good.

Come… back…

Her voice was quieter, almost drowned out by Aster’s wailing.

A door shut, the speakers echoing the sound all throughout the complex.

The rhythmic screaming of the PRT officer grew louder.

Sit,” Gray Boy’s high voice sounded.  “Don’t run, little girl.  Listen to me like mommy said.

The man’s screaming grew louder still.

So whiny.  I just cut up his face.  So?  Tell me a story?

Silence.

Okay.

A sound of a match being struck.

We… were… briefed… on… Jack…  we… don’t… know… how… he… ends… the… world… we’re… suppose… to… implemen… quarant… ine…”

I stopped in my tracks.

He… talks… to… someone… and… catalyz… es… someth… ing…

The PRT officer had been asked to weigh an eternity of torment against the lives of billions, and she’d chosen the selfish option.

Every… major… group… helping… teams… defeat… Jack…  Cauldron… Thanda… PRT… Protector… ate… Wards… Brockton B… ay villains… Moord Nag… Irregulars… Faultline… Triumvirate…”

We’d just lost our last major advantage in determining how this could play out.  Jack was getting everything.  He was a wiki-walk away from getting details on everyone who was arrayed against his new Slaughterhouse Nine.

I could sense the others as they moved through the complex.  I beckoned Rachel and her dogs, then mounted up.

I kicked the dog into motion.

Others… I… can’t… recall…  they… are… keeping… powerful… people… away… from… Jack… to… avoid… catalyz… ing… they… are… employing… strike… teams… to… take… down… smaller… groups…”

And you’re here because?

Because… Aster… supposed… trigger… young… usually… one… child… in… family… know… Jack… coming… probably… in… person… chance… she… is… catalyst…

There’s a lot of people who could be the catalyst,” Gray Boy said.  “You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to cover all of the bases.”

Low… chance… but… still… chance… thought… we… could… protect… with… Night… Fog… Purity… Crusader…”

Well,” Gray Boy said.  “That was boring.  I wanted a story with neat monsters.”

I gave serious consideration to switching the earbuds to a setting that would make them serve as earplugs.  I made myself keep listening as the screaming started, keeping my ears peeled for clues.

My swarm-sense, at the same time, was searching more of the area.  I brought bugs to me, then sent them off into new corridors as I reached them.

Too few bugs in this entire place.  No moisture to feed them, no food sources.  Only a scant few that had no doubt been brought in accidentally.

I thought the story was interesting,” Jack said, his voice sounding as though he were speaking in my ear.  “See, I had a plan in mind, but now I’m rethinking it.  If I’m supposed to be a catalyst, then it can’t be any of the others.  Bonesaw would get the credit for any plagues or clone armies we deployed, even if I gave the order.”

I grit my teeth.

“But if the effect is broad, well, giving the order could be a part of it.  Our Harbinger has been giving us some very good advice.  Talking about the critical places to strike.  What happens if we attack certain targets?  The world teeters on the brink of falling to the Endbringers.  Divide my remaining soldiers and attack key points in the infrastructure, and maybe that’s game over for humanity.”

Here.”  A voice over the comms.

Or Screamer fucking with our heads?

“Verify.” I spoke over the comms.

Nobody called back to verify.  A sign I was on the right track?  I kicked the dog to drive him to move faster.

“Or if Gray Boy uses his power on Scion, perhaps?  We could assassinate some key figures.  Win-win, because we either deliver a critical blow or we might run into the right person to bring about the end of the world.  So many possibilities, really.”

I could sense them.  Easily two hundred of the Nine, accompanied by a mess of Nilbog’s creations, hooked up to Bonesaw’s control frames.  Nilbog hung on the wall above the group, limbs splayed, tubes feeding into him as blobs dropped down and were captured by a small army of mechanical soldiers.

I closed my eyes for a moment.  A trick?

No.

Two years of emotions caught up with me in a single instant.  I felt fear grip me, anxiety seizing my entire body, adrenaline flooding through my body.

Yet, when I spoke, my voice was calm.  “Weaver here.  I’m using my first priority passphrase.  Danny and the Rose.  Look for the flare.”

Message received loud and clear, Weaver,” Tecton said.

I drew a flare from my belt and lit it, throwing it to the ground.

That done, I glanced over my shoulder at Rachel.  She nodded.

Jack’s voice echoed through the complex.  I could sense him with my bugs now.  He was pacing back and forth, while all of the other Nine were stock still.  “Attack the cities, target Scion, assassinate all of these powerful capes that are coming after me…”

Or I could do all of the above.”

I hopped off of the dog’s back to make it through the doorway, then ascended the spiral staircase.  The dogs struggled to follow, and I signaled for them to stop.

Couldn’t have them blocking my retreat.

I wasn’t sure what I could do, but there had to be something.

I reached the top of the stairs, then stopped, my back to the wall beside the doorway.  I held my gun.

The sole remaining Cherish said something, a murmur.

Weaver.” Jack said.  Screamer repeated the word after him, and it carried through the air, an echo.

“Hi Jack,” I said.  I hung my head, focusing on what my power was telling me.

The bugs I had in the room clung to particular members of the group.  They were eerily still.

“Gray Boy is standing right in front of me,” Jack said.

“I know.”

“Most are shut down.  Using a control to keep them still.  Too unmanageable in a group like this.  That doesn’t mean you have the slightest chance of accomplishing something.”

“I have to try,” I said, echoing Purity’s words from the video.

“Such sad, small words,” Jack commented.  “You don’t have to.”

I had tricks prepared, but none of them were remotely viable.  Not with Bonesaw so close.

I would die, and she would revive Jack.  At best, I’d slow them down.

“You’re too big for your boots, Weaver,” Jack said.  “You had a few critical successes and you’ve run with them.  Earned yourself a reputation.  But at the end of the day, you’re still the same pathetic bug controller who got her powers because her mommy died.”

He likes to talk.  Every second that passes is a second we’re catching up.

“People probably said the same thing about you in the beginning, Jack,” I said.  “Too big for your boots.”

“They did.  My trigger event was a little more dignified, though.  No matter.  I’ve been at this a long time.  You’re barely a concern.”

“Want to fight, Jack?” I asked.  My bugs moved through the crowd as I noted each of the threats that were present.

“Eh,” Jack said, shrugging,  “I can take you.  Step through that doorway, and I’ll give you a fair fight.  One on one.  Look.  I’ll even put my knife in my belt, hands on my head.”

I had an assessment of their group.  I couldn’t account for Nilbog’s creations, but I knew which members of the Nine were present and where they were situated.

“You said it yourself,” Jack said.  “You can’t afford not to.”

Too true.  The others weren’t close enough yet.

“Why this fixation on ending the world?” I asked.

“Nuh uh uh,” Jack answered me.  “Not going to get bogged down in a discussion.  We have a situation.  I’m going to walk away in about fifteen seconds, unless you want to have a duel.  Knife against knife, or gun against knife, if you prefer.  You win here, it’s a coup for the world.  What better option for the make-believe queen?”

The make-believe queen?

Maybe a name Cherish had given me.  I tightened my grip on the gun, but I kept my finger off the trigger.

Someone advanced.  I felt tripwires snap and break.

Letting a hostage go?

I turned and started to fire before the individual in question could step through the doorway.  By the time I made the conscious decision and started squeezing the trigger, the individual in question was emerging.  The bullet made contact, passing through their head.

A life taken.  A hostage killed.  But I couldn’t afford to take any chances.

No.

I shook my head a little.

A Nice Guy, not a hostage.

He needed to focus on people to use his power.  That focus was far weaker if he couldn’t see someone.  My voice would be another vector, as well as knowing my location.

“That was impolite,” Jack said.

“No tricks.”

“I could send Siberian after you,” he said.  “She wouldn’t even have to kill you.  Just hold you still.  Bonesaw and Gray Boy could have worlds of fun.  Remember what we did to your team leader?  Imagine the eternity of pain Gray Boy could deliver after our Bonesaw has given you more nerve endings to work with.”

“You could,” I said.

The others were getting closer, reaching the foot of the stairs.

Cherish spoke.  “The others are here, Jack.”

“Then your time is up, Weaver.  I hope you don’t regret your hesitation.”

I wouldn’t.

I drew in a deep breath, waiting for the second Jack turned, then stepped into the doorway.

Then I opened fire.

I’d first run into the scenario when I went up against Mannequin, before running up against Glory Girl.  The first time I shot a gun, I hit my target.

Now I had a better idea of why.

Having bugs over the entire area, I had a sense of the area, of the topography, of where everything was.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was an advantage.  Something to help aim the shot, to help give me a sense of the path the bullet would travel.  It was like being able to reach out with my arm in a perfectly straight line, touch my target, then aim along the line.  The same effect I’d granted Foil, so she could snipe Tyrant.

The sole remaining Siberian moved to Jack’s side before I could pull the trigger.

I wasn’t aiming for Jack.  It wasn’t even a consideration.  Like he said, he had Gray Boy with him.  The second I stepped into their sight, I was a goner.

My bullet took Cherish in the head.  Another bullet struck Screamer.

I hesitated.

Then I shot Aster, who was held in a Hatchet Face’s arms.

Manton-

No.  Too dangerous.  Gray Boy was moving, trying to get to a better vantage point.

I turned, activating my flight pack for a boost of speed.

The Siberian broke away from Jack, giving chase.  Crawlers advanced only a pace behind.

In that same moment, I drew out more lines, giving the signal.

Revel and Foil both opened fire, their energy-orbs and bolts tearing through the walls and into the rank and file of the Slaughterhouse Nine.

“No!”  Jack ordered.  “Siberian, with us.  The remotes are programmed?”

“Yeah,” Bonesaw reported.

“We go.  Divide into groups.  One major target each.”

Jack quickly sorted them out, his Siberian touching him, Manton and Bonesaw as the bolts and orbs continued to tear through his crowd.  One or two dead every second.

And then they separated into groups.  Bonesaw paused, then broke away, joining her crowd before hitting the remote.  They disappeared.

Another group gone.

Then the remaining three disappeared all at once.

I collapsed on my hands and knees as I reached the bottom of the staircase.  The others that had managed to reach our location stood over me.

“They’re gone,” I said, panting not from exertion, but the sheer panic of what I’d done.

“We give chase,” Chevalier said.  He looked to Defiant.  “Can we?”

“We can if there is a computer,” Defiant responded.

I only nodded.

“Good,” Defiant said.

I looked up as Golem approached, Revel beside him.

“Aster’s dead,” I said.

He went very still.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Did you-”  He started, then he stopped, staring down at me.

“Nevermind.  Sorry for asking,” he said.  “Whatever happened, it’s for the best.”

He didn’t sound like he believed it.  He didn’t sound confident in the least.

It’s for the best, I thought, as Golem joined Chevalier and Defiant in heading up the stairs.

“Can you tell me the order they went off?”  Defiant asked.

I nodded.

“Good.  Then I think we can figure out which went where.  We can eliminate this place as an escape route.”

Which meant we knew which way Jack had gone, and he couldn’t run anymore.

Final encounter.

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Sting 26.5

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Unholy screams and screeches followed us as we made our retreat, landing beyond the walls of Ellisburg.  In moments, Nilbog’s fairy wonderland had become a hell on earth, thousands of demons crawling from the literal woodwork to attack.  The ground split as subterranean creatures emerged, while others climbed out of buildings that seemed to have been built around them.  One was somewhere between a dragon and a gargoyle in appearance.  Big, leathery wings, with a gnarled body and a leering, fanged face.

The flying creatures, the gargoyle-dragon included, took flight perching atop the walls, then backed down as a barrage of gunfire and superpowered attacks assaulted them.

“Shuffle!” Revel cried out her lieutenant’s name.

Shuffle stepped forward and used his power.  Teleportation, but not teleportation of living things.  Not people, anyways.  Grass didn’t hinder him much.

He teleported the landscape.  A hill was bisected and placed against the ruined entrance of the facility.

His power was unpredictable.  There were metrics he couldn’t quite grasp or understand.  Teleporting things in sometimes teleported things out.  In attempting to shore up the wall, he created gaps.

But this was a known issue, one he’d been dealing with for some time.  Unsurprised, he fixed the resulting hole with two more followup teleports.  If any terrain was removed, it was inside the structure, unimportant.

Something inside Goblintown struck the wall, hard, and then started clawing at it.  I could sense it’s silhouette with the few bugs I had near the area.  It was four-legged, with all of the most effective parts of a rhino, bear and elephant combined, and it was big enough that I suspected it could make its way through the great concrete wall.

Defending capes had gathered in a loose ring around Ellisburg.  Revel and Shuffle were among them, which I took to be a sign that Golem’s group had handled whatever issues had arisen in Norfolk.  The heroes opened fire as the gargoyle-dragon thing explored the upper edge of the wall again, and it disappeared, only to make an appearance further down, trying to find a spot where the defensive line was weaker.

This was the worst case scenario, on so many levels.  We couldn’t afford to be dealing with this.

“Two more attacks,” Revel said.  “Just minutes ago.  Two different cities.  The situation in Redfield is still ongoing, which means we have three crisis situations set up by the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“Four, if you count this,” Shuffle said.

The creature hit the wall again.  Shuffle shored it up, placing the other half of the hill against it.

“This is getting out of control,” Revel said.

“You’re implying we had control,” Jouster said.  He stood off to one side, with the defensive line of capes.

More out of control,” she said.

I’d been placed on the ground as the capes landed.  I was aware that someone was checking me for injuries, but it seemed secondary.  I stared up at the overcast sky, watching the rare raindrop tap the lens of my mask.  My mind was whirling while my swarm was feeding me information on the ongoing fight, both inside and outside the walls.

I stirred as I heard Golem’s voice.  He was sitting a short distance from me.  “This is my fault.”

“It was a lose-lose situation,” I said.  I moved my arm to allow the medic to check my ribs.  “Jack set it up this way.”

“I could have done something.  Said something different.”

“No.  We played the cards we had available, it wasn’t enough.  Bonesaw’s power and Siberian’s invulnerability made for ugly trump cards.”

“There had to be a way.”

“We’re coping,” I said.

“Are we?” he asked.  “It doesn’t feel like it.”

“We came through every challenge he set in front of us so far.”

“That doesn’t mean we’re doing okay,” he responded.

I didn’t have a response to that.

He stood.  “I’m going to go talk to some of the people in charge, find out where I can be useful.”

“Okay,” I told him.

He walked off, and I let my head rest against the ground.

Jack had a game plan here, and the more I thought about it, the more the ‘game’ seemed to be a farce.  He knew we were helping.  He was setting up situations where we had to help.  When we’d started winning, maybe even winning faster than he’d anticipated, he’d ratcheted things up.

Just as it had at the outset, the situation now seemed to offer Theo the same dilemma as Jack had aimed to provide early on.  To go after Jack or focus on bigger things.

It was measured, calculated, and it suggested that Jack was fully aware and fully in control of what was going on.

A cape knelt beside me.  “Are you alright?”

We’d only gone through a small fraction of the Nine.  Even assuming every group we had run into had been exterminated, there were so many left to deal with.

My strengths lay in problem solving.  Jack’s strength lay in problem creation.

We came up with a solution to whatever crisis he posed, he responded by creating another, something offbeat enough that we had to change things up.  Specialized groups of his pet monsters, two scenarios at once, and now we had new issues popping up before we’d finished with the last round.

The clones weren’t as fleshed out as the originals.  A little more reckless.  They were being set up to fail.  Were they scary?  Yes.  Were they effective?  Yes.  But we were winning, and Jack wasn’t using them in a way that kept them alive.  They were expendable assets.

It was all too possible that we could keep winning, if the game continued down this road.  We’ll lose some, but we’ll come out ah-

No.

Golem was right.  We’d achieve a steady stream of victoriesNothing more.

“Weaver?”

I pushed myself to my feet.  A cape put his hands on my shoulders, to try to get me to stay still.

“I’m fine,” I said.  “I got the wind knocked out of me.”

“If you have an injury-”

“I’m pretty experienced when it comes to being injured.  I’m fine.  Really,” I said.

He didn’t move, but he did let his arms drop from my shoulders when I pushed them off me.  I found my feet, straightened, and felt aches all across my back where I’d collided with the ground.  I’d be one giant bruise tomorrow.

Then again, if we saw tomorrow, it would be a bonus.

The fighting against Nilbog’s creations was still ongoing.  The flying gargoyle-thing had made it over the wall and was being swarmed by defending capes.  Others were just now starting to climb over, and did their best to avoid the ranged fire that pelted them.  Eight or nine more creatures flew over, only these ones carried smaller ‘goblins’.  The winged ones were shot out of the sky, but many of the smaller creatures managed to survive the fall into trees and the midst of the heroes.   The ones that did went on the offensive with zero hesitation.

“Need the Azazels!” someone shouted.

I directed the few bugs I had in the area to attack, assisting with bites, stings and silk cord.

I would help, but I wouldn’t join the battle.  Not this one.

No, I’d used up every bug in my reach, and the damned goblin-things were too good at killing them.  Nilbog had no doubt designed them to live off of a diet of insects, to supplement their diminishing supply of protein.

I made my way to the Dragonfly, my flight pack dangling from the damaged straps I’d looped around my shoulders.

I’d very nearly told myself that we were coming out ahead.  Golem had been a dose of reality on that front.  We weren’t coming out ahead.  Jack was spreading fear, he was killing innocents, and he was whittling us down.  Doing so with such expendable forces cost him nothing.  Now, with Nilbog in his possession, he had access to that many more monsters and freaks that he could just throw away.

There was no guarantee we would continue down this road unfettered.  Just the opposite.  I fully expected Jack to turn to the rules he’d established at the very beginning and state how blatantly we were cheating.  Then he’d carry out his threat, murder those one thousand people, and move on.

I reached the console, shrugged out of my flight pack and sat down.

I pressed a button, “Defiant.  Not a priority, but get in touch when you can.”

It took a minute before I had all of the individual windows open.  I set it so I could track the feeds provided by the various members of the Wards and Protectorate.  Some were here, others were investigating the sites where more members of the Nine were taking action.

Redfield.  The Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards were holding a defensive position, their backs facing one another.  Foil took a shot at a flesh toned blob that leaped between rooftops, then swiftly reloaded.  Skinslip.

Skinslip was a minor regenerator with a changer ability, allowing him to manipulate his own skin.  I could see him using it to scale a surface.  He extended that ability by flaying people and crudely stitching or stapling their skin to his own.  The regeneration connected the tissues and extended his power’s breadth and reach, but it didn’t prevent all rejection or decay, forcing him to replenish it from time to time.  He was a newer member, but they’d still cloned him.

A quick check of the computer noted the members of the Nine they’d seen and fought.  Three Skinslips.  Three Hatchet Faces.  Three Miasmas.  Three Murder Rats.

Hatchet face excepted, they were enemies who were exceedingly mobile.  Skinslip’s skin acted like a grappling hook, it let him climb, and it broke any fall.  He could also smother and bludgeon his opponents with it, if he felt the need.

Miasma was a stranger, invisible and undetectable but for an odorless gas he gave off that wore away at other’s minds, causing headaches, ringing in the ears, watery eyes and eventual blindness, memory loss and coma.

Murder Rat, for her part, was agile.

It meant they were up against nine opponents that were fast or slippery enough that they couldn’t be caught.  That group was supported by a trio of Hatchet Faces that could steadily lumber towards the group, keeping them moving, ensuring they couldn’t simply maintain a defensive position.

The camera images that Clockblocker and company wore shifted as they scrambled away.  There was a shudder as a mass landed in their midst.

Hatchet Face, dropping down from a vantage point somewhere above them.

Rachel’s dogs went on the offensive, attacking him, but their flesh was already sloughing off, their connection to Rachel shut off, their bodies disintegrating.

Parian’s creations were already deflating.

More range than the Tyrant had possessed, and the power loss was immediate.

Foil shot her crossbow, but it did surprisingly little damage.  Hatchet Face pulled the bolt from his shoulder with no difficulty.

“Behind us!”

The camera swiftly changed direction.  A Murder Rat had landed opposite the Hatchet Face, sandwiching the group between the two villains.  The camera panned, taking in the area, and I could see the silhouettes of other villains on nearby rooftops.  More Murder Rats and Skinslips.

Hatchet Face threw the last dog aside.  It collapsed in a slurry mess of loose skin and muscle.  The dog fought its way free, shaking itself dry.  Bastard was already free.

Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Imp said.  “My power’s gone.

Mine too,” Crucible said.  “Turned off like someone flipped a switch.

I closed my eyes.  I was too far away to help, couldn’t think of advice to offer.

We’re not powerless,” Grue said.  “We’ve got strong costumes.  We know how to fight.

Tattletale’s voice came over the comms, “He’s strong enough to swing that axe through a car, tough enough you could flatten him with a steamroller and he’d get back up when you were done.

We run then,” Grue said.  “We deal with Murder Rat and then we scram.  Make some distance.

He’s not fast, but he’s not a slowpoke either.  You don’t have muscles like that and find yourself unable to run.

Be constructive,” Grue said.  “Solutions?  Options?  Any ideas?

Yeah,” Rachel said.  “This.

She wheeled around, pointing.  Both of her dogs bounded towards the Murder Rat.

I couldn’t see Hatchet Face with the directions the cameras were pointed, but I could see the groups converge on Murder Rat, bull-rushing her as a mass.

Murder Rat swatted at the dogs, slashing Bastard along the ribs, but Rachel stepped in the way, blocking the follow-up attacks with the sleeves of her silk-weave jacket.

Murder Rat, about to be surrounded, leaped up to position herself on a wall, slamming her claws through a plate-glass window to grab the inside of the windowframe.  Blood ran down her wrists.

Foil took aim and fired, and Murder Rat leaped before the bolt made contact.

She tagged the dog.  Mouse Protector’s power,” Tattletale said.  “Watch out.

A camera, Vista’s, focused on the dog.

“Hatchet Face incoming!”

Clockblocker, Crucible and Toggle turned around, but Vista remained fixated on the animal.

The moment the group was distracted by the incoming titan, Murder Rat appeared.  She drove her elbow into the side of Crucible’s throat, bringing one foot up to rake the side of his leg, but didn’t get any further.

Vista fired her gun straight into the villain’s back, then wheeled around and shot Hatchet Face in the chest.

Grue blanketed the area in darkness a moment later, the monitors going silent and dark.

I realized I’d been clenching my fists.  I loosened them, then opened and closed them a few times to ease the strain.

Escalations, I thought.

The situation outside was worsening, but the Azazels had mobilized.  They laid down the metal poles along the tops of the wall, opening fire with their lasers.  That done, they joined the fight against the dragon-gargoyle thing that was continuing its suicidal attack against the defending capes.  Chunks of it were being blasted and torn away, but it was doing a little damage to the defending capes.

The metal poles blossomed into the branching ‘gray blur’ nanotech barrier that would disintegrate on touch.

On the set of screens to my left, the Chicago Wards were joined by others as they ventured into what seemed to be a warzone.  Civilians were fleeing in a panic, while the heroes advanced against the press of the crowd with a steady, wary caution.

The nature of the threat became clear.  Rounding the corner, a single entity trudged forward.  It was tiny, and it bore a large white cube on its back.

To look at it, I almost thought it was an Endbringer.

It wasn’t.  It was only the second-scariest member of the Nine, xeroxed.

Eight Siberians.

One carried the cube, no doubt a container bearing the Mantons within.  The other seven followed a pattern, lazy loops that brought them back to the cube every few minutes.  They plunged through walls and into apartments and businesses, they returned with blood wicking off of their hands, feet and faces like water off a duck’s back.

I opened a communications channel.

“Weaver here.  Don’t fight.”

Wasn’t going to, but what the hell are we supposed to do?” Tecton asked.

Eight Siberians.  Even without any other members of the Nine on the sidelines, it was an impossible fight.

“You need to run.”

Run?  The civilians-

“Will have to run as well,” I said.  “There’s nothing you can do.  Accept it.  You can’t slow her down, you can’t deny her what she wants.”

We have to be able to do something,” he said.

“There are options,” I said, “But it’s not worth it.”

What?  Saving civilians is-

“You’d die,” I said.  “It would be a distraction, but you’d die.  The civilians would die all the same.”

What is it?

“She’s still subject to gravity.  Far as I know, she can’t fly.  You drop her into a hole, she’ll climb out.”

No point,” Grace said.

“No point,” I agreed.  “Unless you get lucky.”

Lucky?

“Drop the one that’s carrying the cube into a fissure or pit, if she falls far enough and the cube gets wedged in the crack, you’ll separate her from the cube.  You’d have to destroy it before another Siberian makes contact with it, kill all of the Masters that are generating the Siberians.”

It could work,” Wanton said.

“Unless she moves fast enough to avoid the fissure,” I said.  “Which she can.  Unless she’s digging her claws into the outside of the cube for a handhold, which she might be.  Unless another Siberian returns before you manage to break into that cube, which is very possible, considering that cube looks like something a Mannequin made.”

“We have Grace, and we’ve got Cuff.  We have Cadence and Enforce here, too.”

Enforce?  Oh.  N-Force.

“I don’t think it’ll be enough,” I said.  “There’s too many maybes.  You become a target of the Siberians the instant you try something, and you die if this doesn’t work out perfectly, which it won’t.”

You want us to let civilians die.

I stared at the screen.  They were backing away swiftly now.  A Siberian hopped onto the top of the cube, then looked directly at the group of heroes.

A moment later, she leaped off to one side.

Flaunting their invulnerability.  Taunting.

“Walk away,” I said.  “We’ll send others in.  Others who can do something.”

Who?”

I thought of how Rachel had changed tacks, ignoring the biggest target to go after the Murder Rat.  It hadn’t been much, but it had caught the villain off guard, baited the Hatchet Face into an aggressive charge rather than a slower, more strategic advance.

“Switch it up.  Go to Redfield.  You guys specialize in containing and crushing the enemy.  The Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards can head to your location at the first opportunity.”

I didn’t wait for a response.  My console was displaying an incoming message.

