Crushed 24.5

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The damage Behemoth was wreaking in New Delhi was, I thought, a microcosm of what was happening all over the world.  Three or four attacks a year, since the Simurgh had appeared.

The fight with Leviathan in Brockton Bay had been a good day.  We’d lost people, we’d lost good capes, but we’d more or less bounced back, made it three-quarters of the way back to where we needed to be, in a matter of months.  There had been ugliness, infighting, a hell of a lot of doubt, but we’d started to make our way back to where we should be.  It had been the lowest number of casualties we’d had in an Endbringer attack in years, not counting a few of the Simurgh attacks.  A good day.

This?  This isn’t a good day. 

Behemoth roared.

This is the other end of the scale.

For nearly twenty years, we’d endured intermittent Endbringer attacks, and the end result was, globally, what was happening here in a matter of hours.  We were divided, scared, fighting among one another, and our defenses were being eroded.  We were being forced into pockets of defense, instead of a united one where we all stood together.  Those pockets, in turn, were at risk of being wiped out with a series of decisive blows.

Yes, we had our good moments.  Doing as much damage to him as we just had, that was a good moment.  But we had bad ones too, and the end result was always the same.

The bastard –the bastards, plural– kept coming.

Phir Sē’s light had cleared smoke and dust from the sky, though it had been almost entirely directed upward, with concentric rings still marking the skyline.  Smoke was free to rise, and Behemoth was in plain sight.  He was moving on three limbs, planting hands on the ruined, half-toppled and flame-scorched buildings to stay more upright.

His body, though, was a mix of high contrasts.  His flesh, what little was visible through the black ichor that dripped from his frame, glowed a silver-white.  The remaining material of his claws, teeth and horns remained black.

Tecton had pulled ahead of the group, and turned abruptly, skidding to a stop.  Cuff’s body was folded over the back of the bike, limp.  The Yàngbǎn had two more bodies with them, as well.  I’d taken my flight pack back from Imp, and was airborne as he raised a gauntlet to get my attention.  I descended to meet him, and we were soon joined by Dispatch, and Exalt, who carried an unconscious Revel.

“Where to?” Tecton asked.  His voice was hoarse.  He was recovering, it seemed.

“If we’re sticking with the regular plan,” Dispatch said, “We should gather with other capes, form another defensive line.  I think we should hold to the plan.  Working together with a less than ideal plan is best, until we can come up with something better.”

I glanced over my shoulder at Behemoth’s barely visible profile.  How far away was safe, if he was emitting that kind of radiation?

Far, far away, I answered my own unspoken question.

“Weaver?” Tecton asked me.

I ventured, “There’s a temple, not far from here.  Tattletale’s there, medical facilities.  Direction he’s moving, he’s headed in that general direction.  We protect them, hold position, see if we can’t figure out a way to keep him away from Phir Sē.  It fits with Dispatch’s idea of sticking to the plan.”

“Why don’t we press the offensive?”  Grace asked.  She still sat astride her bike.

“Believe me, I really want to press the offensive,” I said, “But I don’t want to get close to him while he’s glowing like that.  That would be a pretty good reason unto itself.”

“He won’t be using the radiation forever,” Tecton observed.

“There’s another key reason,” I said.  “Our guys are scared, maybe a little desperate.  It’s not a good mindset for fighting.”

The heroes turned to look at the others, who had apparently taken our stopping as an excuse to tend to other business.  Golem had stopped to raise some hands, more lightning rods between us and the Endbringer, and others were flanking him.  The Yàngbǎn were looking after their injured.

“Desperate,” Exalt said, gazing at the rank and file troops.

I wanted to join the others, to get involved and help, offer what little medical care I could, and the mental and emotional support I knew they needed, but we needed a greater direction, a mission.  I turned my attention back to Exalt.  “Regent was desperate, maybe, and he died.  I’m scared that our side would take risks or put themselves in danger if we ordered them back into the fight.  This is getting uglier by the minute, and we’re prone to doing stupid shit if we’re backed into a corner, or if we feel like we need to end this fast so our friends can get the medical help they need.  Let’s get the medical help, catch our breath.”

“There’re more capes joining the fight now,” Grace said.  I wasn’t sure if that was a rejection of my plan or an agreement.  I followed her gaze to see a torrent of flames making its way in Behemoth’s general direction.  A cape was hurling fireballs with some sort of space-warping effect tied to them, so they swelled dramatically in size with each second they were airborne.

I assumed it would be to Behemoth’s advantage, to have access to that kind of flame, but he wasn’t deflecting them.  The fire exploded through the area around him, and I could see him lose his grip on a building as he reeled from the impact, slumped down to a place below the distant skyline of damaged and half-collapsed buildings.  Orange light lit up the area around him, marking the areas that had been set on fire.

The fireball hurler, barely visible as a speck against a backdrop of black-brown smoke, stopped abruptly.

“Why’d he stop?” I wondered aloud.

“The radiation?”  Grace offered.

“The radiation was there before he went on the offensive,” I said.  “I don’t see Behemoth retaliating, but the cape stopped lobbing fireballs.”

My bugs noted Eidolon’s descent.  I turned around to see him depositing Rachel on the ground.  She shrugged out of his grip without so much as a ‘thanks’.

“He went underground,” Eidolon informed us.

“He ran?  It’s over?”

“No,” Eidolon said.  He didn’t elaborate as he watched Rachel back away and whistle to call her dogs.  The opaque pane of his mask was heavily shrouded beneath the heavy hood he wore, a dim blue-green glow emanating from within.  He was burned, his costume scorched and shredded in places, but the body armor beneath had more or less held.  Shaped to give the illusion that he had more muscle than he did, it seemed.  I could see blood running along the cracks at one panel of armor, where he’d apparently sustained a heavy blow.  He was mortal, after all.  Eidolon could bleed.

Fitting, that he layered disguises behind disguises.  Regent had done the same thing, to a lesser degree, had worn armor behind the deceptively light and delicate shirts he’d worn, had padding beneath his masks to cushion any blows, had hid a taser in his scepter.

I felt a pang of guilt, a swelling lump in my throat.  I’d never really gotten to know Regent, not to the extent that I’d gotten to know the others.  He hadn’t really revealed much about himself, either.  I’d reminisced before about the intimacy of friendships, about the sharing of vulnerabilities, allowing others to be close, exposing oneself to possible harm.  I’d done it with Emma, back in the day, and I’d suffered for it.  I’d allowed myself to form a kind of intimacy with the Undersiders, and it might well have been a reason we’d survived this far.  Regent hadn’t established that kind of intimacy with us.

Except maybe for Imp.

He’d hidden so much.  I’d only glimpsed the seriously disordered personality that lurked beneath the outer image of the lazy, disaffected teenager, had only seen traces of that part of him that just didn’t care that he could enslave a person’s body and leave their mind as little more than a helpless observer.  And beneath that aspect of himself, he’d had something else, something that had driven him to distract Behemoth so Imp might live.

My eyes fell on Eidolon.  Was there a similarity to Regent?  Lies, deception, a false face behind a false face behind a false face?

What was at the core?

Eidolon turned away from his observations of Behemoth, and he briefly met my eyes.

I felt intimidated, despite myself, but I didn’t look away.

“Alexandria,” I said, “How is she-”

And he took off, not even waiting for me to finish.

“-still alive?” I finished.

“I don’t like him,” Rachel commented.

“Nobody does,” Dispatch said.  Rachel seemed to accept that with a measure of satisfaction.

“And why won’t this motherfucker die?” Rachel asked, looking towards Behemoth.

“He’s been fighting us for twenty years and he hasn’t died yet,” I said.

“So?”

“So… he’s tough,” I said.  It was hard to answer a question so… what was the word?  Innocent?  Guileless?

“We’re tough.  Let’s fuck him up.”

“I was arguing for that,” Grace said.

Oh great.  They’re of like mind.

“But,” Tecton cut in, turning his head her way, “Skitter had a good reason as to why we shouldn’t.  We need to recover, recuperate.  Other heroes are picking up the slack, applying some pressure.  Or they were until he burrowed,”

Rachel snorted.  “We do the chain thing again, cut him in half at the middle instead.  Or cut off his head.”

“Honestly?” I spoke up, “I’m not sure he’d die if we cut off his head.  And correct me if I’m wrong, but he could go after the people that carry the chain.  Even if it’s someone like Eidolon, he could overheat and melt the part they’re holding on to.”

“You’re really a buzzkill,” Grace said.

I didn’t deny it.  “There’s one more reason we should go, though.  He’s going to-”

Retaliate.

Behemoth rose from beneath the ground a distance away.  In a heartbeat, things shifted from a near-quiet to chaos.  He was still glowing, and his claws crackled with electricity as he struck quickly, violently, and indiscriminately.

Three capes taken down, struck out of the sky by the bolts of electricity.  Even if they’d survived that much, the kill aura and the radiation would end them.

He turned, facing us, but the Wards were already moving, their wheels squealing on the pavement before they peeled away.

It’s the Endbringer’s pattern.  We hurt them or stall them enough, they change tactics, hit us back.

“Go!” I shouted.

Rachel moved, climbing astride her dog in an instant.  She whistled for her other dogs, directing them to Imp, Parian, Foil and Citrine.

Golem’s hands absorbed some of the lightning that crackled around us.  Not one stream, but a storm, with Behemoth at the eye of it.

And he was standing.  He didn’t necessarily have a full leg, but he had the ability to stand upright, now.

And Rachel, as I saw her making her way to the Undersiders, looked determined.

Was it weird that she seemed more comfortable in the here and now than she had before the fight started?  It wasn’t that she didn’t look scared, I could see the way her entire body was rigid, her hands clenched, white knuckled.  But she had a role here, she fit into a dynamic.

We took off, moving behind cover, running, as Behemoth crashed through a line of buildings.  Heroes from even half a mile away were lobbing attacks, and the stray shots that missed the Endbringer crashed down around us, tearing through buildings, turning stone to liquid, igniting nonflammable materials, one doing little damage but detonating so violently with the impact that my mounted teammates were nearly thrown free.

Behemoth roared, and I could see the Wards and Undersiders suffering.  A dog shook its head in an attempt to shake off the noise, and lost its sense of direction.  It crashed into a bike and sprawled.  Parian, Foil and Grace were dismounted.  Grace landed on her feet and physically ran, reaching for Tecton’s outstretched gauntlet.  He extended a piledriver to give her something to hold onto.

Few bugs had managed to keep up, much less the ones with wires, but I brought a curtain between us and Behemoth.  I was past the point where I wanted to conserve them.  If it was lightning, I could only hope that Golem’s makeshift lightning rods and my wires would protect us.

But it was flame.  It sheared through my swarm, and it splashed down around Parian, Foil and the dog.

The Endbringer had more aim than I’d expected.  He wasn’t blind, despite the fact that his eye socket was empty.  But he wasn’t entirely on target otherwise.  Was he relying on another sense?

The Yàngbǎn intercepted the attack, raising forcefields.  Parian did something with her thread, slapping the dog’s hindquarters, and it bolted.  They were carried off, tied to its side, a flame still burning on Parian’s sleeve and the hem of her dress.

Someone, an Indian cape capable of getting inside Behemoth’s kill aura, closed the distance, and Behemoth was momentarily distracted by orange cords that bound his head, lashing him to the cape.  With that, the others had a chance to escape.

“Regroup!” I called out, as I descended to the midst of the Undersiders and Wards.  “I’ll point the way!”

The sound of the fighting stopped with a crash.  Where was the motherfucker?  I rose higher to check, but saw neither Behemoth nor the cape who’d been binding him.  He’d burrowed.

It was quiet, all of a sudden, if not quite silent.  The defending capes were spreading out, and were hovering in place or holding positions, rather than bombarding the landscape.  The lightning and fire had stopped, and no shockwaves ripped through the city.  The rumbling was intermittent, mild when it wasn’t almost imperceptible.  The ringing in my ears was louder than the ambient noise.

This was his new tactic, burrowing, surfacing.  But where was the retaliation?  Their whole damn pattern centered around repaying us twice over for any abuse we inflicted on them.

The armband crackled, and I jumped, despite myself.  The first message didn’t come through the static, but the second was clearer.  “Be advised, seismic activity suggests the Endbringer is still local.  Regroup and form defensive lines.

I did a little mental math, then pressed the button on my armband.  “Armband, note that Behemoth may have a likely target, roughly eight to fifteen miles north-northwest of India Gate.”

At least, that was my best guess, judging by the flight speeds Defiant had noted for my flight pack and the time it had taken me to travel.

Every armband in earshot repeated my message.

“Keep going!” I called out.  “Keep moving!”

Surely he couldn’t keep up with us while moving underground.  I didn’t want to underestimate his intelligence, but was he even capable of holding a grudge?

What was Behemoth really doing?

The travel was uneventful, uninterrupted and eerily quiet, as we made our way to our next destination.  Three times, we stopped to pick up wounded, fashioning another quick sled for the dogs to accommodate all of them.

We reached the temple and delivered the sled to the temple doors.  The Chicago Wards stopped to park their bikes off to one side.  I waited for the Yàngbǎn to gather, extending my range, before I reached out to Phir Sē.

He’s underground.  He may be coming for you,”  I informed him, speaking through my swarm.

“I assumed,” Phir Sē responded.  “Thank you.”

You need to leave, soon.”

“I have a way out.  I’ll leave when trouble begins.  Could you rid me of the bugs?  When you leave them, they fly about me, and I cannot afford distractions.”

I hesitated, then removed the bugs, shifting them to nearby rooms and corridors.  I left only a pocket of them to communicate with.  “Be safe.

“You as well, Weaver.  Thank you, for the cooperation.”

Have you gained a bit of faith?

“Faith gained in this, perhaps, faith lost in another.”

I know what you mean.

“Good bye.  If we both live, perhaps we talk again, in a less dangerous time.”

Good bye,” I responded.

I drove the remainder of my swarm from his chamber.  It once again became a blind spot, an emptiness in my power’s range.

“You okay?” Tecton asked, as he caught up with me.  He held Cuff in his heavy armored hands, as though she were a small child.

“Saying goodbye to a self-professed madman.  Is she okay?”

“She’s breathing, but I can tell she’s hurting.”

I nodded, glancing over my shoulder as the others caught up.  Bitch brought her dogs.

We entered the front door, and I saw the amassed capes within.  Innumerable teams, looking after their wounded, lacking in direction.  The temple interior had no benches, and bedding had been laid out flat on the ground, capes set down in rows.  Medical teams were scrambling to take care of them, and capes with first aid experience were hurrying to help.  Dispatch already had his costume jacket off, his sleeves rolled up, and his hands dirty, taking care of a cape in power armor.  Parian was sitting on a mattress, tearing at her sleeve to show the burn, with Foil and Citrine beside her.

I couldn’t help but notice that more than half of the capes were covered in white sheets.  That wasn’t counting the innumerable capes left lying dead in the streets, like we’d done with Regent.  Behemoth killed more easily than he wounded.

Clockblocker had fallen.  I looked for him in the crowd of injured.  I didn’t see him.  Then again, I had my suspicions already.  This only helped justify them.

Too many others I needed to track, to watch for.  But I couldn’t use my bugs, and the dust and smoke had desaturated the colors.  Blood, in other places, marred the colors further.

“Miss,” a local man in white said, in an accented voice, “You cannot bring these animals.”

He was talking to Rachel, who glowered in response.

“Leave the dogs outside,” I said.

“I’m not leaving my fucking dogs,” she said, her voice hard.

Damn itMy eyes roved over the crowd, but I couldn’t see Grue or Tattletale.  I didn’t want to use my bugs, not in a sterile environment.  It was left to me to rein her in some.

“You can come and look for Grue and Tattletale with me, or you can stay outside with the dogs.”

She scowled, and for a second, I thought she’d stride out of the doors.  Instead, she pointed, barking out orders, “Out!  Go guard!”

The dogs filed out of the double doors of the temple.  I could see the man relax visibly.

Don’t let Grue be dead.  Don’t let Grue be dead, I thought.  Tattletale was okay, she was okay the last time I saw her.

“My friends, they were stable,” I told the man in white.  I saw Tecton crossing the room to lay Cuff out on one of the thin mattresses, turned my attention back to the man.  “They were here since a little while ago.  Where are they?”

“Stable?  They were better?”

“Mostly better.”

“Up,” he said, pointing at the nearest stairwell.

I used my flight pack without thinking, to give myself extra speed as I headed to the stairs.  Rachel was just behind me, her boots thudding on the floor.

There were more wounded above, recuperating in a long, narrow room with beds on one side.  In a grim twist, like a reminder of how close they’d come to dying, the opposite side of the room had more mattresses on the floor, more bodies.

How many dead, all in all?  Fifteen in this room alone, placed side by side, their shoulders touching.

“Skitter,” Grue said, as I approached. Tattletale stood at his bedside, her phone in hand.  There were no curtains here.  No privacy.  This was all improvised, care facilities hashed together with what the locals had on hand.  He still wore his helmet, but he had his jacket off.  He noted the arrival of the others.  “Imp.  Bitch.”

“It’s Weaver now,” I corrected him.

“You’ll-”

“I know,” I said.  I looked at his arm.  The burned flesh had angry blisters.  “You okay?”

A hand pushed at me, moving me out of the way.  Imp.  She approached her brother’s bedside.

“Hey kid,” he said.  Beside him, I could see Tattletale’s reaction.  She was silent, silenced by the damage to her throat, but she communicated well enough, that she’d drawn the full conclusion from our presence.  Her eyes closed, her head lowered.  There was no smile on her face, as she heaved out a whistling sigh through the plastic tube taped to her throat-wound.

“Regent’s dead,” Imp said.

I could see Grue go still.

As if reminding us of the culprit, there was a distant rumble.  It grew steadily in intensity, then stopped abruptly.  As far as I could tell, with bugs spread out over the area within two thousand feet or so, the Endbringer wasn’t moving any closer to us.

“I should have been there,” Grue said.

“Yeah, well, you weren’t,” Imp retorted.

I put a hand on her shoulder.  She tried to knock it away, and I dug my fingers in as I refused to cooperate.  It must have hurt; my old costume’s fingertips had clawed points.  She didn’t say anything on the subject.

“No, Grue,” I told him.  “You want to feel bad?  That’s allowed, but I forbid you from taking the actual blame for this.”

“You can’t do that,” he said.  His voice was hard.  “I’m team leader, not you.  I’m supposed to pick up the slack, remember?  I’m supposed to manage these guys.  So don’t turn around and decide shit like this, when you leftI dropped the ball.  I didn’t move fast enough, I got hurt, and because of that, I wasn’t there to help, to lead.”

“You’re not allowed to take the blame, because if you start, then I’ve got to own up to it too,” I said.  “I-”

My breath hitched.  It caught me off guard.  I had to stop and take a deep breath.

Staying calm, composed, with my words carefully measured out, I said, “-I was there, and there was nothing I could do.  And if you’re saying you could have done better, I’ve got to think I could have too.  So I’ll match you one for one on any guilt trips.”

He sighed, heavy.  “Fuck.”

“Fuck,” Imp echoed him.

“Fuck,” Rachel followed, from the entrance to the room, as if we were toasting Regent in our own messed up way.  Tattletale was nodding.

Fuck,” I agreed.

“Christ,” Grue said.  “What do you even say to that?  How… how do you even pay your respects to a guy like him?”

“He was a jerk, and worse,” I said.  I saw Imp bristle, but held on to her shoulder, “And he died for Imp’s sake.”

Grue looked startled at that, as much as one could look startled with an all-consuming costume like the one he wore.  Tattletale, beside him, was unfazed.  She frowned a little.

“Christ,” he said, again.

“So maybe we respect him by respecting that.”

There was no response to that for a few seconds.

“Yeah,” Imp said, her voice small.  “I’m going to fucking kill his dad for him.”

“That’s not what I meant,” I said.  “I meant we should remember the best part of him.”

“That part of him would’ve killed his dad too,” Imp said.

I sighed.  I wouldn’t win here.

I changed the subject, seeing how quiet Grue was.  “You should know, Grue, we got ours back.  We hurt him.  Behemoth.”

Grue raised his head, meeting my eyes with the empty black eye sockets of his mask.

“The others will explain,” I said.  I let my hand fall from Imp’s shoulder.  “You wouldn’t believe how much I want to be an Undersider again, right this moment… fuck me, I want to remember the guy, to reminisce.  But this isn’t over, and I’ve got another team to help look after.”

“We’ll-”  Grue started.  He stopped as some doctors came barreling in, wheeling in beds with unconscious capes.

“Out!” one of them shouted at us.  “No more visiting, there isn’t room!”

“Asshole!” Imp snarled, jumping out of the way as someone moved the bed beside Grue’s, nearly sandwiching her between the two.

Go,” Grue ordered her.  “Go irritate someone who isn’t loaded with painkillers.”

“A way of remembering Regent?” she asked, as if she were trying to be funny, but there was a break to her voice as she altered the pitch to make it a question.

“Exactly,” he said.

“Fuck it,” she said, under her breath.  “Fuck it, fuck it.”

We left the room, with only Grue and Tattletale staying.  The three of us made our way down the stairs, Rachel just to my right.

I glanced over my shoulder at Imp.  Her head was lowered a fraction, her arms folded.  Her gaze was on the rows and columns of injured and dead capes in the main hall.

We hadn’t brought Regent’s body.  We’d left it lying in the streets, too busy trying to stay alive to collect it.  Was that what she was thinking about?

There was a rumble, with a shaking that affected the whole structure.  Something distant, beyond my power’s range.  A heavy crash.  Somewhere in a northwesterly direction.

Phir Sē, I thought.  Had that been his complex?

At the entrance to the temple, heroes were gathering.  Our last stand.  I could see the Chicago wards at one corner.  Tecton was talking to Wanton, who was on crutches.  Wanton’s right arm ended in a stump at the elbow, bandaged with crimson on the end.

Bad luck, I thought.

I joined Tecton, only to realize that Rachel had accompanied me.  I supposed she didn’t have anywhere else to go.

Imp didn’t either.  Another glance showed her lagging behind the group, clearly lost in thought.

I lowered my voice “Rachel, maybe you can do me a favor?”

“Hm?”

I ordered my thoughts, then voiced them, “Grue and Tattletale are too injured to help out.  I’m focused on other stuff, and Parian and Foil are looking after each other.  Can you keep an eye on Imp?”

Rachel made a face.  “I thought you wanted me to do something.”

“This is key,” I said.  “She needs someone to be there, right now.  That’s all.”

“I don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to do.  What if she gets…?”

Rachel trailed off.  Emotional?

“Support her,” Tecton cut in.  I suppressed the urge to wince.  He went on, “She’s your teammate, right?”

“How the fuck do I support someone?” she asked.  “Stupid.  Not my thing.”

“You-” I started, but Tecton was already talking, his voice deeper, his conviction stronger.  Grace was listening in as well, now.

Empathize,” he said.

Rachel glowered at him, unimpressed.

He tried again, earnest, “Okay, here’s a cheat I learned in a leadership seminar.  It’s called active listening.  Someone says something, a complaint, or a criticism, or they’re excited about something that happened to them.  For a lot of us, our instinct is to offer a solution, or expand on an idea, to fix or offer something.  The key is to think about how they’re feeling, be receptive to that, and parrot it back to them.  They just got a new car, and they’re happy about it?  A simple ‘that’s excellent’ or ‘you must be so proud’ works.  It leaves room for them to keep talking, to know you’re listening.  For your teammate who just lost someone she obviously cared about, just recognizing that she’s upset and she’s right to feel upset, that’s enough.”

I opened my mouth to say something, but I couldn’t even begin to sum up how useless this advice was to Rachel in particular.

“That’s retarded,” Rachel told Tecton.

“It works.  And I know Grace is going to say something to me about it, about it being fake or false, but the thing is, you do that, and you start to do it because it’s genuine, because you care about their feelings, or because-”

I cut him off.  “Tecton.”

He fell silent, turning my way.

“We don’t have time to get into anything complicated,” I said.

“It’s retarded anyways,” Rachel added.

I turned to her.  “Rachel, did you ever have a dog with a deep attachment to another person or dog?  Someone they lost, before they found their way to a shelter, or to you?  Where they were still dealing, after the fact?”

She gave me a one-shouldered shrug.

“How would you treat that dog?”  I asked.

“Dunno, depends on the dog.”

“Basically, though?  You’d just be there, right?  Do that for Imp.  Stay close, make sure she doesn’t run off, as much as that’s even possible with her, and give her the benefit of your company without intruding into her space.  Make sure she has all of the basics, both in the near future and in the next few days.”

“Okay,” Rachel said, frowning a little.

“I know it’s not the easiest thing, but she’s a teammate, all right?  It’s what we do for our team.”

“Right.”

“And just like a dog that’s had a recent bad experience might snap, bark or growl, you need to understand that she might do the same.  Only it’ll probably take a different form.  She’ll swear a lot.  She’ll probably try to get a rise out of you, try to provoke you or someone else.  That’s how Imp growls.”

Rachel didn’t even offer me a monosyllabic response at that.  She frowned instead.

“Trust your instincts, Rachel.  You’re smarter than you think, and your gut responses, the decisions you make on the fly, they’re good ones.  Turning around and using the chain for a second cut, back there?  That was good.”

Anyone else might have accepted the praise with a smile, but her frown only deepened.

“How was your advice better than mine?” Tecton asked.  He sounded a touch offended.

“Customized to the individual,” Grace said.  “Don’t be a sore loser.”

“I’m not sore.  I’m just usually pretty good at this, and I got called retarded.”

“The advice was called retarded,” I said.  “Don’t worry about it.  I’ll explain another day, if we make it through this.  How’s Cuff?”

“Skin’s badly burned, but the burn didn’t go much further than that.  She’ll have the most amazing scars, too.  No serious internal or mental damage, as far as we can tell, but her muscles convulsed so badly they broke a bone.”

I winced.

“She’ll make it to tomorrow, provided this doesn’t turn ugly,” Tecton said.

I nodded.  I sensed a rumble.  I couldn’t tell how distant the attack was.

Where the hell was the bastard?  I was a little caught off guard by how quiet things had gone.  He was giving us a chance to regroup?  Or was he letting us gather, so he could take us all out at once?

“Don’t suppose you can sense seismic activity?” I asked.

“Not with my suit.  My computers got toasted.  I’m running purely off the basics, and my intuitive understanding.  Stuff I reinforced, so I wouldn’t get trapped in my suit like I did with Shatterbird.”

I nodded.

“Generally, though?”

“He’s taking his time.”

If he was massing his strength for one good retaliatory hit, how would he do it?

Volcanos?  Earthquake?

“Let’s go,” I said.

“Go?”

“I’ve got a bad feeling,” I said.  I turned to look for Rachel, saw her a distance away, her arms folded as she stood beside Imp.  They were looking at the sea of injured capes.  “Rachel!”

I saw her attention snap to me.

“Go!  Get your dogs!”  I said.  I turned to the Chicago Wards, “Wards!  Bikes!”

“You’re serious,” Tecton said.

“Everything I know about Endbringers, about basic parahuman psychology, it demands retaliation.  What’s he done so far?  Saturated an area in radiation?  Thrown a few lightning bolts around?”

“You’re expecting worse.”

“I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Go.  Spread out.  We might need to respond to an attack on another location, with no time to spare.”

Tecton nodded.  He turned to his Wards, “Go!”

I pushed my way through the gathered crowd.  I could see Defiant, with Dragon beside him.

“Weaver,” he said.  “Dragon says that was you, with the blast.”

I shook my head.  “I helped coordinate, nothing more.”

“You hurt him.”

We hurt him.  And he’s burrowed.  He’s looking for a target, and I can’t think of a better place for him to hit than this.”

“We’d be able to put up a fight.  We have defensive lines.”

“Probably,” I agreed.  “But my guys are moving out anyways.  We’ve never done this much damage to him, and yet he’s sticking around.  What I’m wondering is, why?”

Defiant glanced at Dragon, then spoke.  “He’s-”

The ground shuddered.  Again, as before, the rumbling intensified.

This time, it didn’t stop.  It got worse with every passing second.

“Reinforce!”  A cape hollered.  Someone else took up the call in an Indian language.  Hindi?  Punjabi?

I could see Annex flowing into the entryway, soaring through the wall’s surface to the ceiling.  Golem created his hands, protecting the rows and columns of injured capes.

There was a press as the bodies flowed out the door.  I used my flight pack to fly over their heads, but even then, I bumped shoulders with others who could fly.  I wanted to help, but there was little I could do inside.

Eidolon and Alexandria had arrived at the building.  Eidolon touched the exterior wall, and an emerald green glow started to surround the structure.

The rumbling reached the point where capes were unable to keep their balance.  I raised off the ground, but the movement of the air in response to the shuddering was enough to make me sway.

Tattletale.  Grue.  Parian.

Behemoth emerged with a plume of gray-brown smoke, and the landscape shattered.  It was Tecton’s natural power, taken to an extreme.  Fissures lanced out in every direction and disappeared into each horizon.  Secondary fissures crossed between each of the major ones, like the threads of a spider’s web.

As far as the eye could see in every direction, terrain shifted.  Hillsides abruptly tilted, standing structures fell like collapsing houses of cards.

A full quarter of the temple collapsed.  The bugs I’d kept to the edges of the room could sense it as a small share of the capes who were in the entry hall were caught beneath the falling rubble.  The ones furthest towards the back.  Eidolon’s protective effect kept the remainder intact.

Behemoth emerged from the smoke.  He was more robust than he had been, but that wasn’t saying much.  Seventy percent burned away, perhaps.  The regeneration had slowed, but it was still functioning to a degree.  He’d recuperated, built his strength, and he’d used the time to, what?  Burrow through strategic areas?  Had the distant rumbles been controlled detonations or collapses at key areas?

The temple was the one building that stood.  Everywhere else, there was devastation.

How many refugees had just died, with this?  How many had stayed within their homes, rather than try to evacuate?

I felt hollow inside, just standing there, stunned, trying to take it all in.  The area around us was still settling, sections of land tilting and sliding like sinking battleships sliding into the water.

How many of us were left?  Seventy?  Eighty?  How many of them were hurt, exhausted, their resources spent?  Could we even coordinate, with so many of us speaking different languages?

“Last stand!” a male cape I didn’t know hollered the words, his voice ragged with fear and emotion.

Behemoth, three or four hundred feet away, responded to the shout with a lightning strike.  Our capes were too slow to erect barriers, and the protection insufficient.  Capes died.  For the first time, I averted my eyes.  I didn’t want to know how bad the casualties were.  Our numbers were too thin.

I saw our Protectorate, what remained of it, stepping forward to form our defensive line.  Our last defensive line.  The major ones, the ones I’d been introduced to, too many had died, or were injured.  These were unfamiliar faces.  The ones who were second in command, if that.

Eidolon landed to one side.  The Triumvirate had often posed in that classic ‘v’ formation, with Legend in front, Alexandria to his left, Eidolon to the right, the lesser members in the wings, Eidolon was now apart from the rest of the group.  His cape didn’t billow, his posture was slightly slumped.  He was tired, on his last legs.

There were murmurs as Alexandria advanced from within the temple.  Unlike so many of us, she didn’t flinch as Behemoth struck out with lightning, the barriers holding this time.  Golem had raised lightning rods on either side of the road, fingers splayed as if he could gesture for Behemoth to stop.

Alexandria found her way to the end of the crowd opposite Eidolon, to our far left.  Satyrical and the other Vegas capes followed her.  Only a small fraction of them remained.  Others had apparently been injured or killed in battle.

Alexandria glanced over our ranks, and her eyes moved right past me, not even recognizing me.  For the briefest instant, I met her eyes behind that steel helmet of hers, and I saw that one had a pink iris.

That answered my question, I supposed.  Pretender couldn’t take over a corpse, but there was no reason for him to take over Alexandria if she was alive and well.  Cauldron had collected Pretender, and they had him controlling her because she was no longer of any use to them on her own.

Our side was busy getting sorted into groups, spreading out so he couldn’t hurt too many of us at once.  We were finding our formations, as our toughest capes absorbed and redirected the lightning he was throwing in an almost experimental manner.  He changed tacks, throwing flame, and a team composed entirely of pyrokinetics caught and redirected it with a concerted effort.  I backed away, and found Tecton at my back, with the remaining Chicago Wards.  Bitch stood just off to one side, her dogs ready.

One structure among several hundred thousand still stood, and our adversary was wounded, though undiminished.  Our ranks had been thinned in the most violent ways possible, through fire and lightning and a roar that could render organs to mush.  We weren’t stronger than we’d been at the start of all of this.  I couldn’t even say that the weak had been thinned out, or that we’d been united through hardship or loss.  Behemoth had picked off some of the strongest of us, and the trust between our factions was thin at best, with some eyeing the Yàngbǎn, others watching Satyrical’s contingent.  We were just less.

“Hold the line,” Exalt called out.  Other capes translated for him, echoing his words with only a few seconds of delay, in four or five different languages.  “We defend until the ones inside can be evacuated, and then we leave.  There’s nothing left to protect here.”

A thin heroism, but that was heroic, wasn’t it?  Protecting the wounded, defending the ones who’d put everything on the line to stop this monster.

If this was all a kind of microcosm for the world at large, that small heroism had to count for something.  I wanted it to so badly I ached for it.

Behemoth roared, and the last engagement opened.

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Crushed 24.3

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Eidolon and Alexandria had settled into something of a rhythm.  Though his powerset was similar to Alexandria’s on the surface, the eerie noises and the dimming of the light around the areas his punches landed suggested he was transmuting the kinetic energy of his punches into something else altogether.  Between Eidolon’s strikes and Alexandria’s, Behemoth couldn’t quite adapt to the point where he was redirecting every strike, let alone the barrage of ranged attacks that the other capes in the area were directing his way.

The Endbringer staggered under the onslaught, but he was slowly adapting.  They’d managed to pin him for a minute, even costing him some ground by driving him back once or twice, but each successive minute saw him rolling with the punches more, advancing further when he found a second or two of mild reprieve.

His target: the command center.  Our flying capes weren’t working fast enough to clear the entire rooftop, and every shaker we had -every cape capable of putting up a forcefield or creating a portal, raising a barrier- was busy trying to slow down the brute.  The Chicago Wards, or most of the Chicago Wards were among them.

I tensed, but I couldn’t move without exposing myself to one of the lances of electricity that were crashing down around us.  The capes on the rooftop were protected by an arrangement of tinker-made forcefields, it seemed, but those wouldn’t hold.  Fuck, hanging around on rooftops was dumb.  I’d learned my lesson on my first night out on costume, had avoided being put in that position since, excepting the fundraiser, where we’d been on the attack, and the time Defiant and Dragon had dragged me up to one, just a bit ago.

The guys up there were tinkers and thinkers.  They were our communications, supporting roles, strategists and healers.  A few of them were long-ranged capes.  Not really people who could hop or fly down five stories to the ground and walk away unscathed.  Not without help.

I waited and watched as Behemoth engaged the other capes, tracking what powers he was using and when.  He was presently staggering forward when he could, otherwise holding his ground, deflecting and redirecting attacks.  When he was free to do so, he reached out with his claws, and lightning lanced out to tear through the assembled capes.

Golem, to his credit, was going all out.  Hands of stone and metal rose from the ground to shield defending capes and balk Behemoth’s progress.  I could make out Hoyden, leader or second in command of the Austin Wards.  She wasn’t on the front lines, but was defending the mid-line capes.  It made sense with how her power worked, as her defensive powers provided more cover from attacks at greater ranges.  She threw herself in the way of lightning bolts and stood between Behemoth and the wounded.  When lightning struck her, detonations ripped out from the point of impact, seeming almost to short out the currents.

“Come on, come on,” I muttered.

I could see Tecton creating fissures in the ground, no doubt intended to reduce the reach and effects of Behemoth’s stomps.  Annex was creating bridges so heroes wouldn’t fall into the gaps.

Dispatch, vice-captain of the Houston Protectorate team, zipped over to a group of wounded with accelerated speed, only to seem to pause, as though he and his immediate surroundings were only video footage.  Color and space distorted violently in an irregular area around him as he hung there, just an inch over the ground, one hand at his belt and another reaching for someone with intense burns.

A half-second later, the effect dissipated, and they were all moving.  Dispatch was carrying one of the most wounded, gloves off and the sleeves of his costume pulled up, dried blood up to his elbows.  Others were bandaged and sutured.  His name, I knew, came from his ability to pick out targets in a fight, closing the distance to them and catching them in his temporal distortion effect.  He’d have minutes or hours, however long it took the air within the effect to run out, to end the fight with his super strength, durability and the close confines of the bubble.  To any observers, it appeared as though he’d won the fight in a heartbeat.  Apparently the idea extended to medical care.

Revel, leader of the Chicago Protectorate and official overseer of Tecton’s Ward team, was stepping up to the plate.  Floating up to it, whatever.  She rose into the air, and caught one full current of lightning inside her lantern.  The sheer force of the blast knocked her back, and she struck a wall, pressed against it with her lantern held in front of her.

