Venom 29.6

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“Weaver,” Cuff said.  Her voice was pitched low enough that Satyr wouldn’t hear.

I turned my head her way to acknowledge her.  Satyr seemed to be preoccupied, sitting on a stair, picking something out of a groove in his golden belt.  Dried blood?

“You’re doing that crazy mastermind thing again,” Cuff said.

“Which crazy mastermind thing?”

“Where you talk to the other masterminds and one of you leaves something unsaid, and the other knows what that thing is without asking.  Who’s here?”

“Scion,” Satyr said.

“You heard me?” Cuff asked.  Then, after a pause, she asked, “Scion?”

I spoke up, “Leonid’s powerset includes the ability to hear everything in a certain range.  That means everything, regardless of intervening obstacles, interfering or distracting noises and volume.”

“I can hear your heartbeats,” Leonid said.  He was a lean, young twenty-something with long golden hair and a mask with a lion motif.  His upper body was draped in a black, skintight, sleeveless, bodysuit, his legs in loose-fitting pants.  Complex looking gauntlets and boots encased his extremities, each tipped with wicked, six-inch claws.  Not quite what he’d worn when he was on the Vegas Protectorate team.  His eyes roved from Cuff to Imp.  “I can hear your heartbeat speed up when you look at particular people.”

“Satyr can tell you he already tried the seduction angle with his copies,” I said.

Leonid grinned behind his mask.  “Satyr was doing it to distract you.  I’m not like that.  I’m one of the active guys.  It’s like how a magician shows one hand, all action, style and flourish, to get your attention…”

He gestured towards Satyr, “…and the other hand is busy with the trick.  Hate to break it to you, but I’m genuine when I make a move.”

“Yet you’re all man-whores at the end of the day,” Imp said.

“Imp,” I spoke, my tone a warning.

Leonid only smirked in reply.  Floret, for her part, cleared her throat.

“You’re from Vegas, right?  Just because you dress like a woman doesn’t mean-”

“Satyr,” I said, cutting her off.  “You think Scion’s here.  Is he down there with the Doctor?”

“He entered through the same gateway we did,” Satyr said.  “I imagine he’s somewhere upstairs.  It was always one of Cauldron’s greatest concerns, that Scion would make his way here through one of their doorways.”

“Why?”

“Cauldron’s plan B, their plan C, even plans D, E, and F, if things had gone without a hitch, they would have been deployed from this facility.  Perhaps there is one in a million chance one of the plans potentially works.  If they don’t, then perhaps they buy the rest of us some time, and a third party figures out a solution.  Or perhaps they get close, and Cauldron uses the time that remains to refine the approach and the idea.”

“The prisoners, all of the people upstairs…” Cuff said, trailing off.

“Plan B.  Also plan D, if you count the more unnatural deviants,” Satyr said.  “Except Scion is now here, and he’s here now.  All of the plans will be forced into effect at once, rendered into little more than alphabet soup.  To top it off, the architect of those plans is out of reach.”

I looked at the solid metal wall.  “Cuff?”

Cuff focused on the metal barrier.  “I can tell from here.  It’s a lot of metal.  I don’t know how they did it.  It’s all one solid piece.”

“They did it with powers,” Satyr said.  “A column, with the panic room dead center.  When they retreated inside, they pulled the switch, and the entire substructure dropped two thousand, five hundred feet below ground, putting the upper end of the column between us and them.”

Floret shrugged.  “We could handle a computer, a lock, even a vault, no sweat.  But not this.  The plan was to wait for the group on the other side of the facility to forge their way through the steel, or around the steel, but someone gave the Custodian a tinker-made super death knife, and well…”

“That was me,” I said.  “Nothing to do with the Custodian.”

“Ah, well,” Satyr said.  “Good and bad to any situation.  We’ll be able to assert control over that group more easily, with their leadership dead.  And there won’t be as great a chance that they take the good Doctor out before we can get a word in… but progress will be slower, and we don’t have much time to spare.”

It was a relief, on one level, that he didn’t seem interested in making a fuss over it.  He’d set Spur and Nix in the way, to keep people from interfering with his group’s infiltration, but he seemed fully capable of accepting that there was a snarl in his plan.

I knew it was hypocritical, but a part of me was bothered by that.  I didn’t want him to be able to take this in stride.  I didn’t want a lack of communication, conflicting plans and inter-group issues to be the norm, when the stakes were this high.  Satyr was the type that thrived because he anticipated such.

Maybe I was too.

Satyr looked at the wall to his left.  “The remaining members of the Irregulars and their digging party have just arrived at the far end of this column.  If we go up one floor, we can cross to the other staircase and make our way down to pay them a visit.  Given that the group watching their rear is… compromised, I don’t think we’ll have any problems taking control of that situation.”

“If we leave now and walk briskly, we’ll arrive in eight minutes,” Floret said.

“My details person,” Satyr said, “Would you believe?”

My tone was dry as I replied, “Somehow, I’m not surprised.”

Details would be Floret’s thing.  She didn’t look it, with bright pink hair, green roots, and a costume of metal ‘leaves’ that left little to the imagination.  Her costume philosophy was the antithesis of my own.  But Floret wasn’t a fighter, even less than I was.  She could take a minute or two to create a ‘bud’.  The bud would then unfold into a complex crystalline shape after a set time, or upon impact with a surface.  They were limited in terms of their size, no more than a foot across, but they were rich in potential, with crude applications on the molecular scale.  Typically stylized to look like flowers, the crystals could bond to surfaces, set touched things on fire, cancel out chemical reactions or just fuck with tinker devices.

As a teenager, she’d had a career as a roving lockpick for villain heist teams, creating keys and fake keycards with cloned magnetic strips, to varying degrees of failure.  It was only when she joined the Vegas team that she found others with the degree of forethought, planning and teamwork that could let her power truly shine.

Her power only worked because of her secondary power, and her secondary power was the big reason she fit in so well with the Vegas team.  An enhanced awareness and processing ability regarding fine detail.  She picked up on the little things.  All of the little things.

Satyr leaned back, then rolled forwards, getting to his feet without using his hands.  “I assume you’re coming.”

“Yes,” I said.  If only to make sure you don’t pull something.  “More bodies against Scion.”

“Bodies don’t matter,” Satyr said, as he led the way.  “One, ten, a thousand, it doesn’t make a big difference.”

Speaking of bodies…  Where the hell is Scion?  There wasn’t even any noise.

Was Satyr fibbing?

No.  It didn’t jibe.  Not with the aura of defeat, not with the circumstance, with what Tattletale had said… they were good at the con, but not that good.

I changed subjects.  “Can I ask where the heroes are?  Revel, Exalt and Vantage?”

“With Nix and Spur,” Satyr said.  “Most likely disguised as a rock or a bulge in the cave wall.  Blowout hit them with a full-on stunning presence.  They should still be out.”

“I see,” I said, trying not to reveal how surprised I was.  We’d walked right by the captive heroes.  That wasn’t the big issue.  Blowout was.  He wasn’t as stylish or attractive as the others, with a featureless mask that had a single ‘eye’ at the brow, his head shaved.  His armor panels had lights that slowly rotated from one color to another, like a chintzy car stereo.  Unassuming, when he wasn’t engaged in a fight.  When he was, the lights would be flaring, muscles would be standing out, and there would be noise, shock and awe involved.

Blowout wasn’t a tinker; he had telekinetically assisted strength, which meant that when he was hoisting a car over his head, he was doing it with his mind more than with his arms.  The strength and durability increased with the size of the audience and the reaction he got from them.  His secondary power was the effect he had on his enemies, feeding on the same reactions that fueled his strength to new heights and leaving his targets stunned, reacting slower, taking longer to pick themselves up off the ground.  On paper, he was the case-in-point of what Leonid had been talking about, the hand that distracts while the other hand sets up the trick.

But, as Floret suggested, it was something of a thing for Vegas capes to have ‘secondary’ powers that were actually the real power, in practice. Or maybe it was that Satyr tended to encourage a focus in the secondary powers, or a development of those same abilities.  There was nothing on record about a long-term use of Blowout’s power, like Satyr had described.  It would be a card he’d kept up his sleeve when he wasn’t doing something behind the scenes with the Vegas capes.

I was put in mind of a few of the records and events that hadn’t quite fit.  They’d checked, retroactively, for drugs, and found none.  They’d checked for any remainder of Floret’s creations, and again, they’d found nothing.  But if it was Blowout… if he was the reason people had been left with amnesia, brain damage and even brain death, then that gave me a bunch of new reasons to worry about the Protectorate heroes we’d left behind.

A reason to watch our backs.  I just had to wrap my head around how he might have done this so discreetly, when his power required the obvious and blatant.

Satyr’s duplicates, maybe?  Did the copies count as a crowd?

Something to keep in mind… and I had to inform my teammates without Leonid knowing.

I glanced at the leader of the Vegas mercenaries, noting how quiet he was as he ascended the stairs.  He didn’t seem worried about anything.  Not us, not Scion, not the riot above.  Was I like that, when I was in the zone?  Almost wanting to push him outside of his comfort zone, I said, “I expected you to ask about your teammates.”

“Spur and Nix?  They’re capable enough.  If you’ve done something horrific to them, then informing me won’t help us in the here and now.  I’ll have my revenge at a later date, all the same.”

“Fair,” I said.  No effect.

I let Satyr maintain the lead of the group and determine our pace as we moved forward.  He had eyes on the other group with his duplicates, and he had Floret passing information to him with the subtle sign language the group had adopted.  It worked; if we arrived too early, we’d be interrupting the Irregulars before they were through the steel barrier.  If we arrived late, we’d be running the risk that the Doctor would be killed.

For now, I was happy to let them manage that aspect of the plan, while I focused on keeping an eye out for the inevitable stab in the back.  It just didn’t flow, their attitude now, compared to how they’d tried to cover their tracks earlier.  I knew who they were and I’d seen the records detailing whole strings of crimes, and I wasn’t willing to believe they were playing ball with us.

So I watched them, and Floret watched me, because her power was perfectly suited to following what my swarm was doing from moment to moment.

“I don’t like him,” Rachel murmured in my ear.

Imp leaned in to join the conversation, adding, “You do know that Leonid can hear everything that’s said in a certain area around him?  There’s no point in whispering.” as if she hadn’t just found that out for herself.

“I don’t like him,” Rachel said, full volume.

“That’s not what I meant,” Imp said, a little off-guard.

“He’s arrogant, he talks too much, and he acts like Tattletale does when she’s trying to pretend she’s not in a really bad mood,” Rachel said.

“It’s a rare thing,” Satyr said, “for someone to leave me speechless.  I can tell you that virtually everyone comes to like me when they get to know me.”

“Everyone likes the manipulative assholes after they’ve had a chance to do their manipulating,” Rachel said.

“I couldn’t extend that to Weaver, there, and suggest the same applies to her?”

“You could try,” Rachel said, “But then I’d have my dogs attack you.”

“Alright,” I said, stepping in.  “No more of that.”

Rachel glowered at me.

“He’s a weasel,” Lung growled.  “I have allied with a man who talked like he does, but it was a man of substance.  Not sex and…”

“Subtlety?” Imp offered.  “Scandal?  Style?  Sophistry?

Where is she learning these words?

Lung only glowered at Imp.

“As substanceless a person as he might be,” I said, “Scion’s upstairs, and we have overlapping goals, so we’re allies, or as close to being allies as we’re going to get.  No fighting.”

Rachel relaxed as though she’d flipped a mental switch.  She snapped her fingers twice, getting her dog’s attention, and then made a gesture without moving her hand from her side, her palm facing the ground.

The dogs eased up just like she had.

I glanced at Satyr, who shrugged.  His tone was light as he said, “My ego’s taking a bruising today, it seems.”

I could see the lines of his shoulders and chest, with him not wearing any armor on the upper body.  Was he maybe just a bit less relaxed than Rachel at this point?

Maybe he wasn’t at ease around someone who blithely barreled past any attempts at manipulation with unbridled aggression.  A point for us, maybe.

We’d reached the fourth floor.  I stood by, watching for trouble from above, while the others filed through.  I could see how Canary was ill-at-ease, while Shadow Stalker was impossible to read in her ghostly state, passing through the wall by the door.  Cuff and Lung were both rigid, as if anticipating fights, but were confident enough to walk ahead of the rest.  Golem, Rachel, and Imp seemed more in their element, hanging back while the Vegas capes passed through.

“You know what you’re doing?” Golem murmured, as he hung back with me.

I nodded.  “Mostly.  Just watch your back.”

“For Scion?”

“For them,” I said.  “And yes, I know Leonid hears me.  I know Satyr and the others are getting the cliff notes from Leonid.  But they’ve got secondary goals here, and it’s worth watching out in case they try something.  Even if they know we know they’re trying something.”

There were nods all around.

Four copies of the Custodian appeared before us as we made our way into the fourth floor.  Each moved slightly out of sync with the others as they moved their heads.  It was only when the third and fourth moved that I realized just how they were moving their heads – raising their chins to look up.

“I know, my dear,” Satyr said.  “How close?”

They didn’t respond.  Instead, they disappeared.  First one pair, then the remaining pair.

“Second floor basement,” Satyr said.  “Scion is taking his time making his way down.”

“Why?” I asked.  It was too quiet.  “If Scion wanted, he could have torn his way through here in a heartbeat.”

Satyr was on point as we made our way across the fourth floor.  The cells here were reinforced several times over, each standalone, separated by tracts of empty space that eighteen wheeler trucks could have turned around in.  Spotlights served as the only light in the area, and they were focused on the individual cells, leaving the empty space between the cells dark.  Without my relay bugs, my power still didn’t quite reach the far end.  A third of a mile across by a third of a mile across, maybe, with ceilings that were fifteen feet high.

The lights flickered more violently than it had upstairs or in the stairwells, but these cells seemed to be drawing on a backup power source.  The lights flickered, went out, only to be turned back on, glowing a dim red, before the regular power was restored.  The lighting cycled between the three states, with no rhyme or reason.

Why?” Satyr echoed my question.  I turned my attention back to him.  “Why do you think he’s taking his time?”

“That’s not helpful,” I said.

“Basic reasoning,” Satyr said.  “What do we have in abundance, here?”

“Capes?” Golem asked.

“Capes?  Yes.  But there were capes at the other battlefields.  It’s very possible he’s idling because he’s taking them all to pieces, but… for however many minutes?  No.  What else is in abundance?  Or, to phrase it better, what particular kind of cape is in abundance here, that you didn’t have at the battlefield?”

“I get the feeling you already know the answer,” I said.

He nodded, the goat-horned helm dipping low, then rising.  The lights went out, then went red for a moment.

“Case fifty-threes,” Golem answered the question.

There we go,” Satyr said.  “And if you care to, you can infer further.  Why?  Scion is the supposed source of powers, yes?  Then what are the deviants to him?  If we see them as distorted people, then he sees them as…”

“Distorted powers?”  Cuff answered.  “Or… whatever they are to him.  Distorted spawn?”

“Something foul,” Shadow Stalker spoke for the first time since we’d split up to escape the cell.  “Broken, wrong, loathsome.  Damaged.  And no parent wants to face the fact that their kids came out less than perfect.”

The sphere Imp had tucked under one shoulder jerked a little.

“Woah,” Cuff said.  “Generalizations much?”

“Tell me I’m wrong,” Shadow Stalker said.  She glanced at Satyr, “I’m right.  Cauldron created these deviants as a kind of psychological warfare.”

“Most definitely part of it,” Satyr said, and there was an approving note in his voice.  “It’s psychological warfare… Shadow Stalker, was it?”

Shadow Stalker nodded.

“Yes, I’ve heard of you.  There are other elements at play.  Prey species have been known to spread their scent through an area, to confuse predators.”

“I like that analogy,” Shadow Stalker said.

“Mm hmm,” he responded, nonchalant.  “So Cauldron uses these deviants as a particularly strong source of our metaphorical ‘smell’.  They scatter them across the world where Cauldron is most active, the world Scion occupies, and he loses the ability to sniff them out.  Of course, this only works when the deviant isn’t going to draw undue attention.  Either they’re calm and inclined to keep to their own, by nature, or so dangerous that they remove witnesses by default.”

My eyes moved to the sphere Imp carried.  I was inclined to think she fit in the latter category.

“It makes sense,” I said.  My eyes were on Shadow Stalker.  She was playing into Satyr’s hands.  I’d made a note to watch out for it, but this wasn’t even subtle.

They were fucking blatant about this shit, relentless.  Which probably worked for them, because it eventually worked.  They found a hook, an angle, maybe played it in a more subtle way, or they’d just take it and run with it.

And it was all controlled, all managed, keeping it at a level where I couldn’t call them out on it without looking like I wasn’t willing to play ball.  That was fine on its own, but it put us on a bad footing.  I didn’t want to be in the middle of a brawl if and when Scion made a sudden appearance.

“Cauldron capes have, according to reports, gotten responses from Scion.  A pause, a momentary break in pattern, even, some say, a feeling of aversion.  Powerful Cauldron capes achieve better results, deviants even more so… and if the effect scales up as Cauldron thinks it might, the extreme deviants will get an even greater result, while having powers that may have some effect on him.”

“Which makes a lot of sense,” I said, “They’re a smokescreen, maybe.  Except there’s a hole in that theory.”

“There is,” Satyr said.

“He could wipe them out with one shot,” Golem said, the first to connect the dots.  “He could shoot them and shoot through the floor, if he wanted to.”

“Exactly right,” Satyr said.

“Do you know why he isn’t?” I asked.

“I have guesses, nothing more,” Satyr said.  “Hm.  They just found a way of combining their powers.  They’re breaking through the column more quickly than I thought they would.  We don’t have to run, but maybe hurry a bit.”

We stepped up our pace.

“He’s on the third floor,” Satyr said.  “Floor above us.”

“How do you know?” Shadow Stalker asked.

“Custodian.  We’ve crossed paths, as my group ran some errands for the good Doctor.  I think she likes me, even.”

I hadn’t noticed the Custodian, but I wasn’t positive I would have seen her if the appearance was brief enough.

“What’s on the third floor?” Floret asked.  “I haven’t been down here.”

“The ones with names.  Any cape they deemed interesting enough to keep and research.  Not many left.  I think they scaled down on those to focus on other things.”

Not many left.  Meaning there wasn’t much standing in the way between us and Scion.

If Satyr’s group wasn’t playing us.  I was less sure than I had been.

Supposedly Scion above.  Who’s below?

“Who’s with the Doctor?” I asked.

Ask her,” he said, pointing at Imp.

I glanced at Imp, who shrugged.

“In the sphere,” Satyr said.

“There’s a button on the bottom.  If you depress it, you can rotate hemispheres.  Counter-clockwise, please.  Clockwise opens it, and I’d rather not die.”

Imp looked my way.

“Go for it,” I said.

Imp turned the sphere.

“Finally.  Fresh air,” the girl inside said.  She had a quiet voice.  More the type of voice I’d connect to a shy librarian at a party or a sheltered preacher’s daughter in the company of boys.

“Sveta?” I asked.  “We met on the oil rig.”

“She also goes by Garotte,” Satyr said.  “The only reason the PRT didn’t put her down was because she’s rather hard to kill.  She has quite the impressive body count.”

“Don’t say that.”

“She was part of the original invading party,” Satyr went on, ignoring her.  “They attacked the Doctor, setting this whole mess in motion.”

“I could hear everything you guys were saying,” the girl said.  It was only when she said the longer word ‘everything’ that I noticed the rasp to her voice.  It would be part of the reason for her being quiet.

“Who’s with the Doctor?” I asked.  The other stairwell was in view.

“When things went bad, it was Weld, me, Brickhaus, Gentle Giant and six others who turned around and protected her.  I wasn’t very useful…”

She trailed off.  A second passed.

“Need a bit more information,” Satyr said.

“I’m hurt,” she said, and there was a plaintive note in her voice.  She sounded more like a Canary than a Shadow Stalker.  Not quite the voice of a killer.

“Suck it up,” Satyr said.  “Scion’s coming, and we need to know what we’re walking into.”

“Brick took the guy Blesk brained against the wall, um.  It was the clairvoyant, the doormaker, hurt, the Doctor.  Brickhaus, Magnaat, Munstro, they made it inside.  The others got shot down in the stairwell.  Um.  There was a guy with glasses, and five teenagers who looked a lot like him, only without glasses.  Ordinary looking, pretty much.  Alexandria…”

“Hm,” Satyr made a noise.  He looked up.

In that same moment, the lights flickered out for the umpteenth time.

The emergency lights didn’t come on.

I could sense my teammates, Shadow Stalker, Canary and Lung closing ranks.

“Weaver?”  Satyr asked.

He split in two.  A slow, oozing process, a lump swelling, pulling free, then forming features.  The arms and legs were quick enough, and the details followed, but the new him had no helmet, but slowly reshaped his exterior to match the original Satyr’s costume.

“If you keep doing that, I’m going to have to attack,” I said.

“What’s he doing?”  Canary asked.  There was a note of panic in her voice.

“Splitting up,” I said.  I willed Canary to pull it together.  Satyr bulged, clearly preparing to make another double.  I called out, “Satyr, I might need to rephrase.  If you finish making that copy, I’m going to attack you.”

“He can’t stop once he’s started,” Floret said.  “It’s a drawback.”

“I don’t buy that at all,” I said.  “So either you need to be more convincing, or I’m wrong, and Satyr has to learn how to cancel a copy in progress in the next five seconds.”

The bulge stopped growing more parts.  It began retreating into Satyr.

“We need to talk, Weaver,” Satyr said, still distorted, withdrawing the mass into himself.

Imp spoke up, “Why is it always Weaver you need to talk to?  Never, we need to talk, Rachel.”

“Shut up, you idiot,” Satyr snarled the words.  “There’s no time for foolishness.”

Idiot?  Foolishness?”

“What is it, Satyr?”  I asked.

“I’ve got to ask about your goals.”

“Ah,” I said.  “Nothing complicated.  Saving the doctor, getting answers, stopping Scion.”

I found my knife, beneath the staircase, suspended by threads I’d tied to the surrounding area.  I set my swarm to retrieving it.  We couldn’t see, but Floret shouldn’t be able to either.

“I always had a hard time trusting anyone who doesn’t have ulterior motives,” Satyr said.  “And now, here, I dearly wish you had some.”

“Sorry,” I said.  “If you haven’t noticed, a lot of us are pretty blunt here, straightforward.  Our goals are what they appear to be.  I really wish you could trust us.”

“And I wish I couldn’t,” he said.  “Funny how that works.”

I sensed Blowout pacing a bit to our left.  Floret had her hand cupped, like she was ready to throw one of her things.  I gathered the swarm, sensed her tilt her head a fraction.

Listening?

How much noise could thirty bugs make?  Or, rather, how much noise could thirty bugs make in the audible spectrum?

No.  That didn’t make sense.  Floret sensed details without even trying.

She was faking me out, no doubt.  Distracting so someone else could pull something.

Leonid was utterly still, no doubt focusing on the various sounds.  On heartbeats and breathing, the creaks of our muscles moving and joints shifting.  He was the one to watch.  He’d said it himself.  He was the hand that drew attention so the others could pull their tricks.

Which didn’t make him any less threatening.

Secondary powers of sound detection and sound manipulation, adjusting select things to be up to twice as loud or absolutely silent.  It gave him a stranger classification, a thinker classification.

His third power was a mover power.

“Don’t do this, Satyr.  It’s insanity,” I said.

“Your being here fucks it all up, Weaver.  There’s too much danger that you’d agree with us, that we’d have the same objectives, regarding the Doctor.”

There a distant detonation, a rumbling passed through the complex.

“What are your motives?” I asked.  “Do you want to help her or hurt her?”

“Yes,” Satyr said.

“That’s not an answer.  I thought you said there’s no time.”

“There isn’t,” he said.

“Satyr, I don’t know what’s going on, but you’ve been playing this game of tricks and subterfuge so long you’ve all forgotten how to walk a straight line.”

“Oh, I remember,” he said.  “We remember.”

“So you’re just going to stand here, idly threatening us, until Scion attacks?  That can’t be right.  You’ve lost your mind.  Something with your power, messing with your heads…”

“You’ve got it wrong.  Powers from a bottle, they mess with your body.  Subtle things, but stuff you notice.  Heh, the last straight conversation I had with Pretender, he brought it up, joked…”

Time,” I told him.

“Ah well.  It’s you natural triggers who get a little bent in the head, here and there.  Isn’t that right, Ms. Lindt?”

My heart dropped out of my chest.  I closed my eyes.

“Yeah,” Rachel said, her voice quiet.

I clenched my teeth.

“That’s right,” she went on, a little louder.

“Shadow Stalker.  You too, believe it or not.  I’ve seen your record.  Your attitude, it’s not wholly your own.”

“Bull.”

“I’ve worked with worse.  I could give you direction.”

“Honestly?  With this shit you’re pulling now?  You sound fucking crazy.”

“Shadow Stalker and I are agreeing on this count,” I said, “Trust me when I said that’s a bad sign.”

“If we’re going to resolve this, it’ll have to be soon,” Satyr said.

“You keep doing that,” I told him.  “Telling us how little time we have, then delaying.  Forcing us into a corner?”

Another half-chuckle, wry.

“You’re not making any sense, Satyr,” I said.

He only offered another short laugh.

“You want us to fight you.  To stop you.”

“Probably for the best,” he said.

“No, it’s not,” I said.  “We need help, we can’t be distracted by-”

“Enough of this,” Lung growled the words.

“No-” I said, but I was too late.

Flames erupted around his claws.

It cast light on us, on our surroundings.

With the light, Floret could see my knife, off to one side.  I hadn’t been planning to use it to attack, but I’d wanted it in hand before we descended.  She slung one bud at it.  Encased it in crystal.  It hit the ground at the base of a cell, by a spotlight.

Leonid screamed, double volume, and it was an eerie, echoing scream that bounced through the area, each echo lower in pitch than the last.

Not that he needed it to reach that far.  Each echo of the scream coincided with a fraction of him fading out of existence.

Simultaneously phasing those parts of him in behind our group.

Canary had started to sing, nervous, but Leonid faded in behind her.  Two seconds to teleport.

Rachel raised her hands to her mouth to whistle.  No sound came out.

I turned, opened my mouth to shout, but Leonid had muted us.

I pointed, instead, but Canary didn’t get my meaning.

Rachel couldn’t get her dog’s attention with snaps or whistles.

Leonid reached out with his claw, up for her throat-

And Rachel tackled him, gripping his wrists.  Canary was entirely unawares, up until one of them kicked her ankle in their struggles.

Shadow Stalker and Lung engaged two of the remaining Vegas capes.  Blowout stepped in the way, protecting Floret.

And through some unseen signal, some practiced maneuver, he knew to duck as she flung buds at the pair.

One unfolded in the air, tagging Shadow Stalker in her shadow state, and she crumpled.

The other hit Lung.  Foot-long tendrils extended from his right pectoral to his right arm, binding to each.

Blowout hit the tethered Lung.  Maybe he wouldn’t have been strong enough to affect Lung normally, but the audacity of it and our reactions to that went a long way in giving him a little extra kick.

Satyr forced another copy out in record time, as the other charged me.

I set my bugs on it.  On her.  My double.  She didn’t have my powers.

She was strong.  Tougher.  She closed the distance to me with ease, with a runner’s strength.

So I moved the bugs to the original Satyr.  That bare chest, the eyeholes in his helmet…  I attacked Floret, and Leonid, and all of the other capes who had exposed skin.

Golem’s hand knocked her aside.  Cuff charged the one Satyr had just created.

Even at this juncture, I knew it wasn’t an even fight.  Satyr had outright admitted his team wasn’t a match for ours in a brawl.

Canary tentatively stepped on Leonid’s right hand.  Rachel’s dogs got his legs.  He screamed, and that sound wasn’t muted.

He began to phase out, reappearing by Satyr.  He climbed to his feet.

We outnumbered them, we had better combat powers.  The outcome wasn’t in doubt.

Which made Imp’s maneuver all the more insane.

She stepped out into the middle of the group and held the sphere high.

Rotated it, then rotated it back.

Sound resumed around us, as Leonid dismissed the silence effect.

Don’t, don’t, don’t,” a voice was saying.

It was Sveta, inside the ball.

“Everyone stand up,” Imp said.  “And if you fuck with me, I’m opening this thing.”

Don’t, please don’t.

Why?”  I asked, again, my eyes on Satyr.  The real Satyr.

“I would have been content to wait.  To procrastinate until we ran out of time.  But you came.”

“Satyr…”

“It’s for love, in the end.  Pettiest of all pursuits.  Arrogance, greed, even revenge… they’re nobler, trust me.  I’ve walked all those roads.  But love?  It twists all the other things.  Makes you misstep, makes you irrational, makes you impatient, above all.  We couldn’t have gone down there without getting revenge, without falling to our greed and arrogance.  So I was willing to wait.  To sit back and put it off, tell myself we didn’t have the firepower, didn’t have the numbers we needed to take on the group at the stairwell.  Wait until it was too late.”

“You were willing to die?”  Shadow Stalker asked.  She sounded offended.

“Better than being the ones who pull the trigger, dash our last hopes,” Satyr said.  “You can put down that sphere, Imp.”

Imp hesitated, then lowered the sphere.  She locked it, with vents open so Sveta could speak.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“And you probably won’t.  If you’re lucky.  I’ve said it all out loud, so the lie isn’t worth it, now.  You can go.  We’ll stand by.”

“Your fucking head games.  You’re going to stab us-”

“Weaver,” he said, and there was no pretense in his voice.  No joking tone or trace of mockery.  Talking straight.  “Go.  They’re almost through.”

“He is right, Skitter,” Lung growled the word.  “I can hear him.”

Lung was looking the way we’d come.

Scion, here.  On this floor.  I thought I could see the golden light, but it might have been a spot in my vision from looking at Lung with his burning hands.

If we go, there won’t be any escape routes.  No exits.

It was as insane as anything Satyr was doing.  Everything rational said to go upstairs, to find our way to the doorway, hope that Scion was still half-blind, still holding back.

But I turned, running for the stairwell with the Case-fifty-threes, away from Scion.

I ran hard enough that I couldn’t spare the breath.

I spoke with my swarm.

Go upstairs, if you want to go.

Give them a way out.

I could hear the others behind me, at varying distances.  I could sense Satyr’s group with my swarm.  They held their ground as Scion approached.

I don’t understand.

The others were following.

If you come, there’s no way out.  This isn’t even a hail mary, it’s a hope that there’s maybe something we can do.  A chance buried in a chance.

We came face to face with the group that had been working their way through the steel.  A mole-man, an ‘extreme deviation’ case that seemed to be made up of lasers, with her petrified body parts capping the ends.

And others, dead.  Satyr’s clones littered the area, where they’d brutally fought and killed several of the digging capes.  Where they’d died, they’d withered.

With Scion on our heels, we couldn’t afford the time to fight.

Lung, Shadow Stalker and Rachel tackled the ones who remained.  A crossbow bolt delivered to the cranium of the laser-girl, dogs attacking the mole-man.  Lung’s claws and flames to assist with both.

Without my asking, Cuff jumped into the hole.  Imp followed.

One by one, we passed inside.

Golden light flared in the massive room we’d just left behind.  No rumble, no devastation, nothing of the sort.

But I could guess what had happened.

Even if I didn’t understand it.

Golem was blocking off the path to us, while others made their way down.  Lung, Canary, then Rachel and her dogs.  Hands of concrete barred the way, and two larger hands extended from the column, fingers knitting together to form a fence.

It wouldn’t hold Scion for seconds, but it was something.

Three of us remained.  Golem, getting ready to descend, me, watching the rear, and Shadow Stalker.

Our eyes met.

She bolted, disappearing through the wall.

I headed down, with Golem following right behind.

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Venom 29.5

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Prisoners and case fifty-threes flooded into the narrow corridors, making their way into the special cells.

I gestured, urging others to move.  They shifted until their backs were against the wall.  Golem and Cuff even stepped onto the bed, to get out of the way.

I found myself by the door.  Mantellum wasn’t close enough to blind my bugs, so I could track the people as they came around the corner, approaching the doorway.  A gang of them.

I drew my second knife, then activated the knife Defiant had given me.  Safety… and the trigger.

One… two…

The guy at the head of the group made it into the doorway.  He stopped as he saw Bastard.  I pressed my old knife’s blade against his throat, saw him back away, only to bump into the people behind him.

three… fo-

The knife finished forming the gray blur around it.  Roughly three point seven seconds.  Good.

He didn’t look worried.  So I reached out and dragged the blur against the wall, gouging out a groove a few inches deep.  Smoke expanded.

He froze, his eyes flicking down, as if he could see past his cheekbones, face and chin to the knife I had against his throat.

I nodded slowly.

“Move it, asshole!”  one of the captives said.

He didn’t move.  I saw his eye shift, until it settled on me.  My arm moved, not wholly steady when fully extended, a weight in hand, and I felt the blade rasp against the scruff on his neck.

Not a case fifty-three.  Just an ordinary guy.

‘Ordinary’.  He was here, he would have powers.

“Move!” the guy in the hallway ordered.

Dim byd yma,” my hostage said, without breaking eye contact with me.  Then he added, in a heavily accented voice, “Is nothing here.”

The cheering reached a climax outside.  My bugs could sense the people in an adjacent cell.  They had someone, and were dragging him out as a group.

“Something’s going on,” one of the guys in the corridor said.

“Don’t care.  Move, motherfucker.  I want to see if there’s any shit in there.”

“Is no shit,” my hostage said.  “Empty.”

I nodded slowly.  Oddly enough, he looked more concerned at that.

An issue in translation?  A cultural problem?

The roaring reached a climax.  They had a man with no arms or legs, not fat, but with a goiter-like mass around his neck… hairless.  A case fifty-three.

This one,” Imp said, repeating what the mob’s ringleader was saying.  Shouting, judging by the way he was acting on camera. “This traitor, he is how they controlled us.  How they planned to control you.  He was going to brainwash these ones into a private army… he’s pointing at the weird looking ones they brought from downstairs.  This traitor was going to send the rest of you out without any memories, without identities, as Cauldron’s trash.

“We’re missing it,” the one further down the corridor said.

It’s only the three, now.  The rest backed out to check out the scene.

“I think I know what we’re missing.  It’s not worth seeing.  But first dibs at whatever’s in this cell?  If this fuckhole doesn’t move out of the doorway, I’m going to slide a foot up his rectum, and pry open a new doorway.”

I glanced around the room.  I could see how tense the others were.  Even Lung was rigid, bristling with scale-points.  Primed for a fight.

Imp’s voice came over the earbuds.  “Oh, hey, fun fact.  You can apparently crucify someone without arms or legs, if you try hard enough, and have the right powers.  He’s getting the crowd worked up, trying to start up a witch hunt.  Um.  He’s shouting, who wants to kill the real monster, the monster who did this to us?

The bloodthirsty cries of the crowd made it through even the soundproofing of the cell.  I could sense the emotion, the anger.

Look to your neighbors, the ones next to you.  Are they shouting loud enough?  Are they angry enough?  Because we aren’t going to brook any traitors.

My hostage looked like he was going to have a heart attack.  Caught between two very dangerous people.

I relented, easing up on the knife, then I beckoned for him to enter the room.

Slowly, he obeyed.

The guy behind him spat.  “Fucking liar.  I knew you were lying.  Trying to keep all this shit to your… self…”

He trailed off as he got far enough into the room to see me and the others.

I gave my hostage a push, with the idea that he’d get put off balance for the others to deal with.  Except I failed, completely and utterly, to budge him.  He started to turn, and I left him behind, hurrying forward to slide behind the second man and confront the third before he could catch on to what was happening and alert others.

The others folded in on the first two.

I could see the third man’s eyes go wide as I approached, my bugs swarming.  I had a knife in each hand.

He had other powers.

Fighting capes I don’t know, unfamiliar powers.

A sphere of light surrounded my right hand and knife, more spheres lighting up to surround the largest clusters of my swarm, turning each of them into fireflies in the darkness.

Which put me in the awkward position of figuring out what his power did and counteracting it.  The obvious solution, a solution to most powers, was to hit him before he could hit me with whatever it was he did.

I tried moving bugs outside of the sphere, and the sphere moved with them.  I moved individual bugs in different directions, and I felt them distort, coming to pieces, as if they were blobs of ink and I was pushing them against a hard surface.

Bugs made it through his perimeter, biting and stinging, and he reacted with the appropriate pain.  But the bugs surrounded by light didn’t manage to bite into flesh.  They were soft, their mandibles bending like putty.  Where he swatted his hand against them, both spheres and bugs were distorted and crushed by the movement.

I moved the bug-spheres out of the way, thrusting with the knife-hand he hadn’t yet affected, to cut off his retreat.  I felt the effect surround it as I got closer.  Another sphere.

I pulled back, instead.  I moved my body to block his retreat, and then drove my knee into his stomach.

He staggered back, then cast out more lights, surrounding my elbows, knees…

My head, too.  My vision went… not blurry, but the colors smudged, like bad watercoloring.

Breathing became more difficult.  Not impossible, but difficult.

The bugs who’d bent their mandibles or distorted in the course of making their way outside of the spheres weren’t going back to normal.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to hit this guy with any of my body parts, if they wouldn’t bounce back to their normal shape after the fact.

I wasn’t sure I wanted him to hit me, either.  If my face proved that pliable and he punched it…

He charged me, and I was forced to move out of the way.  He stumbled for the other end of the corridor and for the crowd, a hand pressed to his stomach.  I unspooled lengths of silk cord from the dispensers at my belt and beneath my armor, dragonflies lancing past him to encircle his throat and feet.

I braced myself, ready to try and arrest his forward momentum, but one of the threads was shorter than the others, and he only tripped.  He glanced over his shoulder, then cast out his spheres, so they covered my feet.

I threw myself forward, my flight pack kicking into action.  I lost my orientation, fighting to activate the individual panels in such a way that my hands, feet or head wouldn’t slam into a wall.

Imp said something, reciting a comment, but my focus was elsewhere.

The flight pack cracked against a wall, and I came to a dead stop.  For long seconds, the two of us were stuck.  I was unable to walk, because my own body weight would crush my feet, with this softening effect.  I couldn’t touch anything without turning my hand or whatever into mashed potatoes.

For his part, the guy was caught on the ground, his feet bound by cords too thick and strong to break with his own raw strength.

The lights flickered  out.  I could see him using his power.  An orb of light, surrounding a length of the thread.  He could counter that, while I wasn’t so lucky as to be able to counter him.  He pulled his legs apart until the thread had stretched out to the point of snapping.

He started to climb to his feet, finding other threads and using his power to break them.  He was screaming, but nobody seemed to hear him over the noise of the crowd, and all eyes were on whatever was going on in the Mantellum blind spot.  He wasn’t getting any help, but I couldn’t stop him.

Not with the thread.

So I controlled the swarm, driving bugs into his nose and mouth.

You want to play hardball, Softball?

He collapsed, choking.  Some would have capsaicin, but few of the laced insects would be alive, covered in hairspray and a toxic chemical, so long after I’d last refreshed them.

Slowly, in the order he’d created them, the spheres disappeared.

“Need help?” Cuff asked.

“No,” I said.  Forty seconds ago, yes.  Not now.

“Right,” she said.  She looked at the choking man.  Her voice was a little different as she said, “Okay.”