“Gotta go,” I said, closing the comms channel, hanging up on Tecton.  I responded to the message.

Defiant here.”

“Was just about to contact the Undersiders.”

I heard.  I’m already giving orders for them to back out.  Sent a helicopter in to pick them up, hoping it gets to take off again.”

“Helicopter?”

A.I. suits aren’t cooperating.  I’d send one against Hatchet if they were-“

Defiant?

“One suit just took off.  Reinforcing the Undersiders.”

I could sense the fighting outside.  My bugs were doing precious little against Nilbog’s rioting army.  The capes were whittling them down, killing them in droves, but it was time and effort taken away from containing the Nine.  Which was exactly what Jack wanted.

In the same instant Defiant had talked about the suit taking off, one of the Azazels had gone still.

Something was seriously wrong.

What do you need, Weaver?  I have things to handle.”

“Two years ago, I was told we couldn’t go after the Nine, because we can’t decode the portal without knowing the exit point.  They just used one.”

It’s in Ellisburg.

“It’s our fastest route to Jack.  How long does it take to tap into the portal?”

Depends on the means we use.  It doesn’t matter.  The portal isn’t accessible.

“We’re losing, Defiant.  We’re winning the fights but we’re losing in the long run.  We need to act decisively.  End this.”

You want to use the portal entrance, knowing where it is?

“Yes.  We just… we need capes that we can count on, on a lot of levels.  And I need your help.  Can you arrange for a sturdier ship?  The Dragonfly won’t cut it.”

Yes,” he said.  “That can be arranged.  I’ll have to pilot it myself.

“If this doesn’t work out, if we get overwhelmed, then that’s it.  We can’t afford the losses at this juncture. I get that.  But we can’t afford to not take this opportunity.”

Another pause.  Was he typing something?

“What’s the status?”

“We’re losing containment in Ellisburg.  Siberians are racking up casualties, and Redfield isn’t doing great either.  Your Undersiders will be evacuating if they can make it another two blocks to the helicopter without getting intercepted… I’m not sure what they can do against eight Siberians.

“More than the Chicago Wards can.  But that’s not enough on it’s own.  We need to call in the big guns.  We know Jack’s nowhere nearby.  It’s a safe time to put them into play.”

We have people on call, but we’re holding them back,” Defiant replied.  “Jack will hold his strongest cards in reserve for last.  Chevalier advised that we catch him off guard.

“There’s no point anymore.  Stop holding back.  Jack’s escalating when we do.  We established a tempo, he’s matching us.  Let’s go all-in.  We’ll get him to play every card he has on hand, and maybe in the process, we’ll see him make a mistake.”

He’s not one to make mistakes.

“We lose nothing, and we gain time,” I said.  “Which big guns do we have?”

The Thanda.  Cauldron has volunteered the services of their two elite members.  The Las Vegas Capes offered help, as did the Ambassadors.  The Alcott girl has her ability to foresee the future, but she’s trying to reduce the strain she experiences so she can offer more assistance at the most critical juncture.

“The fight with Jack.”

Yes.

“Okay.  That… probably makes sense.  Listen, I’ll handle what I can from here, take some of the load off your hands.  I’ll see if I can’t get recruits from among the capes I trust to handle their own.”

Do.  And I would appreciate it if you would consider me one of them.  I’ll be there with the Pendragon in twenty minutes, I just need to pick up the technology for hacking the portal.”

“Bring me some bugs when you come.”

“Yes.”

That said, he hung up.  No pleasantries.

It was a relief.  Down to business.

Fifteen minutes to go.

I waited impatiently for the capes in question to gather.  We needed good capes, powerful capes.  Too many were occupied elsewhere.

A whole contingent had deployed to Hyde Park.  None of my teams.  Dragon’s Teeth, the New York teams, the Texas teams.

I picked Jouster’s point of view.  I knew him, and it would afford me the most opportunities to see other capes and figure out their identities.

Population of three thousand five hundred, and the place was empty.  No victims, no members of the Nine.  No blood, no violence, no signs of any disruption.

But the first wave of capes had been whittled down, going silent on the radio before disappearing entirely.

Now, as the teams moved through the city, there was nothing on the video, which ruled out Nice Guy.  That left only a few options.

Stranger protocols in effect,” the captain of the Dragon’s Teeth reported.  “We’re going full dark.  Eyes on the lightning.

“Eyes on the lightning,” I responded.  For the moment, I was filling in for Dragon’s absence and Defiant’s preoccupation.  I knew about the Dragon’s teeth, had studied their operations book.  I wasn’t an armchair general, but I’d have to settle for being one here..

They were using those full-face helmets to block off all sight, to shut out all sound.  Their uniforms offered full coverage.  The only things they would rely on were video cameras on their helmets and the battle computers that were wired into their helmets.

It wasn’t enough, apparently, to see anyone or anything.  Things seemed eerily quiet.

Jouster jumped as one cape cried out.  The man’s back arched, first one way, then the other.

“Psychosoma,” I reported.  “Stranger four, master seven.  First squad, get guns trained on him, everyone else, scan the area.  Master protocols.  Confirm everything.”

“Don’t shoot without confirmation,” someone warned, off-camera.

“How the fuck are we supposed to confirm?  Let them attack us?”

Nobody responded to that.

Still, they obeyed the instructions.  Jouster was among the ones who turned to search the surroundings.  The point of his lance was visible in the corner of the screen, as he held it ready.

Nothing.

The man screamed louder.

He twisted, his ribs distending, his mouth yawning open.

It’s an illusion, I thought.

Kind of.  Sort of.

Not really.

It was really nice to think of it as a really convincing illusion.  That was a reassuring way of handling it.

Because the alternative was that Psychosoma was doing the sort of thing Labyrinth did, pulling otherworldly things into our reality to replace objects and people.

When killed, they’d revert back to how they’d been before.

The man continued to twist and distort until he wasn’t recognizable anymore.

The thing whirled around, reaching back with one claw, preparing to strike at a comrade.

A cape incinerated him before he could get any further.

The illusion was dispelled.  The wrong illusion.  Purple smoke flowed out from around the corpse of the young hero.

Nyx!” someone spat the word.

Jouster swiftly backed away.  Every cape in the group was wearing a gas mask, but that was not an absolute guarantee.

Two more people in the group began changing.

A mix of Psychosomas and Nyxes.  Who else?

“She’s covering the area with her smoke,” I spoke, over the channel.  “You need to clear it.”

“On it.  Cover your eyes!”  Jouster hollered.

Jouster raised his lance, then struck out at a light pole.  Lightning flared out, impossibly bright, and the camera briefly went on the fritz.

Somewhere in the midst of that, reality became clear.  Bloodstains everywhere.  Corpses were draped over every surface where the investigating capes weren’t likely to step – on car hoods and roofs, on light poles and in trees.

And in the midst of the crowd, there were the enemies, simply standing and observing.  Nyxes, Psychosomas and Night Hags.  The Nyx were women with pale red skin and black eyes, fog bleeding out of the vents at their arms and backs.  The Psychosomas were men, tall, bald and narrow, with pencil-thin mustaches and beards, spidery fingers and clothing that hung off them like it had been draped on.  The Night hags, by contrast, were women, dark haired, dressed in black, with skin as white as chalk.  Their dresses seemed to bleed into the surrounding landscape, so that everything within fifteen feet of them was covered in that crumpled-looking black cloth.

The Nyx clones and Psychosomas ran for cover.  The Night Hags were the cover.  D.T. soldiers and Wards opened fire.  Hoyden struck a car with literal explosive force, and sent it flying.  Ninety percent of the offense was directed at the Night Hags.

The women practically disintegrated as the bullets, flames and other projectiles made contact.  Their bodies shattered into thousands of black shards.

Moments later, they emerged from the landscape.  One park bench distorted and reconfigured into a new Night Hag.  That Night Hag was summarily slain, and reformed herself out of a nearby patch of grass.

Location possession, in a way, but it was shallow.  She was most effective with materials that stood above the ground’s surface.

In the midst of dealing with the approaching Hags, the D.T. officers and heroes were left to handle the victims who had appeared to be transforming.  When the smoke had burned away, one had been revealed to be fine, crouching with his hands over his head, the other was still afflicted.  They shot the victim and broke the effect.

More smoke was flowing in with surprising speed and quantity, erasing the images of blood and bodies.  The Night Hags were turning translucent, nearly invisible-

And they were gone.

Jouster moved to strike the light-post again, only for black hands to grab him and pull him into darkness and illusory fog.

The image on my screen distorted, then went utterly black.

There was a sound, like a slow, wet grinding sound.  Chewing, as if from a dozen mouths at once.

I changed camera perspectives.

“-break up the fog!”  someone shouted.  Two more of their allies were starting to change.

Someone threw a flashbang.  It didn’t disrupt the smoke.

What do we do!?” one of the capes shouted.  He was almost more frantic than the Dragon’s Tooth soldiers around him.

The sound of a gun being cocked turned heads.

The camera turned as well.

It was Contessa, accompanied by the Number Man.  Both held guns.

She shot one of the afflicted, then walked past the other, ignoring him.  She opened fire in the fog.  One clip, each shot aimed and measured, fired with a peculiar rhythm.  One, then two in rapid succession, one, then two in rapid succession.  She reloaded with an almost casual ease, then slid the gun into its holster.

The Number Man had her back.  He fired into the darkness three times.

It took two minutes for the smoke to clear.

Two Nyx dead.  Three Psychosomas.  Four Night Hags.

The doorway was already opening for the pair to make their exit.

“Dude, who the hell are they?”

“The bogeymen,” Hoyden said.

“Shit,” someone said.  One of the capes.

“They’re on our side?”  Another asked.

“Apparently.”

“Then why don’t they go after Jack?” a cape asked.

Because she fits in the same category as Eidolon, I thought.  Too dangerous to allow her to make contact with the man.

I wasn’t even that comfortable with them helping here, but there weren’t a lot of excellent options for thinker capes who could simply cut right through the layers of deceptions the enemy had been using.

I noted the capes who were present and still in fighting shape.  I’d hoped for Jouster.  No such luck.

I dialed Hoyden’s phone, watched her pick up on the video.

“Need a hand with something,” I said.  “I’m going to send a ship your way.”

Ten minutes to go.

The Undersiders stood far enough away from the Siberian cube that the camera couldn’t even make out the one who carried the thing.

“This,” Imp said, “Is your classic case of putting all your eggs in one basket.  Really.”

He finds the Siberians boring, I imagine,” Tattletale commented, over the channel.  “Before, they were an enigma.  Now they’re just… the same thing, over and over.  Tearing people apart.”

“Just tell me this isn’t going to be the moment of idiocy that ends the world,” I said.

No way,” Tattletale said.  “I promise.”

“You’re absolutely certain?”

Ninety… three percent certain.

“That’s not good enough.”

Geez.  You’ve lost your sense of humor these past few years.  I’m kidding.  I’m sure.

“You’ve been wrong.”

I’m right.  I swear.  Now stop fretting!  Wait…

The Siberians left, engaging in another brief spree, attacking civilians.

“Let’s not wait too long,” I said.  I felt a sick feeling in my gut.  Had I been right to send away the Chicago Wards?  Seven or so people were dying every one or two minutes.

Wait…

The last group of Siberians abandoned the cube, leaving the carrier holding it.

Wait…

One more returned after a very brief trip, cast a glance around, and then fled.

Now.

Clockblocker fired his threads from his gauntlet.  They surrounded the cube-carrier, and he froze them.

Unstoppable force against an immovable object.

Which won?

The Siberian made contact with the thread and flickered out of existence, and the thread went limp.  The cube fell with a crash.

Others began to return.  Vista was distorting the cube, creating gaps, weak points.

Thanda,” Tattletale said.

Clockblocker activated the device on his back.  A dome unfolded around him, almost like a tent, though more rigid.

Rachel had already fled with her dogs.  Even so, it was tight, everyone pressed together inside.

He froze the dome.

I regretted that I didn’t get to see the follow-up attack.

The Thanda had a cape that was sort of in the same vein as Shuffle.  A teleporter of landmasses.

This cape didn’t need to teleport things onto solid ground.  In fact, he specialized in the opposite.

A large building was teleported into the stratosphere, where it summarily fell on the cube.  I could hear the crash through the cameras the Brockton Bay Wards wore.

Siberians down, I thought.

One more group to handle.

“Rachel’s on her way to me,” I said.  Grue was out – I didn’t trust him in a face to face confrontation against the Nine, and he hadn’t volunteered.  Imp was out as well.  Too risky, too much of a coin toss, whether her power would be seen through.  “Foil?  You know what we’re doing.”

On my way.

I’m coming too,” Parian said.

I’ll be on the comms,” Tattletale responded.

Tecton slammed his gauntlets into the ground.  Murder Rats were knocked down from the walls.  The streets had been shattered, and the dismantled craft lay in the streets, with one dead Miasma nearby.

Another slam, combined with an activation of both piledrivers, and he created a fissure, breaking up the ground beneath the two remaining Hatchet Faces.

They made steady progress anyways.  They were too strong, their stride too long.  Tattletale had been right.  Running was difficult at best.

Cuff used her metallokinesis to heave a small disc of metal.  Effective enhanced strength, along with the ability to control the rotation of the projectile, the ability to control the flight of it after it left her hand…

It slammed into a Hatchet Face’s collarbone, burying into his flesh.

He broke into a run, axe held aloft.

She prepared to throw another disc, only for a Murder Rat to leap onto her from above.

The metal blades of Murder Rat’s claws were swept aside as if Cuff had parried it with something physical.  Cuff settled for striking Murder Rat across the eyes with the razor edge of the discus.

Grace followed up with a crushing kick from a steel-toed boot.  A Murder Rat pounced on her, then vaulted off with enough force that Grace’s head struck the ground.  Grace didn’t get up.

Skinslips moved to flank, simultaneously reaching out with cloaks made of skin and shielding their real bodies with the amorphous limbs of stolen flesh.

Romp’s animated constructions stumped forward, providing just as much raw mass to defend against the reaching attacks.  They picked up speed as they moved, charging like bulls, catching the Skinslips well off guard.

The fight was well in hand.  Murder Rats leaped up onto building faces so they might be able to leap down and strike a vulnerable target, but Tecton made the entire neighborhood shake.  The Murder Rats were trapped where they were, clinging to the surfaces, unable to attack.

One caught a discus with her claws, then let it fall to the ground.

No.  There was one more threat.  Tecton’s helmet caught it on camera as it loomed on a nearby building.  A Mannequin.

Only it was three times the usual size.  Fat.

Cuff flung another discus.

It’ll glance off, I thought.

It penetrated.

Pressurized moisture exploded outward, crusted immediately into a small, spiky mass of ice.

Ah.

It leaped down, and the ground shook.

Then, casually, it grabbed the most unhurt Hatchet Face with both hands and whipped its upper body a full three-hundred-and-sixty degrees around to fling him into the mass of defending heroes.

Tecton punched, his piledriver extending, but it did surprisingly little damage.

And with the Hatchet Face so close, the Chicago Wards were left powerless.  Only tinker devices worked.

The Mannequin charged.

Being a tinker, the Mannequin didn’t suffer at all in the midst of Hatchet Face’s power.

Direct your attacks on the Hatchet Face, now!” I ordered.

A piledriver-gauntlet hit him, followed by another.  Cuff used a discus to slash at his throat, but it barely cut.

He was still alive – his power wasn’t canceled out.

The Mannequin let blades extend from his wrists and elbows.   Not long, sleek, elegant blades like the original Mannequin had used, but heavy, crude ones, like axe heads.  Cuff screamed as he brought one down onto her armored shoulder.  She folded over in an awkward way as she collapsed to the ground.

He spun around, almost skipped to one side to avoid Tecton, then directed attacks at Romp.

She took shelter behind her no-longer-animated creation, and the Mannequin-thing turned away, directing his attention at Tecton, who was trying to bash the Hatchet Face’s head in.  It was a narrow window of opportunity, here.  The other, injured Hatchet Face was approaching.  If he didn’t manage it in five or so seconds, there would be two to contend with.

A heavy bullet caught the Mannequin in the back of the head.  Ice cascaded out the back in a giant spike.

Tecton used the opportunity to slam the upper ridge of his gauntlet into the Hatchet Face’s mouth and extend the piledriver full-force.

That did it.

More bullets pummeled the Mannequin.  One resulting chunk of ice partially encased Tecton, only to shatter when he pulled back.

Further shots followed, but they veered in awkward directions, sinking to hit the ground too early.

He has another power.  One that was being canceled by Hatchet Face.

Winter’s Power, I realized.

But Grace had powers now too.  She grabbed Hatchet Face’s weapon and swung it, was nearly trapped in the ice that exploded out from the wound.

Romp’s creation charged the ceramic man, and Tecton raised a shelf of ground around him to limit his movements.

He was being abused, battered.

Tecton’s head turned, and I could see Chevalier on the camera.  Revel was beside him.

Chevalier fired his cannonblade again.  One shot to polish off the remaining Hatchet Face that was closing the distance, and another directed at the Winter-Mannequin.  The Winter-Mannequin’s power took the impetus out of the second shot.

The Wards were moving slower now too.  Reacting slower.  Tecton barely resisted as the Mannequin seized him in one hand.

Didn’t even get up after the Mannequin virtually punched him into the ground.

Blades extended from his palms, the Mannequin spun like a top.

Chevalier charged, and the Mannequin changed tacks immediately, using a chain to draw himself up to a rooftop, where he clumsily climbed over the edge.

Ranged attacks didn’t work, and he was deceptively dangerous in short range.

Revel launched energy-orbs, but they barely seemed to touch the Winter-Mannequin hybrid.

Then Wanton closed the distance.

Ice chipped away, and the resulting chunks flaked away at the other pieces of ice.  It was soon a localized blizzard, and the large hunks of ice that clung to the Mannequin’s suit began to break away.

More ice appeared, but it, in turn, was broken by the yet-larger chunks that had been picked up.

The storm began to slow as the Winter-Mannequin concentrated his power on a smaller area.  The storm came to a standstill.

Chevalier raised his cannonblade to fire, only to stumble, dropping his weapon.

Miasma.

Indiscriminate attack, Chevalier!” I said.  “Revel, get down!”

Chevalier swung, very nearly striking Revel as she dropped flat to the ground.  He connected with something, and Miasma appeared in an explosion of thick green smoke.

The villain rolled, then disappeared again.

But Revel was following up, spitting orbs of energy out of her lantern.  Miasma wasn’t fast enough to dodge all of them.  He, and another Miasma behind him were burned, holes the size of softballs punched through their torsos.

Cuff was helping Tecton stand, using her metallokinesis to push at his armor.  Once he was standing, they worked together to outfit Tecton with one of the specialized shots we’d prepared.

The Mannequin wasn’t going to go down to fast moving projectiles or short-range attacks.

They’d take him down the same way I’d fought him ages ago.

Tecton used his piledrivers as a sort of gun, launching two cup-shaped hunks of metal with material strung between them.

The net unfolded in the air, and it draped over the Mannequin.  Spider Silk and metal wire interwoven.  It caught on the ice and the extended blades, and snagged on fingers and chains.

The Mannequin was still struggling to escape when Chevalier slowly closed the gap, bringing his sword down like a great guillotine.  He had one hand pressed to the side of his helmet.  Blood streaked down his arm.

Last group, for now.  I watched as they checked on the injured.  Chevalier’s eye had been stabbed, but not perforated, and Grace had suffered a heavy blow to the head.  Cuff’s shoulder socket had been broken by the Mannequin.

I almost hated to ask.

“Tecton,” I said.  “We’ve got a game plan.  Maybe a way to get Jack.  You up for helping?”

My team isn’t in good shape.

“If you want to stay, keep doing this-”

No,” he said.  “No.  Just… maybe my team should sit the rest of this out.”

You’ve all done good work,” Chevalier said.  “Above and beyond the call of duty.  You don’t even have to ask.

I’ll come on this mission, if you have a use for me,” Tecton said.

“I do.”

I’ll come as well,” Chevalier said.

“You’re injured.”

A pause, as if waiting for me to realize what I was saying.  This was the guy that had gone up against Behemoth face to face, scarcely an hour after suffering critical injuries in an assassination attempt.

I’ll come,” he said, again.

“Glad to have you,” I said.

It was suicidal.  Returning to Nilbog’s kingdom, where his creations had riled themselves up, hungry for blood.  I could only hope that their forces would be thinner towards the center, with the sustained attack on the surrounding capes.

I glanced around the back of the craft.

Chevalier.  Revel.  Hoyden.  Tecton.  Bitch.  Two dogs and Bastard.  Foil.  Parian.  Me.

Two Dragon’s Teeth to round out the group, so we had people trained in the use of containment foam and other PRT munitions.  Veteran PRT soldiers outfitted with the best gear the Guild could provide.

And Defiant up at the cockpit, rounding out our group.

I felt my pulse quicken.  My hand traced over the box that Defiant had brought, with all the bugs I needed.

Nilbog’s army seemed endless.  We’d only seen a fraction of it.  It flowed over, under and through the walls, in numbers that tied up the defending capes.  Our battle lines couldn’t hold a position for long before something threw them off.  Someone vital would get injured, or a creature would burrow out from beneath the ground.  Something would fly over to land in the middle of the back line, forcing a reorganization.

We weren’t being overwhelmed.  Any cape was stronger than the typical starved, desperate, reckless monster.  But this was definitely not helping.

A man’s voice came over the comms.  “Three new locations with attacks.  Coordinated strikes.  Harbingers sighted.  They are reinforced by Nilbog’s creations.

Bonesaw got something set up already, I thought.

Defiant was clenching his fist.

Who was the man?

“Doesn’t matter,” Defiant said.  “Our focus is here.”

“Fuckin’ right,” Hoyden said.  She turned to smile at Rachel.  “Right?”

Rachel only frowned, turning her attention to the dogs that sat between and on either side of her legs.

Hoyden punched Rachel in one arm, then grinned. “Right?”

“Right.”

“Right!”  Hoyden grinned.

Heavy metal boots banged against the ramp as our last attendee made his way into the back of the craft.

Golem sat down opposite me, silent.  He briefly met my eyes, and I nodded.

He didn’t react, casting his eyes downward.

It was nothing.  A minor thing in the grand scheme of it all.  I tried to tell myself that he was strong when it counted, whatever his doubt in the quiet moments.

The ramp closed with a bang.  Golem jumped a little at that.

It didn’t do a lot for my confidence.  I glanced around at the others, wondered who else had seen it.

The Pendragon took off.

And off we go, into the lion’s den.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 26 (Donation Bonus #1)

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Three Mannequins, three Murder Rats, three Breeds, a Nyx and a Tyrant taken out of action.  Fifty hostages rescued.  Jack’s reported as being on a route to visit Nilbog.  Information confirmed by Tattletale, but doesn’t guarantee the clone wasn’t misinformed.

Thank you, Weaver.

Dragon’s systems were already taking in the data.  Two hundred and sixty-four individual maps that marked the possible locations of the Nine with colored highlights shifted.  Eleven feeds went dark, their engines taking over calculations in other departments.

Overlays scrolled with the various calculations, the last known location, the speed they were capable of traveling, resources available to them, their personalities and willingness to hitch a ride with one of the more mobile members, their focus and most likely targets.

No one variable decided anything for certain, but every variable came together to guide, to nudge and hint at possible locations.  There was no guarantee they wouldn’t use Dodge’s technology to visit the United Kingdom or Africa or even shattered, half-sunken Kyushu.  Still, the chances were slim, not even a full percentage point, by Dragon’s estimation.

The map highlighted the areas with the highest percentage chances in blue.  Violet marked the next stage down, red for the next, and so on, all around the color spectrum.  The Nine had a day’s head start.  There were a number of places they could go with a day’s travel.

But the key areas were small towns.  Of the data on the screen, the small towns were marked with the highest risk.

Dragon,” Chevalier’s face appeared on a feed.  One of the cameras on the PRT-issue phones, judging by the angle and resolution.  “You’ve got the go-ahead from the commander-in-chief.”

More text popped up, indicating that programs were being searched for.  Resource use was already being reallocated, in preparation for a major endeavor.  It took a moment before the loading began.

Voice modelling program loading… Complete.

Text flowed out, detailing the individual subroutines and supporting processes.  There was the composite that formed her accent, the filtering program, no less than three programs that double-checked her voice before she spoke, to catch any of the corruption that might slip through.

Thank you, Chevalier,” Dragon’s voice was clear.  She hung up without another word.

Azazels deployed at the most likely sites, at the perimeters of the high-risk cities as more feeds lit up, taking in footage from every available source.  Dozens, at first, then hundreds, a thousand, ten thousand individual feeds.  Permissions had been granted from the President, and Dragon had open access to everything capable of taking pictures or recording video.

The number of feeds began to swell as Dragon systematically decrypted and accessed more feeds.  Around each one of those feeds, anywhere from two to two hundred facial recognition programs began to pore through the data, interlinking and networking with one another.

Her innate programming forbade using viruses to infect the computers of Americans that didn’t have a warrant out for their arrests, but she’d found a workaround.  An Indonesian cartel had set up an extensive botnet, with soccer moms, the elderly, children and the uneducated unwittingly installing viruses onto their systems.  These viruses, in turn, gave the cartel the ability to use the infected computers for other purposes.  Sending out spam emails about pharmaceuticals or penis enlargement or drugs that gave superpowers wasn’t worth much, but when they could send out millions or tens of millions of emails a day, it proved profitable.

Dragon had let the cartel extend their influence, then put in the word, offering to shut them down.  She didn’t, however, remove the viruses from the infected computers.

As her databases hit their limit, she turned to these other computers to handle more routine tasks.

It took thirty minutes before the first hit registered.  A traffic camera, a busload of young women.  A row of identical faces, looking out the window.  An unusual element, raising flags with the active programs.  The faces took center stage as they were checked against a database.  An image popped up: surveillance camera footage of a teenage girl in a shopping mall, followed by young men that each carried loads of packages.

Eyebrows, brow to hairline length, nose length, eye width…

The words popped up.  Cherie Vasil.

