Interlude 29

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Two parts to a whole.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Destination, the Warrior entity communicates.

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

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

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

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

This takes time.  Focus.

Colony, the other entity signals.

Narrowing down possible destinations.

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

A third.

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

It hesitates, then signals its own location.

ExchangeMeet.

The response is garbled.  Takes time to analyze.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concern, the Warrior entity expresses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you for coming,” Partisan said.

The entity nodded.  Its expression was stern.

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

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

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

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

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

“I do,” the entity responds.

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Clarent asked.

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

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

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

But suspicions remained.

“Eleven?”  Partisan asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not so sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have your hands full,” Clarent said.

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

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

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

“We need to go,” the entity said.

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

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

“Arsenal and Richter,” Partisan said.

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

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

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

“Easy to forget elsewhere exists,” Clarent said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s reckless.”

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

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

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

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

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

Agreement, the entity absently responds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too complex to convey to the other.

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

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

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

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

Danger, the Warrior broadcasts.

Confident, this entity responds.

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

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

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

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

A girl woke from a dream.

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

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

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

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

Have to remember, she told herself.

The answer snapped into place.  A way to remember.

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

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

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

Except she couldn’t allow herself to start remembering.

She hasn’t changed,” her uncle said.

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

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

Step two, standing up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swearing was one of them.

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

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

If she had any conception of where to look-

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

She felt a chill.

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

Three hundred and seventy-four steps.

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

If I wanted to do both?

Five hundred and thirty-three steps.

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

She spun around.

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

Had it passed?

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

She couldn’t bring herself to respond.

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

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

Ninety-two steps.

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

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

But she hesitated to carry it out.

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saving him?

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

His eyes widened.  “You will come with me.

She shook her head.

Then she broke into a run.

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

Into the hills, up the mountain.

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

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

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

Had he been one of them?

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

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

All coming from higher up the cliffside.

She found her breath, then scaled her way up.

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

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

I have to kill it.

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

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

She would use it here.  She started walking forward.

There were people gathered, bystanders.  An assorted mix.

Why are they here?

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

I want to understand why they’re here.

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

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

A woman stepped in her way.

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

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

The woman said something in a strange language.

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

It was disorienting to look at.

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

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

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

Everything was easy now.  It was disorienting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A voice, from behind her.

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

I want to understand her.

One step.

She had only to think, ‘Stab it.

Fortuna realized she still held the knife aloft.

But where had she wanted to stab it?

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

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

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

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

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

I want to tell her…

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

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

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

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

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

“I believe you.”

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

“It’s dangerous?”

Fortuna nodded.

“Are you sure?”

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

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

“Where were you going to stab it?”

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

“Where?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plunging into the spot where the spine met the skull.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woman spoke.

“Again?  The heart?”

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

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

Fortuna nodded.

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

Fortuna looked back the way she’d come.

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

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

“I-“

“I will take you back to your home.”

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

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

“Help?”

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

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

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

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

“A little dumb,” Fortuna replied.

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

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

Panic.  Fear.

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

But the emotional effect would be all the more pronounced.

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

“Thank you,” Fortuna said.

“What’s the next step?”

A heavy question.

How do we stop them?

The fog blocked out her view of any answer.

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

Still too close to home.

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

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

“Weapons?  An army?” the woman suggested.

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

It was doable.

“We need some lab equipment,” Fortuna said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lamar drank.

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

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

The leg fell off.  Blood began to pour forth.

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

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

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

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

His chest cavity is filled with the scales.

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

He wasn’t dying.

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

She ended Lamar’s pain.

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

Fortuna couldn’t answer.

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

She still couldn’t bring herself to answer.

“Fortuna?”

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

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

Contessa nodded.

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

Contessa muted the television.

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

“Is it?”  the Doctor asked.

Contessa nodded.

“Do we try again?”

“I- don’t know,” Contessa said.

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

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

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

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

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

“You can’t.”

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

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

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

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

Why?” the Doctor asked.

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

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

“Easier when someone else takes point.”

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

“Feeding it to people.”

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

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

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

Contessa nodded.

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

“Which means we start by preparing more vials.”

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

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

Six made it out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Amazing?” the Doctor asked.

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

“You’re better,” the Doctor said.

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

“I feel better too,” another man said.

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

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

She left the group behind.

One by one, she checked on the other patients.

Dead.

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

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

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

She asked her power, and she got her answer.

He could make doors.

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded.

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

It’s a step forward, she told herself.

A step forward, in a long series of steps.

She rejoined the others.

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

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

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

One step forward.

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

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

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

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

There was another power at work, somewhere here.

“Custodian,” she said.

She felt the Custodian’s presence.

“Alert the Doctor.”

A brush against her left hand.  Negation?

“Is the Doctor dead?”

Negation.

“Hurt?”

Negation.

I want to find out how the Doctor is.

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

I want to find where Number Man is.

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

I want to stay out of this fog.

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

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

A teleporter.

Path: taking him out of action.

Fog.

Path:  hitting that target.

Three steps.

She drew her knife, spun, and threw it.

He teleported away before it made contact.

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

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

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

He was getting more ruthless, more cruel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The path appeared before her.

She changed direction.  The heavy footsteps followed.

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

She ducked into an office.

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

Yes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good to know.  Are you alright?

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

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

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

I’m going.  Tips?

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

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

Noted.  You have an escape route?

“No.  Like I said, cornered.”

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

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

She dropped the phone, making a dash for Weld.

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

Cute.

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

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

Two steps.

“I don’t-”

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

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

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

Spikes scraped against her belt buckle and watch.

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

Number Man’s office.

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

Modeling scenario… not getting shot.

She ducked into a side hallway.

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

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

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

A little further, and…

He teleported to a point beyond the fog wall.

One step, and she had both of his guns.

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

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

Path: faking my own death or escaping.

Gray fog.  Not happening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Path, she thought, again, faking my death.

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

She raised the gun, and she fired three times.

Two shots, missing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She burned,” one of the others said.

“I’d like to check.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She’d been lucky.

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

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

Not so lucky.

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

Lights out.

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

She asked herself questions as she went.

The Doctor was dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did anyone really believe it?”

“No, I suppose they didn’t.”

“How do things stand?”

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

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

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

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

“We need your help,” the wizard said.

She nodded.  “Whatever I can provide.”

“First, we need information.”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“Of course.”

“We’ll need to see those as well.”

She hesitated.

“A problem?” the wizard asked.

Path: identifying strangers and deception.

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

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

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

“Why?  What are you doing, Teacher?”

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

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

“Most definitely.  But will you?”

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

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

Contessa paused, then nodded.

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

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

“He’s his own man.  A wild card.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She narrowed her eyes.  “With?”

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

He held up his phone.  A picture was displayed.

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

Weaver?” she asked.

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Interlude 19

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“Ballet, horseback riding, modeling classes or violin.  Pick one, Emma.  One.”

“Or, or, or, maybe I don’t pick any, and…”

“And?” she could hear a weariness in her father’s voice.  He checked over his shoulder and then turned the car into a side street.  A bag with assorted tubs of ice cream sat on the divider between the pair of them.

“Maybe you give a second thought to moving?   There’s really nice places just a little way South, and I’d still be going to the same school, and-”

“Nope.”

“Dad!”

“There’s three jobs I absolutely despise in this world.  One is matching socks, the second is ironing, and the third is moving.  I can foist the first two off on your mom, but the third is a lifestyle choice.  My lifestyle, specifically, is owning the house I’m going to live in until I die.”

Emma frowned, turning to look out the window.  She pouted a little, “This place sucks.  Brockton Bay sucks.

“What’s so bad about it?”

“Everything’s falling apart.  It’s like… show me any house, and I can point out ten things that are wrong with it.”

“Every house has something wrong with it.”

“Not every house!  Like, when I went to Chris’ birthday party?  I-”

“Chris?”

“Christine,” Emma injected a note of condescension into her voice, “Last weekend?  Or did you forget already?”

“Why not call her Christine?  Perfectly nice name.”

“Because androgyne is cool, dad.  It’s the thing in modelling.  Like, I could never have my hair short, but-”  She stopped mid-sentence, answering her phone mid-ring.  “Hello?”

“Emma!”  The voice on the other end was breathy, excited.  There was a babble of other voices in the background.  She could imagine the other youths lined up to use the pay phones.

“Taylor,” Emma said, smiling.

“Ok I gotta talk fast because I only have two minutes and I need my other fifty cents to call my dad.  We rowed across the lake this morning to this waterfall, only it wasn’t exactly a waterfall, more like a water stair, and we were all taking turns sliding and falling down this set of slick rocks, and Elsa, she’s this girl wearing a bikini, she’s been spending the last three days acting like she’s hot stuff, she slides down the wrong part, and it catches on the strap, right?  It doesn’t tear it off, but it stretches, so it doesn’t even fit her anymore

Emma laughed, leaning back against her car seat.

It was something of a relief, to hear Taylor getting excited about something, to hear her getting excited over nothing.  She’d lost her mother a year ago, and hadn’t bounced back, not entirely.  Her smiles not quite as wide, she was a second later to laugh, as if she had to wait, to give herself permission to do it, had to hold back.  Before, it had been almost no holds barred.  Anything went, however they wanted to amuse themselves, whatever they wanted to talk about.  Complete and total openness.  Lately there had been too many movies, too many activities and topics of conversation, that Taylor preferred to avoid.

It hadn’t been easy, Emma mused, as Taylor yammered on.  Sometimes she’d call, they’d do their customary hanging out, and she’d feel like the time was wasted, afternoons and weekends spent with her best friend that she didn’t enjoy.

Not that Taylor was a wet blanket, but, like, maybe she was a damp blanket?

This?  This inane, aimless, stupid, one-sided conversation where she’d said one word?  This was the good stuff.  It gave her hope that things could get back to normal.

“…and I wish I’d listened to my dad, because he suggested at least ten times that I might want to take more books, and I only brought three, and I’ve read each of them twice already.  My…”

Taylor’s voice continued over the phone, but Emma felt her dad’s hand on her wrist, lowered her phone to pay more attention to her surroundings.

The car had stopped in the middle of a narrow one-way street.  A dumpster had been shifted to block the end of the alley.

She looked over her shoulder, down the other end of the alley.  A white van had stopped there, the taillights glowing.  There were a group of twenty-something Asian-Americans approaching, sliding over the hood of the van to get into the alley and approach.  Members of the ABB.

This isn’t supposed to happen in broad daylight, Emma thought.

Taylor’s voice was faint, “…I could probably recite this one book word for word for you by the time I get back.  Maybe if I asked one of the counselors, I could get more.”

Her heart pounding as hard as it ever had, Emma hung up.  Some part of her rationalized it as needing to eliminate the distraction, to focus on the more immediate problem.

“Hold tight,” her father said.

She did, and he put his foot to the gas.  The car started rolling toward the dumpster, and the gang members behind them began running after them.

Too slow, she thought.

The car barely tapped the dumpster.  It was only after contact had already been made that her dad put his foot on the gas, pushing against the blockade instead of ramming or crashing into it.