When the spheres around my feet and hands had faded, I let myself drift to the ground.  I hit the safety and trigger to remove the blur, then sheathed my knives.  Once my hands were free, I clenched and unclenched my hands to make sure everything was in working order, and then grabbed the threads that still remained.  I pulled on the threads until he was in a position where Cuff and I could get our hands on him and drag him back towards the others.

There were cheers.  I looked at my phone, and I could see the weirdly pretty man.  Chains stretched out from the armless, legless figure’s stumps, extending to the high ceiling and the floor, suspending him fifteen or so feet in the air.  Dead, or close enough it barely mattered.

I could also make out Mantellum, at the center of the crowd.  He stood beneath the guy they’d strung up, blood running off of the shroud that seemed to flow from his back and the edges of his face.  His expression was hard to read, but the fact that he seemed to be luxuriating in the blood rather than avoiding it… it didn’t put him in my good books.

It looks like we’ve got a full-on riot here,” Imp commented.  “Armless dude’s good as dead, they’re splitting up the crowd, so anyone that’s not inside the circle has a few guys who can deal with the ghost janitor.”

“The Custodian,” I said, as I rounded the corner.  I shoved the still-choking prisoner to the ground.  The one I’d held hostage was pinned to the wall, arms and legs held fast to the surface by Golem’s projected arms and legs.  Lung stood with his face just a foot away from the man’s.  Bastard stood with his paw on the chest of the remaining prisoner.

Three dealt with, no alert given.

The pretty man and the spiky, yellow guy were holding a prisoner’s hands up the air between them, like they were celebrating a prize fighter.  I could hear the noise of the crowd, as if it were far more distant than it was.  My bugs, outside of Mantellum’s effect, could hear it at full force.

Her.  Right,” Imp said.  “He’s getting them hyped, saying they’re going after the Doctor, but they need to dig.  Picking out the people who have the best powers for the job.  They’re shouting out what they can do.  I think they’re leaving soon.

The small army we were faced with aside, I found myself smiling a little behind my mask.  The situation evoked memories.  Except this time, I had a cell phone.  I had the pepper spray.  I had a weapon.

I’d changed.  I was more prepared to do what needed to be done.

“Less to fight,” Lung said.  “If you are scared, children, you can stay here.  In a moment, I will go.”

Taunting?  Mocking?  No.  Not really his style.  Confident in his superiority, now that he’d changed as much as he had.  Not full changes, not even full coverage with his scales, but he seemed to think he could throw himself into the crowd just outside the corridor and survive.

“We should exfiltrate,” Golem said.  “Lose the costumes, wear other ones, blend into the crowd.”

“Except you need your costume,” I said.  “Cuff’s far stronger with hers.  Imp, Rachel and I benefit pretty heavily from ours.”

“It’s just an idea,” Golem said.

“It’s an idea,” I said.  “Very workable, but it doesn’t address our main issue.  We need to stop them from going after the Doctor.  If we only wanted to escape, then I’d agree with your plan, but for now-”

Looks like they have groups formed,” Imp said.

It was true.  I had to tilt my phone so others could see what I was seeing.  Gaps had formed between the discrete groups, as everyone figured out who they were sticking with.  The main group looked like it had eighty or ninety people.

“That’s a lot of people to stop,” Golem commented.  He gave me a sidelong glance.  “You’re wanting to do something here?”

I nodded.  “Have to, don’t we?”

“Damn it,” he said, but he didn’t argue.

“Canary?” I asked.

Her eyes were on the two guys we had on the ground.

“Canary,” I said, a little louder.

Nothing.

One was still choking.  I ordered the bugs to make their way out of his airway.  They weren’t blocking it, but they were keeping him down.  We had the situation here under control.

Canary didn’t seem to relax any as the bugs flowed out of his mouth and nose.  A few crawled forth from beneath his eyelids.  He coughed and gagged.

She got more tense as I let up on ‘softball’.  Maybe I should have left him the way he was.

Canary,” I repeated myself for the third time, injecting a little more force into my voice.

She looked at me, disoriented.

“Can you sing to them?”

“Just them?”

“If you don’t have control, then yeah.  Just them.”

“I guess.”

“It makes them suggestible?”  I asked.

“I don’t really know.  I never really experimented with my power.”

“Not even in the Birdcage?”

“Not really, no.”

I nodded.

“They’ll listen to me.  If I really get into it, they’ll do anything I say.”

“Are they suggestible to you alone, or everyone?”

Canary shook her head.

“You don’t know,” I said, in the same instant she said, “I don’t know.”

“Can you group them all together?”  I asked.

Lung moved fast enough that it caught me off guard, bending down to grab ‘softball’ and the other guy by the throats.  He slammed them against the wall, putting them beside the guy I’d taken hostage.

Golem bound them in place.

Lung grunted, and I couldn’t read any meaning in the noise.  Irritation?  Satisfaction?

He was restless.  Ready for a fight.  The sound might have been a ‘there, now we can stop talking and do something.’

“Lung,” I said.

“Mm?”

“Go watch the corridor?  Your hearing is good enough you can follow along.  Plus you might not want to be too close to Canary, here.”

“Mm,” he said.

Less verbal, now, because of the transformation?

Canary crossed the room, and she began singing.  Wordless at first, as if sounding out what she wanted to do, then with more character.

Even though she kept her voice low, it still reached me, and that made me more than a little paranoid.

I moved to the other end of the cell, leaning against the wall.  When I could still hear the sounds, I put a curtain of bugs between myself and her, and made them buzz and drone, fluctuating the sound until I couldn’t make out what she was doing.

“What are you thinking?” Rachel asked me.

“Chaos,” I said.  “Ideal world, it won’t be chaos with us at the center.”

Rachel nodded.  “No dogs, then?”

That many parahumans, I suspected the dogs wouldn’t last more than a few minutes.  “No.  Let’s not put them in too much danger.”

“Lovely sentiment,” Shadow Stalker said, just a little sarcastically.  “So how are you pulling off this chaos thing?”

Whatever you’re going to do, do it soon,” Tattletale said.

I gathered my swarm into a cluster.  Then I activated my knife.

Using thread, I bound the knife handle, then lifted the knife into the air.

“What are you doing?” Cuff asked.  She sounded genuinely curious.

The bugs stopped working to carry the knife, and I very carefully grabbed it by the handle, before withdrawing my hand from the mass.

“Had a thought, but it doesn’t work.  It’s too conspicuous, the swarm.”

“Floating death knife?” Shadow Stalker asked.

“That was the basic idea.  But I’ll need to do something else,” I said.  I turned off the effect around it, watched as it dissolved into smoke.  “Custodian.”

I felt out with my bugs.  She reached directly into the swarm, letting me feel the slow movement of her hand.

“Generally speaking, you think you could handle most of the ones out there?”

She slowly floated through my swarm.  The movement of her head… was she shaking it?

I felt a familiar kind of disappointment.  We had the tools.  Canary’s song, Lung, the knife, the dogs, the Custodian, my swarm… but in execution, it didn’t fit together.

The crowd was stomping now, a rhythmic stomping, the crowd working in unison.

If anyone wasn’t game, if anyone wasn’t keen on the lynching of the armless man, they had to be powerless in the face of this much fury.  How could they speak against it?  Defend the man?

It was scary to think about.

Riling them up to go trash the place,” Tattletale said.

There was a crash.  I turned to my cell phone.  A cloud of dust, the crowd was agitated.  Someone had trashed a cell, or a group of cells.

“…If they keep doing that, they’re going to hit these cells awfully soon,” Tattletale added.

I shut my eyes.

“We’ll have to give it a shot,” I said.  “Shadow Stalker?  Leave.”

“Leave?”  Shadow Stalker asked.

“Find a vantage point, away from the crowd.  Be ready.  Your targets are the special case fifty-threes.  When I give you the signal, take out as many as you can.  As many as you safely can.”

“Your concern for my well being is touching, Hebert,” she said.

“I’d be annoyed if you got killed,” I said.  “I’d have that nagging doubt in the back of my mind, wondering if I sent you off into a suicidal situation because of our history.  And because we can’t afford to lose anyone.  Because you’re a human, and I don’t want people on our side to die needlessly.”

“So it’s about pride,” she said.  “Petty, stupid pride, that you think the outcome of this shit is up to you.  And maybe fear?  That you’ll lose too many good soldiers?”

“Whatever,” I said.  “However you want to interpret it.”

“I’m assuming you’ll insist on tranquilizer bolts,” she said.  “Because you don’t want anyone dying needlessly?”

“No,” I said.  I thought of Newter, of the unique physiology of the case fifty-threes.  “Lethal shots.”

She made a funny little laugh as she looked down at her crossbow.  She began loading it with expert, practiced movements.  “Funny how it all turns out.  This, for one thing.  That I can’t anticipate you anymore.  And… that it’s just you.  There’s nobody to mourn me when I’m gone.  Family doesn’t really care.  No friends left.  No teammates, even.  I’m left to console myself with the idea that, if I die, I’ll at least annoy the depressing, creepy little geek from high school.”

“I’d say something reassuring,” I said.  “I want to tell you that you matter more to me than that.  Or that I’m sure you matter to someone out there… but I don’t think you’d buy it.”

“I wouldn’t,” she said.  She wasn’t maintaining eye contact.  “Whatever.  I’m going as far up the stairs as I can, put myself half out the wall, snipe from there.  I’ll be a minute.”

Then she was gone, stepping through the wall, heading towards the stairwell closest to us.

You meant that shit, Skitter?”  Imp asked.  “Wanting to care?  Wanting to reassure her?”

“Pretty much,” I said.  “At this juncture, there’s no reason to lie.”

You’re too forgiving,” she said.

The lights flickered as another impact shook the complex.

They’re going.”

“So are we,” I said.  “Just as soon as Canary’s ready.”

Imp spoke, “Always ticked Alec off, you know.  That you weren’t any good at holding grudges.  Too focused on the present, when it came to picking your enemies and your allies.  I wound up defending you, even.

I was barely listening, trying to focus on the swarm, picking out the places they could operate and the places they couldn’t, tracking the various prisoners as they started moving.

But that last sentence caught me off guard.  “You defended me?”

“For him, it’s his raisin de enter.

Raison d’etre,” Tattletale clarified.

Yeah.  That.  His daddy fucked him up, so it sort of gave him an inner fire where he didn’t have much more than coal inside, y’know what I mean?  Forward momentum, itch to go out and get shit done?  Become a villain with the idea that maybe someday he’d get to pull one over on the old man, become a warlord.  So for him, it was the only reason he really got up in the morning, besides maybe the basic pleasures of life.  My parents fucked me over too, but it was different.  No grudge here, just a whole lot of sad.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I wasn’t sure what to add to that.

So it was a fight.  Closest to a fight as I ever got with that asshole.  Well, if Skitter’s being nice, so will I.  Good deed of the day, since I’m dicking around now, nothing to report…  You listening in, Shady?”

Shady?”

Man, it was eerie to recognize Sophia’s voice over the earbud.

I’ll take that as a yes.  Regent told me about his stunt.  Controlling you.

Canary passed through my swarm.  She was silent, and the glances to the side when Imp was speaking suggested she didn’t want to interrupt.

He took you home.  Gave you a hard time, messing with your mom.  The whole thing with you nearly committing suicide afterwards.

I was very still.  The lights flickered, the ground rumbled, and I didn’t so much as flinch.

Well, I’m not going to ‘prattle’, as Lung would put it.  He was there, obviously.  He told me about it, after the fact.  Just, like, a heart to heart, between two of us who don’t have much heart to go around, you get me?  Neither of us’s the type to get embarrassed, so nothing to hide.  Can share all the stories.  Share each other, just by talking?”

She made it sound like a question.  Like she wasn’t even sure, and she wanted validation from someone.

I remembered how Regent had controlled her.  Seized her with his power.  Sharing each other indeed.

Not a guy that’s in touch with his emotions.  Way I always saw it, they’re there, he’s just oblivious to it all.  Had to be.  So it’s only after he’s through with you that he realizes maybe he was a little hard on you, maybe he twisted the knife harder than he usually would, because it bugged him.  There you are with a family, and he can feel your emotions, and he totally knows you don’t even realize it in the slightest.  He’s blind to his own emotions and you’re blind to the emotions of others.”

Is this going somewhere?”  Shadow Stalker’s voice.  “You’re prattling.

Take it from me, as I tell you what the lazy jerk who body-controlled you told me.  Your mommy loves you lots, Shady.

There was a pause.  “Okay.

That’s all you’re going to give me?  I totally dish all this, and I get an ‘okay’?”  Imp asked.  She was oblivious to the pause before Shadow Stalker had spoken, to the fact that she’d affected Shadow Stalker on some level.

That, or Imp’s wording had taken a second to figure out.

“No arguments,” I said, cutting in before something could start between two of our more volatile members.  “Canary?”

“They’re ready.”

“Good.  Rachel, Golem, Cuff.  If and when we move, I need you to run interference.  When we move, I need you to distract, protect the core group, protect us as we run.  Rachel, keep the dogs large enough they can maybe take a hit or two, but not so big they can’t make their way into the stairwell.  Lung?”

There was no reply.  I could sense him out in the corridor, just at the corner where it looked out into the main hallway with the prisoners and other cells.  He turned in response.  He might have been able to hear me through the comm system, but he could have heard me anyways.

I don’t think he knows how to use the comm system,” Tattletale said.  “Or he does, but he’s changed enough it’s hard to do.”

“Lung,” I said.  “The other three are giving us cover.  You have enough experience I’m not going to tell you what to do.  You’ve been at this cape thing for a decade and a bit.  So go all-in.  Or do what the other three are doing.  Your call.”

There was no reply.  Maybe he didn’t understand the comm system.

“You’re so calm,” Canary said.  “Most of you.  Lung seemed nervous.”

Lung, out in the corridor, clenched his fist.

You annoyed him, saying that.

“I’m shaking,” Canary said, and her strange, melodic voice gave evidence to her fear.  “You can’t tell with these gauntlets I’m wearing, but I’m shaking.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Don’t worry.”

“I’m-” she laughed a little, and the laugh hitched with emotion.  “I’m- pretty worried.”

“We’ve been through worse.  Everyone here has been through worse.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better.  It makes me feel like maybe I had the right idea, back in the beginning when I decided not to do this cape thing.  I’m going to fuck up, and the stakes are so fucking high…”

“Relax,” I said.  “Or… if that’s not possible, just, um.  Tell yourself we’ve got your back.  None of us are about to let the newbie die.”

“That’s not that reassuring,” she said.

“It’ll have to do,” I said.  The ground was shaking, and someone was manually tearing apart a cell block just a distance away.  I could feel Mantellum retreating, the blind spot shifting.

I was just a little impatient.  We were running out of time, and I didn’t even have everything in place.

I parted my swarm, giving myself a view of the three captives.

“You three,” I said.

They raised their heads.

Brutto tik,” the largest one growled.

“Be quiet,” I ordered, as authoritative as I could manage.

He clenched his teeth, lips pressed together.

Does he even realize he’s obeying?

“I’m not your enemy.  Stop treating me like an enemy and listen,” I said.

I could see the tension slowly seep out of them.

“Nod your heads,” I said, experimentally.

They each nodded, out of sync.

“Golem?  Release them,” I said.

Golem created more hands, manually tearing the old ones apart.

The three stood still, looking just a little unfocused.

I turned to the largest one.  “What are your powers?”

He looked confused.

“Tell me your powers.”

“I’m dense,” he said.

Ah.

I extended my disintegration knife in his direction, saw the delayed reaction, the genuine fear and concern.

I turned it around, offering him the handle.

He stared at it, still looking afraid.

“Calm down,” I said.

He relaxed, very slowly, very visibly.

It works on involuntary reactions?

He settled into a state that still looked ill-at-ease, but not nearly as afraid as before.

Or does it work on the voluntary, visible signs of the involuntary reactions?

“Take it,” I said.

He took the knife.

“Hide it.”

He hid it.

“Now don’t move.  Don’t be afraid.”

He went stock still.

“Um,” Canary said.  “A thing…”

“A thing?” I asked.

“He’s not as influenced as my ex-boyfriend was, but… they’re very literal, about what you say.  Even like this.”

I looked at the dense man.  “Okay.  Then-”

“You’re allowed to move to breathe,” Canary cut me off.

The man exhaled audibly.

“Now don’t react,” I told him.

Then I sent my flying bugs to him, collecting them beneath the generic uniform he wore.  They carried silk cord and wound it loosely around his legs and arms.

True to form, he didn’t react.

I thought about it a bit more, and then gave him an excess of silk.  Hundreds of feet of it.

“This cell was empty, there’s nothing inside except people looking for some privacy.  Make your way to an isolated spot where nobody can really see you, wait until the lights flicker out, and then use the safety on the knife.”

He looked at me as though he hadn’t taken in any of it.

“My ex was like that, before went and obeyed me, without my knowledge,” Canary said.  “I think this guy will listen.”

“Then you’re free.  Forget this.”

He left.  I looked at the remaining two.

“You two, shirts off.”

“Yes.  I like the way you think.”

“Be quiet, Imp,” I said.  “We’re moving, be ready.”

And moving starts with sexy times.  Not complaining.

For someone who hates being ignored, she seems to demand it from others, I thought.  “Sit in the corridor, near where the spiky, scaled guy is now.  Tell him to come here.  If anyone comes, kiss.  Convince them they’re interrupting something private, get angry.”

“I’m not comfortable with this bit,” Cuff said.  “It’s creepy.”

“It’s better than Lung having to tear people to shreds or burn them if they happen this way,” I said.  “I’ll take creepy.”

“Okay, if I have to be specific, then I’ll say it’s a bit, um, rapey.”

I frowned.

“Don’t actually kiss,” I told the men.  “Fake it as much as you can.”

Cuff nodded.

The others were all moving, now.

As the two stopped near Lung, he turned to go.

Apparently he was going solo.  He clawed at his already scale-torn shirt and cast it aside, then stalked into the crowd.  He didn’t completely blend in, with his heavy jeans, but he could almost pass for a case fifty-three.

The dense man with the knife stopped.  He’d found a place in a cell where nobody had a good view of him.

He held up the knife, then activated it.   I drew the bugs from beneath his clothes and wrapped threads around the handle.

The lights went out.

I carried the knife up to the ceiling, then started carrying it down the length of the hallway.  With my bugs, I could trace the hallways on either side, sense the general grid with cells in rows of five, I could see the people…

Up until I ran into Mantellum’s blind spot.

A chronic failing of human beings, that we so rarely looked up.  The swarm moved along the ceiling.  If any parahumans had the powers to notice it, they didn’t have a strong enough voice to alert any others.

And, in the interest of using the enemy’s tools against them, I was able to bring the swarm inside Mantellum’s area of effect.  If there were clairvoyants or precogs capable of tracking my actions or what I was about to do, then this would presumably limit their sight just as well as it limited mine.

They’d lynched one of their own kind, were eager to lynch any others who didn’t show absolute loyalty.  They were celebrating, in a way, and they were simultaneously building up the crowd, ensuring that their mob was loyal.  All of them on the same page, for better or for worse.  I couldn’t see, but I could guess that the reason for their slow progress was the press of the crowd between them and the door.

I was blind, here, but I didn’t have to strike aimlessly.

I extended silk thread above the blind spot.  A good two hundred feet of the stuff, level with the ground.  I only stopped when either end of the suspended silk cord I had bugs on either side of Mantellum’s blind spot.

Then I extended more, setting it cross-wise against the other thread.

Not perfect, but it gave me a starting point.  Assuming the blind spot was a circle or a sphere, which it appeared to be, I could find the center point.

Mantellum, the source of the effect, dead center.

I waited until the lights flickered again.  The moment my bugs couldn’t see the lights, the tight swarm of bugs with the threads and the dagger swept down.

“Shadow Stalker, Lung, this is my signal.  Act.  Imp?  Get out of the way, head back to us.”

One pass.  A lazy swoop with the swarm, the knife suspended by threads.

I couldn’t see, even with the camera, but I was aware of Mantellum stopping in his tracks.  The boundaries of the circle stopped drifting in the general direction of the stairwell.

I waited, willed the lights to flicker.  Time passed.

People were reacting, outside the circle.  How much damage had I done?

The lights went out.

Another pass.

Mantellum’s effect dissipated.  The blind spot filled in, a crowd, capes, blood spraying.  My bugs could sense them all.

The lights came back on.  One cape saw the swarm, moving towards the ceiling.

A chunk of ice the size of a small car hit them.  Ice fragments rained down on the crowd.

Many bugs had died in the collision.

The swarm couldn’t keep the knife aloft.  I had to reinforce it, but I couldn’t get enough bugs there in time to do it before it hit the ground.

Fine.

I let it fall.  Let it pass through the ground like the ground wasn’t even there, disappearing into the floor beneath us.

“Custodian,” I said.  “The effect that was blocking you is down.”

I could feel her move.

Lung was advancing, now.  Fire rolled forth from his claws in plumes, surging into cells.  The crowd moved out of his way.

I could hear them cheering.  Oblivious to the fact that he wasn’t on their side, wasn’t just carrying out the raid.

Lung hurled a fireball that passed just inches above the crowd’s heads.

The fireball hit a cell block, scattering more of the crowd.

He was changing now, changing quickly.

“Lung,” I said.  “Tone it down.  If you grow too much, you won’t be able to come downstairs.”

No response.

More fire, more destruction.  The flames were spreading, igniting beds.  I could see on the camera, the meager flames that lingered on stone and concrete.

There was a method to his madness.  Small as the flames were, capes were backing away a touch.  They were cheering him on in his rampage, cheering the destruction of cells that had kept them captive, but they were still falling victim to the strategy beneath it all.

He was walling them off, sectioning off an area with fire and plumes of smoke.  Making it so we only had to deal with a smaller number.

I became aware of Imp as she hopped over a smaller flame on her way to us.  Lung, unaware due to her power or uncaring due to his personality, came dangerously close to frying her as he shored up the barrier, driving people back as the smoke continued to billow.

The cheers became screams of fear and panic as Shadow Stalker’s bolts started hitting the special capes.  Sniping them.

Three shots, and then someone retaliated.  A sonic attack, focused.  The crossbow bolts stopped appearing.

She’s dead?  Just like that?

No.  More crossbow bolts, from a different vantage point.  Fired from within walls, Shadow Stalker poking a barely visible head out into gloom to get a bead, then firing at her targets.

“Go,” I said.  “Shadow Stalker, Lung, we’re moving.  Cover our retreat, follow us if you can.”

No response from either.  They were busy doing what they were doing.

I could feel the Custodians appearing.

A vast quantity.  Filling empty spaces, overlapping.

A duplicator?  I thought.

Like Velocity, the Brockton Bay Protectorate member who’d died against Leviathan.  He’d been a fast cape, capable of outrunning vehicles, striking a hundred times in a minute.  But that came at the expense of a limited ability to affect the world.

The Custodian was the same.

She was weak, standalone, barely a wisp of air.  And she couldn’t turn it off.  Couldn’t get back to a state where she was fully material, capable of affecting the world normally.

But she duplicated, combined her strength, made hundreds of herself, thousands

She tore into the crowd like an elemental force.  My bugs could feel the air ripple, felt prisoners get thrown into cells.

Felt the blood, the limbs being bent in ways that wasn’t possible, when they refused to be thrown.

Energy attacks cut through the open air, and she barely slowed down.

The remaining special case fifty-threes from the floor below started to attack, to use abilities I couldn’t quantify as sound or fire or lightning, and the Custodian let hundreds of duplicates disappear in her attempts to get out of the way.

We headed out of the corridor.  “You two,” I ordered the shirtless duo.  “Help defend us.”

Between the dogs, Golem and Cuff, we had the brawn to force ourselves through the crowd that was in the area Lung had walled off.  Surprise, too, went a long way.  I didn’t have a lot of bugs, but I had enough to blind a few people, to fill their noses and ears and distract.

When Lung turned his fire on the group that was standing their ground, readying to stop us, that was a breaking point.  They scattered.  Two remained, tough and stubborn enough to keep attacking, and Lung picked one of them up, swinging them like a flail to bludgeon the other aside.

Golem’s hands shoved more away.  Cuff’s strikes, using her ability to manipulate metal and her metal gloves, were enough to break bone.  She shattered legs and arms, struck ribs and threw people aside.

I wasn’t proud, but I knew that this cold, efficient ruthlessness was at least partially a result of the time we’d spent together.

Imp caught up with us.  She had a sphere tucked under one arm, with the coiling mass of Weld’s partner within, still moving.

Panting, Imp said, “Couldn’t get him, but I figured she’s bound to be on our side, right?”

I only nodded.  There were other things to focus on, like the ones that had been torturing her.

In the stairwell at the far end of the hallway, the one that mirrored our escape route, the main group, with the beautiful man, the spiky boy and a badly injured Gully were making their way down the stairs.

I was ready.  I already had thread attached to a rivet in the ceiling, thread attached to the knife I’d dropped to the floor below.  It swung into the stairwell, an easy, casual swing.

The disintegration effect carved into the people at the front of the group, into heads, shoulders, necks, and body parts unique to case fifty-threes.

I used the swarm to control the swing, to swing it into the crowd that was hurrying down the stairs.

More struck.  Devastation, people falling over each other as they collapsed on the stairs.

Someone, no doubt someone with a sensory power, reached for the knife, tried to grab it.

I cut the thread with the mandibles of my bugs.  It plunged down into the group, paused as the handle came to rest on writhing bodies.

Then slid off to one side as the blade continued to eat through everything near it.

Again, it ate through the stairs, falling to a floor below.  I did what I could to catch it, using my bugs to grab after the threads that still trailed behind it.

We reached the stairwell, and faced the group within.

They’d barely dented the reinforced metal doors, with their myriad powers.

Cuff ignored them, charging forward, and hit the door with her fist.

The crash was loud enough to stun me, and I was at the thick of the group, furthest from the door.

She did more damage to the door than most of them had.

The Custodian was right.  We wouldn’t have been able to break through here in normal circumstances.  We’d have been cornered, more than we were in the cell.

The damage continued outside.  The Custodian pursued the group in the stairwell, harassing, bludgeoning.  She separated the crowd into groups and then bulled them back, driving them towards empty cells.  I was drawing my bugs back to me in stages, concentrating them on a few people at a time, trying to track what she was doing.

Yet even with that, I couldn’t follow it all.  Flayed skin, people holding their hands against one eye, joints bent the wrong way, bleeding wounds.

Nothing lethal.  Only punishment.

Lung, Cuff, Golem and Rachel dealt with the five threats here in the stairwell.  Shadow Stalker made her appearance, and dealt with the sixth, jamming a tranquilizer bolt into his neck.

Cuff hit the reinforced metal door again.  It bulged as if she were ten times the size, hitting ten times as hard.

She hit it a third time, a fourth…

On the fifth impact, it gave way.

We made our way down.

“Further,” I said.

FYI,” Tattletale’s voice sounded, “Losing you as you get further down.”

“We’ll be in touch,” I said.

Attack in Gimel went.  Not good, not bad, but it went.  Didn’t want to dis…, but now it’s…    …Just wanted to let you know.  Bracing ours… …r nex… he didn’t show at next location… trying…  where he is… Wish us-“

And then radio silence.

I tested the comm.  No luck.

Two stairwells, mirroring, no doubt for the safety of having a backup.  The other group had stalled where the knife had delayed them.  We proceeded further.

Past the fourth floor.

We stopped, panting for breath.

Another reinforced door, open.

An expanse of flat, brushed steel behind it.  A dead end.

And sitting in front of that expanse of steel were Satyrical, Blowout, Floret and Leonid.  Revel and Exalt were nowhere to be seen.

“It seems we’re going to have ourselves a problem,” Satyrical said, looking down at his fingernails.

“No offense,” I said, “But I think we’re a little stronger, in terms of raw firepower.”

“You are.”

“So unless you’ve replaced half of my team with sleeper agents…”

He shook his head.  “Only just became aware of you, honestly.”

“…I’m not particularly threatened.”

“No,” Satyr said, speaking slowly, as if he were picking his words.  “It’s not us.  It’s him.”

Him?

Oh.  Him.

“And the one with the answers is buried under a half-mile of solid steel,” he said.  He bit at the corner of one fingernail, then buffed it on the leg of his costume.  “Like I said.  A problem.”

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Venom 29.4

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Lights flickered as we made our way inside.

It looked like a hospital, but not an abandoned one.  Things were pristine, the walls and tiled floor a clean, untouched white.  It wasn’t a place that had been left to deteriorate.  The stark, clean nature of the place made for a contrast where the damage had been done.  There were gouges in the walls, things torn free from walls and ceilings.  Scorch marks, from both acid and fire, and damaged chairs, cabinets and lockers.

I noted the contents of the lockers and cabinets that had been torn open.  Glass vials, empty, clear fluids, medical tools still in plastic wrappers with paper covers that could be torn away.  But for the disorganization, it was all in excellent condition.  It didn’t look like it had even been touched.

The longer I looked, the less it seemed like a hospital, and the less real it seemed.  It was more like someone had taken sections of a hospital, removing everything like the nurse’s stations and the rooms for the patients, leaving only the hallways and doors that sat flush against the floor, airtight.  I would have thought it was all staged, but a check with my bugs confirmed that there was a minimum of dust even in places people wouldn’t be able to see.

Why take that much time to clean areas that were never going to get used?

“Tattletale?” I asked. “How’s the connection?”

The Dragonfly is relaying the connection from the towers, which are relaying from Gimel.  Kind of impressive when you think about it.

“I’m thinking this stuff tells a story.  Can you fill us in?  Information wins fights.”

I heard a noise from behind me.  A grunt or a scoff.  I turned to look, but couldn’t see who it had been.  Lung?  Shadow Stalker?  Golem?  Cuff?  All were possible, on different levels.  Lung might have been dismissive, Cuff bemoaning the fact that I was harping on that particular point yet again.  I’d reiterated it a few dozen times when justifying the stakeouts and a few cases of infiltration.

“I can see the path they took,” Tattletale said.  “You’re facing the direction the Irregulars headed.  They got more agitated as they made their way through.  Excitement, anger, a mess of negative emotions, bottled up for years, finally released.

I nodded.  I could imagine it now, almost see them in the hallway.

“Forty three of them.  Case fifty-threes.  Weld’s entire group.

“We have data on them?” I asked.  My eye fell on one of the doors.  It looked so ordinary, but someone had hit it, and it had been dented.  Metal, and apparently well reinforced, with a good section of the door fitting into the wall.

Already have files open.  There’s not a lot of details on most of them, but they aren’t exactly in the public eye.  You only get sightings, and apparently PRT paperwork where Protectorate members get sent to check in on them every once in a while, make sure they’re okay.  The others, well, you’re aware of Weld and Gully and Gentle Giant.  I could recap for the people who wouldn’t know.”

“I know enough,” Lung said.  “I would rather not have a voice prattling in my ear when I could be listening for trouble.”

“Oh, hey,” Imp said.  Through the bugs I’d planted on him, I could feel Lung reacting to her sudden appearance.  “I wouldn’t mind hearing this info.  Cliff notes?”

“You’re doing this to irritate me,” Lung said.

He’s sharp, in some ways, I thought.

“Don’t get your gonads in a twist.  I just want to know what we’re walking into.”

I heard a growl, and my first thought that Imp had pushed the wrong button.  I turned, my hand moving to my knife.

But it was Rachel’s dog, Huntress, her nose pressed to a door.

I watched each of the others prepare for a fight.  Or not prepare, as the case was.  Lung remained very casual, almost calm, while Canary backed away, putting as much distance between herself and the door as she could.  She was in better armor than most of us,with one of Saint’s Dragonslayer suits, but she still saw herself as vulnerable.

Hell, I saw her as vulnerable.

My bugs moved around the door’s perimeter, but I could sense only damage around the handle.  As airtight as any door.

I drew my knife, then gave Rachel a nod to go.

She kicked the door handle, and the door swung open.

Blood, corpses.  Three dead case fifty-threes.  Two men and a woman.  A cat-man with far too many teeth in his mouth, even covering the roof and the space beneath his long, narrow tongue, something that looked like keyboards on his forearms.  A reptile, not so different from Newter, but with no mouth or nose.  Only two overlarge eyes.  The last was a girl, squares of flesh intersped with patches of cloth.  Her mouth was only a tear in the cloth.

Their throats had been neatly slashed -the patchwork girl bled like anyone else might- and they’d been dragged into this room.  It was clear from the way that the blood trail suddenly stopped that someone had cleaned up.

Stragglers.  The Irregulars were moving as a tight group, keeping close to one another, but Satyrical and his team blindsided the ones at the back.  Killed them, dragged them off, then one of them cleaned up the evidence.  Floret, probably.”

“And Satyr probably masqueraded as these three,” I said.  “He’s in Weld’s group.”

Probably.”

“Then we need to move fast,” I said.  “Good job Rachel, Huntress.”

Rachel only grunted acknowledgement.

“You’re thanking the dog?” Shadow Stalker asked, incredulous.

“I’m thanking people that are being useful,” I said, my voice hard.  “If you want to be one of them, maybe scout the rooms we’re passing by.”

She didn’t obey right away, but she did obey.  She disappeared through a door.

The lights momentarily went out.  For an instant, I thought Shadow Stalker had been electrocuted, walking straight into a wire.  They flickered on again.

There were no windows, no sources of light beyond the lighting that was supposed to glow evenly from the high ceiling above.  When the lights flickered out again, the darkness was absolute, all-consuming.  As seconds creeped on and the light failed to return, I wondered if we’d be continuing this in the dark.

Lung used his power, creating a flame in his hand.  It didn’t make for much light – only enough to illuminate our groups.  Golem raised his hand to his helmet, then paused.

“Go ahead,” I told him.

The lights mounted on Golem helmet turned on, followed soon after by Cuff’s own lights.  I could see the way they were turning their heads, trying to cover both ends of the hallway.

“I don’t sense anyone,” I said.

No.  Wait.  There was someone.

Something.

I’d sensed it at the meeting the Doctor had arranged.  The spirit, the ghost.  So subtle it was almost impossible to notice.  The currents of the air, the faintest of traces in dust that marked where she’d traveled… all things I’d mentally dismissed.  Air tended to move.  Only the fact that this was a closed space, without any kind of air conditioning or temperature difference made the movements in the air curious.

Paying attention,  I could see that there was a pattern, a consistent repetition in air currents so feeble they might not have moved a feather.

The lights flickered back on, went out, and then settled in a compromise, the dull translucent pane of the ceiling lit up with a patchwork of  maybe two thirds dark to one third light.

“We’re here to help,” I called out.

My voice echoed down the hall.

“I thought you didn’t sense anyone,” Canary said.

“I don’t,” I said.

“Then who are you talking to?”

“I don’t think it’s a who,” Imp said.  “Try ‘what are you talking to?'”

“Shh,” I bid them to be quiet.

I could sense more movements in the air, close… no.  That was a result of Lung’s fire heating the air.

Further down the hall.  If I use enough bugs, try to get a sense of dimensions…

A head, part of a torso.  I could feel the contours of narrow shoulders, the waist.  Female.

She disappeared, or she became less coherent, the movements in the air continuing, but ceasing to suggest a general human shape.  Another appeared behind us, roughly as far away.  No arms, no legs.  Just a broken figure.

“Help me out, Tattletale?” I asked.

Help with what?

“The Custodian.”

I’m not getting anything usable,” she said.  “Video cameras suck like that.

“Right,” I said.  Louder, I called out, “We’re here to help the Doctor!  You’ve got two other groups in here, one that’s definitely hostile, angry and destructive, and another I think is worth being suspicious of.”

A movement, a reaction to that last sentence.

I explained, “Maybe they seem friendly, but they’ve got a bad history of backstabbing, making subtle plays for power.  I think the Doctor would back me up on this.  If she’s cooperating with them at all, she’s doing it with knowledge they’ll capitalize on any weakness she shows… and she’s never been weaker than she is right now.”

The figure turned around, briefly fading out of existence.

She reappeared in a way that made me wonder just how long she’d been there, a foot away from me.

“We’re not your enemies,” I said, holding my ground.  “I want to stop Scion, and the best, easiest way to do that is to get things back into working order here.”

For an instant, she was in four places at once.  Then she settled on three.

It struck me that I’d never fared particularly well against stranger-class powers.

“If it helps,” I said, “I’m pissed.  The Doctor called you the Custodian, which probably means you’re the one taking care of this place.  If you’re not completely emotionless, it hurts, that they’re tearing it apart.  If you care about the doctor, I’m betting you’re worried.  Maybe you feel like I do.  You want to retaliate, but something is getting in your way-”

And then she was gone.

“So.  Uh.  You’re kinda tense there, boss,” Imp said.

“She’s gone,” I said.  “I’m pretty sure.”

“Question is, is there really a crazy janitor lady?”  Imp asked.  “Or is Skitter finally going mad?”

“If there are no more obstacles, we should go,” Lung said.

I nodded.  I started walking at a good clip, reorganizing my swarm to check the areas around corners.

A series of eight or so doors to our right were open, now.  Shadow Stalker lurked at the end of the hallway.  She must have walked through the walls while the power was out, opening every door in passing.

“Just saying,” Imp kept talking, “Custodian?  Knowing what we do about your origins… kinda a thing.  The Doctor, if you think about it… what if we’re all-”

“Imp,” I interrupted her, all too aware of the presence of Lung and Shadow Stalker, “Not now, not here.”

“Righty-o.”

She’s nervous, I told myself, before I could get too irritated.  But her way of dealing with that came at my expense.  I didn’t need to be reminded of my weakest moments.

I really didn’t need any head games, intentional or otherwise.

With the doors open, it was possible to see the room interiors.  Offices, perfectly ordered and empty of people.  Desks, file holders to neatly sort paperwork, book cases with texts.  All of it even, ordered.  No pages sticking up or books missing from shelves.

Still want that briefing, Imp?” Tattletale asked.

“Huh?  Briefing?”

On the Irregulars.

“Oh.  Right.”

I’ll take that as a no.”

I sent my bugs out, directing them to collect a few things.  Two booklets, the most substantial material my bugs could hold and still carry.

They shouldn’t have been able to pull this off,” Tattletale said.

I thought of Contessa, and of the Custodian.

“They did, though,” I said.  “At the worst possible point in time.”

“Weld isn’t dumb,” Shadow Stalker said, as she stepped out of one room and crossed the hall.  “Except maybe with people.  Kind of put his big metal foot in his big metal mouth, I remember.  But he’s not dumb when it comes to powers or strategy.  He’s had a few years to figure this out.”

“Hey,” Imp said.  “You’re not allowed to say nice things about people.  You shot my brother with an arrow, messed with people I respect.  I’ve been waiting for that cinematic moment when you and I find ourselves alone and I get my revenge.  Don’t fucking dilute it by being nice.”

Shadow Stalker stared at Imp, standing her ground as we, Imp included, made our way up the hallway to where she was.

“You’re irritating,” Shadow Stalker said, her voice dripping with condescension, dismissive.  That said, she disappeared through the nearest door.

Better,” Imp muttered.

I used the arms on my flight pack grab the booklets my bugs had brought to me.  The contents of each were bound into books.