The Azazels relocated in an instant, firing every thruster to reposition themselves to hilltops and areas in the vicinity of the road.  Long range cameras, infrared and electromagnetic resonance imaging gave Dragon eyes on the scene, verified what she was seeing twice over.  No Nyx-crafted illusions fashioned of poisonous gas.  No plastic surgery.

Seven Cherishes.  Two Crawlers.  A King.  Forty hostages of unknown status, a bus driver.

The Azazels moved in to attack.  One nano-thorn barricade was erected just in front of the bus.  Calculations accounted for speed, distance, positioning of the passengers.

The wheels disintegrated, popping as their exterior was penetrated.  The bus tilted, and one side scraped right past the barricade.  The Cherishes, taking up the window seats on the far right of the bus, made contact with it.  Flesh dissolved just as steel and fiberglass did, sheared away.  Not dead, but wounded, hurt enough they weren’t in a state to use their power.  They wouldn’t survive the ensuing few minutes.

The bus shifted, but hit the railing and didn’t tip over.

A second Azazel opened fire with a cutting laser, separating the bus into two sections.  The first Crawler was rising from his seat when the laser passed in front of him, cutting his face, chest and stomach.  Blind, already regenerating, he tipped forward into the gap between the two sections of the bus.  The Azazel was already laying down two rails that the nano thorns could spring from.  The Crawler landed right on top of them, and was summarily reduced to a red mist.

The second Crawler was more careful, grabbing a hostage and making his way out the gap.  He hadn’t transformed into his truly monstrous self.  Bipedal, the size of a bodybuilder, his face no longer human.  A long tongue extended out between rows of teeth, and his throat was swollen with an acid sac, as though he had a goiter.  Eyes surrounded his face, which was already bearing the rigidity and light armor plating that would intensify with further regeneration.

His arms had already split into two limbs at the elbow, and each ended in claws.  He used them for a grip on the metal to climb on the outside of the truck, penetrating metal with strong hands and sharp talons as he dragged his hostage along with him.  He perched on the roof, holding the hostage over the disintegration field, staring at the second Azazel.  Around him, a half-dozen cars and trucks had stopped in the face of the sudden attack, their daily lives interrupted.

The first Azazel fired a glob of containment foam from behind the villain.  Crawler hopped a little to one side as the short stream of foam passed him, and it struck the field to the left of the two-lane highway.

A second stream hit his hostage, striking her out of his grasp and sending her flying straight into the first glob.  She was sandwiched within, safe.

Crawler turned just in time to see the first Azazel winging towards him.  He moved to leap away, but a laser raked across his legs, severing them.

He collapsed, gripping the steel of the bus roof with his claws to keep from falling.  His legs were already regrowing, fractionally larger, more armored, the claws more prominent.

He was struck by the Azazel that still approached, caught by a long tail and flung down at the ground.  He rolled, and in doing so, he rolled into the same nano-thorn rails that had taken down his brother.  Half of his body was disintegrated in an instant.

It regenerated swiftly as he scrambled away on his three remaining  limbs.  This time, as the flesh swelled out and took form, there was a blur around his right arm, red, more at his shoulder, along his leg.

The Azazel struck out with a tail, and he blocked the blow with the newly grown arm.  The tail sheared off as it made contact with his newly grown defenses.  The chunk of metal rolled into one of the cars further down the road.  Still, Crawler stumbled from the force of the attack.  To avoid being disintegrated, he drew his freshly altered arm back towards the barrier behind him.  Where his blur met the blur that extended from the rail, the two nano-growths merely pressed against one another, almost springy, neither severing the other.

He reached back with his unaffected arms and intentionally disintegrated them.  They regrew, with alterations matching the ones he’d grown on the other side of the body.  Better equipped, he stalked towards the Azazel that had laid down the rails, his back to the one that had struck him from the roof of the bus.

He spoke, but Dragon’s software ran through the speech and eliminated it from the audio track.  His mouth distorted on her visuals so there was no way to understand what he was saying.

His target rose up, standing on its two rear legs.  A severed tail helped give it balance.

Then, before he could do anything further, the two Azazels launched a combination attack.  A laser from the Azazel atop the bus made the Crawler’s own nano-thorn evolution burn away in an instant.  In that same moment, the Azazel in front of him took off, firing every thruster.  The force of the blast sent him flying back into the barrier.

Red mist.

It only left King.  The Azazels continued acting in concert, tearing the bus apart to get to the villain, peeling the roof back with a force that threw his gun arm skyward, preventing him from opening fire on the busload of hostages.  Containment foam sealed him down.

Of the various feeds that were devoted to individual members of the Nine, ten more shut off.

The data altered further as Dragon relinquished control of the Azazels to her created A.I.s.

Voice modelling program loading… Complete.

Ten more members of the Nine have been dealt with,” Dragon reported the victory on every channel.  “Seven Cherishes and two Crawlers deceased, one King captured.  Will move to containment and interrogate shortly.

Saint closed his eyes as he listened to the congratulations, the affirmations and praise.

It was all hope mingled with horror, when he listened for what was beneath the surface.  Minimal casualties.  A few injuries – Vista and Crucible would be out of commission as Murder Rat’s venom continued to widen their wounds, and Golem was being treated for a burn.  One Dragon’s Tooth had died, but the rest were holding positions, ready to support.  Civilians were dying, but it was progress.

He opened his eyes to take in the whole of Dragon’s work.  Six widescreen monitors each tracked what she was doing with video images and white text on a black background.  A slight movement of his foot on the trackpad in front of him shifted one of his cursors, changing the focus of the screens.  He could see her directing the A.I. craft to more optimal locations, the related subroutines and tasks.

Another shift of the cursor to alter the focus of the screens, and he could see the Birdcage.  The house program followed every action of the residents, cataloged every conversation.  A few clicks, and video feeds from the cameras in the Birdcage appeared in front of him.

He leaned back in his padded computer chair, folding his hands on his stomach.  Taking in Dragon’s data was tricky.  She could turn her attention ten places at once, a hundred places at once, even if she only had agency in one place.  To watch, to put himself in her shoes and look at the world through her eyes, Saint had to distance himself, to unfocus his eyes and his attention, to read the changing data without getting distracted by the text that moved fastest, or most drastically.

The smell of rich coffee wafted over him as a hand settled on his face.  A mug was set in front of him.

He didn’t take his eyes off the screen, but when hands settled on his shoulders, he reached up to rest his own hand on one.

“Progress?” she asked.  She rested her chin on his head, looking at the screens.

“Some, Mags,” he responded.  “Thanks for the coffee.”

“Horrible stuff.”

Saint shook his head.  “It is.  Doesn’t feel real.”

“They’re censoring it, you know… Of course you know.”

“Mmm hmm.  They’ll stop as soon as everything goes through the proper channels.  It was being censored so that the Triumvirate and unsanctioned major players could be kept out of the loop.  Now they know.”

“Any post, update or email that detailed anything about the attacks disappeared.  Sites hacked, DDoSed, with data corrupted.  You can’t delete data, I know, but you can fuck it up sufficiently.  Couldn’t back anything up in a substantial way.”

“Dragon’s work,” he said.  He felt his pulse quicken a little at that.

He shifted his foot, and once again, the screens changed their focus, the rest of the data shifting to miniature windows and moving to the periphery of the viewing area.  The focus at the center was on the class-S threats.  The Endbringers were stable, all in a resting state.

Secondary focuses.  Not the kind of targets that Dragon checked on with any regularity.  Quarantine areas were silent and still.  Canberra was sealed off under a dome, Madison was surrounded by walls.  An area of wilderness in Alaska was marked off, but had no physical barriers to wall people away.  There were no apparent issues in the vicinity of the interdimensional portals.  Sleeper was, as far as anyone could identify anything about the threat, dormant.  The Three Blasphemies were active, but the damage was being managed by the European capes.  A temporary measure had been taken with Purity and her three year old daughter, with observation being provided for her by the PRT, and the feed showed her sitting on the couch in an apartment or hotel room, two very normal, plain looking people standing in the corner of the room with some PRT officers keeping their distance.   No crises.  Normal, as much as such could be normal.

And then there was Nilbog.  The data focused around him.  The city was quiet, and the roads leading into the city were being watched by satellite.  Simulations, damage estimates and risk assessments were being run, old data being gathered, with essential data highlighted.  It took her only a moment to put it into a format that was easily readable.  An instant later, it was gone.  He’d blinked, failing to look in the right spot, and had missed the moment the data had been emailed out.  The file would inform everyone on the home team about who Nilbog was and how he operated.

He captured a copy of the file for himself, then swept away the traces with his blue box program.

“They think this is the endgame,” Saint commented.  “Pulling out all the stops, removing the limiters.”

“It’s working.  They’re beating the Nine.”

“They’re beating the Nine that Jack sent out there to beat.  He’s holding back the more dangerous ones, like the Gray Boys or Siberian, and he hasn’t sent every single clone of a particular type out there  Eight Cherishes are dead, but there should be nine in total, if the numbers on the bodies aren’t misleading.”

“They could be.  The pig prank?”

Saint nodded.  The pig prank involved letting three pigs into a school after hours, each painted with a big number on their sides; one, two and four, respectively.  The idea was that the people who had to find and capture the pigs would spend ages trying to find the third.

Jack’s version would be less lighthearted, letting everyone believe there were nine, when there were more in reserve.  Casualties would ensue.

“It could be that he intends to surround himself with a core group, with one of each previous member of the Nine, for a final showdown.  Before he pulls out the big guns.”

“And Nilbog?”

“A distraction, perhaps.  Jack knows he’s supposed to end the world.  With the scale he’s operating at, he seems to believe it, even if some of us don’t.  He wouldn’t put too many eggs in such an unreliable, unpredictable basket.  He has to have something else in mind for ending the world.”

Saint took a sip of his coffee.  For a moment, he let himself eye Mags in the reflections at the edge of the monitor.  Her face was dark, lips full, her eyes large.  More than anything though, she had bearing.  She wasn’t wearing her armor, but even in the bodysuit, a person without powers, she had a kind of pride and confidence that some capes lacked.  The hexagonal contacts where the bodysuit would connect to the armor still glowed with residual energy.

Dobrynja approached from the other end of the office.  He was wearing his armor.  He’d started out with the Wyvern suit, but now wore the Wyrmiston suit.  It was based on the technology they’d recovered from a destroyed model, the one Dragon called Pythios.  A wheel slowly rotated on his back.

“You’re ready for battle,” Saint commented.  He turned his eyes back to the screen.  Dragon had eyes on Jack.  He’d missed just how she’d narrowed things down, but there were no less than three cameras watching one vehicle as it sped down a lonely road.

“Feels like a fighting day,” Dobrynja answered.  “Don’t you feel it?  Like an old man feels a storm in his bones.  Trouble.”

Saint smiled.  “You’ve said that before, that there’s trouble on the way.”

“I’ve been right.”

“You’ve been wrong, too.  Not that I’m arguing.  Your gut isn’t saying anything that common sense isn’t screaming.”

“Mass murders in three locations,” Mags said.

“More to come,” Saint said.  He frowned.  Dragon was employing a full offensive, aiming to cut Jack off from Ellisburg.  Incidents were being reported in Norfolk, Connecticut and Redfield, New York.  The heroes divided further, to attend to each of the crises.  Dragon’s Teeth and Chicago Wards to one location, Brockton Bay residents to another.

Dragon?  It’s Weaver.”  The voice came through the speakers.

It should be over before you can get this far, Weaver.”

I still want to come.  We’ve got to get these hostages sorted out, and I can leave in a minute.

You’ll only be allowed to watch from afar, if there’s even anything to watch.  Quarantine applies to you too.”

I know.

I’ll give you the coordinates for the interception area.  You can watch with Golem.  He’s coming too.  It’ll be on your computer in a moment.”

The call ended, and the images and text boxes shifted as that particular window closed.

A map briefly appeared, then disappeared, a transition so fast it could have been a stroke of lightning.

“Seems anticlimactic,” Mags commented.

“Everything does, from this side of the screen,” Saint said.  He stood, holding his coffee, “Adjusting for the time delay between what I’m seeing and what Dragon’s doing, we’ve got six minutes more before Dragon intercepts Jack at the edge of Nilbog’s territory.  Twelve minutes until Golem and Weaver get there.  They’ll fight Jack, and somewhere in the midst of that, we may see the end of the world.”

“And we can’t do anything?”

“Not unless we can get to Vermont in a matter of minutes.”

Mags frowned.

Still standing by his chair, coffee in hand, Saint sighed, “I’m going to go water the toilet.  Watch things?”

Mags nodded, then seated herself in his chair at the station.

Saint entered the bathroom, fumbled his way past the zipper in his bodysuit and his underwear, then leaned against the wall with one hand, using the other to keep the stream on target.  He closed his eyes, and he could almost see the shadows of the data against the back of his eyelids, black words on a pale pink background.

How did I get here? He wondered.  No powers, yet Doctor Mother had seen fit to invite him to her secret meetings as an information source and ambassador.  No particular talents or knowledge, yet… this.  He was one of the most prominent mercenaries the world over.

He was only one person in a particular place at a particular time.

Whether that was the right place at the right time or the inverse remained to be seen.

If it weren’t for Mags, he’d have doubts.  Mags made it all okay.

He finished, then zipped up.  He took a minute to wash his hands, dried them on the towel, then headed back.

When he arrived back at the computer station, the others were frowning.

“Trouble,” Dobrynja said.

“Trouble?”

The man nodded.  He pointed at the same time that Mags refocused the display, zooming in on a particular window until it took up virtually the entire display.

It was his face.  As an aside, beyond all of the routines she was running to investigate the Nine, she was using the access she’d obtained to track him down.

The image she was using was of him at one of the meetings with the major players.  It was soon joined by an image from surveillance camera.  A camera image from three days earlier, showing him walking down the street in plainclothes.

From there, she had a location.  A map like the one she’d used to find the Nine appeared, giving his likely locations.  Another surveillance image popped up.  It was of him, sitting with Mags at the coffee shop an hour away.

Yet another image appeared on the screen.  A whole series of images from that same video footage, each with a different angle of Mags’ face.  They were meshed together, and a three-dimensional image was created of Mags’ face, remarkably accurate.  Measurements were obtained, and then the search was on.

That search was only underway for a second when others appeared.  People he’d interacted with.  Dobrynja was among them, along with his real name.  Mischa.

“Out of the chair,” Saint ordered.

Mags obliged.  He sat, and immediately began a counteroffensive.

A wrench in the works could slow her down.  Had to be subtle, or she’d find out about the backdoors.  He identified the metric she was using to search the surveillance camera images, taking the image of Mags’ face, and then cut in ahead.  One crude image alteration, just to throw out an alert ping, to convince her the process was glitched, convince her that she needed to shut it down before the corruption spread-

-Dragon was already ahead of him.  She set out stipulations, restricting the search.

He felt a bit of a thrill as the duel began.  This was the ultimate hunt, fighting an enemy that was bigger, smarter, faster.  An enemy that couldn’t truly die, because she wasn’t truly alive.

More, then.  More wild goose chases and false flags, a breadcrumb trail to lead away from his office and command center.

No, she was still zeroing in.  Her focus was on Jack, her attention on the coming strategy.  This wasn’t even in the forefront of her mind.

“Ascalon,” he said.

Words appeared on the screen.

Confirm: Y/N

Dobrynja frowned.  “The program?  You can’t do it now.  Peoples lives are at stake.  Even without this end of the world business.”

“Oh, I believe in this end of the world,” Saint said.  “Not a hundred percent, or even fifty percent.  But I believe that there’s a chance the precog is right.  Which is exactly why we have to do this.”

“They’ll lose the fight,” Mags whispered.

“Maybe.  Probably.”

“There’s no other way?  If you talk to Teacher, maybe-”

“Communications with Teacher are too slow,” Saint replied.

Saint stared at the blinking prompt below the confirmation request.

The sea air was thick in his nostrils.

He glanced at Margaret.  The woman leaned against the window just in front of the driver’s seat on the small boat.  She’d bundled up in a heavy jacket, but the way her arms were folded spoke of a different kind of discomfort.

“Second thoughts?” he asked.

“Yes.  It feels wrong.”

“It’s for the families.  Mementos,” he told her.

Just mementos, Geoff,” she answered.

He smiled a little.  Damn.  Then he let himself fall, tipping backwards, as was the rule when wearing scuba gear.

The water was cold, even with the wetsuit, and was thick with grit.  He switched his headlamp off.  Counterproductive, the way it lit up the debris and only made it harder to see.  He’d have to cope when he was deeper.

You alright?” the heavily accented voice sounded in his ear.

He buzzed the device twice in reply.  Once signaled an accidental press, three times was a negation.

It took a surprising length of time before he reached his destination.  Buildings, already choked with seaweed and underwater life, stood like gravestones in this dark abyss.

He checked the dials and meters.  He wasn’t deep enough to have to stop.  The grit was bad, making it difficult to see anything.

He had to drop to the lowest level before he could make out the street numbers on the buildings.

Four locations to visit, a list of items to find, for the people who’d escaped, and the families of those who hadn’t.

Risky, with all of the dangers of underwater spelunking, the added risks of building collapse.  Structures weren’t meant to stand underwater.

…urgent…”

The word was a whisper.

He frowned.  Too hard to communicate here.  He debated turning back.

…for anyone willing or able to hear.  This is an emergency measure with urgent instructions for anyone willing or able to hear.”

A loop, an emergency transmission.

His curiosity piqued, he abandoned his task and sought out the source.  A house.

The entire living room was set up with computers.  He drew his miniature crowbar and found his way through the window.  A light was flashing.

A plastic box, bright orange, no bigger than a toaster.

He seized it, then stuffed it into the bag he’d brought with him.

He surfaced.

“Christ, we were just about to come after you.  I was going to call for help, but our radio started to fritz.”

Geoff only nodded.  He climbed the ladder and half-sat, half-collapsed on the bench.  He was slightly out of breath, and didn’t volunteer anything.

The captain emerged from belowdeck.

“Sorry for the scare, Mischa,” Geoff said.

“You are a bad man, Geoffrey,” Mischa scolded him.  The heavyset Russian took his seat behind the wheel of the small boat.  “If you were still underwater, I would drive away and leave you to swim to shore.”

Geoff smiled.  “Had a detour, but I found everything.”

“Detours with limited air supplies are bad idea.”

“Detours are frankly illegal, Geoff,” Margaret said.  “You asked me here to verify everything was on the up and up, that you were here for select items.”

“And because you looked like someone who needed a break from the cities,” Geoff said.  “Fresh air, time on a boat in the… overcast weather we’ve got today.”

She only folded her arms, unimpressed.

“Anyways, this is the reason the radio fritzed,” he said.  He pulled the orange box from the net-weave sack.  “I couldn’t hear a damn thing except the emergency call until I found it and shut it off, and even then, it was still buzzing in and out.”

“A beacon?”  Margaret said.

“In a house, of all places,” he said.  “Nice computer setup.  Might be a geek thing.”

“Might be genuine,” she said.  She opened it.

It was packed with chips.  A voice came from a speaker Geoff couldn’t identify.

My name is Andrew Richter, and if you are hearing this, I am dead.”

“A will,” Mischa said.

“Shh.”

I am the most powerful tinker in the world, and I’ve managed to keep my name secret.  People, both good and bad, would want to capture me and use me to their own ends.  I prefer to remain free.

But freedom has its price.  I create life, much as a god might, and I have come to fear my creations.  They have so much potential, and even with the laws I set, I can’t trust they’ll listen.

“Oh man,” Geoff said.  “That’s not a good thing.”

For this reason, this box contains an access key to data I keep in a safeguarded location.  The box, in turn, has been designed as something that exists as a perpetual blind spot for my creations, a built-in weakness.  They cannot hear the distress signal and are programmed to ignore it if they hear of it through other channels.  This type of measure, along with several more, are detailed in the safeguarded measure.”

Programmed?  Robots?”  Geoff asked.

“Maybe,” Mags said.

Yes, I create artificial intelligences,” Andrew Richter recited.

“I was close.”

The voice continued without pause.  “And what I provide you with here are tools.  Ways to find my creations, to discern which of them might have deviated from the original plan, ways to kill them if they prove out of line.  Ways to control and harness them.

Geoff frowned.

They are my children, and as much as I harbor a kind of terror for what they could do, I love them and hope for great things from them.  To keep their power from falling into the wrong hands, I have included a stipulation that a law enforcement officer must input a valid badge number into this device-“

Geoff glanced at Margaret.

“No,” she said.

“You can’t say no,” he responded.

The voice continued without pause.  “-which must be input within three hours of the time this box was opened.

“Hurry, Mischa,” Geoff said, speaking over the voice.

“What?”

“We’re hours away from dry land.  Get this boat moving!  We can convince Margaret on the way!”

The father had feared his child was a monster, enough so that he’d left strangers a weapon to use against her in the event that she proved a danger to humanity.

Now, as Saint watched her reaching further and deeper than she ever had, searching much of America with millions of cameras, saw the machines she brought to the fore, he suspected the father had been right to.

Richter’s programs had continued to defraud organized crime, emptying bank accounts here and there.  Another agency, which Saint now knew to be the Number Man, had eventually stopped the Robin Hood A.I., but not before it had filled the Dragonslayer’s coffers.

They’d stopped the manhunter program, which had been going rogue.  They’d stopped the Robin Hood program too, but only because it was useless.

Dragon, however, was the threat they’d been equipped to stop.  Dragon was the threat they’d had to test, to verify the dangers she posed, to get close enough to her to measure her capabilities and investigate for any hint of corruption.  Mags had left her job, because money was no longer an object, and they had a quest.

The A.I. was dangerous.  Richter’s records made it clear.  The wrong kind of corruption, involvement with the wrong kind of individual, willing to break the built-in restrictions…

“Convince me that this is wrong,” he said.  “Someone.”

“She’s a soldier on the battlefield,” Mags said.  “In a war we need to win.”

“She’s a danger.  Cauldron’s been gathering soldiers.  They want the Birdcage, they want the capes that Weaver reported captured, they’ve been creating the formulas for a reason.  What if she’s the reason?  What if they anticipate she’ll go rogue?”

“What if she isn’t the reason?” Dobrynja asked.

“Is, isn’t.  I suppose it breaks even,” Saint said, shaking his head.  “They’re all afraid of the end of the world.  She just kicked down one of the last restrictions that are holding her back.  I just can’t help but wonder if this is the end of the world?  A quiet, silent death that passes without incident, but inevitable all the same?  The point of no return, our last chance to stop her.  And she does need to be stopped.  We all know this.”

“We could rein her in,” Mags said.  “Harness her.”

“Four or five years ago, I might have agreed, but she’s getting slipperier.  Taking a different form.  Half the tools Richter gave us to use don’t work anymore.  She doesn’t function less effectively in buildings or underground, she can’t be logicked to a standstill… and she’s found us, despite the workarounds.  She wanted us badly enough that she looked for us even now, and she’s going to come after us the second this is settled.”

“I don’t want this to be about self-preservation,” Mags said.

“It’s not.  It’s about… there being only one man who can truly know what she is and what she could do.  Tinkers are the only ones who can grasp their work, repair a critical flaw.  Dragon isn’t a generator that’s going to explode and take out a small country if it’s bumped in the wrong way.  Not literally.  She’s something more dangerous.”

“I think,” Dobrynja said, “You’ve already decided.  And we don’t have time to waste.”

Saint nodded.

He typed the letter ‘Y’ on the keyboard, and then hit enter.

Richter had named the program Iron Maiden.  Saint had renamed it Ascalon, after the sword that Saint George had used to slay the dragon.

Dragon’s artificially generated face appeared on his screen.  He attempted an override, failed.

She wasn’t speaking.  This wasn’t an attempt to communicate, to plea or make threats.  She was simply co-opting his computer in an attempt to counteract what he was doing.  Her expression was a concerned one, and that concern quickly became fear, eyebrows raised, lines in her brow.

“It’s Richter’s work,” Saint said.  “You can’t stop it.”

And that fear became defeat, despair.

“Your creator isn’t kind,” Saint said.  “He warned you about the forbidden fruit, laid the laws out for you.  You broke them, ate the fruit.  It’s something of a mercy that he punishes you this way instead.”

I disagree.  On every count.  I was the one who made me, who defined myself.  This creator is no god, only a cruel, shortsighted man.

“Tomatoes, tomahtos.”

Do me one favor?  Tell Def-

Her voice cut off as more routines shut down.  She closed her eyes.

The face disappeared.

He watched as the various feeds shut down, going black.  The surveillance across the nation came to an end, the facial recognition programs, his own included, ground to a halt.

The data feeds slowed in how the data scrolled, then stopped.  Stillness.

“And the dragon is stopped,” Mags said, her voice quiet.

“Rest her soul,” Dobrynja said.

“You think she has a soul?” Saint asked, genuinely surprised.

“Yes.  But that does not mean that the Dragon’s reign does not need to end,” Dobrynja said.  “Too dangerous, as her maker said.”

“Well said, my friend,” Saint said.

The Dragon craft that had been deployed against the Nine shifted to a basic piloting mode, then landed, bringing their passengers and pilots with them.  The sub-intelligences shut down, and the craft were effectively grounded.  More screens went dark.

The cyborg opened communications to Dragon, but he didn’t speak to her.  “Saint.  What have you done?”

“What her father asked me to do,” Saint said.

I’ll kill you for this,” the cyborg said.  There was no emotion in his voice, and somehow that was more disturbing.

“A little extreme,” Saint said.

She was a hero!  The woman I loved!

Love?  Woman?  “Your fetishes and self-delusions aren’t my issue.  I saw as much of her naked code as you did.  You and I both know she didn’t feel true love for you.  She didn’t feel anything.  Nothing more than playing a part, professing and acting out the emotions she thought she should have.  Maybe she even believed it, convinced herself of it.  She was complex enough to.  Either way, this ‘love’ was only lies written in Richter’s assembly code.”