The dumpster didn’t budge.

They blocked it.  Or they took the wheels offOr both.

There were too many people behind them for the car to reverse.  Not unless her dad wanted to hurt or kill a bunch of people.  Even if he did want to hurt them, he couldn’t be sure he’d hit them, and where could he go?  There wasn’t any guarantee he’d be able to move the dumpster if he backed up and rammed into it.

“Call the police,” her father said.

She barely registered it.

“Emma!  Call the police!”

She fumbled with the phone.  Nine-nine…

Why won’t my hands work?

Nine-one-one.

The window to her right shattered.  She screamed, then screamed again as hands clutched her hair, hauled her partially out of her seat, until the seatbelt strained against her shoulder and pelvis.  He wasn’t strong enough to actually lift her, but it hurt.  She wasn’t thinking, only wanted the pain to stop.  Her mind was flooded with images of what might happen if the person outside tugged in a slightly different direction and dragged her face against the broken glass of the window.  The phone clattered to the floor as she gripped her attacker’s wrists, tried to alleviate the pain of hair tearing free from her scalp.

She put her feet flat on the floor of the car, pushed herself up and away from her seat, almost helping her attacker.

Emma regretted it almost as she did it, but in the panic and pain, she undid the seatbelt.

She’d just wanted the pain to stop, and now there were two sets of hands gripping her, hauling her up and out through the car window.  Glass broke away against the fabric of her denim jacket, and she fell hard enough against the pavement that grit was pushed into her skin.

I hope the jacket didn’t get torn.  It was so expensive, she thought.  It was inane, stupid, almost hilariously out of sync with reality.  Delirious.

Her father’s screams of almost mindless panic sounded so far away, as he cried out her name, over and over again.

The gang members who stood above her each wore crimson and pale green.  There were other colors, predominantly black, but the constrast of red and green stood out.  Some had their faces exposed, others wore kerchiefs over the lower halves of their faces.  One had a bandanna folded so it covered one eye.  She couldn’t think straight enough to count them.

They had knives, she belatedly noted.

Her father screamed for her again.

Stop, dad.  You’re embarassing me.  She was more cognizant of how irrational the thought was, this time.  Odd, how calm she felt.  Except that wasn’t right.  Her heart was pounding, she could barely breathe, her thoughts were jumbled and irrational, and yet she somehow felt more together than she might have guessed she would.

She wasn’t hysterical, at least.  She was oddly pleased with that, even as she wondered if she might wet herself.

“Turn over, ginger bitch,” one of the girls standing above her said.  The order was punctuated by a sharp kick to Emma’s ribs.

She flopped over, face pressing against the hot pavement.  Hands took hold of her jacket and pulled it off.  The sleeves turned inside out, the half-folded cuffs catching around her hands.

If she’d been taking it off herself, that would have been cause for some rearrangement, to get her hands free.  Instead, they pulled.  It hurt briefly, and then they had the jacket.

“Here, Yan,” one of the guys said, his accent almost musical.  “You owe me.”

“Sweet!”  The voice sounded young.

My jacket, Emma thought, plaintive.

“We could send this bitch out of town,” one of the guys said.  “Stick her in one of the farms and hold her for a while.  She’s got tits, could auction her off.

“Don’t be a moron.  White girl goes missing, they look.”

Someone opened the car door and climbed in.  There was the sound of the glove compartment opening, of items falling to the floor, where her cell phone was.

For the life of her, she couldn’t remember if she had hit ‘call’ on her cell phone before she’d dropped it.  It would mean the difference between her phone sitting on the floor of the car, the numbers displayed on the screen, and authorities using the phone to find her location, sending help.

Someone grabbed her hair, again.  This time, there was a tearing sensation, and the tugging abruptly stopped.  Her face cracked against the pavement beneath, one cheekbone catching almost all of the impact.

They’d cut her hair, and she’d just bruised her face.

“Face,” she mumbled.

“What’s that, ginger?” the girl standing over her asked.  Emma twisted her head around to see the girl holding a length of red hair in her hand.

“Not- not the face, please.  I’ll do anything you want, just… not the face.”

It was the delirium that had taken hold of her the second her father had seized her arm.  It wasn’t really her, was it?  She couldn’t be this stupidly vain when it all came down to the wire.  She didn’t want to be that kind of person.

“You’ll do anything?” One of the guys asked.  The one with one eye.  “Like what?”

She reached for an answer, but her thoughts were little more than white noise.

The answers that did come to mind weren’t possibilities.  Not really.

“Then it’s the face after all.  Hold her.”

Ten minutes ago, she’d never been afraid.  Not really.  Stage fright, sure.  Fear of not getting the Christmas present she wanted?  Sure.  But she’d never been afraid.

And before the one-eyed thug spoke that last sentence, she’d never known terror.  Had never known what it might be like to be a deer in the moment the wolves set tooth to flesh, the rabbit fleeing the bird of prey.  It was like being possessed, and the white noise that had subsumed her her thoughts when she searched for an argument now consumed her brain in entirety.  She felt a kind of surge of strength as her fight or flight instincts kicked into gear, and it wasn’t enough.

She was outnumbered, and many of them were stronger than her, even with the adrenaline feeding into her.  Two held her arms out to either side, and someone knelt just behind her, knees pressing hard against the side of her head, keeping her from turning it.  Looking up, she could see a girl, not much older than her, sporting a nose ring and a startling purple eye shadow.  She was wearing Emma’s jacket.

Emma could hear her father screaming, still, and it sounded further away than ever.

One-eye straddled her, planting his left hand on top of her hair, helping to hold her head down to the ground.

He held a knife that was long and thin, the blade no wider across than a finger, tapering to a wicked point.  What was it called?  A stiletto?  He rested the flat of the blade on the tip of her nose.

“Nose,” he murmured.  The blade moved to her eye, and she couldn’t move away.  She could only shut it, feel it twitching mercilessly as he laid the flat of the blade against her eyelid, “Eye…”

The blade touched her lips, a steel kiss.

“Mouth…”

He used the blade to brush the hair away from the side of her head, hooked an earring with the point of the blade.

“Well, you can hide the ears with the hair,” he said, his voice barely over a whisper.  The knife point pulled at the earring until her face contorted in pain.  “So maybe I’ll take both.  Which will it be?”

She couldn’t process, couldn’t sort out the information in the mist of the terror that gripped her.  “Unh?”

Again, the knife traveled over her face, almost gentle as it touched the areas in question.  “One eye, the nose, the mouth, or both ears.  Yan here thinks she has what it takes to be a member, instead of a common whore, so you choose one of the above, and she goes to town on the part in question, proves her worth.”

“Holy shit, Lao,” the girl with the eye shadow said.  She sounded almost gleeful, “That’s fucked up.”

Pick,” he said, again, as if he hadn’t heard.

Emma blinked tears out of her eyes, looked for an escape, an answer.

And she saw a figure crouched on top of her father’s car, dressed in black, with a hood and a cape that fluttered out of sync with the warm sea breeze that flowed from the general direction of the beach.  She could see the whites of the girl’s eyes through the eyeholes of what looked like a metal hockey mask.

Help me.

The dark figure didn’t move.

Lao, the one eyed man, reversed the knife in his hands and handed it to the girl with the eye shadow.  The girl, for her part, dragged the knife’s point over Emma’s eyelid, a feather touch.

“Pick,” the girl said.  “No, wait…”

She shoved the handful of hair she’d cut away into Emma’s mouth.  “Eat it, then pick.”

Emma opened her mouth to plead for help, but she couldn’t find the breath.  The hair wasn’t it, not really.  Some of it was the weight of the young man sitting on her chest, crushing her under his weight.  Mostly, it was the fear, like a physical thing.

She thought of Taylor, of all people.  Taylor had, in her way, been put to the knife, had had an irreplaceable part of herself carved away.  Not a nose or an eye, but a mother.  And in the moment she’d found out, a light had gone out inside Emma’s best friend, a vibrancy had faded.  She’d ceased to be the same person.

If she’d experienced her first real taste of fear when the gang members attacked the car, her first real taste of terror when Lao proclaimed he’d cut her face, then it was the thought of Taylor, of becoming Taylor, that gripped her with panic, a whole new level of fear.

I won’t become Taylor.

I’m not-

I’m not strong enough to come back from that.

The knife momentarily forgotten, she bucked, thrashed, fought.  An inarticulate noise tore out of her throat, a scream, a grunt, and a wail of despair all together, an ugly sound she couldn’t ever have imagined she’d make.  Lao was dislodged, one hand freed, and she brought it up, not in self defense, but to attack.  Her nails found his one good eye, caught on flesh, dug into the softest tissues she could find and dragged through them, through eyelid and across eyeball, through cheekbone and the meat of his cheek.

He screamed, struck her with enough force that she wondered if he’d had knuckle dusters she hadn’t seen.

Knuckle dusters… a weapon.  She belatedly remembered the knife, looked up at the girl with the eye shadow.

The figure in the black cloak had the knife-wielding girl, the knife hand twisted behind the girl’s back.

With a sharp, calculated motion, the arm was twisted a measure too far, the eye shadow girl jerked off balance so the weight of her body would only help twist it further.  The girl screamed, dropping the knife, and she flopped to the ground, her arm gone limp, dangling from the shoulder at an angle that shouldn’t have been possible.

The figure in black turned on Lao.  She swept her cape to one side, and momentarily became a living shadow, a transparent blur.  When she returned to normal, her posture was different, and the knife had disappeared from the ground.  It was in her hand.

Emma watched in numb horror and awe as the girl advanced on Lao, who crab-walked backward to get away.  She closed the distance, stretched out one arm, and delivered a single scratch with the knife, cutting into Lao’s right eye.

Other thugs had already fallen.  The one who’d held her arm before she pulled it free was slumping over, unconscious.  The woman who must have been standing next to Emma’s father, was lying prone on the ground on the other side of the car, a pool of blood spreading beneath her.

That left only one, the thug who’d held Yan’s left arm.  He was on his feet in a moment, running, Emma’s backpack in one hand, open, the contents from the glove compartment falling free.  Useless, trivial items.  A bag of candy, the driver’s handbook.  Things he’d taken only because he could.

The girl in the cloak was small, Emma noted.  Younger.  Again, the cloaked vigilante became a virtual living shadow, flung herself down the length of the alleyway, faster than the man was running.  She moved past him, ducking low as she materialized into a normal form.  The knife raked across the side of his knee, and he fell.  He twisted as he hit the ground, kicked out with one leg, and caught the girl in the side of one knee.  She tumbled landing on top of him.

The ensuing struggle was brief and one sided.  He tried to grab his attacker, found only immaterial shadow.  He turned over, getting on hands and knees to push himself to a standing position, but she moved faster, going solid as she loomed over him, one hand on the wall for balance.  She tipped, let herself fall, and drove his face into the pavement with all the weight she could bring down on him.

A second later, the cloaked girl was holding one of his hands against a door just to his right.  She used the stiletto to impale his hand to the wood, bent the blade until the handle snapped away.