She began releasing spheres of light from the lantern, each larger than a human head, slow-moving but numerous.  Their trajectories were unpredictable, some striking friendlies, others carrying forward towards Behemoth.  Where they struck friendlies, they only exploded in brilliant showers of sparks.  When they touched Behemoth, they sheared right into him, cutting two or three feet deep before flickering out.

When she saw it was working, she only intensified the assault, spending the charge she’d accumulated to create fifty more orbs, before hurrying forward to intercept another stream of lightning that was flowing from Behemoth’s claw-tip.  It was impossible to actually get in front before the lightning appeared, to save the lives that Behemoth was taking with the initial moments the lightning appeared, but she was stopping the lightning from flickering to the fourth, fifth or sixth target.

That was what I was waiting for.  My limited experience with Endbringers had taught me one thing.  When someone actually found a way to respond, to cancel out the attacks or to deliver a measure of real damage, they changed tactics.

Some capes were already responding.  Captains and leaders were giving orders, and various barriers were being reinforced or thrown back up.  Some were trying to give the warning, but their voices disappeared in the midst of the chaos around us.

“Take cover!” I hollered, and my swarm carried my voice.

It was only two or three seconds later, as the second wave of spheres drifted to Behemoth and began to cut into his torso and groin area, that he responded.  His ‘mouth’ opened, the craggy spikes of obsidian ‘teeth’ parting.

And he roared.  A sound that was slow at first, growing steadily more powerful.

Sound was a bitch of a thing.  It could be muffled, but blocking it entirely?  We didn’t have Grue.

I fled, cranking my antigrav to ‘high’ and risking unfolding my wings to use the propulsion systems as I made my way to for cover, putting as many buildings between Behemoth and I as I could.

My swarm responded to my call, assisting the capes who weren’t fleeing fast enough.  They rose as a singular mass, a wall of tens of thousands, and absorbed the worst of the scream.  I wasn’t sure it was enough.  Even with some distance and a dozen buildings between Behemoth and I, I had no defenses as it reached a crescendo.  My sense of balance went out the window, my very bones hurt.

Closer to Behemoth, capes were bleeding from their ears, vomiting, passing out.  Organs and brains would be reduced to jelly as he continued.  My bugs weren’t doing much to muffle the noise or soften the damage, if they were helping at all.

But my focus was on the rooftop.  I’d been waiting until he stopped using his lightning.  There was nothing saying he wouldn’t use it now.  He could use multiple attack forms at the same time.  Still, he was more focused on picking off the defending capes, the ones who were suppressing the noise.  Was Citrine among them?  I could see the golden glow of her power in the distance.

Director Tagg had given me an effective ranking of two for every single power classification.  Ostensibly, it had been because he hadn’t wanted to underestimate me.  Was there a note of truth to that, though?  I wasn’t sure about the ‘brute’ or ‘mover’ classifications, but did my power over bugs afford me a versatility that let me cover the bases on other fronts?

They still hadn’t completely evacuated the roof.  The people who might have helped them down were disabled or otherwise occupied.  Getting them down was key, here.  The flying capes were more focused on assisting the capes near the front lines, helping the ones who could deal damage escape Behemoth’s implacable advance and avoid the kill aura that accompanied him.

The roaring made it impossible to hear.  Even seeing was difficult, as my vision distorted and lost focus.  I very nearly tipped over, until I turned to my swarm sense.  Not perfect.  Even they were suffering, scattered and dying, at close range to the roar.  But it gave me an orientation, a plane to compare the tilt and angle of my body with.

I looped to one side to intercept some of my bugs, collecting the strands of silk they’d woven in one hand, then made my way around to the back of the building the heroes were clustered on.  Flying capes were settled on the ground, pausing to recuperate from the roar.  I took a second, myself, to get my bearings.  My back against the concrete, I could feel the building shuddering in response to the roar.  But at least there was a small degree of reprieve, here.

When I’d caught my breath and reassured myself my insides hadn’t been vibrated to pieces, I flew to the rooftop.  My bugs swept over the crowd.  No Tattletale that I could see.  No Accord, either, for that matter.

Two capes approached me, not quite Caucasian but lighter-skinned than the Indian capes.  One had a costume with a spiral to it, the other wore armor with tiny faces that looked like baby’s heads.  Was he a villain?  They were rattling off something in French or Spanish as they reached out to take my hands.  Their eyes were wide with fear and alarm.

“I can’t carry you!” I shouted, raising my voice to be heard over the perpetual roar.  “My flight pack isn’t strong enough!”

They clutched at me, and one even pushed at another cape who’d gotten too close.

A little too much.  Too intense, here, too forceful.  I just want to find Tattletale.  I’ll find a way to help you once I’ve done that.

“Back off!” I said, raising my voice.

The guy with the faces on his armor shouted so forcefully that spit flew from his mouth, as he pointed to the ground beyond the building.  He approached me, trying to hug himself tight to my body.  I pushed him away and backed up, trusting the antigrav to hold me aloft.

One of the capes on the rooftop approached me, pushing her way through the crowd.  She wore a golden mask with a woman’s face, the mouth parted a fraction, with a black bodysuit.  It was softened a touch by the loose black cloth that draped down from her golden shoulderpads and breastplate.  The black didn’t look so dramatic as it might have, mottled a brown-gray by the loose dust that had accumulated on it.

“Weaver,” she said, her voice melodic.

“Arbiter,” I responded.  One of Rime’s underlings.  The one with the social danger sense, forcefield and sonic beam.  I supposed her forcefield wasn’t quite large enough or versatile enough to offer a bridge down to the ground.  “I’ve got other stuff I need to pay attention to.  Don’t suppose you speak French?  Or Spanish?”

“Portuguese,” she said.  “And no, but give me a moment.”

She turned to the capes, but a heavy crash interrupted her before she could speak.

A building had fallen, toppling, and Behemoth hadn’t done anything to precipitate it.  Nothing except the roaring.

Was that enough?  Was this building coming apart beneath us?

Where the hell was Tattletale?  My bugs flowed into cracks in the building, checking rooms only to find them empty.

“Hurry!” I said.  I turned my attention to my swarm.  They extended out beneath me, forming into neat lines.  My bugs were slow to move through the structure.  I had to use the cracks that already existed in the walls, ducts and vents that just happened to be open.

“Speak to me,” Arbiter said to the Portuguese capes.

The one with the spiral costume chattered out something I couldn’t even guess at.  Arbiter nodded.  In very broken Portuguese, she asked a question.  The spiral man looked at the one with him, gesturing.

In less broken Portuguese, she spoke again.

That prompted another burst of explanation, or what I took to be exclamation.  They sounded desperate, afraid.

When she responded, she spoke just as quickly and flawlessly as the two native speakers.  She’d picked up the language in a matter of three exchanges.

I bit my tongue as the roar abruptly intensified, jarring me enough that my jaw was slammed shut.  It wasn’t that he was roaring louder; one of the capes who’d been keeping the worst of the noise at bay had fallen.

Focus.  My bugs extended lines of silk to the ground, while others held it aloft and kept it more or less straight, allowing the lengths to be carefully measured, the amount of slack controlled.

“Weaver!” Arbiter said, raising her voice so I could hear her.

I turned around.

“I don’t quite understand, there’s a gap in translation, but he says he’s pregnant with his dead teammates,” she said.  Her voice cut through the noise, “They’re asking for him to be rescued next.”

Pregnant with dead teammates?

Suddenly the little faces on his armor seemed twice as creepy.  I really hoped that was a tragically bad translation.  Parahumans could be so fucked up sometimes.

“He gets rescued with everyone else,” I said.  “There’s no way to prioritize.”

“Right,” Arbiter said.

I secured the lines of silk on the roof’s edge and on the ground.  I then pulled off a shoulderpad and retrieved the strip of silk that had held it in place.  I folded it over the cord and stepped over the edge, letting myself slide down the length of the cord.  Both ends were tied, and the slack was enough that it should ease people to the ground.  I was okay with doing the test run, as my flight pack could handle the fall.

It didn’t break.  Good.  Better than nothing.  I flew back to the rooftop, and I could feel the roar rattling me as I made my way up past the more solid cover.

“Should be fairly safe,” I said, “Silk cord got warm, from what my bugs are feeling, but I’ve got six arranged.  One person at a time, delay by about… twenty seconds, at least, between trips, so the heat and friction doesn’t wear through the silk.  It’s not the strongest thread I’ve ever made.”

Arbiter glanced over the roof’s edge.  I followed her gaze.  The silk was barely even visible.

“You’re sure they’ll hold?”

“No,” I said.  I glanced over at Behemoth, “But I’m less sure this building’ll be standing in five minutes.  If a cape falls and dies, I’ll take the blame.  Better than having everyone up here die.”

“You’re not convincing me,” she said, but she said something to the cape with the spirals on his costume.  With gestures and careful explanation, she got him to step up to the front, pulling his glove free of his fingers, using the excess fabric to slide down the silk line.

My bugs checked it after he’d passed.  Warm, but not so much that I was worried it’d split.

“Go!  Go!”  Arbiter said, grabbing the attention of the capes who’d been standing back and watching.

In seconds, we had capes sliding down the lines.  Arbiter was careful to keep them from overloading or applying too much friction too fast to the makeshift ziplines.

Behemoth had stopped his endless roaring.  He was using fire, now.  There was none of the uncanny precision the lightning had, but the fire moved with intelligence, spread easily, burned hotter than it should have, and it was virtually impossible to stop all of it.  It slipped between force fields, between the fingers of Golem’s stone hands, and it ignited any fabric and wood it touched, set grass alight.

I had to pull back my bugs.  I’d managed to keep the vast majority from dying, some fires and casualties from the roaring excepted, but this wasn’t a place where they’d help.

Six more capes made their way down the line.  Arbiter used her forcefield to block some more agitated capes from making their way down before it was time.  She spoke in one of the local languages to the group.

“Thank you,” I told her.  “For helping keep this sane.  If it comes down to it, and the cords don’t hold, I’ll lend you my flight pack.  I can control it remotely.”

“Give it to someone else before you give it to me,” she said, without looking at me.

“Right,” I answered.  “Listen, I’m-”

A cape gripped the cord for his turn, only to turn out to be far heavier than he looked.  Arbiter placed a forcefield under him, but it didn’t do much more than slow his descent as he crashed through it.

Five cords remained, and there were too many capes here.

Fuck,” I said.

“He’s okay,” Arbiter observed.

But the others seemed more reticient now.

“What the hell is going on downstairs?  Are stairs too difficult?”

Arbiter shook her head.  “Government building, it’s set up to lock down in a crisis, which it did.  A rogue cape turned on the people inside, so the metal doors closed to protect others.  We’ve been reeling since.  Command structure’s down, our battle lines collapsed-”

“You’re talking about Chevalier.”

“Yes.”

“Then where’s Tattletale?”

“I don’t know who that is.”

“Teenage girl, dirty blond, costume of black and light purple.  She would’ve been with a short man wearing a suit.”

“I saw them.  They went downstairs with Chevalier.”

I could feel my heart in my throat.  “Where are they now?”

“With other wounded.  We’re relaying them a half-mile that way,” Arbiter pointed.  “Far enough away that Behemoth won’t be endangering them anytime soon.”

Behemoth generated a shockwave, and one forcefield at the front of the roof flickered and died.  A tinker moved forward to try to restart it, and was struck down by a bolt of lightning before she could.

A wave of capes mustered the courage and slid down.  There were only eleven of us on the rooftop now, myself and Arbiter included.

I checked the lines, then cut one that was too frayed.  Four left.

“Four lines left,” I reported, before someone reached for one that wasn’t there.  My thoughts, though, were on Tattletale.  Injured or dead.

“Go,” Arbiter said.  “To your friend, your teammate, your partner, whatever she is to you, she’s important.”

I shook my head.  “You need me.  I can use my bugs to check the lines are okay.”

“There won’t be any major difference if you’re here or not.  Three more trips-”

A flying cape touched the rooftop only long enough to take hold of one of the people on top, then took off again.

“Maybe two trips, and we’re clear.  I’ll go last.  Go.

Another shockwave knocked out another forcefield panel.  A tinker was working on the generator, best as she could while hunkering down behind the sole remaining panel.  She said something frantic.  I couldn’t understand her, whatever her language, but I could guess.  It wasn’t her tech.

I hesitated, wanting to take the offer to escape.  Then I shook my head.  “I’ll stay.  Tattletale’s important to me, but so is doing what I can here.  I can check the lines in a way nobody else here can.”

Arbiter only nodded, her eyes on the ongoing fight.

I drew up decoy-swarms, placing them across the rooftop, and stepped off the rooftop, hovering and using the building for cover.  Arbiter raised her forcefield to fill some of the gap in the tinker-created field, crouching in the crowd of swarm-people.  Others followed suit.  I covered them as much as I could without obscuring their vision.

Seconds passed before Arbiter gave the go-ahead.  Capes evacuated the rooftop.

Behemoth’s lightning strike flashed through our ranks, right over Arbiter’s squatter forcefield, through two decoys and striking a cape.

The crash of thunder seemed almost delayed, synced more to the cape going limp than the flash itself.  The body struck the roofop, dead before it touched ground.

Had the decoys spared two people from being hit, or was it chance that the bolt had made contact with them?  Fuck.  Having more information would be key, here.

Behemoth was continuing to suffer blows.  His progress had all but stalled, but he wasn’t changing tactics.  Why?

Did he have a strategy?  The Simurgh was supposed to be the tactician, Leviathan had the brute cunning.  Was Behemoth harboring a certain degree of intelligence?

I didn’t like that idea, but I couldn’t think of a good way to explain just why he was willing to stand there and take abuse.

Flying capes evacuated two more.  Arbiter gave the go-ahead for more to use the ziplines.

That left only the two of us here, and I had cover, at the least.

Lightning lanced past us, burning much of its initial charge on the forcefield.  It danced through the ranks of my decoy bugs.  Arbiter was left untouched.

“Damn,” she muttered.  “Damn, damn, damn.”

“Fuck waiting for heat to dissipate, just use the zipline,” I said.  “Hurry.  Second one, it’s least worn, coolest.”

She half-crawled, half-ran to me.  I handed her the strap that I’d used for the test run, and she looped it over the line.

I followed her to the ground, my hand on the armor at her collar.  I probably didn’t have the lift to keep her from falling, but I might have been able to soften the blow.

Not that it mattered.  The zipline remained intact, and she touched ground with a grunt.

I found Rime, casting wave after wave of crystals at Behemoth.  He was using shockwaves and fire to prematurely detonate or push away Revel’s spheres, and Rime’s attacks were suffering from a similar angle.

Rime was second in command, wasn’t she?  Or was it Prism?

Rime would be more receptive to listening, either way.  I used my bugs to speak to her.  “Command center evacuated.  Can relax front line if you need to.”

She didn’t respond to me, but I could make out her orders as she shouted the words, “Fall back!  Stagger the retreat!”

I exhaled slowly.

“You’ve done your duty.  Go to your friend.  Figure out what’s going on,” Arbiter said.

I nodded and took off.

Through my bugs, I spoke to Tecton, “Back shortly.

He mumbled something I couldn’t make out.  It might have been ‘okay’.

As I got more distance, I felt safe to withdraw the wings again.  I picked up in speed, putting Behemoth and the fighting behind me.

I found a temple with wounded inside.  The exterior was opulent, the interior doubly so.  Now it was a triage area.  There were more burns here, crushed limbs, people coughing violently.  It wasn’t damage suffered from direct confrontation with Behemoth.  It was secondary damage, taken from the fires and smoke of burning buildings.

And inside one curtained area, there were the wounded capes.  I approached, folding the wings away and moving forward with antigrav and the occasional touch of foot against ground to propel myself forward further.

I stopped by Tattletale’s bedside.  I’d found her within instants of the temple falling in my range.  Her lips moved as she recognized me, but no sound came out.  My eyes moved to the tube sticking out of her throat.

“You really gotta stop doing this,” I said.

She only grinned.  She reached over to the bedside table and retrieved a pen and notepad.  Her grin fell from her face as she wrote something, then tore the page free, handing it to me.

he’s going easy on us.  all Endbringers are.  but Behemoth holding back, even from moment he arrive.  taking more hits than he should.

“We already knew that they’re holding back for some reason,” I said.  “The way they space out attacks, they could accelerate the timetable or coordinate their strikes if they wanted to fuck us over.”

Another note:

they want to lose I think.  set themselves up to fail.  but not fail so bad they risk dying.  levi was after something, noelle I think.  but why didn’t he show up closer to downtown?

“I don’t know,” I said.  I felt a little chilled at the idea that this was the Endbringers pulling their punches.

big b wants something.  not at india gate.  somewhere past it.  why not come up right underneath it?

“I don’t know,” I repeated myself.  “It doesn’t matter.”

matters.  looked at past attacks.  pattern.  small pattern.  behe attacks nuclear reactor, appears some distance away.  attacks birdcage, appears in rockies, no sign he was close or beneath cage.  pattern says he wouldn’t emerge this close if he just wanted to attack india gate.  He attacking something north of it.

“Just tell me, is there anything I can do?”

I was trying to find his target.  accord was trying to find way to stop him, coordinate counteroffense.  accord dead, I useless.  get me computer?  maybe I can help still.  Ppl here not helping.  scared of me.

Accord was dead?  What did that spell for the Undersider-Ambassador alliance?

No.  I couldn’t let myself get distracted.  There were more immediate concerns.

“Computers are probably down,” I said.  “I think there’s too much electromagnetic energy, no cell towers, no radio, no internet.  Armbands aren’t working, and I’d expect them to be the last thing to stop working.”

She spent an inordinate amount of time writing the next message.

I shifted my weight from one foot to the other while I waited for her to finish, then accepted the note and read it.

FUCK

Each letter had been traced over several times, and the entire thing had been underlined twice.

I glanced at her, and she was scowling, already writing the next message.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said.  “You’re a distance away from the fighting, maybe a phone works.”

But she was already handing me the next piece of paper.

you go.  find it.  find his objective.

“There’s other capes better for that than me.”

get help then.  but you can use swarm.  search.  we win this by denying him his target.

I frowned, but I didn’t refuse her.  I started to leave, then hesitated, turning back to her.  I opened my mouth to speak, then saw the note.

go already.  I ok.  I get healer another day.  not worried.

And I was gone, flying over the heads of the wounded as I made my way to the front door.

The availability of healing made for an interesting, if ugly, dynamic.  Capes like Tattletale, capes like me could be reckless, we’d get our faces slashed open, our backs broken, our throats severed, blinded and burned, and we’d get mended back to a near-pristine condition.  Tattletale still had faint scars at the corners of her mouth, regenerated by Brian after his second trigger event, but she’d mended almost to full.  I’d had injuries of a much more life-altering scale undone by Panacea and Scapegoat.

If we died, we were dead, no question, unless I gave consideration to Alexandria’s apparent resurrection.  But an injury, no matter how grave?  That was something that could be remedied, it lent a feeling of invulnerability, an image of invulnerability.  So we continued being reckless, and we would continue to be reckless until something finally killed us off.

Was there a way to break that pattern?  Could I afford to?  My ability to throw myself headlong into a dangerous situation was part of the reason for my success.

I looped back towards the main confrontation, finding the thinkers I’d helped off the rooftop.  Some were moving to assist allies, others were fleeing.  One pocket, at a glance, seemed to be trying to form a second command center.

I moved towards the cluster of them.

Two Indian capes, one Caucasian.

“English?” I asked.

“Yes,” the Caucasian said.  “Just me.”

“Trying to enlist help.  Names and powers?”

“Kismet, balance thinker,” the Caucasian said.  He wore a white robe with a hard, faceless mask that had only slits for the eyes.

“And the other two?”

“As far as I can tell, Fathom and Particulate.  Best translations I can give.  My Punjabi isn’t strong.”

“Their powers?” I asked, with a restrained patience.

“Displaces people or things to another dimension, filled with water, brings them back.  Particulate’s a dust tinker.”

What the fuck is a dust tinker?  Or a balance thinker, for that matter?

“Okay, I’m going to find others,” I said.

“Wait, what’s the project?”

“A mission.  Finding whatever it is that Behemoth wants.”

“We’ve got others on that already.”

“Nobody’s reported back,” I said, “Or at least, nobody’s formed a defensive line or put safeguards in place.”

“You’re sure he’s after something?  They’ve attacked cities just to kill people before, and this is a dense population center.”

“He’s after something,” I said. “He’s got a direction, and a friend told me he’s targeting a point beyond where the heroes are searching.”

“We’ll help look,” he said. He rattled off a few lines of Punjabi to the capes in his company.  One of them, Particulate, I took it, removed what looked like a fat smart phone from one pocket.  He peered at it.  Some sort of scanning instrument.

“Hey, either of you have a phone?”  I asked.

Kismet nodded, then handed me the phone.

“Can I keep it?”  I asked.  “I can get it back to you later, probably.”

He made an exasperated noise.  “I thought you wanted to make a call, not keep it.”

“It’d be for a good cause,” I promised.

He sighed, “Take it, then.”

I wound silk around it and then had bugs carry it off in Tattletale’s direction.

“You think it’s a cache of nuclear weapons, or what?”  Kismet asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Go look, towards India Gate.  I’m going to round up others.”

“On it,” he said, before speaking another line of Punjabi.  “And kid?”

I hesitated in mid-air.

“Thanks, for the escape route from that rooftop.”

I didn’t respond, taking off.  Rude, maybe, but taking the time to respond was stupid, when there was this much going on.  Making me wait while he thanked me was similarly dumb.

I waited until the phone reached Tattletale’s hands, then drew closer to the fighting, and the capes who were closer to the battlefront.  When Rime was in my power’s reach, I contacted her.

Tattletale thinks she has a lead on Behemoth’s objective.  Mobilizing thinkers to find it.

I was nearly drowned out by the chaos of the fighting.  Behemoth was standing partially inside a building, and it was blazing, pieces of it falling down with every heavy impact the heroes delivered.

“Say again,” she said.

I repeated myself, speaking the words aloud under my breath, to gauge the proper way to form the sounds with my swarm.

“Good,” she said.  And that was all.  She was fighting again, trying to freeze the building so Behemoth was encased.

I found two more thinkers and gave them directions.  We’d search the area beyond the Rajpath.

Behemoth generated a shockwave, and I could sense the heroes reacting to it.  The only cover here was cover heroes like Golem were creating, and the concussive shock traveled through the air, knocking capes off their feet or out of the air.

I grit my teeth and pressed my back to a building as it rolled past me, fell over at the impact.

The Endbringer strode forward, using the momentary break in the attack to cover more ground.  Unfortunate capes who’d been pushing their luck were left trying to run for cover, only to be caught within his kill aura.

Rachel rescued one or two, though the heroes might have debated the nature of the rescue.  Her dogs seized people in their mouths, running, dropping them at a safe distance, before moving in to retrieve more people.  Some of the rescued individuals were left slowly climbing to their feet, no doubt bruised from the dog’s teeth and dripping with drool.

One dog, a person in its mouth, was struck by a bolt of lightning.  It fell, sprawling, then slowly climbed to its feet.  I could tell with my bugs, that the person in its mouth was no longer alive.  Still, it dutifully carried the body to safety and deposited it on the ground, before limping back towards the battle.

I belatedly remembered to pay attention to my team.  Tecton was busy erecting barriers, raising the earth in shelves with his piledrivers. Annex was reinforcing everything, fixing other people’s work, providing loose cover for ranged heroes to hide behind, and delaying collapses.  Powerful.

Grace, using her strength to carry the wounded.  Wanton was venturing into more dangerous ground with the safety of his telekinetic body, returning to human form to help the wounded and trapped, then retreating with the same form, moving on to the next person.  Cuff was helping a tinker.

Golem was forming barriers, limiting the movements of Behemoth’s legs, and shoring up the building the Endbringer was wading through.

The constructions weren’t doing enough.  We needed to change tactics now that this wasn’t working, sort of like the Endbringers did.  If not constructions, then maybe destructions.

Tecton, pits.  Have Annex cover them,” I ordered.  “Think controlled collapses.

I couldn’t make out his response.  I hoped that didn’t mean he couldn’t make out my statements.

You’re in charge until I get back.  I have other orders,” I added.

I returned to collecting thinkers and other stray capes, taking only a minute before heading for our destination.

There were heroes and PRT officials at India Gate, and lined up across the Rajpath.  A handful of thinkers and tinkers were here.  Not ones I’d sent, but official ones, directed to scan and search for whatever Behemoth might be after.

Search north,” I communicated, sending moths and butterflies to pass on the message.  I didn’t wait to see if they’d listen.  I kept moving.

I zig-zagged across the landscape, scanning every surface with my bugs, as the fighting continued in the distance.  Behemoth wasn’t quite visible from this vantage point, but the cloud of smoke and the lightning suggested it wouldn’t be long.

How many capes had he killed?  How many more would die?

I crossed paths with Particulate, who had apparently been filled in by Kismet.  He handed me one of the scanning devices, and I took off.

Damn tinkers.  Their stuff was making life so complicated, now.  Too many things to keep track of.  Antigrav, propulsion, sensing things with my bugs, paying attention to what I was sensing with my bugs, coordinating people, with sectors for them to cover, and now tracking the stuff with the scanner.

Not that it was impossible.  I was managing everything but the bugspeak without a problem.

The scanner showed me only gibberish at first, with sixteen bars divided into eight individual pieces, each of which could be any number of colors.  Each rose and fell as I moved and as I turned the scanner.  Moving past Particulate, I noted that the rise and fall of the bars was linked to my relation to his scanner.

We were triangulating.  Or did we not have a third?  Kismet was somewhere out of my range, at present, as was Fathom, so I couldn’t be sure.

The bars rose as I pointed in Behemoth’s direction, a mix of blues, greens, yellows and reds.  Was it tracking energy?

I turned away, and found another bump, almost all white, the rest yellow.  Nothing tracked in any significant quantity at Behemoth’s location.

It was something.  I circled around until the bars reached a peak, every single one of them topping the charts.

Nothing.  I used my power, but I couldn’t find anything more complex than a desktop computer.

Then it adjusted.  The bars each dropped until they were only four or five high.

Was Particulate doing something on his end?

It dawned on me, as I tried to narrow down our target, that this was big.  Something that topped the basic readings just by being within a mile of it.

And I found it.  My bugs could sense an underground chamber.  Concrete walls, impenetrable to earthworms, and no obvious entrance.  I looped back to communicate to the others.  The English-speakers, anyways.

Then, as the faster and the closer thinkers caught up with me, I approached the site.

Particulate and Kismet joined me.

This underground chamber was different from the one I’d seen closer to Behemoth.  There was no ramp leading up, nothing to suggest an elevator.

“Not sure how to get through,” I said.

“Smart of them,” Kismet said.

“I know, but it doesn’t help us.”

Kismet said something to Particulate, and the tinker drew a gun from a holster with an excess of care.

Then he fired.  There was no beam, no projectile.  There was only a corridor, three feet across, carved into the earth, and plumes of dust.

We backed away, Kismet coughing as he caught some of it.  Particulate, a tinker with a narrow, overlong bald head, said something in his language, almost musical, humorous.  He glanced at me, his eyes covered by goggles, his mouth covered by a fabric that hugged every wrinkle of his lower face, as though it were a micron thick, and smiled.  I could see the contours of his teeth and gums behind the strange fabric.

“Battery,” Kismet said, stopping to cough, “is dead.  Three shots.  Tried two on Behemoth, didn’t work.  He likes that it was useful.”

“Damn,” I said.  If they had worked…

I didn’t waste any more time.  I handed them a length of cord, then disappeared down the hole.  My feet skidded on the smooth, almost glassy surface, but my flight pack gave me some lift.

Now that I was lower, I was free to feel out the surroundings, and mentally map out the entire complex.  It took time, but the others were slow to descend to the lower corridor.

Was there a whole undercity beneath New Delhi?  Some kind of subterranean realm of corridors and rooms, large and small?  Did the good and bad ‘cold’ capes accidentally dig into each other’s corridors at any point?  Collapse sections of each other’s undercity?

Geez, it wasn’t like the city wasn’t large enough already.

I was drawing a mental picture as my bugs spread out.  There were people here, but they weren’t doing anything special.  Sleeping, cooking, fucking, smoking some sort of pipes… no.

And in the midst of it, as Particulate adjusted his tracking device to further narrow the sensitivity, we closed in on a void.  A part of the underground chamber my bugs couldn’t touch.

Particulate said something, arching his eyebrows as he looked down at the scanner.

“A lot of energy,” Kismet translated.

“How much is a lot?” I asked.

Particulate spoke without Kismet translating for him.

“More than Behemoth has given off during his entire stay in New Delhi,” Kismet said.

I stared at the little scanner and the white bars.  “There’s no way in, as far as I can tell.”

“There wasn’t a way into this base either,” Kismet said.  “Maybe they have a way to enter and leave.”

“Okay,” I said.  “We know where Behemoth’s target is, even if we don’t know what it is.  Let’s retreat, communicate with-”

But Particulate was already moving, tampering with the gun that had created the corridor.

“Stop him!” I said.

Kismet reached over, but Particulate was already tossing the gun to the point where the floor met the wall.

It started flashing rapidly, increasingly bright, and Particulate bolted.  It was almost comical, as though he’d been taught to run by a textbook.  His hands were out flat at his sides, his arms and legs bent at rigid right angles as he sprinted away, almost robotic in the movements.  He shouted something in Punjabi.

Almost comical.  When you saw a bomb disposal team running, as the joke went, you ran to keep up.  The same applied to any tinker and a device that flashed like that.  Kismet and I ran after him.

The gun exploded, silently, without fire or light or electricity.  There was only a roughly spherical opening carved into the area.  It was wide enough to lead into the tunnel above and below us, and had sheared through the five or six feet of solid earth that separated each floor.  At the far end, I could see where it had cut into a corner of the previously inaccessible room.

We approached, and I could see a cape inside, or a parahuman, if ‘cape’ applied.  He was disheveled, with dark circles under his eyes, his skin pale, his beard and hair bedraggled.  His clothing, by contrast, was opulent, clean: a rich indigo robe, a sapphire set in a gold chain, a gold chain for a belt, and a golden sash.

And above him, the energy.  There were two golden discs, and something almost alive seemed to crackle between them.

“It’s Phir Sē,” Kismet said, backing away.

“The glowing thing in the air or the person?”  I asked.

“The person.”

“Who’s Phir See?”  I asked.

Sē.  He’s one of the reasons the American girl’s PRT can exist,” Kismet said.  “When they talk about disbanding it, the PRT only reminds them that monsters like this lurk elsewhere.”

The man slowly turned to face us.  He wasn’t an old man, but he moved like one.

“Monsters?”  I asked.  “I’ve fought monsters.  Just tell me what kind of monster he is.”

“The kind that is too smart for all of our good,” Kismet said.  He’d frozen the moment the man set eyes on him.

Phir Sē spoke, “That is compliment?  Yes?”

“Yes,” Kismet said.

“Then I thank you.  Girl?  I recognize you from American television.”

“I go by Weaver, now.”

“I do remember.  You had much power.  You turned it down.”

“It wasn’t for me,” I said.

“You are more comfortable where you are now?” he asked.

“Now as in here, in this fight, or as a hero?”

“Either.  Both,” he stated.

“Honestly?  No on both counts.  I’m still figuring it out.”

He inclined his head.  “This is to be respected.  Making hard choice.  The challenge of the young adult.  To find identity.”

“Thank you,” I said, still wary.  Everything about Kismet’s reaction was telling me this guy was to be feared, so I had to step carefully.  “Can I ask what that thing is?”

“A weapon,” he said.  “A… how do you Americans say it?  Time bomb?  Only this is joke.”

“He makes portals,” Kismet said.  “Using them, he can send things back in time.  Something goes in portal B, comes out of portal A a few minutes earlier.  Or the other way around.”

“Or, as I discover, I make loop,” Phir Sē said.  “Weaponize.  Simple light, captured in one moment, redoubled many times over.  I move gate, and that light will pour forth and clean.”

I could remember what Particulate had said.  More energy than Behemoth had created since arriving in this city.  Only this would be directed at a single target.

“Clean isn’t the word you want,” I said. “Scour?”

“Scour,” Phir Sē said, he inclined his head again.  “I thank you.”

“Behemoth wants his hands on it,” I said.  “On that energy.”

“I want this on Behemoth.  Do great harm.  Even kill.”

“Shit,” Kismet said.  He backed away a step.  “This is-”

“Stay,” Phir Sē said.  His voice was quiet, but it was clear he expected to be heeded.

Kismet glanced up at the glow, then turned to run.

He wasn’t even turned all the way around when there was a flicker.  A man appeared just in front of Kismet.  A teleporter.

And his forearm extended through Kismet’s chest.

Then he flickered, like a bad lightbulb, and he was gone, leaving only a gaping hole where the arm had been.  Kismet collapsed, dead.

A teleporter who can bypass the Manton effect.

“Stay,” Phir Sē told us, again.  He hadn’t even flinched, but the space between his bushy eyebrows furrowed as he stared down at Kismet.

My heart thudded in my throat as I glanced down at the body.

Particulate said something, spitting the word.

Phir Sē said something in Punjabi, then turned to me, “Is rude, to speak in language you cannot understand.  He call me evil, so I not speak to him further.  But you understand, do you not?  You know what form this war take?  The danger we all face, from monsters like that, from others?”

“I don’t think many top the Endbringers,” I said.

“Maybe not so.  Maybe.  But you have tried being cold.  Killing the enemy, yes?  Because ruthless is only way to win this war.”

“I met some people.  I think they were your adversaries,” I said.  “Glowing eyes?  Reflective?  Like mirrors?”

“Yes.  Enemy.  They petty evils that walk this city.  Organize crime.  Slave, prostitute, murder, mercenary.  My side, we root out corrupt.  Ruthless.  Government prefer them to us.  Paint us as evil, pay them to carry on.  But you know what this is like, yes?”

“More or less,” I said, not breaking eye contact.  “And those guys, they’re ruthless in the same way you described, I guess?”

“More, less,” he said, as if he were trying on the phrase, “Yes.”

“You want to hit Behemoth with this… time bomb,” I said.  “But… I think that’s what he wants.  He’s holding back.  My thinker friend, she said so.  He’s taking more hits than he should, and I’m just now realizing he might be doing it because he wants to be ready for when you hit him with this.  He’ll push it out into the ground, or into the air.”

“Yes.  This is likely,” Phir Sē said.  “This is what he may want.  I hoped for the Second or Third.  This will have to do.”

“They’ve tried this stuff before,” I said.  “Nukes, gigantic railguns, tricks with teleportation and portals.  It doesn’t work.  You won’t do anything except get a lot of people killed as collateral damage.”

“We time this.  Strategic,” Phir Sē said, calm, as if he were talking to a panicked animal.  “Come.  Step in.”

Right, I thought.  Approach the temporal bomb.

But I did.  No use ticking off the guy with the murder-teleporter on call.  Particulate followed me as I navigated the way to the room’s interior.

There were television screens all across the wall.  Five showed the ongoing destruction from distant cameras.  Two showed grainy camera footage.  The last showed what looked to be an Indian soap opera.

“Thirsty,” Phir Sē commented.

The teleporter flickered into existence, then disappeared.  Phir Sē had a bottle of water in his hands that he hadn’t held before.  He turned our way, bushy eyebrows raised as a faint smile touched his face.  “Might I offer you anything?”

I shook my head.  My stomach was a knot, my heart was pounding.

Particulate said something, but Phir Sē ignored him.

“We watch the First,” Phir Sē said.  “He let his guard down, I strike.”

“I’ve seen an Endbringer fool another brilliant man who thought he had a surefire way to win,” I said.  “They’re cleverer than we think.  What if Behemoth fools you?”

“Then New Delhi pay for my mistake,” Phir Sē answered me.  “I have daughter there.  She join bright heroes, popular ones.  She pay for my mistake, if she still lives.  I live, down here, spend life mourning.”

He looked genuinely upset at the idea.

“You want to win?” I asked.  “You take that thing, aim it for the sky.  Deplete it, so Behemoth’s entire goal for coming here is gone.”

“Is a chance,” Phir Sē told me.  “To strike them harder than anything yet.  You tell me, is that not worth it?”

“Worth risking this city?  Your daughter?  The lives of the heroes here?”

“Yes.  Is worth.”

“No,” I retorted.

He looked at me, and I could read the unhappiness in his expression.  Not a condemnation or even him being upset with me.  Disappointment in general.

The woman in the suit told me there were people with their own agendas.  Monsters.  This is one of them, and he thinks we’re kindred spirits.

“I tell you because you are ruthless, Weaver.  Do not stop me,” he said.  “I die, focus waver, time bomb explode.  Aimless, no direction.”

“Indiscriminate,” I supplied a better word.

“Indiscriminate,” Phir Sē echoed me.  “India gone.  You die, even down here.

I raised my head, staring up at the two golden discs and the current that seemed to run between them.  I would have thought it would be brighter.

“Hero fall.  We wait,” he said.  “When fight cannot be won, I strike.”