I paged through the booklets.  The cover of the first read: ‘ASDEC01 Employee responsibilities, contingency C-2-6’.  The second was ‘ASDEC01 Employee responsibilities, contingency F-4-7’.  Both, at a glance, very similar inside.

I looked at the inside cover.  Contingency C-2-6.  Transmigration.

Then page upon page of jargon.  References to other files, to organizations and places I had no concept of, and things I knew of, but not in this context.  Overseers, terminus, and again, the word transmigration.

It lacked flow, as the writing went.  More of a technical manual, in the end.  I could tell from the structure that things had been done by computer, so that information specific to the employee and the employee’s role could be injected at the appropriate spots.

I flipped through the book, continuing to scout with my bugs and use them to check our surroundings for possible danger.  Only endless hallways.

“You reading over my shoulder, Tattletale?” I asked.  I had the camera on my mask.

I am.”

“Thinking what I’m thinking?”

Accord was two-timing us,” Tattletale said.  “Doubling up so he had enough of a power base to enact his plans, whatever happened.”

“Except for, you know, the whole dying thing,” Imp added.

“Are you getting the gist of this, Tattletale?”  I asked.

Picking up pieces of it.  I’d ask you to scan the thing and let me have access to all of it, but that’s not exactly reasonable, is it?

“Just give me the byline.”

A plan for if the Endbringers win.  A plan for if Scion wins.  A plan if we come out ahead and beat both of them.  Recurring themes in all of the plans.

“No plan survives contact with the enemy,” Lung rumbled.  “Foolish.”

Accord makes pretty fucking good plans,” Tattletale said.

“I do not know this Accord, and I only trust what I experience myself, so this is only prattle to me.”

“How does this turn out?” I asked.  “Cauldron ruling the world?”

Honestly?  I don’t think so.  Cauldron’s primary interest seems to be humanity.  Keeping us going, minimizing chances of war and conflict.  All of this seems to be geared around that.  Setting things up so we aren’t fucked, however things go down.”

“Right,” I said.  “Where do the powers come in?”

I think… well, I don’t have enough to say anything for sure.  But the underlying assumption seems to be that parahumans are going to take charge, one way or the other, so they wanted to set things up so that happened naturally.  They’ve been vetting clients, finding the ones who’d work best.  They don’t identify them by anything except number, but… I think Coil was a test case.”

I nodded.

So were we.”

“We had an idea,” I said.

Yeah.  But there’s more… I don’t know how much more.  Yet.  Can you flip ahead?  Maybe about three quarters of the way through, there should be a bit about the Overseers and the Terminus.  Flip through… slower… show more of the pages… I’ll go back through the video feed to view each page on my own and figure the rest out myself.

Further down the hallway, Shadow Stalker stepped out of a room.  I looked, keeping my head at the same general angle, so the camera would continue to have a view of the book, still flipping.

Shadow Stalker was pointing.

My swarm caught up with her, flowing into the room.

I glanced into the room as we passed.  Two more bodies.  Two men, large, both bristling with horns.  One with curling horns like a ram, the other with horns like a bull.

Satyr,” Tattletale confirmed.  “Again.

“Hmm,” Shadow Stalker murmured.  She was leaning against the doorframe, her arms folded.  “He’s efficient.”

Did she just sound like she was approving?  I lowered the booklet, raising my head to give Shadow Stalker a serious look.

She only made a small, smug sound, like she was pleased, or pleased with herself, and then turned around, her cloak flaring out before she disappeared through the wall.

“This long-delayed revenge thing is getting easier all the time,” Imp commented.

“No revenge,” I said.  “Not to put too fine a point on it, but you’re sounding a lot less like Imp and a whole lot like… well…”

“Regent,” she said.

I nodded.  The desire for revenge, the way the wisecracking was veering off course, to uncomfortable or dangerous levels…

“Be nice if he was here,” was all she said.

I nodded again.

The hallway reached a t-junction at the end, with a path going off to the left, and a stairwell to the right that led down, deeper into the building.  I could sense just how thick the floor was.  Most buildings had only a few feet separating each story, but here, there was solid matter nearly as thick as the open spaces.

A fortress?  A fortress has soldiers.

A shelter?  It doesn’t make sense that they’d try to take shelter in a place like this.

It also made the descent to the next floor down take just long enough that it felt like something was wrong.  Winding our way down.

“There are backup plans if the whole parahumans-as-leaders thing didn’t work out.  Brainwashing leaders like they brainwashed the case fifty-threes.  So the leaders were absolute and could be trusted.  Um.  Distribution and organization for getting things going again, depending on how many threats remain after we make it through this.  They didn’t know what the end would be like, what we’d be up against, so they could only ballpark here.  The reason for these offices?  Cauldron’s going to staff this place.  It’s going to be a hub, police, a whole lot more, up until humanity’s got the ball rolling again.

“No way that doesn’t fall apart,” Golem said.

I nodded a little.

“Power fucks everything up, doesn’t it?” he asked.

“Speaking of fucked up.  You should know, Scion just hit Dalet.  It’s ugly.  Getting worse with every attack.  A little more ruthless, toying with specific people, breaking them before he obliterates their friends.  He’s going to hit our settlement again if the pattern holds.  Within the next half an hour to an hour.”

I sighed.  Nothing we could do but hope the defenders could hold their own.  I looked at Lung.

“What?” he asked.

“You wanted to come with us.  Odd choice.”

“I tried, I did nothing in the end.  I do not like being…”

“Impotent?” Imp offered.

Lung growled his response, “A mere bystander.”

We reached a set of double doors.  A foot thick, solid, they overlapped rather than meet, effectively doubling the thickness, allowing for their structure to reinforce one another.  They’d been destroyed, pried apart.  An impressive feat, considering they looked like they were meant to withstand charging elephants.

Or parahumans.

It’s a prison, the thought struck me, as we passed through, getting a glimpse of the floor below.

Rows and columns of cells, connected in strings of ten or so.  Most cells were occupied.

Not case fifty-threes, going by what my bugs told me.  The case fifty-threes were the outliers, here.  These were people who I might have seen on the street in Brockton Bay, all in matching outfits.  Men, women, children.  All young, twenty-five or younger.  All more or less in good health, if a touch thin.  My swarm touched each of them as I tried to take in their total numbers.

“They’re here!”  Someone called out.

They can’t see us from this angle, I thought.

Then it dawned on me that everyone here had powers.  Some had powers that would sense us.

“Did it work?” the person from before called out, a woman.  “Hey!  Did it work?”

“They aren’t the same people as before,” a man said.

We needed to move on.  The double doors leading down to the next flight had been torn apart as well, and that meant the Irregulars, Revel, Exalt, Vantage and quite possibly the Doctor were all downstairs.

But the noise level increased with every passing second.  Cheering, shouts, cries, even threats to urge us to move faster, in a dozen different languages, maybe more.  The noise swelled as others took up the cry.  People screaming at the tops of their lungs.

And they were threatening to draw attention to us in the process.  I drew on my relay bugs, sending the swarm downstairs, trying to figure out if we’d just alerted Weld and the others.

“They think we’re here to rescue them,” Golem said.

“Aren’t we?” Cuff asked.  “I mean, it’s not why we came, but we can’t leave without them.  We’re not heartless?”

That she made it a question was telling.

That she directed that question at me was… I didn’t even have the words to articulate it.

“Yes,” I said.  “Yes, of course.”

“If we rescue them, then it causes trouble.  Too many to look after,” Lung said.

“Chaos could help us,” Shadow Stalker observed.

“We are going to rescue them,” I said.  “It’s just a question of when.  And how.”

I walked forward until I could see the cells and their occupants.

Hundreds of cells, and there wasn’t anything blocking them off.  Open doors, with nothing visible that would keep the prisoners inside.  Most consisted of only three walls and a white line painted on the floor.  Beside each cell was a metal plate, engraved with a number.

“Oh my god,” Cuff’s voice was touched with quiet horror, almost lost in the rising noise.  “Look at how pale they are.  They’ve been here a long time.”

These guys haven’t been here for long,” Tattletale said.  “Or they’re the newest.  Two thousand and fifty cells, I’m thinking, maybe half of them occupied.  All the structural reinforcements, the heavy doors, the traps in the ceiling, it’s to keep the prisoners in.  But you don’t need to put security doors in for going downstairs if there’s no way out.  There’s more cells downstairs, with older patients.  Plus, I think, the hub of Cauldron’s operation.

“This can’t be for humanity’s sake,” Golem said.

It is,” Tattletale said.  “Everything they’ve been doing is for our sake.  Producing better formulas to get more soldiers for the biggest, most important fights, weaning out the bad formulas so nobody important gets them…

“And the case fifty-threes?” I asked.  “Dismissed as bad formulas?”

At first, maybe.  But there’s a use to them.  As a rule, they’re stronger, tougher.  If we’re forced to make a break for it, scatter humanity and survive with the remnants, the case fifty-threes can settle places you or I couldn’t.  I think there’s something else, but I don’t see it… lemme keep looking.  There’s got to be a hint.  Might have to get you to run upstairs to fetch a file or something…

Tattletale trailed off, going silent but for the occasional mumble.

Was this the army that Cauldron wanted to deploy?  Men and women with powers they didn’t ask for, released with stipulations, or simply deposited on a battlefield and left to fight or run?

It felt too thin.  Even this many capes, they were untrained, their powers presumably unpracticed.  They wouldn’t amount to more than cannon fodder.

I stopped, feeling the scale of it all.  Hundreds of cells, hundreds of voices

“Quiet!”  I called out.

My voice was lost in the noise.

Quiet!”  I used my swarm to transmit my voice.

Some listened, as if waiting for me to say something else.

I wasn’t sure what I could say.  I glanced at my teammates, searching for an idea, before something came to me.  “Save your energy.  Don’t exhaust yourselves shouting.

They listened, quieting down.  At first.

But excitement won over.  There was no way to communicate their excitement other than by talking to their cellmates, or the people in cells across from them, but as the general volume rose, they had to raise their voices to be heard.  It didn’t help that the entire area was a giant acoustic sounding board.

“I could sing,” Canary said, raising her voice to be heard, “But I think I’d calm you guys down too.”

Rachel whistled, a shrill sound that almost made my bugs wince in pain.  Not a soothing song.

In the silence that followed, Bastard shook his head a little, then snapped at open air.  Too sharp for his wolf senses?

“Good,” Lung said.  Rachel only scowled at his approval.  He added, “You have to follow this with something that drives the point home.”

“Make them fear us?” I asked.  I remembered Bakuda’s commentary on her lessons from Lung.

“Fear?  Respect,” Lung said.

“Same thing,” Shadow Stalker said.

Lung shrugged.

I didn’t feel like arguing the point, and the crowd was very patiently waiting.  They were barely making a sound now.

Which was good, but was there any guarantee they wouldn’t get riled up as we made our way down to the next floor?

Bastard shook his head again.  Rachel and I both looked at the same time, then made eye contact.

I spread my bugs out through the area.  Felt the Custodian flowing through the air, a little faster than before.

She flew towards me, and I flinched, taking a step back.

She repeated the process, looping back, then charging me.

This time, when I took a step back, it was on purpose.  She’d done it a second time because she wanted me to take a second step.  And a third, a fourth…

“Go,” I said.  “This way.  Move.

We ran.  I focused on my swarm, spreading the bugs out as much as I could behind us and in front of us.

Different cells sat at the end of the hallway.  Bigger cells, arranged so that they faced the opposite direction, with paths leading in, then to the right, then back into the room.

Two-nine-three.  An empty, unlabeled cell.  Two-six-five.  Two more empty, unlabeled cells.

Bastard shook his head again, opened his mouth in an almost yawning, lazy bite.  I could sense the Custodian there, brushing by the side of his face.

I moved the swarm to block the other inmate’s view of us.

“Head-” I started, but Rachel was already making her way inside one of the empty cells.  She’d put the pieces together.  “…right.”

I hung back, looking over my shoulder as the others filed into the cells.  I hurried down the hallway, then kicked the door.  I saw a glimpse of a stairwell, identical to the one we’d used at the far end of the room.

I reversed direction, then ducked into the same corridor the others had entered.  Let the people nearby think we’d left.

I wasn’t sure it was the brightest thing, taking the dead end over the open-ended exit.  But the Custodian had suggested this.

I felt a moment’s trepidation.  Why?

You’re being followed,” Tattletale said.

I shook my head a little.  I could sense my bugs.  Nothing.

Was it a trap?  Would the Custodian shut some kind of door on us, locking us within?

No.  She had no reason to.  As hard to define as she was.

I pulled the camera free from my mask, then pressed it against the side of the mount on the cell exterior that would have held a number plate.  I ducked inside.

“Tattletale?”

I get it, I get itMight need to ask for help on this one.  Sit tight.

The cell was empty, but it featured a double bed, a television, a computer, a small bookshelf of cases with stuff to watch or play, and an odd little double-layered glass window that looked out onto a wall of gravel.

I joined the others, drawing my phone from my pocket.  It took a moment for Tattletale to manage the link-up.

And you’ve got video.  I’m brilliant.  Admit it.

“You’re brilliant,” I said.

If I’d had the idea earlier, I would have wound up with a better vantage point.  As it was, we viewed the scene from a distance.  I held the phone flat, so our group could circle around to observe from different angles.

The noise of the crowd became a roar, muffled to near-silence by the cell’s walls.  The occupants wouldn’t have heard the other prisoners, except in the most extreme cases.  I could see the Irregulars as they entered from the same direction we had.  I could see the crowd that followed the Irregulars.

Case fifty-threes.  Kind of?

No.  Different.  The way they spread out, their haggard appearances, they made for the best clues when these individuals were just silhouettes seen from three hundred feet away.  But they got closer, and I could see how they differed.  They didn’t take on the traits of animals, nor simple mutations or exaggerations in features.  There was a man that burned, who staggered forward, like it hurt, but he wasn’t consumed.  A woman who floated, every part of her body a distinct piece, separated by open space.  It made her look twice as tall.  A… something that inched forward, occasionally running to keep up with the crowd.  Hands and feet like flippers, but the face was an orifice, and thin worms were spilling out, swarming over the surface of his body in numbers so thick that the flesh underneath was impossible to see.

Case fifty-threes that Cauldron had kept in reserve, it seemed.  I could see the anger in them, the tension, the wariness that came with what had to have been… how long?  With the hair, the beards, maybe years of confinement.  Maybe even solitary confinement.

On camera, I could see this.

I couldn’t feel them with my bugs.  Couldn’t see them, couldn’t hear them.  A revised image, an edited image, as if the whole crowd had erased with some careful photo editing.  Sound editing.  Touch editing?

Oh, hey,” Tattletale said.  “Anyone else having trouble getting a read on those guys?

“I am telling myself we may fight soon,” Lung rumbled, “But my power is not responding as well as it should.  Looking at them, seeing what look to be worthy opponents with little to lose, I should be feeling it build faster, a pressure inside me.”

“I can’t see or hear them with my bugs, let alone touch them,” I told Tattletale.

Over an entire area.  Mantellum,” Tattletale said.  “The guy with the built-in cloak, dead center.

I looked, but the crowd moved.

They were talking.  We didn’t have audio.  There was only the rise and fall of the crowd’s shouts, letting us know when people were talking and when they were reacting to statements.

On camera, people began to leave cells.

It’s a power with layers.  Each successive layer enhances the level of protection.  Except everything on record says the range it blocks powers only extends about fifteen feet.  Get within five feet, no senses work.  It’s not supposed to be a hundred feet like this.

“Six times the range,” Cuff said.

Somehow.

I pursed my lips.  “The Doctor?”

Probably downstairs.  Look at the way the group at the rear is set up.  They’re watching to make sure nobody comes upstairs.  I think they have the Doctor trapped down there.

They have us trapped here too.

I didn’t say it out loud.  Canary looked scared, and both Lung and Rachel looked restless.

There’s this guy that looks like he’s in charge.  You see him?”

It was a voice over the earbuds, but it wasn’t Tattletale.

You’re an idiot,” Tattletale said.  “I love you for this, but you’re an idiot.”

“Who?”  I asked.

Imp,” Tattletale said.

Imp?  It took me a second.

Imp.  Damn it.  Grue would kill me.  She was close enough to overhear, and this many parahumans… so many ways she could be detected.

“Mister beautiful,” Imp said.  “He’s saying they’re free… oh, whoop.  Here we go.”

The cells emptied.  It was almost like the order being given was a stone dropped on the water’s surface, the movement of the cell’s occupants the ripple, the ones who didn’t hear the man speak reacted to the others’ movement, and the chain reaction continued.  Hundreds of people.

Hundreds of victims.

The roar of the crowd increased in volume.  I could feel the floor vibrating.  No power at work.  Just a lot of people, stomping and cheering.

The Custodian moved a little, then stopped.  I could sense her more than before, a disturbance, agitated.

She was the one that had been enforcing the peace, keeping people contained in cells without doors.  Now… either Mantellum or the strange case fifty-threes were keeping her at bay, preventing her from seeing to her duties.

The lights flickered, a little worse than before.

“They’re going to come here,” Shadow Stalker said.  “I spent time in juvie, if someone had a nice toothbrush, cookies from mom, there was jealousy, retaliation.”

I nodded a little.

And a cushy cell like this…

“They will come,” Lung said.  The irises of his eyes were orange, and hive-like lumps were standing out on his skin, where scales threatened to push forth.  “I can win, but you will all most likely die in the time I require.”

I need all the people who can bore through solid steel, he says,” Imp spoke over the comms.

“Lung’s plan can be plan A.  Let’s hear plan B,” I said.

“We run,” Shadow Stalker said.  “Door’s right there.”

“I could make barriers,” Golem said.

The roaring dimmed.  The man was speaking.  The cupboard door beneath the large television seemed to rattle with more intensity.

“Custodian says… door?”

She stopped.

Barriers,” Tattletale said.  “We’d have to get past more security doors, ones the Irregulars haven’t dealt with.  Quite probably other security measures.

Imp spoke up, “Pretty guy’s saying… traitors to our kind.  See they get the justice they deserve.  Oh… hey.

I looked at the phone.

Weld, mangled to the point that he looked more like scrap metal than a person, was heaved forward, thrown to the ground.

A sphere rolled forward.  Something coiled within, behind the colored transparent pane.  Someone in the crowd grabbed it, then made their hands glow.  Fire?  Heating the material?  I couldn’t tell from this distance, but I could see the movement within accelerate in fits and starts.

Weld reached out for the sphere, but his arm was so badly damaged it couldn’t hold his weight.  It bent the wrong way, breaking off.  When he rolled over onto his back, the forearm was stuck to his upper arm, hand to his shoulder and neck.

If he’d been a human, if half that much damage had been done, there would be no way he’d be alive.

“Doesn’t get much worse than a crowd this mad,” Shadow Stalker said, her voice low.  “I can probably make a break for it and get away.  Not usually my thing to be nice, but… you want me to pass on any messages?  Last words?  My memory is shit, but I can try.”

The crowd was reacting, the contents of the room shaking with the sound.  Out there, it would be deafening.

Then they moved.  People were parting the way.  Opening a path to our end of the hallway.

The camera gave us a view of the central gang.  A spiky boy with yellow skin.  A man with exaggerated masculine and feminine features, a caricature, burdened with muscle.  There was Gully, the muscular girl with the shovel, braids and severe overbite who’d helped out against Echidna, looking ill at ease.  A boy with red skin.  Sanguine.

As they got closer, I could feel my power changing, to tell a lie.  No people in the area.  A conspicuous clearing in the gap.  There were enough people to push my insects around, wherever they were, but my brain was revising it to make sense of the scene.  It was unusual enough to grab my attention, though, but not accurate enough for me to use it.

“Feel up to singing?” I asked Canary.

“They’d hurt me before I got anywhere,” she said.  “Probably.  I’ll try.”

I closed my eyes.  I could feel my swarm out there, both inside and outside of Mantellum’s power, but I couldn’t do anything meaningful to the crowd with it.

“Satyrical’s out there,” I said.  “His people…”

Tattletale spoke.  “Probably happen to be the ones who stayed behind to dig for the Doctor.  Nobody there, in Satyrical’s group who’re going to be able to deal with this mob.  Probably nobody in the Doctor’s group, either.

I nodded, drawing my knife.  The one Defiant had given me.

Not enough to cut our way to freedom.  Judging by the gravel outside the double-pane window, we were sitting beside layers of rock.  The knife could get us into the next cell, maybe the cell next to that… but it wouldn’t let us get anywhere fast enough to outpace the crowd.

“Plan A, then,” Lung spoke, somber.  “For your sacrifice, I will grant you a favor.  Tell me if you want me to kill someone, an enemy you want gone.”

“We’re not going to die,” I growled the words.  I began forming the swarm into a decoy.

A distraction.  If I could get the crowd’s attention, lead them upstairs-

The pretty man outside spoke, and I could see his lips move on the camera.  There was no need for translation.

Revenge.

This time, the jeering was just outside our cell.  The mob advanced.

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Venom 29.3

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“We knew it would come to this,” Legend said.

I turned around.  My hands were full as I unbelted a tightly folded blanket and draped it over one of the wounded.

A surprising number of wounded, in the end.  Twenty or so injured from an aircraft that had been partially obliterated, eighteen more people who’d had their legs sliced off.  Nearly forty Dragon’s Teeth with mild injuries, their armor melted to their faces, chests, arms and legs.  Scion had tried his usual assortment of attacks, and they’d evaded them.  Enhanced strength from the costumes, predictive technology from the onboard artificial intelligences.

So he’d used a power they couldn’t dodge, a power they couldn’t block.  A light that radiated outward and melted the materials of their costumes.

Cauldron hadn’t been there to reinforce the group.  If they had been, it might have been a staging ground.  Instead, the group had folded and Scion had come after the portal that was closest.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“When we were predicting what would happen with the Endbringers, we said that we’d be forced to regroup, consolidate our forces.  Every fight would result in losses, so we’d have to abandon positions, move people from an abandoned post to keep numbers up.”

“I can see that,” I said.

An outpost abandoned.  The world Defiant and Dragon had been looking after was being abandoned as a lost cause.  There were countless people still alive, but they were spread out, and there was no way to mount a proper defense with our forces spread too thin.

“If there’s an upside,” Legend said, his tone changing as if he were forcing himself to be less grim.  “Tattletale said we’re making headway.  It doesn’t look like it, but we’re taking chunks out of him.  The strongest of us survive, we regroup, see what works, we’re stronger when it comes to the next fight.”

Except he’s indiscriminate.  He’s killing the ones who can actually affect him, because he’s being reactive.  We’re not stronger by virtue of the strongest surviving and consolidating because the only difference between this fight and the next is that we’ll be less.

I kept my mouth shut.

“Defiant and Dragon will be joining you guys here, to make up for the ones you lost.  You’ll have Leviathan, at the very least.  Chevalier and I will be a matter of minutes away.”

A few minutes is too long, I thought.  But I didn’t want to state the obvious, didn’t want to argue.

I was trying to be good, trying not to raise any problems with a guy who could well be sensitive over the fact that I’d murdered one of his closest companions a few years back.

Besides, I knew that this pep talk was most likely Legend trying to reassure the wounded.  Maybe even him trying to reassure himself.

He took his time, putting fresh bandages on a wound.

“I’ve followed your career,” Legend said.  “I’ve seen you on the battlefields, fighting the Endbringers, old and new.  The bugs are noticeable.”

“I’m nothing special.”

“You rendered Alexandria brain dead,” Legend told me.  “That warrants attention.”

“Fair enough,” I said.  I managed to get another blanket unbelted from the arrangement of straps that kept it in a folded position and then draped it over someone.  Legend moved the end of the blanket, where it rested on the patient’s wounded foot.

“I wanted to know who it was that had killed Rebecca.  I kept an eye on everything you did in the Protectorate, looked for the details about your past.  I understand if that seems creepy…”

“I think I get it.  You were close to her.”

“I felt close to her.  In the end, though, there was a gap between my feelings and the reality.  Still is, I suppose.  Go through enough with people, build something from the ground up, you form ties.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I looked over my shoulder.  Mai, one of the kids Charlotte and Forrest were looking after, was there, alongside one of Rachel’s henchmen and a puppy.   Giving comfort to a child from the other settlement who’d been burned by the same effect that melted the costumes of the Dragon’s Teeth.  The burns weren’t horrible, but it made it hard to tell the child’s ethnicity or gender.

But the child was scratching the puppy behind the ear.  Rachel stood nearby, arms folded, stern and ominous.  I felt a kind of fondness, tempered by a kind of hesitance, like I couldn’t let myself hold on too tight to the friendship and familiarity because she could be dead by the end of the day.  Though it was sharper than it had been in the past, it wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling.

Legend was looking at me when I turned back to him.  “Yeah.”

“It doesn’t always make for the most sound decisions.”

“No, it doesn’t,” I agreed.  I had to scoot out of the way as some doctors hurried by with fresh tools and equipment.  Removing the dissolved materials from burned flesh was something of a task, and there were a lot of people to help.

“I always knew there was something wrong, underneath it all, but there were bigger things to focus on.  You finish dealing with one Endbringer attack or a potential war with parahuman attacks on both sides, it demands all of your focus.  You’re left drained, dealing with the event or the aftermath, and then you need to recuperate, you have an organization to manage.  There’s never a moment where you can stop, take a deep breath, and then say, ‘now is the moment where I address that nagging doubt I had the other day’.  Now is the moment I call so-and-so out on that less-than-complete truth they used while we were elbow-deep in Indonesian cyborg super-soldiers.”

“I think I know exactly what you mean.”

“I think it’s very possible you do,” he said.

“But you can’t dwell on it,” I said.

“If you don’t give it the necessary attention, then how do you prevent it from becoming a cycle?”

“You don’t.  You look back at your reasons for making the choices when you made the choices, you recognize that you didn’t address or act on your suspicions and doubts because you had higher priorities at the time, and you make peace with it.”

“Have you?  Made peace with it?”

“I’m on my way there, Legend.”

“I’m not sure I want to go there,” he said.  “Give me a hand?  Hold his leg up?”

I nodded.

Gore.  A foot reduced to something unrecognizable.  The man would probably lose it.

But Legend still tended to the limb with care.  Almost gentle.  I tried to be as graceful in keeping the leg in the air.

The soldier made a noise of pain as Legend cleaned the foot, using a laser to sever a tag of flesh that was holding a piece of boot on.  I reached out and held the man’s hand.

“You came in here for a reason,” Legend said.

I looked up.

“It’s not about taking care of the wounded,” he said.  “You’re not devoting a great deal of attention to keeping an eye on Hellhound, either.  Yes, you could use your swarm to discreetly observe her, to discreetly observe anyone in your range, but I don’t think that’s why you came here.”

I started to respond, but the soldier’s leg started kicking, an almost involuntary nerve reaction.  I had to pull my hand from his to hold his leg as still as possible.

We eased it down until he was lying flat, his leg on the bed.  I pulled a blanket over him, as carefully as I could.

“You have a question, or questions,” Legend said, “But you’re not asking them because you’re worried about the response.  Either it’s something touchy, or there’s another reason why you’re holding back.”

I sighed.  “If you don’t have an answer for me, then I’m not sure I know what I’m going to do next.”

“So this is about something only I would know?”

“Basically,” I said.  “We don’t have access to that broad a pool of people, right now.”

“Okay,” Legend said.  “What do you need to know?”

“Cauldron’s portals.”

“Closed.  They’re created by a parahuman called Doormaker.  The Doctor told me he was blind and deaf to his surroundings, but I think it’s far more likely that it’s to do with another parahuman she partnered him with.  Someone who grants sensory awareness.  I think the Doctor gave Doormaker too much exposure to this parahuman and destroyed or atrophied his other senses.  One of those nagging doubts I never acted on.”

We passed by Rachel, Rachel’s minion and Mai.  I gave Rachel a little nod of acknowledgement as we stepped outside.

Then we stepped outside.  There was a shattered sign over the boarded-up windows.  Apparently Tattletale had made some business deals and tried to get things in place for this to become a city like any one in Earth Bet.  The pieces were there, but the furniture had yet to be installed, the food yet to be supplied.  An empty fast food place, now a makeshift hospital.

Eat fresh?  I thought.  Not likely.

I took in the scene.  Capes were still reeling from the attack, and again, it was the monsters and the lunatics that seemed to be standing, while others sat, recovering, catching their breath, mustering their courage.

Nilbog, engaged in conversation with Glaistig Uaine.

Four of the Heartbroken, with Imp and Romp.  A maskless Imp gave Bonesaw a glare as the girl hurried, in the company of Marquis and Panacea, to the fast food place Legend and I had just left.

Lung was alone, looking angry, frustrated, almost more agitated than he’d been before or during the fight.  His eyes were on Leviathan, who was down by the water, but I didn’t get the impression Leviathan was the source of the frustration.

Parian and Foil were together, Foil with her mask off.  They’d curled up in a space between two large bins of food, Foil resting her head on Parian’s shoulder, their hands and fingers entwined.

Tattletale was caught up in a conversation with Knave of Clubs, and fell under the Simurgh’s shadow.  The Simurgh, for her part, seemed to be busy building other tinker devices, drawing on the abilities of tinkers in the immediate area.

Vista was sitting on a rooftop, two stories high.  Her eyes were closed, her hands set behind her so she could lean back a bit.  Her face turned towards the sky.

There were other capes in the area, looking a little more serious, focused on business.  Chevalier was with Defiant and Dragon, Black Kaze, Saint, Masamune and Canary.  Some of them drifted off, making their way towards us.

“If it helps,” Legend said, “I don’t think Doormaker is dead.  There have been two interruptions in his power, to date.  One followed an earthquake.  He was unhurt, but his partner… well, it was a clue that a partner existed.  His doors all went down simultaneously the moment the earthquake hit the facility.  I don’t think his power is the type that would outlast him after death, if it was so easily interrupted while he was alive.”

“So he’s alive because the doors are still open in places.”

“Alive and unable or unwilling to use his power,” Legend said.

I nodded.  “So is it Cauldron running or is it another agency?”

I could see Legend’s expression change.  I’d heard him talk before, saying as much, but his face was what told me, above all else, that he was burdened by regrets.  “I wish I could say it was the latter.”

“But you don’t know.”

“I remain in the dark when it comes to Cauldron.”

“What about Satyrical?” I asked.  “He was investigating with his team, wasn’t he?”

“He was, but he tends towards radio silence, Pretender’s people have since well before the Vegas teams cut ties with the Protectorate.  They claimed it was because there would inevitably be a parahuman who could uncover them if they left channels open.  Now… well, isn’t that the way most things were?  Secrets, lies, conspiracies.”

“It is, but-” I tried to find a way to politely say what I was trying to say.

“But?”

“With all due respect, and I really do mean that because I respect you, I respect that you’ve participated in the fights, I get where you’re coming from…”

“You’re spending too much time couching what you’re saying,” Legend said.  “Rest assured, I can handle what you’re about to throw at me.  I think worse things to myself all the time.”

“I’m impatient.  That’s all.  Scion’s going to attack again, and I don’t plan to be here,” I said.

“You want a portal to get out of here,” Legend said.

“No,” I said.  “I don’t want an escape.  I want to act.”

“We’re acting,” Legend said.

“We’re reacting.”

“If you have ideas for something pre-emptive, I think we could all stand to hear it.”

I shook my head.  “Nothing definitive.”

“Even something that isn’t definitive.”

“I want to find Cauldron.  They have contingency plans we know they haven’t put into effect yet, and they have answers they’ve yet to provide.”

“Cauldron is very good at leading people to believe that they have the answers and then disappointing,” Legend said.  “Take it from someone who knows.  Ah.  I’m doing it again, aren’t I?  Like an old man.”

He smiled, and I smiled a little too.

“You’re an old man?”  Chevalier asked.  His group had just joined us.

“Taylor here was just very politely trying to tell me I’m wasting her time on reminiscing and regrets.”

“You have something better to do?” Defiant asked me.

Defiant,” Dragon said, admonishing him.  She was in her armor, but had her helmet off.  The face was real.  Plain, but real.

She’s an A.I.  A false person.  What else had Saint said?  She’s deceiving us?  It’s all an act?

“…came out wrong,” Defiant was saying.  Very deliberately, he said, “I am genuinely curious what you’re doing, Weaver.”

Dragon smiled a little, as if a private thought had crossed her mind.

The doubts Saint had seeded dissipated.

Ninety percent of them.

“I was telling Legend I want to go after Cauldron,” I said.  “A member of the Chicago Wards was saying that sending Satyrical to go investigate is like sending a fox to guard the henhouse.”

“Satyrical has definite ties to Cauldron,” Dragon said.  “If nothing else, Pretender maintains connections to the group.  If Cauldron is running, or if they are pulling something covert, then it’s very possible Satyrical is on board or is going to be brought on board.”

Chevalier shifted the Cannonblade to his other hand, then stabbed the point into the ground.  It looked different.  His armor looked different.  Gold and black, instead of gold and silver.  “It also means he and the Las Vegas capes are well equipped to know how Cauldron operates, and identify clues others would miss.  We sent them with others we could trust.  They’ve been reporting in on schedule.”

I opened my mouth.  Chevalier spoke before I could.  “-With stranger and master precautions in place.”

I frowned.

“You’re strong when it comes to improvising,” Chevalier told me.  “We’ve got a moment to breathe.  We think he’s hitting another world, one we don’t have access to.  We’re regrouping, figuring out who goes where, and we’re trying to set things up so we can mobilize faster.  I can’t tell you what to do.  I wouldn’t if I could.  But we could use you here.”

“We’re losing, here,” I said.  “Legend was being positive, but… I don’t think we can really delude ourselves that far.  He’s tearing us apart while holding back.  If we put up a fight or if we don’t hold back, he hits us harder, like he hit the Guild.  He can always top us, and he can always say he’s had enough and then just nuke the continent.  That’s not a recipe for an eventual win.”

“I don’t even think that’s the worst of it,” Tattletale said, finally having broken away from Knave of Clubs to join this conversation.  “He’s evolving, maturing.  If you can even call it that.  He was a blank slate, then almost like a baby, flinging destruction around like a baby practices moving their arms, as if to remind himself he could… and then he was like a child in this fight… except for the bit about Queen of Swords.  That suggested he’s almost entering an adolescent phase.  Something more complex than just raw fear and awe.  Loss, despair.  He’s going to start looking for ways to really hurt us.”

“Instead of just annihilating us?” Legend asked.  “Torture?”

“Mental, emotional, more involved physical torture.  Up until he hits adulthood.  Then he probably destroys us, completely and utterly.  I’d be surprised if we lasted more than two days, rate he’s developing.”

“You’re talking about him as if he were human,” Saint said.

“He is,” Tattletale said.  “It’s the only reason he’s doing this, and it’s the only way we have to truly make sense of him, and it’s his primary means of making sense of us.  Which is why he did it.  He’s got our general biological makeup.  He thinks, he feels, he dreams, he hurts, but it’s all buried so far under mounds and mounds and mounds of power and security, it doesn’t really supplant him.  It’s never been exposed to the real world, really, so the human side of him hasn’t matured or developed.”

“A weakness?”  Chevalier asked.

“Yes, but not a weakness we’re going to be able to exploit,” Tattletale said.  “He’s too careful, and he would have foreseen it.  Adapted around it, probably.  Be awfully stupid for something like him to adapt traits of their targets and adapt vulnerabilities at the same time.  Knowing this could help, but it’s not going to be the weak point we can target to finish him off.  That makes zero sense.”

“We know a lot of things like that,” I said.  “A lot of tidbits about his behavior or who he is or what he is.  But a lot of it isn’t reliable information.  He cared a lot about my clone decoys multiplying during the fight on the oil rig, but he didn’t give a damn this time.”

“He’s advancing, evolving.  His focus is changing,” Tattletale interjected.

“We know so many critical details,” I said, “And we need more.  We need a way of paring truth away from fiction, or determining what’s no longer true.  I don’t know for sure what we’re going to do to stop him, but I think any plans I have are going to start or end with Cauldron.”

I looked around the group.  Men and women, all in armor that made them stronger, bulkier or taller, it seemed.  Legend was comparatively small, but he had presence to make up for it, even as tired and worn out as he seemed to be.  Flying, casual flying as Legend tended to do, gave one a little more stature.

I wasn’t short, but it felt like Tattletale and I were mortals in the midst of giants.  Defiant, in particular, seemed somehow imposing.  His body language was familiar with the way he’d naturally set his feet apart, his hand on his weapon.

Even the place we were standing, it stirred memories.  We were at the north end of the Bay, even.

“Yes.  The plan makes sense,” Defiant said.  “I’ll trust you on this one.”

Dragon reached out to grab and squeeze his hand.

“What do you need?” Defiant asked me.

“I was thinking I’d bring some of the capes that can’t or won’t participate in the fight against Scion,” I said.  My eyes fell on Canary.

Me?”  Canary squeaked.

“Anyone, but capes like you,” I said.  “Support capes who can’t support in circumstances like this.  Strangers who can’t use their power on Scion.  Capes like that.”

“And if you can’t access Cauldron?” Chevalier asked.  “I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but your actions when you assumed control of the Simurgh were… heavy handed.  You told an ex-teammate in the Wards that you weren’t intending to be a hero anymore.  I don’t want to tell you I won’t cooperate any more than I want to tell anyone I won’t cooperate, but you’d be asking us to put a fair amount of power in your hands by sending capes your way.  I… don’t know that I feel confident sending capes to you, if I don’t know how they’ll be put to use.”

“Would you allow me to talk to other capes?” I asked.  “You don’t have to send them my way, but maybe I could inquire?”

“I’m not going to stand in anyone’s way,” Chevalier said.  “I’m not the bad guy, here.  But I’ve got to lead this battle, and I’ve got to do what I can to make sure things don’t get worse.  If a cape needs to go, if they don’t have the courage to stand and fight, I’m not going to make them.  I’ll try to convince them otherwise, but I won’t make them.  And if they think they’ll be more useful elsewhere, I won’t stop them there, either.”

I nodded.  “I’ll settle for that.”

“What else?”

“Access to computers,” I said.  “Tools.  Resupplies.  The Dragonfly.”

He reached out of his pocket and withdrew a knife.  He reversed it and extended it to me, handle first.

I reached for the weapon, then saw Defiant pull his hand back.  “Be aware of the safety and the activation switch.”

I saw one of the switches, then took hold of the knife.

“Keep it away from heat.  If the growths start knuckling together, then it’s probably clogged at the air intake.  You can unscrew the cap at the butt of the knife and access the air intake there.  Bake it at roughly five hundred degrees to clear it, then thoroughly vacuum.  Pay attention to how long it takes the growths to hit maximum length… you’ll know because the colors at the ends are a lighter gray.  Three point seven seconds is the optimum time.  If it takes shorter then you’ll know something’s wrong with-“

“The knife won’t degrade too much in the next day,” Dragon said.  “And we have spares, thanks to Masamune.”

“You didn’t make this much of a fuss with my flight pack,” I said.

“I included documentation,” Defiant said.

“Thank you,” I said.  I found the holster for my old knife, then put it through the belt at my back, holstering the new knife.

“Where’s the Dragonfly?” he asked.  I pointed.

Dragon said something in Japanese to Masamune and Black Kaze.  There were two nods.

Defiant led the way to the Dragonfly, all business, Dragon, Canary, Tattletale, and me following.  He seemed almost happy to have something to focus on.  A problem that could be solved.