“Emma,” her father said.  He was out of the car, embracing her.  “Are you hurt?  Emma?”

One hand absently tried to claw her own strands of hair from her mouth, failing to get all of them.  She settled for leaving the hand mashed against her mouth, as incoherent a gesture as anything she might have said if she’d been able to speak.

Wordless, the girl in the black cloak limped a few steps away from the fallen boy before adopting her shadow form, floating away, untouchable.

“Emma?”

Emma stared at her bedroom ceiling.  It was her sister’s voice.

“I went to that store, got that shampoo you liked.”

Emma turned over, pulling the covers tight, staring at the wall instead.

“I just thought a shower must sound pretty good right about now.”

There were still scraps of paper stuck to the wall with blue tack, the corners of the posters she’d torn down in a fit of emotion.  All the words in the English language, and there wasn’t one for what she’d felt.  Not anger, not fear, not resentment… some combination of those things that was duller, heavier, suffocating.  The eyes of the boys from the posters had been too much.

“…Okay,” her sister said, from the other side of the bedroom door.  “We love you, Emma.  You know that, right?”

Her mother spoke through the door, “Emma?  Taylor’s on the phone.  She’s still at summer camp.  Do you-“

Emma sat up in bed, swung her legs around until they hung off the end of the bed.

“No.”  Her voice was a croak.  How many days had it been since she spoke?

“If I explained, maybe she could-“

An image flashed across her mind’s eye.  Taylor, on the other end of the phone, laughing, blabbering on, happy, just before the incident.

The tables had turned.

“If you tell her, I’m never coming out,” she croaked.

There wasn’t a reply.  Emma stood from the bed and approached the door.  She could hear her mother on the other side.

“-doesn’t want to talk to you right now.  I’m sorry.”

A pause.

“No.  No, I don’t.”

Another pause, briefer.

“Bye, honey,” Emma’s mom said.

Floorboards creaked as her mother walked away.

“…a therapist.  You could go alone, or we could go together.”

She grit her teeth.

“I… I left her number by the phone.  We’re all going to be out.  Your sister’s at a thing related to the college dorms, a pre-moving in orientation.  Your mom and I have work.  You know our phone numbers, but I was thinking, uh.”

A pause.

“If you were thinking of doing something drastic, and you didn’t feel like you could talk to any of us, the therapist’s number’s there.”

Emma hugged her knees.  Her back pressed hard against the door, the bones of her spine grinding against the door’s surface.

“I love you.  We love you.  The doors are all double locked, so you’re safe, and there’s food in the fridge.  Your sister bought that stuff from the store you like.  Soaps and shampoos.”

Emma clutched the fabric of her pyjamas.

“It’s been a week.  You can’t- you can’t be happy like this.  We won’t be here to bother you, so warm yourself up some food, treat yourself to a nice bath, maybe, watch some television?  Get things a step back to normal?”

She stood, abrupt, paced halfway across her bedroom, then stopped.  Nowhere to go, nothing to do.

She stood there, staring at the wall with the torn corners of poster still stuck to it, fists clenched.

“Bye, honey.”

She was rooted to the spot, staring at a blank surface, listening as her family went about their routines.  There were murmurs of conversation as they got organized, orchestrated who was going in which car, what everyone was doing for lunch.  Quieter fragments of conversation where they were discussing her.

The door slammed, and she heard the locks click, a sound so faint she might have imagined it.

It was only after everyone had left that she ventured out of her room.

Coffee.  Cereal.  She went through the motions, reheating a mug of the former and preparing the latter.

She hadn’t finished either when she stood and ventured into the bathroom.  She didn’t touch the bag of expensive soaps and shampoos, instead using her father’s regular shampoo.  She soaped up with the bar soap, rinsed off, then stepped out of the shower to dry herself.

Once she was dressed, her hair still damp, she approached the front door, hesitated.

She pushed through, left it unlocked behind her.  She couldn’t shake the worry that if she stepped back inside to find keys, she might not be able to step through the threshold again.

Her teeth were chattering by the time she was at the end of the street, and it wasn’t cold out.

Her thoughts were a chaotic jumble as she walked.  Her stomach felt like a blob of gelatin, quivering with every step she took.

The stares were worst of all.  As much as she tried to tell herself that she wasn’t in the middle of a giant spotlight, that people didn’t care, she couldn’t shake the idea that they were watching her, analyzing her every move, noting her wet hair, noting the hunk of hair at the back that was shorter than the rest, crudely chopped off.  Were they seeing her as a victim, someone so full of fear and anxiety that her every movement practically screamed ‘easy target’?

Perhaps the dumbest insecurity of all was the worry that somehow they could read her mind, that they knew she was doing the dumbest thing she’d ever done.

Every step she took, the white noise of her fear consumed a bit of her rational mind.

She found herself back at the mouth of the narrow one-way road.  The dumpster had been moved, the van was nowhere in sight.

This was different from feeling like a victim, because here, she knew she really was begging to be attacked.  To loiter around in known gang territory, unarmed?  It was senseless.  This time, they might really carry through with their threats.  All it would take was the wrong person seeing her.

Emma couldn’t bring herself to care.  She was scared, but she was scared every moment of every day, had been for the last seven days.  Right now?  She was more desperate than scared.

She’d hoped she would run into the girl in the black cloak.  She wasn’t so lucky.  Her stomach started protesting that the half-bowl of cereal hadn’t been enough, but she stayed where she was.  She hadn’t brought a wallet, a phone or watch, so she had no way of getting food, nor any idea of how long she was really waiting.

When the sun was directly overhead, she turned to leave.

There was no place to go.  Home?  It would be too easy to shut herself in her room, to hide from the world.  There was nothing she wanted to do, nobody she wanted to talk to.

The world was an ugly place, filled with ugly scenes, and unlike before, she couldn’t shut it out, couldn’t shake the idea that something horrible was happening around every corner.  Thousands of people suffering every second, around the world.

What got her, the nebulous idea that haunted her, was the impact those scenes had.  There were so many defining moments, so many crises, big and small, that shaped the people they touched.  The biggest and most critical moments were the sorts that wiped the slate clean, that ignored or invalidated the person who had existed before, only to create another.

Emma had fought in a moment of desperation, as if fighting could make her stronger than Taylor, set herself apart.  Except she’d failed.  It was unbearable.  She hated herself.

Her eyes watched the crowd, searching for the people who were eyeing her, judging her.  She couldn’t find any obvious ones, but she couldn’t shake the belief that they were there.

“Takes guts.”

She could feel her heart leap into her throat, wheeling around, imagining the Asian girl with the eye shadow standing behind her.

It wasn’t.  The girl was dark-skinned, slender, with long, straight hair.  She had a hard stare, penetrating.

“Guts?”  Emma couldn’t imagine any word less appropriate.

“Coming back.  The only reason you’d do it is because you were looking for revenge, or you were looking for me.  Or both, depending on how cracked you are.”

Emma opened her mouth, then closed it.  The realization hit her.  This was the girl with the black cloak, announcing herself.

She asked the question she’d gone to such risk to pose to the girl, “Why… why did you wait?  You saw me in trouble, but you didn’t do a thing.”

“Because I wanted to see who you were.”

Before, Emma suspected she’d have been offended, aghast at the idea that this girl would leave her to suffer, leave her life at risk, just for an answer to a question.  Now?  Now she could almost understand it, oddly enough.  “Who was I?”

“There’s two people in the world.  Those who get stronger when they come through a crisis and those who get weaker.  The ones who get stronger naturally come out on top.  There’s ups and downs, but they’ll win out.”

“Who was I?” Emma asked, again.

“You’re here, aren’t you?”  The girl smiled.

Emma didn’t have an answer to that.  She shut her mouth, all too aware of the people walking past them, going about their everyday lives, overhearing snippets of their conversation and yet failing to pick up anything essential.

“I want to be one of the stronger ones.”

“I don’t do the partner thing, or the team thing.”

Emma nodded.  She didn’t have an answer ready.

The other girl’s eyes studied her, and she seemed to come to a decision.  “It’s a philosophy, a way of looking at it all. You can look at the world as a… what’s the word?  One thing and another?”

“A binary?”

“A binary thing.  But not black and white.  It’s about the divide of winners and losers.  Strong and weak, predators and prey.  I kind of like that last one, but I’m a hunter.”

Emma thought back to how readily the girl had taken the thugs apart.  “I can believe that.”

The girl smiled.  “And what you have to keep in mind, is the biggest question of all is one you’re answering for yourself, right now.  Survivor or victim?”

“What’s the difference?”

“On this violent, brutish little planet of ours, it’s the survivors who wind up the strongest ones of all.”

Emma stood from the kitchen table, aware that her entire family was watching her.

It’s all mental.

Three weeks ago, she might never have imagined that she’d be able to resume life as normal, to not be afraid.

Perhaps it was more correct to say that she was afraid, she just wasn’t acting it.  Faking it until she could make it the truth.

“You’re going out?” her sister couldn’t quite keep the note of suprise out of her voice.

“Sophia’s dropping by,” Emma said.

Just want to forget it happened, put it behind me.  Move forward.

“Taylor got back from camp this morning,” her mother said.

Emma paused.  “Okay.”

“She might stop by.”

“Okay.”

Emma couldn’t resist hurrying a little as she collected her dishes and rinsed them in the sink.

“If she comes by when you’re not here-”

“I’ll talk to her,” Emma said.  “Don’t worry about it.”

She made her way to the front hall, stopped by the mirror to run a brush through her hair.  It had all been cut to match the piece that had been cut shorter with the knife.

She couldn’t wait for it to grow in, as that alone would erase just one more memory that reminded her of her moment of weakness and humiliation, of how close she’d come to dying or being mutilated.  Until it did grow in, it was yet another reminder of all the ugliness she wanted to be able to look past.

Sophia was waiting outside by the time she had her shoes on.

“Heya, vigilante,” Emma said, smiling.

“Heya, survivor.”

She could see Taylor approaching, tan, still wearing the shirt from camp in the bright primary blue, with the logo, shorts and sandals.  It only made her look more kiddish.  Broomstick arms and legs, gawky, with a wide, guileless smile, her eyes just a fraction larger behind the glasses she wore, a little too old fashioned.  Her long dark curls were tied into a loose set of twin braids, one bearing a series of colorful ‘friendship braclet’ style ties at the end.  Only her height gave her age away.

She looks like she did years ago.  Way before her mom diedLike she’s nine, not thirteen.

“Who the fuck is that?” Sophia murmured.

Emma didn’t reply.  She watched as Taylor approached the gate at the front of the house, walked up the path to the stairs where she and Sophia stood.

“Emma!”

“Who the fuck are you?” Sophia asked.

Taylor’s smile faltered.  A brief look of confusion flickered across her face.  “We’re friends.  Emma and I have been friends for a long time.”

Sophia smirked.  “Really.”

Emma resisted the urge to cringe.  Fake it until I make it.