I tensed as I watched the fighting on the screens.  They flickered intermittently in a delayed reaction to Behemoth’s lightning strikes.

“Very soon,” he said, his eyes fixed on the monitor.  “You stay.”

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Interlude 23

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

The Yàngbǎn raised their hands, already reacting.

Twenty-third path, fifth benefit.  Reflexes.

Thirteenth path, third formForcefield constructions, barrier.

The forcefields absorbed the worst of the energy.

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

Qiān chū.”  Three ordered.

They mobilized.

Fourth path.  Shallow flight.

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

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

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

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

Yàngbǎn qiáng!”  Five called out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zhàn wěn,” Ten said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magma?

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

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

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

Thirty-second path.  Nullification waves.

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

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

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

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

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

Dǎpò,” Seven ordered.

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

Path fourteen.  Vacuum spheres.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An explosion of smoke bloomed out in front of them.

Not smoke.  Darkness.

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

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

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

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

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

The Yàngbǎn edged around the group, wary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No idea,” the man in black said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go,” she said.

He glanced back at the woman in yellow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Cody was left standing there, staring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re military, not heroes.

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

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

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

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

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

Five looked to Cody and pointed at the next one.

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

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

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

The wounded hero flickered and disappeared.

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

Qiān chū.”  Three ordered.

They moved out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chevalier fell silent.

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

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

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

“Yes,” Chevalier said.

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

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

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

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

“I see,” Chevalier said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“May I interrupt?” Accord asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you need?”

“Contact information for your various squads.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qiān chū.”  Three ordered.

The negotiations were over, it seemed.

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

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

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

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

No.  The ability to see through surfaces.

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

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

Cody didn’t care about either.

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

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

Needed an opportunity.

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

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

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

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

The fight’s only beginning, Cody thought.

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

The command center.

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

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

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

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

“You lunatic!” he shouted, charging.

Cody switched tactics.  A forcefield-

The sword shattered it with one swing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obstacle gone.

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

“I don’t care what you think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tsk.”  the girl said, again.

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

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

“I can,” she said.

“Trickster.”

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

He blinked.  “When?”

“A month ago, Brockton Bay.”

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

“Sorry, if he was your friend.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m dead anyways.”

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

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

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

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

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

He hesitated.

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

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

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

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

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

His head hung.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’d find a way, regardless.

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

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

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

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

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Drone 23.5

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The waiting was the worst part.

My restlessness was cranked up to eleven, cooped up in the craft with Defiant and Dragon, waiting to cross half the world.  Dragon was focused on piloting the craft, unable to speak, in any event.  Defiant was busy communicating, which translated to being inaudible as he kept the vents of his mask closed.  From the images on the monitor, he was clearly tracking who was coming, our forces, the Endbringer and the high-risk areas.

I watched for a time, saw the cape count rise.  A screen filled with lines of text, noting the hero teams who had committed to the fight, numbers beside them to tally the total numbers.

For every group that joined, I felt myself growing a touch more nervous.  More participants in the fight was a good thing, but… so many small teams.  I couldn’t read half of the names of the groups on the list, but there was nothing to suggest it was organized.

I shifted my weight, sat, stood, stretched.

Agony.

Being in a prison, I didn’t have the luxury of a full wardrobe, certainly not the bike shorts and tank top I tended to wear beneath my costume.  I had only underwear, and I needed to change into the new costume.  I could have waited, but I wanted to hit the ground running.

Worse, the boxes with my butterflies within were in one of the crafts that followed just behind us, carrying a full contingent of capes.

But Defiant was engrossed in the monitors, and that left me debating the merits of modesty over being ready.

I stripped down, pulling on my old costume.  They’d said something about painting it, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to wait for that.  I left the major armor components off.

The pack they’d given me, it was the wrong color to match with the armor.  I’d be sacrificing the ability to keep things inside my utility compartment, but I suspected this would make up for that.   There were built-in wings that folded at a juncture, like dragonfly wings with joints, and there were the ‘arms’.  The controls seemed to be worked into gloves I was supposed to wear beneath my costume.

I found that there was a hatch, but it was small, barely larger than my hand, and the space was shallow.  I sent bugs inside to explore, and found a series of fine switches.

“Redundant controls,” Defiant said.

I looked up.  He’d turned away from the monitors.

“If your glove gets damaged, you’ve got the controls built into the pack itself.  If the pack gets damaged, you have the gloves.  If both are damaged, you’re not likely to be in a state to fly.  It might take getting used to, but this will give you the ability to move faster if you need it, and it’s very possible you’ll need it this afternoon.”

“You built it so fast.  I wasn’t with Mrs. Yamada for even two hours, and you put this together?”

“It’s made using components and technology we already have.  Four antigravity panels, like those Kid Win had in his hoverboard,” Defiant said, angling his hand to indicate the general placement.  One at the very bottom, one above that, facing more back than down, and two more at angles on either side.

“Okay,” I said.

“That gives you lift, the ability to offset gravity or momentum in a given direction, but the acceleration is low.  Expect zero to thirty miles an hour over eight seconds.  It won’t carry you out of the way of trouble, understand?  It won’t stop you if you’re moving at terminal velocity, unless you’re falling a long way.”

I nodded.

“The wings are a modification of technology that was confiscated from a cape called Stinger.  Missile themed, not wasps and bees.  They’ve got a venting-exhaust system we repurposed.  It toggles between using either antigravity or propulsion.  They should give you an easier time orienting yourself, or more speed pushing yourself in a particular direction, but not both at the same time.   While the wings are intact, you should be able to manage zero to forty-five in about three and a half seconds.  That ends if the wings break, and they aren’t made to be durable.”

I nodded.  “It won’t let me flit around the battlefield, but it’ll give me some vertical movement?”

“Yes.”

He continued, indicating lines with his finger.  “We built nineteen tracks into the device, that you’ll be able to control with the bugs you direct into the interior.  One for the on-off switch, doubling as an override for the glove handling, four for antigravity panels, eight for the arms, six for the wings.  You’re sure you can handle all that?”

“Multitasking is a strength of mine,” I said.  “If it’s anything like controlling Atlas, it’ll become almost subconscious.”

“I hope so.  You’ll want to learn with both the glove and the insect control.  There’s also limitations on energy and fuel, for the antigravity and propulsion, but not so limited that you’ll run out by the end of the day.  You have time to review the documentation Dragon put together.  Pay attention to the particulars of the flight pack’s vulnerability to electromagnetic radiation.  While the wings are deployed, one good hit will scramble it and render you flightless.  While the wings are withdrawn and the casing closed, it should be shielded against all reasonable EM sources.”

“I’ll have to stay close to the ground then, in case it gets scrambled.”

“For now.”

“Can I practice?” I asked.  “Not flying, but the arms, and moving the individual components…”

“The arms aren’t done.  Keep them out of the way for now.  Until I figure out a way to approach the internal design, they’ll have about as much strength as a newborn baby.”

I nodded.  “I really appreciate this, anyways.  You two went above and beyond the call of duty.”

“It’s not customary for tinkers to design things for teammates.  If they do, it’s on a relatively small scale, simple.  Kid Win making Gallant’s armor, for example.  Any device requires a great deal of upkeep.  Time is spent tuning, calibrating, repairing and identifying problems.  Each device created is something the tinker then has to take time to maintain, and mass production means the tinker becomes tech support more than an innovator.  Dragon and I don’t sleep, or sleep very little, but even for us, it isn’t effective.  Far better to invest our time into the artificial intelligences and the ships.”

“But you’re doing this for me.”

“We, I in particular, wronged you,” Defiant said.  “I know that even now, we’re not fully on the same page, but I now believe you did start out wanting to be a hero, and I may have played a part in your drift from that path.  I’ve put myself on the line to recommend you to the Wards, and I’ll dedicate the time and equipment necessary to get you on track.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “Really.  Thank you.”

“If you don’t mind,” he said.  “I-”

He paused, glancing at Dragon.  Then he continued, “I’m working on being more humble, but I think I will always have a certain measure of pride and an excess of focus, to the point that I lose sight of the periphery of things.  I’ll forgive your past transgressions if you look past mine, and if there’s any disparity in the two, I’ll make it up for you with this.”  He lowered his head to indicate the flight pack.  “And I’d ask you to spare my ego the reminder by accepting this without thanks.”

“I’ve worked with Rachel, with Bitch, I think I can do that much,” I said.

“When this is over, today, if we’re all still alive, I will maintain two of these packs for you, and you can switch to the spare if one needs repairing or recharging.  Some of it’s of Dragon’s design, but the maintenance will be left to me.  If you have questions, I’ll answer them,” he said.

And the latter half of the statement was left unsaid.  But let’s not talk of this any further, unless it’s about the technical aspects of the device.

He had already turned back to the monitor.  There were three screens filled with columns noting the various teams who were showing up.

“How long until we arrive?”  I ventured.

“Forty-five minutes.”

I nodded.  “We’re going to show up late, aren’t we?”

“Inevitable.  Dragon already has had every combat-ready craft on standby in eastern Europe for a week now.  They and the local forces will have to hold the fort until then.”

“Okay.”

“The computer opposite mine is available.  Dragon is pulling up the documentation on the flight device now, if you need something to occupy yourself.”

I glanced behind Defiant, noting the terminal and the stool that was built into the craft’s cabin.  I took a seat, resting the pack on my right thigh.

Okay, so they’d found the time to pull together a flight pack with some antigravity and propulsion systems, I could believe that.  But the documentation?  Who had time to draw out 21 pages of notes on capabilities and limitations, on top of building the thing?

Especially when it was all drawings, rather than typed out words.

I wasn’t about to complain, but it did leave me reconsidering what Dragon’s specialty might be.  I’d thought I worked it out, but the speed with which she’d pulled this together…

My bugs found the channels inside the suit, and I set about experimenting with it, working through the various steps for moving the wings and the individual limbs.  Each ‘track’ inside the pack’s interior was a narrow corridor with very sensitive switches along the interior, so that any movement of even something as diminutive as a ladybug was capable of pushing them.

The sensitivity would need to be calibrated at a later point.  As it stood, any jarring impact would briefly lock all of the inputs in place, so they wouldn’t read the impact as contact from a bug and send the wrong signal.

I had to shrug out of the upper half of my costume to get the gloves on beneath my costume, but I managed to get everything set up.  There were too many straps and no room for them to slot beneath my costume, so I connected them over the costume’s exterior, beneath the armor, and cinched every strap tight, doing up the metal clasps once everything was comfortably tight.

There were four ‘arms’, each a little longer than my arms.  The control was a little simplistic, with only two switches for each limb.  I imagined it was similar to an artificial limb.  I folded them close to my body, so they hugged my lower ribs and the space just beneath my ‘breasts’, and then left them be.

The wings were just as simplistic, but had three switches each.  Two to move and reorient the wings, with a third to switch between the antigrav vent and varying amounts of propulsion.  I didn’t dare experiment with that in an enclosed space.

I read and reread the documentation ten times over, because there was precious little else to do.

“We’re landing in a minute,” Defiant announced.  “Estimated eight minute wait before the last craft from North America arrive on site and a cape by the name of Silk Road deploys a corridor.”

I nodded.

“We picked up your old team,” he said.  “Sent a craft.”

I turned around, surprised.

“Stipulations of your membership in the Wards dictate that you aren’t to extend contact to them.”

Oh.  Right.  Shitty.

“Keeping in mind that there are likely going to be cameras and cell phones pointed at you throughout this incident,” Defiant said, glancing at Dragon, “You’re free to do as you wish.  So long as you don’t do anything troublesome on camera, I don’t expect anyone will make an issue of it.  It might even help if you allow others to record you, so it’s clear you aren’t doing anything questionable.”

I glanced at him.

“Dragon’s suggestion, not mine,” he said.  “But I don’t object.”

“Thank you,” I said, meaning it.

“Thank me by staying out of trouble,” he said, brusque.  He glanced at Dragon, then back to me.  “And you’re welcome.”

She can communicate with him, but not with anyone else.  Why?

I nodded.  “Um.  You reminded me, when you said there’d be people getting camera footage of me.  Mrs. Yamada said I should start recording myself while I’m in the field.  I know we still have to talk about my costume, and it’s too late to make any updates, but I wouldn’t mind having it, especially for the next high-intensity situation.”

“We’ll see,” he said.

I nodded.

The craft set down, the doors opening.  My mouth dropped open in surprise as I took in the scene.

The area was a flat, open field with knee-high grass.  Settled on it were twenty of Dragon’s ships, with two to sixteen capes to each.  People were stepping out, stretching, meeting others and talking.  Almost all of them were from the Protectorate and the Wards.  Others included Haven, a villain group I didn’t recognize, and one of the corporate teams I’d seen before the Leviathan fight.

And the Undersiders.  I sensed them with the bugs in the field.

I felt a measure of hesitation.

Time to test out these wings.

It wouldn’t do to faceplant in front of all of these heroes.  I was tentative, as I sent a bug down a tight corridor with innumerable tiny switches.  Only one corridor, one switch.

A panel kicked to life, gentle.  I nearly tripped as I stepped forward and was lifted an inch or two higher off the ground than normal.

I sent the bug further down the corridor, directing more power to the panel, and I was no longer having an issue, because I was being lifted into the air.

I was starting to lose my balance, though, necessitating a drop in lift and some experimental firings of the left and right panels to keep myself upright.

I touched ground and extended the wings, activating the vents for the antigrav at the wing’s tips.  It made for a sudden, lurching adjustment, nearly flipping me over to the ground.

Not wanting to waste too much time, I made a beeline for the Undersiders, experimenting as I went.  Rather than fly, I used short bursts of the antigrav with kicks of my feet to get some air, landing on the noses and limbs of various Dragon-crafts, so I didn’t have to walk around.

“There she is,” Tattletale said, “And she’s flying.”

I settled on top of a head, swaying for a second as I touched ground and found my center of balance.  “Floating, until I get more practice.”

“Close enough,” she said.  She flashed a grin.  “Fancy.”

They were all present, Parian included.  Accord, Citrine and the woman with the water powers were all present.  I couldn’t recall her name.  Ligeia?  She had a costume, now.  Or an evening dress, rather, with a conch brooch and mask.

More than Parian, I was surprised that Accord had come.

Flechette, now Foil, stood off to one side.  She’d donned a black costume, which I was pretty sure was made of one of my failed attempts at a Tattletale costume, using asymmetrical belts, boots, armor and gloves to cover the areas where I’d tried to embellish.  Her mask was an opaque pane, like Clockblocker’s, but black, with silver trim at the edges.

“You’re wearing your old costume,” Grue said, finally.

“Haven’t had a chance to make a new one,” I said.

“No kidding,” Regent said, his tone dry, “Too busy making license plates, dropping the soap…”

“I can’t believe you went and became a hero,” Imp said.  “What the fuck?  How the fuck do you off a major cape and get invited to the Wards?”

“It’s complicated,” I said.

“Are you getting by?” Grue asked.

“Not as well as I’d like,” I said.  “But surviving.  Are you guys okay, leaving your territory like this?”

“Hey now,” Regent cut in.  He stabbed a finger at me.  “Aren’t you supposed to read us our rights before questioning us?”

Imp snorted.  Grue smacked Regent across the back of the head, a little harder than necessary.

“It’s all good,” Tattletale said.  She grinned, “Booby traps, some misdirection, I figure we can afford to be gone for a day.  We can look forward to going back home to see some bruised egos.  Regent’s dad among them.”

“You’re being safe?” I asked.  “I mean, we’ve taken on some monsters, but this is Heartbreaker, and the repercussions of a lost fight are kind of, well, permanent.  There’s no undoing his power.”

“Like I said, it’s all good.”  Tattletale shrugged.

“You with a team?” Grue asked, “Or with us?”

“No idea.  As far as I know, I’m independent,” I said.  “I’m not sure what that means, yet, but way I figure it, I’m going to do whatever works best in the moment.”

“Isn’t that how you wound up with us in the first place?” Tattletale asked.

I didn’t have an answer to that, so I shrugged.  My eyes followed Foil as she walked over to talk to Jouster.  He handed her an arbalest, and a quiver of needle-like bolts.

When she took the quiver, he gripped her wrist, speaking something in a low volume.  She nodded as she replied, saying something I couldn’t make out, and he let her go.

Wordless, they parted, him rejoining his team, Foil moving to Parian’s side.

I wanted to say something about that, but what?  I didn’t get the vibe she was a double agent, but I imagined there was something more to that.

I turned my attention back to the Undersiders, and my eyes moved to Rachel.  She was sitting on the ramp at the back of a craft, her dogs clustered around her.  She was stroking Bastard, using her fingernails to get in deeper than the base layer of fur.

Finally a chance to talk, and nothing to say.  The silence hurt me more than any accusations or insults.

“I don’t know how to say this gracefully,” I said.  I paused, noting the presence of a hero nearby who’d raised a camera towards me.  Whatever, I’d say it anyways.  “But you guys mean a lot to me.  I’m sorry I didn’t say it before, but I couldn’t without letting on that something was going on.  You’re my family, in a way.  As lame as it might be, I love you guys.”

My head turned from Grue to Rachel to Tattletale as I said it.

“Gaaaaaaayyyyyyy,” Imp drew out the word.  Parian and Foil gave her an annoyed look.

I smiled a little, despite myself.  “Fuck off.”

“Are you trying to get someone killed?” Regent asked.  “That’s totally a death sentence, telling someone you love them, tying up loose ends.”

“She’d be getting herself killed, going by the rules,” Tattletale said.

“Don’t say that,” Grue said, his voice quiet.

With a touch more seriousness, Tattletale said, “No dying, okay, Skitter?”

“Weaver,” I corrected.

“Skitter,” she said.  “Here, today, you’re Skitter.  Consider it a good luck charm.  And no dying.  I’ll say it as many times as it takes, until it gets through to you.”

I shook my head a little.  “No dying.  That goes both ways.”

“Way I see it,” Imp said, “She’s gone soft.  Real quick, too, getting affectionate, lovey-dovey.”

“Alternate costume, too,” Regent said, “White, light gray, baby blue…”

“Electric blue,” I said.  I was smiling now.  I used the flight-pack to slow my descent as I hopped down from the head of the craft.  I pitched my voice lower so I wouldn’t be overheard, and poked Regent in the chest.  “Fuck you guys.  I’m as badass as ever.  Recommending drugs to kids, strangling a ten year old, forcing bugs down my allies’ throats…”

“Killing Alexandria,” Regent said.

“Mm,” I said, and I could feel my heart plummet into my stomach.  All at once, I was left wondering just how many capes here were secretly blaming me.

“Asshole,” Tattletale told Regent.

I folded my arms, feeling a chill, the summer warmth notwithstanding.  “We may pay for that today.”

“I think we’re fucked in general,” Tattletale said.  “But no sweat.  We’ll-”

She snapped her head around.  There was an uncharacteristic emotion as she swore under her breath.  “Fuck.  He’s up.”

A second later, the ships each spoke in their identical voices, out of sync not because of any flaw in Dragon’s program, but due to their positions across the field, and the delay of sound traveling, a chorus, “Behemoth has surfaced.  Return to your craft as soon as possible.  Supplies will be provided while we are en route.  Individuals on the ground may or may not be left behind.

“See you on the battlefield,” Grue said.

“See you,” I answered.  I felt a tug of worry.  I had almost hoped he’d sit this one out.  He didn’t tend to do well when it came to facing down the real monsters.

I bit my tongue and started up the flight pack.

“Don’t hold back now,” Regent said.  I could see that he was watching the guy who was still training his camera phone on me.  Regent turned back to me and extended his arms, injecting fake emotion into his voice, “You know we love you too!”

I kicked off, just barely floating out of reach as he tried to fold me into a hug.  “Jackass.”

He was back to his casual, detached attitude in an instant, showing just a touch of swagger as he stepped back to rejoin the others.  He gave me a sloppy mock salute.  I shifted my ascent and set foot on the head of the craft that had been behind me.

“Just remember,” Tattletale called out, “You’re officially Skitter today.  Don’t be a hero.  No point to all this shit if you do something brave and get yourself killed.”

“Not sure about that,” I said.  “About being Skitter, not the getting killed bit.”

Heroes were rapidly retreating to the craft.  I didn’t have long.  There was so much I wanted to say, but… shit.

“Rachel,” I said.

She glanced up at me, her eyes almost hidden behind her hair.  I could see the hurt in her expression, a raw feeling.

“The letter, it helped.  All of the letters meant a lot to me, except Imp’s.  But yours especially.”

She grunted in acknowledgement, setting Bastard on the ground, then stood.

“And I’m probably going to get crucified for saying this, but I still consider you a friend.  Someday, after all of this has settled down, when you don’t need to be a villain anymore to take care of your dogs, and I’m okay where I’m at, I want to hang out again.  Throw the balls for the dogs, clean up dog shit, go for walks.  Whatever works.”

“Saying shit like that, you’re signing death warrants!” Regent said, his hands to the side of his head.  “Stop it, you lunatic!”

I shook my head, then turned and took flight.

All around me, doors were shutting.  If it weren’t for my bug sense, I might have lost track of where Defiant was.  So many Dragon-ships, no two quite the same.

I entered, and I could see Defiant standing in front of the monitors, his arms around Dragon’s shoulders.  One of them must have acknowledged my presence, because the doors of the craft began shutting behind me as I made my way inside.

Odd as it was, I hadn’t fully parsed that they were together before now.

I approached, quiet, and watched as the drama on the monitors unfolded.  The bugs from the field followed me inside, clustering around me.

Behemoth, nearly fifty feet tall, was still standing in the midst of a collapsed building.  The structure had no doubt fallen on top of him as he emerged, and the debris was ablaze, casting his gray skin in hues of red and orange.  He didn’t seem to care about the building.

Dragon’s A.I. were already attacking him, each from the greatest distance possible.  The camera shook, out of sync with the timing of the strikes, as the vibrations took time to travel to the distant cameraman.

Heroes were fighting, contributing pitifully little to the assault.  They were too distant to make out.

“Locals?” I asked.

Defiant turned, reacting as if he were surprised I was present.  “Yes.  Don’t ask me to pronounce their names.”

Sāhasī Pān̄ca,” Dragon said.

I glanced at her in surprise.  “You can talk, all of a sudden?”

There was a pause.  “…Little.”

“She felt she needed to be able to communicate,” Defiant said.  To her, he said, “And this is the last time we make a last-minute fix.”

“I’m sort of in the dark here,” I said.

Defiant declined to fill me in, staring at the screen.  His voice was almost pained as he muttered, “They’re too close.”

One Dragon suit was unleashing what looked like a freeze ray at the Endbringer, while another of the Dragon suits was turning a laser on the ground beneath Behemoth’s broad feet.  It wasn’t enough to take away his footing.  He set one ‘claw’ -a growth of obsidian-like black shards- onto solid earth, then half-loped, half-hopped forward.  With his claws and feet now on firm ground, he leaped.  The shockwave of his departure toppled the slipshod buildings around him in his wake.

The landing as he arrived flattened another set of buildings.  The heroes started to run.  They were too slow, when compared to the length of Behemoth’s legs, the sheer power he was capable of putting into the simple act of walking.  One by one, they fell within his kill range.  Two were scorched from the inside, a brawny-looking cape seized up with smoke billowing from his corpse as he struck ground, his arms and limbs still twitching in death.

One managed to escape, taking flight.  He got a full four city blocks away before Behemoth reached out.  He was struck out of the air by a visible arc of lightning that extended from a claw’s tip.

Four A.I. were continually bombarding him now, three using what looked to be freeze-rays.  The fourth alternated between destroying his footing and blasting burning buildings flat with some sort of concussive laser-drill, stifling the spread of the fires.  Heroes here and there contributed some inaccurate ranged fire, but seemed preoccupied with fleeing.

Behemoth hardly seemed to care about any of it.

Our ship lifted off.  Outside, the surroundings were taking on a rosy tint.  I could hear the cumulative thrum of the twenty-seven Dragon-craft’s propulsion systems operating in unison.  My bugs could track them all, the late arrivals included.

There was a shudder, and the rosy tint of our surroundings intensified, filling the cabin.  We started to move, and it wasn’t the ship moving us.  Dragon stepped out of Defiant’s embrace to approach the ship controls.

An instant later, the propulsion system kicked into motion, and we were moving far faster than before.  The shuddering of the cabin was so intense I had to sit down.

“India’s capes fall into two categories,” Defiant said, not taking his eyes off the screen.  He had to raise his voice to be heard over the movement of the craft.  “They term their capes ‘hot’ and ‘cold’, with very strict rules on who falls into a category.  Walk between the two groups, you get the worst of both.  Hot, it’s about flash, color, appeal, and engaging the public.  Villain or hero, they’re cape celebrities.  Cold, it’s… bloodshed, violence, assassination and secrecy.  Capes of the underworld.  The public doesn’t see or hear about the cold capes.  The media does not speak of them.”

On the screen, Behemoth wasn’t even slowing down.  Another arc of lightning lanced across the cityscape, setting a dozen fires.  The houses looked shoddy, dirty, and were apparently very flammable.  The flames spread quickly, and plumes of smoke were streaming towards the overcast sky.

“The capes that are getting killed, they’re-”

Garama,” Dragon said.  “…Hot.”

“We need the ones with killer instinct,” Defiant said.  “The ones who fight for real, not for play.  The cold capes.”

Thanda,” Dragon supplied the translation.

“Question is whether the Thanda think it’s worth breaking the rules and emerging from the shadows,” Defiant said.

“Did last…  time,” Dragon said, her words bearing an odd cadence.  She approached me, holding an armband and a silver packet.

I accepted them, turning both over in my hands.  “Radiation pills?”

She nodded, holding up one finger.

“Take one?”

“Yes,” she said.  “Still.”

“Still?”  I asked.

But she just touched one side of my face.  One finger was under my chin, and I raised it, looking up at her, confused.

She let me go, leaving me momentarily confused.  I touched my face where she’d laid her hand and felt two bumps.

A camera?

“Dragon,” Defiant said, before I could ask any questions.  “Look.”

She approached his side, her arms wrapping around his armored left arm, metal scraping against metal.

“They’re not supposed to be here,” he commented, his voice low.

I turned my attention to the monitor.  “Who aren’t?”

“The Yàngbǎn.”

The focus was on a formation of capes.  They were lined up like musketeers, rank and file, each a set distance apart from the others.  The ones in front were kneeling, the ones behind standing.  Each wore a mask that covered their faces, flowing costumes with loose sleeves and pants, somewhere between a martial arts uniform and a military uniform, each crimson with a black design of horizontal and vertical lines at edges of the sleeves and pants.  There were nearly thirty of them.

All together, they directed lasers at him, aiming for his one red eye.  He blocked the concentrated laser-fire with one claw, and the flesh at the base of the obsidian claw began peeling away.

“Who are they?”

“The C.U.I.’s military parahumans.”

“Isn’t the C.U.I. xenophobic?”

“Yes,” Dragon said.  Her voice sounded funny.  It wasn’t emotion, but something was somehow off about it.

“Excepting diplomatic functions, this is the first time in over a decade that any of the Yàngbǎn have set foot outside of China,” Defiant said.  “We’ve tried to arrange for their aid in the past, but relations between our side and theirs are sour.  For years, they’ve alleged that the PRT and the Protectorate are fundamentally corrupt, the source of the problems currently plaguing the world.”

“They were right,”  I said.

“Yes,” Defiant said.  He didn’t sound happy about the admission.

Behemoth slammed his claws together.  The Yàngbǎn responded by creating forcefields en-masse, one for every person, overlapping with those to either side of them.  The shockwave of the clap ripped through them, shattering the first two rows of forcefields and virtually liquefying the unfortunate capes who no longer had protection.

The Yàngbǎn in the back rows were already dropping their forcefields, extending their hands forward, open palms aimed at their comrades.

The shockwave’s effects reversed in an instant, and the injured were whole, holding the positions they’d been in an instant before.  Here and there, the reaction had been a fraction too slow, and the Yàngbǎn members were only reversed to the instant the shockwave made contact.  They were thrown back and caught by the ones in the back row, blood streaming from their eyes, noses and ears.  One was saved much too late, and the process of being liquefied was only repeated, splattering the Yàngbǎn soldier who’d failed to react in time to rescue him.

Behemoth unleashed a rolling tide of flame, and the remaining twenty-eight Yàngbǎn fled, using a combination of enhanced speed and flight.  The remains of the dead member were left behind.

“I can’t tell if this is a good thing or a bad thing,” I commented.

“With luck, they’ve changed their minds and we have much-needed allies,” Defiant said.

“And if they haven’t?”

He didn’t reply.

More of Dragon’s craft were arriving, adding their attacks to those of the others.  I could recognize the wheel-dragon, using some sort of tuned electromagnetic pull to draw away the loose rubble from beneath Behemoth.  He sank nearly ten feet as the ground shifted around him.

He struck the wheel-dragon with a bolt of lightning, flaying off a few plates of armor and destroying the wheel.  It opened its mouth and launched cannon-fire at him.  The shells exploded into blobs of containment foam, fireproof, sticky, virtually impossible to remove.

But not capable of holding back something like Behemoth.

More lightning was unleashed, each doing successively more damage to the craft.  By the fourth blast, it wasn’t operational.  The fifth split it down the middle.  Insulation was little use against a dynakinetic that could redirect the natural course of electricity.

Ten craft were around him now, concentrating fire.  Cryogenic beams, containment foam and more served to slow him down.  Not stopping him.  No, that was too much to hope for.  His pace was roughly two-thirds the speed it might otherwise be, at a glance, his attention focused on the A.I.

Behemoth brought both hands together, but it wasn’t to clap.  Instead, he directed a stream of lightning at the nearest craft, easily twenty feet across.  It was splintered in an instant.

A second craft perished a second later.

Before he could turn his attention to a third, the stream of lightning shifted, curving off to one side.  Drones, the annoying little bastard spheres that had electorcuted me on multiple occasions, the same ones that had been built into the ceilings of the cells and prison hallways in the PRT headquarters, were in flight, deployed by a drone-ship like the one I’d fought in Brockton Bay, and they were channeling the lightning along a different path.

Behemoth wasn’t one to roar, but I could see the effort at work as he began to draw the lightning away from the remote drones, forcing it to take another path, beyond the route of ionized air or the electromagnetic charge that they were using to catch it and harmlessly redirect it into an area that was already rubble.  He was taking abuse from the airborne craft, unable to move without giving ground.  More containment foam and more ice built around him, tearing and melting, respectively, in response to his lesser movements.

They moved closer together, strengthening the bond, and the lightning was caught once more.

He gave up on the lightning and blasted the drones out of the air with a wave of heated wind.  An instant later, he resumed destroying the craft.  Three in as many seconds, and then a slam of one claw against a building.  The shockwave that followed leveled a whole row of buildings.

I belatedly swallowed a radiation pill and attached the armband.

The screen displayed text:  ‘Name?’

“Weaver,” I said.

The letters appeared on the screen.  I confirmed with a press of the button.

A map of my surroundings appeared, a landscape rushing by.  In one corner, the distance to Behemoth was noted, rapidly counting down.

I could see the runway an instant before the ship touched down.  The rosy glow was still present as the ship cut back on forward thrust.  The craft touched the runway belly-down, skidding to a near-stop.

The red tint that surrounded everything disappeared, and Defiant caught my arm with one hand, holding on to a beam in the ceiling with the other.

The ship activated one thruster, and the craft swung around.  The other thruster kicked to life, and we took off, still bearing some of the forward momentum from earlier.  We were moving in a near-perpendicular direction to the one we’d been traveling earlier.  Defiant let go of my arm.

When I looked back at the screen, nearly half of the city was on fire.  Black smoke choked the skies, a stark contrast to the cloudy sky of only minutes ago.

“Were they able to evacuate most?” Defiant asked.

“No,” Dragon answered.

Our craft touched ground, and I glanced out the window to see a sliver of what the monitors showed.  A sky choked by darkness, a city aflame.

The glow of his single eye cut through the smoke, and I was reminded of Lung.  Of that first night, on the rooftop, when one of Lung’s eyes had been swollen shut, the other open.  Lung, like Behemoth, had been virtually untouchable.

This was that same scenario, that same fight.  I couldn’t hope to win.  At best, I’d manage a distraction, a momentary handicap, but he’d recuperate, and given the chance, he’d murder me with a casual ease.

This wasn’t a rooftop, but there wouldn’t be an easy means of escape.  And just as I’d acted to stop Lung from hurting what I thought were innocent kids, I was acting here to save lives.

The same thing, but on a far greater scale.  The danger, the stakes, all scaled up by a thousand times, a million times.

The back of the craft opened, and Defiant led the way as we made our exit.  Spotlights cast much-needed light on the immediate surroundings.  The ships had settled in a ring formation, some posed above the others, as if providing a protective enclosure.  Weapons were directed outside, and one craft loomed overhead.  For now, we were as safe as we could hope to be.

Chevalier, Rime and the rest of his new Protectorate were all in one group, backed by their respective teams.

A nearby crash made half of the people present, myself included, nearly jump out of their skin.  It was somehow reassuring that Chevalier managed to retain his composure.

“The ships have all arrived,” Chevalier said, “I’ve received the data on the other participating teams, those not already fighting will reinforce as they’re able.  We should expect record numbers, we shouldn’t expect it’ll help.  Any news on the locals?”

“Gathering and setting up defenses at India Gate,” Rime said.  “It seems to be his destination.”

“The gate?  There’s nothing there,” Chevalier said.  “Only population.”

“If it’s not a soft target,” Revel said, “then we can play the long game, buy time for Scion to arrive.”

“Let’s assume it’s soft.  We made that mistake once, never again,” Chevalier said.  “Okay.  Listen up!”

He raised his voice, commanding the attention of everyone present.

“We’ve already notified you if we believe you have the capacity to engage Behemoth.  Anyone else is operating as search, rescue, and support.  Maintain a distance of at least a hundred feet from Behemoth at the very minimum.  Get any closer, you probably won’t have a chance of escaping if he decides to close the gap.  Be mindful of line of sight, because he can and will tag you with a lightning bolt, and it’s not something you can dodge.  Assume every structure will fall down in a heartbeat, and know that there’s no good place to hide and wait for this to be over.  Keep moving and move smart.”

The crowd of heroes was utterly silent.  I could see the Undersiders on the opposite end of the enclosure.  The spotlights behind them rendered them little more than silhouettes with glowing edges.

“There’s no sugarcoating it,” Chevalier said.  “The fact that you’re here, today, knowing the state things are in, you’re the biggest damn heroes I’ve worked with.  I’m not going to make any big speeches.  Better we get out there and save lives.  Hit him hard if you see the chance, keep an eye out for whatever his goal might be, communicate with other groups as best as you’re able.  Stay spread out so he can’t wipe too many of us out at once.  You work best with the people you know, so form your own teams, stick with the people you’ve operated with before.  Go.”

Heroes, already gathered in their groups, mobilized.

I started to approach the Undersiders.  Defiant’s hand on my shoulder stopped me.

I could see Tattletale and Accord stepping off to one side, talking.  She gave me one glance, offered me an apologetic half-frown, and then continued walking.

“Why?” I asked.

“The Chicago Wards,” he said.

“What about them?  I can function better alongside the Undersiders.”

“Dragon thinks you can contribute just as much or more with the Wards group, and they’re the team that wants you.”

I glanced at the groups that hadn’t departed yet.  Some were getting geared up, another group had a cape touching each member in turn, turning their skin to what looked like stone.  On the far end, past those other groups, I could see Tecton, Grace, and Wanton with three others I didn’t recognize.  They were looking at me.

“It’s the smart choice,” he said, “But it’s your choice.”

And, giving evidence to the statement, he departed, entering the Pendragon and freeing me to decide without his influence.

I sighed, then activated the antigrav panels to give myself some forward thrust, speeding me up as I moved to join Tecton’s group.

“Yep,” he said, to one of the newbies.

“You’re leader, I’m recon?” I asked.  “Like it was in New York?”

“No, you’re leader as long as this fight lasts,” Tecton said.

I must have looked surprised, because he said, “You’ve been in two of these fights, right?  If we count Echidna?”

I nodded.

“I’ve only been in the one, and I was never the shot-caller.  That was a partnership between Raymancer and me, and he’s gone.”

“My condolences,” I said.

He nodded, but my focus was on the other members of the team, trying to account for the resources I had available.  Grace had changed her martial arts outfit for something with more coverage, a chainmail mesh like the PRT uniforms wore.  Wanton still wore free-flowing clothes, but he wouldn’t stay in that form.

The other three… A girl with bands of metal running down each of her arms and legs, with heavy gauntlets, boots and a breastplate, a mask etched to look like a feminine face, with white lenses over the eyes.  Her platinum blond hair had three individual braids, two draped over her shoulders, with the ends bound in more bands of the blue-black metal.

There was a guy in a cowl, with another metal mask, who reminded me a bit of Shadow Stalker, but he wore white, and carried no weapon I could see.

And the last one… heavyset, with armor that seemed too generic.

“You’re a rookie?”

