Plague 12.2

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I’d spent nearly sixteen years in Brockton Bay, living a half-hour’s walk away from the ocean and I couldn’t remember ever being on a boat.  How sad was that?

I mean, I was sure I’d been on a boat before.  My parents had to have taken me on the ferry when I was a baby or toddler.  I just didn’t remember any of it.  My parents were introverts, by and large, and their idea of an outing had been more along the lines of a trip down the Boardwalk, a visit to the Market or going to an art gallery or museum.  Maybe once in a while we’d go to something more thrilling like a fair or baseball game, but no… this was the first time I could remember being out on the water.

It was exhilarating, the boat ride.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  I loved the feeling of the wind in my hair, the slight turbulence as the boat bounced on the short waves.  It wasn’t that different from how I had enjoyed riding Bitch’s dogs, and there was none of that primal, deep-seated worry that the hulking monster I was riding would turn around and snap my face off.  I’d almost think I had been destined to fly, based on how thoroughly I enjoyed myself, and that it was only bad luck that I’d gotten other powers instead… except I remembered flying with Laserdream as the Endbringer attacked, and  that hadn’t been the most enjoyable experience.  That might have been a special circumstance; I’d been dealing with the fact that I’d had a broken arm, I’d recently puked my guts out, I’d been soaking wet, and an Endbringer had been working on wiping my hometown and everyone I cared about from the face of the planet.

That day would almost feel like something that had happened in a dream, if I hadn’t spent every hour of every day since living in the aftermath.

Coil’s people had dropped us off along with two sleek motorboats, depositing them at the water’s edge.  Grue was in one boat with Bitch, her three dogs and a puppy she had on a long chain.

I wasn’t sure if the puppy conveyed the image we wanted, but with her attitude towards me lately, I wasn’t willing to comment and risk her going off on me.  She’d remained angry after I’d called her out on her screwing me over and setting me up for Dragon to arrest, but she’d left me more or less alone.

The puppy was cute.  It was skittish, especially around people, which seemed a little odd.  It wasn’t the kind of dog I’d expect Bitch to favor.  Too young, not vicious or intimidating in appearance.  On the other hand, skittish as it was, it had an aggressive streak.  It constantly hounded Bentley, nipping at his flanks, then spooking and running away the second the bulldog looked at him.  It had made for a fair amount of noise when we’d been getting the boats into the water.  One for Bitch, her dogs and Grue, one for the rest of our group.

Our boats weren’t out on the ocean.  We traveled through the area downtown where Leviathan had collapsed a section of the city.  It was now more or less an artificial lake.  The water was fairly still, lapping gently against the ruined roads and collapsed buildings that surrounded the crater, but with the speed these boats were capable of going, even waves a half-foot high made us ramp slightly off one and then crash down onto the next with a sudden spray.

Tattletale was at the back, steering the thing.  It seemed counter-intuitive, with the boat going the opposite direction she pushed or pulled the stick.  Still, she seemed competent at it.  Better than Grue, which I found slightly amusing.

From time to time, I was finding myself in a strange emotional state.  As I stayed alert for it, I was able to catch those moments, try to pick them apart for what they were.  The high-end motor whirred and the boat bounced over the waves, the wind and water getting in my hair, all while we headed into the most ridiculously dangerous and unpredictable situation we’d been in for weeks. It was one of those moments; I felt almost calm.

For a year and a half, I’d spent almost all of my time in a state of constant anxiety.  Anxiety about schoolwork, my teachers, my peers, my dad, my mom’s death, my body, my clothes, trying to hold conversations without embarrassing myself, and about the bullies and what they would do next.  Everything had been tainted by the constant worries and the fact that I’d constantly been preparing for the worst case scenarios and maybe even setting up self-fulfilling prophecies in the process.  I’d spent every waking moment immersed in it.  Either I was stressing over something I’d done or something that had happened, I was concerned with the now, or I was anxious over what came in the future: distant or near.  There was always something.

And that was before I’d ever put on a costume and found myself caught up in my double-crossing plan against the Undersiders and everything that had stemmed from that.  Before Dinah and running away from home, before I’d decided to go villain.  Stuff that made some of what I’d been worried over before seem trivial.

So why could I feel calm now?

I think it was that realization that there were moments where I was helpless to act, oddly enough.  This boat?  Speeding across the Endbringer-made lake?  I had to be here.  There was no other option, really.  As I clutched the metal rim of the boat with one hand while we soared forward, the wind in my hair, I could accept the fact that I couldn’t do anything in this time and place to get Dinah out of captivity sooner.

With that in mind, I surrendered myself of that responsibility for the present.  Much in that same way, I cast off all the other worries, great and small.

A light flashed ahead of us.  Three blinks, then two.

“Regent!” Tattletale called out.

Regent raised a flashlight and flashed it twice, paused, then flashed it twice again.

There was one flash in response.

Grue slowed his boat as we reached our destination.  Our meeting place was in the center of the lake, one of the buildings that still partially stood above water, leaning to one side so a corner of the roof was submerged, the opposite corner peaking high.  Tattletale didn’t slow our boat like Grue had his, and instead steered the boat in a wide ‘u’ to ride it up onto the corner of the roof.  Regent and I hopped out to grab the front of the boat and help pull it up.  When Grue rode his boat aground as well, a little more carefully, we helped him too.  Bitch hopped out and spent a moment using gestures and tugs on the puppy’s leash to get her dogs arranged and settled.

Hookwolf and his Chosen had situated themselves at the corner of the roof that stood highest from the surrounding water.  Hookwolf stood with his arms folded, densely covered in bristling spikes, barbs, blades and hooks, only his face untouched by the treatment, covered by his metal wolf mask instead.  Othala, Victor and Cricket were sitting on the raised edge of the roof behind him.  Stormtiger floated in the air just beside Cricket, and Rune had levitated three chunks of pavement into the air behind the group, each the size of a fire truck, like weapons poised at the ready.  She sat on the edge of one of the chunks, her feet dangling over Victor’s head.  Menja stood just behind Rune on the floating piece of shattered road, twelve feet tall, fully garbed in her valkyrie armor, a shield in one hand and a long spear in the other.

I almost missed it in the gloom, but when I did spot it, it was almost impossible to ignore.  On every patch of skin I could see in the Chosen’s group, scars and scratches had just barely healed over.  There were still faint indents and lines of pale skin that marked where the deep lacerations had been.  The little scars made patterns across their skin, some spraying out from a single point, others running parallel to one another, going in the same direction like a snapshot of rainfall imprinted on their skin.  With that many scratches and scars, they must have been hit hard.

Faultline’s group was gathered to one side.  Faultline, Newter, and the new member Shamrock wore more concealing costumes than their usual.  Faultline’s face was covered in a tinted visor, and her arms and legs were covered in opaque gloves and leggings.  Labyrinth and Spitfire were fully decked out in their usual concealing robe and fire-retardant suits, respectively.  Only Gregor showed skin.  The barnacle-like growths of spiral shells that covered his skin had multiplied on one side of his body, until there was more shell than skin.  The skin around it was crimson enough that it stood out in the gloom.  It looked tender.

I saw a flash of light above us, and spotted Purity in the air high above the rooftop, using her power to create a flare of light, extinguish it, then create it again.  There was an answering series of flashes from across the water.  It was a different set of signals than the ones she’d set up with us.  It made sense for the light signals to be different from group to group, so Purity could keep track of who was coming and where from.  The main reason we’d agreed on this meeting place were the seclusion it offered, and the fact that it was just hard enough to access that the Nine wouldn’t be able to approach without us knowing.  Hopefully.

All at once, an incoming boat made its presence known.  As though a switch was flipped, there was the sound of something that sounded like the combined noise of radio static coming from a bank of speakers, an eighteen wheeler with the muffler off and an onrushing train.  It wasn’t just noise – the vehicle flickered with flashes of electricity and lights that people could probably see from anywhere downtown.

Seeing it approach, I had no doubt it was a tinker contraption.  It was the size of a small yacht, but it looked outfitted for war, with what looked like tesla coils crossed with old school tv antennae fueling its forward momentum and sending arcs of electricity dancing over the waves in its wake, as though it was riding on a current of lightning.  Various guns had been placed haphazardly around the upper deck, each manned by a Merchant.  Skidmark stood at the highest deck with Squealer, the driver.

Squealer had apparently never grasped the concept of elegance in design.  From what I’d read and heard, she went for size, augmentations and additions when she built her vehicles.  She was kind of the polar opposite of Armsmaster in that regard.

The hull of their boat scraped against the edge of the building, nearly running over the boat that Grue and Bitch had come in on.  All of the lights shut off, and the Merchants descended onto the roof.  Skidmark, Squealer, Mush, Scrub, Trainwreck, the telekinetic whirlwind lady with the long hair and one other.

Another reason for this meeting place had been subtlety, keeping out of sight and off the radar.  The Merchants apparently hadn’t gotten the message.

“Hey!” Hookwolf growled, “What part of keep a low profile don’t you fucking understand?”

Skidmark smirked, raising his chin to give it an arrogant tilt, “We did.  My Squealer built a box that cancels out light and noise at a certain distance.  Nice and in your face up close, almost invisible and silent when far away.  Isn’t that right, baby?”

Squealer just smiled.  It probably wasn’t as sexy or cute as she thought it was.  Aisha, when left to her own devices, was a pretty girl who dressed trashy.  Squealer, I felt, was more of a trashy woman who dressed trashy.

“Hey, Faultline,” Skidmark’s smirk dropped off his face as he realized who else was present.  “What the motherfuck were you doing, fucking with my party!?”

“You had something we needed.”  Faultline’s response was as measured and calm as Skidmark’s question wasn’t.

“Who hired you, bitch?  Tell me and my Merchants won’t come after you in revenge.  All you’ll have to do is return that shit you stole or pay me back for it.  Maybe you can spit-polish my knob for a little goodwill.”

“Not going to happen.”

“Then forget sucking my cock.  Pay me back and tell me who hired you and we’ll call it even.”

She shook her head.  It was more the kind of head shake that accompanied an eye roll.

Skidmark went on, “You’re mercenaries.  Don’t tell me you don’t have the cash.  I’ll only ask for five mil.  One for each vial you took.”

Fautline didn’t answer him.  Instead she looked at Hookwolf and asked him, “Did we really need to invite him?  Does he contribute anything to this discussion?”

“He has nine powers on his team,” Hookwolf responded.  “Ideology isn’t important.”

“He doesn’t have an ideology.  He’s just an idiot.”

“Enough of that,” Hookwolf snarled, his voice hard with a sudden anger.  “We don’t fight amongst ourselves.  Not on neutral ground.  Both of you shut the fuck up.”

Faultline shook her head and leaned over to whisper something to Shamrock.  The Merchants settled themselves on the side of the roof opposite our group.  Skidmark gave Grue the evil eye.  Was he still resentful over what had happened at the last meeting?  Being denied a seat at the table?

Another series of flashes served to alert us, indirectly, of incoming arrivals.  The Travelers appeared soon after.  Trickster, Sundancer, Ballistic each stood on the back of some kind of turtle serpent.  I couldn’t make out Genesis’s form in the gloom.  What little light was available came from the moon and Purity’s radiance from where she floated above us.  I could have used my bugs to get a feel for the shape Genesis had taken, but my habit was generally to place my bugs on clothing where they wouldn’t be noticed, and Genesis was effectively naked.  I didn’t know anything about them, but they were our allies.  I didn’t want to irritate her and upset anything between our two groups.

Coil was the last of us to arrive, maybe because he’d wanted to be fashionably late.  The two soldiers who’d driven his boat stayed behind.  Purity set down by where the boats had landed, followed by Fog and Crusader, who I hadn’t seen in the dark.  Night stepped out of the lake, between our parked boats and onto the roof, water streaming from her cloak.  Had she been the just-in-case measure if an incoming boat hadn’t known the signal?  She would be invisible in the pitch black gloom beneath the water’s surface, which would mean she wasn’t in her human form.

The way the Travelers and Coil had positioned themselves, we’d formed a haphazard ring.  From the top of the roof, going clockwise, the arranged groups were Hookwolf’s Chosen, Faultline’s crew, us, the Pure, Coil, the Travelers and the Merchants.

“It seems everyone is here,” Coil spoke, taking in the collected villains.  Forty-ish of us in all.

“Not quite everyone,” Hookwolf replied.  “Victor, Othala.”

Othala touched Victor, and Victor raised one hand.  A fireball appeared in it, then disappeared as he clenched his hand.  He repeated the process two more times.

“Who are you signalling?” Purity’s asked.  Her hand flared with light, ready to fire.

“It would be a grave and stupid mistake if you invited the Nine,” Coil told Hookwolf.

“We’re not stupid,” Hookwolf said.  Three answering flashes appeared over the water.  I heard the faint noise of a boat motor.  Everyone present on the roof readied for a fight, turning towards either Hookwolf or the incoming boat.  I used my power to call on local crabs, and to draw out the bugs I’d stored in the boat, keeping them close to me.

There were three more flashes, close, and Victor responded again.  In moments, the boat arrived.  It wasn’t the Nine.  It was the good guys.

Miss Militia was first out of the boat, and Battery activated her power to haul the boat up onto ‘land’ in a flash before stepping up to Miss Militia’s side.  Triumph, Weld and Clockblocker rounded out their group.  Our circle made room, though half the people present seemed to be tensed and ready to use their powers with the slightest excuse.

“It seems we have a problem,” Miss Militia spoke, as her group took her place between the Pure and us Undersiders.

“We do,” Hookwolf said.  “Two problems, actually.”

“Two?” Purity asked.

Hookwolf pointed at the Travelers, then pointed at Grue and the rest of our group.  “They’re being cocky, think they’re being clever.  Figure we should get all this out in the open, at least so you’re aware.  You too, Coil, Miss Militia.”

“Perhaps you’d better explain,” Coil responded.

Hookwolf pointed at each of us in turn, “Grue has been making attacks against my people in the upper downtown area.  Howling has been heard in the Trainyard.  Bitch.  Regent was sighted in the college neighborhoods.  Skitter made a move to take over the Boardwalk and claim it for herself.  Tattletale is either abstaining, or more likely, putting herself in the middle of the Docks and keeping her head down.”