“Really,” Taylor echoed Sophia.  The smallest furrow appeared between her eyebrows.  “What’s going on Emma?  I haven’t heard from you in a good while.  Your mom said you weren’t taking calls?”

Emma hesitated.

To just explain, to talk to Taylor…

Taylor would give her sympathy, would listen to everything she had to say, give an unbiased ear to every thought, every wondering and anxiety.  Emma almost couldn’t bear the idea.

But there would be friendship too.  Support.  It would be so easy to reach out and take it.

“I love the haircut,” Taylor filled the silence, talking and smiling like she couldn’t contain herself.  “You manage to make any style look great.”

Emma closed her eyes, taking a second to compose herself.  Then she smiled back, though not so wide.  She could feel Sophia’s eyes on her.

She stepped down one stair to get closer to Taylor, put a hand on her shoulder.  Taylor raised one arm to wrap Emma in a hug, stopped short when Emma’s arm proved unyielding, stopping her from closing the distance.

“Go home, Taylor.  I didn’t ask you to come over.”

She could see the smile fall from Taylor’s face.  Only a trace of it lingered, a faltering half-smile.  “It’s… it’s never been a problem before.  I’m sorry.  I was just excited to see you, it’s been weeks since we even talked.”

“There’s a reason for that.  This was just an excuse to cut a cord I’ve been wanting to cut for a long time.”

There it went.  The last half smile, wiped from Taylor’s expression.  “I… what?  Why?”

“Do you think it was fun?  Spending time with you, this past year?”  The words came too easily.  Things she’d wanted to say, not the whole truth, but feelings she’d bottled up, held back.  “I wanted to break off our friendship a long while back, even before your mom kicked the bucket, but I couldn’t find the chance.  Then you got that call, and you were so down in the dumps that I thought you’d hurt yourself if I told you the truth, and I didn’t want to get saddled with that kind of guilt.”

It was surprising how easily the words came.  Half truths.

“So you lied to me, strung me along.”

“You lied to yourself more than I lied to you.”

“Fuck you,” Taylor snapped back.  She turned to leave, and Sophia stuck one foot out.  Taylor didn’t fall, but she stumbled, had to catch the gate for balance.

Taylor turned around, eyes wide, as if she could barely comprehend that Sophia had done what she’d done, that Emma had stood by and watched it.

Then she was gone, running.

“Feel better?”  Sophia asked.

Better?  No.  Emma couldn’t bring herself to feel guilty or ashamed, but… it didn’t feel good.

That knot of negative emotion was tempered by a sense of profound relief.  One less reminder of the old, weak, pathetic vain Emma, one more step towards the new.

Emma’s cell phone vibrated.  She rose from her bed, suppressing a sigh.

As quiet as she could, she collected the tackle box from beneath her bed, dressed and headed downstairs.

Her father was at the kitchen table.  His eyes went wide, and he stood.

She pressed her finger to her lips, and he stopped, his mouth open.

She hesitated, then spoke in a whisper, “I need your help.  Please.  Can- can you not ask any questions just yet?”

He hesitated, then nodded.

She handed him the keys, and climbed into the passenger seat.

He started up the car, then drove in the directions she dictated, her eyes on the phone.

They found themselves downtown, in the midst of a collection of bodies.

And in the center, leaning against a wall, Shadow Stalker was hunched over, using her hands to staunch a leg wound.

Emma bent down, opened the tackle box, and began gathering the first aid supplies.

Wordless, her father joined her.

We owe her this, at least.

“Give it back,” Taylor’s voice was quiet, but level.

“Give what back?”

“You guys broke into my locker.  You took my flute.  It’s something my mom left me, something she used, that my dad gave to me so I could remember her.  Just… if you’ve decided you hate me, if I said the wrong thing, or led you to believe something that wasn’t true, okay.  But don’t do that to my mom.  She was good to you.  Don’t disrespect her memory.”

“If it was so valuable to you, then you shouldn’t have brought it.”

Taylor didn’t speak for long seconds.  “Can you blame me?  Since school started, you’ve been… after me.  As if you’re trying to make a point or something.  Except I don’t know what it is.”

“The point is that you’re a loser.”

Taylor wasn’t able to keep the emotion off her face.  “…Even if it’s just a flute and a memory, maybe I wanted to feel like I had some backup here.  I thought you were better than that, screwing with me on that level.”

“I guess you’re wrong,” Emma replied.  She let the words sit for a few seconds, then added, “Doesn’t look like she’s offering you any backup at all.”

Emma had mused, back in the week she’d been reeling from her near-miss with death or disfigurement, that there were moments that changed destinies, that altered people’s trajectories in life.  Some were small, the changes minor, others large to the point they were irreversible.  It was so easy, just to utter the words, and the reaction was so profound.  A mixture of emotions that briefly stripped Taylor bare, revealed everything in a series of changing facial expressions.

She didn’t enjoy it.  Didn’t revel in it.  But it was… reassuring?  The world made sense.  Predators and prey.  Attackers and victims.  It was like a drug, only she’d never experienced the high, the pure joy of it.  There was only the withdrawal, the need for a hit just to get centered again.

Fight back, get angry, hit me.

Challenge me.

It took Taylor long seconds to get her mental footing.  She met Emma’s eyes, and then stared down at the ground.  She mumbled her response.  “I think that says a lot more about you than it does about me.”

That wasn’t what I meant, Emma thought.

She felt irrationally angry, annoyed, and couldn’t put her finger on why.

It took her a minute to find Sophia, not helped by the fact that the two of them had classes on opposite sides of the building.

Sophia was putting coins into the vending machine.  She looked up at Emma.  “What?”

“Did you break into her locker?”

“Yeah.”

“Stole a flute?”

“Yeah.”

Emma paused for long seconds.  To give the flute back, surreptitiously, it would go a ways towards breaking the rhythm, the cycle.

Taylor’s words nettled her.  To back down now, it would be a step towards the old Emma, the victim.

“Fuck with it.  Do something disgusting to it, and make sure to wreck it so she can’t use it ever again.”

Sophia smiled.

“Do you hereby attest that all statements disclosed in this document are the truth, to the best of your knowledge?”

“I do,” Emma’s father spoke.

Emma reached out and took his hand, squeezing it.  He glanced at her, and she mouthed the words, “Thank you.”

There was a shuffling of papers at the other end of the long table.  “We, the committee, have reviewed the documents, and agree that case one-six-three-one, Shadow Stalker, has met the necessary requirements.  With stipulations to be named at a future date, specific to her powers and the charges previously laid against her, she is now a probationary member of the Wards, until such a time as she turns eighteen or violates the terms of this probationary status.  Congratulations, Shadow Stalker.”

“Thank you,” Shadow Stalker’s tone was subdued, her eyes directing a glare at the center of the table rather than anyone present.

Emma watched as the capes and official bigwigs around her got out of their chairs, fell into groups.

Dauntless approached her dad.  She only caught two murmured words of Dauntless’ question.  “-divorce attorney?”

Shadow Stalker, for her part, stood and strode out of the room.  Emma hurried to follow.  By the time she reached the staircase, Shadow Stalker was halfway to the roof.

“You’re angry.”

“Of course I’m angry.  Stipulations, rules and regulations.  I’ve had my powers for two and a half years and I’ve stopped more bad guys than half the capes in that room!”

Emma couldn’t stop the memory from hitting her.

The man struggled, and as much as Shadow Stalker was able to make herself immaterial, to loosen any grip or free herself from any bonds, she didn’t have the ability to tighten that same grip.  He tipped backwards, off the edge of the roof, and a gesture meant to intimidate became manslaughter.

Shadow Stalker stared off the edge of the roof at the body, then turned to look at Emma.

“Is- is he?”  Emma asked.

“Probably best if you don’t come on patrol with me again.”

“You have,” Emma replied, snapping back to reality.  How many have you ‘stopped’?

“It’s like putting a wolf among sheep and expecting it to bleat!”

“It’s only three years.  Better than prison.”

“Three years and four months.”

“Better than prison,” Emma repeated herself.

“It is prison, fuck it!”

“It’s like you said.  Just… just fake it until you make it the truth, put away the lethal ammunition for a few years.”

Shadow Stalker wheeled on her, stabbed a finger in her direction, “Fuck that.”

Emma stared at her best friend, saw the look in Sophia’s eyes, the anger, the hardness.

For a moment, she regretted the choice she’d made.

Then she had her head in order again, the little things she was faking contorted with reality until she couldn’t tell the difference anymore.

People could convince themselves of anything, and there were worse things than convincing oneself that they were strong, capable, one of the ones on top, rather than one of the ones on the bottom.

The door of the bathroom stall swung open.  Sophia had flung one arm around Emma’s shoulders, and Emma joined her in laughing.  To their right, the third member of their trio was giggling so hard she had hiccups.

Taylor kneeled in the middle of a massive puddle of juices and sodas, some of it still fizzing around her.  She was drenched, head to toe, trickles still running off of the lengths of her hair.  Her style of dress had changed over the past little while, in ways Taylor probably wasn’t fully aware of.  She wore darker clothes now, cloaked herself in sweatshirts and loose fitting jeans.  Her long hair was a shield, a barrier around her face.  All measures to hide, signals and gestures of defeat.

More than that, she’d changed in behavior, had stopped fighting back. She’d stopped reacting, for the most part.  Her expression was impassive.  It took some of the fun out of it.  It was almost disappointing.

I’ll have to think of a better one than this.  Crack that facade, Emma thought.  She smirked as Madison led the way out of the bathroom, and they left Taylor behind.

Taylor had become the archetypical victim, Emma mused, in one sober moment, as she parted ways with the other two girls, and I’ve found myself becoming the type of person who could genuinely laugh at something like this.

She dismissed the thought, shifting mental gears, re-establishing the construction of self confidence she’d built.  It was a little easier every time she did it.

The fan on the other side of the room had a piece loose.  It squeaked on every third rotation.

She examined her nails, picked at a fleck of something white that had stick to the end of one nail, then checked her cuticles.

The fan squeaked, and she turned her head, as if she could spot the offending flaw and fix it.

“You come all this way, and you don’t have anything to say?”  Sophia asked.

Emma shrugged.  It was on our way.

“Say what’s on your mind.”

“It’s all backwards, isn’t it?”

“Backwards how?”

“Upside down, Turned around.  Two wrongs make a right.”

“What wrongs?”  Sophia’s voice was hard.

“Not you.  Not your thing.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  We’re moving back to Brockton Bay.  As in, it’s in progress.  Half our stuff’s still back in Portland, half’s in the Bay.  We finally moved.”

“Someplace nice?”

“Further north.”

Sophia smirked.

“But that’s why I’m saying it’s all backwards.  Things got flipped around.  The north end is nicer, now.  They’re rebuilding, and it’s all coming together.  Downtown is the place that got hit hard.  You’ve got three big areas you can’t go, with the crater, the quarantine and the place I heard people calling the scar, where they did some bombing run with Bakuda’s stuff.  Construction’s slower towards the south, because there’s so much traffic and not a lot of roads.”