“All three of those guys are rookies,” Tecton said.  “They cannibalized our non-core team members to supplement other groups, and-”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.  “I guess you three are getting thrown in the deep end.  Names?”

“Cuff,” said the girl in blue-black armor.

“Annex,” the cowled one told me.

“Golem,” the last one said, his voice muffled by his helmet.

I frowned behind my mask, perplexed.  “You named yourself after the little bastard from The Lord-”

“No,” he said.  I could hear him sigh from behind his helmet.  “I’m thinking of changing it.”

If not from the trilogy, then…  I fixed the pronunciation, compensating for how his muffled voice had modified it.  Right.  Golem, from the myth.

“I get it, nevermind.  Listen, we’re going to move out, and you’re going to explain your powers en route.  You know who I am?”

There were nods all around.

“You’re still okay with following my orders?”

Again, nods.

I saw the Undersiders moving out, along with the Ambassadors.

“We’re supplementing and supporting the Undersiders for the time being.  You okay with that?”

A touch more hesitant, they nodded.

“Then let’s go,” I said.

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Interlude 21

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How did the others do it?  They entered into a room and people respected them.

Sabah walked through her territory, a black, bipedal unicorn just behind her.  She had muscle, but the stares she got were hard ones, challenging.

Was it that she’d inherited territory that Bitch had controlled, once?  Territory where people had been afraid to go outside for fear of being attacked by dogs?  She’d tried to make it clear she wasn’t that kind of leader, had tried to emulate Skitter, even, but it hadn’t worked.  Gifts she’d brought in were rejected outright, or taken wordlessly, as if people thought she owed them something for being in charge.  She’d saved people from the Teeth… saved them from extortion, threats.

Not even a thank-you.

She couldn’t shake the suspicion that, well, she hadn’t been here when the disasters hit Brockton Bay.  She hadn’t been a line of defense between these people and the Slaughterhouse Nine, the Merchants, the Chosen, or the Pure.

She’d been one of those people, instead.  She’d escaped being the victim, but… she’d lost so many people she cared about.

It wasn’t the first time she’d done this.  Gravitating towards one idea, feeling like she’d finally found the one thing she had to do.  It was never easy.  Always an uphill climb.

High school had been hard because she’d immigrated from Basra with her family.  She’d had an incomplete understanding of English, had been forced to learn the language as she learned the subject matter.  Her parents had been too occupied with their own issues and their own adjustment to help her out, so she’d done it alone.

Sabah was still kind of proud that she’d managed it, even if it wasn’t something that anyone else had ever recognized.  A private, personal victory.

She’d attended university, and had gravitated towards the grittier subjects.  She’d taken math courses, focusing on engineering after her first year, because they had been the subjects she’d found easiest in her transition to an English high school.  She’d been okay with it, not happy but not miserable, but still, she hadn’t had a person to confide in.  She’d stuck it out on her own, quietly uncomfortable with where she was in every sense of the word, unwilling to burden her family with her relatively minor issues.

Being a girl in a male-dominated field, she’d drawn attention from one student.  A boy.  He’d been nice, but he’d also been under the impression that being nice demanded reciprocation, as though every action deserved an equal and appropriate reaction from her.

He was always there.  They had the same classes, because they were in the same program, barely twenty-five of them in all, and Brockton Bay’s college wasn’t that big.  He was always interested in talking to her, and her more demure rejections had had no effect.

She tried a clear ‘no’, and it didn’t work.  He’d gone away for a few days, then came back, making another casual hint about them maybe going out.

She tried a harsh no, laced with all the anger and frustration she’d been feeling, and she got labeled a ‘bitch’.  The other students, friends or acquaintances of her would-be-paramour, wound up hearing and turned on her.  Her schoolwork started to suffer, because she didn’t have the study groups, nobody willing to work with her on projects and presentations.

So, after six weeks of that, she’d caved.  She told him she’d had a bad day, apologized for her attitude.  She’d hated herself for doing it.

It only served to put her right back where she’d been before, dreading going to class and dealing with him.  Always with that vague fear that he’d escalate, that he’d start sending her emails or phoning her.

And because of the way she’d done it, she’d burned a bridge.  She couldn’t defuse the relationship with a statement to the effect of, ‘I don’t like boys.’  He would have seen it as another manipulation, and she couldn’t have managed if she were cut off again.

Her father’s terminal heart attack had been another straw on the camel’s back.  Alone, it was nothing, but in combination with everything else… Sabah had triggered on what was only one in a long string of nights spent alone, stewing in frustration, fear and anger in her dorm room.  She’d glimpsed something bigger, something that was beyond her recall now, and she’d gained her powers.

That had been the push she’d needed to walk away from the boy and the engineering program.  She’d found a new goal.  Success in fashion design.  As far away from engineering as she could get.  Her mom had been disappointed, but she’d felt like she maybe had a direction.  She’d made friends.  Even moved out of a coveted single-bed dorm room to a double to socialize more.

It hadn’t lasted long, that motivation.  Even before Leviathan came and dashed the college to pieces, she’d had doubts about whether it was what she was meant to do.

Even before the Slaughterhouse Nine had killed her mom, her aunt, her cousin, and her roommate, she’d been feeling hopeless, desperate.

She’d taken Skitter’s offer, hoping that maybe, this time, it would be different.  That maybe, if it was something she needed to do, rather than something she wanted, she’d find that direction, find that focus.

She hadn’t.  From beginning to end, it had felt as hollow as each of the earlier ventures.

Sabah made her way to her headquarters, her atelier, and she couldn’t help but notice the way people stared, or the way they didn’t show her the respect that Skitter seemed to naturally accept and respond to.

She hadn’t been here when it counted.  Now they were moving on, and she was rudderless once again.

Always an uphill climb.

She’d just reached her atelier when her phone rang.  A text.

Flechette:
Skitter showed up at PRT office and turned self in.  They taking her to cell right now.

She had to reread it to make sure she wasn’t getting the wrong impression.  Skitter… The ramifications of this… The… What?

Before she could even wrap her head around the subject, there was another text.

Flechette:
You know anything about this?

The heroes seemed as confused about this as Sabah was.

Parian:
Nothing.

She found Tattletale on the contact list, tried calling.

A busy signal.

A text instead?

Parian:Tt skitter just surrendered to heroes

The reply was almost immediate:

Tt:I know. come 2 meet place from other nite asap.  First floor.

No answers, no information, only an order to meet up.

The unicorn wouldn’t do, put together like it was.  It had to be deconstructed, repurposed.

Her power gave her fine control with lightweight materials.  That wasn’t a problem.  Threads unwound, seams coming undone.

But her control of larger things was an entirely different beast.  Her telekinesis fell apart when she tried to move anything heavier than a half-pound or so, her dexterity and speed in moving those objects that much slower.  Worse, her telekinesis exploded, and not even in a constructive manner.  It got more and more unstable as she tried to move larger things, until it simply… expanded, dissipated over an area in an attempt to extend control to a multitude of tiny, lightweight objects.

She began reconstructing the unicorn into a quadruped.

She’d experimented, after getting her power.  Found that she could contain the telekinesis and keep it from dissipating.  It hadn’t been constructive until she started working with more flexible materials.  Porous materials worked best, because her telekinesis could soak into them, through them, and allow her to move the fabric rather than just the material within.  The gaps in the fabric allowed her to feed power into the ‘shell’ without it building to critical mass and collapsing.  Cloth worked best.  Torn or ripped seams could be mended, any other damage proved easily fixable, compared to the issues sturdier material posed.  It was plentiful, cheap, and effective.  Cloth was her ideal material.

And once the construction was formed, a shell that trapped the telekinetic energy within until it was heavy, she could move it as a collective whole.

The unicorn, at her bidding, bent down to allow her to climb onto its back.  Once she was securely in place, belted onto the cloth animal for security, it took off.

There was no instinct here.  It was all forced, all clumsily hobbled together with a power that probably wasn’t intended for this use.  If powers even had an intent backing them up.

As such, it took time to find the unicorn’s stride.  She had to watch where it put its ‘hooves’, fashioned of work gloves and the scraps of rubber boots.  She could feel with her power, where it was, but she couldn’t see through its eyes, and any coordination it possessed was limited to what she could give it from her current position.

She wasn’t good at this.  Navigating the streets, where they were congested with cars, or making her way through the areas where there was construction, littered with obstacles and pitfalls.  At being a cape, at being an important cape.

The Forsberg Gallery appeared, and she ducked off to one side to deconstruct the unicorn.

The material formed two smaller creations, for a smaller profile, and for some muscle to move a barricade meant to keep bystanders out of the construction area around the gallery.

Tattletale, Regent and Imp were already there when she arrived, along with two of Tattletale’s soldiers and one of Regent’s underlings.  A television was hooked up, standing in the center of the room.

“…not yet confirmed, but sources suggest that the supervillain is within a containment cell, as authorities convene to discuss…

Parian glanced at Tattletale, who was sitting on the stairs, head hanging.  She was wearing full-coverage sunglasses over her mask.  Solemn, staring at the ground, or just resting, with her eyes closed.

“Any details?” Parian asked.

“No,” Regent said.  “Nothing but the obvious.”

Grue entered, and he was a storm of darkness, to the point that his body wasn’t even visible.

“Hey, big brother,” Imp said.  There was a notable, very deliberate pause.  “How’re you doing?”

“I should have known.  Should have put it together,” he growled the words in that voice of his that made Parian’s hair stand on end.  He turned to Tattletale, “Did you know about this?”

“Power’s out of commission,” she said.  “Still have a headache.  Keep voices down, please.”

He didn’t reply, turning his attention to the TV.

“I can’t help but note you didn’t answer the question,” Regent told Tattletale.  “Did you know?”

Grue turned back to look at her.

“Had an idea.”

“Yes, then.”

“Yes.”

Why?”  Grue asked.  “Why keep it a secret?  Why is she doing this?”

“I kept it a secret because she asked me to and she’s doing this because she thinks it’s going to fix more things than it breaks,” Tattletale said.  She shifted position with care, as though every movement was painful.  Even after she stopped, Parian could see her clenching her jaw, as if staving off waves of pain.

“Remains to be seen,” Grue said.  “Why didn’t she discuss this with us?”

It was Regent who replied, “She thought we’d convince her it was a bad idea.”

“That’s not a convincing reason,” Grue answered.

This is the team, Parian thought.  Skitter was always at the core of it, a group forged by innumerable challenges, each trusting the others to have their backs as they risked life and limb.  And she just betrayed that trust.

“There’s two major issues we have to deal with,” Tattletale said.  “Accord is going to be one.  The other is-

Bitch.

The girl entered the room, two large dogs flanking her, the wolf cub trailing behind, unmodified by her powers.  The young American bulldog, still not fully grown, an older pitbull that bore the scars of old dogfights.  The wolf cub was comparatively small.  Adorable.  Adorable and capable of turning into a murder machine the size of a pony.

Bitch was imposing in an entirely different way than Grue was.  Grue was intimidating, but he was fair.  Rational.  Bitch wasn’t either of those things.  Her blond hair was shaggy, having grown in, combed with little more than fingers, if appearance was any indication. The glimpses of her face that showed in the midst of the hair were a wary glower.

The girl had her jacket slung over one shoulder, otherwise wearing a simple white sleeveless undershirt with no bra.  She was muscular, but she had to be to control the dogs when they were growing, to exert enough strength to get them to turn their heads or change direction.  Other parts of her bore similar signs of her day-to-day activities.  Her knuckles were scraped and raw, and she had a scratch on one cheekbone, taped shut.  The chain that attached to the pitbull’s collar was wound around one arm.  She was beaded with sweat, likely due to the exertion of the ride coupled with the heavier pants and boots she wore.

I hate being short, Parian thought.  To look at them, few people would have guessed there was a four-year difference in ages.  Or they would have guessed the difference in ages went the other way.

Primal, unpredictable, dangerous.  Bitch was imposing for those reasons, and because she was emotional.  She could and would lash out with physical violence if provoked.  Even if she imagined that someone was provoking her.  If she was really provoked, she wouldn’t move a muscle, which was worse.  She’d whistle and set her dogs on anyone that crossed her.

Parian felt her heart rate pick up as Bitch approached, felt that sense of danger peak as they briefly made eye contact, before the girl moved on.

As unfriendly as the girl was, Bentley was friendly, the young bulldog nudging Parian’s hand for a scratch before hurrying to catch up to his master.

Regent turned off the TV.  Bitch stood there, turning to look at each of her teammates in turn.

“What?”

“Christ,” Grue muttered.  “Tattletale.  You didn’t tell her?”

“Tell me what?” Bitch asked.  She glanced around.  “Where’s Skitter?”

Nobody volunteered an answer.

“Is she hurt?” Bitch asked.  She didn’t even sound concerned.  When nobody spoke up, she expanded her question.  “Is she dead?”

“Fuck it,” Regent said, “I’ll say it.  Skitter’s at the PRT headquarters.”

“So?  We break her out.”

“She went there on purpose,” Regent said, almost offhandedly.  Carelessly.

Parian couldn’t help but notice the way Bitch clenched her hands, one gripping the metal chain until her knuckles went white.

“Regent,” Grue said.

“What?  You don’t want to deliver the news, you don’t get a say in how it’s presented,” Regent retorted.

Bentley and the wolf cub both planted their feet further apart, while the pitbull was looking around, all of a sudden.

There.  Bentley’s shoulders were bulging slightly.  Bitch was using her powers.

So?” Bitch asked.

“So… that’s it.  That’s why we’re here,” Regent said.  “We’re here to talk about this, to plan.”

“She’ll be back,” Bitch said.

Will she?  Parian couldn’t help but wonder.

“I’m not so sure,” Grue said, echoing Parian’s thoughts.

“She makes plans,” Bitch said.  “She’s smart like that.  I’m not.  I don’t try to understand what she’s doing.”

“She paid me a visit,” Grue said.  “I didn’t realize it until I got the call from Tattletale.  She was saying goodbye.  Not out loud, but… checking I was okay, making sure I’d be able to manage… after she was gone.”

Bentley was still growing.  His flesh split at the shoulder, and he brought one back leg up, kicking at the air as if he had an itch he wanted to reach but couldn’t.

The pitbull and wolf puppy were growing too.  The pitbull looked a lot less comfortable with the process than the other animals, more alarmed.  Bitch tugged the chain absently to keep him in line.

“She visited us too,” Regent said.  “Imp and me.”

“Me too,” Tattletale spoke from her perch on the stairs, quiet.

Not me, Parian thought.  Unless I count that meeting with Miss Militia and Lily.

That served the same purposes, didn’t it?  Getting things settled?  Making sure things would be okay in the future.  Ensuring the heroes could help out with my territory?

Parian felt a sinking feeling in her gut.  Skitter hadn’t been leaving for the short-term.

And that sinking feeling couldn’t even compare to what the others were feeling, here.

Tattletale, nearly incapacitated.  Grue, with his darkness a virtual storm around him.  Regent and Imp, standing back, together.  And Bitch.  Stock still, radiating something more than tension.  Restrained aggression, even.

“Doesn’t mean anything,” Bitch said.

“It’s telling,” Grue said.  “She was saying goodbye.”

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Bitch said, and her voice was harder.  “It’s a plan.”

Why am I even here?  The thought struck Parian, out of place, out of time, a non-sequitur, yet somehow profound.  As if this point, in the middle of the discussion, was when she realized how out of place she was in the dynamic.

“Of course it’s a plan,” Regent was saying.  “It might not be a good plan-”

Bitch cut him off.  “She goes there, she defeats them, and then she comes back.”

“Um,” Imp said.  “Why wouldn’t she tell us?”

“She’ll have a reason,” Bitch said.

Loyalty, Parian thought.  Misguided loyalty, blinding Bitch to the truth, but loyalty nonetheless.

“Look, it’s not important,” Tattletale said.

“It’s important,” Bitch growled.  “You’re supposed to be her friends, and you’re talking about her like she’s gone.”

The pitbull seemed to take her cue, and began growling steadily.  He was still growing, his body straining against the chain harness he wore.

“She’s not gone for sure,” Tattletale said.  “We don’t know how this is going to play out, not exactly.”

Bitch didn’t seem the least bit satisfied with that, but the pitbull stopped growling.  Had she stopped using her power?

“What do we know?” Regent asked.

“That she wanted to keep us in the dark,” Tattletale said.  “That she wanted to go…”

“And she planned to be gone long time,” Grue said.  “She was asking me about leadership, about whether I was ready to take the reins.  I said no, but she did it anyways.”

“She thought this was important,” Tattletale said.  “Enough to put you out of your depth, as much as you don’t want it, as much as she didn’t want it for you.”

I don’t even figure into this, Parian thought.  I’m not even sure I’m an official member of the group.

“So I’m leader in the interim,” Grue said.  There was a note of something in his voice, behind that haunting echo that his power laced it with.  Not as severe as despair, bigger than unhappiness.  Defeat?

“…Unless there’s any objections,” he said.

Hopeful?

Nobody voiced any.

“Then we run damage control,” Grue said.  “Her territory?”

“We can fold it into adjacent territories,” Tattletale said.  “Parian, Grue, me.  Maybe the others take over some of our territories to give us an easier job of it.  She made other arrangements, with her residents.  I can contact them so we can discuss it, put it all into action.”

“Her people aren’t a big priority,” Grue said.  “If they’re not going to riot, let’s put them on the backburner.  I’m more worried about anything that could go up in flames in the next hour.”

“Literally,” Regent said.

“…Possibly literally,” Grue said.  “Accord?”

“I called him just after Regent and Imp showed,” Tattletale said.  “He’ll be here at nine thirty, on the dot.  Would have mentioned sooner, but we got caught up in talking.”

Grue nodded, glancing back towards the TV.  Parian did the same.  A number blinked on the box beneath the screen: nine twenty-six.  “That doesn’t give us much time to organize.”

“The longer we wait, the more upset he’ll be,” Tattletale said.  “And he’s a planner.  If we give him time, he’ll work out some scheme to retaliate against us.  We’re stronger against him if he’s on his toes.”

“Granted,” Grue said.  He sighed, “God, I’m not up to this.  Damn her to hell.”

There was no reply from the group.

How many members of this group were voicing silent agreement?  Parian shifted her weight nervously.  How many people here had taken a life?  All of them?  Most?

Parian couldn’t help but feel out of her depth.  The terminology had never felt so apt, feeling like she was in the water, at that one point where she realized she couldn’t reach safety, the water around her face…

She felt like that now, here.

Taylor had been undercover once, hadn’t she?  She’d immersed herself in this.  It was impossible to imagine.

“Accord,” Tattletale said.

Parian thought at first that Tattletale was returning the group to the topic of conversation, but Tattletale was taking off her glasses, grimacing.

“Undersiders,” Accord said.

“You’re early,” Tattletale said.

“Rest assured, I’m on time.”

“The clock-”

“Is slow,” Accord said.  “I arrived when I said I did, and I’ll ask you once to please stop suggesting otherwise.”

If Bitch was an ‘I’ll punch your face in for no reason’ kind of intimidating, and Grue was an ‘I’ll explain carefully just why I’m about to punch your face in’ intimidating, Accord was something else entirely.

It was really easy to imagine him nonchalantly standing above her while she stood in a pit he’d had dug out, a cement truck slowly filling in the space around her.  Or very politely eating someone’s severed leg with a knife and fork held in the proper manner.

He was the kind of scary guy they made movies about, only he was real.

And that made her think about the Slaughterhouse Nine.

She hated him.  She understood everything about why the Undersiders were working with him, understood that they’d be at the mercy of others like the Slaughterhouse Nine if they didn’t have muscle like his on their side, but she hated him.

He was her height, dressed in a white business suit and tie, his intricate wood-and-silver mask moving to replicate the expressions beneath.

He was joined by his Ambassadors.  Each wore a finished mask, a suit for the men and a dress for the ladies: Citrine in yellow, with gemstones; Othello in alabaster white and jet black, all stark contrasts; Ligeia in a deep blue-green that contrasted her dark skin, with a conch-shell mask that swept back over the corner of her forehead, with an ‘up’ hairstyle to match; Jacklight, with a deep royal purple dress shirt and pocket square, his mask a grinning visage that would be fitting for a child’s jack-in-the-box; and Lizardtail, bigger than the others, with a green dress shirt and pocket square, an ornate mask that looked more like a Celtic knot than anything lizardlike.  Maybe the segments or spiral of it were supposed to represent a cut tail?

He’d arrived with firepower, in short.  Parian didn’t consider herself very combat-savvy, but she was aware of that much.

“I… rather dislike surprises,” Accord said.

“You and me both, pal,” Tattletale replied.

It wasn’t… it didn’t seem like a smart way to talk to the perfectionist supervillain.  Accord was dangerous, so why was Tattletale provoking him?

It seemed to take Accord a second to compose himself and get his thoughts in order.  “It would be polite to stand, when a guest arrives.”

“Feeling a bit under the weather,” Tattletale said.  “Forgive my bad manners.  I take it you caught the essentials on TV?”

“On the radio, while we drove,” Accord said.  “Did you know of this scheme?”

“Of course,” Tattletale said.  “Do you think we’re crazy?  Everything’s golden.”

“Golden,” Accord said.

“Copacetic, peachy keen.”

“I wasn’t informed of any plans.”

“You don’t have to be,” Tattletale said.

“We’re allies.”

“You’re subordinate to us,” Tattletale said.  “If you have an issue with that, I urge you to submit a written complaint and formally declare war.  Twenty four hours notice, if you please.  I know you like rules and regulations.”

“You’re mocking me.”

“Yes.  And you’re letting me mock you for some reason.  You’re making a lot of concessions in our bargain here.  You have a reason to be doing that,” Tattletale said.  “I’m comfortable leveraging that.”

“I made concessions because I was led to believe that Skitter was going to be the one in charge of matters here.  I investigated her, I met her in person, and I decided she fit the necessary qualifications.  Now I’m finding that things are definitely not what they appeared to be.  She’s not in charge, for one thing, there’s the reckless attack against the Teeth that saw one of my very expensive recruits killed…”

“You don’t really care about that,” Tattletale said.  “You wanted to wean out the ones who couldn’t cut it.  Codex couldn’t cut it.  Good at administration, fantastic cook, skilled when it came to managing people, and could even spar, sure, but she didn’t have the wits about her in a combat situation.  Couldn’t switch gears.”

He closed his eyes, and metal shutters flicked into place as the mask mimicked the movement.  “Please don’t interrupt me.”

“I don’t think you’re getting my point.  I don’t bend to your rules, Accord.  If you want to talk about your dead underling, let’s talk.”

“She was shot in the throat from behind.”

“Are you saying I’m wrong?” Tattletale asked.  “About her being poorly equipped for cape life?”

“No.  The analysis is right.  I won’t disagree.  But I have other concerns.  This business with how you murdered Butcher.  The girl at the bottom of the Boat Graveyard… Cherish… it was a risky decision.”

“Not so risky when you’ve done a read on the situation.  I had all the notes on Butcher Fourteen.  She couldn’t teleport free, not into open water.  She still can’t, and I had a crew use a remote control device to lash a cable to Butcher Fifteen’s pod.  They’ve dropped her into a deeper area of the ocean, and the only thing she’ll be likely to kill are fish.  If we’re lucky, maybe Leviathan will float that way and off himself.”

“It was risky nonetheless.  There was no assurance the plan would work.”

“And we shouldered that risk.  Bitch and Skitter, specifically.  If it didn’t work out, it was their lives on the line.”

“And now we have Skitter taking another risk.  This seems to be a pattern.”

“She’s taking the risk on our behalf,” Tattletale said.  “But that’s not your concern.”

“It’s very concerning to me.”

“But it’s not your concern,” Tattletale said.  There was a strain in her voice, and her fingernails were digging into her costume-covered thighs.  “We aren’t partners, Accord.  Let’s get that straight.  Do we work together?  Yes.  Have we arranged a division of labor?  Yes.  But this is our city, and you’re renting a space.”

“Tenants have rights when interacting with their landlords,” Accord said.

“Rights, yes.  But we’re supervillains.  Don’t forget that,” Tattletale relied.  “It’s our prerogative to be assholes.  And right now?  I’m going to be an asshole.  The contract stands.  Your provisions stand.”

“There’s an escape clause.”

“And you’re free to use it,” Tattletale said.  “Take the clause, leave, abandon the investments you’ve already made in this city…”

“Or attack,” Accord said, “And seize everything you have.”

“Or attack,” Tattletale said.  She sounded more tired than upset.  “You could do that.  Or you can take my offer.”

“Which is?”

“Skitter provided your notes on managing crime in Brockton Bay.  I don’t think either of us can agree to implement it, without knowing the exact outcome of Skitter’s expedition…”

“I agree,” Accord said.  His interest was clearly piqued.  Parian could see the way the eyebrows of his mask had raised a fraction.

“But I like it,” Tattletale said.  “And if your concern is about instability within this city, I can read your work, see the solutions you propose and consider implementing them.  We would give you a hand in shaping policy beyond this group.”

“You’d agree to a contract where you implement a set number of my plans?”

Hellll no,” Tattletale said.

Parian felt her heart skip a beat.  She could see Accord bristle, and his Ambassadors had tensed, as if expecting an order to attack at any second.

“But,” Tattletale said, “I can consider them.  And that might be the best offer you’d ever get.  You know your ideas are good ones.  You know there are ideas that would be worth implementing.  If I agreed to read through them, bring the better points up for discussion within the group, across our entire alliance, and I’m hoping we recruit more than just you… well, there’s a chance they’d see the light of day.”

Accord frowned.  “You’re not promising anything concrete.”

“No.  I am sticking to the deal we arranged.  This is a bonus.  It doesn’t have to be big.  It’s fucking generous as it stands.”

“Please be more civil,” Accord said.  “I’d rather you didn’t swear.”

“And I’d rather you didn’t storm in here and act like you were personally offended by our particular way of doing things,” Tattletale said.  “I’ve offered you a fucking nice deal.  Are you fucking interested?”

“Tattletale,” Grue said.  “Enough.  I think he gets the point.”

“You’re in charge, then, Grue?” Accord asked.

There was a pause.  “Yes.  But I’m standing by what Tattletale said.”

“I’ll have to content myself with that, and I’ll give my answer to you, as one team leader to another.  I hope to continue working with the Undersiders, and I very much hope that things don’t degenerate any further, as they have with the situation at the PRT offices right now.”

“There’ll be enemies,” Grue said.

“Yes.  But there won’t be further disturbances?  Nothing further that makes national news about your group?”

National, Parian thought, stunned.  We’re national news.

She couldn’t help but think of her family, of her friends and neighbors.  Her sole remaining family member, her friend from the Fashion program.  The people who’d come to her territory for protection that she’d ultimately failed to provide.

She felt a sick feeling in her gut at the thought.  They’d been surgically altered, and, according to the most recent emails, they were getting surgery to slowly regain their old faces.  Were they watching the news right now, thinking of her?

“I’m on the same page as Tattletale,” Grue said.  “That’s our business, not yours.”

“I see.  Well, I can hope.”

Accord extended a hand.

Parian felt her pulse quicken.  A trap?  A sneak attack?

Grue took the hand and shook it.  Parian could feel the blood pumping in her ears as she watched Accord and the Ambassadors for any sign of betrayal.

Nothing.  Accord lowered his hand, then extended it again, in Tattletale’s direction.

She stood, then staggered.

Trap, Parian thought.

Except it was only Tattletale’s mental fatigue.  The villainess, with her mercenary’s help, made her way to the foot of the stairs.  She leaned on the man as she crossed the room to Accord.

“Injury?” he asked.  “I’m thinking a concussion.”

“Migraines.  I overused my power.”

“Ah,” Accord said.  He extended his hand a fraction further, and Tattletale shook it.  “I… suppose I can sympathize with that.”

“I bet.”

“I appreciate your willingness to meet, in light of your condition,” he said.  “That said, it would be best if we did not interact further.  I’d rather not terminate our alliance by being forced to murder you.  It wouldn’t be polite to say how many times I came close, just tonight.”

“I think we’re on the same page there,” Tattletale said.  “I don’t want you to kill me either.  Just know that if you tried, succeed or fail, I have a lot of questions about your involvement with Cauldron that could start circulating specific channels.”

“Ah, you’re proposing mutually assured destruction?”

“Is there any other way we’re going to manage this long-term?”

“No.  No, I suppose not,” Accord said.

“Great,” Tattletale said.  She managed a feeble smile.

“Then I wish you a good day,” Accord said.  He managed to make it sound like fuck you, the way people in the Victorian era might have.

That done, Accord turned to leave, marching out of the doors with his cadre of Ambassadors.

When he was out of sight, Tattletale sagged.  Her mercenary had to catch her to keep her from falling to the ground.

“Okay,” Grue said.  “What was that?”

“Me doing the best I could,” Tattletale said.  “And speak quieter, please.  My head’s throbbing… I feel like someone’s hitting my eyeballs with hammers.”

In a marginally quieter voice, Grue said, “You provoked him.”

“I dealt with him the only way I could.  Working with old info.  Don’t even have my power, only what I got on our earlier meetings.  Shit, I haven’t even read that booklet Skitter gave me.”

“Well,” Regent said.  “This is fantastic.  Skitter really screwed the pooch here.”

Bitch tensed at the idiom.

“We don’t know what she did,” Grue said.  “Or what she’s doing.”

There was a pause.

Parian had felt lost, in well over her head, since she’d set foot in here.  These guys were a group, an organization, they had their way of doing things, their rhythm.  It was so hard to jump in, to say anything.

But now, maybe, she felt like she had a role.  A reason to be here.

“I… I think I understand what she’s doing,” Parian said.

All eyes fell on her.  Even Bitch’s gaze, intimidating and angry.

“Generally,” Parian said.  “Um.  I get what she’s…”

“Spit it out,” Imp said.

“She’s a lot like me,” Parian said.  “She wants to protect people.  She’s willing to make sacrifices for the people she cares about.”

“I’ve discussed that with her,” Grue said.

“Terribly unhealthy,” Regent commented.  “Worse than smoking, even.”

“So maybe this is a way to do that,” Parian said.  “A way to protect all of us.  She gives Director Tagg exactly what he wants.  Gets him to back down.  And this is how.  She uses herself as a bargaining chip.”

“I don’t fucking care about Tagg,” Bitch growled.  “I’d rather have Skitter than have him gone.”

“It’s more than that!” Parian raised her voice, hurrying to speak before she could get lost in the jumble, unable to cut in and find a voice in their dynamic.  She had objectivity they didn’t.  The ability to see the big picture.  “I… I think she’s decided on a way to help all of us.  With more things than just Tagg.  And maybe… maybe she helps herself, too.”

“Herself?” Regent asked.

“I’m just… I know what it’s like, to be on a single track, to feel compelled to keep going forward.  It isn’t easy, to disappoint the people you care about, but sometimes it comes down to doing that… or doing what they want and being unhappy.”

“Unhappy,” Grue said.

“Was there ever a time when she was with us, where she really seemed happy?  Content?”

“I know my brother’s made her happy,” Imp said.  “Ick.”

Regent sniggered.

“I didn’t,” Grue said, his voice quiet.  “Make her happy.”

“I don’t know anything more than you guys do,” Parian said, “But…Maybe she needs to make peace with her guilt and whatever, go to jail, and try to make amends with her dad?  If that’s part of it, can we really say no?”

“What if it isn’t part of it?” Tattletale asked.  “What if leaving us is the last thing she wants, but she’s doing it anyways?”

“Are you saying that’s the case?” Grue asked.

“No.  My power’s out of commission.  I can’t say anything for sure,” Tattletale said.  “Except we respect Taylor-”

“We’ve been through hell with Taylor,” Grue cut in.

“And we trust her,” Tattletale said, glancing at Bitch.

So she picked up on that too, Parian thought.

“…So let’s trust that she has an idea what she’s doing,” Tattletale finished.

Bitch moved, stepping forward, her boots making a heavy noise on the floor as she advanced.  She struck out, kicking.

The widescreen television with its tripod mount came crashing down, shattering.

Nobody spoke in the aftermath of that small gesture of pain and frustration.

They looked amongst one another, searching each other for some validation, for a response.

It was Bitch who broke the spell.  “If the PRT fucks her…”

“We destroy them,” Grue finished.  Bitch nodded.

The most sensible member in the group in agreement with the most violent, Parian thought.

“All we can do is wait,” Tattletale said.

“How long?”

The question had come from Bitch.  She was tense, rigid, her jaw set, eyes narrowed.

“Nightfall,” Tattletale said.  “We wait until the sun sets.  That’s the only instruction Skitter gave me.”

“What are we waiting for?” Grue asked.  “A signal?”

“If we don’t get a signal,” Tattletale said, “We act.”

Parian’s thoughts were buzzing with possibilities, more details, more responsibilities.  Taking on more territory, giving up some to Grue.

Still struggling to find a way to be relevant.

She reached her atelier and dismounted from the six-legged horse, stepping down to the floor of the alley.  It had been a little more stable than a four-legged unicorn.  She’d have to refine the idea, find a balance.  Specific forms for specific tasks.

She was behind.  Behind in her territory, behind in applying her powers to combat situations, in being able to understand and interact with people like Accord.

And until she figured those things out, she couldn’t truly be a part of the Undersiders.  And if she wasn’t a real member of the group, she couldn’t change anything where it really mattered.

The unicorn came apart into scraps of cloth.  The individual scraps rolled up, were neatly tied by braids of thread.  She lifted the largest bundle and made her way around the corner to her front door.

Ten and a half hours before sunset.  That was the deadline.  Skitter’s deadline, and the point that would determine whether this became an all-out war against the PRT or something entirely different.

Parian stopped in her tracks.  Lily leaned beside the front door, in full costume as Flechette.  The stainless steel shoulder-rest of her arbalest sat on the ground, and she used a single fingertip to keep the weapon upright, unloaded and pointed at the sky.

With a flick of a finger, Lily made the thing spin, stopped it, spun it the other way around.

“You know where I live,” Parian said.

“The PRT knows where you live,” Lily said.  “It’s on record.  But we’re not supposed to act like we know.  I thought you’d forgive me that, given our history.”

“Is there news?  About Skitter?”

Lily shook her head.  “They asked me to go out and make a phone call, outside of Skitter’s range.  But they didn’t seem to know how far that was, so I…”

“Made your way to the far end of the city,” Parian said.

“Yeah,” Lily said, just under her breath, looking down at her weapon.  Again, she spun it.

“You didn’t even know I’d be here.”

“You weren’t.  I just got an angry call from Miss Militia,” Lily said.  “Been out here for a bit.”

“For…”

“Thirty minutes.”

“Ah.”

Parian put the bundle of cloth down, resting the end on the ground.  After a moment’s thought, she leaned it against the wall by her front door.  By Lily.

She felt so conspicuous.  She knew Lily hated the black costume, with the black hair, the black dress.

Lily, who’d been maybe the only person to give her support without being asked.  Lily, who was… chivalrous.  Gallant.  Stubborn.  So very stubborn.

“Did you come here for a reason?”  Parian asked, in the same second Lily asked, “Where were you?”

“You first,” Lily said, after the momentary confusion.

“Why did you come here?”

“Don’t know,” Lily said.

“That’s a hell of a reason to wait thirty minutes.”

Lily glanced left, then right, as if looking for bystanders.

“This area isn’t occupied,” Parian said.  “My atelier is the only one on the block that you can live in.  The rest are sealed up.”

“Atelier?”

“Workshop.  Studio.  Only fancier.”

“Ah,” Lily said.  Then, as if she remembered why she’d been looking for bystanders, she let herself slide down until she was sitting with her back to the wall.

“That’s it for answers?” Parian asked.  “Don’t know?”

“No.”

“Just talk me through what’s going through your head.  Doesn’t have to be relevant.  Don’t have to censor your thoughts.”

“Definitely have to censor my thoughts,” Lily said.  She glanced up at Parian.

She felt her heart rate pick up with that, oddly enough, just like it had with Bitch.

Except Lily wasn’t dangerous, was she?

God, I hate this city,” Lily  said.

“It’s… a hard city to like,” Parian said.  “But it’s not a city that lets you throw it away.  It’s tenacious, both in the big picture, and in how it attaches itself to you.”

“Yeah,” Lily murmured.  “Before I came here, everything was on track.  I could see my future ahead of me, straight as an arrow.  Career path, eventual Flechette action figures.  Every single one of my teachers and superiors seemed to know I had potential.  One of the only people who could hurt an Endbringer…”

Lily raised her unloaded arbalest, aimed it, “Pow.  Critical damage every time, and I don’t miss.”

“I remember what you said when you talked to Skitter and Miss Militia.  You don’t feel so confident, now.”

“I’ve been trying to think of where I might be comfortable.  Where I could find what I’ve lost.  During the whole post-Leviathan thing, I was always most comfortable here.”

Here?” Parian looked over at her Atelier, an unassuming, simple building.

“With you.”

“Ah.”

“And… fuck me, because I’m not acting confident.  I told myself I’d act confident, but… I’m blowing this.”

“Don’t stress so much about acting,” Parian said.