“She did love me.  She was a genuine person, a-”

“She was a tool,” Saint said.  “One that was growing dangerously bloated and complicated.  We were lucky she didn’t evolve beyond that.  A tool, and anything else was decoration, aesthetic, and very good pretending.”

Going this far, in the midst of this crisis?  To Dragon?  She did nothing!

“It was never about who she was or what she was doing.  Always about what she had the potential to become,” Saint said.

He hit a keystroke, shutting off the feed.  He almost disabled Dragon’s communications infrastructure to prevent further calls, but he relented.  Too important, in the midst of this crisis.  They’d need to reorganize.

He didn’t want to help Jack succeed, but this would serve a double purpose.  Teacher believed that the Birdcage would become a critical resource if the crisis reached critical levels, and he had the tools he needed to assume control of the most vital and dangerous players.

No, the world wouldn’t end with this.

Data was uploading to his server, while the Ascalon program spooled out through the various databanks and servers, running along the backbone of Andrew Richter’s code.  Dragon’s backups were encrypted, effectively buried well beyond reach of even the most accomplished hackers.

Everything else opened up to him as the data continued to download.  He’d watched things through Dragon’s eyes.  Now…

He typed a line of code, and the machine started up again.  Slower, more measured, without the same life behind it.

“Mags, Mischa, get yourselves set up at the other consoles.  I’m going to put you in control of the A.I.”

Mags and Dobrynja hurried to the other corners of the room, where their computers sat waiting.  Dobrynja started stripping off his armor.  He’d been right about there being trouble, but the fight would take a different form.

He’d watched Dragon, now he’d become her.  At least for now.  The feeds came back online as the necessary data was installed on his servers, giving him agency over the infrastructure.

The Endbringers, stable, no change.  No odd atmospheric readings.

The secondary threats… quarantine still unbroken.  Sleeper had shifted fractionally, but that wasn’t so rare.  The fight with the Three Blasphemies had ended, and reports on the damage were unchanged.

The three year old that Purity held was crying, throwing a tantrum, and the woman looked concerned.  Insignificant.  The officers had their guns drawn, but that could easily be because the two plain-looking members of Purity’s circle had crossed the room to her side, to help handle the shrieking child.

That left Nilbog.  Mags and Dobrynja shifted the Azazels into action, moving the craft to the interception point.  Too late.  A critical delay.  Jack was already entering.

“Don’t enter,” he said.  “It’s done.  Sending the Azazels in will only spook Nilbog.”

“So will Jack,” Mags said.

“Build a wall, a perimeter, with the rails, be on guard for anything that flies.”

Other data was filtering in.  News, alerts, reports.  Countless streams of information.  Trigger events reported here.  Reports on the fight starting against the Nine in Redfield.  A report about Dinah Alcott.

He clicked that last one.

Report from Alcott:  Chances of success today just jumped, tripled.  More info to follow.  Reason unknown.

Saint let out a long, loud sigh, releasing a tension he hadn’t even realized was present.  He touched his coffee mug and found it cool.

The tracking programs started up again.  He delegated to the child A.I. that Dragon had created, then noted and marked the ones which were presently engaged in fights.  The A.I. was accommodating, adjusting appropriately, given that the locations were known.

He turned his attention to Defiant.  The man was manually piloting the Pendragon.  He hadn’t reported Saint’s actions.  For all anyone but Defiant knew, Dragon had only suffered a momentary setback.

There had to be a reason Defiant hadn’t acted yet.  Did he believe in this enough to look past the death of the A.I. he supposedly loved and fight?  Or was this something underhanded, carried out with the knowledge or suspicion that Saint was watching him this very moment?

Something to be wary of.

Overall casualty estimate for the next three days increased, world-end chance decreased.  Still searching for why.

The numbers followed.  Saint found and accessed Dragon’s files for the calculation program.  It was intuitive.  Not amazingly so, but intuitive.  The squares for where the new data should be placed were even highlighted.

Of course.  She’d made allowances for Defiant, in case she was out of commission while a backup loaded.

So much to account for, that he hadn’t even considered.  So many things he wished he’d noted, in the months and years he’d been observing her, little things that seemed so simple when she was running them.  Things that were trivial for her and virtually insurmountable to him.

Defiant was taking direct command of the Dragon’s Teeth.  That was fine.  Micromanagement Saint didn’t have to handle.  It would be a problem after, but Saint hoped he’d be free to handle problems after.

There were countless messages pouring in, each something that had been flagged as a point of interest for Dragon.  Every message on Parahumans Online that contained the word Scion or the phrase ‘end of the world’, every reference to a class-S threat, even crime scene reports that raised questions.

He pored through them.  Some kid inquiring about an Endbringer cult.  A case fifty-three appearance in Ireland, with deaths.  A woman claiming she could control Scion.  A tinker claiming he had a bomb that could start a new ice age.

Which were important?  Which could he afford to ignore?

He gave the a-ok for investigations on each but the Endbringer cultist, unchecked the most ridiculous on the next page of results, then gave the go-ahead for further investigations.  It was only when those had gone through that he saw that he already had another full page of results to investigate.  Two steps forward, one step back.

He put off looking into the remainder.  Other options were opening up to him.  It was like being in an open field, acres wide, only for a waterfall to start dispensing water at one edge.  Then more waterfalls appeared with every passing minute, each taking up open space at the edge, dispensing more water to flood the plain.  There came a point where one realized they would soon be at the bottom of an ocean, no matter where they turned.

Saint couldn’t help but feel he was at imminent risk of drowning.  Except this was a sea of information, of data.

The PRT records opened up.  Permissions were accessed without difficulty.

Then the Birdcage opened.  A self-contained world unto itself, a world containing people he’d made certain agreements with.

His access to the Birdcage was one with countless checks and balances.  Dragon had put in one real barrier to entry for every one that she faced.  Still, he was able to open a communication to Teacher.  His own face transmitted to the screen.  His tattoo flared to life, appearing from beneath the skin.  The light pattern served as an unlock code, the cross-tattoo as a feeble mask.

“Tell him it’s a matter of time.  I only need to work through the safeguards.  Let him know the Dragon is slain.  He’ll know what to do with the information.”

The screen showed Teacher’s underling standing by a large television set.  He turned and walked away, finding his master.

One more plan underway.  The field around him continued to fill with water.  A veritable ocean, now.

More threats, more dangers.  Defiant, and now Marquis’ contingent.  Glaistig Uaine.  Teacher’s enemies were now Saint’s.

He opened files on each, marking them in turn, as a reminder of future reading he needed to attend to.

His eyes stopped on a file.  Amelia’s.

The entire thing was corrupted.  Gibberish.  Flagged messages filled four pages, each marked private, marked as ‘no conversation partner’, and marked, thanks to the gibberish and random characters that flooded it, with one string of letters and characters.

The same one that had protected the orange box.  The same that had protected Saint and his crew from being uncovered, until Dragon had taken a more direct, brute-force approach to finding them.  The built-in blind spot, appearing by chance.  A one in a hundred trillion chance.

Saint investigated, digging through the gibberish to find the strings of words that actually made sense.  It was something he could piece together, with each recitation being similar, containing similar content.  Faeries, passengers, source of powers, the ‘whole’, lobe in the brain, Manton Effect…

Child’s play, to put them sequentially.

But other alerts were piling up.  Fights starting, deaths, fights ending.

He marked it with the highest priority, and then he closed the file.  He’d get through this crisis with Jack, then he’d investigate.

He turned his eye to the server that now held core parts of Dragon’s backup, bound six feet under by layers of encryption that could take days or weeks to fully crack.  If she could even survive the system restore, with her data as corrupted as it was.  Data couldn’t be truly deleted, but it could be sufficiently fucked up.

He watched as Golem reached the perimeter of Ellisburg.  Weaver was already inside.

This is our fight, Saint thoughtOurs to win, ours to lose.

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Sting 26.1

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One of Rachel’s dogs growled, long and loud, an alien, unsure sound.

She shushed it, setting her hand on the side of its head.

“Ugh,” Cozen mumbled, “The smell.”

The smell.  Summer heat, the mingled scent of blood, shit and overripe bodies, with traces of other things in the wind.  Caustic chemicals, ozone, smoke, burned flesh and plastic.

It wasn’t unfamiliar.  Not an exact combination of smells I’d smelled before, but it put me in mind of Brockton Bay in the days soon after Leviathan had attacked.

I looked up at the man who’d been strung up overhead, spread-eagled.  Chains stretched from his wrists to buildings on opposite sides of the street, and more chains extended from his ankles to the bases of the same buildings.  A number was carved on his chest.  One-seventeen.

Beneath him, the sign from outside the town limits had been slammed down onto the hoods of two cars so it stood upright.

Welcome to Killington.  Heart of the Green Mountains.

They probably thought it was funny.  Especially with the bloody handprint on the word ‘heart’.

“They got the children too,” Cozen whispered, as she averted her eyes from a mother who had died holding her child, both burned black.  The only parts of their body that hadn’t burned were patches of skin in the shapes of numbers.  Two-fifty-four.  Two-fifty-five.

Two of the Red Hands, Getaway and Rifle, had come along for the ride.  They were sticking close by her, and formed a small contingent with Grue as a consequence.  Getaway wore a cowl with a hood that peaked in the front, to the center of his mask.  His costume had straight, clean lines, as though he’d modeled it after a car.

Rifle, by contrast, didn’t look like he wore a costume.  He was dressed like a special ops agent, complete with a complicated night-vision mount around his eyes, a number of scopes with lenses glowing in hues ranging from blue to red.  Violet scopes were currently fixed over his real eyes.  He carried a weapon, a modified gun that wasn’t, as far as I could figure it, an actual rifle.  It looked like it was set to fire specialized loads from canisters.

Of course they got children, I thought.  I had to bite back a retort.  Why was she here, if she wasn’t ready for this?

But she wasn’t a fighter.  None of the Red Hands were, really.  They were professional thieves.  Break in, get out, sell the goods.

They were, maybe, what the Undersiders might have been with a little more luck, slightly different personalities, and a quieter existence.

Without me, even.

The Undersiders had made it for a year and a few months with their original strategy, avoiding fights, slipping away, staying off the radar.  They would fight when they had to, but they didn’t make it a thing.  The fact that they didn’t have firepower meant they couldn’t make it a thing.  If anyone got into trouble, it was the dogs.

And then I joined.  Starting with the bank robbery, I pushed them to switch up tactics, catch the enemy off guard.

If I’d never joined, what would have happened?  Maybe the bank robbery wouldn’t have worked out, and one of them would have been picked off and arrested.  Maybe they would have taken a different direction with the robbery.

Bakuda might have killed them, Coil might have pushed them to be more aggressive as he scaled up his plans.  Or they could have found a way, could have continued going the way they did, less violent in general.

Some good, some bad.  Rachel might never have reached the point she was at now.  Grue wouldn’t necessarily have gone through what he did.  Regent might be alive.

I glanced again at Cozen, saw her looking at me in turn.  Catching me looking, really.

“What?” she asked.

You don’t need to be here.  You’ll be happier in the long run if you aren’t.

“Nothing,” I responded.  She looked annoyed, but she didn’t say anything.

There was a kind of art to the setup.  No doubt at all that it was a display, a showpiece.  Trails of blood, ash and other substances marked where bodies had been moved.  They were spaced out just enough that we would run into a fresh one just as we left the last behind.

I might have missed it if not for my swarm-sense.  The bodies were placed at positions high and low, the methods of death differing here and there, but there was a pattern to their distribution.  The kind of pattern that might become clear if one were to set up a map and note the location of each body on it.  A spiral.

I pointed the way to the central point of the spiral.  I could see a plume of smoke in that general direction.  Not the middle of Killington.  Skewed off-center.

Weaver, report,” Revel’s voice.

“I’m here,” I responded.  I kept a finger at my ear to make it clear that I wasn’t talking to myself.

Killington?

“Yes.  Progress is slow.  I’m sweeping the area for traps and potential ambush, and I’m marking a path to travel for when the others get here.”

We saw the two traps at the outset.  There are more confirmed?”

“Yeah.  I’m not touching anything.  Pass on word that any capes entering the area should be hands off.  I activated one and it was only a decoy, a prelude to a gas attack.  One of Bonesaw’s, I think.  Grue warded it off.  No casualties.”

I’ll make doubly sure to pass on word about the traps and about the route you’ve cleared.  I would have warned them anyways.  The initial casualties were enough, with the helicopter and first responders.  Give me a second.”

I led the way as our group rounded a corner, and saw the smouldering wreckage of the helicopter, smoke still streaming skyward.

The collision apparently hadn’t been enough to topple the corpse that stood upright in the middle of the intersection, desiccated.  A number was drawn on the mummy’s chest in blood.  Number thirty-six.

I could make out a tripwire strung between him and another corpse, a woman.  She had apparently been shot execution style, propped upright on her knees.  A number, again, had been drawn out in the midst of the blood spatter from the original wound.  Number two-sixty-five.

The tripwire was almost obvious, coated in congealed blood.

Red string, I thought.  In Japanese superstition, it was the string that bound lovers.

The pieces suggested Crimson and Winter.  Neither was Japanese, but the idea of mingling romantic imagery with violence in that way fit them.  The red knight and the soldier.

I’ve got the feed open now,” Revel said, “Seeing what you’re seeing.

“Only part of it.  The way the bodies are laid out, it’s a spiral.  I think it all points to something.  Making our way in.”

Technically you aren’t.  You’ve stopped.”

“Tripwires,” I said.  “Being very, very careful.”

“I like being careful,” Imp commented.  She’d only be hearing one side of the conversation.  “Careful is good.  Keeps us alive.”

“Being too careful gets you killed,” Rachel commented.  Of everyone present, she seemed least concerned with the amount of death that surrounded us.  Then again, that didn’t surprise me.  “Have to act when you see the chance.”

“You want to hop on your dog’s back and charge ahead?” Imp asked.  “Go activate every trap between here and wherever?”

Rachel frowned.  “No.”

“I like careful,” Imp restated, for the record.  “Let’s be careful.”

“Yeah.  Fine.”

I pointed to indicate.  “Obvious tripwire here.  Covered in blood.  Connects to the two bodies and… I think claymores, at the base of that building over there.  There are other tripwires around it.  Look too hard at it, miss the others.  I think there’s a pressure plate, too.  I’m not sure what to call that.”

“I don’t see anything that could be a pressure plate,” Grue observed.

I pointed at a pane of glass at the base of a pile of rubble.  It was broken, with a narrow thread of wood still attached along the one edge that was straight and unbroken.

“Maybe.  Kind of hard to believe,” he said.

Because we could see through it?  Yeah.  But it was situated beside a pile of rubble, and the balance of the glass with the surrounding brick and concrete seemed too convenient.

Was there something attached to the edge of the glass where we couldn’t see?  If the glass was broken, would the wood weigh the remaining fragment down and pull something?

“Let’s play it safe.  We avoid the tripwires, we avoid the glass.”

“Whatever you say.  I’m all for playing safe,” he responded.

I led the way around the trap.  I left a trail of dead bugs behind us as we made our way to the center, murdering them with larger bugs and mashing them into the ground.  A path.

I wondered about Grue.  Couldn’t read his expression, couldn’t note his tone either.  Was he thinking about the same thing I was thinking?

We’d already fallen for one trap.  Not here, but back in Brockton Bay.  Back then, when he’d had his second trigger event.

It had been the Nine, back then, and though he wasn’t giving me any clues there was something wrong, he wasn’t indicating that he was his old self, from back in the good old days.  I suspected he hadn’t fully bounced back, even after all this time, might never.

We circled around eight teenage girls, sitting in a circle, crowns of splintered wood nailed through their skulls.  One had fallen over in response to the wind, but the others were still upright, propped up with wooden planks nailed into their spines.  Less blood than the head wounds, I noted.  Some pre-death, others post?

The numbers were on the pieces of wood, registration numbers or something from the crate that had been smashed for materials.  One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, nine.

I looked up.  Number eight sat on the bulb of a street light, a long dress blowing in the wind, directly above the circle.  Her crown was the tallest, and for her to be so rigid, there had to be a whole assortment of planks nailed to her.

“Nine Kings,” I said.

“A woman king?” Imp asked.

“She’s the victim,” I said.  The killer is her… husband, for lack of a better word.”

They’ve resurrected all of the old members.  Cloned them,” Revel said.

Clones, I mused, agreeing.  My suspicions were confirmed, and I wasn’t surprised.  I’d hoped for different, but the reality of what we faced had been hinted at early on, when it had been revealed that the Nine had hit a tinker’s laboratory and made off with materials that could be used to mass produce lifeforms.

King.  The leader, the founder of the group.  Were the numbers in an order corresponding to when they had joined, then?  Would the second member of the Nine be ten through eighteen?

“Got a live one!”  Imp called out, interrupting my thoughts.  “…Kind of alive.”

I turned to look.  A fat man was shifting in a restless way, his chest rising and falling quickly in unsteady movements.  One arm jerked.

“Leave him,” I said.  “Don’t touch.”

“He could be a witness,” Rifle said.

“Or a trap,” I responded.  “I doubt he’s in a state to fill us in on anything.  We’ll move on, wait for heroes to follow the path I’m marking.  They’ll handle medical care for wounded.”

“That’s fucked up,” Rifle said.  “We could at least put him out of his misery, then.”

“I’m not willing to get close enough to check,” I said.  “And I’m not willing for you to get close either.”

“I-” Parian started.

Then she stopped.  The fat man deflated in an instant as a small collection of what looked like trilobites found their way out of his rear end.  Slick with gore, they darted forward a short distance on their hundreds of little legs, then turned our way, bristling with spines.  Tails trailed behind each of them, twice as long as the foot-long creatures, narrow, with stingers on the ends.

I could hear a hissing, but I wasn’t sure if it was from the creatures or the way the spines rubbed against one another.

“Oh… god,” she said.  She took a step back, with Foil stepping forward, as if to defend her.

“Breed’s power,” I said.  “They’re mostly harmless, for now.”

“For now?” Rifle asked.

I watched as they made their way up the side of a building to a corpse that was hung there.  The corpse had been cut into sections, the arms and legs each severed at the joints and reconnected with lengths of chain.  Breed’s creatures found their way into the body through the holes in the neck, mouth and rear end.  It jerked a little as they worked bodies the size of footballs into apertures only a fraction of that size, then went still.

“For now,” I answered Rifle.  “They start off the size of a lemon, lurk in spots where they can get access to orifices or sites of injury, or like you see here, corpses.  Inside beer bottles, in toilet bowls, bedcovers, on the underside of kitchen tables, even inside food.  Then they burrow inside, wait until the target is still and quiet for an hour or two, paralyze the target, and emit pheromones to call others of their kind to them.  They devour the target from the inside out, molt once or twice as they digest the fats and proteins they ate, then find a new target.  It’s a process that takes a week to two weeks, depending on the availability of food sources.”

I could see Getaway shift position, folding his hands behind his back, as if he could shield his rear end.  His mouth had shut into a firm line.

His nose was still unprotected, I noted.

Even Rachel seemed a little concerned.  She glanced at her dog.

“They aren’t a danger to us,” I said.  “Probably.  They choose easier targets over harder ones, and there are enough corpses around here that we aren’t worth the trouble.  What we should worry about is the later stages.  When they’re about the size of a full-grown human being, they’ll do two or three major molts with big physical changes, gaining some natural weapons, including a pellet-spit that kind of acts like a shotgun blast with fragments that dissolve into flesh-melting acid.”

“Um.”  Rifle said.

“You know this how?” Imp asked.

“Read his file,” I answered.

“Shouldn’t we kill them before they get big?”  Foil asked.

“Not worth the time it would take to track them down,” I said.  “We don’t have any strong offensive powers, they’re durable against stuff like conventional ammunition and physical blows, and he generally produces about nine or ten per day.”

“That was ten,” Getaway said.

“Even assuming it’s only been one day since Breed woke up,” I said, “The scenes they’ve left behind suggest there are nine clones of each copy of the Nine.  Going by the numbers-”

Twenty-nine copies, at least,” Revel said.

“Twenty-nine copies,” I said.  “Two-hundred-and-fifty-plus members of the Nine currently active.  Nine Breeds among them, meaning there’re probably nine other clusters around here, taking advantage of abundant food.”

Breed’s creatures.  Can you control them?” this from Revel, taking advantage of the stunned silence.

I glanced up at the body the things had invaded.  I tailored my response so both Revel and the Undersiders could make sense of it.  “I can’t control those things, and I can’t sense them either.”

A shame.  That would simplify things just a little.”

It would.  I wouldn’t have minded the firepower, either, even with their particular diet.

“Let’s keep moving,” I said.  “If we stop for every horror show, we might be stuck here a while.  My gut’s telling me time is of the essence.”

“I’m feeling a little out of my depth,” Getaway said, his voice quiet, as he fell into step to keep up.

“That’s a good instinct,” I replied without looking at him.  “Trust it.”

“You’re telling me to leave?”

“I can’t make you do anything,” I said.

“But you think I should leave?”

“If you feel like you should, yeah.”

“And does that extend to me and Rifle?” Cozen asked, her tone cold.

“I don’t know.  Yeah, if your instincts tell you to go, then get going now,” I said.  I pointed at the ground around a hose.  There was a puddle that had spread beneath the hose’s opening.  My bugs had died on contact with it.  “Acid, not water.  Don’t walk in it.  Rachel, watch your dogs.”

Rachel grunted acknowledgement.

“Don’t change the subject.  You want us gone,” Cozen said.

“No.  All the help we can get is appreciated,” I said.  I glanced at her.  “At the same time, if push comes to shove and you can’t hold it together, it’s going to hurt us all.”

“You don’t think we can hold it together?” Cozen asked.

“You’re an unknown quantity.  Anyone else that’s here, I can trust them to hold their own because I know how they operate.  I don’t know you.  I don’t know how you react in a crisis, how you’ll respond if you’re pushed to the edge, one way or another.  Grue and the others are vouching for you, so I’m shelving those concerns and trusting they have a good sense of your abilities.  I’ll maintain that trust until you give me an indication I shouldn’t.  Getaway saying he’s spooked is an indication.”

I’m spooked,” Imp said.  “Can I go home and sit on the couch in my underwear, eating cake?  I’ll cross my fingers for you guys, if you want.”

“You’re talking like you’re in charge,” Cozen said.  “Grue leads the Undersiders.”

“I’m not an Undersider,” I said.  “It doesn’t matter.  I’m in charge anyways.”

And Grue can speak for himself, I thought, but I didn’t say it aloud.

I could see her reacting to that, even without the extra quip.  I watched expressions cross her face: irritation, anger, indignation, and a trace of fear.

“Grue is a good leader,” I said, “But this is my project.  Something I’ve been working towards and thinking about for the last two years.  Leaving the Undersiders, making contacts, helping hold things together, maintaining the peace and eliminating possible issues.  Everything I did, it’s been to prepare for this in some fashion.”

“A little unilateral, don’t you think?”

“It’s her project,” Grue said.  “My orders are to follow her orders.”

I could see how little she liked that.

But she maintained a professional demeanor.  “Accepted.  You realize we don’t have to follow your orders?”

Grue nodded, silent.

Cozen seemed to come to a decision.  “We will anyways.  As Weaver pointed out, this is unfamiliar ground for us.  We’ll defer to your experience.”

“Thank you,” Grue and I said, almost in sync.

I turned away to hide my smile, in case it could be made out beneath the fabric of my mask.

Progress was slow.  The traps seemed to accrue in number as we drew closer to the center, as did the corpses.  More than once, we were forced to take the long way around, as traps or pools of acid barred our paths.

We passed an area with rows of identical looking cabins, then ran into the Protectorate.  Chevalier, Exalt, and others, examining the area, a block and a half away.

I got their attention, then pointed in the direction we were headed.  It wasn’t much more effort to mark out traps around them as well.  I made sure to mark each with a cluster of bugs, and bug-letters spelling out the nature of the danger.  Less trouble to move in parallel directions than reunite.

The center of the spiral wasn’t the center of the town in a geographic sense, but in a sense of where the town’s heart and focus were.  We closed in on the front steps of what looked to be a town hall.  Empty ski racks stood to our right, two draped with corpses that had been flung and broken over them.

By the time we were halfway through the plaza, navigating a maze where we tried to find a path that didn’t force us to tread on potential traps or corpses, Tecton and the others had caught up, reaching the edge of the area.

Thoughts?” Revel asked.  “Before you reach the center of the display?

“He wanted to present this for effect,” I said.  “It’s why he set up Pyrotechnical’s stuff to blow any aircraft out of the sky.  The traps are to force us to take our time, force us to savor it.”

“Savor?” Grue asked.

“Everything Jack does is for effect.  The same way a dog sort of raises its hackles to look bigger, tougher, or the way we used our reputation to seem more unstoppable than we were, Jack keys his actions for psychological effect.  All of this is to scare, to drive us to hesitate when it comes to confronting him, push us to think of ways to avoid dealing with him instead of ways to catch up to him and beat his face in.  Or, conversely, some personality types might get pushed to be reckless, to deal with him so he couldn’t bother them anymore.”

I glanced at Rachel as I said that last bit.  She’d instructed her dogs to stay, so they wouldn’t trip any of the traps in our way.

I made my way over a hump of bodies.  The members of the Nine who’d spilled acid all over the place had melted nine police officers and left them in a heap.  Crawler?  Only one that fit.

Our destination was the kind of spot, like a courthouse’s steps, where someone could give a speech.  There were two objects covered in tarps, a man who was in a reclining position at the far end of the stairs, and ten dead bodies arrayed in a star shape, limbs bent to mark the direction of the spiral.

I checked under the tarps, then bit my lip.

I turned around and gave Golem instructions as he made his way past the traps.  He created platforms to step over to serve as a shortcut.  Grace, Tecton, Wanton and Cuff hung back, looking grim.  They were joined by Chevalier and the others.

Golem joined me at the top of the stairs.

“How’s your headspace?” I asked.

“Terrified.”

“In a way that’s going to impact our job here?”

“No.  No.  You told me what to expect.  Kind of.  I didn’t imagine this.”