“So?” Tattletale asked.

Hookwolf ignored her.  “Downtown we’ve got Ballistic attacking my people in the upper downtown neighborhoods, north of this lake here.  Sundancer was spotted in the shopping district, Genesis at the downtown coast, near the south ferry station. Trickster has been driving looters out of the heart of downtown, the towers.  You seeing the pattern?  All of them alone.  Most of them making moves to take a piece of the city for themselves.”

“We already knew they were talking territory,” Miss Militia responded, “This isn’t a priority.  The Nine-”

“They haven’t taken territory,” Hookwolf snapped back, “They’re taking the city.  Split it up all nice and proper between them, and now they’re taking advantage of the distraction the Nine are giving them to secure their positions before we fucking catch on.”

Grue looked at Trickster, and there was some kind of unspoken agreement between them.  Knowing Grue, I was certain he was deliberately ignoring Coil.  No use volunteering more information than necessary.

Trickster spoke, “We didn’t know the Nine were around before we put this into motion.”

There was a flicker of surprise on Purity’s face.  “So Hookwolf is right.  You are taking over.”

“Something like that,” Grue responded.

What was Hookwolf’s game?  Had he brought everyone here under a different pretext so he could ambush us on this front?

“This isn’t of any concern to us,” Miss Militia spoke, stern.  “The only reason we’re here is to get information on the Slaughterhouse Nine, their motives, and strategies for responding.”

“That might help you in the next week or two, but a month from now you’ll be regretting it,” Hookwolf told her.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think we have any other choice,” Miss Militia replied.

“We do,” Hookwolf said.  “They want us to lose our territories to them while we busy ourselves dealing with the Nine-”

“That’s not our intent,” Trickster cut him off.

“Pigshit,” Skidmark muttered.  He looked angry.  Even Purity had a hard cast to her face, or what I could see of it through the glare of her eyes and hair.  These were people who thought highly of themselves.  Whether that self-esteem was deserved or not, they didn’t like being played for fools.

All at once, this meeting had become about us versus them.  The Travelers and the Undersiders against everyone else.

Hookwolf said, “Then agree to a truce.  So long as the Nine are here, you’re hands off your territories, no fighting, no business.  We can arrange something, maybe you all stay at a nice hotel on the Protectorate’s tab until this is dealt with.  That’ll mean we can all focus on the real threat.”

Stay in a hotel until the Nine were dead, arrested or driven out of town.  He couldn’t seriously expect us to do that.

“I’m inclined to agree,” Coil answered, after a moment’s consideration.  “Perhaps now is an opportune time to share this information:  I have sources that inform me that should Jack Slash survive his visit to Brockton Bay, it bodes ill for everyone.”

“That’s vague,” Faultline spoke.

“I’ll be more specific.  Should Jack Slash not die before he leaves Brockton Bay, it is very likely the world will end in a matter of years,” Coil spoke.

“Bullshit,” Skidmark answered.  The others were showing varying reactions.  I doubt many bought it.

“You contacted us to say something very similar a couple of days ago.” Miss Militia said, “But I have the same questions now that I did then.  Do you have sources?  Can you verify this?  Or provide more information?”

Behind her, Weld reached into his pocket and withdrew his smartphone.

“More information?  Yes.  I have sought further details and pieced together a general picture of things.  Jack Slash is the catalyst for this event, not the cause.  At some point in the coming years, Jack Slash kills, talks to, meets or influences someone.  This causes a chain of events to occur, leading to the deaths of anywhere from thirty-three to ninety-six percent of the world’s population.”

That gave everyone pause.

Coil went on, “If Jack Slash is killed, the event is likely to occur at some point in the more distant future instead.”

“Dinah Alcott,” Weld spoke.  All eyes turned to the metal-skinned boy.

“Beg pardon?” Coil asked.

“Thursday, April fourteenth of this year, Dinah Alcott was kidnapped from her home and has not been seen since.  Dinah had missed several weeks of classes with crippling headaches in the months before her disappearance.  Investigation found no clear medical causes.  Police interviewed her friends.  She had confided to them that she thought she could see the future, but doing so hurt her.”

“You think Dinah is Coil’s source.  That makes a lot of sense.”  Miss Militia turned from Weld to Coil, and her voice was heavy with accusation, “Coil?”

“I did not kidnap her.  I offered Dinah training and relief from the drawbacks of her abilities on the contingency that she immediately cut off all contact with her family and friends and provide me a year of service.”

He lied so smoothly, flawlessly.  What really rattled me was hearing him refer to her as Dinah for the first time.  Coil added, “She took a week to decide, then contacted me during one of her attacks.”

Of course, the heroes weren’t about to take his word for gospel.  Miss Militia’s lips pursed into a thin line.  “Could I contact her to verify this?”

“No.  For one thing, I have no reason to let you.  Also, the process of gaining control of her power requires that she be kept strictly isolated from outside elements.  A simple phone call would set her back weeks.”

“So Coil has a precog,” Hookwolf growled, “That explains how he always seemed to fucking get the upper hand when he pit his mercenaries against the Empire.”

Coil clasped his hands in front of him, “I knew you might come to these conclusions if I volunteered this information.  You all should already know I am not a stupid man.  Would I weaken my position if I did not wholeheartedly believe that what I was saying was correct?  Jack Slash must die, or we all die.

“And to maximize our chances for this to happen,” Hookwolf added, “The alliance of the Travelers and the Undersiders must concede to our terms.  They hold no territory until the Nine are dead.”

Coil deliberated for a few seconds.  “I think this makes the most sense.”

Skidmark and Purity nodded as well.

Coil’s response caught me off guard.  He was throwing us to the wolves to maintain his anonymity in things.  I felt my heart sink.

It made sense, on a basic level, and I could see why the other groups were agreeing.  I mean, our territory wasn’t worth risking that the world ending.  Coil was apparently willing to delay his plans, or pretend to delay his plans while he carried them out in secret.  But I would be giving up my territory, condemning Dinah to more days, more weeks of captivity.

really didn’t like that idea.

“Easy decision for you guys to make,” Trickster said, chuckling wryly, “You’re not giving anything up.  In fact, if we went with your plan, there’d be nothing stopping you from sneaking a little territory, passing on word to your underlings to prey on our people, consolidating your forces and preparing them for war, all while we’re cooped up in that hotel or wherever.”

He was right.  I could imagine it.  Not just weeks, but months lost.  We’d just lost the element of surprise thanks to Hookwolf outing us here, and the local villains and heroes were now all too aware of the scale of what we were doing.  Add the fact that they would get a breather?  A chance to regroup and prepare?  To retaliate?  Regaining any of the ground we lost while we helped hunt down the Slaughterhouse Nine would be excruciating.

In those weeks or months it took to retake territory and slog ahead with constant opposition, there could be further delays.  It would mean that my plan to efficiently seize the Boardwalk and surrounding Docks would fall apart.  I’d have to pull away from my people and my neighborhoods to help the others fight off attacks.  I wouldn’t be able to offer exemplary service to earn Coil’s trust and respect in the mess that ensued.  The opportunity to free Dinah would slip from my grasp.

Worst of all, there was no reason for it.  We’d claimed more of the city as our territory than they had assumed, and now Hookwolf was building on that, giving them reason to worry we had other sinister motives.

“No,” I murmured, barely audible to myself.  I could see some of the other Undersiders -Grue, Tattletale and Bitch- turn their heads a fraction in my direction.

“No,” Grue echoed me, his voice carrying across the rooftop.

No?” Coil asked, his voice sharp with surprise.  Was there condemnation in there?  It was  very possible we weren’t going the route he wanted.

Grue shook his head, “We’ll help against the Nine.  That’s fine, sensible.  But Trickster is right.  If we abandoned our territories in the meantime, we’d be putting ourselves in an ugly situation.  That’s ridiculous and unnecessary.”

Trickster nodded at his words.

“If you keep them you’ll be putting yourself in an advantageous position,” Purity intoned.

“Don’t be stupid, Undersiders, Travelers.” Faultline cut in, “You can’t put money, power and control at a higher priority than our collective survival.  If Coil’s precog is right, we have to band together against the Nine the same way we would against an Endbringer.  For the same reasons.”

“And we will,” Trickster said.  “We just won’t give up our territory to do it.”

“Because you’re hoping to expand further and faster while the Nine occupy the rest of us,” Hookwolf growled. “We agree to this like you want, and you attack us from behind.”

“We haven’t given you any reason to think we’ll betray a truce,” Grue told him, his voice echoing more than usual, edged with anger.  The darkness around him was roiling.

“You have.  You’re refusing the terms,” Purity said.

Hookwolf was manipulating this.  He wasn’t as subtle about it as Kaiser had been, it was even transparent, what he was doing.  Dead obvious.  At the same time, the scenario he was suggesting was just dangerous and believable enough to the Merchants, to his Chosen, and to the Pure that they couldn’t afford to ignore it.  Coil couldn’t talk sense into them without potentially revealing his role as our backer.  Even the heroes couldn’t counter his argument, because there was that dim possibility that he was right, that they would lose control of the city to villains if we continued to grab power.

Which was admittedly the case.  Dealing with the local heroes was one of our long-term goals, for Coil’s plan.

We were fighting for Coil’s plan and Coil wasn’t helping.  He remained silent, inscrutable, sticking to the situation that worked best for him and him alone.  Damn him.

“You’ll be earning the enmity of everyone here if you refuse,” Hookwolf said.  Was there a hint of gloating in his tone?

“We’ll be ruining ourselves if we agree, too,” Grue retorted.

“I strongly recommend you agree to this deal,” Purity said.

“No, I don’t think we will,” Trickster said.

“No,” Grue echoed Trickster, folding his arms.

That only provoked more argument, along many of the same lines.  It was clear this was getting nowhere.

I turned to Miss Militia, who stood only a few feet from me.  When I spoke to her, she seemed to only partially pay attention to me, as she kept an eye on the ongoing debate.  “This isn’t what we need right now.  Hookwolf’s made this about territory, not the Nine, and we can’t back down without-”  I stopped as she turned her head, stepped a little closer and tried again, “We, or at least I have people depending on me.  I can’t let Hookwolf prey on them.  We all need to work together to fight the Nine.  Can’t you do something?”

Miss Militia frowned.


She turned away from me and called out, “I would suggest a compromise.”

The arguing stopped, and all eyes turned to her.

“The Undersiders and Travelers would move into neutral territory until the Nine were dealt with.  But so would the powered individuals of the Merchants, the Chosen, the Pure, Coil and Faultine’s Crew.”

“Where would this be?  In the PRT headquarters?” Hookwolf asked.


“You were attacked as well, weren’t you?  Who did they go after?”

“Mannequin went after Armsmaster.  Armsmaster was hospitalized.”

That was some small shock to everyone present, though I might have been less surprised than some.  Armsmaster as a prospective member for the Nine.

“What you suggest is too dangerous,” Faultline said.  “We’d all be gathered in one or two locations for them to attack, and if Armsmaster was attacked, we could be too.”

“And their whole reason for being here is recruitment,” Coil spoke, “Perhaps the plan would work if we could trust one another, but we cannot, when many here were scouted for their group, and may turn on their potential rivals to prove their worth.  We would be vulnerable to an attack from within, and we would be easy targets.”

“We could make the same arguments about ourselves,” Grue pointed out, “If we agreed, we’d be sitting ducks for whoever came after us.”

“I think the Protectorate can help watch and guard nine people,” Coil replied, “I’m less confident of their ability to protect everyone present.”

So Coil wasn’t willing to play along if it meant losing his ability to stay where he was, but he was willing to make life harder on us, his territory holders.  Did he have some plan in mind?  Or was he just that callous?  Either way, he was an asshole.

“No.  I’m afraid that compromise won’t work,” Hookwolf said, squaring his shoulders.

Miss Militia glanced my way.  She didn’t say or do anything, but I could almost read her mind: I tried.

Hookwolf wasn’t about to give up anything here.  He had us right where he wanted us, and he was poised to kill two birds with one stone: The Nine and his rivals for territory.

“It seems,” Hookwolf said, “The Travelers and the Undersiders won’t agree to our terms for the truce.  Merchants, Pure, Faultline, Coil?  Are you willing to band together with my group?”

Purity, Coil and Skidmark nodded.  Faultline shook her head.

“You’re saying no, Faultline?”

“We’re mercenaries.  We can’t take a job without pay.  Even a job as important as this.”

“I will handle your payment here as I did for the ABB, Faultline,” Coil said, sounding just a touch exasperated.

“And Miss Militia?” Hookwolf asked, “A truce?”

“Keep the business to a minimum, no assaulting or attacking civilians,” Miss Militia said, “We still have to protect this city, there’s no give there.  Don’t give us a reason to bother with you, and we’ll be focused wholly on the Slaughterhouse Nine in the meantime.”

“Good.  That’s all we ask.”

The leaders of the new group crossed the roof to shake hands.  In the process, things shuffled so that our group, the Travelers and the heroes were near the bottom of the roof.  The heroes moved off to one side, as if to guard us from any retaliation, making the separation in forces all the more obvious.

“You guys are making a mistake,” Grue said.

“I think you have things the wrong way around,” Hookwolf said.  “Nobody wants to break the peace at neutral ground, so perhaps you should go before things get violent?”

Tattletale asked, “You won’t let us stick around and discuss the Nine, who they attacked, what our overall strategies should be?  Even if we aren’t working together as a single group?”  She paused, looking deliberately at Faultline, “You know, the smart thing to do?”

She was met only with cold stares and crossed arms.

There was little else to be said or done.  We’d lost here.  I turned and helped push our boat into the water, then held it steady as everyone piled in.  Tattletale had started the motor, and we were gone the second I’d hopped inside.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 11e (Anniversary Bonus)

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The high-pitched song of steel rang through the air as sword parried sword, struck shield and fell to the ground.  Somewhat less sweet were the guttural grunts and muffled slaps of flesh being battered and struck.  A boot in the stomach, an elbow or fist striking a face.