She reached up and detached her mask from the metal frame that held it over her face, then pulled the wig off as well.  She let them fall to the ground.

A pure white mask, in contrast to her own Arab ethnicity.  She’d meant to make a point of it, to challenge people to wonder more about what was behind the masks, about their assumptions about heroes and villains.  That had fallen apart when Leviathan and the Slaughterhouse Nine had derailed her plan to unmask herself and start a career as a fashion designer.

More than the fashion designer part, it was the sudden recollection of what the Slaughterhouse Nine had done that took the wind from her sails.

She tipped over the roll of cloth and then seated herself on it, facing Lily.

Belatedly, she said, “We act too much.  Hide behind masks way too often.”

Lily looked around to double-check, then removed her visor.

“I don’t think I can do this,” Lily said.

“Do what?”

“I don’t know.  But whatever it is, I can’t do it.”

“I know the feeling,” Parian replied.

“Where were you?”

“You don’t get to ask that,” Parian said, quiet.  “Just like you don’t get to act like you own me, to say that my costume is anything but my choice.”

“You remember that,” Lily said, looking down at the ground.

“Hard to forget.”

“Skitter asked me what I wanted,” Lily said.  “I gave her my answer.”

“You wanted me.”

Lily nodded.

“I’ve already had someone try to claim me, you know,” Parian said.  “They thought that I was something that was owed to them, because of what they’d done.  That being nice meant I was obligated to accept a date.  And that line of thinking goes one step further.  They think flowers and a few dates mean I’m obligated to come over to his apartment to spend the night.”

“That’s not what I’m doing,” Flechette said.

Parian didn’t answer.

“I mean, it’s not… my motives aren’t…”

“Carnal?”

“Sketchy,” Flechette supplied.

“That doesn’t make it any better.”

“No,” Lily agreed.  “Fuck.  I was hoping this would go better.”

“And… I’m not so sure your motives were pure.  I’ve seen you sneak glances.  For someone who has a superpower that gives her enhanced timing, I’d think you’d be better at it.”

Lily turned red, very deliberately not looking at Sabah.

“Once bitten, twice shy,” Sabah said, almost to herself.  “I’ve been bitten once.”

“Is that a no?”

“To?  You haven’t asked me anything.”

Lily shifted her grip on her arbalest, then set it on the ground, spun it on the end again, as though it were an oversized top.

“Skitter asked me for what I want.  What do you want?”

“Direction.  No, not even that.  It’s almost like I don’t care as much about what I do, as me feeling like I want to do something well, but I can’t.”

The Japanese-American girl frowned.  “And this is what you want to do?”

“Yes,” Sabah answered.

Why?”

“Because it’s the only way to get the rest of the money that my people need.”

“Your people?”  Lily started to glance around, then stopped.  “Not these people.  Your family, friends.  From Dolltown.”

Sabah nodded.  Her heart was heavy with the thought alone.  “And because I need to be a part of the Undersiders if they’re going to listen to me, and I need them to listen to me if I’m going to influence them, keep them on a straighter path.  To protect people from them, and to protect them from themselves.

“And that’s all worth giving up the life you want to lead?”

Parian thought of Skitter.  Of the motivations that could be driving the girl to turn on her friends.

“I think it is.”

“Then… would you take me along for the ride?”

Sabah glanced at Lily.  Lily was staring at her, an intense look.  Scary in its own way, but not quite in that way that was a reminder of uglier days.

“No,” Sabah answered.  “I don’t think I can.  It’s not that I don’t trust you, but…”

But I don’t trust youI can’t have someone try to possess me, to control me.

She couldn’t find a graceful way to say it, and she could see the pain on Lily’s face, the doubt, the embarrassment, as the pause lingered.

Then Lily seemed to compose herself.  “Not as a partner.”

“No?’

“I meant, um.  A lieutenant.”

“A lieutenant?”

“I’m not good at being alone,” Lily said.  “I found that out a while ago, and what’s happened these past few weeks, they only made it clearer.  I need company, and your company is what I want the most.  I can’t say it’ll be forever, but for now…”

Being together… having a helping hand where it counted.  Having firepower and authority both, to help win over the locals.  It wasn’t perfect, it wouldn’t be fast…

But maybe it wouldn’t be such an uphill climb.

“You’d leave the Wards?”

“They’re falling apart anyways.  I’d… I’d have to give up my arbalest.  Without tinker maintenance, it won’t keep working.  But I always liked the idea of the rapier, been meaning to go back to it.  And I have darts.”

“You’re rambling.”

“I’m terrified,” Lily said, meeting Sabah’s eyes.  She looked it.

She’s taken a leap of faith, and she hasn’t touched ground.

“You’re saying I call the shots.  You’re my lieutenant, my right hand?”

“Yes,” Flechette said.

“My knight in shining armor.”

“I’d need a new costume, and a new name, probably.  For legal reasons.  If you said yes.  I was thinking more a stylized musketeer look than a knight, but I can work with whatever.”

Still rambling.

“A new costume is something I can do,” Sabah answered.  “And yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes,” Sabah said.  “You’ll be my lieutenant.  And you’re okay with that?”

“That’s… what I’m offering.  The last thing I want is to make you uncomfortable.”

“That’s good enough,” Sabah said.  She stood, approaching Lily.

Needle and thread.  Somehow it felt more right, more solid, than any of the paths she’d started on, only to later abandon.  Maybe because she wasn’t doing it alone.

She put two fingers to Lily’s chin, raising it, and then she kissed her lieutenant.

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Imago 21.6

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Hate to do this with the weather like this, I thought.  I thought about the meeting Parian had arranged with Miss Militia.  But my hand is being inadvertently forced.

One more step forward.  One more phase in the plan.

The wind was worse than the rain.  I had to wonder how much of it was the aftermath of the Leviathan attack.  The city had been flooded, and those same floodwaters had evaporated into the air, trapped within Brockton Bay by the surrounding trees and hills… how wide-reaching were the effects of that one incident?

The downpour was steady, moderate.  The wind was what turned it into a barrage, a persistent pelting of droplets that moved horizontally as much as it moved vertically.  The noise of it, tapping against my armor and lenses, made for a steady patter.  My bugs were lurking and gathering in spots where there was shelter, and where things were dry.  With only the light of the moon above, these were the same areas that had shadows, by and large.  The masses of bugs only seemed to give those shadows substance, made them seem deeper, through the masses of dark brown, gray and black bodies.

Through other bugs I felt the movements of the wind, felt how it formed eddies, curling into itself when it met with dead ends, large or small.  I could, with a small number of bugs, feel how strong and steady the gale was where the buildings weren’t tall enough to break it up.  They helped me track the others around me, through bugs that took shelter in the drier folds of their costumes.

The Undersiders were here.  Minus Tattletale, we were all standing in the street a distance away from a squat building.  Regent was off to one side, ready to trip up our enemy if they made a sudden appearance.  Rachel hung back, corralling her forces, while the rest of us watched the building for any hint of trouble.

But Grue stood next to me.  I appreciated his presence, his casualness in light of the way we’d effectively parted.

I could sense the Ambassadors.  Citrine and Othello were there.  So were four new recruits: Jacklight, Ligeia, Lizardtail and Codex.  The fifth potential recruit hadn’t been so lucky.  The four of them stood off to one side, in the shelter of Citrine’s power, listening as she gave instructions.  The area around them was somehow faded in terms of the colors there, the area she was affecting looked as though I were viewing it through colorblind eyes that were capable of only seeing yellow.  Water wicked off of them as though they were waterproof, leaving them utterly dry even in the wind and rain.

Lizardtail’s power was pressing against me, even from the other side of the street.  It penetrated my costume to the skin, making my skin tingle and ensuring that I was always aware of where he was.  It was like the sensation of standing in front of a fire, just close enough to feel as though that heat had a physical form, just close enough to be bearable.  It wasn’t hot, though.  It was cold, if anything.

The rest of our forces were marshaled throughout the area.  A handful of volunteers from my territory, surviving members of the O’Daly family, had made their way to rooftops, stood at the ready with walkie-talkies and binoculars.  They’d have to make up for the fact that my bugs weren’t as mobile in this weather.

Tattletale’s mercenaries were here, though she was still largely incapacitated.  Minor, Brooks, Pritt, Senegal, and Jaw.  Regent had two followers, and I was doing my best to avoid paying attention to them.  It wasn’t the time to investigate whether he was controlling people or legitimately hiring them.

Rachel’s underlings were present too, hanging back enough that they were out of sight of the building.  Biter, Barker, the veterinarian, the boy with the eyepatch, others I didn’t recognize: a young teenager with darker skin, a tall man with a broad belly.  Each of them held a chain -the tall man and Biter held two- and each chain had a dog harnessed on the other end of it, grown to a fair size by Rachel’s power.  Only Bentley and Bastard were full size.

Inside the building, the Teeth were recuperating from a recent conflict with Miss Militia and the other heroes followed soon after by an attack from Parian’s stuffed animals. As a whole, the Teeth amounted to twenty or so unpowered troops, plus a half-dozen or so powered ones.  Even the unpowered Teeth had ‘costumes’ of a sort, were dressed in a hodgepodge of armor that made it hard to tell them apart from the powered members.

As a whole, they were bandaging minor injuries, preparing food, talking, joking, relaxing.  There were two televisions on, each playing something different, volume turned up, and the noise was discordant, even to the muted, confused senses of my swarm.  Porn on one television, I was pretty sure.  The other channel was either a cartoon or a news broadcast, judging by the words I was able to hear.

There was a fight in progress, a duel, between two unpowered members.  One was getting the better of the other, pounding his face in while others jeered and laughed.

One of the female members of the Teeth, I suspected Hemorrhagia, was cooking food for her team.  A distance away, Butcher was sitting on a stool, her feet up on a table, her mask off.  She had a cloth in hand and was wiping her gun clean, oddly disconnected from the clatter and chaos of her team.

I supposed the thirteen other voices in her head kept her company.

It had taken time to analyze them, to assess what each of the Teeth were doing and make a note of every individual part of it.  To do it discreetly, with no more than the bugs that were already in the building.

The Ambassadors were patient.  I got the sense that they could have waited for two hours in this wind and rain, and their only concern would be that their clothes and hair were a little worse for wear.  My teammates were a touch more restless.  Rachel moved from dog to dog, enforcing her authority, keeping them in line, and making sure they were listening to the underlings.  She was putting her trust in me, but I could tell she was getting tired of this.  Tired of the minutes passing with nothing happening.

Regent, too, was reacting.  He was maintaining a running commentary on everything from the weather to the surroundings, our allies and me.

“And… twenty minutes in, the rain’s still pouring, the wind’s still threatening to drop a house on our heads, and we’re still not doing anything.  I think our fearless leader needs to remember that some of us aren’t as good at being imposing when we’re drenched and standing around in the dark.  She does that whole schtick where being gloomy and creepy only make her scarier.  You know how scary I am with a wet shirt clinging to me?”

“Shut up, Regent,” Grue said.

“I’m just saying.  She could be more considerate.  Maybe we could wait indoors, and she could stand out here in the rain, using her power to investigate our enemies.  If she’s even using it.  Maybe she fell asleep standing up.  Been a hard week for her-.”

“Regent,” I said.  “Be quiet.”

“She’s awake!  Excellent,” Regent’s jovial tone was forced enough to border on the sarcastic.

“There are no vantage points that are also indoors,” I said.  “I’d bet that’s why Butcher chose that building.  The parking lot that surrounds it, the terrain, it’s all to her benefit.”

“So we pick a mediocre vantage point.  Or a shitty one.  So long as it’s dry.  Or, here’s an idea, maybe we attack.  We have them outnumbered, we have better powers than most of them-”

“We win absolutely,” I said.  “Or we don’t fight at all.  Too many of them have powers that could help them escape.  Vex fills an area with her power and runs, Animos transforms and runs, or Spree masks their retreat with his power.  This way, we take all of them down, or we at least affect them on a psychological level.”

“Then why don’t we have them surrounded?”

“Because we don’t need to,” I said.  “Keeping Butcher from picking us off is a bigger priority.  We do that by forming battle lines.”

“Huh,” he said.  There was a pause.  “Twenty three minutes, standing in the rain…”

Inside the building, Hemorrhagia called out, “…st ready.”

The Teeth collectively began to make their way to the kitchen, while Spree headed for the washroom.

There.

We’re attacking,” I said, and I spoke through the bugs that were near each of my allies.  “Be ready.”

The bugs I’d kept in reserve swept into the building, not from the direction our forces were standing, but from the opposite direction.  They flowed in, swarming over the Teeth.

Less useful bugs plunged themselves into the food.  They scattered money, where money was left out in the open, caught unattended weapons and pieces of armor and either buried them or started to drag them from sight.

“No!” Hemorrhagia shouted, trying to cover her chili with a lid,  “No, no, fuck you, no!”

Hearing the shouting, Spree stood from the toilet, only to find a handcuff connecting him to the towel rack.

“Fight!” one of the Teeth shouted, rather unnecessarily.  He was joined by others.  “Kick their asses!  Kill them!”

Spree managed to tear the towel rack from the wall and made his way out of the washroom, working to get his belt buckled, other armor gathered under one arm.  I was well aware of how costumes made using washrooms a pain in the ass on the best of days: getting everything necessary off, getting it back on again, attaching everything essential… Spree had the added issue of innumerable trophies and pieces of armor in his suit, all loaded down with spikes and hooks, and he was now in a rush, running forward into a swarm of biting, stinging insects.  He dropped one piece of armor, and bugs swarmed it.  He cast one backwards glance at the item in question, an elbow pad or knee pad, and then decided to leave it behind.

It was the little things that would deliver a hit to their morale.  Attacking while they were tired, spoiling a meal they were anticipating, throwing everything into disarray.  If they happened to come out ahead in this fight, or if any of them slipped away, they might return to reclaim their things, they’d find cockroaches had chewed through the cords and internal wires of their televisions, that pantry moths infested their food supplies, and every article of clothing was infested with lice.

And if they entered this fight mad, all the better.  It would mean they were gunning for us instead of running.

The first person out the door was caught by a tripline of spider silk.  Others trampled over him.  One fired a gun into the darkness beyond.

Wrong door, wrong end of the building.  And the door had somehow closed and locked behind them.

The powered members weren’t in that group, though.  As disorganized as the rank and file members were, the capes in the gang were only looking to their boss, gathering in the kitchen.

Butcher didn’t react as bugs bit and stung, and capsaicin-laden bugs found her eyes and nose.  Her skin was too tough, and she didn’t feel pain, thanks to Butcher twelve’s powers.  She was composed as she lifted a gun that would normally have been mounted on the back of a truck.  Without putting it down, she held it with one hand and donned her mask.

She turned our way, as though it wasn’t even a question.  A sensory power.

Butcher two, the ability to see people’s veins, arteries and hearts through walls.

She had the powers of thirteen capes, watered down, plus her own.  Some of those capes had possessed multiple abilities.  By power or by cunning, each had managed to kill the last.  This Butcher had the resources of each of them.

She led her group through the doors towards us, as silent as they were noisy.  I’d almost expected her to do the inverse of what she was doing and send her foot-troops in first.  Instead, she was the first through the doors, her powered allies immediately behind her.  Her foot troops were last to arrive, traveling around the full length of the building, swearing all the way.  They filled in the gaps of her group and gathered behind.

It was a different dynamic than some groups we’d fought.  These weren’t loyal soldiers or people fighting because they had nothing to lose.  They were opportunists, riding the coattails of the ones with the real power, hyenas picking at the scraps that were left behind after the lions had supped.

Spree was the first to use his power, and I got a sense of just how and why the group had arrived at this present strategy.  It wasn’t just that Butcher was dangerous enough to walk face-first into danger.  They had Spree to form their front ranks.

Four Sprees split off from him as he stood there, slightly hunched over as if bracing himself against recoil.  They were produced with such force and speed that they briefly flew through the air, stumbling slightly as they hit the ground running.  Three more Sprees were a fraction of a second after the first wave, with even more following a half-second behind them.

Fifteen or so Sprees in three seconds, before I’d even had a chance to call out an order.  Duplicates produced at the rate that a machine gun spat bullets.

They ran, some screaming, others swearing aloud as they closed the distance between our two groups, charging as a mass, limbs flailing, weapons-

Weapons?

It was hard to see in the rain, but the Sprees were all subtly different.  Some had knives or pipes they could bludgeon with, others had guns, and more had improvised weapons.  The mixing and matching of their armor was different as well.

There was a drawback, though.  Whatever they were, as solid and innumerable as they might have been, they were dumb, getting dumber every second they were alive.  He was producing a living tide of bodies, but they weren’t capable.  They were good for little more than sheer body mass and violence.

By the time the first ones reached us, they were barely able to put one foot in front of the other.  One reached me, swung a table leg at me in a wide, predictable swing.  I caught it, twisted his arm, and pushed him into a Spree that was stumbling forward from behind him. They both fell, and neither seemed to have the wherewithal to climb to their feet before they were trampled underfoot.

It was like fighting an infant with the size and strength of a grown man, except there were fifty or sixty of them.  A hundred?  The street was nearly filled with the bastards, from sidewalk to sidewalk, a mob between the Teeth and us.

They didn’t seem to be smart enough to realize they could actually shoot the guns, where the occasional Spree had one in hand, but the sound of a gunshot going off suggested that one had accidentally pulled a trigger.  The shot rang through the air, cutting through the thrum of raindrops striking ground.

Like the gunshot that marked the start of a race, it was the moment that brought the real fighting to a peak.  The Teeth and our side all jumped into action.

My bugs flooded into the group, condensing on the key members.  I couldn’t seem to touch the Spree that was generating the mindless clones, as his body vibrated and rippled, but I could attack Hemorrhagia, Animos, Butcher, Reaver, Vex and the underlings.  The press of near-identical bodies was almost useful, giving my bugs shelter and dry surfaces to move on.

Codex advanced, breaking away from the rest of the Ambassadors.  She was a pale woman dressed in a white evening gown, wearing a simple, featureless white mask.  A temporary costume.

She reached towards the crowd.  I could see the eyes of the Sprees lighting up as the effect reached further back into the crowd.  They stumbled, slowing, blocking the ones behind them from advancing.  Groans and grunts echoed from the crowd, all eerily similar.

Their powers were new.  Less than six hours old.  Accord had agreed to lend them to us, though their costumes hadn’t yet been designed, their powers not fully explored.  We’d offered Tattletale’s analysis of their capabilities in exchange.  She’d barely been capable, hadn’t yet recuperated from the migraines she’d suffered earlier in the week, and the use of her power had only brought the migraines back with a vengeance.

Still, we’d talked it over and agreed that the assistance of the Ambassadors as a whole was that much more useful in this scenario than a worn and weary Tattletale.  Tattletale’s feedback was essential, but we already had a sense of who the Teeth were, and Tattletale had been able to fill us in on the new Ambassadors just as readily as she’d filled Accord in.

Codex was a blaster-thinker hybrid.  Tattletale had speculated that the woman caused permanent brain damage and memory loss , briefly augmenting her own processing power in exchange.  The duplicates Spree was generating weren’t gifted with much in the way of brains to begin with.  Even a little damage was having devastating results.

Jacklight was launching forth the miniscule orbs of light, each growing as it traveled before stopping in mid-air.  Each warped space around it, accelerated movement, enhanced the output of certain forms of energy.  Where one of his lights was set next to a wall, it redirected one running duplicate into a wall.  Another, closer to the ground, swung a Spree that stepped over it into the ground face first.

It was Ligeia, though, who slowed down the enemy the most.  She created water out of nothing, geysers of the stuff that drove the mob back and sent them sprawling.

Then she sucked up the water.  I wasn’t entirely sure, but I got the impression she caught one or two duplicates in the process, drawing them into whatever place she’d taken the water from.

It took her a second each time she switched from creating water to drawing it in.  Clones slipped through the gaps in the defensive line as she changed gears.

“Rachel!” I gave the order.  Before Jacklight’s power makes it impossible to go further or more slip through.

Her responding whistle cut through the night.  Bentley and three more dogs were released, charging forward, leaping over our defensive line to crash into a sea of duplicates.  The duplicates were now too closely packed together to even fall down, and were literally climbing over top of one another.  The dogs stumbled or slipped as the Jacklights tugged at one or two of their legs, then proceeded to tear their way through the crowd.

They were brought to a stop when they found the second of the Teeth’s defensive powers waiting for them.  Vex’s forcefields were countless, numbering in the hundreds, each sharp enough to cut exposed flesh.  Alone, they weren’t strong, but the shards had a collective, cumulative resistance.  I’d hoped Rachel’s dogs would have enough raw strength to power through.

Still, we had the advantage here.  The tide of the duplicates was slowed as the bludgeoning power of the dogs crumpled them underfoot or crushed them against one another, and both Barker and Biter were free to join the defensive line.  I was able to step back and get a brief respite from the hand to hand fighting with the Spree duplicates.

“Kip up!” Rachel bellowed the words.

One dog leaped to the side, planting its feet on a wall, then leaped for the Teeth on the far side.

A four-legged creature just a little smaller than the dog lunged into the air, brought the two of them crashing down into the midst of the sea of tiny forcefields.  Animos.

Cape teams naturally found their own synergies and strategies.  This was how the Teeth fought.  Two defensive lines protecting the reserve forces while the truly dangerous members acted.

Butcher raised her gun, setting one finger on a trigger of her gun.  It started spinning up.

“Butcher incoming!” I called out.

She teleported past the worst of Vex’s forcefield barrier.  Flame billowed around her in a muted explosion as she appeared.

Butcher six’s explosive teleporting.  It’s weaker than it was when six had it, shorter range, and the intensity of the explosion isn’t nearly what it once was.

She pushed past the remainder, and leveled the gatling gun at the nearest dog, pulled the trigger before anyone, Regent included, could do anything to trip her up.

Ten bullets were fired in a half-second.  A moment later, the weapon jammed.

Wounded but intact, the dog turned and snapped at her.

She was gone a heartbeat before the teeth snapped together.

Butcher three’s danger sense.  Didn’t do him much good.  Driven mad, died in a suicidal attack against the Teeth.  Window of opportunity is lower, application limited to more physical danger.

She reappeared in a cloud of rolling flame, reversed her grip on her gatling gun and swung it like a club, knocking Bentley clean off his feet.

Super strength, courtesy of one, three, six, nine, eleven and thirteen.  Cumulative effects.  A little bit of super strength from multiple sources added up.

Animos was pinned by another dog, a yellow light surrounding both of the unnatural beasts.  He screeched at the dog, a high-pitched noise that made me wince, but the effect didn’t take hold.  Animos’ scream could strip someone temporarily of their powers, but Citrine was dampening the effect.  That, or there was nothing to take away from the dog.  The mutation was Rachel’s power, technically.

Butcher approached the pair, and Citrine abandoned her assault, letting up.

As Tattletale had warned Grue, she’d warned Citrine as well. Butcher’s power was too dangerous to muck with.  Grue risked absorbing the consciousness of the prior Butchers, and Citrine risked striking on the right ‘attunement’ and accidentally killing Butcher.

But Citrine was still a leader, didn’t waste a moment.  She gave the signal, shouted something I couldn’t make out, and her followers opened fire.  Jacklight and Codex lobbed their attacks towards Butcher, and the leader of the Teeth teleported away before either could do any real damage.  Ligeia produced a geyser of water that sent duplicates flying ten or twelve feet in the air.  Othello, for his part, was standing by, his hands in his pockets, his two-tone mask expressionless.

Which wasn’t to say he wasn’t contributing.  Hemorrhagia was enduring an assault from an invisible, immaterial foe.  I could feel him, feel the movement against my bugs, but the bugs didn’t settle on him, simply passed through.  He was only partially there, focusing on allowing certain aspects of himself, his weapon, to affect our world.

Shallow cuts appeared on Hemmorhagia’s face, chest and arms as she tried ineffectually to shield herself, and those same cuts exploded violently as she used her power to draw her blood from her body and turn it into hard, physical, cutting weapons.  More blood congealed into broad scabs that protected her and reduced the damage of the continuous slashes.

A distance away, Imp appeared, electrocuting Spree with a jab of her taser and bringing an end to the stream of duplicates.  Not that the duplicates were doing as much damage as they had been.  Like lemmings running off a cliff, many were scaling the piles of fallen clones and promptly running into Vex’s forcefields, only adding more corpses to the virtual hill of corpses that separated us from the other members of the Teeth.

Our two Strangers were doing much of the work in dealing with the back line.  That left us to deal with Butcher.

Bentley had recovered and charged her.  She responded by hitting him with a wave of pain, putting him off his guard so she could strike him aside.

Butcher oneInflicted agony at range.

Bentley was quick to recover, quick to push past the pain that she was inflicting and attack.  She prepared to strike him again.

Regent knocked her off-balance, and she was caught off guard as Bentley struck her with one paw.

She teleported out of Bentley’s way before he could follow through with the attack, appeared in between Regent and I, surrounded by our capes.  We staggered back as flame washed over us.

I felt my focus begin to slip, thoughts of violence filling my mind.  I itched to attack, to hurt her.

I sent my bugs in, but that was the one gesture that set the others in motion.  Without realizing it, I found myself charging her.

Biter and Regent were among those caught in her spell.  We attacked her as mindlessly as Spree duplicates had attacked us.

My knife stabbed at her armor, doing too little damage.  I stabbed again, found a vulnerable spot at the back of her neck, just below her hairline.  I dragged the knife through her flesh.

Without even turning to face me, she elbowed me, and all the strength I had went out of me.  I careened a distance away, tumbled, landed amidst Spree clones.

They clutched feebly at me while I reeled.

Lizardtail’s power pressed even harder against me.  I could feel the edges of my injuries tingling, the wounds slowly knitting closed.  Far slower than they should have been, given the earlier demonstration of Lizardtail’s power.  Either he was weaker, or her ability to inflict wounds that progressively got worse over time was taking away from the power of his regeneration.

Butcher had a grip on Regent, threw him into Biter with enough strength to take the two of them out of the fight.

Possibly enough strength to kill one, if Lizardtail’s power wasn’t able to outpace the internal damage done.

Induces mindless rage.  Power from Butcher Nine.  Very low range.

Inflicts wounds that fester.  Power from Butcher Four.  Less effect than Four had.  Far shorter duration.

She teleported.  I could sense where she’d arrived as my bugs died en-masse.  She was going after Rachel.

I had lines of silk prepared, did what I could to bind Butcher.  She struggled briefly, then teleported free of them.

Codex and Ligeia directed attacks her way, and again, Butcher disappeared before either could really affect her.

I felt something shift inside me, and the pain dropped to a fraction of what it had been.  I got to my feet.

“Go!” I shouted.  “Get the wounded!”

Rachel whistled, and the dogs converged on our location.  Butcher had appeared in the midst of the Ambassadors, but the variety and ferocity of their attacks had her teleporting from moment to moment, doing more damage with the flames that appeared around her than through any action she could carry out.

It seemed that even though Codex’s attack hadn’t connected full force, Butcher wasn’t keen on giving her an opportunity to deliver any more grazing hits.

Rachel stopped next to me, offered me a hand up.

“Fetch Codex,” I said.  “The Ambassador in white.  Butcher’s going after her.  It might mean Codex is doing the most damage.”

Rachel gave me a curt nod, and we charged, leaving Grue to help Regent.

Butcher teleported away as Bentley hurtled at her.  I reached for Codex, took her hand.  She looked at Citrine, as if asking permission.

“Go,” Citrine said.

I helped Codex up onto Bentley’s back.  She had to sit sidesaddle.  Those ridiculous dresses.  They weren’t meant for fighting.

But, then, I suspected that Accord was used to ‘shock and awe’ tactics, when he had to engage in a direct assault.  How many of his enemies were as tough, versatile or persistent as Butcher?

She’d teleported away, effectively leaving her team to fend for themselves.  Only Reaver, Vex and, to a lesser degree, Hemorrhagia, were in fighting shape.  Butcher was interested only in the fight.  She was the central pillar of the Teeth, and stopping her would stop them, and for much that reason, her team was a secondary concern to us as well.

“Run!” I told Rachel.  “Codex, hit her where you can.”

I was versed in fighting teleporting foes, had engaged in a similar conflict against Oni Lee.  Butcher wasn’t him.  She didn’t obsessively use knives.

No, she was drawing a configuration of metal rods and panels from her back.  Her gun abandoned in the course of the fighting, she was unfolding the device into a different weapon.

A compound bow.

I already knew which power she was using next.  Imp had sabotaged the gun, jamming the ammo feed, but she hadn’t been able to get at the bow.  It was massive when fully unfolded, nearly six feet long, not counting the extra length as part of the curve.  Large enough that it required superhuman strength to draw.

Less than a year ago, Butcher had been known as Quarrel, and as Tattletale told it, Quarrel had used a much smaller version of that same bow to kill Butcher Thirteen in a drawn-out fight in New York.

Regent wasn’t in fighting shape.  My bugs weren’t able to move fast enough to reach her.  Ligeia wasn’t in a position to hit her with water, and Jacklight’s orbs didn’t reach nearly that far.

If she started shooting, we’d drop like flies.

“Hit her,” I said.  “Codex!”

Codex reached out to use her brain-drain attack.  It was visible only by the effects it had, but I’d seen it move through the Spree clones.  It was slow.

Butcher had time to string her bow before she had to teleport out of the way, appearing on top of a building with a vantage point of the battlefield.  She knelt, touching the rooftop, and reformed the stone into arrows.

That power was Butcher Eight’s, except he’d had more reach, was faster.

Bugs clustered at her eyes, but she barely seemed to notice.  Nearly blind, she drew her string, pointed the arrow at us.

Before I could react, shout a warning, Codex hit me with enough force to nearly unseat me, despite how I was sitting astride Bentley.  Something else struck my shoulder with enough force to tear half the armor away.

The new villain slumped and fell, joined by the piece of my armor that had been shorn off.  An arrow neatly penetrated her neck.

Butcher drew her bow again.

She didn’t miss.  She did something to warp space or adjust the very fabric of reality, so her shots always struck the intended target.

She aimed towards my teammates, paused, lowered her weapon a second as if momentarily confused.

The bow swept in the Ambassador’s direction.

Then she turned, her body rotating, the massive bow and long arrow pointing at us.  Rachel and I.

“Go!” I shouted.  “Go, go!”

We could only get out of range.

How far could a bow like that send an arrow flying?

Apparently Butcher didn’t think it would be this far.  She teleported, paused, then teleported again.  A small fire erupted at each destination point.

Another teleport, and she killed a swarm of bugs I’d left lying in wait.  I’d hoped she would fall short, and that I could bind her weapon with silk.  No such luck.

“She’s following!” I shouted.

Rachel grunted a response, kicked Bentley to drive him to run faster, then whistled.

Her dogs broke away from the rest of the Ambassadors and Undersiders, trailing after us.  Butcher had to teleport as one spry, smaller dog noticed her and ascended to the rooftop to give chase.

Buying time, but she was closing the distance.

I drew from the silk I had stored in my utility compartment.  Coils of it, braided together into lines strong enough to suspend a grown man.

Hopefully strong enough to hold Butcher.

We had a plan, I just hadn’t counted on her being quite as tenacious as she was.  I’d looked at the teleportation power, had failed to account for what it meant in conjunction with her danger sense.

I formed the silk into nets.  I could guess at her next destination, track her possible arrival points.

Again, she teleported right on top of a net.  The flames destroyed it.

One net left.

We’d reached the edge of the city.  There were fewer buildings, fewer rooftops.  Wet clumps of sand flew behind Bentley’s feet as he dug deep to find traction.

Butcher appeared on one of the last remaining rooftops, killing a cloud of bugs.  Other ambient bugs clustered on her, biting and stinging, doing ineffectual damage. Too tough, courtesy of Butcher number… fuck it.  Didn’t matter, really.

She deemed herself close enough to take a shot, drew her arrow back, raising the bow so it pointed nearly at the sky.

The net closed around her, unseated her arrow from its mount.

Bugs wound more strands around her knees.  The wind pushed at her, and she tried to extend one foot to catch her balance, succeeded only in tipping herself over.  She fell from the roof of the five-story building.

She teleported herself right to the ground, cutting the height of her fall in half and freeing herself of the net.

It was still a hard landing.

“Get her!  Fetch her!”

Rachel nodded, whistled three times, pointed.

The dogs that trailed after us were quick to follow the order, snatching up Butcher.

She’d heal, was probably healing the brain damage Codex had inflicted.  Butcher was tough enough that the dogs probably wouldn’t do enough damage before she regained her senses.

I might have been wrong in that assumption, but we couldn’t afford to think otherwise.

“Go!”  I shouted.

We ran.  Rachel and I on Bentley, a pack of her dogs following behind.

There was no telling how much time we had.

We’d gone into this with one plan.  One solid way of putting an end to Butcher.  It was why we weren’t hiding in the safety of Grue’s darkness.

Though we were in less danger than we’d been since the battle started, my heart was pounding harder than ever.

“Stop!” I called out, to be heard over the wind.

Rachel pulled Bentley to a stop.  She knew what came next, gave a hand signal.  “Dogs, stop!  Rat-dog, forward!’

The dog that had Butcher ran on a little further, passing over a line of stones in the wet sand.

“Shake!”

Rat-dog shook Butcher like she was a chew toy.

“Good dog,” Rachel said.  “Drop her.”

Rat-dog dropped Butcher.

“Come.”

Rat-dog whimpered.

“Good boy, come.”

Tail between his legs, Rat-dog approached, passing over the line of stones in the wet sand.

Long seconds passed.  Bentley virtually heaved with the exertion of the run.

My eyes didn’t leave Butcher.

Butcher roused, and it wasn’t a slow affair.  One instant she was lying prone, the next she’d teleported, appeared next to the narrow, light-bodied dog and bludgeoned it, sending it flying.

“Dakota, go!  Bear, go!”

Two more dogs charged Butcher, drove her back.

“Stop,” I warned Rachel.  I lowered my voice, “She has that rage aura.”

It didn’t matter.  Butcher dispatched the two dogs just as easily, eyed us warily as Rachel commanded them to retreat.

“Good dogs,” Rachel said, as they hurried to her side.

My eyes still didn’t leave Butcher.  I watched, waited.

She didn’t understand what was going on, why we weren’t pressing the attack.

But she wasn’t confident either.

She strung her bow, as if testing us.  She started to create an arrow out of sand, condensing it into a more solid form.

Then she gave up, stepped back.  The hardened rod of sand crumbled.

“Stop it,” she said.

I shook my head.

She lashed out, hit us with raw pain.

In the agony, the feeling of fire running through my veins, I toppled from Bentley’s back.

I’d anticipated this, or something like it, knew it was temporary.  I could only grit my teeth and tell myself it was almost the best case scenario, even when it didn’t quite feel like it.

Rachel’s dogs bristled, but the pain dissipated, and she found herself free to command them to stand down.

It didn’t matter.  Butcher was on her knees now, face turned toward the ground.

“Don’t say anything,” I murmured.

With more focus than before, Butcher formed a spike out of hard sand.

She was murmuring to herself now.  Conversing under her breath with the voices in her head.  She sounded oddly insistent, plaintive in a very childish manner.

When the weapon was formed, she glanced skyward, murmured something indistinct.

Then teleported a distance into the air, directly above the spike.

There was a wet sound, a pause.

“Nothing?” I asked Rachel.  “You… don’t feel her powers?”

She shook her head.

“Then let’s go.”

We began our long journey back to the others, leaving Butcher with a spike through her heart.

No rush.  The fight was over.  One more foe taken down.

If the PRT happened to wonder if any of the Undersiders or Ambassadors had acquired Butcher’s powers, all the better.

“Mind if I come by tonight?” I asked, my voice low.

Rachel shot me a glower over her shoulder, “Why?”

“To talk.”

“We can talk now.”

“And so I can see how you’re coping with your minions.”

“Whatever,” she said.

“Is that a yes?”

“It’s a whatever,” she said.  “Do whatever you want.”

“Okay,” I said.

There was no more conversation as we closed the distance to the others.

They were more or less in ship-shape when we arrived.  Regent was propped up against a wall, but he wasn’t pulverized.  The only one we’d lost was Codex.

“Success?” Grue asked.

“Success,” I said.

The entire group, even the straight-backed Ambassadors, seemed to react with relief.

“Guess my sister has one more kill under her belt,” Regent commented.  “Fourteen voices in Cherish’s head to keep her company as she spends the next few centuries alone at the bottom of the bay.”

“Daddy!” a toddler squealed.  No older than three, the small child waded past a pack of dogs to her father, the tall, large-bellied man who I’d seen handling some of Rachel’s dogs.

Rachel ignored the reunion, greeted the dogs who milled around her, barking and whining in joy as their master returned.

“Food?” she asked me, almost as if it were an afterthought.

“Sure.”

“Someone make food,” she declared.

“I will!” a darker-skinned teenage girl declared.  She looked to be of mixed race, with brilliant blue eyes that didn’t match up with her brown, coarse hair and skin.

“Hamburger,” Rachel said.