Did he genuinely trust me?  Was there a modicum of hope, here, with me mobilizing to go look into the Cauldron situation?

He continued to hold his weapon, though the fight wasn’t about to start.

I could imagine his outlook, the security the weapon afforded him, a hundred solutions in his hands.  The ability to defend himself, to defend others, to move out of the way of danger.  It made sense.

Dragon, conversely… what was her security blanket?

Different.  I couldn’t put my thumb on it.  But she’d lost to Saint, to the Dragonslayers.  She’d been taken captive, effectively killed.  Killed by a man who saw her as subhuman.

She’d been altered by Teacher.  Not so much she was a slave to him, but something had happened, and that was no doubt a large part of how she was disconnected from reality in the here and now.

I looked back at Saint, Masamune and Black Kaze.  Saint was taking a seat, his back to a chunk of destroyed aircraft, cross-legged.  Calm, relaxed.

“How can you stand to be near them?” I asked.

“Keep your enemies closer,” Dragon said, her voice tight.

“Don’t forget about the friends part,” I said.

She shook her head a little.  “I won’t.”

“When we were waiting for the fight to start, I went around, looking for people I needed to thank.  Important people to me, people who I wasn’t sure I’d get a chance to talk to again.  I missed a few important ones.  My dad… you two.  I know the only reason I got my shot at being a hero, the only reason I didn’t go to jail, was because you vouched for me, because you agreed to cart me back and forth and interrupt your schedule.  I probably didn’t even deserve it, but you backed me up.  I’m just… I’ve never been good at saying thank you and sounding as sincere as I feel.”

“I think we benefited as much as you did,” Dragon said.  “You needed to join the Wards to… make amends, shall we say?  It was the same for us.”

“For me,” Defiant cut in.

“I had my own regrets,” Dragon said.

“You had no choice.”

“Regrets nonetheless,” she said, again.  Her head turned towards Canary, and Canary smiled just a little.  Dragon then looked to me.

Was it possible for an artificial human to look weary?  To look wounded, in the sense that she was bearing some grievous injury from recent events?

We’d stopped outside the Dragonfly.  I bid the ramp to open, controlling the bugs in the operating mechanism.

Then, as it opened, I impulsively gave Dragon a hug.  Returning a favor she’d given me some time ago.

“Let’s get you set up,” Defiant said.

“Hook me in while you’re at it?” Tattletale made it a question.  “Whatever you need to do, so I can communicate with her and her peeps.”

“I’ll see to it.”

Tattletale glanced at me.  “Ops?”

“Please.”

We circled twice before coming in for a landing.  A cave just above water level, inaccessible except from the air.

The receiving party consisted of Exalt and Revel from the Protectorate core group, with half of the Vegas team.  Nix, Leonid, Floret and Spur.  Vantage was waving a rod around, listening to steady beeps.

“Oh god, finallySomething to take my mind off the beeping,” Floret said.  She was petite, her hair in carefully layered waves of pink, with green at the roots.

“Find anything?” I asked.

“No signs of any portals that have been opened in the past.  Harder than cracking Dodger’s gateways, apparently,” Vantage said.  “Or they gave us bad instructions.  How’re you doing, Weaver?”

“I’m fine,” I said.

“Wearing black,” he said.

“Is everyone going to comment on that?” I asked.

“It’s comment worthy.  How’d the fight… nevermind.  I can guess.”

“Probably,” I said.

“Grim group,” Floret commented.  “I know black’s ‘in’ with the end of the world, but damn.  Only one person with style.”

I looked over my shoulder.  Golem, in silver and gunmetal, his mask solemn.  Cuff, again, in a dark metal costume.  Imp, with her dark gray mask and black bodysuit that actually fit her.  Shadow Stalker, in a black, form-fitting bodysuit like the one I’d given Imp, along with a flowing cloak with a heavy hood.  All spidersilk, but the mask was hers, as was the crossbow.  Rachel followed, her jacket, tank top and pants black, only the fur ruff at her shoulders, where it flowed around the edges of her hood, was white.  Huntress and Bastard flanked her.  Lung was still inside the Dragonfly, but I knew he had only his mask and jeans on.  Barefoot, shirtless.

Canary was the only one, apparently, who met Floret’s standards.  Yellow body armor, her helmet in one hand, her hair and feathers free.

“I remember you,” Spur said.  He smiled.  Teeth that had been professionally done, no doubt.  He wasn’t bad looking, but not quite my type.  Spiky hair, and a costume that mingled barbed wire tattoos with real barbed wire, where his skin was exposed.  Mid twenties, with hair bleached to a near-white and acid washed jeans.  His mask was simple, black, covering the upper half of his face, with only a circle of barbed wire at the brow.  A trademark of thinker powers, to do the whole forehead thing.  A precog who was most effective in the midst of chaos and heightened emotions, and fairly competent otherwise.  “Bad Canary?”

Canary’s eyes widened.  “You remember my stage name?”

“You were famous,” he said.  “The whole trial thing.  You-“

Canary’s expression fell.

“-got robbed,” he said.

Dick,” Floret said.  “Like that’s how she wants to be remembered.”

“I remember the music too,” he protested.

“Yeah,” Canary said.  She rubbed the back of her neck, avoiding eye contact.  “It doesn’t matter anyways, does it?  Long time ago, and we’ve got better things to worry about.”

Vulgarishous,” he said.  “Ur-soundLineless?”

“You’re probably cheating,” she said.

“I could sing the lyrics,” he answered.

“It would make me sure you’re cheating.  I barely remember the lyrics.”

“I don’t believe that for a second,” Spur answered her.  “Eh, guys?  Back me up.  My power doesn’t give me a way to cheat, does it?”

“No,” Floret said.  “He’s genuine.  And none of us have ways to clue him in.”

I glanced at Revel, who only rolled her eyes a little.  Exalt looked bored.  He saw me looking and commented, “It’s fine here.  We’re using substandard tools to find a portal that used to exist, and we don’t know exactly where it was.”

Imp pushed her mask up until it sat on top of her head.  “Finding a transparent needle outside of the haystack.”

“Well put,” Leonine said.

“Don’t encourage her,” I told him.

He only smiled, which made Imp smirk at me in turn.

Spur was murmuring the lyrics to the song, and he was actually doing a good job of it.  Canary was trying to look like she wasn’t pleased as punch.  It was cute.  Cute and just a little ominous, considering who these guys were.

Some things had come to light after they’d departed their positions in the Protectorate and Wards.  Nothing definitive, but it raised questions that had yet to be answered.  Questions that would probably never be answered, now that evidence lockers and court records throughout Earth Bet had been obliterated.  Problems that had resolved themselves just a little too neatly.  People, both bad guys and witnesses, who’d disappeared.

“If I’m the lion, and you’re the goat…” Leonine was saying.

“I guarantee I’m more dangerous than you,” Imp retorted.

I could sense others in the group getting restless.

“We’ll let you know if anything turns up,” Revel said, as if she’d sensed it.  She smiled a little, a bit awkward, or apologetic.  “Don’t let us waste your time.  It’s the end of the world, spend it with people you care about.”

Her eyes moved to Cuff and Golem, who were hanging back.  The pair were the heroes of our group, so to speak.  They’d feel the betrayal of the Vegas capes more sharply, even now.  They looked at each other.

I did too.  Not that I counted myself as a hero.  But I’d been there.

“I could come with,” Exalt said.  “If you’re going back.  I’m only here to relieve Revel.  I’ll be able to participate in the coming fight.”

“Sure,” I said.  “But I’d like to hear the password.  From Revel.”

“Good thinking.  Belord, six-two, spauld,” she said.

“On my seventeenth birthday,” I said.  “What color was the cake?”

“Seriously?” she asked.  “Do you even remember?  I should get a brownie point for this one.  Because I care about my Wards.  It was white.”

“The frosting?” I asked.

“Blue,” she said, sounding just a bit put out.  “And you barely ate any.”

I nodded, satisfied.  “And… Leonine.”

Me?”  Leonine laughed a bit.  “What kind of shenanigans do you think we’re pulling?”

“He’s one of the Vegas capes,” Imp said, speaking very slowly, like I was mentally disabled.

“I know he’s one of the Vegas capes.  But I think I have to cover all of the bases.  Who was your kindergarten teacher?”

“You researched that?” Spur asked.  “Dug through our entire histories to find something obscure?”

He sounded offended.  Every head had turned his way.

“Do you have a problem with that?”  I asked.

He frowned, but he shook his head, sticking his hands in his pockets as he leaned against the wall beside Canary.  “No.  No problem.”

“Richie,” Leonine said.  “Mrs. Richie.”

“Great,” I said.  “Great.  Now let’s drop the fucking act.”

“I gave you the answer you wanted,” Leonine said, smirking.  “What the fuck?”

“Spur?” I said, “Raise your right hand?”

He did.  There were bugs on the fingers.

“He was moving his hand.  A one-handed sign language.  I assume everyone on your team knows it.”

“I was thinking of Canary’s music,” Spur told me.  He stepped forward, putting a hand on Canary’s shoulder as he did so.  She turned, so they were both facing me.  “Piano keys.  Mnemonic tool.  That is something our team uses.”

“You’re being a little crazy paranoid,” Imp said.  “Just a little.”

“They’ve been playing us since the start,” I said.  “The men were batting their eyelashes at you and Canary, probably the targets they thought they could work.  Revel… I’d think she’s under some kind of compulsion.”

“A lot crazy,” Imp said.  “Way crazy.”

“Maybe Tattletale can chime in,” I suggested.  “Tattle?”

Mostly right.  Exalt, Revel, Vantage, Leonine, Floret, all fakes.”

“No shit,” Imp said.  Her mouth dropped open.  “No way.”

“Jig’s up,” I said.  “We know.”

One by one, the Vegas capes changed.  Flesh altered, and they assumed identical appearances.

Six copies of Satyrical.  Leaving only Spur and Nix.

One of the Satyricals looked at the two who remained.  “Take care of yourself.  I’ll see you shortly.”

“I know,” Spur said.

Satyr looked at us, as if taking us all in.  “And you, I suppose, we’ll run into.  Sooner or later.”

Then the Satyrs died.  Flesh withered, and the Satyrs crumpled up.  They made bloody messes as they hit the ground, like overripe tomatoes might, but with teeth and the occasional bit of withered organ.

Self duplication, and each duplicate had shapeshifting abilities.

I bent down and picked up the devices from the heads of Revel, Exalt and Vantage’s clones.  Earbuds, phones…

“Revel,” Cuff said, her voice small.

“Where are the real ones?” Golem asked.

“With the real Satyr,” I guessed.

“And how did he know the passwords?” Golem asked.

He guessed the cake thing through cold reading.  White with blue, like Weaver’s costume.  Made sense.  That Taylor didn’t eat much… well, look at herThe rest… torture?  Coercion through other means?”

“Torture?” I asked.

Spur raised his chin a bit, but didn’t do or say anything to suggest otherwise.

“Ew.”  Imp said, under her breath, “Ew, ew, ew.  He’s like, forty?  And he was hitting on me.”

“Where’s the portal?” I asked Spur, ignoring Imp.

“No portal.  Or weren’t you paying attention?”

I looked at Nix.  “You know where this goes, if you don’t cooperate.  Circumstances are a little too dire.  We knock you out, your power fades.  So why don’t you drop the illusion and let us see the portal?”

“My power stays up while I’m out,” she said.

I drew my knife.  The one that wasn’t special.

“Woah,” Golem said.  He put his hand on my wrist.  “Woah, woah, woah.”

“She’s bluffing,” Spur said, unfazed.  “She’s scary, she’s got a reputation, but she’s bluffing here.  There’s no way she follows through.”

“I think you’re badly underestimating how pissed off I am,” I said.  I was surprised at just how right I was.  The mounting anger caught me off guard.  “Doing this, screwing around, stabbing people in the back, screwing with the system when we’re trying to save humanity?”

“We’re saving it too,” Spur said.  “Satyr, the others, they’ve got this situation handled.  Give them… two or three more hours, and the threats are going to be dealt with, Cauldron will be secure, or as secure as they can be, after you account for injuries and deaths at the hands of the invading group.  You go in there, you’re just going to muck up a delicate exfiltration operation.”

“Invading?” Golem asked.

“The deviants.  The case-fifty-threes.  Weld’s group.”

Weld?  No.  He’d been one of the only decent ones out there, during my stay in Brockton Bay.  Respectable, honest, kind.  He’d saluted me the first time we’d crossed paths, because we were both going up against an Endbringer.

Fuck it all.

Either Spur was fucking with me, or things were fucked.  Fuck it all.

“People like you are the reason we deserve to lose,” I said, gripping the knife.  “Every step of the way, it’s been people refusing to cooperate, refusing to talk plain truth.  From day one, even.  You’re the reason humanity deserves to get wiped out.”

“Great,” he said.  “You’re still not going to use that knife on either of us.”

It was said with the smug tone of someone who could see the future.

I glanced at Canary.  I could see the hurt on her face.

“I get it,” Spur said.  “See it coming.  If it helps, I do remember the music.”

Rachel stepped forward, giving me a little push to get me out of the way, and then slugged him.

He dropped, unconscious.

Golem set about binding him to the cave floor with hands of stone.

I looked at Nix.  “Her too.”

Golem reached into his costume, and hands of stone gripped Nix.

“To the ceiling,” I decided, at the last second.

“Sure,” Golem said.  Hands of stone emerged, passing Nix up.  She struggled a bit, but she was at an unsafe height by the time she realized what he was doing.

She was bound to the cave ceiling with armholds, leg holds and an arm set across her collarbone.

“What the hell?” she asked.

“I don’t think any of your friends have powers that can break those hands,” I said.

“The hell?” she asked, again.  She tested her bonds.  “The fuck?”

“You better hope we make it out okay,” I said.  “Tattletale?”

“Pretty sure it’s to your left.  Start by going ten paces that way.”

I nodded.

We followed the directions.

The illusion broke, dissolving into harmless smoke, as we reached it and pressed hard enough against the wall in question.

With the barrier gone, I could feel the warm air from within, see a dark hallway without lights.

I looked at my teammates.

Maybe humanity deserves to lose, but these guys are why we’re going to win, I promised myself.

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Venom 29.1

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Tattletale stirred.  I could see the usual confusion that went with waking up in unfamiliar surroundings.  She adjusted faster than most.  There was no flailing about for a point of reference so everything could start to make sense again.  Her power supplied it.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” I replied.

“Think the world’s going to end today?”  she asked, as she stretched, still lying down.

“World already ended, if we’re talking about our world.  Too much damage done.”

“Maybe,” she said.  “Humans are resourceful.  Resourceful and stubborn.  But you kind of live that, don’t you?”

I nodded.  “Guess so.”

Tattletale picked a bit of grit out of the corner of her eye with a fingernail.  “You didn’t sleep.”

“Not so much.”

“Idiot.”

“I’ve learned to deal.  Pulled enough stakeouts to adapt.”

“Idiot,” Tattletale said again.  She raised herself to a sitting position.  “You need to be in top fighting shape.”

“I slept for three days after getting cut in half,” I protested.

“Only shows how much you needed the sleep,” she said.

“The Simurgh was being eerie, singing you a lullaby.  You really expect me to sleep after that?”

“The lullaby wasn’t for me,” Tattletale said.  “And I didn’t sense any hostile intent.”

I turned my head.  My expression was hidden, but she read my confusion anyways.

“I mean, I think some of it was for my benefit, but it didn’t fit like that was the be-all and end-all of the singing.  She was doing something else.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Neither do I.  But she’s not exactly an easy one to get.  Who knows what she sees?  Maybe she’s singing for a reason that isn’t apparent yet?”

That was unsettling.  I thought of what the Simurgh had said.

It didn’t serve to keep secrets right now.  It’d be disastrous in the worst case scenario, and Tattletale was the best person to go to when I needed answers.  “She apologized.”

“The Simurgh?” Tattletale asked.  She gave me a funny look.

“Believe it or not.  She said ‘I’m sorry’.”

“She doesn’t talk,” Tattletale said.

“I know.  But I heard it.”

“Anyways, she isn’t sorry,” Tattletale said.  “I’d put money on it.  I’ve got a lot of money to put on it, if anyone’s willing to take the bet.  Couple million in liquid assets.”

I shook my head.  “I won’t take that bet.  Look, just keep it in mind.”

“Filed away,” Tattletale promised.

“For now though, we should mobilize,” I said, as if I could distract myself.  “Get everyone on the same page, start putting heads and powers together.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Tattletale responded.  She pulled off a glove, then reached into her belt to get a small tin from one pouch.  “Two minutes to get myself presentable.  Could do with a shower, but I think people are a little past that right now.”

I nodded.  Most of the capes I’d seen were just a little rougher around the edges.  The shine gone from their costumes, a little dustier, their hair greasier, chins unshaven.  Psychologically, it was much the same.

This had hit all of us hard.  I liked to think I was rolling with it better than some, if only because I’d had two years to anticipate it.  Then again, I was good at self-delusion.

I thought about Clockblocker, his optimism.  When I’d been talking about expecting the worst, he’d argued for the opposite.  I didn’t want to diminish what I felt about him being dead in the general sense by thinking about something so petty, but a part of me was disappointed I couldn’t talk to him now, after the fact, and see how he was doing.  If he was coping better than I had.

It wasn’t that I was coping, exactly.  I wasn’t happy, confident or unafraid.  The only thing I could say was that I’d been able to brace myself.  I’d bought into Dinah’s prophecy more than just about anyone else.  I’d braced myself and I’d nearly broken, regardless.  I could tell myself that the point where I’d been floating over the ocean by New Brockton Bay had only been a desire to get away, nothing darker, but I wasn’t sure I was telling myself the truth.  I could think back to the point where I’d snapped after being cut in half by Scion and tell myself I was lucid, but I wasn’t sure that was true either.

Hard to say I’d held my own when I wasn’t sure how much of it was me and how much was the adrenaline at work.  Or other things.

Any opinion, passenger?  I asked.  We’re going up against your maker.  You going to hold back or are you going to go all-out?

No response, of course.

Tattletale was smearing black greasepaint around her eyes.  She’d finished the hardest part, around the eyelashes, and spoke up as she filled the rest in,  “You get in touch with everyone you wanted to talk to?”

“Almost everyone.”

“Ah.  I can guess who you didn’t actively look for.  This denial worries me.”

I shrugged.

“No use dwelling on it.  Your decision in the end.  Let’s move on to a happier topic.  You ever think we’d make it this far?”

“To the end of the world?”  That’s a happier topic?

“To the top of the heap.  As far up there as we could hope to be.”

“We’re not big leaguers, Tattletale.  Not the most powerful capes out there.”

“But we’re talked about around the world.  We’re on speaking terms with some of the biggest and scariest motherfuckers out there.”  Tattletale gestured towards the window.  Towards the Simurgh.  “We’d be front page news, if the news still existed.”

“I’m not sure being news would be a good thing,” I said.  “Which isn’t to say word isn’t getting around, you know.  Charlotte knew.”

“Charlotte’s connected to Sierra and the rest of our infrastructure in Gimel.  That doesn’t really surprise me,” Tattletale said.  She pulled her hair out of the loose ponytail she’d had it in, then combed her fingers through it to get it more or less straight.  It still had kinks and waves where it had been braided.  Something she would have fixed before going out in costume in more ordinary circumstances, for caution’s sake.

“Mm,” I acknowledged her.  Maybe I was tired.  My thoughts were wandering some.

“I tried to set things up so we’d have some way of maintaining communications and getting some information in, getting information out.  Like, I told people about what you said about Scion hating duplication powers.  Anyways, only the very high tech and very low tech have really survived.  Satellites and hard copies.”  She lifted one of the files I’d stacked on the floor, as if to give evidence to the point. “Reading up?”

I picked up a file as well, leafing through it.  “I wasn’t sleeping, so while you were out, I got in touch with Defiant and one of your minions, arranged for only the most essential status updates to come in on paper.  I figured I could update you after you got up.  The deliveries stopped a good bit ago, but one of the last status updates was about Dragon, so I guess she’s handling her old duties while Defiant recuperates from the last few days.”

“Guess so,” Tattletale said.  I turned my head to see what she was doing, but she was already crossing the room.

“Doormaker is napping as well, I guess,” I said.  “He just decided to leave one open, and he hasn’t been responding.  I double checked the portal, making sure he wasn’t trying to tip us off to anything important, but it opens to a pretty remote area of Earth Bet.”

Tattletale went still, “Doormaker doesn’t sleep.”

I raised my eyebrows, realized Tattletale couldn’t see them, and cocked my head quizzically instead.

“There’re lots of capes who don’t sleep.  About a year ago, I started digging into the PRT files.  Hired the Red Hands to steal a more up to date set, even.  I was looking into clues for understanding this whole thing, y’know?  Best leads at the time were memories and dreams.  Clues popping up here and there, relating to people’s dreams, or gaps in memories.  Dreaming differently, seeing things instead of dreaming, case fifty-threes suffering from their amnesia… Well, there are a number of ‘Noctis’ cases.  Named after a vigilante hero that was up at all hours.  The opposite of what I was looking for, but a good data point anyways: capes who don’t dream because they don’t sleep.  PRT confirmed a few members of their own, Miss Militia included, as examples.  Others have only been marked down as guesses.  Doormaker and Contessa were among them, they said, going by the times the ‘bogeyman’ was showing up.”

“So if he doesn’t sleep, why leave a door open and ignore us?” Tattletale asked.

I shook my head a little.

“Doorway,” Tattletale tried.

There was no response.  No portal, no door.

“Door?  Portal?  Open sesame?”  I tried.

“That’s worrisome,” Tattletale said, keeping her voice low.  She clipped on her belt, tapping each of the pockets, as if to check the contents were still there.  She drew her gun and checked it for bullets.

“We should go,” I said.

“We’re definitely going,” Tattletale said, but she didn’t budge as she double-checked her gun, pulling the slide back.  I resisted the urge to comment on just how useless a gun was, considering what we were up against; I could remember how she’d fared when the assassin targeted her, Accord and Chevalier.

There were other threats.

“Right,” Tattletale said, finally finishing, grabbing her laptop and tucking it under one arm.

That was our go signal.  We broke into stride.

We passed a soldier, and Tattletale signaled him, raising a finger.  He stopped and wheeled around, following.

“We’re going,” Tattletale said.  “Ship up, move out.  If we come back and settle in here, then so be it, but let’s not plan on it.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Get someone to collect my things.  All the files, the computers, the food.  Everything.  Get it all to the far side of the little doorway…”  Tattletale looked at me.  “Where’s the doorway?”

“A bit outside the front doors,” I said.

“What she said,” Tattletale told her mercenary.  “If we’re gone, just hold position.  If we’re still gone after twenty four hours, assume we’re dead.  Get my data and the backups of my notes to someone who matters, then consider the job done, collect your payment, go on your merry way.”

“I’ll make sure everyone’s informed.”

“Do,” she said.  Then, as if to offset the curt command, she added, “Thanks, Tug.”

He gave us a sloppy salute as he broke away, turning down a different corridor.

I had my phone out before I was outside.  My bugs let me navigate the stairs without taking my eyes from the screen, as I input commands.  It was cold out, almost cold enough it would impair my bugs, and a heavy fog hung in the open clearing.  The stout military building stood in an open, overgrown grassland, encircled by evergreen trees.

No reception.  Not a surprise, but inconvenient.  I watched as we got closer to the portal Doormaker had left open.

Tattletale, for her part, turned around, walking backwards as we reached the bottom of the steps.  With the phone still dark, I took a moment to look in the same direction.  I was treated to the intimidating image of the Simurgh passing over the building.  She moved as if she were as light as a feather, but I knew that wasn’t true.  She was heavier than she looked, by a considerable margin.  Had she set her full weight on the roof, she would plunge through.

Like someone playing hopscotch on the moon, the Simurgh set one foot down on the roof, hopping forward, set another foot on the very edge and pushed herself off.  She floated down to the space beside the portal, then unfolded her wings, drawing the halo out to its full breadth.  The movements sent swirls of dust and fog rippling across the edges of the clearing, stopping only as they crashed into the line of trees.

“She changed the guns?” I observed.

“She did,” Tattletale observed, “Cosmetic changes.”

Each of the Simurgh’s guns had been streamlined, the outer casings, barrels and handles reworked into wings.  Three concentric circles of interconnected guns, all redesigned to appear like an extension of her own wings, behind her.

“Why cosmetic?”

“Way I understand it, she needs to have a tinker in her sphere of influence to borrow their schematics, or a specific device, if she wants to copy it.  Thinkers, too, I think she borrows their perception powers as long as she’s tapped into them.  Might be why she’s attached to me.  Either way, she didn’t have schematics or anything she’d need to modify the guns.”

“Or she can modify them, and it’s a card she’s been keeping up her sleeve for the last while.  I mean, it was only three years ago or whatever that she really showed off her ability to copy a tinker’s work wholesale.”

Tattletale nodded.  She frowned.  “I don’t like being in the dark.  But that’s the gist of it.  She made cosmetic changes because she couldn’t make concrete ones.”

“Well, it’s unnerving to think about, but anything about the Simurgh is,” I commented.  “When I asked about the aesthetics, though, I wasn’t asking about the why so much as the…”

“So much as the why?”  Tattletale asked, emphasizing the word.

“Yeah,” I said, lamely.  “Why does she care?”

“Why does she have feathers and wings?  For all intents and purposes, she could be a crystal that floats here and there.  The end result is pretty much the same.  A few less weapons.  Behemoth?  I mean, you saw what he was, when we reduced him to a bare skeleton.  All the extra flesh, it’s decorative.  He doesn’t really need any particular parts, except legs to move around.”

“It’s there to dress them up so they make better terror weapons,” I said.

“Basically,” Tattletale said.

“That’s not a good omen,” I said.  “Because Scion doesn’t feel fear.  I’m pretty sure.”

“Maybe he doesn’t, and this is a little embellishment for our sake, for when she turns on us,” Tattletale said.

“Can you not spell that out when she’s standing twenty feet away?” I asked.  My pulse picked up a little at the idea, my heart kicking a little in my chest as it switched to a different gear.

“She knows we’re thinking it,” Tattletale said.  “And she knows there’s another explanation we could make.  Maybe it’s a clue.  A hint.”

“About what?” I asked.  “About Scion?”

“About Scion,” she said.

A hint that he can feel fear?  It didn’t ring true, but I preferred it to the alternative.

“Let’s go through and…” I said.  I couldn’t bring myself to say I hoped.  “…Maybe the Simurgh can make her way through the portal, and maybe we’ll find out.”

“Yep,” Tattletale said, smiling a little.  She probably knew the reasoning behind my word choice.

For that matter, it was very possible the Simurgh did too.

Which left me with the question of why I’d even bothered.

Going through, I thought.  Hopefully there’s people on the other side that can’t read me like a book.

My phone lit up as a connection was established to a satellite.

A moment later, the connection was secured.

The clock changed, followed by a time zone and a symbol.  Four forty-six, Eastern standard time, Earth Bet.

I stared at the world that stretched out before us, and it was wrong.  Perspective was skewed.  Lines bent where they should have been straight, and the expanse to our left was somehow more extensive than the space to our right.

The horizon should have been straight, or at least a gentle curve to accomodate the planet’s natural curvature, but it was almost a wavy line.

“The fuck?” I muttered.

“Vista,” Tattletale said, very matter-of-factly.

The Simurgh reached the portal.  I was reminded of Leviathan breaking into the shelter beneath the library as I saw her put one hand on each side of the portal.  She wasn’t quite as large as he was, until you added up the wings and wingspan.  Put all the wings together, and her mass was probably equivalent to her older brother’s.

She passed through with little effort, dropping almost to her knees to get her head through.  The wings followed, each wing stretched all the way behind her.  The feathers rasped against the boundaries of the portal as she floated forward.

The outer edges wavered a fraction, as if the stress threatened to bring the portal down entirely.

Then she was through.  She flexed her wings, then folded them around herself.  The halo came through in pieces.

“That answers that,” Tattletale said.  She added a very unenthusiastic, “Yay.”

The Dragonfly made its way to us, stopping no less than four times.  With each stop, it descended to the ground and refused all incoming commands.  A minute would pass, and then it would take off again.

It took me a bit to realize why.

Vista.  The autopilot didn’t seem to like her power.

“Just how much area is she manipulating?” I asked.

“She was only ever held back by the Manton effect,” Tattletale said.  “Number of people in the area.”

“And there’s not many people left in Bet,” I spoke my thoughts aloud, as I made the connection.

“Consider it a bonus,” Tattletale said, raising her head as the Dragonfly came into view, “In a sad, not-really-a-bonus sort of way.  Empty earth makes for a convenient battleground.  If we’re able to fight here, that is.”

The Dragonfly set down, the ramp opening before it was even on terra firma.

It took a minute to plot out the route the Dragonfly should take, looking at what the cameras had tracked, seeing where the distortions were.

“Something’s really wrong,” Tattletale said.

“With the distortions?”

“The distortions are a band-aid.  Vista’s trying to fix something that’s gotten fucked up,” she said.  “How do you plot the course?”

I mapped out a course to take us to the Gimel portal.

Tattletale changed the course, adjusting it to match the distortions we’d mapped and some we hadn’t.

It took several minutes, all in all, but the resulting trip was fast.  The Dragonfly’s onboard system kept trying to calculating the remaining time for the trip based on our location, only to get tripped up by the folded and pinched space.

Then we hit Silkroad’s power, and accelerated to nearly three times the speed.  Tattletale was caught off guard, standing beside my chair, and fell, dropping her laptop onto the hard floor.

Both the distortion and Silkroad’s power stopped when we were a distance from the portal.  The effect was disorienting.

Corridors of folded space with the dim pink corridors of Silkroad’s power stretched out in every direction.  Connecting points.

Towers surrounded Brockton Bay, set on mountaintops and high ground within the city itself.  It necessitated a careful approach.  As we passed between two, I saw that they were communication towers, crafted to put satellite dishes at high points rather than provide shelter.

The craft settled down, and we climbed out.  They’d finished the ramp leading up to the portal, and it was easy enough to make our way up.  I opted to walk beside Tattletale instead of use up my jetpack’s fuel.

Twelve percent capacity remaining.  An hour or two of flight.

Vista stood at the top of the platform, on our side of the portal.  A Chinese woman in an elaborate Sari-style dress stood beside her, as did a man I recognized as the Knave of Hearts from the Suits.  Others were nearby, but seemed less like part of the group and more like bystanders.  Kid Win was sitting at the edge of the platform, tools and a gun in his lap, abandoned as he stared at the Simurgh.

The Knave of Hearts muttered something in what I was guessing was Dutch.  Louder, he commented, “They weren’t joking.”

“What happened?”  I asked, the second we had their attention.

“Cauldron’s running with their tail between their legs,” Vista said.  “Big promises, excuses about having all the power and being the only ones who can really put the screws to Scion, and then they run at the last minute.”

“Let us not be hasty,” the Knave of Hearts said.  “It is possible Scion hit their headquarters.  We won’t know until we have more information.”

“We can’t get information,” Vista said.  “Because they never gave us a better way of getting in contact, and they never told us where their headquarters are.”

“Yes,” Knave said.  He looked at me.  “We have no portals but the ones that were left open.  We cannot communicate by opening a door and talking to the other person.  Vista, Silk Road and I are attempting to patch together an answer.”

“A workaround,” Vista said.

“Fast transportation between key areas,” Tattletale observed.  “Your power and Silk Road’s to make the corridors…”

“I am handling communication and pinpointing the other portal locations,” Knave said.  “The Hearts of the Suits have good relations with other teams and places.”

“I can give you the coordinates,” Tattletale said.

“We have the coordinates,” Knave said, sounding annoyed.  “All but the concealed portals.”

“I think I know where those are,” Tattletale said.

Knave looked even more annoyed at that, but he nodded.  “Step through, talk to the guys at the station, they’ll get you set up.  We’ll handle the ones we know about while we wait.”

The station was on the other side of the portal.  A way to keep the civilians from trying to go back to Bet to loot and getting themselves killed or stranded, and a place where they could organize things.

Tattletale and I both gave up our phones.  The technicians on the other end changed settings to bring them on board with the hodgepodge arrays they’d put up on both Bet and Gimel.

Tattletale reclaimed her phone, then paged through the contents, checking settings.  When she was satisfied, she looked at me.  “I don’t expect you to hang around while I’m doing the geek thing and pointing those guys to the right places.”

I nodded.  “I’ll see how the others are doing and get back to you.”

Getting the Endbringers on board had marked the point we’d stopped reeling and started preparing again.  I could see the results.  The Gimel settlement was swiftly transforming from a sprawling refugee camp to a standing ground.  Refugees were being escorted or transported to other locations, packing up tents and possessions and climbing into trucks and helicopters.  It made room for the capes that were here.

Miss Militia was at the center of it, giving orders, managing the capes and the civilians in charge.

Squads were organized, many from the Protectorate, not in rank and file, but clustering according to their respective teams or organization.  Here and there, they’d gathered in more specialized groups.

I could see Rachel, Imp, Foil and Parian with the Chicago Wards, sitting or lying on the closed bins that held supplies for the settlement.  Only Golem was absent.

I felt a moment’s trepidation.  I had doubts, regrets, even a kind of shame, when it came to the Chicago teams.

I’d said it out loud, but I’d never really faced the decision I’d made: giving up on being a hero.

Still, I found myself walking up to them.

“Here she is,” Grace said.  “Make your way here okay, Weaver?”

“Doormaker left a door open for us,” I said.

“He left doors open for everyone,” Tecton said.  “But navigation’s a little tricky.  Can’t always make it from point A to point B.”

“We did okay,” I said.  “Vista was saying this is a cut and run on Cauldron’s part, but I can’t imagine this as something malicious or cowardly.  They wouldn’t have left the portals here if it was.”

“I agree,” Tecton said.

“Who’s looking into it?” I asked.

“Satyr and the other ex-Vegas capes,” Grace replied.

“Isn’t that like sending the fucking fox to guard the henhouse?” Romp asked.  “Except it’s sending the confusing mind-game head-fuckers to answer the confusing, fucked-up riddle?”

Yes,” Imp said.  “Totally.  God, it’s nice to finally have someone who can explain situations clearly.”

“More like,” Foil said, “sending a group that’s very well versed in conspiracy and subterfuge to deal with the sort of thing they’re very good at handling.”

“Now you’re being confusing,” Imp said.

“Where’s Tattletale?” Rachel asked.

“Outside.  Helping Vista and Silk Road to put together new rapid-travel routes.”

“Okay,” she said.

“Do you miss her?” Imp asked, turning around.  “Like, actually?”

“She’s a member of the team.”

“But you miss her!  That’s awesome!”

“I don’t,” Rachel said.  Then, after a moment’s thought, she added, “And that means it isn’t awesome.”

“I thought you couldn’t stand her.”

“I can stand her, and it took a long time to get that far.  That’s all it is,” Rachel said.

“But you asked.  Like, for the first time ever.”

“I have a question for her.  That’s all.”

Romp looked at her teammates, turning to Grace, then Tecton.  “Am I the only one who hears these guys talk and wonders how the fuck they ever got to be in charge of a city?”

“Don’t fucking swear,” Grace said, saying the line as if it were reflexive by now.  Romp looked annoyed, but Cuff smiled, and I could see Tecton looking away, as if he was forgetting that people couldn’t see his face while he had the helmet on.  I, too, smiled.  Romp was completely unware about why it was funny that Grace was admonishing her on the swearing.

I turned to Rachel, “What’s the question?  Something I can help with?”

She shrugged.  “This dork with Miss Militia was telling me some tinker was wanting to try something with my power.  Give my dog some drug shit a rat made?  I didn’t follow, and he kept talking to me like I have brain damage, which I don’t, so I didn’t listen.”

“Which made the guy step it up even more,” Imp commented.  “Until it sounded like he was talking to a five year old.”

“I walked away,” Rachel said.

“Stuff a rat made?” I asked.

“Lab Rat,” Imp said.

“Wouldn’t work,” I said.  “Her power burns up toxins and chemicals in the dog’s systems.”

“I said that when they said they wanted to use drugs,” Rachel said.

“They know that already,” Imp said.  “They wanted to try anyways.  Have some things left over from the previous fight.

Dosing mutated dogs with Lab Rat’s leftover transformation serums?

Would the gains be additive?

“The drugs they’re talking about are the only reason I’m still here,” I said.  “Honestly, I’m seeing only two outcomes.  Three, maybe: the effects stack up and Rachel’s dog gets even tougher or more versatile; the dog ceases to be a dog while the serum’s active and Rachel’s power stops working; or it’s made for humans and not dogs, and we get a negative reaction.”

“Two out of three odds,” Romp said.

“Actually,” Tecton said, “Nothing’s guaranteeing that the odds of any result are even.  Could be a ten percent chance of the first, five percent chance of the second and an eighty-five percent chance of the last one.”

“And a five percent chance it’s something else entirely,” Imp said, sagely.

Tecton shook his head.  “That doesn’t add up.”

“Ignore her,” Parian said.

“The numbers don’t mean anything to me,” Rachel said.  She frowned, making eye contact with me.  “You think I should?”

“I do.  Anything and everything we can think of to mix things up or combine powers is good.  I really like that there are people out there thinking outside the box.  It’s exactly what we need right now.”

“Right,” Rachel said.  She hopped down from the lid of the supply container.  “Going to go talk to her then.  If that guy tries baby-talking to me again, I’m going to make Bastard bite him.”

“No way.  You gotta fuck with his head,” Imp said.

“Biting people is more satisfying,” Rachel responded.

“No, look… uh… Tecton.  You gotta give me something really smart and scientific sounding.  Like, say what Taylor said, but in smart-guy words.”

“Critical mistake here: you’re implying Tecton is smart,” Romp said.

Tecton sat up straighter.  “Hey.  Just because I’m not your team leader anymore-”

“-You’re totally not the one who gets to order me around,” Romp replied.  “Deal with it.”

“Run a lap,” Grace said, her voice quiet.

Romp turned around, eyebrows raised.

“A lap?”

Two laps,” Grace said, her voice quiet, cold and dangerous.  “For not moving the second I gave the order.”

“What am I supposed to fucking run around?”

Three laps for swearing, four because you’re still here.  We can do five if you don’t move now.  Start running, and if you don’t pick a big enough area to run around, I can give you another few laps.”

“This is balls,” Romp said, hopping down from the bin’s lid.

“Five laps, then,”  Grace said.

“I know I’m getting more laps by talking, but I needed to state the truth for the record.”  She kept talking, speaking with each footfall.  “Balls, balls, balls.”

The moment she was out of earshot, Grace and the others broke into laughter.  Foil was the only member of the Undersiders who seemed to get it, her shoulders shaking in silent laughter.

“I can’t believe she actually went,” Cuff said.

“Don’t let her exhaust herself,” Tecton said.

Grace shook her head, still smiling.  “I’ll stop her after she finishes the first lap.”

“Okay, I need something to write on,”  Imp said.  “Anyone?”

“Here,” I said, getting a notepad from my belt.  I handed it to her.  “Why?”

She handed the notepad to Tecton.  “So Tecton can write something down.  And I hold it up, like a cue card, and Rachel recites it, sounding like a genius, and we blow dr. baby-talk’s mind.  And if he turns around, I use my power, so he’s never the wiser.”