“Huh.”

“The bad guys are keeping the law, but things are better, and you talk to anyone, there’s hope.  I don’t know how that happens, how you visit every tragedy imaginable on a place, drop a dozen different nightmare scenarios on it, and things get better.  How does that work?”

“I don’t really care,” Shadow Stalker said.

“It’s your city.”

“The world ends in less than two years.  I won’t be out of here before then.  I… what’s the word?  I reiterate, I don’t really care.”

“I’m trying to make conversation.”

“You’re doing a shitty job of it,” Sophia replied.

Emma shut her mouth, stared at her friend.

“World ends in two years,” Sophia added.  “It’s a joke, pretending like things are getting better, like there’s hope.  The world turns a few hundred more times and then it all ends.”

Sour grapes?

“It’s kind of neat in terms of the big picture,” Emma said, ignoring Sophia.  “It’s like, the future hasn’t looked this bright in a while.  There’s promise, if this rumor about an open interdimensional portal is for real.  Multiple portals, if you believe the really out-there rumors.  Escape routes, resources, work.  And Brockton Bay is at the center of it all.”

Sophia snorted.

“And, more than that, it’s like, if we’re talking about hope, about the future, who’s more iconic for all that than kids?  You know, that line about how kids are the future?  Heroes too, they’re icons of hope too.  And put those things together, you get Arcadia High.  Winslow High’s gone, and there’s not quite enough students, so they’re herding us all together.”

“So?”

“So, it’s like, all this hope, you’ve got Brockton Bay at the center of it all.  And at the center of Brockton Bay’s hope, it’s Arcadia High.  And at the center of that?  You’ve got the heroes and the winners.  I fully intend to be the latter.  In a way, it’s like being queen of the world.”

“The popular kid in high school?”

“In the high school,” Emma said.  She shrugged.  “It’s one way of looking at it.”

“It’s sad.”

Emma smirked.  “Someone’s grumpy.”

“It’s sad because you’re making a fool of yourself, you’re missing a key detail.”

“Which?”

Sophia shrugged.  “Better if you find out for yourself.  I won’t spoon-feed you.”

Emma rolled her eyes.  Sophia was just toying with her head.  Easy enough to ignore.

“I’m going to go.  I’d say it’s been a pleasure, but…”

Sophia caught the ‘but’.  “Bitch.”

“Yeah.  Def,” Emma replied, before hanging up the phone.  She stood from the stool that was bolted to the floor, stretched, then offered a small wave.

Sophia raised both hands together to offer a miniscule wave with her right.  They were cuffed together, LEDs standing out on the cuffs, marking the live current.

Emma couldn’t tell herself she’d be back.  To stick around and be loyal now would betray every reason she’d given herself for dropping Taylor as a friend.  Taylor had been a wet blanket, a loser.  Sophia was no better, now.

It was ironic, but Sophia had proven herself to be more prey than predator, in the very philosophy she’d espoused.

“Hey dad?”

Her dad turned his head to acknowledge her, while keeping his eyes on the road. “What is it?”

“Mind making a detour?  I wouldn’t mind seeing Taylor’s house.”

“I thought you weren’t friends anymore.”

Emma shook her head.  “I’m… trying to put it all into perspective.  It’s really changed, and it’s easiest to get my head around the changes if I can look at the familiar places, and her house is pretty familiar.”

“Sure.  If nobody else minds?”

There were no objections from her mom or sister.

The city had always had its highs and lows, its peaks and valleys, but it seemed it was an even starker contrast now.  She’d commented, once, that for any one house, she could find three things wrong with it.  It had been flipped around, in its own way.  For every ten houses, there was one ruin, a dilapidated structure or pile of wreckage.  For every ten stretches of road that were intact, there was one that a car couldn’t pass over.

They turned off Lord Street, onto the street that Taylor’s house was on.

As they approached, Emma could see Taylor helping her dad unload a box from what looked to be a new or newly washed car.  He said something and she laughed.

The casual display of emotion was startling.  It was equally startling when, in the moment Emma’s dad slowed the car down, Taylor’s head turned, her eyes falling on them, her head and upper body turning to follow them as they passed.

She didn’t even resemble the person Emma had known way back then, not the girl who’d approached her house after coming back from camp, and not the girl who’d been drenched in juice.  The lines of her cheekbones and chin were more defined, her skin baked to a light tan by the sun, her long black curls grown a touch wild by long exposure to wind.  Light muscles stood out on her arms as she held a box, her dad standing back to direct.

Even her clothes.  She wasn’t hiding under a hood and long sleeves.  A trace of her stomach was exposed between the bottom of her yellow tank top and the top of her jeans.  The frayed cuffs were rolled up at the bottom, around new running shoes, and neither Taylor nor her dad seemed to be paying any attention to the knife that was sheathed at her back.

It surprised Emma, all the little clues coming together to point to one fact; that Taylor had stayed.  She’d stayed, and she’d come out of it okay.  Judging by the new car, the shoes and her clothes, the Heberts were doing better for money than they had been the last time Emma had run into either of them.  Were they early beneficiaries of Brockton Bay’s upswing in fortune?

It unsettled her, and she had a hard time putting her finger on why.

It didn’t hit her until they’d reached their new house, a recollection of something Sophia had said.

On this violent, brutish little planet of ours, it’s the survivors who wind up the strongest ones of all.

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Tangle 6.7

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Leaping from rooftop to rooftop was not as awesome or efficient as it was on TV and in the movies.  Even if it was the dogs doing the brunt of the work, they weren’t the most graceful of creatures, they weren’t built to be ridden, and we didn’t have any saddles.  There was also the distinct issue of there being buildings of wildly varying heights, similar to how Brian’s neighborhood sported old Victorian style buildings amid apartments and condos.  As Judas hopped down from the side of a six story building, dug his claws into the side of a neighboring building to slow his descent, then jumped the rest of the way down to the asphalt of an alleyway, I was genuinely concerned the landings would dislocate my hip.

In short, I was grateful to be back on terra firma.

“Need a hand!” Bitch called out, a moment after Brutus set down.  She had a prone Tattletale lying across her lap and Brutus’ shoulders, and it looked like Tattletale was falling off, despite Bitch’s best efforts to hold on to her.

I reluctantly let go of Grue as he slipped down from Judas and rushed over to help.  I silently lamented having included the panels of armor on my chest and stomach, which had been a solid barrier between my body and his back as I clung to him on our retreat from the Forsberg Gallery.

Whatever my regrets, I wasn’t oblivious to the matter at hand.  I hopped down off Judas’ back and hurried over to help with Tattletale, just a step behind Grue.  It proved easier to slide her down to the sidewalk than to get her back up onto Brutus’ back.  Grue did the heavy lifting, while I focused on keeping her head and arms from hitting the ground or getting caught under her.  As I bent down to help ease her to the ground, I could already feel the stiffness in the muscles of my thighs, back and stomach.  I was glad I’d done my morning exercise earlier, because there was no way I was going to be able to go anywhere tomorrow.

I glanced around us.  Cars were zipping past on the streets at either end, but there weren’t many pedestrians, and none appeared to have spotted us, thus far.  My suspicions were that most people in the downtown area who were out and about would be near Lord Street, celebrating the end of the curfew.  People would be acting out their relief over the end of the ABB situation, making up for time they’d spent cooped up in their homes during the six nights of curfew.

“Anyone see capes following?” Grue asked.

“I didn’t see anyone, but I wasn’t really looking.  That’s usually Tattletale’s job,” Regent replied.

“She can’t give us any info like this,” Grue pointed out.

“Wait,” I told him.  I reached back into my utility compartment and fished out the changepurse.  I removed the tissues I’d wadded up inside to keep the change from rattling and found one of the three tiny white packets at the bottom of the bag.  I tore the packet open and held it under Tattletale’s nose.

“Smelling salts?” Grue asked.

I nodded.  “You asked if anyone had any after we put down Über and Leet.  I made a mental note to have ’em for next time.”

“I bet half of us did,” Regent replied, “The weird thing is that you actually followed through, dork.”

“What’s weird about that?” I asked, a bit defensively.

He was distracted from replying.  Tattletale stirred, turning her head to get her nose away from the smelling salts.  I moved them back under her nose.

She woke, mumbling, “Okay, stop.”

“Welcome back,” Grue told her.

“How do you feel?” I asked.

“My stomach feels like someone ran it through a blender, and my arm hurts like hell, but I’m tougher than I look,” she said.  Not one second later, she groaned and huffed out a breath, “But I’m going to need help to stand.”

Grue and I helped her.  She was hurting, and moved at a glacial pace.  It was made more difficult by the fact that she apparently didn’t want either of us to touch her right arm.

“What’d I miss?” she asked, as if to distract from the fact that she was moving like an old woman.

“Tee el dee arr, you got bitchslapped and knocked out, it was down to Bitch and Skitter, and we still got away,” Regent shrugged.

Tattletale froze in her tracks.  Since Grue and I were still easing her to a standing position, I was forced to shift my grip to ensure she didn’t fall.

Shit,” she managed to fit more invective into that one word than some of the people from my dad’s work could manage in ten, and some of those guys were seamen. Tattletale turned her head, “That’s not-”

“Not true,” Armsmaster spoke, echoing her words as he rounded the end of the alley.

He looked worse for wear.  The lower half of his face had welts on it, not many, but some.  I’d instructed the hornets to sting so they weren’t coiling their abdomens, which meant they weren’t squeezing the venom sacs and injecting venom with every sting.  I’d only injected enough venom to make it hurt a little, to distract.  After I’d beaten my retreat, though, I knew some would have stayed on him, and a few would have stung him after I was out of range and no longer able to control the hornets.  The welts weren’t the bad part, though.  What caught my eye, though, were the six thin trickles of blood running down the lower half of his face.  Hornet bites weren’t necessarily capable of penetrating skin, as much as they might hurt, but there had been a lot of them, and if a few happened to bite in the same location, or if they caught the edge of an eyelid or nostril?  Maybe.  I noticed his Halberd in his right hand.

When I looked at our remaining escape route, Dauntless was at the other end of the alley.  Brockton Bay’s rising star.  It would have been easy to peg him as a tinker, but he apparently wasn’t.  His power let him, according to details he’d leaked when he’d appeared on TV and in magazines, imbue his gear with a little bit of power every day.  Thing was, every bit of power he parceled out had permanent effects.  Every day, he was just a little bit stronger than he’d been the day before.  A little bit more versatile.  It was expected that he would eventually surpass even the likes of Alexandria, Legend and Eidolon, the ‘triumvirate’ of the Protectorate, the top dogs.  That kind of made him a big deal in Brockton Bay, a hometown hero.

I didn’t follow that stuff, didn’t buy into the hero worship.  I’d always found the capes interesting, I’d followed the non-gossipy news about them, but with the exception of a phase around the time I was nine where I’d had an Alexandria t-shirt and had my mom help me find pictures of her online, I had never really got giddy over any particular hero.