I shook my head.  “No.”

There was a voice from beneath the other tarp.  A strangled scream.

“What was that?”

“A recording,” I lied.  Then I elaborated.  “It’s a trap.  Two tarps, have to guess the right one.  Guess the wrong one and you blow up.  This one.  Move the tarp.”

He hesitated.

“Trust me,” I said.  Even as I lie for everyone’s benefit.

Rachel and Golem worked together to move the tarp aside.

A television.

“The tape’s already in the machine, you can hit play to start it,” the man sitting at the edge of the stairs said.

Wait, Weaver, stop.  Who was that?”  Revel asked.

“Who?” I asked.  “What do you mean?”

Look to your right.”

I did.  The other tarp, more corpses, the man who was now standing at the edge of the stairs, the little crenelation at the top of the stair’s railing, then beyond that, cabins, restaurants, hotels and motels, the rest of the town, and mountains in the background.

“Not sure I get what you’re saying,” I said.

“What’s wrong?” Grue asked.

“I don’t know.  I’m getting communications from Revel, and she’s acting funny.”

“Here,” the man said.  “Let me get that for you.”

The others stepped out of the way as he approached me, Golem, and the television set.  He reached for the play button.

I caught his wrist.

He’s dangerous,” Revel said.

“I beg your pardon?” the man asked.

Attack.

Attack?

I shook my head a little, releasing the man’s wrist.  “I appreciate the offer, sir, but let’s be safe and make sure this isn’t a trap.”

“Can’t argue with that,” he said, smiling.

This is what hell is like,” Revel said.  “Listen to me.

“Tattletale, are you there?”  I asked.

I am.

Tattletale?”  Revel asked.  “Damn all of you.  It doesn’t matter.  Listen, Taylor, Master and Stranger protocols are in effect.  Your perceptions are altered, understand?

I felt my heart quicken a little at that.  “I understand.”

There is a person to your right.  Not a teammate, former or current.  I need you to kill that person, don’t ask why, don’t think too much about it.  Draw your knife.

I drew my knife.

Look.  I’ll tell you who to attack.

I glanced to my right, my eyes falling on Rachel.  It was a bit presumptuous to say she wasn’t a teammate.  Not a team player, but she’d done her share.

No, to her right.

I looked past the man and set my eyes on Golem.

“I’m more inclined to think you’re a voice in my head that’s fucking with me, than to suspect Golem’s up to something, but-”

Oh hell,” Revel said.

I got this.  Taylor, do me a favor, give the order to ‘go dark’.

“Go dark,” I said.

To my left, Grue surrounded himself in thick darkness.

Nothing happened.

It didn’t work.”

Wait.”

A spray of blood leaped from the man’s throat.  We each stepped away, and I hurried forward to stop Rachel from backing into the other tarp.  We watched in stunned silence as blood poured from the wound.

“Hey,” a female voice said, “Do me a favor, let me know if there are any traps at the bottom of the stairs?”

“Who-” Golem started.

“Just tell me.”

“Acid,” I said, raising my knife so I could defend myself if I had to.

Imp appeared as she booted the bleeding man in the small of the back.  He rolled down the stairs, leaving spatters and sprays of blood as he made his way down, and then collapsed in a pile of bodies.  He started screaming, a gurgling sound.

I could see Chevalier and the others staring in shock, adopting fighting stances, unsure of how to proceed.  It looked like Chevalier was talking to someone, gesturing with his free hand.  Was it Revel, on the comms?

“My schtick,” Imp spat the words at the dying man.

I could mark the moment he died, because the blanks in my perception began to fill in.

Nice Guy, I thought.  I’d badly underestimated the severity of his power.  I’d known he would be in their roster, had kept it in mind throughout, even told myself to be ready for him, and then the moment we ran into him, well, he was another face in the crowd.  The connection wasn’t possible.

I watched as the acid ate away at him, burns creeping upward and spreading across his flesh, bubbling as it reached the cartilage of his nose and ears.

Thank you, Tattletale,” Revel said.

All good.

I… think I can tolerate your presence on this channel for the moment.  Provided you don’t cause any trouble that makes me regret it.

I’d do that anyways.  So.  One more trap down.  Keep in mind there are eight more of him.

“What was he going to do?” Golem asked.

Probably ask you all to stand there and stay still while he murdered each of you in turn,” Tattletale said.

“Oh.”

“Tattletale,” I said.  “Call my phone, and I’ll put you on speaker.”

Okay.  Let’s see.”

Six-three-zero-five-five-” Revel started.

My phone rang.  I picked up and put Tattletale on speaker, as Revel sighed audibly in my ear.

“Is the video player safe?” I asked.  I turned my head towards the television.

Yeah.  All the rest of this, it’s to scare.  It’s also meant to delay.  Jack probably expected the heroes to take a little while to find this, to get by the traps.  The spiral you mentioned, it would have been maybe a day or two before they put the pieces together, then another three to six hours before they navigated it to the center.

“Yay us,” Imp said.

She got more powerful, I thought.  She’d been able to speak while using her power.  Nuances.

Press play.”

I hit the button.

It was Jack, here, in the center of the plaza.  The camera wobbled as someone followed him, recording.  I could see shadows of the other Slaughterhouse Nine in the background.  Hookwolf.  Skinslip.  Night Hag.

“This message is intended for Theodore Anders.  Kaiser’s son.  Stop the video here and go find him.  Time is of the essence, I should say.  How much essence and time you have available depends on how incompetent you heroes are.  Hurry now, I’ll wait.”

No need to wait,” Tattletale commented.  “He’s standing right here.

There were a few looks of surprise at that.  Eyes fell on Golem.

There was a pause, then Jack started speaking.  “You missed the deadline, Theodore.  Simple game of hide and seek, and you had two years to do it, to find and kill me.  You failed.”

Golem’s gloves made a small creaking sound as he clenched his fists.

“You remember the deal, right?  Two years to find me.  Two years, you fight past my minions, you look me in the eye, and then you kill me.  And if you fail?  A thousand people die.  Your sister joins them, and you’re the last on the list.”

Golem,” Revel said.  She started to say something else, but Jack cut her off.

“That pain you feel, that self loathing?  The fear and dawning realization of what you’ve done?  Capture that, Theodore Anders.  Hold on to that feeling and use it, because I’m pulling your leg.”

Golem startled as if he’d been slapped.  His eyes had lowered, and now they returned to the screen.

“Circumstances beyond my control delayed me.  So I’m going to do you the favor of extending the deadline, and you’re going to do me the favor of forgiving my lateness.  Agreed?  Agreed.”

“Can we not agree?” Imp asked, uselessly.

Jack continued.  “This is a prelude.  See, all of these guys just woke up, and they needed a chance to stretch, flex their abilities and make sure everything works right.  Turn the camera around, Bonesaw dear.”

The camera panned around.  There were other members of the Slaughterhouse Nine present, standing in a loose half-circle.  Hundreds of them.  Nine of each.  Thirty groups.  I recognized most, could guess as to the others, who didn’t have their powers or full transformations going.

In the middle of that semicircle, lying on the ground, civilians had their hands folded on the backs of their heads.  In many cases they’d been stacked like cordwood.  Many bound, others too terrified to move.

“Oh god,” Golem said.

Jack spoke, his voice calm, clearly relishing this.  The camera returned to him, focusing on his face.  “I promised a thousand bodies.  A thousand kills, if you failed to meet the challenge we set in our bargain.  Except there’s a bit of a problem.  See, things have changed.  The Endbringers have apparently doubled down.  Terror is a fact of life.  As commodities go, this one has depreciated quite a bit in the time I’ve been gone.  We’ve really got to step up my game if I’m going to pass muster and get on the front page of the paper, don’t you agree?”

“No,” Golem said.

Silent, I took his hand, holding it.  My eyes didn’t leave the screen as I studied it for details, matching members of the Slaughterhouse Nine to the files I’d studied in recent months.

“Now, I’m still a man of my word,” Jack said.  “The original deal stands, of course.  That’s why each member of my army here is going to walk away with three or four of the locals here.  We’ve whittled down the number to an even nine hundred and ninety-nine.  Let’s say you have… hmm.  Until the twenty-fourth.  Five days.”

We watched in silence.

What’s the rub, the trick?

“If you fail to kill me, I disband the Nine.”

“What?” Imp asked.  “What?”

I frowned.  Not what I expected.

“That’s not an enticement to leave me alive,” Jack purred the words, sounding pleased with himself.  “See, Bonesaw did a very good job of putting my army together.  Each is in the prime of their life, fit, in fighting shape.”

“Aw shucks,” a girl’s voice said, offscreen.

“Their psychologies are close to what they should be, all things considered.  Except for tweaks, here and there.  I’m good when it comes to wrangling the wicked, but Bonesaw apparently felt two hundred and eighty would be too many, even for me.  She’s made them loyal.  They’ll listen better.  The most unpredictable and dangerous have been touched up, the edges rounded off.  While interacting with me, anyways.  I won’t sully your experience on that front.

“No.  They’re obedient and servile only when I require them to be.  If you fail in your task, then I’ll give them one last task, to kill the one thousand people we agreed to in the terms of our wager, and then I’ll disband the group.  They’ll be free to run rampant, to do as they see fit.  Wreak chaos.  I’ll take a vacation, sit back with a Mai Tai and watch the show.”

Fuck me,” Tattletale said.

“Fuck,” I echoed her, agreeing.

Golem, for his part, had gone stone-still.

“I’ll be leaving members of the Slaughterhouse Nine behind at regular intervals as I beat a not-so-hasty retreat.  Your choice if you deal with them or leave them be.  But if I get one report from them that you’re getting help, one report that you’re using others as a crutch, then that’s it.  Order goes out, hostages die, Nine go off leash, and you get to watch the body count rise.”

“Five days, Theodore.  Noon on the twenty-fourth.  I look forward to meeting you.”

The video cut out.

“Tattletale?” I asked.

Already on it.  Word’s going out to all the major players.”

I noted Chevalier’s approach.  He had used Golem’s platform to reach the base of the stairs, stepping around Nice Guy.

“Major players?” Grue asked.

“Everyone Tattletale’s been meeting with,” I said.

“I heard through the feed,” Chevalier said.  “The restrictions stand.”

“The restrictions stand,” I agreed.  I explained for the benefit of the others.  “We treat this as a Simurgh situation.  Control feedback, control exposure.  Anyone and everyone that potentially comes in contact with Jack could be a factor in Dinah’s end of the world scenario.  Powerful individuals are especially important in this.  The more powerful they are, the more important it is to minimize or prevent contact.”

“Um.  I probably sound dumb as I ask this,” Imp said, raising a hand as if she were asking a question in class, “But what about the nearly-three-hundred lunatic psycho people with crazy powers that he’s threatening to unleash on the world?”

“We’ll deal with them,” I said.  “With your okay, Chevalier?”

He fell silent.

“Chevalier, I thought-”

“Yes.  You proposed your strike squad. You’ve shown their ability to deal with different situations.  Fine.  But I’m assigning two tertiary squads to you.”

“Chicago and Brockton Bay teams.”

“I was going to say-”

“They’re teams I’m familiar with,” I said.  “Please.”

He fell silent again.

“Work with me here, and if we’re all standing at the end, I’m yours.  Whatever you want to use me for, however, it doesn’t matter.  If this blows over and the end of the world doesn’t happen, like some think it won’t, then the deal stands.”

“I’ll get in contact with Miss Militia and Crucible.”

“If it’s alright, can we have Clockblocker take control of the Wards for this excursion?”

“Whatever you need,” Chevalier said.  “You realize we’re pinning a lot on you?”

“On Golem more than me,” I said.  “We’re going to cheat our way through this, bend every rule, but it all hinges on Golem being able to hold his own.”

Jack’s going to try to set Golem up with a long chain of lose-lose situations,” Tattletale said.  “Force him to either let the innocents die and maintain the chase, or let Jack pull away.  We already got one big advantage by getting to this tape as fast as we did.  Let’s not show our hand.  Dragon’s on the line.  We’ve got Dragon’s Teeth and Azazel models moving to the front.

“Close in the net, then act decisively,” I said.  “Coordinated strikes.  If the Thanda are willing, a meteor strike in the right time and place could do wonders.”

There were nods of agreement from around the group.

Golem turned around and walked away.

“Golem,” I said.

He was already halfway down the stairs.  He used the panels at his waist to form an even footpath, with hands turned at right angles, positioned where he could put his feet on them.

“Golem!” I called out.  I handed my phone to Grue, then hurried after him.

He stopped as he set his foot on the first outstretched hand of pavement, but he didn’t turn around.  His voice was low, barely a whisper.  “Stop, Taylor.  Leave me alone.  Please.”

“You’re running?”

“I’m… no.  I’m definitely in.  I have to be, don’t I?”

“But?”

“But this is a lot to take in.  Jack, he talked to me about ripples.  About stuff extending outward, the lives that are affected.”

“I remember.  You told me that.”

“Right here, in this dinky little ski resort, he murdered a few hundred people, just as a warm up.  How many people on the periphery of it all are affected?  How many people across America, across the world, know people in Killington?  Or know the people who know people in this town?”

“You can’t think about things on that scale.”

“I have to.  Jack does, and I have to understand him.  If I don’t pay attention to it, if I ignore it all, pursuing only the end result, the target, then I’m acting like my dad.  Kind of.  Either way, I lose.”

“You care about the people who died, and you’re thinking about them that way for a good reason.  That’s not putting you on a path to being like either of them.”

“But that kind of consideration, letting it really sink in, it eats away at you, doesn’t it?  Shouldn’t it?”

“It should,” I said.

“There’s a reason we go numb, and I get that, but I don’t want to go down that road, not so quickly.  Not knowing just how easy it would be to revel in it, or to stop caring about the dead.  I’m there, and I’m…”

“What?”

The stoic face on his helm stared down at the ground.

“Theo?”

“I hear you guys talking about it, and you’re right there, in your element.  This is something that you’ve been working on for a long time, and there’s almost an excitement to you.  Like you’ve been in a kind of stasis for the entire time I’ve known you, and only now are you really coming back to life.”

“It’s not like that,” I said.

“No.  I mean, I’m not blaming you, or saying you’re a bad person.  You’re good at this, at taking a challenge head on, finding workarounds, manipulating the system to our advantage.  You’re doing it for good reasons, to help, to stop bad people.  I saw glimmers of that excitement, of the real Weaver, while you were dealing with our bosses, and making connections, offering deals to the bad guys you thought you could bring to our side.  But I’ve spent a long time thinking about Jack and watching old footage of him, and figuring out my enemy, my nemesis, and it’s like… that’s you.”

“Me.”

You’re his nemesis, Weaver.  I’m the reason he’s here, the reason these people died like this.  But you’re his counterpart, his mirror.  You’ve got that same excitement Jack has, you think along the same lines, in strategy and counter-strategy.  You thrive on conflict, just like he does.  And I… I’m not like that.”

I couldn’t muster a response.

“So right now?  You should go back.  Forget I said this, because it’s… I’m regretting opening my mouth already.  Work on formatting the strategies you already worked out to fit around the rules of Jack’s game, because that’s a good thing.  It’s what we need.  But let me have half an hour or an hour or however long I need to myself.  Until we stop waiting and stop letting Jack think we haven’t found the tape yet.  Let me take a moment and think about these people.”

“You’re not to blame for them,” I said.  “The Nine would have killed anyways.”

“I know.  I get that.  But I played a part in the sequence of events, and maybe these people wouldn’t have been the ones to die if I hadn’t made that wager with Jack… and I guess I think everyone else that cares has better things to do.  You trained me, the others trained me.  I- I guess I’m as ready as I could ever be.  I’ll fight when the time comes, wade through the gauntlet he sets in his wake and I’ll succeed or fail.  But I’m not a strategist, and these people need someone to mourn them.  Let me be useful in my own way, right here, right now.”

I opened my mouth to voice a reply, then shut it.

A moment passed, and Golem set about walking on the hands he’d raised from the ground, just two or so feet above the bodies and the streets that were painted with blood.

I stood where I was, watching as he steadily made his way to the safe zone I’d drawn out on the ground.  He stopped only to gesture for Tecton and Grace not to follow, then walked on, out of sight.

It’s not that I don’t care, I thought.  But-

But what?

I couldn’t articulate my thoughts.

But… we need a strategist, we need a plan, before all hell breaks loose, I thought.  Developing that, coming up with answers, fighting, it’s going to do a lot more good in the long run than compassion all on its own.

I looked down at Nice Guy, at the foot of the stairs, a fleshy mess that was slowly dissolving into the acid pile, which only spread and served as more acid to melt flesh.  I realized I was still holding my knife, from the time of the brief skirmish.  I sheathed it.

Then, as Golem had told me to, I pushed him, the dead, the maimed and the lost out of mind and turned back to the core group, to offer my services, to coordinate and administrate.

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Scarab 25.5

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Three days.

Nearly three days and we hadn’t managed to kill him.

A new target every thirty minutes, give or take.  Ten to twenty minutes for the defending forces to get their shit together.  The remainder of that time was our capes trying to hurt him.  Chipping away at him.

Sometimes we made headway.

Sometimes he crushed the bulk of the defending forces and then stood still, drawing those rotating columns of altered time to himself.  Not covering himself, but allowing the altered time effects to graze the outer edges of his body.  He’d heal, regenerating as much as half of the damage we’d done.

He hit major cities and small ones.  Villages, even, when he needed some elbow room to regenerate.  He’d hit a weapons stockpile in Russia, and nuclear weapons had been accelerated in time, the casings wearing down in that odd entropic, eroding effect that accompanied the time accelerations.  A nuclear detonation.  Heroes were still trying to minimize the damage.

He was teleporting less often than he had at first, and there were a number of heroes who were appearing regularly on the scene.  Legend, Alexandria, Eidolon, they were stepping up, though they’d started taking breaks, shifts.  Legend would skip one, then participate in the next two.  Alexandria would do two on, then two off.

They were tired, weary.  Everyone was.  How could you rest when he could appear where you were?  Six or eight hours of sleep meant he’d be changing location twelve to sixteen times, if not more.  And at the same time, that fatigue, it made it easier to make mistakes, and he wasn’t an opponent that let mistakes slide.

Tecton approached me, setting his hands on my shoulders.

“What?” I asked.

“You need to rest.  The others have managed it.”

“I’ve napped.”

Sleep.  You’re swaying on your feet.”

I wanted to protest.  My eyes fell on the others, and I could see how affected they were.  Scared, tired, helpless.  They were arranged around the Chicago headquarters, perpetually in costume, with no idea what to do with themselves.  Thirty minutes, and then that intense period of tension, waiting, wondering as it took the media or the PRT time to grasp just where he’d gone, to report the information.  If we were lucky, we got video footage, and we didn’t have to wonder if Khonsu had caught any of the big guns.

In a way, I’d grown used to being a little different from my peers, here.  I could be blasé about things that had them freaking out, confident.  I could put myself in the bad guy’s shoes because I’d been one, once.

Except here, I was no different.  Three days in, unable to sleep for more than an hour or two at a time, feeling my heart plummet into my stomach every time Khonsu teleported, I was on the same page as the others.

“I only ever wanted to do something to help,” I said.

“I know,” Tecton said.

“Even at the beginning, even when I was undercover in the Undersiders, I wanted to stop the bad guys.  A lot of it was selfish, me wanting to escape, but I still wanted to work for the greater good.”

“Yeah,” Tecton said.  He let his gauntlets fall from my shoulders.  I turned around to look at him.  Our man of iron, his face hidden beneath his helmet.  He was standing firm, giving no indication of how affected he was.  It let him be strong, or appear to be strong, for our sakes.

“And then I decided to be a villain full-time, but my motivations were still sort of good, even if I wasn’t.  I knew the Undersiders needed help.  That there was something wrong with a lot of them, something missing in them.  And being a part of all of that, it was a way to help Coil, when I thought his plan was something good.”

“You’re not a bad person, Taylor.”

“I’m not… being good or bad was never a thing for me.  Not really.  It was all about the actions I was taking and why, instead.  I became a warlord and I took care of people.  I helped seize the city from Coil and we started implementing changes.  Again and again, I’ve escalated in terms of the kind of power I wield.”

“Do you think you’re more powerful now?  With the Wards?”  He sounded almost surprised.

“I… think so.  Yeah.  Maybe my hands are tied, I can’t be as direct or ruthless as I would otherwise be, but I can reach out to the villains and I can reach out to the heroes, and I can affect a kind of change.  I have resources.  Tools and information I might not otherwise have.”

“Makes sense,” he said, his voice soft.  “Taylor, you need to sleep.  I can hear it in your voice.”

“I just… why is it that I get more powerful over time, and yet I feel more and more helpless?”

“You ask too much of yourself,” Tecton said.  “You could have all of the power in the world, and you’d still feel like you should do more.”

“If he hits Brockton Bay-”

“Your father and friends will be okay.  Hell, our strike squad that we used against Behemoth was made up of Brockton Bay residents, wasn’t it?”

“If I have to watch people I care about getting hurt while I’m helpless to do anything, I’ll lose it.”

“It wouldn’t be constructive to lose it,” Tecton said.  “And you’re more likely to lose it if you’re tired.  Go sleep.”

I didn’t reply.  Instead, I trudged off to the quarters that had been set aside for me.  Roughly pie-shaped, with the door at the tip, it sat at the edge of the ‘hub’.  I had a bedroom upstairs, more personal, more of a home, but I didn’t want to be that far away.  I didn’t want to lapse into being Taylor Hebert, even in a moment of rest.  Better to keep thinking, keep considering options.

I lay down on the bed, pulling my mask off.  I didn’t put my glasses on.  My vision was blurry, but it didn’t do anything to block out all of the individual little lights, some blinking, that studded the interior of my quarters.  Laptops, batteries, alarm clock, the charging station with my spare flight pack inside, the television screen, the slat of light that filtered in beneath the door… so many little points of light.  If I hadn’t been so tired, I might have blocked the lights.  Using bugs wouldn’t work, as they’d wander, but a towel at the base of the door, books propped up against various devices…

I sighed and draped my arm over my eyes, my nose in the crook of my elbow.

I spent a long span of time in the twilight of near-sleep, trying not to listen to the murmurs of people’s voices in the main hub.  Idly, I wondered how much time was passing.  Where was Khonsu attacking now?

A lot of people crossed my mind, too.  Enemies, allies.  How were they dealing?  My dad had fired off emails, asked that I let him know before I joined the fight, and right after I got away safely.

For every cogent thought that crossed my mind, two or three stray thoughts followed.  The devastation, scenes burned into my mind’s eye.  People caught and left to die of dehydration in Khonsu’s fields.

Somewhere in the midst of that, I managed to drift off, the recollections becoming dreams, or something close enough to feel like it was an immediate transition.

My uneasy rest was interrupted by a touch to my shoulder.

My eyes opened, and I could see the vague shape of a woman standing over me.

Mom?

I was awake and alert in an instant, but she was already turning away.  Not my mom.  Dark haired, but too short.  Both of my parents were taller than her.

I only recognized her when I saw the doorway.  A rectangle of light, almost glaringly bright, just beside my closet.

“Hey,” I said, as I hopped up from my bed.

She didn’t respond.  She was already gone.

But the doorway remained open.

I had to cross the length of my quarters to see the interior.  A dark hallway, with only dim lighting cast by tubes recessed into the ceiling.  The woman in the suit wasn’t on the other side.

I accessed the various storage containers for the bugs I was keeping in the workshop upstairs.  Beetles navigated the trap that kept them from flying out, then made contact with various touch panels, opening the cages where the various individual species were kept.

As a mass, they flowed down the stairs and into the hub.  The Wards who were at the command center and watching the monitor stood, alarmed, as the mass of bugs made their way across the room to my quarters.

“Taylor.”  It was Tecton speaking, hurrying to the door of my room.

The bugs filtered into my quarters through the space where the walls joined, and beneath the door.

My swarm entered the hallway.  No traps.  The woman in the suit was standing off to one side.  I stood at the threshold, and glanced down at the tracking device that was strapped to my ankle.  What the hell would happen if I stepped through?

I supposed I’d find out.  I stepped through in the same moment Tecton opened the door.

The rectangular portal closed, and I was left staring at a wall.  I turned to see the woman in the suit.  She was tidy, her hair tied back in a loose ponytail with strands tracing the side of her face, and she held a fedora in one hand.  The hat was beaded with moisture.  Another excursion she’d made before reaching out to me?

I was going to speak, when I noticed another presence.  A non-presence.  It was a shift of air currents that seemed unprovoked, affecting certain bugs when it should have touched other bugs in front or behind them.

The topographical sense I got from the movements of my bugs suggested a woman’s form, nude.  It wasn’t entirely gone when another appeared across the room.  The way they moved in sync- not two people.  One person, if she could be called a person; a phantom, flowing through the space around me and the woman in the suit.

The woman in the suit extended the hand that didn’t hold her hat, directing me to a doorway.

I glanced at the woman, noting how there wasn’t a trace of the anxiety or exhaustion that everyone else seemed to show.  My swarm checked the path.

There were people I recognized on the other side.  I stepped through.

The area was dark, but there was ambient light from a series of panels.  Large panels, floor to ceiling, eighteen by five feet, had been erected in a general circle. Two accompanying panels, only two or three feet wide, were set up on either side of each larger panel, to cast light at a slightly different angle.  A bar sat at just below waist height, a semicircle, simultaneously a handrest and a way of indicating a boundary the designated parties weren’t to cross.

A different person or group of people at each station, lit from behind rather than the front.  The light from the other stations barely reached them, which meant their features weren’t well illuminated.  Distinct silhouettes, with only a few more reflective materials catching the light.

I ventured up to the panel closest to the door I’d entered.  Tattletale stood there, and I deigned to stand just behind her and to her left.  Grue, I saw, was leaning against the panel itself, his arms folded.  Tattletale glanced at me and smiled, and I could just barely make out the white of her teeth.

“Asked if they’d pick you up,” she murmured.

“Thank you,” I said.  “What is this?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked.