Hookwolf walked between the groups of his sparring recruits.  They were tired, pushing themselves through their exhaustion.  All wanted to be here.  The training was too punishing for anyone who didn’t.  With small exceptions for eating and sleeping, their days were filled with exercise, hand to hand sparring, gun training, and practice with melee weapons.

The main adversaries of the Chosen were mercenary soldiers, police and trained heroes.  Why should the standards of his Chosen be any lower than theirs?  No, if his group was to represent the true Aryan warrior, they had to have higher standards.  They had to be the best.

It was that knowledge, that commitment that drove his trainees to give their all.  Too many saw the Aryans as hatemongers, failed to see the greater picture, the hope for raising humanity to a higher level.  He stopped at one end of the room to watch their progress, watch for the ones who had the killer instinct he needed.  Stormtiger and Menja were at the other end of the room, looking for the same.  Stormtiger had cast off his mask, and wore only face paint.  He still walked a little stiffly from the gunshot wounds that he’d taken to his legs.  Othala had attended to them over the past few weeks, would give him a half-hour to an hour of regenerating ability each night until he was better, but knees were slow to heal.  Menja wore her armor, her expression stern as she watched the form and habits of the combatants.  Cricket sat in one corner of the room, typing on a laptop without looking at the screen, taking notes on the trainees.

Hookwolf looked at Menja, and she raised one hand, two fingers extended.  Signalling, she pointed to two of his thirty-four recruits.  A bald man in peak physical condition and a twenty something girl with the ends of her hair in thin bleached blond braids.  A little too much like cornrows for his liking.  Maybe it was supposed to be ironic.  He liked her first pick, though.  He’d noticed the bald man.  He’d committed their names to memory on first meeting them, but he’d forgotten some.  He knew the man was Bradley, the girl was Leah or Laura or something like that.  His own pick was a lean scrapper in his early thirties, Ralph.

“Stop!” he ordered.

As one, his recruits pulled away from their fights and sheathed their blunted swords.  Not all of them were able to stand straight.  More than a few had bloody noses or black eyes.

“You’re three days into our week of training.  If you’re still here, you’re doing us proud.”

He could see a few of them stand a little taller at that.  Hookwolf had been a fighter before he’d been a fighter with powers.  He had spent a great deal of time around athletes, knew all too well that just a little recognition and a little motivation could make a world of difference.

“Some of you have earned special attention.  You’ve fought harder, meaner or better than the others.  Bradley, come here.”

The bald man approached.


Menja stepped through the gathered recruits to stand beside Bradley.

“You two are going to fight.  No weapons, no armor.  Menja?  You can use your powers, just a little.”

Menja smiled, then she grew a foot and a half.  Bradley stood at a height of just over six feet, but she still loomed head and shoulders above him.  She unstrapped her armor and threw it aside.

Bradley looked at Hookwolf, a flicker of concern crossing his features.

“Part of the reason for this is that I want to see how you do against someone bigger than you,” Hookwolf said.  “You’re tired.  You’ve been training and sparring all day, Menja hasn’t.  Tough.  If you’re going to represent the Chosen as one of our elite, you’re going to be expected to go up against capes.  Things will be just as one-sided or worse.”

Bradley looked to his left, sizing up Menja.

“Think you can fight her without embarrassing us?  If you think you can do it, you might just have a place as one of our lieutenants or as a leader of one of our warbands.”

“I’m no coward,” Bradley replied.  He turned to Menja and adopted a practiced fighting stance.

Hookwolf watched with approval as the two squared off.  It was clear from the start that Bradley was thrown off guard by how strong Menja was, and doubly apparent that he wasn’t used to fighting someone with better reach or more power behind their hits.  But he was trained, and he was familiar in how to use his body, and he adapted quickly.

Bradley shifted to the defensive, and Menja struck with sharp kicks to his side and lunging steps forward to jab at his face.  He timed a grab and quickly shifted to an arm lock, forcing Menja to bend over.  For just a moment, it seemed like he had control of the situation, but Menja snapped back to her normal size, slipping her arm free, then struck at him, simultaneously growing.  He was shoved to the ground.

“Enough,” Hookwolf said.

It wouldn’t do to let the man defeat Menja, and it was looking increasingly possible that he might.  It would hurt her pride and weaken the position of his powered lieutenants in comparison to the unpowered ones.

“Good man,” he said from behind his mask.  He offered the man a hand, and Bradley took it.  “Well done.  Welcome to the Chosen’s elite.”

Bradley nodded and stood at attention.

Hookwolf turned to the blond girl. “Leah, was it?”

She looked surprised to be picked, but she nodded.

“Menja likes you.  I don’t.  You get one chance to prove me wrong.  Menja?  Who would you set her against?”

There weren’t many options.  Stormtiger couldn’t walk, Menja wouldn’t nominate herself, and it wouldn’t just be a hassle to go get Rune, Othala or Victor, but each of the three were either too powerful in a brawl or effectively powerless.  That left Hookwolf himself and-

“Cricket,” Menja said.  “Same reasoning.  Leah’s quick, Cricket’s quicker.”

Cricket stood from her seat in the corner and limped forward.  She’d refused the same help that Othala had granted Stormtiger, both for the injury to her leg and the damage she’d taken to her vocal chords when she’d had her throat slashed, in a time before he’d met her.  It would have taken a few days at most to restore her to peak condition, but she valued her battle scars too highly.

“Up for this, Leah?” Hookwolf smiled.  Cricket’s injury to her leg slowed her down some, but the young woman was anything but a pushover.

Cricket reached to her side and picked up a small silver tube.  She pressed it to the base of her throat, and her voice came out sounding distorted and digital, “Something’s wrong.”

“With the fight?”  Hookwolf asked, raising one eyebrow.

Cricket opened her mouth and pressed the tube to her throat to reply, but didn’t get a chance.  The windows shattered with an explosive force, knocking the majority of the people in the room to the ground.  Hookwolf was one of the few to remain standing, though he bent over as shards of glass tore through the layer of skin that covered his metal body.

He took a moment to compose himself in the wake of the blast.  His ears rang, and he bled from a dozen cuts, but he was more or less fine.  His people were not.  They groaned and screamed in pain, accompanied by the sound of car alarms going off outside.

Two trainees and one of his graduated Chosen were dead.  They’d been wearing glasses, and the glass had penetrated their eyes to tear into their brains.  The others were all wounded to some degree or another.  Some had been hit by the glass that flew from glasses others were wearing, others from the windows, and one or two others had patches of blood rapidly expanding around pockets where cell phones had been stowed.

Why couldn’t they have put the cell phones away before they started sparring?

Leah lay dying, and Stormtiger had one hand pressed to his throat, blood billowing from a cut that may or may not have nicked an artery.

Hookwolf tapped into his core, the ‘heart’ from which his metal sprouted inside his body.  He could feel it start to churn with activity, and the metal he already had encasing each of his muscles began to stir.  Soon it was lancing in and out of his pores, criss-crossing, some blades or needlepoints sliding against others with the sounds of whetted knives.  In a few seconds, he had covered his body, to protect himself from further attacks.

“Shatterbird!” he roared, once he knew he was secure.  There was no reply.  Of course.  She was attacking from a safe position.

An attack from her meant an attack from the rest of the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Daunting, but not impossible.  He was virtually invincible in this form.  That left few that could actively hurt him.  Burnscar.  The Siberian.  Crawler.  There was Hatchet Face, the bogeyman of capes.  With the exception of Hatchet Face, the group wouldn’t be able to do much harm to him unless he was forced to stay still.

More troubling were the Nine he couldn’t put down.  The Siberian was untouchable, an immovable object, invincible in a way that even Alexandria wasn’t.  Even if he were capable of hurting Crawler, he wouldn’t want to.  Mannequin, he wasn’t sure about.  He knew the crazed tinker had encased himself in a nearly indestructible shell.  As strong as Hookwolf was, he faced that distant possibility that any of these people could pin him down or set him up to be taken out by others.

Who else?  He wracked his brain.  Jack Slash was the brains and leader of the operation.  Not a threat unto himself.  Shatterbird couldn’t harm him, he was almost certain.

Bonesaw.  She was the wild card, the most unpredictable element in terms of what she could bring to the table.  So often the case with tinkers.

He strode across the room to the windows and gazed out at the city block surrounding the home base of the Chosen.  Glass was still raining down from the sky, glimmering in the orange-purple light of the setting sun.  Every window in view was broken, empty of glass.  Car windshields, streetlights and signs had all been affected, and the surrounding surfaces of wood, metal and fiberglass all bore the scuffs and gouges of the fragile shrapnel.

Every piece of glass in the room suddenly stood on end, points facing upward.  He gave it a moment of his attention, then turned to the world beyond the window, hoping for some glimpse of his adversaries, a clue about where they were.

“Cricket,” he called out.  “You alive?”

He heard a sound, movement, and turned. She was gingerly searching through the carpet of weaponized glass shards for her artificial larynx.  She found it and pressed the cylinder to her throat.  “Alive.”

“You said something was wrong.  What did you notice?”

“Sound.  The glass was singing.  Still is.”  She pointed at one wall.  Hookwolf followed the line to a building across the street and a little ways to one side.

His ears were ringing, but he doubted that was it.  It would be something subsonic that Cricket noticed with her power, then.

“You come with me, then.  Menja, Stormtiger, I leave it to you to see to my Chosen.  See if Othala is able to help.”

“On it,” Menja said.  Thin trails of blood ran down from the points where glass splinters had pierced her skin, but the damage hadn’t gone any further.  She stooped down and picked up Stormtiger in her arms.

Orders given, Hookwolf drew the majority of his flesh into a condensed point in his ‘core’, felt himself come alive as more metal spilled forth.  Only his eyes remained where they were, set in recessed sockets, behind a screen of shifting blades.  He was half-blind until the movement of the blades hit a rhythm, moving fast enough that they zipped over the surface of his eye at speeds faster than an eyeblink.

He let himself fall from the third floor window and hit the ground in a state that was more liquid than solid.  Blades, spears, hooks and other twisted metal shapes all pooled on the pavement, absorbing the impact.

He pulled himself together, in his favored quadruped form.  Looking up to the window, he created a tall spear from between his ‘shoulders’.  Cricket leaped out and caught the pole, slid down until she could hop off and land beside him, skidding on the glass covered surface.  She looked annoyed as she looked down at her shoes, raising one foot off the ground to investigate the underside.  Glass had embedded in the soles.

He would have told her to ignore it, but he couldn’t speak.  For that matter, neither could she.

Cricket pointed, and he led the way with her following directly behind him.  As he walked, he wasn’t moving his limbs quite so much as it might appear at first glance.  Instead, he extended one growth of metal as he retracted another, only generating the illusion.  A hundred new parts growing each second to suggest shifting musculature, a cohesive form, when he was anything but.  Only the core skeleton, the shafts of metal that formed the limbs from the shoulders or hips to his knees,  actually moved without retracting or extending.

Glass rose from the ground to fit together into a window that floated in the air and he smashed through it with one of his forelimbs.  Another barrier appeared, thicker, and he smashed that as well.  The glass began to form into dozens, even hundreds of barriers.  He quickly found one strike wasn’t enough to clear the way.

Through the mess of dozens of dirty and wet panes of glass, he saw her.  Shatterbird.  A sand nigger, going by memory and the color of her exposed skin.  The upper half of her head was covered in a helmet of colored glass, and her body was covered with a flowing garment made of tiny glass shards, like scales.

He rose onto two feet, standing straight, and reconfigured his arms.  With spears as big around as telephone poles, he punched through thirty or forty panes of glass all at once, then did the same with his opposite hand.  It was slow progress, as the glass constantly reformed and pieced itself back together a few feet ahead of him, but he was closing in.

She abruptly dropped the barriers and changed tactics.  The majority of the glass in the area formed into one shape, a cone of solid glass, pointing towards the center of the purple-red sky, two and a half stories tall.

Raising one hand, she shot it straight up into the sky above, until it was just a speck.

Hookwolf lunged for her, only to find that the residual glass that remained on the ground was denying him traction.  His metal claws failed to find grip, failed to crack the glass, even with the heavy impacts and his impressive weight.  Closing the distance proved slower than he’d hoped.

The massive spike of glass plummeted from the sky.  He knew it was coming, had kept an eye out for it, and timed a leap to coincide with its descent.

No use.  It veered unerringly for him, speared into him with enough force that it nearly sheared him in half.  Cricket uttered a strangled scream as she got hit by the fallout of glass shards and scraps of metal.

“Stand,” Shatterbird said.  Her voice held traces of a British accent, and her body language and the crisp enunciation made her sound imperious, upper class.    “I know you survived.”

Hookwolf struggled to pull himself together.  He used hooks to pull the metal back towards his core, where it could be reabsorbed, recycled.  It didn’t take much of his reserve of internal energy to create and move the metal, but it took some, and he’d rather not run out.

It was a risk, he knew, but he needed a few moments to pull himself together and rebuild his body.  He let his head and upper chest emerge from the core, taking form in the hollow metal ‘head’ of his canid form.

“What do you people want?” he asked.

“Person.  Singular.  I am the only member of my group here,” Shatterbird informed him.


“You can be arrogant when you’re strong enough.  You should know, Hookwolf.”

“You here to make trouble?”

She shook her head, her helmet sparkling in the light cast by the setting sun.  “I’m the Nine’s primary recruiter.  I have an eye for people who can thrive among us, and I have brought more than five individuals on board.  I thought long and hard before settling on you.  I am not about to let you turn me down.”

So that was why she hadn’t hit the entire city with the blast, shattering the glass and maiming or killing hundreds.  She hadn’t wanted to kill any prospective members, wanted to reserve her power for when it would be most dramatic.

“I’m fine where I am.”

“This isn’t a request.”

“Is that so?  You going to make me?”  He was nearly restored.  He could fight now if he needed to.

“Yes.  I know who you are, Hookwolf.  I spent some time researching your history.”

“Not that interesting.”

“I beg to differ.  You ally with the Aryan groups.  Run one, but your motivations seem to be different.  I have guesses as to why, but I’d rather you tell me.”

“Tell you?  Why should I?  I think we’re done here.”

Shatterbird raised one hand, then frowned, her lips pursing together.  “Hm.”