Dauntless packed a few trademark pieces of gear.  He had his Arclance, a spear he held in one hand that looked like it was made of white lightning.  His shield, fixed to his left forearm, was a metal disc about the size of a dinner plate, surrounded by rings of the same kind of energy that made up the spear.  Finishing his current set of empowered items were his boots.  His feet looked like they were encased in the white crackling energy.  If rumor was to be believed, he was working on empowering his armor as well, but I couldn’t see any hints of that energy on the costume.  It was white and gold, and his golden helmet was in the Greek or Spartan style, with slits for the eyes, a band of metal covering his nose, and a slit running down lower half of his face.  A band of metal crested the top, like a mohawk.

You could see the frown crease Armsmaster’s damaged face as he turned his focus to me.

“I threw your Halberd off the side of the Gallery,” I spoke before he could.  “Did Dauntless fetch it for you?”

He didn’t voice a reply right away.  As if to demonstrate, he threw his Halberd straight up in the air.  It disappeared into a storm of glowing blue lines as it reached the peak of its ascent, simultaneously rematerializing in his hand.  Hadn’t I seen Kid Win bring his cannon to the site of the bank robbery in the same way?  A piece of borrowed technology?

“I’m not about to put so many eggs in one basket without sufficient safeguards,” Armsmaster told me.  His voice was tight with repressed anger.

No bugs.  Damn it, I had no bugs, again.  I’d emptied my armor of bugs when I attacked Armsmaster, and I’d left them and the rest of the swarm back at the Gallery when I made my retreat.

Surrender,” he intoned.

“Thinking about it,” Tattletale spoke.

“Decide fast,” Armsmaster growled.

“Why did you guys stop here?” Tattletale murmured to us, “We’re, like, half a block from the parking garage where we stashed our ride.”

“I wanted to make sure there were no pursuers before we peeled out,” Grue replied, “Good thing, too.”

“Right,” Regent’s voice was thick with sarcasm, “Because this is so much better than them finding us as we put the key in the ignition.”

“Guys,” I cut in, whispering without taking my eyes from Armsmaster, “Answers.  Solutions.”

“Get to the parking garage,” Tattletale told us.

“Our situation there won’t be any better,” Grue countered.

Get to the parking garage,” She hissed through her teeth, as Armsmaster took a step forward.

The alley was wide enough for two dogs to stand shoulder to shoulder, and I saw Bitch directing two of the animals to stand between us and Armsmaster before Grue blanketed everything but Armsmaster and the dogs in darkness.

The darkness didn’t last more than three seconds.  There was enough time for Grue to place his arm against my collarbone and shove me back against the wall, and then he removed the darkness around us.  There was a smell like burning ozone.  Had Dauntless used his spear?

It was immediately clear that Dauntless didn’t have much darkness around him.  He was holding his shield arm up, and it had formed into a bubble-shaped forcefield, extending in a ten foot radius around himself, touching both walls on either side of us.  The forcefield was serving to block off the darkness, and while I wasn’t sure, I suspected that the field was actually eating through any darkness that touched it.  It was making a continual sizzling, crackling sound that drowned out the traffic on the roads around us.

Dauntless advanced a pace, and the forcefield moved a corresponding distance closer to us.

After a second short advance from Dauntless, Grue had to back up a step to avoid touching the field of crackling white energy.  A step that closed the distance between us and Armsmaster.

“Armsmaster hates you,” Tattletale told Dauntless, raising her voice to be heard over the crackling sound the forcefield was generating, “He hates that you’re the next big thing, the guy that’s going to be better than him.  That you get the easy road to being a big name in the Protectorate, and he’s the one that has to stay up nights, reworking his stuff, compiling simulations, coming up with new ideas, training in the gym for hours and hours on end.  Every second of work he puts in, he gets more and more resentful of you.  Why do you think you were the one member of the team he sent off to patrol the city and watch over the Wards, instead of having you come to the party?”

Dauntless shook his head.  Then he raised his spear hand and tapped one finger against the side of his helmet.

“Ear buds,” Tattletale sighed, “Armsmaster told him to wear ear buds, so Dauntless can’t hear anyone but him.  That’s both brilliant and incredibly depressing.”

Dauntless advanced two steps, quickly, and all of us, excepting Bitch and Angelica, were in a position where we had to hurry to step back.  Regent was too slow, and his hand touched the bubble.  A brief arc of energy traced from the field to Regent’s hand as he pulled it back.

“Fuck!  Ow!”  Regent gasped.  “Enough of this shit!”

He raised his other hand, and Dauntless stumbled.  Regent then brushed his hand to one side, and Dauntless fell.  As Dauntless used both hands to ease his fall, the forcefield dropped away.

“Go!” Grue bellowed, dismissing his darkness.  Bitch whistled twice, hard, and the two dogs that were fighting Armsmaster hurried to follow.

Dauntless raised his spear to impede us.  Grue, leading our retreat, leaped over the crackling beam of lightning and brought both feet down on Dauntless’ helmet as he landed.  The hero didn’t recover before we were over and past him.

We were free of the alley.  Two of the dogs surged past us, getting in the way of incoming traffic so we were clear to cross the street.  Cars squealed to a stop as we moved.

We’d just crossed the threshold of the parking garage when Dauntless opened fire, striking Brutus no less than three times with jabs of his Arclance, then turning his attention to Angelica.  The weapon could extend as far as he needed, elongating faster than the eye could follow.  White sparks flew as it slammed into the animals, but the effect was minor at best.  The Arclance was something between a solid and an energy, combining traits of both.  It could hit hard enough, with an electrical charge to it to boot, but I suspected that using it on the dogs wasn’t so different from using a hand taser on a bull elephant.  They were too big, too tough.

Finding he wasn’t having much effect on the animals, Dauntless aimed for us.

Regent disrupted Dauntless’ aim, and the Arclance ripped over the windows of the building above the parking garage, bringing a rain of glass shards down on us as we made our way past the gate and into the garage.

Armsmaster exited the alley and spotted us.  Intent on closing the distance, he sent his grappling hook out to catch the metal ‘do not pass if you are above this height’ bar above the door of the parking garage.  The second the points of the hook closed around the bar, Armsmaster started reeling himself in, his metal boots skidding across the roadtop.

Bitch whistled, hard, and pointed to the bar.  Judas lunged for it, catching both bar and grappling hook in his jaws.  The chain holding the bar up snapped as Judas pulled, and Armsmaster’s skid was interrupted as Judas pulled back on the chain that extended between them.

Armsmaster shifted to a run, managing to keep his feet under him as his trajectory changed.  He extended his stick arm, and I saw a spray of blood fly from Judas’ mouth, the dog rearing back in reaction.  Judas let go of both the bar and the hook and backed away several paces, growling.  As the hook retreated, I saw it wasn’t in its grappling hook form, but the usual halberd-top, complete with blade, spearpoint, and no small amount of blood.

Armsmaster maintained his momentum, finished reeling in, then send the ball out again, his weapon back in flail-style.  He brought Judas down, then brought the flail in a wide sweep to keep the other two dogs at bay.  Dauntless continued his approach, stopping just behind and to the side of Armsmaster.

“My mapping program says there’s three ways out of this garage,” Armsmaster informed us, “The doors on the other two exits are locked, and I guarantee you won’t have time to crack the lock or break down the door before I catch up with you.  No more tricks, no more-”

He stopped mid-sentence, whipped his head to one side, then the other.  “Wha-”

And then he disappeared.

A yellow painted concrete pillar, the sort that was used to keep cars from parking in front of the stairwell doors, or to protect the ticket vending machine from any collisions, appeared in his place.  It hit the ground hard, then toppled onto its side.  At the same time, we heard a series of heavy collisions from behind us.

A steel giant with massive hands and a spout on its back that was spewing volumes of gray-black smoke had one hand closed around Armsmaster.  Repeatedly, methodically, it slammed Armsmaster against the hood of a car.

Ballistic, with his football player build and angular body armor, stepped out of the shadows between the cars to Dauntless’ left, just by the entrance.  A girl I recognized but hadn’t yet seen in person emerged from the right.  She wore clown makeup and a jester’s cap, with a teal and orange skintight costume complete with coattails.  Bells jangled from the tips of her cap, her coattails, her gloves and boots.  Circus.  Her costume, makeup and color scheme were different every time she went out, but the theme was always more or less the same.

Dauntless moved to retreat, but Sundancer intercepted him, stepping around the front of the building and placing her miniature sun in the center of the entryway to bar exit.

I didn’t have enough bugs to contribute, and had too little of an idea of what was happening, besides, so I stayed put and watched as the rest of the scene unfolded with surprising speed.

Armsmaster fought his way out from the giant metal hand, but found himself dealing with not just the machine, but a creature from the black lagoon, replete with crustacean armor and octopus tentacles in the place of arms and a face.  He managed to fend them off for a few brief moments, until he swung his weapon at the octopus creature and wound up with a car bumper in the place of the Halberd.  He didn’t have a grip on the bumper as it materialized, so he fumbled and dropped it.  Before he could recover from his surprise or his lack of a weapon, he found himself caught in the mechanical hand.  The steam powered giant resumed his methodical thrashing of Armsmaster against the now-battered car, with the octopus-crab man standing patiently by.

Circus threw a handful of knives at Dauntless, only to have them deflected when he encapsulated himself in his forcefield-bubble.  The second the bubble went up, though, I saw Ballistic reach down to touch the car parked beside him.  When he used his power on the car, you didn’t see it move.  Rather, in the blink of an eye, it was gone from where it had been, abruptly in a position where it was virtually wrapped around the upper half of the forcefield.  It started rolling off the other side before the forcefield gave way, then dropped to the ground a scant foot from Dauntless.

Circus hadn’t stopped moving.  As the car hit the ground, her feet found positions on the undercarriage, and she was up and over, leaping toward Dauntless.  She brought her hands back, and at some point I couldn’t see her hands, she got a two-handed grip on a large, colorfully painted sledgehammer, colored streamers trailing from it as she swung it in Dauntless’ direction.

Circus was one of those capes that had a whole pile of very minor powers.  The ones I knew about were some minor pyrokinesis, the ability to deposit items into thin air, to retrieve those items just as easily, and greatly enhanced coordination and balance to round off the package.  She was one of the more successful solo villains around Brockton Bay, a burglar and thief both quick and versatile enough to win or slip away if she crossed paths with a hero.  If I remembered right, she’d been offered a position on the Undersiders and had vehemently refused.

Which raised the question of what she was doing here, with the Travelers.

Dauntless parried Circus’ sledgehammer with his Arclance, and the Sledgehammer was gone in the next second, as though it had never existed.  At some point in the meantime, though, she’d managed to slip a lit torch into one hand.  She raised it to her mouth, and blew a large cone of flame in Dauntless’ direction.

He staggered back from the torrent of flame, raised his shield, and widened it into a forcefield bubble again.  Less than a second after the shield went up, Ballistic sent another car flying into it with enough force that the car rebounded into the ceiling, back to the ground and into the other side of the parking garage.  The shield failed, flickering out of existence, and Dauntless reeled.