Tecton nodded, “I can do that.”

I winced.  “There’s a flaw in that.”

“It’s brilliant,” Imp said.  She looked around, turning to Parian and Foil.

Parian only extended a hand towards Rachel.

“What?” Imp asked.

Parian gestured again, pointing.

“I don’t get it… Rachel… oh.”

“I don’t read much,” Rachel said, blunt.

“Annnd now I feel like a dick,” Imp said.

“I don’t care,” Rachel said.

She probably doesn’t.

“That doesn’t make me any less of a dick.  How often do I get reminders about the reading thing?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Rachel said.  She looked annoyed.  “This is why I don’t talk to people.  Why are we still talking about this?”

She was more irritated at the fact that Imp wasn’t dropping it than the fact that her illiteracy had been brought up.

“Maybe if I come with?” Tecton offered.  “I’ll distract whoever Dr. baby-talk is, and you can talk to Miss Militia about dosing your dogs.”

“Or you can tell me what you were going to write down and I memorize it,” Rachel said.

A few people in the group exchanged glances.

“Really simple solution,” Rachel said.  Except now she was talking to us like we were the idiots.

“I’m not sure I could memorize it,” Tecton confessed.

“The kid that’s running the lap said you weren’t that smart,” Rachel answered.  “Try me.”

“Okay, uh.  ‘I see three possible outcomes’…”

Rachel repeated what he’d said.

They continued, Imp leaning forward and kicking her legs where they dangled from the edge of the bin.

Grace interrupted my observations.  “You’re wearing black.”

I felt a bit of guilt welling.  No, guilt wasn’t the right word.  I was at peace with my decision.

I just felt a little ashamed that I hadn’t been more upfront about it, with the people I’d spent years working with.

“Yeah.”

“I suppose you’re not going to get around to having that meeting with the PRT guys, getting yourself moved up from the Wards to the Protectorate?  Unless I’m reading too much into the costume choice.”

“You’re not,” I said.  “No, I suppose I’m not going to have that meeting.”

“Is it that we failed with the Jack thing?”

“That’s not the entirety of it,” I said.

“But it’s part of it, right?  Isn’t that unfair?  We had, like, a four percent chance of success going in, and we didn’t stop it from coming to pass, so you bail?”

“I said it’s only part of it,” I repeated myself.

“I know,” she said.  I could see Tecton and Rachel pause, catching something in Grace’s tone.

When Grace and I remained silent, they resumed.  “…the cross species interactions…”

“…the cross species interactions.”

“I know,” Grace said, after a pause.  “I get that.  I get that there’s other reasons.  Like the fact that you love those guys and you never loved us.  Cool.  Makes sense.”

“I liked you guys.”

“But you didn’t love us.”

“No,” I said.

“I get all that.  But Golem’s pulling away too, and I know that’s because that we had only that fucking four percent chance and we failed.  So I draw a connection, think maybe you’re more bothered about that than you let on.”

I looked at Cuff, who was watching me intently.  She looked even more intent and focused than Grace did.

Then again, she was a little more invested in how Golem was doing than most.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Probably.”

“It’s shitty,” she said.  “Both Golem and you, drifting away.”

“I know, and it feels shitty,” I said.

“Then that’s consolation enough, for me,” Grace said.  She relaxed a little, then glanced at Cuff.

“I’m not really the type to nurse grudges,” Cuff said.  “I just want Golem thinking straight again.  He took it hard.  So you’ll get my forgiveness if you go talk to him.”

“I think that’s something I can do,” I answered her.

She smiled.  “He’s at the phone bank, near the station, if you want to find him.”

Now?

But Cuff was smiling, looking so intent.

Weaponized niceness.

“Right,” I said.  I turned to go.

And I could see people moving, running.

I felt a pit swell in my stomach.

“No,” Imp said, following my line of sight.  She could see squads getting into formation.  In the distance, the aircraft that had been moving refugees were turning around, coming back to us.  “No, no.  We had such a good joke going, don’t you dare ruin it.”

Romp returned to us, breaking into a run to close the remainder of the distance.  “Someone’s saying he’s hitting Samech.  It’s one of the Earths Cauldron was going to watch over.  There’s only Dragon, the Guild and some Protectorate guys there.”

“Let’s move,” I said.  “Through the portal.  We’ll use the Dragonfly.  Faster than waiting for another ship.  Rachel, look for doctor baby-talk, if we can grab something from him before we leave, great, but let’s not dawdle.”

There were nods all around.

I could see the other heroes.  Miss Militia and Glaistig Uaine.  Revel and Exalt.  Protectorate teams, sub-teams of the Suits, including the non-combat teams of the Hearts and Cups.

People hurried to organize, pulling on costume pieces they’d left off and checking weapons, clearing out of the open spaces where shadows grew as the aircraft descended.

One by one, the ships began to take off, flying through the tall, narrow portal.

Three ships, then four.

But the fifth didn’t take off.  I reached out with my swarm, trying to catch what people were talking about, to make sense of the situation, but everyone important was already on a ship.

King of Hearts was the only person of any meaningful rank who spoke the same language I did and who wasn’t mobilizing to leave.  The leader of the Meisters, Vornehm, was giving orders in German.  A scary-looking Master class cape with an army of clay men carrying tinker weapons was ordering other people around with the same harsh voice he was commanding his own troops.

But there was no explanation of why more ships weren’t taking off.

Had the fight already ended?

“Keep moving,” I said, ordering the teams forward.  Tattletale will know.

As confusion descended, people started falling back into their previous state, gathering in clusters of familiar people.  It almost seemed like we were the only group with direction, pushing against a milling crowd.  We weren’t, but the illusion was there.

And that same effect made it possible to see when the crowd did find direction, a common, mutual interest.  Heads turned, chins raised.  People found postures where their feet were set apart, as if ready to move at a moment’s notice.

Scion.  Here.  Floating above the bay like he’d floated above the ocean in his first appearance.

He’s targeting us, I realized.  Two of our organized settlements in as many minutes?

His hands hung at his sides.  The golden light that radiated from him cleaned his clothes and hair, but there was enough blood on his costume that the light wasn’t rendering it as pristine as it should.  His eye sockets were dark, with the way his forehead blocked the sun’s light.  That same sunlight made the edges of his hair and body glow with the light that wasn’t completely blocked.

He didn’t even raise his hand before he fired.  Lights no bigger than basketballs streaked forward, leaving trails glittering behind them.

Two of Dragon’s ships detonated violently.  Occupants dead or grievously injured, people in the area of the craft wounded by the fallout.

By the time I’d turned my head to see his follow-up, Scion had closed the distance, moving right into our midst.

Capes with reflexes better than mine were already reacting, throwing a multitude of effects in his way.  He plunged through the defenses like they weren’t even there.

Something got in his way, but he flew around it without a second thought.  He stopped right in front of a cape.  Quite possibly the cape that had stalled him momentarily.  A dark-skinned man in gray.

A swirling gray effect swelled between him and the target.  He struck it with a glowing hand, and the effect distorted, growing thin.  Another strike, and the effect dissipated.

Other capes were hurling effects at him.  Most glanced off.

He caught his target around the throat.  Didn’t squeeze.

But the golden light began to eat into the target’s body and costume.  Scion let the man drop.

Not a scream.  Only twitching, frantic thrashing as the golden light continued to consume.

Foil raised her arbalest.  I could see our entire group tense as she raised it, Parian’s hands going to her mouth.

A moment later, Parian’s cloth was unfurling from behind her back.  Rachel was making her dogs grow, while Cuff was manipulating a shotput into a blade like the one from a circular saw.

For my part, I began drawing the bugs into decoys, sending them into the air.

Oblivious to it all, Foil took aim, then ran her hand along the bolt she’d loaded in place.

I could see her draw in a breath.  I’d taken marksmanship classes.  Squeeze the trigger as you exhale.

The shot flew through the air.

Scion wheeled around and caught it.

It wasn’t just his costume, I could see.  All the lines of his body, his hands, lines that made it so he didn’t look wholly artificial, they were filled with the detritus of smoke and blood and other grit, and the golden light had only washed the surface clean.  The deepest cracks held the remainder.  It made fine lines look more like crags.

I was almost glad that it took away from his human appearance.

He let the arbalest’s bolt drop to the ground.

His eyes were on Foil.

A golden light swelled in his hand.

We spread out, but Foil didn’t even flinch.  Even as Cuff backed away, Foil reached out to touch the sawblade, imbuing it with power.

Scion reached out, and Parian used her power, encircling Foil with the end of a length of cloth.  Not an animal, only an arm.

In the instant Scion loosed the bolt of light, Parian flung Foil away.  Not a simple throw, but a reckless, inhumanly strong one.

Foil was removed from the battle.  Sent beyond what would have been the outskirts of the city, if we were in Bet, cast out in the direction of the Bay itself, until she was only a speck.

The bolt hit ground, fifty or sixty feet behind us.  Other people died instead.  People I didn’t know.

No longer interested in Foil, Scion turned to the nearest cape, lunging.

Cuff threw her circular blade.  Without even looking, Scion batted it aside, striking an unaffected part towards the middle.  His attention was on a cape, and he swiped a glowing hand through the cape’s abdomen.

What didn’t burn spilled forth.  His screams were joined by that of a friend, another cape who screamed in horror over what had happened to him.  Scion very deliberately walked past this other cape to attack someone else.

Picking us off, choosing targets.

Maximizing pain and suffering over raw destruction.

Experimenting.

And there was precious little we could do about it.

Precious little I could do about it.  My bugs formed into more decoys.  Other bugs searched for the key players.  Where was the man Rachel had described?  The one with the serums?  Where was Miss Milita?

The Simurgh was passing through the portal, and people who’d been trying to flee to Earth Bet were now scattering, trying to flee both the Endbringer and Scion at the same time.

Horribly timed, as entrances went.  Our best hope was that he’d keep toying with us, that enough time would pass that capes stationed at the other major portals could use the fast-travel routes to get to us.

Something like an Endbringer was all too likely to change his mind.

It’s the beginning of the end.

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Cockroaches 28.5

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At least she’s stopped screaming.

The Simurgh floated in the air, remaining in a kind of stasis, much like she’d been in when we’d approached her, but there was an entire rig of devices surrounding her.  A halo, almost, studded with guns and cannons at regular intervals.  The sky behind her was overcast, clouds rolling past us with the strong winds, and mingled dust and smoke slowly shifting beneath her, brown-gray.  The juxtaposition was eerie, the clouds of the sky moving faster than the smoke and dust, and the Simurgh between the two, utterly still.

On TV, back in the days when we’d had television, there had been the various talk shows, news segments and interviews where the Endbringers would come up.  I’d listened, even though television wasn’t really my thing.  I’d heard people theorize on the Simurgh’s scream, wondering out loud about just how many of the disasters that followed in her wake were her, and how many were our own overblown paranoia.

It helped to remind myself that I wasn’t the only one who was debating the possibilities.  I’d listened for too long.  Was I tainted?  If this was all a trap, then I might already be seeded with some destructive or disastrous impulse.  Should I be hypervigilant?  Should I not stress over it?

It was a debate millions of individuals had maintained amongst themselves, in the wake of the Simurgh’s attacks.  Invariably, there wasn’t a right answer.  If she wanted to fuck with me, there wasn’t anything I could do.  Anything could and would fit into her game plan.

It wasn’t just me, either.  I was very aware of Lung’s presence, and of Shadow Stalker’s.

The Yàngbǎn were dealt with.  There were two major raiding parties, if we judged solely by the colors of their masks, and three or four other sub-groups tasked with different functions.  One raiding party was annihilated, and I could hope the Endbringer’s presence would scare off the other group.

There was an upside of sorts, in that the Yàngbǎn didn’t have access to Cauldron’s doormaking parahuman.  It meant they moved exclusively through the portals that dotted Earth Bet, the same portals the refugees had used, which some stragglers were still using.  Various factions and governments were gathering small armies at each of the remaining portals.  One Earth was already lost to us, destroyed by Scion in the first day he’d been traveling universes.  The South American refugees who had fled through there would be either eradicated or reduced to such a small population that it barely mattered.  Earth Zayin, too, was gone, subsumed by the Sleeper.

Still, a dozen Earths remained, with people scattered all over them.  The C.U.I. had claimed one, and they’d be ready for retaliation, maintaining a defensive line.

I doubted that defensive line would hold if an Endbringer decided to march through.  No, they would be gathering their forces in anticipation of a possible attack.  Good.

I took in my surroundings.  One ramshackle settlement, more than half of it obliterated by bombs.  Relatively little in the way of collateral damage on the Simurgh’s part.

Psychological damage?  Quite possible.  The Simurgh was a terror weapon, her very presence enough to rout armies, and these refugees weren’t an army.  Morale had been low to start with.

I sighed.  We’d scared people off, and they’d fled to the hills, quite literally.  In a movie, this would have been the moment that people slowly began returning, the orchestral music swelling as they overcame their fear.

Ridiculous, in context.  They’d hide for days, and they’d flee the second they saw the Simurgh again.

This wasn’t a case where we’d be able to stop the imminent threat and then recruit a select few people from among the survivors.

“Yo,” Tattletale said.  She had to run to get up the last stretch of the little hill that overlooked Tav’s primary settlement.

“Yo,” I responded.

“Total deadpan?  You can be a little excited,” she said.

“I am.  Quiet terror is a kind of excitement, isn’t it?  Pulse pounding, heart in my throat, and I’m so tense I’m getting a headache, because I’m almost afraid to think.”

“You think I’m notFuck.  There’s very few things that genuinely terrify me.  One of them is hanging out right above us, building something, and I can’t even read her, which makes her one of the few things out there that surprise me.”

Building something?  I looked up.

True enough, the Simurgh had her hands in front of her, and was manipulating debris in between her hands.

“What is she-”

‘I don’t know,” Tattletale said, interrupting me.  “What do you want me to do?  Ask her?”

I shook my head.  “How are the Pendragon’s occupants doing?”

“Ship shape, but Defiant’s wanting to be careful.  He’s demanding they get triple-checked.  Kind of funny, seeing that from him.”

I shrugged.  It would be a bigger leap for Tattletale to see the changes in him than for me to see it.  I’d been acquainted with him over the past two years, while she only saw him here and there.

“They’ll be up for it if we have a fight?” I asked.

Tattletale shrugged.  “For sure.  Scratches, bruises, but that’s about it.  We’re down to fight at a moment’s notice.  Sad thing is, the worst thing Scion could do to us is wait a month or two before he comes back.”

“True,” I agreed.

Not a pleasant thought.  If he took a leave of absence while we were trying to wrangle the Endbringers, odds were we’d get taken out by other factions or by the Endbringers themselves.

“I dunno,” Imp said.  I managed to not be startled as she appeared.  “Killing us all is pretty awful.”

“Awful, but not awful in the ‘let humanity destroy itself’ sort of way,” I pointed out.  “Let us come up with a plan for fighting back, then disappearing?  Letting that plan fester and fuck us over?”

Imp shrugged.  “So?  What do we do?”

“Handle what we can,” I said.  “Let’s go talk to the others and hash out a plan of action.”

The three of us made our way down the hill to the settlement.  In the doing, we passed through a darker patch where the Simurgh’s wingspan blocked out a portion of the sun.  What little sunlight could pass through the cloud cover, anyways.  I glanced up and saw her in shadow, the light behind her outlining her body, hair, feathers and the halo of improvised weapons.

Defiant had his helmet off.  His hair had grown in just a little, but wasn’t much more than a buzz cut, stubble on one side of his face was much the same.  But for the lack of stubble on his cheek, I might not have noticed his face was partially a prosthetic.  A gift from the Nine.

“It worked,” he said.

“More or less,” I responded.  “One civilian death and seven civilian injuries in the fighting, the death and two of the injuries were the Simurgh’s fault.”

“Only that many,” Defiant said.

“She was letting us know she could,” Tattletale said.  “Which is something we really should pay attention to, so long as we’re trying to make sense of Endbringer psychology.  I’m wondering if you could say that they’re primarily a warped super-ego, devoid of any real ego or advanced id.  Built in codes and rulesets, not human social rules, but still rules established by a creator.”

“Sigmund Freud,” Defiant said.  “I remember being back in University.  Second year psychology elective.  The professor said one word, ‘Freud‘, and the entire auditorium of students exploded in laughter.”

Tattletale smiled.  “You’re calling my analysis into question?”

“If you’re basing it on the Freudian structural model, yes.”

“Freud was big on the whole Oedipus, Electra thing.  Mommy issues, daddy issues.  I’d say if we have any understanding of the Endbringers at all, there’s definitely something going on there.  Not sexual, but you get what I mean.”

“You’re way overstating my intelligence,” Imp said.  “I don’t get what you mean at all.”

“The Endbringers have a fucked up connection with whoever made them,” I said.  “Be it Eidolon or someone else.”

“I understand that.”

“So if they’re unmoored from whatever’s anchoring them to reality,” Tattletale said, “What’s motivating them now?”

“A better question,” I said, “Is… well, who the fuck is she following?”

“Us,” Imp said.  “You guys are overthinking this.”

I sighed.  “She is following us, probably.  Leviathan was following the Azazel, Simurgh followed the Dragonfly.  Both maintained consistent speeds, matching pace, keeping a short distance.  What I’m asking is, which of us, exactly, does the Simurgh follow?”

“Who’s in control of her, for the time being?”  Tattletale summed up the question.

“There’s an easy way to check that,” Defiant murmured.  Odd, that his voice had a vaguely mechanical twang to it even with his helmet off.  “Each person that was on the Dragonfly walks in a different direction, and we see who she follows.”

I frowned, glancing skyward for a moment.  No sign of any movement or response from the Simurgh.

“What?” Tattletale asked.

“I wouldn’t say anyone’s in control of her,” I said.  “Because I don’t think anyone is in control of her except her, and-”

I stopped there.

What?” Tattletale asked, again.

“When she was first attacking the settlement and I was musing aloud at the possibility of betrayal, she very deliberately looked at me.  It was a communication, all on its lonesome.  Letting me know the whole betrayal thing was a possibility, that she had some self-volition, and letting me know she was listening.”

“We know she hears.  We know she’s aware of everything around her, present or future.  Simurgh S.O.P.,” Tattletale said.

“I know,” I said.  “But I’m not just saying she heard me.  I’m saying she was listening.  She’s hearing every word we say here and she’s paying attention to all of it, processing it, applying it, maybe.”

“You may be reading too much into a momentary eye contact,” Defiant said.  “I’m watching the video footage in question right now… yes.  I see what you’re talking about.”

“Right?” I asked.  “So you agree?”

But he shook his head.  “I suspect It’s a bad sign if you’re getting paranoid over this.  It’s counterproductive, and the moment your fear or second-guessing is detrimental enough, you need to step down and walk away.”

I took a deep breath, then sighed.  “I’m fine.”

“If there’s an issue…”

“No issue.  All I’m saying, the only reason I brought this up, is because I don’t want to get on her bad side.  I’d very much appreciate it if we treated her with due respect.  Let’s not upset her by talking about her in a negative light.  Electra complexes, talking about who’s controlling her, or experimenting on her.  I don’t think it’s that easy to understand her, and we’re only going to upset her if we keep going down that road.”

“She doesn’t get upset,” Defiant said.  “Didn’t we just spend an inordinate amount of time talking about how Endbringers don’t have conventional emotions?”

“Better safe than sorry,” I said.

“Yes,” he sighed the word.  “Yes.  Of course.  I’m mentally exhausted, I’m being stubborn.”

“We’re all mentally exhausted,” I said.  I glanced up at the Simurgh.  “Keep that in mind.”

There were nods all around.

“The Pendragon won’t fly until I fix it,” Defiant said, standing.  He pulled on his helmet, and there was an audible sound as it locked into place.  “I’ll need parts from elsewhere.  It also means leaving some people behind.  You can’t fit everyone into the Dragonfly.”

“We’ll do something low-risk in the meantime, then,” I said.  “Reduced group.”

“Sensible.  I’ll go see after the others, then.  This would be a good time to eat, stock up on supplies or use the facilities.”

Defiant wasn’t one for goodbyes or formalities.  He said he’d leave, and he left, his boots making heavy sounds with each footfall.

“Well, I’m going to go make water,” Tattletale said, jerking a thumb towards one of the outhouses.  “I’d be all girl-code and invite you with, but I actually like you guys, and I don’t want to subject you to that atmosphere.”

“Thanks,” I said.

When Tattletale had disappeared, Imp and I sort of meandered over towards the others.

Canary was closest, helmet off, her hair plastered to her head with sweat, making her feathers that much more prominent where they stuck out of her hairline.

“This is crazy,” she said.

“This is a Tuesday for us,” Imp replied, overly casual in a way that was almost forced.

I saw the dawning alarm on Canary’s features.  I hurried to reassure her, “It’s really not.  Ignore her.”

Canary nodded.

“Holding up okay?”  I asked.

“Pretty much.  There’s one thing, but it… it’s pretty trivially stupid in the grand scheme of things.”

“We’re killing time while we wait to get organized,” I said.  “Go ahead.”

“There were two people I was talking to.  Forget their names.  One’s really forgettable and the other’s obscure.”

“Foil and Parian,” I said.

“Yes.  Right, yeah.  I was talking to them, and we had a lot in common, and then they went from warm to ice cold in a flash.  Couldn’t understand why.”

I frowned.  “That doesn’t sound like either of them.”

“They didn’t really say anything.  They just talked about going somewhere, and I asked if I could come, and they looked at me like I had three heads.”

“They probably wanted to be alone,” I said.

“Yeah.  I get that,” Canary said.

Alone alone,” Imp responded.  “End of the world, making every minute count?  Nudge, nudge, wink wink?”

Imp held her mask in one hand, using it to nudge Canary twice, then tipping it to the side as she winked, keeping time with the four words.

Canary’s eyes went wide.  “Oh.  Oh!”

“Dudette, with all the hugging and reassuring they were doing, how was this even in question?”

“I don’t follow the cape scene.  I don’t know how close teammates get.  I just figured, shitty situation, life and death, maybe you cling tighter to any buoy in a storm… oh god.  I asked if I could come with them.”

Imp nodded sagely.  “I can see where you’d get confused.  We’re very close, here, after all.”

Canary was blushing, humiliated, the pink of her skin contrasting her yellow hair.

Imp continued, “After all, Skitter… Weaver and I… well…”

She tried to make bedroom eyes at me, holding her hands in front of her, twisting her arms as she drew her shoulders forward, the very picture of a lovestruck schoolgirl.

Canary’s face reddened further as Imp continued to poke fun.

Imp, for her part, gave it up after only two or three seconds.  “Fuck.  Can’t do it.  Weaver here has diddled my brother, and it just feels squick and incestuous.”

That’s the reason we haven’t ever done the relationship thing,” I said, my voice flat.  “It’d be weird in an almost incestuous way.”

Imp cackled.  One of very few people I knew who could cackle.  She was enjoying herself.  This was her medium.  One of them.  “You’d do better with Tattletale, or Rachel.”

“Thank you,” I said, and I injected a little more sarcasm into my voice, “for the mental pictures that evokes.”

She cackled again.

Eager to change the topic, I glanced at the others.  The Wards were sitting a short distance away, Kid Win, Golem, Vista and Cuff, sitting together.  Cuff was fixing up Golem’s costume.

I’d feel weird about approaching them.  Technically, I was still a Ward, though my eighteenth birthday had come and gone.  I should have moved up to the Protectorate, but I’d never been sworn in, had never filled in the paperwork.

The Slaughterhouse Nine, Scion and the mass-evacuation from Earth Bet sort of gave me an excuse, but I still didn’t want to face the questions.

I glanced at Saint, who was sitting between Narwhal and Miss Militia.  They were pretty clearly talking guns.

Lung stood alone.  He was holding a skewer with meat all along the length.  A glance around didn’t show any possible source.

A check with my swarm did.  A few hundred feet away, there was a cooking fire that had gone out in the aftermath of the Yàngbǎn attack.  Lung had apparently claimed some food as a matter of course.

“Lung,” I said, almost absently.

“You know him?” Canary asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“He was kind of notorious in the Birdcage.  A lot of people, they come in, and they do something to make a statement.  Kill someone, pick someone suitable and claim them, challenge someone suitably impressive to a fight, that sort of thing.”

“What did Lung do?” I asked.

“He marched into the women’s side of the prison, killed his underling, and then killed and maimed a bunch of others before the cell block leaders ordered people to pull back.  I got called into a meeting, too, where a bunch of people in charge of cell blocks asked me to come and tell them what I knew about him, since we arrived at the same time.”

I nodded.  “But you didn’t know anything.”

“No.  I think some of them were really worried, too.  I thought they were going to hurt me, until Lustrum, uh, my cell block leader, backed me up, gave me her protection.”

“Geez,” Imp said.  “That’s messed up.”

Canary shrugged.  “How did you put it?  A Tuesday?  A Tuesday in the Birdcage.”

“No, I’m not talking about that,” Imp said.  “I’m talking about the fact that Lustrum the feminazi was in charge of your cell block and you still didn’t pick up on the thing between Parian and Foil.  Isn’t that, like, Sappho central?”

Sappho?

Canary blushed again.  “I… uh.”

“I mean, seriously,” Imp said.

“Ease up,” I warned her.

“I… I live and let live,” Canary said.  “I just didn’t want to step on toes.”

“And you never got any?”

“I had somebody, but like I said…”

They were still going as I focused on my swarm.  I gave some commands to the Dragonfly, which I had landed a mile and a half out of town, and brought it our way.

With the relay bugs, I could sense most of the settlement, the surrounding landscape, everything above and below.  That was only using half of them.

The remainder were fertilized, bearing eggs.

I’d flipped the switches, shifted them into breeding mode, and I was working on keeping them warm and well fed.  I’d have to wait until the eggs hatched before I found out whether the young had any range extension ability.  If I had to wait until they were adult, well, the world might end before I got that far.

Defiant was returning.  I stepped away from Canary and Imp to greet him.

“Let’s go,” he said.

Smaller team, while the Pendragon was out of action, smaller job.

The ones who were grounded would be looking after the settlement, ensuring the survivors were able to make it through the next few nights.

Tattletale was with me.  Imp and Rachel had come with for much the same reason Lung had.  They were restless personalities, unwilling to relax when there was a possibility of a conflict.  I wanted to think that Rachel’s intentions were a little kinder in nature than Lung’s, that she wanted to protect her friends, but I wasn’t going to ask, nor was I going to set any hopes on it.

A pleasant idea, nothing more.

Lung was eerily quiet.  He’d acted to stop Shadow Stalker from attacking me, but he hadn’t shown a glimmer of his power.

After we’d decided who went where, before we’d left, Canary had found a moment to talk to me.  To finish what she’d been about to say when Imp had interrupted to poke fun at her.

Information about Lung.

He coasted on reputation for some time.  Didn’t use his power, didn’t fight, just intimidated.  Nobody was willing to start something because nobody really knew what he was about.  Until this guy from Brockton Bay came in.  Had some info.  Except, by then, Lung was entrenched in Marquis’ cell block, and even if someone wanted to go after him, they didn’t want to deal with Marquis in the process.

Lung hadn’t been using his power.  Why?  Was there a reason?

A deep seated concern about his passenger, maybe?  No.  What would excuse that?

I needed to ask Tattletale, now that I knew, but there hadn’t been a moment where we’d both been alone.

We had Shadow Stalker, who had no interest in rebuilding and resettling.  Defiant was with us as well, relying on remote monitoring to perform the occasional check-in on Saint.  Narwhal would manage the rest.

Miss Militia had come along, and nobody had said anything to mark it as fact, but I got the distinct impression it was for Defiant‘s sake.

And, of course, we had the Simurgh.  Following.  She’d finished building what she’d been working on as she hovered over the aftermath of the fight at the Tav settlement.

A shortsword, four feet long, without any guard to protect the hand from an enemy’s weapon, both sides of the blade serrated.  Black.

Defiant had called it a Gladius.

Defiant had the cockpit and Miss Militia’s company, and so I was left to hang out in the cabin, with Rachel sleeping beside me, Bastard and Huntress sleeping at her feet.

I admired her ability to rest in such stressful situations.  I glanced at Shadow Stalker, who seemed to be filled with nervous energy.  When we’d kidnapped her for Regent to control, Rachel had been able to sleep then, too.

I felt like I had to be responsible, somehow.  I’d taken on three very dangerous individuals, with reputations ranging from bloodthirsty vigilante to Endbringer, and I knew I’d blame myself if something went wrong on any count.  I couldn’t sleep when there was information to take in, when there were people to watch, people to watch over, and personalities to keep in check.

Threats and conflicts, within and without.

Many of the monitors were focused on Bohu, the towering Endbringer, tall enough that her heads reached the cloud cover.  Five miles tall, give or take.  Gaunt, expressionless, without legs to walk with.  No, she moved like a block of stone that someone was pushing, not with lurching movements, but a steady, grinding progression that left bulldozed terrain in her wake.  Overlapping rings marked the area she traveled as well, as she continued switching between her typical combat-mode cycles, altering the terrain, raising walls, creating traps and deadfalls, generating architecture.

The monitors abruptly changed.  One shaky image, from one cameraman at just the right vantage point.

A golden streak crossing the evening sky, appearing out of nowhere.

Just about everyone in the Dragonfly tensed.  I felt myself draw in a breath, my meager chest swelling as if I could draw in confidence as well as air, preparing to give orders, to provide the call to arms.

But the golden light disappeared as soon as it had appeared.  Like the jet stream of an aircraft passing overhead, except it was light, not smoke, and it only marked a brief period where he’d passed through our world on his way to other things.

We relaxed.

Rachel hadn’t even woken up.  She was exhausted, though we’d barely participated in any fighting.

The Dragonfly moved closer to the ground as we approached the next portal.  It was squatter, broader, allowing for more ground traffic at a moment’s notice, though it made the passage of flying vehicles more difficult.

Like Scion, exiting one world, passing through Bet on our way to the next.  It reminded me of my discussion with Panacea.  People who build and people who destroy.  We were trying to do the former, Scion the latter.

The Dragonfly passed through the portal.

Heavy rain showered down around us.  The Dragonfly faltered for an instant as it changed settings, very nearly nosediving into the ground beneath us.

Defiant pulled the craft up.

Agnes Court, I thought.  I’d studied all of the major players in anticipation of the end of the world, I knew who the Elite were, and I knew who had built this.

She fit somewhere between Labyrinth and the Yàngbǎn’s Ziggurat.  Organically grown structures.  Seeds that swelled into pillars, stairs, houses and bigger things, given enough time in proximity to their master.  The wood-like substance hardened to stone of varying colors after she terminated the growth.

In the span of two and a half days, she’d grown a walled city, one with an elaborate castle at the northmost end, with shelters and what looked like a sewer system, if I was judging the perfectly round hole in the cliff face below right.  It was gushing water.

Two days to make this.

Leviathan had taken less than an hour to demolish it.

The wall, taller than some skyscrapers, was shattered in three places, damaged enough to serve little purpose in others.  A shallow river flowed through the spots where the damage to the wall reached the ground.

Leviathan had perched himself atop the castle’s highest tower, though the tower wasn’t broad enough for him to put anything more than two clawed hands and two feet on the very top.  His tail wound around the structure, in one window and out another.

Even through the rain, his five eyes glowed.

“Oh no,” I said.  “The civilians.  The refugees.”

“Relatively few,” Tattletale said.  “That’s… yeah.  I don’t think we offed people in any substantial numbers.”

In any substantial numbers, I thought.

“I didn’t think they’d get this kind of structure up in time,” I said.

“Court grows things exponentially, given time,” Tattletale said.

She frowned.

Grew things exponentially.”

If that was the case, then we’d lost a possible asset.  Fuck this, fuck the Elite for bringing things to this point.

“There were a thousand people here,” Defiant said.  “Many who were managing supplies and resources for the rebuilding and resettlement efforts.”

“I’d explain,” Tattletale said, “But I’d rather not explain twice.”

“Twice?”  Miss Militia asked.

Tattletale pointed.

The Azazel had parked on top of a tower at the wall’s edge, almost opposite to where Leviathan was.  A crowd had gathered around it.

Too many to be just the Dragon’s Teeth.  Far too many.

I swallowed.

Cameras zoomed in on the individuals.  Hard to make out through the rain, but I could draw the appropriate conclusions.

The Dragonfly landed, far gentler in the process than I would have managed on my own.

“Time to face the music,” Tattletale said.

I took the time to restructure my costume, raising my hood to protect my head before I stepped out into the pouring rain.  Defiant was in step to my right, Tattletale to my left.

No, not pouring.  Pounding.  As heavy a rainfall as I’d ever experienced.

The other major players had arrived.  The Thanda, Faultline, the Irregulars, the Meisters, the remnants of the Suits…  Cauldron.

It took time for everyone from the Dragonfly to make their way outside.  We looked so small in comparison to the group arrayed before us.  People had disappeared here and there.  Dead or gone in the wake of the disaster on the oil rig, or the fighting that had followed.

Even after we’d arrived, after the ramp had closed, the group before us remained utterly silent.  There was only the sound of the rain, so deafening I might have been unable to hear people if they’d shouted.  I clenched my fists, tried not to shiver.  If I started, I wouldn’t stop.  Staying calm, staying confident, my attention on my bugs as a way of escaping the stresses here… it made for an almost zen moment.

It was in that same moment that the Simurgh descended.

Descended was the wrong word.  She fell.  It was as though she’d stopped lifting herself into the air, and let herself drop.  Her wings moved to control her descent, keep her facing towards the ground as she plummeted.  In the gloom of the rain and the heavy stormclouds above, her silver-white body was the easiest thing to make out.  If the assembled capes hadn’t already been keeping a wary eye on her, the movement would have turned heads anyways.

A white streak, plummeting from the sky, striking Leviathan.

The shockwave that accompanied the impact tore through the tower.  Superficial features broke away first, followed by the internal structures that had provided structural integrity.  The end result was a gradual, almost slow-motion collapse, a lingering view of the Simurgh and Leviathan as they’d been at the moment of impact.

They tilted as the tower did, but neither Endbringer moved.  The Simurgh had both feet pressed against Leviathan’s stomach, one hand reaching up to grip his face, the other hand holding the gladius she’d made, buried so deep in Leviathan’s sternum that only a little bit of the handle stuck out.

Pieces of her halo began to fall, including her fabricated guns and the other debris she’d arranged to form the ring itself.  It rained down like a localized meteor shower, striking the castle, the base of the tower, the wall, and Leviathan.

The Simurgh managed to avoid being struck, even with her vast wingspan.  She leaped up, kicking herself off of Leviathan, and found a perch on the wall, folding her wings around herself and the top of the wall, as if to ward off the worst of the rain.

Maybe six or seven seconds later, the tower finished collapsing, and Leviathan’s massive, dense body hit ground, crashing through several buildings before settling, the handle of the sword still sticking out of the wound.

He didn’t rise.  He twitched, lashed out with his tail, dashing three already tattered buildings to smithereens, then gushed with water, producing four or five times his body weight in water without even moving.

Death throes?

She’d hit his core.

Beside me, Imp wiped at the lenses of her mask, tried again, and then pulled it off entirely.  She stared at the scene with her mouth agape, then looked to Tattletale, mouthing three words in a voice too quiet to make out through the pounding rain.

Tattletale’s hair was soaked through, streaming with rivulets of water that ran down her back.  Dark makeup ran from the eye sockets of her costume.

However bedraggled she appeared, just after a minute of standing in the rain, she also looked contemplative, rubbing her chin as she hugged her other arm close for warmth.

Leviathan went utterly still.

I watched the faces of the others.  Every set of eyes was fixed on Leviathan’s body.  Nobody seemed like they were willing or able to tear their eyes away from the scene.

Slowly, almost at a glacial pace, Leviathan moved.  One hand with the disproportionately long claws was planted on the ground, then another.  His tail provided some of the support and strength to leverage himself to his feet.

That, oddly enough, seemed to surprise Tattletale.  Her hand dropped from her face to her side.  She fumbled to hook her thumb over her belt as if she needed the extra leverage.

When Leviathan had pulled himself to an upright position with both feet beneath him, his head hanging down, the tail snaked around the handle of the sword.

He wrenched it free, and tore out chunks of his own chest in the process.  There was little left but the handle and the base of the sword.  Needle-like lengths of metal speared out from the base, but the bulk of the sword’s material was gone.

Leviathan continued to move with an almost excruciating slowness as he reached out with his claws, extending each arm to his sides, like a figure crucified.

The wound was superficial, but he was acting like he’d received a more grievous wound than any of us had dealt in the past.

The wind turned, and the wall ceased to provide a curtain against the rain.  For a moment, Leviathan was only a silhouette.

I could see his shape distort.

Others reacted before I saw anything different.  The Number Man, Tattletale, Dinah, Faultline… they saw something I couldn’t make out through the curtains of torrential rain.  The Number Man said something to Doctor Mother, and I saw Dinah fall back just an instant before Faultline gave a hand signal to her crew.  They adopted fighting stances.

Did they really think we could fight, if it came down to it?  Against two Endbringers?

It was maybe twenty seconds of stillness, seeing only vague shapes through the shifting downpour, before the wind turned again.  I got a glimpse of what the Simurgh had done.

I could hear a squeak from beside me.  I expected it to be Imp, saw it was Shadow Stalker, instead.  She clutched her crossbow in both hands.

Fins.  Leviathan had fins.

They were like blades, points sweeping backwards.  A fin rooted in the side of his arm, from wrist to elbow, the point scything back.  Had it not been limp enough to trail on the ground, it might have reached his shoulder.  More at the sides of his neck and along the length of his spine, forming an almost serrated pattern where multiple fins overlapped.  Perhaps some at his legs.  The fins ran down the length of his tail, and ended in a cluster at the end, like the tuft of fur at the end of a lion’s tail, exaggerated many times over in size.

He flexed a claw, and I could see webbing between each finger, mottled in black and an iridescent green that matched his eyes.  It made me think of the bioluminescence of a jellyfish in the deep ocean.

In synchronous motions, the Simurgh unfurled her wings, stretching them to their full length, and Leviathan flexed his fins, letting them unfold in kind.  Each fin was the same as the webbing, mottled black and a eerie green, and the echo-image of water that accompanied his movement produced mist as it washed over the fins.  It obscured him almost completely, and as much as the pouring rain served to drive it away, the rainwater produced more mist as it touched the fins.

It took some time to clear, and even then, it only cleared because Leviathan had folded the fins up again.  When we could see Leviathan again, he had collapsed into a sitting position, one overlong arm draped over his legs, ‘chin’ resting on one shoulder, completely at ease.

Above him, the Simurgh slowly folded her wings closed, like a reversal of a flower blossoming.

Doctor Mother turned to face us.

“Wha-  The-” she stuttered.

Contessa, holding an umbrella to keep the both of them dry, set an arm on the Doctor’s shoulder.  The Doctor fell silent, stopping only to look at Leviathan, then turned back to Tattletale.

Tattletale managed a grin.  “I’d say there’s a silver lining in all this, but that phrase has sort of lost it’s cachet over the last decade or so.”

She gestured in the vague direction of the Simurgh before hugging her arms against her body.  “…He’s probably stronger, which helps if he’s going up against Scion, right?”

“I think,” Doctor Mother said.  She paused very deliberately.  “It would be very wise to keep the Endbringers separated from here on out.”