Cricket climbed to her feet.  She was bleeding badly where she had exposed skin, and chunks of glass were partially buried in her arms and legs.  There was the quiet rasp of her laughter.

“Pride goeth before the fall,” Hookwolf said, striding towards his enemy.  “Seems as though Cricket can use her subsonics to cancel you out.”

“Seems so,” Shatterbird answered, rapidly backing up to maintain some distance from Hookwolf.

“And here I was thinking you’d won the lottery with powers.  Incredible range, fine control, devastating force, versatility… and all it takes is the right noise and it all falls apart?”

“Guess the men who bought my power should ask for a refund.”

“No.  Not interested in being conned into a game of twenty questions to figure out what you’re talking about.  Not giving you a chance to figure a way out.”  He punched one of his massive spears at her, and she threw herself to the ground, rolling beneath the impaling weapon.  As she stood, she drew a gun from the folds of her glittering dress.  She fired between Hookwolf’s legs at Cricket, the noise of the shots ringing through the air.

Hookwolf didn’t even need to look.  He laughed, “No.  Afraid my lieutenant is a little too fast for you.”

“Look out,” Cricket’s said from behind him, the artificial sound of her voice detracting from the inflection and urgency.

A tide of glass slammed into him.  Standing on only two limbs, his balance suffered, and he wasn’t able to keep from being pushed onto his side.

“Wasn’t aiming at her,” Shatterbird said.  She fired several more shots, simultaneously releasing a shard of glass from her free hand.  Hookwolf turned, saw Cricket clutching her throat.  She’d dodged the bullets, but Shatterbird had controlled the flight of the glass shard she shot at Cricket much in the same way she’d controlled the descent of the massive spike of glass.  It had struck its target.  “Just needed to break her concentration.”

Cricket collapsed, large quantities of blood spilling through her fingers and around her hands, where they clutched her throat.

“Now it’s just you and me,” Shatterbird said.  She dusted herself off, not giving any concern to the sharp edges of the glass shards that made up her garment.  “We talk.”

“I think I’ll kill you instead,” Hookwolf growled.

“What’s the rush?  In fact, any moment we delay, you have a chance of reinforcements arriving.  Your Stormtiger, your Othala, your Menja, they could all do a little something to assist you.  It’s in your advantage for us to delay the fight.”

“Except I’m more than capable of putting you down myself.”


He adjusted his form, dropping to four legs once more.  The aesthetic suffered, but he created two needle-tipped limbs at his shoulders, poised like scorpion’s tails.

“Ah, that’s much better,” she said, “But you’re still too attached to conventional forms.  Why have legs at all?”

“They’re enough.”  He pounced.  She leaped to one side, and almost glided to a position across the street.  She was using the glass of her costume to levitate herself.

From her new vantage point she told him, “I did say I had my suspicions about your motivations.  I think I’ve come to understand you. Jack encourages this, you know.  Understanding our targets, be they recruits or victims.  You learn a lot being with him.  I believe you, Hookwolf, are a born warrior.”

He pounced once more, driving both foreclaws at her and following up with two quick jabs with his needle-tipped limbs.  She dodged all three hits, then swept a carpet of glass beneath him as he pounced quickly after her.  He landed and skidded on the surface like one might with a carpet of marbles, falling onto one side, and she threw a tidal wave of glass shards at him, driving him across the street to distance him once more.

He stopped to draw his head and upper body back into the core.  The wave of glass had come too close to penetrating the head of his form and cutting his flesh.  It was dangerously vulnerable.

A warrior at heart, she’d said.  He’d thought, sometimes, that he was born at the wrong time.  Had he been born in Rome’s heyday, the Crusades or any of the great wars, in eras where martial pride and strength were valued, he thought he might have been a great person, a soldier feared on the battlefield.  He would have relished that life.  Here, now?  Even with powers, he wasn’t so notable.  People with a tendency for violence and a thirst for blood just didn’t thrive.

“What I can’t figure out-” she paused to throw herself up to the top of a four-story building, then raised her voice to be heard on the ground, “Is what you’re doing with these ‘Chosen’ of yours.”

He couldn’t speak to answer her, and only climbed the building’s face.  He was three-quarters of the way up when she leaped down, soaring toward the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street.  Always keeping her distance.

A gale caught her, and her lateral movement stopped.  As wind twisted around her, she was driven down into the street, hard.

Hookwolf would have laughed if he could.  He looked at his headquarters and saw Stormtiger crouching by the front door, clutching a blood-soaked rag to his throat.  Stormtiger wouldn’t interfere where it counted, but he would give Hookwolf the opportunity to confront his opponent.  He adjusted his position and fell to the street next to Shatterbird.  She held one leg while laying on her back.  She’d fallen badly.

Stalking towards her, he heard she was still talking, “You call them Fenrir’s Chosen.  I’m a scholar, believe it or not.  I know Fenrir was one of the beasts that brings about Ragnarök, the death of the gods.  Fenrir was the beast who slew Odin, Allfather, king of the gods.  Fenrir was a wolf.  Too coincidental for that to be an accident on your part.”

He stirred the blades that made up his form, pushing himself to be bigger, more dangerous as he closed the distance.

“A sword age, an axe age.  A wind age, a wolf age.  A world where none have mercy.  I can believe this is your goal, your ultimate objective.  Do you crave to reduce this city to darkness, blood and ash, so that only the strong will survive?  Do you tell your followers that it is only the pure will rise to the top in the new world order?”

He set one clawed foot down on her.  He could feel some blades on the underside of his foot bite into her flesh.  She didn’t fight him or resist.

“Join us,” she said, her voice strained.

He formed a head and mouth.  His voice echoed from within his metal skull, “You describe me as a warrior, why would I join petty killers?”

She shifted her position, huffing out sentences between gasps of pain.  “Only a matter of scale.   Need more like you in our number.  Frontline combatants.  Capable of carving murder through the ranks of the innocent.  Through our enemies.  We could be great warriors.”

“Not interested.”

“We could create your Ragnarök more than any number of Chosen.”

“They are my people.  I won’t turn my back on them.”

“Then kill me.”  A thin smile crossed her face, though her expression was drawn with pain.  When she spoke, it was in more short sentences. “But know that your dream is over.  Unless you come with us.  Once nominated you’ll be tested.  By others, whether willing or not.  I have left notes.  Urging them to kill your soldiers.  To raze any place you might call home.  To bestow fates worse than death.”

He raised his claw from her.  She was bleeding from wounds in her stomach and pelvis.

He’d had a hard enough time killing this one.  If the other seven arrived?  No, he wouldn’t be able to stop them alone, and his lieutenants were not strong enough to hold them off.

“And you won’t rescind these orders and requests?”

“I will.  If you join.  You give me your word, I leave.  You will be tested.  Your people left alone.  When the test is done you’re… either dead or one of us.”

“What is it you want?”

“Make history.  Names in books.  Taught to schoolchildren for years.  Centuries.  Our goals…” she winced, pressed one hand to her stomach, “Coincide.”

He pondered for a few moments.  Could they escape?  No, you didn’t escape the Nine.  He’d already considered fighting, but that option was out.

There was a possibility he could lay a trap for them.  Or buy time for his people to escape.


Another thin smile crossed her face.  She used her power to raise herself to a standing position, her toes only barely touching the ground.  “So loyal.”

“But I won’t forget what you’ve already done.  If you survive, I will wait for the right time and place, and I will kill you.  One day.”

“Already thinking like… one of us.  Rest assured.  I will survive.”

Glass drifted towards her to fill the injuries, cracking in the right spots so each fragment fit the wounds perfectly.  The smallest particles of glass, a fine cloud of dust, flowed forth to fill the gaps.

Then she rose into the sky.  Hookwolf signaled for Stormtiger to hold his fire.

He wasn’t going to accept this.  They’d insulted him, hurt his people.  They wanted to subvert his mission and twist it to their own ends?  No.

His face twisted into a scowl as he looked over the glass-strewn street, and at Cricket’s prone form.  He’d told Shatterbird he’d kill her sometime in the future, had hopefully led her to expect something further down the line.

No, he would go through the motions of their ‘test’, even join them for the short-term.  But he’d kill them sooner than later.  Before they left the city.

He looked at his people, saw Othala hurrying over to Cricket’s side to grant the young woman regenerating abilities.  Rune was hurt, the right side of her face torn up, healed only enough to close the cuts and stop the worst of the bleeding.  Probably Othala.  Everyone else was injured to some degree, many gravely.

He’d need help from elsewhere.

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Sentinel 9.6

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Shadow Stalker paused in her patrol when she arrived at the roof of the Hillside Mall, downtown.  She’d hoped to run into some looters, had had some luck earlier in the week at this spot, but it seemed that police forces were stationed at the entrances, now.  Annoyed, she walked over to the corner of the roof, so the toes of her boots were just at the brink.

She got her smartphone and dialed Emma.  The phone automatically made the wireless connection to her earbud.

“Hey, superhero,” Emma answered.

“How’s Portland?”

“Good food, good shopping, boring as hell.  I wish I could come back, hang out.”

“I wish you to come back, too,” Shadow Stalker admitted, “These morons are fucking pissing me off, and I’m not getting enough breaks from it.  I don’t have the patience for this.”

“Which morons?  The Wards?”

“The Wards,” Shadow Stalker confirmed.  She sat down on the ledge.  “They’re children.”

“Yeah,” Emma replied.  She didn’t prod for more information or clarification.  Shadow Stalker had gone over this before enough times, in one variation or another.

That didn’t stop her from returning to the subject, “Sure, some of them are older.  Some have more time in the field than me.  Maybe.  But they’re still children, living in their comfortable, cozy little worlds.  I dunno if you’ve seen what the city’s like now-”

“-I saw some on the news.” Emma interjected.

“Right.  Damaged, destroyed, fucked up.  This is a place those kids visit, and they’re still convinced they can fix it.  I’ve lived with this all my life.  Waded through this shit from the beginning.  I know they’re deluding themselves.  So yeah, they’re immature, new to this, and I don’t know how long I can fucking put up with them.”

“Two and a half more years, right?”  Emma asked, “Then you’re off probation, free to do your thing.”

“God, don’t remind me.  Makes me realize I’m not even halfway through it.  I can’t believe it’s already been this long, constantly hearing them bitch about dating, or clothes, or allowances, and every time I hear it it’s like, I want to scream in their face, fuck you, you little shit, shut the fuck up.  I’ve killed people, and then I washed the blood off my hands and went to school and acted normal the next day!”

Silence hung on the line for a few long moments.

“I remember,” Emma spoke, a touch subdued.

Shadow Stalker chewed on her lower lip, watched a butch policewoman pull into the parking lot, then hand out coffees to the others on duty.

“If it weren’t for all the crying and the complaining, I would almost be glad Leviathan had attacked the city.  Tear away that fucking ridiculous veneer that covers everything.  Get rid of those fucking fake smiles and social niceties and daily routines that everyone hides behind.”


“Yeah.”  Shadow Stalker didn’t elaborate too much further on the subject.  Leviathan had revealed the desperate, needy animal at the core of everyone in this city.  He’d made things honest.

Most were victims, sheep huddling together for security in numbers, or rats hiding in the shadows, avoiding attention.  Others were predators, going on the offensive, taking what they needed through violence or manipulation.

She didn’t care what category people fell into, so long as they didn’t get in her way, like Grue had a habit of doing.  Worse yet were those who seemed intent on irritating her by being lame and depressing, like Taylor or like Vista had been this past week.

They weren’t all bad.  The victim personality did have a habit of pissing her off, but she could let them be so long as the person or people in question stayed out of sight and out of mind, accepting their place without fight or fanfare.  There were some ‘predators’, she could admit, that were even useful.  Emma came to mind, the girl went a long way towards making life out of costume tolerable, and there was Director Piggot, who had kept her out of jail thus far, because she fit into the woman’s overarching agenda of PR and the illusion of a working system.

There was a need for that kind of person in society, someone willing to step on others to get to the top, do what was necessary, so they could keep the wheels spinning.  Not all of them were so useful or tolerable, of course, but there were enough out there that she couldn’t say everyone with that kind of aggressive, manipulative psychology was a blight on society.  She could respect the Piggots and Emmas of the world, if only because they served as facilitators that allowed her to do what she did best, in costume and out, respectively.

She was a ‘predator’, whether she was Shadow Stalker or Sophia.  Few would deny that, even among her own teammates.

A convoy of trucks on the road below caught her attention.  Each vehicle was painted dark, and two had the look of army vehicles, with gray-black mottled cloth or canvas covering the cargo or personnel at the rear.  They had their headlights off to avoid drawing attention.  There were two good possibilities for who they might be.  The first was that it was a shipment of supplies.  Food, water, first aid and tools, which would mean there was a small contingent of capes inside one of the trucks or in the immediate area.  The second option was that it was Coil and his troops.

She realized she was still holding the phone, and the noise of a television or music told her Emma was still on the other line.  “Something’s going on.  Going to see if it leads to anything interesting.”

“Call back when you’re done, give me the recap.”

“Right.”  She hung up.

Leaping into the air, she entered her shadow state, every part of her body shifting gears in the span of a half-second.  Her lungs automatically stopped taking in air and her heart stopped beating.  She was suddenly hyperaware of changes in the atmosphere, movements of air as it passed through her body.  She had enough solidity for her body to seize the air molecules as they passed through her, and in this manner, each of her cells nourished itself.

It was strange, to feel so still.  She lacked even the most basic processes and routines that normally kept the body going, things people rarely gave a second thought to.  There was no near-silent roar of blood in her ears, no need to blink, no production of saliva in her mouth or movement of food and water in her gut.  She just existed.

But the movement of air through her body made her feel just as alive, more alive, in a very different way.  The material and gravel of the rooftop were still warm from the day’s sunlight, even submerged beneath a thin layer of water from the rain.  This rising, heated air from this surface offered her an almost imperceptible added buoyance.  The rest of her ascent was carried out by the momentum from her leap and the fact that she was nearly weightless.  Jumping fifteen feet in the air to a rooftop one story above her was almost effortless.