“Okay,” the kid said.  “Anything else?”

“No.”

“Vegetables,” I cut in.  “Something healthier.”

Rachel shrugged.  “That grilled crap you made before, with the… long green vegetables.”

“The asparagus?”

“Yeah.  That was good.”

The kid looked like she’d just won the lottery, almost bursting with joy.

Barker, Biter and the veterinarian all set to basic chores around the place, as if it were routine.  No one seemed to begrudge the fact that Bitch was taking it easy while they worked, not even Barker, who had been somewhat prickly the last time I’d run across him.

Either she’d earned their respect, or they’d learned how stubborn she was.

“I wanted to talk to you about the future,” I said.

“Mm,” Rachel said, reclining.  The dogs were clustered around her feet, the larger ones laying their heads in her lap.

“It’s… problematic, having you patrolling the area out here, scaring the locals.  You know that, right?”

Rachel shrugged, apparently unconcerned.

I watched as the man with the three year old girl joined one of Bitch’s other followers, a woman who had apparently been babysitting the child.  He fished in one pocket for money, then handed it over.

His voice was quiet, a mumble, “When some’dy helps you out, what d’you say?”

“Thank you!” the toddler chirped.

The woman only scowled.  I saw Rachel out of the corner of one eye, watching.

The man made his way past the kitchen, nearly running into the darker-skinned girl who was already cooking, past Barker and Biter, before finding a place to sit with his child.

Despite his size, his presence, the man with the child didn’t make eye contact with anyone.  Almost flinched at it, even in the face of a hundred-pound girl.

Mentally disabled?  Developmentally delayed?  Or had he suffered a trauma?

Between the way the girl had been so overjoyed at the slightest praise, and this man’s attitude, I was wondering if maybe Rachel’s people were somehow just as damaged as she was.

“There’s one possibility,” I said to Rachel.  “A role you could play in this.  You don’t have to.  Just putting it out there.”

“What’s that?”

“The portal, it sounds like it’s going to be a thing.  There’s a whole world out there with nobody around.  People will be settling there, establishing a society.  I’m imagining there’ll be something of a society popping up around the portal, a mirror city to Brockton Bay.  But there’ll be pioneers as well.  People striking out on their own.  And some of the Undersider’s enemies are going to try to slip through, control things on the other side.”

“And?”

“If you’re willing, maybe you could serve as an aide to the Undersiders, but you patrol for trouble, track down troublemakers and fugitives.  That could be your territory, more than just the fringes of this city.”

She frowned.

“It’s just an idea.”

“It’d be hard to feed my dogs.”

“Manageable,” I said.  “Tattletale aims to control one of the fleets that brings supplies to the other side.  We don’t know how restrictive the government will be with the portal, or where ownership will lie, but… I don’t imagine getting dog food to you will be a problem.  And as the area gets settled, maybe you could supply trained dogs to pioneers or hunters looking to capitalize on the area.”

She didn’t reply, focusing on her adoring dogs, instead.  Two hands, no less than twenty ears to scratch in her reach.

“Think about it,” I said.

“Mm,” she grunted.

The man was playing with his daughter, who was squealing and reaching out to pet the dogs who were standing by, almost protective.

“They’re okay?” I asked.  “The dogs won’t hurt the kid?”

“None of the dogs at this shelter,” Rachel said.  “Picked them carefully.”

I was a little stunned at that.  To give that much thought to something like that… it wasn’t in her character.

“Why?” I asked.

“You said I should think about what people need from dogs.  If I’m going to find them homes, the dogs need to be able to live with families.”

I nodded.  There were more questions I wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to spoil the quiet relief I felt at hearing her say that.

We sat for ten more minutes before Bitch rose and began playing with dogs.  She incorporated training into the play, dividing dogs into teams and having them fetch in shifts, among other things.  I stood, joining her, and she handed me a ball.

There wasn’t much more conversation beyond that.  Most of the talking was reserved for the dogs.

Time passed quickly enough that I was surprised that Rachel’s henchperson announced that the food was ready.  Not everyone collected some.  Barker and Biter held off.  The vet had her hands full.  Rachel loaded up a plate with two burgers and a pile of grilled vegetables.  I took about half the portions she did.

It wasn’t very good, but the kid seemed so pleased with herself that I couldn’t say anything to that effect.  Rachel didn’t seem to care, nor did the big man and his daughter.

“Thank you,” the toddler piped up, sing-song, when she was done eating the bits of crumbled up hamburger and bun.

Rachel, for her part, only stood to grab a soda.  She mussed up the cook’s hair on the way back, as if she were petting a dog.

…Not quite a leadership style I might have suggested, but the kid looked happy.

I finished what I could, considered throwing the rest to the dogs, then decided it was best not to risk angering Rachel.

It was late at night, now, but I didn’t return to my lair.  We tended to the dogs, grooming them, cleaning their ears and brushing their teeth.  Certain dogs were due pills, and Rachel saw to it that they got the pills.

It was an endless sequence of those little tasks I’d always found frustrating.  Cleaning up, doing jobs that would only be undone by the next day, if not within minutes.  I’d always found them frustrating, found it tolerable only now that I could delegate bugs to many of them.

Rachel reveled in it.  It seemed to calm her, center her.

The others found their way to their beds, or made their way out the front door to head back to wherever they lived.  Many dogs retreated to the kennels that were set out for each of them, and Rachel took the time to lock them in.

The night was creeping on, and I wasn’t leaving.  I knew why, didn’t want to admit it to myself.

Exhaustion overtook me eventually, though I would have been hard pressed to say exactly when.

I woke in the middle of the evening, found myself slumped on a couch with a crick in my neck, a blanket over me.

Rachel was on another couch, and the blue-eyed girl, the cook, was lying beside her, her back pressed to Rachel’s front.

I stood, stretched, winced at the knot at the muscle where my neck met my shoulder.  The movement seemed to stir Rachel.  She started to extricate herself from behind the girl.

“Don’t let me disturb you,” I murmured, keeping my voice quiet enough that it wouldn’t disturb anyone.

She shifted position, keeping herself propped up, “You leaving?”

I frowned, “Yeah.”

“Okay.”  She settled back down, and the kid curled up against her.  Kid.  The teenager was probably older than Aisha or Vista.  I couldn’t help but see her as younger, because there was something about her that screamed ‘lost’.

Maybe that was the role that Rachel filled, here.  Forming a screwed up, antisocial family with those who had nobody else.  Damaged people.

I was okay with that.  I could believe that, even if she didn’t heal them or help them get better in any explicit way, she wouldn’t make them worse.

I felt like I should say something more, but I was tired, my thoughts increasingly occupied by greater matters.  “Bye.”

“Bye,” she said.

I headed to the door.  I was already gathering bugs to me, just to ensure I had a safe walk back.  A walk home in the dark would be nice.  Time to think.

“Thanks.”

I stopped in my tracks, looked back.

Rachel had her head down against the armrest of the couch.  I couldn’t see her through the other girl’s head.

But it had been her voice.

I revised my opinion.  Maybe they could heal each other, in their own ways.

It helped, as I stepped outside and started my long, quiet trek home.  I was riddled with doubts, with countless worries, but knowing that Rachel was in a better place was a light in the darkness.

I had let two days pass since my conversation with Miss Militia.  Dealt with the Teeth.  They weren’t all gone.  Hemorrhagia had slipped away, as had Reaver, and there were rank and file troops.  Parian still had some cleaning up to do, at the very least, but the Teeth weren’t the presence they had been.

Now I had to face everything I’d been dreading.  I’d spent time here because I was procrastinating.  Putting off the inevitable.  I couldn’t put it off any longer: if I didn’t bring myself to do it soon, it would only get harder to bring myself to do it.

Tomorrow morning, I thought.  I face off with Tagg and the rest of the PRT.

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Imago 21.4

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Had Tagg done me a favor, by getting me to think along these lines?  For what felt like too long, I’d been overly focused on the now.  Getting through the next few days, surviving, staying sane, parceling out the time I had to relax and striving to find moments where I could feel safe.  That state of mind hadn’t started when I put on my costume.

Odd, to be taking someone’s words to heart, when I had so very little respect for them.

I was in plainclothes, and they were clothes I wouldn’t normally have worn, which was sort of the point.  The idea was to be hidden in plain sight, as I walked in the midst of the crowds downtown.  I’d removed my glasses and regretfully donned contact lenses, slathered on sunscreen and donned a white summer dress and sandals, along with a big, wide-brimmed sun hat that was incongruous enough to mark me as a possible tourist.  Shopping bags and loosely braided hair helped complete the image.

Maybe the sun hat was conspicuous.  The clouds were heavy overhead, and the wind was moving them across the sky at a decent pace.  Hopefully it would brighten up.

If anything would give me away, I suspected it’d be my eyes.  I eyed everyone that crossed paths with me, looking at them without looking directly at them, watching for that glance and that restrained reaction that might suggest I’d been spotted.

Were that to happen, I’d change direction, take a different route to my destination.  If that wasn’t enough to shake the attention, well… I did have my bugs, flowing through my hair, beneath my hat and between the dress and my bare skin.  I had weapons, my costume and more bugs in the shopping bags, beneath the shoeboxes and spare clothes I’d put over top of them.

I stopped at an intersection, and was briefly relieved of the need to watch the people around me, free to look at their movements as a whole.  The crowd was moving like a river, separating into streams of people who moved through the streets that had open shops and restaurants, avoiding the ones where construction was prevalent.

I detoured into one of those construction-heavy side streets, fully aware that I was abandoning the ‘hide in plain sight’ ploy.  It didn’t matter.  Nobody could really see my face, and I had my bugs.

There were a few crude catcalls from the construction workers at the sites to either side of me.  Not because I was attractive in any way, I suspected, but because I was over fourteen, under forty, I weighed less than two hundred pounds and I was wearing a skirt.

This area was the site of the fight against Echidna.  Walls bore the marks of laser blasts and gunfire, blood still marked the streets here and there, and there were divots and holes in the road, surrounded by rings of bright spray paint so pedestrians wouldn’t step into one and break an ankle.  Holes created by blasts of energy, small explosions, large explosions and the heavy footfalls of a gargantuan monster with clawed toes.

Bugs notified me about a change in the wind before the wind even reached me.  I already had my hand on my hat to keep it in place as hat, hair and skirt were stirred by the gust.  The weight of the swarm bugs that clung to the inside of the dress helped to keep it in place.

I found I was tense, as the wind dissipated, the muscles of my legs tight, ready to shift me to either side, to push me into the air with a leap or throw me to the ground.

But it was only a strong breeze.  Rosary was gone, I hoped, or she’d be gone soon.  We’d taken care of Eligos and Valefor yesterday.

It would be so easy to get paranoid over the slightest things, if I let myself.  Parahumans kind of opened a lot of doors on that front.  There was no way to be on guard against every eventuality.  Bystanders could have been manipulated by Valefor before we confronted him, cloth in store displays could be Parian’s work, the mannequins some trap laid by, well, Mannequin.  The ground, the wind, changes in temperature, shadows… anything could be a sign of incoming attack.

Not that I was in a position to complain, but… was it any surprise that capes tended to get a little unhinged as they grew in prominence?

I reached one construction site with plywood strapped to a chickenwire fence, protecting the interior, grafitti painting the plywood with a large face.

Eye on the door, I thought.  I let myself in.

Grue and Citrine were inside, both in costume.  Citrine in her yellow evening gown and mask, adorned with her namesake gemstones for both jewelry and embellishments, a file folder tucked under one arm.  Grue, for his part, was wreathed in darkness.  They couldn’t have been more different in appearance: sunshine and darkness.

But both, I knew, were professionals.  I suspected they were very similar people.

A part of me felt like I should be jealous that the pair were keeping each other company.  Except, rationally, I knew they weren’t.  Rationally, I knew there was no reason they’d be together, or even that they’d be attracted to one another.  Citrine was pretty, but… I couldn’t imagine she was Grue’s type.

Why did it bother me that I wasn’t jealous, then?

“Skitter?” Citrine asked.  She looked me over.

“Yes,” Grue said.  “Hi, Taylor.  You look nice.”

“Thank you,” I said, and despite my efforts, I smiled.  I’d sort of hoped to maintain the contrast between appearance and demeanor.  No major loss.  I looked at Citrine, “You wanted to meet?”

“I have a few points to go over, details my employer wanted to raise.”

“Nothing troublesome?”

“It depends on your response.  I don’t think it’s anything troublesome.  Keeping you abreast of his operations.”

“No complaint here,” Grue said.

“I expected Tattletale would be here.”

“If it’s alright,” Grue said, “We’ll record the conversation and pass it along to her.  She’s occupied with some other matters.”

“The difficulties of being a thinker,” Citrine mused.

More than you know, I thought.  Tattletale was occupied with little more than an intense migraine.  She’d pushed herself too far and was now paying for it.

I cleared my throat.  “Any objection to stepping upstairs?  It’s too nice a day to stay inside.”

She shook her head.

We ascended two staircases to the roof.  It was sunny, and the wind was strong enough that even the long, dense braid of hair at my back was stirred.  I put the shopping bags down at my feet.

The location had seemed incongruous, even inconvenient, given where Grue and I were headquartered.  I knew that Accord and his Ambassadors weren’t anywhere near here either.  Now that I saw our view, I had a sense of why Citrine had asked that we meet here, and the topic of the conversation.

Ahead of us, just a block away, the portal.  A white tower in progress, surrounded by three cranes.  A white tent was framed with a rigging of criss-crossing metal poles, and that rigging was being covered in turn by a solid white building, windowless.  We couldn’t make out the base of the building from our vantage point, but I could make out the ramps that led to the interior, like the on-ramps to a highway or the entrance to an aboveground parking garage.  They curved up around the building, a geometrical arrangement like the petals of a flower, and led into the tent at different heights.  There were signs of construction and recent demolition in neighboring lots.  The adjoining buildings would support the main structure: administration and defense.

It was so complete, considering that so much about the future of the portal was in question.  Nothing had been confirmed yet, as far as the ownership of the portal.  Accord’s design, Tattletale’s construction, the government’s rules on quarantine.  The government had sent people inside, and Tattletale had followed suit.  It was technically her property, they had no evidence it was anything but the curiosity of an invested businessperson, and they hadn’t complained.

Yet.

It was a mingled blessing and curse.  The portal, the door, as some were calling it, was taking some of the spotlight from us Undersiders.  There was a great deal of national debate over whether the landowner or the government should get the rights to the property.  I almost wished people could ignore it.  Things threatened to get out of control if and when it was verified that this thing was usable.

“Accord is recruiting five new capes to his team,” Citrine said, interrupting my thoughts.

That gave me pause.  Not the topic I’d expected her to raise.  I turned on the tape recorder, held it up so she could see.  She nodded.

I repeated her statement for the tape, “Accord is recruiting five new capes.  Who?”

“We don’t know yet.”

“You’ll let us know who they are as soon as you find out?  Give us a sense of their personalities?”

Citrine lifted the file folder, opened it and handed me a set of pages, neatly stapled.

The entire thing was high-resolution, complete with a picture and lines of text in labeled boxes.  Much of it was neatly censored with black bars.  A young man, in his mid twenties, his hair immaculate, parted to one side, wearing a high quality business suit.  ‘Kurt’, last name censored.  Date of birth censored.  Age twenty-five.

The next page was more details.  Personality tests, psychiatric tests, GPA in middle school and high school, post-secondary education, work history.  ‘Kurt’ had ascended to the role of head chef at a record pace, returned to school to get a four year education in three years, then started working for Accord.

‘Pam’.  Contract lawyer for a major firm, made partner at age twenty-eight, stepped down to work for Accord.

‘Shaw’, ‘Laird’, and ‘Kyesha’ followed the same pattern.

“They are going through the vetting process as we speak.  Experienced members of Accord’s businesses, on board with his plans, and loyal,” Citrine said.

“I’m not sure I follow,” I said.  I handed the papers to Grue for him to look over.

“My apologies for being unclear,” Citrine said.

I waited a second for her to elaborate or clarify, but she decided not to.  She wanted us to draw our own conclusions?

“You don’t know who they are, but they work for you?” I asked.

“She means she doesn’t know who they’re going to be when they get powers,” Grue said.  “Don’t you?”

Citrine nodded once, the rest of the file folder held behind her back.

“Cauldron,” I said.  “Accord’s using Cauldron to empower his employees.”

“Yes.”

“Why are you telling us this?” Grue asked.

“This is your territory and we are your guests.  It’s only natural to request permission to bring five new parahumans into the area.”

“Are you a Cauldron cape, Citrine?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“So you know something about how they operate, then.”

She shook her head.  “Very little.  We get our powers with Accord serving as the middleman, and I’m not entirely sure how much he knows.  Either I would have to ask him for details, and I have no reason to, or you would have to ask.”

I frowned a little.

“Accord wanted me to inform you that the product has a slight chance of causing physical defects and mental instability.  A possibility of an incident.”

I thought of Echidna.  No shit.  More diplomatically, I said, “And you wanted to warn us, so we were forewarned and forearmed about possible issues.”

“We hope and expect to keep things wholly internal.  There are very few powers I cannot counter, and I will be there to act if something goes awry in any way.”

In any way?  Did that extend to physical deformities?  I couldn’t see Accord tolerating something like that.  I could have stipulated something, warned them to let the deformed ones go… except it would destabilize the alliance.

“They’ve been informed of the risks?” I asked.  “These… soon-to-be capes?”

“Fully.”

“Why?” I asked.  “Why leave a successful, ordinary, happy life behind, and go to that risk?  Why work for Accord, of all people?”

“Power,” Citrine said.  She turned her back to the portal to meet my eyes, her dress flaring slightly with the rotation of her body.

“Power isn’t magical,” I said.  “It creates as many problems as it solves.”

“Power is less a thing unto itself than it is a journey.”

“To where?”

Her eyes were penetrating as she gazed at me.  “Not all journeys have destinations.  Power is the ability to effect change, and people who create change ride that tide, with far-reaching effects.  For some of us, that’s something we’re born into.  Our fathers or mothers instill us with a hunger for it from a very early point in time.  We’re raised on it, always striving to be the top, in academics, in sports, in our careers.  Then we either run into a dead-end, or we face diminishing returns.”

“Less and less results for the same amount of effort,” Grue said.

“Others of us are born with nothing.  It is hard to get something when you don’t have anything.  You can’t make money until you have money.  The same applies to contacts, to success, to status.  It’s a chasm, and where you start is often very close to where you finish.  The vast majority never even move from where they began.  Of the few that do make it, many are so exhausted by the time they meet some success that they stop there.  And others, a very small few, they make that drive for success, that need to climb becomes a part of themselves.  They keep climbing, and when someone like Accord recognizes them and offers them another road to climb, they accept without reservation.”

“Which are you?” Grue asked.  “Did you start with power, or did you fight for it?”

Citrine smiled a little, looking over her shoulder at the tower.  “I suspect Tattletale will tell you, if you’re curious enough to ask.”

“And your power?” I asked.

She arched one of her carefully shaped eyebrows.  “Tattletale didn’t share?”

“Tattletale had some ideas, but nothing definitive.”

“I wouldn’t normally share, but Accord told me I should disclose any information you request.  I attune areas to particular functions.”

“To what ends?” Grue asked.

“More gravity, less gravity, more intense temperature variation, less intense temperature variation.  Friction, light intensity, the progression of time… More possibilities than I can count, many so minor you wouldn’t notice.  But if someone powered is in the area, and I find the right attunement, as though I were searching a radio station, I can cut off their powers.  If I’m exact enough, which never takes more than twenty or thirty seconds to narrow down, I can use my power to cancel out the filters that keep someone’s powers in their control.  I can also remove the filters that keep their power from affecting them.”

“Turning their power against them,” I said.

“Yes,” Citrine said.

I could picture my bugs slipping from my control, gravitating towards me in response to my stress, biting and stinging, even devouring me, perpetuating the stress, pushing the cycle forward.

Or Grue… what would happen to him?  Rendered blind and deaf by his own power, dampening his own abilities until they sputtered out, or creating a feedback loop by draining his own abilities, until he was overwhelmed?

“And Othello?” I asked.

“He has a mirror self,” she said.  “Who walks in a world very similar to this one.  This self has a limited ability to affect our world, and can’t be affected by us.  Othello can push himself into that other world to bring his other self into ours, and vice versa.  One leaves, the other enters.  It looks very much like teleportation or invisibility.  It isn’t.”

“Accord buys good powers then,” I said.

“The best.  There would be no point if he didn’t.”

“And there’ll be five more?  Of your caliber?”

“Allowing for variations in results, yes.”

“What else do you know about Cauldron?”

“Very little.”

And Accord is sitting out this meeting because he thought Tattletale might be here, and he didn’t want her to dig anything up.

Which meant Accord would be avoiding us, avoiding Tattletale from here on out.  That made life easier.  It meant he wouldn’t be pestering us or trying to subvert us.  Not to our faces, anyways.

“Five new members is fine,” I said.  “Each of them should meet Tattletale on an individual basis.  She’ll vet them in ways Accord can’t.”

“Agreed,” Citrine said.

“The deal we struck with Accord stands.  He buys no territory, holds only what Tattletale gives him, and he doesn’t get to expand his territory to account for new members.”

“Agreed.”

“How long until they have powers?” I asked.

“Two days.  We’ll devote a week after that to training their abilities and ensuring they meet standards.  Accord likes to hand-craft masks for us, picking out appropriate colors and names.”

“Would he object to giving them the Teeth as a job?  It can be a collaborative effort between Ambassador and Undersider.”

“I’ll raise the idea with him.  I have little doubt he’ll agree.”

“Good,” I said.  I turned my attention to the tower.

Citrine looked as well.  “The door.”

“You’ve heard the world ends in two years,” I said.

“Yes,” she said.

“When Tattletale set up the portal, she made an escape route.  Not for us, but for the world.  As much as they’re able, they’re leaving room for mass-evacuation.  You can’t see it from here, but the bottom of the tower doesn’t have a road or a ramp leading into it.  If the city cooperates, they can route train tracks through there.  The trains wouldn’t even have to slow down as they passed through, if there was enough set up on the other side.”

“Many would live here for the possibility of easy escape alone,” Citrine said.

“There’s also the work,” Grue said.  “Making the space on the other side livable, research on the other world, investigating differences in plant and animal species.”

“When I had a discussion with Director Tagg,” I said, “He told me to consider where things would stand in a few years.  The doorway is going to be a big part of it.  I’d like to ensure that we still have a presence here, that there’s a measure of peace, both from heroes and villains, and that the portal remains an escape route.”

“Any particular thoughts on how things should be arranged?” Grue asked.

“Some, as far as our group is concerned.  But I’d have to talk to the others about it before I put any ideas out there.”

“Do the Ambassadors fit into that image of the future?” Citrine asked.

“It depends on Accord,” I said.  “You know him better than I do.  Is he stable?”

“No.  Not in the sense you mean.”

My heart sank.

“But you can trust him.”

“I suppose we’ll have to,” I said, not feeling much better.  “Do me a favor, sound him out on what limits he’d set in terms of bringing others on board.  Other teams, other groups.  Individuals.  We should set standards, hard rules for people in the city and people in our alliance.  I’m not going to mince words.  His response to this is a big factor in how all this plays out.”

“Including his presence in this hypothetical future you’re envisioning,” Citrine said.

I shrugged.  “You say we can trust him.  I’d like to believe you, and I will, until I have a reason not to.”

“That’s all we can ask for,” Citrine said.

“Is that it?  You wanted to meet to address the recruitment of your five members?”

“No.  Here.”

She handed me the folder, and my arm sagged with the weight of it.  I approached Grue and stood next to him as I paged through it.

It was a three-hundred page treatise, complete with binding at the spine and a gray cover printed with the simple words ‘Brockton Bay: Crime and Public Safety’.  I handed Grue the folder and the dossiers on the five recruits to the Ambassadors, keeping the tome.  I paged through it, holding it so Grue could read alongside me.

It was less an essay than a technical manual.  A step-by-step guide to bringing the city in order.  Size eight font, bolded and centered headings, annotations, continually referring to other sections.  It was readable, though, almost seductive in how it made it all sound so possible.  The language was simple, clear, and unambiguous, as though it were outlining little more than how to build a bookshelf, without more than the occasional diagram.  There were branching paths, too, clearly outlined, detailing the routes to be taken if something didn’t work out.  I could only assume that the bulk of the text was Accord’s accounting of all the various possibilities.

No murder, nothing totalitarian.  Not at a glance.  It was merely a very involved analysis on Brockton Bay, the various criminal elements, the various players and how things could be brought into alignment.

“I’ll read it,” I said, “And I’ll make sure Tattletale gives it a thorough looking-over.”

“Okay,” Citrine said.  “Don’t worry about giving him a response.  He already knows.  Nobody ever accepts the proposals.”

“We’ll give it a serious look,” I stressed.  “Who knows?  Tattletale might get a kick out of being able to debate the finer points of the plan with Accord.”

Citrine arched an eyebrow.

“I’ll tell her to play nice,” I said.

“Then I suppose those are the key points covered.  Thank you,” Citrine said.  “If there’s nothing else?”

“Nothing springs to mind,” I told her.

She offered me a curt nod, then headed for the stairwell.  Grue and I stayed put.

The pair of us stood on the rooftop, just out of sight of anyone on the ground.  The portal-tower loomed a short distance away, taller than the surrounding buildings, rippling slightly as the wind pulled at the upper areas where there were only the tent and metal framework.

“So much talk of the future,” Grue said, “And no guarantee there’ll be one.”

“There will,” I said.  “With everything else Dinah said, we know there’ll be some kind of future.  It might not be a pretty one, but people will survive.  We’ll slip away to other dimensions, the best of us will persist, and we’ll slowly make our way back to where we are now, but we’ll survive.  Or maybe, with all the powers out there, we’ll find a way around this, and it doesn’t come to pass.”

“And we establish some kind of stability in Brockton Bay?  Bring Accord’s plan to fruition?”

I didn’t have an answer to that.  I looked down at the book.

“You’re skeptical?”

“Skeptical,” I said.  “Ever notice how every power gets turned to violent ends?  Even the people with powers that could benefit humanity wind up losing it?  Accord, Sphere, there’s Parian on the smallest end of the scale…”

“And you think there’s some ugly twist to this.”

“Accord works out some scenario where it’s possible to establish peace in Brockton Bay by exerting pressure in the right areas, promoting the right people, and allocating resources in the right way, but it turns out like a wish from a malevolent genie.  It turns ugly, or there’s some loophole.  I think Tattletale should look at it.  That’s all.  We need to be very careful.”

“You’re obsessing over what Tagg said,” Grue said.

“I’m trying to see everything through the perspective of what they’ll be in a year or two from now, and maybe what they’ll become ten years from now, if we’re lucky enough to get that far.  What form will the team take?  How will the team run, and how will personalities change as time passes and we get more comfortable with where we stand?”

“There’s time to figure this out,” Grue said.

I frowned.  “Not as much as you might be thinking.  Not nearly enough time.  The Undersiders need to solidify a hold on the city, become a fixture.  It’s impossible to do that by scrambling here and there and struggling to defeat each enemy that crosses our paths.  We needed a reason for the crazier and more reckless enemies to think twice before interfering with us.”

“People like the Slaughterhouse Nine, the Teeth.”

“And the Merchants, Lung and Bakuda.  All of them are very different kinds of villain, with a different sort of momentum.  The Merchants weren’t ever going to maintain a consistent hold on a territory.  It was less a question of whether they’d hold an area for years and more a question of the damage they’d do in the meantime.”

“You may be underestimating what they could have become.”

“Maybe,” I admitted.  “I get that the Merchants had the benefit of being the right people in the right place at the right time, but they didn’t really have any sense of self-preservation.  There’s going to be others like them.  I’m not underestimating that.  There are teams who exist only because they earned attention through luck or circumstance, and those are the teams that have to throw themselves at the biggest targets available.  They have to prove their worth to the world at large, or they collapse in on themselves.  Brockton Bay and the Undersiders are going to remain a target for guys like that if we can’t create a big enough deterrent.”

Grue folded his arms.

“And here’s the thing, there are ones like the Slaughterhouse Nine, too.”

I could see him react.  His arms dropped to his side, darkness trailing after them.  He seemed to realize he’d reacted, that he had nothing to do with his hands, and shifted his weight with his feet instead, leaving them dangling.

“Sorry,” I said.

He shook his head.  After a second, he prompted me, “The Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“There’s the monsters who were drawn to the city because it was vulnerable, because others were already paying attention to it, or because it was different in a way that appealed to their warped sensibilities.  We have to account for all these different people who are going to want to come after us and our city, and each demands a different response.  Can the Undersiders be boring enough to not be a desirable target to take down, scary enough to drive away the troublemakers, and still have the cold efficiency needed to take out ones like the Nine?”

“It’s not impossible.  We’re on our way there.”

“Except there’s a whole other set of checks and balances in terms of the authorities.  Need to play along to a certain degree, cooperate, but also need to convey the right image.”

“A lot on your plate.  Are you going to be able to manage?”

I hesitated.

“What?”

“When I phoned you,” I said, “I wanted to talk about some things.  Two things.”

“And you wanted to talk in person,” he said.

“In person,” I agreed.  “Um.  I guess I’m thinking about things in the same way Accord does.  Looking toward the future, accounting for the possibilities, simplifying.  If something happens to me-”

“Skitter,” Grue said.

“We know something goes down in two years.  You know we live a high-risk lifestyle.  We’re going to have enemies, I’ll be risking my life.  I’m-  I guess what I’m trying to get at is that there’s no guarantee I’ll always be here.  I need to know if you think you’d be up to taking over.  Becoming leader again.”

“I couldn’t do what you do,” he said.

“What’s the alternative?  Tattletale has her hands full with just the management side of things.  Imp?  Regent?  Rachel?  That’s a disaster waiting to happen.  Do you really want the team to work for Accord?”

“I don’t see it happening.”

“No.  I’m just… let’s look at what happens in the future.  If you had to take over, could you?”

“No,” he admitted.

“Okay,” I said.

We stood there for a while.  I reached out and took his hand, my fingers knitting between his, the oily darkness slithering against my bare arm.  We stared up at the portal-tower, backed by an increasingly overcast sky.  So much depended on it, but we wouldn’t hear the verdict for a little while yet.

“I raised the idea of you maybe getting therapy,” I said.  “I could use it too, to be honest.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Do you think, maybe, if you were in a better head space, you could handle the leadership thing better?”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “Maybe.”

“Would you be willing to try?  I don’t want to guilt you into it, but it’d give me a lot of peace of mind, knowing that you’d be there to keep things going.”

“I’d be willing to try,” he murmured, his voice a hollow echo from within his darkness.   “But why are you being so fatalistic?”

“I don’t think I’m being fatalistic,” I said.  “But… but maybe I sort of lost one half of my life.  I lost Taylor, not so long ago.  So I’m thinking about what happens if the other half were to disappear, too, and that’s in conjunction with my focus on the future, on the team…”

I trailed off.  It sounded feeble, but he didn’t call me on it.

“Regent and Imp,” I said, stopping when he turned his head my way.

A heavyhanded way of changing the subject.

“What about them?”

“They’re together,” I said.  “I don’t know if it’s romantic, but… they’re together.”

“I’m aware,” he said.

“It’s a problem.”

“It is,” he agreed.  “But there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“Rein them in?”  I suggested.

“How?  Aisha bucks at rules and restrictions.  She’d use her power and run before I could talk to her more seriously.  She was always one for flight more than fighting.  Fitting that she got that power.  Infuriating.”

“Then talk to Regent.”

“Not much better.  He’s never one to face confrontation, but he handles it differently.  He doesn’t run, he evades.  He’d say or do whatever it took to stop me lecturing him, stop me from threatening him, and he’d go right back to what he was doing, in a different way, a different angle, so I’m less likely to catch on.  And if I angered him, or upset him, he’d make me answer for it somehow.”

“I don’t think I’ve really seen him angry or upset.”

“You don’t,” Grue said.  “Because he doesn’t show it.  I don’t think he even fully realizes it, that he feels that way.  But his jokes get a bit more barbed, he pushes back a little harder when pushed.  He makes dealing with him annoying or toxic in a thousand small ways, until you can’t continue to press him.  Then he uses that, goes right back to doing what he wanted to do.  It’s not worth the trouble.  They’re friends.  I don’t like it, but I can live with it.”

“He controlled her.”

Grue let go of my hand, stepped away so he was facing me.  “What?”

“He controlled her.  She let him, because she thought it would be interesting.  It made a difference in us winning against Valefor, yesterday, but… I thought you should know.”

Grue didn’t respond.  He folded his arms, so I at least knew he hadn’t gone catatonic.

“Maybe they’re not romantic now,” I said, “But who knows where they’ll be a few years from now?  Their trust is born of mutually assured destruction, because neither can absolutely control the other, but it’s still trust.  It could go places.”

“I’ll talk to him,” Grue said, and there was a hint of a growl in his echoing voice.

There was a distant rumble of thunder.  Surprising, given the amount of blue to the very north and south.  A summer storm?

Rain started to patter down around us.

In wordless agreement, we ventured to the staircase and into the building, to take shelter from the weather.

I reached up to my face to take my glasses off, ready to wipe them free of moisture, before realizing that I wasn’t wearing them.  I let my hand drop.

Grue was looking at me, his expression hidden by his mask.  I felt momentarily embarrassed, then let the feeling drop away.

I reached up and pulled his mask off.  He let the darkness start to dissipate, his face half-hidden behind a veil of wisp-thin darkness, almost as if he weren’t even aware I’d removed the mask.  He seemed pensive.

“Sorry to be a downer,” I said.  “Bearer of bad news.”

“It’s not that,” he said.  “You’ve been looking forward.  That’s good.  Except I’m wondering… where are we, in the future?  Suppose we made it through the end of the world.  Are we together in ten years?  Do we have kids?  Are we married?  Are we together, king and queen of Brockton Bay?  Have we retired?  Can you imagine a scenario like that?  Like any of that?”

I was caught off guard by the question.  I could visualize it.  Us in some mansion, little kids running around.  Just outside the window, Brockton Bay as it could be, swelled with industry and life and vigor and development, nourished by that portal and all the promise the portal held.  Inside our home, a mess, not so different from the mess that I’d seen on first walking into the loft.  A good mess, the kind of mess that came from life and living.  I could imagine Grue blanketing me in darkness to drown out the screaming, to give us a momentary privacy so he could hold me, kiss me.

Yes, I thought.  Yes.  Please, yes.

But I couldn’t bring myself to voice the thought aloud.

“Me either,” Grue said, his voice quiet, in response to an answer I hadn’t expressed with anything but my expression and body language.

I couldn’t lie and say that the mental picture, the fantasy, was a real possibility.  I couldn’t see it unfolding the same way I could see a thriving Brockton Bay secured with equal measures of fear and fairness.

It had been busy, hard and violent, with too much to do.  It was too easy to see how things could continue down that road.

Was it possible that this relationship could become something?  Yes.

Likely?  No.

“Shit,” he said.  He must have seen something in my expression.  “I should have kept my mouth shut.”

“No,” I replied, shaking my head.  I put his mask aside on a workbench, along with the booklet Citrine had given us, reached out and plucked the folder and papers from Grue’s hands, putting them aside as well.

Taking his hands in my own, I stepped close, pressing my body against his.  The bugs under my dress moved away from the points of contact so they wouldn’t get squished, flying down and out of the way or crawling down my bare legs, making me very, very aware of the bare skin of my legs.

He was cool, between the moisture-beaded fabric of his costume and the darkness, but if I pressed hard against, him, I could feel the warmth of his body where the darkness didn’t sit between us.  I slowly, carefully drew his hands up so his arms were around my shoulders, arranging them.  When I was done, I wrapped my arms around his neck, felt him adjust his hold on me.

“Skitter- Taylor.”

I had to crane my head up to kiss the tip of his chin.

It had been a fantasy.  Two damaged, lonely people clinging to each other for warmth in a dark time.  He’d needed a rock, I’d needed warmth and gentleness.

“There’s no regrets?” I asked him.  “About us, together?”

“No,” he said, and his face was less than an inch from mine, his breath as warm as his power was cool.  I felt his chest rise and fall as it pressed against me.  “It was right.”

It was right.  Then.

“Then let’s make this one place where we don’t have to give any thought to the future,” I murmured.  “Focus on the present.”

He lowered his head and kissed me with surprising tenderness.

I hated to do it, but I broke the kiss, pulled away a fraction.  I murmured, “Besides the usual precautions.”

“Mm,” he murmured his agreement, an inarticulate, wordless sound that vibrated through his body and mine.

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Interlude 20

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If Accord didn’t know better, he might have thought this little soiree was located here with the sole purpose of irritating him.

Wait, he did know better.  Tattletale.  She would have done this just to beleaguer him.

The Forsberg Gallery.  The building had once been a pristine, albeit distressingly asymmetrical construction of glass and steel.  Now it was a shattered ruin.  There was little rhyme or reason to the design, and navigating was something of a chore.