“We might have to fight them, before or after we take on Scion,” King of Swords, leader of one division of the Suits voiced the concerns that everyone was harboring.

Lung was the next one to speak.  “What did she do?”

“Upgraded Leviathan,” Tattletale said.  “Attuned some device to the right frequency or setting, then tapped into his core without doing too much harm to Leviathan.  Fed things into there.  Knowledge, data, nanotechnology.”

Defiant’s head turned, as if Tattletale had said something.

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  “Nanotech.  Why do you think the fins were turning water to mist?”

My tech?”  Defiant asked.

“Among one or two other advancements.  If the density rules are in effect, I’d bet those fins are just as hard to cut through as Leviathan’s arm or torso.  Disintegration effect, maybe something else.”

“Mecha-Leviathan?” Imp murmured.

“That’s not- it doesn’t fit with what we know of them,” Defiant said.

Tattletale spread her arms, a massive, exaggerated ‘who knows?‘ gesture.

“It’s the fucking Simurgh,” Rachel said.

“I hope you can understand why we’re… distressed with you,” the Doctor said.

Fuck you,” Tattletale retorted.  “Cope.”

I put my hand on her shoulder.  She didn’t relent, nor did she release any of her tension.

“You wiped out two defending forces,” the Doctor said.  “We lost the Yàngbǎn’s support when you took out their infiltration squads, and the Elite are wiped out.”

I squeezed Tattletale’s shoulder.  She gave me an annoyed look, but she backed away.

I took in a deep breath.  I could see the Doctor fold her arms.  Like a mother or schoolteacher awaiting an apology from the recalcitrant student.

“Fuck you,” I said.

“You don’t want us for enemies,” the Doctor said.

“We have the fucking Simu-” Imp started.  Tattletale elbowed her.

“The Yàngbǎn were doing more harm than good,” I said.

“They were limiting their strikes to civilians.  Not something I agree with, but with Earth, with every Earth on the line, I’d forego two or three thousand lives for the help of over two hundred of the C.U.I.’s trained parahumans.”

“They’d given up,” Tattletale said.  “They were taking territory to run and hide.”

“Contessa would have changed their minds.”

Tattletale shrugged.  “Don’t blame us for not taking your plans into account, when you don’t share your plans with anyone.”

“This is common sense.  No matter.  The Elite, though?”

“They were attacking civilians.”

“They were nonviolent.  Refugees in the vicinity of the portal were evacuated.  The Elite then made contact with possible settlers who they thought would be interested in paying a premium for good shelter, for resources and supplies.  If not paying with cash, then paying with skills.  Doctors, talented artists, scholars… it was one of our best bets for re-establishing a hub of development across all of the Earths.”

“They broke the truce,” Tattletale said.

“Again, they were an asset.  They were cooperating.  The truce hardly stands in this dark hour.”

“They broke the truce,” I echoed Tattletale.  “The code has been there since the beginning.  If a bigger threat shows up, we band together.  We don’t distract each other with attacks or murder attempts, we don’t take advantage of the situation to fuck with civilians.  The truce is there for a reasonand it has weight because everyone knows that they can’t handle the trouble that gets express-delivered to their doorsteps when they’ve defied it.”

“Siding with Endbringers could be seen as a violation,” Queen of Wands said.  “I seem to recall you participated in an effort to drive out a gang that had escalated too much, too violently, too fast.”

Her eyes fell on Lung.

Were they serious?

“Don’t be fucking stupid,” Faultline said.  “If you start going after the Undersiders and Guild for trying to amass enough firepower to take down Scion, then nobody’s going to be able to put up a fight.”

“Hey,” Tattletale said.  “Faultline, sticking up for me?  This is a first.”

“So you agree with this?  Using the Endbringers?”  one of the Thanda asked.

Tattletale grinned.  “Agree?  It was her idea.”

Faultline whipped her head around.  “No.  No it wasn’t.”

“Talking to the monsters.  Well, you said talk to Scion, but this is close.  You can have partial credit.”

“I’ll have no such thing.  I don’t disagree with this, but I won’t condone it either.  This is the Undersider’s plan, they can reap the consequences if it goes wrong.”

Tattletale smiled, but it wasn’t quite a grin.  Confident, calm.  I doubted anyone but the perception thinkers on the other side could see, but Tattletale was clenching her jaw in an effort to keep her teeth from chattering.

I felt just a little warmer, owing to my hood.  I spoke so Tattletale wouldn’t have to try and risk an ill-timed chattering of teeth.  “That’s fair.  We’ll deal with the consequences, be it a stab in the back from the Endbringers or punishment that follows from any real issues that follow from this.  But we will keep going after anyone who violates the truce.”

Rachel stepped forward, her arm pressing against my shoulder and side, as if she was bolstering me with physical presence.  Through the bugs I’d planted on him, I could sense Lung folding his arms.

“You will not be taking charge of all of the Endbringers,” the Doctor said.  “Teacher emerged with a small force at his disposal.  He defeated the Protectorate squads that were deployed at one empty location…”

“The place Khonsu or Tohu were supposed to appear,” Tattletale said.

“Quite.  It was Khonsu.  The Endbringer has imprinted on Teacher’s group, and he has offered to sell that squad, along with the Endbringer, to a sufficiently wealthy buyer.  We agreed, if only to keep this from becoming a monopoly on Endbringers.”

Tattletale smiled a little, but didn’t talk.

“How good of you,” Defiant said.

“We strongly advise you leave Tohu for another party to claim,” the Doctor said.  “Focus on the three you have.”

Defiant glanced at Tattletale and I.  I looked at Tattletale, reading her expression, before coming to a conclusion.  “That’s fine.”

“Then we’re one step closer to a resolution,” the Doctor said.  “Much better than the alternative.”

Veiled threats, now?  Just how badly had we fucked her plans?

“This is more firepower than we expected to have at this juncture,” the Doctor said.  “But not enough by itself.  Without sufficient distraction, Scion will treat the Endbringers as he treated Behemoth.  We’ll step forward and unveil our own plan B and plan C at the time of battle.”

“Armies,” Tattletale said.  “You were collecting people for a reason, and you didn’t release every Case Fifty-three you made.”

“Essentially,” the Doctor said.

“Five groups,” I said, and my eyes fell on Dinah, who was standing beside Faultline.  “We should split up so we can respond the instant Scion appears.  We make sure every group has some way to maybe occupy him or pin him down, and we move to reinforce.”

Dinah, standing beside Faultline, nodded slowly.

“Four Endbringers, and then Dragon and Teacher to comprise the final group,” the Doctor said.  “If Tohu arrives, she can reinforce the weakest group.  Quite possibly Bohu.”

“Yes,” Defiant said.  He was clutching his spear so tight I thought it would break.  He looked to Miss Militia for clarification.

“I’ll run it by Chevalier,” she said, “But I don’t see a problem with this.”

There were heads nodding.

Not enough.  We don’t have enough people here.  There’s groups missing.  People still hidingPeople like the Yàngbǎn who are fighting us instead of helping.

I was all too aware of the Simurgh and Leviathan at the corner of my peripheral vision, of Lung and Shadow Stalker, who I could sense with my swarm.

Too many people ready to stab us in the back.

“I would recommend,” the Doctor said, speaking slowly, “That you take your time to visit loved ones, say goodbyes and make your peace.  I don’t think there will be another fight after this.”

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Cockroaches 28.4

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“We’re here,” I said.

It was enough.  All the different personalities in the Dragonfly, the… how had Tattletale put it, once upon a time?  The people who weren’t inclined to play ‘cops and robbers’, who weren’t the types to follow the rules or codes, and were dangerous without a firm hand.  Rachel, Lung, Sophia… they fell silent.  The fighting stopped.

Because they, even with their unique and personal issues, acknowledged that this wasn’t a situation where you fucked around.

Monitors switched settings without any cue from me.  Showing the Simurgh from a distance away, from a different angle.  Defiant had switched on his long-ranged cameras.

A moment later, he switched on the cameras in the Dragonfly.  The two sets of images alternated across the innumerable displays in the craft.  Only the display directly in front of me in the cockpit remained untouched, showing altitude, heading, speed, distance from target, and alerts regarding Scion’s latest appearances.

The Dragonfly changed course, angling to maintain a set distance from the Endbringer.  Again, not me.

Defiant seemed content to handle the mechanical end of things.  I stood from my seat, stretching a little, before gathering my bugs.  Two relay bugs, for safety’s sake.  They exited the craft.

No scream from the Simurgh.  At least, not one I could detect.  It would fit her to keep it beyond our notice, influencing us, the sort of card she would keep up her sleeve.  To make the psychic scream ‘audible’, for lack of a better word, purely for spreading fear, then use it subtly at a time when she wasn’t attacking.

The others in the ship hadn’t only gone silent.  They’d gone still.  I might have taken it for an almost hypnotic paralysis, a sign that something was deeply wrong, but Rachel turned and found a seat on the bench opposite Shadow Stalker.

No, they were still themselves.

My bugs made their way towards the Simurgh, while I chained the two relay bugs together to extend my range.

Fragile, as it only required the death of one bug to sever my connection with the swarm.  I didn’t mind.  If she acted on my swarm, that was likely to be the least of our worries.

Cameras changed focus, zooming in on the Simurgh’s face, hands and various wingtips, different cameras taking over as the Pendragon and the Dragonfly rotated around her and the cameras lost sight of the features in question.  Mosaic views of her features, broken up like I might see if I were looking through the eyes of my bugs, but without my power to coodinate the picture, draw it into something cohesive.

In the corner of each image, metrics, numbers, measurements, as if Defiant hoped to track the slightest movement.

It was the hair that got me.  Gossamer-fine, silver-white, straight, it blew in the wind as if each strand were a separate entity.  Not in clumps or locks, but a curtain of strands ten times as dramatic as something one might see in a digitally altered hair commercial.

Artificial.

“Seventy,” Tattletale said.

“Hm?” I asked.

“I said I was sixty-five percent sure before.  I’m revising it to seventy.”

I nodded.

Hello, Simurgh, I thought.  We finally meet.

The Protectorate was strict about who could join the fights against the Simurgh.  Capes needed psychological evaluations, they needed to sign documents agreeing to the quarantine procedures, and they needed to be on board with the timetables.

I’d been unable to participate when the Simurgh had attacked flight BA178.  When she’d attacked Manchester, I’d been barred from joining the fight by bureaucratic red tape.  I had a bad history and I was still on probation.  Too likely that I was mentally unstable.

When the Simurgh had hit Paris, I’d gone to Mrs. Yamada, hoping for a therapist’s bill of clean mental health.  Or, if not quite that, then at least a go-ahead.

She’d advised me to see it as a good thing, instead.  That my participation would be another black mark on my record, another reason for people to be suspicious of me or second guess my decisions.

She’d also very elegantly avoided spelling out that she wasn’t willing to give me that clean bill of mental health.  I’d noticed, but hadn’t pressed her on it.  She would have been forced to say it straight, and I would have had to hear her say it.

“Ready?” I asked.

“I do the talking, you pass it on,” Tattletale said.

I nodded.

Tattletale sighed.  “Look at her.  The folly of man, am I right?”

“I don’t know.  You have a better idea about whether you’re right, but it… doesn’t fit to me.”

“I’m sure.”

“You’re seventy percent sure.”

“Seventy percent, yes.  If I’m wrong, then I’ll be approaching this entire conversation from the wrong angle, and we might wind up siccing an otherwise passive Endbringer on humanity.”

“Let’s hope you’re right, then,” I said.

She nodded.

“Everyone ready?” I asked.  I looked around the craft.  No responses.  Only silent nods.

One head that was shaking.  Shadow Stalker.

I touched the screen on the console.  “Defiant?”

Ready when you are,” he said.

“We’re starting right now,” I said.  I nodded at Tattletale.

She rolled her shoulders, took in a deep breath, then sighed.  “Hello, Endbringer, this-”

I echoed her words, speaking through my bugs as an interpreter might speak in another language.

The instant I had the first word out, alarms went off throughout the ship.  The Dragonfly shuddered as meager weapons unfolded from the sides.  My visual of the Pendragon showed it was reacting much the same way.

Simurgh had reacted.

She hadn’t attacked, but she had reacted.

She rotated in the air, holding her position, wings flat at her sides.  The wings were purely ornamental, much as Behemoth’s bulk and musculature had been.  She used telekinesis to move, and she used it now to keep herself oriented in the air, rotating so she matched our orbit around her, her eyes and attention fully fixed on the Dragonfly.

“Oh, shit,” Imp spoke, her voice wavering breathlessly halfway through the ‘shit’.

Long seconds passed, but the Simurgh didn’t take any other action.

“Th- this is Tattletale speaking, one face in that vast, crazy crowd of humans you’ve been murdering,” Tattletale finished.  “Good to see you’re listening.  I thought it was about time we had a chat.”

No response, no movement.  Odd, to see the screens showing her depicting the zoomed-in images of her face, hands, wings and body and not see them rotating in the picture as they had been before.

Her expression was neutral, but then again, the Simurgh’s expression was always neutral.  A face like a doll’s, a cold stare.  Beautiful in every conventional sense, in that every classically attractive feature was there, from the delicate, thin frame to the high cheekbones to the luxurious hair… horrifying in the manner it was all framed.  The height that put her two to three times the height of an ordinary adult, the wings that filled the space around her.  The feathers were surprisingly tough and dense, the edges capable of scoring steel.

Not that she really fought in close quarters, where she could help it.

“Let’s face the facts, Simurgh.  Ziz.  Israfel.  Ulama.  Whatever you want to go by.  You started acting funny pretty much right away, after Eidolon bit it.  Maybe that’s mourning.  Maybe you respected him as an enemy, ’cause he was one of only two individuals who could really give you guys a run for your money.  Or maybe you had a different relationship.”

Tattletale let the words hang in the air.

“Maybe a parent-child relationship?  Maybe he created you.”

The Simurgh didn’t move a muscle.  Her hair blew in the wind, and it caught on the features of her face, not even eliciting a blink of her eyes.

I leaned over my chair to hit the button on my cockpit, giving me a view of the inside of the Pendragon.

Defiant, Narwhal, Miss Militia, Saint, Canary, Parian, Foil, Golem, Vista and Kid Win were all present within.  Defiant had collected the heroes, the capes who might have been less inclined to throw their hat into the ring if I showed up in the company of Tattletale, Imp and Rachel.  He’d been closer to Parian and Foil when I approached him with the plan.

I watched the expressions on their faces, the concern, the alarm and confusion I’d felt only minutes ago.  I knew Tattletale hadn’t shared this particular detail.  They had to be listening in with some microphone, either a directional one aimed at my swarm outside or one in the Dragonfly.

“They say loneliness breeds the best masters, and it’s awfully lonely at the top,” Tattletale said.  “Nobody that can really put up a fight, no excuse to flex his abilities to their fullest, nothing that can really give the man any real stature, next to Legend, who had all the face time with the media.  No real role to play, compared to Alexandria, who was managing the PRT.  Odd man out.”

I thought of Eidolon, the first time I’d seen him in person.  Meeting in preparation for the Leviathan fight in Brockton Bay… Eidolon had been standing off to one side, in a corner, lost in thought.

“Symbiotic, odd as it sounds, what with you trying to kill him and him trying to kill you.”

Still no reaction.  No response.

I noted the surroundings.  The Simurgh had situated herself above the ocean, an eerie parallel to how Scion had first appeared before humanity.  As battlegrounds went, it left her relatively little to manipulate when using her telekinesis, but it also gave us very little ground to stand on if a fight erupted.  She’d torn apart Flight BA178.  She could tear apart the Dragonfly or the Pendragon if she had a mind to.

Hopefully the other ship would be able to flee, if we couldn’t manage an outright fight.

Tattletale held up a hand, then spoke.  “She’s not giving me anything.”

I didn’t repeat it for the Simurgh.  I only stared at the screens.

“Did you expect her to?”  Imp asked.

“Yeah.  Kind of,” Tattletale said.

“She’s not human,” I said.  “And, if you’re right about this, she’s only a projection.  Her brain doesn’t work like ours does, if it’s even active.”

“She responded when we communicated,” Tattletale said.

I nodded.  “Defiant, you listening in?”

On the screen in front of us, Defiant turned to the camera, then nodded once.

“Open to suggestions,” I said.

“We could use powers to try and communicate,” Narwhal said.  “Can we express a signal through some other channel?  Through our powers?”

“It might be taken as an attack,” I said.

“She’s smart enough to figure out convoluted chains of cause and effect, but not to take a gesture of communication for what it is?”  Tattletale asked.  “I say we try it.”

“Oh my god,” Shadow Stalker said, her voice quiet.  “You’re going to get us all killed.”

“Well, it might be a mercy,” Imp said.  “Going out like that, not having to watch the golden man take humanity down piece by piece.”

“Could we try Canary?” I suggested.  “If she has any understanding of powers, or if Canary has any influence with things other than humans…”

I don’t,” Canary said, from within the Pendragon.  “I tried using my power on dogs, cats, birds, monkeys…

Tattletale nodded, like this was something expected.  “Bonesaw said something like that.  When we get our powers, the passenger manages this sort of scan, trying to figure out a way to apply a part of itself.  So Taylor gets a power that’s restricted to bugs, Canary gets a power that’s limited to people.  At the same time, the passenger kind of figures out if there’s any danger of the power harming us, physically or mentally, and it sets down safeguards and limits.  Headaches like Dinah or I get are part of that.  And Eidolon…”

“I don’t… I can’t believe all this,” a woman said.  Miss Militia.

“He’s really their creator?”  Defiant asked.  “Eidolon?”

“…Sixty percent sure.  Eidolon’s some kind of exception, on a lot of levels.  His power works by different vectors, the innate limits aren’t there… something broke, and I’m betting the Endbringers are tied to it.  Like, this entity is fissioning off into countless fragments that impregnate hosts and somehow a little extra gets tacked on.  Or Cauldron’s method of replicating the fragments gets that little extra.”

“Yes,” Defiant said.  “But how does that help us here?”

“Getting to that.  Sort of.  Every power has secondary uses, uses that are locked away.  But maybe there’s something we can express using the powers, like a kind of parahuman charades.  Not, you know, actually miming something, but giving off a vibe.”

“I’ll try whatever,” I said.  “Who?  How?”

Tattletale smiled.  “Oh, this is fun.  It’s like a puzzle, but it’s not one with a clear cut answer.  Rachel, Canary.  Um.  Imp too.  And Taylor’s right.  Any use of power in a way that could be seen as violent might give the wrong cue.  So… none of that.  Let’s move people between ships.  Bitch, to the Pendragon.  Leave Bastard behind.  Canary, can you get out on top of your ship?  And Imp, same for you.  We need to distance you from the rest of us.”

Outside?” Imp asked.

“Outside and away.  Where your power doesn’t necessarily have a target.  You get me?”

“Three people using their powers,” Defiant said, “Without any valid targets?”

Exactly,” Tattletale said.

“I could lose my bugs,” I said.  “But I’m not sure I can express my power in a case like that.”

“Even if you could, but that would be pretty heavy handed.  It’s what we try next if this fails.  For now, let’s work with the existing plan.”

I pulled off my flight pack, then handed it to Imp.

“Oh, fun,” she said.  “God damn it.”

“No quips?  No jokes?”  I asked.  I helped her find the buckles and straps.

“When I’m done, maybe,” Imp said.  She glanced at Tattletale.  “I can’t turn my power on.  It’s always on.  I can turn it off, but that only works so long as I’m paying attention.”

“Don’t pay attention then.  Leave it running.  We’re trying to express an attitude.”

Imp nodded.

“What attitude is Imp?” I asked.

“Nonviolence, passivity,” Tattletale said.  “At least as far as we’re concerned.”

“And Rachel?”

“A call to arms, expression of strength.”

“And Canary is… cooperation?”

“Something along those lines.”

I nodded.

Tattletale shrugged.  “Lung would be too violent, and the focus of Vista’s power is too… location-driven?  I have no idea how she’d take Narwhal’s power, because it’s pretty evenly split between offense and defense.”

“Kind of abstract,” I said.

“I’m… reaching,” Tattletale confessed.  “Definitely reaching.  But reaching and abstract thought bought us the portal to Gimel, and I’ve got to flex my power somehow.”

“Somehow,” I agreed.  “No, it’s worth a try.  Or it will be if it doesn’t provoke her to violently murder us all.  Can I make a suggestion, though?”

“Any suggestions are good,” Tattletale said.

“Send Shadow Stalker instead of Imp.”

“You bitch,” Shadow Stalker said.  “No.”

Awesome idea,” Imp said.

“Shadow Stalker’s power doesn’t express itself over an area or any particular medium,” Tattletale said.  “It’s more personal.”

“Can’t she represent us?”  I asked.  “Or can’t the personal effect represent us?  If we had Imp flying up there way out of range of any of us, we’re still expecting her to represent our group, or humanity as a whole, aren’t we?”

“Sort of,” Tattletale said.

“Then I’m not sure I see the difference,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Shadow Stalker said.  “This is moronic.  Charades and acting like powers are some kind of massive signal flag for the Endbringer?  You’re lunatics.”

“Send them both?” I suggested.

“Oh, that’s less fun,” Imp said.  “You had a working plan, and you’re letting Tattletale convince you otherwise.  Come on.  Send the psycho crossbow girl and I’ll hang back here.  My power would send the total wrong message.  Totally.”

“Shh,” Tattletale said.  She frowned.  “Why Shadow Stalker?”

“Because Imp… is too passive.”

Way too passive,” Imp murmured.

“So’s Shadow Stalker,” Tattletale said.

“But Shadow Stalker’s passenger isn’t.  If there are any undertones, any way that the passengers influence our actions, then Shadow Stalker was definitely influenced.  I dug through her old records, read up on her history.”

“What?” Shadow Stalker asked.

“She got aggressive after she got her powers.  Generally more…” I searched for the way to phrase it.

“You fucking looked at my records?”

“…More violent than most people would be, in her shoes.  Lashing out, aimlessly at first, and then with a target, channeling the aggression.  Except it was the same amount of violence, just concentrated into fewer incidents, alongside a pretty extensive bullying campaign.”

“You’re doing this because of a grudge?”

“Let’s do it,” Tattletale said.  “Go with our guts.  Imp and Shadow Stalker, up on the roof.  Bitch, either you or Bastard need to head over to the Pendragon.  Canary on the roof of the Pendragon, singing with nobody listening.”

“You’re not getting me outside or any of that shit,” Shadow Stalker said.

“You’re scared,” Imp said.  “That’s so cute!  Is it a fear of heights or a fear of the Simurgh?”

“I’m not scared,” Shadow Stalker replied.  “I’m being sensible.  This is lunacy, and for what?  Charades with the Endbringer?”

“That was a metaphor,” Tattletale said.

“It sounds fucking stupid.”

“I’ve changed my mind,” Imp said.  “I’m going.  I’m not going to get lumped in with Sissy McNancypants over here and get called a coward.”

“I’m not scared,” Shadow Stalker said.

“We never really got to meet,” Imp said.  “Fight or any of that.  So I’ve only got the stories I’ve heard about you.  Like when you shot Grue with your crossbow and it went right through his stomach?  Took him a month to recover?  I used to think, you know, you were a badass.  But you’re a pussycat.”

“She’s a bully,” I said.  “At the end of the day, she only wants to fight opponents she knows she can beat.”

“I’ve fought two Endbringers,” Shadow Stalker said, stabbing a finger in my direction.  “I know what you’re trying to do.  Fucking manipulating me, getting me into a dangerous situation where you’ll get me killed.  Fuck you.”

“Fought two Endbringers as part of an army.  But going up alone, putting yourself in the line of fire against something that much bigger and stronger than you?  No.  You’re a bully at heart, and that’s the antithesis of your usual M.O.”

“Fuck you, Hebert.  Fuck you.”

The sentence left her mouth, and then she stalked to my right, making her way to the cockpit.  She passed through the glass, making her way onto the nose of the ship, where she crouched.  Her flapping cloak obstructed the view, even as translucent as it was, but there was no chance we’d hit anything.

It took a minute to arrange.  Narwhal created a force field platform and carefully moved Rachel over to the Pendragon.  I watched their glacially slow movement and the utterly still Simurgh.

More alarms went off as she moved her head a fraction to watch the floating platform.

It took a few long seconds for my heart to stop trying to jump out of my chest.  Not completely oblivious to us petty humans.

“The girl is right.  This seems… ridiculous,” Lung rumbled.

Oh, Lung and Shadow Stalker are of like mind, that’s wonderful.

“It is, just a little,” Tattletale said.  “But I’m hoping that if this doesn’t exactly work, she’ll give us credit for trying.”

“The Endbringers do not give you credit,” Lung said.

“No, guess not,” Tattletale said.  She bent down to scratch Bastard around the ears, then stopped short when he pulled back, clearly uncomfortable with the stranger.

“Ridiculous,” Lung repeated himself.  “And you stopped in the middle of a conversation.  She is waiting for you to continue.”

“She doesn’t care.  Ninety-nine percent sure.  Gotta understand, she’s not even close to human, especially once you scratch the surface.  We think in black and white, she thinks in… void and substance.  In abstracts or in causative contexts, looking into the future and seeing how things unfold.  So we’re going to try this, and maybe something sticks.”

“Mm,” Lung said, clearly unimpressed.

“Start us up again?”  Tattletale asked me.

I nodded.

“So, Simmy, Eidolon made you, or he’s been enough of an opponent that you’ve kind of got that weird frenemy thing going on.  Not in the shitty high school way, but a real love-hate relationship.  You know what I mean.  You fight them so long you get to know them, you almost respect them on a level, and that respect becomes something more.”

“You’re rambling,” I murmured.

Tattletale shook her head a little.  “Whatever the case, you’re reacting to his being gone.  We’re here because we’re asking you…”

Tattletale trailed off.  She’d noticed something.

My head turned.  Canary was singing, and I could hear it through my bugs.

Wordless, insistent, filled with a lot of repressed emotion.

Almost angry.

I shut it out as best as I could, took a second to focus wholly on keeping my power from communicating any sound to me.  I hit a button on the dashboard, then spent a few seconds tracking down one of Dragon’s programs.

Defiant found it first, loading it onto the Dragonfly’s system.  It began filtering out the singing.  Most of it.

But no sooner had Canary’s Song gone away than the Simurgh began screaming.

Not as intense as I’d heard it described.  Barely audible.

More ominous than anything.

Not full strength,” Miss Militia’s voice came over the comms.  “I give us five minutes.  Wrap this up.”

I unclenched my hands, belatedly realizing I’d been squeezing them so hard they almost hurt.  My fingernails throbbed where they’d been almost bent against my palms.  If I’d not been wearing my gloves, I might have pierced the skin.  I flexed my hands to work out the tension that had accumulated and exhaled slowly.

“We’re here,” Tattletale started again, “Because we’re asking you for help.  For vengeance.  For your strength.  We want you and the rest of the Endbringers on board to stop Scion.”

The Simurgh didn’t react.

“I don’t care if you’re doing it to fuck with us, though I’d prefer it if you saved any backstabbing for when Scion’s dead and gone.  Fucking wipe us out.  I don’t care.  Just so long as we go out with a bang, taking him out with us.”

I made a hand gesture, urging Tattletale to move on.

“…Do it for the psychological impact, leave a mark.  Or do it because Scion killed Behemoth, your brother, and some part of you is programmed with a sense of kinship or whatever.  But above all else, I’m hoping you’ll help us murder that golden alien motherfucker because he killed Eidolon, and he stripped you of your purpose.”

Sixty percent sure, I thought.  Tattletale had revised her number.  How confident was she now?

The speech had no meat to it if Eidolon hadn’t made the Endbringers.

Very little if he had.

Tattletale held up her hand to me again, another sign that I shouldn’t repeat what she was saying, because she was talking to us.  “Fuck this.  It’s like talking to a fucking answering machine.  I feel like some dim asshole with no idea what I’m talking about.  There’s no feedback, no responses to read and judge for the next line.”

“Well,” I said.  “She’s not exactly your usual target.”

What do you usually do?”  Narwhal asked.

“Needle someone until they get upset, then find cues in that.  I’d do that here, except irritating the Simurgh seems like an excuse to get a Darwin Award.”

Tattletale’s being cautious.  Must be the end of the world after all,” someone said.  Might have been Foil.

“She’s singing,” Tattletale said.  “So that’s either a good sign or a very bad sign.”

Going by the numbers,” Miss Militia said, “If we assume it’s half strength, I’d say three minutes before we have to abort.

“Maybe tell Canary to stop,” I said.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “We’re getting a response.  Let’s hold out.”

Then keep talking,” Defiant said.

Tattletale sighed.  She perched herself on the bench, hands on her head.  “I don’t know if I should continue buying into this Eidolon thing.  Less convinced the further we go.  Most times, you get that key piece of information, and you can coast from there.”

“It’s very possible we don’t have enough information,” I said.

“I’m trying to communicate with something that doesn’t communicate back,” Tattletale said.

Reduce,” Defiant said.  “We’re trying to convey a message to a being that we don’t wholly understand.  You’re appealing to sympathy, to revenge.  Something simpler?

Like?” Tattletale asked.

They have a sense of self preservation,” Narwhal said.  “They run when we hurt them enough.  Fear?

“Because it allows them to maintain their mission,” Tattletale said.  “I don’t think we can actually scare her, either.  Scion might, but we can’t.”

The screaming was getting worse.  Warbling, with highs and lows.  It snagged on my attention, making it harder to maintain a train of thought.

Maybe she was reaching out to us, communicating.  Maybe she was just doing her thing, trying to worm her way into our heads so she could figure out how we functioned, put her plans into motion.

Anger,” Rachel said.

I turned my head.

There was a long pause.  I glanced at the screen on the cockpit to see what she was doing, but she’d stopped by the time I got there to look.  “When I cut Behemoth’s leg off, after we’d melted most of him away, he was angry.  Stomped around, attacked more.  Kept fighting until he died.  Didn’t he?

“He did,” Tattletale said.  “But now we’re getting back to the whole ‘needling them’ issue of the debate.  I’m pretty sure I don’t want to provoke her.”

“Dunno,” Rachel said.  “Just saying.”

“No,” I said, “It’s good thinking.  It’s a possibility.”

I could think back to the images of the Simurgh going all-out.

I remembered the various incidents that had unfolded in her wake.  Echidna, the sundering of the PRT.  Things with ramifications that were affecting us even now.

“…A very scary possibility,” I amended.

Lung gave me a funny look.

“Yes,” he said, agreeing with me.

Tattletale made a gesture, pointing at herself.

“Go ahead,” I said.

“Okay, Ziz.  I’m going to be honest.  You’re pretty fucked.  You and I both know you were made by somebody or something.  Accidentally, probably.  You were designed to give us as hard a time as possible without exterminating us altogether, probably to feed someone’s ego, unbeknownst to them.  But what happens when we’re all gone?  What’s the fucking point of you?”

Tattletale paused.  Waiting, watching.

No reaction from Tattletale.

“What happens when we’re all gone?  You’re tapped into a power source.  Maybe most power sources.  You’re draining them dry just to keep yourselves going.  There’s nothing for you to do but linger, when there’s no humans left.  To hibernate.  So you’re gathering your forces.  You’re planning one last act, probably for a few days from now, where you wipe out humanity, and I’m betting it’s one last desperate, sad attempt to validate your existence.”

Alarms went off once more.  The Simurgh had moved, her head turning to look over one shoulder, flexing wings to move them out of the way, as if she couldn’t see through them but she could see well past the horizon.

She returned to the same posture as before.

“What was that about?” I asked.

Checking,” Defiant said.  “Keep going.  Any reaction is a good reaction.”

Maybe it was Scion, arriving just in time to pick a fight with the Simurgh.

I could hope.

Tattletale continued, and I repeated what she was saying verbatim, trying to even match her in tone and pitch.  “Here’s what I’m thinking.  Shot in the dark.  You’re wanting to fight humanity because you’re trying to carry out the old programming, and Scion invalidated that by killing Eidolon, by killing someone else or destroying something.  I think that fighting and nearly killing a few billion humans is the equivalent of fighting and nearly killing Eidolon.  Or whoever.”

“One hundred and eighty integers of longitude to the west,” Defiant said.  “Leviathan just arrived.  That’s what got her attention.  We expected one to appear there, so Chevalier ordered us to put crews there with cameras for monitoring.  They’re there right now, reporting to me.”

A monitor shifted, depicting Leviathan, standing on the water’s surface in the midst of a heavy rainstorm.  The water around him was rippling, though he was utterly still.

Tattletale continued without pause, not responding or reacting to this information.  “All I’m saying, all I’m proposing, is that Scion’s a better bet than we are.  You want to give someone a fucking hard time?  Make that someone Scion.  You want to terrorize people?  Terrorize Scion.  Bigger challenge, and you’ll probably have the rest of us fucking scared out of our minds if you pull it off.  You want to fucking end the world?  Get in line, chickadee, because Scion’s going to beat you to the punch if you don’t stop him.”

Tattletale was almost breathless, speaking faster, with more emotion.  It was a challenge to convey that with a voice generated by the swarm.

“Or maybe you don’t care.  Maybe you’re nothing more than what you appear to be on the surface.  Head games and taking credit for shit you didn’t do.  Maybe you’re just a projection, blank between the ears, mindless, heartless, pointless.”

The ship moved a fraction, then adjusted, the autopilot kicking in.

“Did you feel that?”  I asked.  Tattletale had gone silent, and there were no words left for me to translate.

We did.

A reaction?  I adjusted the monitors, turning everything back to the Simurgh, looking for any clue, any hint.

But she didn’t have body language.  Every action was deliberate.  She didn’t have any that weren’t.

Tattletale’s voice was low.  I did what I could to match it, speaking through a swarm of over a million individual insects and arachnids.  “You’re supposedly this magnificent genius, and this is how you go out?  With a whimper?  Petering out like a stream without a source?  You’re honestly telling me there isn’t anything more to you?”

Another rumble, another shift, somewhat more violent.

Enough, Tattletale.”  Defiant’s voice.

“They run on different patterns.  Fair bit of anger, room for some vengeance.  Cleverness, sure.  More in her than in Behemoth.  Some killer instinct, maybe… a blend of fear and caution.  Not so they’re afraid, but so they can temper their actions.  This?  Right here?  It’s the closest we’re about to get to communicating directly with a passenger.”

I understand,” Defiant said.  “But that’s enough.

“They’re passengers?” I asked.

“The shell?  No.  The outer shell, the concept, the execution, they’re tapping into religious metaphors.  The devil, the serpent, the angel, buddha, mother earth, the maiden, each connected in turn to fundamental forces.  Flame, water, fate, time, earth, the self.  Things deep-seated and fundamental to their creator’s belief system, because that’s how the passengers interpret our world.  Through us.  But deep down?  Beyond that surface, beyond the basic programming that drives them to do what they’ve been doing for thirty years?  It’s the passenger’s brush strokes.  And I’m getting to her.”

No you’re not,” Defiant said.  “Because you’re stopping now.

“Fuck that,” Tattletale said.

“You’re stopping now because it worked.”

One by one, the monitors throughout the Dragonfly shifted, until the one at the very front was the only one that still showed the Simurgh.

The Dragonfly changed course as we looked at the scene that was showing on every other monitor.

The Azazel, airborne.  D.T. officers within were standing by the windows, while one with a camera was holding it above their heads, aiming it towards the window, pointed at the water.

A dark mass was beneath.

Leviathan, matching pace with the ship.

The Dragonfly and Pendragon broke from their orbit around the Simurgh.

The Simurgh followed.

The Yàngbǎn tore through the settlement, barely visible, as fast as arrows loosed from a bow.

One set of powers to give them speed, another to give them the ability to create crude images, illusions, blurry and indistinct.

A weak power, but far less so when coupled with the fact that they were making themselves just as blurry and indistinct.  To top it off, they were making themselves invisible for fractions of a second, and they were lashing out with short blades of cutting energy when they reappeared, slicing through the Australian refugees.

Bombs went off, coordinated, ripping through the spaces the Yàngbǎn had already passed through, cleaning up the ones who’d survived, killing the rescue personnel who were trying to save lives.

Earth Tav, barely two million people spread out across the globe, with this being the largest population center, based around the portal that Faultline, Labyrinth and Scrub had erected.

Without this base for supplies and communication, the other settlements would falter.  Disease would be crippling, food would be scarce at best.

And the Yàngbǎn would no doubt reap the rewards, claiming the planet for the C.U.I.

The Pendragon led the way through the portal, and it suffered the brunt of the bombs that the Yàngbǎn had left in their wake, no doubt to stop any reinforcements.

The Pendragon sank, no longer fully airborne, and the Dragonfly’s cameras could see as Golem, Vista and Cuff did what they could to patch it together.

Not enough.  It landed, hard.

Another bomb went off as the Pendragon hit ground.  Had the Yàngbǎn plotted that?  A second line of defense?

“Everyone okay?” I asked.

Give us a minute.  Nobody dead.

At least the Pendragon was a combat ship, meant to take a beating.  If the Dragonfly had been the first one through, we would have been obliterated.  At best, we’d have managed to evacuate with parachutes, flight packs and shadow-form powers.

We passed through the area the Pendragon had cleared.  One small ship against what had to be thirty Yàngbǎn members.  They didn’t move, but flickered, existing as scarce smudges and streaks of black and an odd midnight blue from the regions of their heads.  They cast out more smudges in matching colors with their image generation powers, turned invisible for one or two seconds at a time when they saw opportunities to catch refugees off guard.  Some merely killed.  Others slashed at eyes or ears, removed hands.  Butchered.

What would the C.U.I. want with scores of butchered people?

It wasn’t really the fault of the individual Yàngbǎn members.  They were brainwashed, subsumed into this collective of shared powers, their identities erased.

But that didn’t make their actions forgivable.

The Simurgh followed behind the Dragonfly, moving each wing until it was pointed straight behind her as she sailed through the narrow, oddly-shaped portal.

When she unfolded her wings, extending each until a veritable halo of them surrounded her, a complete circle, I could feel my heart skip a beat.

“We need to give her orders,” Tattletale said.

I nodded, mustering my swarm into a group large enough to communicate.

But there was no need.  She flew past us.

The singing had died down, but it welled up at full strength.  I almost staggered.

Rubble began to peel away from the demolished settlement beneath us.  Metal, bombs, pieces of structures.

As she reached less damaged areas, she picked up construction vehicles.

The fragments of metal around her were like a dense cloud, almost obscuring her, massive wings and all.

The singing increased in pitch.

A bomb detonated in the midst of the storm of debris, breaking up a bulldozer in the process.

Below her, the scene had gone still.  Yàngbǎn raider and civilian alike had gone still.  The smudges consolidated into forms.

Not the same Yàngbǎn I’d encountered before.  These ones wore similar outfits, but there were bodysuits beneath, no bare skin.  The multifaceted gem designs that covered their faces were dark blue, their costumes black.

Infiltrators.  A sub-set.  One of five sub-groups, apparently.

The debris settled into a single shape, drawing together.  Nothing welded, nothing screwed in together.  Merely a crude device, held together by telekinesis.

A fat, snub-nosed cannon, twice as long as she was tall.  She fired it, and the resulting bullet was nearly ten feet across, a sphere of hot metal.