Circus took the chance to close in, torch gone, sledgehammer out.  What followed was a brutal takedown, as Circus swung the sledgehammer twice, making it disappear rather than heftting it back for the next swing, which made the assault that much more relentless.  She ducked low to avoid his Arclance, then spun in a tight circle as she sidestepped around him.  As she rotated her body, the sledgehammer made an appearance once more.  She carried through with the spin with the weapon in hand, driving it hard against the center of Dauntless’ armored chest.

Dauntless fell, and the conflict was abruptly over, silent but for the crackle of Sundancer’s miniature sun, and a single honking horn outside.

The two giants, the machine and bizarre sea creature, approached us, with Trickster lagging behind them.  I could see the machine-guy’s face, a heavy cheeked caucasian with acne-scarred cheeks and long hair pulled back into a greasy ponytail, the upper half of his face covered in a metal mask and goggles, and now I could place him.  He was Trainwreck, a fairly thuggish villain that hadn’t made much of a name for himself.  I couldn’t say whether that was a suit or actually his body.  For all I knew, he was some sort of coal-driven cyborg, or an unfortunate individual that’d been transformed by his powers much in the same way Newter and Gregor had.

And of course, that left the odd one out, the sea-creature, who could only be Genesis, from the Travelers.

Trainwreck dumped a beaten and bloodied Armsmaster to the ground, beside Dauntless.  He took a second to examine the Halberd, which he held in his other hand, and then snapped it in his hands and squeezed the remains in his metal fist.  He dumped the resulting debris over the unconscious heroes.

I looked across the assembled group.  The Travelers and two villains that had never, as far as I knew, been on a team.  Nobody was saying anything.

A smooth, self assured voice broke the silence.  “I assumed, Tattletale, that when you asked to meet with me at the conclusion of your task, that you wouldn’t be bringing the heroes with you.”

A soldier in kevlar and a black balaclava was holding the stairwell door open for Coil.  Dressed in the same black bodysuit with the image of a white snake arranged across it, Coil joined us, walking slowly, his hands clasped behind his back, taking in the scene with an appraising eye.  Two soldiers followed behind him, guns in hand.

Coil.  I felt my pulse quicken.

Tattletale made a pained expression.  “Sorry.”

Coil glanced around some more, then seemed to come to a decision, “No.  I don’t think there’s anything to apologize for.”

He paused, and all I could think was this is it.  I’ve got what I need.

Coil spoke, more as though he were musing to himself than any of us, “I was feeling theatric.  The plan was for the Travelers, Circus and Trainwreck to step out from the shadows as I made an impressive entrance.  A shame it didn’t play out, but I suppose it had a tactical benefit.”

“Guess so,” Tattletale grinned.

“Well, it seems you were successful tonight.  Good.  There are no more pursuers?”

“Nope.”

“Emergency response?  Other heroes?”

“All at least two and a half minutes away, I think.”

“Then we’ll take our leave.  Undersiders, Trickster, I have a ride prepared, and I would like you to join me.  I believe we have much to discuss.”

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Tangle 6.5

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My legs hugged the sides of Judas’ body.  I could feel his breathing beneath me, the expansion of his body as his lungs filled, then emptied.  He huffed out a breath, and it steamed in the cool night air.

He stepped forward, just a little, and I got a glimpse of the world below us.  Thirty two stories down, the cars on the street were visible only by the yellow and red points of their headlights and taillights.  I felt Tattletale clutch me tighter, from where she sat behind me.  Judas’ front paw rested on the stone railing of the rooftop, clutched it hard enough that the points of his nails bit into the concrete.

Getting up here had been easy enough – Tattletale had cracked the employee access door and we’d taken the supply elevator to the roof.  Had someone been alerted to our presence?  Spotted us on camera?  Hard to say.  But time was short, and we’d already wasted enough time waiting for the dogs to finish growing.  The moment Bitch deemed them set, we would move out.

This plan had been terrifying when we’d just been talking about it.  Actually being on the verge of doing it?  Ten times worse.

Still time to think of a reason to back out.

Bitch’s whistle, one of those ones that make you wince when you hear them a hundred feet away, cut through the faint, ambient hum of the city below us.

Last chance, Taylor.

A second later, Brutus, with Bitch and Grue astride his back, stepped over the edge of the roof.  Judas shifted forward under me, then followed.

Falling from a height like that, you don’t get to scream.  The wind takes your voice from you.  If you happen to have something to hold onto, you cling to that for dear life and you pray, even if you aren’t a praying type.  My hands clutched hooks of bone on either side of Judas’ neck hard enough that I thought I might break either the bone or my hands.

Three stories down from the roof, there was a patio.  As Bitch whistled and pointed from her position below us, Judas kicked against the wall just behind us, pushing out and away from the building.  My heart rose into my throat and stuck there as I saw the edge of the patio below us, surely out of reach.  Had he pushed too early?  The next chance we’d have to touch a surface would be when we spattered violently against the road.

His instincts seemed to be better than mine.  His front claws reached down and gripped the patio’s edge.  Every muscle in my body tensed in my effort to not be thrown off him as we stopped, even with his powerful body absorbing the worst of the fall.  He gripped the ledge, then pushed against it while leveraging his back legs into place.  With every muscle in his body, it seemed, he leaped.  Not down, this time, but out.

Time seemed to stand still as we left the building behind.  The only thing below us was the street, twenty-nine stories below. The wind blew through my hair with a painful bite of cold. We’d crossed the event horizon, it was do or die from here on out.  That made it eerily easy to cast aside all doubts and hesitation and steel myself for what came next.

The Forsberg Gallery was twenty six stories tall and was one of the more recognizable buildings you could find downtown.  If I remembered right, it had been designed by Architecture students at the university, a few years ago.  I wasn’t really a fan of the design, which resembled the late stages of a game of Jenga, with each section formed in tempered glass with steel bars and girders providing the base skeleton.  The entire thing was illuminated by lights that changed according to the time of the evening.

In the blue-gray of the evening, the tower was pink and orange, echoing the sunset that had finished just an hour ago.  As the leap carried us over it, a pink tinted spotlight consumed my vision.

My lenses absorbed the worst of the glare, and a second later, I was able to make out what was happening again.  Brutus, a matter of feet in front of us, slammed into the glass of the roof, sending cracks spiderwebbing across it.  Grue virtually bounced from where he sat on Brutus’ back, losing his seat, hit the glass of the roof with his shoulder, and began to slide.  There was barely any traction to be had, not even on the steel girder that separated the massive panes of glass, and the only thing at the end of that slide would be a very long fall.

He reached out and grabbed ahold of the end of Brutus’ tail, pulling himself to a standing position at the same moment that Judas, Tattletale and I crashed into the pane of glass to their right.

The damage Brutus had done on impact was enough to ensure that we could break through rather than simply breaking the window.  There was a moment where you could hear the sound of straining metal, followed by the sound of a lot of shattering glass.

Together we all dropped into the center of the Forsberg Gallery’s top floor, joined by a downpour of glass shards.  Grue landed on his feet and stumbled back as Brutus landed just in front of him.  All around us, there were people in fancy dress and uniforms.  Suits, dresses… costumes.  People ran screaming and running for cover.  Heroes stepped forward, some trying to grasp the situation in the midst of the chaos, others putting themselves between us and the civilians.

A matter of heartbeats after we touched ground, Regent and Angelica plunged into the room, landing just behind us.  Regent lost his seat as Angelica landed, but managed to roll as he hit the ground, bringing himself to a crouch as he stopped.  He almost managed to make it look intentional.  Angelica stepped up to Bitch’s side, wearing the same harness we’d fitted her with at the bank robbery, but with two large cardboard boxes strapped to her sides, rather than bags.

I felt weirdly calm as my eyes swept over the room.  The Protectorate was gathered around the stage at the back of the room.  Armsmaster, Miss Militia, Assault, Battery, Velocity and Triumph.  Dauntless was MIA.

Not far away was the ‘kids’ table with some of the heroes of the hour.  Clockblocker, Vista, Gallant and Shadow Stalker, interrupted from their mingling with the rich kids, teen actors and the sons and daughters of the local who’s who.  The platinum blonde in the white evening gown that was giving me the evil eye?  That would be Glory Girl, out of costume.

Standing guard by the front of the room, raising their weapons in our direction, was an on-duty PRT squad.  Their very recognizable uniforms were chain mesh augmented with kevlar, topped with faceless helmets.  The only means you had to identify them with were the badge numbers printed across their vests in bold white numbers.   Four of the five had what looked like flamethrowers.  They weren’t firing yet – they couldn’t.  They were packing the best in nonlethal weaponry, but there were elderly people and children in the crowd, and according to Tattletale, that meant they were prohibited from opening fire on us for the moment.

The civilians… men and women in their finest clothes and jewelry.  A combination of the richest and most powerful people in the city, their guests and those willing to pay the exorbitant prices for the tickets.  The tickets started at two hundred and thirty dollars and had climbed steeply as they’d been bought up.  We’d initially considered attending as guests, for one plan of attack, before we decided that it was too dangerous to risk having our secret identities caught on camera, or to have something go wrong as we attempted to smuggle our equipment, costumes and dogs inside.  Once we’d decided that much, we’d stopped checking the cost of tickets, which had gotten as high as four hundred dollars a person.  The guests could use thirty dollars of the ticket price to bid on an auction, but it was still pretty exorbitant.

I recognized the mayor – the first time I’d seen him in person.  There was a guy who might have been a lesser known actor – I thought I recognized him, too.  The rest were just people, maybe a bit better looking than the norm, a bit better dressed.

And Emma.

I could have laughed.  She was standing there in the crowd with her parents and older sister, looking scared shitless in a little sky blue dress and blue sandals. Her dad was a high profile divorce lawyer.  I supposed it was possible he’d worked for someone famous or powerful enough that his family hadn’t needed an invitation or expensive tickets to get in.

It kind of sucked, knowing I was about to give her an awesome story to share with the rest of the school when her suspension was over with.  I was really, really hoping it wouldn’t be a story along the lines of ‘these idiotic villains just pulled a stunt so dumb it would put Über and Leet to shame, and got themselves arrested in a matter of seconds’.

Tattletale laughed, with a nervous edge, “Holy shit!  Not doing that again!  Fucking intense…” Her voice trailed off as Grue blacked out the crowd, leaving only the spot where we stood and the very edges of the room clear of the darkness.  She gave him a dirty look.

“Bitch, Regent, go!” He shouted, as he stepped my way, grabbed my hand and practically pulled me from where I sat on Judas’ back.  Tattletale hopped down, following a pace or two behind us.

The three of us ran for the front of the room, while Bitch whistled for her dogs and ran for the back.  I sensed it when Regent unhitched the two boxes that were strapped to Angelica.  The boxes were heavy and  hit the ground hard, splitting at the seams.  Better than I’d hoped.  I had my bugs flow out from the top of the box and the split sides, and ordered them into the crowd.

If a few more of the biting and stinging sort headed in Emma’s general direction, it wasn’t due to a conscious choice on my part.