She turned solid long enough to land.  Changing back brought a sudden, thunderous restarting of her heart, a shudder running through her entire body as her bloodstream jerked back into motion.  It only lasted the briefest of moments as she bent her knees and threw herself forward.  The moment her feet left the ground, she entered the shadow state once again, sailing across the rooftop.  She used one wispy foot to push herself out further as she reached the roof’s edge, so she could glide just above one rooftop without even touching ground.

In this fashion, she kept pace with the trucks, which weren’t moving slowly but weren’t going full-bore either, likely because of the condition of the roads.

It was five minutes before trouble arrived.

It was Menja that made the first move, stampeding out of a nearby alleyway, standing at a height of twenty feet tall.  She drove her spear into the engine block of the lead truck, stepped in front of the vehicle and wrenched her weapon to tip the truck over and arrest its forward momentum.

The truck immediately behind tried to stop, but the flooded pavement made it impossible to get enough traction.  It skidded and collided into the back of the foremost truck.

Miss Militia was climbing up out of the lead truck’s passenger door in an instant, hefting a grenade launcher to blast Menja three times in quick succession.  The giantess stumbled back, raised her shield – her sister’s shield – to block a fourth shot.  Hookwolf, Stormtiger, and Cricket all joined the fray, followed by their foot soldiers.  On the PRT’s side, the trucks emptied of PRT troops and one more cape, Assault.  They mobilized to defend, and the noise of gunfire rang through the night air.

Shadow Stalker crouched at the corner of the roof, loaded her crossbow and fired a shot at Cricket.  It passed a half-foot behind the woman.  Her second shot was on target, and Cricket dropped a few seconds later, tranquilized.  Good – The woman’s radar might find Shadow Stalker if she wasn’t in her shadow state, and Shadow Stalker could be far more effective if the enemy didn’t see where she was attacking from.

Who else?  Menja was classified as a breaker, the spatial-warping effect that surrounded her made incoming attacks smaller even as she simultaneously made herself bigger.  The darts wouldn’t even be noticeable to her.  Stormtiger could deflect projectiles by sensing and adjusting air currents.  With the right timing, so her shots came out of the shadow state as they arrived to make contact with him?  Maybe.  But he was engaged in a fist fight with Assault, and she’d be risking tagging the hero.  Hookwolf?  No point.  He was currently in the shape of a gigantic wolf made of whirring metal blades.  Even if the dart did penetrate something approximating flesh, which it wouldn’t, his entire biology was so different that she doubted he would be affected.

Instead, she settled for targeting the clusters of Hookwolf’s troops.  ‘Fenrir’s Chosen’.  Each of the thugs had white face-paint extending from forehead to cheekbone to chin, in a crude approximation of a wolf’s face.  She began dropping them at a steady rate, aiming for the biggest, the most aggressive and the ones who looked like they were in charge of lesser troops, the captains.  As the troops began falling, Hookwolf’s forces became unsettled, hesitating to advance.  Hookwolf reared up on two legs, pointing and howling orders, likely demanding they attack.  His words were incomprehensible from the rooftop where Shadow Stalker crouched, but the tone left no mistake that he was threatening them to drive them back into the fight.

The distraction afforded Miss Militia time to prepare and fire a mortar straight into Hookwolf’s chest.  As he collapsed backward, his chest cavity gaping open, her gun shimmered, split and transformed into a pair of assault rifles.  She unloaded clip after clip into the enemy ranks; rubber bullets, most likely.  The innate issues of the nonlethal ammunition were almost negligible in Miss Militia’s case.  She could reform the gun in a second if a gun jammed.

Shadow Stalker watched a crowd of Hookwolf’s Chosen move to flank, moving along the sidewalk, where the crashed truck blocked the view of the PRT forces.  Shadow Stalker raised her crossbow, hesitated.  She could jump down, take them down in close quarters combat.  It had been her entire reason for going out, after having to deal with the irritation of Vista.  She craved that catharsis.

She holstered her crossbow, prepared to dive into their midst, and then paused as she saw the Chosen stagger back, lashing out with their hands.  One shouted something, which was odd given how they had been trying to be stealthy only a moment ago.


Then another figure stepped out of the alleyway closest to them.  A girl, skinny, but not in the attractive way you saw in magazines.  Spindly.  Was that the right word?  The girl was hard to make out in the gloom – there were no lights on the street, and the only light was what filtered from the moon and through the rain clouds.  The girl glanced left, around the back of the truck, then glanced right, where she might have seen Shadow Stalker if she looked up just a little.  The lenses of her mask caught the moonlight, flashing a pale yellow.


A feral smile spread across Shadow Stalker’s face, beneath her mask.

Shadow Stalker resisted the urge to jump down, watched as the shadow of the bug girl’s swarm moved over the Chosen, almost obscuring them from view.  The bug girl drew her combat stick, whipped it out to full length, and dispatched the Chosen one by one.  Shadow Stalker couldn’t see the hits, between the darkness and the obscuring mass of the swarm, but she saw the splashes and movements of the Chosen as they fell to the ground, clutching their faces, knees, and hands.

Some of the bugs flowed out to pass over the PRT forces and the Chosen.  The thugs started recoiling and slapping at themselves, but Shadow Stalker couldn’t see much reaction from the PRT forces.  They were made of sterner stuff, in a way, and their uniforms covered them thoroughly enough that the bugs wouldn’t do nearly as much damage, if they were even attacking.

Skitter emerged from the center mass of the swarm, carrying a bag of supplies from the truck.  It was green canvas, large, not dissimilar to a gym bag.  Pulling the strap over one shoulder, she briskly retreated back into the alley, the bugs trailing after her like the tail of a slow moving comet, or the steady trail of smoke from a candle.

“Hungry, are you?” Shadow Stalker murmured to herself.  She shifted into her shadow state, moved along the rooftop to follow the girl.  Shadow Stalker was almost entirely silent in this state, virtually impossible to see, especially in this light, unless someone was actively looking for her.  She was a gray shadow against a background of black and shades of gray.

You saw my face.  Shadow Stalker thought, Records say you’ve got no team, now.  Operating alone between the old Boardwalk and the east end of Downtown.

She leaped to the next rooftop, and the movement carried her a little ahead of her target, helped by the fact that the bug girl was moving a little slower with her burden.  Shadow Stalker paused and reached up beneath her cloak and between her shoulder blades.  She withdrew a cartridge for her crossbow, each bolt loaded in at a slight angle, so the aluminum ‘feathers’ at the tail of each bolt stuck out.  She popped out one bolt to examine it, then turned it around so the barbed, razor sharp arrowhead caught the moonlight.  As Skitter passed beneath her, she turned the bolt’s point so her perspective made it appear to be at the girl’s throat.

Operating solo means there’s nobody to miss you.

She entered her shadow state and moved further along the rooftop, only to feel a group of flying insects pass through her body.  A fraction of a second later, Skitter was running, abandoning the bag, disappearing around a corner, not even turning to look Shadow Stalker’s way.

“You want to run?  I don’t mind a bit of a chase,” Shadow Stalker smiled behind her mask, loading the cartridge into her right-hand crossbow.  She leaped after the girl, gliding down to street level, rebounding off a wall to turn the corner and give pursuit.

Skitter had turned around, was waiting as she rounded the corner.  The bug girl sent a mass of insects out to attack.

The bugs passed through Shadow Stalker’s body, slowing her momentum.  She suspected that if there were enough of them, they could even carry her aloft, push her back.  But there weren’t – the swarm wasn’t quite big enough.  As the stream of insects passed through her, reoriented in preparation to flow through her again, she pounced.

The residual bugs threw her off, slowing down her power.  Her body had to push them out of the space it wanted to occupy, delayed the change back to her normal self by a half-second.  Her hand passed through Skitter’s throat, but she caught her balance, drew her rearmost foot up and back in a half-spin.  Her heel collided with Skitter’s mask.

Skitter went down, and Shadow Stalker turned her crossbow on her fallen opponent.  She was about to fire when the combat stick lashed out.  She lifted the crossbow up just in time –  had she been a second slower, the stick might have broken her weapon.  Acutely aware of the bugs clustering on her, she dropped into her shadow state before they could crawl beneath her mask.

The stick passed through her head, once.  She resisted the urge to snap back to her normal form and retaliate.  The girl was powerless here.  Shadow Stalker could afford to hound her, drive her to the brink of desperation, wear her down.

The bug girl switched to a one-handed grip on her baton, flying insects clustering around her to mask her movements as she backed away a step.  She used her free hand to push the wet hair out of her face.  Then she adjusted her costume, reaching to tug her shoulderpad forward a bit, then reached behind her back to do much the same with the armor there.

“You really want to fight me?” Shadow Stalker asked her opponent, a note of incredulity in her voice.  She raised her right crossbow.  The one with the lethal ammunition.

Skitter didn’t reply.

Whatever else Shadow Stalker might think of the bug girl, how the girl was creepy, a freak, she had to admit Skitter had demonstrated enough viciousness to date that she could almost respect the girl as a fellow predator.  An idiot, for wanting to fight her, but kindred, in a fashion.  “Alright, fine.”

Skitter gripped her weapon two-handed again.  The grip was strange.  Something in her left hand?

Shadow Stalker realized what it was.  She simultaneously moved back, gripped her cloak with her left hand and shifted to her solid state to raise the fabric as a barrier.  The pepper spray spattered her cloak.

When she was sure the spray had dissipated, she threw her cloak back over one shoulder and shifted to her shadow state to escape the bugs that were crawling on her, taking advantage of her solidity.   She lunged after Skitter, who was running, already turning a corner at the other side of the alley.

Good runner, but I’m faster.

Shadow Stalker didn’t need to slosh through the water, but she knew she would be faster than the other girl even if she did.  It wasn’t just her shadow state eliminating wind resistance, or the lightness of her body.  She was a trained runner.

She bounded from one wall of the alley to the one opposite, staying above the water, pursuing her target.

Skitter was going up the steps of a fire escape.  Shadow Stalker aimed and fired a bolt – the girl ducked, and the shot clipped a railing instead.

Good reflexes.  Shadow Stalker brushed away at the bugs massing around her.  Or do your bugs help you watch what I’m doing?  Disturbing little freak.

Apparently deciding the fire escape wasn’t a great option, Skitter climbed over the railing and leaped a half-story down to the pavement, putting a chain link fence and some accumulated trash bags between herself and Shadow Stalker.

MoronI can walk through that fence.  She loaded her crossbow, aimed, and fired through the fence at the girl.

A flash and spray of sparks erupted as the shot made contact with the fence.  Skitter stumbled as the bolt hit her, but Shadow Stalker couldn’t see if it had done any damage.

No, what concerned her was the flash.  She ignored the fact that Skitter was disappearing, entered her solid state and touched the side of her mask.

Lenses snapped into place, showing a blurry image of the alley in shades of dark green and black.  The chain link fence, however, was lit up in a very light gray.  Similarly glowing, a wire was stapled to the brick of the building next to the fence, leading to a large, pale blob inside the building.  A generator.

The fence was electrified.

Shadow Stalker snarled at what had almost been a grave mistake, entered her shadow state and leaped up and over the fence, being careful not to touch it.

One of the reasons she couldn’t move through walls at will, beyond the huge break in her forward momentum and the excruciating pain that came with stalling in the midst of a wall, was wiring.  She remained just as vulnerable, maybe even more vulnerable, to electrocution.  The people in the PRT labs couldn’t tell her if she could be killed by electrocution – traditional organs were barely present in her shadow state – but it was one of those things that couldn’t be properly tested without risking killing the subject.

End result?  She had to be careful where she went, had received tinker-made lenses to help her spot such threats.

Skitter had known the fence was electrified, judging by the route she’d taken through the fire escape.  The area here didn’t have any power, so the question was whether it something this area’s inhabitants had set up to protect themselves… or was it a trap Skitter had put in place well in advance?  No.  More likely the girl had studied this area before carrying out any crimes.

Still, it troubled her that the girl had thought to use the fence like she had.  She really didn’t like the idea that the villain had not only seen her face, but that she might have figured out one of her weaknesses.  Two, if she counted the pepper spray.  Being permeable was a problem when she absorbed gases, vapors and aerosols directly into her body.  It wouldn’t affect her if she was in her shadow state, and it would eventually filter out, but if she were forced to change back, she’d suffer as badly as anyone, if not worse.

Shadow Stalker caught up to the girl yet again, saw Skitter running with her swarm clustered tightly around her.  Was the girl wanting to make herself a harder target?

Hardly mattered – Shadow Stalker loaded and fired another bolt.

At the same instant the bolt fired, the swarm parted in two.  Two swarm-wreathed figures covered in bugs, each turning at a right angle to round a corner.  The bolt sailed between them.  One was a decoy, just a swarm in a vaguely human shape.

She checked the sides of the alley and the recessed doors.  Could they both be decoys?  She couldn’t see any obvious hiding spots that Skitter could have used at a moment’s notice.

Shadow Stalker closed the distance, placing herself at the intersection between the two bug-shrouded figures.  Holding each crossbow out in an opposite direction, she fired at both targets at once, snapping her attention from one to the next in an attempt to see which reacted to the hit.

One slowed, began to topple.  She lunged after, in pursuit, loaded her crossbow and fired two more shots into the center mass of Skitter’s body while airborne, then kicked downward with both feet as she landed, to shove the girl into the ground.

Her body weight dissolved the blurry silhouette into a mess of bugs.  A trick.

Snarling, Shadow Stalker wheeled around, ran in the direction the other half of the swarm had gone  Had the girl’s armor taken the bolt?  Had the crossbow shot missed?

More bugs were flowing from the area to join the swarm, bolstering its number enough for it to split again.  She wasn’t close enough to be sure of a hit, and she didn’t want to waste her good arrows, so she delayed, leaped forward to close the gap.

The swarm split once more, making for four vaguely human figures in total, each cloaked in a cloud of flying insects.

Shadow Stalker snarled a curse word.

One figure turned on the spot, moved as if to slide past Shadow Stalker.  She lashed out, striking it in the throat, failed to hit anything solid.

She loaded her crossbows, fired at the figure on the far left and the far right of the trio.  No reaction.  She dove after the remaining one.