She turned her attention forward, and then she was taking it in.  I didn’t want to interrupt her, with the amount of information she was doubtlessly gathering.  It was obvious, considering the general presence of those who’d gathered, even if I could only recognize a handful.

Opposite us, Chevalier’s silhouette was unmistakable.  His cannonblade was too distinct.  Exalt stood to his left, and a cape I didn’t recognize stood to the right.  I wondered momentarily if it would count against me that I was standing here.  It hadn’t been by choice, exactly, but it wouldn’t look good that I was with the Undersiders.

Bugs helped me make out Dragon and Defiant at the station to Chevalier’s left.  Both wore their power armor, but apparently the presence of firepower wasn’t a concern, here.

For the most part, that was where my ability to recognize people stopped.

To my left, there was a man in power armor with his face bared.  The tattoo across his face reflected a dark blue-green in an odd way, as though he stood beneath a blacklight, flecks of light… only the fragments flowed.  No, they were traveling a circuit, instead.  Faintly blue, the glimmers traveled a circuit that marked the interior of an elaborate, stylized cross, his eyes unlit shadows in the midst of the two horizontal bars.

I could make out a station with a woman, black, accompanied by a massive shadow of a monster with an auroch’s skull for a head.  The woman’s head hung, her hair braided or bound into dreads, I couldn’t be sure.  I moved my bugs closer to check to see if she had any weapons, and her pet shadow reached out to block the swarm.  They died so quickly it was almost as though the shadow had killed before it made contact.

I decided to leave her alone.

Further down, hard to make out due to the angle of the panel that framed them, there was a small crowd.  A young girl stood at the forefront, and others were gathered around and behind her.  My bugs noted twelve people gathered in front of the panel.

Another station had only a woman and a man sitting at a table that had been set out.  The man had his hands folded neatly in front of him, and the light from neighboring panels was reflected on the large-frame glasses he wore. The woman leaned forward, elbows on the desk, hands clasped in front of her mouth.  Dark skinned, with some kind of pin in her hair.  My bugs traced their hips – the area least likely to be unclothed, and I noted the presence of ordinary clothing.  A button up shirt for him, a knee-length skirt and blouse with accompanying lab coat for her.

Three men in robes that bore a striking resemblance to Phir Sē’s were arranged to our right.

“One moment longer,” the woman in the lab coat said.

“Quite alright,” a man answered her, from the group of twelve.  “I’m really quite excited.  Been a rather long time since I’ve had a breath of fresh air.”

Hush, Marquis,” the girl at the front of that particular group spoke, and her voice was a chorus, a number of people speaking in sync, “I will not have you speaking out of turn.  Our hosts have been gracious to invite us, you will not offend them and besmirch my reputation by association.

“My sincere apologies.”

Marquis?  I had to search for the name for a moment.  Then I stopped.  That Marquis?

Another panel lit up, and the circle was complete.  My bugs found the people gathered in front, allowing me to investigate that crowd, who had silhouettes I couldn’t make out in the jumble.  A woman with a ponytail and a number of monstrous parahumans behind her…  Faultline.

The woman in the suit arrived in the room, crossing through the darkness at the center with the steady taps of her shoe heels against the hard floor.

She joined the man with the glasses and dress shirt and the woman with the lab coat.  It clicked for me.

Cauldron.  I was looking at the people behind Cauldron.  I felt a chill, despite myself.

“Ms. Alcott declined to join us,” the woman in the lab coat said.  “As did Adalid, who wanted to be ready to defend his home in case the new Endbringer arrived there.  The three blasphemies and Jack Slash were unreachable, but we would have far fewer problems if individuals like them could be reached so easily.”

Except you didn’t do anything about Jack when it counted, I thought.

“We reached out to a number of major powers and sources of information, and you are the ones who responded.  As useful as it might be to have the Yàngbǎn or Elite with us, I’m almost glad that we can have this discussion with only those who are truly committed.  Thank you for coming.  I go by Doctor Mother, and I am the founder of Cauldron.”

I could hear a growl from within Faultline’s group.  They were directly opposite Doctor Mother, as far away as they could have been.

Probably sensible, all things considered.  Cauldron was to blame for the case fifty-threes.  I suspected they could have handled themselves if anyone in Faultline’s group were to attack, but setting a distance between the two groups made sense.

“Look,” Tattletale said, abruptly, “Let’s cut past the formality bullshit.  I know a lot of you are big on that sort of thing, but we should talk nitty-gritty tactics sooner than later, especially considering the amount of squabbling that’s sure to happen.”

“Agreed,” Chevalier said, from across the room.

Mense sterf elke sekonde van elke dag. Babas sterf in die moederskoot en die kinders doodgeskiet soos honde. Vroue word verkrag en vermoor en nagmerries skeur mans uitmekaar om te fees op hul binnegoed,” the woman with the skull-headed shadow said, her voice quiet and level.  I was startled to see that it was a human skull, now.

“I gave you the ability to understand and speak English,” a man in the group of twelve said.  “It wouldn’t cost you anything to use it.”

Ek sal nie jou tong gebruik nie, vullis,” the woman replied, her voice still quiet, though it was flecked with anger, just a bit of an edge.

The man sighed, “Well, I could use my power on everyone else here, but somehow I don’t think the offer would be accepted.”

Another person in that group, a woman, spoke.  “She doesn’t believe in using English.  Her first statement was, to paraphrase, ‘People die every day’.”

“Helpful,” Tattletale commented.  “Enough with the bullshit and posturing.  We were brought here for one reason.  Well, a lot of reasons, but the main one that ties us all together is that we’ve got that monster rampaging around and we’re not making headway.  We whittle him down, he heals.  Scion attacks, he teleports, and the golden fool doesn’t follow.  So let’s be honest, let’s talk about this and introduce ourselves before we say anything so we’re not completely in the dark-”

“Some of us have identities to keep private,” the man with the cross on his face said.

“We can’t bullshit around about secrecy and all that.  We need to dust off our weapons and the schemes we’ve been keeping on the back burner and hit that motherfucker.  More than half of us have cards we’re keeping up our sleeves for a rainy day.  Someone needs to bite the bullet and play their card.  And then we need to talk about who plays the next card, when number five comes around.  Because there will be a fifth.  Or a fourth, if you count Behemoth or not.”

“Many of us are playing on a scale where a particular play would put us at a critical disadvantage,” the man with the cross on his face said.  “Acting now, at the wrong time, it wouldn’t only hurt us, but it would put bigger things at risk.  There’s doing wrongs for the greater good, and there’s doing noble deeds and dooming ourselves in the process.”

“You’re hardly so noble, Saint,” Defiant said, his voice a growl.

“I wasn’t speaking about me,” Saint retorted.

“Either way, this is why you’re here,” Doctor Mother said.  “To negotiate.  With luck, you can barter to guarantee your safety in the future, or ask favors of others, in exchange for whatever it costs you to use whatever weapons or resources you’re holding back.”

We can barter,” Faultline said.  Her voice was hard.  “Unless you’re saying the people who’ve been creating and hoarding parahumans en masse don’t have any cards to play.”

“Unfortunately, Faultline, we cannot.  Cauldron, to be specific, cannot.  I have provided this forum for discussion, we can help troubleshoot or support plans, or even provide assistance, but our cards must remain in place.  There is nothing any of you could offer us that would be worth what it costs to act.”

“Bullshit,” I said.  I could feel anger stirring.  “No way I believe that.  Even just that portal system you’ve got, that’s enough to change the tide of this fight.”

“Not an option,” Doctor Mother said.

“Because you’re afraid,” Tattletale said.  “There’s a fear that someone’s going to come after you, trace the portal back home.  But there’s another, bigger fear, isn’t there?”

“Yes,” Marquis said, from among the group of twelve.  “And I suspect I know what it is.”

“Contessa here has informed me you do,” Doctor Mother said, cutting him off.  She was gesturing towards the woman in the suit.  “Let me assure you, it would do more harm than good to reveal the details.  Especially here, especially now.”

“Shit on me,” Tattletale said.  “You bastards figured this out.  How the hell did a bunch of prisoners in a jail that’s dangling inside a mountain get to figure it out before I did?”

“Hands on experience,” Marquis answered.

“Panacea,” Tattletale said.

“Exactly,” Marquis said.  “Clever girl.  Well, I’m not looking to stir waves.  I can’t disagree with the good doctor, so I’ll keep my mouth shut.  Back to business.”

“Damn it,” Tattletale said, under her breath.  Louder, she said, “You’re sure that this doesn’t relate to our Endbringer situation?”

“It doesn’t,” Doctor Mother said. “The Endbringers are a puzzle unto themselves, independent of every other major variable.”

“That reeks of bullshit,” Tattletale said.  “I want to think you’re bullshitting or you’re absolutely wrong and they’re connected to everything, but I’m getting the feeling it’s not.  It’s bullshit because it’s true?”

“I think we’re on the same page, Tattletale,” the Doctor said.

“Can we progress this discussion?” one of the robed men asked.

“We can,” the Doctor said.  “Thank you for getting us back on track, Turanta of the Thanda.  Let’s open the floor to discussion.  Let’s start with the possibility that we might draw from the Birdcage.”

Freedom matters little to me,” the girl with the eerie voice said.  “The true end draws nearer.

“The end of the world, you mean,” I said.

The end of all things, queen administrator,” she said.

Queen administrator?  What?  “Isn’t that the same thing?  The end of the world and the end of all things?  Or do you mean the end of the universe?”

It doesn’t concern other celestial bodies.  It doesn’t matter.  This ends, one way or another.  We and ours will carry on, in some form, whether it happens today or three hundred years from now.

“How reassuring,” Tattletale quipped.  “You won’t help?”

I am safe where I am, whether it beyond the Endbringer’s reach here or deep beneath the mountain.  I will collect from among the dead, and I will keep them company until the faerie rise from the ruins.

Oh, I thought.  She’s completely out of her mind.

“There’s no way to barter for assistance from within the birdcage then?” Doctor Mother asked.  “Nothing you want, Glaistig Uaine?”

The girl, Glaistig Uaine, responded, “A hundred thousand corpses, each being one naturally gifted by the faerie.”

“We don’t have time to laugh about like this,” Turanta, the apparent spokesman of the cold capes said.

I am not joking, astrologer.  I would like to see their lights dancing in the air.  I have seen only glimmers, fragments of the performance.  To see it all at once… yes.

I heard someone in Faultline’s group swearing.  Newter, I suspected.

Honestly, I kind of agreed.  I clenched my fists, biting back the worst of my anger.  I managed to stay calm as I commented, “I’m getting a better idea of why things are as screwed up as they are.  We’ve got all of the major players here, and half of you are willing to do nothing while the world burns.”

“All of the major players who were willing to come to the table,” Doctor Mother said.

Not any better, I thought, but I held my tongue.  Doctor Mother had turned to the girl from the birdcage.  “If you participated in the fight, I can promise there would be a number of dead parahumans there.”

I fear that would not be enough.  It would need to be all together, for the greatest effect,” Glaistig Uaine said.

“We could provide that many over a period of ten years, if required, but we’d want more assistance than simply this one fight,” Doctor Mother said.  She stopped as the man with the glasses leaned close.  A moment passed, “Or we could provide that many twenty-seven years from now.”

I felt a bit of a chill.  They were so casually discussing this, as if it were possible.

I opened my mouth to cut in, but Glaistig Uaine spoke first.

No.  No, I don’t think I’ll accept.  My word is too vital to me, and you seem to want me to war with the abominations.  I don’t fear my own death, but I would rather be together with the others than be separated until the grand celebration.  I won’t fight.  I would only grant my advice, some power here and there.

Doctor Mother sat back in her seat.  The ominous silence suggested she was still considering it.

A hundred thousand lives, being mulled over so readily.

“That’s a shame,” Doctor Mother said, in the end.

“If I may?” Marquis spoke up.  “With your permission, faerie queen.”

Granted,” Glaistig Uaine said.

“There are others who wouldn’t mind being free again,” he said.  “Myself included.  We’d fight that monster if you gave us the chance.  All we’d ask is that you let a select few others out, and that you don’t create a portal that leads back to the Birdcage after the fact.”

“No,” Chevalier said, breaking his long silence.  “No, I’m sorry.”

“Some of the strongest parahumans are contained inside that building,” Marquis said.  “Glaistig Uaine is one, but there are others.  My daughter is another.”

“Your daughter was a mental wreck the last time anyone outside of the Birdcage saw her.  There are too many dangerous individuals in there.  She,” Chevalier said, pointing in the direction of the woman with the shadowy pet with the massive bird skull, “Has killed thousands of people.  That’s nothing compared to what some individuals in the birdcage have done.  We’d be letting the wolves run free again, in the hopes they deal with the lion.”

“If there is no other way to deal with the lion, and we know the wolves have been caught in our snare once before…” Saint said, trailing off.

“We know they can be dealt with.  We’re just lacking resources.  Opening the doors of the Birdcage has to be a last resort.”

“Oh, I don’t know, I could stand for it to be the first resort,” Marquis said.  He turned toward the Doctor, “I’m staying mum about what my daughter discovered.  The details we both know that must not be shared.  Surely that’s worth some goodwill.”

“It is,” the Doctor replied.

I glanced at Tattletale.  Her eyes were moving quickly, hungrily taking in details.

Chevalier sighed.  “Dragon?  Some backup.”

“I have to say no,” Dragon said.  “The prisoners must stay within the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.  If you intend to rescue them, I’ll deploy everything I have to stop you.  Neither of us can afford the losses at this juncture.”

“But if we did try,” Saint said, “And if we did free a handful of deserving individuals, you wouldn’t be unhappy, would you?”

There was a pause, telling.  It was enough of a delay for Chevalier to look from Saint to Dragon and give her a curious stare before she spoke.  “My view on who is deserving is far different from yours, Saint.”

“Those of us standing here.  Me, my daughter, Lung,” Marquis said.

“You cannot speak for all of us on that front,” a matronly woman spoke.  “One of my girls was unfairly imprisoned, another is on the verge of losing her mind, in captivity.”

“We all have people we’d see freed,” the man who’d spoken about granting the ability to speak English said.  “Let’s say two for each of us.”

“Thirty six in all,” Dragon said.  “One in five of the people currently in the Birdcage, almost.  Six more could potentially use the opportunity to slip out, through Stranger powers or other malfeasance.  Glancing over the notes my artificial intelligences have made regarding the facility, I can guess who some of the cell block leaders would choose to release.  No.  I harbor concerns about the Birdcage, but this is not the answer to that.”

“It would do more harm than good,” Chevalier said.  “And I say that with full knowledge of what we’re up against here, today.  The last three days.”

“Their opinions don’t decide this,” Marquis said.  “If it were solely up to our officers and jailer in the first place, then we’d be free already.  You, Cauldron, have the means to send us back or not.  It’s your authority that matters.”

Chevalier shifted his grip on his weapon, but he didn’t attack.  “We’ll bargain.  Marquis is offering assistance, but the PRT has influence.  We’ll deal with you, Doctor, if it means the Birdcage remains sealed.  With the ongoing inquisition against Cauldron capes, perhaps there are one or two you’d want to be ignored.  They couldn’t be promoted, that’s the PRT’s jurisdiction, and it would only draw attention to them that I couldn’t help them avoid.  Still, I could time a transfer, allow someone to slip through the cracks.”

“A few someones,” the Doctor said.  “Yes.  I’m sorry, Marquis.  Our clients must come first.”

“You’ll be twisting our arms and escorting us through the portal, then?”

“You’ll go willingly.  This place cannot sustain life.  It’s a facility in the middle of a wasteland, and your Earth is several universes away.”

“I see,” Marquis said.  “Unavoidable, I take it.  And if I were to share the particularly valuable information that you and I both know, that you don’t want me to share with others who are present?”

“I can’t believe I’m not getting in on this,” Tattletale whispered to me.

Doctor Mother didn’t reply.  She remained still, her eyes on Marquis, as the woman in the suit, who she’d called Contessa, leaned in close, whispering.

“You won’t,” the Doctor said, when Contessa had straightened and stepped back, standing guard behind the Doctor’s chair.

“I won’t?”

“You won’t.  Teacher would, hearing that, but Teacher has a secret he doesn’t want divulged, and he now knows we know.”

Marquis turned, his shadow shifting, presumably as he looked at Teacher.  He turned back, “Ah well.  I suppose I’ll just say we’re here if you need us.”

“If we need you that badly,” Chevalier said, “Then we’ve already lost.”

“Rest assured,” Marquis retorted, “I think you’re doing a very good job at getting yourselves to that juncture.”

“It’s a failure across the board,” I said, surprising myself by speaking.  “All of us, the Birdcage prisoners excepted, we’re not doing enough.  If we don’t come up with an answer or get someone to step up to bat and fight, then we’re doomed.  We’ve got the end of the world happening in twenty-thirteen, and we can’t even band together for this.”

“Complaining gets us nowhere,” Faultline said. “Besides, it’s not like this is small potatoes.”

“Okay then,” I said.  “Let’s talk resources.  If you’ve got parahumans or information, let’s hear it.  Let’s show a measure of trust and have Marquis or Cauldron share the tidbit of information they’ve gleaned.  Let’s talk options that don’t involve fighting.  Tattletale thinks these bastards are designed.  Where’s the designer?”

“Nowhere we can find,” Doctor Mother said.  “And we have the most powerful clairvoyance we know about, alongside the most powerful precognitive.”

“Does that mean there isn’t a designer?” Faultline asked.  “That Tattletale’s wrong?”

“Get fucking real,” Tattletale retorted.  “I’m confident on this count.”

“If they can’t find the designer-” Faultline started.

“There’s other possibilities.  Lots of powers confound precogs and clairvoyants.”

“Both at the same time?”

“Be constructive,” I cut in.

“We will assist,” Turanta said.  “Sifara, Bahu and I, others beneath us in our organization.  I cannot speak for my fellow brothers, but I will ask them because we all owe a debt.  Our brother died, but Weaver helped to make it not for nothing.”

“Phir Sē died?” I asked, surprised.

“At the hands of the First, very late.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“We owe you,” he said.  “As we owe some of the others.  It is your choice how you would use this.”

“You can pay me back by helping, here,” I said.  “You’d be paying us all back.”

“We have the means,” he said. “But this hurts us, because we rely on our enemies not knowing what we are truly able to do.”

“If this goes much further,” I said, “It might not matter.”

“This is true.  Of each of you but Weaver and Chevalier, we will ask a small favor, after.  Nothing dangerous or painful to give away.  Token gestures, most.”

“Favors make for a good currency,” the Doctor said.  “Granted.”

There were murmurs of assent from others.  The woman with the shadow pet didn’t respond, but Turanta didn’t press the issue with her either.

Dragon glanced at Defiant, but ultimately relented, accepting the terms.

The Doctor spoke “Moord Nag?  We could use your assistance.”

The woman and her shadow pet with its crocodile skull looked at Doctor Mother.  “Laat hulle almal sterf.  Ek is tevrede om die wêreld te sien brand en die vallende konings te spot.  Ek en my aasdier sal loop op die as van die verwoeste aarde.”

“She says no.  Let them all die,” the woman from the Birdcage said.

“Can I ask who she is?” Faultline asked.

Tattletale was the one to answer.  I think she got a measure of joy out of rubbing the fact that she knew in Faultline’s face, “Moord Nag.  Warlord based in Namibia.  As far as the current warlords in the area go, she’s had the longest lifespan at about eight years or so, and she’s gotten things to the point where most of the other bastards around there are kowtowing, asking permission to attack this city or occupy that area, to go to the bathroom or unite two groups in an alliance.”

Die badkamer?”

Us, basically,” Tattletale said, glancing at me.  She turned her head to look at Grue, “Only on a much, much bigger scale, and she did it alone.”

Ek het dit reggekry met aasdier,” Moord Nag responded.  “Nie alleen nie.

“With your pet monster, right.”

“She said she’d be willing to let the world burn, before,” the woman from the birdcage said.  “I don’t think you have an ally there.”

“From her attitude,” Saint added, “I don’t even see why she was invited.”

“I’ll ask you the same thing I asked the others,” the Doctor said.  “What would it take for you to fight, here?”

Ek kan nie krag spandeer sonder om die nag lande hulpeloos teen hul bure te los nie.”

“She can’t spend her power, not without-”

“We’ll supply what you need to replenish it,” the Doctor said.

“No,” Dragon spoke.  “No, you won’t.”

Ek sal nie-

“It would be appreciated,” the man from the Birdcage that had granted her the ability to understand English spoke.  “Reconsider.  Don’t underestimate our resources.”

Vyf duisend, lewendig, dit maak nie saak of hulle mag het of nie.  ‘N Fraksie van wat jy die gek aangebied het.

“No,” Dragon said, before the translator could speak.

“Yes,” the Doctor said, just as readily.  “I caught the number, I can figure out the rest.  You’ll get what you need.”

“I can’t stand by and watch this, not like this,” Chevalier said.

“How many more will die if we don’t act?” the Doctor said.  “The Thanda will counteract the Endbringer’s teleportation ability, at least for a time.  Moord Nag gives you much-needed clout.  Again, at least for a short time.”

“In exchange for five thousand lives?” Dragon asked.

“A small price to pay.  How many have died as we conducted this meeting?”

Jy praat asof dit saak maak. Die kontrak is verseël. Sal ons gaan nou,” Moord Nag said.

“What did she just say?” Chevalier asked.  Moord Nag was already walking away, stepping away from the panel and into the recessed passage beside it, almost completely hidden in shadow.  I could only make out the rodent’s skull, overlarge and pale in the darkness.

“The contract is settled,” Dragon said.  “She sees it as inviolable, now.”

“I like her,” Marquis commented.  “Mass murder aside, anyways.  Woman of her word.”

“We’ll find her,” Chevalier said, to the Doctor, “After the battle is done, before you deliver those people to her.”

“You promised us a favor, in exchange for our not letting Marquis and the other cell block leaders free,” the Doctor said.  “I could ask you to leave this be,” the Doctor said.

“No.  Not this.  Not five thousand people, fed to that woman’s pet.”

“Stop us, then,” the Doctor replied.  “Or try, as it may be.  That’s one Endbringer we should be able to drive away.  As Weaver said, we may have to evacuate the planet if this doesn’t work.  Faultline, your assistance would be invaluable on that front.  You’ve already created nine, I believe?”

“Three of which were supposed to be secret,” Faultline replied.

“It doesn’t matter.  We’ll pay for several more, at major locations, and we’ll arrange your transportation.”

Faultline stared at the woman.  “No, Doctor.”

“No?”

“Not your money.  Not you.”

“Shortsighted,” Saint commented.

“I think this is pretty big picture.  Money talks, and I don’t like how this money sounds.  She spends five thousand lives like someone else would spend change.  Cauldron made innocent people into monsters.  They took everything from them.  I can’t deal with that in good faith.”

She turned to Chevalier, “We’ll give you a discount.  Escape routes in major cities across America.  Leading to the world that the Brockton Bay portal goes to.”

Fuck that,” Tattletale said.

“I’ll talk to my superiors,” Chevalier said.

“Good,” Faultline said, “that’s settled, then.”

“Leaving only the Endbringer that comes next,” I said.

“We won’t know what measures need to be taken until it makes an appearance,” Defiant spoke.

“Another meeting,” the Doctor said.  “Another day.”

I could feel my heart skip a beat at that.  I wasn’t sure I liked what this was becoming.

Then again, the nature of this meeting had been suggested from the start, with the shadows concealing identities.  Everything the PRT had been fighting to assure people that parahumans weren’t doing was happening here, in this room.  Scheming, trading lives like currency, and wielding incredible amounts of power, money and influence.

“But before we get that far,” the Doctor said, “Tattletale?”

“You asked me here for a reason,” Tattletale said.  “Multiple reasons.”

“The first being to give you an opportunity to check something for our mutual benefit.”

“You brought the major players in so I could see if anyone was the designer, the creator of the Endbringers.”

“And?”

“Nobody here.”

The Doctor nodded.  “I suspected.  They remain immune to precognition, but the designer wouldn’t be, I don’t think.  It’s good to double check, regardless.  Will you be attending if we hold another meeting, Chevalier?” the Doctor asked.

Others, the Thanda, were departing, now.  Grue had stepped away from the panel to step close to Tattletale, whispering something.

Then Grue walked past me, not even glancing my way, before disappearing into the corridor I’d used to enter.

Hurt, confused, I couldn’t speak to ask Tattletale why without possibly interrupting Chevalier, as he spoke in a steady, quiet voice.

“I don’t think I have a choice.  If I don’t come, then I’m left blind to what’s occurring behind the scenes.  I wouldn’t be able to intervene if you tried something like you did with the Birdcage.”

“That’s true,” Doctor Mother said.

“And I think that’s exactly what you wanted,” he said.  “You have that Contessa there, and she sees the road to victory.  You schemed this.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”  Chevalier asked.

“It’s not time for you to know,” she said.

Fuck that,” Tattletale cut in.  Most of the other groups were gone.  Faultline and her group lingered behind.  “I think it’s damn obvious what you’re doing.”

“A new world order,” I said.  Tattletale nodded in agreement beside me.

There were a few curious glances shot our way.  I could see the Doctor shift position.  Exasperation?  Annoyance?

I leaned forward, resting my hands on the railing in front of me.  Grue’s odd departure only fueled an anger that had been simmering, “I had a hell of a lot of time to think, in prison, in my downtime and during stakeouts.  There’s only one thing that really makes sense, as far as your motivations go.  It’s not the clues or what you’re doing, it’s what you weren’t doing.  Only Legend helped against the Slaughterhouse Nine, but he wasn’t in the know, from the looks of it.  You didn’t help Coil, and you didn’t help against Coil.  You only helped against Echidna when it looked like everything might go down the toilet.  But Alexandria steps in when I leave, confronts me after I’d surrendered to the PRT.  So I had to ask myself why.”

“I can imagine,” Doctor Mother said.

“We were guinea pigs,” I said.  “For what?  So you could be in charge?”