It crashed into a trio of Yàngbǎn.

She used her telekinesis to sweep it off to the right.  The misshapen bullet was compressed into a rough sphere in the time it took to soar down a long road, smashing through two members of the Yàngbǎn.  A bystander was clipped, spinning violently before collapsing in a heap.  Shattered arm and ribs, if not dead.

I bit my lip.

Don’t injure civilians,” I communicated through the swarm.

She gave no sign she’d listened.  Her telekinesis grabbed four members of the Yàngbǎn who’d gotten too close, lifting them by their costumes or by some other debris that had surrounded them.

As if launched by catapults, they flew straight up, where they disappeared into the clouds above.

I winced as the screaming increased in intensity by another notch.

Did she have to do that?

I felt a touch of paranoia, not just at the idea, but at the fact that I’d been concerned.  Paranoia over the fact I was feeling paranoid.

The Simurgh had crafted another gun.  They floated around her like satellites, firing only in those intermittent moments when she’d formed and loaded the necessary ammunition.

Those are my guns,” Kid Win reported over the comms.  “Bigger, but mine.

I didn’t like that she was screaming.  It set an ugly tone to this whole venture.

I really didn’t like that we couldn’t direct her that well.  We were ending this confrontation decisively, we were probably even doing it more cleanly and with less damage to civilians than there would be if we’d handled it ourselves.

But we’d brought the Simurgh here and people were getting hurt as collateral damage.  That was on us, everything else aside.

“I… don’t know what to feel right now,” Imp said.

“It doesn’t feel good,” I said.

“I wish I knew what I’d said that got her on board,” Tattletale said.  “I went with the shotgun approach, trying to see what stuck… and now I don’t know what to leverage if we need to do it again.”

“You’re so whiny,” Rachel said.  “You say we need her help, we got it.  Good.  Maybe now we can fight.”

“Mm,” Lung grunted.  “This is true.  But I’ve seen what happens if you do something like this, something big, and you fall.  You fall hard.”

I nodded at that.  “Wise words, Lung.  Well said.”

“Do not talk to me,” he rumbled.

I only shook my head.

“Fuck me, you guys are serious?”  Shadow Stalker murmured.  “This is good?  This is luck.  There’s a reason I stick to my fists and my crossbow.  They’re reliable.  This Endbringer thing most definitely isn’t.”

“Of course it isn’t,” I said.  “But you know that whole saying, finding a boyfriend?  Young, smart, wealthy, pick two?  We don’t get to pick two, here.  Options at the end of the world: clean, safe, effective, pick one.”

“We got Bohu, but she doesn’t move fast at all,” Tattletale said.  “Leviathan’s on his way to pay the Elite a visit.  Collateral damage could be ugly there.”

“It isn’t sustainable,” I said.  “Somehow, I don’t think they’re going to sit still if we ask them to.  What happens if we run out of enemies to attack?  If we need to put Leviathan to work and there aren’t any targets that don’t involve even more collateral damage than we’ll see when he attacks the Elite?”

“People are going to fall in line damn fast,” Tattletale said.

“Probably,” I said.  “Or they’ll run for the hills.”

“Win-win,” Tattletale said.  “We were saying we needed people to split up more.”

The Simurgh opened fire, striking out with three guns, striking a neighborhood that had already been reduced to dust and flame by a series of bomb blasts.

“Somehow,” Imp commented, “This doesn’t scream win-win to me.”

I nodded.

“Nothing saying this isn’t another clever plan, set up to fuck with us, destroy our last shreds of hope,” I said.

The Yàngbǎn were opening fire.  Projectiles that moved slowly, splitting in the air until there was a virtual storm of them.  Had they been aimed at the Dragonfly, we wouldn’t have been able to dodge.  The Simurgh flew between the bullets like they weren’t even a concern.  Debris blocked the shots.

In the midst of her maneuvering, she drew together a third gun from the storm of debris.

Then she somersaulted, heels over head as she rapidly shifted direction.

In the moment it took her to build acceleration, she looked directly at the camera.

Directly at me.

She’d heard me, she understood, and she had responded.

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Sting 26.5

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Unholy screams and screeches followed us as we made our retreat, landing beyond the walls of Ellisburg.  In moments, Nilbog’s fairy wonderland had become a hell on earth, thousands of demons crawling from the literal woodwork to attack.  The ground split as subterranean creatures emerged, while others climbed out of buildings that seemed to have been built around them.  One was somewhere between a dragon and a gargoyle in appearance.  Big, leathery wings, with a gnarled body and a leering, fanged face.

The flying creatures, the gargoyle-dragon included, took flight perching atop the walls, then backed down as a barrage of gunfire and superpowered attacks assaulted them.

“Shuffle!” Revel cried out her lieutenant’s name.

Shuffle stepped forward and used his power.  Teleportation, but not teleportation of living things.  Not people, anyways.  Grass didn’t hinder him much.

He teleported the landscape.  A hill was bisected and placed against the ruined entrance of the facility.

His power was unpredictable.  There were metrics he couldn’t quite grasp or understand.  Teleporting things in sometimes teleported things out.  In attempting to shore up the wall, he created gaps.

But this was a known issue, one he’d been dealing with for some time.  Unsurprised, he fixed the resulting hole with two more followup teleports.  If any terrain was removed, it was inside the structure, unimportant.

Something inside Goblintown struck the wall, hard, and then started clawing at it.  I could sense it’s silhouette with the few bugs I had near the area.  It was four-legged, with all of the most effective parts of a rhino, bear and elephant combined, and it was big enough that I suspected it could make its way through the great concrete wall.

Defending capes had gathered in a loose ring around Ellisburg.  Revel and Shuffle were among them, which I took to be a sign that Golem’s group had handled whatever issues had arisen in Norfolk.  The heroes opened fire as the gargoyle-dragon thing explored the upper edge of the wall again, and it disappeared, only to make an appearance further down, trying to find a spot where the defensive line was weaker.

This was the worst case scenario, on so many levels.  We couldn’t afford to be dealing with this.

“Two more attacks,” Revel said.  “Just minutes ago.  Two different cities.  The situation in Redfield is still ongoing, which means we have three crisis situations set up by the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“Four, if you count this,” Shuffle said.

The creature hit the wall again.  Shuffle shored it up, placing the other half of the hill against it.

“This is getting out of control,” Revel said.

“You’re implying we had control,” Jouster said.  He stood off to one side, with the defensive line of capes.

More out of control,” she said.

I’d been placed on the ground as the capes landed.  I was aware that someone was checking me for injuries, but it seemed secondary.  I stared up at the overcast sky, watching the rare raindrop tap the lens of my mask.  My mind was whirling while my swarm was feeding me information on the ongoing fight, both inside and outside the walls.

I stirred as I heard Golem’s voice.  He was sitting a short distance from me.  “This is my fault.”

“It was a lose-lose situation,” I said.  I moved my arm to allow the medic to check my ribs.  “Jack set it up this way.”

“I could have done something.  Said something different.”

“No.  We played the cards we had available, it wasn’t enough.  Bonesaw’s power and Siberian’s invulnerability made for ugly trump cards.”

“There had to be a way.”

“We’re coping,” I said.

“Are we?” he asked.  “It doesn’t feel like it.”

“We came through every challenge he set in front of us so far.”

“That doesn’t mean we’re doing okay,” he responded.

I didn’t have a response to that.

He stood.  “I’m going to go talk to some of the people in charge, find out where I can be useful.”

“Okay,” I told him.

He walked off, and I let my head rest against the ground.

Jack had a game plan here, and the more I thought about it, the more the ‘game’ seemed to be a farce.  He knew we were helping.  He was setting up situations where we had to help.  When we’d started winning, maybe even winning faster than he’d anticipated, he’d ratcheted things up.

Just as it had at the outset, the situation now seemed to offer Theo the same dilemma as Jack had aimed to provide early on.  To go after Jack or focus on bigger things.

It was measured, calculated, and it suggested that Jack was fully aware and fully in control of what was going on.

A cape knelt beside me.  “Are you alright?”

We’d only gone through a small fraction of the Nine.  Even assuming every group we had run into had been exterminated, there were so many left to deal with.

My strengths lay in problem solving.  Jack’s strength lay in problem creation.

We came up with a solution to whatever crisis he posed, he responded by creating another, something offbeat enough that we had to change things up.  Specialized groups of his pet monsters, two scenarios at once, and now we had new issues popping up before we’d finished with the last round.

The clones weren’t as fleshed out as the originals.  A little more reckless.  They were being set up to fail.  Were they scary?  Yes.  Were they effective?  Yes.  But we were winning, and Jack wasn’t using them in a way that kept them alive.  They were expendable assets.

It was all too possible that we could keep winning, if the game continued down this road.  We’ll lose some, but we’ll come out ah-

No.

Golem was right.  We’d achieve a steady stream of victoriesNothing more.

“Weaver?”

I pushed myself to my feet.  A cape put his hands on my shoulders, to try to get me to stay still.

“I’m fine,” I said.  “I got the wind knocked out of me.”

“If you have an injury-”

“I’m pretty experienced when it comes to being injured.  I’m fine.  Really,” I said.

He didn’t move, but he did let his arms drop from my shoulders when I pushed them off me.  I found my feet, straightened, and felt aches all across my back where I’d collided with the ground.  I’d be one giant bruise tomorrow.

Then again, if we saw tomorrow, it would be a bonus.

The fighting against Nilbog’s creations was still ongoing.  The flying gargoyle-thing had made it over the wall and was being swarmed by defending capes.  Others were just now starting to climb over, and did their best to avoid the ranged fire that pelted them.  Eight or nine more creatures flew over, only these ones carried smaller ‘goblins’.  The winged ones were shot out of the sky, but many of the smaller creatures managed to survive the fall into trees and the midst of the heroes.   The ones that did went on the offensive with zero hesitation.

“Need the Azazels!” someone shouted.

I directed the few bugs I had in the area to attack, assisting with bites, stings and silk cord.

I would help, but I wouldn’t join the battle.  Not this one.

No, I’d used up every bug in my reach, and the damned goblin-things were too good at killing them.  Nilbog had no doubt designed them to live off of a diet of insects, to supplement their diminishing supply of protein.

I made my way to the Dragonfly, my flight pack dangling from the damaged straps I’d looped around my shoulders.

I’d very nearly told myself that we were coming out ahead.  Golem had been a dose of reality on that front.  We weren’t coming out ahead.  Jack was spreading fear, he was killing innocents, and he was whittling us down.  Doing so with such expendable forces cost him nothing.  Now, with Nilbog in his possession, he had access to that many more monsters and freaks that he could just throw away.

There was no guarantee we would continue down this road unfettered.  Just the opposite.  I fully expected Jack to turn to the rules he’d established at the very beginning and state how blatantly we were cheating.  Then he’d carry out his threat, murder those one thousand people, and move on.

I reached the console, shrugged out of my flight pack and sat down.

I pressed a button, “Defiant.  Not a priority, but get in touch when you can.”

It took a minute before I had all of the individual windows open.  I set it so I could track the feeds provided by the various members of the Wards and Protectorate.  Some were here, others were investigating the sites where more members of the Nine were taking action.

Redfield.  The Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards were holding a defensive position, their backs facing one another.  Foil took a shot at a flesh toned blob that leaped between rooftops, then swiftly reloaded.  Skinslip.

Skinslip was a minor regenerator with a changer ability, allowing him to manipulate his own skin.  I could see him using it to scale a surface.  He extended that ability by flaying people and crudely stitching or stapling their skin to his own.  The regeneration connected the tissues and extended his power’s breadth and reach, but it didn’t prevent all rejection or decay, forcing him to replenish it from time to time.  He was a newer member, but they’d still cloned him.

A quick check of the computer noted the members of the Nine they’d seen and fought.  Three Skinslips.  Three Hatchet Faces.  Three Miasmas.  Three Murder Rats.

Hatchet face excepted, they were enemies who were exceedingly mobile.  Skinslip’s skin acted like a grappling hook, it let him climb, and it broke any fall.  He could also smother and bludgeon his opponents with it, if he felt the need.

Miasma was a stranger, invisible and undetectable but for an odorless gas he gave off that wore away at other’s minds, causing headaches, ringing in the ears, watery eyes and eventual blindness, memory loss and coma.

Murder Rat, for her part, was agile.

It meant they were up against nine opponents that were fast or slippery enough that they couldn’t be caught.  That group was supported by a trio of Hatchet Faces that could steadily lumber towards the group, keeping them moving, ensuring they couldn’t simply maintain a defensive position.

The camera images that Clockblocker and company wore shifted as they scrambled away.  There was a shudder as a mass landed in their midst.

Hatchet Face, dropping down from a vantage point somewhere above them.

Rachel’s dogs went on the offensive, attacking him, but their flesh was already sloughing off, their connection to Rachel shut off, their bodies disintegrating.

Parian’s creations were already deflating.

More range than the Tyrant had possessed, and the power loss was immediate.

Foil shot her crossbow, but it did surprisingly little damage.  Hatchet Face pulled the bolt from his shoulder with no difficulty.

“Behind us!”

The camera swiftly changed direction.  A Murder Rat had landed opposite the Hatchet Face, sandwiching the group between the two villains.  The camera panned, taking in the area, and I could see the silhouettes of other villains on nearby rooftops.  More Murder Rats and Skinslips.

Hatchet Face threw the last dog aside.  It collapsed in a slurry mess of loose skin and muscle.  The dog fought its way free, shaking itself dry.  Bastard was already free.

Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Imp said.  “My power’s gone.

Mine too,” Crucible said.  “Turned off like someone flipped a switch.

I closed my eyes.  I was too far away to help, couldn’t think of advice to offer.

We’re not powerless,” Grue said.  “We’ve got strong costumes.  We know how to fight.

Tattletale’s voice came over the comms, “He’s strong enough to swing that axe through a car, tough enough you could flatten him with a steamroller and he’d get back up when you were done.

We run then,” Grue said.  “We deal with Murder Rat and then we scram.  Make some distance.

He’s not fast, but he’s not a slowpoke either.  You don’t have muscles like that and find yourself unable to run.

Be constructive,” Grue said.  “Solutions?  Options?  Any ideas?

Yeah,” Rachel said.  “This.

She wheeled around, pointing.  Both of her dogs bounded towards the Murder Rat.

I couldn’t see Hatchet Face with the directions the cameras were pointed, but I could see the groups converge on Murder Rat, bull-rushing her as a mass.

Murder Rat swatted at the dogs, slashing Bastard along the ribs, but Rachel stepped in the way, blocking the follow-up attacks with the sleeves of her silk-weave jacket.

Murder Rat, about to be surrounded, leaped up to position herself on a wall, slamming her claws through a plate-glass window to grab the inside of the windowframe.  Blood ran down her wrists.

Foil took aim and fired, and Murder Rat leaped before the bolt made contact.

She tagged the dog.  Mouse Protector’s power,” Tattletale said.  “Watch out.

A camera, Vista’s, focused on the dog.

“Hatchet Face incoming!”

Clockblocker, Crucible and Toggle turned around, but Vista remained fixated on the animal.

The moment the group was distracted by the incoming titan, Murder Rat appeared.  She drove her elbow into the side of Crucible’s throat, bringing one foot up to rake the side of his leg, but didn’t get any further.

Vista fired her gun straight into the villain’s back, then wheeled around and shot Hatchet Face in the chest.

Grue blanketed the area in darkness a moment later, the monitors going silent and dark.

I realized I’d been clenching my fists.  I loosened them, then opened and closed them a few times to ease the strain.

Escalations, I thought.

The situation outside was worsening, but the Azazels had mobilized.  They laid down the metal poles along the tops of the wall, opening fire with their lasers.  That done, they joined the fight against the dragon-gargoyle thing that was continuing its suicidal attack against the defending capes.  Chunks of it were being blasted and torn away, but it was doing a little damage to the defending capes.

The metal poles blossomed into the branching ‘gray blur’ nanotech barrier that would disintegrate on touch.

On the set of screens to my left, the Chicago Wards were joined by others as they ventured into what seemed to be a warzone.  Civilians were fleeing in a panic, while the heroes advanced against the press of the crowd with a steady, wary caution.

The nature of the threat became clear.  Rounding the corner, a single entity trudged forward.  It was tiny, and it bore a large white cube on its back.

To look at it, I almost thought it was an Endbringer.

It wasn’t.  It was only the second-scariest member of the Nine, xeroxed.

Eight Siberians.

One carried the cube, no doubt a container bearing the Mantons within.  The other seven followed a pattern, lazy loops that brought them back to the cube every few minutes.  They plunged through walls and into apartments and businesses, they returned with blood wicking off of their hands, feet and faces like water off a duck’s back.

I opened a communications channel.

“Weaver here.  Don’t fight.”

Wasn’t going to, but what the hell are we supposed to do?” Tecton asked.

Eight Siberians.  Even without any other members of the Nine on the sidelines, it was an impossible fight.

“You need to run.”

Run?  The civilians-

“Will have to run as well,” I said.  “There’s nothing you can do.  Accept it.  You can’t slow her down, you can’t deny her what she wants.”

We have to be able to do something,” he said.

“There are options,” I said, “But it’s not worth it.”

What?  Saving civilians is-

“You’d die,” I said.  “It would be a distraction, but you’d die.  The civilians would die all the same.”

What is it?

“She’s still subject to gravity.  Far as I know, she can’t fly.  You drop her into a hole, she’ll climb out.”

No point,” Grace said.

“No point,” I agreed.  “Unless you get lucky.”

Lucky?

“Drop the one that’s carrying the cube into a fissure or pit, if she falls far enough and the cube gets wedged in the crack, you’ll separate her from the cube.  You’d have to destroy it before another Siberian makes contact with it, kill all of the Masters that are generating the Siberians.”

It could work,” Wanton said.

“Unless she moves fast enough to avoid the fissure,” I said.  “Which she can.  Unless she’s digging her claws into the outside of the cube for a handhold, which she might be.  Unless another Siberian returns before you manage to break into that cube, which is very possible, considering that cube looks like something a Mannequin made.”

“We have Grace, and we’ve got Cuff.  We have Cadence and Enforce here, too.”

Enforce?  Oh.  N-Force.

“I don’t think it’ll be enough,” I said.  “There’s too many maybes.  You become a target of the Siberians the instant you try something, and you die if this doesn’t work out perfectly, which it won’t.”

You want us to let civilians die.

I stared at the screen.  They were backing away swiftly now.  A Siberian hopped onto the top of the cube, then looked directly at the group of heroes.

A moment later, she leaped off to one side.

Flaunting their invulnerability.  Taunting.

“Walk away,” I said.  “We’ll send others in.  Others who can do something.”

Who?”

I thought of how Rachel had changed tacks, ignoring the biggest target to go after the Murder Rat.  It hadn’t been much, but it had caught the villain off guard, baited the Hatchet Face into an aggressive charge rather than a slower, more strategic advance.

“Switch it up.  Go to Redfield.  You guys specialize in containing and crushing the enemy.  The Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards can head to your location at the first opportunity.”

I didn’t wait for a response.  My console was displaying an incoming message.

“Gotta go,” I said, closing the comms channel, hanging up on Tecton.  I responded to the message.

Defiant here.”

“Was just about to contact the Undersiders.”

I heard.  I’m already giving orders for them to back out.  Sent a helicopter in to pick them up, hoping it gets to take off again.”

“Helicopter?”

A.I. suits aren’t cooperating.  I’d send one against Hatchet if they were-“

Defiant?

“One suit just took off.  Reinforcing the Undersiders.”

I could sense the fighting outside.  My bugs were doing precious little against Nilbog’s rioting army.  The capes were whittling them down, killing them in droves, but it was time and effort taken away from containing the Nine.  Which was exactly what Jack wanted.

In the same instant Defiant had talked about the suit taking off, one of the Azazels had gone still.

Something was seriously wrong.

What do you need, Weaver?  I have things to handle.”

“Two years ago, I was told we couldn’t go after the Nine, because we can’t decode the portal without knowing the exit point.  They just used one.”

It’s in Ellisburg.

“It’s our fastest route to Jack.  How long does it take to tap into the portal?”

Depends on the means we use.  It doesn’t matter.  The portal isn’t accessible.

“We’re losing, Defiant.  We’re winning the fights but we’re losing in the long run.  We need to act decisively.  End this.”

You want to use the portal entrance, knowing where it is?

“Yes.  We just… we need capes that we can count on, on a lot of levels.  And I need your help.  Can you arrange for a sturdier ship?  The Dragonfly won’t cut it.”

Yes,” he said.  “That can be arranged.  I’ll have to pilot it myself.

“If this doesn’t work out, if we get overwhelmed, then that’s it.  We can’t afford the losses at this juncture. I get that.  But we can’t afford to not take this opportunity.”

Another pause.  Was he typing something?

“What’s the status?”

“We’re losing containment in Ellisburg.  Siberians are racking up casualties, and Redfield isn’t doing great either.  Your Undersiders will be evacuating if they can make it another two blocks to the helicopter without getting intercepted… I’m not sure what they can do against eight Siberians.

“More than the Chicago Wards can.  But that’s not enough on it’s own.  We need to call in the big guns.  We know Jack’s nowhere nearby.  It’s a safe time to put them into play.”

We have people on call, but we’re holding them back,” Defiant replied.  “Jack will hold his strongest cards in reserve for last.  Chevalier advised that we catch him off guard.

“There’s no point anymore.  Stop holding back.  Jack’s escalating when we do.  We established a tempo, he’s matching us.  Let’s go all-in.  We’ll get him to play every card he has on hand, and maybe in the process, we’ll see him make a mistake.”

He’s not one to make mistakes.

“We lose nothing, and we gain time,” I said.  “Which big guns do we have?”

The Thanda.  Cauldron has volunteered the services of their two elite members.  The Las Vegas Capes offered help, as did the Ambassadors.  The Alcott girl has her ability to foresee the future, but she’s trying to reduce the strain she experiences so she can offer more assistance at the most critical juncture.

“The fight with Jack.”

Yes.

“Okay.  That… probably makes sense.  Listen, I’ll handle what I can from here, take some of the load off your hands.  I’ll see if I can’t get recruits from among the capes I trust to handle their own.”

Do.  And I would appreciate it if you would consider me one of them.  I’ll be there with the Pendragon in twenty minutes, I just need to pick up the technology for hacking the portal.”

“Bring me some bugs when you come.”

“Yes.”

That said, he hung up.  No pleasantries.

It was a relief.  Down to business.

Fifteen minutes to go.

I waited impatiently for the capes in question to gather.  We needed good capes, powerful capes.  Too many were occupied elsewhere.

A whole contingent had deployed to Hyde Park.  None of my teams.  Dragon’s Teeth, the New York teams, the Texas teams.

I picked Jouster’s point of view.  I knew him, and it would afford me the most opportunities to see other capes and figure out their identities.

Population of three thousand five hundred, and the place was empty.  No victims, no members of the Nine.  No blood, no violence, no signs of any disruption.

But the first wave of capes had been whittled down, going silent on the radio before disappearing entirely.

Now, as the teams moved through the city, there was nothing on the video, which ruled out Nice Guy.  That left only a few options.

Stranger protocols in effect,” the captain of the Dragon’s Teeth reported.  “We’re going full dark.  Eyes on the lightning.

“Eyes on the lightning,” I responded.  For the moment, I was filling in for Dragon’s absence and Defiant’s preoccupation.  I knew about the Dragon’s teeth, had studied their operations book.  I wasn’t an armchair general, but I’d have to settle for being one here..

They were using those full-face helmets to block off all sight, to shut out all sound.  Their uniforms offered full coverage.  The only things they would rely on were video cameras on their helmets and the battle computers that were wired into their helmets.

It wasn’t enough, apparently, to see anyone or anything.  Things seemed eerily quiet.

Jouster jumped as one cape cried out.  The man’s back arched, first one way, then the other.

“Psychosoma,” I reported.  “Stranger four, master seven.  First squad, get guns trained on him, everyone else, scan the area.  Master protocols.  Confirm everything.”

“Don’t shoot without confirmation,” someone warned, off-camera.

“How the fuck are we supposed to confirm?  Let them attack us?”

Nobody responded to that.

Still, they obeyed the instructions.  Jouster was among the ones who turned to search the surroundings.  The point of his lance was visible in the corner of the screen, as he held it ready.

Nothing.

The man screamed louder.

He twisted, his ribs distending, his mouth yawning open.

It’s an illusion, I thought.

Kind of.  Sort of.

Not really.

It was really nice to think of it as a really convincing illusion.  That was a reassuring way of handling it.

Because the alternative was that Psychosoma was doing the sort of thing Labyrinth did, pulling otherworldly things into our reality to replace objects and people.

When killed, they’d revert back to how they’d been before.

The man continued to twist and distort until he wasn’t recognizable anymore.

The thing whirled around, reaching back with one claw, preparing to strike at a comrade.

A cape incinerated him before he could get any further.

The illusion was dispelled.  The wrong illusion.  Purple smoke flowed out from around the corpse of the young hero.

Nyx!” someone spat the word.

Jouster swiftly backed away.  Every cape in the group was wearing a gas mask, but that was not an absolute guarantee.

Two more people in the group began changing.

A mix of Psychosomas and Nyxes.  Who else?

“She’s covering the area with her smoke,” I spoke, over the channel.  “You need to clear it.”

“On it.  Cover your eyes!”  Jouster hollered.

Jouster raised his lance, then struck out at a light pole.  Lightning flared out, impossibly bright, and the camera briefly went on the fritz.

Somewhere in the midst of that, reality became clear.  Bloodstains everywhere.  Corpses were draped over every surface where the investigating capes weren’t likely to step – on car hoods and roofs, on light poles and in trees.

And in the midst of the crowd, there were the enemies, simply standing and observing.  Nyxes, Psychosomas and Night Hags.  The Nyx were women with pale red skin and black eyes, fog bleeding out of the vents at their arms and backs.  The Psychosomas were men, tall, bald and narrow, with pencil-thin mustaches and beards, spidery fingers and clothing that hung off them like it had been draped on.  The Night hags, by contrast, were women, dark haired, dressed in black, with skin as white as chalk.  Their dresses seemed to bleed into the surrounding landscape, so that everything within fifteen feet of them was covered in that crumpled-looking black cloth.

The Nyx clones and Psychosomas ran for cover.  The Night Hags were the cover.  D.T. soldiers and Wards opened fire.  Hoyden struck a car with literal explosive force, and sent it flying.  Ninety percent of the offense was directed at the Night Hags.

The women practically disintegrated as the bullets, flames and other projectiles made contact.  Their bodies shattered into thousands of black shards.

Moments later, they emerged from the landscape.  One park bench distorted and reconfigured into a new Night Hag.  That Night Hag was summarily slain, and reformed herself out of a nearby patch of grass.

Location possession, in a way, but it was shallow.  She was most effective with materials that stood above the ground’s surface.

In the midst of dealing with the approaching Hags, the D.T. officers and heroes were left to handle the victims who had appeared to be transforming.  When the smoke had burned away, one had been revealed to be fine, crouching with his hands over his head, the other was still afflicted.  They shot the victim and broke the effect.

More smoke was flowing in with surprising speed and quantity, erasing the images of blood and bodies.  The Night Hags were turning translucent, nearly invisible-

And they were gone.

Jouster moved to strike the light-post again, only for black hands to grab him and pull him into darkness and illusory fog.

The image on my screen distorted, then went utterly black.

There was a sound, like a slow, wet grinding sound.  Chewing, as if from a dozen mouths at once.

I changed camera perspectives.

“-break up the fog!”  someone shouted.  Two more of their allies were starting to change.

Someone threw a flashbang.  It didn’t disrupt the smoke.

What do we do!?” one of the capes shouted.  He was almost more frantic than the Dragon’s Tooth soldiers around him.

The sound of a gun being cocked turned heads.

The camera turned as well.

It was Contessa, accompanied by the Number Man.  Both held guns.

She shot one of the afflicted, then walked past the other, ignoring him.  She opened fire in the fog.  One clip, each shot aimed and measured, fired with a peculiar rhythm.  One, then two in rapid succession, one, then two in rapid succession.  She reloaded with an almost casual ease, then slid the gun into its holster.

The Number Man had her back.  He fired into the darkness three times.

It took two minutes for the smoke to clear.

Two Nyx dead.  Three Psychosomas.  Four Night Hags.

The doorway was already opening for the pair to make their exit.

“Dude, who the hell are they?”

“The bogeymen,” Hoyden said.

“Shit,” someone said.  One of the capes.

“They’re on our side?”  Another asked.

“Apparently.”

“Then why don’t they go after Jack?” a cape asked.

Because she fits in the same category as Eidolon, I thought.  Too dangerous to allow her to make contact with the man.

I wasn’t even that comfortable with them helping here, but there weren’t a lot of excellent options for thinker capes who could simply cut right through the layers of deceptions the enemy had been using.

I noted the capes who were present and still in fighting shape.  I’d hoped for Jouster.  No such luck.

I dialed Hoyden’s phone, watched her pick up on the video.

“Need a hand with something,” I said.  “I’m going to send a ship your way.”

Ten minutes to go.

The Undersiders stood far enough away from the Siberian cube that the camera couldn’t even make out the one who carried the thing.

“This,” Imp said, “Is your classic case of putting all your eggs in one basket.  Really.”

He finds the Siberians boring, I imagine,” Tattletale commented, over the channel.  “Before, they were an enigma.  Now they’re just… the same thing, over and over.  Tearing people apart.”

“Just tell me this isn’t going to be the moment of idiocy that ends the world,” I said.

No way,” Tattletale said.  “I promise.”

“You’re absolutely certain?”

Ninety… three percent certain.

“That’s not good enough.”

Geez.  You’ve lost your sense of humor these past few years.  I’m kidding.  I’m sure.

“You’ve been wrong.”

I’m right.  I swear.  Now stop fretting!  Wait…

The Siberians left, engaging in another brief spree, attacking civilians.

“Let’s not wait too long,” I said.  I felt a sick feeling in my gut.  Had I been right to send away the Chicago Wards?  Seven or so people were dying every one or two minutes.

Wait…

The last group of Siberians abandoned the cube, leaving the carrier holding it.

Wait…

One more returned after a very brief trip, cast a glance around, and then fled.

Now.

Clockblocker fired his threads from his gauntlet.  They surrounded the cube-carrier, and he froze them.

Unstoppable force against an immovable object.

Which won?

The Siberian made contact with the thread and flickered out of existence, and the thread went limp.  The cube fell with a crash.

Others began to return.  Vista was distorting the cube, creating gaps, weak points.

Thanda,” Tattletale said.

Clockblocker activated the device on his back.  A dome unfolded around him, almost like a tent, though more rigid.

Rachel had already fled with her dogs.  Even so, it was tight, everyone pressed together inside.

He froze the dome.

I regretted that I didn’t get to see the follow-up attack.

The Thanda had a cape that was sort of in the same vein as Shuffle.  A teleporter of landmasses.

This cape didn’t need to teleport things onto solid ground.  In fact, he specialized in the opposite.

A large building was teleported into the stratosphere, where it summarily fell on the cube.  I could hear the crash through the cameras the Brockton Bay Wards wore.

Siberians down, I thought.

One more group to handle.

“Rachel’s on her way to me,” I said.  Grue was out – I didn’t trust him in a face to face confrontation against the Nine, and he hadn’t volunteered.  Imp was out as well.  Too risky, too much of a coin toss, whether her power would be seen through.  “Foil?  You know what we’re doing.”

On my way.

I’m coming too,” Parian said.

I’ll be on the comms,” Tattletale responded.

Tecton slammed his gauntlets into the ground.  Murder Rats were knocked down from the walls.  The streets had been shattered, and the dismantled craft lay in the streets, with one dead Miasma nearby.

Another slam, combined with an activation of both piledrivers, and he created a fissure, breaking up the ground beneath the two remaining Hatchet Faces.

They made steady progress anyways.  They were too strong, their stride too long.  Tattletale had been right.  Running was difficult at best.

Cuff used her metallokinesis to heave a small disc of metal.  Effective enhanced strength, along with the ability to control the rotation of the projectile, the ability to control the flight of it after it left her hand…

It slammed into a Hatchet Face’s collarbone, burying into his flesh.

He broke into a run, axe held aloft.

She prepared to throw another disc, only for a Murder Rat to leap onto her from above.

The metal blades of Murder Rat’s claws were swept aside as if Cuff had parried it with something physical.  Cuff settled for striking Murder Rat across the eyes with the razor edge of the discus.

Grace followed up with a crushing kick from a steel-toed boot.  A Murder Rat pounced on her, then vaulted off with enough force that Grace’s head struck the ground.  Grace didn’t get up.

Skinslips moved to flank, simultaneously reaching out with cloaks made of skin and shielding their real bodies with the amorphous limbs of stolen flesh.

Romp’s animated constructions stumped forward, providing just as much raw mass to defend against the reaching attacks.  They picked up speed as they moved, charging like bulls, catching the Skinslips well off guard.

The fight was well in hand.  Murder Rats leaped up onto building faces so they might be able to leap down and strike a vulnerable target, but Tecton made the entire neighborhood shake.  The Murder Rats were trapped where they were, clinging to the surfaces, unable to attack.

One caught a discus with her claws, then let it fall to the ground.

No.  There was one more threat.  Tecton’s helmet caught it on camera as it loomed on a nearby building.  A Mannequin.

Only it was three times the usual size.  Fat.

Cuff flung another discus.

It’ll glance off, I thought.

It penetrated.

Pressurized moisture exploded outward, crusted immediately into a small, spiky mass of ice.

Ah.

It leaped down, and the ground shook.

Then, casually, it grabbed the most unhurt Hatchet Face with both hands and whipped its upper body a full three-hundred-and-sixty degrees around to fling him into the mass of defending heroes.

Tecton punched, his piledriver extending, but it did surprisingly little damage.

And with the Hatchet Face so close, the Chicago Wards were left powerless.  Only tinker devices worked.

The Mannequin charged.

Being a tinker, the Mannequin didn’t suffer at all in the midst of Hatchet Face’s power.

Direct your attacks on the Hatchet Face, now!” I ordered.

A piledriver-gauntlet hit him, followed by another.  Cuff used a discus to slash at his throat, but it barely cut.

He was still alive – his power wasn’t canceled out.

The Mannequin let blades extend from his wrists and elbows.   Not long, sleek, elegant blades like the original Mannequin had used, but heavy, crude ones, like axe heads.  Cuff screamed as he brought one down onto her armored shoulder.  She folded over in an awkward way as she collapsed to the ground.

He spun around, almost skipped to one side to avoid Tecton, then directed attacks at Romp.

She took shelter behind her no-longer-animated creation, and the Mannequin-thing turned away, directing his attention at Tecton, who was trying to bash the Hatchet Face’s head in.  It was a narrow window of opportunity, here.  The other, injured Hatchet Face was approaching.  If he didn’t manage it in five or so seconds, there would be two to contend with.

A heavy bullet caught the Mannequin in the back of the head.  Ice cascaded out the back in a giant spike.

Tecton used the opportunity to slam the upper ridge of his gauntlet into the Hatchet Face’s mouth and extend the piledriver full-force.

That did it.

More bullets pummeled the Mannequin.  One resulting chunk of ice partially encased Tecton, only to shatter when he pulled back.

Further shots followed, but they veered in awkward directions, sinking to hit the ground too early.

He has another power.  One that was being canceled by Hatchet Face.

Winter’s Power, I realized.

But Grace had powers now too.  She grabbed Hatchet Face’s weapon and swung it, was nearly trapped in the ice that exploded out from the wound.

Romp’s creation charged the ceramic man, and Tecton raised a shelf of ground around him to limit his movements.

He was being abused, battered.

Tecton’s head turned, and I could see Chevalier on the camera.  Revel was beside him.

Chevalier fired his cannonblade again.  One shot to polish off the remaining Hatchet Face that was closing the distance, and another directed at the Winter-Mannequin.  The Winter-Mannequin’s power took the impetus out of the second shot.

The Wards were moving slower now too.  Reacting slower.  Tecton barely resisted as the Mannequin seized him in one hand.

Didn’t even get up after the Mannequin virtually punched him into the ground.

Blades extended from his palms, the Mannequin spun like a top.

Chevalier charged, and the Mannequin changed tacks immediately, using a chain to draw himself up to a rooftop, where he clumsily climbed over the edge.

Ranged attacks didn’t work, and he was deceptively dangerous in short range.

Revel launched energy-orbs, but they barely seemed to touch the Winter-Mannequin hybrid.

Then Wanton closed the distance.

Ice chipped away, and the resulting chunks flaked away at the other pieces of ice.  It was soon a localized blizzard, and the large hunks of ice that clung to the Mannequin’s suit began to break away.

More ice appeared, but it, in turn, was broken by the yet-larger chunks that had been picked up.

The storm began to slow as the Winter-Mannequin concentrated his power on a smaller area.  The storm came to a standstill.

Chevalier raised his cannonblade to fire, only to stumble, dropping his weapon.

Miasma.

Indiscriminate attack, Chevalier!” I said.  “Revel, get down!”

Chevalier swung, very nearly striking Revel as she dropped flat to the ground.  He connected with something, and Miasma appeared in an explosion of thick green smoke.

The villain rolled, then disappeared again.

But Revel was following up, spitting orbs of energy out of her lantern.  Miasma wasn’t fast enough to dodge all of them.  He, and another Miasma behind him were burned, holes the size of softballs punched through their torsos.

Cuff was helping Tecton stand, using her metallokinesis to push at his armor.  Once he was standing, they worked together to outfit Tecton with one of the specialized shots we’d prepared.

The Mannequin wasn’t going to go down to fast moving projectiles or short-range attacks.

They’d take him down the same way I’d fought him ages ago.

Tecton used his piledrivers as a sort of gun, launching two cup-shaped hunks of metal with material strung between them.

The net unfolded in the air, and it draped over the Mannequin.  Spider Silk and metal wire interwoven.  It caught on the ice and the extended blades, and snagged on fingers and chains.

The Mannequin was still struggling to escape when Chevalier slowly closed the gap, bringing his sword down like a great guillotine.  He had one hand pressed to the side of his helmet.  Blood streaked down his arm.

Last group, for now.  I watched as they checked on the injured.  Chevalier’s eye had been stabbed, but not perforated, and Grace had suffered a heavy blow to the head.  Cuff’s shoulder socket had been broken by the Mannequin.

I almost hated to ask.

“Tecton,” I said.  “We’ve got a game plan.  Maybe a way to get Jack.  You up for helping?”

My team isn’t in good shape.

“If you want to stay, keep doing this-”

No,” he said.  “No.  Just… maybe my team should sit the rest of this out.”

You’ve all done good work,” Chevalier said.  “Above and beyond the call of duty.  You don’t even have to ask.

I’ll come on this mission, if you have a use for me,” Tecton said.

“I do.”

I’ll come as well,” Chevalier said.

“You’re injured.”

A pause, as if waiting for me to realize what I was saying.  This was the guy that had gone up against Behemoth face to face, scarcely an hour after suffering critical injuries in an assassination attempt.

I’ll come,” he said, again.

“Glad to have you,” I said.

It was suicidal.  Returning to Nilbog’s kingdom, where his creations had riled themselves up, hungry for blood.  I could only hope that their forces would be thinner towards the center, with the sustained attack on the surrounding capes.

I glanced around the back of the craft.