She made contact, drove the bug girl’s face down into the water.  She shifted into her shadow state, straddling Skitter.   The girl turned over of her own volition – easy enough, as Shadow Stalker was barely solid, but when Skitter tried to stand, Shadow Stalker resumed her normal form for a second – just long enough to force the girl back down.

Picking one of her non-tranquilizer bolts from the cartridge, she held the point of the ammunition to Skitter’s throat like a knife, “Game over, you little freak.”

Skitter cocked her head a little, as if analyzing Shadow Stalker from a different perspective.

“What are you looking at?” Shadow Stalker spat the word, “Nothing to say?  No last words?  No begging?  No fucking apologies?”

Skitter went limp, letting her head rest against the ground, the water lapping over most of her mask.  Dark curls fanned out in the water around her, swaying as the water rippled.

“Guess I don’t need to worry about the villain who saw my face, now.”  Shadow Stalker went solid and drew the razor-sharp tip of her bolt across Skitter’s throat.

The fabric didn’t cut.

Skitter struggled to get free, but Shadow Stalker’s body weight was too much for her to slide free.  She gripped the girl’s wrists with her hands, pinned them to the ground.

“Irritating,” she spat the word.  She could always go into her shadow state, stick the arrow inside the girl and then return to normal.  The problem with going that route was that it left a very characteristic imprint in the victim.  She would need a way of covering up the evidence.  Something she could hit Skitter with afterward that would make the wound too messy to analyze for evidence.

While she craned her head to one side to the next to search for something useful, her surroundings were plunged into darkness.

It took her only a moment to realize what that meant.  She climbed off Skitter, moved to run.  The darkness was oppressive, sluggish in moving through her, unlike ordinary air.  She was slower, wasn’t taking in enough oxygen.  Against her will, her power instinctively adjusted, shifted her into a middle ground between her regular self and her shadow state.  It left her slower, heavier.

She baited me.

A massive shape tore through her, dissipated her entire body.  She pulled back together, but it was hard, painful and uncomfortable on an unspecific, fundamental level.  It left her breathing hard, feeling like she’d just put her body through five hours of the hardest exercise of her life.  Enervating, was that the right word?  Bugs were gathering inside and around her body, making it a little harder and a little more time-consuming to pull together.

Then, before she had succeeded in pulling herself all the way together, it happened again, another large form striking from another direction, passing through her lower body.

She sagged.  Gasped out in pain as another shape passed through her head and shoulders.  The darkness absorbed her cry so it barely reached her own ears.

It was only seconds later that the darkness dissipated.  She was on her hands and knees, barely had the strength to move, let alone fight.  She tried to raise her right crossbow, but her hand seized up, no longer under her own control as it bent to a pain like a bad Charlie horse.  Her fingers curled back, and the crossbow tumbled from her fingers.  She still had one in her left hand, but she was using the heel of that hand to prop herself up.

Her opponents were revealed as the shadows passed, arranged in a rough ring around her.  Hellhound and her dogs took up half the clearing, in front of Shadow Stalker.  She held a metal ring in each hand, with two chains extending out from each ring.   The chains, in turn, were connected to harnesses around the heads and snouts of the ‘dogs’, each animal only a little smaller than a refrigerator.  They were monstrous, with scaly, horned exteriors and exposed muscle.  Not as big or ugly as they could get, Shadow Stalker knew.  The smallest one was barking incessantly.  Three of the four were pulling on the chains, hungry to get at Shadow Stalker, clearly intent on tearing her apart.  Hellhound’s sharp pulls on the chains contracted the bindings around their snouts, which made them stop before they could get too close.

Grue stood to her left, arms folded, almost indistinguishable from the darkness behind him.  After her first humiliating loss to him, she’d made it a mission to drive him out of this city.  He’d stubbornly refused.  A girl Shadow Stalker didn’t recognize stood just behind him, wearing a black scarf and a pale gray mask with pointed horns arching over the top of her head.  The eyes of the mask had lenses that were black from corner to corner, stylized to look fierce, more animal than human.

Rounding out the group were Tattletale, Regent and Skitter.  Tattletale smiled, her hands clasped behind her back, while Regent twirled his scepter in his fingers.  Skitter stood between the two of them.  The bug girl bent, then crouched until she was almost at eye level with Shadow Stalker.

A laugh escaped Shadow Stalker’s lips, building until she couldn’t balance her upper body on her weakened arm.  She bent so one shoulder hit the ground, rolled onto her back, arms at her sides.  She looked up at Skitter, “All that drama, all that fucking nonsense about allegiances, betraying your team, was it a trick, some joke?”

Skitter shook her head slowly.

Shadow Stalker tried to rise, but the growling of one of the dogs intensified.  It was the only one that wasn’t pulling on its chain – the largest and most monstrous of the four, with one empty eye socket.  Between the threat of the dog and the lack of strength in the arm that Regent wasn’t fucking up, Shadow Stalker gave up and let herself slump down.

“Well,” she spoke, her tone sarcastic, “How wonderfully fucking nice for you, that you guys patched things up.  You even have a new member, congratulations.  I guess everything’s back to normal for you freaks.”

“No…”  Skitter spoke, and the bugs around her chirped, buzzed and droned to match the pitch and tone of her words.  The villain hadn’t done that when the Undersiders attacked the fundraiser, she remembered.   Her voice was quiet, which only made it more eerie.  The girl held out her hand, and Regent passed his scepter to her.

“…Things are different now,” Skitter finished.

Skitter drove the scepter into Shadow Stalker’s body.  It was everything Shadow Stalker could do to stay solid as she felt the tines of the crowned stick biting through the fabric of her costume and into her stomach.  She resisted the instincts that two and a half years of exercising her powers had lent her, because she knew what came next.  It’ll be worse if I’m in my shadow state, maybe lethal.

Being tased didn’t hurt as much as she’d expected.  It was like being doused in ice water, her entire body seizing, straining, and refusing to cooperate, the pain almost secondary.  What hurt most was the way she involuntarily clenched of her jaw.  The strength with which her teeth pressed together made her worry she might crack a tooth.

It only lasted a moment, but her body wasn’t any more cooperative after the current subsided.  She lay there, huffing small breaths, every limb unresponsive.  A deep, furious rage grew inside her chest, but she was impotent to do anything to release it.

A pair of hands seized her, sat her up.  Her arm dangled limp to her side.

Grue spoke from behind her.  “Skitter, lift her legs.  Regent, support her midsection.  Imp?  Give me a hand with her upper body, take the other shoulder.  We lift on three, alright?”

“Right,” someone said.

“One, two, three!”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Buzz 7.8

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Stormtiger raised one hand in the direction he’d come and created a blast of wind to clear a path through Grue’s darkness and reveal Hookwolf and Cricket.

“Fancy this,” Hookwolf chuckled, looking down at me, “We decide to attack the blockades and avoid being hemmed in like the ABB was, and we happen upon you?”

“Not looking for a fight,” I told him.

“Stormtiger, find the others of her group.” Hookwolf snarled, apparently not considering my words worth responding to.

“Can’t,” Stormtiger spoke, from where he stood above me.  “Not smelling them.”

“You smelled her.”

“And I smelled the two uniforms from the ambulance.  Other one’s bleeding, sitting near the ambulance somewhere over there.  Darkness boy isn’t around anymore or I’d be able to smell him.”

He was wrong.  My bugs could feel Grue out there.  If the driver had been injured, that might account for why Grue had lagged behind.  But Stormtiger couldn’t smell Grue?

Hookwolf turned to me, “The dog girl.  Where’s Bitch?”

“Not here.”

“I know that,” he growled.  His hand dissolved into a mess of knives, hooks and spearpoints, then solidified into an oversized claw with fingers as long as his torso.  He flexed them experimentally.  How did you even classify that?  Ferrokinetic shapeshifting?

I crawled backward a few feet, trying to maintain distance between us.  Stormtiger reached down and blocked my retreat with one blade-covered hand.

I looked up at Stormtiger and spoke, “We split up earlier today.  One of our members had a source, we heard about the email that went out when the news stations and papers did.  Decided it’d be better to back off, just in case.”  No harm done by admitting that much.

“Don’t believe you,” he snarled.  “Doesn’t explain why you’re here.”

“That’s because-”

I stopped as the two of them turned away.  The ‘paramedic’ a few feet from Stormtiger had bolted, and was drawing a gun as she ran toward the closest patch of darkness.  As she got close to her destination, still running, she turned on the spot and raised her gun to fire at Stormtiger and Hookwolf.

Hookwolf barely reacted as the bullets punched into his chest, and even that was just the inevitable force of being shot.  Stormtiger raised one arm as if to protect himself, but the bullets were already veering off before they could hit him, leaving a trio of hazy trails in the air where they had turned.

“Handle her, Cricket,” Hookwolf spoke, pressing a hand against his collarbone where a bullet had struck him.  The scarred girl with the buzz cut dashed forward, reaching behind her back to draw two scythe-like weapons, each only about as long as her forearm.

Coil’s soldier turned to fire at the incoming villainess, but Cricket ducked to the right, then evaded left, in time with the noise of the gunfire.  The distance between them closed rapidly.  I didn’t see what happened next, as Coil’s soldier disappeared into the darkness and Cricket followed her in.

Hookwolf turned back to me, “Suspiciously competent for an ambulance driver.  Pretty fucking sure that’s one of Coil’s people.  What are you doing with her?”

I didn’t answer.

My bugs reacted to a funny noise from the direction of Cricket and Coil’s woman, but I couldn’t hear it myself.  Grue’s power did strange things to sound.  I had more immediate concerns.

Hookwolf dropped his hand to his side, and I saw how the bullet had penetrated skin, but had failed to get any further than the interlocking grid of metal that sat in place of Hookwolf’s muscle.  He smiled.  “I was hoping you wouldn’t answer.  It means we get to interrogate you.”

Options, options, what were my options?  Bugs?  They were around, but I got the impression that Hookwolf wasn’t going to suffer that much if I swarmed him, and Stormtiger had some kind of aerokinesis, which was bound to be pretty effective against the lightweight bugs.  Knife, baton?  Not much better.   These guys were capable in hand to hand.  I wasn’t.

Where was Grue?  I felt out with my power, and found him at the back of the ambulance with the driver.  Whatever he was doing, I hoped he would do it soon.  I needed his help.

I looked for Cricket, and found her in the blackness, dragging Coil’s soldier back toward us.  I saw her emerge from the darkness, one of the miniature scythes buried in the woman’s upper arm, the other buried in her thigh.  With a full-body effort, Cricket swung the woman forward and pulled the scythes free.  Coil’s soldier rolled onto the ground before Cricket.  If her powers didn’t give her an edge in fitness, she was pretty damn fit for her frame.

Was Coil’s woman dead?  No.  The woman was breathing.  She was making lots of short, fast breaths, not moving, but she was breathing.

Hookwolf watched for a second before turning back to me.  “Maybe I’ll give Stormtiger some practice at getting answers out of people.  Those claws of his?  They’re compressed air.  Every second, he’s drawing in more air, shoving it into that claw shaped space, to make them denser, harder.  And when he releases it…” he offered me a low chuckle.

Come on, Grue.  I couldn’t handle this alone.

“Want to see what happens when one of them is buried inside you when he turns it into one of his blasts of wind?”  Hookwolf asked.  Again, the low laughter at my expense.

Grue was moving toward me with purpose, now.  I stirred bugs from the ground around him to place them on his body, get a sense of what he was doing.  He was carrying something three and a half feet long, nearly a foot wide, a rounded off shape that was all smooth metal.


I flipped over and scrambled away.  Stormtiger was behind me, and he kicked me in the back as I tried to rise up and start running, shoving me back to the ground, hard.  I was glad for my mask as my face bounced off the pavement.

Go with it.  Remembering the tips Brian had given me during our sparring session, I used the fact that Stormtiger had created a bit more distance between us and continued to move away as fast as I could manage.

“Running?” Hookwolf laughed, “You can try.”

“Gun oil,” Stormtiger called out, whipping around to face Grue.  “I smell gun oil.”

Grue hefted the long metal object back with both hands, then flung it forward.  He didn’t drop both his arms as he let go.  Instead, he used his left hand to follow up with a directed blast of darkness to cover it as it rolled into the clearing.

I clamped my hands to my ears, painful as it was with the bandage on my right ear.

Grue’s right hand was already withdrawing a gun from his jacket pocket as he backed up.

His arm jerked twice as he fired the gun at the oxygen tank he’d fetched from the back of the ambulance.  The first shot missed.  The second didn’t.

It was so quiet I thought I’d been deafened by the sudden explosion.  Hookwolf’s delayed scream of pain and rage was a bittersweet relief.

Wasting no opportunity, Grue marched forward, gun in hand.  Stormtiger had been farther away, and lay face down on the ground, bleeding badly but intact, from what I and my bugs could see.  Grue stopped, aimed, and shot him once in each leg.

“Hey!” Cricket’s voice was strangled, strained.  I wondered if one of the injuries that had given her one of those scars had done something to her vocal chords.  She lowered one of the scythes toward Coil’s soldier.  “I got a-”

Grue covered her and her hostage in darkness and turned toward me and Hookwolf.  The message was clear.  He wasn’t negotiating.  I was pretty sure I couldn’t have made that call, even knowing that stopping for the woman’s sake was almost inevitably going to lead to a worse situation.

Hookwolf staggered to his feet.  He’d taken more damage from the blast than anyone, and his skin hung off in tatters around the arm he hadn’t yet transformed, most of the trunk of his body and his thigh, with lesser damage over the surrounding area.  Beneath the tatters of skin, as I’d seen with the bullet wound, there was only blood-slick bands and blades of metal.  Hooks and knives all laid side by side in the general shape of human musculature.

Hookwolf thrust his damaged arm out to one side, and the muscles unhinged like a swiss army knife, revealing still more blades and hooks that unfolded, swelled and overlapped to cover and patch the injured area.  His arm grew with the use of his power, and the resulting limb was three times the normal size, ending in what looked like a two foot long fishhook.

“Skitter,” Grue called, “Run!”

I climbed to my feet and hurried toward him.  Hookwolf turned to face me, then lunged my way, closing more distance than I might have anticipated.   I abandoned my attempt to rejoin Grue and headed to my left, straight into the darkness.