To his right, as he ascended a staircase, there was a wing that jutted out from the side of the building, six stories up, like an architectural tumor.  With the damage done by Shatterbird’s attack, the only glass that remained in the building was scattered across the floor like a winter frost.  The offending growth on the side of the building had sustained some damage, more likely a consequence of the vibrations than damage from the glass itself, and the reinforcements that had been made to shore it up only served to make it uglier.

Inelegant, unbalanced.

His power immediately began supplying answers and solutions.  He was on his guard, and the first thoughts to his mind were of offense and harming others.  As clear as if he were seeing it for himself, he could see a pendulum, disguised among the steel frame of the building, swinging from a point above, and he could hear the sound of steel on steel, like a sword being drawn from its sheath, only at twelve times the scale.

With the appropriate design, the impact would be clean, almost muted.  His enemies, isolated within the wing, would make more noise, screaming as the reinforcing struts and the rivets holding intact beams to the larger structure were shorn away.  The end result would see his enemies dead, and the building improved, more balanced.

Ten minutes to draw up the blueprint.  Eighty to a hundred minutes of labor, depending on the skill of the craftsmen.  Two hundred and forty five minutes of labor if he did it himself… and the result would be stronger, better and more efficient if he did.  One thousand, four hundred dollars plus salaries.

Impractical.  Getting his enemies into the area would be hard.  Impossible, if they had any intelligence at all.

He dismissed the thought, but others were already flooding into place.  Him and his two Ambassadors in the offending wing, connected to nearby buildings by an arrangement of steel cables.  Not one pendulum, but seven.

One pendulum would cut the tumorous wing free.  It would swing out on the steel cables, between the two buildings.  With the right angle, it would swoop between the two nearest buildings.  The right mechanism, and one cable could come free at the right moment, allowing a change of direction.  They wouldn’t even lose their balance, as the angle of the floor and centripetal force kept them steadily in place.

With attention to details, they’d even be able to step free of the platform, as though they were departing a ski lift.  The wing would then slingshot into the rubble of a nearby building, cleanly disposed of.  The Forsberg Gallery would be pulled apart, steel cut from steel by the shearing blades of the pendulums, the weight and movement of the mechanisms serving a second purpose by magnifying the damage, pulling individual pieces free of one another and setting the complete and total destruction of the building into motion.

The unseemly Forsberg Gallery would crash to the ground, with many of his enemies inside, while he and his Ambassadors watched from the point where they’d disembarked.

He loathed making messes, but cleaning up after the fact was so very satisfying, whether it was mopping up the gore or seeing the lot cleared of debris.

Thirty two minutes to draw out blueprints for the pendulums and work out the sequence needed for best effect.  Three hundred to three hundred and forty minutes of time to set it up.  He could estimate costs north of eleven thousand dollars, not counting salaries.  None of the materials were particularly expensive in and of themselves, and he had any number of businesses in his pocket where he could acquire those materials at a significant discount.

Somewhat more practical, but impossible.  He didn’t have the time to set it up, not for tonight.  It made for an elegant image, if nothing else, somewhat soothing.

No sooner had he turned away from the idea of violence than other thoughts were forcing their way into his mind’s eye.  The outstretching wing being transformed from an edificial cyst to a bridge, with similar connections networking the entire city, each bridge and connection point changing individual points of design into a series of gradients.  Architectural styles and building heights would change from a stuttering, jilted progression to something flowing, a seamless wave

Accord closed his eyes briefly, doing what he could to shut it out.  It didn’t help.  He had a sense of the building as a whole, could imagine reconfiguring it, removing the parts that jutted out and using them to fill gaps towards the building’s center mass.  He’d worked with his power to see things through the various lenses of viability: money, resources, time, personnel, but that was almost a detriment now.

He opened his eyes to search for something to take his mind off of the irritating aspect of the building’s design, but he saw only glass shards, discordant in how they had fallen throughout the building.  Some had been swept out of the way by people who’d taken up residence in the Gallery, but the heaping, lumpy piles of glass, dust and debris weren’t any better.  He caught a glimpse of a soggy sleeping bag and the scattered contents of a supply kit and wished he hadn’t looked.

Images rifled through his mind.  A network of wires, drawn taut by a weight plunging through the elevator shaft, moving in concert to sweep the glass shards and signs of human life into the elevator shaft.  The same wires would catch his enemies, mangling them as they were cast down after the rain of glass.  Between the long fall and the thermite that could reduce the mess to a fine, clean ash, even more durable capes wouldn’t be walking away.

No.  It wasn’t constructive to think this way.

On the uppermost floors, plexiglass and a large volume of water mixed with a high concentration of carbon dioxide and a sudsing agent, sweeping through the building.  Staggering it, so the water from the highest floor could clean away the soap-

Rearranging the glass shards into a kaleidoscopic-

“Citrine, Othello,” he spoke, interrupting his own train of thought.  “Distract me.”

“I’m not so comfortable with this vantage point,” Citrine said.  “The climb only tires us out, and the vantage point doesn’t suit any of our abilities.  It puts us in a weak position.”

“Sir,” Othello whispered.

“…Sir!” she belatedly added.

Accord was ascending the stairs just in front of her.  It might normally be impossible, but here, it was easy: to turn and deftly slice her throat with the folded blade within his cane.  Quiet, efficient.

He stopped partway up the stair case and faced her, saw her unharmed and unhurt.  His Citrine, young, blond, wearing a goldenrod yellow evening gown and a gemstone studded mask.  Her hair was immaculately styled, her makeup flawless, with a yellow lipstick that matched her outfit without being garish.

Accord’s left hand folded over the right, both resting on top of the ornate cane.

She stopped, glanced at Othello, beside her.  “I’m sorry, sir.”

“Everything and everyone in the appropriate place,” he said.  “Not just in terms of physical position, but socially.  Courtesy and acknowledgement of status are pivotal.”

“I know, sir.  It’s not an excuse, but I was tired from the walk and the climb, and I was thinking of strategy, in case we were ambushed.  I will endeavor to do better, sir.”

“We all have to do better.  We must all strive to improve.  A step backwards is a tragic, dangerous misstep.”

“Yes sir.”

As if he were watching himself on film, he could see himself pushing her down the stairs.  Not so steep a fall as to kill her, but the pain would enforce discipline, and the act of discipline would both help drive the point home for her and quiet his own thoughts.

But the bruises, cuts any broken bones, her inconsistent attempts at suppressing any sounds of pain as she joined him on the trek to the upper floor?  It would only make things worse.  More disorder.

The thoughts were so sharp they were difficult to distinguish from reality.  He shifted his hold on his cane, staring into her eyes.  She still stood before him.

With just the fractional movement of his hands, there was a change in her body language.  Muscles in her neck and shoulders grew more taut, her breathing changed.  She said, “Sir-”

“Shh,” he said.  She fell silent.

His left hand cupped her chin, his eyes never leaving hers.  More of a reaction: her eyes flickered, moving mere milimeters as she strained to maintain eye contact.  he could feel the warmth of her breath on his wrist as she exhaled slowly, the faintest of movements against his hand as she shifted her weight to stay absolutely still.

His thumb brushed against her cheek.  Soft.  He knew she dedicated an hour every morning to caring for her skin, another hour to her hair.  Unlike hers, his gaze was unwavering, assured.  In his peripheral vision, he could see her chest rise and fall.  He wasn’t a sexual creature, not in the base, animal sense.  The idea of intercourse, it didn’t appeal.  The mess of it.  But she was a thing of beauty, nonetheless.  He could appreciate her from an aesthetic standpoint.

Citrine had shifted out of place, though.  A square peg, just askew enough that it wouldn’t slide into the hole designated for it.  It jarred, and it cast a pallor on everything else that was right about her.

As his fingers moved, tracing the line of her jaw, drifting to her chin, the idea of cutting her throat invaded his thoughts.  A quick, clean severing of vital flows.  He could see the lines of tension in her neck as she stretched it, striving to keep it absolutely still.

Again, though, the disorder, the disruption.  Blood was so messy, and as much as he might relish the opportunity to take thirty minutes from his day and clean up back in a more secure area, others would see, and it would throw too many things out of balance.

There wasn’t a right answer here, and it bothered him.

Thinking rationally, he knew he was irritated.  The location, even this city, they didn’t suit him.  He couldn’t act on that, not yet, and the resulting dissatisfaction affected how he responded to the little things.

His fingers broke contact with her chin, one by one, as he contemplated his options.  By the time his index finger had dropped away, he’d decided.

“You’re my best ambassador, Citrine,” he said.

She was breathing just a bit harder than she had been, as the tension that had drawn her entire body tight was released.  A flush touched her cheeks as she responded, “Yes sir.”

“I don’t want to lose you.”

“Yes sir, I’ll do my utmost to ensure you don’t have cause to.”

“Please do,” he said.  He noted that the flush had spread down to her decolletage.  Not the result of fear or anger.  Another base emotion.  “Citrine?”

She glanced at him.

“Calm yourself.”

“Yes sir,” she breathed the words.

He glanced at Othello, who wore a black suit and a mask divided between alabaster white and jet black.  The man hadn’t commented or flinched as Accord addressed Citrine.

Accord turned and started ascending the stairs again.  “Quicken your paces.  I refuse to be late.”

Intrusive thoughts continued to plague him.  He’d once described it as being very similar to the sensation one experienced on a train platform, a ledge or while standing in front of fast moving traffic, that momentary urge to simply step forward, to see what might happen.

Except the thoughts were sharper, with more weight to them, more physical than ethereal.  His power was problem solving, and every problem demanded to be addressed. The solutions were posited whether he wanted them or not, one step and hundred-step plans alike.  And it never ended.

Every flaw needed correcting, every imbalance needed to be weighed again.  Mediocrity could be raised to greatness.

The greater the problem, the faster he could solve it.  He’d taken the time one afternoon to solve world hunger.  Six hours and twenty-six minutes with the internet and a phone on hand, and he’d been able to wrap his head around the key elements of the problem.  He’d drafted a document in the nine hours that followed, doing little more than typing and tracking down exact numbers.  A hundred and fifty pages, formatted and clear, detailing who would need to do what, and the costs therein.

It had been bare bones, with room for further documents detailing the specifics, but the basic ideas were there.  Simple, measured, undeniable.  Every major country and ruler had been accounted for, in terms of the approaches necessary to get them on board, given their particular natures and the political climate of their area.  Production, distribution, finance and logistics, all sketched out and outlined in clear, simple language.  Eighteen years, three point one trillion dollars.  Not so much money that it was impossible.  A great many moderate sacrifices from a number of people.

Even when he’d handed over the binder with the sum total of his work, his employer had been more concerned with the fact that he’d shown up late to work for his job.  His boss had barely looked at the binder before calling it impossible, then demanded Accord return to work.  A mind like his, in an office handling economic oversight within the PRT, looking for the precogs and thinkers who were trying to manipulate the markets to their own ends.

It was only one imbalance, one irregularity, but it had been an important one.  It had nagged at him, demanded resolution.  He had to prove it was possible.

So he’d siphoned the very funds that his department was managing.  It hadn’t been hard to redistribute some of the wealth that the villains and rogues were trying to manipulate.  One ambiguous evil for the sake of an undeniable good.  He covered his tracks flawlessly.

In the process, he failed to account for the full breadth of his newest coworker’s talents.  Thinker powers interfered with one another, and despite his ability to work with that particular drawback, even help them to work in concert, the clairvoyant had found him out.  He’d been caught, jailed, and subsequently freed by the jailbreak specialist he’d contacted well in advance.

Here he was, years later.  Nobody he’d contacted had taken to his ideas, and government after government had failed to thoroughly read the documents he sent them.  Nobody raised the subject of his work to the United Nations or any major political body.  They were too interested in maintaining the status quo.

His plans weren’t observably closer to fruition, but he had contacts and he had wealth, and that went a long way.  He would take the slow, steady path to victory.  The binder relating to world hunger had been expanded on, with the addition of further binders to detailing the specifics.  Other sets of binders had joined it, each relating to a major issue: disease, population, government, energy, and climate.  He spent an hour and a half every morning ensuring that everything was up to date with recent changes to the economy and international politics.

The recent altercation with the Slaughterhouse Nine in Boston had been a setback, but he remained confident.  Twenty-three years to see it all through.  Twenty-three years to bring the world into order.  Everything was a step towards those ends.

Even this, as much as the setting and the people grated.

They reached the top floor and came face to face with the Teeth.  Seven parahumans, wearing costumes that bristled with blades, spikes and spines.  They managed to wear the trophies of their defeated enemies without looking primitive.  Teeth, eyes, dessicated body parts and bones were worked into their costumes, a collective theme that promised aggression and violent retaliation for any slight.

Accord tightened his grip on his cane.  He itched to end them.  His mind burned with hundreds of ideas on how to do it.  Traps, ploys, ways to set them against one another, or ways to use the other people in the room against them.

The Teeth didn’t get in his way as he led his two ambassadors around the periphery of their group.  There were no windows, and the wind sent minuscule shards of glass dancing over the tiled floor, periodically glinting as they caught the light from the flood-lamps that were set around the room.

“Welcome, Accord,” Tattletale greeted them.

He surveyed the group at the end of the long table.  They weren’t holding back, in making a show of power.  No less than six dogs were chained in place behind them, each mutated and grown to massive size by Bitch’s power.  Their number was bolstered by the addition of a massive spider and a scorpion, both wrought of black cloth.  Silk?  Skitter’s silk?

Regent stood by Imp, a costume of predominant white contrasted by a costume of black.  They seemed to be exchanging murmured words.

Bitch wore a mask that looked much like her dogs did, bearing a black jacket with thick, shaggy fur around the edges of the hood and collar.  She didn’t flinch, even as one of her larger mutants growled and gnashed its teeth inches from her head.  The creature’s ire was directed at Accord, not her.

Parian’s style of dress had changed from the images Accord had seen in his research.  Her hair was no longer blonde, but black, her frock matching.  The white mask she wore had a crack running down one side.  She was very diminutive compared to the others, almost demure with the way she sat at one side of the table, hands folded, as though she didn’t want to be a part of this.

Tattletale, by contrast, was seated on the cloth scorpion, just beside a large monitor.  She was cavalier, her hair wind-tousled, disrespectful by her very body language, sitting askew.

He had to work to ignore her.  He turned his attention to the figures at the head of the table.  Grue stood behind the chair, one hand set on the backrest, a demonic visage wreathed in absolute darkness. Skitter sat at the end, backed by her forces, looking over the room.  Bugs swarmed her from the shoulders down, but Accord could note a shawl and hints of protective armor.  Neither the yellow lenses of her mask or the expanse of black cloth that covered her face gave any indication of her mood or expression.  Either the images that he’d seen had been misleading, or she’d done some work to her mask, making the mandible-like sections of armor that ran forward from her jawline sharper and more pronounced.

Dismissing Tattletale’s greeting, Accord spoke to Skitter, “We finally meet.  Good evening.”

“Good evening,” she said, her voice augmented by the accompanying buzzes and drones of countless bugs in the area.  “Have a seat.”

He took a seat midway down the length of the twelve-foot table, and his ambassadors sat on either side of him.

The Fallen must not have been terribly far behind him, as they arrived less than a minute after he did.  Valefor and Eligos.

Valefor wore a delicate-looking mask without eye-holes: a woman’s upper face with closed eyes.  Beneath the mask, he had a sly, perpetual smirk with tattoos that colored his lips black and extended from the corners.  The ink depicted fangs poking from thin lips that nearly reached his jaw, the points alternating up and down.  His costume was almost effeminate, with white and silver feathers featuring heavily on flowing white clothes that clung to his narrow body, including a corset that drew his waist in.

The costume was meant to invoke images of the Simurgh, no doubt.  Crass.  Eligos’ costume wasn’t so fine, suited more for a brawl, but it, too, conjured up thoughts of an Endbringer: the Behemoth.  Obsidian horns that swooped back over his head, heavy armor that resembled rhino hide in texture and claws built into his gloves.

“Valefor, Eligos, members of the Teeth, now that we’re all here, I’ll ask that you take a seat,” Skitter said.

“Why should we listen to you?” Valefor asked, his voice was incongruous with his outfit, bearing a slight southern twang.  He leaned over one chair, his arms folded over the backrest, taunting.

“It’s customary for there to be violent retaliation if someone causes trouble at a meeting like this,” Skitter said.  “Usually involving every other party that’s present.”

“I’m not saying I’m intending to cause trouble,” Valefor said.  “I’m wondering why we should follow the schoolgirl.  I’m sure everyone here saw the news.  Did you see the news, Butcher?”

“Yes,” the leader of the Teeth answered.  A woman stepped out of the midst of the group of Teeth.  She was elegant, long necked and long-limbed, with her hair tied up in a high ponytail.  Her mask and armor had an Asian style to it, though the costume were studded and trimmed with a number of wickedly barbed blades.  More incongruous, there were three bleached skulls strung to one another and hanging around one shoulder.

The costume, it was asymmetrical, lacking harmony, trying to do too many things at once.  The samurai, the headhunter, the bloodletter.  None of it fit the title she wore: Butcher.

Images flickered through Accord’s mind.  Ways to obliterate both costume and wearer. More difficult than it seemed, given just who she was.

As if to punctuate Accord’s line of thinking, she effortlessly lifted a gatling gun and set it down on the end of the table.  The sheer mass of the weapon was imposing enough that Accord momentarily wondered if the other end of the long wooden table would lift off the ground.

The woman very deliberately refused the offer to sit.  She’d spoken only one word, but managed to convey a great deal with her actions.

“Very embarrassing,” Valefor mused aloud.  “Really, I don’t see why you should get to sit at the head of the table.  A sixteen year old girl, a victim of bullying, it doesn’t conjure up the most imposing image, does it?”

“If everyone agreed to suspend the usual rules, I would be more than happy to go head to head with your group,” Skitter replied.

“Of course you would.  You outnumber us.”

“Just me,” Skitter answered him.

“That so?”  Valefor smiled, considering.

Accord surveyed the situation.  Valefor was a stranger, less in terms of his ability to hide, and more in his ability to engage in subterfuge.  He had only to look on a target with his naked eye, and the fight was over.  It was no small wonder, really, that he’d styled himself after the Simurgh.  The effect was all too similar, in how the victim was often unaware of what had happened until it was too late.

Yet Skitter didn’t seem to mind.  Was it a decoy?  An empty costume?  No.

A trap?

Accord studied the area around Valefor.  What would he do, with her abilities?

He saw it: almost invisible, except where the light caught it at the right angle.  Threads, surrounding Valefor, trailing from his corset, his elbows and knees.

They were all trailing in the direction of the window.  If they were pulled taut, Valefor would be dragged outside.  Depending on how well they held, he’d either dangle or fall to the street below.

“Valefor,” Accord spoke, the layers of his mask shifting to emulate his smile, “Trust me when I say you already lost the fight.”

“Is that so?”

“I won’t spoil the conclusion if you’re eager to see this through.  One less threat to worry about.  But if I may offer my own opinion, I think the response she gave, given the situation, was eminently reasonable.  I gained respect for her, seeing how it unfolded.”

“Then you’re a fool.”

“Regardless, I won’t condone fighting here.  It sets a bad precedent.”

“Yes,” Butcher said.

Valefor frowned.

“That’s that, then,” Skitter said.

Accord studied her.  He could see her swarm in the shadows behind the floodlights, moving in anticipation of a fight, no doubt.  Their presence nettled him almost as badly as if they’d been physically crawling on him.  They were all of the issues he’d had with the glass, but they were alive.  He knew he could make them stop, make them go away, simply by giving an order to his ambassadors.  Not that it was a possibility.

He glanced at Skitter.  “I think you and I both know you’d win the fight.  But how final would the outcome be?  You’re in the seat of power.  More villains will arrive with every passing day.  Are you prepared to kill?”

“Is this some kind of head game?” Valefor asked.

“It isn’t any manner of head game,” Accord responded.  “I’m curious.  Her response would shed a great deal of light on the discussion tonight.”

“Yes,” Skitter gave her belated response.  “But I’d like to keep to the unwritten rules, as abused as they have been, lately.  Killing should be a last resort.”

“I see.”  She has some other trap on hand?  The bugs at the edge of the room?  “Can I ask if- no, wait.  Don’t tell me.  I’ll enjoy it more if I discover it for myself.”

“Very well.  Now, if everyone would be seated, we can begin,” Skitter said, resting both elbows on the table.  

It wasn’t quite straight, Accord noted.  The table was askew, in relation to the rest of the room.  Solutions flickered through his mind’s eye, ranging from ones as simple as standing to push the table into a proper position to a flat-faced wrecking ball that could slam into the building’s side.

No, he had to focus.  He could distract himself by figuring out Skitter’s contingency plans.

Butcher seemed to come to a decision, but that was normal for her, to take some time, ruminate.  To discuss, for lack of a better word.  She sat at the end of the table opposite Skitter.  She was tall enough to be seen head and shoulders over the massive gun.  Her followers didn’t sit, but stood in a half-circle around her, a mirror to Skitter’s own group.

“Valefor,” Skitter spoke, and her voice was more ominous, hinting at the sheer number of bugs lurking at the edges of the room, “Either take a seat or leave.”

Valefor glanced over the room, then shrugged, as if he didn’t care anymore, sitting.  Eligos followed his cue.

And Accord realized Skitter’s contingency plan in the next instant.  Silk wasn’t just attached to Valefor, to him, even.  She’d connected silk to the furniture.

The table.  She could drag the table with the silk lines, each laid out to fit in the gaps between tiles, nearly invisible.  In doing so, she’d sandwich any one group between the table and a wall, or leave them clinging for a grip, almost falling.

How would she drag it?  Another mutant dog?  Some counterweight?

Regardless of the answer, Accord felt oddly pleased with himself.  The danger posed by this trap didn’t even concern him.

“Let’s talk business,” Skitter said.  “Whether you like it or not, the Undersiders have prior claim on this city.”

“A matter of a week and a half,” Valefor said.

“Prior claim,” Skitter repeated herself.  “We have rules, and if you bend or break these rules, we’ll be forced to act.”

“I’ve already discussed your rules with Tattletale,” Accord said.

“You had your chance to accept the terms we were offering then.  Now the rules we’re stipulating have changed.  No killing.  Cross that line and we kill you.  Several members of our team are capable of doing that without you knowing we’re anywhere nearby.  If you’re lucky, Imp slits your throat with you none the wiser, or Regent has one of your underlings stab you in the back, and you go quick.  If you’re unlucky, Bitch’s dogs tear you to shreds, and it’s a long, drawn out, painful process.  If you’re very unlucky, you get the worst of both worlds, and you deal with me.”

“What if there’s someone that has to die?” Valefor asked.  “Sometimes killing is necessary.”

“You come to me.  I decide,” Skitter said.

“There’s no new detail here,” Accord said.  “Tattletale outlined much the same thing, though with less in the way of threats.”

“I’m not even close to done.  Property.  We will find out about any territory you acquire.  Whatever you pay for the land, you pay us a third.  That includes the cost of buying the land itself, rent and taxes.  If you’re not paying property taxes or rent, we still expect an appropriate amount.”

“Expensive,” Accord said.

“You could have accepted our earlier offer,” Skitter replied.  “If you want out from under that particular constraint, any of you may fold your organizations into ours, coming under our direct authority.”

“This is a passive takeover, then,” Accord said.  “You intend to put the squeeze on us until we cave.”

“I am very, very tired of people telling me what I intend,” Skitter answered him.  “Our territory borders are marked with our individual signatures.  Traffic in anything illegal or harm someone within any of these areas, and we retaliate.  Target any of us, and we retaliate as a whole.”

“It doesn’t sound like it leaves us much elbow room,” Accord replied.  “I have yet to see an area that wasn’t already marked as being in one territory or another.”

“Then you grasp my meaning.” Skitter added, “My next point: during any Endbringer event, or the possible incident at the end of the world, you send half of your powered membership or three members to assist, whichever is more.”

“This is bordering on the ridiculous,” Valefor said.  “You expect us to fight the Endbringers?”

“You?  No.”

“You’re picking a fight,” Valefor said.

“I’m giving each of you the option of obeying, leaving or fighting,” Skitter said.  “The Ambassadors will accept the deal as posed.  They won’t like it, Accord may even hate me, because of my powers and my less predictable nature, but they’ll accept.”

“Is that so?” Accord asked.

“Yes.  You’ll do it because you have resources that you can use to leverage what unfolds when they’ve finished scouting the other side of the portal and open it up for business.  You wouldn’t come all the way here and then leave because you didn’t like the terms.”

“There are the other options.”

“Fighting us?  You have only two underlings that survived the attack in Boston.  As strong as they are, you’re not equipped to fight.  You’ll join us because it’s the fastest route to get what you really want.”

Ah, Accord thought.  Tattletale filled her in.

It made life a little easier, and a little harder, in very different ways.

Skitter leaned back, one hand resting on the table.  “What was it you said to Tattletale?  Everyone and everything has a place?”

“More or less.”

“Your place isn’t on a battlefield, opposite the Undersiders.  It’s in this city, building an infrastructure and gathering resources for your long term plans.  You’ll accept an expensive rent and a limitation on criminal activity for that very reason.”

“You would have me risk good help on fruitless fights against immortal killing machines,” Accord said.

“That too,” Skitter replied.  “I don’t expect the Fallen will accept the terms, with the restriction about fighting Endbringers, but I doubt they’re long for this city anyways.”

Valefor stood from the table.  Eligos joined him.  Together, they strode from the room, silent.

“That was a touch rash,” Accord commented, “insulting them.”

“I wasn’t lying.  Imp and Haven will handle them soon.”

“Valefor is more cunning than you’d assume.  An arrogant young man, impetuous and immature, but history suggests he’s rather cunning when he puts his mind to something.”

“Not a concern,” Skitter said.

“If you say so.”

Skitter turned her attention to the other leader.  “Butcher?”

“No,” the woman replied, standing from the table.

“I didn’t think so.  Do you have any other business you’d like to bring up, while we’re all here?”

“You die,” Butcher said.  “You can’t kill me.  I will win.”

With that, her longest statement yet, she turned and walked away.

“Not good enemies to have,” Accord commented.  It was just his group and the Undersiders now.

“We’ll manage.”

“The first Butcher had super strength, durability, and the ability to inflict enough pain at a distance that his enemies went into cardiac arrest.  His other powers only became evident later.  He was killed by a subordinate, and the man who would later be known as Butcher Two inherited a fraction of his powers and a share of his consciousness.”

“Butcher Three inherited it too, along with a share of Two’s powers and consciousness,” Tattletale said.  “He was a hero, though.”

Accord rankled at the fact that she’d spoken out of turn.  Her voice rang in his ears, as though each syllable were the echoing toll of a bell, growing louder with each iteration.  Out of turn, out of sync, out of place.

He bit his tongue.  “Yes.  And the two voices in the hero’s head worked together to drive him mad.  He was gone from this world well before he died in battle.  The Teeth reclaimed the power, and the legacy has largely remained within the group since, each successor inherting powers of the ones before.  The voices and consciousnesses only work with rightful heirs, members of their group who challenge the leader and beat him in a fair match.”

“Which one is this?” Regent asked.

“Fourteen,” Tattletale said.

“This one’s number fourteen?” Regent asked.  “Which means she’s got thirteen sets of powers?”

Another one, speaking out of turn, Accord thought.

Citrine was giving him a sidelong glance.  He met her eyes, shook his head fractionally.

Tattletale answered, “Only a small share of each power.  Don’t forget she’s got thirteen voices in her head, giving her advice and helping her work stuff out, and all the powers she brought to the table, besides.  Her attacks don’t miss.  She imbues them with an effect which means they bend space so they strike her target,  Bullets turn in midair, swords curve, all means she’s pretty much guaranteed to hit you if her attack reaches far enough.”

She hopped down from the scorpion’s head and walked around the table until she was opposite Accord.

One by one, the Undersiders who’d been standing behind Skitter found seats.  The other groups had left, and they were making themselves more at home, now.  Regent put his boots on the table, right in front of Imp, who pushed them away.

Overly familiar.  Presumptuous.

Accord closed his eyes for a moment.  The table was unbalanced now, in a metaphorical sense, but it felt very real.  “I don’t recall anyone giving you leave to sit.”

Tattletale raised her eyebrows.  “I don’t recall anyone giving you permission to complain.  Our territory, our house, our rules.”

I could kill you.  Car bombs, other traps.  I could manipulate the heroes into going after you.  When I direct my ambassadors, they win their fights.  You’d break in the face of what I could do, the pressure I could inflict, everything and everyone in the world suddenly a threat, with me pulling the strings. 

He drew in a deep breath.  Too much at stake, to say such things.  In his most patient tone, as though he were speaking to a well meaning but misguided eight year old, he explained, “I’m talking about the way things are meant to be, Tattletale, understand?”

Tattletale bristled as though he’d slapped her.

“Enough,” Skitter said.  Her voice was quiet.

The silence that followed was both surprising and relieving.  She had control over her subordinates.  Good.  It took a measure of talent to exert control over such disturbed individuals.

He studied the girl.  She was composed, despite the fact that less than twelve hours had passed since her identity had been revealed to the world.  And her bugs… it had grated how disordered they had been, but now that he was looking at the ones she wore like a second layer of clothing, he could see how they were ordered, all in formation.

Skitter was calm, collected, reasonable but willing to act with a heavy hand when needed.  Clever.  She thought at the scale necessary for a true leader.

“Do you accept the deal?” Skitter asked.  “Best if I ask now, because your answer dictates the tone of the conversation that follows.”

“I accept,” he replied.  She was right: he really had no choice in the matter.  He’d dealt with worse deals and worse circumstances before.  “I suspect there will be friction, and we will have our disagreements, but we’ll be able to find a common ground.  You and I are very similar people.”

She didn’t reply.  The silence yawned, and his fingertips twitched involuntarily, dangerously close to the trigger that would turn his cane into a weapon.

“In saying that,” he said, doing his best to remain level, “I was inviting a response.”

“And I was taking a second to think before giving it,” she responded.

Starting a sentence with a conjunction.  He grit his teeth and smiled, his mask moving to emulate the expression.  “Beg pardon.”

“Let’s talk about details,” Skitter said.

The city is too dirty.  Too disordered.  The thoughts were intruding again, oppressive, insistent.  They were at the point where they were repeating, cycling back on one another.  He’d have to do something to break the cycle.  It could be time spent at a workbench, sorting out the projects in his binders or eliminating some of the more chaotic elements.

Murder was out, but there were other options.  He’d sent capes to the Yàngbǎn before.  It was more constructive than killing.  Cleaner.  It also built relationships with the C.U.I..

“Talk,” he said, after too many long minutes of silence.

“We can take them, sir,” Othello said.  “Any one group, we could handle, but not two groups at once.”

“I agree,” Accord said.  “Do you think you could handle them if things went sour?”

“With little trouble, sir.  The only ones I’d wonder about are Tattletale, Imp, Valefor and Fourteen,” Othello replied.

“Imp and Valefor… your stranger powers against theirs makes for a troublesome fight.  Imp is the one I would worry about first.  Unpredictable, impossible to track.”

“I’m suspicious my power cancels hers out, sir.  My other self saw her get close to Butcher.  I think she had a weapon.”

“Interesting.  Citrine?”

“I don’t know, sir.  Forgive my saying so, but a lot of people have thought they could handle the Undersiders, and they were wrong.  I don’t know how my power would interact with theirs.”

“Very true.  Sensible.  I’ll need to recruit, regardless of whether we encounter them.  Focus on the Teeth and the Fallen for the time being.”

“Yes sir,” the pair echoed him.

Skitter and Tattletale, he thought.  They were the real issues for him.  Tattletale’s power might have seemed similar to his own, but it was almost the inverse.  He’d heard himself described as falling somewhere in between a thinker and a tinker, and perhaps that was apt.  It was how he applied his power, starting with the end result and building backwards, and the designs that he fashioned that were so tinker-like.  But his real ability was as a thinker, involving planning, awareness and ideas beyond the reach of the unpowered.

He hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but he had to plan for every contingency.

They’d reached their accomodations, a newly built office building.  He owned the two uppermost floors, and was buying the floors beneath as the owners agreed to the sales.  Soon he would have it set up his way, with escape routes and traps to target his enemies.

“Othello,” he said.

“Yes sir?”

“Send the five first tier employees with the best grades to my room.  I expect them in fifteen minutes.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Once you’re done, retire for the evening.  Rest well,” he said.  “There are big things on the horizon.”

“Yes sir,” the two ambassadors echoed him.

Only two.  It wasn’t enough.

He settled in his room.  Too much of the furniture was pre-made.  He preferred things he had made himself.  Cleaner, simpler.  He knew where it had all come from, knew how it was put together.  Accomodations he had crafted himself were as soothing as the outside world wasn’t.

The five employees arrived right on time.  Satisfactory.  He opened the door to his room and invited them in.  Three men, two women, immaculate, all in proper business attire.

His vetting process was strict, and each step up the ladder required both his invitation and the employee’s acceptance.  Each step required them to prove their worth, to face progressively more stress and heavier workloads, and to hold themselves up to his increasingly exacting standards of perfection.

It might have made for reality television, if it weren’t for the blood that was shed along the way.  Theirs and others.

“You are being promoted,” he said.  “After tomorrow, you will be my ambassadors, my representatives to the rest of the world.”

The displays of emotion were well hidden, but they were there.  They were pleased.

“That is all.”

Wordless, the five marched out of his room.

Withdrawing his cell phone, Accord dialed a long distance number.

He smiled a little at that.  He wasn’t much for humor, but it had its places.

The ringing stopped, but there was no voice on the other end.

“Accord.  Brockton Bay.”

The doorway opened at one end of his room.  His hair stirred as air pressure equalized between the two planes.

The Number Man stood on the other side, in the white hallway with white walls.

“Five vials.  Of the same caliber as the last set, same price.”

“Done,” The Number Man said.  “Where do we stand?”

“It’s promising, but I wouldn’t make any guarantees.”

“Of course.  Everything’s progressing according to plan, then?”

Accord nodded, once.  “As well as we might hope.  We lost Coil, but the Undersiders may serve as a model in his absence.”

“Good to know.  I’ll inform the Doctor.”

The gateway closed.  Accord sat down on the end of the bed, then lay back, staring at the ceiling.

Coil had been the focus of the test, unaware.  The man had also been Accord’s friend, the one who’d sold him the PRT databases.  His death had been a tragic thing, on many levels.  There were few men Accord considered worthy of being his friend.

Now it hinged on the Undersiders.  They’d taken up Coil’s legacy, after a fashion, and just like Coil, their ambitions fell in line with Cauldron’s.  The organization’s hopes rode on them and their decisions.  Accord’s hopes rode on them: his twenty-three year plan, saving the world from the worst kind of disorder.  In the end, they were responsible for billions.

Not that he could tell them or change his actions in respect to them.  It would defeat the point.

Everything and everyone had their respective places in the grand scheme of things.  For one sixteen year old, the decisions she made in the immediate future would have more impact than she imagined.

It all came down to whether she could embrace this new role, and whether the city could embrace her in turn.

Accord drifted off to sleep, his weary mind grateful from the respite from the endless assault.

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Interlude 19 (Donation Bonus #1)

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Rey hesitated at the door.  He cast a wary glance over his shoulder, but life elsewhere in the city continued as normal.

If he touched the doorknob, any number of things could happen.  A pit underfoot, a guillotine blade from overhead.

It took a measure of courage to raise the door knocker and slam it against the front door of the old Victorian-styled house.

The door opened right away.

“Blasto,” Accord greeted him.  “We finally meet.”

“Uh huh,” Rey replied.  He glanced around.  The inside of the house was nice.  Must be nice to not have to reinvest ninety percent of your earnings on tech.

“No mask?”  Accord asked.

“Yes,”  Rey replied.  He folded one corner of his face back.  “It’s a fungus.  Same texture as human flesh.”

Accord’s own intricate mechanical face shifted in response to his underlying expression.  “Lovely.”

“I’m still not sure about this, given our history,” Rey said.  He accepted the invitation into the front hallway of the house, carefully removed his shoes and set them on the tray to the right of the door.

“I’ve given you my word that you’ll be safe, provided you cooperate.”

“Damn Nazis,” Rey said.  “My whole lab, gone.”

Accord didn’t offer any sympathy.  “Come.”

Rey followed.  Peering into the rooms he passed, he saw libraries and sitting rooms, old furniture.  Everything was finely made, nothing cheap or throwaway.  Knowing Accord, it was all too possible that the man had hand-crafted everything in this house.

And in each room were people in costume.  Other teams had themes, natural or otherwise.  Their costumes matched, or they unconsciously mirrored one another in style of dress or quality.  Accord’s people were much the same, but it was very deliberate.  Each wore fine clothing, elegant dresses and suits, and each had their hair neatly combed into place, oiled to the point that it looked wet.  The ‘costumes’ were in the color of their chosen formal wear and badges or brooches they wore, as well as the finely crafted masks that hid any trace of their real expressions.

“You’re not expecting me to dress like them, are you?”