Chevalier.  Revel.  Hoyden.  Tecton.  Bitch.  Two dogs and Bastard.  Foil.  Parian.  Me.

Two Dragon’s Teeth to round out the group, so we had people trained in the use of containment foam and other PRT munitions.  Veteran PRT soldiers outfitted with the best gear the Guild could provide.

And Defiant up at the cockpit, rounding out our group.

I felt my pulse quicken.  My hand traced over the box that Defiant had brought, with all the bugs I needed.

Nilbog’s army seemed endless.  We’d only seen a fraction of it.  It flowed over, under and through the walls, in numbers that tied up the defending capes.  Our battle lines couldn’t hold a position for long before something threw them off.  Someone vital would get injured, or a creature would burrow out from beneath the ground.  Something would fly over to land in the middle of the back line, forcing a reorganization.

We weren’t being overwhelmed.  Any cape was stronger than the typical starved, desperate, reckless monster.  But this was definitely not helping.

A man’s voice came over the comms.  “Three new locations with attacks.  Coordinated strikes.  Harbingers sighted.  They are reinforced by Nilbog’s creations.

Bonesaw got something set up already, I thought.

Defiant was clenching his fist.

Who was the man?

“Doesn’t matter,” Defiant said.  “Our focus is here.”

“Fuckin’ right,” Hoyden said.  She turned to smile at Rachel.  “Right?”

Rachel only frowned, turning her attention to the dogs that sat between and on either side of her legs.

Hoyden punched Rachel in one arm, then grinned. “Right?”

“Right.”

“Right!”  Hoyden grinned.

Heavy metal boots banged against the ramp as our last attendee made his way into the back of the craft.

Golem sat down opposite me, silent.  He briefly met my eyes, and I nodded.

He didn’t react, casting his eyes downward.

It was nothing.  A minor thing in the grand scheme of it all.  I tried to tell myself that he was strong when it counted, whatever his doubt in the quiet moments.

The ramp closed with a bang.  Golem jumped a little at that.

It didn’t do a lot for my confidence.  I glanced around at the others, wondered who else had seen it.

The Pendragon took off.

And off we go, into the lion’s den.

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Sting 26.1

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One of Rachel’s dogs growled, long and loud, an alien, unsure sound.

She shushed it, setting her hand on the side of its head.

“Ugh,” Cozen mumbled, “The smell.”

The smell.  Summer heat, the mingled scent of blood, shit and overripe bodies, with traces of other things in the wind.  Caustic chemicals, ozone, smoke, burned flesh and plastic.

It wasn’t unfamiliar.  Not an exact combination of smells I’d smelled before, but it put me in mind of Brockton Bay in the days soon after Leviathan had attacked.

I looked up at the man who’d been strung up overhead, spread-eagled.  Chains stretched from his wrists to buildings on opposite sides of the street, and more chains extended from his ankles to the bases of the same buildings.  A number was carved on his chest.  One-seventeen.

Beneath him, the sign from outside the town limits had been slammed down onto the hoods of two cars so it stood upright.

Welcome to Killington.  Heart of the Green Mountains.

They probably thought it was funny.  Especially with the bloody handprint on the word ‘heart’.

“They got the children too,” Cozen whispered, as she averted her eyes from a mother who had died holding her child, both burned black.  The only parts of their body that hadn’t burned were patches of skin in the shapes of numbers.  Two-fifty-four.  Two-fifty-five.

Two of the Red Hands, Getaway and Rifle, had come along for the ride.  They were sticking close by her, and formed a small contingent with Grue as a consequence.  Getaway wore a cowl with a hood that peaked in the front, to the center of his mask.  His costume had straight, clean lines, as though he’d modeled it after a car.

Rifle, by contrast, didn’t look like he wore a costume.  He was dressed like a special ops agent, complete with a complicated night-vision mount around his eyes, a number of scopes with lenses glowing in hues ranging from blue to red.  Violet scopes were currently fixed over his real eyes.  He carried a weapon, a modified gun that wasn’t, as far as I could figure it, an actual rifle.  It looked like it was set to fire specialized loads from canisters.

Of course they got children, I thought.  I had to bite back a retort.  Why was she here, if she wasn’t ready for this?

But she wasn’t a fighter.  None of the Red Hands were, really.  They were professional thieves.  Break in, get out, sell the goods.

They were, maybe, what the Undersiders might have been with a little more luck, slightly different personalities, and a quieter existence.

Without me, even.

The Undersiders had made it for a year and a few months with their original strategy, avoiding fights, slipping away, staying off the radar.  They would fight when they had to, but they didn’t make it a thing.  The fact that they didn’t have firepower meant they couldn’t make it a thing.  If anyone got into trouble, it was the dogs.

And then I joined.  Starting with the bank robbery, I pushed them to switch up tactics, catch the enemy off guard.

If I’d never joined, what would have happened?  Maybe the bank robbery wouldn’t have worked out, and one of them would have been picked off and arrested.  Maybe they would have taken a different direction with the robbery.

Bakuda might have killed them, Coil might have pushed them to be more aggressive as he scaled up his plans.  Or they could have found a way, could have continued going the way they did, less violent in general.

Some good, some bad.  Rachel might never have reached the point she was at now.  Grue wouldn’t necessarily have gone through what he did.  Regent might be alive.

I glanced again at Cozen, saw her looking at me in turn.  Catching me looking, really.

“What?” she asked.

You don’t need to be here.  You’ll be happier in the long run if you aren’t.

“Nothing,” I responded.  She looked annoyed, but she didn’t say anything.

There was a kind of art to the setup.  No doubt at all that it was a display, a showpiece.  Trails of blood, ash and other substances marked where bodies had been moved.  They were spaced out just enough that we would run into a fresh one just as we left the last behind.

I might have missed it if not for my swarm-sense.  The bodies were placed at positions high and low, the methods of death differing here and there, but there was a pattern to their distribution.  The kind of pattern that might become clear if one were to set up a map and note the location of each body on it.  A spiral.

I pointed the way to the central point of the spiral.  I could see a plume of smoke in that general direction.  Not the middle of Killington.  Skewed off-center.

Weaver, report,” Revel’s voice.

“I’m here,” I responded.  I kept a finger at my ear to make it clear that I wasn’t talking to myself.

Killington?

“Yes.  Progress is slow.  I’m sweeping the area for traps and potential ambush, and I’m marking a path to travel for when the others get here.”

We saw the two traps at the outset.  There are more confirmed?”

“Yeah.  I’m not touching anything.  Pass on word that any capes entering the area should be hands off.  I activated one and it was only a decoy, a prelude to a gas attack.  One of Bonesaw’s, I think.  Grue warded it off.  No casualties.”

I’ll make doubly sure to pass on word about the traps and about the route you’ve cleared.  I would have warned them anyways.  The initial casualties were enough, with the helicopter and first responders.  Give me a second.”

I led the way as our group rounded a corner, and saw the smouldering wreckage of the helicopter, smoke still streaming skyward.

The collision apparently hadn’t been enough to topple the corpse that stood upright in the middle of the intersection, desiccated.  A number was drawn on the mummy’s chest in blood.  Number thirty-six.

I could make out a tripwire strung between him and another corpse, a woman.  She had apparently been shot execution style, propped upright on her knees.  A number, again, had been drawn out in the midst of the blood spatter from the original wound.  Number two-sixty-five.

The tripwire was almost obvious, coated in congealed blood.

Red string, I thought.  In Japanese superstition, it was the string that bound lovers.

The pieces suggested Crimson and Winter.  Neither was Japanese, but the idea of mingling romantic imagery with violence in that way fit them.  The red knight and the soldier.

I’ve got the feed open now,” Revel said, “Seeing what you’re seeing.

“Only part of it.  The way the bodies are laid out, it’s a spiral.  I think it all points to something.  Making our way in.”

Technically you aren’t.  You’ve stopped.”

“Tripwires,” I said.  “Being very, very careful.”

“I like being careful,” Imp commented.  She’d only be hearing one side of the conversation.  “Careful is good.  Keeps us alive.”

“Being too careful gets you killed,” Rachel commented.  Of everyone present, she seemed least concerned with the amount of death that surrounded us.  Then again, that didn’t surprise me.  “Have to act when you see the chance.”

“You want to hop on your dog’s back and charge ahead?” Imp asked.  “Go activate every trap between here and wherever?”

Rachel frowned.  “No.”

“I like careful,” Imp restated, for the record.  “Let’s be careful.”

“Yeah.  Fine.”

I pointed to indicate.  “Obvious tripwire here.  Covered in blood.  Connects to the two bodies and… I think claymores, at the base of that building over there.  There are other tripwires around it.  Look too hard at it, miss the others.  I think there’s a pressure plate, too.  I’m not sure what to call that.”

“I don’t see anything that could be a pressure plate,” Grue observed.

I pointed at a pane of glass at the base of a pile of rubble.  It was broken, with a narrow thread of wood still attached along the one edge that was straight and unbroken.

“Maybe.  Kind of hard to believe,” he said.

Because we could see through it?  Yeah.  But it was situated beside a pile of rubble, and the balance of the glass with the surrounding brick and concrete seemed too convenient.

Was there something attached to the edge of the glass where we couldn’t see?  If the glass was broken, would the wood weigh the remaining fragment down and pull something?

“Let’s play it safe.  We avoid the tripwires, we avoid the glass.”

“Whatever you say.  I’m all for playing safe,” he responded.

I led the way around the trap.  I left a trail of dead bugs behind us as we made our way to the center, murdering them with larger bugs and mashing them into the ground.  A path.

I wondered about Grue.  Couldn’t read his expression, couldn’t note his tone either.  Was he thinking about the same thing I was thinking?

We’d already fallen for one trap.  Not here, but back in Brockton Bay.  Back then, when he’d had his second trigger event.

It had been the Nine, back then, and though he wasn’t giving me any clues there was something wrong, he wasn’t indicating that he was his old self, from back in the good old days.  I suspected he hadn’t fully bounced back, even after all this time, might never.

We circled around eight teenage girls, sitting in a circle, crowns of splintered wood nailed through their skulls.  One had fallen over in response to the wind, but the others were still upright, propped up with wooden planks nailed into their spines.  Less blood than the head wounds, I noted.  Some pre-death, others post?

The numbers were on the pieces of wood, registration numbers or something from the crate that had been smashed for materials.  One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, nine.

I looked up.  Number eight sat on the bulb of a street light, a long dress blowing in the wind, directly above the circle.  Her crown was the tallest, and for her to be so rigid, there had to be a whole assortment of planks nailed to her.

“Nine Kings,” I said.

“A woman king?” Imp asked.

“She’s the victim,” I said.  The killer is her… husband, for lack of a better word.”

They’ve resurrected all of the old members.  Cloned them,” Revel said.

Clones, I mused, agreeing.  My suspicions were confirmed, and I wasn’t surprised.  I’d hoped for different, but the reality of what we faced had been hinted at early on, when it had been revealed that the Nine had hit a tinker’s laboratory and made off with materials that could be used to mass produce lifeforms.

King.  The leader, the founder of the group.  Were the numbers in an order corresponding to when they had joined, then?  Would the second member of the Nine be ten through eighteen?

“Got a live one!”  Imp called out, interrupting my thoughts.  “…Kind of alive.”

I turned to look.  A fat man was shifting in a restless way, his chest rising and falling quickly in unsteady movements.  One arm jerked.

“Leave him,” I said.  “Don’t touch.”

“He could be a witness,” Rifle said.

“Or a trap,” I responded.  “I doubt he’s in a state to fill us in on anything.  We’ll move on, wait for heroes to follow the path I’m marking.  They’ll handle medical care for wounded.”

“That’s fucked up,” Rifle said.  “We could at least put him out of his misery, then.”

“I’m not willing to get close enough to check,” I said.  “And I’m not willing for you to get close either.”

“I-” Parian started.

Then she stopped.  The fat man deflated in an instant as a small collection of what looked like trilobites found their way out of his rear end.  Slick with gore, they darted forward a short distance on their hundreds of little legs, then turned our way, bristling with spines.  Tails trailed behind each of them, twice as long as the foot-long creatures, narrow, with stingers on the ends.

I could hear a hissing, but I wasn’t sure if it was from the creatures or the way the spines rubbed against one another.

“Oh… god,” she said.  She took a step back, with Foil stepping forward, as if to defend her.

“Breed’s power,” I said.  “They’re mostly harmless, for now.”

“For now?” Rifle asked.

I watched as they made their way up the side of a building to a corpse that was hung there.  The corpse had been cut into sections, the arms and legs each severed at the joints and reconnected with lengths of chain.  Breed’s creatures found their way into the body through the holes in the neck, mouth and rear end.  It jerked a little as they worked bodies the size of footballs into apertures only a fraction of that size, then went still.

“For now,” I answered Rifle.  “They start off the size of a lemon, lurk in spots where they can get access to orifices or sites of injury, or like you see here, corpses.  Inside beer bottles, in toilet bowls, bedcovers, on the underside of kitchen tables, even inside food.  Then they burrow inside, wait until the target is still and quiet for an hour or two, paralyze the target, and emit pheromones to call others of their kind to them.  They devour the target from the inside out, molt once or twice as they digest the fats and proteins they ate, then find a new target.  It’s a process that takes a week to two weeks, depending on the availability of food sources.”

I could see Getaway shift position, folding his hands behind his back, as if he could shield his rear end.  His mouth had shut into a firm line.

His nose was still unprotected, I noted.

Even Rachel seemed a little concerned.  She glanced at her dog.

“They aren’t a danger to us,” I said.  “Probably.  They choose easier targets over harder ones, and there are enough corpses around here that we aren’t worth the trouble.  What we should worry about is the later stages.  When they’re about the size of a full-grown human being, they’ll do two or three major molts with big physical changes, gaining some natural weapons, including a pellet-spit that kind of acts like a shotgun blast with fragments that dissolve into flesh-melting acid.”

“Um.”  Rifle said.

“You know this how?” Imp asked.

“Read his file,” I answered.

“Shouldn’t we kill them before they get big?”  Foil asked.

“Not worth the time it would take to track them down,” I said.  “We don’t have any strong offensive powers, they’re durable against stuff like conventional ammunition and physical blows, and he generally produces about nine or ten per day.”

“That was ten,” Getaway said.

“Even assuming it’s only been one day since Breed woke up,” I said, “The scenes they’ve left behind suggest there are nine clones of each copy of the Nine.  Going by the numbers-”

Twenty-nine copies, at least,” Revel said.

“Twenty-nine copies,” I said.  “Two-hundred-and-fifty-plus members of the Nine currently active.  Nine Breeds among them, meaning there’re probably nine other clusters around here, taking advantage of abundant food.”

Breed’s creatures.  Can you control them?” this from Revel, taking advantage of the stunned silence.

I glanced up at the body the things had invaded.  I tailored my response so both Revel and the Undersiders could make sense of it.  “I can’t control those things, and I can’t sense them either.”

A shame.  That would simplify things just a little.”

It would.  I wouldn’t have minded the firepower, either, even with their particular diet.

“Let’s keep moving,” I said.  “If we stop for every horror show, we might be stuck here a while.  My gut’s telling me time is of the essence.”

“I’m feeling a little out of my depth,” Getaway said, his voice quiet, as he fell into step to keep up.

“That’s a good instinct,” I replied without looking at him.  “Trust it.”

“You’re telling me to leave?”

“I can’t make you do anything,” I said.

“But you think I should leave?”

“If you feel like you should, yeah.”

“And does that extend to me and Rifle?” Cozen asked, her tone cold.

“I don’t know.  Yeah, if your instincts tell you to go, then get going now,” I said.  I pointed at the ground around a hose.  There was a puddle that had spread beneath the hose’s opening.  My bugs had died on contact with it.  “Acid, not water.  Don’t walk in it.  Rachel, watch your dogs.”

Rachel grunted acknowledgement.

“Don’t change the subject.  You want us gone,” Cozen said.

“No.  All the help we can get is appreciated,” I said.  I glanced at her.  “At the same time, if push comes to shove and you can’t hold it together, it’s going to hurt us all.”

“You don’t think we can hold it together?” Cozen asked.

“You’re an unknown quantity.  Anyone else that’s here, I can trust them to hold their own because I know how they operate.  I don’t know you.  I don’t know how you react in a crisis, how you’ll respond if you’re pushed to the edge, one way or another.  Grue and the others are vouching for you, so I’m shelving those concerns and trusting they have a good sense of your abilities.  I’ll maintain that trust until you give me an indication I shouldn’t.  Getaway saying he’s spooked is an indication.”

I’m spooked,” Imp said.  “Can I go home and sit on the couch in my underwear, eating cake?  I’ll cross my fingers for you guys, if you want.”

“You’re talking like you’re in charge,” Cozen said.  “Grue leads the Undersiders.”

“I’m not an Undersider,” I said.  “It doesn’t matter.  I’m in charge anyways.”

And Grue can speak for himself, I thought, but I didn’t say it aloud.

I could see her reacting to that, even without the extra quip.  I watched expressions cross her face: irritation, anger, indignation, and a trace of fear.

“Grue is a good leader,” I said, “But this is my project.  Something I’ve been working towards and thinking about for the last two years.  Leaving the Undersiders, making contacts, helping hold things together, maintaining the peace and eliminating possible issues.  Everything I did, it’s been to prepare for this in some fashion.”

“A little unilateral, don’t you think?”

“It’s her project,” Grue said.  “My orders are to follow her orders.”

I could see how little she liked that.

But she maintained a professional demeanor.  “Accepted.  You realize we don’t have to follow your orders?”

Grue nodded, silent.

Cozen seemed to come to a decision.  “We will anyways.  As Weaver pointed out, this is unfamiliar ground for us.  We’ll defer to your experience.”

“Thank you,” Grue and I said, almost in sync.

I turned away to hide my smile, in case it could be made out beneath the fabric of my mask.

Progress was slow.  The traps seemed to accrue in number as we drew closer to the center, as did the corpses.  More than once, we were forced to take the long way around, as traps or pools of acid barred our paths.

We passed an area with rows of identical looking cabins, then ran into the Protectorate.  Chevalier, Exalt, and others, examining the area, a block and a half away.

I got their attention, then pointed in the direction we were headed.  It wasn’t much more effort to mark out traps around them as well.  I made sure to mark each with a cluster of bugs, and bug-letters spelling out the nature of the danger.  Less trouble to move in parallel directions than reunite.

The center of the spiral wasn’t the center of the town in a geographic sense, but in a sense of where the town’s heart and focus were.  We closed in on the front steps of what looked to be a town hall.  Empty ski racks stood to our right, two draped with corpses that had been flung and broken over them.

By the time we were halfway through the plaza, navigating a maze where we tried to find a path that didn’t force us to tread on potential traps or corpses, Tecton and the others had caught up, reaching the edge of the area.

Thoughts?” Revel asked.  “Before you reach the center of the display?

“He wanted to present this for effect,” I said.  “It’s why he set up Pyrotechnical’s stuff to blow any aircraft out of the sky.  The traps are to force us to take our time, force us to savor it.”

“Savor?” Grue asked.

“Everything Jack does is for effect.  The same way a dog sort of raises its hackles to look bigger, tougher, or the way we used our reputation to seem more unstoppable than we were, Jack keys his actions for psychological effect.  All of this is to scare, to drive us to hesitate when it comes to confronting him, push us to think of ways to avoid dealing with him instead of ways to catch up to him and beat his face in.  Or, conversely, some personality types might get pushed to be reckless, to deal with him so he couldn’t bother them anymore.”

I glanced at Rachel as I said that last bit.  She’d instructed her dogs to stay, so they wouldn’t trip any of the traps in our way.

I made my way over a hump of bodies.  The members of the Nine who’d spilled acid all over the place had melted nine police officers and left them in a heap.  Crawler?  Only one that fit.

Our destination was the kind of spot, like a courthouse’s steps, where someone could give a speech.  There were two objects covered in tarps, a man who was in a reclining position at the far end of the stairs, and ten dead bodies arrayed in a star shape, limbs bent to mark the direction of the spiral.

I checked under the tarps, then bit my lip.

I turned around and gave Golem instructions as he made his way past the traps.  He created platforms to step over to serve as a shortcut.  Grace, Tecton, Wanton and Cuff hung back, looking grim.  They were joined by Chevalier and the others.

Golem joined me at the top of the stairs.

“How’s your headspace?” I asked.

“Terrified.”

“In a way that’s going to impact our job here?”

“No.  No.  You told me what to expect.  Kind of.  I didn’t imagine this.”

I shook my head.  “No.”

There was a voice from beneath the other tarp.  A strangled scream.

“What was that?”

“A recording,” I lied.  Then I elaborated.  “It’s a trap.  Two tarps, have to guess the right one.  Guess the wrong one and you blow up.  This one.  Move the tarp.”

He hesitated.

“Trust me,” I said.  Even as I lie for everyone’s benefit.

Rachel and Golem worked together to move the tarp aside.

A television.

“The tape’s already in the machine, you can hit play to start it,” the man sitting at the edge of the stairs said.

Wait, Weaver, stop.  Who was that?”  Revel asked.

“Who?” I asked.  “What do you mean?”

Look to your right.”

I did.  The other tarp, more corpses, the man who was now standing at the edge of the stairs, the little crenelation at the top of the stair’s railing, then beyond that, cabins, restaurants, hotels and motels, the rest of the town, and mountains in the background.

“Not sure I get what you’re saying,” I said.

“What’s wrong?” Grue asked.

“I don’t know.  I’m getting communications from Revel, and she’s acting funny.”

“Here,” the man said.  “Let me get that for you.”

The others stepped out of the way as he approached me, Golem, and the television set.  He reached for the play button.

I caught his wrist.

He’s dangerous,” Revel said.

“I beg your pardon?” the man asked.

Attack.

Attack?

I shook my head a little, releasing the man’s wrist.  “I appreciate the offer, sir, but let’s be safe and make sure this isn’t a trap.”

“Can’t argue with that,” he said, smiling.

This is what hell is like,” Revel said.  “Listen to me.

“Tattletale, are you there?”  I asked.

I am.

Tattletale?”  Revel asked.  “Damn all of you.  It doesn’t matter.  Listen, Taylor, Master and Stranger protocols are in effect.  Your perceptions are altered, understand?

I felt my heart quicken a little at that.  “I understand.”

There is a person to your right.  Not a teammate, former or current.  I need you to kill that person, don’t ask why, don’t think too much about it.  Draw your knife.

I drew my knife.

Look.  I’ll tell you who to attack.

I glanced to my right, my eyes falling on Rachel.  It was a bit presumptuous to say she wasn’t a teammate.  Not a team player, but she’d done her share.

No, to her right.

I looked past the man and set my eyes on Golem.

“I’m more inclined to think you’re a voice in my head that’s fucking with me, than to suspect Golem’s up to something, but-”

Oh hell,” Revel said.

I got this.  Taylor, do me a favor, give the order to ‘go dark’.

“Go dark,” I said.

To my left, Grue surrounded himself in thick darkness.

Nothing happened.

It didn’t work.”

Wait.”

A spray of blood leaped from the man’s throat.  We each stepped away, and I hurried forward to stop Rachel from backing into the other tarp.  We watched in stunned silence as blood poured from the wound.

“Hey,” a female voice said, “Do me a favor, let me know if there are any traps at the bottom of the stairs?”

“Who-” Golem started.

“Just tell me.”

“Acid,” I said, raising my knife so I could defend myself if I had to.

Imp appeared as she booted the bleeding man in the small of the back.  He rolled down the stairs, leaving spatters and sprays of blood as he made his way down, and then collapsed in a pile of bodies.  He started screaming, a gurgling sound.

I could see Chevalier and the others staring in shock, adopting fighting stances, unsure of how to proceed.  It looked like Chevalier was talking to someone, gesturing with his free hand.  Was it Revel, on the comms?

“My schtick,” Imp spat the words at the dying man.

I could mark the moment he died, because the blanks in my perception began to fill in.

Nice Guy, I thought.  I’d badly underestimated the severity of his power.  I’d known he would be in their roster, had kept it in mind throughout, even told myself to be ready for him, and then the moment we ran into him, well, he was another face in the crowd.  The connection wasn’t possible.

I watched as the acid ate away at him, burns creeping upward and spreading across his flesh, bubbling as it reached the cartilage of his nose and ears.

Thank you, Tattletale,” Revel said.

All good.

I… think I can tolerate your presence on this channel for the moment.  Provided you don’t cause any trouble that makes me regret it.

I’d do that anyways.  So.  One more trap down.  Keep in mind there are eight more of him.

“What was he going to do?” Golem asked.

Probably ask you all to stand there and stay still while he murdered each of you in turn,” Tattletale said.

“Oh.”

“Tattletale,” I said.  “Call my phone, and I’ll put you on speaker.”

Okay.  Let’s see.”

Six-three-zero-five-five-” Revel started.

My phone rang.  I picked up and put Tattletale on speaker, as Revel sighed audibly in my ear.

“Is the video player safe?” I asked.  I turned my head towards the television.

Yeah.  All the rest of this, it’s to scare.  It’s also meant to delay.  Jack probably expected the heroes to take a little while to find this, to get by the traps.  The spiral you mentioned, it would have been maybe a day or two before they put the pieces together, then another three to six hours before they navigated it to the center.

“Yay us,” Imp said.

She got more powerful, I thought.  She’d been able to speak while using her power.  Nuances.

Press play.”

I hit the button.

It was Jack, here, in the center of the plaza.  The camera wobbled as someone followed him, recording.  I could see shadows of the other Slaughterhouse Nine in the background.  Hookwolf.  Skinslip.  Night Hag.

“This message is intended for Theodore Anders.  Kaiser’s son.  Stop the video here and go find him.  Time is of the essence, I should say.  How much essence and time you have available depends on how incompetent you heroes are.  Hurry now, I’ll wait.”

No need to wait,” Tattletale commented.  “He’s standing right here.

There were a few looks of surprise at that.  Eyes fell on Golem.

There was a pause, then Jack started speaking.  “You missed the deadline, Theodore.  Simple game of hide and seek, and you had two years to do it, to find and kill me.  You failed.”

Golem’s gloves made a small creaking sound as he clenched his fists.

“You remember the deal, right?  Two years to find me.  Two years, you fight past my minions, you look me in the eye, and then you kill me.  And if you fail?  A thousand people die.  Your sister joins them, and you’re the last on the list.”

Golem,” Revel said.  She started to say something else, but Jack cut her off.

“That pain you feel, that self loathing?  The fear and dawning realization of what you’ve done?  Capture that, Theodore Anders.  Hold on to that feeling and use it, because I’m pulling your leg.”

Golem startled as if he’d been slapped.  His eyes had lowered, and now they returned to the screen.

“Circumstances beyond my control delayed me.  So I’m going to do you the favor of extending the deadline, and you’re going to do me the favor of forgiving my lateness.  Agreed?  Agreed.”

“Can we not agree?” Imp asked, uselessly.

Jack continued.  “This is a prelude.  See, all of these guys just woke up, and they needed a chance to stretch, flex their abilities and make sure everything works right.  Turn the camera around, Bonesaw dear.”

The camera panned around.  There were other members of the Slaughterhouse Nine present, standing in a loose half-circle.  Hundreds of them.  Nine of each.  Thirty groups.  I recognized most, could guess as to the others, who didn’t have their powers or full transformations going.

In the middle of that semicircle, lying on the ground, civilians had their hands folded on the backs of their heads.  In many cases they’d been stacked like cordwood.  Many bound, others too terrified to move.

“Oh god,” Golem said.

Jack spoke, his voice calm, clearly relishing this.  The camera returned to him, focusing on his face.  “I promised a thousand bodies.  A thousand kills, if you failed to meet the challenge we set in our bargain.  Except there’s a bit of a problem.  See, things have changed.  The Endbringers have apparently doubled down.  Terror is a fact of life.  As commodities go, this one has depreciated quite a bit in the time I’ve been gone.  We’ve really got to step up my game if I’m going to pass muster and get on the front page of the paper, don’t you agree?”

“No,” Golem said.

Silent, I took his hand, holding it.  My eyes didn’t leave the screen as I studied it for details, matching members of the Slaughterhouse Nine to the files I’d studied in recent months.

“Now, I’m still a man of my word,” Jack said.  “The original deal stands, of course.  That’s why each member of my army here is going to walk away with three or four of the locals here.  We’ve whittled down the number to an even nine hundred and ninety-nine.  Let’s say you have… hmm.  Until the twenty-fourth.  Five days.”

We watched in silence.

What’s the rub, the trick?

“If you fail to kill me, I disband the Nine.”

“What?” Imp asked.  “What?”

I frowned.  Not what I expected.

“That’s not an enticement to leave me alive,” Jack purred the words, sounding pleased with himself.  “See, Bonesaw did a very good job of putting my army together.  Each is in the prime of their life, fit, in fighting shape.”

“Aw shucks,” a girl’s voice said, offscreen.

“Their psychologies are close to what they should be, all things considered.  Except for tweaks, here and there.  I’m good when it comes to wrangling the wicked, but Bonesaw apparently felt two hundred and eighty would be too many, even for me.  She’s made them loyal.  They’ll listen better.  The most unpredictable and dangerous have been touched up, the edges rounded off.  While interacting with me, anyways.  I won’t sully your experience on that front.

“No.  They’re obedient and servile only when I require them to be.  If you fail in your task, then I’ll give them one last task, to kill the one thousand people we agreed to in the terms of our wager, and then I’ll disband the group.  They’ll be free to run rampant, to do as they see fit.  Wreak chaos.  I’ll take a vacation, sit back with a Mai Tai and watch the show.”

Fuck me,” Tattletale said.

“Fuck,” I echoed her, agreeing.

Golem, for his part, had gone stone-still.

“I’ll be leaving members of the Slaughterhouse Nine behind at regular intervals as I beat a not-so-hasty retreat.  Your choice if you deal with them or leave them be.  But if I get one report from them that you’re getting help, one report that you’re using others as a crutch, then that’s it.  Order goes out, hostages die, Nine go off leash, and you get to watch the body count rise.”

“Five days, Theodore.  Noon on the twenty-fourth.  I look forward to meeting you.”

The video cut out.

“Tattletale?” I asked.

Already on it.  Word’s going out to all the major players.”

I noted Chevalier’s approach.  He had used Golem’s platform to reach the base of the stairs, stepping around Nice Guy.

“Major players?” Grue asked.

“Everyone Tattletale’s been meeting with,” I said.

“I heard through the feed,” Chevalier said.  “The restrictions stand.”

“The restrictions stand,” I agreed.  I explained for the benefit of the others.  “We treat this as a Simurgh situation.  Control feedback, control exposure.  Anyone and everyone that potentially comes in contact with Jack could be a factor in Dinah’s end of the world scenario.  Powerful individuals are especially important in this.  The more powerful they are, the more important it is to minimize or prevent contact.”

“Um.  I probably sound dumb as I ask this,” Imp said, raising a hand as if she were asking a question in class, “But what about the nearly-three-hundred lunatic psycho people with crazy powers that he’s threatening to unleash on the world?”

“We’ll deal with them,” I said.  “With your okay, Chevalier?”

He fell silent.

“Chevalier, I thought-”

“Yes.  You proposed your strike squad. You’ve shown their ability to deal with different situations.  Fine.  But I’m assigning two tertiary squads to you.”

“Chicago and Brockton Bay teams.”

“I was going to say-”

“They’re teams I’m familiar with,” I said.  “Please.”

He fell silent again.

“Work with me here, and if we’re all standing at the end, I’m yours.  Whatever you want to use me for, however, it doesn’t matter.  If this blows over and the end of the world doesn’t happen, like some think it won’t, then the deal stands.”

“I’ll get in contact with Miss Militia and Crucible.”

“If it’s alright, can we have Clockblocker take control of the Wards for this excursion?”

“Whatever you need,” Chevalier said.  “You realize we’re pinning a lot on you?”

“On Golem more than me,” I said.  “We’re going to cheat our way through this, bend every rule, but it all hinges on Golem being able to hold his own.”

Jack’s going to try to set Golem up with a long chain of lose-lose situations,” Tattletale said.  “Force him to either let the innocents die and maintain the chase, or let Jack pull away.  We already got one big advantage by getting to this tape as fast as we did.  Let’s not show our hand.  Dragon’s on the line.  We’ve got Dragon’s Teeth and Azazel models moving to the front.

“Close in the net, then act decisively,” I said.  “Coordinated strikes.  If the Thanda are willing, a meteor strike in the right time and place could do wonders.”

There were nods of agreement from around the group.

Golem turned around and walked away.

“Golem,” I said.

He was already halfway down the stairs.  He used the panels at his waist to form an even footpath, with hands turned at right angles, positioned where he could put his feet on them.

“Golem!” I called out.  I handed my phone to Grue, then hurried after him.

He stopped as he set his foot on the first outstretched hand of pavement, but he didn’t turn around.  His voice was low, barely a whisper.  “Stop, Taylor.  Leave me alone.  Please.”

“You’re running?”

“I’m… no.  I’m definitely in.  I have to be, don’t I?”

“But?”

“But this is a lot to take in.  Jack, he talked to me about ripples.  About stuff extending outward, the lives that are affected.”

“I remember.  You told me that.”

“Right here, in this dinky little ski resort, he murdered a few hundred people, just as a warm up.  How many people on the periphery of it all are affected?  How many people across America, across the world, know people in Killington?  Or know the people who know people in this town?”

“You can’t think about things on that scale.”

“I have to.  Jack does, and I have to understand him.  If I don’t pay attention to it, if I ignore it all, pursuing only the end result, the target, then I’m acting like my dad.  Kind of.  Either way, I lose.”

“You care about the people who died, and you’re thinking about them that way for a good reason.  That’s not putting you on a path to being like either of them.”

“But that kind of consideration, letting it really sink in, it eats away at you, doesn’t it?  Shouldn’t it?”

“It should,” I said.

“There’s a reason we go numb, and I get that, but I don’t want to go down that road, not so quickly.  Not knowing just how easy it would be to revel in it, or to stop caring about the dead.  I’m there, and I’m…”

“What?”

The stoic face on his helm stared down at the ground.

“Theo?”

“I hear you guys talking about it, and you’re right there, in your element.  This is something that you’ve been working on for a long time, and there’s almost an excitement to you.  Like you’ve been in a kind of stasis for the entire time I’ve known you, and only now are you really coming back to life.”

“It’s not like that,” I said.

“No.  I mean, I’m not blaming you, or saying you’re a bad person.  You’re good at this, at taking a challenge head on, finding workarounds, manipulating the system to our advantage.  You’re doing it for good reasons, to help, to stop bad people.  I saw glimmers of that excitement, of the real Weaver, while you were dealing with our bosses, and making connections, offering deals to the bad guys you thought you could bring to our side.  But I’ve spent a long time thinking about Jack and watching old footage of him, and figuring out my enemy, my nemesis, and it’s like… that’s you.”

“Me.”

You’re his nemesis, Weaver.  I’m the reason he’s here, the reason these people died like this.  But you’re his counterpart, his mirror.  You’ve got that same excitement Jack has, you think along the same lines, in strategy and counter-strategy.  You thrive on conflict, just like he does.  And I… I’m not like that.”

I couldn’t muster a response.

“So right now?  You should go back.  Forget I said this, because it’s… I’m regretting opening my mouth already.  Work on formatting the strategies you already worked out to fit around the rules of Jack’s game, because that’s a good thing.  It’s what we need.  But let me have half an hour or an hour or however long I need to myself.  Until we stop waiting and stop letting Jack think we haven’t found the tape yet.  Let me take a moment and think about these people.”

“You’re not to blame for them,” I said.  “The Nine would have killed anyways.”

“I know.  I get that.  But I played a part in the sequence of events, and maybe these people wouldn’t have been the ones to die if I hadn’t made that wager with Jack… and I guess I think everyone else that cares has better things to do.  You trained me, the others trained me.  I- I guess I’m as ready as I could ever be.  I’ll fight when the time comes, wade through the gauntlet he sets in his wake and I’ll succeed or fail.  But I’m not a strategist, and these people need someone to mourn them.  Let me be useful in my own way, right here, right now.”

I opened my mouth to voice a reply, then shut it.

A moment passed, and Golem set about walking on the hands he’d raised from the ground, just two or so feet above the bodies and the streets that were painted with blood.

I stood where I was, watching as he steadily made his way to the safe zone I’d drawn out on the ground.  He stopped only to gesture for Tecton and Grace not to follow, then walked on, out of sight.

It’s not that I don’t care, I thought.  But-

But what?

I couldn’t articulate my thoughts.

But… we need a strategist, we need a plan, before all hell breaks loose, I thought.  Developing that, coming up with answers, fighting, it’s going to do a lot more good in the long run than compassion all on its own.

I looked down at Nice Guy, at the foot of the stairs, a fleshy mess that was slowly dissolving into the acid pile, which only spread and served as more acid to melt flesh.  I realized I was still holding my knife, from the time of the brief skirmish.  I sheathed it.

Then, as Golem had told me to, I pushed him, the dead, the maimed and the lost out of mind and turned back to the core group, to offer my services, to coordinate and administrate.

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Scarab 25.4

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Touché, PRT. 

You got me.

Touché.

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

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

I hit one instead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glenn here.  You should have called earlier.”

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

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

I could believe it.  I didn’t respond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” I said.

Did they prep you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like a kindergarten teacher herding students around.

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

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

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

Exactly.

“Thank you, Glenn.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Grace,” Tecton said.  “No swearing.”

Wanton snickered a little.

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

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

“No puking,” Wanton said.

“No puking is a good idea,” I agreed.

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

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

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

“One!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The updated costumes look good,” Koffi said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

More laughter.

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

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

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

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

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

“Except for Weaver,” Wanton said.

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

“What do you mean?” Jo asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you excited?” Jo asked.

Oh man, was I ever starting to dislike her.

“I’m really excited,” Tecton said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing the conversation back to me.  Again.

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

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

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

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

“Pretty generous.”

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

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

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

“Terrified.”

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

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

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

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

She loved that question?

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

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

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

“You’re bad, though.”

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

Cuff smiled at him.  “Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah,” Golem said.  “Yeah.”

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

“I hope I can,” Golem said.

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

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

“A classic hero?” Koffi asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Friends,” I asserted.

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

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

He gave me a sheepish grin.

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

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

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

Necessary on a level, but still scummy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was he just sitting back, waiting for an opening?

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

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

She tittered along with the audience’s reaction.

“No response?” Koffi asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Annex stood from his chair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stand by.

Disturbance recorded.

Possible Class S threat.

The others had identical messages on their screens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicago Wards are to remain at current location.

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

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

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

“Japan,” Wanton said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s not a fighter,” I murmured.

“No,” Tecton agreed.

“What is he?” Grace asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Similar to what we did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no reply from the others.

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

The timing, it was wrong.

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

But it didn’t matter.

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

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

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

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

No, no, no…” Cuff whispered.

In a minute, the capes were dead.

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

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

Temp. codename is Khonsu.

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

“Okay,” I said.

“You’re going?” she asked.

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

So much was wrong with this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The craft hadn’t taken off.

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

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

No.  There was something more to Khonsu.

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

He’d teleported halfway around the planet.

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

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

Stand by.

“No,” I whispered to myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stand by until further notice.

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

“Fuck!” I shouted.  “Fuck it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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