My bugs dotted the surface of a mailbox, three paces into the blackness.  I ducked around it as Hookwolf blindly followed me in.  Swinging blindly, he struck a fire hydrant, but no water was forthcoming.  He lunged left, gouging chunks of brick from a wall, then he leaped right, striking the mailbox and cleaving it in half.

I was already scrambling in Grue’s general direction, the mailbox well behind me.

I felt a surge of relief at realizing that Cricket had abandoned her hostage in favor of going after Grue, to initiate a brief exchange of blows.  Unfortunately, my relief was short lived, because the combat wasn’t brief in a good way.  Grue fired the gun twice, and twice she dodged the bullet, standing only ten and seven feet away from the barrel.  It wasn’t superspeed, either, though she was quick.  Her movements were simply too efficient, and if there was any delay in her reactions, I wasn’t seeing it.

He swung a punch as she closed in.  Cricket leaned out of the way, then swung her scythe to rake him across the chest.  From the way he staggered, I knew she’d struck home.  He jabbed, she avoided it as though it were easy, then followed up with two more swings, and he failed to avoid either.  He staggered back, clutching one arm to his chest.

He blanketed the area around them in darkness, filling the clearing, and Cricket immediately switched to swinging blindly and ferociously around herself as she advanced toward where Grue had been.  Grue backed away, but this had the unfortunate effect of putting him closer to Hookwolf, who was doing much the same as Cricket.  Grue turned and ran to create some distance and avoid being hemmed in.

Then every bug in the area reacted to that sound I couldn’t make out, the one I’d heard when Cricket went after Coil’s soldier.  It was loud enough for them to hear through the darkness, but… entirely out of my range of hearing.

I couldn’t say for sure, but I got the impression the ones closer to Cricket had heard it a fraction of a second sooner.

“Grue!” I screamed into the oppressive shadow.  “Move!”

Cricket turned toward him and lunged in one motion, bringing both scythes down in an overhead swing.  Grue moved out of the way just in time.

“She has radar!” I shouted, my voice barely audible to myself.  Didn’t matter.  Grue could hear me.

Cricket passed one of the mini-scythes into one hand and then used her newly freed hand to wipe bugs from her skin.  They were gathering on her, and she was starting to feel it.  Good.

Again, that pulse emanated from her.  She maintained it this time, and my bugs began to suffer for it.  Their coordination suffered, they began to move slower, and their senses – such as they were in the darkness – began to go haywire.

After a second or two, I thought maybe I was starting to feel it too.  A bit off-balance, nauseous.  Grue was hunched over, his hands on his knees, but I wasn’t sure if that was Cricket’s power or the injuries she’d inflicted.  From the way Cricket was moving, I gathered that she couldn’t see us.  Was it echolocation?  Did it not work if she simply blasted the noise continually rather than use it in bursts?

Annoying as it was that everyone seemed to have a way of dealing with my bugs, I was at least putting her in a position where she couldn’t both find us and deal with them.

I was having trouble getting a sense of her powers.  I’d heard of her, seen pictures, read up on her on the wiki and message boards.  She was rarely more than a footnote, typically a suspect in a murder or arson case alongside Stormtiger and Hookwolf.  Never had I come across something like ‘Cricket has limited precognition’ or ‘Cricket is a sound manipulator’.

The bugs started to fall away from her, losing their grip or ability to navigate through the air.  Knowing our advantage would soon disappear, I advanced towards her, drawing my knife.  I checked on Hookwolf, and found him scaling a building a distance behind me.  Was he trying to rise above the cloud of darkness to spot us or get his bearings?

I was three paces from Cricket when I felt the sound die off, then resume again for one brief second.  Another radar pulse.

“Careful!” I shouted, adjusting my momentum and hurrying to back away.  Too slow.  She was already pivoting to swing at me.  The handle of one scythe struck me in the side of my throat, the actual blade hooking around behind my neck to halt my retreat.  Before I could do anything, she pulled me toward her.  I stumbled forward, and she adjusted her grip to swing the other scythe up and into the side of my stomach.

I doubled over and crumpled to the ground.

Grue shouted something, but his words didn’t reach me through the darkness.

Cricket emitted another radar pulse, then lunged for Grue.  She caught him in the arm, this time.  Then she backed off, going for the continuous, sense-warping noise to put my bugs on the fritz once more.

Grue raised his borrowed gun and his arm bucked with the kick.  Cricket was oblivious as the gun fired off several times in a row, but whatever she was doing with her power was screwing with Grue’s ability to aim.  None of the bullets struck home.  He stopped.  Either he was out of bullets, though it seemed too soon for that, or he wanted to conserve ammunition.

I climbed to my feet, feeling my side protesting in agony.  The blade hadn’t penetrated my costume, but the sides of my stomach weren’t armored and the cloth had done little to soften the jab of it, even if it had prevented me from being cut or disemboweled.  Cricket was bigger than me, stronger, and she knew how to use her weapons.  It had hurt.

When I was sure I could move without falling over, I lunged, knife in hand.

I’d hoped that if I was quick about it, I could act before she used her radar again.  I wasn’t so lucky.  She was already moving by the time I realized she’d made another pulse of noise, scythe points whipping around toward the side of my head, where my mask provided only partial coverage.  I had too much forward momentum to avoid walking straight into the incoming blades.

I half-fell, half ducked, and instead of driving my knife into her back like I’d intended, I wound up burying it in the side of her thigh.  Whatever technique let her dodge bullets, it apparently didn’t work if she couldn’t see.

As much as it might have hurt, she didn’t waste an instant in hefting her weapon to retaliate and swinging down at my head.  I wasn’t in a position to get out of the way.

Grue caught her by the wrist mid-swing and pulled her off-balance before she could follow through.

She moved fluidly, considering the blade buried in her upper leg.  She reversed her grip on her weapon with her free hand, stuttered her power to create what I took was another radar pulse, then readied to swing it at Grue.

I twisted the knife, and pulled it out of her leg with a two-handed grip.  Or, to rephrase, I pulled the knife through her leg, dragging it horizontally through the meat of her thigh, toward her hip, and out.

She toppled, and Grue put his hand on my shoulder to pull me back away.  Cricket lay on the pavement, pressing her hands to her injury.

“You okay?” Grue asked me, as he cleared the darkness within one foot of the both of us.

“I’m bruised but yeah.  I should be asking you that question.  How bad is it?”

He banished the darkness around his body, and in the gloom, I saw how the blades had neatly cut through his jacket and t-shirt to draw criss-crossing lines of red across his chest.  An uglier wound marked his right arm from elbow to wrist, all the more visible because the cut had extended to the cuff of his costume, leaving the sleeve to hang loose around his elbow.

“Looks worse than it is.  I’ve fought people like her before, in sparring and fighting classes.  She was showing off with the first few cuts.  Shallow, inflicting pain, not really meant to disable or deal real harm.”

“That’s stupid,” I muttered.  “I’m glad, but it’s stupid.”

“She probably didn’t think about it.  I’d bet it’s something she learned and incorporated into her style while fighting for a crowd.”  He looked over in Hookwolf’s direction, then winced at how the movement pulled against his injured chest.  “We should go.”


Grue opened a path in the darkness for the faux paramedic, we checked that she was alive, and then helped her limp to the ambulance, with me doing most of the heavy work for once.  I hurried to grab some first aid supplies, packing ointments, pills and bandages into a bag.  Coil’s soldiers retreated back toward the police barricade before I was finished, each supporting the other.

Grue flooded more of the area with darkness while I gathered most of the swarm back around myself.  I left only the bare minimum of bugs necessary to navigate the sightless world of Grue’s power and the ones I needed to track Hookwolf’s presence.  There were more I couldn’t touch because they were caught helpless in the endless, subsonic drone that Cricket still emanated, but I had enough that I could deal.  We hurried away before Hookwolf thought to attack the spot where the ambulance had crashed.

We were nearly four blocks away before Grue felt it safe to dismiss the darkness around us.  Rationally, I knew we were safer in the shadows, that it would prevent most ambushes, but a primal part of my psyche was glad to be in the light and noise once more.

I shot Grue another worried look as we walked.  “Looks like it’s my turn to give you some stitches.  You going to be okay?”

“Fuck.”  He touched his chest tenderly, not giving me a direct answer.  “What were her powers?  Overclocked reflexes and what was it you said?  Radar?”

“Enhanced reflexes is a better guess than what I’d come up with.  She was making some sort of subsonic drone.  It was the source of that disorientation effect.  She could use it like echolocation or something.”

“It’s times like this I can say it’s worth having Tattletale on the team.  I hate not knowing someone’s powers.”

We stopped at an old church with boards up where there should have been stained glass windows.  Litter and more than one half-full trash bag occupied the ground at the base of the building.  Together, we walked inside.

Regent was perched on the lip of the stage beneath the altar.  Tattletale sat on the back of one of the benches, her feet resting on the seat.  Bitch paced at the rear of the church, the point farthest from the front door, and her dogs moved like gargantuan silhouettes in the darkness of the aisles.  If it weren’t for the light filtering in between the plywood on the windows, I wasn’t sure I would have known they were there.

“Grue!” Tattletale leapt from her seat.  “What happened?”

“Ran across Hookwolf, Stormtiger and Cricket.  Those three like to cut people,” Grue spoke.  “We were lucky to get away as intact as we did.”

“Sit,” I ordered Grue.  Hissing between his teeth, he pulled off his jacket, then turned his attention to his T-shirt, which was sticking to his chest with the blood that had leaked from the cuts.  Rather than have to remove his helmet and drag the cloth over his injured chest and arm, he tore his shirt where it had been cut, and pulled it off in tatters.  He sat down, shirtless, his helmet on.  I began getting the stuff out to clean his wounds

“Did you guys run into trouble?” Grue asked.

“Just enough that we’ve been getting a little restless. Bitch took down some thugs, but they scattered, and word’s probably out that we’re in the area.”

“Purity?” He asked.

“She’s out there,” Regent spoke, in his characteristic distracted, disaffected manner, “We saw the lights and heard the noise as she was knocking down more buildings.  She moved away from this area a little while ago.”

Tattletale turned to me, “Here, give me that.  I’ll work on his arm.”

I duly handed over the cleaning solution and some antiseptic wipes.  I heard Grue mutter, “Shit, I hope Cricket isn’t the type to put poison on her weapon.”

“Don’t say that!” I gasped, horrified.

“Not to worry, either of you,” Tattletale sounded exasperated.  “My power says no.”

I nodded, but my heartbeat was still cranked up a notch from that momentary alarm.  When I glanced up from the stash of medical stuff I’d grabbed from the ambulance to see how Tattletale was doing with Grue’s arm, I saw Grue’s skull-visor pointed at me.  Was he looking at me?  What was he thinking?  What expression was on his face?

“I’m thinking guerrilla strikes,” Grue spoke, turning to Tattletale, “We have the dogs, we use their mobility to harass, catch any roaming groups off guard, take them down, disappear before reinforcements or heroes show.”

Tattletale shook her head, “One problem with that.”

“Which is?”

She pointed at his chest.  “You may not be poisoned, but you’ve lost some blood.  I’d lay even money that you’d pass out if you did something as high exertion as riding the dogs.”

“Don’t take a bet with Tattle,” Regent chimed in, “She cheats.”

“We need to end this fast,” Tattletale said.  “Not just because of Grue’s injuries, but because Purity’s going to wipe out our neighborhood soon if someone doesn’t stop her.  We take the most direct action we can.”

“Direct action,” I echoed her.  I didn’t like the sound of that.

“We go straight for Purity.”

“Fuck that,” Grue shook his head, “There’s no way.”

“Way,” Tattletale retorted.  “It’s not pretty, it’s risky, but it’s our best bet at ending this, one way or another.  Thing is, we’ve got to move fast or our opportunity will disappear.  Skitter, we’d better get started on the stitches, I’ll explain while we do it.”

I swallowed, nodded, turned my attention back to the bag of medical stuff, and found the needle and thread.

“Like you said before,” I told Grue, quiet, pulling the pre-threaded needle free of the spool, “Let me apologize in advance.”

“Damn it,” he muttered.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Buzz 7.7

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Purity floated above the docks, an oversize firefly against a blue-gray backdrop of sky.  She came to rest over a building that had been half built and left abandoned, a small crane jutting out of the middle of it.  A building I recognized as Bitch’s place.  Her improvised dog shelter.

“Brian!” I called out.  “You want to see this!”

The cameraman tried to zoom in and focus on Purity, but only intensified the lens flare effect that followed her.

He zoomed back out just in time to see her take action.

The beams of light that blasted from her palm weren’t straight.  There was a bit of a spiral to them, as they formed a rough double helix.  The end result was wider than Purity was tall, tearing into the building to topple the crane against one wall.  She turned the light on the other walls, obliterating them.

It took her less than a minute to level the building and pulverize any part of the structure that stood higher than the sidewalk.

She paused, and hovered there in the midst of the dust and the motes of light that had followed in the wake of her power.  She turned and shot the next-closest building, directing a smaller, tighter beam at one corner where the structure met the ground.  She hit the next corner, then swept the oscillating shaft of light through the ground floor to obliterate any supports that stood within.  The building toppled messily with brick walls sloughing off and cresting plumes of dust.

The building hadn’t even finished falling down before she started work on the next two, devoting one beam to each.

“Were there people in there?” I asked, horrified both at the idea and at what this woman was capable of doing. “What about those other buildings?

Brian was behind his couch, watching, “There might have been, and there might be.”

My need to hurry overrode my modesty.  I stood and pulled off my top, leaving just my bra on, making sure to keep my back to Brian.   I removed the sweatshirt I had tied around my waist and untied the arms of my costume.

“What are you doing?”

“Getting ready,” I put my arm through one arm and worked my fingers into the gloves.

Brian walked around the couch and I hurried to raise the top half of my costume and clutch it to my chest, covering myself.  He put his hands on my bare shoulders and exerted enough force to push me back down to a sitting position.  I complied, stiffly, reluctantly.

He pulled his hands away a little more quickly than he might have a day or two ago, jamming them in his pockets.  I hunched my shoulders forward self consciously.

Brian took a deep breath.  “Not your job.”