“No,” Accord said.  “Truth be told, I fear you could never meet my standards, and I’m going to do my level best to ignore the fact that you exist.  You’ll want to keep to the areas I designate and use the back ways out of the building, so that I never see you.”

“You’re not going to imprison me, are you?”

“No.  This is a business transaction.  I will give you the opportunity to get back on your feet, you will do what you can to eliminate our mutual enemies, being careful to avoid any damage or criminal activity within my territory, and in exchange, you will give me half your territory when all of this is over.  Following such an event, I hope we can avoid any further aggression between us for the future.”

“Sure,” Rey said.

“The individuals in question are Menja, Stormtiger, Cricket, Rune, Othala, Niflheim and Muspelheim.  I’ll see you have all available records.  Best to enter any confrontation with your eyes wide open.”

“Okay.”

“My people will not be available to you, understand.  Our bargain presumes you are working alone.”

“I get it.”

“You’re quiet.  You don’t have questions?  Requests?”

“Wouldn’t mind some grass.”

“Turf?”

Rey smirked, “In the slang sense.  I meant-”

“Say no more.  I understand what you meant.  Provided you stay out of my way, you can do whatever you wish in the assigned area.  That said, I and my people will not provide intoxicants, and if you are inebriated in any way in my company-”

“It’s fine,” Rey cut in.  “I get it.”

“Here.  Into the basement,” Accord said.

Accord led the way, and Rey hesitantly followed.

The basement was expansive.  There were no walls – only pillars.  The floor was concrete covered in a no-slip perforated rubber mat, the various desks were stainless steel, each on wheels that could be locked in place.  Each desk, in turn, had glass cabinets or drawers.  As far as Rey could see, they were fully stocked.

But it was more than that.  Rey was used to the usual labs, which held years of old material.  Tools that had long since fallen into disrepair.  Trays of solutions that nobody had touched in years, too old to use but too expensive to throw away in good conscience.  There were slides that were stained, tools that didn’t always work.  Even when he’d started his lab, it had been with tools stolen from his old University, things bought on the cheap.

This?  This was a dream.  He stepped over to a glass case, large enough to fit a person inside.  There was a case attached to one side with room for a solution to be poured in, and what he took to be an attached tank of distilled water, with a control panel to select the rate and degree of mixture.  Another tube would vent the contents into a biohazard case.

A glance told him that everything would be here.  There were neatly ordered bins of chemicals, tools laid out in neat rows.  Everything was pristine.  The cages on the other end of the room with the captive animals, even, were clean, with none of the animal scent or vague smell of waste that accompanied such.  There were troughs filled with rich smelling earth, thoroughly mixed and free of clumps.

Rey Andino could create life from raw materials, fashion a homunculus from the most basic ingredients and elements.  He could make monsters, loyal beings that would do as he wished, with only time and things he’d picked up from a drug store.  Faced with this laboratory, he felt small, insignificant.  He knew he would soil it, that things would break as he used them.  It was wrong.

“Satisfactory?” Accord asked.

“It’ll have to do,” Rey replied, trying to sound casual.

“It will.  Now, I’d like you to know that I recently acquired some samples and records.  I’d intended to hold on to them as a bargaining chip at a critical moment, or something I might offer you as incentive to leave this city.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’ll find them in the far corner of the room.  The computer contains the database and the attached machine arm will withdraw any samples on request.”

“Sure,” Rey said.

“My ambassadors will be taking turns observing you.  Short of a critical emergency, they won’t be reporting anything to me.  Citrine will be first.”

Rey nodded.  He was already heading to the computers, to find what Accord would feel was so powerful or valuable that Rey would leave the city to get his hands on it.

The computer was fast.  Rey started to empty his pockets and smooth out the papers with the few blueprints he’d been able to salvage when the white supremacists had come storming through his old lab, and the computer was already idling at the desktop screen by the time he’d finished.

A black window with text in bold white letters showed a menu.  Two options:

A:  View Database
B:  View Samples

He took the first option, typing the letter in the keyboard and striking the enter key.

It was names.  Cape names.  They kept appearing, so fast he could barely read them, and the window kept scrolling until he hit the enter key again to interrupt it.

He scrolled up until he found one name.  He clicked it.

Blasto, Real Name Unknown
Classification:  Tinker 6 (sub: master 5, blaster 2, shifter 2, brute 2); plants.
Disposition: Villain (B)
Last Known Location:  Boston (Allston area, east).

Crime lord of East Allston since est. date of April 2009.  No subordinates.  No past history as a subordinate.  Criminal history indicates cap of second degree murder, tendency to mass damage to property and persons.  Produces uncontrolled lifeforms that are incapable of replication.  Adversarial relationship with Accord (#13151), Spree (#14755) and Chain Man (#14114).

Note:  High risk of Class-S classification.  Should creations self-propagate, kill orders are pre-authorized.

A: More information/History
B: More information/Powers
C: More information/Contact & Network
D: Back

There were signs of degraded data, but it was there.  Accord had somehow acquired the PRT’s system data and records on all parahumans they’d encountered.

No big surprises on the possible kill order.  He’d been made aware of it some time ago, and had grumbled, groaned and grudgingly avoided making any lifeforms that could breed in the years since.

“How the hell did you get this?” he asked.  He turned around.

It wasn’t Accord behind him.  It was a young woman in a formal, silk dress, yellow trimmed with gold, and a mask in matching colors.  A gemstone stood out on her forehead, with matching earrings dangling from her ears like chandeliers.  Her hands were clasped in front of her.

“I didn’t,” she said.

“You’re one of his… what did he call you?”

“His ambassadors.”

“That’s right.  Do you have a name?”

“Citrine.”

“Ok.  How did he get this?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Because you don’t know or because you won’t say?”

“Yes.”

He sighed, turning back to the system.  He selected the last option in the menu at the bottom of the page, then reloaded the master list, stopping when it had progressed far enough.

Eidolon.  There was a full set of details.

More information?  Nothing.  Data not found.

Powers?  Nothing.  Data not found.

Legend was the same.

Maybe someone less prominent.  He selected Chevalier and got the standard information.  More details.

Powers?  He selected the option, and received pages upon pages of testing data.  Rey’s eyes pored over the results, soaking them in.  It was like reading Shakespeare.  One could listen to a line, and be momentarily baffled, but skimming it or assuming a general foundation of knowledge, it was possible to pick up the gist of the message;  The underlying meanings, if not the exact definitions of the individual elements.

The work of a tinker wasn’t typical science.  Refining it was science, but the blunt, raw use of the power?  It was almost the opposite.

Good science meant starting with the conditions, forming a hypothesis, making a prediction, and then testing it.  Repeat, repeat, repeat, until there was a solid base of knowledge.  That knowledge let one establish further conditions, refine hypotheses.

But tinkers started with the end result.  A moment of inspiration, glimpses of the major steps one would need to take to get there.  It involved working backwards, up until that moment the means came into view.  Rey could see it at work, could see Chevalier’s power as raw data, something he could replicate by traveling an entirely different path.  He would need a sturdier frame.  Something big.  This wouldn’t be a hybrid of a stray dog and a plant.  This would need to be something closer to a bear.

Or, he realized, a human.

He backed out of Chevalier’s data until he was at the original screen.  He checked the samples Accord had provided him with.

Select sub-database:
A)  PRT (Protectorate, Wards) samples
B) Non-PRT (evidence database) samples
C) Misc samples

Further investigation revealed the full truth.  Accord had gotten his hands on a database of DNA from countless members of the Protectorate and the Wards, as well as scraps of material from certain powers, where traces remained behind.

He selected C, expecting little.  His eyes widened.

Many were samples from lifeforms that various tinkers and masters had created.  His own were in there.  That wasn’t the surprising fact.

He selected the last option on the list.  To the right of the computer, in a hermetically sealed case, a robotic arm extended and deposited a microscopic sample on a slide.

A fragment, so small as to be nearly impossible to see, of one of the Simurgh’s feathers.

“You keep making these little oohs and ahhs,” Citrine commented.  “It sounds like you’re pleasuring yourself.”

“I am, believe me,” Rey replied, not looking her way.  “Where did he get this stuff?  Does he even comprehend what he gave me?”

“I’m sure he does.”

He’d considered replicating Chevalier’s power, with a solid enough frame.  Maybe a bear, maybe a human.  Small potatoes.

He went through the contents he’d unloaded from his pockets until he found a piece of paper he’d folded into an envelope.  He tore it open and tapped out the contents.

Each seed was about the size of a pea, tapered at each end, a mottled white-brown.  He hurried over to one of the large glass tubes and fiddled with the controls until it started flooding with water.

“Are you one of the talkative ones?” Citrine asked.

“What?”

“I mean, maybe it’s a dumb question, because you’ve stuck pretty much to monosyllabic grunts since this whole thing started, but I’m wondering if you’re one of the capes that likes to rant or one of the quiet ones.”

“Quiet.  Why?”

“Honestly?  I’m bored.  Not like I can go on Facebook with my smartphone or anything.  That sort of thing gets you killed, when you work for Accord.”

“You want me to entertain you?”

“I doubt you’re capable.  But you could distract me, help while away the minutes.”

He eyed the woman.  Rey wasn’t one of the quiet ones by choice.  He’d just fallen into the habit of being alone because it was easier to stay in the lab than it was to be out in the larger world.  People in the larger world sucked.  Up until the Nazis from Brockton Bay had  turned up and claimed the building at the other end of the street from his lab, it had been a place he could retreat.  A place where his work and his art could occupy his thoughts and distract him from reality.

Art.  It was a good starting point for an explanation, and she was probably the most attractive person he’d spent more than one minute around in the last few months…

He forced a smile.  He was a little rusty on that front.  “What we do, what tinkers do, it’s more art than science.  Every step we take is made with an end goal in mind.  Just now, looking over these samples, I think I decided on an end goal.”

“What’s that?”

“My usual methods, well, you know them.  You’ve fought my creations before.”

“Yes.”

“These seeds,” he raised one hand, a seed pinched between index finger and thumb, “Are like stem cells.  They harbor the potential to become virtually anything.  Wherever information is missing, they fill in the gaps.”

“Like using frog DNA for dinosaurs.”

“Like using frog DNA for dinosaurs, right.  The way I worked it, they’ll decode the information in a very brute force way.  The seed starts by forming two bodies, attached by a central hub.  I kill the least viable one, it buds and splits again, with copies that are derivatives of the survivor.  Usually two to four.  Kill all but one, repeat.”

“Until you have something viable.”

“Exactly!  Takes anywhere from a few hours to a few days.  Then I have what’s essentially a plant-animal hybrid, and I nudge it in the direction of my enemies.  Or give it simple programming that I can use.  Training half-plant rodents to fetch shiny objects, for example.”

“How?”

“Trade secret,” Rey said.  “I’m not dumb.  I won’t give away the essentials.”

“Okay.  So what’s today’s project?”

“Oh, I’ll have a dozen projects in the work before I let myself go to sleep.  But the big one is that I want to replicate an Endbringer.”

He glanced at Citrine, saw that she’d gone still.

“I may need to go talk to Accord,” she said.

“No need,” Rey said.  “I suspect he already knows.  He gave me these samples, no doubt with the idea that I’d use it.”

“And you can’t even control it?  Or he can’t control it?  It doesn’t sound like him,” Citrine said.

Rey paused.  It didn’t sound like Accord.  Was there another explanation?

Accord might be planning on killing him after the project was done.  Rey kept his creations in line with pheromones, spraying them liberally around his lab and the surrounding neighborhood.  They would move to the nearest unaffected location as soon as they were free.  Once he did that to Accord’s home, the place would be rendered immune to his own attacks, at least for a little while.

But it still seemed too reckless for the perfectionist.  Was Accord that eager to kill the white supremacists?  Or was there another plan in the works?

“You’ve gone quiet,” Citrine said.

“Thinking,” he said.  “No, I need things quiet for a minute.  There’s a TV in the corner.  Watch that.”

“I can’t.  Accord would be upset,” the woman in yellow replied.

Rey sighed.  He crossed the room to the television, turned it on, set it to mute and turned on the closed captions.  “He won’t be upset if I turn it on, will he?”

“No.”

“There.”

He returned to the computer and started working with the Simurgh’s tissue.  It was hard to cut, and harder still to slice to the point that he could look at it under a microscope.

“Crystalline,” he murmured, as he focused on it.  The feathers were like snowflakes when viewed at 40x magnification.  He scaled all the way up to 800x magnification before realizing that there were no individual cells.

Was it just the feather?  Was it dead tissue, on par with the keratin of fingernails or hair?  He used the computer to access a sample of Leviathan’s ‘blood’, and let the hands handle the arrangement of preparing the slide.  Being liquid, the blood was easier than the feather.

He wasn’t sure he wanted to use Leviathan’s tissue.  Growing a miniature Leviathan in a vat would be a bad idea if that vat was filled with fluid.

Using Behemoth’s tissues would be just as problematic.  The Herokiller could ignore the Manton effect at a range of up to thirty-two feet.  Even semi-conscious inside a glass case, it was too risky.

Had to be smart about this.

Leviathan’s blood was the same as the feather.  Crystals, dense and so opaque that light wouldn’t pass through them.

There were more tissues.  Flesh.  More blood.  Hair.  Damaged tissues and intact ones.  He went through each.

All of it, the same.  Crystals.  No individual cells.  Even the crystals barely differentiated from one another.  Truth was, there was more difference in crystals collected from deeper inside the Endbringer than there was in crystals that had come from different parts of the Endbringer’s body; hair as opposed to blood.

He scraped off a bit of his seed, then added water and the catalysts to splice it with some of the Simurgh’s feather.  Sure enough, it started to grow.  Each end of the scraping formed into buds, and the buds started to form into basic, foetal shapes, one quadruped, one vaguely humanoid.

But neither lived.

The weaker tissue was easier to work with.  Assuming it was deriving patterns from the crystals, insofar as the crystals could create or support life, he could use that to work out the peculiarities of how the Endbringers were able to sustain themselves.

No vascular system, no sign of emergent organs.

Of course the emerging lifeform wasn’t viable.  It wasn’t capable of life in the first place.

He’d have to take another route.  He withdrew a sample of Myrddin’s tissue, then started splicing it with one seed and the ruined fragments of the Simurgh’s feather.

It was lunacy, tampering with Endbringer-related materials, but he couldn’t shake the idea that he was on to something.  He’d sustain the Endbringer tissues with other living tissue that could feed it energy or nutrients.  His seeds would bridge the gap.  It would take ten or fifteen minutes before he saw any real results.  There was other work to do in the meantime.

A sedated monkey plus a sample of his own tissue and one seed, and he had a homunculus in the works.  It would be roughly as intelligent as a very stupid person in most respects, but it would share his own understanding of chemistry, biology, science and botany.  It would serve as a lab assistant, and he would need one for a lab this big.

The rest of the seeds went into another vat to replicate.  He’d need more.

He walked over to the glass tube where the Simurgh-Myrddin-plant hybrid was in the works.  One had wings rather than legs.  He directed a laser to kill it.  The other had four arms, but two resembled wings.  It would work.  He conducted a charge through the fluid to reset the life cycle.  It would split in two or three, and he’d kill the remainder.

Accord must have based this equipment off of the stuff he’d had in his last lab, the one Accord had forcibly ejected him from.  The lasers being built into the glass tube were a nice touch, kept everything hermetically sealed.

In a fit of whimsy, he directed the lasers to a pure light form, then had them fire into the glass case itself.  Letters lit up, labeling the projects.  Regrowth for the plant that was growing and budding with more seeds.  Homunculus for the monkey that was gestating in the second tube.

And for his real project?  It would have to be something fitting.

Morrígan.

Beautiful.  He studied the three foetal forms that were developing inside, killed two, narrowing down the results he wanted.  Like pruning branches.

The TV started making noise.  Rey wheeled around to see Citrine and one of her fellow ‘ambassadors’ standing in front of the TV.  The man in the suit with a green dress shirt and a copper lizard mask was the one turning up the volume.

“I’m trying to work here,” Rey said.

“Something’s going on.  Look,” the man spoke.

Rey impatiently left his work behind.  If he waited too long, a bad growth could be carried on to the young.  Wouldn’t do.

The TV showed a reporter talking.  Why was he supposed to care?

Then it changed to a camera view of an ongoing conflict.  Three gigantic armored suits were in open conflict with a small group of people.

The Slaughterhouse Nine.  Here, in Boston.

One of the suits was deploying swarms of drones, but they were getting cut out of the air as fast as they appeared.  Another member of the Nine had a loose-fitting coat of human flesh draped over him.  He stretched it out to grab surrounding buildings and anchor himself in place as a mechanical lizard with a giant wheel on its back tried to haul him in with what looked to be an immense suction.

The Siberian had made contact with and was tearing apart a third suit.

A suit high in the air fired off a laser beam, and the Siberian jumped to put herself in the line of fire.

Whatever happened next, the camera didn’t catch it.  The concussive force of the laser hitting was enough to knock the cameraman over, and the image shorted out.

Rey sniffed.  He’d like to see more of Dragon’s work, not because it had anything in common with his own, but because it was good work.  But for now, his focus was on his projects.

With a quick glance, he assessed and executed two homunculus-offshoots and one derivative of the Morrígan.  Electrical charges restarted the gestation process.

The thing was starting to resemble the Simurgh, though both feathers and hair were brown-black in color, it was hermaphroditic and the flesh was more translucent than white.  Veins stood out.

Rey studied it while the thing cracked in the middle, the individual halves separating with a thread of flesh between them.  Each of the halves began dissolving and forming anew.

If it was even half as powerful as the real Simurgh… well, this would be a game-changer.

And Accord had to know that.  Had to be aware that Rey would be working with the Endbringer tissues on this level.

It wasn’t as though the method of control was that difficult to master.  One set of pheromones would make the creation feel fond of something, the other would have an negative effect, drive them away from a person or area.  Still another would provoke feelings of anger or hatred, useful if he wanted to bid them to attack.

If Accord found the pheromones, he could be rid of Rey, and he’d have whatever creations Rey had put together in the meantime.

It would be at least a day before the Morrígan was fully grown.  He had that long to think of an answer.

The door slammed shut.  Citrine had gone upstairs.  The lizard-masked man watched the television.

Time passed, and he watched the results with interest. The Morrígan was now forming with two arms, two legs, and vestigal wings.  He let it develop to the point that it was roughly two months old, then killed the offshoots.  He started running x-ray scans and doing biopsies, picking through the results to fine tune the internal changes and monitor how much of the lifeform was Simurgh, versus being Myrddin or plant-based.  He was judicious and merciless in executing the offshoots, keeping them from growing to a point where there was even a chance of them being sentient.

The lifeform did, he noted with some pleasure, have a Corona Pollentia; a lobe in the brain that would allow for powers if it developed fully.

While the man watched the unfolding news, Rey took the opportunity to brew and spray himself with a set of pheromones.  His creations would be more favorably inclined towards him now.

The door at the top of the stairs closed.  He turned to see that the lizard-man was being relieved.  Had that much time passed already?

“You being good?” the woman asked.  She wore a black evening gown with a slit all the way up to her hip.  It would have been alluring, but her mask was black, with black lenses and spikes radiating from the edges.  Her brooch was of a black star.

“Making headway,” Rey responded.

“One of your fucked up creations broke my leg last year.  Please give me an excuse to hurt you.  Please.”

“I’ll pass,” Rey said, turning his attention to the homunculus.  He calibrated the signal, pressing two electrodes to his own forehead, then sent the readings out to his creation.

When it was done, he drained the fluid and vented the chamber.  The glass sank into the floor, and the homunculus crawled out, using its knuckles to walk.  Its skin was peeling, more like loose bark crossed with scar tissue than flesh.  

“You retain any English?”  He asked.

The homunculus nodded.

“Spanish?”

Another nod.

“Go dispose of the slides.  Consider everything a top priority biohazard.”

The homunculus found a pair of rubber gloves and began cleaning up the mess from the early experiments.

Rey studied the Morrígan.  Alarms were set to go off if it approached one month of age.  With Myrddin’s brain tissues and the current state of growth in Simurgh-derived parts, there was little to no chance that it would achieve any degree of self awareness.

A glance out the window that overlooked the street showed that it was getting dark.  He’d been here all day.

The door slammed at the top of the stairs.  He sighed in irritation.  Time was passing too quickly.  Would this one threaten his life too?

There was a crash, and he nearly jumped out of his skin.  He wheeled around.

The woman with the black dress had slammed into the television set.  She had holes in her as though she were a piece of Swiss cheese, and more of her had been torn to shreds.

A body fell down the stairs.  The man with the lizard mask.  Dead, though not so mutilated.

The woman who came down the stairs had an unusual body type accented by her style of dress.  She was almost like a boy, she was so thin, and her strapless dress hugged her upper body, but the lower half billowed around her.  Her hair was long and white, her eyes wide with irises and pupils small.  Her lips had been painted black.

Her arms though… machinery had been crammed into the arms, and they’d been extended to nearly twice the length, the fingers drawn out long.  Sparks flew as the woman moved one arm, and she winced.

The second individual skipped down the stairs, stopping at the bottom to admire the laboratory.

Her eyes fell on Rey.

“I know you!” she said.

“I know you too, Bonesaw,” he said.  Without breaking eye contact, he tapped a key on the computer, prompting a flood of nutrients into the Morrígan’s solution.

“Nice lab.”

“It’s not mine.”

“Man, it’s… this is nice stuff.  Being constantly on the move, you miss out on stuff like this.”

“My old lab wasn’t this good,” he said.  Make small talk.  “Who’s that?”

“Damsel of Distress, with some modifications by yours truly.  Damsel for short.  Better at controlling her power now.”

“Hi Damsel.”

Damsel looked at him, spoke in a whisper he couldn’t make out.

“And who’s this?” Bonesaw asked.  She approached the glass case with the Morrígan inside.

“Morrígan.”

“Looks like the Simurgh.”

“She is.  In part.  The other half of the genetic base is from Myrddin’s tissue.  Everything that bridges the gap is a really complex fungus.”

“Cripes.  How do you even manage something like that?”

“Trade secret,” he said.  He watched as Damsel approached the widescreen TV, picked it up where it had fallen to the ground, and held it in front of her, staring at the image, no doubt some mention of what the other members of the Slaughterhouse Nine were up to in Boston.

“I’ll get the answer out of you, you know.”

“I know,” Rey admitted.  “But I wouldn’t be a self-respecting tinker if I didn’t at least pretend to protect my work.”

“True.”

Bonesaw turned her attention to the homunculus.  She poked it in the stomach and it growled at her in response.

If he let the Morrígan out now… Bonesaw was staring at the homunculus, and Damsel was focused on the TV…

But it would die if he let it go now.  It was too young.  Every two or three seconds it sat in the high-nutrient solution would be a week of growth.  He’d need it at least at four or five years of age before it was capable of moving and acting, and he’d still be depending on it having powers rather than a defunct corona pollentia.

He’d never experienced a stronger emotion than he did when he saw another set of feet appear at the top of the stairs.  They made their way down, and each step brought more of the figure into view.  If it was another member of the Slaughterhouse Nine, he’d die.  If it was one of Accord’s ambassadors…

He’d probably still die.  But there’d be a chance.

It was neither.

The man reached the bottom of the stairs, turned his head to survey the scene.  He wore a visor that combined the movable visor of a knight’s helm with a high-tech equivalent, and the points where they met his helmet were shaped like a lizard’s frill or a dragon’s wing.  He held out a rod in one hand, and it unfolded into a spear of ridiculous length.

The lizard theme… if the machines Rey had seen fighting the Slaughterhouse Nine were Dragon’s, was this one of her assistants?  Someone working under her?

Or her?

Damsel wheeled around, extended one hand, but the man in armor was quick to step around a pillar for cover.  Damsel’s power ripped into the pillar, warping and tearing space in a chaotic storm.

The man in armor ducked and rolled to reach the next piece of cover, one of the stainless steel desks.  He arrested his momentum with one outstretched arm, then kicked the desk with both feet.  It slammed into Damsel.

He hopped onto his feet in a single movement, slashing with the spear’s point.  The tip struck Damsel across the eyes, blinding her.  He reversed the spear and swung it, and the spear-butt caught her in the side of the head.  She was knocked down onto all fours before she could direct her power at him again.

The man dug the spear’s point into the ground to help propel himself towards her.  His leg flared with a gray blur as he reached her, and be brought it down onto her back from above.

It sheared through her as though she weren’t even there, cutting her in half.  He kicked out to obliterate her head and one of her shoulders in a single movement, disabled the gray blur, and set his foot down with a thud that rang through the underground laboratory.

Bonesaw didn’t seem disturbed by the loss of her teammate.  “Don’t think I don’t recognize you.  You were Mannequin’s pick.  Armsman?  Armsmaster?”

The man in armor pointed his spear at her.  “Defiant now.”

“You know I loaded myself with a mess of epidemics, Defiant,” Bonesaw said.  “You kill me like that and I’ll explode into a cloud of a bajillion plagues.  It can’t be easy.”

“It is,” Defiant’s voice was distorted by his helmet, vaguely computerized.  There was a processor at work somewhere there, Rey observed.

“What, you’ll unleash a thousand plagues on this world to finish me off?  Me?  A little girl?”  Bonesaw smiled wide.

“Yes.”

“You’ll get sick.”

“Biohazard safe,” Defiant said.  His spear shaft tapped against his armor.

He’ll die in a hundred horrible ways,” Bonesaw said, pointing at Rey.

“Villain.  Acceptable loss.”

“And the people in this neighborhood?”

“I scanned the area.  There is zero air flow in or out of this lab.  It’s quarantine-safe.”

“So you’ve got all this figured out, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

Bonesaw glanced over her shoulder at Rey, “You-”

Defiant moved so fast that Rey couldn’t follow the movement.  The spear impaled the girl in the chest.  The heart.

“Ugh, fuck me,” Bonesaw grunted.

Defiant swung the spear to one side and slammed her into the wall, knocking chemicals and vials off of every shelf unit she hit on the way.

“Why-” Bonesaw started.

Defiant raised the spear and her sentence was interrupted as her head cracked against the ceiling.  He drove the spear toward the ground with just as much force.

“Why…” Bonesaw spat blood onto the ground.  Being impaled in the heart hadn’t put her down.  “Ow.  Bit my tongue.  Why don’t you come closer, big man?  Too scared to come here and finish me off?”

Defiant didn’t respond.  Instead, he struck her against the wall again, then shoved the spear point into a set of stainless steel shelves.  Pieces of the empty glass beakers rained onto the ground beneath her dangling feet.

“Coward!” she taunted him.

Rey glanced nervously toward the door.  Would it be better to run or to stay?

The girl reached forward, clutching the shaft of the spear.  She began pulling herself forward, hauling the spear’s shaft through the hole in her chest as she closed the distance inches at a time.

She smiled as she did it.

Blades sprung from the length of the shaft, and began spinning like propellers   One caught her from behind, and she slid forward, only to find herself sandwiched between two such sets.

“That’s Mannequin’s trick!  That’s so cute, that you’re copying-”

Defiant moved the spear, and Bonesaw was thrown back, her hair and back caught against the blades.  She used her hands to pull herself forward so she was clear, maintaining a grip even as he swept the spear to one side again, keeping herself fixed at the same point on the pole’s length.

“Hey, plant geek!” Bonesaw had to raise her voice to be heard, “He kills me, you die!  Think about that!”

Rey glanced at Defiant.  There wasn’t an opening or anything that suggested at the man inside.  Only armor, implacable, unrelenting, driven.

Then he looked at the girl, half-hidden behind the blur of the spinning blades.

“Okay,” Rey said.

He wanted to live.  Wanted nothing more than to go on to do his research, maybe one day find greatness, find a woman who could appreciate him.  Have kids.

But he wanted her to live even less than he wanted any of that.  Because he could well and truly believe that she would do more harm in her life than any good he could do in his.

“Okay,” he repeated.  I can live with that.

There was a crunching sound, and Defiant snapped his head over to look at Bonesaw.

She spat, and smoke billowed where the spit came in contact with the blades.

One flew off and sailed across the room to strike a cage with animals inside.  The mechanism that was keeping the blades in motion ceased.

With nothing impeding her line of sight to Defiant, Bonesaw crunched again.  Smoke billowed from her mouth as acid ate away at her flesh, she leaned back as if she were preparing to spit a loogie-

And Defiant disabled the propeller behind her, swinging the weapon and flinging her free of the end.

She touched ground and spat out a mouthful of acid onto the floor.  It smoked on contact with the concrete.

“No,” Defiant said.  He took two steps forward and swiped with the spear, cutting her in half.

Almost in half.  Something like chainmail was wrapped around her spine, but the spear had cut through the matching mesh that had protected her abdominal organs.

Defiant turned to catch a mechanical spider that was making its way down the stairs.  He impaled it and dashed it to pieces.  Another thrust killed one that was hiding inside an air vent.

Bonesaw crawled forward, dragging her spine and ruined midsection apart from her legs.  There wasn’t as much blood as there should have been.  “Not… done.”

She clawed into her apron for vials, threw them across the room.  Defiant backed away as they exploded into clouds of white.  As they spread, Defiant was reduced to a mere silhouette.

You’re in an augmented biohazard suit, Rey thought.  He eyed Bonesaw as she clawed her way in his general direction.  Come through!

But Defiant had other ideas.  Maybe he had a degree of familiarity with the white powder, knew what it was and that it had to be avoided.

Maybe there was something else at play.  Another member of the Slaughterhouse Nine in the area?

Bonesaw was getting closer.  Rey backed away.

She looked up at him.  Dark circles were already spreading around her eyes, her face paling.  She looked gaunt.  And she held a vial.  She tried to claw the cork off and failed.

If he stepped closer, she’d do something to him, but if he didn’t try to stop her-

On the second try, the cork came free.  She pushed it in Rey’s direction, and he was quick to kick it into the cloud of white to his right.

But the fluid that had trailed out as it rolled was smoking, just under his feet.  He had nowhere to go.

He lunged, leaping onto one of the shelving units to keep from passing anywhere near Bonesaw.

Something snagged on his foot.  He toppled to the ground.

Looking back, he could see her spine was prehensile, and that it had caught his foot, winding around the bridge of it.  The sheath is hiding more machinery.

The white smoke was congealing into strands of gunk that cut off the end of the room closest to the stairwell.  Defiant was caught in the midst of it, and was slowly tearing himself free.

No.  No.

Rey tried to kick her off, but that only served to let her get a grip on his other foot.  She began clawing her way up his legs.

He reached for the keyboard, pulled it down from the shelf it sat on.  It dangled above his head, and he pressed it against the wall, tapped the keys to open the tube that held the Morrígan.

He hadn’t drained the water, and the fluid began to flow onto the ground as the glass sank into the floor.

Bonesaw had climbed up to his chest, and it was only his struggles that kept her from reaching any higher.  He clawed at her hands, and she wasn’t that strong, but she was tenacious, and she used her prehensile spine to secure any progress she made.

Three limbs against his two.  He tried to stand, failed.  Too much weight in the wrong places, and he couldn’t use his hands.

The water finished pouring out, and the Morrígan took its first steps.  Five or six years old in apparent age, a vague replica of the Simurgh.  It would have some blend of her powers and Myrddin’s.

Too busy looking at his creation, he was caught off guard as Bonesaw got hold of his throat with one hand.  She hauled herself up until her entire upper body was resting on his chest.  The sheath that had been around her spine pressed up against his face as the bone and attached machinery passed into his open mouth and down his throat.  His throat was scraped raw by the edges of it.

He choked, fought for breath, found none.

The Morrígan flopped to the ground.  Dead.  Dumb.  Not viable.

Just as the crystalline feather and Leviathan’s blood had been, it wasn’t capable of sustaining life.  A failed experiment.

Needles punched their way out of Bonesaw’s spine, found his own.  In one instant, he lost all sensation below his neck.

In the next, she was making him move, pulling him to his feet.  His head craned toward the ceiling, mouth forced open, blood trickling onto his face as the full weight of her upper body came to rest on his head.

Just got a fresh pair of hands, and this happens,” she muttered.  “Do you know how long it’s going to take to find and transplant a good pair of legs?”

She bid his hands to move as though they were her own.  At her will, he typed on the computer.  At her bidding, he turned his body to give her a better look at Defiant’s progress, threw another vial at the man.

Back to the computer.

“Samples.  Evidence,” Bonesaw murmured.  He could feel the vibrations of her voice against his face.  The air that was flowing from a tube by her spine and into his lungs was stagnant and foul, but she bid him to breathe and he breathed.

“Crawler,” she said.  There was a whir.  She used his hand to shatter the glass case that held the samples, and he groaned in pain as the shards cut it.  She made him grab the sample from the robotic claw’s grip.  “Mannequin.”

She gathered the samples in her own hands while she used his hands to type and select the options.

“Burnscar, Shatterbird… surprising how much DNA we’ve left on crime scenes.  Winter… Chuckles…”

Defiant roared.  He growled words, as if speaking to himself.

“Nice Guy, Murder Rat, Hatchet Face.  We’ve gone through a lot of members,” she said, while depositing each sample in a plastic case.  “Screamer, Harbinger, King.”

Rey choked, tried to choke.  He could control his head, his mouth.  If he passed out, would his body fail?  Would she fail?

“Pity I can’t use this lab,” Bonesaw said.  “Make the cloning process that much easier.  But I’ve seen your work.  I think I can replicate it.  Helps if I have this…”

She had him tap a key, and he could hear the water flowing as another of the glass cases started to move.  The Regrowth tube.  The seeds.

“Didn’t think we’d get this lucky,” she said.  “Jack said that since the world isn’t ending like it was supposed to, he wants to hurry it along.  We did our research, and decided to track down some decent tinkers, and you were closest.  Only problem with entering any metropolis like this is security cameras… Oooh!  Gray Boy!  He was one of Jack’s first teammates!  You wouldn’t believe the stories Jack tells about him.”

Another sample was collected and deposited in the box.

She stopped, and turned toward the Morrígan.  He could feel his blood run cold.

“Nah,” Bonesaw said.  “Even I’m not that crazy.”

She had him tap keys on the keyboard, and a laser fired from the top of the case that had held the Morrígan.  He couldn’t see, but he could smell the burning flesh.

The box of samples tucked under one arm, she walked Rey to the door that led out of the back of the basement.  The one Rey had been ordered to use when coming and going, out of Accord’s sight.

He couldn’t lose hope.  Defiant would have come on an armored suit.  If that suit was positioned to survey the area, if Defiant had contacted Dragon, ordered an airstrike or even just reinforcements-

No.  There was a ladder on the other side of the doorway, leading down into a pitch darkness.

She turned in Defiant’s direction, and Rey caught a glimpse of the hero.  He was still caught, and though the blur around his leg was cutting him free, goop was streaming down from the ceiling to connect to his upper body, and he couldn’t destroy that with a ready kick.

She had Rey grip the rungs of the ladder, and they slid down into the pitch black.

“I failed,” Defiant said.

“You hurt her.  If anyone failed, it was me,” Dragon replied.  “I couldn’t break away from the fight.”

Mist emanated from her robotic body, dissolving the strings of slime that had congealed around him.  Her hand settled on the side of his face.

“Did we gain anything?”

“I’ll show you in a minute.  Are you okay?”

“Need more tech.  Nanomolecular thorns for my arms.  It would have made the difference.”

“We can figure something out.  But are you okay?”

“I suppose so.  Where do we stand?”

“Two suits destroyed.  And we don’t yet know what Bonesaw took with her.  Jack escaped with some of his team.  But we killed four of them, all together.”

“Four,” he said.  “We should mobilize now.  There’s a limit to how fast and how far they can move, especially with the wounded.  Bonesaw went into the subway system, and it will take time for her to get free, but if she gets in contact with their new teleporter-“

“We’ll mobilize as soon as I’ve freed you, Colin.  If I don’t use this body, you’ll be left behind, and neither of us want that.”

“Better that you give chase.”

“We’re doing okay.  We’re closing the gap.  They showed up on camera, and we were ready to move on them within minutes.  We’ll do it again.”

Colin nodded, but he didn’t respond.

She settled her arms around his shoulders, letting the spray do its work.  The metal of her forehead touched his mask.  “Take it for what it is.  A little lost, a lot gained.”

It took thirty more seconds for the foam to dissolve.  She broke the hug and he tore himself free of the scraps.  They were out of the basement and walking through the ruined interior of Accord’s household in moments.

They stepped outside into the evening air.  Colin let the vents in his costume open so the cool air could flow through.  Dragon luxuriated in the feel of the air against her exterior body.

Her hand caught his as they walked to where the Uther and her own suit were waiting.

Colin stopped in his tracks.  Dragon’s suit was posed with its head pointing toward the sky.  The suit’s metal jaws were clamped around a body.

Manton.

“The Siberian is dead?”

Gone would be a more appropriate word,” she said.  “Manton is dead.”

Colin nodded and exhaled slowly.  “Good work.”

“The job’s not over yet.”

The Uther’s cabin doors opened to invite him in.

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