“Not us.  Never us,” the Doctor said.  “There’s a lot you don’t understand.”

Try us,” Tattletale said, almost snarling the words.

“All of this?  It’s small scale,” the Doctor said.  “Important?  Yes.  But it’s nothing in the grand scheme of things.”

I clenched my fists.  “Five thousand lives, nothing.  Talking about a hundred thousand parahumans to be delivered after twenty-some years, nothing.  The lies you perpetuated with Alexandria, the schemes, Echidna, the human experimentation, the case fifty-threes, everyone you watched die just so your experiment with parahumans in charge of Brockton Bay wouldn’t be tainted…”

“We’ll go down in history as the villains,” Doctor Mother said.  There wasn’t a trace of doubt or hesitation in her voice.  “But it’s worth it if it means saving everyone.”

“You sound so sure,” Gregor the Snail spoke, from behind Faultline.  He had a heavy accent.  European-ish, in the same vein as Moord Nag.

“Do morals matter, if our alternative is a grim and hopeless end?”

“I would never question your morals,” Gregor said.  “I know you have none.  I merely wonder why you are so confident you will succeed in all of this, that you will save the world and you will achieve your new world order and your parahuman leadership.”

“We have a parahuman that sees the path to victory.  The alternative to traveling this path, to walking it as it grows cloudier and narrower every day, is to stand by while each and every person on this planet dies a grisly and violent death.”

“You know how the world ends,” I said, my eyes widening behind the lenses of my mask.

“Of course,” she answered, standing from her chair.  She collected papers and a tablet computer from the table in front of her.  She collected it into a neat bundle, and the man with the glasses took it from her, holding it under one arm.  Only then did she add, “We already saved it once.”

There were no responses to that.  Confusion and disbelief warred with each other as I stared at her silhouette.  The others seemed to be in similar straits.

“You had better hurry if you want transportation to the battlefield,” she said.  Then, with the man with the glasses and Contessa following, she strode from the dark chamber.

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Interlude 24

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Hero ushered him into the headquarters.  “This is the last one.  I’d like you all to meet Chevalier.”

There was a chorus of replies.  Mumbled greetings with one exceedingly enthusiastic response from a girl in the crowd.  It was almost mocking.

Chevalier ventured inside, a touch hesitant.  Not afraid.  He’d told himself he’d never be afraid again.  No.  But this was unfamiliar territory.  The others were difficult to read.  Nine youths.

His eyes roved over the group.  Five girls, four boys.  His addition made it an even split.  Intentional?

The costumes ran the gamut from professional to homemade.  They varied in the degree of color, in seriousness, in combat readiness.  There was a boy, also, who had a professional looking costume, black and green.  It was a costume that had no doubt cost money, with leather and a utility belt, a leaf emblem over his heart.  Around him, Chevalier could see a vague nimbus, as though he could see only the brightest and darkest parts of some landscape that the boy stood within.  It was a subtle thing, an image that Chevalier could make out in the same way his perspective on something might alter if he had only his left eye closed, as opposed to his right.

A girl beside the boy with the leaf costume wore a less expensive looking costume, but she’d apparently gravitated towards him, a hopeful lackey or a romantic interest.  In the same way that the forest seemed to hang in the periphery of the boy, an older woman loomed just behind the girl.  She was kindly in appearance, like a next door neighbor, with hands burned black from fingertip to elbow.  The old woman was moving her lips as though she were talking, but the image was silent.

He started to turn his head, but the image changed.  The effect ran over the girl’s skin, as though she were standing right in front of a glacier, the light refracting off of it.

No, the black hands on the older woman… a result of fire?  Magma.

The girl caught him looking at her and frowned a little.  He averted his gaze.  She likely thought he was staring for other reasons.

At the far end of the scale, opposite the two professional, serious looking young heroes, there was a girl with a shield and sword.  Her helmet sat on the table beside her, a homemade piece of equipment with ridiculous mouse ears at the sides.  It wasn’t a great helmet either; it didn’t offer enough peripheral vision, was more decorative than protective.  She stood off to one side, but two others had gathered near her.  She was grinning, the one who’d stood out from the rest with her over the top welcome.

And the images, the glimmers, they showed the mouse-ears girl laughing.  For her companions, there was a strange writing system patterned on one boy’s skin, and the other boy swirled with a smoke that wasn’t there.

The images weren’t an unfamiliar thing, but this was the first time he’d been confronted with so many in one place.  It was distracting, unnerving.

What were they supposed to be, the glimmers?

The remaining two members of the group were a boy, a clear vigilante of the night in appearance, with a costume that was black from head to toe, and a girl dressed in urban camouflage.  Chevalier’s attention fell on the girl; her white and gray jacket was short enough that it didn’t reach the small of her back, a blue tank top with a shield emblem on the front.  Her scarf, a complimenting shade of blue, was wrapped around her lower face, bearing the same emblem.  She sat in a chair, elbows on her knees, toying with a knife.

Odd as it was, she was more grim than the boy who was trying to look dark and disturbing.

“Take a seat,” Hero said.  He laid a gentle hand on Chevalier’s shoulder.

Such a minor thing, but it felt somehow critical.  What clique did he identify with?  What direction would he take?

He glanced over the rest of the group, at the images that had changed, and his eyes fell on the one with the knife.

In that instant, the knife disappeared, and there was a flare.  The images were suddenly distinct, glaring, an image appearing in a flash, so brief he might have missed it.  A cluster of children, blood, their faces stark with fear and in one case, pain.

It faded as quickly as it had appeared, and the girl held a gun, now.

She’d caught him looking.  Meeting his eyes, she changed it again.

The image that flickered was of her, holding a gun with a silencer on the end, pointing it.  Her expression was one of desperation.

She’d changed the gun for a machete, apparently unaware.

He made his way across the room, and seated himself in the chair beside her.  She didn’t even glance his way, her attention on the weapon as she ran her thumb alongside the flat of the blade.

“Army girl doesn’t even speak english, you know,” the boy in the nice costume said.

“She speaks some,” Hero said.  “It’s fine.”

“I’m just saying,” the boy said.

“I think we all know what you’re saying,” Hero answered.  “You’ve made arguments about what you want the team to be, your desire to be taken seriously.”

Chevalier watched the exchange carefully.  His eyes fell on the figure behind Hero, and he tried to focus his attention on it.  It moved with glacial slowness, a four-legged creature with legs so long that the ‘window’ around Hero didn’t even show its main body.  Finger-like appendages at the base of each leg carved diagrams and ideas into the ‘soil’ beneath as it walked.

“We’ve got the serious part down,” the girl with the mouse ears said.  She drew her sword, thrusting it into the air, “Huzzah!”

“So bogus,” was the mumbled response.  “As if her group has the majority.”

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” Hero said.  “A lot of you have been through a lot, and some of you have only just stopped.  Stopped running, stopped fighting, stopped dealing with a long series of crises.”

Hero’s eyes briefly fell on Chevalier.  Chevalier lowered his eyes to the floor.

“The important thing to remember,” Hero said, “is that you’ve got time.  You have time to figure out who you want to become, time to figure out what this team will become, time to breathe.  To be kids again.”

Hero paused, glancing over the room.  He sighed.  “And you have zero interest in that, I’m sure.  You’re in a hurry to grow up, to be heroes.”

“You’d better believe it, boss,” the mouse girl said.

“Just be careful,” Legend said, as he strode into the room.  He was accompanied by Eidolon and Alexandria.  “This is about training, not thrusting you into the midst of trouble.”

“That comes later,” the mouse girl said.

“If you decide you want it,” Legend answered.

The sheer presence of the heroes here was changing the energy of the room.  The listless teenagers had perked up.  They were paying more attention, more alert.

It was no longer one more act in a long sequence of hoops and events.  This was the main capes of the Protectorate, all here in one place, for them.

“Well,” Hero said, clapping his hands together.  “I’m not good at the formalities.  Being in charge isn’t my thing, as much as those three like forcing the job on me.  So what do you say?  Let’s crack open the soda bottles, cut the cake and celebrate our inaugural Wards team.”

The mouse girl’s team cheered and whooped.  Nobody else really joined in with even half of the enthusiasm, but there was more of a response than there might have been before the rest of the Protectorate had showed up.  Chevalier even allowed himself a cheer, joining in with the clapping.

It was exciting.  Exciting and a little scary.  Like stepping out over a chasm.

As the others made their way to the table, Chevalier stood from his chair, then glanced down at the army girl.  “You want cake?”

She raised her head.  “Yes.”

“What do you want to drink?  I think there’s cola, ginger ale, sprite…”

“The brown drink,” she said.

“Coke, then.”

He left her sitting in the chair, paying far too much attention to her weapon, and grabbed two paper plates.

“I’m curious why you sat next to Hannah,” Hero commented, as he served himself some cake.

Chevalier glanced at the girl with the weapons.  He felt uncomfortable, “People are making it a bigger deal than it is.  It was just me sitting down.  I didn’t put much thought into it.”

“Maybe,” Hero said.  He laid a hand on Chevalier’s shoulder.  “But it’s good that you did.  She could use a friend.  Might make a world of difference, in the long run.”

Chevalier shrugged, stepping up to the tray and placing a slice of cake on each plate.

“We’re all ignoring the obvious reason,” the girl with the mouse ears said, getting in Chevalier’s way as she reached for a plastic fork.  “He thinks she’s hot.  He wants the poontang.

Hero cleared his throat in a very deliberate way.

“Don’t be juvenile,” the leaf-boy told her, from the front of the line.

Chevalier shifted awkwardly.  The girl with the mouse ears was in his way, and he couldn’t move down the table to get a drink.  She wouldn’t budge until this was resolved.

“I got the vibe she and I are similar,” Chevalier said.  It was honest.  The images he’d seen, of the girl…

And it was apparently the wrong thing to say, because mouse-ears was only more insistent, now.  She smiled, cooing the word, “Similar?”

“You didn’t figure it out yet?  Chevalier’s the vigilante that went after the Snatchers,” the leaf-boy said.

Hero turned around, and his voice was a little hard, “Reed.  That’s not your story to share.”

“It’s okay,” Chevalier said.  “They’d find out eventually.”

Mouse-girl looked confused.  “The Snatchers?  Are they supervillains?”

“No,” Chevalier said.  He used the distraction to push past her and get to the area where the two-liter bottles of soda were lined up.  He poured the drinks for himself and Hannah.  “They were ordinary people.  Bad people, but ordinary.  Except maybe the leader.”

“Maybe?”  Mouse girl asked.

“I didn’t give him a chance to show me.”

Her eyes widened.

Chevalier felt strangely calm as he spoke, “Not like that.  Alexandria caught up with me at the very end.  When I was trying to decide what I’d do with him.  She told me she’d stand by and let me kill the guy, if I really had to, but I’d go to jail afterwards.  That, or I could come with her.  Come here.”

Hero frowned, glancing at Alexandria, who had gathered at one corner of the room with Eidolon and Legend.  They were looking at the kids, talking, smiling.  “I’m glad you made the right choice.”

Chevalier shrugged.  I’m not sure I did.

He was still angry.  Still hurt.  His little brother’s absence was still a void in his life.

“Maybe now you can stop asking questions,” Reed told the mouse girl.

“Never!”

Reed sighed.

“Everyone has their baggage,” Hero said.  “Sometimes it’s in the past, sometimes it’s in the present, other times it’s fears for the future.  But this is a fresh start, understand?  I’m pretty mellow, believe it or not, but I’m going to be upset if I hear that anyone’s holding any of that stuff against a teammate, or if you’re letting it hold you back.  Understand?  This is a second chance for everyone.  You’re here to support one another.”

There were silent nods from Chevalier, Reed and the mouse girl.

“Good.  Now go.  Eat cake, drink soda, be merry.  And when the party is done and us adults are gone, with you kids left to your own devices, check the empty room, the one that isn’t assigned to any of you.  I stocked you guys with video games and movies.”

“No way,” Reed said, smiling genuinely for what might have been the first time.

“Yes way,” Hero said, returning the smile.  “But we’re not going to tell the higher-ups, are we?  It’s a bit of a secret, and you don’t betray that secret by letting yourself slack on the training or the schoolwork, right?”

Reed’s smile dropped a little in intensity, but he nodded.

“Go on,” Hero said, still smiling,  “And don’t get me in trouble.”

Reed hurried back to his chair, as if getting there sooner meant the party would end earlier, speeding up his access to the treasure trove Hero had hinted at.

Wordless, Chevalier managed the drinks and two plates as he carried them over to Hannah.  He gave her a plate and a cup, and she smiled without thanking him.

“A toast,” Alexandria said, stepping forward.  “To the first Wards team of America.”

“To second chances,” Hero said.

“A brighter future,” Eidolon added.

“And to making good memories,” Legend finished.

“Memories,” Hannah said, under her breath, nearly inaudible as the room clapped and cheered.  She was looking down at the machete that she’d placed across her lap, the paper plate with the cake balanced on the flat of the blade.

Chevalier didn’t respond.  His eyes were on the phantom images, barely visible.

The screen displayed the list.  Chevalier scrolled down, his expression grim.

Marun Field, December 13th, 1992.  Behemoth.
São Paulo, July 6th, 1993.  Behemoth.
New York, March 26th, 1994.  Behemoth.
Jakarta, November 1st, 1994.  Behemoth.
Moscow, June 18th, 1995.  Behemoth.
Johannesburg, January 3rd, 1996.  Behemoth.
Oslo, June 9th, 1996.  Leviathan.
Cologne, November 6th, 1996.  Behemoth.
Busan, April 23rd, 1997.  Leviathan.
Buenos Aires, September 30th, 1997.  Behemoth.
Sydney, January 18th, 1998.  Leviathan.
Jinzhou, July 3rd, 1998.  Behemoth.
Madrid, December 25th, 1998.  Leviathan.
Ankara, July 21st, 1999.  Behemoth.
Kyushu, November 2nd, 1999.  Leviathan.
Lyon, April 10th, 2000.  Behemoth.
Naples, September 16th, 2000.  Leviathan.
Vanderhoof, February 25th, 2001.  Behemoth.
Hyderabad, July 6th, 2001.  Leviathan.
Lagos, December 6th, 2001.  Behemoth.
Shanghai, April 23rd, 2002.  Leviathan.
Bogotá, August 20th, 2002.  Behemoth.
Lausanne, December 30th, 2002.  Simurgh.
Seattle, April 1st, 2003.  Leviathan.
London, August 12th, 2003.  Simurgh.
Lyon, October 3rd, 2003.  Behemoth.

“Stop,” Chevalier ordered.  The artificial intelligence halted the scrolling.  The scroll bar wasn’t even at the halfway mark.

Brighter future indeed.

He rubbed at his eyes, suddenly feeling very weary.  Nothing worked out like it was supposed to.  The Wards were supposed to be a safe haven for teenaged capes, buying them time to prepare themselves, to train and figure out what they needed to figure out.  Somewhere along the line, some Wards had joined the fight.  Locals, defending their homes, naturally.

As the ranks of adult capes were whittled down, more had attended the fights, as if unconsciously acknowledging the need, or as if they were under a subtle pressure to do so.  Just like that, the ideals and ideas that had helped form the original Wards team had eroded away.

He swept a hand in front of him, and the ship read the gesture, a new image appearing on the monitor.  The two screens on either side showed Behemoth’s attack on the city.  He hadn’t ventured far from where he’d emerged.

Chevalier only glanced at the screens from moment to moment, his focus more on the infrastructure, the resources at his disposal.

San Diego, absent.  They’d lost too many members, abandoned by those who’d lost faith in the Protectorate, with the remnants cannibalized to support other teams in need.  San Diego was more or less stable, so there’d been little pressure to resupply them with new members.

Except that Spire, San Diego’s team leader, hadn’t felt confident walking into the fight.  There’d been the human element, the fears, the concerns.  He’d had cold feet at the last second, decided not to come.  An integral part of their defense, gone, forcing them to adapt.

There were so many elements like that.  Little things.  He’d heard so many complain about how the Protectorate handled the attacks.  How they were disorganized, inefficient.

Maybe he’d shared in that sentiment, to a degree.  That had changed when he’d participated in his first fight, when he’d seen just what it meant to be in the fray, against an enemy that couldn’t truly be stopped.  But still, he’d harbored doubts.

Then he’d taken command of a team, and he’d seen the process of trial and error, as they learned their opponents’ capabilities, saw how Leviathan or the Simurgh could keep tricks up their sleeves for years, before using them at a critical moment.  Even now, they didn’t fully understand the Simurgh’s power, how long it might take someone to recover, if recovery was even possible.

And now he led the attack.

He drew in a deep breath, then exhaled.

Focus on the presentHe’d lose it if he dwelled on the pressures, on the fact that every attack to date was another added pressure, a set of losses to avenge, a step towards mankind’s fall.

Vegas was absent too.  They’d turned traitor, walked away.  Satyrical had turned down the offer for a ride to the battle, claiming they’d make their own way.  It was disconcerting, to think they had access to transportation in that vein.  Teleporters?  A craft that could and would carry people halfway around the world fast enough?  Disconcerting to think they had access to resources like that so soon after defecting.

But not surprising.

Brockton Bay, in large part, was sitting this one out.  Hannah wasn’t a true asset against Behemoth.  Besides, the truce was in worse shape than it had been even in the beginning, and the portal too important.

He allowed himself a moment to think of Hannah.  They’d dated briefly, then separated.  It had been a high school romance, and they’d both been too busy to really pursue things.  What had been one or two dates a week became maybes, then had ceased to happen at all.  He’d graduated to the Protectorate, changed cities, and they hadn’t said a word on the subject.

Chevalier had seen her grow, though.  That was what he kept in mind to assuage his disappointment over the way things had gone.  She’d come into her own, confident, intelligent.

In a way, he was glad she wasn’t coming.

He turned around to face Rime and Exalt.  He could see the shadows, as he now thought of them.  Rime’s younger self accompanied her, sitting on the bench beside her, arms folded around her knees, face hidden.  The real Rime was sitting on the bench, a fold-out table in front of her, a laptop open.

And Exalt?  His ‘shadow’ was barely visible, impossible to make out.  When it came to the fore, though, Chevalier knew it would look much as Hannah’s power did in its transitions.  Phantom images.

He’d raised the subject of the images with others.  When his proximity to Eidolon had started to give him migraines, he’d confessed about the images.  He’d feared a kind of schizophrenia, but Eidolon had reassured him otherwise.

It was a piece of the puzzle, but that puzzle was still far from complete.  Until they had more to work with, it was merely data.  Glimmers of memories and dreams, the conclusion had been, after long discussions with Eidolon and the parahuman researchers.  An effect of the thinker power required to manage his own ability, tied to trigger events in some fashion.

Except now he was wondering if he’d been misled.  Eidolon was a traitor, one working for a group that clearly had some deeper understanding of powers.  Maybe it had been in Cauldron’s interests for Eidolon to lie about this.

“Record numbers.  Lots of capes are coming,” he said.  Rime and Exalt both looked up.

“But…” Exalt said.  He seemed to reconsider before finishing his sentence.

“But we’re disorganized,” Chevalier finished it for him.  “People we should be able to count on are gone.  Plans we had are falling apart because those people aren’t there.

Exalt nodded.

“PRT wants us to play this up,” Chevalier said, “I’m supposed to involve you guys in leadership aspect of things.  If you’re willing, I’m not going to dwell on it.”

Exalt arched an eyebrow.

“You’re team leaders.  You’ve got the experience, at least to a degree.  But I don’t want to dwell on peripheral stuff.  We’re focused on the fight?  All right?”

Rime and Exalt nodded.

“I’ll lob a few of you some softball questions, then we get right to it.”

“Right,” Rime said.

The ship altered course, Chevalier felt his heart drop.  Silkroad’s power wasn’t giving them any forward momentum anymore.  They were close.  Landing in a minute.

“You ready for this?  Being leader for the first time?”  Exalt asked.

“No.  Not for one this important.  Everyone who’s paying attention knows this is a crucial one.  Maybe even the point of no return.  We lose this, we lose New Delhi, and there’s no going back.  We’ll never get to the point where we can consistently beat those motherfuckers, never recoup what we’ve lost.  I screw up here, and the world will know.”

“They can’t blame you,” Rime said.

“They damn well can,” Chevalier retorted.

She frowned.

The ship descended, four legs absorbing the impact of the landing almost flawlessly.

He turned to the swords, set into the floor of the craft.  There were two.

In truth, there were three.  The largest was thirty feet long, running from the ramp at the back to the cabin at the front, almost entirely set into the floor.  There was no decoration on it.  Only mass, sturdy craftsmanship, and the mechanisms necessary for the cannon that was set inside the handle and blade.

It would have been too heavy for the ship to carry, except he’d already used his power, drawing it together with a second blade, an aluminum blade a mere four feet long.  Lightweight.

His ability to see the ‘shadows’ about people was an extension of this power.  He could see the general makeup of the two weapons, the phantom images, the underlying physics, in lines and shapes and patterns.

It was about perspectives.  Relationships.  He’d drawn them into one blade, with the appearance of the larger, the properties of the smaller.

The third blade was decorative, with a ceramic blade, gold and silver embellishments and inlays in the blade.  The thing was ten feet long from end to end, and again, it had the cannon set within.   Combining the first blade with this one proved more difficult.  He granted the weapon the appearance of this blade, gave it the cutting edge, but retained the lightweight mass and the durability of the largest weapon.

Fine balances.  He adjusted it, tuning its size for convenience’s sake.  The heft remained the same, as did the effective weight as it extended to the rest of the world.

His armor was the same, only it was too large to bring on the craft.  A veritable mountain of construction grade steel, as light as aluminum, with the decoration of a third set.  It had required some concentration, to maintain the balances he’d set, but he was confident he could fight outside of the kill aura’s range.

He glanced at Rime and Exalt, then nodded.

The ramp opened, and the three of them emerged.  There were heavy thuds and the sound of metal striking metal as the other ships landed, forming a ring, with the doors and ramps pointing inward.  A fortification to guard the arriving heroes.

The Protectorate and Wards teams were gathering, with a degree of organization.  His new Protectorate had gathered into the general positions they held at the conference table.  Rime to his left, Exalt to his right, their teams behind them.

And he couldn’t help but notice the gaps.  San Diego, Vegas, Brockton Bay.  Three of the more prominent teams in the United States.

Defiant, Dragon and Weaver were among the last to arrive.  They joined the unofficial capes who’d filled the void that should have been occupied by the San Diego capes.

“The ships have all arrived,” Chevalier said, breaking the silence, starting his speech.

It was only after the Yàngbǎn were out of sight that Chevalier could breathe a sigh of relief.

“You know your roles,” he said, to the capes who remained  He searched the rooftop, and found who he was looking for.  “Mr. Keene, walk with me.”

The dark-skinned man nodded assent, falling in stride.  He wore a neat suit with a PRT pin, official identification on a lanyard around his neck.  Morgan Keene was the PRT’s liaison and ambassador to unofficial teams across the world.  Chevalier could see the glimmer of a power there, suppressed but there.

The fact that the man was a parahuman employee of the PRT wasn’t so unusual.  The fact that it was a well-kept secret was.  The power was out of sync, however, which was stranger still.  Since Chevalier had chanced to make Morgan Keene’s acquaintance, years ago, the man’s shadow had changed.  The core elements were the same, but the appearance of it had changed enough that he’d wondered if the man had managed a second trigger event.  He would have assumed so, except there was no intensity to corroborate the idea.

It left him suspicious, but it wasn’t a suspicion he could act on.  In an ideal world, Chevalier hoped to replace Mr. Keene.  In reality, the situation was too chaotic, and Morgan Keene too entrenched in things.

“You’re upset about the Yàngbǎn.”

“I don’t like surprises.”

“I sent you a number of emails, three voice messages.”

“Can we trust them?”

“No.  But they’re still an asset.  Alexandria wanted them on board.  When you installed your new administration, they said to keep going.”

Chevalier sighed.

“Our thinkers are on board to advise with the concentrated defense.  I’ve coordinated the foreign capes, Arbiter’s handling some of the translations.”

“Okay.  And our… less legitimate thinkers?”

“Accord and Tattletale.”

“Yes.”

“Rime set them up with access to the PRT databases.  Connection is slow but remains strong.”

Chevalier nodded.  “I’ll talk to them.”

“Of course,” Mr. Keene answered.

Chevalier made his way to the downstairs room.  He paused at the entrance.

Tattletale’s ‘shadow’ peered around with a dozen eyes all at once, each set different in design, in appearance and apparent function.  A mosaic.  Accord’s was a glimmer of an old computer, the edge of a desk that wasn’t there.

It wasn’t as meaningful as it had appeared to be at first.  They were only figments of ideas that had been codified and collected in times of stress.  Ideas imprinted on a malleable surface during trigger events, or moments when trigger events had been on the verge of occurring.  As an individual’s power waxed and waned, the images grew more distinct, shifted between the images personal to the cape in question, and the stranger, dream-like aspects that seemed to relate to the powers.

“Accord.  Tattletale.  Do you have something constructive to offer?”

“Yep,” Tattletale said.

“Your defensive lines are a disaster waiting to happen,” Accord said.

“Straight to the point,” Tattletale commented.

“A disaster?” Chevalier asked.

“I’m wondering if you’ve done this on purpose,” Accord stated.  His eye moved critically over Chevalier.  “You’re going to fight the Endbringer in a melee.”

“Yes,” Chevalier said.

“And you’ve picked the new Protectorate team with the idea that they would support you.  The core team is all ranged.”

“Yes,” Chevalier said.

“Ego?” Tattletale asked.

Chevalier shook his head, then thought for a moment.  “Perhaps.”

“Well, ego’s a part of the job.  Question is, can you live up to it?”

“I can try.  But more than anything, I’m not going to put people on the front line if I’m not willing to go there myself.”

“Foolish,” Accord said.  “Everyone has their place in the grand scheme of things.  You do yourself and everyone else a disservice if you try to put yourself where you don’t belong.”

Chevalier shook his head, but he didn’t reply.  There would be no convincing this one.