“They’re doing that because of us,” I adjusted my grip on my costume top to free a hand so I could point it at the TV.  The cameraman was retreating from the scene, and the image was wobbling as the camera rocked with his movement.  The spark of light that was Purity was moving in his general direction as she leveled more buildings.

“Because of Coil, not us.  The heroes will be the ones to take care of it,” Brian retorted.

“They could be hurting innocent people.”

“Given who these guys are, I’m pretty sure they’ve been hurting innocent people for a long time.”

I turned to frown at Brian, “You know what I mean.  We-”

“Undersiders,” A female voice cut into the conversation.  “Protectorate.   Take note.”

Our heads turned back to the television screen.  The camera showed a brilliant glare that could only vaguely be made out as a face.  The view shifted, and I heard her command, “Hold it.”

The camera steadied and focused on Purity’s face, from ground level looking up.  I suspected the cameraman was on the ground.

“You took the most important thing in the world from me,” her voice was without affect, flat.  “Until she is returned, this doesn’t stop.  I will take this city apart until I find you or you come to stop me.  My subordinates will murder anyone, everyone, until the matter is settled.  I don’t care if they are genetically pure or not.  If they haven’t allied with us already, they missed their chance.”

She bent down to take the camera.  While the image swayed wildly, Purity spoke, “Night, Fog.  Demonstrate.”

The camera steadied, fixed on a man and a woman in gray and black costumes, respectively, featuring cowls and cloaks.  Behind and to the side of them was an unnaturally pale and white haired young man.

The man in gray evaporated into a rolling cloud of white-gray fog, moving toward the camera.  Purity took flight, moving up and above the scene, keeping the camera focused on the cameraman.  As the camera rose and the view of the scene expanded, I could see Crusader off to one side, leaning against a wall with his arms folded.

As the mist enveloped the cameraman, Night strode forward, disappearing into it.  The timing of what happened was wrong, too soon after she entered the fog.  There was a ragged scream, and then blood sprayed out of the mist to paint the surrounding road in dozens upon dozens of long splashes of crimson.

The fog moved as though it had a mind of its own, congealing into the man once more.  When he had fully pulled himself together again, there were only a few spatters of blood six or so paces from where the body had fallen, and Night, standing in the middle of the road.  No body, no clothes, no blood remained where the fog had passed.

“We are not the ABB,” Purity spoke, not bothering to turn the camera back to herself, “We are stronger, both in powers and in numbers.  We have discipline, and thanks to you, we have nothing left to lose.  I will have my daughter back, and we will have our restitution.”

Purity dropped the camera, and the view spun lazily as the camera hurtled to the ground.  There was the briefest of glimpses of the trail of light that marked her departure, before the camera hit the ground and the television went black.  After a moment, the ‘BB4 News’ logo appeared on the screen against a blue background.

“Crap,” Brian said.

“So.  If you’re not going to go after them to save people,” I wasn’t able to keep all the bitterness out of my voice.  “Maybe you’ll do it for our rep, after we got called out like that?”

“That’s not- Taylor, I don’t want people to get hurt or killed, either.  I’m not a villain that aims to hurt people.  I’m just being practical.”

“You didn’t answer my question.  What are we doing now, after hearing that?”

“We’re calling Lisa.  Or you are, and I’ll take care of your ear while you do it.”

I nodded.  I took the opportunity to get my top back on while he got the first aid kit, and grabbed my cell phone.  Brian used saline and a wet cotton wipe to wipe around my ear, and I dialed Lisa.  She picked up on the first ring.

“Lemon J,” I told her.

“Bumblebee S,” she replied.  “No immediate danger, but the situation doesn’t look good?”

“Right,” I replied.

Brian put the cotton wipe aside.  It was a red-pink with flakes of my dried blood on it.  He prepared another to continue working.

“You see that bit on TV?” I asked her, “Hold on, I’m putting you on speaker for Grue.”  I’d used his codename for security’s sake.  I fiddled with the keypad to get the phone to speaker mode.

Lisa’s voice was tinny through the low quality speaker.  “Purity?  I saw the bit on TV.  From what I picked up, child protective services and a contingent of capes went into her place and walked out with her baby while she was at work, before she even had a chance to hear about the email.  Mama bear snapped.”

“Tattletale,” Brian spoke, “Did you talk to Coil?”

“Coil says he told Kaiser straight up that he was responsible for the emails.  I believe him.  If Purity and Kaiser’s other subordinates don’t know, Kaiser either hasn’t seen fit to tell them or he’s intentionally keeping them in the dark.”

“What?  Why would he do that?” I raised the phone closer to my mouth to ask her.

“It makes a warped sort of sense to me,” Brian answered for Lisa.  “He lets his people believe we’re responsible, with Purity’s group gunning for us and the Protectorate.  Hookwolf hates us anyways, because of Bitch, so he goes along.  Kaiser lets them deal with us, with all that fury and hate and no-holds-barred torture, murder and maiming that comes with blaming us.  When we’re dealt with, or when it’s convenient, he tells them the truth, turns that bloodthirst against Coil.  His people won’t ever be scarier or more vicious than they are right now.  Why not maximize the damage?”

“Doesn’t that fall apart if Coil admits, publicly or to the members of Empire Eighty Eight, that he’s responsible?”  I asked.

“Yes,” Lisa’s tinny voice replied, “But Coil won’t.  He was willing to talk to Kaiser, fess up to the man himself face to face, but going with a more public route risks putting him in the spotlight, drawing attention to himself, and he’s not going to do that.  I suspect Kaiser knows that and is accounting for it.”

“So what’s next?” I asked, “I think we should do something to step in, but Brian was saying that he thought we should continue to lay low.  Before Purity said her piece, anyways. Not sure if he’s changed his mind.”  I gave him a look.

“I haven’t,” Brian spoke, loud enough to be picked up by the phone.  He dabbed ointment on my ear, making me wince.  “Sorry.”

I wasn’t sure if the apology was over his stance in the discussion or the medical care.

“According to the news and my, um, inside source,”  Lisa spoke, referring to her power, “Purity hasn’t stopped.  She’s doing strafing runs across the Docks.  She moves too fast for anyone but Dauntless or Velocity to catch, and she hits harder than both of them combined.  She’s knocked down four more buildings while we’ve talked, I’m pretty sure. How long before she happens to knock over our hideout?”

Brian pursed his lips.

“And she leads her own sub-group within Empire Eighty Eight, so I’m betting that Fog, Night, Alabaster and Crusader are on the streets, doing their own thing.  I dunno about you guys, but I have friends in our neighborhood.  I’m very not cool with that.”

Brian sighed, “Fine.  We go.  But no direct confrontation until we have a game plan, especially not before we reunite our two groups.  Where are you guys?”

“Holed up on the far side of the Trainyard, with the dogs,” Lisa answered, “Not a bad spot.  Better than the building Purity tore down.  Don’t know why she was set up there instead of here.”

I heard a voice on the other end that was probably Bitch’s, though I couldn’t make out the words.

“So.  We meet?” Lisa asked.

“We meet,” Brian replied.  “I’m going to call Coil for a vehicle, and to ask him a few questions, hear for myself that he talked to Kaiser.  However long it takes for the ride to get here, it should give me time to stitch Skitter up.”

I winced.

“Patch her up?  Why?”

“Not relevant to the current situation.  We’ll explain later,” he said.

“Later then.  Take care of yourself, Skitter”  Lisa hung up.

Brian held up the needle and thread, “Let me apologize in advance.”

“You see kids get their ears twisted in the movies and on TV all the time.  What you don’t get is how much it fucking hurts,” I touched the part of my mask that covered my bandaged earlobe.  It was throbbing, due in part to Brian’s ministrations.

“Just leave it alone.  The painkillers will kick in soon.”


We sat in silence for a few moments.  I stared out the small window at the back of the vehicle.  Very few cars were going in the direction we were.

The interior of the vehicle that Coil had procured for us was filled with medical equipment.  There was a gurney, which I sat on, a second smaller type of gurney that could be disassembled and reassembled as required, up near the ceiling.  The interior was efficiently packed with medical supplies: an oxygen tank underneath the bench where Grue sat, a heartbeat monitor, lifejackets, tubes of all shapes and sizes, lockers and drawers with pills, splints and bandages.

It was, to all appearances, a real ambulance.  I couldn’t say whether it had originally been an ambulance, and Coil had added extra compartments for weapons and for my bugs, or if he’d gone the other way and built the vehicle from scratch, to accommodate his additions.

We slowed down, and Grue leaned towards the front of the ambulance,  “What’s the holdup?”

“Blockade coming up,” the driver spoke.  He and the woman in the passenger seat were Coil’s people, decked out in paramedic’s uniforms.  “No sweat.”

He flipped a switch, and the siren blared.  Seconds later, he was revving up and moving without difficulty.  I looked through the rear window, and saw a line of police cars and PRT vans behind us, moving to close the gap they’d just opened in their formation.

“Hey, are we okay?” Grue asked me.  He was outfitted in costume, helmet on and visor down.


“I get the feeling you’re angry.”

“If I’m angry at anyone for that thing outside the mall, it’s myself.  Can we just drop that topic forever and forget it ever happened?”

“No, no.  I mean, are you angry that I didn’t jump out of my seat to go fight Empire Eighty Eight, before we knew everything that was at stake?”

“Oh,” I flushed, and my ear throbbed in response to the rush of blood.  Could’ve kicked myself.  “I honestly don’t know.  I wasn’t expecting it.  I see the lengths you go through to take care of your… family member, I think of you as a pretty honorable guy, you know?”  This was veering closer to the conversation-that-was-not-to-be-spoken-of than I’d like.  I deliberately left that thought hanging.

Grue rubbed the back of his neck, “I’m not sure I’m as good a person as you’re making me out-”

An impact rocked the ambulance, tossing Grue out of his seat and nearly knocking me heels over head.  The ambulance veered out of the driver’s control, tipped, and landed on its side, bringing Grue against the underside of the stretcher I’d been sitting on.  The spare gurney and the contents of drawers and lockers around the interior spilled free and scattered around us.

“Fuck!” the driver swore.  “Fuckshit!”

I pulled free of the tubes and the half of a gurney that had fallen around me, and crawled toward the front to look between the two front seats.

It didn’t look so different from Bitch’s dogs in general shape.  It was a little larger, too, maybe, but that was a hard call to make.  It was hollow, its limbs were thinner than the dogs, and I couldn’t really draw a line between what was the actual ‘meat’ of the body and what wasn’t, because the entire thing was a chainsaw whir of serrated blades, hooks and needle points, shuffling and shifting around one another, rising and falling, all moving too fast for the eye to follow.  Altogether, it maintained a general quadruped shape with a tail and elongated snout.

Walking on either side of it were two people.  There was a pale, tall man with the sort of muscle-heavy build you only saw on cons and bodybuilders.  He wore black slacks that were in tatters around his feet, had chains wrapped around his forearms, hands and calves, and a blue-white tiger mask.  On the opposite side of the metal beast was a twenty-something girl with a gymnast’s build and scars criss-crossing her exposed skin.  Her hair was shorn to a bleached blond buzz cut, and her face was covered by a metal cage.

The blender of dangerous looking metal bits dissolved, each of the hooks and blades retracting into the skin of the man at the center of the thing’s chest.  As the front legs withdrew into his shoulders, he dropped into a crouch on the street.  He wore a wolf mask of sheet metal that had been crudely bent into place, framed by long, greasy blond hair.  Hookwolf.

Rumor had it that Hookwolf, back in the day, had been one of the top fighters in a parahuman fighting ring in New York.  He’d grown greedy, killed the man that ran it for access to the vault with the night’s earnings, and had made a good number of enemies in the process.  It had been a group of white supremacists local to that area that had given him shelter and support, happy to side with him because the man he’d killed had been an ‘acceptable target’.  Maybe the ideology was real for Hookwolf from day one, maybe it was an act that had become reality when he found he enjoyed having people celebrate him for enacting his most twisted impulses and racking up a body count.  Either way, I suspected that  there were few things he wouldn’t do for his ‘Empire’ nowadays.

Stormtiger, the man with the chains and tiger mask, and Cricket, the girl, apparently tied back to the same circles of parahuman prize fighters that Hookwolf had once been part of.  I couldn’t begin to guess their motivations for following him, but I suppose it hardly mattered.  Hookwolf was dangerous enough on his own.  With friends?

“We run,” I muttered.  Hookwolf and his buddies had their backs turned to us and were walking toward the police barricade.  Stormtiger flexed his hands, and the air blurred around them, congealed into a half-dozen pale, translucent blades that jutted from each hand.

“We have guns,” spoke the driver, “We shoot them from behind.”

“No,” Brian spoke, “It won’t hurt Hookwolf, and I suspect Cricket and Stormtiger could do something about it, or they wouldn’t be so brazen about walking towards those cops.  Skitter is right.  We retreat.  Ready?”

Grue blanketed the back doors of the ambulance in darkness to mute the noise as he cracked it open to cover the outside as well.  Noiselessly, the four of us backed out of the ambulance.

Grue flooded the block with darkness, and I scattered my bugs out from the surrounding area and the compartments in the ambulance’s interior to follow in the wake of the darkness, spacing them out to cover the ground and the other objects around us, giving myself a swarm-sense of my surroundings.  I grabbed the hand of the woman ‘paramedic’ and pulled her away from the middle of the street, toward the sidewalk.  Brian brought the driver in the same general direction.

My bugs felt someone come after us, fast.  I didn’t have time to get out of the way and lead Coil’s faux paramedic to safety as well, so I shoved her in one direction and leaped in the other.  The man leapt into the space we’d vacated, and I felt a rush of wind set my hair to whipping around my face.

There was an explosion of sorts, a blast of wind powerful enough to lift me off the ground and push away a fair share of Grue’s darkness.  Stormtiger stood in the epicenter of the clearing, reforming the translucent ‘claws’ around his raised left hand.

He used one of the translucent blades on his hand to tap the side of his tiger mask’s nose as he turned to look down at me.  When he spoke, his voice was deeper than Brian’s, “Don’t need to see you, sweetie.”

I was really, really growing to hate enhanced senses.

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