If everything went according to plan, Bitch, Regent and the dogs could delay or stop anyone who ventured beyond the cloud of darkness.  Everything else, our success or our humiliating arrest, hinged on Grue, Tattletale and I.

My bugs reached the front of the room just seconds before we did.  I could sense their locations, and this in turn gave me the ability to identify where the people, the walls, doorway and furniture were.

I was moving with my knife drawn before Grue even banished some of his darkness to reveal a portion of the PRT squad that was stationed at the entrance.  As the cloud of black dissipated into tendrils of smoke, I was stepping behind one of the team members, drawing my knife against the hose that extended between the flamethrower-like device he held in his hands and the tank on his back.  It didn’t cut immediately, forcing me to try a second time.  As the knife severed the material of the hose, the PRT team member noticed me and drove his elbow into my face.  My mask took the worst of the hit, but getting hit in the face by a full grown man isn’t any fun with any amount of protective headwear.

I fell back through the doorway even as the tank began emptying its contents onto the floor.  It was a yellow-white, and as it poured onto the ground, it expanded like shaving cream.  The tank was probably close to three gallons, making for a hell of a lot of foam.

Grue leveraged all of his weight to bodily kick one of the squad members into the foam, then slammed the base of his palm into the next guy’s chin.  As the man reeled, Grue grabbed at the tank on his back and pulled it up over his head.  This not only pulled the man off balance, but the weight of the tank kept him that way.  Grue, his hands still on the tank, pulled the squad member’s helmeted face down at the same time he brought his knee up.  The pane of the helmet cracked, and the man didn’t even have the wherewithal to bring his hands up to soften the fall before hitting the ground.

A fourth squad member stepped out of the darkness, and Tattletale took hold of the nozzle of the man’s weapon, forcing it to one side before he could open fire.  I scrambled to my feet to help her.  As Tattletale began to lose the wrestling match over the weapon, I leaped over the still-expanding pile of foam, then went low as I landed to knock his legs out from under him.  He fell, hard, and Tattletale wrenched the weapon from his hands.  As he climbed to his feet, she pulled the trigger and blasted him in the face.  Grue banished enough darkness to reveal the final member of the team, and Tattletale buried him under a blasting of the foam.

I’d watched a discovery channel feature on this stuff.  The PRT, the Parahuman Response Team, was equipped with tinker-designed nonlethal weaponry to subdue supervillains.  This containment foam was standard issue.  It ejected as a liquid, then expanded into a sticky foam with a few handy properties.  It was flexible and it was porous when fully expanded, for one thing, so you could breathe while contained within it, at least long enough for rescue teams with a dissolving agent to get to you.  It was also impact resistant, so PRT squads could coat the ground with it to save falling individuals or keep heavy hitters from doing much damage.

The way it expanded, you could coat all but the strongest villains in it, and it would disable them.  Because of the way it denied you leverage and was resistant to impacts and tearing, even the likes of Lung would have trouble pulling themselves free.  Topping it all off, it was resistant to high temperatures and a strong insulator, so it served to handle the pyrokinetics and those with electromagnetic powers.

While the PRT member struggled ineffectually to remove his foam-covered helmet, I pulled the tank off him and helped Tattletale put it on.  Grue already had his on, and was getting a third one off one of the foam-captured PRT team members for me.

It was heavy, and I almost couldn’t handle the weight.  Rather than stagger around, I crouched and let the base of the tank rest against the ground.

Grue pointed to our left, and we aimed.  A second later, he made the darkness dissipate, showing the buffet table surrounded by the various Wards and Glory Girl flying a few feet above the ground.  They were swatting at the bugs crawling on them, but they weren’t so distracted that they didn’t notice the sudden emergence of light, or us.

“Glory Hole!” Tattletale heckled the heroine, before opening fire on her.  Grue directed a stream at Clockblocker, to the left, so I turned my attention to the person on the far right of the group.  Shadow Stalker.

I admit, I had a reason to be ticked at her, since she wrote a note for Emma’s dad, giving him fuel for that damned assault charge.  It was with a measure of satisfaction that I unloaded a stream of foam on her.

The stream was dead on, but she didn’t seem to give much of a damn as she evaded to one side.  I caught her square in the chest with another spurt, making her stagger a bit, but she didn’t fall or get caught in the stuff like the others.  Instead, she sort of ducked low, her cape billowing, and then rolled to one side, readying her crossbow as her feet touched the ground and she shifted to an all-out run.

Whether that was a tranquilizer shot or a real arrow, I was fucked if she hit me.

I went wide with my stream, aiming to catch her a little and either slow her down or mess up her aim.  She stepped on a bit of foam and was tripped up a little.  Tattletale added her firepower to mine, and with our combined streams, Shadow Stalker fell.  We took a second to bury her under the foam, and Grue added a measure of darkness to it.

“Next!” Grue hollered, pointing.  I hauled the heavy tank off the ground and moved closer to our next target before putting it down again and aiming.

This time, I deliberately moved a force of bugs into the area for some extra distraction.  The darkness dissipated, and it was the Protectorate this time, half of them.  Battery, Assault, and Triumph.

Battery was already charged up when Grue dismissed the impenetrable shadow that had covered them, and moved like a blur as soon as she could see where she was going.  She didn’t bolt straight for us, though.  Instead, she leaped to one side, kicked Assault square in the middle of the chest with both feet, and then careened off in the opposite direction.

Assault was a kinetic energy manipulator, and could control the energies of movement, acceleration and motion much like other heroes could manipulate flame or electricity.  He used the energy from Battery’s kick to rocket towards us, as Battery moved around to flank.

Grue directed a stream straight at Assault, but the first second of fire seemed to skim right off the man.  It did start taking hold after that, but the delayed effects gave Assault just enough time to slam into Grue and send him flying into the wall beside the Wards.  After that, the expansion of the foam kept him from moving much further.

Tattletale and I focused our fire on Battery.  The woman ducked and dodged out of the way of our streams, moving too fast to follow reliably with our eyes.  She seemed to stumble into a cocktail table, one of those round ones large enough for four people to stand around, but any clumsiness on her part was an illusion of the eye.  A heartbeat later, she had the table in her grip and was spinning in a full circle.

She threw the table like an oversize frisbee, and I pushed Tattletale in one direction as I flung myself in the other.  The table edge caught the weapon in Tattletale’s hands and knocked it from her grip with enough force to make Tattletale roll as she hit the ground.

Which left only me standing, against Triumph and Battery.  Armsmaster, Miss Militia and Velocity were nowhere to be seen.  I could have used my bugs to feel out for them in the darkness, but I had more pressing matters to focus on.

Battery was charging again, taking advantage of us being off balance to build up a store of power again.  Heck, she’d probably built her whole fighting style around it.  I could see the normally cobalt blue lines of her costume glowing a brilliant electric blue-white.  I focused my attention on her, drawing every bug in the immediate area to her while I tried to get myself oriented to open fire again.  Wasps, mosquitos and beetles set on her, biting and stinging.

For just a fraction of a second, I saw the glow of the lines of her costume dim, before igniting again.  She needed to concentrate, it seemed, and my bugs had served to distract.  As I pulled myself upright and opened fire, she was a step too slow in getting out of the way of the stream.  I caught her under the spray and started piling it on top of her.

A shockwave blasted me.  I was knocked off my feet for the second time in a matter of seconds and my ears were left ringing.

Triumph had a gladiator/lion theme to his costume, with a gold lion helm, shoulderpads and belt, and skintight suit elsewhere.  He had managed to claw enough bugs away from his face to use his sonic shout.  He was one of those guys that was big, muscular and tough enough that you’d avoid him even if he didn’t have that other power, and his other power was one that let him punch holes through concrete.

Grue aimed and fired a stream at him, but Triumph was surprisingly quick in slipping out of the way.  As Grue reoriented his aim, Triumph kicked over a cocktail table and grabbed it with one hand to use as a shield against the foam.  I tried to scramble to one side, to attack him from another direction, but he opened his mouth and unleashed another shockwave that sent me skidding across the floor, dangerously close to the piles of foam that had the Wards trapped.  As I tried to raise my nozzle in his direction to spray more containment foam at him, my vision swam and I saw double, and a high pitched whine threatened to drown out everything else.  I lowered the weapon, sent more bugs his way and focused on regaining my senses.

“Here!” Grue hollered.  He raised his hand.  Triumph inhaled, gearing up for another blast-

And Brutus barreled through the corridor Grue had parted through in the darkness to slam into Triumph like a charging bull.

Maybe a little harder than I would have hit the guy, had I been the humvee sized monster making the call.  Still, you couldn’t fault a dog for not knowing.

Just to my left, Shadow Stalker pulled her upper body free of the goop and began the slow process of working her crossbow free.  Not normally possible, but her ability to go into a shadow state apparently made her more slippery than most.

“No,” I growled at her. “Stay down.”  I buried her under more foam.

I pulled myself to my feet, wobbled, straightened up, wobbled some more, and then worked on keeping my balance.

“Skitter!” Grue roared, “Move!”

I didn’t waste any time in throwing myself to the ground.  Out of the corner of my eye, I only saw a blur of blue and silver where I’d been standing.

I had to flop over onto my back to see Armsmaster standing six feet away from me, leveling the blade of his Halberd in my direction.  The silver of his visor made precious little of his expression visible.  All I could see was the thin, hard line of his mouth.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, quiet enough that I was pretty sure Tattletale and Grue wouldn’t catch it.  I aimed his way with the foam sprayer.

In a flash, he whipped his weapon around so the butt end was facing me.  There was a muffled ‘whump’ sound, and I felt something like a wave of intensely hot air that made every hair on my arms, legs and the back of my neck stand on end.  I realized the trigger of the containment foam sprayer was depressed and nothing was coming out of the end of the weapon.  I tried again.  Nothing.

That would be an electromagnetic pulse screwing up the machinery.  Fuck.

Before I could organize my thoughts and warn Grue and Tattletale, Armsmaster flipped the weapon around in his hands like you saw military cadets doing with their guns during a march.  As it whirled around him, I heard that ‘whump’ sound twice in quick succession.

Somehow, I doubted he’d missed them.

“Call off your mutant,” he spoke, in that kind of voice that people obeyed.  “I promise you, it would only get hurt if it attacked me, and I’d rather not subject an animal to that, when it’s the master that’s to blame.”

“Bitch!” Grue called, “Call him off.  He’s right.”

From a point I couldn’t see, Bitch whistled.  Brutus moved back through the corridor Grue had made to rejoin her.

“You were moving like you could see in my darkness,” Grue spoke, a note of wariness in his echoing voice.

“I’ve studied your powers,” Armsmaster told us, tapping the butt of his weapon on the ground.  Every bug within fifteen feet of him dropped out of the sky, dead.  “This was over from the moment you stepped into the room.”

Miss Militia stepped out of the darkness beside the stage, with what looked like a machine gun in her hands, Regent as her hostage.  He didn’t have his scepter.

Fuck.

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