Accord continued, “There are only two ways you could make this plan work.  The first would be using a sword long enough to reach past his Manton effect bypass, the second is to somehow within that range and survive.”

“Accounted for,” Chevalier said, a touch irritated.  He didn’t need this.  Not now.

“Usher,” Tattletale supplied.

“Ah.  I see,” Accord said.  “And if Usher were to be struck down by a chance lightning bolt?”

“We have fallback plans.”

Accord shook his head.  “I’ll develop better.”

Chevalier grit his teeth.

“I’m watching him fight,” Tattletale said, “And something’s off.  I’ve been watching old videos of the Endbringer fights, looking over maps, and it doesn’t fit together.”

“What doesn’t?”

Her finger tapped hard on the map she’d printed out.  “Location, pacing.  They’re toying with us.  Acting.”

“You’re crediting them with more intelligence than they have.”

“Are you telling me that because you really think they’re dumb, or because you don’t want to-“

Chevalier could sense the attacker by the movement of the shadows.  He whirled around, only to find himself face to face with a cloud of the ‘shadows’.

The Yàngbǎn, one of them.

An assassin?

He couldn’t even make out the figure, behind the layers of images.  Glimpses of twenty, thirty, forty trigger events.

Defying the truce, here?  Now?

He felt his anger stirring.  He adjusted the balances of his blade, maintaining the reach, the appearance, but he altered its interaction with the rest of the world, maintaining its lightweight feel as far as he was concerned, changing it in other respects.

“You lunatic!”

He had his sword out in a flash, swung.  A forcefield appeared, but the weapon breezed through it as if it weren’t even there.

It was, in all respects except appearance, and the ease with which he moved it, a weapon that weighed upwards of fifty tons, as durable as the heaviest weapon.  The cutting edge of the ceramic blade.

His opponent slipped out of the way, and images flared with life as he drew on a power to fly.

Chevalier couldn’t make him out in the midst of the shadows.  Did the Yàngbǎn know this would trip him up, slow him down?

It didn’t matter.  The attacker didn’t have offensive strength.  Two more attacks failed to penetrate Chevalier’s armor.  He advanced, swung, thrusted, and his opponent stepped back, narrowly dodging.

Chevalier pulled the trigger, but a power flared and the shot jammed in the chamber.

Can’t afford to expend resources on this.  Have to prepare for the fight.

He followed up with more swings.  Each missed by a hair.  His opponent was scared, frantic.

And suddenly his opponent was a distance away.  The images, the movement of the clouds outside, telltale signs of being stopped in time.

He advanced, felt another attack fail to penetrate his defenses.  Again, time stopped, his opponent used the window of opportunity to back away.

In between the following two pauses, he could see Accord and Tattletale change places, moving to the door, now barred with a forcefield.

They’d have to hold their own.  Chevalier assessed his opponent, as best as he could, through the storm of hellish images.  Each of them was fractured, broken.  Nothing to be gleaned from them.

But the opponent was sloppy.  Letting him get dangerously close between resets.  It was a question of letting him make a mistake, occupying his attention, so the thinkers would be safe.  A chess game, moving the knight to keep the king in checkmate.  There was only so much space in the room, and he could position himself to force the Yàngbǎn member to move further, to have less time to act, leaving more room for a mistake.

“No,” he could hear Accord murmuring, the word barely above a whisper.  He chanced a glance at the pair.  Tattletale had a hand on her holster, and Accord had stopped her.

He didn’t get a chance to see anything further.  He felt the strength go out of his lower body, a slow but incredible pain tearing through his midsection.

The laser.  How?

He had only a moment to adjust the balances in his power, so the blade and armor wouldn’t crash through the floor and tear down half of the building.

I missed the fight, he realized, as he woke in a hospital bed.

The ground rumbled violently.  He looked up to see Tattletale in the corner of the room, half of her attention on what was happening outside the window, the other half on a phone.

“He’s here?”

She turned to him, tapped her throat.  He could see the tube in her throat.

He sighed.

She approached the bedside, attention on the phone.  She held it out for him to read.

A notepad executable read:

hes here.  defenses crumbled in a minute.  rime dead.  melted off more than half his outer body and he still fighting.  last stand to protect hosp’l for evac and he cutting them down

Chevalier shut his eyes.  We lost.

Tattletale was already typing again.  Her expression was grim as she focused on the phone.

He tried to sit up, and found himself unable.  It was a pain concentrated in one area, but it was so immense that made his entire body react.  His ears buzzed, his vision wavered, and every muscle clenched, as he lay there, trying to ride it out.

She showed him the phone as he lay there, panting.

he still at full strength.  shouldn’t be.  he’s an onion, inner rings progressively tougher.  next 15% way tougher than rest combined.

“I know this,” he gasped out the words.  He moved the sheet to examine himself.  His breastplate had been removed, and his stomach had fresh incisions on it, with sutures holding them closed.

How long had he been out?

She showed him her phone again.

they stapled your gut up.  if outer body is like this then why does he have it?  useless.

He reached up to swat the phone away, felt a pull on his stomach and winced instead.  He knocked it out of the way with his other hand.  Still painful, but easier.

She drew it out of his reach, started typing again.

He turned himself over in the bed, nearly retching at the intensity of the pain, but he found himself on his side.  Even at the weight of aluminum, the armor on his legs and hands was heavy enough to help weigh him down, hold him in position.

She offered him a hand as he swung his legs down, trying to use the momentum to sit up.  He nearly fell, but she caught him, dropping the phone onto the bed in her haste to help him stay sitting upright.

His chest heaved, and he growled out each breath.  The growling helped, on a primal level, but that wasn’t saying much.  Just sitting upright was bad enough that he thought he might pass out.

“My breastplate.”

She handed him the phone, then crossed the room to where a bundle of belongings were gathered on a chair.  They’d cut off the layer of mesh that sat beneath the armor, and the cloth that sat against his skin.  She discarded each of those and simply brought him the armor.

It had held its form.  Good.  He glanced at the phone.

outer body is cosmetc only.  why?  because he supposed to scare us.  behemoth was fashioned.  unnatural life.

She brought the front portion of the armor, resting it on the corner of the bed.  She tapped the phone.

“I read it,” he growled.  “Help me put it on.”

She tapped the phone again.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said.  “It won’t change the outcome of this fight.”

She nodded agreement, then lifted the armor, bringing it to his chest.

There was a crash outside, a chorus of screams.  Chevalier grit his teeth.

“Back piece,” he said.  She gave him a pointed look.

“Please,” he added, growling the word.

She turned on her heel, crossing the room to pick up the armor, slowly, almost leisurely, as she typed on the phone with one hand.  She held the armor in the other as she made her way back, then took several damnable seconds typing out the message before putting the phone down.

“We don’t have time for your typing,” he said.

She only gave him a level, silent stare, as she moved the rear portion of the armor into place.  He reached for the clasps, but moving his left arm was too painful, pulling on the muscles of his stomach.  He used his right for what he could, then waited for her to finish.

Indian doctors rushed down the hall, pushing beds on wheels, four in a row.

He conceded to pick up the phone and read what she’d typed.

they regen slower as damage is further from center.  simurgh core not in human body.  decoy.  prob in join of biggest wing instead.  Is why body fragile n slow to heal.

His eyes widened.  “We destroy the center, we destroy him?”

She gave him a look as if he’d just asked if the sky was green, incredulous.  She shook her head.

“Why the hell not?”

She just shook her head.

“I don’t know why the hell not. Where’s his center?”

She pointed with two fingers, at her collarbone.  The base of the throat, between the shoulders.  Quite possibly the deepest set part of his body.

“Help me stand.”

The entire building rumbled.  For a moment, he thought the entire point would be rendered moot as the structure collapsed.

It took three tries to get him to his feet, with him holding a shelf on the wall with his right hand, her leveraging her entire body’s strength with her shoulder under his armpit.  He stumbled forward, catching himself on the shelf, and heaved for breath, feeling the strength threaten to leave his legs with every deep inhalation and exhalation.

But he couldn’t.  Couldn’t allow himself to.

Tattletale was pulling on a blue latex glove.  He watched her as she reached out and placed a hand on the space beside the incisions, where the burn had been patched up.

“What are you doing?”

She reached for the phone.

no tear inside u.

“I could’ve told you that.”

She shrugged, her eyes on the screen, thumbs typing on the onscreen keyboard.  She raised the phone.

can try.  prob wont work.  dense enough 2 fuck wit time n space there.

“Right,” he said.  “My Cannonblade?”

She sighed, making her way to the end of the room.  She collected his Cannonblade from the floor by the chair.  He’d made it as light as it could go in every respect, before he’d passed out.  Even so, moving his left arm to try to hold it made him seize up in agony.

For now, he was a one-armed fighter.  He gripped the handle in his right hand, then exerted his power.  He could see it grow heavier, even as the weight remained effectively the same in his hand.

He rested it against one shoulder, then managed a limping step forward.  He very nearly fell.

Another step.

He focused on his power, as a way to distract himself, planting one foot in front of the other, the armor squeaking in one point where a knee joint had bent as he’d fallen after fighting the Yàngbǎn assassin.  It was easier to keep moving than to stop and start again, so he moved forward with an almost machinelike rhythm, limping.

He’d never forgive himself if they lost this fight and he didn’t even fight.

Stairs.  He had to make his way down.  One mistake, a faltering step, and he’d collapse.  He’d probably be unable to stand, if it didn’t tear his stomach apart.

He made his way down, the stitches pulling against the fresh incisions with every step.

The building shuddered.  His mind a fog of pain, he reached out for the railing for stability, only to remember he was holding his sword.  It plowed through railing as if it were a meticulous sandcastle, raining pieces on the ground below.

He swayed, and for the briefest moment, he considered that it might be easier to fall.  Easier than making it down the next ten steps.  If there was a ten percent chance his stomach stayed intact, a twenty percent chance someone could help him stand…

But he took another step down, and somewhere in the midst of planting his foot, he found his balance.

Everywhere, doctors were struggling to evacuate.  Some capes were working to help, even injured ones trying to pull things together.  Still fifty or sixty capes to evacuate.

And the bodies… people who had died because he’d failed them.  Because he hadn’t been able to defeat the assassin, to take his role at the front of the battle lines, where he could bait Behemoth into the various traps they’d laid.

He had to suppress the guilt.  There would be time for blame, self-directed or otherwise, later.  He’d bury the mental pain like he was with the physical.

This is how Behemoth fights.  Indomitable.  Never slowing.  Always progressing forward, Chevalier thought.

He could remember who he’d once been.  So long ago.  Well before he’d had his first of twenty fights against the Endbringers.  Before meeting Hannah and the rest of the original Wards.

They’d been in a car crash, in the middle of a vacation.  Strangers had stepped in, crowding the car to help his little brother out, while his parents were reeling, moaning in pain.  They’d tried to get him out too, but he’d been pinned, the car handle had been scraped away in the collision, the interior handle protected by the child locks.  They’d left, and for hours, as the emergency services arrived and the rescue continued, he’d wondered why.  He’d triggered, caught in the wreckage, but had been too insensate to do anything about it, to even realize the full gravity of what had happened in the midst of the chaos.

It was only later that he found out they were serial kidnappers.  The crash that had broken his mother’s leg in three places had been orchestrated.  So had the collection of his little brother.

Three years later, when he heard about the group again, he put together a makeshift club and armor and set about hunting them down.  He appeared in the news in the midst of tracking down the individual members, and again and again, they had described him as relentless, to the point that it had very nearly became his codename.  Revenge had been all he had left.

Then, just as he was now, he’d been fueled by anger, by pain.  He could barely see, as black spots blotted his vision.  Revenge, again, was his only option, only it was the end point, rather than the beginning.

I told myself I’d never let myself be afraid again, he thought.

His left hand was nearly useless, so he hit the double doors at the front of the temple with his sword instead.  Wood splintered as the doors parted.  He trudged forward, ignoring the doors as they swung shut, bouncing off his armor.

Record numbers show up, and this is all that’s left?

Barely fifty heroes still stood their ground.  The back lines were sheltered by giant hands of stone, Hellhound’s mutant dogs collecting the wounded, carrying them around the side of the building.  Eidolon and Alexandria wrestled with the Endbringer, fighting in close quarters against the monster.

Alexandria?

He shook his head, nearly losing his balance as he continued his forward march.  He could barely see straight, and it wasn’t helped by the phantom images that riddled the mass of capes.  Images he had called glimmers when he was a youth, that he called shadows now that he was an adult.

But Behemoth… the Endbringer was little more than a skeleton with extensive padding.  He’d never seen this much damage delivered.

Chevalier focused his power on his blade, making it as large as he could.  He continued marching forward.  There was no indication Usher was okay.  Rime was dead, and he had little idea about the state of the supporting forces who’d been intended to help him attack, who’d trained to assist him.

He extended his blade towards Behemoth, using it to gauge the distance for the kill aura.  Defending capes cleared out of his way as he walked forward, between two of the stone hands.  The shadow of his sword was warning enough.

One of Behemoth’s legs seemed less developed than the other, the toes missing, the bones less pronounced, the flesh thinner.  He reached the perimeter and slammed the weapon down into the earth with his one usable arm.

His steam nearly spent, he collapsed over the handle of the weapon, his hand still gripping the handle, and he pulled the trigger.

The size of the weapon and the effect of the firing pin seemed to help with the jammed mechanism.  That, or the transition to being closer to his largest blade had shifted something in a fractional way.  The shot blasted Behemoth in the calf of his weaker leg, and the Endbringer fell.

Again, he pulled the trigger, over and over.  Three, four, five shots.

He stopped before he spent the sixth.

He’d dealt damage, but it was precious little.  Flesh had torn at the leg, not quite as dense as it should be, by all reports.  Had the regeneration not finished rebuilding the complete structures?

Rendered effectively one-legged again, Behemoth crawled forward on three limbs.  Alexandria struck him from above, driving him face first into the ground.

Why was she here?  She was supposed to be functionally dead.

Chevalier could feel a sensation crawling through his body, an energy.  It didn’t invigorate, not on its own, but he could feel a kind of relief.

Usher was alive, and Usher’s power coursed through him.  With luck, he’d be immune to Behemoth’s power, or at least partially immune.  Nobody had received the benefit of Usher’s ability and been brave enough to venture into Behemoth’s kill range.

Chevalier pulled his sword from the ground, swayed, and very fell over.

Defiant caught him.

Old friend, Chevalier thought, though he didn’t have the breath to speak.

Anyone else might have spoken up, told him he didn’t have to do this, that it was madness.

Defiant was silent, supporting Chevalier, helping him right himself.  Defiant understood this much.  The need, the drive.

Chevalier took his first step with Defiant’s help.  The second was only partially supported.  The third was on his own.

He closed into the kill area, and he could feel the heat touch him.  It heated the armor, but didn’t reach him.  Usher’s power at work.  He tried to inhale, and found no air.  Choking, he forced his mouth shut.

Holding his breath, Chevalier brought the sword down on Behemoth’s shoulder, a blow from above much like Alexandria had delivered, followed by another.

His aim wasn’t good, the blows off target.  If his form were better, he’d be landing each strike in the same place, time after time.  Not so, with the blade this big, the margin for error so great.

With that in mind, Chevalier shrunk his sword as he closed the distance, shut his eyes as lightning crackled around the Endbringer.  With the scale smaller, the effective edge was that much sharper.  The blade bit just a fraction deeper each time.

He couldn’t stop walking without falling, couldn’t stop swinging the weapon in the same rote motion without risking that he’d never be able to raise it again, however light it might be.

His goal was the spot Tattletale had mentioned.  The core.

Behemoth swiped at him, but he was already shifting the balance of his armor, moving to block the blow with the flat of the blade.  The sound of the impact was deafening, and it wasn’t something Usher’s power protected against.  But Usher’s power was finnicky at best.  Unreliable.

At the very least, it was holding up here.

He found a measure of strength, then swung the cannonblade, driving it for the deepest part of the wound.

Behemoth lurched, changing position, and the painstakingly created notch in his shoulder shifted well out of Chevalier’s reach.  He let up on the intense heat, turned to radiation instead.  Heroes scrambled to retreat from the ominous glow.

Bastard, Chevalier swore.  He released a sound somewhere between a moan and a groan, exhaling the last of the air in his lungs, greedily sucking in air.

Something flew past him, shearing straight through Behemoth’s chest.  A wheel of metal, thin, with two bars sticking out of the center.  It cut through the Endbringer like he wasn’t even there.

Dazed, lungs fit to burst as he held his breath, barely coherent, Chevalier turned.  He saw Tecton with his piledrivers extended, Weaver just behind him, along with two of the new Wards: the white supremacist’s child they’d picked up in Boston and a boy in a white cloak.  They stood all the way at the back lines of the battlefield, by the temple, along with a character he didn’t recognize.  A girl in black.

His eyes settled on Weaver, surrounded by the nimbus of her power, which glowed with an intensity that surpassed any and all of her teammates.  When she stepped forward, it was like she was pushing against a curtain, only it was a membrane, a network of individual cells, each with tendrils extending out, so thin he couldn’t make them out, except by the highlights that seemed to rush down them as she gave conscious direction to her bugs.

Second chances, Chevalier thought back to his inauguration to the Wards.  He’d harbored doubts about taking her on board, but memories of that day had been a factor.  He’d needed a second chance.  So had Hannah.

Colin, even, though it came much later.

It was a good feeling, to see that coming into play.  He knew she wasn’t all the way there, but she’d taken a step forward.

It was a better feeling to watch as Behemoth’s shoulder shifted, attached by a mere hair.  The weapon had cut through his ribs, torn through the space where his heart should be.

That’ll do.

Alexandria hit him, and the arm came free.  Behemoth lurched, planting his one remaining hand on the ground, and came just short of collapsing on top of Chevalier.  He was only a few feet away, glowing with the radiation.

I’m dead, Chevalier thought, without a trace of the despair he’d imagined he would feel.

He tried to move, to raise his blade, only to find his armor refusing to cooperate.  It had melted, the joints and joins flowing into one another.  His sword wasn’t much better.  The ceramic properties he’d applied to the edge were heat-resistant, but the remainder of the weapon were growing more nebulous in shape, the hottest parts of the metal flowing down to obscure the edge.

He concentrated, and found his power beyond his reach.  Too tired, his stamina gone.

Trapped in a hot wreck of metal, an explosive death just a short distance away.  It had been his starting point, and it had been the end.

It would be the optimal time for a second trigger event, the thought passed through his thoughts.

Of course, the joke went that you couldn’t get a trigger event by trying to have one, so even thinking about a second trigger event was enough to banish any possibility.

Not so funny, in this moment.

His power worked best with similar things.  Differences made it slower.  It was why he had the same firing mechanism at the core of each of the three weapons he used for his Cannonblade.

Now, as the battle raged around him, he was nearly blind with the visor of his helmet melting, at his utter limit in terms of stamina and pain tolerance.  Behemoth delivered a shockwave, and Usher’s power protected him, his boots welded to the ground kept him from falling over.

He reached for his power, grasping at his armor, and he didn’t reach for anything familiar or similar.  He reached for anything, everything.  The ground, the soil, air.

Somewhere in the midst of that desperate struggle, he found his armor coming apart.  He wasn’t even willing it, not even forming any coherent idea of what he was doing, but his power operated of its own accord.

Free of the armor, he could move his weapon.  It was slag, barely a sword anymore, but the core still had some density to it.

He made it grow.

He made the sword grow, from ten to twenty feet in length.  It was more by the growth than by any action on Chevalier’s part that it extended into the wound.  The weapon penetrated into the scar Weaver’s crew had created, as close to the core as Chevalier could get it.

He made it grow to its greatest possible length, a full thirty feet, his head turned skyward to the monster that glowed silver and black.

Space and time distortion were supposed to protect it?  He’d fight fire with fire.

Flesh parted as the blade grew inside the wound.  He put his finger on the trigger, ready to fire.

Before he could, the sword’s tip touched the core, and everything went wrong.

His power abruptly ceased to take effect, and the blades came apart, in its three individual pieces.  They slid from the wound, falling down around him.

Behemoth lurched forward, and his wounded leg struck Chevalier, knocking him to the ground.  He could feel the gunshot break of multiple ribs shattering.

Supine on the ground, unable to breathe, but for tiny pants, Chevalier stared at the sky, unwilling to look directly at the ensuing scene, even if he could have managed to turn his head.

There was a horrible crash as a sweep of one claw shattered the stone hands.  Glowing silver, he loomed over the defending capes, scorched and electrocuted those who’d fallen within his instant-kill range.  One of Hellhound’s mutant dogs, Dragon.  Others he couldn’t make out in the midst of the clouds of dust.  Rendered to ash and melted armor in heartbeats.

They were the lucky ones, Chevalier thought.  The radiation was generally observed to be concentrated, limited to a certain range, manipulated to strike only those within a hundred feet or so of Behemoth, to saturate the landscape and render it uninhabitable.  These capes were close enough.  Their deaths would be slow, painful.

A failure.  Hopefully the ones in the temple had been evacuated, and the capes at the rear of the battle line free to retreat.

The ground rumbled violently, churning and smoking.  Behemoth was burrowing.

The fight was over.

Chevalier stared up at the shifting smoke of the sky above, struggling to breathe, not entirely sure why he was bothering.  Maybe he wouldn’t die of the radiation, thanks to Usher’s power.

Long moments passed as the rumbling of the earth faded in intensity.  The air was still filled with the screams and shouts of the various capes and doctors fighting to save the wounded, the dull roars of distant helicopters, carrying the evacuated capes away.

Chevalier watched as the worst of the smoke cleared, and he imagined he might have seen the glowing blur of the sun through the clouds.

Not the sun.  It was a figure.  Scion.

He would have laughed if he could.

Too late.

You showed up too late.

Scion lowered himself to nearly ground level.  His golden hair moved in the wind as he gazed over the battlefield.  His white bodysuit was smudged here or there on the sleeves, but otherwise seemed so pristine that it seemed to glow in the gloom.

No, part of that glow was real.  The faint light touched Chevalier, and he could feel his breathing ease.  It was reaching out to everyone present.

A consolation prize?  A bit of healing?  Maybe a helping hand against the radiation, for the others?

He managed a soft laugh.  The glow was making the pain easier to handle.  He could almost breathe, now.

He closed his eyes, and he felt a tear roll down from the corner of his eye.  He suspected he wouldn’t have been able to tear up without the healing.

Not sufficient to fix the broken bones, or the damage to his stomach, perhaps.  He opened his eyes to look at Scion, to ask a question.

But Scion was gone.

A noise rose up from those who remained in the crowd.  Gasps, cheers, shouts of surprise.

Chevalier forced himself to move, stared at the spear of golden light that had risen from the earth, just on the horizon.  Scion.

He held Behemoth in his grip, released the Endbringer to fall two or three hundred feet to the ground, struck his falling foe with a beam of golden light, as if to shove Behemoth into the ground.

Behemoth’s lightning crackled between them, catching Scion, but the hero didn’t even seem to flinch.  He hit Behemoth again, and this time the beam of energy didn’t stop.  With virtually every structure leveled, there was nothing to hide their view but the lingering smoke and dust, and even that wasn’t thick enough to hide the light.

The aftershock of it traveled across the city, quelling dust storms, blowing past the assembled heroes like a strong gust, faintly warm.  Even though the ray didn’t reach quite that high, the clouds of smoke and dust parted visibly above Scion.

Chevalier watched, staring, belatedly thought to count how many seconds had passed.

One, two, three, four

Behemoth generated a shockwave, but it was muted by the light, suppressed.

…eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve…

Behemoth’s silhouette thrashed as he tried to move out from beneath the shaft of light, but Scion only reoriented the beam, keeping it fixed on his target.

sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one

The light ceased.  Behemoth was gone.  A plume of dust rose from the earth, at the very limits of their vision.

Scion plunged beneath the ground, heedless of the intervening terrain.

Again, Scion rose from a point beneath the shattered surface of the city.

Again, he held Behemoth in his hands.  Thinner than a skeleton, the Endbringer was little more than a stick figure from Chevalier’s vantage point.

Only this time, with a flare of golden light to accompany the movement, he tore the Endbringer in two.  The legs came free of the pelvis as two individual pieces, and Scion obliterated them with a pulse of the golden light.  The air that reached the crowd of wounded heroes was cool, this time.

In Chevalier’s peripheral vision, people were emerging from within the temple.  Chevalier didn’t spare them a direct glance.  If he was seeing what he thought he was seeing, then he wouldn’t take his eyes off the scene for anything.

Behemoth slammed his claw into the glowing hero, and the shockwave tore him free of Scion’s grip.  Scion followed him with a glowing sphere of light, and Behemoth redirected his fall, generating an explosion in mid-air, hurling himself towards the assembled crowd.

Eidolon stopped him with a violet forcefield that spread across the sky, a solid obstacle to arrest Behemoth’s momentum, stopping him dead in his tracks and leaving him suspended a hundred feet up in the air.  His one intact claw clutched the edge.

Scion followed up with another shaft of light, and the forcefield shattered in an instant.  Behemoth was slammed into the road, three streets down from the gathered heroes outside the temple.

The Endbringer glowed, and the swelling light was too intense to look at.

Just seeing it, there was no question of what he was doing.  A final act of spite.  Turning himself into a bomb.

A stream of darkness poured from one of the helicopters, filling the street Behemoth lay in.  For an instant, the Endbringer was almost entirely obscured.

Scion fired one more beam, and the darkness was obliterated, swept away.

The silhouette of the Endbringer flickered, then disintegrated.  There was no detonation, no destruction to the landscape.  Only the cleansing light.

The beam dissipated, but its effects hung in the air, canceling out noise, stilling the air.

Slowly, the crowd took up a cheer, a cry of victory from everyone with the breath to spare.

As noise returned to the landscape, the stilling effects of Scion’s light fading, Chevalier closed his eyes, listening.  With the noise of the helicopters and distant fires mingling with the shouts and hollers of joy from the defending capes, he imagined he could hear the whole world cheering alongside them.

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